Alita: Battle Angel – Review

The cinematic career of filmmaker James Cameron has been a fascinating one to say the least.  He rarely outputs new films, usually just one or two a decade (especially more sparse in recent years), and yet when he does finally finish a movie, it breaks every known record imaginable at the box office.  Which is all the more remarkable considering that most of his cinematic choices are usually unconventional.  Make a sequel to a low budget action thriller with nearly quadruple the production budget and features heavy use of this new-fangled technology called CGI: welcome Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992).  Make a movie about underwater explorers and have the entire thing actually shot under water in a massive, custom built tank; hello The Abyss (1997).  Not to mention spending a then unheard of $200 million on a romantic movie set against the backdrop of the sinking of the Titanic, as well as nearly half a billion perfecting motion capture technology to have half his cast play giant blue, cat-faced aliens.  But, despite all these uncompromising visions, James Cameron still has somehow managed to defy expectations every time, and then some.  Titanic (1997) would go on to win Best Picture at the Oscars as well as become the highest grossing film in history, only to be toppled a decade later by his very next film, Avatar (2009), which is still the worldwide box office champ.  The reason why Cameron’s films have the enormously successful run that they have is because the director always puts the most effort into everything, making sure that his movies are not released until it is ready to blow all our minds.  But, given the increasing amount of time in between all of his movies, he also runs the risk of holding onto a project for too long, to the point where it’s window of relevancy and audience interest.  Keep in mind, we are almost at the decade mark since we saw his last directorial effort with Avatar.  Most other directors in that time, like Spielberg, Scorsese and Tarantino have directed three or more features, and have boldly experimented in new things, growing their talents as filmmakers.  With Cameron tinkering so long on the same things, one worries that he’s running the risk of limiting his growth as a story-teller, leaving a lot by the wayside.

And one of those things that sadly has fallen victim to James Cameron’s long-gestating creative process is a project that he’s had in development for nearly twenty years called Alita: Battle Angel.  Based on a Japanese Manga series published between 1990-95, the dystopian cyberpunk adventure was first brought to Cameron’s attention by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro not long after Cameron’s incredible success with Titanic.  Cameron instantly fell in love with the manga and sought to develop it into a possible future project for him to direct.  A domain name was bought as early as summer 2000 and the project was announced in active development in 2003.  However, Cameron soon realized that the technology wasn’t available to do justice to the highly stylized world and characters of the manga comic, so the project remained in limbo for many years.  Eventually, James Cameron opted to direct Avatar instead as his next project, using it as a testing ground for perfecting the motion capture technology that he hoped could eventually be used for Alita.  Of course, Avatar made a huge leap forward for the technology, and with that, the possibility for Alita to finally go into production was possible.  However, Cameron was once again side-tracked by his continued involvement in creating multiple sequels to Avatar, something which has taken up all his time these last several years.  Still, he and producing partner Jon Landau always kept this movie in their back pocket, but eventually the time came to the point where they could wait no longer, otherwise they would lose their window of opportunity  So, he had to make the tough decision to hand this pet project of his off to someone else.  In stepped Robert Rodriquez, himself a bold DIY filmmaker in the Cameron mold.  With heavily stylized, CGI enhanced films under his belt like Spy Kids (2001) and Sin City (2005), Rodriquez was more than capable of seeing Cameron’s vision to completion on the big screen, and the project finally went into production in 2016; 13 years after it was first announced.  The only question is, did nearly twenty years of development result in a movie worth all that wait, or is it an anti-climatic finish to a waste of everyone’s time.

The movie is set in the far of future date of 2563, where the Earth has been long devastated by a cataclysmic war with the URM (United Republics of Mars) which has left most of the world barren and unlivable.  One remaining community still lives on in the sky city of Zalem, which hangs over the vast sprawling Iron City where refugees from all over the world have gathered.  There, cyborg scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds what remains of a long forgotten cyborg in the trash heap that’s grown from the refuse of Zalem.  He discovers that while the cyborg’s body has long been destroyed, it’s core remains alive and intact, so he reconstructs a new body and brings her back to life.  He gives the cyborg the name Alita (Rosa Salazar), which was the same name of his long deceased daughter.  Though Alita enjoys her new lease on life, she remembers nothing of her past, and Ido keeps her sheltered in order to protect her, which she refuses to fully obey.  After she sneaks out to spy on Ido’s late night activities, she discovers that he is a Hunter-Warrior, which is a class of highly skilled bounty hunters searching for humans and cyborgs alike with a bounty on their head.  In the middle of a skirmish against one particularly ferocious cyborg named Grewishka (Jackie Earl Haley), Alita learns that she has fighting skills known as Panzer Kunst, which makes her exceptionally strong and lethal.  She tries to become a Hunter-Warrior independent of Ido’s wishes, and she enlists the help of a scrap dealer named Hugo (Keean Johnson), whom she develops a crush on.  Hugo dreams of reaching the paradise city of Zalem, and he convinces Alita that she would excell in the dangerous sport of Motorball, which she agrees to.  However, the man in charge of the Motorball games is a ruthless businessman named Vector (Mahershala Ali) who’s been stealing all the best cybertronic equipment available in Iron City, with the help of Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), Ido’s estranged ex-wife.  Upon discovering Alita, and what she can do, Vector and Chiren plot to have her killed and harvested for her advanced hardware, especially when put under orders from the master of Zalem himself, Nova.

