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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Happy Death Day 2U



Happy Death Day 2U name checks Back to the Future Part II (which Tree Gelbman hasn't seen, just as she never saw Groundhog Day or knows who Janis Joplin is), but let's get even kinder (and crazier): Happy Death Day 2U is The Dark Knight of the Happy Death Day franchise. That sounds ridiculous until one considers the key element the two sequels have in common: escalation. Like the second Christopher Nolan Bat film, director Christopher Landon's sequel goes bigger - far bigger - with loftier ideas that raise the stakes and invents a terrific new scenario while also cleverly using the existing cast of characters in amusing new ways. Rather than just rehashing the premise of the original Happy Death Day, Tree (Jessica Rothe) finds herself in a brand new, more complex situation where she deals with a new twist on her old problem while coping with an even bigger problem. And, as Tree is wont to do, she rises to the occasion to save the day (that won't end).

Picking up exactly where Happy Death Day left off - Tuesday, September 19th - the sequel wastes no time explaining the one thing the original (or Groundhog Day, for that matter) didn't: what caused Tree's time loop in the first place? The answer is Sisy, also known as the Sisyphus Quantum Generator, a device Tree's boyfriend Carter's (Israel Broussard) roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) was working on the whole time Tree was reliving the same day. Sisy was built to slow down time but instead, it created the time loop. Sisy is also the cause of the rolling blackouts plaguing Bayfield University and that mean ol' Dean Bronson (Steve Zissis) wants to pull the plug on it. Meanwhile, Ryan is being stalked and murdered by his own Babyface Killer and finds out he's caught in a time loop himself. Luckily, Tree isn't just a fine vagine, she's the world's foremost expert on fighting a serial killer while being caught in a time loop. They quickly beat the Babyface Killer and the movie hits us with its first shock: it's a doppelganger of Ryan from another dimension. Then the second shock: Sisy overloads, sends Tree back into a time loop, and it's September 18th again, but now with the ingenious twist: Tree's not just caught in a time loop but she's also in a parallel universe.

After a quick explanation of the Multiverse theory (the Happy Death Day universe only has 6 dimensions vs. the DC Universe's 52), Happy Death Day 2U has loads of fun tweaking Tree's life in the mirror universe. Here, Tree's roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), who was the Babyface Killer in the original film, is alive and has no murderous intentions towards her because in this universe, Tree isn't sleeping with Dr. Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken). However, Lori is now the target of the new Babyface Killer so instead of repeating the gimmick of Tree being murdered, HDD2U has a blast showing Tree inventing new ways to commit suicide in order to reset the time loop and keep saving Lori. Tree kinda wants to die anyway since in this reality, Carter is dating Danielle (Rachel Matthews), Tree's mean girl sorority sister.  But the biggest complication for Tree is that in this universe, her mother (Missy Yager) is alive, which elevates HDD2U's moral conflict. Tree has to choose between staying in this dimension where she still has a mom versus returning home and being with Carter.  

In Happy Death Day, Tree being forced to live the same day repeatedly made her come to terms with the fact that she stopped being a good person after the loss of her mother. In HDD2U, Tree grows even more as a person when she's faced with the fact that she doesn't belong in this reality (her mother has three years of memories with the alternate Tree that our Tree doesn't have) but giving up this reality means losing her mother all over again. Meanwhile, Tree still finds the time to save Lori by hunting down and learning the true identity of the new Babyface Killer AND she spends her time loop mastering quantum physics so that Ryan and his two science nerd cohorts Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin) can repair Sisy and send Tree back to her proper dimension. Truly, there is nothing Tree can't do.

