Alita Battle Angel Thoughts/Review/Analysis

In a few words: Slick, Futuristic Fun
Pros: Solid worldbuilding, refreshing and  impressive action sequences, well-fleshed protagonist 

Cons: Sequel-dependent and thus underwhelming plot
Themes: Humanity, Class Division 
I went into Alita with the tempered expectations of one who’d read about the production troubles, middling early reviews and felt the general lack of enthusiasm for the film. Despite that, I chose to catch this on the “largest screen possible” as recommended by a number of critics, no less because James Cameron was involved in the project. 
Overall, it was worth the $22 I forked out for the most premium screen in my country. Alita felt to me a good, even great, but incomplete story. The visuals and action set pieces were easily the best I’ve seen in awhile, a refreshing change from the “I punch you, you punch me, explosions, explosion” blockbuster fare of late, specifically the successful superhero films that have come to define the blockbuster formula in recent years. Alita is the hack-and-slash manga adapted slickly and stunningly to live-action form that I never knew I needed to be truly wowed by CGI again. Just the main character herself in a marvel to behold; a more or less fully CGI-ed Rosa Salazar who feels so uncannily real amongst the other characters, realer still even, with a powerful and committed performance by the actress to boot. Around the start of the film, when we first see Alita, we’re zoomed into her face, and somehow, her “large anime eyes” that have been the talk of the film blend perfectly with the rest of her life-like features. Beyond the already impressive work on realising the protagonist, the action sequences are truly amazing. The first real sequence, a fight in an alleyway, blew me away. It felt like a scene from a hack-and-slash game only possible within the confines of animation, but somehow, the filmmakers bring in to stunning, crisp real life. Not only did that first fight scene bring out Alita’s sheer badassery, it also introduced the possibilities of cyborg battles as I’ve never really seen before, with a definite attention to skills with a blade (or multiple blades) and body combat skills, as opposed to the usual reliance on this-and-that gun or such-and-such weapon. The outlawing on guns of any kind in Iron City, which is the setting of most of the film, meant that the subsequent action scenes continued this thrilling mode of combat. It was definitely refreshing to not have fights come down to an explosion or a shot fired from a gun of some sort, which I feel is a formula so abused I’m almost dulled towards such scenes when they occur.

The performances, I felt, were good. With three Oscar winners in major supporting parts, I guess this shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. Christoph Waltz was a believable father figure to Alita, Jennifer Connelly is nicely vicious and subsequently gives the movie some extra heart, while Mahershala Ali is a respectable villain. But of course, the main protagonist herself, Alita, is very well played. I found her to be a worthy comparison to Wonder Woman; she’s defined by her strength of will, bravery and importantly, her humanity. This makes for interesting analysis when we realise that she is a cyborg, yet her human qualities stand out in comparison to the human antagonists of the film, such as Vector, who is cold and ruthless in an almost mechanical way with his decisions. This perhaps offers commentary on the basis of what it means to be human; where one’s biological construct, in Alita’s case, a cyborg, but extended to the real world as a metaphor, should not confer onto them different standards of humanity.

Like Wonder Woman, the gender roles here are also flipped, with Keean Johnson playing Hugo, Alita’s sidekick and love interest who finds himself in the “damsel-in-distress” situation during a climactic sequence where Alita is the one rushing to save him. As he proclaims emphatically towards the end of a bar fight where Alita had been the one dealing out the punches, with Hugo watching her back, he’s “with her”, and not the reverse of “she’s with me”, a clear indication of Alita’s position of power in their relationship. Further it is made clear that she is physically superior to Hugo, with Hugo noting that she could easily disable him in a fight by “ripping out his arm and smacking (him) with the wet end”. 