Though the movie is directed by Robert Rodriquez, and features some of his trademark style particularly in the action scenes, make no mistake that Alita: Battle Angel is first and foremost a James Cameron flick.  The attention to detail in the world building is very apparent and you can very clearly see the meticulous work that he put into crafting this world in even the most minute detail.  But, like most other Cameron flicks, it’s clear that almost all the work went into the details of this world and almost none into the story itself.  Let’s face it, James Cameron is director first and foremost and a writer second, and his lack of abilities as a screenwriter are even more problematic here.  Cameron co-wrote the movie with Laeta Kalogridis (2004’s Alexander and 2010’s Shutter Island), with extra material added later by Rodriquez, and all the big flaws of Cameron’s writing style seen in all his other movies are likewise found here too.  If you thought the romantic plot of Titanic was childish and cliche, you’ll find the one between Alita and Hugo even more so here.  And if you thought that the political messages in Avatar were heavy handed and clunky, then you’re going to be smacked like a hammer to the head with the ones in Alita.  Cameron’s strongest suit has never been his writing, often relying too heavily on his actors to salvage the words on the page.  And yet, he still insists on writing all his movies himself.  It becomes even more of a problem with the fact that Alita: Battle Angel is also the first time he has had to adapt a story from another source, which means he has to condense years worth of story into a short two hour length.  The one saving grace for this is that Alita is not a bloated 3 hour extravaganza like some of Cameron’s other features, but it’s clear that in order to stream-line the story, he had to cut out huge chunks in order to get it to 2 hours, and that unfortunately affects the flow of the narrative.  The movie has to deal with an immense amount of lore, and it unfortunately gets shrunken down into heavy exposition delivered consistently throughout the film.  As a result, more important stuff like character development and atmosphere building are sacrificed.  The movie builds this incredible world for us to see, but we’re never allowed to develop an emotional bond to it at all because the movie just plows through it.

Couple this with the fact that the movie unfortunately feels like it’s time has passed it by.  That’s where the way too long development of the movie has hurt it’s chances of ever succeeding.  James Cameron’s movie, had it gone into production early on, could have been ground-breaking and ahead of it’s time, because the world had yet to define a sense of what cyberpunk is as a style, which Alita could have very easily influenced.  Sure there were influential films like Blade Runner (1982) on which Battle Angel drew heavy inspiration from, as well as memorable anime like Ghost in the Shell (1987) and Akira (1988) which also helped to define cyberpunk as a sub-genre.  But, a live action Alita could have been this generation’s ultimate statement, and sadly it missed it’s window by pretty much a decade.  Much like how the John Carter (2012) movie felt too derivative of other films like Star Wars (1977) and Dune (1984), which were ironically influenced by the original Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter novels, Alita comes out in a time where movies that were influenced by the original manga have already come and left their mark and Alita only feels less original as a result.  It’s not even the first manga to get the live action treatment, as other comics like Dragon Ball, Death Note, and Ghost in the Shell have made it to the big screen, and likewise fail every time.  Alita’s timing honestly couldn’t be any worse, because the world has already at this point come to reject this style of movie all together.  That being said, Alita: Battle Angel is a much better film than those, because at least James Cameron is approaching the material with a sense of reverence, and not just using it as a cash grab.  But, had he put more urgency into the project from the beginning, and not waited patiently for the technology to catch up to his vision for how he wanted to make it, Alita could have been that breath of fresh air that might have taken cyberpunk into a whole new level of influence in cinema.

