(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) When I say that I’m impressed at this Ghost in the Shell live-action remake, please read until the end of the sentence: I’m impressed at how this Ghost in the Shell live-action remake manages to take all the high points of the original anime film and spin them into a new and entirely boring whole. It’s practically impossible to imagine someone taking the best part of a classic film and making such a mediocre product out of it, but this film is proof of the seemingly-impossible. Whitewashing controversy aside (and yes, the film would have been a bit more interesting with a non-Caucasian lead), Scarlett Johansson is the least of the film’s problems when it’s the entire production that is so forgettable. (At least she gets to burnish her credentials as this generation’s emblem for post-humanism). While the production design has its own high points before delivering exactly the same thing as so many wannabe-cyberpunk films do, it’s the witless and unsurprising script that really lets the film down. In-between this and Snow White and the Huntsmen, director Rupert Sanders is proving himself a surprisingly untalented purveyor of mediocre dreck. There’s been a glut of SF movies and series lately about post-humans, and while the original Ghost in the Shell remains an impressive classic, this one is a tepidly warmed-over of familiar ideas weakly played. Dour and humourless roughly twenty years after bleakness has been overplayed in mid-future Science Fiction, this remake is destined to rapid memory oblivion. I not only dislike it because of my devotion to the original: Even on its own, this Ghost in the Shell is an average take on stale ideas.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) Nearly twenty years ago, I had the misfortune of catching a free advance screening of Very Bad Things, a film so vile in its black humour that even a certain competency of execution couldn’t shake the stomach-churning reprehensibility of its subject matter. I bring it up because, for a horrifying moment, Rough Night seemed to be headed in more or less the same distaff direction, as a group of bachelorettes accidentally kill what they think is a male stripper and then try to cover up the crime. Despite the combined comic talents and good looks of comediennes such as Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer and Zoë Kravitz, the film seems intent of revisiting the same awful places—how are you ever going to get laughs out of that situation, with a guy bleeding to death on the floor? Fortunately, writer/director Lucia Aniello isn’t quite so sadistic and misanthropic, and as Rough Night advances, it ends up clarifying that the death was actually preemptive self-defence and so we can all have a good laugh about it. Whew. I have no qualms blowing part of the film’s third act revelations in those circumstances, as knowing how it turns out may help a few viewers make it through the film’s middle section. It will help that the actors are doing what they do best—Jillian Bell is the flamboyant centre of attraction, while Kate McKinnon brings a recognizable dose of absurdity to an eccentric character. Scarlett Johansson chooses to play her character as the level-headed one. In smaller roles, Demi Moore and Ty Burrell show up a sex-crazed neighbours. While the film does suffer from the usual excesses of contemporary R-rated comedies (far too much profanity substituting for wit or actual comedy) and loses itself in scattered subplots that could have been tightened up, my opinion of Rough Night at the end is far more positive than it would have been at the dull start or the far-too-violent middle. As an entry in the “girl comedies can be R-rated” subgenre that sprung up in the wake of Bridesmaid, it’s passable but forgettable.
(In French, in theatres, December 2016) We’ve all seen Sing before: The animated film featuring a world of anthropomorphized animals. The musical comedy in which misfits gather together to put on a show to save something from destruction and rekindle their self-esteem. The madcap action sequences leading to laughter. Sing is that and not much more, but it does earn points for a breezy execution and an uncanny ability to play a jukebox of pop music to good effect. The French version of the film wisely doesn’t try to translate the songs and while the result may take bilingual fluency to decode (take it from me; bilingual dad got far more from the film than unilingual pre-schooler), it does keep much of the original-language humour intact … and features the original song performers. That’s not inconsequential when talents such as Tori Kelly (easily the best signer, but not the most enjoyable one) or Seth MacFarlane and Scarlett Johansson (not the best singers, but the best characters) are featured in the film. Animated with the big bold colourful style of Illumination Entertainment, Sing doesn’t ask much of its viewers and is built on top of the most basic plot structures available, but it’s friendly, snappy, halfway-clever in the way it moves familiar pieces and a lot of fun for the entire family.
