GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence, Suggestive Content and some Disturbing Images

Directed by: Rupert Sanders

Written by: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler & Ehren Kruger

(based on the manga GHOST IN THE SHELL by Masamune Shirow)

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbaek, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche & Lasarus Ratuere

A live-action adaptation of GHOST IN THE SHELL has been in the works since 2008 and it comes as a hotly-anticipated big-budget release. 1995’s anime adaptation of the manga is widely considered to be one of the greatest animated movies of all-time and this 2017 tentpole release had quite a lot to live up to. However, fans of the original anime should calm their skeptical prejudgements and newcomers to the material should feel welcomed here. 2017’s GHOST IN THE SHELL is a somewhat brainy, visually stunning  blockbuster that will entertain moviegoers from start to finish.

In a future where technology has become more prevalent in our daily lives and citizens pay to have robotic upgrades surgically placed into their bodies, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind. Major has a human brain in a cybernetic body. She has the capabilities of a superhuman android and the willpower of a human. With the aid of her protective partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek) and the authority of Section 9 Chief Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), Major is thrown into a search for deadly hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt). However, this hunt quickly turns into a conspiracy that goes far deeper than she ever imagined and Major begins to uncover dark secrets about her forgotten past.

There are distinct differences between the GHOST IN THE SHELL anime and this live-action movie that fans will undoubtedly identify. I have only seen the 1995 film, so that’s my basic knowledge of this franchise. It might be blasphemy to diehard fans of the material, but some of the changes made in this 2017 adaptation actually improved the story for me. On the other hand, certain changes did seem dumbed down a bit too much. The first thing that needs to be praised is this film’s look. Director Rupert Sanders knocked this atmosphere out of the park. The visuals are amazing (echoing a BLADE RUNNER-esque future) and the action scenes are stunning. This film’s moody music is original, but remains distinctly reminiscent of the 1995 score.

One improvement that 2017’s GHOST made over 1995’s GHOST is that Major has become a more relatable protagonist. The original film had Major waxing philosophical about the meaning of life and existence itself, all while looking pensive and feeling purposely hollow. This new film lets us see Scarlett Johansson’s perfectly-acted Major exploring her humanity and questioning her identity. Instead of talking about what separates her from other humans, she actually demonstrates it by touching someone to see how they feel and constantly deriding her own robotic features. A few twists pop in later on that further dive into Major’s past and I thought these bits made the film more exciting overall.

However, some new twists on the material are, unfortunately, very predictable. This new GHOST IN THE SHELL is stronger in the way it crafted Major to be a fleshed-out heroine, but weaker in the way it structured the overall story. You pretty much know where things are heading from the first frame. Certain clues are laid in advance to obviously set up plot points that arrive later on. The journey to and discovery of these would-be revelations is fun to watch, but there are spots where this film occasionally slows to crawl. I found myself twiddling my thumbs and waiting for characters to discover things that the audience already knew in advance. Still, the plot’s predictability doesn’t put too big of a damper on things, because the action scenes are stellar and the overall style is awesome.

Fans of the GHOST IN THE SHELL anime will likely have a good time watching this film because it replicates certain scenes straight out of the original film. There’s just different context thrown behind them. I do wish this movie had been rated R, but the PG-13 rating only popped into my head during one scene (which seems like it was significantly edited down for a softer rating). As for the rest of the supporting cast, Michael Pitt did a solid job as villainous Kuze, whose backstory is significantly different from the source material’s antagonist. Takeshi Kitano (who I will always know as the coach from BATTLE ROYALE) gets his share of bad-ass moments as the Section 9 chief. Meanwhile, Danish actor Pilou Asbaek makes a perfect Batou. He has his share of comic relief moments and seems like a lovable sidekick.

2017’s GHOST IN THE SHELL is a visually awesome, action-packed, and (somewhat) brainy piece of sci-fi entertainment. Though the story may have been dumbed down in this new version of the material, the disconnected main character has been built up in an improved way. This movie has its pieces of fan service, while remaining accessible to moviegoers who aren’t familiar with the material. The cast is pretty great, with Scarlett Johansson easily putting in the best performance as Major. If you want a cool science-fiction actioner, then GHOST IN THE SHELL should satisfy your cinematic craving!

Grade: B+

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of Violence, Action and Mayhem.

