‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017) Review

shost-in-the-shell-trailerI’ve made it no secret that I struggle with a lot of anime, even the classic, universally acclaimed titles of the genre. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s cultural differences, but I often find myself having difficulty understanding films that, on paper at least, sound like I’d really enjoy. Case in point; 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, noted as a key influence on The Matrix no less, when I first watched it, I found it more or less incomprehensible. I saw it again a few years later with similar results, finding the material surprisingly inaccessible for such a landmark, beloved movie. Anyway, I think I’m more of an outlier here, so maybe I shouldn’t be taken too seriously when I say that one of the few positive things about this American, live-action Ghost in the Shell remake is that I didn’t find it especially confusing at all. Continue reading

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‘The Jungle Book’ (2016) Review

jungle bookI have to admit that one of the modern cinema trends I’m most turned off by is this cluster of live-action remakes of fairy tales and classic stories that had been previously immortalised as animations. It’s not so much the principle of them, just that I’ve found them to be mostly terrible. Disney’s latest entry to the team, a remake of their 1967 movie The Jungle Book is probably the best one I’ve seen yet, though that’s obviously a very low bar to leap. Continue reading

‘Captain America: Civil War’ Review

Captain-America-civil warMarvel Studios’ thirteenth film, and the one that kicks off their third official “phase”, finds them embracing their original concept of a shared cinematic universe like never before. Their success has been so great that they now appear to be operating on the same assumption the Harry Potter series did from its third entry onward; that audiences are all now totally familiar with the characters and this world, and know the previous stories. There’s no entry point for new viewers now. Marvel are using this film to draw from previous events, and explore new ones that affect multiple characters throughout their universe, and introduce a couple of new names to boot. Continue reading

‘Hail, Caesar!’ Review

hail_caesar_trailer_screenshotThroughout their career, The Coen Brothers have formed something of a habit for following up their darker, more cryptic dramatic works with broader, sillier comedies. Blood Simple to Raising Arizona, Barton Fink to The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There to Intolerable Cruelty, No Country for Old Men to Burn After Reading. While a couple of their films lie somewhere in-between, most of them can be placed in one of the two categories. Now they continue that trend, a few years on from the outstandingly melancholic musical-drama Inside Llewyn Davis with Hail, Ceasar!, a Hollywood period comedy that’s gloriously silly, and frequently hysterical. Continue reading

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ Review

Avengers-Age-of-UltronThe Avengers was the moment where Marvel Studios truly hit the big time. As I mentioned in my Daredevil article, a year prior to that I wasn’t too excited about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, their most recent effort Iron Man 2 hadn’t been up to much and I couldn’t care less about Captain America or Thor as comics characters. Their beyond-solid respective début movies changed all that though and everything came together wonderfully in the first Avengers movie. That film’s deserved giant success paved the way for Marvel to make bigger and bigger movies in their ‘Phase 2’ plan (an additional sequel for Iron Man, Cap and Thor plus the delightful Guardians of the Galaxy). If Avengers 2 could bring all the disparate elements and characters of the MCU coherently together once again, we might have something really special on our hands. Continue reading

‘Lucy’ (2014) Review

lucy 2014Do we want filmmakers trying to inject more science into superhero stories? Not if they’re going to do it like this. We know that being bitten by a mutated/radioactive spider won’t actually turn you into Spider-Man, but it’s easy to accept in the fantasy world of cinema. Lucy on the other hand, really tries to give off the impression that its superpower origin story is based in real science. However the whole concept it takes from, that humans “only use 10% of our brains” is a ridiculous urban legend that’s been debunked for decades. Seriously, it would take less than a minute of research to learn that it was nonsense; Wikipedia has an article concisely explaining that it’s a myth, and yet it continues to prevail.  2011’s Limitless used a similar conceit, but in that it just suggested that accessing more of your brain would make you a better and more effective version of yourself, and didn’t attempt to hammer home that it was scientific. Lucy on the other hand, shamelessly attempts to say that using more of your brain would give you mind-bending superpowers.

