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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

Alita: Battle Angel is a project that’s been on James Cameron’s plate for almost two decades.

Then the whole Avatar thing happened, and Cameron, the director, got lost in Pandora speaking Navi and doing strange things with horse-like creatures. He went from directing Alita to producing and screenplay contributions only. Directing chores went to Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, From Dusk Till Dawn)—and after substantial delays, the movie has finally arrived.

The first time I saw the character of Alita in previews (played, in motion captures, by Rosa Salazar), I found her super-creepy, with her big eyes and ghostly smile. After seeing her in 3-D IMAX, I have to say: Something about adding that third dimension makes her more visually accessible. She really is an impressive special-effects feat, blending in just fine with the 100 percent humans and special-effects backdrops.

The movie itself is rather absorbing for a while, telling a decent story about a 300-year-old android trying to fit into a dystopian society, even if she does have the dullest boyfriend in cinematic history (Keean Johnson).

Looking through a garbage heap (that looks uncannily like the garbage heaps from Idiocracy, a film for which Robert Rodriguez, uncredited, did some special effects), Dr. Dyson Ido (a superb Christoph Waltz) finds the upper half of a strikingly beautiful android. He takes some readings, discovers she still has brain activity and takes her home. He meshes her upper parts with a robot body which was intended for his late daughter. He brings the android back to life, dubs her Alita (his deceased daughter’s name) and starts feeding her oranges.

Alita can’t remember a thing, but it all comes back to her in flashes. She’s a big-time former warrior, so, naturally, her talents take her toward a career in … killer roller derbies. That’s where the movie really starts to lose it. It’s an interesting movie about a young girl in an old android’s body looking for her sense of self, and even becoming a bounty hunter. Then, in a snap decision, she decides to go for fame and money in roller derby. Huh?

It’s as if the filmmakers had no idea where to go. The film is based on an original graphic novel that probably birthed the roller-derby angle, but that’s an element Rodriguez and Cameron could’ve easily jettisoned. It comes off as a tech geek’s kind of Quidditch—a lame attempt to instill the Harry Potter universe in the world of Alita. Every second of this movie during which Alita is skating around feels like a distraction.

There are many other killer cyborg characters with familiar faces, played by Jackie Earle Haley, Jai Courtney, Jeff Fahey and Casper Van Dien. The cyborg characters are pulled off with varying degrees of success, from impressive (Haley) to downright silly-looking (Courtney). While Alita herself is a surprisingly well-integrated visual figure, some of the other characters come off as badly cartoonish.

A subplot involving persons named Vector and Chiren (Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly) is supposed to provide the film with two super-villains, but I never really got a handle on what the pair was actually doing. They weren’t very scary.

Now that Cameron’s little Alita diversion is out of the way, he can get back to dawdling with his funky smurfs in Pandora for future boring installments of his CGI wasteland. Alita: Battle Angel feels like a decent idea that didn’t get his full attention—and suffered as a result.

Alita: Battle Angel is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Christopher Landon follows up his somewhat creative original Happy Death Day with Happy Death Day 2U, an overly ambitious sequel that starts off great, but gets lost in its second half.

Jessica Rothe returns as Tree, the college student who got stuck in the Groundhog Day murder loop in the original. The sequel starts with Ryan (Phi Vu), the character who walked in on Tree and Carter (Israel Broussard), stuck in a brand-new murder loop with a seemingly different baby-mask killer. Landon and friends establish a fascinating a reason for the whole murder-loop thing (a quantum-physics experiment) and set up some scenarios that openly acknowledge the plot of Back to the Future 2, featuring doppelgangers and everything. So far, so good.

Then the plot begins to center on Tree—specifically about her fixing other elements of her life, leaning hard on emotional stuff rather than the clever gimmicks of the film’s first half. In fact, the movie basically drops the doppelganger element completely, becoming just another murder-mystery that feels like a bad Scream sequel. Too bad.

At one point, I was looking at this movie as one of the greater sequel ideas I had ever witnessed. Then Landon squandered that idea and ultimately delivered a movie that feels like a copout.

Happy Death Day 2U is playing at theaters across the valley.

