Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Released: March 31, 2017. Directed by: Rupert Sanders. Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano. Runtime: 1h 47 min.

In a futuristic world that’s trying to advance technology even further, Hanka Robotics takes a woman horribly injured in a car crash and puts her consciousness into a cyber-enhanced body and call her Major (Scarlett Johansson). She becomes a cyborg cop working in Section 9’s anti-terrorist bureau, fighting the world’s most dangerous criminals.

First, it feels necessary to talk about the whitewashing controversy – which has been dogging Ghost in the Shell’s production since Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Major Mira Killian. I haven’t seen the original film, but Johansson’s casting affects some believability. Even if you can get past the controversy, it’s still not that enjoyable.

It’s nice to have a female-led blockbuster but Johansson’s stiff, bland and robotic. I know she’s all robot except for her brain, but it would be nice if the brain would give her human emotion or personality. Her brain makes her an imperfect soldier because at one point she disobeys orders to try to save some lives. The character’s compassionate in the scene, but her face doesn’t get the memo and she doesn’t emote compassion or make me believe it. Major’s a hard character but it’s Johansson’s first performance I don’t like, mostly because she’s bland and there’s little depth.

The martial arts part of her character is cool – though an explanation for her powers of invisibility would be nice. The invisibility makes action scenes great when she’s fighting and flipping a guy in shallow water. The splashing and choreography makes great eye candy, and the visuals are the film’s strongest aspect. There are other fun action scenes, so it’s a shame so many other aspects are bad.

The world created is fascinating. The norm is for everyone who has enough money to have cyber-work done to enhance their bodies – one character gets a new liver so he can drink more booze – and it’s so normal that people ask you on the street if you want an enhancement instead of drugs. The skyline – full of Geisha and koi fish, indicating most likely they’re in Japan – is interesting but giant holograms in the background are so distracting that a man going for a casual jog becomes a scene-stealer.

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Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell(Source)

The world is as creepy as it is cool. Being fully human is weird now, and there are creepy characters galore – especially ones with jagged teeth, and robotic Geishas are the source of nightmares when they open their faces. There’s other nightmarish imagery abound, and if the world feels creepy in live-action – I’m curious to watch the original to see how it’s portrayed in anime.

Batou (Pilou Asbaek), Major’s partner, has rather creepy eyes, but his character design is based on the source material. The supporting cast’s generally fine and Michael Pitt is strong as Kuze, though he sounds like Stephen Hawking’s computer voice malfunctioning. I like the supporting players more than Major and their personality make this more bearable.

Takeshi Kitano plays Daisuke Aramaki, the unit’s Chief, and it’s jarring that he’s the only one who speaks Japanese in the film. Everyone responds to him in English – but can apparently understand Japanese. Since everyone has robotic upgrades – you’d think a language component can be downloaded that let’s you speak Japanese. While it’s never crystal clear if this is set in Japan, but if it is, it’s especially strange that he’s the only person who speaks Japanese.

Some action scenes are memorable – notably the finale – but the only source of good entertainment is the film’s final 30 minutes when the story goes somewhere and we get answers for Major’s visions and glitches. It’s the only point where Major is almost interesting. I say almost because she’s just so dull that there’s an emotional wall that makes it difficult to become invested in her story.

The plot itself has some surprises but it rarely enthralls. The futuristic world’s interesting, but it’s even more fun to leave because it’s so bereft of passion.

Score: 40/100

 

The Jungle Book (2016)

Released: April 15, 2016. Directed by: Jon Favreau. Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley. Runtime: 1hr, 45 min.

Director Jon Favreau brings his vision of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story of The Jungle Book to the big screen – telling the story with fantastic visuals and a stellar cast.

It’s a coming-of-age tale about Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a man-cub finding his place in his world with animals in the Indian jungle. In fact, Mowgli is one of the film’s only live-action actors with any substantial contribution to the story.

