Join us for our somewhat belated recap of the films September threw at us, namely It: Chapter 2, The Farewell, Mirai, and Alita Battle Angel. We watch them so you don’t have to, unless they are good or you otherwise want to see them, gosh, I’m not your dad, chill out.
It: Chapter 2
Two years ago, you may remember that Supposedly Scary Clown Fever stalked the land as It: Retroactively Chapter 1 became wildly successful, for Lord knows what reason. Now we have the second half of that story, and, well, if the first film was at least an hour too long, the outing means that as a gestalt it’s four hours too long.
The kiddywinks of the Losers Club, while all returning in various flashbacks and the like, are in the main represented by their near thirty years older incarnations, with an admittedly promising cast containing the likes of Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Bill Hader taking the focus as they discover that Pennywise is up to his old murderous tricks again and resolve to return to Derry and kill him. Again. Poor Bill Skarsgård.
In fact, the overall high level structure of the film is so close to that of the previous film, right up to how Pennywise is dealt with, that there’s not all that much point going into it in any more detail.
Now, for maybe ten minutes, there’s a setup that looks like it might be kind of clever. It opens with an absolutely horrendous assault on two guys by a group of homophobes that’s quite shocking, with Pennywise just showing up a little later, as though perhaps it’s going to be more of a force that’s inciting others to violence rather than direct scary clown action.
That, however, it immediately discarded in favour of a big ol’ pile of CG garbage that look laughable. Literally laughable. I laughed. A lot. Which was cool, but this is supposed to be scary, and not more akin to something The Asylum would reject as looking a bit too pony.
And, well so it goes, and goes, and goes, and I didn’t care about a damn minute of it. Now, it’s not one hundred percent dumpster fire, as, well, as mentioned it’s a solid, likeable cast, both young and old, and for Stephen King’s many faults as a writer he can produce solid characters and interactions, and there’s a few moments when the CG treadmills are shut down and some of that can play out, to reasonably enjoyable results.
However, that’s a few drops of joy in a torrent of untreated sewage. It’s so bad at points I think they’re trying to treat it as a joke, but we must be vigilant and not let them away with this. I’m sure there’s been worse films than this released this year, but I’ve not seen any of them. If you’ve not already been suckered into watching it, stay well away from it. Not even worth pirating.
I hadn’t heard of The Farewell before I saw it: it was one of CIneworld’s Unlimited screenings, I was in the mood for a film, and after a brief Google suggested it was a heart-warming comedy drama set in a culture with which I’m not particularly familiar, I thought, “yeah, why not, that’ll do, could be interesting”.
Certainly those around me in the cinema seemed to be enjoying it, even despite the lower half of the second row of subtitles being cut off by an incorrectly-aimed projector. Me, on the other hand? It’s a long time since a film made me this angry. (And, no, it wasn’t the subtitles.)
Beginning in New York but set mostly in Changchun in China, The Farewell is based on real-life experiences of director Lulu Wang. Billi (Awkwafina) is struggling in her career as a writer. It’s a stressful time but one of her crutches is the close relationship she has with her grandmother in China, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), with whom she talks by phone very regularly.
Going to visit her parents in New York one day, she discovers a very sombre mood and demands to be told what the problem is. She’s eventually told that Nai Nai has lung cancer. Not that they were going to tell Billi, though, beginning a whole series of absolute asshat humans lying to, directly or by omission, people in their family that they claim to care about.
And why weren’t they going to tell Billi, someone they know has an extremely close relationship with her grandmother? Because they’re not telling the grandmother either, and they didn’t believe that Billi would have the necessary lack of being a decent human to effectively sell the lie. This lie, incidentally, being that Nai Nai’s fine and that Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao, is returning to China from Japan to get married, and all of the family are gathering to celebrate. The wedding seems to be real (and therefore legal, so sucks to be the poor, non-Chinese speaking Japanese girlfriend of Hao Hao somehow roped into this sham, I guess), but its purpose is not to unite two people in love (they may well be, but they’ve only been together a few months and it’s clearly not their choice) but to be with Nai Nai as they watch her die without telling her that she’s even ill. (Nai Nai being a moron is a secondary problem I’m not going to bother getting into).
Everyone’s in on this: friends, children, extended family, the entire fecking medical profession. Why Nai Nai, the patient, is never told of her condition and why the doctors instead talk only to her younger sister is left a mystery. (Nai Nai’s not feeble or of reduced mental capacity or anything, by the way. She’s just your regular granny.) Clearly they do they things differently in China, and by different here I mean “in a manner completely at odds with that which would be ethical”.
This deeply unethical behaviour is even directly addressed in the film, with Billi’s father pointing out that keeping this information from the patient would be not just impossible in the US, it would be illegal. And for good reason, because IT’S FUCKING IMMORAL! There’s a really pathetic attempt at justification of this later, with Billi’s uncle (Jiang Yongbo), spouting some nonsense about how in the West people are individuals and in the East it’s different and that the larger whole is more important. There are many cultural differences in this wide world, with different emphasis put on different matters all over. And that’s fine. But some things are just wrong, regardless of whether it’s the cultural norm or not. And telling your mother she just has a bad cold, and illegally buying cancer medication off the internet based on something you read to give her under the guise of them being vitamins, is definitely one of those things.