Story issues aside, the movie is lifted up immensely by it’s visuals.  Cameron’s attention to detail is exceptional, as Iron City does feel like a genuine, lived in place.  You could spend countless hours just picking out the large variety of architecture in all the buildings, which range from middle-eastern, to South-American, to inner-city America in influence; feeling very much like how a community of multi-national refugees would attempt to rebuild society in the aftermath of a broken world.  And though his impact on the story is minimal, I do have to credit Robert Rodriquez on his direction of the action scenes, which are well choreographed in the same playful way that he uses to excess in movies From Dusk Til Dawn (1996) and Machete (2010).  Of course, a lot of what people are going to be talking about with this movie is the use of motion capture used to create the cyborg effects on the characters.  This is where the movie unfortunately provides some mixed results.  It’s very clear that most of the work went into perfecting the look of Alita herself.  The thing about her appearance in the movie is that she has to look believably real despite having these giant, anime style eyes, which instantly stands her apart from all the other characters.  That almost makes it an even harder challenge than making the cyber-tronic body of hers appear authentic, because if you make the face look inauthentic, it falls into that creepy, uncanny valley territory.  Thankfully, the effect is done just well enough to not be off-putting and you only occasionally take notice of the effect throughout the movie.  I was, however, more impressed put into the work of another character named Zapan (played by Ed Skerin) whose human face appears on a completely exposed cyborg body, and the effect is incredibly effective and lifelike.  And then there is the opposite end of a character like Jackie Earle Haley’s Grewishka, who might as well be a cartoon character.  Even still, you can tell that the work was put into the visuals of this movie more than anything else, and that’s something to commend all the hard work for.

There’s also a mixed result from the movie’s cast as well.  Again, the actors have to make do with some of that clunky Cameron dialogue, and some fare better than others.  It helps that the movie includes three Oscar winners in it’s cast, and they are usually the ones that work best with the lines they are given.  I did like Christoph Waltz’s role as Dr. Ido, taking a break from his more famous villainous work in other movies to show that he can indeed play a warm, nurturing mentor type as well.  Unfortunately, Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connolly are sidelined far too often in the movie to ever really give them an ample opportunity to dig into their roles.  Mahershala perhaps fares a little better, given that he’s able to deliver so much menace with just a glance.  Connolly seems particularly wasted, as we know she is capable of far more emotional range than what she is allowed to show here.  Rosa Salazar on the other hand gets perhaps the hardest job in the entire movie as she has to carry the film, and do so underneath her CGI enhanced mask as Alita.  For the most part, she succeeds.  She does manage to make Alita likable enough to want to root for and it is impressive how well she is able to emote through all that motion capture, showing just how far that technology has come.  Though Alita is not particularly well written, she nevertheless stands out as the movie’s most successful character, and she carries the movie well enough to keep it from falling apart completely.  Unfortunately, it’s whenever the story-line with Hugo keeps butting in that the movie completely grinds to a halt.  I’m sure that young Keean Johnson is a fine actor, but he is well out of his limit in this role, becoming the movie’s weakest element overall.  You care so little about Hugo as a character, and I almost feel bad for the actor because there’s not enough natural charisma in the world to save him from his dialogue.  At least with Titanic we had future Oscar winners like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to elevate Cameron’s ham-fisted script.  Rosa and Keean unfortunately can’t match up, and that is why the movie falls apart as a result, since Cameron hinges so much on their expected chemistry.

Is Alita: Battle Angel a complete disaster?  I wouldn’t exactly say that.  I do have to praise the work that went into the spectacular environment of the movie’s setting and the work the CGI animators put into making the Alita model feel right.  I’m sure that an art book of all the conceptual designs made during the film’s development would be absolutely stunning to flip through, especially considering that there is roughly 15 years worth of material to sift through.  I also like how Alita falls once again into the James Cameron trope of a strong female protagonist at the center of most of his movies; descending from a line that includes Sarah Connor from The Terminator (1984), to Ripley from Aliens (1986) to Rose from Titanic.  It’s only unfortunate that this movie came out perhaps a decade too late and is not as polished as some of the director’s more successful works.  Had James Cameron not been sidetracked so much by Avatar and all it’s sequels, we could have has something truly breakthrough from the highly influential director, and something that would have really pushed his own career into interesting an unexpected directions.  Not only that, but think about the impact that Cameron’s Battle Angel could have had on both the cyberpunk genre in film, as well as the influence of anime within the film industry.  We might have been spared some of those awful anime adaptations in the last decade because Cameron would have set the bar high.  Sadly, Alita: Battle Angel comes to us as a compromised vision, feeling disjointed between the visions of two filmmakers, and containing only a fraction of what it could have been.  The world-building and visual effects are impressive, but there is no emotional attachment, and all that’s left are the glaring flaws which become more pronounced with James Cameron’s sub-par script.  But, it could have been worse, as we’ve seen from the cash-grabs made by Hollywood over the years.  Alita at least comes from the heart, as James Cameron is a true fan of what he’s adapting here.  If only he hadn’t loved it too much to the point where it’s time had passed by.