Alex Honnold had a dream: to climb the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope. That’s a strange, crazy, psycho kind of dream, but he achieved it—and directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin captured it on film.

The movie Free Solo spends much of its time on the pre-climbing ritual of training and Honnold studying El Capitan while climbing it with ropes. That stuff is harrowing enough, but when Honnold jettisons his safety harness for a climb using just his fingers and toes, things get all-out nuts.

Peppered throughout the film are mentions of the deaths of other free-climbers around the world, some of whom die while Honnold is prepping for his big day. No matter—he just keeps on plugging, much to the amazement of the camera crew and Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, possibly the most patient and understanding woman in the world. The final climb is a knockout—one of the most amazing things you will ever see on film.

Honnold is a nut, and I honestly hope his daredevil days are behind him, and he lives a good life off the fame he’s achieved with this climb. But something tells me he has a little too much Evel Knievel in him, and doesn’t plant to stop.

Free Solo is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033). It is also available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Cold Pursuit stars Liam Neeson in yet another revenge film, this time set in the snowy Rocky Mountains.

There’s some impressive scenery … and that’s about the best thing I can say about this one.

It’s not good when the best parts of a murder-mystery are shots of a snow plow cutting through large quantities of white stuff. That, oddly enough, is a beautiful thing to watch, and had me wishing this were a documentary about a guy trying to keep a mountain pass clear in the winter rather than another Fargo rip-off.

Neeson plays Nels Coxman, and, yes, the film contains plenty of jokes about that last name. Nels has just won a Citizen of the Year award for keeping the roads clear—just in time for his son, Kyle (Micheál Richardson), to be killed by a forced heroin overdose. Turns out Kyle interfered in some drug-dealings with a major dealer nicknamed Viking (Tom Bateman) and got put in a fatal predicament meant to look like an addict’s accident.

Nels knows better and seeks out answers. When he starts getting them, he kills off those responsible, one by one, until the path leads to Viking. When he gets there, the plan involves Viking’s young son. (“You took my son’s life. … You have a son. … HE’S GOING TO BE TAKEN!”)

This is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance, which had Stellan Skarsgard in the Neeson role, and also had the same director, Hans Petter Moland. Moland straight up repeats much of what happened in his original film, shooting many of the scenarios identically. There’s no reason for this remake to exist, other than cashing in on Neeson’s name.

By the way, Skarsgard’s last name in the original was Dickman. Get it? Dickman becomes a Coxman? Give me a break.

In the original, the drug lord’s misinterpretation of what’s going on leads to a turf war between Norwegians and Serbians. This time out, the misbegotten turf war is between some typical American assholes and guys from a nearby Native American reservation. Oh, hey, I just figured out that the character named Viking is an ode to the original Norwegian film. There you have it—another lame change posing as clever.

Laura Dern shows up as Nels’ wife and Kyle’s mom, but her paycheck apparently wasn’t all that sizable, so she bolts from the film fairly early. Emmy Rossum is given the role of the only police officer on the force trying to make a go at solving what’s going on. That, mixed with the frozen tundra and the attempts at dark humor, gives the film that feeling of a Fargo rip-off.

As for Neeson, this is a role he’s played many times before. He’s picking his roles slightly better than, say, Bruce Willis, but he’s definitely allowed himself to get typecast at this point. His small role in last year’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was his best work since his other frozen tundra actioner, The Grey. Actually, if you have a hankering for Neeson running around in the snow, and have never seen The Grey, get on it. That one is a classic.

If there’s a stand-out performance in Cold Pursuit, it’s probably Bateman as Viking. He’s the only one who seems to understand that it’s supposed to be a little funny and outlandish. His compulsive tweaking of his son’s diet, and his strange take on bullying, make him a nightmare dad—but a pretty funny bad guy. He deserved a better movie.

If you must see a movie about a snow-plow driver killing a bunch of people, Charles Bronson-style, watch the original. (Hey, Bruno Ganz is in it!) As far as a snow-plow-driver-killer movies go, Cold Pursuit is boring ride.

Cold Pursuit is playing at theaters across the valley.

