FlixChatter Review – ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019)

So apparently James Cameron has dreamed of making this movie, an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro‘s “Battle Angel Alita” manga, for over 20 years! It was before he made Titanic in 1997 and Avatar in 2009, and it’s his commitments to the latter that made him relinquish his directing duties to Robert Rodriguez. I have to admit though that my initial reaction to the first trailer was that the huge, Manga-inspired eyes are creepy looking. I read some Manga as a kid (specifically Candy Candy) but in the printed comics, of course they never bothered me, that’s how all Mangas are drawn. But cinematically, they can be quite eerie.

Now, I decided to see the movie anyway, two weeks before it’s open to the public in Feb 14. As it turns out, the eyes didn’t really bother me once the movie starts. It actually didn’t have the ‘cold, dead eyes’ effect like in Polar Express. Of course they can still be a bit disturbing at times, but for a character made up of cyborg parts, she’s pretty lifelike.

There are plenty to like about Alita. In fact, I immediately sympathize with this cyborg creature trying to discover her identity. It’s an action-packed coming-of-age story of a young girl who’s trying to piece together the mystery of who she is. Set in the 26th century, 300 years after ‘the fall’ where ‘the haves’ live in a floating city called Tiphares and the rest down below in Iron City. The story starts when a man found a still ‘living’ severed head in a junkyard, where the Tiphares dumps its trash. I thought Christoph Waltz as her father figure Dr. Dyson Ido is inspired choice, and at first you don’t know if he’s good or bad, which the Austrian actor portrayed really well.

The father/daughter relationship between him and Alita is actually one of my fave parts of the film, and the way Dr. Ido tried to protect her from the new world she’s thrusted into is endearing. It’s once Alita (Rosa Salazar, terrific in her first performance-capture role) discovered rollerball-style game (and also ‘puberty’ it seems) thanks to a boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson) that the action switches into high gear.

Before long, we, along with Dr. Ido and Alita herself, discovers who she really is. It’s not a spoiler as it says right there on the title, she’s a formidable killing machine, basically an ‘angel of death’ despite her seemingly innocent appearance. She’s able to fight a bunch of vicious Hunter-Warriors, sometimes all at once, even a huge one that looks like what Fantastic Four’s The Thing mixed with a Transformer. Knowing that she’s virtually indestructible kind of lessen any sense of suspense, and the more bombastic the fighting scene the less impactful it becomes. The first time we see the gladiatorial game of Motorball in this huge arena filled with cheering crowd was cool, but the second one just feels indulgent in the parts of the filmmakers. Yes, the action and special effects are cool, but it gets tiresome real fast too. In fact, at times it reminds me of all the loud metal clanging of Transformers, which is NEVER a good thing.

I’m not that familiar with Robert Rodriguez’s work, having only seen Desperado and Sin City. I think this movie is as much a James Cameron movie as a Robert Rodriguez one. We’re treated to a video interview with the filmmakers and some of the cast after the movie and it’s clear that Cameron was Rodriguez’s mentor throughout and Rodriguez helped fulfill Cameron’s vision. As we all know, Cameron is a perfectionist, so I doubt there’s really much ‘creative liberties’ the ‘chosen director’ would have if it clashes with Cameron’s vision.

What? You’re not impressed by my Damascus blade? How about my chiseled face?

In any case, it’s no surprise that Cameron, who co-wrote the script with Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon), loves cross-species, star-crossed romances. I kind of roll my eyes every time I see Alita gets all giddy over Hugo, even going so far as giving him his heart, literally! Most of the supposedly-romantic scenes end up being unintentionally hilarious. There are moments that remind me of Titanic, perhaps intentionally so? What’s genuinely funny are the scenes involving Hunter Warrior Zapan (Ed Skrein), a cyborg obsessed with his pretty face, the only ‘fleshed out’ part of his cybernetic being. The tall, lanky British actor relish on his character’s narcissistic vanity. It made me think that he might have imbued a much-needed dose of humor had he been cast in Altered Carbon instead of Joel Kinnaman!