Rating: 6.5/10

Collecting Criterion – Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

February is always marked with a aura of romanticism, mainly due to it being the month of Valentine’s Day.  Typically, this is when movie studios dump a whole bunch of sweet, romantic comedies into theaters, in the hopes of cashing in on all those couples seeking a movie to watch on their Valentines dates.  Strangely enough, however, it is a genre that the Criterion Collection has largely avoided for the most part.  Sure there are romantic films throughout their collection, but they are usually present due to being a part of a filmmaker’s larger body of work.  Because of this, you have romantic movies that span a whole swath of other subgenres in cinema, which goes a long way in helping to broaden the definition of cinematic romance beyond what we the viewers are used to.  There are classic Hollywood romances in there like Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931, Spine #680) and David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945, #76).  There are also plenty of international romantic movies represented like Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de… (1953, #445) and Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (1956, #77).  You also have interesting explorations into other romantic relationships, like the interracial one from Rainer Werner Fassbender’s Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974, #198), and the same-sex one in Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011, #622).  But, the romantic comedy genre as we know it from Hollywood is largely unrepresented, unless you count the few from early Hollywood in the collection.  The only movie in the Criterion Collection that comes close to being a representation of this genre is a weird little film from one of today’s most daring and admired artists in film-making; Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002).  But, it’s inclusion in the Criterion Collection makes a lot of sense because not only is it a marvelously surreal film that fits well amongst all of Criterion’s other cinematic oddities, but also because when stacked up to others within it’s genre, it stands out as probably one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time; if not the best.

The movie also holds a somewhat peculiar place within the Criterion Collection.  It is the one and only (and probably will forever be) movie in the Collection to star actor Adam Sandler.  Yes, the much maligned star of movies like Jack and Jill (2011) Grown Ups 2 (2013), and Pixels (2015) actually made a movie deemed worthy enough to be included in the Criterion Collection.  But, before you dismiss Criterion for that, keep in mind that if there ever was a movie of his good enough to be included, it would be this one.  Punch-Drunk Love is first and foremost a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, with all the same quirks and dark edges that has made him one of the most celebrated filmmakers of his time.  Made after two back to back hits that firmly put him on the map (1997’s Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia), Punch-Drunk almost feels like it was made on a dare.  After some critics complained that his movies were too long and lacked any warmth, he seemed set to prove the naysayers wrong and he made a short, 90 minute romantic comedy, and to show even more that he could make the impossible possible, he cast Adam Sandler as his lead.  And the remarkable thing is that he did manage to get a sensitive, down to earth performance out of the goofball performer.  Dispensing with all the silly voices and the obnoxious wisecracks, we actually see a side of Adam Sandler in this film that we never really thought was possible.  It’s clear that Anderson was inspired heavily by a young Dustin Hoffman from films like The Graduate (1967) when he wrote the character, and Sandler fit the mold he wanted better than anyone else.  This would prove to be one of the unlikeliest pairings in cinema history, but it’s one that sure enough resulted in absolute magic on screen, and made Punch-Drunk Love a career highlight for both (especially Sandler).

Punch-Drunk Love tells the story of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a troubled supplier of novelty toilet plungers, which he sells out of a warehouse with his business partner, Lance (Luis Guzman).  Though he runs his own business, he lives a solitary life, usually spending much of his free time taking advantage of an oversight in a free air miles giveaway by saving single serve pudding cup lids.  In addition, he suffers from rage issues that manifest every time he is in the company of his over-bearing sisters.  One day, he runs into an acquaintance of one of his sisters named Lena (Emily Watson).  He can see that Lena has taken an interest in him, which he also shares in her, but his insecurities prevent him from taking the initiative and telling her how he really feels.  In a moment of desperate solitude, Barry decides to try calling a sex hotline, where he awkwardly shares an exchange with a girl on the other line called “Georgia.”  In time, Barry comes more and more out of his shell and begins to grow closer to Lena, who keeps re-appearing in his life.  The two find themselves falling deeply in love, with Barry finally opening up and putting aside the childish routines that had kept him isolated.  However, their harmonious courtship is interrupted once the “hotline” girl calls Barry up once again, in the attempt to shake him down for more money.  It turns out, she belongs to a syndicate run by a ruthless con artist named Dean Trumbell (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is set on getting from Barry what he feels is owed to him, no matter what the cost.  At this point, Barry must confront the mistakes he’s made in his past, if he is ever to have a future with Lena, and find out if love can conquer all in the end; even when it means conquering the monster within one’s self.

All the hallmarks of a great Paul Thomas Anderson film are here in this movie, but it also fits very nicely within the genre of romantic comedy as well.  Chief among the movie’s greatest strengths is the chemistry between Sandler and Watson.  You wouldn’t have never thought that Happy Gilmore himself would have been capable of something tender and heartfelt before, but he manages to do it here.  He plays the character very subtly in comparison to all the other characters he’s been known for, making him very close to a normal human being.  Very much in the way the director wanted, Sandler’s Barry is very Hoffman-esque; quirky and broad when he needs to be, but with a vulnerability that helps to ground him to Earth.  He’s certainly the most relatable character that Sandler has ever played, and it certainly shows that he has more range than we would have ever thought.  But most importantly, he makes it believable that someone like Emily Watson’s character would be attracted to him.  Paul Thomas Anderson devotes the majority of his movie to humanizing his characters and building up their mutual appreciation for one another.  They are typical of the flawed protagonists that Anderson likes to build his movies around, but they also come across as genuine people too. Anderson loves finding the beauty in the mundane as well, and seeing these two (for lack of a better word) outcasts finding mutual admiration together helps to build into this wonderful romance throughout the movie.  The remainder of the movie contains the usual P. T. weirdness, especially in some of the sleazy supporting characters.  The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman is especially enjoyable in his brief moments as the morally corrupt antagonist, and the movie builds to a hilariously anti-climatic confrontation between him and Sandler.  You can definitely see that if the love story didn’t work here, there would be no movie worth seeing, and it’s all the more remarkable that Anderson took the gamble he did in giving that responsibility to Sandler in the first place.