Seethi is given a high task to carry the film as the only live-action actor. His performance is remarkable, capturing the bravery and charming curiosity of Mowgli, as well as his inventive personality.

He’s the heart of the film and he shows a great maturity as the character. It feels like he’s been performing for years – but this is his first theatrical film, his only prior experience was in a short film called Diwali.

While Seethi is virtually the only live-action actor on display in the core cast – the world between the human Mowgli and the motion-captured, computer-generated animals blend together so seamlessly, it feels like he’s truly interacting with real animals.

The visual effects are flawless and so is the attention to detail in how the animals are rendered. It’s really as great as Life of Pi in terms of creating realistic, visually striking animals. The landscape portrayed is vivid and adds to the film all around. The way the actors capture animals’ behaviour and movements adds a heightened realism.

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Neel Sethi in The Jungle Book (Source)

The voice performances for the classic characters are also great. Bill Murray encapsulates Baloo – his laziness is relatable and he’s a fun character.

Ben Kingsley portrays Bagheer, the panther who found Mowgli as an infant in the jungle. He’s also tasked with bringing him to safety to return to his own kind when he is threatened by Shere Khan, the fearsome Bengal tiger. Idris Elba is menacing as the primary villain and doesn’t like Mowgli in the jungle because he is a human and doesn’t trust them. A human gave Shere Khan his scars. This adds a layer to Mowgli, who at times has to question if he could be destructive like that, too.

Also notable is the presence of Christopher Walken as King Louie. He’s changed from an orangutan to a gigantopithecus, to make it native to India. It also gives the scenes with Louie a much grander feel and breathtaking scale because he is so hulking. He’s actually scary here, in a refreshing turn from the original.

His rendition of the original Disney’s “I Wanna Be Like You” serves as one of the feature’s many high points.

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Neel Sethi as Mowgli and Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) in The Jungle Book. (Source)

Murray also sings “Bear Necessities” and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa sings “Trust In Me” through the end credits. That’s it for the songs used from the 1967 animated musical.

Jon Favreau chose to tell the story of how Mowgli got on his own when Kaa (Johansson) was hypnotizing Mowgli, instead of having her sing the song. The slithering character is seen in only one scene – but she’s memorably chilling.

The choice to cast Johansson and gender-swap the character was to done to add another female to the cast, where the only other primary female cast member is Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha.

It is one of the film’s only disappointing aspects that Kaa only has a small role, almost a cameo – as the more utilized “red flower,” fire to the animals, is more utilized as a villain here. The animated Disney flick basically only mentioned “red flower” in passing, so Favreau was more faithful to Kipling’s use of the element.

The way the story is structured is strong and the narrative is so engaging and entertaining. It also handles the iconic characters so, so well. This adaptation was penned by Justin Marks, who shows a great adapting ability. His two other prior screenwriting credits were a television movie (Rewind) and a video game adaptation (Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li).

It might not have songs at every turn, but it handles its own very well as a film with a few violent moments. The third act is a great finale, and the film maintains a compelling pace – peppering comedy, drama and stunning action set pieces throughout. Some of the action even kept me on the edge of my seat at times.

Favreau perfectly finds a difficult balance of capturing the Disney magic, as well as making a mature adaptation that is unique and memorable. I think parents will be bugging their kids to see it so they have an excuse to watch it. And then watch it again. It’s truly great.

Score: 100/100

Hail, Caesar! (2016) review

Released: February 5, 2016. Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson. Runtime: 1hr, 46 min.

I love the work of Joel and Ethan Coen because of their sense of humour and great tales. The pair of directors follow up Inside Llewyn Davis with a period piece set in the 1950s, Hail, Caesar!

The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer at Hollywood production lot Capitol Pictures. He navigates through arising issues, like a production needing a new star actor.

He also has to navigate through the rare kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the production company’s biggest movie of the year, Hail, Caesar!

It’s a cool commentary on the capitalism of Hollywood in the 1950s. There’s lots of communism in the film, and a group of communist writers, especially David Krumholtz, are quite amusing. It’s a good companion piece to their 1991 film Barton Fink, also set in 1950s Hollywood.

