Mahershala Ali

Alita: Battle Angel

17/02/18

This one has been a long time coming.

Back in the early 2000s, James Cameron had two pet projects he was planning to direct. The first was Alita: Battle Angel, based on Manga comic, Gunnm. The other was a little thing called Avatar. We all know what happened with the second option and (unless you’ve been living in a hole for a good while) we also know that, after much humming and hawing, Cameron has committed himself to filming four Avatar sequels. But clearly he wasn’t ready to give up on that other project. Enter Robert Rodriguez to take up the directorial reins as Cameron’s er… avatar… while he contents himself with co-writing and producing duties on Alita. What could go wrong?

Well, the word on the street is that the resulting film is a bit of a dog’s dinner and one that looks certain to lose an awful lot of money. But, if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that it’s unwise to underestimate Cameron, who has managed to confound expectations several times before. Most people predicted that Titanic would sink without a trace…

In the year 2563, the earth has been reduced to a devastated post-war shambles. Most people live in the ramshackle chaos of Iron City, while high above them, in a floating sky palace called Zalem, a mysterious ruling class look disdainfully down whilst quite literally dropping their trash on the less fortunate below them. A metaphor perhaps for the way in which the affluent West offloads it’s garbage on the poorer countries of the world? Quite probably.

Whilst searching through a rubbish dump, cyborg scientist Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the head and spinal column of a young female cyborg. His scanners detect signs of life in it. So he whips it back to his laboratory, where he conveniently happens to have an artificial female body all primed and ready to go, the one he actually built for his wheelchair-bound daughter Alita, but which she never got to use.

The new version of Alita (played by a GGI augmented Rosa Salazar) wakes up with a powerful new body that works a treat but oddly, she has no memories of her previous existence. However, it isn’t long before she discovers that one thing she can do really well is fight, using an ancient martial art called Panzer Kunst… and fight she does. A lot.

Of course, given the genre, this is probably inevitable but it’s in the film’s early stretches that it is at its most accomplished. Alita is a genuinely exciting CGI creation (I hope to see Salazar in some less tweaked roles in the future) and the basic premise, with its shades of Frankenstein and even Pinocchio, is initially alluring. But why do so many action movies have such one-note lead characters? Think how refreshing it would be if Alita was good at music… or poetry… or… well, something other than kicking people repeatedly in the face. Rodriguez, by the way, somehow succeeds in giving us an ultra-violent movie that manages to hang on to its 12A certificate, mostly by virtue of lopping off artificial limbs and robotic heads rather than flesh and blood. A bit disingenuous, I think.

From this point the film is a decidedly mixed bag. We meet Ido’s ex wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), a fellow cyborg scientist who is desperately trying to earn her passage back to Zalem, mostly by buttering up the mysterious Vector (Mahershala Ali, proving that he’s not afraid to wallow in less hallowed projects than his recent Oscar-nominated films). There are some decent action sequences (the one where Alita is pursued by a murderous pack of weirdly constructed cyborg killers plays like a cross between Mad Max and The Wacky Races, but manages to generate some genuine thrills in the process). If there’s an overlying problem here it’s simply that the plot feels rather nebulous. I am never really sure why so many people are keen to kill Alita, nor quite what to make of the occasional flashbacks she encounters.

I do however like the fact that the mysterious overlord briefly glimpsed looking down on all the shennaningins from the safety of Zalem really looks like James Cameron himself – which would have been a brilliant idea. (Someone in the know assures me that it is actually Ed Norton, but I like my idea better.)

Alita isn’t the disaster that so many have predicted – but neither is it a triumph. It’s a curate’s egg of a film. Good in parts but, in others, indigestible.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Green Book

31/01/19

It’s 1962, and at the Copacabana Nightclub in New York, Italian American Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is working as a doorman/bouncer. Known as an ace exponent of BS – and also for being very handy with his fists – Tony finds himself in a bit of a fix when the club is unexpectedly closed for renovations. How is he going to support his loving wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), and his two sons (one of whom is destined to grow up to be a Hollywood scriptwriter?)

