Archive for Scarlett johansson

Review: Ghost in the Shell

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2017 by Tom Austin-Morgan

Yet another live action remake of a classic, iconic animation, this is something slightly more grown up than what Disney have been giving us for the last few years though.

Ghost in the Shell has an incredible following by those who enjoy Anime/Manga and as such expectations and fears have been running high. This has been especially apparent around the casting of non-Japanese actors, especially Scarlett Johansson as the Major. Personally, I don’t find this a problem as there are may difficulties when dealing with representations of race within Anime. Plus, the cast is incredibly diverse with actors from Japan, Singapore, Australia, Britain, America, Zimbabwe, Romania, Denmark and France.

The problem this film has is that it tries a bit too hard to explain the reason for the Major’s ethnicity when really it didn’t have to. It’s as though the filmmakers decided to answer the critics instead of having the courage of their convictions.

All that aside, we have a film that takes place over an hour and 47 minutes that is trying to condense the mythology of four previous feature films, three series, as well as books and video games. The live action film focuses on the plot of the 1995 film, with certain scenes and shots that are eerily close to those in the Anime.

Ghost in the Shell is a beautiful looking film. Everything looks like it belongs in the film’s post-cyberpunk world where people enhance themselves with bionic implants. Even though the cityscapes are epic in their scale and the gigantic multicoloured advertisements that tower over the skyscapers, you can tell that this futuristic society is broken. All the film’s characters are brooding and introverted with the Major, in particular, constantly questioning her place in the world. This gives the whole film a very existential and ponderous tone akin to The Matrix, which could be a bit grating to the uninitiated. But, as far as I can remember, this is part-and-parcel of Ghost in the Shell‘s mythology (it’s been a long time since I’ve watched the originals).

I’m almost certain that this will be part of a franchise if it does well enough, as so many films tend to be. This is also the reason I can forgive it being a little underwhelming, however I shouldn’t have to apologise for it’s shortcomings. This should have blown me away. Although it looks amazing and there are some brilliant set pieces, the whole seems a little distant, cold and unengaging… but, I did enjoy it.

Review: The Jungle Book

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2016 by Tom Austin-Morgan

the jungle book

When Disney let Tim Burton reimagine Alice in Wonderland, little did we know that success of that film would kick-start a slew of live-action remakes of their entire back catalogue, but here we are. When the plan to do this with The Jungle Book was floated a few years back, it was met with trepidation; how could it work? Surely it’ll be rubbish, right?

Wrong.

This film is a triumph. Director Jon Favreau has pulled off something truly magical. The seams between the – minimal – physical sets and the first-time actor, Neel Sethi, who is pretty much the only actual actor in the whole film, and the computer generated animals and sets are invisible. There are times where Sethi, as Mowgli, touches the face of the wolf pack mother, (Lupita Nyong’o ), and it looks like he’s interacting with a real wolf. The fur moves so convincingly it completely convinces you that what you’re seeing is actually happening.

In fact, the trailer gave the impression that the animals may come off slightly cartoon-y. Far from it. The animators have made sure  the faces and mouths of the animals only move to the restrictions of that particular animal’s face would move. This adds to the ease in which you can suspend your disbelief.

It has something for everyone: fantastic special effects; a brilliant voice cast; a couple of classic songs from the original, animated movie; humour; threat; and a really strong core message.

The only criticisms to be found come in the shape of small niggles, such as Idris Elba’s performance of Shere Khan is basically Luther. Which isn’t a problem really, but it is strange to hear a tiger speaking in a cockney accent! The other is that Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) is used quite sparingly. Finally, the ending is quite different from that of the Kipling stories and the original animated film. That said, the Kipling versions are short stories, so there’s nothing to say that Favreau’s film ends before the final chapter of these, but it would have been nice to see the conclusion we’ve all grown up with, and is inevitable.

The positives hugely outweigh the negatives though. Bill Murray steals the show as Baloo, it seems as if he was allowed to go off-piste in a way none of the other voice actors as his dialogue is a lot more casual and contemporary. Hearing Christopher Walken deliver lines (and a song) as King Louie – now a Gigantopithecus rather than an Orangutan, as they don’t live in India – was something that will stay with you.

Watching The Jungle Book is a magical experience you don’t experience too often. It’s most definitely worth a watch in the cinema if you haven’t already.

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2015 by Tom Austin-Morgan

Age of Ultron

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes return to battle a foe of their own making in the latest Marvel behemoth to hit the big screen.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a whirlwind of action from start to finish with a massive cast of characters from virtually all the previous films. So much so, that the story is propelled forwards at break-neck speed to cover the developments in everyone’s lives while also introducing new characters as well as set up the plot.