Caesar is mainly notable for its hilarious moments. From clever banter between Ralph Fiennes’ character Laurence Laurentz and Alden Ehrenreich’s wild west actor Hobie Doyle to a fun discussion between religious figures of how to properly portray Christ in the film; these stand as memorable scenes.

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George Clooney as Bair Whitlock in Hail, Caesar! (Source)

There’s also an entertaining musical number featuring Channing Tatum. He steals multiple scenes in the entertaining romp. It might be surprising to hear a Coen film described as a romp as they’re known for darker humour.

The Coen brothers resist and don’t go nearly as dark as they could have, which is atypical but likely necessary since it is just a harmless comedy musical with a bit of mystery (but nonsensical mystery).

But it seems to be their first feel-good feature, in the traditional sense. Simply because with what may seem like a caper doesn’t amount to much.

I saw the film on Feb. 7 and I’m still trying to decipher what the heck the point of the film is. That’s why I think it’s a good companion piece for Barton Fink, because I didn’t think that one made a hell of a lot of sense, either.

It feels like the point of the film was to keep you entertained throughout so you wouldn’t notice that the actual story-line is as fragile as one of Hobie Doyle’s spaghetti lassos. But the laughs are the only thing saving the film from a near-disaster.

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Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar! (Source)

Josh Brolin gives a fun performance as Eddie Mannix, where he goes from sneaking cigarettes and confessing at Church to him getting a job offer so he doesn’t have to make long hours or solve problems for the Hollywood types.

He navigates through getting director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes) a new star for his drama (in the form of Hobie Doyle, who can only act on a horse) to helping save the reputation of a starlet, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson).

It’s an episodic story-line, but the laughs offered throughout make it well-worth it. Caesar is also stunningly shot by Roger Deakins, using a 35mm film to shoot the period piece. Some scenes are more breathtaking than others, notably the aforementioned Tatum dance scene.

But my favourite, in terms of cinematography, was the scene with Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid in an aquatic dance number, surely emulating a scene from 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid.

The said scene is shot with a live orchestra – though, it doesn’t have nearly the same mesmerizing effect as when it was matched with Jamie N Commons’ Rumble and Sway in the film’s trailers. The score by Carter Burwell is good.

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Channing Tatum in his big musical number in Hail, Caesar! (Source)

Tilda Swinton appears in an amusing dual role as identical twin gossip columnists trying to get the scoop on the daily on-goings of the studio. They want to run a column on an on-set story about Baird Whitlock on the set of On Wings as Eagles (amusingly, the title’s utterance cues an eagle’s shrill).

Clooney is funny as Whitlock and the ensemble cast is great. Alden Ehrenreich is also a lot of fun as the B-movie Western actor Doyle. Michael Gambon (Harry Potter) offers soothing narration, and Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill are good in their one-scene appearances.

Despite the fact that Hail, Caesar! has sporadic greatness, it is a blemish in the Coen canon because of how average it can be. By the end of the rather anti-climactic film, I couldn’t help but ask: “That was it?”

3.5 out of 5

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America - The Winter SoldierReleased: April 4, 2014. Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo. Starring: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson. Runtime: 136 min.

The superhero niche genre isn’t my favourite. My expectations for them aren’t usually major, unless they’re X-Men or Batman movies. Sometimes there is an exception, and that comes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the third entry in Marvel’s Phase Two set of films. It’s a smart film that deals with threats to S.H.I.E.L.D. I like how the universe fits its films into the more epic narrative, and even though there are different stories to expand each character, they all make sense. In this film, Captain America (Chris Evans) struggles to find his place in the modern world, as he deals with a major threat from old history: a Soviet agent called the Winter Soldier.

