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Ghost in the Shell – Review

2 Apr

Back in 1989 a three volume manga series called Ghost in the Shell was released and told a story concerning a dystopian future where it becomes almost impossible to see where humanity ends and technology begins. This short manga series paved the way for an entire franchise to thrive and grow on. First, there was the mega hit anime film from 1995, which totally floored me the first time I watched it and only got better when I revisited it. There was also a very popular anime series titled Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, of which I have some experience with, but not as much as I’d like. There’s been a whole string of sequels and adaptations, and now Hollywood has thrown itself into the mix. Does it stand up with the original source material? Not quite, but it does work as engaging popcorn entertainment.

In the future, cybernetics have come so far that robotic upgrades to the human body has become something as normal as plastic surgery. The most extreme case of this blending of organic and artificial is Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), whose body is completely cybernetic but is controlled by a human brain. The Major, along with her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and boss Chief Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano), defend Section 9 again all sorts of criminals, but specialize in cyber terrorism. After an attack on a business meeting run by the powerful Hanka Industries, the Major and the rest of the Section 9 bureau go on the hunt for a new, powerful cyber terrorist who appears to be targeting scientists that worked on a specific project for Hanka. As the clues begin to add up, the Major is forced to take a good, hard look at herself and begins to learn about her past and the lies that she’s been being fed to keep her complacent.

When I first saw this version of Ghost in the Shell, I left the theater super excited. I was ready to go back in and watch the movie again, but as time has gone on, that excitement has sort of waned. Don’t misunderstand me, though, I still really enjoyed this movie. The over the top hype has just died down a little bit. Let me get the best part of this movie out of the way first. This is a stunning film to look at. There’s so much going on in most of the shots of this movie that I found my eyes darting around the screen just to take in all of the little bits that make up the breathtaking whole. This is an achievement of what practical and CGI special effects are capable of. Along with the gorgeous city wide shots and the not so glamorous streets and alleys comes action sequences that are impossible to forget. Director Rupert Sanders and cinematographer Jess Hall have a very strong grip on how to make an action sequence seem to burst from the screen. The compositions, use of slow motion, and even the minor visual tricks make the action in Ghost in the Shell some of the best I’ve seen in quite some time.

So the special effects and action sequences are all way above average and stand out as something truly remarkable. Unfortunately, the same can’t quite be said about the story. The story isn’t bad, but it didn’t really grab me as hard as it should have. The plot about the cyber terrorist was engaging and his design is great, but there were parts that didn’t really do it for me. Part of the story is the Major investigating her past to find out what really happened to her. Those scenes don’t have the emotional or mysterious resonance as they probably should, because we already know something is amiss from the beginning just because of how certain characters are acting. I had a pretty good idea about what was going on, and it really didn’t break any new ground like the 1995 anime film did. Granted, the story in that film took a back seat to the grand philosophical discussions about technology and humanity, which made it clear that that’s what that movie was about. This one has a story that takes a back seat to the action, but it also doesn’t have the thematic strength of the 1995 film either.

Any fan of the Ghost in the Shell franchise will also have a good time picking out easter eggs sprinkled throughout the film, but they will also appreciate some scenes that have been meticulously recreated for this live action blockbuster. This isn’t really an objective part of my review, but it was kind of thrilling seeing some of the iconic moments from the franchise brought to life with a super large budget. It also helped that the actors were largely committed to their roles. Johansson does a great just as the Major, and does a great job at bringing a human side to the character while also feeling mechanical. She has truly established herself as an action star for this generation. Another stand out is “Beat” Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki, but that’s really no surprise. It’s always a joy to see Kitano in anything.

Ghost in the Shell isn’t going to be the next Blade Runner or Matrix movie, but for me to sit here and tell you that it doesn’t provide a really entertaining couple of hours would be a down right lie. The story could have been beefed up to be actually mysterious and it could have raised more questions in the way the 1995 film did. In terms of its action and its role as being a big budget extravaganza, it succeeds more than it fails. I can see how people new to the franchise may be a little confused or uninterested in parts of it, but as a fan of the original anime film and what I’ve seen of Stand Alone Complex, I thought this was a damn good adaptation.