Through it all, Happy Death Day 2U is anchored by the superheroic lead performance of Jessica Rothe, who effortlessly transitions between horror, drama, exasperation, panic, zany comedy, desperation, gleeful suicide, homicidal rage, heartfelt love for her mom, and every other emotion a person can experience living the same 24 hours over and over. (Tree actually belongs on the Waverider saving the multiverse with DC's Legends of Tomorrow.) Overall, Happy Death Day 2U is a miraculous triumph and does everything a sequel is supposed to do with aplomb. HDD2U is an escalation of everything in the first movie: bigger, smarter, crazier, funnier, and even more emotional - just like The Dark Knight, a movie Tree, no doubt, has never even heard of.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Fighting With My Family



"My sister just became the first 18-year-old English girl ever signed by the WWE!" Zak Bevis (Jack Lowden) proudly announces to his family and friends as they cheer on their chosen daughter Saraya-Jade Bevis (Florence Pugh). Of course, Saraya would go on to worldwide fame (and also heartbreak) as WWE Champion, reality TV star, and global superstar Paige. But on this night in 2011, Paige was just a teenager from Norwich, England about to take her first steps into the larger world of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). It won't be easy. This is both Paige's story and also, perhaps even more touching, the story of her older brother Zak, the one who got left behind.

Stephen Merchant's witty, insightful, and engaging Fighting With My Family, based upon the true story and the British documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family, is about Saraya's journey and struggles on the road to WWE stardom but it's also about her unusual family of pro-wrestlers. Her father "Rowdy" Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and mother "Sweet" Saraya (Lena Headey) fell in love with each other and with pro-wrestling; they are the owner/promoters of World Association Wrestling (WAW) based in Norwich. Her half-brother Roy (James Burrows) was incarcerated after he lashed out when WWE rejected him and her older brother Zak Zodiac dreams of WWE stardom himself. However, Saraya was gifted in ways the rest of the family are not: raven-haired, porcelain-skinned, wildly charismatic, and a natural in the ring, she was the spark of the family and everyone knew it.

Pugh plays Saraya as a bit more of a misfit outsider who may not want the WWE dream as much as Zak, but only Saraya gets picked at a WWE tryout by Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn). WWE's talent scout and trainer, Morgan is an amalgam of several of the real Paige's mentors, including the late legend Dusty Rhodes. In 2011, Saraya ships off to sun-kissed and glamorous (compared to Norwich) Orlando, Florida where she trains at NXT, WWE's developmental arm. As literally a lifelong pro wrestler who comes from a wrestling family, Saraya rankles the other female hopefuls, a collection of swimsuit catalog models who are trying to become WWE Divas for the fame and fortune. (The Divas hopefuls' wrestling gear are inspired by those worn by former WWE Divas Eve Torres and Summer Rae and the original NXT cheerleader costume of Alexa Bliss.) In a neat twist, it's Saraya who ends up bullying the girls and alienating them; she had to find a way to become a WWE Diva herself (which included a very poor decision to briefly dye her hair platinum blonde and give herself a spray tan).

Today, WWE is in the midst of a Women's Revolution led by Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, Bayley, and Charlotte Flair where the women put on epic matches and are main eventing per-per-views, but Saraya landed in WWE during the years when the company was still promoting their Divas brand and training models to become wrestlers mainly to provide sex appeal for their shows. Merchant and Pugh also present a Saraya who's "weak in body and mind", according to Hutch, who tells her WWE shouldn't have picked her and she should go back home and be with her family. Merchant excises and simplifies many aspects of Paige's NXT career. In real life, Paige (billed as "The Anti-Diva") had wrestled in the all-female SHIMMER promotion alongside her mother and she was, in fact, a polished performer who naturally possesses a unique sex appeal. She was a wildly popular NXT Women's Champion and an obvious star destined to go to the WWE main roster. But Pugh's version of Paige (who named herself after the Rose McGowan character in Charmed), is even more of an outlier, lonelier, and far more unsure of herself. The film offers glimpses of the secret self-doubt WWE fans never saw from Paige in the ring.

