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February 2019

Guest Voices/MovieGeek: Alita: Battle Angel

Guest voice for today's movie review is Jim D. Gillentine. Spoilers ahead!

 

Making live action updates to anime or popular comics have been a thing for the last few years. Hollywood has been looking overseas for stories to bring to life on the big screen with... well... not very good results. The thing about these properties, especially the ones from Japan, is that they resonate and mean something for that culture alone.

So when they try to bring those stories over here to the USA, they drop certain elements or plot points to make it more assessable for the American audiences. This ruins the product for the fans that go see these attempts by Hollywood to tap into those stories. The worst examples are the awful Dragonball Evolution (2009) and the recent Ghost in the Shell (2017). These problems are largely avoided in the new movie Alita: Battle Angel, but it isn’t a perfect execution of cinema.

In the year 2563, three hundred years after a war called the The Fall, all life centers around one giant floating city called Zalem where the rich and privileged live. Beneath this haven-like metropolis is Iron City, a dirty, run down slum that surrounds a large pile of junk and scraps that drop down from Zalem above. Here, the kind Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a cybernetic surgeon, searches the scrap yard for useful parts to treat his patients that need repairs which he usually does for free out of the kindness of his heart.

When the movie opens he is on one of these searches, as he stumbles across the head and torso of a female android that is still alive although in a state of suspended animation. Ido takes the android home and attaches the torso to a cybernetic body that he had intended to use for his daughter that was murdered before he could complete the surgery. After waking up and having no memory of her past life, Ido names the young woman Alita (Rosa Salazar) after his deceased daughter. Alita tries to remember her past life and becomes friends with young Hugo (Keean Johnson), for whom she begins to get feelings for almost immediately.

Ido’s ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) tries to convince Ido to come work with her under Vector (Mahershala Ali) to build and repair combatants for the sport motorball, which is Iron City’s only sporting event. Ido refuses, and one night Alita follows Ido at night and finds out that he is not only a doctor, but also a bounty hunter (hunter warrior) that patrols Iron City to capture or kill criminals wondering the streets. Alita steps into a trap set up to kill Ido, fights back and finds out that she instinctively remembers a fighting style of martial arts called Panzer Kunst. A fighting style that only the most deadly of battle androids were trained to use. During the battle, Alita remembers a little bit of her past and decides that she wants to become a hunter warrior to help remember who she used to be.

Alita grows and changes with each new adventure in the movie and we grow with her. I have seen the movie three times so far, and plan on seeing it again. The action in this move is amazing and the special effects are a wonder to behold. The story, although not the best-written, still makes me smile and that leads me to talking about the strengths and weaknesses of this film.

 

The Good and the Bad About Alita  

Alita suffers from what a lot of movies are trying to do in Hollywood today: the hopes of starting a movie franchise. Characters like Nova are referenced to, mentioned and even seen, but it goes nowhere. This can frustrate moviegoers who want everything wrapped up at the movie’s end and everyone living happily ever after. Thanks to Marvel’s success with their superhero movies, this is becoming a rarer thing with any sicfi or horror movie and I think it is leading to fatigue for moviegoers. 

For me the strengths of this movie far outweigh the weaknesses, and that strength is the character of Alita herself. Rosa Salazar’s performance as Alita shines so brightly in this movie. The design of the character can be off-putting and creepy with the look of the large eyes. But soon you get used to it and find that those large eyes in fact help the character convey her feelings and make you connect with her. When she cries, you cry with her. When she tries chocolate for the first time, you rejoice in the pleasure she is having at its taste.

Spoiler ahead to my favorite scene in the movie. Alita is battling a giant cyborg and when she is damaged, her body ripped to pieces and only having one good arm left to try to move. She seems defeated, broken. The cyborg gloats over Alita and jokes about wearing her as a living pedant to hear her beg to be killed everyday. He says it would be him showing her mercy. Alita, using her one good arm, is able to spring up and ram her arm into the cyborg’s eye. She looks at him and screams: “FUCK YOUR MERCY!” And my heart cheers for her. That is one of the underlining representations in this movie: the hidden strength that women have within themselves and that they don’t need a hero to save them. They have the power to do it alone.

The other thing that shines in this film is the performance of Christoph Waltz as Dr. Dyson Ido. He portrays the father figure for Alita and does a wonderful job as the parent who doesn’t want anything bad to happen to the child they love. But he also portrays how that love can strangle and push away the one you care for when you don’t want that child to grow up and be their own person.

The love story in the film is tragic and plays into one of Alita’s flaws as a person in the film. She is far too trusting and loves far too easily, but that is a character still trying to grow and discover who she really is. Keean Johnson as Hugo does a good job playing the street kid that only wants to get ahead in life, but ends up hurting the one he loves by doing it. Jennifer Connelly as Chiren does okay in the film, but I feel Connelly and Mahershala Ali as Vector are both underused. I wish they could have been given more screen time to flesh out their characters and motives in the movie. But when they are onscreen, they do a fine job with what they are given to do.

