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?

Spotlight on indie dramedy Night Owls’ and interview with writer/director Charles Hood

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Night Owls is one of the wonderful indie films screened at Twin Cities Film Fest back in October. Though I didn’t get a chance to see it then, I did meet its writer/director Charles Hood at one of the After Party Mixers. Well, we reconnected via email recently to chat about his film.

I really enjoyed this one, it’s a witty indie comedy/drama that takes place over a single night. The dialog is sometimes raunchy, but there’s a genuine chemistry between the two leads and the script is refreshingly honest and has a natural flow to it. Rosa Salazar won TCFF’s 2015 Indie Vision Breakthrough Performance Award and I think it’s well-deserved.

Now, before I get to the interview, I want to mention that TCFF is showing this at its December Encore Screening at Showplace ICON Theatre today (Wednesday), so if you’re in the area, be sure to grab your tickets! Who says date movies have to be on a Friday night, right?

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You worked on your first feature in 2007 and then you did two short films. Do you prefer making shorts or features?

Charles: I prefer making features. I think it’s more difficult to make a good short. It’s harder to show a character grow or change in that short period of time. I like being able to spend some time with the characters and get to know them.

How did you get into the film industry?

Charles: My aunt and uncle work in the film business and they made a home movie with me and my cousins when I was ten years old. It was a pirate movie we made at my grandparents’ little cottage on a lake in Wisconsin. From that point I was totally hooked. I hijacked my parents’ video camera when I got home and started making movies with my friends. I’ve been working at it non-stop ever since then. I went to film school at USC in Los Angeles and met a lot of my collaborators there, in addition to my friends with whom I grew up.

I’m always intrigued by movies that take place over a single day. How did you and your co-writer Seth Goldsmith come up with this story? Was there something that inspired either of you to write this?

Charles: I LOVE movies that take place over a single day. Die Hard, The Ref, The Breakfast Club, the Before Sunrise trilogy, Clue, Rope, The Poseidon Adventure, and the list goes on and on. Those are some of my favorite movies. Seth and I were trying to come up with something that could be done in a single location. We were just trying to be practical for what we knew would be a small budget. We wanted a story that could be done in a contained way like this.

The idea of a character overdosing on sleeping pills and the other character keeping him or her awake all night came up. Then we recalled that scene in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment where Jack Lemmon has to keep Shirley MacLaine awake all night. We figured why can’t that be an entire movie? And from there we had to figure out the reasons why he couldn’t take her to a hospital and that’s where the other side of the story came about. I always like to keep that a surprise for viewers because we did our best to let the mystery unravel as people watch it.

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This is the kind of movie that rest on the chemistry of the two actors. Could you share a bit about the casting process for both Adam Pally & Rosa Salazar, and also Peter Krause?

Charles: When we finished the script, our agent asked us to make a list of ten actors we’d want for this. My co-writer Seth had the idea to put Adam Pally on the list. Adam read it and liked it so I met with him and we were on our way. Once Adam got on board, it felt like we had a movie. In addition to being hilarious, he’s a really dedicated actor and just an overall great guy. It was such a pleasure to work with him.

As for Rosa Salazar, Adam was the one who recommended her. They had done a couple of scenes together in another movie and he thought she was fantastic. I was not familiar with her work, but I met with her and immediately was struck by how amazing she is. She’s going to be a star very, very soon. The two of them together have such great chemistry. We were so fortunate to have these two in our movie. They’re just perfect.

Peter Krause is amazing! Seth and I wanted him very badly for the role. We wrote him a letter and sent him the script. It helped that Rosa had a recurring role on his show Parenthood. He is a big fan of Rosa’s so he was excited for her. Plus he liked the script enough that he came on board.

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What’s been some of the biggest challenges in making this movie? Please share one of the most memorable moments on the set.

Charles: I think the biggest challenge was finding a way to keep the audience entertained in a movie where it’s mostly just two people in a house talking. On the script level, my co-writer and I made sure to move the plot along and keep revealing new things about the characters throughout the film. We also did our best to explore every inch of the house from scene to scene. When it came time to shoot the movie, my cinematographer Adrian Correia and I worked really hard to move the camera as much as possible. We wanted a more elegant look than handheld so we pushed ourselves to do a lot of dolly moves and I think it really paid off. We also tried to do a bunch of interesting long takes, which I think is fun for the actors and it’s a great way to showcase their chemistry. We have one shot in the middle of the movie that’s over 3 minutes long. The camera slowly pushes in on the two of them and it’s really just their performances holding your attention.

The whole movie basically takes place in this one house and we actually found the place on Air BnB. It was in Topanga Canyon, which is just outside of LA. Most of the crew would commute to set but there were seven of us that actually lived in the house throughout production. It was me, Adam, Rosa, and few of our department heads. It was kind of insane. Our production designer Ayse called it Real World Topanga. It was kind of a logistical nightmare with us living on our set, but it was so much fun. We were shooting mostly nights so at dawn we’d all drink a glass of whiskey, talk about the next day’s shoot, and then go to bed. Those are some very memorable moments for me.

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Adam and Rosa on the set of Night Owls

What’s next for you? You’ve done mostly comedies, is there another genre you’re interested in doing?

Charles: I think I’ll mostly stick in the comedy realm. It’s usually somewhere in the comedy-drama spectrum for me. That being said, Seth and I just finished writing a comedy-drama that leans pretty hard on a science fiction premise so that’s pretty fun. But I’d also like to try other genres. At some point it’d be fun to do an action movie or a kung fu movie or a horror movie. It’s just about finding the right story and characters.

 


Check out the trailer:

Here’s a list of theaters Night Owls is playing at…

  • NYC — Cinema Village
  • Los Angeles — Los Feliz 3
  • Chicago — Facets Cinematheque
  • Detroit — Cinema Detroit
  • Atlanta — Plaza Theatre
  • Denver — Kress Cinema
  • Cleveland — Tower City Cinemas
  • Dallas — Texas Theatre
  • Tampa — The Cinema 6
  • Seattle — Far Away Entertainment

…and VOD outlets:

  • iTunes
  • Amazon Instant Video
  • Google Play
  • Xbox
  • PlayStation
  • Vudu
  • DIRECTV
  • Time Warner Cable Movies on Demand
  • Comcast Xfinity Movies on Demand
  • Shaw (CA)
  • Rogers (CA)
  • Bell (CA)
  • …and many other MVPDs

THANKS for taking the time to chat, Charles!

Hanging out w/ filmmaker Charles Hood who made "Night Owl' and my pal Kirsten Gregerson
Me and my pal Kirsten Gregerson hanging out w/ Charles at TCFF After Party