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Alita : Battle Angel review : Wow!

Pay the extra few bucks to get the 3D glasses.

Caffeinated Clint

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Director:

Robert Rodriguez

Cast:

Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali

Run time:

122 mins

Rating:

According to Algis Budrys, in an article written many moons ago, all stories can be surmised to one of three basic plots: The man who learned better, the brave little tailor and Boy meets girl.

Is that true? cue the debate class for that one, but in the case of James Cameron, the famed storyteller behind some of contemporary cinema’s biggest hits (most of them either set in the future or some high-tech space landscape), his stories do seem to embody those effective but overtly familiar beats. Whether it’s the outsider that rebels against the system, the [usually tragic] boy-girl romance, or the human changed by a significant event, you can spot the tracing a mile off.

Will those traditional, familiar but effective beats that embody most of Cameron’s films – be it “Terminator”, “Aliens”, “Titanic” or “Avatar” – be what divides the lovers from the loathers when it comes to his latest film?

Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis‘s screenplay for “Alita : Battle Angel” is based on classic manga – so the title character, much of that world, and the arcs of the main characters were already written long before the Oscar winning filmmaker snapped up the rights to the source material all those years ago. But because of Cameron’s pre-existing association with androids, dystopian futuristic societies, Greek-tragedy romances, and kick-butt female characters, those reading the shooting script likely assumed Cameron’s cribbed from his earlier projects. Guess it doesn’t help, of course, that the way Cameron has condensed and structured the graphic novels’ extensive story is what one might imagine a crossover between ‘’Terminator’’, ‘’Aliens’’, ‘’Titanic’’ and ‘’Avatar’’ might look and play like too. Point is, there was no getting away from what’s come before for Cameron here, and on paper, I guess “Alita” may have read a rather predictable and eerily familiar film yarn.

Yet, this isn’t a screenplay – this is a movie! A big, bold, beautiful and undeniably entertaining genre offering that, even with its familiar plotting and overused devices, remains consistently captivating and astonishing. And that too is as much a Cameron-staple as his somewhat unsurprising scripting.

Set in the 26th century, 300 years after a major war caused a societal collapse (with the elite living in a floating city above the dumps below), a deactivated female cyborg (Alita) is revived, but cannot remember anything of her past life and goes on a quest to find out who she is. With the help of the doctor who gave her back her life, Ido (Christoph Walz) and street-smart new friend Hugo (Keean Johnson), Alita begins to piece together the puzzle of her past, while evading the deadly and corrupt forces that want her dead.

We go to the movies to be blown away visually, be swept up into an all-engrossing story and be dazzled by technology’s’ latest tricks – and Cameron knows that. He wants us to get our 20 bucks worth. What he, serving as both screenwriter and producer on a Robert Rodriguez directed picture, does with “Alita” is remind us why movie theaters need to exist longer after you and I are gone.

Quite simply, this is the kind of escapist box-office fare they just don’t make anymore – and there’s only a few filmmakers today who still know how to bring such a film to fruition.

In this case, Cameron was surrounded by equally-ambitious pioneers of the Nikon.

The “Avatar” helmer gets a mound of the credit, sure, after all he’s been molding this one into shape since the ‘90s. But Robert Rodriguez, another great visual storyteller and a filmmaker, and someone who, like Cameron, has been taking awesomely audacious risks on his projects since early on, also deserves a hard clap. By concentrating on the characters, and their rich relationships, as much as he does the impressive effects (WETA’s photo realistic effects work just keep getting better) and production design around them, the “Desperado” helmer is able to offer up a film that plays as impressive as it looks. They’re a top team, these two.

And as those who played witness to the likes of “Jupiter Ascending” and “Mortal Engines”, can attest, an oddball sci-fi piece without relatable, likeable characters and a strong story is mere punishment for filmgoers – no amount of impressive production design can hold off boredom. But thanks to a strong substance and style ratio, Cameron and Rodriguez’s film never outstays it’s welcome, let alone bores and knows it has to earn interest in its character and world before seducing us with its tricks.