Refreshing gender role reversal aside, I enjoyed the Alita-Hugo story, though I feel that the emotional heft of their final scene together was unintentionally lessened by the somewhat awkward CGI (don’t want to spoil it completely, but this was the one time I thought the CGI looked a little clunky).
The rest of the plot as a whole however, is where Alita’s issues arise. As I mentioned earlier, I found this to be a good but incomplete film. I say this because the film had set up many plot points early in the film, and then reinforced them throughout, which logically would make one expect that these plot points reach a resolution at the close of the film. One, for instance, is the character of Nova, established quickly as the main antagonist, when he literally assumes control of his subordinates minds, including Vector’s on multiple occasions. This set Vector up as a pawn, albeit a powerful one, from the start, which made his defeat towards the end of the film feel like the defeat of a powerful and significant but secondary antagonist – Gogo in Kill Bill comes to mind for some reason – which then leaves the feeling of unfulfillment when one realises that the character of Nova had been set up purely for a sequel. Even Alita’s identity in relation to her history is also left overly unresolved – who is Michelle Rodriguez’s character and what happened to her? Another is the floating city of Zalem – we never get a good look into it despite seemingly every character talking about making it to Zalem as a key motivation. I suppose this could have been commentary of social and class boundaries, and how and impossible blockages can form, leaving those below having no chance of of even glimpsing what it’s like on top. Indeed, when Hugo and Alita get close to ascending towards Zalem near the end, they are met with dire consequences. While I thought the physical construct of the city (with Zalem literally floating above the citizens of Iron City) was a nice metaphor for class divide, I still wished we had learned more about the city above. 
Essentially, the film leaves one feeling slightly cheated as the film comes to an end, as so many important plot points are seemingly saved for explanation in the sequel, and the only arc that really seemed to have a definite resolution was the Alita-Hugo one. What was shown in the film was good, but it felt like watching three quarters of a good movie, and then having the credits role with so many built-up things unaddressed. This pan-movie plot structure kind of brings to mind the disappointing Crimes of Grindelwald, which felt like the middle of a film with it’s lack of any real setup and resolution, merely being a filler for future installments. Of course, despite their somewhat similar and awkward structures, Alita was a good film, Crimes wasn’t. Yet it seems Crimes may yet get away with this sort of sequel-dependent plot structure, Alita may not. Because Alita really is asking for a sequel; the worldbuilding is solid and I was quickly immersed and invested in both the world and the fates of the characters. It would be a real waste if the story were left incomplete. 

With that in mind, I truly hope Alita performs well enough to warrant a sequel. It NEEDS the sequel to complete its story. Perhaps, if combined with a second film – which assumedly completes the plot – it could really be a great story and work of cinema, because plot-wise, it simply doesn’t work as a standalone film, with too many boxes left unchecked and viewers like me left needing more.
7.5/10

Oscar Nominations 2019 Analysis: Snubs, Surprises & the unstoppable Roma train

Oscar nominations have been announced at long last by the comical, sleep-starved duo of Kumail Nanjiani and Tracee Ellis Ross, and this year, snubs and surprises abound, with several in the major categories, which I will discuss. I will run through how my predictions, as you’ll find in earlier posts on this blog, fared, and what the Academy’s choice of nominees spells for the films in contention going forward.

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Looking Onwards to Oscars 2019, And a Wrap-Up of Oscars 2018

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The #TimesUp conversation was the dominant one during the 2018 awards season, and for the first time since Million Dollar Baby in 2004, Best Picture went to a film with a female lead. Runner-up films such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and Lady Bird also told very female stories, and told them well.

What I glean from this is an industry that has become more politically charged and aware than before, and I think a large part of this has to do with the new reign under the Trump administration. In 2017, Moonlight won Best Picture amidst the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and films such as Hidden Figures gained far more attention than pundits had originally predicted.

In both years, we see that the originally held frontrunners, which were more in-line with typical Oscar movie fare (La La Land and Three Billboards), with La La Land especially being one of the most baity type Oscar Best Picture films (a musical, about the industry, about actors) lost out to the more political choice of Moonlight. I’m certainly not looking down on the winners of the past two years – they were both completely deserving, and were the movies of the moment; they were both incredible cinema and harboured important political messages for their time.

Looking forward into 2019, I think we can similarly expect a more politically aware Oscars. With that in mind, I’m going to list out my very preliminary and wild guesses at next year’s Academy Awards.

Damien Chazelle’s First Man seems to be the very early frontrunner based on what experts are saying, which stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, who definitely seems like he could land his third acting nomination. One has to wonder though whether a film like this would be in line with the Oscar’s more in-the-moment streak; this is a historical film that Oscar voters typically would love, but it is about a well-known white man and a very well-known segment of American history. The Academy certainly seems to have shifted their focus to recognising different and once unheard voices in cinema, and this one rings of old Oscar fare. Indeed, one has to wonder how a film titled “First Man” would have stood up amongst the #TimesUp movement this year.

One noticeable thing about the Oscars is that there is a lot of spillover love year-on-year, especially in the case of Oscar breakout stars. I think a lot of it has to do with them finally being noticed by the industry at large. Looking at the past few years, a few of such breakouts include Eddie Redmayne and Jennifer Lawrence. Indeed, Lawrence was nominated almost consecutively year-on-year following her star turn in Silver Linings Playbook, while Redmayne’s Oscar-winning Theory of Everything performance certainly propelled him forward in the Oscar race the next year with his nomination for The Danish Girl.