The entire first act of the film detailing Lucy’s (Scarlett Johansson) origin is intercut with scenes of supposedly respected Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman, whose casting doubtless contributes) delivering a lecture to a packed university hall. In this he explains the 10% rubbish as students listen attentively as if they’ve never heard this before, and they don’t really question him, even when he spouts off even more obvious bullshit like “dolphins use 20% of their brains and that’s why they have sonar”. No Morgan, it isn’t. I don’t want to just sound like a smartarse but when films present themselves in this manner it can negatively affect perceptions of science, I did in fact have a heated conversation with someone after seeing this film who was convinced the 10% crap was true, a belief reinforced by watching Lucy.

Anyway, science-rant over, on to the other part of Lucy’s opening act, which functions rather well. We’re introduced to the title character in Taipei during a briskly efficient scene in which she’s convinced by her new boyfriend to deliver a package for him to some gangsters. It doesn’t go as planned, and soon she’s been captured and used as a drug mule for a new synthetic drug. Director Luc Besson intercuts all these moments with wildlife footage of stalking predators hunting vulnerable prey which was kinda neat but just reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which used a similar technique for more comedic reasons.

Her captors aren’t the smartest bunch though, and before she’s even got on the plane they subject her to a beating which damages the drug pouch, causing it to leak out inside her. One thing I can say for Lucy is that it doesn’t waste any time. Almost immediately she escapes and takes out the bad guys. It’s interesting that given the apparent superhero set-up of Lucy, she never has any trouble killing anyone who stands in her way. While this leads to some fun moments, there’s also a very troubling exchange in which she shoots a presumably innocent taxi driver for being unable to speak English (they are in Taiwan after all).

Lucy presents a bit of a conundrum for representation in film in general. It’s undoubtedly feminist, giving us an all-too-rare female led action/superhero movie, something quite relevant in today’s climate when Marvel keep dodging the question of why they won’t make a female-led film given all their clout, and when DC are too timid to just give Wonder Woman her own movie. However, it’s portrayal of East Asians is something else (even though they’re in Taiwan most are Korean). There’s no getting around it, every East Asian in this film is a bad guy, and every bad guy is East Asian (with the exception of one smarmy British associate).

It’s rather baffling as to why Korean superstar Choi Min-sik, one of his country’s most respected actors, would take on this film given how selective he usually is. Aside from his introductory scene it’s a completely thankless one-note foreign villain role.

Luc Besson’s written and produced tons of action movies in the last few years but hasn’t really directed one in a very long time. Here he manages to deliver some of the better action sequences his production house has showcased in a while, with a chaotic corridor shootout towards the end.

Lucy adopts the Dr. Manhattan idea that as a person becomes more and more superhuman, they gradually lose their humanity. Like everything in this film, she doesn’t take long to get there. As she attains higher and higher levels (the percentages appear on the screen) the film goes in directions that are quite absurd, often featuring an abundance of ugly CGI. It easy to make jokes about Lucy (the film) getting stupider as it chronicles a character supposedly getting smarter bit I will say that it didn’t go quite the way I expected it to. It climaxes with a sequence tying in the entire history of humanity. It’s a clumsy attempt to add depth to this silly action film, but is memorably audacious.

2.5/5

‘Under the Skin’ (2013) Review

under the skinWhen I first heard about Under the Skin, (Jonathan Glazer’s first film since Birth in 2004), it sounded like it might be an attempt to make an arty, highbrow hybrid drawn from the ideas behind two distinctly unsophisticated films. Firstly Roger Donaldson’s 1995 sci-fi horror schlock fest Species, an unashamed B-movie with a surprisingly impressive cast about an alien who comes to earth in the form of a hot woman to try and seduce human men. In the simplest of terms, that one sentence plot summary could be exactly applied to Under the Skin, yet their handling couldn’t be more different. Secondly, the comedy style of Sacha Baron Cohen, in which he approaches real people on the streets in character. Unaware that they’re becoming part of a movie, the filmmakers later have to obtain signed releases from their non-actors to include them in the film. I mention this as it’s the same technique Glazer has employed here, having his alien seductress (Scarlett Johansson) attempting to pick up unassuming guys on the streets of Glasgow filmed with hidden cameras.

