Movie Minute: Alita, Isn’t It Romantic, and How To Train Your Dragon 3

College is hard, but not as hard as finding good movies to watch between January and April! Here are some that I’ve seen during the beginning-of-the-year movie desert.

Alita: Battle Angel

Related image      Wow, I didn’t know Christoph Waltz was making a second Big Eyes movie!

If anyone was excited for Alita: Battle Angel, it was me. Sure, I’ve never read the comic, and I’m not into anime or manga. But as far as general audiences go, I was ready to love it, because I’m a sucker for a bunch of things promised in this film. A teenage heroine in a dystopian future? Check. Oscar-winning actors in crazy costumes saying hilarious sci-fi jargon? I admit it. Trope of a scientist who goes too far in playing God? Sign me up.

But now I’ve seen it, and now I’m grumpy.

Alita: Battle Angel takes place in a dystopian future where Dr. “father figure at the ready” Ido (Christoph Waltz), a doctor/scientist/scavenger/”hunter-warrior”/Sad Man with a Sad Past™ finds the still-alive brain of a cyborg girl. He puts that brain into the conveniently pre-made cyber body he has, and when the girl, Alita (Rosa Salazar), comes to, she has no memory of her previous life and goes on a series of adventures to discover who she is.

To put it delicately: the script is bad. Real bad. There are too many characters whose arcs go nowhere, the plot is mangled and disjointed, and there is no sense of time in this film. In the first twenty minutes, we know a day has passed, and then after that, there is no sense of a timeline. How long as Alita been with Ido? How long did it take her to become a Hunter-Warrior? Has she really been with romantic interest Hugo for only two days by the time she’s literally ripping out her heart for him? It’s the halfway point of the movie, and I still have no clue the direction of the film or what it is going to be focused on. We’ve been introduced to father/daughter drama, boyfriend drama, big bad guy in the sky drama, hunter-warrior bully drama, gotta find my new sexier body drama, and motorball drama. Which direction are we going in? Oh wait, all six? All six storylines are going to be treated with equal focus so that the main storyline is super unclear and without any sense of urgency?

Well okay then.

If I was to try and find a theme or coherent storyline in this mess, I would say that the film is about all of the characters trying to force identities upon Alita. Ido wants Alita to be his replacement daughter. Hugo wants her to be his girlfriend who he may eventually scrap for parts. Gina Rodriguez wants her to be a soldier. Mahershala Ali wants her to be dead. Jennifer Conelly wants her to be dead. Edward Norton wants her to be dead (seriously, this cast is insane.) 21st Century Fox wants her to be a massive box office hit. But Alita decides to become none of those things.

Yet while all of that is in the movie, it’s not presented as I just presented it, because I don’t think writer/producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez actually see anything wrong with the way the other characters treat Alita. I see the empowerment coming from her asserting her own identity and redefining her relationships with people on her own terms. They see the “empowerment” angle as coming from her beating people up. 

But hey, maybe this whole movie was worth it for the sheer spectacle of watching a scene where, and I’m not kidding, Christoph Waltz is cradling the decapitated, talking head of Alita, and walks past his character’s ex-wife, played Jennifer Connelly, who smirks and says, “you can’t bring our daughter back.” End of scene. I can never unsee it.

Isn’t It Romantic

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Aspiring to be the Deadpool of romcoms, Isn’t It Romantic suffers from being very ill-timed. A film about a cynical, modern woman trapped in a romantic comedy, it delivers a meta-commentary of the genre as it was twenty-five years ago. The film’s loving critique comes only from films that were made between the 1990s and early 2000s. That would have been fine a few years ago, but we’re currently in a new, more diverse and inclusive romcom renaissance with the likes of The Big Sick, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Crazy Rich Asians. So while the throwbacks are fun, they don’t feel relevant, putting the entire movie’s premise on a bit of an outdated and uninspired note.

But for what this movie is, it is unabashedly fun. The musical numbers are delightful, the message is easy but sweet, and Rebel Wilson is a capable leading lady with this perfect supporting cast. It’s a rental, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it put a smile on my face… and made me want to go watch my favorite romcom.*

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

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The How To Train Your Dragon movies weren’t a pivot part of my childhood like some fans of the series. I saw the first one in theaters and liked it, but didn’t like the second one as much. I’ve always had great respect for the franchise and how revolutionary it was in the animation world, but never truly got why it is so beloved. 

But when I went to go see this film on a whim, with zero expectations, I suddenly understood why people were such hardcore fans of these films. Because they’re awesome.

The animation, score, action sequences, and the characters? Breathtaking, detailed, and compelling. This movie is able to have an epic scale but an intimate narrative. I was particularly surprised that the message of HTTYD3 basically boils down to: part of becoming a man means committing to your loved ones and settling down. I know the audience for this franchise has grown up alongside it, but there is a lot of nuanced (and funny) conversations about responsibility, marriage, and family here that are not only rare for a movie aimed at families but especially for a movie starring a male lead. Hiccup has always been a wonderful role model, but I was reminded just how revolutionary and inspiring his brand of compassionate and empathetic heroism is. He’s a true leader in a way that I think is still rare to find in blockbusters.

Even if you haven’t seen these movies in a while, or only saw the first one, I think you can still go into this movie cold and enjoy it, and I highly recommend you do.

 

*13 Going on 30. And if you disagree with me, a friendly reminder that this film stars Elektra, the Hulk, Captain Marvel, Ulysses Klaw, Ant-Man’s ex-wife Maggie, and Silver Fox from X-Men. It’s an MCU movie, confirmed.

