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2 (out of 4)
Robert Rodriguez has an exalted reputation but considerably less clout. When the Spy Kids movies (the original, The Island of Lost Dreams and 3-D: Game Over that is) seem like career highlights alongside the trend-setting style of Sin City and the textbook precision genre-crossing of From Dusk till Dawn, there isn’t room for much else besides improvement. Rodriquez continues to be a polished practitioner of visual flair but what Alita: Battle Angel does most skillfully is pass the time.
Alita is positively the director's most ambitious undertaking and at least one of the most technically accomplished films of Rodriguez' career – Battle Angel is nonetheless a deficient example of what big-budget cyberpunk and sci-fi cinema can yield in emotion and prescience. There’s copious thematic substance to be extracted from the subjects of artificial intelligence even without great recent examples like Upgrade, Blade Runner 2049, and Ex Machina. Meanwhile Rodriguez' manga adaptation doesn't function as anything other than masturbation fodder for 14-year-olds. It's yet another Western take on a popular Japanese property about a mechanical female badass in a dystopian world; Alita barely has the upper hand over 2017’s disastrous Ghost in the Shell remake. Both films have little to ride on save for respected source material and a hot chick punching people – I guess that counts for something.
The uncanny valley and bloated eyeballs of our protagonist Alita (Rosa Salazar) aren’t as distracting as trailers suggested. The visual effects are for the most part intricate and grandiose – some of the action has show-stopping weight and transfixing choreography. With a 175 million dollar price tag and what felt like eons in development, at minimum Battle Angel looks properly belabored.
But as soon as I saw James Cameron's credit as screenwriter and not just as producer, I knew why the film was a halfway decent epic save for the laughably developed love story. Alita and her boy toy Hugo are the worst cinematic couple of the decade, maybe this century. A cast including a pair of two-time Best Supporting Actor Academy Award winners in Mahershala Ali and Christoph Waltz is not just for show, but even prime acting caliber doesn't salvage silly conflicts and a passable futuristic history. For all the money behind it and established popularity in other pockets of media, the cinematic Battle Angel is just short of DOA.
3 (out of 4)
A Blumhouse movie turned a profit?! Surprise, surprise. Weird thing is that 2017's Happy Death Day was actually great fun despite flagrantly thieving from its handful of influences. Just short of a gem, the sorority horror on repeat was nevertheless the most ingenious premise with which to perfect the PG-13 slasher.
Christopher Landon’s agreeable sequel to his gratifying original finds him favoring sci-fi over serial killers. Like the original Happy Death Day there is an inability to ignore the debt owed to Groundhog Day – this entry borrows mainly from the montage of inventive suicide scenarios – but now we focus on time travel claptrap fit for Doc and Marty or an Edge of Tomorrow sequel.
Borrowing from the Marvel manifesto of pseudo-heady plot concepts, quantum energy is used not only to explain a day repeatedly reset but parallel existences as well. Side character Ryan (Phi Vu) begins 2U experiencing the same phenomena as Tree (Jessica Rothe) did in the last film. Then his college science experiment malfunctions sending Tree back return her original birthday time loop, only in an alternate timeline this go-round.
Rothe remains as much a rarity of charm and comic chops as the temporal trooper. Her natural chemistry with Israel Broussard (as love interest Carter) let's Happy Death Day 2U slide as essentially a romantic comedy – the Valentine's weekend release (as opposed to October) is no accident. The mystery of the baby-masked psycho is of far less concern this time but the silly continuation is an enlightened alternative to Rebel Wilson, Battle Angels and Taraji P. Henson reading Tracy Morgan's disgusting thoughts.
It’s not terribly inventive given the scope laid out in its first and best act, but sweetness and well-tuned wit carry Happy Death Day 2U far indeed. If it wasn't so modest it could have been the rare superlative sequel.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
The Rise of Skywalker
A Hidden Life
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice