Bad Boys for Life
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If you may recall, the original Lego Movie was a bolt from the blue, a rude shock to the world of post-millennial animation. Just because your intention is to sell a product doesn't mean you can't have cutting commentary or take the piss out of what you are selling. Subsequent entries have not let me down. The Lego Batman movie was damn good, the Lego Ninjago outing was a decent rental movie, and this picture manages to follow up on the themes of the original and expand on them, albeit in a more predictable manner. We still get plenty of sharp writing from Phil Lord and Chris Miller; Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, and Elizabeth Banks are great as you'd expect; and the visuals, set pieces, soundtrack, and plethora of fun licensed material may encourage viewers to open up a crate of LEGO's and have at it. And the message is kind of interesting. If the original was about a father who really needed to loosen up, this movie is about his son needing to do the same. It's one of those rare modern CGI-filled kids pictures that has about as much to say to the parent as it does juvenile audiences. It's not perfect but it didn't need to be. An easy choice to entertain you and your family on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
We know the rule: no good live action films can come from anime and manga. THAT is nerd law. But the funny thing is…they used to say the same about comic books and we know how that turned out. Hell, even video games have a couple of decent or at least passable movies of the week to enjoy. As for anime itself, premium television may provide a more permanent answer, though we did get a mediocre but decent-looking picture with Ghost in the Shell. What else would it take to make it over the line into that most coveted and most jealously guarded of territories? The one they call "Good?" Alita: Battle Angel may provide the answer.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, a youthful looking cyborg is found by a kind doctor, reassembled, and taught the ropes of how the lower half lives, in the vast hellish slums under the shadow of a better world literally floating above them. But there may be a bit more going on with our young cyborg protagonist, than meets the eye… Metal will clash with metal, cybernetic parts will fly, mysteries will be revealed, balls will roll, double crosses will occur, while hitting a bunch of check marks on the cyberpunk cliché list. Does it work? F**k YES! Alita contains performances that are so damn good they almost seem out of place, considering how boilerplate the plot is. It also moves at a decent pace, with uncharacteristically restrained direction from Robert Rodriguez, opting for an almost Spielbergian tone. It's probably the best route to get general audiences invested into the material, as the fish-out-of-water, hero's journey was Hollywood's method of choice for decades. Rosa Salazar gives an admirable turn as the titular protagonist, which must have been difficult, as she had to work within the confines of MOCAP and CGI. Christoph Waltz is frakking great and his interactions with Alita are the heart of the movie. He is probably the only actor in Hollywood who could unironically say phrases like Panzer Kunst and sound authentic.
Of course, the main draw is obvious. Alita is filled to the brim with RIP SNORTING, KICK-ASS ACTION. Holy crap, this movie has more punch than its title suggests. Yes, some dialogue is clunky, but few of these scenes last too long. There was a bit of controversy with the visuals, specifically Alita's face and her VERY large anime eyes. Your mileage will vary on if it crosses the uncanny valley, but odds are it will not bother you as the story progresses. And the background graphics are gorgeous, no argument there. Alita is let down by its villains to some degree and it does end on the promise of a continuing story, which is always a dicey prospect. Thankfully it's not a cliffhanger, and Alita: Battle Angel can stand on its own, regardless of future installments. Is it great? Probably not, but it's damn good. Now let's see if Cowboy Bebop can take us to greatness, once again.
ALFONSO CURAON IS A GOD.
Now that of course sounds ridiculous to most people, and I wouldn't blame you. Deifying auteur directors can come off as both distasteful and old hat. But this man's filmography combined with his latest masterpiece, Roma, should give you a clue into what I mean exactly. Cuarón along with Alejandro Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro represent what some call "Mexican New Wave," which is a reference to the European New Wave directors who changed cinema into a more personal and contemplative medium. And the comparison is apt, particularly in Cuarón's case. Even his more commercial and mainstream entries (The Prisoner of Azkaban and Gravity) tend to lean on the meditative and reflective side, often taxing the patience of mainstream audiences. And when he leans into his more thought-provoking ventures, (Sólo con Tu Pareja, Y Tu Mamá También, and Children of Men) you get a masterpiece.
Roma sits proudly in the latter category. It concerns a middle-class family living in Mexico City during the early 70's. It is semi-autobiographical taking place literally across the street from where the director grew up and has several details from his childhood, including his absentee father, his single mother, going to the movie theater, and the influence of their family maid on his life. And it is from her point of view that we experience Roma, not from the children or the mother, but the family servant. Our protagonist comes from poverty and the indigenous populations of Mexico, but this is not remarked on by either the family or the film. Her background simply…is, like much of the film with its honest and matter-of-fact way of looking at domestic life. Roma's greatest strength and single most defining trait is the beauty of the minutia of everyday life in 1970 Mexico City. Children running down the street as bands play, an affluent neighborhood gives way to a slum, yet strangely both are beautiful in their own way, the rhythm of servants washing clothes and wiping down a driveway, a forest on fire as locals desperately try to put it out, large late 60's American cars struggling to navigate small Mexican alleyways, and a firefight erupting in the streets playing second fiddle to a pregnant woman being rushed to a hospital about to give birth. Many of these themes of everyday life and class division in Mexico closely resembles Y Tu Mamá También, but lacks its sharp cultural and political commentary. Roma's blunt and detached approach to violence may remind some of Children of Men.
Roma's black and white cinematography helps reinforce that we are looking at the past, even if it is clear that we are not looking at an idealized past. Poverty, racism, and social strife exist, but they are treated objectively. In the end, the human relationships take center stage, but we are not subjected to maudlin or sentimental tones. It is perhaps one of the greatest examples of Cinéma verité I've ever seen. Yalitza Aparicio give a subdued performance of our often-silent maid and finds the best ways to communicate her emotional state non-verbally. Marina de Tavira does her best as the long-suffering family matriarch, who slowly, but surely realizes that she's on her own. This is probably the best offering Netflix has in terms of pure cinematic quality. It is a slow and deliberate film so patience is required. It more than earned its Best Picture nod at last years Academy Awards and does represent a milestone for streaming services. Perhaps we can get more quality pictures such as this from auteur directors. One can hope.