The title of The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot implies campy fun, right? The fact that it stars Sam Elliott leads to the impression that tongue-in-cheek, cult-classic adventure may be in the making, perhaps?

Well, no. I’m all for a movie deviating from expectations—bring it on—but this one has no idea what it is trying to accomplish.

Elliott plays an old soldier drinking his life away. Through flashbacks, we see that he was part of some covert operation to kill Hitler. That part of the movie is handled in a couple of quick, unimaginative scenes. Then … his character is approached by the government to go kill Bigfoot, because Bigfoot is spreading a disease in Canada that could wipe out the entire planet. This part of the film is also handled in a couple of scenes—flimsy ones—including Bigfoot vomiting all over Elliott.

The movie actually takes itself seriously and tries to tell a sincere story about a mercenary defeated by lost love and looking for one last chance; it’s replete with a sappy soundtrack and real attempts at emoting. Come on! This could’ve been goofy fun; with moments like Bigfoot spouting vomit all over the place, there may at some point have been loony cult aspirations with this one.

Instead, this became a real drama with a cult title meant to fool geek chumps like me into plunking down the dough for a viewing. Avoid this … it’s terrible.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Oh … Legos. My mom asked me for Legos this past Christmas, and I thought, sure, why not? That’s kind of cute, buying Legos for your mommy on Christmas.

So I grabbed a Star Wars X-Wing Fighter Lego set at a well-known department store (OK, since we are already advertising Legos here, I’ll name it: JCPenney), and figured my Christmas shopping was off to a good start. No, I did not look at the price.

After the lady at the cash register announced my total, I stood aghast and realized Mom had her big gift already. Damn … Legos are expensive!

Incidentally, earlier today, Mom sent me a photo of the fully operational X-Wing built and ready for play. It’s pretty glorious. It might even be worth the money.

Why did I tell you this story? First, to let you know how commercially out of touch I am when it comes to gift-giving, and second, as a sort of preamble to my thoughts on The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part.

Taking some cues from Mad Max, the Book of Revelations and, yes, Radiohead, The Second Part is another healthy dose of family-friendly fun, with plenty of laughs. One of my favorite things to hear at a movie theater is an adult laughing, with his or her kid following suit. Either the kid is, indeed, in on the joke, or he/she just wants to be like his or her parent. Either way, it’s a lot of fun and really cute when a movie produces these reactions for its entire running time.

It’s five years after the end of the first movie, and our hero, Emmet (the voice of Chris Pratt), is happily buying coffee in Apocalypseburg, a devastated Lego land with sullen tones and broken dreams. Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) has taken to dramatic narrating at all times, and things are getting knocked down as soon as they are built up. Invading aliens called Duplos are mostly to blame—forces that are undeniably adorable, yet unabashedly destructive.

It’s a crazed world in which Batman (Will Arnett) winds up engaged to Queen Waterva Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), leader of the Duplo, and Emmett winds up running with a Kurt Russell-type antihero who is suspiciously like Emmett. The reasons for all this craziness will not be revealed here; find out for yourself.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller do not return as directors, but they did contribute to the screenplay. Directing chores go to Mike Mitchell, whose illustrious career has included Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked and Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. While this is easily Mitchell’s best directorial effort, some of the charm and zest of the original is lost in the transfer. The movie feels a bit repetitive at times, and some of the action is too fast to be taken in properly.

Flaws aside, the movie is still a lot of fun, especially when Arnett’s cranky Batman is at the forefront. There’s also a slightly dark underbelly here; it’s fun to see a kids’ flick that doesn’t totally play it safe. As I mentioned before, there’s plenty here for adults to appreciate, too. There are some great gags involving raptors (which is funnier considering Pratt’s Jurassic World participation), and a terrific small role for an iconic action hero who spends a lot of time in air ducts.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part has a feeling of finality, as if these characters are being closed out. But, let’s face it … money talks, and with Toy Story 4 on the way (Chapter 3 was supposed to be the last), it’s clear that animated movies can keep on trucking as long as adults and kids line up. I’d be surprised if they didn’t find a way to keep the Lego movie ball rolling after this.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part opens Thursday, Feb. 7, at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhaal, who previously partnered up on Nightcrawler, take a creative step backward with Velvet Buzzsaw, an art-world satire/horror effort.

Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vandewalt, an art critic losing his lust for the profession. His love affair with Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an art-house employee, gets confusing in many ways when she comes across paintings by a dead man in her apartment building. The paintings, which the artist literally put his blood into, have deadly consequences for those who gaze upon them.

Gyllenhaal is his usual sharp self, creating something funny without going for obvious laughs. Rene Russo is equally good as a ruthless art dealer—she’s willing to cut down anybody who gets in her way. The supporting cast includes Toni Collette, John Malkovich and Billy Magnussen, which contributes to the feeling that the film should be more than what it is.

And what is it? It’s sharp satire in its first half, and a sloppy horror film in its second. Velvet Buzzsaw is not scary by any means, and it tries a little too hard to be. Gilroy takes his eye off the ball, loses focus and wastes a promising premise and solid performances.

Velvet Buzzsaw is now streaming on Netflix.

A modern-day, bullied kid pulls a sword out of a stone and is tasked with saving the world in The Kid Who Would Be King, writer-director Joe Cornish’s attempt to capture the youthful, magical wonder of Harry Potter, mixed with the legend of King Arthur.

While he doesn’t completely fail, this film misses being a true crowd-pleaser, due to a drab directorial style, messy action and moments that are far less clever than they think they are. This one will probably work better on a smaller screen, so wait until it’s streaming.

Do that, and you’ll catch a pretty good performance from Louis Ashbourne Serkis (son of Andy) as British school-kid Alex, the fed-up boy who sticks his neck on the line to protect best-bud Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) from a bully, Lance (Tom Taylor). Serkis is a little overwrought in some of the film’s more emotionally demanding parts, but he hits the right notes when it comes to Alex’s heroic proclamations after he procures Excalibur from a big rock in the middle of a construction site.

Alex notices that Bedders sounds a lot like Bedivere, and Lance is short for Lancelot, so he figures destiny requires him to knight the two, along with Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), Lance’s partner in crime. (King Arthur had a knight named Kay … get it?) They form an unlikely alliance against Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), the banished half-sister of King Arthur who returns as a flying dragon lady and wants to make England the hub for the apocalypse.

Looking a little lost with wild hair and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, Patrick Stewart has a few scenes as an aged version of Merlin. He gives his few moments a fun, goofy touch, but he feels more like a guest star than a real player. For the most part, Merlin appears in the form of a teenager (Angus Imrie), becoming an owl whenever Merlin sneezes. When you add up all the different versions of Merlin, he fails to be a captivating, unified character. He’s just sort of odd.

Cornish, whose lone previous feature-directing credit is the low budget Attack the Block (2011), reportedly procured a $59 million budget for this one, considerably more than the $13 million he got for the prior film. While he showed a scrappy ingenuity in Block, King actually winds up looking like it cost less money than Block to make. The special effects are messy; the action is haphazard; and the overall palette of the film is surprisingly dull for what’s supposed to be a sprightly adventure.

Ferguson, so good in the Mission: Impossible movies, like Stewart, gets little opportunity to make a mark as the villain. When she’s fully transformed into her dragon-lady persona, it looks a little bit like Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion Medusa from Clash of the Titans, but not enough to be cool. It’s just derivative and sketchy.

There are worse movies for your kids to see. There’s a good central message about making nice with your classmates and banding together to accomplish things. There’s also a sweet, somewhat moving element involving Alex’s single mom and his missing father. Cornish might do well with a low-key family drama before he again tries a sped-up action adventure. He does all right with the humanity stuff; it’s when he tries to do the magical things that The Kid Who Would Be King falls flat.

This is a muddled attempt to create a new franchise in the post-Harry Potter world. (Don’t get me started on those shitty Fantastic Beasts movies.) I suspect this one won’t be getting any sequels.

The Kid Who Would Be King is playing at theaters across the valley.

I was a little kid when I first heard the words “Ted Bundy.” My dad was watching a news report about him on TV—something about the college students he murdered in Florida—and Dad simply couldn’t believe the guy escaped from custody and committed those crimes.