“Alita”, with its wonderful title character (played marvelously by Rosa Salazar) and her compelling arc, strong base of supporting characters (Christoph Waltz proving his divine versatility with one of his most kindly characters to date), fun and feverishly frenetic action, adventure scenes, and real-world themes, is like a crosspatch of everything we love about the modern-day blockbuster. From the wild effects to the larger-than-life characters and all-feeling thrills you just can’t get from most modern-day studio output, “Alita” will make you feel like an engrossed 12-year-old again, enthusiastically dashing down the stairs after a screening of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”.

A final note : Despite how it’s been handled in recent years, with studios merely laying it over 2D films, the 3D here is amazing – offering a great sense of depth and really amplifying those heights. It adds so much more to the experience here because it’s been done right. Pay the extra few bucks to get the glasses.

Film Reviews

Five Feet Apart review : a glorified episode of Grey’s Anatomy

An effective portray of Cystic Fibrosis nestled into a predictable love-story

K.T Simpson

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I have this controversial rule, that I’ll generally avoid a movie where the poster depicts someone with a tube up their nose. This has nothing to do with ignorance, or disgust, but merely the fact that I go to the movies to be entertained, not deeply depressed. Having said that, the woes of reviewing films means I have to sometimes go against my better judgement, and watch a movie about some dying kids.

Seventeen year-old Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) has Cystic Fibrosis, and as a result spends a lot of her time at the hospital getting treatment after treatment. As an incurable disease, most of what she does is manage the symptoms with the aim to lengthen her life. Her current stint in hospital sees her in a ward with fellow ‘CFers’, including best friend Poe (Moises Arias) and new hunk-a-spunk Will (Cole Sprouse), whom she initially [predictably] finds frustrating, as his lack of routine is incredibly vexing to control-freak Stella.

As with any teen-drama, Stella’s feelings of anger and frustration quickly turn to the smitten, and thus a love story begins, but unlike most others and the teens can’t go too close to each other – as CFers are a huge risk to one another in terms of passing on symptoms and illness.

“Five Feet Apart” plays out a little like Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”: the star-crossed lovers who can’t be together, and stubborn nurse Barb (Kimberley Hebert Gregory) forbidding the two to go near each other. What we have here, dear readers, is an over-the-top episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” – you will see each turn in the story come from a mile away, and the forced emotions come from a soundtrack of all the sad songs in today’s catalogue – not to mention the ‘starter kit’ for sad films: forbidden teen romance and death.

Don’t let my description put you off, as my heart of stone has a wall bigger than Trump’s planned border protecting it. “Five Feet Apart” is a touching (excuse that horrific pun) story, and those who are particularly vulnerable to a sob story will come out of the cinema red-faced and blotchy.

Where “Five Feet Apart” excels is in its ability to bring awareness to a terrible, and dare I say misunderstood, disease. My review is in no way a mocking of the severity of those who suffer, and I applaud director Justin Baldoni for his sensitivity in portraying its effects.

Further, actress Richardson is the standout of the film, outshining her “Riverdale” co-star Sprouse. Though predictable, “Five Feet Apart” is charming and if you want a depression-session : this is where to find it.

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Film Reviews

Fighting with My Family review : heart-warming… goes beyond the sport

We review the comedy-drama on the WWE career of professional wrestler Paige

K.T Simpson

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“Paige, I myself have come from a wrestling family too. I know exactly what it means to you”, The Rock tells a young WWE candidate from early on the new film “Fighting with My Family”, adding “Don’t worry about being the next me. Be the first you.”

The small slab of dialogue is essentially the plot of director Stephen Merchant’s Saraya Knight biopic. No more, no less. And it mightn’t be wrong to say that, for all intents and purposes, “Fighting with My Family” encompasses another unsurprising account of another underdog finding themselves on the way to the top. But like Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” – not to mention most of John G. Avildsen’s back catalogue- and countless other movies, all using a similar template, the choctop coating for what otherwise have been a very vanilla cone comes in the combination of structure, performance and, very importantly, casting. Together, the trifecta sees “Fighting with My Family” not only standing well after the final bell has blown, but with very minimal damage. And like the title character, this one’s a real winner.

