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Review – Ghost In The Shell (12a) [2017]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

Director:

Cast:

  • Scarlet Johansson – The Prestige, HerCaptain America II & III, Lucy, The Avengers Assemble IIII
  • Pilou Asbæk – A Hijacking, Lucy, A War, Game of Thrones, The Guardian Angel
  • Juliette Binoche – The English Patient, Another Woman’s Life, Godzilla, Clouds of Sils Maria, Dark Glasses
  • Chin Han – The Dark Knight, 2012, Contagion, Captain America II, Independence Day II, A Different Sun
  • Michael Pitt – Dawson’s Creek, The Village, Funny Games, You Can’t Win
  • Peter Ferdinando – The Bill, Snow White and The Huntsman, Starred Up, 300: Rise of an Empire, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
  • Takeshi Kitano – Brother, Blood And Bones, Beyond Outrage, A Living Promise, Outrage Coda

Music Composer:

  • Lorne Balfe – Ironclad, Not Another Happy Ending, Penguins of Madagascar, The LEGO Batman Movie, Churchill
  • Clint Mansell – Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan, Stoker, High-Rise, Mute

The issue of ‘whitewashing’ in Hollywood (i.e. when a white actor plays a non-white role) is nothing new. In 1931 Warner Oland played the role of a Chinese detective Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan Carries On and in 1956 John Wayne played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. One would like to think that Hollywood had moved on since the mid-twentieth century. But Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton playing Middle Easterners (with risible fake tan sprayed onto them) in 2014’s Exodus; Tilda Swinton playing the Ancient One in last year’s Doctor Strange (even though the comic-book character is meant to be from the Himalayas); and Matt Damon playing the white saviour of the native Chinese in The Great Wall earlier this year, proves otherwise. And the whitewashing ludicrously continues in Ghost In The Shell.

Major (Scarlett Johansson), on the opeating table, being created.

Ghost In The Shell is a sci-fi film based on the Japanese Manga series and the 1995 film with the same name. The movie begins in the near future in a city that resembles Tokyo/Hong Kong. Hanka Robotics, a corporation, is trying to improve mankind by putting people’s brains into robot’s bodies and enhancing their strengths. One such robot is Major (Scarlett Johansson). The corporation deem her the best of her kind, a super-weapon to fight terrorism.

But Major has feelings and emotions, like a person. What if she does not want to be just a weapon for Hanka? What of her memories that she struggles with? And where did she come?

Ghost In The Shell is a sci-fi action thriller and very disappointing. The whitewashing element is problematical in and of itself as Scarlet Johansson looks incongruous in this Tokyo-/Hong Kong-like city. But the whitewashing is also a convenient distraction for Hollywood and Rupert Sanders (back helming a film for the first time since Snow White and The Huntsman, following his adulterous affair with Kristen Stewart). For a film that is supposed to be a thriller, Ghost In The Shell is anything but thrilling.

Major in action, about to take out terrorists. Alas, the bodysuit is more noticeable than anything she might achieve.

Firstly, one can see where the movie is heading as obviously as a sinner to hell. If one has watched The Fifth Element, i,Robot and Blade Runner (to name but three), a viewer will feel like he/she has seen this film before. Secondly, Ghost In The Shell misses the point of its own existence. Sanders could have even used the whitewashing of Major’s character to his benefit and made the film interesting. For example, he could have explored the issue of identity. Then, Major could have asked herself if skin colour is central to a person’s identity, or if it is her memories, or if it is her characteristics, or her actions (or her sex drive as Alex Garland cleverly did in Ex Machina). But does Sanders do any of this? No, and that is why Ghost In The Shell is so disappointing, plot-wise.

Other than the plot, the acting is OK. The film is dominated by Scarlett Johansson and she plays decently enough. She is not as good as Alicia Vikander was in Ex Machina, but that has probably more to do with the lousy script than Johansson’s acting. (Incidentally, the script was written by Ehren Kruger, renowned writer of trash like Scream 3 and Transformers II, III & IV. In hindsight, Ghost In The Shell was doomed from the start.) But the lousy script aside, Johansson is undone by the gratuitous, nude bodysuit she wears throughout the film. It is so off-putting that even if the script had been as strong as Ex Machina’s, or that of Her in which Johansson terrifically voiced a talking operating system, Johansson still would have been undermined.

Kuze (Michael Pitt), an older version of Major that got away. One wonders: why would this deformed robot have gone rogue…?

