Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez, 2019). Based on a nineteen-nineties manga series, Alita: Battle Angel is right in line with all the other sci-fi lite and reductive girl power product that bears the sticky fingerprints of James Cameron, who produces this feature and is credited as a co-writer. Alita (Rosa Salazar, in a motion-capture performance) is a cyborg girl in the twenty-sixth century, revived without memories from a mechanical surgeon (Christoph Waltz) who alternates between kindly and cranky. There’s a dreamy boy (Keean Boy) for Alita to pine after, a nefarious power structure for her to rebel against, and a riff on rollerball where she can prove her physical mettle. Robert Rodriguez directs capably — the action set pieces are blandly imagined but rendered with welcome clarity — but there’s only so much that can be done with material this hackneyed. Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly are shockingly bland in supporting roles.
A White, White Day (Hlynur Pálmason, 2020). This Icelandic thriller starts off promisingly before sort of losing its way in its final act, but the lead performance by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson is powerful all the way through. He plays a former police officer and recent widower who has a loving, attentive relationship with his granddaughter (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) and harbors a deep well of anger, the latter exacerbated when he begins to discover secrets involving his departed wife (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir). As a character study, A White, White Day is wise and graceful. The film grows weaker as the understated revenge plot asserts itself over observations about how this emotionally wounded man gets through his days. Director Hlynur Pálmason, who also penned the screenplay, has a shrewd eye for visuals and manages pacing that is deliberate without growing languid.
Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976). The feature debut of documentarian Barbara Kopple remains dismayingly pertinent nearly five decades after the events it depicts. Kopple effectively embedded herself with Kentucky coal miners as they went on strike against Duke Power in the early nineteen-seventies, capturing the weariness of the struggle for better wages and safer working conditions. There’s a remarkable thoroughness to what she captures, including the sniping interplay of labor activists who feel their cohorts aren’t doing enough to the blatant — and, it should be noted, highly illegal — tactics used by the “gun thugs” employed by Duke to intimidate the strikers. Kopple is measured, but not particularly even-handed. She sees injustice and cruelty and depicts it accurately. It is a quintessential example of storytelling and advocacy combined to share a hard truth. But the film is no bland history lesson. It’s also thoroughly engaging, mostly by astutely capturing the personalities of everyone on camera. I could have happily spent a couple hours watching the conversation between a New York City police officer and miner picketing in front of the stock exchange. Harlan County, USA is a tremendous piece of work and deserves further credit for setting the rough template and fundamental knowledge Kopple would use several years later to top herself.