Sounds like a bit of a mess? It is a bit. Unless you’re a comic book aficionado it is becoming more and more difficult to keep up with who everyone is. Especially as there are so many cast members that enough time cannot be afforded to build them up enough to make them 3D.

The most obvious examples of this are ‘the Maximoff twins’, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (though only known by the names Wanda and Pietro – Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively). They are new characters, but their origins were actually revealed at the end of Captain America: Winter Soldier. Also, James Rhodes/War Machine and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie), although big characters in the Iron Man films and Winter Soldier, are marginalised to the point where The Falcon isn’t even referred to by name.

Credit where credit’s due, though, director Joss Whedon does a stellar job with the over-stuffed hand he has been dealt by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He starts the film in the middle of a big action set-piece where we get to see all the Avengers from the first movie doing their thing side-by-side, evoking the big splash pages from the comics.

He then does a balancing act of slowing down to find some human interaction between certain characters, fleshing them out more, namely the scientist bromance between Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and the burgeoning relationship between Banner and Natalia Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Also, Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) has a massive expansion of character in Age of Ultron, he’s always been a B-list Avenger but finally gets a chance to shine here.

There are some stunning visual effects in this film, as we’ve come to expect, but the slower moments between the characters are needed, not just for a chance to breathe, but to showcase Whedon’s knack for writing great, naturalistic and witty dialogue. Some of the standout lines include Hawkeye proclaiming that his role in these apocalyptic battles is ludicrous, bearing in mind his weapon is a bow and arrow. His wife (yep, he’s a secret family man) saying “I totally support your avenging” and The Vision (Paul Bettany – who is a welcome return to the screen in physical form) riffing with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) about the balance of Mjolnir (yes, The Vision can weald Thor’s hammer).

James Spader voices the titular villain, Ultron, with real menace but, as with most Marvel villains, is a bit two-dimensional and is easily dealt with in the end. There is a cameo from Andy Serkis as a South African arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue, who will eventually link Black Panther to the Avengers’ roster, as well as the mention of Wakanda. But this is a digression.

It is clear that Whedon knows his stuff when it comes to these films. He knows what the fans want to see and how to write snappy dialogue as well as handle massive effects shots. The problem is, that there are almost too many characters to fit into one movie and after the addition of move characters in the coming years before the next Avengers film, Infinity War in 2018-9, has been split into two parts. However, the end of Age of Ultron introduces the idea that certain characters can be written in and out to solve this problem, something Marvel will, surely, have to think about. Bearing in mind that people coming out of the cinema today couldn’t remember the red bloke’s (The Vision) name or who that purple guy at the end is.

It’s a bit of a mess, but Whedon is the only man who could have made sense of it all, despite the fact it felt like Marvel’s marketing department were insisting on certain shots or the inclusion of certain scenes. If you’ve never seen any of the previous films you won’t have a clue what’s going on. The Marvel films are starting to get further away from stand-alone as they go. But, if you’re a fan of the comics you’ll enjoy it quite a bit. Can too much of a good thing be bad for you?

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2014 by Tom Austin-Morgan

Captain-America-Winter-Soldier

The Marvel machine continues on its march towards the second Avengers film by revisiting The First Avenger; Captain America.

We pick up with Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) years after the events of Avengers Assemble where he is fully integrated into S.H.I.E.L.D. but is beginning to have some doubts about working with such a paranoid organisation and longs to be back in the army following orders rather than keeping secrets or having secrets kept from him. Deep down, though, he knows that there’s nothing else he can do and that he is needed. However, that feeling isn’t necessarily share with some of the top brass in S.H.I.E.L.D.

More screen time is given to Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. who, until now, has cropped up here and there to give guidance to superheroes having a crisis of faith. He has been the orchestrator, but we haven’t seen him in arse-kicking action. Until now A plot has been hatched for his assassination during which his car is attacked and we see how Fury reacts when put under pressure, aided by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s technology.

During this scene the Winter Soldier makes his first appearance, a masked man with a metal arm and a proficiency with firearms. He also proves to be quite the match for The Cap too, he’s also super humanly strong with an arm that is even stronger. But the biggest revelation comes later when The Winter Soldier’s mask is knocked off. and throws Cap into a deeper moral quandary.

The Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johnansson), has more screen time than in previous Marvel movies to date. But in a less arse-kicking way. We see a more emotionally compromised Romanoff who has found out the organisation responsible for her second chance at life have been lying to her all along and something wicked has been growing for a long time within its structure.