Lastly, and by far the best part of Ghost In The Shell, is the world and the special effects. The city is at once neon-lit and futuristic, yet dark and seedy at the same time. None of this is original and much of it resembles Blade Runner, The Fifth Element or Tron on hallucinogens. Nevertheless, it is the most engaging part of the movie and that speaks volumes for how unengaging the storyline and the characters are.

Over-all, Ghost In The Shell is an unsatisfactory film. The movie could have gone in so many fascinating directions, but instead it chose the hackneyed one that audiences have seen before. That would have been bad enough. That Scarlett Johansson plays the main, non-white protagonist exacerbates the film’s many issues. Seriously, Hollywood, we’re in 2017. How is whitewashing still an issue? Enough is enough already! A white person playing a Japanese robot looks as out of place in Ghost In The Shell as a nuclear warhead would in Lord of the Rings.

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Review – Captain America III: Civil War (12a) [2016]

Captain America 3 - title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Directors:

  • Anthony Russo – LuckyYou, Me & DupreeCommunityCaptain America II, The Avengers III: Infinity War: Part I
  • Joe Russo – Welcome To CollinwoodArrested DevelopmentYou, Me & Dupree, Captain America II, The Avengers III: Infinity War: Part I

Cast:

Music Composer:

Six weeks ago, Batman v Superman (BvS) finally arrived in cinemas. It was essentially about 100 minutes of a jumbled nothingness in order to get two superheroes to take opposing sides and smash each other black and blue. It was a tremendously disappointing film. So upon entering Captain America III: Civil War, with the prospect of a dozen superheroes taking sides and smashing each other up, was one right to be apprehensive? Hell no!

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) have a sensible discussion about the pros and cons of signing up the Sokovia Accords.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) have a sensible discussion about the pros and cons of signing up the Sokovia Accords.

Put simply, Captain America III begins shortly after the events in Sokovia (the final battle in The Avengers II: Age of Ultron). The world is furious with the Avengers due to the amount of death and destruction they caused. As a result, the UN have issued the Sokovia Accords and want to ratify them, to ensure that the Avengers will be unable to act without UN approval in future conflicts. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) agrees with the need for the accords and general oversight since he feels guilty for the carnage the Avengers caused; particularly as he created Ultron.

However, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) disagrees. He believes in his own judgement and claims to know when it is best for the Avengers to act, not the UN. This splits within the Avengers down the middle as some take Stark’s side while others take Rodger’s side. Complicating matters further is the return of Roger’s friend, Bucky, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Stark believes he is a great danger, but Rogers does not. And so the civil war begins.

Captain America III is a lot of fun. It is 147-minutes of continuous smash ups involving our favourite Avengers characters (minus Thor and the Hulk), with some aspects of a storyline (or three) in between all the fighting. Unsurprisingly, the plot makes little sense. But to give directors Anthony and Joe Russo credit, the plot for Captain America III makes considerably more sense than BvS (despite having three times as many characters). In addition, the tone is consistent and enjoyable due to its carefree comic nature, in stark contrast to BvS’s imbalance of ultra-seriousness and unrealistic, over-the-top fight sequences.

Captain America (centre) and his side of the civil war, consisting of Bucky (Sebastian Stan), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Anti-Man (Paul Rudd) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

Captain America (centre) and his side of the civil war, consisting of Bucky (Sebastian Stan), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Anti-Man (Paul Rudd) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

Another element of Captain America III that the directors get right is the lack of background for all the characters upon their introductions, including the new Peter Parker/Spiderman (Tom Holland). That is not to say that the introductions aren’t done well. On the contrary, they are apt and very amusing too, but more in a welcome back way (with the exception of Spiderman) rather than in the form of long-winded origins stories. (Take note Zack Snyder: when something has been done well already, i.e. Bruce Wayne’s/Batman’s background in 2005’s Batman Begins; or has been overdone badly, i.e. how Peter Parker got his Spidy-powers in 2002’s Spiderman and 2012’s The Amazing Spiderman, there is no need to put in the same tale again that cinema-goers are tired of, and especially not in slow-motion.)

Captain America III gets a lot right. Nevertheless, it is too long and the constant bashing that the superheroes do to each other does become repetitive. One can have a snooze in the movie, wake up and still be watching the same fight scene or a different one. It really makes no difference. Nothing of lasting consequence ever happens.

Team Iron Man, consisting of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and War Machine (Don Cheadle). Spiderman (Tom Holland) is also on Team Iron Man, but he is not in the picture.

Team Iron Man, consisting of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and War Machine (Don Cheadle). Spiderman (Tom Holland) is also on Team Iron Man, but he is not in the picture.

