Alita: Battle Angel

It’s thankfully rare these days that the special effects can distract from a film, and it’s a pity in this case because there is a lot to like about Alita: Battle Angel. The world in which it is set is intriguing, the characters are reasonably well written and director Robert Rodriguez certainly knows his way around an action scene.

Unfortunately, however, we saw this film in 3D. This is something I usually try to avoid but, this time, forgot to check. This meant that I had to try and balance a pair of 3D glasses over my normal glasses which is not comfortable and which, for the first few minutes of the film, put me in the dilemma of either watching the film in slightly blurry 2D or potentially inducing a headache. I eventually managed to get everything lined up well enough to watch the film but it’s a mildly annoying faff as the 3D doesn’t really add anything.

A more serious problem is with the character of Alita herself, played by Rosa Salazar. Alita is a cyborg and, presumably to emphasise this, Salazar’s appearance has been digitally manipulated — most noticeably to enlarge her eyes — to give her a more ‘manga’ look. Unfortunately, this put the film into uncanny valley territory and, on several occasions, left me with the feeling that she had been pasted into the film. Given this, I think it’s a testament to Salazar’s performance that the character didn’t become completely disconnected from the rest of the film.

The film is set in the 26th Century, some 300 years after a devastating war, and society has become pretty dystopian. Dr. Ido (played by Christoph Waltz) finds the remains of a cyborg in a pile of junk ejected from Zalem, the floating utopia that hovers above the much more downbeat Iron City in which he lives. Dr. Ido salvages these remains, fits her with a cyborg body and gives her the name Alita.

Inevitably, Alita has no memory and must, therefore, find out who she is, where she came from and why she is so proficient at a long lost martial art. This could have become quite ponderous, but Alita is such an enthusiastic character that you just can’t help warming to her — especially when she finds herself up against Iron City’s multiply bladed hunter warriors.

And then there’s the Motorball, the sport of Iron City. Think Rollerball re-imagined as a free for all, with cyborgs. Motorball is quite thrilling to watch and becomes an increasingly significant part of the plot as the film progresses and Alita becomes more focussed on what she must do next.

Alita: Battle Angel is an ambitious film and one that pushes the limits of motion capture technology in order to lift the central character directly from her manga origins and onto the screen. Even when it doesn’t quite hit the mark, the film works as a thoroughly entertaining SF action film, packed with spectacular action sequences and some very strong performances that make even the hokiest dialogue sound believable.

The film’s ending clearly sets it up for a sequel. I hope this gets made.

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

I should start this with a disclaimer: I saw How to Train Your Dragon 3 in Dutch (Flemish, if you want to be pedantic). The voices were done by different actors and I may well have missed some of the jokes. If my Dutch completely fails me, it may also be possible that I saw a completely different film to everyone else. But here goes anyway.

The film opens on the isle of Berk, which Hiccup has turned into a utopia in which dragons and humans can live together, but all good things must come to an end. In this case, we have two main developments to turn things around. The first is the arrival of a Light Fury — a female counterpart to Toothless. The second, darker, event is the appearance of Grimmel, a particularly villainous dragon hunter.

So Hiccup must find the fabled Hidden World so that his dragons can finally live in peace.

This is not a particularly dense plot and Grimmel is not a particularly interesting villain. But none of this really matters as the narrative exists primarily to allow us to spend more time with Hiccup, Astrid, Toothless and the Light Fury. And here, the film really comes into its own.

Visually it’s stunning and the courtship between Toorthless and the Light Fury is beautifully handled and a joy to watch. This is reflected in a growing closeness between Hiccup and Astrid, all of which serves to set up a suitably emotional ending.

Of course, there is plenty of humour to enjoy and the scenes involving the dragons are suitably spectacular. Ultimately, though, this is a film about letting go and moving on and it handles this in a way that works well for both adult and younger audiences.

All in all, this makes for a wonderful ending to the trilogy and a satisfying completion to the story of Hiccup and Toothless.

Justice League

As well as Thor: Ragnarok, we also started catching up on some of the DC films that we’d missed over the past few years, specifically with Justice League. I’ve always been a bit wary of the DC Extended Universe as the reviews tend to be lukewarm at best and, since there are so many other films to see, this is a franchise to which we keep not getting around.

That said, I loved the Wonder Woman film and can’t wait for the sequel, so how bad was this film really likely to be?

Well, it can dull and it can be ponderous and it can take itself way too seriously and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it.

Another end of the world approaches and Batman and Wonder Woman bring together a team of superheroes to save humanity and a large part of the problem is that we don’t actually see much of humanity in the film. We see a lot of the Justice League and these are the DC heroes that we all know but, in this instance, none of them felt like they had any real depth to them. This left me with the sense that I was watching a bunch of special effects doing special effectsy stuff to each other.