Final Grade: B+

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The Jungle Book – Review

23 Apr

My childhood, along with most I would assume, was spent watching classic Disney movies on VHS. I’m sure you can remember the ones that opened like a book and had the white lining. Ahhh, the sweet smell of nostalgia. I’m all for a good, heaping dose of nostalgia from time to time, but I feel like we’ve become a generation where a large percent of the box office leans on that very same idea of hearkening back to our childhood. That’s why I was skeptical of Disney’s live action remake of The Jungle Book. It may be one of the most beloved children’s cartoons of all time, which made me think this was just another cash grab. When I say I couldn’t have been more wrong, I mean that it may be the wrongest I’ve ever been in my life. So far, I’m considering The Jungle Book one of the best movies of 2016.

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Deep in the jungle, a young boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is raised by a pack of noble wolves while also being trained in the ways of the jungle by the wise black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). During a time of peace, the vengeful tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) discovers Mowgli living with the wolves and vows that when the time of peace is over he will kill the young man cub in retaliation for the burns he received to his face by man. This forces the wolves, Bagheera, and Mowgli to decide it would be safest for Mowgli to leave the jungle and return to the human village. While on their journey Mowgli meets a lovable, but scheming bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), who joins the quest to bring Mowgli to the village. Dangers lurk around every corner though as Mowgli is threatened by elements such as the snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the megalomaniacal King Louie (Christopher Walken), and the ever lurking presence of Shere Khan.

While The Jungle Book tells a classic story that has been told time and time again, this version, directed by the great Jon Favreau, focuses mainly on retelling the 1967 animated Disney film. That makes sense, really, since this is also made by Disney. This version of the film, however, immerses you into the story, the characters, and the environment like no other telling. The CGI in this movie is mind blowing which makes it hard for me to say that this isn’t a live action movie. It feels so much like watching a completely live action film, even though 95% of it was shot over a green screen and edited into the movie. The jungle in this movie lives and breathes and becomes an essential character all its own. Meanwhile, characters we’ve known since our childhood come to life like they never have before.

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While the CGI is fantastic and the characters all look great, they wouldn’t be nearly as life like if it wasn’t for the excellent voice work. Ben Kingsley as Bagheera and Bill Murray as Baloo are so accurately casted and work very well together as two opposites working very hard towards the same goal. They have great banter and read the lines very well. The scene stealer, unsurprisingly, is Idris Elba as the terrifying Shere Khan. There were a few kids in my theater who didn’t last ten minutes once Shere Khan went onscreen, and I can’t really blame them. Elba is just fantastic. Neel Sethi is a great find to play Mowgli, and Christopher Walken sounds like he’s having the time of his life playing King Louie. The only person who I feel was underutilized was Scarlett Johansson as Kaa. She only had one scene to really do anything, and while she played the part very well she just wasn’t in it enough.

What really drives The Jungle Book into the realm of greatness is the feeling of adventure that’s present throughout the entire film. This is a story of growth and learning, heroes and villains, and most importantly it’s a whole lot of fun. There wasn’t a frame in this movie that bored me. Even if the story was slowing down a little bit, there was always something gorgeous to look at onscreen. It’s important to note that while this is a festival of CGI, the film uses the effects to tell the story instead of making the movie about the effects.

The Jungle Book is the first movie of 2016 that made me just feel really excited. This is one of those movies that reminded me why I love film so much in the first place. The effects are out of this world, and speaking of out of this world, so is the cast of voice actors. I never thought in a million years I would love this movie as much as I did, but as of right now it’s my favorite movie of 2016. Do not miss this one.

Hail, Caesar! – Review

11 Feb

The Coen Brothers have one of the most unique voices in film and have often times taken every convention used to make a film and show you how useless they really are. Case and point can be seen in the lack of simple narrative flow and a true chaotic progression in No Country for Old Men, a movie that redefined how movies can be made. I love seeing these guys go crazy with their movies, and I’ve never been truly disappointed by something they’ve done. Thankfully, the same goes for Hail, Caesar!. This is definitely a polarizing movie that the Coen Brothers made for a certain demographic of film goers, and if you fall into that demographic, it will be hard to be disappointed.