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Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

(based on the CAPTAIN AMERICA comics by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Holland, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Bruhl, Martin Freeman & Marisa Tomei

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is the thirteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has hit varying degrees of quality throughout the years. While a couple of MCU installments have been disappointing, none of them have been downright bad and Captain America currently has the best entry with THE WINTER SOLDIER. CIVIL WAR is very much a CAPTAIN AMERICA film and never loses sight of that, but also happens to feature most of the Avengers and even introduces a few new faces into the mix. With all of these characters, lots of action, and a fast-paced narrative, CIVIL WAR is a hugely entertaining ride for superhero fans!

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Set a year after AGE OF ULTRON, we open with a handful of the Avengers botching a mission to wrestle a biological weapon away from havoc-wreaking terrorist Crossbones (Frank Grillo). In the chaos, some innocent civilians are accidentally killed. This disaster results in 117 countries coming together to establish the Sokovia Accords, which would give the United Nations control over the Avengers. While Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and other Avengers (Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany) see this as a bittersweet necessity, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and the remaining Avengers (Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen) find themselves at odds over the potentially unethical side to this political deal. When Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) re-emerges, the Avengers literally fight amongst themselves and Captain America discovers that other dangerous forces are also at work.

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Seeing as this cast of characters contains a whopping twelve superheroes and ten of those are returning faces, I’m only going to mention my personal points of interest so we’re not here all day. It was nice to see Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) receive better treatment here than they got in ULTRON, while Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) delivers a stand-out moment that generated thunderous applause from the audience in my theater. The already established rivalry between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers becomes even more heated and fists are thrown. CIVIL WAR does a fantastic job of forcing the viewer to understand the two differing points of views and sympathizing with both of them. There were multiple moments where I was emotionally confused as to who I was rooting for, because I loved these characters so much and didn’t want to see either of them get hurt (let alone by each other). You’ll probably have your loyalties tested and I was certainly switching sides during a couple of key scenes.

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CIVIL WAR also introduces two hotly anticipated superheroes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these being: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). I didn’t know much about Black Panther walking into this movie, but enjoyed seeing this clawed hero in action during a handful of stand-out moments, including one very tense chase. As the third big-screen incarnation of Spider-Man, Tom Holland is far and away the best Peter Parker we’ve seen yet. Besides a great-looking suit and trademark webbing, Holland’s version of Spidey is armed with the perfect amount of quips and a smart-aleck sense of humor. Though he has a short amount of screen time (three scenes), Holland definitely stands out as one of CIVIL WAR’s biggest highlights and I’m very excited to see him  take center stage in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

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CIVIL WAR falters when it comes to the antagonists, because all three of them are undeveloped. William Hurt reprises his role as a bland government official who sees the Avengers as a potential threat and wants to exert some form of control over them. Frank Grillo shows up for a glorified cameo as Crossbones, which was a disappointment when you consider the character development he received in WINTER SOLDIER. I won’t say much about Daniel Bruhl’s character for fear of spoilers, but I will say that the film dishes out little details about him until one big exposition dump. While I liked his character’s motivation and plan, these were both revealed in a heavy-handed manner that opened up a few minor plot holes.

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One of CIVIL WAR’s most impressive qualities is that it never comes close to overstaying its welcome. This is the longest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and never feels like it. Packing twelve heroes into one script might signal a potential overcrowding problem, but that is far from the case here. Even brief side characters receive their time to shine. CIVIL WAR gives me faith that the Russo brothers will pull off INFINITY WAR with more skill than Joss Whedon utilized in the overlong and overcrowded ULTRON. My only other complaint with this third CAPTAIN AMERICA outing is evident in earlier scenes, which rely on quick editing and annoying shaky-cam that slightly obscure the action. These problems are quickly remedied during the second half, when the camera becomes steadier.

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is my third favorite film of the thirteen established Marvel Cinematic Universe entries thus far (falling behind WINTER SOLDIER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). Early action scenes and underdeveloped antagonists keep the film from reaching perfection, but the sheer amount of hero on hero conflict and strong writing cement CIVIL WAR as another winner for both Marvel and Captain America. You probably already know if you’ll be seeing this film and it’s bound to be one of 2016’s biggest money-makers (if not the biggest). It’s great to see a summer blockbuster that relies on more than special effects and fan service. CIVIL WAR contains both of those, but they happen to be executed with smart storytelling and emotional weight behind them. In the end, that makes a world of difference.

Grade: A-

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Sequences of Scary Action and Peril

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Directed by: Jon Favreau

Written by: Justin Marks

(based on THE JUNGLE BOOK by Richard Kipling)

Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito & Christopher Walken

After playing second fiddle to Pixar for years and hitting a stream of live-action flops along the way, it seems that Disney has been on a drastic upswing with live-action retellings of their animated classics. The latest title on their docket is THE JUNGLE BOOK, based upon Richard Kipling’s short story collection of the same name. Before walking into this movie, I read up on the process of how it was filmed. Apparently, it was entirely shot in a Los Angeles studio with tons of computer effects making up the locations and (obviously) the animals. That is incredible given how realistic and detailed every frame of this movie looks. Even if you ignore the undeniably impressive effects, this new JUNGLE BOOK is a very entertaining adventure for the whole family.

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Mowgli is a young boy who was orphaned deep in the jungle. This man cub was raised alongside wolves, with panther Bagheera serving as a would-be parental figure. When a particularly hot dry season arrives, Mowgli’s way of life is threatened by evil tiger Shere Khan, who vows to hunt and kill the boy when the rainy season returns. Soon enough, rain begins poring and Mowgli is forced to make his way across the treacherous jungle in order to be with his own kind. Along his way, he’ll meet an assortment of colorful characters. There’s lazy bear Baloo, who becomes a friend, while giant orangutan King Louie and massive snake Kaa serve as newly found antagonists. All the while, Shere Khan waits for his chance to pounce.

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I already mentioned JUNGLE BOOK’s insanely detailed effects, but they cannot be talked about enough. This is the best CGI that I’ve seen in a long time. The environments look completely realistic and the animals (despite human speech coming from their mouths) are convincing. One might imagine that human voices coming from realistic looking animals might appear somewhat silly, but JUNGLE BOOK pulls off this fantastical feat in an extraordinary way. I was entranced by this animated on-screen world and never once felt like this film went over-the-top, even though that easily could have happened in lesser hands.

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The vocal work is great from the A-list cast. Lupita Nyong’o plays wolf-mother Raskha, Bill Murray perfectly inhabits jokey Baloo, and Ben Kingsley wonderfully fits wise Bagheera. Shere Kahn is voiced menacingly by Idris Elba and the more subtle moments of this villain fully showcase his vicious nature. A big standout is Christopher Walken as King Louie, who comes off as simultaneously comical and intimidating. Walken even gets to do a bit of singing with the tune “I Wanna Be Like You,” which I am still humming as I type this review. Though she serves as little more than glorified cameo, Scarlett Johansson adds a bit of charm as the calm, deadly Kaa.

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The only live-action performance in the film comes from newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli. Major props to this kid, because he was essentially acting against nothing and does a solid job for 90% of the film. The other 10% comes from a few moments of line delivery that sounded a bit awkward. However, the lame excuse of this kid being a first-time child actor could also easily wipe away my complaint with his performance. Neel Sethi is a convincing enough lead and mostly sells the more emotional moments. One of the most moving scenes in the film is a conversation between Neel Sethi’s Mowgli and wolf mother Rashka, which solely depended solely on Sethi’s acting abilities.

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This new JUNGLE BOOK is well-paced as the nearly two-hour running time flew by. We are treated to a few cool plot devices early on that come back in a big way. The script also doesn’t follow the exact motions of the 1967 animated classic or the underrated 1994 live-action effort. Instead, big changes have been made to the plot that actually benefitted it. I really loved this movie’s conclusion and the final face-off with Shere Kahn is far better than previous interpretations of the material. What is sort of awkward are two songs (“Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”) in the otherwise straightforward narrative, which were enjoyable and also felt like they were included purely for nostalgia.

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2016’s JUNGLE BOOK reinterprets an old Disney classic in a groundbreaking effects-laden new way. The film has an already talented voice cast who are made even more impressive by animation that doesn’t make talking animals look silly. The movie runs on three modes: exciting, funny, and heartwarming. As a result, it’s never allowed time to drag and never bored me in the slightest. I may have mild annoyances with certain parts of the film, but I had fun watching it the whole way through. Families are bound to have a great time, as will older viewers who simply want to watch a quality effort from Disney. Christopher Walken as a talking, dancing giant ape is worth the price of admission alone!

Grade: B+

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Suggestive Content and Smoking

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Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Christopher Lambert & Clancy Brown

The Coen brothers make unique movies. You can automatically tell if you’re watching a Coen brothers film from the offbeat dialogue, awkward humor, or quirky characters. Something about their filmmaking and screenwriting is instantly recognizable. HAIL, CAESAR! is their latest film and its an oddball comedy that satirizes Hollywood’s Golden Age in hilariously weird fashion. Featuring a cast full of A-listers who seem to be having the time of their life on set and using a screenplay that’s impossible to predict, HAIL, CAESAR! is the kind of film that reminds me why I love movies to begin with and the sheer beauty (and questionable studio politics) within the industry itself.

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Eddie Mannix is a Hollywood fixer for the illustrious Capitol Pictures. The studio’s biggest film of the year is HAIL, CAESAR! (think BEN-HUR), a biblical epic featuring the biggest movie star: Baird Whitlock. However, something strange has occurred on the set. Whitlock has gone missing and a ransom note reveals that this is a kidnapping set to the tune of a $100,000 ransom. Mannix tries to track down Whitlock, while other cinema-related shenanigans break out in the studio. DeeAnna Moran (based on Esther Williams) is pregnant with a child out-of-wedlock, while marble-mouthed Hobie Doyle (think John Wayne crossed with Kirby Grant) has been called as a last-minute replacement in a classical drama. Mannix rushes to find complex solutions to all of these dilemmas in the space of a single stress-filled day.

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HAIL, CAESAR! is both a love letter to classical Hollywood cinema and a merciless riff on it. It makes for a film that’s hugely entertaining, captivating, and hilarious to watch from start to finish, even if you’re not necessarily familiar with the old-fashioned material that the Coens are lampooning. The entire audience in my theater was cracking up throughout the entire film at the oddball humor, goofy twists, and utter silliness of the story. The film is very light-hearted, but also carries profound writing in Mannix having his own personal arc/revelation develop during the course of the story.

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The visuals are shot in vibrant colors that illuminate off the screen and the film’s sets are elaborate. It’s hard to believe that the Coen brothers were able to recreate the 50’s in such detail on a meager budget of 22 million (which is nothing compared to most big films today). This is the kind of movie that I want to pause scene to scene in order to notice the smaller touches placed throughout each frame (movie posters at the studio, household appliances, etc.). HAIL, CAESAR! is a gorgeous film to look at and you can never fully predict where its story will head next. I kept wishing that Mannix’s various jobs and the amusing studio problems would go on long past the end credits.

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Performances from the cast are top-notch. Their colorful characters were inspired by Hollywood icons of the past and could easily serve as main protagonists in their own individual films. Josh Brolin landed the leading role as Eddie Mannix (based on the real-life “fixer” of the same name) and plays the part to perfection. Mannix is not without his flaws (he has a tendency of slapping certain problems away), but he’s a fascinating character to watch. I particularly enjoyed his personal story arc (which I won’t spoil here) that evolves over the varying degrees of chaos he endures in a single day’s time.

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George Clooney is hilarious as the overacting Baird Whitlock and receives some of the funniest moments of the entire film, but Alden Ehrenreich steals every scene he’s in as Hobie Doyle. His interplay with Ralph Fiennes’s frustrated director is utterly hysterical to behold. Channing Tatum also gets an equally hilarious moment to shine in a musical number (which had me laughing to the point of tears). Also worth mentioning is Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists (inspired by Hedda Hopper).

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HAIL, CAESAR! pays tribute to and simultaneously nails studio politics in a nutshell. This includes the Coen brothers shining amusing lights on: religious leaders critiquing potentially offensive content in films, disastrous last-minute studio casting decisions, intense production difficulties, multiple behind-the-scenes antics (that aren’t entirely unbelievable), early tabloid journalism, and certain controversies of the time. The films within this film are spot-on parodies of specific genres (musicals, biblical epics, dialogue-heavy dramas, and westerns). Though I do wish that certain subplots had received more screen time (we get a couple of plot points explained away via exposition dialogue), HAIL, CAESAR! is a unique and completely hilarious cinematic experience. This is the first great film of 2016!

Grade: A

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action, Violence and Destruction, and for some Suggestive Comments

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Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

(based on the AVENGERS comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Serkis & Julie Delpy

Hats off to Marvel. Seriously, it takes an indescribable level of skill to plan out different films that all tie into one massive storyline. I can honestly say that I haven’t disliked a single movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON doesn’t change that. This being said, I didn’t love the first AVENGERS. I found it to be a lot of fun with some flaws. With the initial set-up of the Avengers out of the way, I was hoping that AGE OF ULTRON might prove itself to be even better than 2012’s superhero opus. That was definitely not the case. It’s a serviceable piece of blockbuster entertainment, but ULTRON falls on the lower end of the spectrum in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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After raiding a Hydra station, the Avengers have finally retrieved Loki’s scepter. While much celebrating is in order, Tony Stark is haunted by the possibility of a day when the Avengers won’t be able to save the world. In order to stop that apocalypse from ever happening, Stark and Bruce Banner create the Ultron program. Ultron is an advanced A.I. that becomes all too self-aware. Unfortunately for the Avengers and humanity in general, Ultron sees the only solution to peace as world domination and destruction. It’s up to the Avengers to stop the threat that Stark created!

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The most enjoyable part about the original AVENGERS was watching well-known superheroes have casual banter and interactions with each other. That holds true of this sequel too. A lot of the humor and running jokes between the characters work well. Though we know there will be plenty of explosions and fights down the line, one can’t help but laugh during an early party sequence in which War Machine tries to impress Thor with a pretty basic story or Iron Man and Thor trying to one up each other in comparing their girlfriends. Running jokes about Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s reluctance to swearing got laughs out of me every single time they appeared. Audiences aren’t simply there to watch the superheroes have casual conversations and hang out though, they are expecting rollicking action scenes and high stakes. ULTRON delivers in a few stand-out sequences. The show-stopper of which is a scene involving Hulkbuster armor.

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We’ve already seen plenty of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor to know who their characters are and what they stand for. Credit to ULTRON for bringing out more development on both Black Widow and Hawkeye. The former is far more interesting than the latter. There’s also possibly too much time being spent on the latter, but this sequel made an honest effort to flesh these side characters out further. Hulk is a far more interesting character here too, not to mention that his CGI design doesn’t look nearly as cartoonish this time around. New faces come in Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch (who are both entertaining, but underused) as well as Vision (wonderfully played by Paul Bettany). Finally there’s the title villain: Ultron! James Spader voices the mechanical menace with humor being injected into his performance, but he’s about as clichéd a bad guy as you can find.

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AGE OF ULTRON’s overlong running time doesn’t necessarily help matters either. There are far too many scenes spent setting up future films (CIVIL WAR, RAGNAROK, and IFINITY WARS) at the expense of putting the main storyline in the backseat during solid chunks of this movie. There are spots in AGE OF ULTRON that easily could have been snipped out for a far tighter and better film. The finale also gets pretty repetitive with the Avengers facing off against a massive army of Ultron-controlled droids whose only purpose is to get smashed up by the Avengers. It makes sense to pit an army against a band of superheroes, but I wish the actual climactic showdown was far more interesting and entertaining than it wound up being.

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Though it’s far from bad or mediocre, AGE OF ULTRON is the third worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. The two MCU films that I would consider worse than ULTRON would be IRON MAN 2 (which also spent too much time setting up future films and not focusing enough attention on the story at hand) and THE INCREDIBLE HULK. AGE OF ULTRON has both good and bad qualities. The good far outweighs the bad, but enough problems (flawed pacing, a repetitive finale, clichéd villain, etc.) remain to make this a step down from the first AVENGERS. AGE OF ULTRON is an okay superhero flick, but we’ve come to expect a lot more from Marvel.

Grade: B-

THE AVENGERS (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and a mild Drug Reference

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Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

(based on the AVENGERS comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany & Powers Boothe

In the history of cinema, there’s never been anything quite like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Through various origin stories and connections, Marvel released a number of films (IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, IRON MAN 2, THOR, and CAPTAIN AMERICA) with the intentions of leading up to a massive epic AVENGERS movie that comic book geeks never thought they would receive in their wildest dreams. While the films leading up this 2012 summer blockbuster ranged in quality, THE AVENGERS fast became a critically acclaimed blockbuster that ranked as one of the biggest money-makers in the history of film. Everybody loved this movie and most still do, but I don’t fawn over it as much as everybody else seems to. THE AVENGERS is hugely entertaining, but far from perfect thanks to three problems.

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Top secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D. is experimenting with the Tesseract (an infinity stone) and find themselves in a bit of trouble. The evil Loki has come to our world with the goals of using the infinity stone for evil and dominating all of mankind. It’s up to special agent Nick Fury to assemble a ragtag group of superheroes to form the Avengers. They might not get along with each other, but this team of heroes is here to save the day. It’s Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye vs. Loki and his army of intergalactic conquerors.

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The biggest pleasure of watching THE AVENGERS is to see this group of Marvel superheroes interact with each other. You get to watch as Iron Man gets into arguments with Captain America and forms a friendship with the Hulk. There’s also Thor being aggressive towards everyone as well as the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. team being wary of Bruce Banner to much comic relief. Seeing as these characters have been developed through separate movies (save for Black Widow and Hawkeye), there’s no real need for extra character development. It’s a cast of actors slipping right back into their established roles with ease. Black Widow is a good character on her own, but Hawkeye is underdeveloped (though that’s mainly the result of a plot device in the first 5 minutes).