One of the main breakouts of the year is undoubtedly Timothee Chalamet, who many considered to be the runner-up to Gary Oldman’s career-defining performance. Certainly, he’s proven himself to be the lovable, wide-eyed ingenue navigating through this year’s awards season, and I think the industry definitely has their eyes set on him, ready to take the bait if he gives them one. This year, he stars in Beautiful Boy alongside Steve Carrell, which sounds promising, and could get him his second Oscar nod. Timothee’s Call Me By Your Name co-star Armie Hammer may also enter the race this year after many thought him to be snubbed last year, this time in On the Basis of Sex, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg film that’s been featured aplenty on various film websites.

A breakout from the year before, Lucas Hedges, (nominated for Manchester By The Sea) also present last year in a big way as Danny in Lady Bird, stars in Boy Erased, a coming-of-age story about a boy forced through gay conversion therapy. Flanked by supporting performances from industry heavyweights Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, this looks to be a film that could make some serious waves this year, and a lot will be dependent on Lucas Hedges. He’s certainly proven himself before, and I think he’ll do it here again. An interesting though unreliable thing to note is that in the past few years, the Best Picture winner has consecutively had nominations in both the Supporting Actor and Actress category, and this film definitely seems poised to feature strong supporting performances.

At this point, one has to wonder whether the LGBT conversation will be one to permeate this year’s Oscars, with 2017 being a far from ideal one in relation to LGBT and Trump. Last year, a number of prominent films that featured LGBT characters portrayed them as ostracised by society; Giles in The Shape of Water is the closeted neighbour who can’t find his place in the bigger world, Danny in Lady Bird breaks down in shame at his sexuality to Christine. They were all important but supporting players, and perhaps this year, their stories could come to the forefront, in the vein of Call Me By Your Name.

Another breakout of 2017 is Saoirse Ronan – though this one is arguable as I think Oscar voters as well as moviegoers have already noticed her over the past years for her impressive resume of films, including her Oscar-nominated turns in Atonement and Brooklyn. As the established runner-up in the Best Actress race for both Brooklyn in 2015 and in Lady Bird, as pundits on sites such as Gold Derby have shown, one has to think that her time will come soon. This year, she stars alongside Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots, about two queens fighting for control of England, drawing an amusing parallel to this year’s concluded Oscar race, where both Robbie and Ronan were nominated in Best Actress.

At the same time, another narrative this year at the Oscars is the Oscar’s proclivity towards smaller, arthouse films, and its shunning of blockbusters. The film that comes to mind instantly from last year is Wonder Woman, which certainly gained attention during awards season and was nominated by the often reliable PGA, yet was completely shunned by the Oscars. Indeed, Jimmy Kimmel himself joked about how Black Panther’s record-breaking box office numbers mean that it’s Oscar chances were effectively doomed. Yet in light of very widely reported falling Oscar ratings, one has to wonder if the Oscars will be more welcoming in recognising blockbusters deserving of acclaim, because it’s likely the admirers of these large film that will push ratings up greatly with their often cultish fanbase. If that’s the case, we may well see Black Panther gain some traction, or perhaps Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, starring the overdue Emily Blunt, who may well earn her first nomination in the sequel to a film that earned 13 Academy Award nominations, and the most recent Best Picture one for Disney to date.

Other films that seem promising based on the 2018 lineup as shown on Wikipedia:

Tully, in theatres April, teams director Jason Reitman with writer Diablo Cody; both who have had kind of hit-and-miss films recently (Reitman’s Men, Women and Children, and Cody’s Ricki and the Flash), but one can’t help but think back to the films featuring this director-writer duo, Young Adult and Juno, the latter earning Cody an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. With 2 promising and amusing trailers featuring Charlize Theron, I think this could make some waves at the Oscars if it delivers.

A Star is Born, in theatres October, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, is a third-time remake, and the first two were certainly very well-received by the Oscars. While the prospect of Lady Gaga getting an Oscar may seem kind of ridiculous, her Golden Globe winning turn in American Horror Story: Hotel may be an indication of her promise here, while Bradley Cooper is definitely well-liked among voters.

On the Basis of Sex, a film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg starring Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer.

Untitled Dick Cheney Film, by The Big Short director Adam McKay, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Steve Carrell among others, about the 46th President of the United States, this sounds like typical Oscar fare.

Widows, starring Viola Davis amongst a very talented ensemble cast, directed by 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? From Boyhood director Richard Linklater, based on an acclaimed bestseller and starring Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig among others, this looks to be an interesting addition to the mix.

 

Watch out for the sidebar where I’ll put down my extremely early predictions in some of the main categories.