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Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) works as the head of Capitol Pictures, and also works as a “fixer,” which means that he puts an extra special interest in keeping his actors and studio in line even if that means bending the law a little bit in his favor. On one average day at the studio, Mannix’s biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is drugged and kidnapped from the set of Capitol Picture’s next epic film, Hail, Caesar!, a film that is also under a strict deadline in terms of its shooting schedule. Now, not only does Mannix have to secure the ransom that is being demanded for the return of Whitlock, but he also has to deal with unruly actors like Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) while juggling demanding directors and twin tabloid writers (both played by Tilda Swinton). Just another day in Hollywood.

I laughed during this movie. In fact, I laughed a lot during this movie. In my opinion, it’s absolutely hilarious. Anyone who is a fan or has knowledge of post-war Hollywood will get a kick out of all of the inside jokes and references that are sprinkled throughout the film, but will also enjoy the backdrop and atmosphere that Hollywood was in at this time. It was a strange transitional period where everyone was under some sort of watchful eye. Hail, Caesar! captures that perfectly in the most over the top and satirical of ways. The Coen Brothers have successfully lampooned major things that I’ve read about in film history textbooks and have hilariously showed us how ridiculous Hollywood’s worst nightmares were during this time.

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The story, or lack there of, in Hail, Caesar! was a bit jarring at first, but once I got into the groove of the movie, things started falling into place. The movie was advertised as Clooney’s character getting abducted and Brolin’s character having to find him. That’s only one aspect of the movie and not exactly what the movie is about. It’s simpler to look at this film as a series of vignettes that eventually come together to tell a story about Eddie Mannix’s crazy life as a Hollywood fixer. What the Coen Brothers seem more interested in, however, is showing the lifestyle of the time and how crazy the studio system could actually be. The story kind of comes second to the characters and the era.

The only thing that I could say is wrong with the movie is that it does leave a lot of people in the dark, and that’s never a fun thing. There’s a lot of jokes and references you might miss out on unless you have a good understanding of how Hollywood operated at the time and some of the more outlandish things that were taken very seriously. This isn’t the first time the Coen Brothers have made a movie about early Hollywood that made a lot of in jokes. Barton Fink was full of references to the time period, but there was also a lot more that didn’t have to do with Hollywood that other people could get a kick out of. Hail, Caesar!, however, demands a bit more understanding of history.

Hail, Caesar! may be polarizing and cater to a certain demographic of film goers, but this is my personal opinion on the movie and I think it’s pretty brilliant. It certainly doesn’t stand up to other Coen Brothers comedies like The Big Lebowski and Fargo, but it is far from falling into the pits with The Ladykillers and Intolerable CrueltyHail, Caesar! falls nicely in place with Burn After Reading in the mid echelons of the Coen Brothers’ filmography. If you know this history and you have a love for post-war Hollywood, this is a movie made just for you.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – Review

3 May

Sure, this is only going to be the biggest movie event of the year. No pressure. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become one of the biggest money makers in the last decade, and you can see why. Because it’s so fantastic, you can’t help but love it. Anyway, it’s time to talk about the movie that I’ve been most excited about for the past year, Avengers: Age of Ultron. After almost completely destroying New York City in the first film, there was a lot that had to happen in this movie to make it really stand out, and of course a lot of people have been saying it’s underwhelming. To those people I ask, what movie were you watching?

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After everything that’s happened since the last film, the Avengers are reassembled to finally reclaim Loki’s scepter from a HYDRA outpost. After calling the mission successful, the team is faced with an entirely new problem. Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) artificial intelligence program that has been in the works becomes fully aware and takes on the form of the arch villain Ultron (James Spader).  After seeing the fallacies of the human race, Ultron begins his plan to enact a mass extinction so the species can hopefully evolve into something better, but that doesn’t sit well with the Avengers, and it’s up to them with the help of a few others to end the Age of Ultron.

I sometimes feel the need to say this, and this is definitely one of those times. That was a very difficult summary to write, and I know for a fact that I didn’t do it justice. Let’s face it, so much happened in this movie. Like a ridiculous amount compared to other movies, but what do you expect? We’ve all come to love these characters and really care about what happens to them, and now they’re all in the same movie once again. This time, however, Joss Whedon takes the characters and gives them more to do and more of a backstory for us all to appreciate. Another big plus that really stands out is that Hawkeye gets way more to do in this movie, and in fact has become one of my favorite characters.