Also, like in Captain America II, Civil War’s storylines run out of puff long before the film’s climactic battle(s). Viewers can be forgiven for forgetting (or even for failing to understand) why Captain America and Iron Man are fighting one another by the end. Then again, one could say that about pretty much all the Marvel comic-book films really. And, strangely enough, that is the point: it doesn’t matter. That is why viewers like Marvel comic-book films and why the studios keep churning out more of them.

Over-all, Captain America III: Civil War is an entertaining, light-hearted film. It is funny and action-packed. Yes, those who have seen other Avengers-related films have probably seen it all before, but who cares? Audiences go into comic-book films, like Captain America III, wanting to enjoy themselves, to watch an ensemble of superheroes beat each other up, and to laugh. The movie delivers, which is more than what can be said for another film about an ensemble of superheroes that fought one another recently.

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Review – Captain America II: The Winter Soldier (12a) [2014]

Captain America 2 - title banner

Star Rating: 3/5

Directors:

Cast:

Music Composer:

Titular characters are usually (and unsurprisingly) the main characters in their films. Bruce Wayne/Batman is the lead character in Batman Begins, Conan is the central performer in Conan the Barbarian, and Tony Stark/Iron Man is the dominant personality of the Iron Man franchise. Yet, in some movies the titular character is usurped by a member of the supporting cast. This is what happens in Captain America II: The Winter Soldier, and in this case it makes for a better spectacle.

Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) bent over a computer, uploading data as part of her mission.

The saucy Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) bent over a computer, uploading data as part of her mission.

Captain America II is the third instalment of Marvel’s ‘Phase II’ and takes place two years after the events of The Avengers Assemble I. With military and spy technology having evolved, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) has become increasingly uncomfortable with how SHIELD is operating. Believing that there is something underhand at SHIELD, Captain America and his fellow Avenger, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), go on the run to find out who or what might be behind SHIELD’s worrying change of direction. And that is when they come up against the powerful Winter Soldier…

Captain America II is a significant improvement on Captain America I. Its storyline is much more enjoyable and it justifies its 136 minute running time. Unlike the lacklustre and simplistic plots of Captain America I, Iron Man III and Thor II (the latter-two films being the previous two instalments of Marvel’s ‘Phase II’), Captain America II’s storyline tries to be complex and raises some thought-provoking moral dilemmas. Issues, such as the use of drones, and how far government agencies are permitted to use technology to gather intelligence about its citizens (and foreign ones) are matters that are greatly relevant to the present era, and the film should be commended for bringing them up.

However, Captain America II lacks the stamina to maintain these complicated themes as the film goes on. This is because the movie does not have the maturity of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so it falls into laughable stereotypes and senselessness; all of which is a shame to a degree, yet do not affect the film’s entertainment value.

The part-masked and super-powerful Winter Soldier, whose identity and motives are unknown to SHIELD.

The part-masked and super-powerful Winter Soldier, whose identity and motives are unknown to SHIELD.

Chiefly, this is because of the role of Black Widow, played wonderfully by Scarlett Johansson. Black Widow has appeared in Iron Man II and The Avengers Assemble I; nevertheless, it is only in Captain America II that Black Widow is given proper screen time to express herself and she does not disappoint. In a similar vein to the Joker in The Dark Knight, Christian Bale’s Dicky in The Fighter, and Loki in Thor I & II, when Black Widow is not on screen viewers long for her return. It is not just due to her skin-tight costume, her excellent kick-ass skills, and Johansson’s tantalising good looks (although those are inordinately influential); it is Black Widow’s astuteness, savviness and (somewhat) enigmatic personality that makes audiences want to see more of her, since she keeps one guessing as to what her agenda is throughout the movie. (Indeed, it’s pity that there is not more of her.)

Black Widow undoubtedly overshadows the titular Captain America. This is not surprising since Captain America is the least talented and the least interesting of all the Marvel heroes. Captain America is merely the archetypal soldier without a bad bone in his body, which (as lovely as it sounds) makes for dull viewing (which was probably why Captain America I was so boring and why the directors included Black Widow this time around). This is not to say that Chris Evans does a bad job with the material he’s been given; it’s just that the material doesn’t have enough substance to it and wastefully does not develop Captain America’s character. The same is true for Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), while the villains (none of whom I’ll name for fear of spoiling the film) are even less fleshed out and significantly more trite.

Trite is also how one can describe the dialogue in Captain America II. For the heroes, the dialogue is lazily written; for the villains, it is pitifully comical.