It’s Just Okay! Captain Marvel

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To the tune of “God Bless the U.S.A” by Lee Greenwood, starting at the second verse:

Brie Larson won an Oscar, and one of the directors is a girl

So all of the problematic lady stuff, from Marvel will become unfurled

From Natasha to Wanda, and Okoye and Shuri

There’s pride in every fangirl’s heart, and it’s time we stand and say

That I’m proud to be a woman, for at least I know I’m free

To punch a man in the face, Carol gave that right to me

And I’d gladly stand up next to her, to defend our right to say

Don’t tell me to smile, she paved the way

It’s International Women’s Day!

If you were singing something along those lines going into Captain Marvel this weekend, then you were exactly where Kevin Feige and Marvel studios wanted you to be. Promoted as the response to Wonder Woman and a form of self-flagellation for the fact that Marvel has made 21 movies, 11 of which star white guys named Chris, it’s still sad that the studio is only now is getting around to making one with a woman. However, it hasn’t been easy. Captain Marvel has been plagued by online trolls, misinterpreted statements by its outspoken lead actress, and a boycott, not to mention ridiculous expectations put on it by critics and fans alike.

So after all of this build up, how is Captain Marvel? Is it our new modern third-wave feminist The Feminine Mystique? Does it give me any clues to which superheroes will and won’t stay dead during Avengers: Endgame so I may finally find peace? Will seeing Carol Danvers fly finally inspire me to live my life to the fullest and/or hit the gym?

Well, I am here to report that Captain Marvel is: fine. Hooray!

Ok, let’s break this down. To begin with, the epidemic that I’ve been growing weary of for a while now is that all Marvel heroes have the same personality. They’re all cool, calm, collected, and witty. If you watch the first Avengers film, sure, all the characters could be funny, but they were funny in different ways. And their personalities and values were different. Now, if I read the script of Avengers: Infinity War with the character names missing, there would be too many times I would guess a line was said by a different character because everyone’s dialogue sounds the same.

Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) here is witty, cool, collected, and calm. She is hyper-competent, which is now a requirement for all heroines, and her personality is so limited to what the plot requires of it that it’s hard to imagine what she would do on a free Saturday night. There are quiet moments in the film that give Larson something to play with, but they are too small and infrequent to make me feel that I’m not watching Captain America with a side of Tony Stark snark.

Counterbalancing this, though, is an excellent and vibrant supporting cast. Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson have excellent chemistry (this is their third film together), and I particularly liked Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau, Carol’s best friend. Their friendship was sweet on screen, and at one point in the movie, as Carol is having a moment of personal doubt, Maria reminds her who she is, affirms her, and then they hug. And I realized that this is the first time I’d seen this kind of female friendship in an action superhero movie before. Hugging my girlfriends and affirming them is something I, and many women do, every day, but I finally got to see it on screen. And it was just as awesome as seeing Carol burst into flames and save the world, which was also pretty cool.

On a more technical side, while I don’t usually point out editing, I have to talk about it here. Marvel movies, at least ones not directed by the Russos, generally have quick and choppy editing in the fight scenes. But here, it feels extra insulting, not just because the action scenes are poorly cut to the point where it feels like the directors just didn’t want to think of more action for the character to do, but because Brie Larson trained nine months for this role, is ripped, and did most of her own stunts, and you can barely tell here. #GiveUsGratituousShotsOfBrie’sRippedArms.

The plot is convoluted, which causes the movie to have whiplash pacing and become distracted from being a character study. For example, one of the darkest aspects of the film is the fact that Carol was, basically, abducted, gaslit, and brainwashed to be formed in her captor’s image. While addressed in the film, what could have been an intensely emotional moment and a defining trauma for Carol, her Uncle Ben if you will, is handled with such stoicism and almost casualness that the revelation barely qualifies as a turning point for Carol, and is a completely missed opportunity because instead we gotta spend time setting up alien characters for future movies.

Ultimately, the most disorienting thing about Captain Marvel is that it tries to go two different directions, and ultimately does neither. The first is that it wants to be a very obvious “girl-power” movie, but it contains very little of the female experience. It tries to have some, like Carol being asked by a random man to smile, (a ridiculously perfect foreshadowing of  what was to come) and her being told she’s too emotional. But these things feel much more like Womanhood 101, and not very deep. The second is that it is a very standard Marvel movie that doesn’t drift from formula. If it had committed to being a Marvel movie that could, in theory, have been played by a man and been exactly the same, then that could have been an interesting statement on why we put emphasis on female superheroes at all. It would have answered the immortal question of, “Hey, why shouldn’t women have a mediocre superhero movie to call their own?”

In the end, we have a movie that is neither an interesting examination on how being a woman would make one a different kind of a superhero from a male one, nor do we get a superhero movie that could be led by any of, say, the Marvel Chrises. We get something that’s pretty mediocre. So to be honest, I’m disappointed. There were plenty of scenes and things I liked, but it adds up to a movie I probably won’t remember the majority of in a few weeks. But despite that, I still think it’s worth seeing if you keep up with the Marvel movies, or even if you have already decided you want to see it. It stands alone well enough that you can enjoy it without needing to have any previous Marvel backstory. I want it to do well at the box office, mostly just to spite trolls.

Near the end of the film, Carol says to an antagonist, “I have nothing to prove to you,” which may ultimately be the best way to think of the movie. It doesn’t need to be a roaring success to justify its existence. Carol Danvers has nothing to prove, and neither do female-led superhero movies. So let’s raise the bar for everyone, without using it to keep others down.

-Madeleine D