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Posts Tagged ‘Mahershala Ali’

The legend of Robert Rodriguez began with the circumstances surrounding the making of his first film, El Mariachi, over twenty years ago now. Rodriguez said he only had a guitar case and a tortoise and so was obliged to make the best of what he had available. One suspects he was being somewhat disingenuous but it was generally accepted that the whole film was made on a budget of about $7,000, some of which the writer-director supposedly raised by allowing experimental medical research to be done on him. The path from a $7,000 micro-budget thriller to a $200 million special-effects blockbuster is probably not a well-trodden one, but here Rodriguez is, in charge of the long-gestating film adaptation of Battle Angel: Alita. (This project was overseen for a long time by Jim Cameron, who eventually departed as director when the umpty-tump Avatar sequels in the works demanded too much of his attention, and Rodriguez apparently insisted on a change of name to Alita: Battle Angel because Cameron’s last two films beginning with an A were massive critical and popular successes.)

Quite early on in Alita: Battle Angel one gets either a comforting sense of being in familiar territory or a sinking feeling that the film is just a load of repurposed old spare parts. We are in another one of those post-apocalyptic futures, some time in the 26th century, with most of the Earth laid waste by interplanetary war. One vast floating city has endured, and living in its shadow a grimy, lawless sprawl has sprung up, the population trapped in poverty, kept docile by watching violent combat sports, and all dreaming of a better life in the sky-metropolis.

One of the locals is cyber-surgeon and part-time bounty-hunter Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who while picking over the junkheap beneath the sky-city discovers a preserved human brain in a cybernetic skull. He pops this into a full-body prosthetic chassis and the result is Alita (Rosa Salazar), a saucer-eyed waif with (naturally) superhuman reflexes, agility and ass-whupping skills. Alita has movie amnesia, presumably as a result of spending many decades as a brain in a can.

Well, it eventually turns out that someone is after Alita, who finds herself involved in various bounty-hunting exploits and a big set-piece sequence concerning the sport of Motorball, which is basically a gladiatorial variation on roller-boogie. Alita gets a love interest in the form of the non-threatening Hugo (Keann Johnson), and together they recycle many favourite old lines from the Big Book of Old Sci-Fi Chestnuts – ‘Does it matter that I’m not human?’ ‘You’re the most human person I know’, etc – during lulls in the plot. But what is Alita’s mysterious past? Who is her enigmatic nemesis? What is his beef with her, and just what is she prepared to do to stop him?

There are many things to be said about Alita: Battle Angel, but probably the most significant one is that after 122 minutes, with the closing credits rolling in front of me, I still really had no clue about the answers to most of these questions. The screenplay doesn’t contain a plot so much as a collection of scenes roughly connected to one another, without much sense of focus or direction. Obviously this is a comic book adaptation, and it does feel like one – in some of the more cartoony elements of the story, but also in the way that the writers have clearly taken a huge corpus of stories, concepts, ideas, and characters and tried to include every single one of their favourites in a single script. The film strains to accommodate all of them, and one of the things that gets pushed out is traditional narrative development and structure.

A good point of reference for Alita would be Ghost in the Shell from a couple of years ago – both big-budget effects-driven American-made adaptations of Japanese manga, with a cybernetic heroine having an identity crisis, although Alita seems to have dodged the usual wave of venom about whitewashing (the word ‘adaptation’ just doesn’t register sometimes, it would seem). Ghost in the Shell is apparently considered a box office bomb, and regular readers will recall I did predict the same fate in store for Alita, a forecast I am not inclined to alter having seen the finished film. If you’re going to spend $200 million on a movie, you need to be pretty sure that audiences are going to turn out in force to see it (ideally several times each), and there doesn’t seem to be that much excitement about Alita: Battle Angel.

(Given that Jim Cameron’s career has often revolved around his gambling large sums of money making projects that industry insiders and commentators were vocally dubious about, which then went on to be immensely successful, one wonders if this has been a factor in his being able to get Alita funded. If so, I suspect the backers are in for a nasty shock this time.)

Certainly the film is light on all the things that a film needs to have in order to justify such a large budget – the story is not well-known outside the cult ghetto, and the well-known faces who appear in it are really character actors in supporting roles (in addition to Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali turn up in unrewarding, mostly-villainous parts). Ghost in the Shell didn’t make an impact despite the fact it prominently featured Scarlett Johansson in a body stocking (if they’d actually called the movie Scarlett Johansson in a Body Stocking I suspect it might have done better business), and I am not sure a heavily CGI-modified version of the comparatively little-known Rosa Salazar will have quite as much appeal.