I felt the need to bring up these two points at the start of this review because they’re both pieces of information that the film itself does not really give you, yet anyone who’s read any reviews will be aware of anyway, and Glazer’s been happy to discuss in promotional interviews. They’re also both facts that, after watching Under the Skin, I can’t help wonder how much this prior knowledge affected my viewing experience, and whether or not it would have been preferable not to know them.

We have no idea who Johansson’s character is or where she comes from. We first see her in a featureless, dimensionless brightly, lit white space where her shadowy nude form appears, stripping the clothes from the corpse of a woman we’ve just seen a man recover from a ditch. It’s unlike any familiar human environment, but there are no clues as to where it is.

Sporting black hair, bright red lipstick and a fur coat, Johansson looks suitably stunning in the part, at once recognisably the A-list movie star we know and yet different enough that bystanders could plausibly not recognise her. Her conversations with the locals (which some viewers might need subtitles to understand the thick Glaswegian inflections of) are realistic bouts of small talk, there’s nothing particularly interesting to the improvised dialogue, and I imagine it could have been just as effective if scripted. However this again brings up whether it was a positive or negative influence to know that these were unscripted scenes. There’s no discernable difference in visual or audio quality between shots to betray what’s a hidden camera and what’s not, so was it a good idea to leave audience members like me thinking about what was and what wasn’t ‘real’ in these scenes? I’m still not sure.

After she makes a successful pickup (which doesn’t seem too hard for her, she does look like Scarlett Johansson after all) she takes the men back to another featureless void, though completely black this time, where in quite astonishing sequences of sci-fi horror, the horny young men are swallowed up into an oily liquid to be consumed. There’s some unforgettable imagery on display in these scenes, but the film remains as opaque as its fluid murder weapon in explaining why this is happening.

There’s also a mysterious motorcycle riding man who we see occasionally throughout and know even less about. Is he another alien? I assume so but then is he assisting her? Supervising her? We never see them interact and can only speculate as to the dynamic of their relationship.

Motivations aside, we do gradually learn some things about Johansson’s character as we see Scotland through her eyes, Glazer turns an otherworldly gaze onto everything from shopping malls to cliff faces. In one intriguing and powerful scene at a beach, she exhibits little-to-no understanding of empathy. Indeed, considering that this film will almost certainly be analysed for its examination of gender roles, it’s not entirely clear if she is even aware of gender. She only targets men, but later examines herself in an apparent attempt to understand why they are attracted to her. She also shows no preference for targeting handsome men and in another memorable sequence picks up a man with the facial disfigurement of neurofibromatosis.

It’s this act that triggers changes in her, as she begins to appear increasingly curious about humans. The film manages to alter our attitudes toward her as is explores some ideas about humanity, and ultimately takes a very pessimistic view. The shocking finale is still playing over in my mind.

I didn’t think a great deal of either of Jonathan Glazer’s previous films, and while this features similar techniques, I think he’s found a story much better suited to him. Coming from a background in commercials and music videos, he has a very strong visual sense. Many of the shots here are stunning, both the constructed images of the alien lair and the natural ones of the highland landscape. It’s accompanied with an almost omnipresent score by Mica Levi that’s startlingly effective in its unconventionality. I’m not sure it’s a score I’d want to listen to by itself but the frightening discomfort it creates suits the film perfectly.

I maintain a certain hesitation towards films as wilfully inaccessible as Under the Skin is, and as beautiful as his visuals are, Glazer indulges in the frequent art film technique of often holding them for longer than is really necessary, as if trying to intentionally filter out any audience members with short attention spans.

Intellectual art film aspirations and science fiction horror rarely go hand in hand but Under the Skin is exactly that. It uses Scarlett Johansson in a way we never seen before, utilising her real-world reputation to reflect on how the men in the film view her character. It’s likely to put off a lot of people, and the filmmakers decision to be open in promoting the film but oblique within it remain questionable, but in the few days since I’ve seen it it’s really stuck with me as one of the most unique films we’re likely to see this year.

4/5