The actual villain of the movie is never actually seen (played by a famous actor we haven’t seen in a while). We only know it lives in Tiphares and could actually ‘possesses’ other beings to communicate with people down below. I feel like Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly are pretty wasted here as their characters are pretty thinly-written. As the protagonist, Alita’s backstory itself isn’t as deeply compelling it could’ve been. It’s a missed opportunity really, as her relationship with Dr. Ido and Connelly’s character Chiren could’ve been explored more. It’s clear the filmmakers focused heavily in the spectacle of it all. After all these years, the technology (thanks to Weta Digital) finally caught up with Cameron’s vision of Alita, at least the way he envisioned to do Kishiro’s world justice. Yet all that money spent (about $200 mil) is kind of hollow when it’s just another ‘style over substance.’ I think science-fiction is the perfect genre for a ‘what does it mean to be human’ commentary, when humans would co-exist together with robots in the future. But unlike sci-fi classics like Blade Runner or Terminator, Alita doesn’t really add anything new to that concept.

Alita going googley-eyed over pretty boy Hugo

Visually speaking, it also didn’t really inspire that sense of wonder the way I did with Cameron’s previous creation Avatar. I recently rewatched that movie and I still had that ‘awe-struck’ reaction when we first saw Pandora in 2009. The floating mountains and that mountain banshee flight sequence still made me go ‘whoa,’ which I never felt while watching Alita. I’m not sure of its replay-ability value as right now, I don’t know if I’m eager to see this movie again nor do I care to see more of Alita’s adventures.

As I never read the Manga books, I’m curious to see the reception from their fans, especially in its native Japan. As a Southeast-Asian blogger, I’m not bothered that they hired a Latina actress to portray Alita as Kishiro supposedly didn’t even set the world of Iron City in Asia, it’s just supposed to be a melting pot type of futuristic dystopian city. I think the cast is quite diverse and the actors get to speak with whatever they’re most comfortable with (Waltz with his Austrian accent, Skrein with his Northern London brogue, etc.) I do think it’s funny that Alita made a comment about the many languages spoken in the city when I never heard of any other language being English being spoken in the movie [shrug].

Should you go see it? Well, if you like a sci-fi action adventure, I’d say it’s well worth seeing on the big screen. I don’t normally like watching 3D movies with those pesky glasses, but the effects and visuals look cool in IMAX 3D as the movie was optimized for such technology. I skipped Ghost in The Shell (just didn’t appeal to me at all) and I think Jupiter Ascending is absolutely rubbish, but this one has enough going for it for me to recommend. Just don’t expect a sci-fi classic or even something emotionally gratifying, just enjoy the ride for the high-octane action adventure that it is.


What do you think of ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL? Are you excited to see it?

Indie Film Spotlight: THE GOOD EXORCIST + Interview with MN filmmaker Josh Stifter

As I’ve been blogging for more than a decade, it’s always a joy and privilege to feature indie filmmakers and supporting their work.

Josh Stifter is a local Minneapolis filmmaker who had the opportunity to be a part of the reality show for El Rey Network (elreynetwork.com) and he got to make a $7k feature with mentorship from Robert Rodriguez. Yep you read that right, he made his horror comedy The Good Exorcist for seven thousand dollarsI sat down with Josh in a coffee shop in a Minneapolis suburbs and it was a blast listening to him talk about the experience making the film, shot in Texas in just 14 days!

The film premiered at a special event during SXSW Film Festival and it also won Best Texas Narrative at Austin Revolution Film Festival.

After a ranch in Texas is befallen to a mysterious, demonic presence, it is up to an eccentric, wandering priest to find answers and dispel the darkness. As he digs deeper he soon finds that he may be in over his head and out of time.