In fact, Captain American: The Winter Soldier is as much of a political spy thriller as a comic book movie can be. There are some great action set pieces but quite a bit of the film features Rogers and Romanoff de-costumed, in the same way The Dark Knight Rises and Iron Man 3 have done recently with their protagonists. The pair are on the run as Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., has put a bounty out on them. This is a film about spying and counter-spying with a comic book twist.

There are so many special appearances in this film from big names like Redford and Jenny Agutter to bit-players from the previous films including Cobie Smulders as Agent Hill, who had a really small part, Maximiliano Hernández as Agent Sitwell, Gary Shandling, the corrupt senator from Iron Man 2 and many more including Toby Jones as the disembodied Arnim Zola. A couple of notable newcomers include Emily VanCamp, who looks to be set up to be a major player in future films and Anthony Mackie who starts off as an ex-soldier who befriends Steve Rogers, but ends up being a new hero in the same vein as Hawkeye, called Falcon. He is the standout character in the film and needed more screen time than he was given.

This is the strongest of the phase 2 Marvel films so far and any completest will be more than happy with it and there are more than enough easter egg moments to keep you looking deeply into the background as well as on the story. However, if you’re a newcomer to the franchise there may be a little too much going on that you need to understand first in order to understand all that’s going on. The obligatory mid and post-credit scenes set up a few new characters for the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron film coming out next year. Roll on 2015, the verdict is still well and truly out on the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy. You’ll read it here first… I’m sure!

Review: Hitchcock

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2013 by Tom Austin-Morgan

hitchcock_poster

Alfred Hitchcock is an iconic figure in suspense cinema, producing a huge body of work throughout his career including Psycho, The Birds and Vertigo to name but three. The end of last year saw two films produced about the man and this was the only one to make it to the big screen (the other being The Girl, starring Toby Jones which was shown on TV in the UK at Christmas – a jolly watch!).

Hitchcock stars Anthony Hopkins as the eponymous auteur in this film dressed in a seamless fat suit and prosthetics, you almost don’t recognise him. Especially with the Hitch’s distinctive accent, which if you listen to both Hopkins and Jones delivering lines with your eyes shut you’d think it was the same actor.

Where The Girl was based on a book by Donald Spoto called Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies which featured interviews with various actresses who worked for him as well as crew members. It focuses on the making of The Birds and Marnie with actress Tippi Hedren (played, surprising well by Sienna Miller) an Hitchcock’s obsession with the fledgling actress. It came across as a bit of a character-assasination, but the best biopics show the dark side of their subjects as well as the genius.

Hitchcock, on the other hand, plays down the fantasising and obsession with blondes. It’s still there, there is a scene taken from Psycho itself where he spies on one of his actresses (Jessica Beil) from  a hole in the wall behind a picture while she de-robes in her dressing room. There is also the bullying he subjected his actors to while filming. But by the end of the film this kind of thing is played as cute; he puts the corpse of Mrs Bates in Janet Jeigh’s (Scarlett Johansson) dressing room after the final take to scare her and the whole crew is in on it. A far cry from Jones’ Hitch who was a threatening and malevolent presence on set and off it.

But, Hitchcock is more about the toll that self-funding the film took on his marriage to Alma (Helen Mirren – minus a fat suit). It gives more screen time to the long-suffering wife, who really seems to be the power behind her husband’s genius.

The film has great performances from its stars and is so enjoyable you could easily watch more, though I do think it suffers a little from not having quite as gritty an edge as The Girl. Though it does try, with the strange cut aways to the apparition of serial killer, Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), talking Hitch through his murders and inspiring the  Norman Bates character. The beginning of the film has one of these moments that sets up the film nicely, but the rest scattered haphazardly throughout tend to distract you from the plot, which is a shame. It also used way too many side on shots of Hopkins in the iconic silhouette pose as is to say “look at how much like Alfred Hitchcock we’ve managed to make Anthony Hopkins look!”

Overall Hitchcock is a good biopic which just falls short of being great. As such this begs the question as to why The Girl never made it into cinemas. In my opinion, it is the stronger of the two, even if just by a bit. Interestingly, the two would work very well as a double bill as Hitchcock ends with the idea for The Birds and The Girl takes up the story from there. An interesting idea, that.

anthony_hopkins_hitchcockToby_Jones_hitchcock

Spot  the difference time!

Review: Avengers Assemble

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2012 by Tom Austin-Morgan

This film has been hotly anticipated for the last four years after Sam Jackson appeared at the end of the trailers of Iron Man introducing himself as Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and letting the cat out of the bag about The Avengers project. Over the next four years we’ve had our introductions with all the highly volatile individuals who would later be forced into fighting together to save the world: Iron Man, The Black Widow, The Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye and Captain America.