Maybe this is why I found the CGI to be so noticeable. Or maybe it just wasn’t very good. Either way, I could see the joins and was distracted by them.

The core problem, though, is that Justice League has no sense of fun to it. While there is an occasional joke, these tend to be few and far between and generally fall flat.

Justice League was directed by Zach Snyder and I have to admit that I am not Snyder’s biggest fan. The sense I always get from his films is that he puts a lot of effort into making every surface detail look exactly right, but fails to pay the slightest bit of attention as to why any of this might matter. The result is invariably slick but dull and Justice League is no exception.

Thor: Ragnarok

Over the past decade we, like many a nerd family, have watched most of the films that comprise the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Inevitably, though, there have been gaps, which is why it has taken until this weekend for us to get around to seeing Thor: Ragnarok.

How did I manage to leave it for so long? This film is great.

The film, as it’s name suggests, is about Ragnarok, the end of the worlds which, in this case, is destined to be brought about by Hela, Thor’s previously unmentioned sister. I never knew the end of the world could be so much fun. And so funny. This is primarily because director, Taika Waititi wisely avoids letting anything get in the way of the fun.

Consequently, we get to see Thor exiled to a planet that revolves around gladiatorial contests. These contests are overseen by a Grandmaster played by Jeff Goldblum who is clearly having the time of his life here. Inevitably, Thor gets captured — by a Valkyrie, because where else would you find a Valkyrie — and dropped into the arena, where he is reunited with the Hulk.

Knowing how Avengers: Infinity War opens gives this film something of a fatalistic air as you know how things are going to pan out. But rather than being ponderous, this film manages to remain a huge amout of fun. This comes down to a great set of characters, a superb cast and a plot that recognises just how silly is the idea of spacefaring gods zipping here there and everywhere.

Of the recent crop of Marvel films, Guardians of the Galaxy remains my favourite. But Thor: Ragnarok gives it a damn good run for its money. My only regret is that I didn’t see this on a big screen.

This song is going to get stuck inside your head

I loved The Lego Movie, and if you saw the film I am sure that you remember the theme song, Everything is Awesome. It was one of those songs which, once you’d heard it you couldn’t forget it. I was still humming the tune months after having seen the fil.

There’s a sequel on the way and it has a song that aims to give Everything is Awesome a run for it’s money. It’s called Catchy Song and, if you are susceptible to catchy songs, I suggest you proceed with caution.

 

 

Bad idea of the day: The Monopoly Movie

Den of Geek reports that Kevin Hart is set to star in the long-mooted Monopoly movie. I had to check and it’s true — according to the IMDb, someone really does think that a film version of Monopoly is a good idea.

Monopoly.

I know a lot of board gamers dislike Monopoly, but I have to admit that we still bring it out reasonably often. It is true that randomly moving around the board gives makes the gameplay very reliant on luck — especially in the early stages — and games can drag on if you’re not careful.

On the other hand, if you emphasise negotiation and deal-making when building (and building on) your sets, you have a reasonably tactical game in which an unlucky roll can throw all of your strategies awry (and how you respond to seeing your plans torn up in front of you is a big part of the game).

As for the length, much of this tends to be caused by house rules. Rules like putting fines into a pool to collected by whoever lands on the Free Parking square, not auctioning properties or not allowing trades until everyone has been around the board all serve to slow down the game. And if all else fails, there is nothing wrong with stopping the game and declaring a winner and/or a draw.

Monopoly, as it’s name suggests, is a game of unfettered capitalism. If you want to enjoy it, you have to embrace the brutality. But I don’t see how this is going to translate into any sort of watchable film, and the storyline sounds awful:

A trio of kids from Baltic Avenue discover that Charles Darrow, the inventor of Monopoly, hid a coded secret in the game that we’ve all been playing with for generations, setting them off on an adventure through the streets of Atlantic City, racing through forgotten underground railroads, the Boardwalk and more as they’re pursued by a near-bankrupt casino owner also competing to find Darrow’s hidden fortune.

Cue wacky escapades.

Kevin Hart played Fridge in the Jumanji sequel, Welcome to the Jungle, I film that I quite liked. The point here is that in the Jumanji films, the game is both fictional and would be terrible to play — but it’s great to watch.

With Monopoly, as with previous game to film adaptations, we’re going to end up with something that everyone sees (because everyone will recognise the name) but no-one enjoys.

But what do I know. Someone released a Jumaji board game.

Mia and the White Lion

Aged 11, Mia finds herself dragged from London to South Africa by her parents determined to — once again — make a go of their farm. Inevitably, she hates it and utterly fails to fit in.

