Archive | February 2019

Movie Review: Alita – Battle Angel

Rated PG-13, for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language

Over the last two decades, the topic of adapting the Japanese manga Battle Angel Alita, would pop up in conversations with writer/director James Cameron. However, once he set full-sail into his own world of Avatar, it seemed like Alita would just be another of his “lost projects” (like his plans to make a Spider-man film in the 1990’s!).

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Writer/Producer James Cameron, and Director Robert Rodriguez on the set of Alita: Battle Angel.

Enter Robert Rodriguez. Having seen what Cameron wanted to do many years before, Robert was able to obtain Jim’s blessing, and has now brought Alita’s story to the big-screen.

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While looking for parts in Iron City’a scrap yard, Dr Dyson Ido (Christopher Waltz) comes across the severed torso of a feminine-looking cyborg. After reviving the cyborg and giving it a new body, Ido names it Alita, and sets out to help her start a new life.

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Dr Ido (Christopher Waltz), and Alita (Rosa Salazar)

However, the more Alita experiences of Iron City, the more she begins to learn about humanity, along with the darker sides of our world…and possibly, who she once was.

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Much like Avatar, the key to Alita is believing in the main character, created exclusively through motion-capture and visual effects.

With actress Rosa Salazar and the team at Weta Digital behind him, Rodriguez has managed to craft a believable performance that delivers for the majority of her screen time. Early trailers had some unsure of Alita’s anime-style eyes, but as the film goes on, you’re soon drawn moreso into her journey.

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Hugo (Keean Johnson), and Alita.

It is also in the characterization of those around Alita, that keeps us invested in her. Waltz’s performance as Ido, gives the two a father/daughter relationship, but one that can get testy at times as the cyborg yearns to know more than what Ido wants her to. Alita also develops a friendship with one of Ido’s friends named Hugo (Keean Johnson), whose adventurous spirit she quickly latches onto.

While the focus on Alita’s story is a positive of the film, it falters a bit at times in how jam-packed it is with subplots. Cyborg hunters, a ghostly presence that can possess anything cybernetically-enhanced, and even a deadly sport called Motorball, are just a few of the things that may have you a little confused as the story progresses. It feels like a film series could tackle these topics one-by-one, but this film seeks to take on the herculean task of trying to juggle all of them, and hope the audience is keeping track of what is going on.

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Cyborg hunter Zapan (Ed Skrein), has an altercation with Alita.

Most of the action scenes do benefit from the skills of cinematographer Bill Pope, who has cut his teeth on the Matrix films and Scott Pilgrim vs the World’s hyper-kinetic, anime-inspired action sequences. Given the shadowy, noir-like environments, Pope’s focus works greatly to keep us close to Alita, throughout her journey.

Like anything associated with Cameron these days, Alita also tries to draw us into viewing the film in 3D. However, given the number of dark environs for much of the film, it doesn’t feel like the extra money is necessary to viewing the story.

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Battle Angel Alita manages to succeed where many other American-adapted manga films have failed. Alita herself and the characters that surround her, help make us care for her plight, and feel grounded in the world of Iron City.

It’s easy for me to see why Cameron was drawn to adapting the manga. Much like Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, and even Rose Dawson, Alita is a character who soon realizes she has the potential to be something more than what others feel she should be. And just like those characters, Alita also proves she can hold her own in a world largely controlled by men.

Unfortunately, the film overloads itself with a few-too-many subplots, and it’s juggling act at times can be a bit cumbersome to follow.

Even so, Robert Rodriguez has done a commendable job in showing us a digital world that builds upon his experience directing the Spy Kids and Sin City films. One can only wonder if he’ll get another chance to play in Cameron’s toy box, in the future.

Final Grade: B

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Retro Recaps: The Twilight Zone (Season 1, Episode 31) – The Chaser

Over the years, you’ve probably seen a number of television tropes in the different series you’ve watched. From an annoying relative that comes to visit, or a character developing amnesia, there are some tropes that show-runners just love to dip into over and over again.

One trope that would appear in some older television shows, was “the love potion trope.” This would usually result in someone getting their hands on the fabled concoction…only for their plan to backfire, as the “be careful what you wish for” storyline played out.