Salvation comes in the form of an unexpected job offer. Celebrated musician, Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), is planning to embark on a three month tour of America and, since he intends to appear in several venues south of the Mason Dixon line, he needs somebody to drive him – somebody who can handle himself in a tight spot. Tony seems like the logical choice.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Tony, you see, is a racist. Not a confederate flag-waving agitator or anything like that, but a man who chooses to drop a couple of drinking glasses into the trash after they’ve been used by black workmen who do some work in his apartment.

However, he’s also a pragmatist. He needs a job and this one will pay well, provided he gets his client to every single booking, so off the two men go in a hired Cadillac, using the titular Green Book to locates those rare hotels that are actually prepared to admit black guests.

On their travels, the two men’s relationship gradually develops into mutual respect and, as Tony witnesses the humiliating travails that Don has to undergo in those Southern states, the more he begins to understand how wrong he’s been for all these years. Here is a country where the man who has been booked as the star turn at a swanky establishment is unable to dine in the restaurant or even use the same toilet as the other (white) guests.

Of course, this could so easily become trite and over sentimental – but the script, written by Nick Vallelonga, successfully walks a perilous tightrope over the potential pitfalls. It is often downright hilarious and, when it needs to be, suitably heartfelt. Peter Farrelly (yes, that Peter Farrelly, the one who wrote Dumb and Dumber!) handles the direction with perfectly judged restraint. Mortensen, who has beefed up almost beyond recognition, is terrific as Tony, a man whom I initially dislike intensely, but who gradually works his way into my affections with his brutish attempts at humour.

It’s Ali, however, who is the real standout here, managing to imbue his effete character with an affecting vulnerability. Don, it turns out, is a stranger both to the white world in which he plies his trade and the black one, of which he ironically has little experience. Sitting in his swanky apartment above Carnegie Hall, he looks like the loneliest man in the world. One of the funniest scenes in the film is the one in which Tony introduces him to the music of Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin – and then to the dubious delights of Kentucky fried chicken. I should also add that Linda Cardellini makes the very most of her limited screen time as Dolores, imbuing her character with real warmth.

Of course, this being based on a true story, there have been some rumblings of discontent, mostly from Don Shirley’s surviving relatives,  who claim that the friendship between the two men has been wildly exaggerated for dramatic purposes. This may be true but, whatever the realties of the situation, Green Book is nonetheless a terrific film that never loses momentum, despite a running time of two hours and ten minutes.

It fully deserves its five Oscar nominations. Go and see this, if only to remind yourself of how recently the horrors of segregation held sway in the American South – and, of course, to watch those two knockout performances.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

12/12/18

That unwieldy title notwithstanding, this is a genuine treat. For those who are wary of watching yet another retread of a tired and over-familiar concept, let me assure you that this doesn’t so much as reinvent the franchise as grab it by the neck, tear it to pieces and start all over again. The result is one of the most exciting slices of animation I’ve seen in a long time.

Troubled teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is struggling to fit in to the straight laced Brooklyn high school where he has recently enrolled. His father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) is a New York cop, a disciplinarian and a vociferous Spider-Man critic. Miles finds himself gravitating towards his mysterious Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who is an adventurous sort, prone to bending the rules. One night, when Miles and Aaron are indulging in a graffiti-art session in a deserted stretch of subway, Miles is bitten by a robotic spider and, shortly afterwards, begins to experience major changes to his mind and body.

Understandably confused, he returns to the subway, just in time to witness regular Spider-Man villain, Kingpin (Liev Schrieber), opening up a portal to a whole series of alternate realities and, for good measure, enacting a murder that will have all staunch web-heads shrieking ‘Noooo!’  at the screen. Kingpin’s meddling with reality is an attempt to reconnect with characters from his past, but his machinations have unwittingly invited five different personifications of Spider-Man to leave their own dimensions and head for present-day New York. I won’t list the alternate Spideys in detail but suffice to say: two of them are female and one is a cartoon pig called Peter Porker. The thing is, does Miles, still coming to terms with his new abilities, have the necessary stuff to join up with them?