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), in full garb, ready to take out his (and America's) enemies, alongside the Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), in full garb, ready to take out his (and America’s) enemies, alongside the Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

But dialogue aside, the many (but thankfully not too many) stunts and action scenes are well choreographed. Those, in addition to the decent CGI and the uplifting music score, make Captain America II an enjoyable watch.

All-in-all, Captain America II: The Winter Soldier is an entertaining comic-book hero movie. Its attempts to be complicated, both on a plot and on a moral level, may become silly as the movie goes on. Yet, the film holds its audiences interest throughout its over two-hour running time. Unquestionably, this is because of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. In Captain America’s own movie, Black Widow steals his thunder (pardon the Thor pun), so much so that the film should not be called Captain America II: The Winter Soldier, but Black Widow: The Savvy Avenger.

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Review – Her (15) [2014]

Her - header

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Spike Jonze – Being John Malkovich, Where The Wild Things Are, Pretty Sweet, Choose You

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Owen Pallett – The Box, The Wait

Over the last two decades, technology has taken on a greater and more controlling part of everyday life for people. From transportation to computers to sophisticated mobile phones, it is almost impossible to imagine a time when mankind lived without technology virtually running our lives. But can technology go further? Can people develop feelings for technology as if it were a complex person? This is what Spike Jonze’s impressive, if strange, indie romantic comedy Her explores.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), looking back in time, remembering when he broke up with his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara).

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), looking back in time, remembering when he broke up with his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara).

Her is set in 2025 and follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely, sad man. By day, Theodore works for a business that transcribes heartfelt messages for people unwilling or unable to speak/write such messages to loved ones; and by night, he plays 3D video games in his room and has phone sex with random women.

Unhappy with the way his life is panning out, especially because he is in the process of divorcing his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore purchases an interactive operating system. Theodore chooses certain personality traits for his operating system and soon forms a relationship with his operating system, which calls itself/herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Her is an interesting film. The movie raises some thought-provoking questions as to what constitutes a relationship and whether a relationship needs to have physical elements for it to be emotionally satisfying. At times whilst watching Her, one forgets that Samantha/Scarlett Johansson is not physically there, such is the three-dimensional realness of her character.

Theodore out on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde).

Theodore out on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde).

Part of the reason why one subconsciously believes that Samantha/Scarlett Johansson is physically there is because of the depth of her character. Indeed, she has a three-dimensional realness that is both noteworthy and worrying at the same time. But another factor is the strength of the performances of the cast, which is aided by the excellence of the script Jonze has written, the artfulness of the film’s music, and the believability of the futuristic world that has been created.

As ever, Joaquin Phoenix plays magnificently as the odd, socially-inept, reclusive, and commitment-phobic Theodore, trying to find a way out of his own misery. Phoenix spends much of the time on screen by himself, talking to his operating system. Despite this, Phoenix carries the movie with his engagingly sensitive and highly-complicated display in a similar vein to Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and in a different way as James Franco did in 127 Hours.

Similarly, Amy Adams is splendid as Theodore’s odd, unconfident friend, with a failing marriage, and whose career has yet to take off; Scarlett Johansson provides humour, a get-up-and-go attitude, and an intelligence that makes her the envy of any genuine person; and Rooney Mara plays well enough (with the small time she is given) as Theodore’s soon-to-be ex-wife, trying to make sense of her husband’s choice to date an operating system without making the scene look laughable and ludicrous.

Theodore, unable to sleep, so he turns on his operating system to talk with Samanatha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Theodore, lonely and unable to sleep, turns on his operating system to talk with Samanatha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

However, what let’s Her down is that it is way too long and (tragically) quite boring. Her’s premise is used up within thirty minutes of its running time. This means that the film’s remaining 96 minutes feels like it goes on and on. This is a real shame, as Her is something genuinely different to what one is so used to watching in romantic comedies.

All-in-all, Her is an original and, in so many ways, is a great film. The acting is brilliant, Jonze’s script is outstanding, the music is wonderfully atmospheric, and the world the movie is set in is realistic and apt. Yet, Her should have been 45 minutes long at the most, rendering the majority of the film tedious and wearisome. Moreover, it is a weird movie that is unlikely to sit well with most viewers. Most conspicuously, Her raises the issues of what constitutes a relationship, and how far one’s relationship with technology can go. Considering how much technology has come (and will continue) to rule people’s lives, this is a troubling thought and operating systems, like Samantha, might not be so hypothetical in the not-too-distant future.

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