31 episodes into The Twilight Zone’s first season, The Chaser would bring this trope to Rod Serling’s anthology series. However, despite it’s themes of love, the episode would premiere on May 12th, 1960, and not on Valentine’s Day of that year.

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As the show starts, we see a young man in a phone booth, dialing a phone number, trying over-and-over again to get through to someone. Outside of the booth, a small line of people are impatiently waiting their turn to use the phone. As the young man continues to dial, we hear Rod Serling’s opening monologue:

Mr Roger Shackleforth. Age: youthful 20’s. Occupation: being in love. Not just in love, but madly, passionately, illogically, miserably, all-consumingly in love, with a young woman named Leila who has a vague recollection of his face and even less than a passing interest. In a moment you’ll see a switch, because Mr Roger Shackleforth, a young gentleman, so much in love, will take a short but very meaningful journey…into the Twilight Zone.

After some time, Roger manages to connect with Leila. She calmly listens to Roger’s declarations of love, before telling him to “take a flying jump at the moon,” and hanging up.

Before Roger can call her back, the man behind him muscles the lovesick young man out of the booth. He gives Roger a business card, claiming the man on the card can help Roger with his problems.

TZ131-4Roger follows the card’s address to the door of Professor A Daemon. Daemon reveals himself to be an apothecary, and at first figures Roger is there seeking his help to gain wealth or power…but grows morose when he finds out Roger just wants help getting a girl to love him.

Daemon claims he has something that will do the trick, but tries to entice Roger with a pricey concoction he calls, “the glove cleaner.” Roger claims he just wants the love potion, and Daemon sells it to the young man…for a dollar.

“Love potions are my cheapest item,” mutters Daemon. “And they’re overpriced at that.”

TZ131-5Roger next heads to Leila’s with some champagne and flowers. Begging her to let him have a drink with her, she begrudges his request. While she is away in another room, Roger pours Daemon’s potion into her glass. A few moments later, she eagerly rushes into the young man’s open arms!

The next scene shows six months have passed since the two were married. Now it seems the tables have turned, with Leila being overly-passionate towards Roger, and him having become annoyed by her constant attentions. As Leila fawns over him, Roger suddenly declares he forgot he has an appointment, and rushes out of their apartment.

TZ131-6Roger returns to Daemon’s residence, and asks him if there is a way to possibly dilute the love potion, but is informed that “the glove cleaner,” is the only solution.

Handing over a check (already written out for the exact amount!), Roger receives the old man’s specialty. Daemon also warns him that Leila must drink all of it, and Roger must not hesitate to administer it…otherwise, he’ll lose his nerve to ever use it again.

“Always the same way,” smiles Daemon, as Roger leaves. “First the stimulant…then the chaser.”

Returning to Leila, Roger prepares them champagne, secretly pouring “the glove cleaner” into her glass. However, as he prepares to hand her her glass, Leila claims she has a surprise for Roger, and mischievously shows him some baby booties she’s been knitting…causing him to spill the drinks!TZ131-7

As he mutters to himself that he couldn’t have gone through with the whole thing anyways, Leila smiles lovingly, telling him that they’ll be together for the rest of their lives.

The final shot shows Professor Daemon, relaxing in a lounge chair. As he blows a heart-shaped smoke-ring, Serling delivers the closing monologue:

Mr Roger Shackleforth, who has discovered at this late date that love can be as sticky as a vat of molasses, as unpalatable as a hunk of spoiled yeast, and as all-consuming as a 6-alarm fire in a bamboo-and-canvas tent. Case history of a lover boy, who should never have entered…The Twilight Zone.

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Throughout it’s history, The Twilight Zone has never shied away from storylines with a “be careful what you wish for” premise, and The Chaser certainly has a little fun with it.

George Grizzard plays Roger with un-thinking aplomb at the start…and an unhealthy obsession that would probably land him a restraining order in this day and age. As the episode goes on, we soon see that he definitely gets more than he bargained for.

Patricia Berry’s role as Leila, is little more than the object of Roger’s desire. For the first half of the show, she “politely tolerates” his requests, and then in the second half, she becomes so lovesick due to the potion, that she is unable to do most things on her own.

