Stephen reviews: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Peter Ferdinando

Directed by Rupert Sanders


I was looking forward to this movie with a mixture of hope and dread. My expectations were set low, but at the same time I had a hunch that Ghost in the Shell was possibly the only anime franchise that might work well as a Hollywood production. The serious tone, cyberpunk setting, and evil corporations mesh well with the kind of FX-heavy, sci-fi action films that Hollywood likes to churn out. So does it work? Well, if by working you mean that it is a functional mass market formulaic Hollywood film, then yes I suppose it does. It checks off all the boxes that modern Hollywood films are supposed to have at any rate.

The film is basically a hodgepodge of scenes from the various anime titles, mostly the first movie, so it was pretty much all stuff I’ve already seen. I can’t really call this a bad thing since this is an adaptation of the story. This live-action film was honestly in a tough spot. It had to stay true enough to the original to avoid pissing off the fanboys, but it still had to have enough mainstream appeal to make a profit. On top of that, there has never been a truly successful Hollywood anime adaptation (sure, I liked Fist of the North Star, but that was hardly a commercial hit), so they were understandably playing this pretty cautiously and avoiding risky artistic decisions. This leaves the film kinda drab, neither good nor bad.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-PosterStarring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Claudia Kim, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis

Directed by Joss Whedon

Expectations: Superhero high.

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Let’s just get it out of the way: Avengers: Age of Ultron is not as good as the first Avengers film. It simply does not deliver that same sense of fun comic book action, but the good thing to note is that Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t really attempt to hit those same notes. It’s fundamentally a different type of film; it’s much darker in tone, and its main purpose seems to be more about setting up future films in the series than telling its own interesting storyline. Part of my problem with Marvel’s Phase 2 films is that they were all fairly unrelated to one another, lacking in even the relatively sparse world-building that existed in the Phase 1 films. Consequently, Avengers: Age of Ultron bears the weight of tying everything together, and this makes it feel like more of a big puzzle piece than a coherent picture all its own.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing — in fact, these threads that lead directly towards Infinity Gauntlet (and less so towards Civil War) were among my favorite scenes in the film. I’ve been a supporter of Marvel’s unprecedented way of bringing comic book storytelling to the big screen, but the main fault in that method is that everything takes so long. The first hints of the Infinity Gems were probably six or seven years ago at this point, and that’s a crushingly long time to wait for something to develop. These are the times I wish I had no knowledge of these things, as then these moments would just be mere hints at something to come instead of ruthless teases. And to think we’re still three years away from actually seeing Thanos bring all the gems together and kick some major ass with them. Sigh.

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Quick Takes: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Under the Skin, High Road to China

cap2_1Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
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Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Maximiliano Hernández, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones
Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

I liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier much better than I liked the first Cap movie, but it definitely wasn’t the game-changing superhero movie that I had heard it was. Good thing I don’t expect much other than heroes fighting villains in my superhero movies! Simply put: if you like the Marvel movies, definitely watch this. It features a lot of fun action and a few great things are introduced that will probably deliver more in later movies down the road. I do have to say that I’m surprised by how little any of the post-Avengers movies connect to each other. I don’t think it’s especially necessary, but with the idea that these movies are part of a “phase” now, it does make one think they ought to be more related than they are. But whatever, this one’s got Cap, Black Widow and Falcon all kickin’ ass and takin’ names, so I was more than happy with what I got.

UndertheSkinUnder the Skin (2014)

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden
Directed by Jonathan Glazer

This is why I avoid trailers. Unfortunately, I happened to see the trailer for Under the Skin multiple times over the past few months while I saw repertory screenings at the local arthouse. The trailer is packed full of surreal, engaging imagery, and the marketers even went so far as to use quotes that suppose that director Jonathan Glaser might be an “heir to Kubrick.” So by the time I actually saw Under the Skin, it was thoroughly overhyped and unable to deliver on my expectations. But I definitely liked it. It’s a strange little science fiction movie that creates a significant, believable portrayal of an alien on Earth with effectively no budget and mostly non-professional actors. There’s lots of nudity throughout, and much of it feels gratuitous and only there to add to the film’s hype (given Johansson’s fame). This, in turn, made me imagine the film with the character genders reversed but the nudity the same, and what the reception may have been like then. I’m guessing it wouldn’t be quite the critical darling it seems to be and it probably would’ve been NC-17, too. Apparently, like the men in the film, even critics can succumb to the beauty of Scarlett Johansson.

