Alita: Battle Angel

First Hit: The integration of human CG characters and humans in film reached a new level here.

In the past, computer graphic (CG) characters have not, visually or emotionally, felt human enough to engage the emotional or deep feeling part of the audience. Despite the action-oriented basis of this film and the main character, Alita: Battle Angel effectively makes this leap and crosses this border.

We begin with Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is wandering through a massive pile of debris which is being created by Zalem, a tethered city floating about a mile above the earth’s surface. The waste pile is the discard of Zalem.

Ido finds and picks up the remnants of an android that has a human face, but without a body and an engaged brain that appears undamaged. Taking it home, he attaches a body that he’d built for his now deceased daughter and names the girl Alita, after his dead daughter.

He and his ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) had a daughter whom they called Alita. She didn’t have use of her body, and Dr. Ido was building a mechanical body to attach to her head so that she would survive. The daughter died too before he could finish. Bitterness between Ido and Chiren developed, and Chiren joined Vector (Mahershala Ali) to control the earth’s inhabitants. Vector gets his direction and commands from Nova (Edward Norton) who is the supreme being on Zalem.

The new Alita has no previous memories of where she came from and who she is so when she tries an orange for the first time, is blown away by the flavor. Although later she tries chocolate and thinks this taste is far better than the orange.

Alita soon learns she has skills as a fighter and after meeting Hugo (Keean Johnson) begins to show signs of being able to have and show deep feelings. Hugo wants to go up to Zalem that is dumping the garbage on earth because he thinks his life will be better there. Alita is not so sure that this is a good thing as she begins to understand that Zalem is where she came from, she was a weapon.

Where the film excels is watching Alita grow into her emotions and having some emotional intelligence as a young teenage looking girl is impressive. Showing her love for Hugo and her father is so well done that often I didn’t think of Alita as a robot but as an odd looking human with amazingly expressive eyes and facial features even though she had a body made of Nanotechnology components.

The script also gives Alita plenty of opportunities to show her fighting skills. She becomes a Hunter-Warrior. Hunter-Warriors kill enemies of the people and are paid by representatives of Zalem. All the other Hunter-Warriors think Alita is incapable of fighting until they challenge her. Throughout the film, she proves them wrong about her abilities. Through these battles, Alita proves she’s the best warrior on the planet when she wins the famous Motorball game in which the winner gets a free pass to Zalem. The fights are fun to watch, but they are typical CG in that most of the movements are humanly impossible. However, it is her humanness that makes this better than your standard CG fighter film.

Rosa Salazar as Alita was used as the model to develop the facial features and movements for the CG personnel. Waltz is excellent as Dr. Ido, Alita’s creator and father. He does so much with his facial expressions which help us to believe that Alita is real. Connelly is good as Ido’s ex-wife and right-hand person to Vector. Ali was outstanding as Vector the being who controls earth for Nova. Johnson was excellent as Hugo, the young man who has misguided ideas and falls in love with Alita. James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, and Robert Rodriguez wrote the complicated screenplay that also indicates follow-up films will be made. Rodriguez did a great job of using CG technology to bridge the human/machine gap.

Overall: The enjoyment is in the emotional context of the film as the action scenes are typical.

Arctic

First Hit: This film keeps the audience engaged, although there are only about 30 speaking lines in the whole thing.

There are just a handful of movies where the actor can carry the film by themselves. It’s difficult to keep the intense drama high enough while retaining the audience’s engagement. One film that achieved this was 2013’s All is Lost with Robert Redford. In that film, he’s sailing on a boat that crashes into an errant cargo container and tries to stay alive in a sinking ship. He’s the only one in the film.

In Arctic the film opens with Overgard (Mads Mikkelsen) scraping snow away from a large SOS signal he’s made in the snow. He then checks a rig he’s prepared to catch fish through holes in the ice. He goes back to his crashed airplane. At a particular time, he gets up and goes out to a snow hill and turns a crank on a box that sends out a distress signal. After so many turns (we hear him mutter a count), he packs up the machine and heads back to the protection of the fuselage.