Meanwhile, back in Norwich, Zak's story is a fascinating one: as the male star of the family, he not only main events the WAW shows (often held in front of a couple of dozen paying fans) but he also runs a school where he trains at-risk teenagers to become wrestlers. Zak even trains a blind teenage boy and develops a system to turn him into a wrestler. Saddled with a girlfriend and a newborn baby, Zak spirals out of control and is understandably furious when his sister looks like she's ready to throw away the dream that was denied him. As compelling as Pugh is portraying Paige's struggles at NXT, Lowden's Zak provides the most heart-wrenching moments as he is forced to reconcile that he lacks the "IT factor" his sister has and that his reality will not change. Meanwhile, Ricky and Sweet Saraya are amusingly opportunists looking to cash in on their baby daughter's status as a WWE Superstar. 

Finally, Paige rededicates herself to NXT and becomes the performer she was meant to be, along with befriending and leading her fellow Diva hopefuls to become better wrestlers themselves. Her efforts don't go unnoticed by Hutch or her guardian angel, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (who cameos as himself and, as a producer, spearheaded this movie getting made after seeing the documentary about the Knight family). At 2014's WrestleMania 30 in New Orleans, The Rock breaks the news to Paige personally: she's getting called up to Monday Night RAW and debuting against WWE Divas Champion AJ Lee (Thea Trinidad, doing a spot-on impersonation of the real April "AJ Lee" Mendez). There are also cameos by WWE's The Miz, Big Show, Sheamus, and John Cena.

Millions of WWE fans know how this story goes: Paige defeats AJ in an impromptu match and wins the WWE Divas Championship, lighting the fuse on the Women's Revolution that would follow. It's a feel-good ending to this Rocky story of a young girl from Norwich who made it to the pinnacle of WWE. Fighting With My Family is a solid wrestling movie about WWE (that shockingly features no McMahons or Triple H, the guiding force of NXT!) and an even better comedy-drama about a family unlike any other. Most importantly, Fighting With My Family does right by Paige, her motley clan, and the WWE fans. The film shows what it really does take to be a WWE Superstar: talent, drive, and that extra spark to turn any arena into "my house" - something Paige has in spades.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Alita: Battle Angel



Roger Ebert's review of Batman (1989) begins: "The Gotham City created in “Batman” is one of the most distinctive and atmospheric places I’ve seen in the movies. It’s a shame something more memorable doesn’t happen there." The same applies to Iron City in James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez's Alita: Battle Angel, one of the more vividly realized, dystopic sci-fi futures in recent years where not a whole lot that's memorable occurs - unless you like roller derby. Alita: Battle Angel is a sci-fi action fantasy meant for 12 year olds with a script that unfortunately feels like it was written by a 12 year old. Oh, they killed a dog in the movie. That sucked. The dog was the first friend Alita (a brilliant voice and motion capture performance by Rosa Salazar) made but unlike John Wick, she doesn't go hell-bent on revenge because the dog was killed. Wick 1, Alita 0.

Based on the anime Battle Angel Alita (never read it), Alita begins not unlike how Homer Simpson found out he was Mr. Sparkle in Japan: a kindly old inventor named Dyson Ido (Christophe Waltz) finds the core (head and torso) of a cyborg lady intact in a junkyard. He fuses the core to the robot body he built for his dead daughter Alita and voila, our heroine is born. Alita has no memory of who she is unless she finds herself in action hero scenes where she ends up fighting cyborgs; fortunately, this happens to her a lot. Alita also falls for literally the first boy she meets, Hugo (Keean Johnson), a dude who jacks the parts of cyborgs who were still using those parts and sells them to Vector (Mahershala Ali), the evil entrepreneur who runs Motorball, the most popular extreme sport in Iron City, which is populated mostly by cyborgs. Having seen Alita, it's easy to see where James Cameron jacked many of the concepts of his Jessica Alba-led TV series Dark Angel, including the unbeatable heroine, someone communicating through "eyes only", and how everyone who lives street-level is into extreme sports.