Seriously, one of the questionable decisions Cameron and Rodriguez have gone for is the one to put Salazar’s performance through the computer and turn her into something not entirely unakin to Gollum, but with better skin and hair. Quite apart from whether the CGI is photo-realistic or not (I still don’t think we’re quite there yet), someone with eyes quite so big is just intrusive and distracting, and a constant reminder that you’re watching a big effects movie – it just makes the film less immersive. Salazar’s actual performance is functional – she possibly overdoes the breathless innocent bit in the early part of the film, but copes reasonably well with many scenes where they weigh down a bit too heavily on the exposition and back story pedals. The central romance remains thoroughly unimpressive, though.

The film is not outright bad, but it only really shows signs of life and energy when it comes to the action sequences – the highlight is probably the Motorball match, which manages to be genuinely exciting despite all the CGI, even in 3D. But even here Alita is seldom really exceptional, and once again I just can’t see it cutting through to make much of an impact on the cinema landscape today. Every time I go to an SF film with this much hype around it – as previously noted, the publicity for Alita has been inescapable – I’m hoping for that extraordinary, giddy sense of being taken to a world totally unlike any I’ve seen before, and the accompanying feeling of breathless delight. This almost never happens – obviously it happened with the first stellar conflict movie, and also with The Matrix and to some extent with Inception. But most films inevitably fall short, and just prove to be a bit too obviously derivative or lacking in the basic storytelling virtues. Alita: Battle Angel is obviously the work of people with a high level of technical proficiency, but it isn’t the work of original, visionary brilliance that its publicity appears to be suggesting it is – certainly not to the point where it excuses poor storytelling. It’s okay – but no more than that.

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I expect I have spoken in the past of the way in which film trailers tend to get shown before movies with which they have a certain something in common, mainly because this is where they are most likely to find a receptive audience and actually do their job of making people go to see the film they’re advertising. So in a weird way I can sometimes get a sense of how much I’m going to enjoy a film from the trailers that run before it – if they all look pretty appetising, I can be more sure I’ve made a good choice. Ones that provoke a mutter of ‘Not even if you paid me…’ set alarm bells ringing. So, when I was treated in one session to the promotional material for Instant Family, Fisherman’s Friends, On the Basis of Sex and If Beale Street Could Talk, all of which look likely to be either glutinously sentimental or tediously earnest, my wariness about Peter Farrelly’s Green Book was only increased. (We also got the trailer for Alita: Battle Angel, but this doesn’t count as the Alita trailer is being shown before literally everything possible – I sense panic is setting in and the studio suspects they have a bomb on their hands, but I guess that’s what happens when you base a $200 million-plus movie on an relatively obscure manga and then release it in February.)

green_book

Green Book is supposedly one of those marginally-true stories, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. The film is set in the early 1960s and Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, a slightly shady New York wise guy who – as the film opens – is working as a brutally efficient nightclub bouncer. (You have to hand it to Viggo when it comes to landing roles he doesn’t initially sound quite right for. The man is Danish, after all, and would not be, you’d think, anyone’s first choice to play Italian-American. But we should bear in mind Mortensen’s track record in performing roles of wildly varied ethnic backgrounds with great aplomb: Spanish, native American, Amish, Dunedain – this man can do them all.)

Anyway, when the club briefly closes, Tony is obliged to find a new source of income, and after a short stint participating in eating contests for money, he lands a job as driver, fixer, and general factotum for the concert pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Obviously there is the potential for a personality clash here – Tony is a streetwise, amoral, crude, profane, somewhat racist family man, while Don is cultured, restrained, fastidious, African-American and a confirmed bachelor. However, tensions between the two are secondary to those they may encounter on the road – for Tony is to accompany Dr Shirley on a tour of the deep south of the United States, where segregation is still a fact of everyday life and bigotry is openly on display. Before departing, Tony is handed a copy of the ‘Green Book’ – a list of the hotels and restaurants which African-Americans are allowed to use…

I should say that Green Book went on my list of films to look out for the first time I saw the trailer last year, but as the release got closer I must confess I grew increasingly cynical about it and moderated my expectations quite significantly. I realised that I already had a pretty good idea of the way this one was going to play out, down to some of the specific beats of the story: the two men would initially fail to connect with each other, but slowly, over the course of the film, a bond would develop in the face of the racism they encountered every day. Tony would become a better, more open-minded and tolerant man as a result of Don’s influence; Don, meanwhile, would be revealed to have some personal issues of his own, which Tony would help him begin to deal with. In the end there would be an uplifting message of friendship and acceptance of difference.