Phil Lord’s plot may be bat-shit crazy, but it doesn’t matter one jot because Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse careers along at such a breakneck pace there’s never any time to question the absurdity of it all. What’s more, the eye-popping animation is so extraordinary that it virtually dazzles the viewer into submission with levels of ingenuity and chutzpah rarely witnessed in this genre. There’s a whole riot of styles thrown into the mix, with individual frames freezing momentarily to do homage to veteran artists like Steve Ditko and John Romita, and more experimental sequences that break new ground entirely. It’s fabulous stuff. Oh, and  just wait till you see what they’ve done with Doctor Octopus!

Purists may not approve of some of the liberties that have been taken with the source material, but the fact is that the Spider-Man franchise has already been pretty thoroughly milked (yet another live action movie is due to land early next year), so if you’re going to slip into that distinctive red and blue outfit, you’d better have something different to offer. And believe me, this film has that in abundance.

Oh yes, and this features one of the best Stan Lee cameos ever (voiced by the man himself, of course), which, given his recent demise, makes it all the more poignant. Here he plays the owner of a cheap novelty shop, selling knock-off Spider-Man outfits and pointing to a sign that says ‘No refunds.’ Priceless.

There is only one other viewer at the afternoon screening I attend, and that’s a shame, because here’s one superhero movie that actually deserves closer investigation. Don’t let it swing over the horizon without giving it a spin.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Moonlight

17/02/17

Moonlight is a coming-of-age movie, chronicling the life of a young black man, and the problems he faces as he tries to forge his identity in the unforgiving environs of his Miami neighbourhood.

We first meet Chiron as ‘Little’ (Alex Hibbert). He is a quiet, introverted boy, preyed upon by bullies and neglected at home. Salvation comes in the unlikely form of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug-dealer, who assumes a fatherly role in Little’s life, and whose softer side is a welcome nuance, so often missing from the cartoon villainy of on-screen criminals. He recognises Little’s vulnerability, and seeks to help him out: teaches him to swim, reassures the boy about his sexuality. He has a conscience too, and is clearly affected when Little’s mum (Naomie Harris) points out his responsibility for her neglectful parenting: he supplies the crack that renders her incapable. Hibbert’s performance is achingly good in this first third of the film: he doesn’t articulate his neediness, but its plain for all to see. He’s so full of hope and potential; we don’t want to witness his pain.

The second section of the film details Chiron’s teenage years, and Ashton Sanders takes over the lead role. It’s a seamless transition: this version of Chiron is less open, more furtive, but his neediness is just as naked as it ever was. He’s still being bullied, and Juan is no longer around – although he does still see Teresa (Janelle Monáe), Juan’s erstwhile girlfriend. He’s less confused about his sexuality, though just as incapable of expressing himself, and far too dependent on his one friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). It’s difficult to watch this sweet young man harden himself against the outside world; heartbreaking to see his future narrowing before our eyes.

In his third and final incarnation, Chiron – now known as ‘Black’ – is played by Trevante Rhodes. His transformation is absolute: the events of the past have shaped him in Juan’s mould – clearly, he’s chosen to emulate the strongest, most positive male role-model in his life. He’s a trapper now, selling the very drugs that blighted his own youth. But he’s still Chiron, still kind and inarticulate, still just the same inside. But he’s taken control – sort of – and he’s no longer quite so vulnerable when he meets up with Kevin again.

This is an affecting movie, a personal tale so precisely told that it shines a light on a common ill. This is not just Chiron’s story – it is the story of so many boys. It articulates everything that Chiron can not. And if the ending feels abrupt (and it does; I was startled when the credits rolled), that’s the only criticism that I have of this fine piece of work.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield