Film review – Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017)

When the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell was announced, the online rhetoric centred around the fact that the remake was in itself completely unnecessary, whilst also questioning why lead Japanese character Major Kusanagi was being portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. The studios’ responses at the time were that they wanted a bankable star and that was the main reason she was cast, but that word was out there. Whitewashing. Once it’s there, it’s hard to shake.

A similar issue befell the 2011 film Under The Skin, also starring Scarlett Johansson. True, there was no need accusations of racism, but Johansson was cast for similar reasons. It later emerged in an interview with Gemma Arterton that the British actress had been first choice by the director Jonathan Glazer. However, Johansson was eventually cast in order to secure the funding to complete the film to the director’s vision.

In both cases, it is a sad reflection on the current state of cinema and its attitudes towards so-called non-bankable stars. Clearly the studios involved were nervous about a film being able to sell based on a high quality script, good direction and a solid marketing campaign. Instead they brought in Johansson, and presumably part of their reasoning was that they didn’t have faith in the audience to see past the lead character. Perhaps this is correct.

However, in neither case was the film damaged as a result of the casting. Both plots lend themselves to having an otherworldly-essence to the lead female. 

Crucially, Johansson isn’t just a bankable star. She’s a truly phenomenal actress at the top of her game.

In Under The Skin, the fact that Scarlett Johansson was driving around the streets of Glasgow and getting real reactions from the general public whilst speaking in an emotionless English accent played into her role. She was, ambiguously, an alien preying on men, so her not being British gave a mysterious element to her performance that justified her casting.

Equally in Ghost in the Shell, the fact she isn’t of Asian origin doesn’t necessarily play against the script. She is a cybernetic being, with the brain of a human inside a robotic body. This is a future where cybernetic modifications are a part of normal life. The brain inside her body is that of a Japanese girl, but her body is Scarlett Johansson. 

I don’t agree with the feeling that her casting is whitewashing of the original story. The studio saw a way to make the plot more appealing to American audiences in a way that didn’t compromise the story – the wider lead cast covers a wide variety of races, primarily either American or Asian. They would have been foolish not to go down that route.

Clearly, the Japanese market doesn’t seem overly bothered by her casting. Nor do the South Korean and Chinese markets. In China, for example, they currently have a total box office taking of $23.39m (as of 09/04/2017), approximately a quarter of the global takings. This is a total which pushed a disappointing US box office performance into a profitable outcome.

Ironically, one of the primary reasons offered by the studio for its domestic failure was that Scarlett Johansson doesn’t have an online presence. 

The humour of this entire situation shouldn’t be lost and I can’t help but feel that the backlash against this is looking for an argument where there isn’t one. At the very worst, the filmmakers can be accused of bringing in a superstar to sell the film and this deviates it from the original vision from 1996. The faithfulness to the original story is so strong though that this change shouldn’t be held against it. Certainly no complaints can be levelled at Johansson, who puts in a stellar performance in her starring role.


The environment the characters inhabit is rich and believable, with a mix of CGI and real shots used to create a new universe. It is visually stunning, a full 3D remodelling of the vision created in 2D by Mamoru Oshii and the original animation team from 1995. 

The city is modelled on Hong Kong, but it feels like it lives in the same universe as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with spawling cityscapes and futuristic advertisement boards threatening to submerge the life within it.

Indeed, the musical cues that Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe provide are clearly influenced by Vangelis. This I see as an indication of how much of an influence Vangelis has had on futuristic science fiction cinema, rather than a lazy bit of theft from the musical pairing. Mansell is very much carrying the Vangelis baton as evidenced by his excellent scores for the likes of High-Rise, Black Swan and Stoker.

If the action sequences seem a little dated, it is because Sanders has been put in a near-impossible situation by the Wachowskis. There are rumours that the only reason The Matrix was made was because they wanted to make a live-action Ghost in the Shell but couldn’t get the rights. Whilst there are similar themes in both films, it is the action sequences that were so iconic that The Matrix is remembered for. These were lifted straight from Oshii’s masterpiece. So, heaping this remake with too much of them would make casual audiences feel like they were utilising a technique that debuted two decades ago and has been parodied ever since. If anything, Sanders has probably underused it, but it is nonetheless a visual spectacle.

Taking on a film that is seen as a defining point of the genre is always going to be tough. The original really wasn’t a box office success in its original release, making just $2.28m globally. It did eventually become a cult classic. This 2017 remake has already made its money back ($130m and counting), but will doubtless also be considered a box office flop by its detractors. 

This is not a masterpiece of a film, but it is extremely impressive and engrossing. Arguably, the plot is much clearer than the original too. It’s a shame that it looks unlikely to be given a chance by most a large portion of the potential market.