A Go90 and Rebel Without A Crew Production

Directed, Edited and Shot by: Josh Stifter
Written by: Daniel Degnan and Josh Stifter
Starring: Daniel Degnan, Brittaney Ortiz, Avery Merrifield, John Baran, and Ali Meier

JOSH STIFTER’S BIO

Josh Stifter began his filmmaking adventure crafting short movies with his friends after school everyday. He pursued animation and quickly found a job directing cartoons for the director Kevin Smith. After years of creating shorts and animated films, Josh has decided to tackle features, jumping at the opportunity to make his first feature length film with Robert Rodriguez. He has worked with companies such as Troma, CNN, SModco, 1517 Media, and El Rey Network.

Follow Josh Stifter & Flush Studios on social media:

twitter: @joshstifter
facebook: facebook.com/flushstudios
instagram: @flushstudios


Twenty-five years ago, Robert Rodriguez made his first feature-length film, El Mariachi. Armed with a budget of just $7,000 and 14 days to shoot his movie, Rodriguez created an award-winning film that changed independent filmmaking. To mark the 25th anniversary of “El Mariachi,” Rodriguez has invited five aspiring filmmakers to Austin, Texas to take on the same challenge.

Check out Season 1 of Rebel Without A Crew series on elreynetwork.com »


Brief review of The Good Exorcist

by Laura Schaubschlager

Apparently 2018 has been the year of independent horror comedy for me-first with Ahockalypse, then Better off Zed, and now Josh Stifter’s The Good Exorcist. The Minneapolis writer and drector was a part of the El Rey Network reality show Rebel Without a Crew, where he had the opportunity to create a $7,000 feature  in two weeks with mentorship from renowned filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. The result was a wonderfully bizarre and hilariously campy paranormal mystery starring a small but engaging cast.

The film follows Father Gil (Daniel Degnan), an eccentric but cheerful exorcist, to a small vacation ranch in Texas run by married couple Mr. and Mrs. Willows (John Baran and Ali Meier) to investigate a strong demonic presence. Along with the Willows’ dim-witted but good-natured son Stanley (Avery Merrifield) and enigmatic ranch employee Maria (Brittany Ortiz), Father Gil struggles to unravel the mystery behind the dark force plaguing the area.

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Q&A with Josh Stifter

Thanks Laura Schaubschlager for the interview questions!

Josh on set with Robert Rodriguez

Q1: How did you get involved with Rebel Without a Crew? What was the process to get on the show like?

A little over a year ago, I sent an animation called Other Fish to El Rey Network I wanted Robert to see. It featured voice talent by Michael Parks, an actor Robert has worked with before who had recently passed away, and I thought he’d like to see it. After El Rey saw my work, they asked me to be on the program The Peoples Network Showcase. While I was there filming a sequence for that show, the show runner noticed that I had a copy of Robert’s book Rebel Without A Crew on me. I told him that I always have a copy with me. It’s my Bible.

Then, he asked if I had any live action films I could show him…

From there, I applied like the thousands of others who wanted to make a feature film for $7,000. The process of applying went in multiple steps. First, I filled out a survey. After that, I was asked to send in a synopsis for my film. I had an idea for what I could do (i.e. I had a priest costume, my best friend to star, and a few props such as a Teddy Bear and a fake tentacle), so before work one Monday, I wrote up a synopsis, made a really quick poster (which is still being used as the poster for marketing!), and came up with some ideas for characters. The next day I got a call asking for the script… which hadn’t been written yet…. I got on the phone with folks at El Rey and basically lied. I said, “I have the script kind of complete, but can I get two weeks to clean it up and make it more readable?” They said, “Okay” and from there, Daniel Degnan and I set out to write a feature film that Robert Rodriguez would be reading in two weeks. And somehow, miraculously, we did it! After a few weeks I got a call that my script was chosen by Robert and they wanted me to make my movie.

Josh directing Daniel on set

Q2: Being mentored by Robert Rodriguez must have been an incredible opportunity. What did you learn from him that you incorporated into The Good Exorcist?