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As with the other film, the writing in this movie is spot on, but it’s also where my only complaint really arises. James Spader does an excellent job as Ultron. They really couldn’t have found a more appropriate voice. The thing is, is that he was too funny. I would have loved to see a much darker villain, but it was almost as if they were substituting him for Loki. Loki was funny and it was appropriate. I can’t really say the same for Ultron. Still, the humor everywhere else was great. All of the characters interacted with each other very well, and you could tell that they’ve been working together for a while. Even secondary characters from other movies were written in and written in well. These additions of other characters makes Age of Ultron feel like the biggest Marvel movie yet.

While this movie is very funny, it also works great with the dramatic aspects. Sure, there’s more than enough action, chases, explosions, and destruction, but what may be even more interesting than that is what happens to the characters. We see more of their private lives and what makes them tick and where they all came from. Even Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch get great backstories which makes the audience actually care about them. If they succeed at their mission, we feel great, but if someone gets injured or dies, we’re going to feel that pain as well. This is what really makes these Marvel movies stand out amongst summer blockbusters. The characters, no matter how fantastic they are, are so three dimensional and solid that we really do care and want to see them succeed.

To put it simply, Age of Ultron may not be as great as the first film, but still it’s an amazing movie. It felt so great seeing all of these characters come together again to duke it out against Ultron. What I want people to take away from this review is that these Marvel movies are about the characters. The action and special effects in this movie are amazing, but what really hits home are the Avengers themselves. I not only loved watching this movie, but I loved the feeling of excitement that came after when I began thinking about what was next. What a great way to start the summer movie season.

Lucy – Review

14 Aug

Luc Besson is one of those film makers that you either love or hate, or don’t even realize who he is and how many movies you’ve actually seen that he’s been involved with. Personally, I think he’s great. Many of his action films that he either wrote, produced, directed or any combination of the three are normally very enjoyable in that switch your brain off kind of way. It is true, however, that he hasn’t really made an “excellent” film since the days of The Professional and La Femme Nikita, and Lucy certainly isn’t breaking that pattern. I will say that, like The Family and The Transporter and Taken, this is a fun movie that you definitely need to turn off for and just buckle in for the ride.

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Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is not having a good day what with being pressured by her boyfriend to be the middle man during a transaction with the sadistic Korean drug lord, Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik). The deal goes down well, but now Lucy is left in the custody of Mr. Jang to serve as a mule in order to get Jang’s new drug into the hands of people all over the world. What Jang wasn’t counting one was the surgically implanted drug packet breaking inside Lucy’s stomach and barraging her with the effects. Soon, Lucy begins evolving into something more than the human capacity could possibly handle and teams up with the world renowned psychologist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) and French police captain Pierre (Amr Waked) to figure out how to stop her brain from overloading her body’s nervous system, but also to get her revenge on Mr. Jang for causing all of this in the first place.

Before anyone even needs to say anything, of course this movie’s premise is total bullshit. It’s been proven that humans use more than 10% of our brain capacity leaving that idea to be nothing more than an outdated theory. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a really cool idea for a movie. In fact, Lucy is pretty similar in idea to the 2011 film Limitless starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. Think of Lucy as Limitless on steroids. There’s plenty of really cool action in this movie and some pretty neat special effects. Plus, Scarlett Johansson, who has already shown this in the multiple Marvel films she’s been in, can be a complete badass if the occasion calls for it. It’s everything you’d expect from a Luc Besson movie, with a bit of a philosophical twist.

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One thing I do have to complain briefly about is the time spent in between all of the cool things. The gripe I have with Besson’s films, save for one or two, is that he knows how to craft really cool ideas and scenes that make for a memorable movie, but the down time in these movies really leave something to be desired. This is true also with Lucy even though there isn’t a whole lot of down time to be had. When there is, however, it is anything but interesting and I found my mind drifting when I should have been paying attention. Also, it’s kind of odd to have philosophical discussions in movies like this, especially when the premise is already complete ludicrous. I found the attempts at philosophy a little heavy handed and unnecessary. All you need to do for this movie is check your brain at the door and don’t listen to anything deep Besson wants you to hear. This is an action movie to the core and that’s it.