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The biggest drawback character is Loki as the main villain. He’s already been given his time to shine as the bad guy in THOR, but we’re expected to find him just as interesting in THE AVENGERS (having already seen Thor beat his ass once already). While Tom Hiddleston is funny in the role, he just isn’t that great of a threat for the Avengers. The rest of the baddies are a bunch of faceless aliens that really aren’t given much of a purpose other than to be beaten by the Avengers. For a movie that was set up as an action-packed superhero extravaganza from beginning to end, AVENGERS takes an awful long space of time just focusing on the team members squabbling with each other on their floating S.H.I.E.L.D. base. It’s as if this movie that was clearly setting itself up as a fanboy’s wet dream decided to take a break in order to build supposed tension and that doesn’t really work out in the movie’s favor.

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As far as the spectacle itself is concerned, AVENGERS looks huge and feels epic. The action set pieces are entertaining and it’s a blast to watch this well-known group of mismatched heroes working together in a climax set across the streets of New York. There are plenty of one-liners, fights, and explosions to go around. Everything looks great with one problem and it’s a big one. The Hulk is really cheesy. Mark Ruffalo is quite good in the role of Bruce Banner, but the CGI monster that he turns into looks pretty silly compared to everything else around him. It’s possible that we’ll never see a Hulk who looks perfectly rendered because, well, the Hulk isn’t that great of a hero to begin with. However, even the Hulk from 2008’s INCREDIBLE HULK was a lot better than this green Ruffalo-resembling creature. It doesn’t distract from any of the awesome scenes featuring the other heroes, but he’s pretty dumb looking by himself. That being said, a scene between him and Loki is pure gold.

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Overall, THE AVENGERS is a lot of fun. That being said, it’s far from a perfect movie. Hell, there are even films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that have managed to outdo this one (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). The running time is bit too long and the design of Hulk looks pretty silly. Also, we’ve seen Loki before and I wish they could have given us a better villain. With all these things in mind, THE AVENGERS is a highly entertaining comic book film that delivers the goods. I do think it’s a bit overrated, but there’s hope that AGE OF ULTRON could manage to one-up this in every possible way.

Grade: B+

UNDER THE SKIN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Graphic Nudity, Sexual Content, some Violence and Language

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Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

Written by: Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer

(based on the novel UNDER THE SKIN by Michel Faber)

Starring: Scarlett Johansson

This will be one of my shorter reviews. The reason for that is because UNDER THE SKIN is more of an experience than an actual story. As clichéd as it is to use this line, this really is a movie that you need to see in order to believe. On paper, the film sounds like an arthouse take on SPECIES. However, it’s actually a loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s acclaimed science fiction novel of the same name. Plot takes a back seat to visuals and style, but it doesn’t hurt that the main outline is an interesting one.

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An alien is visiting Earth (to be specific, Scotland) with a gruesome task. In the disguise of a human female, she’s luring hitchhikers and loners to a nasty fate. This is her sole purpose and she feels no remorse for her actions at all. The more time she spends in her human skin, the more she begins to sympathize for our species (especially after one special hitchhiker). Eventually, she feels compassion and tries to be human herself….with disastrous results. We aren’t given character names or the purpose of this alien’s mission (though the novel does explain all of these and would make a fantastic movie if adapted into a traditional feature). Instead, we’re taken along the wild journey as this unnamed otherworldly creature tries to be human.

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UNDER THE SKIN was constructed in a variety of ways. The most interesting of which involved hidden cameras and people signing wavers to be in the film, ala a more sinister version of a Sacha Baron Cohen joke. The visual quality doesn’t look shoddy as you imagine it might for the hidden camera moments (which are hard to pick out through most of the movie). Scenes where production values were clearly a factor look absolutely beautiful. The only real dialogue given are between the alien (a fearless performance by Scarlett Johansson) and random hitchhikers/victims. A word of warning though, you might want to crank on the subtitles for those remarkably thick Scottish accents. The whirring visual world of dark hues, colorful lenses, haunting scenes and unforgettable music make for a gleefully disorienting experience that should please a certain group of diehard cinephiles (there are bound to be those who deem it purely as pretentious crap).

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UNDER THE SKIN definitely isn’t for everyone and absolutely falls under the label of  “arthouse.” I loved this movie and found it to be a wholly original, unnerving piece of cinema. It’s unlike any film that I’ve encountered before and (most likely) any that I will encounter again. This is weird, strange, and diabolical piece of genius that I really can’t fully put into words. It’s just a film you need to see in order to form your own opinion of it. That may not be the greatest closing line of a review, but maybe this one is. UNDER THE SKIN is a dark work of art!