Note: the version watched was 3D IMAX.

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Film review – Sing (Garth Jennings, 2017)

Good, harmless fun is how I’d describe the latest release from Illumination Entertainment. We don’t learn much about ourselves and we don’t get any kind of social commentary. The characters don’t stand out in terms of being inspirational, nor do they have the look of characters that will become favourites in years to come. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film and it doesn’t mean that the children it is aimed at won’t have a great couple of hours at the cinema if they see it.

The story follows Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a koala who owns a theatre that is running out of money. As a last ditch effort, he plots to hold a singing competition, but his assistant accidentally advertises a $100,000 prize fund instead of $1,000. This sparks the interest of a range of hopefuls that make up our lead cast: shady mouse Mike (Seth MacFarlane) who specialises in Sinatra-style crooning; shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) who suffers from stage-fright and nerves; porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a goth-teen who is hampered by the fact she is performing in the shadow of her self-centred boyfriend and needs to shine herself; cockney gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), stuck in a family of mobster gorillas but wanting to follow his own dreams; and pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a housewife who is so busy looking after 25 children and a hardworking husband that she has no time to pursue her dream of singing on stage. There’s also a group of cute, small Japanese dogs who evoke the worst of J-Pop culture to hilarious effect.

 

The universe these characters live in is a world of animals that looks like Zootropolis’s lazy and less charismatic younger brother. It’s a shame because if this had been released three years ago, the plethora of ideas would have brought the opening scenes to life, but in the wake of Disney’s triumphant film that is now almost a year old, it just doesn’t quite feel like it’s hitting the mark. It begs the question of which was storyboarded first and was there anyone involved in both projects that might have leaked information one way or the other.

One of the biggest flaws is the casting of McConaughey in the lead role. The character calls for a certain tone of charisma that simply isn’t delivered. This is surprising, because he has developed into a fantastic actor over the last decade, but it does highlight that voice-over acting isn’t something you can simply turn up and expect to be good at.

 

There are some hilarious moments in the film, which is what we’re looking for. One highlight comes from mouse Mike, who at one point sings Sinatra’s My Way – brilliantly – whilst a helicopter circles above, causing him to lift off the ground and then circle over the audience in a supremely stylish landing. It’s great setpiece, even if the build up is a tad protracted.

But that is what the film is about – big set pieces that will be fondly remembered, even if the overarching plot doesn’t deliver any great payoffs. A solid and enjoyable effort that is quickly slipping from my memory.

Film review – Hail, Caesar! (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2016)

Hail, Caesar!, the new film from the Coen Brothers, is a film heavy on nostalgia and authenticity but light on focus to moving along the central plot. It has so many fantastic elements that seeing the final product fall short is a huge disappointment.

The film tells the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of production at Capitol Pictures whose job involves firefighting the many problems created by the studio’s roster of stars who seem to have an uncanny ability to mix themselves up in controversy. The studio’s next big film will be Hail, Caesar!, a biblical epic in which Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) will star. However, when a prop wine goblet is spiked by an extra on the set, he is kidnapped by a group of communist scriptwriters called The Future and held to ransom for a then significant total of $100,000, putting pressure on Mannix at a time when he is considering a career change to join the aviation industry with the Lockheed Corporation.

  
It felt at times that the Coen Brothers were so hell bent on fitting in a plethora of big-star cameos that they didn’t care that each time they did so they completely derailed the focus of the story. Take, for example, Frances McDormant’s studio film editor CC Calhoun. Her hammed-up effort is a nice comedy turn introduced at a critical point of the film. She could have easily turned into a key character, but never reappeared and thus there didn’t really seem to be much point to her appearance.

A bigger offender comes in the form of a more significant subplot featuring pregnant star Dee-Anna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and surety agent Joe Silverman (Jonah Hill). It’s a huge eater of time but in the end resolves itself with little input from Mannix at a time when he is deciding that he needs to stay in the film industry, presumably because he is so critical to it.

Similarly, Channing Tatum, who features as Burt Gurney, gets a great song and dance scene – a real highlight to the film – but is probably only in three scenes in total. The time spent with Johansson and Hill may have been better served with Tatum. Instead, none of the three characters really feel significant enough to elicit the response they could have achieved had more time been spent with them.

  
One character that does end up getting fully fleshed-out is the Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). He is introduced as a big studio star that has got where he is by his ability to perform massive stunts rather than any of his acting qualities. There are some fun scenes with Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) as he tried to get the best out of his acting abilities or lack thereof. Near the end of the film there is some subtle symbolism involving him figuratively lassoing Baird Whitlock and taking him back to the studios from the communists, a nod to the cowboy as an upholder of traditional American values. Whether or not they needed to spend so long in the film emphasising his cowboy skills to set this up is another question, but at least this character takes us on a journey and proves to be critical to the resolution of the story.