We don’t know how long he’s been out here, but it must be quite a while because the plane is deteriorating.

He’s very regimented because of the way he does the same schedule each day. One of the things he does each day is clean a small pile of rocks. We find out only later what this represents.

One day, just as he finishes cranking the signal device, the green light goes on, meaning someone has gotten the signal. Then a helicopter appears. However, the high wind starts tossing the aircraft around, and as it starts to fade from view, it crashes. Overgard’s hopes of being rescued are dashed.

Going to the wreckage he finds the pilot dead, and a young woman (Maria Thelma Smaradottir) injured but alive. Watching him work to help this woman is a study in kindness, thoughtfulness, and selflessness.

Although he discovers that she doesn’t speak English, he finds a way to get her to squeeze his hand, letting him know that she’s alive and her current level of her strength.

Throughout the rest of the film, she murmurs about ten unintelligible words, at most, and the rest of the dialogue is him asking her to squeeze his hand and telling her it will be “OK.” Because he found a map of the area in the helicopter wreckage, and that the young woman is not getting any better, he decides to try to move them to an outpost that’s identified on the map.

Fighting off a polar bear, the intense elements, steep crevasses, and caverns, he makes his way towards the outpost pulling the young woman behind him.

The scenes are shot so well that I felt just as cold as they were sitting in my warm cosy seat. The intensity of the weather and the patient way Overgard stayed focused to his task was unbelievable.

Mikkelsen was amazing. His clarity of staying alive surpassed anything I think I could have dredged up from within. I believed every step of this journey. Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison wrote a fantastic screenplay. Penna must have put himself and the crew through incredible hardships to be able to film this story.

Overall: I was enthralled every step of this journey.

Cold Pursuit

First Hit: This film was a cross between a Liam Neeson Taken thriller and a black comedy using a Taken like storyline.

The film starts as a typical Liam Neeson film about him making violent amends for wrongdoing to his family.

Here as Nels Coxman (Neeson), his job is running a snow plow for the city of Kehoe Colorado, a small glitzy resort town up in the Rocky Mountains an hour or two outside of Denver. His wife Grace (Laura Dern) hangs around the house, smokes pot and has virtually no lines or involvement in this film. She disappears shortly after their son Kyle (Micheal Richardson) is found dead because of a heroin overdose.

Problem is Kyle doesn’t do drugs which Nels holds on to and determines that someone murdered his son. Because of this, he decides to find and kill the people who did this.

Starting at the bottom of the food chain, he begins with the guy who was with his son and actually set up the problem in the first place when he stole 10 kilos of cocaine from the area the kingpin Trevor ‘Viking’ Calcote (Tom Bateman). Nels, works up the food chain killing people higher up in the Viking organization.

Viking is a controlling arrogant bizarre drug dealer. He’s got a son from a former marriage who spends half of his time with him. His ex-wife is an American Indian. The importance of this is that Viking’s father made a deal with White Bull to split up the drug dealing territory.

When Viking wrongly kills White Bull’s son thinking that the son took his drugs, White Bull and his gang go after Viking.

So now the plot has Nels killing Viking’s gang, one by one, and Viking going after White Bull’s people and White Bull planning to do a significant hit on Viking’s gang for killing his son.

Convoluted? Yes, but when the director creates scenes with hang gliding Indians, hotel front desks with white fur on them, and bizarre killing scenes, one has to really wonder what the director was thinking.

I started laughing out loud at some of the audacious dialogue and strange scenes. It took a few minutes, but then others in the theater joined me in seeing the dark humor of this film.

Neeson did his best to keep the Taken guy in play for this film, but Nels is no Bryan Mills. It would have been interesting to hear the direction he got for this role; be Mills but be ready for dark humor. Dern was not used, had virtually no dialogue, and left me wondering why she even took this role unless to get paid. Bateman was OK in this over the top part. Frank Baldwin wrote an oddly constructed screenplay because of the way the actors said the lines. Hans Petter Moland had an odd vision of this film especially when the Taken series was tracked so differently.