(On TV, November 2016) If I was in a jocular mood, I’d probably use Girl with a Pearl Earring as an excuse for a rant on the sorry state of Hollywood creativity: Not only are they adapting novels, TV Shows, videogames, now they’re even adapting paintings, for goodness’ sake! But it’s hard to be in anything but a coma after watching the film, which delves deep into the minutia of a 17th century Dutch household as it imagines the circumstances leading to Vermeer’s eponymous painting. Scarlett Johansson stars as the eponymous girl, while Colin Firth gets a smile or two as the long-haired romantic incarnation of the painter. Much of the rest is either domestic infighting, or a half-hearted romantic triangle. There are, to be sure, a few things worth mentioning about the film: The cinematography plays with the colour scheme of the film to reflect various Vermeer paintings, and Johansson does bear a passing resemblance to the painting itself. But much of it feels dull and far too long. I suspect that part of my lack of appreciation for the film has to do with the film’s presentation: For some reason, the version I watched on TV (on a channel that usually does its best despite commercial breaks) had muddy colors, bad compression artifacts and (most unexplainably) a 4:3 aspect ratio for a film shot in 2.35:1. Still, no amount of presentation will fix the interminable pacing of the story, so I don’t expect to revisit Girl with a Pearl Earring anytime soon.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) What a gloriously insane film this is. It’s not even worth being incensed about its use of the widely-debunked “using only 10% of our brains” nonsense, not when the counter keeps going up and the protagonist manages to gleefully ignore the laws of physics. Scarlett Johansson scores (after Her) another captivating performance in a film about the singularity, except that she’s the one going through it an attaining a post-human state by the time the credits roll. This being said, this is a film written and directed by Luc Besson, so it’s no use getting hung up on questions of coherence and subtlety hen he’s far more interested in marrying action-film kinetics with superhero flights of fancy. As a magical drug courses through our protagonist’s veins, the film makes less sense and becomes more fun, albeit in the “I can’t believe someone financed something this crazy” sense of fun. Compared to Transcendence, it’s got 10% of the brains but 100% more dynamism, and that “singularity for dummies” vibe definitely works to the film’s advantage. The directing moves fast (despite not being particularly well-directed –many of the so-called action scenes are a bit generic), and so does the story in an attempt not to have viewers think too hard about what’s happening. It reaches a joyously absurd conclusion with the secrets of the universe being made available on an USB key, but not before a trip back in time for a handshake with our progenitor. Whew! Morgan Freeman cashes an easy check as a scientist who just lectures and sees everything happening, but it’s really Scarlett Johansson who buffers her post-human action-heroine credentials in Lucy. As for the movie, it ain’t too smart, but it’s just crazy enough to work.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) I am not a big fan of self-conscious artistic cinema, so I ask for forgiveness if my appreciation of Under the Skin is muted. I prefer clearly articulated plots to the kind of make-your-own-meaning exemplified in this film, as devoid as it can be of dialogue or unambiguity. The film often indulges in lengthy shots that may or not may mean on or many more things. What I took from it is; Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in Scotland who does terrible things to people, mostly men, that she picks up. When she develops empathy, she runs away, is pursued by a helper, figures out that she’s nowhere near being human and suffers the consequences of hate. At least I think that’s it – the film is made as such to provoke countless different interpretations, and if you’re not in the mood for that kind of shenanigans then stay away. My own patience was sorely tested (the grim shaky-cam cinematography didn’t help), although I can’t deny that some sequences are powerful in their own. (That beach scene…. Argh.) Johansson here seems determined to undermine her beautiful-girl persona, stripping away all layers of seductiveness until we get to the repellent reptilian core under the skin. (She does have one or two naked scenes in the film, and they are as far away from eroticism as you can get.) Director Jonathan Glazer is doing his own thing with this film, eschewing even basic storytelling foundations in favor of something far more experimental, hermetic and surreal. Under the Skin is a harsh puzzle rather than straight-up entertainment and while I’m not the best audience for that kind of movie-making, I can appreciate Johansson’s bravey in taking a role that riffs so effectively from her usual image. I wouldn’t want all SF films to be as abstract at this one, but once in a while isn’t too bad. This being said, I’m not watching Under the Skin again any time soon; once is bad enough.