And, do you know what? I was entirely correct in this. (I shouldn’t take too much credit for this predictive feat, as most of the story is implicit in the trailer.) I feel I should also point at that the quote, prominently featured in the publicity, ‘Like no other movie’, presumably came from someone wholly unfamiliar with any of the numerous odd-couple buddy road movies of years gone by. But, and this is more important, the thing is that this actually really doesn’t matter at all.

Before going any further, it’s probably worth mentioning that many commentators have criticised Green Book on the same kind of grounds that I was thinking along: it is really just sanitised comfort-food for liberals and progressives, it skates over just how ugly and oppressive life under the Jim Crow laws was, it is even another example of the White Saviour narrative trope (according to some people, anyway). I am not in a position to say that any of this is definitely untrue.

But what does seem to me to be the case is that this is a charming, solidly-made film that never overtly seems to be preaching to the audience, never feels like it’s shying away from uncomfortable historical truths, and – most importantly – is driven along by two genuinely terrific performances from charismatic actors.

Viggo Mortensen holds the unique distinction of being the only actor that I know of to get his picture put up on my mother’s bedroom wall. This happened rather late in life for both of them, around the time that Mortensen enjoyed his highest profile due to his role in The Lord of the Rings (a film for which he was a piece of last-minute replacement casting). His rather chequered career before visiting Middle-Earth, and the fact he hasn’t been that prominent in big movies since then, might lead you to assume that this was a fluke, but even a brief look at the man makes it clear that simply being a Hollywood movie star is not something that really interests him very much – he is also a poet, musician, photographer, artist and author (in addition to speaking about seven languages, not counting Sindarin). It looks like he only makes the movies that really interest him.

This is great for Mortensen, I expect, but a bit of a shame for the rest of us, because what Green Book really underlines is that he is a genuinely great and compelling actor, entirely capable of carrying a substantial mainstream movie (I suppose his multiple Oscar, Bafta and SAG nominations might also tip one off to this). There is, as I say, the fact that Mortensen doesn’t really look especially Italian-American, but apart from this he is effortlessly convincing, and not afraid to be unsympathetic at the start of the film. One can only hope that we see more of him in future (it would make my mum happy too), but I suppose that depends on people sending him decent scripts. Fingers crossed.

Mahershala Ali is one of those actors who seems to have popped up almost from nowhere in recent years, having built a career on a series of smartly-chosen, well-executed performances. His place in history was secured when he became the first Muslim American actor to win an Oscar (for his early-exit role in Moonlight), and he now shows every sign of becoming the go-to guy for dignity, poise, and self-respect (he’s also in Alita, but a guy’s got to eat). The joy of this film is the chemistry between Tony and Don, and it really does feel like the focus is firmly on the two of them as individuals, although inevitably issues of race and culture do get raised as the story progresses.

So, in the end, yes, Green Book is a very predictable movie – but the story was such an engaging and well-crafted one that I really didn’t care, I was having such a good time with these two characters on their journey. This isn’t a particularly radical film, or an obviously angry one, but it’s a hopeful one with a positive message. It may well just be comfort food for white liberals, but it’s comfort food for white liberals that has come from a very classy kitchen.

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Here’s one for pub quiz fiends: which Best Picture Oscar-winning film made the least money at the box office? The answer is, of course, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. How about this one: which Best Picture Oscar-winning film was made for the lowest budget? Now here we come to a bit of a wrinkle, as, in terms of your actual dollars, Marty (1955) was made for only $350,000, but allowing for inflation over the last sixty years, in today’s money it would set you back $3.2 million. If you take inflation into account, then the most financially prudent winner of the big prize is this year’s recipient, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight.

Yup, I know I very confidently said it was going to be La La Land, but then so did everyone else, and it just goes to show that in showbiz nobody knows nothing. The question, of course, is whether Moonlight really counts as showbiz or not? Certainly the Oscars won by this film have propelled it to a level of prominence one would not have normally associated with a film on this scale or concerning this kind of subject matter.

This is a film in three parts, concerning the life of a young black man living in an underprivileged part of Florida. As the film opens, Little (Alex Hibbert) is hiding from a gang of bullies in a derelict house (the implication is that this is a crack den). Here he is discovered by local crack kingpin Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes a shine to the lad and becomes a sort of mentor to him, unlikely though that seems. Little’s mother (Naomie Harris) is not best pleased by this, but the issue is complicated by the fact she is one of Juan’s customers herself.