The movie is also a stunning visual achievement.  For one thing, Anderson returns to his favorite source of inspiration from his earliest films; the City of Los Angeles.  In particular, he devotes a lot of attention to capturing the look and feel of the San Fernando Valley.  Now, speaking as someone who lives in the Valley, and has for the last 8 years, this is not the first place you’d expect to set a fairy-tale romance.  And yet, the way that Anderson (who was himself born and raised in the Valley; Studio City to be exact) portrays the setting in the movie almost gives it this air of romanticism that really does not exist.  From the early dawn car crash of the opening scene, to the magic hour sunset of the movie’s finale, Anderson finds the inherent beauty that exists in these characters lives, and captures it so elegantly in the lens of his camera, even if it’s something as drab as an empty warehouse in the industrial side of Woodland Hills.  I kind of love that about the movie, which makes it all the more personally enriching for me since I actually live around many of the places that are shown in the movie.  I think I have even shopped at the grocery store where Sandler picks up his cups of pudding in the film.  But, that’s not to say that Anderson doesn’t also indulge his audience with some exotic locales as well.  There’s a point in the movie where Barry and Lena reconnect in Hawaii, and their reunion at the Hotel leads to the movie’s most unforgettable shot.  Silhouetted in an archway facing the beach, the two embrace in a passionate kiss, with passersby criss-crossing in front of the frame.  It’s an absolutely stunning moment of cinematography, choreographed perfectly with the peculiar choice of a song called, “He Needs Me” from, of all places, the movie Popeye (1980), sung by Shelley Duvall.  It’s at that point that Anderson’s romantic comedy crosses into the sublime, and makes this one of the absolute best of it’s kind.

Criterion didn’t have too much trouble making this blu-ray edition as spectacular as it could possibly be.  Anderson, a purist when it comes to shooting on film, personally supervised the digital transfer for this edition, sourcing it from the film’s original 35 mm inter-positive.  With the director’s involvement, there’s no question that this blu-ray perfectly replicates the original theatrical look of the movie.  The colors are vibrant and the presence of film grain is also pleasant to see on a movie that’s still not too old.  The black and white levels also make a large difference, and it’s good to see them retained very well here.  It’s especially important when taking that amazing silouette shot from the archway I mentioned before.  If the balance between the dark shadows and the light background didn’t feel natural, it would have thrown off the artistry of the moment.  Thankfully, everything is lit, colored and sharpened to the best possible degree.  And like most of Anderon’s earlier films, it makes great use of the widescreen format.  Part of the fun of the movie is seeing the kind of absurd things that the director can throw in on the edge of the frame, which includes some of the movie’s most hilarious sight gags.  It’s strange that Anderson has more recently abandoned the wider frame in his last couple films like Phantom Thread (2017), Inherent Vice (2014) and The Master (2012), all shot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  They are still beautiful movies to be sure, but Punch-Drunk Love shows just how far he can push his visual artistry when the screen is at it’s fullest.  The surround sound track is of course reference quality, as most newer films are, and it compliments the high definition picture splendidly.  On the visual and aural ends of the presentation, this movie again lives up to Criterion’s naturally high standards.

Though P. T. Anderson does gratefully involve himself in giving his movie the best possible home video presentation, he is however less involved in the development of the extra features.  Indeed, very few of his movies ever reach the video aisle with a wealthy sampling of bonus features.  Criterion does however try to fill in the gaps as best they can.  Most prominent is a fascinating behind the scenes featurette made during the filming of the movie called Blossoms & Blood.  It’s interesting because it allows us to see Anderson at work on the set, and most interestingly, him working with Adam Sandler.  It’s clear that Sandler was very content working this time with a challenging director, and watching him take a different kind of direction is fascinating to watch.  There is a bunch of material related to the film’s soundtrack, which was written by Jon Brion.  We first have a new one on one interview with Brion, who discusses working with Anderson and how he found the soundscape for this particular story.  Then there is a collection of behind the scenes clips of Brion at the soundtrack’s recording sessions.  Both do a fairly good job of breaking down the composer’s method and showing him hard at work, contributing to what we hear in the final film.  Another feature discusses the artwork of Jeremy Blake, which Anderson uses in the background of several scenes in the movie.  A conversation between curators Michael Connor and Lia Gangitano is here where they discuss the artwork in the movie, and a separate gallery is available for us to see the artwork itself.  The are interesting deleted scenes, parody commercials not used in the movie featuring Hoffman’s “Mattress Man,” and even some untouched Scopitones, which were used for the film’s title sequence.  Also of note is the full video of the press conference for the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere, which again is something you would never have seen Adam Sandler be a part of before.  Even with the minimal involvement of the film’s director, Punch-Drunk Love still has plenty of interesting bonus features thanks to the commendable efforts of Criterion.