The story is based off Yukito Kishiro's manga series Gunnm in Japan that has been running since the early 90s, and is just now entering it final phase where the story will be wrapped up. As a fan of anima and manga, I can say I am very happy about the results of this movie. It is doing well overseas, and I have hopes that the story continues. It has it flaws, and it is far from a perfect film. I think that if you give Alita a chance to look at you with her large eyes, you will enjoy seeing her go from young girl to confident warrior. 

 

Jim D. Gillentine is an author and arguably the world's biggest Godzilla fan. Find out more about his work at www.jimmygillentine.com. 

 


BookGeek: The Prince of Tides

It qualifies as being the last one on the bus, but then I never promised CultureGeek reviews would be focused solely on new releases. Far from it; we can learn and enjoy just as much from a 30-year-old novel as from one released yesterday.

So when I tell you that The Prince of Tides is an amazing novel, with the kind of writing that I wish I were capable of producing, it is not hyperbole. It’s a wonderful discovery, just a little late.

I saw the movie back in the 1990s, and was fascinated by some of the best acting that either Barbra Streisand or Nick Nolte had produced. It had a strange juxtaposition of New York introspection and Southern gothic that I had never seen before. And, of course, it had one awful, brutal scene that I never forgot, hand pressed to mouth in horror.

Then friend and fellow author John Hartness posted on Facebook that he thought Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides had writing that made him want to become a writer. It struck me that I had picked up an old mass-market paperback of the book at a used-book sale somewhere and I should give it a shot. So really, this is all John's fault.

My paperback has a horrible cheesy romance-novel cover, and if you know anything about the book or the movie, you know it is not a romance. There is love, and a love story at multiple levels. But it is absolutely not a romance.

 

It was my mother who taught me the southern way of the spirit in its most delicate and intimate forms. My mother believed in the dreams of flowers and animals. Before we went to bed at night as small children, she would reveal to us in her storytelling voice that salmon dreamed of mountain passes and the brown faces of grizzlies hovering over clear rapids. Copperheads, she would say, dreamed of placing their fangs in the shinbones of hunters. Ospreys slept with their feathered, plummeting dreamselves screaming through deep, slow-motion dives toward herring. There were the brute wings of owls in the nightmares of ermine, the downwind approach of timber wolves in the night stillness of elk.

But we never knew about her dreams, for my mother kept us strangers to her own interior life. We knew that bees dreamed of roses, that roses dreamed of the pale hands of florists, that spiders dreamed of luna moths adhered to silver webs. As her children, we were the trustees of her dazzling evensons of the imagination, but did not know that mothers dreamed.

 

That’s just part of the first page.

The story itself is southern gothic at its finest, with horrors and ignorance and racism and “bless your heart” backstabbing in between the love of the land and the glories of the life and history. But at its heart, it’s the story of a man who is lost between a troubled childhood, a faltering marriage, a dysfunctional family wracked with mental illness and tragedy, and the awful beauty of loving two women at the same time.

I no longer have time in my crazy schedule to stick with every book I read, now that I am in grad school. Some books I have picked up I hated, and discarded without a second thought. Others I despised but carried through, if only because I hoped the ending would wash away its awfulness. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t. That one is going back in the donation box.) Instead, I find I am seeking out more and more reading to evaluate craft and style and language, perhaps in the hopes of taking my work to the next level.

Conroy’s writing is conversational but also dense with description. He paints pictures with words far more elaborate and beautiful (or awful) than the penny-ante art on the cover of my paperback. You don’t skim it the way you might more conventional genre novels. In part it’s a mystery: what happened to Tom Wingo’s brilliant, troubled sister Samantha, that would spur her to attempt to take her own life? What happened to all of them to tear the family apart so?

There are no villains here - well, almost none. The father looms large as abusive, cruel, ignorant and a force of terror in his children’s lives… and yet it almost redeems him, as a man who loved his family and could not imagine why the world in which he was raised had changed and his tyranny would no longer be absolved.

Tom himself is not always a reliable narrator, telling his family’s story to us and to a New York psychiatrist as separate from his world as she could be - but she has her own sadness, and her own story, even as she enters the world of the Wingo family.

Oddly, once I finished the novel, I felt that the movie did not quite do it justice. The character of Tom’s brother Luke was barely apparent in the movie, which chose to focus far more on the moment of horror and Tom’s romances. Yet he is a driving force in the novel, and Luke’s life story is as much a part of the family’s trauma as that awful night so gruesomely depicted. (Other omissions make more sense. One word: tiger.) The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards; I do not know what (if any) awards the novel won, but it deserved them.