After saying all that, I really do have to say that this is a totally kick ass movie. I’ve liked it a little more since I’ve seen it, even though I don’t think I’m ever going to really love the movie. There’s one scene in particular where Lucy, without aiming at all, shoots through a door a few times, almost with precision. I knew what was going to happen, but it was so cool to see the accurate effects of her shooting even through the hard wood door. The movie is filled with awesome scenes like that, and it’s so much fun to watch Lucy evolve more and more, making her enemies nothing compared to her. Besson really outdid himself on the cool factor for this film.

Lucy isn’t particularly a great film, but in terms of summer popcorn fun, you can’t really go wrong here. I’ve heard a lot of talk about how the movie doesn’t really have a point and the science doesn’t even make sense. It makes me wonder when people forgot that going to the movies was supposed to offer a couple hours of FUN. Notice the emphasis on fun. To those of you who know how to have a good time at the movies and check your brain at the door, Lucy will provide you with some quick and memorable entertainment, despite its major scientific and narrative flaws. For those of you who can’t get the sticks out of your asses, may I offer you some Godard and tea?

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Review

7 Apr

Captain America has been my favorite Avenger since, well, ever. His portrayal has been spot on in Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, but I never really felt that they were using Cap in the ways that they could have been using him. The action scenes in The First Avenger felt chopped up and he didn’t have a whole lot to do in The Avengers, but that is no longer the case with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This takes the universe that these Marvel movies have created and shakes it up in a way that hasn’t been seen yet, and makes me wonder what’s going to happen next for these heroes. It also happens to be my favorite stand alone Marvel movie yet.

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Now living in modern times, Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is having a hard time adjusting to the culture, but may be having a harder time dealing with the ideologies and working of S.H.I.E.L.D. After a mission concerning hostages, Rogers begins to get suspicious of both Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Matters are made worse when a mysterious and deadly attack is made on S.H.E.I.L.D by the mysterious Winter Soldier, who is only the start of a much bigger plan concerning the collapse of the entire organization. Captain America, along with Black Widow and his newfound friend Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), begins to fight their own war in Washington D.C, but their actions and the actions of their enemies may just destroy everything that they have been working for.

Out of every outing that a single Marvel hero has had, this is definitely the best one with the original Iron Man following close behind. This was everything that a Captain America movie should be and it was great to finally get to see him really kick ass. Words can’t describe how satisfying the noise is when he whacks or throws his shield at someone. Not only did the Captain have more to do, but so did Black Widow and Nick Fury. The addition of Falcon was also great, providing some awesome aerial action scenes. This was almost like a mini Avengers movie, and it definitely had the scale of one with things falling out of the sky, car chases throughout Washington, and reveals that will shake the core of the Marvel universe.

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The action in The Winter Soldier is really turned up from the first Captain America movie. I understand that the first one was an origin story and it was important to explain how Steve Rogers became Captain America, but like I said before, he’s my favorite Avenger and I’ve been really waiting to see just what he can do. I was disappointed at first with this movie because the first action sequence used that god awful shaky action cam. I didn’t want to stop watching but it was making me sick to my stomach, and I was worried that that was how the rest of the action sequences were going to be filmed. Luckily, I didn’t have a problem with any of the other ones. This movie is full of awesome action with some of the best special effects in a superhero movie that I’ve seen yet. At a point the action almost becomes non-stop, and I absolutely loved it.

This is really a movie that needs to be made at this point in time. The whole time, I felt like the story could be almost like a 1970s spy film, because of the themes of the government watching your every move. That being said, we are back in a time where that is a cause for concern, and I loved how this movie touched on that. There are times where Cap is saying that it isn’t freedom if we have a government looming over us and threatening us with violence as a way to keep the peace. We haven’t really moved forward in that department when it comes to freedom, and this was an interesting way to go about exploring that idea, through a superhero movie.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier not only shows how a Captain America movie should be made, but how an action packed Hollywood blockbuster should be made. There’s plenty of witty banter, action set pieces, and things blowing up but that doesn’t compromise the intelligence of the movie. That’s one of the best thing about these Marvel films: they’re never stupid. This is an excellent edition to the growing list of films in this superhero universe, and it made me even more excited for The Avenger: Age of Ultron.