Punch-Drunk Love may not be everybody’s ideal for a romantic comedy; especially for those more used to the more commercial style that Hollywood puts out.  But, it still fits very much into the mold of that genre and in fact does many of it much better.  It’s extremely funny, whimsical at times, and has a genuine heart at it’s center.  And most importantly, the couple at it’s center has genuine chemistry.  This is made all the more remarkable given that it is Adam Sandler who stars in this.  Sandler had never been challenged like this before as an actor, and it is thrilling to see him rise to the challenge, and show that he indeed was capable of giving a captivating performance.  Sadly, he has spent most of his career thereafter slumming it in the predictable cornball roles that he started his career on.  There are moments when we do see him try a little harder, such as in movies like Funny People (2009), Men, Women and Children (2014) and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017), but they come few and far between.  To this day, Punch-Drunk Love is the screen performance that he has given, and it should be a calling card for every film director out there who believes that Adam Sandler might be the right fit for their film.  He has it in him, it’s just that too many of us are used to seeing the less subtle side of Adam Sandler.  Still, it is kind of a subversive delight to see one of his movies here in the Criterion Collection, especially given that it’s one of the rare romantic comedies represented in the library.  For anyone looking for something light, passionate, and just all around enchanting, than this is the perfect movie to watch this Valentine’s Day.  Watching Sandler and Emily Watson’s on screen chemistry will warm your hear and Paul Thomas Anderson’s surreal direction will leave a powerful spell on you as you take in the simple but enriching visuals of romance in the most unexpected of places.  And, as it stands from there, that’s that.

All Roads Lead to Roma – The Rise of International Cinema and the Awards Roadblocks that Still Restrict It

It was going to come to this point eventually in Awards season, and now with the Academy Awards nominations announced a week ago, the entire industry has to take notice and and answer the question: What is Roma?  The Alfonso Cuaron directed film surprised the industry by receiving a total of ten nominations, which it tied for the most with Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite.  This was shocking to some given that it outperformed heavy favorites like A Star is Born and Green Book, and did so without any marquee names attached other than the Oscar-winning director.  What’s more, the movie also has had to face the disadvantage of being a Netflix exclusive film, meaning that it did not run through the same expectant channels that the Academy usually expects all other movies to run through like theatrical runs and waiting periods before premiering on television services.  And it’s also a foreign language movie shot in black and white, which is another set of handicaps in garnering industry and audience attention.  And yet, here we are, a month away from the “Big Night” and Roma not only has had the strongest start, but is now carrying all the momentum at the moment.  And the large reason for this is because people are actually discovering right now just how great this movie really is.  I for one have known this since I saw it during it’s limited theatrical run last Thanksgiving weekend.  The movie blew me away, and it eventually topped my end of the year list here.  But beyond my own personal opinion, the movie Roma is garnering so much attention now because we are finally reaching a point where international cinema is finally rising above the limitations that they’ve been under in the world of Hollywood and showing that Awards front runners can truly come from anywhere in the world now.

To get a sense of how foreign language films have particularly been at a disadvantage over the years when it comes to winning big at the Academy Awards, it helps to look at how the foreign language film market emerged within the industry in it’s early years.  Before World War II, the film industry had exclusively monopolized theatrical distribution, so pretty much everything the played at your local theater had to be industry produced.  Thus, the studios were exclusively in the exporting business out into the international market; never interested in importing anything else from the rising film industries of Europe, Asia, or Latin America.  After the break up of the studio system in the post war years, exhibitors were now allowed to search beyond the studio mandated releases, and that opened up a market for those interested in seeing what the rest of the world were making.  As a result, many influential filmmakers from abroad came to people’s attention, like Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Vittorio de Sica.  And the Academy took notice too.  Beginning in 1947, they began handing out special honorary awards to foreign films screened in the U.S. as an acknowledgement to the rising stars of the international scene.  But, the industry was still interested in promoting it’s own interests, and the foreign language Oscar more or less became a way to separate international films from what they considered the “real” contenders (i.e. the ones made within the Hollywood system).  In 1956, the foreign language Oscar became a competitive category, and it restricted every nation to submit only one movie for contention, despite the fact that many of the booming film industries abroad had many films that could be considered among the best made that year.  And that became an unfortunate inhibitor for many filmmakers over the years, because it enabled a Anglo/American advantage at the Academy Awards, despite the fact that many people recognized that better and more revolutionary films were being made outside the Hollywood system.