“You can’t criticise China, you’re Chinese” Nai-Nai tells her family at one point. Not in the “you can’t, you’ll go to jail” way. Rather that you shouldn’t, you mustn’t, it’s unthinkable. Not only is this mind-bendingly stupid, if anyone has the right to criticise China it’s Chinese. And if ever a country was deserving of criticism then China is right up there. Curiously enough, though (and while this is an American film it clearly required a lot of Chinese cooperation) there’s plenty to suggest that Wang is, indeed, criticising China, at least in an oblique manner, though frustratingly not the issue at the heart of the film.
Around, under and behind all of this is what ought to be that touching family comedy-drama that is what so many other people seem to have got from The Farewell, and that’s the reason I don’t actually hate this film. There’s a believable family dynamic (the love and the sniping), issues of identity (particularly as a child of two cultures), some humour and enough of those really enjoyable insights into other cultures where you can see all of the “well, that’s very different” and “wow, not how we do it” moments mixed in with all of the ways in which we are so very similar.
And then you have the “humorous” montage of Hao Hao drunk and crying uncontrollably at his own wedding. Why is that? Oh, yeah, BECAUSE HE HAS JUST SORT OF FAKE-MARRIED A POOR WOMAN HE BARELY KNOWS AND HIS BELOVED GRANDMOTHER IS RIGHT NEXT TO HIM, DYING FROM CANCER!
Had the central conceit been a point for discussion then this could actually have been really interesting, but everyone, even those initially against it, fully buys in eventually, and not just because of the family politics and the certain ostracisation that would result. And then there’s a coda that either tries to justify the decisions taken or renders them moot, I’m not sure which.
It’s well-directed and very well-acted, Awkwafina in particular, and the composition of scenes is often fantastic, but watching The Farewell is an awful experience as virtually everyone in it is a terrible person, though the film acts otherwise. I’m a few weeks removed from this, now, and I’m still salty about it. Surprisingly, then, it’s not one that I recommend.
Mirai is Studio Chizu, and director Mamoru “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” Hosoda’s latest film, and by that I mean he directed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, not that he is a girl who leapt through time, although it’s a fast moving world and it’s hard to keep up, especially as there’s a girl in Mirai who sort of leaps in time. I’m confused, let’s start over.
Mirai is, for me at least, a bit of a hard one to recap in any meaningful way that wouldn’t require about as long to describe as it would to watch it. I think the best I can say is that it concerns the growing pains of the Oda family, centred on Kun, their firstborn son, and his troubles adjusting at the ripe old age of four when he’s joined by new younger sister, Mirai.
While he does become jealous of the attention lavished on the newborn, he’s given some reassurance from an unlikely source. After playing around the tree this father designed their house around, a strangely clothed gentleman claiming to be the Prince of the house, turning out to be the anthropomorphic spirit of their dog Yukko, helps him gain some perspective on current events.
And to a degree that’s the format of the film – various largely entirely ordinary domestic flashpoints cause Kun to take another acid trip, where he meets or simply views various ancestors, often shepherded by the spirit of Mirai from the future.
At the risk, perhaps of sounding like I’m diminishing it a bit, there’s not a tremendous amount more to it narratively speaking, and perhaps even thematically speaking, other, perhaps than “raising kids is tricky, eh?”. What it does have, in overwhelming quantity, is charm, and it’s a very easy and emotional watch.
It helps, of course that it looks so good, with lovely fluid animation that’s occasionally marred by the CG backgrounds and such not quite marrying with the more traditional looking animation. But that’s a minor thing, and is barely worth mentioning. This is the first non-Ghibli anime film to receive an Academy Award nomination, and for once they’re doing something right.
Speaking of, while this isn’t on the same level as the master at Ghibli, this, at least, gives me some hope that Miyazaki isn’t completely correct in that comment that “Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people … It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans”. Studios Chizu and Ponoc, at the very least, seem more than willing and able to carry the humanity forward if Miyazaki does actually retire at some point.
So, yes, gorgeous and charming and has all the feelz, or at the very least 90% of the feelz. As highly recommended as anything I’ve seen this year, I’d say.
Alita Battle Angel
Sometimes a filmmaker becomes associated with a particular work, often an adaptation, and they struggle for years, even decades, to bring it to fruition. Such things are often called “pet project” or “labour of love”. And sometimes a filmmaker becomes associated with a project that, while the fans may be fired up, is clearly something that they might fancy doing, maybe, at some point, possibly, and will, perhaps, noodle around with it a little every few years, usually in-between working on the stuff they actually care about. Despite James Cameron’s 20 year association with Alita: Battle Angel this film is clearly the latter, and it shows.
Based on Yukito Kushiro’s 1990s manga, and inexplicably changed in name from the objectively better original translation of Battle Angel Alita, Cameron’s script (co-written with Laeta Kalogridis) has been handed off to Robert Rodriguez to finally bring this long-gestating adaptation to the screen.