Things begin to change at Christmas, with the arrival of a white lion cub, named Charlie. In spite of her resistance, a relationship develops between Mia and Charlie which sees her come out of her shell and begin to both accept and enjoy her new life.

Over the three years that follow, Mia becomes increasingly close to the lion and spends much of her time with the now adult animal, much to the concern of her parents. This is a wild animal, as Mia’s father keeps pointing out.

Things come to a head and the decision is taken that Charlie can no longer remain at the farm and should be sold. At this point Mia discovers exactly how her father is earning his income and resolves to rescue Charlie.

Mia and the White Lion gets off to quite a slow start. This may be partly due to the way in which the film was made. According to the IMDb co-writer and director, Gilles de Maistre was told that filming a child with a lion would be impossible as the only way for the lion not to harm the child would be that they grow up together.

Undeterred, de Maistre found Daniah De Villiers a young, South African girl already familiar with lions to grow up with the titular white lion cub, and shot the film over two and half years, from May 2015 to December 2017, with the other actors regularly flying in to shoot their scenes.

Things becomes a lot better in the second half with Mia and Charlie’s bid for freedom. Although it’s not hard to guess how things are going to work out, the journey is handled well and the film does manage to draw you in as it follows Mia’s struggle to survive in the wilderness as she tries to reach safety for Charlie.

This is also a very worthy film and one that is determined to make a point about the practice of canned hunting. I am a bit ambivalent about how well this point was made. It is a significant part of the plot, but the film relies too much on telling you about the practice rather than showing you, which deprives it of some of its potential effectiveness.

Where the film does work is in the scenes that focus on the relationship between Mia and Charlie which, once established, comes across as surprisingly believable. This makes for a remarkably effective film about friendship, loyalty and doing what’s right.

This was not the film I was intending to see this weekend, but it turned out to be a lot better than I expected.

Iron Sky the Coming Race is almost here

Iron Sky was released way back in 2012. The film’s premise was that Nazis have been hiding on the dark side of the Moon since 1945 until they return to re-invade Earth in 2018. It’s a film that knows its audience and delivers exactly what that audience expects — and I loved every minute of it.

So when a sequel was announced in 2015, I was thrilled.

Four years on and Iron Sky the Coming Race is about to hit cinemas. Quiet Earth has the release dates and synopsis:

Twenty years after the events of Iron Sky, the former Nazi Moonbase has become the last refuge of mankind. Earth was devastated by a nuclear war, but buried deep under the wasteland lies a power that could save the last of humanity – or destroy it once and for all.

The truth behind the creation of mankind will be revealed when an old enemy leads our heroes on an adventure into the Hollow Earth. To save humanity they must fight the Vril, an ancient shapeshifting reptilian race and their army of dinosaurs.

It looks awesome!

Mary Poppins Returns

I have long been a huge fan of Mary Poppins and, when I heard that a sequel was on the way, I was determined not only to see it, but to drag the kids along with me. Of course, when you are dealing with such a classic film, sequels and remakes always carry more than a little risk but Kermode liked it, so it was with some enthusiasm that we all traipsed out to the cinema on Saturday afternoon.

We were not disappointed.

The film is set in the 1930s and rejoins the Banks family where a now-grown Michael Banks is trying to cope with the loss of his wife and the impending loss of his house. His sister, Jane is trying to help him hold things together as are his three children. And into their lives returns Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt).

Mary Poppins Returns covers much the same territory as Mary Poppins with Jane’s workers’ rights activism taking over from Winifred Banks’ campaign for votes for women and Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda) taking over Cockney duties from Bert the chimney sweep. As with the first film, though, the the real focus is the father, who is too wrapped up in his own concerns.

The film takes a bit of time to get going and the songs don’t have the same instant memorability as those in the original — although the one about tripping the light fantastic was toe-tappingly fun — but the heart of the film was in exactly the same place and Blunt and Miranda’s increasingly charming double act holds things together wonderfully.

Mary Poppins Returns hits all the same beats as Mary Poppins. The fantastical adventures are similarly fantastic, if a little darker, and the songs, by turns, fun and moving, if not quite as memorable. But the film manages to repeat the emotional punch of its predecessor and is everything I hqd hoped for.

Someone made a strategy game just for me

I love Mars Attacks, the film. It’s not an objectively great film by any measure, instead relying on broadly drawn caricatures running around in increasingly outrageous situations. In many ways it reminds me of the Road-Runner cartoons in that the gags are cheap, obvious and consistently laugh-out-loud funny.

It turns out that someone turned this into a game and I am kicking myself that it wasn’t until just after Christmas that I saw it. So now I have to find some other excuse to import the mayhem into the house, because this looks like a huge dollop of fun.