Most casual viewers didn’t care too much about this, because there had never really been a movie that challenged that status quo in Hollywood.  That was until director Ang Lee created his martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).  Lee’s ambitious film surprised the whole industry by defying all expectations for what a foreign language movie is supposed to do.  It was a runaway box office success, grossing $128 million dollars domestic, making it the highest grossing foreign language film in North America, even to this day.  And that success helped propel it to 10 nominations, which was second only to Gladiator that year, which had 12.  This year, the Academy finally had to confront the fact that a foreign language movie, made outside of the Hollywood machine and was popular with audiences across the country, was now a serious contender for the top award.  Despite the goodwill that the movie had across the world, the Academy still stuck with the pick of big budget studio flick Gladiator as their Best Picture, while making Crouching Tiger the shoe-in for Best Foreign Language Film.  Even so, Crouching Tiger still bested Gladiator in many technical categories in addition to winning the Foreign Language Oscar, so it made people wonder if that category had been set as a consolation for the movie instead of giving it the top award of the night.  Since then, more and more people have looked at the Foreign Language Oscar as something of a “ghetto” to relegate movies that don’t fit the typical Oscar mold from ever getting near the coveted Best Picture; a complaint also levied against the Animated and Documentary categories.  As other film industries across the world have grown more sophisticated and competitive with Hollywood, it shows the Academy as being more out of touch by putting Foreign Language movies in it’s own category, which only perpetuates this notion that these movies are less than what the industry values, and it only becomes more noticeable when a movie comes along that can’t be ignored.

It should be noted that like Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuaron is no stranger to Hollywood, and that elevated recognition has helped his foreign language film get more noticed than others.  Most of his films have actually been made in English instead of his native Spanish, and a few of his movies are big budget studio projects; including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)and his Oscar-winning Gravity (2013).  It’s through the goodwill he has earned within the industry that has enabled him to return every now and then back to his roots where he can make a Spanish-language film like Roma, and have it garner the same attention as many of his other more high profile projects.  Also, Roma was financed by Netflix, a California based company with an increasing foothold within the industry, so it’s not exactly too far separated from the inner channels of Hollywood as you would likely expect.  And yet, there are still many things that it must overcome.  To this day, no film has won Best Picture without a majority of the dialogue spoken in the English language.  Sure, non-native English speaking filmmakers like Michael Curtiz, Fred Zinnemann, Milos Forman, Bernardo Bertolucci have all succeeded before at the Oscars, but they all did so with movies spoken entirely in English.  Even Cuaron and his fellow Mexican peers like Alejandro G. Inarritu and Guillermo Del Toro have yet to receive honors for films in their own native language.  So, if Roma does overcome the language barrier, it will be the first movie to ever do so, and that in itself will be a huge step forward for all international movies.  Sure, it’s a product coming from within the industry by a long established filmmaker, but think of how that would send a message to film industries around the world that they can receive the highest honor in film-making no matter what language is spoken throughout the movie.  It would also go further to break down the notion of what is and isn’t worthy of Awards within Hollywood itself.

But, beyond the language barrier, there is also the disadvantage about the value the movie has based on a little something known as “star power” in Hollywood.  It matters just as much to the industry on how well a movie can sell itself to audiences as the quality of the final product end up being, and this usually requires the movie to have something heavily marketable attached to it.  Most of the time, this is usually found in the number of headlining stars that a movie has, and the bigger the names, the more attention the movie will get.  Star Power doesn’t always represent quality, as some pretty terrible movies have usually had all-star casts attached to them before, but what the Star Power aspect does do is instantly give the movies a quicker way to be identified with the public, especially when you need it to gain the Academy’s attention.  That’s why you see the “For Your Consideration” campaigns for a movie like A Star is Born promoting their two leads, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, so heavily, because they know that their celebrity will bring more eyes to their movie, and more goodwill in general come Awards time.  Roma is almost devoid of any “Star Power” to speak of.  It’s nominated lead, newcomer Yalitzia Aparicio, has never acted in a film before, making her presence in this year’s Oscar race quite unexpected.  Her fellow cast members are also all mostly newcomers, with only fellow nominee Marina de Tavira having any established acting experience; limited largely to television roles in Mexico.  Their work across the board is exceptional in Roma, but even still, Yalitzia and Marina don’t have the same advantage that a Lady Gaga or a Emma Stone enjoys based on the privilege of their celebrity.  It’s true for a lot of movies made outside of Hollywood, because despite featuring some of the greatest performances ever committed to screen, most never can get their just recognition because of the celebrity factor perpetuated by Hollywood.  And this is one thing that both sets Roma apart in a beautiful way, but also puts it in an unfortunate disadvantage.