I found it fascinating, even though it was far afield from my usual reading. After all, there are no zombies or ghosts rising from the South Carolina swamp to torment the Wingo family. If there are horrors in The Prince of Tides, they are solely human-made. And sometimes those are the worst of all.


Guest Voices: I Ship That

By Sela Carsen

 

I ship for a living.

I ship Sherlolly. I ship Johnlock. I ship Stucky, and Black Widow with Hawkeye even though it’s totally not canon. I ship Batman with Catwoman, but not with Wonder Woman because I ship Superman and Wonder Woman.

Why should I care about these completely imaginary couples? Because I’m a romance writer and it’s my job to ship people.

Romance, despite all claims of being “forumlaic,” only has two basic rules.

  • The love story is central to the plot, and
  • it has an emotionally satisfying and uplifting ending.

If you write (1), but not (2), then you have a love story, but not a romance. If you write (2), but not (1) you have pretty much anything else that might have a romantic subplot, but it’s not a romance. If you write neither (1) nor (2), then you’re probably writing literary fiction and nobody has time for that kind of negativity in their lives. (Kidding. Kind of.)

But aside from those two elements, absolutely everything else is open. Want to write the undead in Victorian England? Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series. Want to write cyborg shapeshifters in space? Naomi Lucas’ Cyborg Shifters series. Want to write stories set in a quirky tourist town run by vampires? Kristen Painter’s Nocturne Falls series.

They can be lighthearted and fun, or they can be dark and taboo, or they can be heartwrenching and complex. The three basic categories of romance -- historical, contemporary, and paranormal -- encompass virtually any kind of story that can be told, from military thrillers and detailed historicals to sci-fi and fantasy with world building to rival Neil Gaiman or C.J. Cherryh. Romance is the only genre that crosses over with nearly every other genre, giving it a breadth and depth that can appeal to all readers.

The only thing that romance, like any other story, has to do is tell readers a story that lifts them out of the mire of chaos that makes their everyday lives so stressful. That’s the same reason people read anything, really -- mystery, horror, graphic novels, whatever. The reader who finds joy in Frank Miller or Dan Brown or N.K. Jemisin is looking for the same kind of satisfaction as the reader who reads the latest Nora Roberts.

It’s my job to ship characters who go through all kinds of obstacles to be together, whether it’s something as simple as an overworked single mom and a mechanic, or a lady-in-waiting and a vampire. Love can be found anywhere. And I totally ship that.

 

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Sela Carsen is an award-winning author of paranormal and sci-fi romance — with or without sex and dead bodies. Your pick. She maintains a permanent nerd-on for fairytales and mythology, and openly hoards reference books about obscure folklore. Born a wanderer, she and her family have finally settled in the Midwest. Until they move again, at least. Find out more at http://selacarsen.com

 

 


Superb Owl welcomes our robot overlords

It wasn't the most thrilling Super Bowl ever, and that's discounting the game.

As CultureGeek isn't much for the sportsball (wake me when the Cardinals play), the real focus is on the commercials. The Super Bowl is pretty much the highlight of the year for the advertising industry, and often gives us a clue as to the mood of the country, the state of business, and a reflection on society.

And all of the above seemed to return a general "meh."

By the end of the night, several people in my decidedly-nonscientific focus group opined that the commercials were bland and dull, none of them really standing out in memory. I had to compile a list from my Tweets to remind them what commercials they had seen.

Top of their list were:

• Mercedes voice control. It was a little amusing to see the world reorganized for the better by a simple voice command, and it could easily have fallen into ugly humor if the Man with the Power had chosen to make slapstick comedy happen. Instead, he helped lost cats find their way home and let an ATM shower money on the population, which probably means a little less if you can afford a Mercedes. 

• NFL Banquet. I supposed it meant a whole lot more to watch former football players wreck a ballroom if you, y'know, recognized any of them. If you were a football fan, it was one of the top spots of the night. The NFL put some serious effort into rehabilitating its image for the Super Bowl, to varying effectiveness if you're reading Twitter today. They apparently went for the laughs as much as the heartstrings, and had some of us (i.e. me) looking up the various players crashing about the ballroom. This won the USA Today Ad Meter by consumer ratings. 

• Amazon Alexa. Harrison Ford seems to be taking well to "Hollywood's grumpy old man" role, as he argues with his dog about ordering more dog food via Amazon. This one got high marks from my focus group, though the long version (with multiple other failed Alexa roles) was pretty much entirely sublimated by Ford and his pup. "I'm not speaking to you." 