It is in John McIntire’s role as Professor A Daemon, where there’s truly some fun to be had. With his questionable name and intriguing abode, the character shows a man who enjoys playing devil’s advocate, but seems to also enjoy some mischief.

One can make out that the professor has had experience with being blinded by young-love in his own life, but Roger is too foolish to take any of his hints. There’s also some dark humor with Daemon’s constant talk about “the glove cleaner.” Traceless and odorless, the old man even gleefully claims it to be called, “the eradicator.”

The Chaser is actually based on a short story of the same name, by John Colliers. Much shorter than the Twilight Zone episode, it deals with a young man going to the Daemon character (though he is not given a name). The young man has come on the promise of a love potion, though the old man does tell him of the more expensive “glove cleaner,” hinting that later on in life, some of his customers come back to purchase it.

The episode’s title also contains a dual meaning. On one hand, it could refer to Roger as “the chaser” of Leila’s affections. On the other hand, the term “chaser” can sometimes refer to a secondary drink, often used to quell the strong taste of hard liquor. Daemon himself mentions this, after Roger purchases “the glove cleaner.”

The Chaser is definitely one of the simpler episodes of The Twilight Zone’s first season. It doesn’t get as introspective as The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, but I believe there’s a charm in it’s simplicity. Plus, I still enjoy watching McIntire’s performance as Daemon, a man who’s seen what reckless young love can do, but whose warnings often fall on deaf ears.

 

Retro Recaps: The Twilight Zone (Season 3, Episode 21) – Kick The Can

When it comes to Rod Serling’s television series The Twilight Zone, the episodes that most often come to people’s minds, are those that deal with some of the darker elements of humanity.

However, buried within it’s 156-episodes, there are some stories that tend to stick in our minds, that often don’t rely on aliens, or humans turning on each other.. One that I’ve seen show up in some people’s favorite episodes list (and that I recall watching with my Dad over the years), premiered on February 9th, 1962.

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The episode opens at Sunnyvale Rest, a home for the aged. As the camera shows us it’s tired residents, we see Charles Whitley (Ernest Truex), happily proclaim that his son is taking him home today.

TZ321-1When Charles’ son arrives, he explains to his father that he only meant to talk with him about the possibility of going home, and the two quietly part ways.

As his son drives away, Charles sees several kids playing a game of kick-the-can across the street from Sunnyvale. One of them kicks a dented tin can towards him, and Charles picks it up. As he holds it close, Rod Serling emerges from behind a bush, and delivers his opening monologue:

Sunnyvale Rest, a home for the aged. A dying place, and a common children’s game called kick-the-can, that will shortly become a refuge for a man who knows he will die in this world, if he doesn’t escape…into The Twilight Zone.

TZ321-2We next see Charles talking with a friend of his at Sunnyvale, named Ben Conroy (Russell Collins). While Charles holds the tin can from earlier (maybe he traded the kids for another in the home?), Ben complains how noisy the kids are outside their window.

Charles reminds him that the two of them were just as noisy as youngsters, but begins to wonder if those games they played, and some of what they believed in those younger days…may be the key to staying young.

Ben just dismisses these ideas, telling Charles that they’re old men now, but Charles dwells on his thoughts.

TZ321-3Concerned for his friend’s sanity, Ben tells the rest home superintendent Mr Cox (John Marley) about his fears. Things don’t get much better when the two observe Charles trying to act young, first shoving an empty wheelchair across the living room, and then running through the sprinkler outside! Mr Cox has Charles placed in bed, and warns Ben that his friend may need to be isolated for observation, unless he behaves himself.

Ben tries to explain the predicament to his friend, but Charles claims he doesn’t want to become “a vegetable” like a number of those in the home. When Ben snaps at his friend and tells him to “use his brain,” Charles quiets down…before looking at the tin can on his night table.

TZ321-5Later that evening, Charles wakes up a few of the residents, and they convene in a small room. When he stirs up memories of the games they played in their youth, their faces light up. Charles eagerly makes them buy into his request to play a game of kick-the-can in the summer evening, and soon the group is quietly waking up the other residents to join them.

