GHOST IN THE SHELL** Shell Game


Scarlett Johnson is Major, a cyber enhanced soldier ‘controlled’ by a human brain; one that has been altered by implanted memories (and regular doses of ‘medication’) so as to eradicate all traces – all ghosts – of her actual humanity. This is not an A.I that has achieved the singularity (consciousness), but a human who has been embedded into a robot. She’s an evolved version of Robocop.

The conceit that drives the story is Major’s intuition, fueled by dreams of a burning pagoda, that she isn’t who they (shady corporate villains) make her out to be. If she can only identify who she was before she became this hacked, carefully controlled consciousness, she can potentially free her ghost trapped within her shell.

And what a shell it is. Beneath her battle gear, Major wears an invisibility cloak that’s a gossamer thin extra skin that renders her invisible to all, but almost – but for the absence of nipples – naked to viewers. Far more compelling than the Blade Runner inspired futurescape (a crowded, though lifeless place, reminiscent of The Sixth Element, but with the wet, watery feel and Sino-Japanese iconography of Blade Runner along with CGI-clever holograms) a near naked Scarlett Johansson makes for attentive viewing.

But if the shell’s great, the acting’s no more than a ghost of a performance.  Though this isn’t exactly a character driven story, Scarlett Johansson seems to have put so much emphasis into the robot side of her character that she managers to drag her way through the entire one hundred minutes of the movie with but one facial expression and no trace of intonation in her voice. Ms Johansson’s recent oeuvre has majored in the ‘non-human’. She’s an Avenger, a superhuman fighter (“Lucy”), a disembodied voice (“Her”) and an alien (“Under the Skin”). Her last decent movie was “Vicky, Christina, Barcelona” in 2008. Based on this sorry performance, either she simply decided to flaunt her very flauntable bod and take the money (she earned $10m for this); or she’s simply forgotten how to act…since her public probably isn’t all that interested in that side of her talent anyway.

Whatever.

This is a yawn-inducing movie. And no amount of production expense ($110m) can plaster over what is essentially a rag-tag plot strung together with the clunky, forgettable dialogue of three B movie writers and a director (Rupert Sanders) whose last big hit was that instant classic, “Snow White and the Huntsman”.

Nevertheless, along with production designer Jan Roelfs (whose achievements offer an interesting balance between the big production visionary sagas such as “47 Ronin” and “Alexander” and much more intimate fare: “Dark Blood”) he certainly works hard at giving the enterprise the visual gravitas of “The Matrix” series (which apparently borrowed heavily from the original animie version of “Ghost…”). And many of his set piece action sequences are visual delights.

But visual delights alone do not a tolerable movie make. Let’s just hope “Ghost in the Shell” isn’t a quality indicator of what the rest of this year’s summer blockbusters holds in store

GHOST IN THE SHELL. Dir: Rupert Sanders. With: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche. Cinematographer: Jess Hall (“Transcendence”). Production Designer: Jan Roelfs

 

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR** More Fighting, More Explosions, Less Sense


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THE ACCURATE, IF prosaically named Captain America: Civil War, promised well.

The respected critic, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave it four stars. So did the critics of the Telegraph and several other UK newspapers. And the premise (not too far removed from the premise of Batman v Superman) was interesting: after an Avengers’ assault on some bad guys (intent on unleashing some sort of chemical weapon) results in massive collateral damage, the World has had enough. Enough of all the destruction that accompanies the battles of these super heroes. So, in steps the UN Security Council by way of the Secretary of State (William Hurt). Though the UN seems to take decades to agree to anything world threatening (say, climate change), here they rapidly agree on clipping the Avengers’ wings. They demand that this group of territory violating, take no prisoners vigilantes fall in line, and henceforth, act only upon the initiatives vetted, approved and voted on by a special UN panel.

Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, aka Robert Downey Jr. perhaps driven either by conscience or guilt, rapidly falls in line, along with a few of the others (Natasha, the Black Widow – Scarlett Johansson- James Rhodes, the War Machine – Don Cheadle- and Vision – Paul Bettany). Captain America (Chris Evans), however (along with his group of, now, outlaws: Falcon (Jeremy Renner), Wanda (Elizabeth Olson) and others) are having none of it.

It’s a showdown between the – inhibiting – rule of law and the – lawless- freedom to respond as deemed necessary. Is collateral damage just a small price to pay in the battle against terrorism? Or is collateral damage a manifestation of uncaring recklessness?
What a premise! What thought-provoking questions! What a story waiting to be told!

It’s all a sucker punch.