One of the first things Robert told me was, “The road to success is going to be hell, but it’s going to worth it when you see your movie play on the big screen”. He was a cheerleader for keeping the independent spirit and pushing forward. But mostly, he was just a friend through the whole process. Sometimes the hardest part of making art is just continuing when you’re tired, frustrated, or feel like it’s all a waste of time. Robert continuously reminded me that 10 years from now, not a single moment will have felt like a waste of time because we keep learning and pushing ourselves.

I felt like quitting all the time on The Good Exorcist. For every shot that went right, 10 things went wrong. With the help of Robert, and my entire cast, I was able to push past the self doubt, bronchitis (yes, I got bronchitis on reality t.v. *doh!*), missing my family, being terrified of how the reality show would portray me, sound issues, and every other thing that went wrong.

Robert also told me, “Don’t be scared to put yourself up on the screen.” By that, he meant that I shouldn’t be afraid to go silly, ridiculous, and DIY with my movie. He really emphasized that I should use my strengths. That people won’t care that it’s super low budget if they can see the passion on the screen and my personality. Every time I thought a joke was too silly or a visual effect idea was stupid, I just remembered… I’M SILLY AND STUPID! That’s exactly what I should be showing! And in the end, some of the moments in the film that get the biggest reactions are those moments where I decided to just not hold back and put my personality on the screen.

Q3: What kind of obstacles did having such a small budget and short time frame present, and how did you overcome them?

There was a new obstacle around every corner while filming The Good Exorcist. Whether it was a construction crew tearing my set apart, sound equipment not working, my cast having too much fun and struggling to make the day, or bronchitis, we had to just keep adapting and pushing forward. A 14 day shoot doesn’t allow for anyone to get sick and take a day off, especially not the director.

Josh and Abaddon

We made the best use of the $7,000 we could, pinching every penny to get all we could from it. We utilized my knowledge of Visual Effects and tried to come up with ideas that wouldn’t cost a lot, but could be enhanced in post production.

Abaddon’s final form for instance was a garbage bag filled with El Rey Network teeshirts and other swag, ping pong ball eyes, a fake mouth from the Halloween store that was on sale the day after Halloween, and rubber snakes on sale at Target my wife bought a few years ago. All together, that final effect cost around $15. Then, I just added an extra tentacle, some fire, enhanced the eyes and mouth, and added some motion in post production that I knew would be fun to do.

I also utilized what I had at my disposal to add to production value. Originally in the script, Father Gil and Maria were supposed to be dancing at Father Gil’s car. But when John Baran (who played Mr. Willows) told me he had a really cool old car with flames and a skull shift, I rewrote the scene so that it could be Maria’s car. And why wouldn’t Maria have an awesome car, right? It was all about adapting the story to fit anything that would add to the value of the movie.

Q4: You hinted at a Good Exorcist sequel at the end of the movie (and gave me some Ash vs the Evil Dead vibes, which I love). Can you give us any clues about what Father Gil, Stanley, and Maria are up to next?

I would absolutely LOVE to make a sequel to The Good Exorcist. In fact, we already have a script called Father Gil and the Daughter’s of Lilith. And coming from an animation background, I plan to make some of the stories that Father Gil told, such as the Ice Cream Demon and the Hell Hound Infestation into cartoons at some point. Growing up on Evil Dead, Gremlins, The Burbs, and the other creepy comedies of the 80’s, I wanted the film to feel like something you’d see on cable late at night. Those were always my favorite films, so trying to recreate that midnight movie feel was paramount for me.

At the moment though, we’re just waiting for this first movie to release and how the audience reacts. So, while we wait, Daniel and I have been shooting and editing our second film titled Greywood’s Plot. We loved making The Good Exorcist with the Rebel mentality and we’re trying to do that again without a reality crew following us around this time.

Josh on set as the director, DP AND sound guy!

Q5: When you first got into filmmaking, did you plan on specifically focusing on horror?Are there any other genres you’d like to explore?