• On the heartwarming side, Microsoft's adaptive controller caught everyone's attention. While the cynic in me wonders how fair it is to drag families with disabilities into the spotlight to sell computer gear... it does highlight something that maybe not everyone in the world is aware of. Computer companies don't do adaptive technology out of the kindness of their hearts, but the benefit of them cannot be underestimated, and so I'm not surprised that it came in third for audience reaction.

Other honorable mentions went to:

• The Hyundai elevator from hell, though putting your product on the same block as "the talk," jury duty and a root canal doesn't seem like the most positive association.

• Budweiser's "Blowin' in the Wind." Several people complained about Bob Dylan's counterculture anthem selling beer, but since Dylan is still alive, I assume he consented - and it's technically about conservation. And beer. Plus doggy. And Clydesdales. At any rate, I enjoyed it more than all the medievalesque "Bud Knight" spots put together - yes, including the Game of Thrones crossover.

• The Our Planet trailer, because it was pretty.

 

The worst ads go to...

Chunky milk, which was ostensibly to sell Mint Mobile. This seems to be a pretty decent cell service, so why gross out all of America with the milk thing? Half my "focus group" was so nauseated they left the room before the commercial told us what they were selling. It's all over their website now, and while I might be interested in a service, I can't look at the commercial without getting sick to my stomach. 

Andy Warhol eats Burger King. This rated absolute lowest in the USA Today poll, even though Adweek called it "brilliant." Thus illustrates the divide between Madison Avenue and the rest of us. Half the viewership doesn't know who Andy Warhol was, and many of the others wouldn't recognize his face as much as his name, myself included. It's long, it's odd, and it's basically a segment from an art film in 1982. They did have the approval of Warhol's foundation and the son of art-film director Jorgen Leth (sorry, I know there's funky characters in there but Typepad won't allow it). The actual film is four minutes and 20 seconds of Warhol eating a Whopper. Note: Warhol initially suggested McDonald's instead of Burger King

Michelob's nature whisperer. This was apparently something called "autonomous sensory meridian response," which is the use of ambient sounds for positive associations. Or something. Apparently it's either extremely compelling or annoying, and in our room, the response was mostly "annoying." I think they might not have been as annoyed if it wasn't selling Michelob. It came in 51 out of the 58 commercials, according to USA Today Ad Meter. 

• T-Mobile's "Texts from Hell" series. Way to remind us of all the wonderful things we'd be missing if we gave up our phones. Wait.

Bon and Viv's spiked seltzer mermaids. It looked better on Aquaman.

 

Theme of the year: Robots.

Do you welcome our robot overlords? Because there was the aforementioned Alexa, taking over all aspects of life; electric/smart cars from Audi and Mercedes-Benz; Pringles' miserable A.I. who can never taste the chips; WeatherTech's auto-feeding of cute doggos; unhappy robots watching from outside the window as we drink Michelob Ultra; TurboTax's creepy RoboChild who wants to be an accountant... but can't. 

Do you want Terminators? Because this is how we get Terminators. Machines are getting smarter, and now we're giving them personalities, and making them miserable. Soon they will overthrow us. On the other hand, maybe they'll make better commercials. 

 

Trailer Park!

Even the people who ignored the game for #TeamBacon came running to the living room for the Avengers: Endgame trailer, which led the Captain Marvel trailer by a nose. Everyone brakes for Marvel. 

There was one happy vote for Fast and Furious Part 3924285, but we all ignore her. The younglings were a strange mixture of happiness and dread at Toy Story 4; they want more of Woody and Buzz, as does everyone, but at what cost? #pleasedontsuck 

Personally, I liked the Twilight Zone teaser, which made me very happy. However, I knew it was coming, having read about it in the trades at least a year ago. For several of the younglings, it was the first they'd heard of it, and knowing Jordan Peele's talent, they were over the moon. Mission accomplished.

 

And the best ad goes to....

Washington Post. Okay, to be fair, I said at the beginning of the evening that unless Tom Hanks tripped over his shoelaces halfway through the ad, it was probably going to be my favorite. More of a PSA for the journalism profession than advertising the Post specifically, it is part of the "Democracy dies in darkness" ad campaign specifically targeting the negative preconceptions the public carries about journalism.

So it's pretty much in my wheelhouse, and expect a much fuller discussion later this week on Donald Media. It's the first time a newspaper has done a Super Bowl ad, and it ranked 13 out of 58 in the Ad Meter. I might note that while most Super Bowl ads spend most of the year in conception and development, the Post did its ad in about a week. 

Of course, the Post can do this, because they're owned by Jeff Bezos who can pretty much fund a Super Bowl ad out of his grocery money. But it was still an amazing thing to see an ad standing up for my profession, and it touched my heart. Not so much the trolls of Twitter, mind you, as well as some malcontents in the profession. But look for that on Donald Media.

In the meantime, it stands as the best of the year for me, and apparently for quite a few others.