At the heart of the story is Josh Brolin’s Mannix, a man who is essentially a fixer for the studio. It is an interesting character and, along with Clooney’s bumbling Whitlock, he carries the film. His climactic scene with Whitlock underlines why his decision was made – he sees the communist issues surrounding the film industry as a huge threat to America and something he can have a significant impact on from his position. He takes what he considers to be the harder option but in doing so gives his future life more worth. 

There is an underlying message about the wider issues facing Holllywood at the time this film is set (1951) and how easy it was for people like Whitlock to get involved with communist cells. The discussions on such topics is outside the intended remit of this review, though the recent film Trumbo is a good starting point.

Hail, Caesar! offers a lot to fans of the Coen Brothers, though it feels like a hugely missed opportunity due to failings of an over-complicated plot that could have been significantly trimmed to focus the story on the most relevant characters. Fun in parts but overall a disappointment.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)

The latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) sees the ever-growing cast of superheroes pitted against Ultron, the villainous result of an experiment in peacekeeping by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner that goes catastrophically wrong. Bringing back almost all the huge stars from the previous films (Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman were the only notable omissions), we see a number of dynamic storylines interwoven intelligently with some hugely impressive action sequences and set pieces delivering an answer to the age old question “What does a $250m film-making budget buy you these days?”. Quite a lot actually.

The opening sequence, set in the frosty hills of Sokovia, a fictional Eastern-European country, was one of the best opening action sequences I’ve ever seen, slowly re-introducing our familiar heroes one at a time whilst setting up the plot for the rest of the film, along with two of the main enemies they would encounter: Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch respectively). It had enough elements to feel like we hadn’t seen it before and had an over-arching purpose so the spectacle didn’t feel gratuitous.

There has been a concerted effort this time to give more depth to the main characters that are yet to have their own standalone films. Clint Barton / Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is arguably the central character this time around. He is portrayed as the emotional glue that holds the rest of the team together and he finally gets the opportunity to prove how integral he is. It’s a nice touch as he is perhaps the least super of our superheroes, though I must say the manner in which they introduce a backstory for him is a little clumsy. There’s probably not enough depth to the character to warrant a stand-alone film so this is a great substitute.

Elsewhere Bruce Banner / Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) have a blossoming romance, and we get to see a softer side to both characters that hadn’t been shown before. The intimacy reminded me a little of the now-much-underrated Peter Jackson version of King Kong, with Naomi Watts’s Ann Darrow playing off against Andy Serkis’s ape to a never-before-seen level of motion and facial expression capturing. It made me really keen to see a standalone film exploring their relationship more, though how that would fit into the grander scheme of planned films I’m not sure.

It was nice that Andy Serkis got a cameo appearance as Ulysses Klaw, along with many other recognisable stars (I’d put Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie in this category due to their limited screen time). His accent fell somewhere between East London, Eastern European and the required South African, though he’ll get chance to further develop that in Black Panther in 2018 [1].

Johannesburg is just one of many recognisable cities from around the globe that shows up in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Another such city is Seoul in South Korea. Interestingly, the Korean government reportedly paid Marvel Studios £2.4m for Seoul to be portrayed in a positive light for tourism purposes. I don’t think this is a problem really. It was just nice that London didn’t get blown up. Again.

I’ve seen a lot of huge blockbuster films fall flat in recent years. Any of the Transformers sequels, The Dark Knight Rises, Pacific Rim, Real Steel. More often than not, they just aren’t amazing films. Marvel, however, get it right time and time again. With a wave of films being announced to take us up to the end of the decade, the test will come not in successfully releasing a film like Avengers: Age of Ultron, a film destined for success. Rather, the true test will come with a film like Ant Man, due for release later this year. It’s a film everyone thinks will be a huge flop. If they can pull that one off and make it successful, then they truly do have the Midas touch.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is in UK cinemas now and globally over the next month. [2] [3]

[1] Ulysses Klaw is the main enemy of Black Panther, for which there is a MCU film set for release in 2018. Chadwick Boseman is set to star in the lead role.

[2] There is only one post-credit sequence this time around, which appears about halfway through. There is nothing at the end after the credits so you don’t need to wait. Howard the Duck does not appear.

[3] I went to see this film with fellow WordPress blogger Jordana Makin, who has a blog titled “Ahoy Small Fry“. Check it out, it’s pretty cool.