Having gotten the heavy philosophical lifting out of the way in the first fifteen minutes, the next six hours (you mean Captain America: Civil War wasn’t six hours long?) mashes up plot lines about Tony Stark’s murdered parents, a small African country where vibranium (used in Captain America’s shield) has been discovered, and a bomb supposedly planted by Bucky (Sebastian Stan as the super-enhanced Russian soldier). Basically however these are distractions from what is essentially a slug-fest between an invincible Iron Man and an unstoppable Captain America. They bash, smash, crash and make an unsightly hash of each other as they destroy an entire airport and fleets of aircraft. They love each other, they really do (as they keep saying), but, since diplomacy isn’t high on their agendas and fighting is their only way of resolving conflict (not that they’re ten years old or anything), fight they do.

Unbeknownst to them (and maybe directors Anthony and Joe Russo’s sly comment) there’s an uber baddie, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) who’s worked out (in a way that doesn’t hang together at all) that he’s dealing with mindless action figures and who will kill each other given the right stimulus. So rather than trying to kill them, better to let them kill each other

This super-hero meta-fiction (that probably began with the black suited Spiderman) that our most destructive battles are with ourselves and not others, has finally collapsed under the weight of these six hours of CGI destruction…six hours with absolutely nothing to marvel at.

And while Iron Brain batters away at Captain Foolish, their second fiddle players flutter around to add a few blows here and there, pout lips, flaunt their perfect bods and offer a running commentary of smart-Alec one-liners. In all this tedium, there’s the small sparkle of genuine wit and fun with the introduction (re-boot, re-launch) of the new Spiderman (Tom Holland from Billy Elliott the Musical), a gauche, out of his depths teenager and his hot aunt (Marissa Tomei).

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I do owe this movie a debt of gratitude though. Finally, after years of louder and louder destruction, I have finally decided that enough is enough. I’ll stick to lesser super heroes…bring it on Jason Bourne

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. DIr: Anthony and Joe Russso. With Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olson, Paul Rudd, Tom Holland, Daniel Bruhl, William Hurt, Martin Freeman. Marisa Tomei. Production Designer: Owen Patterson (The Matrix series), Cinematographer: Trent Opaloch (Elysium)

 

JUNGLE BOOK**** Shere Magic


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JOHN FAVREAU’S VERSION of Walt Disney’s version of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book is a wondrous delight.

It tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), the man cub, raised as a wolf, befriended by Bageera, a panther (Ben Kingsley) and Baloo, a bear (Bill Murray) who must escape the dangers that surround him: Shere Khan (Idris Elba) the despotic tiger ruler of the jungle, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the hypnotic snake and King Louie (Christopher Walken), the gorilla giant. Kipling’s original series of stories (written when he lived in the US, for his six year old daughter) were written as instructional fables, the spirit of which still infuse and inform Favreau’s joyous, brilliantly executed romp.

The piece is a visual tour de force: following Mowgli’s hyperactive race through a dense, vine draped, river threaded, magical jungle, Favreau’s camera (this actor known from  Iron Man and Entourage also directed  Chef and Iron Man – 1 and 2)  swoops and ducks under trees, up rock sliding cliffs and through the feet of thundering bison in a breathtaking masterclass of CGI genius. His Life of Pi-esque animals are awe shucks unbelievable. These are the jungles of India filmed entirely on location in LA.

Magical.

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Marvel, DC Comics, Michael Bay, look upon this work ye mighty and despair; it’s one of Hollywood’s Avatar/Jurassic Park moments, when you feel you’re in the presence of a huge technical leap forward.

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But it’s not just the quality of the CGI (the seventy eight artists that brought this thing alive) that gives the movie its credibility and charm (in as much as a boy raised by wolves and singing a duet with a floating bear is credible), but the engaging characters coaxed into life by the likes of Idris Elba’s suave, ruthless Shere Khan, Scarlett Johannson’s sexy, sinuously seductive Kaa (the semiotics would suggest that the poor boy’s first brush with a woman is a harbinger of dangers to come), Bill Murray’s world weary, contentment seeking bear, and Christopher Walken, who has turned king Louie into a Wise Guy.

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Favreau has updated Disney’s story in a few nice ways: he’s turned Shere Khan into more of a territorial overlord, a despotic jungle ruler and made Kaa female (he felt there were too many men). But he was wise enough to keep two of the most famous songs, seamlessly integrated into the action: Bare Necessities and I Want to be Like You

The standout performance is that of the young Indian New Yorker, Neel Sethi. Can’t imagine what it must be like to act all of this in front of a green screen with nothing to interact with. But young Neel pulls it off magnificently.