I don’t actually see The Good Exorcist as a horror but more as a comedy. There are definitely horror elements along with dramatic scenes, but blending genres is always fun. I definitely enjoy making people laugh and can’t see myself not putting some sort of humor into everything I do, but I also always want to be challenging myself.

While I never see myself not having some sort of “dark sense of humor” I’d love to try making content for different audiences. In 2019, I’ll be hopefully finishing up two more features that both sort of play in the horror genre, but I’m really hoping to make a kids movie while my sons are still young. I personally love movies that my whole family and I can enjoy and I’d really enjoy making something that I would know other families are enjoying together.


Thanks Josh for talking to FlixChatter!

Weekend Roundup – ‘Sin City: A Dame To Kill For’ review

Happy Monday everyone! It’s a sweltering HOT Summer weekend and those who know me well know I’m not a big fan of heat and humidity so I actually spend a lot of time indoors and got to see quite a lot of new movies as well as rewatches.

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You could say it’s a pretty eclectic weekend viewing given the variety of movies we saw the past four days. On Friday night we ended up watching The Amazing Spider-man 2 [which wasn’t at all amazing], the psycho thriller ENEMY with Jake Gyllenhaal [as weird as I had expected], and The Philadelphia Story for this month’s Blind Spot. I also rewatched my old fave The Phantom of the Opera, yep the movie that made me fall hard for Gerry Butler oh so many years ago.

I didn’t go to the cinema this weekend, but boy seems that lots of people went to see The Guardians of the Galaxy again as it’s now back on top with $17 mil, beating all the new releases, including Sin City: A Dame to Kill For which bombed big time with only $6 mil, ouch! Well, having seen it, I really think this sequel is utterly unnecessary and after nine years, it seems much too late for a follow-up. Here’s my review:

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I was curious to see this one mainly because of the striking visuals, which was pretty much all I could remember from the first film. That, and how cool, sexy and mysterious Clive Owen was and the stylized brutal violence, especially the bits involving Elijah Wood in a role as far away as Frodo as it could get. This time Frank Miller is back in the directing chair with Robert Rodriguez.

This time, we’ve got Josh Brolin as Owen’s replacement in the role of Dwight, a pity as Brolin doesn’t come close in terms of cool factor as the brooding, hunky British actor. Well, the same could be said about the movie as a whole. The novelty factor of the color palette of black & white with a touch of red is wearing thin, plus the plot is even thinner this time around, chock full of clichéd dialog that ultimately renders the whole thing pointless.

The tagline refers to the main character in one of the four entwined story lines, and admittedly, it’s the more intriguing one simply because of Eva Green. Oh how I’d have loved to have seen her on screen with Clive Owen, she’s my favorite Bond girl and Owen’s an actor who’d make an awesome 007. In any case, Green plays a femme fatale type role in which she played as effortlessly as she ditched her clothes in the film. Being French she’s clearly comfortable with nudity. The stylish lighting and camera angle captured her allure beautifully as she devoured every scene she’s in with aplomb.

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The rest of the story lines are pretty boring by comparison, my least favorite is the one involving Joseph Gordon-Levitt as he seems miscast in the role, especially against Powers Booth who fits the noir genre perfectly. He’s quite sinister here with his deep, gravely voice, but his character is as one-dimensional as the rest. The father/son story is nowhere near as clever or intriguing as it wants to be. Jessica Alba reprises her role as Nancy and with all of her gyrating body as a stripper, she is just so lightweight that she comes across so ho-hum next to Eva Green. Mickey Rourke’s back again as Marv, perhaps the film’s comic relief, even in the most violent parts of the movie.

The movie is only 1 hr 42 min long but it started to drag pretty quickly. The stylized violence and all that nudity + sex scenes felt more like a gimmick that became more ho-hum as the movie progressed. As I came out of the theater I thought, it took them 9 years to come up with THIS? [shakes head] Despite the beautiful 3D, the film falls exasperatingly flat. Proof that visual flair alone doesn’t make a movie.

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So that’s what I saw this weekend folks, what about you? Seen anything good?