Alita requires a shit ton of exposition and the movie only partially obliges: After the Fall 300 years ago, which was a great war between Earth and Mars, all of the sky cities fell except for Zalem, which hovers above and drops its trash down to Iron City. Once you leave Zalem for whatever reason, you can never go back, unless you become Motorball Grand Champion? Huh? And wait, so the people on Mars were the heroes but lost the war to the people of Earth, even though the Sky Cities fell? Is there only one city left on the whole planet? Anyway, lots of people want to get up to Zalem because it's apparently super nice up there, including Hugo  and Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), Dyson Ido's ex-wife who now builds Motorball cyborgs for Vector, and I guess sleeps with him too sometimes. As for Alita, she begins experiencing memory flashes of fighting in wars under the designation Number 99, but apparently, there's no Internet or records or books about what happened. Seriously, did no one record the events of the most important war in human history? Is there no library in Iron City?

In order to get with Alita, Hugo and his friends Tanji (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr, who was Memo in Bumblebee) and Kojomi (Lana Condor from To All The Boys I've Loved Before) take the cyborg outside of Iron City into a crashed Martian ship out in the boonies. Alita dives right into the lake and finds an upgraded cyborg body meant for her; finally, Dr. Ido helpfully explains that this is a Berzerker shell and Alita was once a Berzerker - the most advanced weapon ever built. Wait, so she's 300 years old and that ancient tech is more advanced than anything in Iron City or Zalem? No matter, as Alita is destined to be fused into her Berzerker body after her old body is destroyed in a fight with Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), a hulking cyborg sent to kill Alita by Nova, the real villain of the story (who I guess we'll get to... someday? If there's a sequel? Maybe?)

Most of Alita's story spans just a few days and in that time, Alita and the film itself struggle with finding something for our cyborg heroine to do. Is she dedicated to finding about her past? Kinda, but in fits and starts. Does she want to be a bounty hunter like she discovers Ido is? Kinda. Okay, the idea that Dr. Ido, an old man with no robot parts, is some kind of effective bounty hunter because he carries a giant laser ax is the most far-fetched thing in this far-fetched movie. Alita's sure about one thing: she's a murderbot who wants to be a lovebot to Hugo (the movie completely dances around whether Alita's cyborg body comes with the necessary... parts). All Hugo wants is to get to Zalem (and not tell Alita about the whole jacking cyborg parts for money thing), so Alita decides to be a good girlfriend and become Motorball Champion so that she can earn the money Hugo needs to buy his way into Zalem. This is when Alita veers into The Phantom Menace territory, if the whole point of Star Wars: Episode I was the Podrace. Lots of cyborgs in Motorball try to kill Alita and one expects Sebulba to show up and join in.

Ultimately, it turns out Alita is like Unbreakable, the first act of a larger story, but unlike M. Night Shyamalan's trilogy, Alita may not spawn the necessary sequels so maybe they should have just gone balls out with this one instead. The film ends with a tease of what's to come and Alita never makes it to Zalem to fight Nova, who somewhat hilariously is revealed to be Edward Norton. The best thing in Alita turns out to be the thing that seemed to be the most problematic on the outset: Uncanny Valley Girl. Thankfully, Alita and Rosa Salazar's performance are excellent. Her huge, expressive anime eyes, the way Alita's smile has a little bit extra gum just like Salazar's, and her fighting abilities turn out to be amazing. The single best scene in Alita is the bar scene when, newly christened as a bounty hunter, she goes to recruit other bounty hunters with a Braveheart-like rally speech and beats the crap out of Zapan (Ed Skrein), a cocky, sleazy cyborg who carries a big laser sword, which Alita takes. "That bitch broke my nose!" Zapan yells. "Yes I did," Alita cooly replies. That moment was the high point of Alita: Battle Angel, which sadly never ramps up to be more than the sum of its cybernetic parts. On the plus side, the movie does call Alita "Battle Angel" so since they said the title of the movie, four stars.