So, for a few hours, with this movie, you truly can, as the song urges,  “forget about your worries and your strife…”

 

ALSO OF NOTE:

Writer: Justin Marks; Cinematographer: Bill Pope (Men in Black 3, Spider Man 3); Production Designers: Christopher Glass and Abhijeet Mazumder, Art Directors: Ravi Bansal (Victor Frankenstein), John Lord Both III (Oz, the Great and Powerful), Andrew L Jones (The Adventures of Tin Tin), Mike Stassi (Alice in Wonderland)

 

HAIL CAESAR!*** I Came, I Saw, I Yawned


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ALL THE ELEMENTS are there for a wonderful, and nostalgic screwball comedy in Hail Caesar! – the Coen Brothers’ affectionate homage to the golden era of Hollywood.

The story is largely built around a few days in the life of the production head of Capitol Studios, Eddie Mannix…manic? ( A charismatic Josh Brolin).

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It’s his job to placate an invisible powerbroker in New York, manage the direction of his many productions, and at the same time hide the peccadillos of his wayward stars (DeeAnn Moran – Scarlett Johansson as America’s virgin and an Esther Williams type – is pregnant; Gloria DeLamour –Natasha Bassett- is about to be raided for doing a nudie shoot, and his big ticket star, Baird Whitlock – George Clooney – who may be a Rock Hudson-esque closet queen, has gone missing, maybe on a bender). It’s all crippling him with guilt. His mandate of maintaining appearances at all costs comes down to his own small peccadillo of smoking behind his wife’s back. In the world of Tinseltown tales, image is all.

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We see peeks into Eddie’s multiple simultaneous productions, all of which are spot-on perfect: DeeAnn Moran is the mermaid-tailed centre-piece of one of those synchronised swimming extravaganzas…except her bulging stomach is beginning to prove troublesome (Mannix must dream up a plausible story to account for the arrival of her child: adoption? marriage to someone the public will approve of? No one mentions abortion, which, duh, you’d think would be obvious);

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Burt Gurney – Channing Tatum – is a brilliant singing, dancing sailor who hoofs it in a dreamy routine straight out of South Pacific (except that he’s part of a new group of Hollywood communists…more trouble for Eddie);

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Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich from Blue Jasmine) is a Ricky Nelson type crooner who the studios want to cast against type as an urbane sophisticate; and Baird (all looks and no brain) is the heroic star of the eponymous Hail Caesar!, a The Robe/The Greatest Story Ever Told type production with a cast of thousands. But he’s kidnapped by a group of communist writers who call themselves The Future.

And thereby hangs a tale.

Poor Eddie, he’s up against the past, with the warring gossip columnist twins (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton) digging up the dirt on Baird, and now also up against the future (the advent of TV, the collapse of the Hollywood Studio system, his own job security, and of course this shadowy group of recognition seeking, equality demanding pre-Blacklist commie writers). Lockheed is courting him and offering him a better image of the future…one that’s secure. It’s an ‘out’, and it’s awfully tempting. Will he be tempted?

And amidst all this happy mayhem, there are some outlandishly funny moments (in particular an hysterical attempt by snooty Brit director Lawrence Lorenz – a pitch perfect Ralph Fiennes – to coach simpleton Hobie Doyle into appearing sophisticated and articulating his words with that peculiarly fake semi British accent that represented Hollywood classiness back in the 50’s).

But for the large part, Hail Caesar lacks the verbal dexterity of a Woody Allen (which it tries to ape in some of the silly discussions about God and Communism), or the screwball plotting of, say a Some Like it Hot. The mish mash of a plot – more loosely connected vignettes than plot per se – never really builds to any sort of punch line and our fearless hero – George Clooney – wearing his Oh Brother Where Art Thou ‘stupid face’ is embarrassing.

George has done some marvelous work in the past: The Descendants, Up in the Air, Michael Clayton, Good Night, and Good Luck etc. But Hail Caesar! falls into his group of ‘really bad crap’: Tomorrowland: A World Beyond, The Monuments Men, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Men Who Stare At Goats

As for the Coens, their recent creds are almost beyond reproach (Bridge of Spies, Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men etc). Let’s hope this is an aberration from which they can quickly recover.

At least, even during its (many) moments of humourless tedium, the look of the movie, shot be the peerless Roger Deakins (Sicario, Unbroken, Prisoners, Skyfall etc) is always engagingly watchable