highroad_1High Road to China (1983)
twohalfstar

Starring Tom Selleck, Bess Armstrong, Jack Weston, Wilford Brimley, Robert Morley, Brian Blessed, Cassandra Gava, Michael Sheard
Directed by Brian G. Hutton

High Road to China is an enjoyable, entertaining film… when it’s not being annoying and too slowly paced. I had hoped to see more of China in a film with this title (and considering that it was co-produced by Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest), but it really is about the road TO China. The aerial footage of the bi-planes, whether it’s grand scenes of scenic beauty or old-fashioned dogfights, is gorgeous and adds considerably to the film’s draw. Evidently, at the time of release this was seen as a Raiders of the Lost Ark clone, but the two films couldn’t be more different. High Road to China is a much more low-key adventure, with a much less likeable hero, but in this day and age of green screen, CG landscapes, it was wonderful to see actual planes flying in the actual air over the actual mountains. If you’re a Tom Selleck fan, definitely give this one a shot.

The Avengers (2012)

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Alexis Denisof

Directed by Joss Whedon

Expectations: High. All of my childhood superhero fantasies are riding on this film.


As I noted above, I had huge expectations for The Avengers. Not because of a trailer; I didn’t watch any of them. Not because of the director, Joss Whedon; I’ve never seen a single thing he’s worked on. No, it’s all based on childhood comic reading, the combined strengths of the preceding films (even if some of them were less than stellar), and good ole gut instinct. The crazy amount of good buzz led me to believe that I wouldn’t be let down, but I’ve been burned so many times by buying into popular opinions and hype that I did my best to wall myself off from these types of influences. I know I’m late to the party with this review, but if you care about comic books in film then you simply must get out and see this sumbitch. Through the entire film I felt like a kid unleashed in a comic book store with a hundred-dollar bill; this was literally everything I could have ever wanted in an Avengers movie. The Avengers is the superhero film turned to eleven and freed of the cursed “origin story” shackles, and so for fans, this is exactly what you’re looking for.

The Avengers has a story, but it’s nothing more than a simple framework to allow the heroes to come together and kick ass. Because this is essentially the sixth film in a long-running series, the characters are all set up and ready to go; we only need to know the simple whys and hows of their current situations. I feel sorry for anyone that didn’t watch the previous films or read any Marvel comics in their youth, because The Avengers just drops you in mid-story and hopes you’re up to speed. This “assemble the team” section goes on a bit too long, but it perfectly sets up the characters as they will relate to one another in this film, as well as setting the stage for the action to come. But realistically, the story is just this: Loki has stolen the Cosmic Cube (here called the Tesseract, but I refuse to call it that!) and seeks to open a portal with it to unleash his space army. There’s not much else in the way of plot, besides the action and some good, if obvious, character development.

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Mini-Review: Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jon Favreau

Directed by Jon Favreau

Expectations: Low.


I’ve tried to write something about Iron Man 2 for the past week or so and every time I get a couple of paragraphs in I lose interest. This is an adequate analogy for the film as it’s fun while you’re watching it, but there’s absolutely no substance backing it up. It’s a blockbuster, so I don’t necessarily need substance but Iron Man 2 fails to make it up with the killer action sequences and mind-numbing explosions that you expect. It has its share to be sure, but none of them are all that great. Probably my favorite moment of the film was watching Robert Downey Jr. work with his holographic hand-controlled computer interface, which was a fun advancement on the tech seen in Minority Report.

Overall, I liked the cotton candy of Iron Man 2 though. Mickey Rourke, despite a poor accent, is a great addition to the cast. It’s unfortunate that his part in the film is rather minor, as he has to share the villain limelight with Stark’s failing heart. As much as I love Don Cheadle, he is a step down from Terence Howard for this role. Cheadle seems much too soft, but does come into his own by the end of the film, when both Downey and him are suited up and ready to go. Scarlet Johansson is another wasted person, completely superfluous to the film and the story. It’s nice to lay the seeds of The Avengers movie within this film, but for me the S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff was pretty forced. Fuck it though, Sam Jackson as Nick Fury was fairly fulfilling and promises good things to come.

If you liked Iron Man, give this one a go with your brain set to mild indifference. If you go in riding high, you will only be disappointed with this sequel. It fulfills the childhood dreams of watching dudes in robot suits shoot lasers and shit, but not much else. The character relationships are incredibly shallow here and seem to marginally move past what was laid out in the first film. It’s fun and I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it definitely leaves you wanting.




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