One thing that changes the situation, however, is that the industry itself is growing more aware of the international impact on the market.  Before, Hollywood catered to the Anglo/American sensibilities of it’s audience, because America and Great Britain were the two largest bases of movie going audiences.  But, with former third world nations developing into economic powers, like India and China, more and more box office is being generated in these markets, and that is leading to far more influence that those nations have on what movies get made.  China, in particular, now makes up nearly a quarter of all worldwide box office, putting it nearly on par with North America as the largest block.  Now, most movies made in Hollywood have a refocused sense of producing not just for domestic audiences, but those across the entire world.  And this is changing the make-up of the industry as well, with more representation being given to people from all cultures, and though the “Star Power” aspect still favors the traditional American model, that is beginning to shift in a different direction as well.  At this point, the Academy has to acknowledge the changing demographics of their industry’s audience, and see how following their old standards is perhaps putting them out of touch.  Some progress on that can be seen, not just with the wealth of nominations for Roma, but also with the nominations for Black Panther; a movie that not only is a breakthrough for African-American film-making, but also one that celebrates a distinctively African cultural influence.  And it’s a super hero movie, too (another precedent shattered).  If Roma proves victorious, it will be further proof of Hollywood moving away from the standards of the past; breaking from the rigid adherence to a single audience set and instead finally acknowledging that audiences around the world are just as important.

And, in doing so, it will hopefully finally bring an end to the Academy’s rather misguided attempts to create separate categories for specific types of movies.  Calling the Foreign Language film category a “ghetto” is not a term to throw about lightly, but in some way fits exactly what Hollywood has been doing all these years.  By separating movies into the category of Foreign, Animated, or other, you instantly hurt their chances of winning in the top category of the night, making the Academy feel they’ve done enough by recognizing these movies in their own category.  That seems to be what happened to a movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as something else like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, despite going into Awards season that year as a heavy favorite.  Animated movies have had it even harder, with only three Best Picture nominees in the history of the Oscars (Beauty and the Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3).  The Oscars have had to change some of their rules before because of outcry from many people over the years, like the expansion to as many as ten nominees after the noticeable exclusion of The Dark Knight (2008) from the Best Picture race.   But even with that, the Academy seems to use these separate categories as a way of skewing the odds more in the industry’s favor by relegating these game-changing films into these separate categories so that they don’t disrupt the standard.  This became far too problematic when the Academy made their universally derided announcement of a “popular film” Oscar, which effectively said to people outside of the industry that even though your movie is popular, it has no business being in our Best Picture conversation, so we’re going to give them their own consolation prize instead.  We can’t just keep making separate categories to honor differences in the movies we see, but instead view all of them as equally worthy of being a part of the conversation.  Honestly, I see more good being done to the industry with movies like Roma and Black Panther than say what A Star is Born and Green Book represent.  Whether it be in another language, or in another art form, or from a popular genre, a movie should be judged on the merits of it’s art and it’s impact, and not because it just so happens to fall into a separate category.

Because it was my favorite film of last year you can bet that I am rooting hard for Roma to win Best Picture.  It is certainly off to a strong start, but as you can see from all the examples that I’ve given that it still faces an uphill climb.  And this is not even taking into account the anti-Netflix response that some in the industry have.  I for one believe that Netflix should loosen their own standards a bit by expanding the availability of Roma screenings across the country.  Sure, putting it out on Netflix’s service helps to get the movie widespread exposure that it otherwise wouldn’t have, but to understand the true majesty of the film, it needs to be seen on the biggest possible screens available.  Cuaron shot the movie specifically for 70MM, which is format usually reserved for epic scale productions, so viewing the film at home on a TV set really doesn’t present the full majesty of the film authentically.  But, Netflix put the money up for this movie when most other studios would have scoffed at the idea, so Netflix does deserve credit for making this movie a reality.  Roma is their biggest push yet towards gaining full recognition within the industry as a major studio, and with a win, Netflix will have their place at the table finally.  But, apart from that, Roma deserves to win purely because it’s just that amazing.  It’s Alfonso Cuaron at the top of his craft, and that’s saying quite a lot for the celebrated filmmaker.  A win for Roma would be a deserved recognition for a great film, but it will also show that a Best Picture winner can really come from just about anywhere, and not have to be sectioned off because it’s in a foreign language, or has no celebrity names attached.  If it doesn’t prove victorious, it will still live on as a great movie no doubt, but a win this year would make a definite statement.  Setting aside the larger political message that it could send (a film celebrating the daily life of average Mexicans, given the current administration we have), Roma could also open the door to a whole variety of movies gaining attention from the Academy in a way that none of them had the opportunity to have before.