Even knowing the story of Bundy going into Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, it’s mind-boggling what this jackass got away with during his crime spree, and director Joe Berlinger touches upon much of it with his solid, four-part documentary. The series is anchored by Bundy’s own words, recorded by a crafty journalist as he sat on death row awaiting his fate.

This is just part one of Berlinger’s examination of the serial killer; he just wrapped a bio pic on the guy, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron as Bundy and slated to be released later this year.

The documentary aspires to be the definitive look at the madness this asshole brought upon the world, and it succeeds. It’s not a fun time by any means, but it does the job of informing viewers about the madness and sickness that was Bundy.

Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is now streaming on Netflix.

Just when I hoped M. Night Shyamalan might be getting on a hot streak, here comes Glass, proving he’s still a stylish—yet sloppy—self-indulgent kook.

After one bomb after another during a 15-year stretch, Shyamalan showed us he was still capable of good cinematic things with Split, a 2017 a showcase for multiple personalities by James McAvoy and a creepy little thriller thanks to Shyamalan’s surprisingly deft direction. An after-credits scene showed us Bruce Willis as David Dunn, his super-humanly strong Unbreakable character, and the possibilities became very intriguing.

The director then announced his intention to make Glass, saying that Split was, in fact, the second part of what would be a trilogy. Glass would bring back the brittle-boned character of that name played by Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable, along with Willis and the newly introduced McAvoy character(s). OK, sounds good. Let’s go!

Well … shit. The new year has its first legitimate clunker.

Shyamalan is up to his old tricks again, turning in the kind of loopy, half-assed filmmaking that made the world scratch its collective head with The Happening, The Village, The Last Airbender, After Earth and Lady in the Water, all wretched stink-bombs. He has a remarkable ability to somehow employ writing that’s lazy and overambitious at the same time. He puts a lot in play with Glass, but he doesn’t seem to have an idea where to take it. Plot holes abound; there are so many that it’s hard to keep track of them.

First, he finds a way—an incredibly inane way—to get the gang together in some sort of mental institution where they are being studied by a too-nice-to-be-trusted doctor (Sarah Paulson). Then McAvoy gets a chance to do his switching-personality shtick for a good chunk of the movie while Willis virtually disappears, and Jackson’s Glass sits in a catatonic state.

Toward the end of the movie, the Shyamalan script starts rambling about the origins of comic books, asking, what do they really mean? He fixates on this like anybody really gives a crap, and the action dwindles away, replaced by the dopiest dialogue this side of a Fifty Shades movie. Shyamalan shamelessly teases a big showdown atop Philadelphia skyscrapers between McAvoy’s Beast and Willis’ strong guy. It’s as if he’s saying, “I know you are bored right now, but there’s a Kong vs. Godzilla-type showdown coming! Sit tight, you fidgety little buggers!”

Alas, the budget doesn’t really allow for that sort of CGI smackdown, so all we get is a fist fight on the hospital lawn—a very drawn out and uninteresting first fight. If anything, I am understating things when I tell you the fates of these characters are handled in a flippant, underwhelming, downright-awful way. Shyamalan takes a chance to do something worthwhile in the universe he created, but instead, he opts for blathering idiocy and preachy nonsense.

Anya Taylor-Joy, so good in Split, is reduced to a role that has her, for some nutty reasons, having sympathetic, huggy conversations with the dude who almost ate her. Spencer Treat Clark returns as Joseph Dunn, David’s now-grown son; he’s actually grown into a fairly competent actor … who is given next to nothing worthwhile to do.

Nothing makes sense in this mess, and Shyamalan takes all of the blame. Yes, Glass has the standard Shyamalan big twists in it, and they do nothing to substantiate the story or shock you in that good, Sixth Sense sort of way. He springs the so-called surprise on you, and you are left wondering, “Oh … wait … really? That’s it?”

I distinctly remember that “WTF?” feeling that hit me when Unbreakable abruptly ended with that dopey freeze frame. It felt like Shyamalan had completely betrayed his audience with a lame stunt. Well, that’s how I felt during most of Glass: I’d been duped again by M. Night.

Glass is now showing at theaters across the valley.

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