Action

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.

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.

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.

Films that rose above the fray in 2018

This was a particularly good year for films. At first I didn’t think so but after I reviewed the films I watched and wrote about this past year, I was pleasantly surprised. I was entertained by outstanding acting, strong and poignant films about racism, and out loud laughs. My next post will be about the Oscar nominations.

Game Night: This film was funny from the get go and I laughed out loud all the way through.

Leaning Into the Wind: Andrew Goldsworthy: If you liked the film River and Tides, you’ll love Leaning....

The Death of Stalin: There are very funny moments, but I couldn’t help but wonder was his regime filled with that much personal corruptness? Probably.

Flower: The acting lifts this bizarre storyline to funny, engaging and entertaining levels.

Red Sparrow: Although long at 2h 19min, it had enough twists, turns, and detail to keep me fully engaged.

You Were Never Really Here: Beautifully shot scenes, dynamic soundtrack, but this oddly paced film tells a story of redemption, salvation or deeper despair.

Beirut: I really liked the way this film was put together and came to fruition.

A Quiet Place: Well done film and the silence of the actors made all the difference in the world.

Deadpool 2: First Hit: This film is fun, irreverent and filled with out-loud laughs.

RBG: Excellent film about a woman who lives within her strength and defined and changed U.S. law.

Disobedience: Extremely well-acted film about how antiquated thinking can split families and a loving relationship.

Hotel Artemis: Who says Hollywood cannot create a unique and well-acted film.

Blindspotting: Extremely powerful and pointed film and raises the bar for Best Picture of the Year. In my view this unnominated film is by far and away the best film of 2018.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot: A unhurried film revealing the power of how forgiveness of others and self, can make one’s life different.

Three Identical Strangers: A truly amazing story about how sciences’ curiosity didn't take into account the effects on human beings.

Sorry to Bother You: What I liked about this film is that it is funny, unique, and unlike any other film I’ve seen.

Leave No Trace: Sublimely acted and evenly paced film about a man and his daughter living in a public forest.

Puzzle: I thoroughly enjoyed this poignant film about a woman finding herself through a passion.

BlacKkKlansman: Fantastic film about race relations in the United States while reminding the audience about how far we have to go.

Eighth Grade: Outstanding acting and script gives us an insightful view of what it is like to be in the Eighth Grade today.

Fahrenheit 11/9: Covers a lot of stuff but I think it was mostly about Presidents and people in power managing and acting poorly.

Pick of the Litter: It was an fantastic and interesting way to learn about how guide dogs are taught to be amazing caretakers for the blind.

First Man: Compelling reenactment of an audaciously brave time in the 1960’s where we were challenged by President Kennedy to go to the moon.

The Hate U Give: A fantastic film about the existence of racism and, as indicated here, in our police departments as well.

Green Book: Excellent acting, engaging story, and both funny and thought-provoking make this film fun to sit through.

Boy Erased: Outstanding cast delivers sublime performances in a powerful story about LGBT conversion programs.

A Private War: Rosamund Pike (as Marie Colvin) gives a deeply complex performance of a war correspondent who brought personal stories of war victims to the forefront.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Accurate or not, this film was fun, well-acted, engaging, and joyful.

Can You Ever Forgive Me: Excellent acting about a caustic, friendless author that finally finds her voice.

Mary Queen of Scots: Saoirse Ronan (Mary Stuart) and Margot Robbie (Queen Elizabeth 1) give powerful performances in this adaptation of how Mary Queen of Scots tried to claim her title to the throne of England and Scotland.

Vice: I liked this oddly created film about a powerful yet enigmatic man who really ran our country for a period of time.

Ben is Back: Extremely well-acted story based on 24 hours of a mother and her addicted son’s return for the holidays.

Roma: Outside of the beautiful black and white photography and languid movement of the story, I left the theater with little.

The Favourite: A stark, intense musical score underscores the bizarre and tension filled interrelationships between the queen and her court.

Shoplifters: Wonderfully engaging film about a Japanese family who chose each other while fighting to stay nourished and together.

Destroyer

First Hit: Powerfully acted by Nicole Kidman in a story that teeters on the edge of oblivion at every turn.

After seeing Kidman in this film, I was struck by how amazing she is at morphing from innocent intense, edgy beauty, to a hollowed out, full of anger, women with one thing on her mind, revenge. When we see her becoming an undercover agent, I was reminded of this freckled face beauty in an early film, “Dead Calm.”

The film floats in and out of time. At first, we meet Erin Bell (Kidman) as a depraved, starved, focused angry addicted detective. Then we go back to seventeen years earlier when, as a brave, intense, and attractive police officer being assigned to work undercover with Chris (Sebastian Stan) to reign in a cult-like leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), who robs banks.

Opening with a depraved Detective Bell walking onto a murder scene; she’s barely able to walk let alone articulate why she’s there. The officers at the scene, probe her, asking why she is there, and what she knows about it. She picks up a $100 bill that’s tainted with purple dye. She looks at a handgun that has been altered to be untraceable and says to the responding officers “I know who killed him.”

Beginning the story this way and Bell’s response lead you to believe, she’s now on a path to find and finish something that started many years earlier, to kill Silas.

Earlier, when Bell and Chris are fully embedded in the gang, they help plan to rob an out of the way bank that is supposed to have millions in their vaults. The film slowly uses these flashbacks to show how Chris and Erin began to care about each other and decisions they made that explain the hollowed, revenge-driven Bell and her goal to find and kill Silas.

At first, I didn’t entirely engage with the use of the flashbacks as used here; however as the film progressed, I found this process exciting and engaging. We learn of Erin’s discovery that she is pregnant. We see her attempting to have a relationship with her angry, rebellious fifteen-year-old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) who lives with her stepfather.

In her search for Silas, she meets up with Toby (James Jordan), one of the former members of Silas’s gang. Toby has just been released from prison because he’s soon to die from cancer. Attempting to get information from Toby, Bell manually stimulates him to orgasm to get a name and location of another member of Silas’s gang.

Her search has her engaging with Petra (Tatiana Maslany) a former rich girl who falls into Silas’ spell. She bursts into the residence of a wealthy criminal attorney name DiFranco (Bradley Whitford) whom she suspects of laundering money for Silas.

The depraved intensity of Bell to complete her revenge on Silas after years of pain were etched on her face throughout the film. However, I felt the zenith of the superb acting in this film came at the last meeting of Erin and Shelby.

As Bell does her best to tell her daughter, who she barely knows, that she loves her, Shelby parries Bell’s attempts until a moment of realization that her mom is doing her best and does care. Shelby’s facial expressions and subtle movement towards the opening, were profoundly sublime as were Bells. Amazing scene.

Kidman was beyond profoundly amazing. Her ability to show this level of gut-driven intensity for revenge is unparalleled. In this one film we see Kidman as a young vulnerable police woman and as a singularly focused emotionally debt driven hollowed out detective. Stan was terrific as her undercover partner who would do anything for his partner. Pettyjohn was dynamite in this role. I loved her rebellious nature, yet in the last conversation with her mom, watch her subtle movement from disdain to respect and feeling compassion towards her mother. It is one of the most elegant pieces of acting I’ve seen in a long time. Kebbell was reliable as the semi-cult leader. The challenge he created for one of the gang with the pistol was telling of his exercising power over the group. Maslany was excellent as the once rich girl who has lost her way and feels stuck with her role in life. Whitford is perfect as the ego-driven lawyer that has lost his way. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi wrote a compelling screenplay. Karyn Kusama got extraordinary performances from her cast and crew to create a fascinating story.

Overall: This is not a film of hope, but a movie about living with choices made and doing your best to the right the wrongs.