It’s interesting that the film has its title named after the villain of the film, who is great, by the way. (I think it’s better if I keep the villain as a bit mysterious by not talking about him much.) It seems to me that it indicates things are going to be different. Indeed, the stakes in this film are higher and it feels like there’s a sense of urgency throughout. The themes of the film make this feel like a cool Special Ops movie, so it’s practically The Bourne Identity of the Marvel universe, just with less martial arts. But there is a brief scene with martial artist Georges St. Pierre, which is fun to watch. I love the action of the film, and the light humour throughout. It makes the film extremely entertaining. The score complements the great action scenes. My expectations were filled because this is a fun and entertaining popcorn picture, but also something I’d like to watch again.

This is engaging because of the great action,  as well as a story that flows well. The film’s surrounding story is strong, and much more memorable than the Cap’s first outing. Thank goodness that there’s less of that short version of Chris Evans… The CGI effects make his head look way too big for his body, and because of it he looks so disproportionate. It creeps me out. Chris Evans is charismatic as the Captain. I really like him as an actor. The character of Steve Rogers is great, I think, because he has to adjust to a vastly different time period, and he has some conflicting self battle layers which makes him more engaging. A heart-warming scene shared with him and Peggy Carter shows his kind side.

Evans has a great chemistry with all of his cast members, especially with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow who share a lot of jokes together. This film makes me more interested to learn of Widow’s past. Johansson rocks the role because she’s mysterious, sexy and just overall awesome. The two characters work really well together, and they seem to be alike in a lot of ways. One way being that they’re both badasses. Samuel L. Jackson fills is great as usual as the kick-ass Nick Fury. Anthony Mackie has a charismatic turn as his character. Robert Redford fills a supporting role. He does a serviceable job, but he’s never great.

The film as a whole is a lot more memorable than Redford. What I think makes this more memorable than Marvel’s usual film is that the story is more attractive to a global audience, and not just fans of super hero films. It’s focused and tonally sync, and the character of Steve Rogers is relate-able enough to almost be average in some ways. It’s an attractive thing about the film.

Score85/100

Her (2013) Review

HerReleased: January 10, 2014 (wide release). Directed by: Spike Jonze. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson. Runtime: 126 min.

Love is sometimes a strange, but such a beautiful thing. Oftentimes, one can’t help who they love romantically – the heart wants what the heart wants, as some say. In “Labor Day,” Kate Winslet’s Adele falls in love with a fugitive (weird), and in “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore falls in love with his operating system (even weirder). Yet, the dynamic in the sappy former has been done to death; the dynamic in “Her” is quirky and charming, and totally new. This film follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely writer in Los Angeles recovering from a recent divorce with his ex Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theo develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that is designed to meet his every need.

Theo’s operating system is named Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. In the ad for the OS1, it is said to not only be an operating system, but a consciousness. She’s an artificial intelligence with a programmed personality that is very charming. Since Samantha in new to the world, she has a refreshing perspective about everything – and she gets excited about all the little things, and she wants to know what it’s like to be alive. Sam may not have a face, but Johansson portrays emotions well with her compassionate voice, and the wonder that is apparent through it. I think the really crappy thing for Phoenix is that he actually doesn’t get to have a sex scene with, you know, Johansson’s body. If I were Phoenix, that’d piss me off to no end!

I think Jonze thinks of a creative dynamic to solve that whole no body problem. At least he doesn’t think of a similar way to “Movie 43,” where there’s a human version of an iPod called the iBabe, that’s a hot girl who plays music. And when a lonely guy buys it, and it’s a realistic hot girl, you know how that’s going to turn out. Let’s count our blessings this isn’t a story about that, and by the way all, I’m sorry to remind you of that bad film. Speaking of lonely guys, Samantha is a great thing for Theo because it seems to me the OS1 is a great way to reduce loneliness because these artificial intelligences are funny and they have charming personalities (that are based on personalities of programmers), so it seems like incredible company. Theo has also been in a bit of a dark place lately after his divorce (he is skeptical to sign his divorce papers because it further symbolizes a chapter in one’s life closing), and he hasn’t been having enough fun lately. He’s an everyday character because of his fear for real emotions, and he’s relateable – and he’s embodied so well by Joaquin Phoenix, and it’s a real joy to watch him experience new things with the help of Sam. He’s such a likeable character that you really root for him, even though he’s in a bittersweet romance that is way worse than trying out long distance.