(Video on Demand, October 2013) Marvel Studios sure has been on a roll lately; exception made of the dull Thor movies, their last few films haven’t merely played the superhero-blockbuster movie theme as well as it could, but they’ve started playing around with the formula in ways that could be considered risky. So it is that Captain America 2 goes well beyond its predecessor, taking on the style of a contemporary techno-thriller, destroying some of the foundations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far and piling up revelations about the entire Marvel series. It’s standard superhero stuff, but it’s so exceptionally well-made, and takes such unnecessary chances that a less confident studio would have avoided, that it can’t help but earn a lot of sympathy. Making fullest use of Chris Evans’ enduring charm, Captain America 2 also gives bigger roles to Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanov and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury: both prove equal to the greater scrutiny. (And that’s without mentioning the plum role given to Robert Redford, in a nod to his place in 1970s political thrillers, or Anthony Mackie once again making full use of his limited time in a supporting role.) (Oh, and George St-Pierre bring a welcome –if incongruous- French-Canadian accent to the film.) The title character adapts well to the current era, but the dilemmas of the contemporary surveillance/intelligence state aren’t a good match for someone forged in 1940s idealism, and it’s those themes, even cursorily tackled, that give interesting depths to Captain America 2 as more than just an action film. Still, even on a moment-to-moment basis, directors Anthony and Joe Russo show a really good eye for what makes great action sequences: fluid camera work, movement with weight, solid sound design and clever moments all contribute to making Captain America 2 one of the best-directed action movie in recent memory: the extended car chase is particularly good, as is the elevator fight sequence. (In-between the other Phase 2 films, let’s give credit to Marvel Studio for its choices as it picks lesser-known directors for major movies.) Other fascinating bits and pieces pepper the film, from a deliciously mainframe-punk Artificial Intelligence reprising a character from the first film, to the big and small details tying this film to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an impressive piece of work, whether it’s considered on a moment-by-moment basis or as part of a series that now sports seven other entries. At a time where DC can’t manage to complete even one fully satisfying superhero movie, it’s a bit amazing to see Marvel so successfully achieve the insanely ambitious plan they forged years ago, at a time when even planning a trilogy was a bit crazy.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) The idea of septuagenarian Woody Allen writing/directing a romantic comedy starring a pair of young women may feel strange, but looking at the result in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, you have to give Allen all the acclaim he deserves. The film features two Americans holidaying in Barcelona: Rebecca Hall as the sensible one with a clear idea of her future and Scarlett Johansson as the flighty one in search of direction. The fun begins when they both fall (at different times) for the same man, and the repercussions that this has over both women’s self-esteem and sense of identity. That, perhaps, is where Allen’s maturity comes into play: by the end of the film, few questions have been settled satisfactorily, even though everyone seems to know a bit more about themselves. As such, don’t expect a conventional crowd-pleaser, even though Vicky Cristina Barcelona is light-hearted enough to qualify as a comedy. Good actors easily make up for whatever non-ending the film may have: While Johansson is decent as the titular Cristina, it’s Rebecca Hall who’s the film’s revelation as the brainier and more conflicted Vicky. Javier Bardem is scarily good as the tall, dark, handsome stranger that shatters the heroines’ world, while Penelope Cruz is almost as striking as the one force of chaos that upsets Bardem’s character. While the film doesn’t have enough of a conclusion to fully satisfy, it’s easy to get swept in this unconventional romantic comedy, and to appreciate the sights that Barcelona has to offer.