The backstory of WWE wrestler ‘Paige’, or Saraya Knight as she’s known back in her native Norwich, “Fighting with My Family” tells of a determined young athlete who transitions her way from working local matches with her wrestling-loving family to participating in and winning the WWE Diva’s championship in 2014 (and where The Rock comes into it is that he played somewhat of a mentor to Knight in real life; he’s also the godfather of the film, bringing the story to the attention of actor turned director Merchant).

Paige has grown up with her brother Zak (Jack Lowden), also a keen wrestler and WWE-dreamer, and when the day comes that she has to leave him behind to chase the dream, Paige struggles with the guilt of success, stage-fright and finding herself alongside a group of girls who have been hired seemingly on beauty-status alone. While in Florida, Paige has to find the balance between being herself, growing into the role she’s been given, and standing out amongst a sea of wannabe-WWE wrestlers. Under the guise of coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), who strongly believes in tough-love, Paige learns to develop a thick skin to not only improve her sport, but deal with the heckling crowds that have no sympathy for hesitance in the spotlight.

If you know anything about the real Paige’s story, you know how it ends – but the journey is effectively portrayed by all actors, who all bear a striking resemblance to the actual people.

Merchant’s script, let alone direction, is to-the-point and effective, without being staggeringly crafty, but the material is elevated by a dynamite cast headlined by Florence Pugh, providing both vulnerability and durability to a future big time brawler. Pugh is the show stopper here, channeling her real-life counterpart with a chameleon-esque performance that’s equal parts tough and tender.

The supporting players – Frost, Headey, Vaughn et al – all come from deeper waters, so no surprise that they too take Merchant’s characters and give award-worthy turns. Vaughn, especially, playing a fictionalised version of several coaches Paige worked with along the way, gives one of his best performances to date — so much so, it’s a shame they couldn’t find a spot for him on the poster (after all, Dwayne Johnson’s role is a cameo at best, Vaughn is in most of the film – but guess ‘The Rock’ sells more tickets, right marketers?).

As with any good sports film, the beauty in “Fighting with My Family” lies beyond the sport, but in the message that supports it. It’s easy to write a film off if you’re not into wrestling, but my advice is to put that aside and enjoy the heart-warming narrative of a young girl with little confidence come to find her feet in the wider world that surrounds Norwich. The “Rocky” for our times, “Fighting with My Family” is a movie for everyone that’s ever had a dream… and bloody embarrassing parents.

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Film Reviews

Finding Steve McQueen review : Clever and Nostalgic

The film is both clever and, if you’re a fan of the 1970s, nostalgic

Mike Smith

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1980. In a small California town, Harry Barber (Fimmell) has something to confess to Holly (Taylor), his girlfriend of seven years. Holly thinks a break-up is coming but it’s more like a stick-up. You see, Harry is a bank robber.

Based on a true story, “Finding Steve McQueen” is one of the smaller films that often get overshadowed by the latest offerings from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Through flashbacks we find Harry back in 1972 (who Molly knows as John) working in his Uncle Enzo’s factory, along with his younger brother, Tommy (Jake Weary). The factory is a front for Enzo (played by the always fun to watch Fichtner), who is, for lack of a better word, the “boss” of Youngstown, Ohio. Enzo has learned from a friend that President Richard Nixon, who Enzo is definitely not a fan of, has squirreled away $30 million in campaign funds in a bank not far from San Clemente (the Western White House). Eager for a big score, and the chance to stick it to the President, Enzo and his team, including Harry and Tommy, journey west to pull off what Enzo believes will be the perfect crime. After all, if someone steals the President’s dirty money, who can he call?

The film is both clever and, if you’re a fan of the 1970s, nostalgic. The script, by Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon, moves sharply through the decade, taking time to introduce things like hot tubs and historic characters. When the F.B.I. bureau chief (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker) gets a visit from his boss, Mark Felt (John Finn), you can’t help but smile when Felt tells him to read an article in the Washington Post written by “a couple reporters named Woodward and Bernstein.” For those who don’t remember their history, Felt was the infamous “Deep Throat” who led Woodward and Bernstein to their Pulitzer Prize.

Director Johnson keeps the story moving and kudos as well to whoever picked the songs that accompany the on-screen action. They helped set a perfect tone for a film that doesn’t need someone in Spandex to make it entertaining.

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