Her 1It’s an uplifting story that love can bring someone out of their shell, and since he writes letters for couples; he gets way more into in his work when he is in a relationship. One would think such a likeable guy deserves love. The characters help the quirky film always entertain and often sadden, making it a great blend of romance, science fiction, drama and comedy. It’s a science fiction because of the artificial intelligences and futuristic technology and it’s a comedy because it makes the audience laugh a lot with its unique sense of humour. I think it has a great blend of drama and comedy, often blending the two genres (and adding in some intensity in scenes) and one might not expect the chemistry between a man and an operating system to be so great, but it truly is. Spike Jonze is the right person to make such a unique story come to life, because it breathes new life into all of these genres.

Another thing that helps bring this story to life is the incredible score that rouses emotions, a primary objective of film’s scores; and there’s some great music, here, too. It’s also brought to life by great editing, beautiful settings and cinematography. I think some people might be offput by this film’s great premise, because, admittedly, it is a bit strange – but myself, I was hooked when I first heard of it. It’s just so brilliantly original. One other character I haven’t mentioned is Amy Adams’ character, Theo’s best friend – a documentary filmmaker named Amy.

In one scene she is discussing an idea for a documentary about her mother simply sleeping, posing the idea that people are at their most free when they are dreaming (meaning we don’t have to deal with the real world,  and we take a break from it); Samantha also says a line where she wonders if her personality is just programming or if her feelings are real, which made me think of humans. Sometimes I wonder if people are legitimately feeling their emotions, faking them, or like they’re just on auto-pilot and going through the motions of feelings, if you see what I mean by that. It seems to me that technology is diminishing some of our social capabilities in that perspective, and technology is advancing so much that we don’t have to deal with human interaction as much as we used to; which contributes to Theo’s fear of real emotions. These two quotes are directly linked together, and Jonze uses them to make a smart and honest assesment of humans.

One other hidden meaning that I picked up on was that this whole human-operating system relationship might be a whole new sort-of sexuality (for a lack of a better word) that gets talked about around the office in hushed tones. Is this a new thing society will have to accept in the future, if this sort-of relationship ever comes about? Falling in love is said to be, by Adams’ character, a socially acceptable insanity; but could this be accepted by most? All I know, this premise makes for a thought-provoking, original and special film.

Score100/100

The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers

Release Date: May 4, 2012

Director: Joss Whedon

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans

Runtime: 143 min

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans) make The Avengers. This film is pretty sweet.

The Avengers assemble to face off against the god of mischief himself, Loki (portrayed by Tom Hiddleston).

What does The Avengers have? Awesome visual effects; great characters; great direction; not the best plot. I can’t think of any other villains that they could have fought against, well villains of these superheroes. Magneto or a Batman villain could have worked, but of course that goes out of their section of villains. I just wasn’t feeling the alien invasion thing. Though, the action was incredible – and it prevented the viewer from becoming bored. The gags were really funny, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk added charisma to the film. The film casts a big box office shadow for upcoming super hero films like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises, so hopefully those don’t disappoint (I know those have came out, but I wrote this review a while back).

The only flaw of the film for me was the villain of the film, but the ensemble that is the Avengers is really great and the action sequences are really well done.

I really like the ensemble here, I’ve seen a minority of the films that led up to this (I’ve seen Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, but still have to see Iron Man 2 – I couldn’t get into the first – and The Incredible Hulk).

My expectations were high, from hearing all of the awesome things about it, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to.  And I also viewed the film in 2D and not 3D, in which it was made for, so that may have taken away from my enjoyment. Granted, the film is still better than one’s average super hero film and was still really enjoyable and not overly flawed.

90/100