It’s the 26th century, and 300 years after “The Fall”, that wonderfully nebulous sci-fi shorthand for “everything went to shit and we don’t want to write the backstory”. Our action begins in Iron City (based on Panama City), a bustling cyberpunk metropolis whose industries exist to serve the gigantic Zalem, last of the “sky cities”, which hovers above it. Amongst Iron City’s residents is Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Dyson Ido, cybernetics expert and part-time vacuum-cleaner repairman. Scavenging one day for parts, Ido discovers the head and partial torso of a cyborg, with an intact, living human brain inside. Well, I say “discover”, which is really giving Ido considerably more credit than he deserves: this cyborg, this three hundred year-old super-advanced cyborg, is simply lying on top of a pile of scrap, out in the open, with nary even a smidgen of dust. This is our first inkling that this film does not understand time. This will become a problem.
Ido takes the cyborg home, where he just happens to have a fully functioning, perfectly-sized cyborg body ready to donate to her that he had made for his dead daughter. He gives the body, and his daughter’s name, Alita, to the cyborg, who, on waking, turns out to have an extensive vocabulary, perfect speech but, in that narratively-convenient way, no recollection of who she is. Nor of oranges or chocolate, for some reason. Oh, and also has creepily-large eyes, an odd character design conceit that was weird and discomfiting in the trailer, and, while attenuated slightly, is still weird and discomfiting by the film’s conclusion.
Events happen quickly to Alita, and in short order she learns that Ido is also a bounty hunter – folks who now do the job of a police force (which hasn’t existed since before The Fall, but 300 years!) – that outside of the city walls everything is a wreck and all of the infrastructure was destroyed (but 300 years! Even Puerto Rico under the administration of that sociopathic orange cretin would’ve had its infrastructure fixed before then), and that she’s a Martian. And because she’s a Martian, and therefore the enemy from the battles that presumably led to The Fall, she is to be killed.
She also learns that she was a super-badass, god-level ninja cyborg Martian, and learns to reject, in a teenage angst sort of way, the parental restrictions of Doc Ido, something she can never have consented to live by nor to come to resent because this all literally happens in two days! Then there’s the boy, who she naturally comes to love in not much more time, and who we, the audience, are seemingly supposed to care about, despite the fact that he makes his living by assaulting cyborgs and stealing their body parts.
Alita must survive multiple attempts on her life, directed by a mysterious character called Nova, including via a cyborg roller derby match-cum-Star Wars Podrace, for some reason, and Jackie Earl Haley’s giant cyborg Grewishka, who calls her “Little Flea”, which is plenty irritating the first time, let alone the twelfth. All of these things awaken Alita to her badassedness and she attempts to reach Zalem, where the answers lie. And by answers, I mean sequel, because the half-hearted attempts at adding backstory and creating interest left piecemeal, and sparingly, through the film end in a great big “Please Come and See the Next Instalment” sign.
In world-building terms Alita is reasonably successful, with its Latin American architecture mixed with cyberpunk elements making for visual interest, and while some of its cyborgs may border on cartoonish there’s definitely some depth in there, with themes of extreme body modification and, at a stretch, what defines humanity, and the nuts and bolts of the world are largely coherent: we can get a reasonable idea of how the world works (just not why, given the complete lack of information about the mysterious Zalem). Sadly this is often undermined by a lack of understanding of distance to match that of time: while in wide shots the city seems vast, the action suggests it can be traversed in minutes, and that everyone knows where everything, and everyone, is.
Character and narrative-wise, though, it’s a failure. Certainly I’ve seen far worse but, really, it’s not brilliant. The film’s principal antagonist is a particular problem character in the film, because it’s a character that’s not in the film! Nova, as he is called, is absent almost entirely save a few lines spoken through other character’s mouths, and a flashback of Alita’s where another cyborg tells her, “Nova is the bad guy, mmmkay?”. Then he turns up right at the end as a silent Edward Norton in silly glasses, and my only emotion associated with the antagonist at all throughout the film turns out to be, “why is Ed Norton there?! Why have you wasted Ed Norton?!” And what ought to be the story’s centre, Alita’s exploration of what, and who she is, and what defines her as person, is hugely compressed, compounding the film’s issue with time, in order to get to the next action setpiece.
Norton is not alone, though, as Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali and Christoph Waltz are all largely squandered, thanks in large part to spectacularly insipid dialogue. Twenty years James Cameron was working on this script. Twenty.
In the end Battle Angel Alita (really, it scans so much better that way around) frustrates more than anything: it’s an interesting world in which, so far, the writers and director have failed to do anything interesting. There is so much potential for exploration here, and almost everything actually compelling is reduced, or jettisoned entirely, in favour of action sequences and tepid, vapid, tween romance. Also, it’s the 26th century and Barbie-style physiques seemingly still hold sway, even for advanced Martian robots?
I will give a nod to Robert Rodriguez, though, for his surprisingly effective attempt at horror about halfway through the film when Jai Courtney appears as a cyborg roller derby champion. He got me. He really did. He’s only in that one scene, I believe, but there could have been more and I was frightened. And that’s damn rare.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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