Overall: This film was amusing, although I’m not sure that was the intention along with, intense and Neeson delivered what was expected.

Free Solo (IMAX Version)

First Hit: This past year there were two documentary films about climbing El Capitan, and this one, Free Solo, scared me more than the other movie Dawn Wall, and both are worth a watch.

The fear factor in Free Solo is high because Alex Honnold climbs the 3,000 foot El Capitan wall at Yosemite using only his hands and feet, there are no ropes. In Dawn Wall, which I didn’t write a review of because it was a special presentation, was about climbing a part of El Capitan that’s never been scaled.

Alex has a different trigger level for fear than most people. We learn this because of his belief in his abilities, the neverending training schedule, his physical prowess, and the results of his brain MRI. The film does dive into his past, and we get some explanation about his perceived non-engagement with other people and where this fearlessness emanates.

How Alex was raised, and his diving into climbing as a way to engage with the world and express himself is told in flashbacks and interviews by his mother, girlfriend, and a few friends. The closest we get to see under the layer of his polite, engaging, yet perplexing personae is through his conversations with Stephanie McCandless (“Sanni”) who becomes Alex’s girlfriend and one who can stay with Alex’s aloofness and inward self-focus to find her place in his heart.

When the movie begins we learn that Alex has been living in a van for nine years and this lifestyle suits him as we get farther into the film – it is congruent with his personality. We watch him train; we watch him go up, and down El Capitan, with his closest friend Tommy Caldwell (Dawn Wall climber and star) who works with Alex to figure out and understand the pitches he’ll use on the climb.

Of course, we all know he makes it because there wouldn’t be a film about his falling off the mountain, but when he bails on one attempt, we wonder will he make another effort to do the climb. The climbing shots led by Jimmy Chin were fantastic.

Directors Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi directed this film with patience and elegance because it shows in the end product.

Overall: I felt his strength, joy, and fearlessness through my being afraid for him during the journey.

Miss Bala

First Hit: Although there’s a twist at every turn, it is predictable, but has enough of a twist at the end to make it interesting.

The film begins with Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) doing makeup for some fashion models in a Los Angeles fashion show. After the show, she gets in her car and heads to Tijuana Mexico to visit a close friend, whom she considers family. Suzu’s (Cristina Rodlo) family took Gloria in when she was small, and they spent their young years together. Gloria is headed there to help Suzu get ready for the Miss Baja California contest.

To introduce Gloria to Chief Saucedo (Damian Alcazar), who has some sway over who wins the contest, Suzu takes Gloria to a nightclub. What we also learn is that Saucedo is slowly taking over all the illegal trade that goes across the U.S – Mexico border. He’s attempting to take this unlawful business away from a gang called Las Estrellas.

Las Estrellas is led by Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova). To shut down the Chief’s attempt to take over the border trade business from Lino, the Las Estrellas gang steals into the nightclub and starts to shoot it up. In the process they kidnap Suzu.

Gloria spends the rest of the film trying to find and rescue her close friend.

The storyline takes Gloria through being captured and used by the DEA, Las Estrellas, and the CIA. It is how the story weaves its way through all this that makes the film both work and not work. There’s too many tricks, story twists, and plot turns.

One thing that wasn’t very believable was the apparent age difference between Gloria and Suzu. This difference made me wonder about how they were friends when they were young. I also thought the some of the scenes were overly staged.

Rodriguez was good as an intense person who wanted to find her friend. Rodlo was OK as Gloria’s friend. Cordova was OK as the heavy leader of the gang. Alcazar was appropriately manipulative and arrogant as the crooked police chief. Anthony Mackie was OK as the undercover agent. Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer wrote an overly trick-filled screenplay. I didn’t engage with all the twists and turns. Catherine Hardwicke did a reasonable job of directing through all the storylines. 

Overall: This was an overly complicated film, and it didn’t need to be.