Charles personally attempts to get Ben to join them, but Ben once again claims they’re too old to be doing such things. Even his request that his friend help him try to rekindle the lost magic of their youth does nothing to sway the old man, and Charles quietly leaves his friend’s bedside.

tz321-8One of the seniors has a stash of hidden firecrackers, and sets some off outside to distract the night nurse. Once she leaves, Charles and the others rush outside.

Ben goes to Mr Cox’s office door, and tells what Charles has done. The two rush outside to bring in the seniors, but only find a number of children playing kick-the-can under the streetlight!

Mr Cox rushes off behind the house to search for his missing residents, when Ben sees a little boy who looks just like Charles did in his youth!

TZ321-6Ben realizes that his friend was right, and pleads with Charles to let him play too. But the boy merely looks upon Ben as a stranger, and he and the other kids rush off into the night, their voices echoing on the wind.

Sadly, Ben finds the discarded tin can, and realizes that his mindset has doomed him to be what he claimed to be: an old man…one who has now lost one of the last friends he had.

As Ben walks back to the now-empty house, Rod Serling delivers the closing monologue:

“Sunnyvale Rest, a dying place for people who have forgotten the fragile magic of youth. A dying place for those who have forgotten that childhood, maturity and old age, are curiously intertwined and not separate. A dying place for those who have grown too stiff in their thinking, to visit…The Twilight Zone.”

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Over the course of it’s 5 seasons, The Twilight Zone would sometimes deal with the topics of youth, and age. Out of all of them, Kick the Can could probably be considered one of the most treacly of them all.

For much of the episode, the Camera never strays very far from Charles Whitley. Ernest Truex’s role definitely has some small memorable moments, but for much of the episode, one can’t help but wonder if Charles really has mentally started to lose his grip on reality. It could be easy to imagine that his talk about children’s games and magic keeping one young, is him trying to come to terms with the thought that he is never going to leave Sunnyvale Rest. Even so, Charles’ attempts to wish for something innocent is rewarded, and does not backfire on him like in some of the episodes, where wishing for vengeance or selfish desires, backfires on a number of “adult” figures.

Speaking of adult figures, Charles’ friend Ben is front-and-center as the “cantankerous old man” in the episode. However, he is not totally without heart. There is still the friendship he and Charles share, and he almost acts like a big brother figure at times. This comes to mind when he tries to get Charles to “act normally,” lest Mr Cox and the home’s nurse isolate Charles because of his actions.

The episode was written by George Clayton Johnson, a science fiction writer who seemed to write about age and time quite a bit. Along with writing an additional eight episodes of The Twilight Zone, he co-wrote the screenplay to Logan’s Run, in which a man tries to escape his societal fate, once he turns 30 years old.

In 1983, Kick the Can got a second chance at life, when Steven Spielberg directed a more up-to-date version of the story, for his portion of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie.

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A scene from the Kick the Can segment, from Twilight Zone: The Movie.

In this version of the story (also written by the original episode’s writer), the magic of playing kick-the-can is brought to the Sunnyvale Rest Home in Florida, by a man known as Mr Bloom (played by Scatman Crothers). Bloom gets a number of the old folks to play the game, but unlike the television show’s episode, the regressed elderly people still retain their memories. Though they soon wish to return to their actual ages, the chance to experience their youth again has energized them to make the most of their remaining years.

The film even attempts to do it’s own version of the Charles and Ben friendship. This comes in the form of a person named Agee, who decides not to return to his old age, and wishes to have a second chance at youthful adventure. A friend of his named Leo Conroy (Bill Crowley), who didn’t partake in the game of kick-the-can, has second thoughts and wants to to go off with Agee. However, the now-young-man tells Crowley that he cannot go with him, and he vanishes out an open window, as freely as if he were Peter Pan.

Much like it’s 1962 counterpart, the 1983 version feels much more innocent when put next to the film’s adaptations of more popular episodes like It’s a Good Life, and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

Seeing Kick the Can after all these years, makes me feel that it has slipped a few notches in my list of favorite Twilight Zone episodes, but some of what it preaches to the audience, can still be something to consider.

Even if many of us in the lasts few generations have never played a game of kick-the-can, the story’s request that we allow ourselves to not forget who we once were, can end up keeping us young, in ways that may not be seen by the naked eye.