Grade: A+

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Mature Thematic Elements, Sexual Content and some Violent Images

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Directed by: Justin Chadwick

Written by: Peter Morgan

(based on the novel THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL by Philippa Gregory)

Starring: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Jim Sturgess, Kristin Scott Thomas, Mark Rylance, David Morrissey, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Juno Temple & Andrew Garfield

Word of warning: I might sound like a pretentious snob in this review, but that’s a result of the frame of mind this movie has put me in. THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL tackles a highly fictionalized account of Henry VIII’s marriage with his second wife Anne Boleyn and the affair he committed with her sister Mary. To say that this film is historically inaccurate would be merely scratching the surface of how Peter Morgan’s script (based on Philippa Gregory’s novel) murders an interesting piece of history that changed the face of England forever. Movies are movies. Books are books. History is history. There’s no full-fledged way that a film or written work will ever fully do justice to events that have already passed. There can be masterpieces nonetheless (12 YEARS A SLAVE, GOODFELLAS, among many more), but a fictional story portrays itself as being a true account of how things went down is mind-bogglingly insulting. OTHER BOLEYN GIRL commits such a heinous crime and goes further to vastly mischaracterize the historical figures it’s trying to portray.

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When Catherine of Aragon cannot produce a male heir, Henry VIII is on the lookout for a mistress. Having an inside ear to all of the happenings within the castle, the Duke of Norfolk throws his niece Anne Boleyn into Henry’s path. The two seem to get along relatively well, but the king is more entranced with Anne’s younger sister Mary. Sure enough, this causes a ripple between the previously inseparable Boleyn sisters. When Anne’s jealously gets the better of her, she causes Henry VIII to do something that tears the country apart beyond repair and spells out her bloody fate. I should state right now that I will give away plot developments that couldn’t be further from the truth.

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Indeed, Henry VIII had relations with Anne and Mary Boleyn, but it’s not at all how the movie portrays it. Eric Bana’s Henry VIII is a poor victim of would-be love. In reality, Henry was a man who could do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted in whatever fashion he wanted. That was the perk of being king and eventually led the man into madness. Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson aren’t convincing as the Boleyn sisters either. Due to sloppy screenwriting, the relationship between the siblings and perils it faces feels too rushed to be compelling. Going back to Bana’s performance as Henry VIII, he turns the highly educated king into a gullible sap led on by the cunning Anne Boleyn. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare too well either, though it was neat to see a bunch of bigger names from today in earlier roles (e.g. Benedict Cumberbatch, Juno Temple, Andrew Garfield, among others). At least the production values are good as far as convincing costumes and the extravagant sets. I believed I was watching a tale set in this time period, but it just wasn’t at all anything resembling the actual events.

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The dialogue is made up of melodramatic drivel and the story only gets interesting near the ending as Anne Boleyn’s fate draws nearer. The real crime in THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is that it screws up genuinely awesome material that’s nearly tailor-made for a compelling historical drama. A great movie could have been executed (pardon the pun) from the actual history of what really happened between Henry VIII and the Boleyn family. The biggest historical inaccuracy is that Anne Boleyn’s temptress ways are solely what made a reluctant Henry VIII tear off into his own church. The reality is that if Henry VIII wanted to have sex with Anne Boleyn, he could at any time he pleased to and ordered her to do so with a smile on her face (or act as if she enjoyed it). It was a blatantly horrible time for sexism (among other things like medicine, science, racism, and class systems) and to portray it as otherwise is not only dishonest but insulting to the intelligence of those educated in or unaware of English history.

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THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL isn’t a fully irredeemable piece of trash, because it looks gorgeous in the set design and costumes. The final 30 minutes also drastically pick up the pace into interesting territory as Anne Boleyn’s inevitable fate is given. The writing is horribly inaccurate for the most part and takes the “blame the victim” scenario as far as Henry VIII’s second wife is concerned. In this day and age, to use such a misguided trope is a little scary. Though beautiful to look at and boasting a lot of big name talent, BOLEYN GIRL is the most historically inaccurate plot I’ve seen committed to film. The visuals and last third entertained me, but the film ends up being a pretty looking mess. As far as the truth is concerned, you could do better watching Homer Simpson’s portrayal of Henry VIII in the “Margical History Tour” episode of THE SIMPSONS.