There was a genuine sense that this film could have been hugely over-hyped and all the superstar egos could have clashed on set as opposed to gelled, destroying the film entirely. No one could say that they envied whoever had the task of directing this epic superhero movie. But Joss Whedon was the man  appointed to helm this ambitious project and he has certainly exceeded expectations.

As he has proved with his previous work his scripts crackle with a kineticism and wit rarely seen by writers of standard Hollywood blockbusters, and this film is far from standard. First off Loki, the god of mischief (Tom Hiddleston) and Thor’s brother is back from the void and he’s really angry! He steals the Tesseract from S.H.I.E.L.D. and takes off with it and some staff members including Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Sevlig (Stellen Skarsgård), who both return to reprise their roles from Thor. This forces Fury into action assembling the rag-tag band of misfits and egotists who will form the last line of defence for a world now forced into a war it surely cannot win.

The way in which they bring the characters together is really well written, as otherwise it could have felt quite contrived; luckily for Whedon each character has already been fully fleshed out before in  at least one film where they are the star. So no tedious re-treading of back stories means that he catapults us straight into the action. But after the initial good feelings at getting the team together tensions soon arise between the heroes; this soon culminates – under the control of Loki – in the fractures splitting the team apart. The result of which sees Bruce Banner losing it and turning into the “giant green rage monster” and having a fist fight with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who is the only one among the cast who is close to powerful enough to match the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). This rivalry carries on throughout the film and provides a few really funny moments.

The interplay between the characters at this point is ludicrously strong and only a script written by such a massive fan could possibly have held all these megastars together. Personally I expected Downey Jnr to run away with his scenes and be the stand out star of the piece, but everyone has equal amounts of screen time and equal parts drama and snappy one-liners. In fact the one person I had expected to find uninteresting became the star thanks to the script and some mighty fine acting.

After Marvel signed Mark Ruffalo up to play Bruce Banner and “the other guy”, Edward Norton railed against the studios claiming that they went for a cheaper actor rather than the official story stating that they felt Norton wouldn’t want to work in an ensemble cast, and I felt for him; he had made the Banner/Hulk character his own and I really enjoyed The Incredible Hulk. But Ruffalo really stepped into the shoes of the character and gave a fantastic performance as the weary, reclusive scientist who had mastered his control of the monster inside. The scenes between Ruffalo and Downey Jnr really rattle along as the two characters connect over a shared passion for science. He is also both vulnerable and threatening at the same time, a trick that is not easy to pull off, and when he becomes the Hulk he causes non-stop carnage as well as providing at lease two moments of  genuinely hilarious, belly laugh moments of slapstick comedy. One of these, that took me completely by surprise, was his confrontation with Loki, where he cuts the villain’s diatribe short by picking him up and swinging him around like a rag doll into the ceiling and the floor before wandering off retorting “Puny god”!

Contrastingly, I felt that both Captain America and Hawkeye were utilised far less than they could have been and were just there for window dressing purposes.

Another character I felt came alive much more than in her previous film outing was Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) who displayed a much more vulnerable side as well as the kick-ass martial artist from Iron Man 2; she also proves herself as an adept interrogator in a couple of key scenes, most notably against Loki where she double-bluffs him into telling her his plans for dividing the team. A scene in which Whedon manages to get the Chaucerian expletive ‘quim’ past the sensors, which is to be applauded. As far as I can remember this was the only swear word in the film and would have gone over the heads of most, he didn’t even cave into the half swearing that other films have stooped to in the past and proves that you don’t need to swear to make a script engaging.

There was a point in the final battle where the spectre of Transformers style CG confusingness could have set in, but Whedon stepped up to the mark once again and managed to make an apocalyptic battle for the end of the Earth into something easy to follow. In fact some of the best shots were used in these final minutes. There is one ‘continuous shot’ that tracks around the streets of New York showing off each character fighting the aliens who are terrorising the city after the Tesseract opens a portal to the dimension Loki appeared from at the beginning of the film. One other shot that really impressed me was from inside a car that was flipped onto its roof. The camera was stationary in the centre of the car looking through the windscreen as the car was rolled; the thing that really stuck out in this blink-and-you-miss-it shot was the fact that it was real, unlike a lot of the stunts in these kinds of films, but it didn’t look out-of-place in amongst all the CG effects shots. Another example of good directing with an eye for visual effects.

After a four-year wait Avengers Assemble lives up to and exceeds expectations and finally put Joss Whedon on the map as a top class director, hopefully we’ll get to see more of him in the years to come as he truly deserves recognition. This is a must-see blockbuster in a sea of utter tosh that is saturating the multiplexes at the moment.