Things don’t get any easier for the lad as he grows older, and by the time he is a teenager, now going by his given name of Chiron (and now played by Ashton Sanders), his mother has become a full-blown addict and he is being viciously bullied at school. He is also struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality, which is outside the acceptable norms of the local street culture. Fleeting moments of happiness are accompanied by long periods of quiet despair.

And, of course, there’s a third act, in which Chiron has become an adult, adopted the street name Black and is now a fairly successful crack dealer himself (by this point he has grown up into Trevante Rhodes). Outwardly he seems to have successfully reinvented himself, but an unexpected contact with an old acquaintance opens the door to a lot of unfinished business…

Yeah, so this is a serious drama about a black gay crack dealer, so not something that would usually hurtle to the top of my list of things to see (it’s just too mainstream, I guess). To the credit of the audience who went to the same weekday lunchtime showing that I do, nobody actually walked out or started throwing things at the screen, but I really strongly doubt that most of them would have been there had the movie not had that priceless Best Picture imprimatur about it (I have a horrible suspicion that many conversations along the lines of, ‘This beat La La Land to best picture (eventually)! We loved La La Land! This must be even better! Let’s go and see it!’ preceded trips out to the film). It’s the kind of film that usually has ‘art-house darling’ written all over it.

And never let it be said that people who go to art-house cinemas don’t have taste, for Moonlight is an involving drama, clearly made with great thoughtfulness and care. The central gimmick of the lead character being played by three different performers doesn’t even feel particularly gimmicky, nor does the structure of the film (it has chapter headings, but no title card until the very end) seem too affected. It’s hardly a barrel of laughs, but then I don’t think it was ever intended to be.

What the film seems to be about is… well, I’m minded to be a little cautious here, for despite the fact this film emanates from the present-day USA, it is nevertheless from a culture (or indeed a set of cultures) which are not my own, and thus deserving of the same sort of respect I’d give a movie from Asia or one of the remoter parts of Europe. You get the idea. Anyway, it seems to me that this is not so much a film which is simply about a black gay crack dealer, but about an essential crisis when it comes to black identity in the United States.

The film’s thesis appears to be that the dominant image of manhood for most underprivileged black men is that of the successful  gangster, and that this is source of their underachievement and tendency to become involved in criminality (the characters in the film appear to take it for granted that going to prison is just one of those things that happens in the life of a young black man). This issue is compounded for non-heterosexual black men, naturally. Certainly, it’s Juan who becomes Chiron’s mentor and (almost) surrogate father, and it’s telling that when he becomes an adult Chiron has remade himself very much in Juan’s image: he doesn’t seem to have any alternative available to him. (The film is subtle enough not to deal in simplicities here – Juan is not some simple gangster stereotype, but one of the most appealing and sympathetic characters in the film.)

And, by the way, it may be that the film has a point about the image of the black male in the American media – Mahershala Ali’s performance is extremely good, but I couldn’t help thinking I’d seen it before, for his early-exit turn as a somewhat conflicted crime boss in Moonlight was preceded by his early-exit turn as a somewhat conflicted crime boss in the Luke Cage TV series. The archetypes, not to mention the stereotypes, are deeply embedded. It’s a complex issue, however, though Moonlight handles it with a thoughtfulness and imagination I’d only previously seen in back issues of Green Lantern: Mosaic from 1992.

In the end… was this film honestly intended to work solely as a piece of entertainment on any level? I’m not sure. Nevertheless, Moonlight is assured of some kind of place in history, and not just because of the low budget or Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway faffing about with the envelope, but as the first film with an all-black cast and a gay theme to win the Oscar for Best Picture (no, Brokeback Mountain didn’t win; it was Crash that year, apparently). Whether this is simply a case of virtue-signalling by the voters, or the result of people wanting to support a film with some significance at an important moment in US history (rather than Damien Chazelle’s lighter-than-air crowd-pleaser), I don’t know: much as I respect this film and find it admirable, and appreciate the skill and delicacy with which it handles some unpromising subject matter, I think I would have found myself voting for La La Land, to be honest (or Silence, had it been in contention). But that’s just me. We can probably spend all day going round and round about whether it should have won and indeed why, but the fact remains that it did, and it is by no means unworthy of the honour.

 

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