Grade: D+

LUCY (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Disturbing Images, and Sexuality

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Directed by: Luc Besson

Written by: Luc Besson

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-Sik, Amr Waked

Luc Besson doesn’t make normal movies. That’s a cinematic fact. His projects range in quality due to his quirky sensibilities. Though I’m convinced the man will never top LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, Besson has some form of creativity injected into every piece of his work. With his written-but-not-directed 3 DAYS TO KILL surprising me earlier this year, I was hoping that LUCY might be something more than a so-so piece of sci-fi action that looked iffy at best. Judging from the sold out theater, LUCY is bound to be a summer hit, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The movie takes a neat idea and rolls with it in entertaining fashion, but jumps the shark in an overblown ending that will leave a lot of people (myself included) unsatisfied.

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Lucy is a young woman forced into a dangerous situation. Thanks to her asshole boyfriend’s blunder, she’s caught up in a drug smuggling scheme. The cargo is a concentrated powder that has unforeseen side effects and has been sewn into her stomach. After being kicked in her newly stitched up area, the bag of drugs leaks inside her and Lucy’s brain activity is suddenly skyrocketing. The average 10% that humans use is a thing of the past for Lucy. As intelligence and superhuman abilities increase, her life expectancy drops. Lucy must make the most of the time she has left with the help of a police officer (Amr Waked) and a renowned scientist (Morgan Freeman). Meanwhile, the gangsters who surgically implanted that stuff inside Lucy’s tummy are hunting for her.

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The first thing that really struck me about LUCY was the oddball style in how it was told. The first 20 minutes or so cut between Lucy’s ordeal and Morgan Freeman delivering a lecture. Lots of montages featuring stock footage were also inserted throughout. One example is Lucy walking into the den of gangsters and a deer being hunting by a pack of cheetahs. It is a strange thing, but it also provides some laughs during the Morgan Freeman’s lecture. A solid sense of humor is present too that is delivered through Lucy doing something unexpected to someone in her way, whether they’re a good person or one of the many Korean gangsters. The film also cuts to percentage cards (28%, 40%, 50%, etc.) as Lucy’s powers increase. I felt that this was a neat way of letting the audience know just how powerful she was becoming at the moment and how much time was left until the conclusion. Something that might throw audiences for the loop is how LUCY is not what it’s being advertised as. It never fully launches into insane violence and embraces its R-rating (e.g. the final shootout in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL). The end result does wind up being fun and trippy, but there are plenty problems that weight it down.

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As far as the acting is concerned, Scarlett Johansson continues to impress with her abilities and range of characters she can bring life to. This is a woman who in less than the past year has played a comic book heroine, a romantic lead, an alien, the voice of a robot, and doesn’t do anything too similar to these roles as Lucy. The title character herself points out that as she becomes stronger the things that make her human are beginning to fade. Johansson goes from scared victim to near emotionless badass in the space of this film and does it well. A face that might be familiar to fans of OLDBOY and I SAW THE DEVIL would be Choi Min-Sik popping up as the big bad. His character does nothing more but pose a threat for Lucy. There’s still plenty of entertainment to be had from his presence as a mob boss. Amr Waked appears as a near useless sidekick character in the police officer. He even states that Lucy doesn’t need him anymore about halfway through the film and his point is legit. He serves almost no purpose. Morgan Freeman also plays Morgan Freeman, though they don’t come out and call him that.

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Throughout the running time, LUCY dives into utter lunacy. It’s all in the vein of being fun and while it succeeds at that, the film does drag in places. It really jumps the shark in the finale. The movie went from being wild and crazy to art house territory and this felt completely inappropriate to the movie that the audience had been sitting through for just over an hour (the running time is a scant 90 minutes). In some places, the film takes on content that TRANSCENDENCE tried to do and completely failed at. LUCY doesn’t fare much better, but there’s a whole lot of silly B-flick material that was enjoyable to sit through. The movie is a mixed bag as a whole and it’s not what most people are expecting it to be in the slightest.

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Taken on a purely superficial level, LUCY is cool in the sense that I had fun watching it and there are lots of good comic relief. However, it’s not nearly as action-packed as one might think (with about 4 or 5 notable set-pieces) and dabbles in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY material in the final 10 minutes. It’s a silly flick that suffered from an identity crisis. Also for being only 90 minutes, the movie drags in spots. This is far from Luc Besson’s finest hour, but I’d say LUCY is worth a look on cable, Netflix, or Redbox. There’s not enough positive qualities to recommend laying down hard-earned cash for a theater ticket for this one.

Grade: C+

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