I did not see the original Japanese anime film with the same name which triggered the idea of Ghost in the Shell and this may be an advantage or a disadvantage. I have read some articles that compare the two works, and also refer to the comics series, as well as to ‘Matrix’ which took apparently many ideas from it. It seems to me that I can enjoy and appreciate director Rupert Sanders‘ film even better without that comparison, although I may be missing some of the nuances or different directions the original work was taking the theme to.
What may have changed in the two decades since the Japanese original works were created is the fact that much of the technology that is described in the film became reality, and for the rest the feasibility is a confirmed fact. Artificial organs are now more and more replacing organs and tissues damaged by diseases or accidents. We know much more about how brain functions, how information circulates between brain and body, and how mechanical actions of the human body or artificial prosthesis are controlled. Brain transplant was not achieved, but it’s considered feasible, as well as a future implant in a completely artificial body. As in the film, many of the humans are or will become hybrids with a higher and higher percentage of replaced parts.
The film deals with a future in which the first brain implant is made in an artificial body. This makes of the lead heroine (Scarlett Johansson) kind of a super-hero, a living weapon to fight terrorists. It’s just that her former identity (her ‘ghost’) comes to haunt her, and while she slowly recovers her human identity the reality around becomes less connected to the truth. What follows is a combination of action (or even super-heroes action) and smart science-fiction genres, which takes place in a world where men coexist with hybrids, or maybe better said almost any man also became a hybrid. It’s a film which succeeds both to entertain as well as to ask difficult questions about the future evolution of mankind and it’s relation with the thinking machines created by men.
Some exceptional work was performed in order to create on screen the possible world of the future described in Ghost in the Shell. The visual concept makes reference to previous art like the one in Metropolis or Blade Runner, but develops those into new directions starting from the images and shapes that define today’s Asian big cities. There are a lot of computerized effects but they all have logic and are backing the story line, and so do the action scenes. The film succeeds to satisfy both action fans as well as viewers who are looking for meaningful science-fiction. Scarlett Johansson is very good in the lead role, she continues her daring undertaking of roles in science-fiction movies, but each one of the roles is different and this should help her avoid automatic casting in a new stereotype which replaces the older beautiful-fragile girl one in the first years of her career. It’s a pleasure to see huge actors as Takeshi Kitano and Juliette Binoche also involved in this project.
A few weeks back I wrote about Bridge of Spies and I was mentioning the fact that I expected more than an OK+ story about the Cold War from a script written by the Joel and Ethan Coen brothers. This feeling was now enhanced by viewing Hail, Ceasar!. The trailer was so promising – the anti-establishment brothers made a film about the Hollywood. George Clooney as the drunken (not even, actually) star in the historic super-production. Scarlett Johansson as the blonde brainless starlet. The bigger the expectations, the deeper the disappointment, they say. The brothers seem to have ran out almost completely of ideas and spices.
Hollywood loves making fun of itself, but never forgets to mix a dose of nostalgia. This is what made The Artist such a huge success, plus of course the French charm. It’s 2016 however, and nostalgia should not be consumed in overwhelming doses. Yet, the Coen brothers seem almost to crawl in repentance to the big studios they succeeded to teach in the past a few things about digging for gold in the classical fabric of American stories. There is only one scene where the Coen spin and spirit succeed to remind the good old days – that’s the ‘ecumenical’ discussion in preparation of the Christ movie with the participation of Catholic, Easter-Orthodox and Protestant priests plus one rabbi. It looked and sounded like a good joke. The difference is that we used to have ten or more such good jokes in the Coen brothers films, now it was just one. The social content which is also present in many of their films is now reduced to a parody of the black-listing of the 50s combined with an incarnation of Communist hysteria (in a Malibu villa by the ocean of all places) which is maybe the second good joke in the film. Still insufficient.
In a season that was so deprived of comedies that The Martian got a nomination in the category at the Golden Globes, Hail, Ceasar! is still the funniest show in town, but it’s more by lack of competition. George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson looked genuinely bored in a film which should have been fun to make. Josh Brolin is no comedy actor. The ones lucky to get more interesting parts are the amazing Tilda Swinton, and Ralph Fiennes who left me with the dilemma of guessing which film director he took revenge upon when building his character.
Lucy was supposed to be a film I should highly enjoy. I love Scarlett Johansson not only for the way she looks but also for daring to undertake complex and different roles that put at work her acting talent. Science fiction is one of the genres I like most. I liked everything that Luc Besson does … actually everything he did until this film. In my opinion ‘Lucy’ is a low for both Scarlett and Luc as well. It’s not terribly bad, as they are too good artists and professionals to fall too low, but it’s highly unsatisfying, well below expectations.
Readers of popular science magazines, or watchers of the similar TV shows should be already familiar with the scientific pretext of the film. The complex and sophisticated computing machine which is our brain is barely used, maybe at 10% of its capacity. If somehow (maybe using a blue powder drug!) the brain efficiency was used at a higher percentage the respective individual would get capabilities that are well beyond average to the point that they may seem superhuman to the other mortals. This is what happens to the hero in ‘Lucy’ but the problem is that the combination of sexy techno-thriller does not work well with the pseudo-science in the film. Talking about the meaning of life and universality of time in-between car chases and the destruction of the French Academy by bullets and mortars is some kind of fun, but not much more.
When talking about many other films made in Hollywood I have often complained about their length. It’s seldom today to find a feature film that does not reach 120 minutes of projection, and in many cases American (and not only American) productions exceed the 150 threshold, without any consistent gains in complexity or quality, but adding time resistance to the qualities required from viewers and justifying to some extent the additional ticket prices. ‘Lucy’ is only 85 minutes long credits included and this may be one of the reasons it feels like hurried and superficial, with the main ideas exposed like in a crash sciences lesson and all the characters with the exception of the main hero reduced to uni-dimensional sketches, without any character development. It’s just a pity to see the talent of such fine actors like Morgan Freeman or Amr Waked wasted in such a way. The becoming of a genius and superhuman is described in a manner that is neither too original, nor too spectacular, and the smart dialogs between the beauty who became a genius and the scientist whose role seems mostly to be amazed without being able to help are just deprived of any emotion. There is one sentence about losing the capability to feel which if developed could have added a very different dimension to the film, but it was lost in the rush. When time becomes a dimension to be transgressed the journey looks more like an adult version of the ‘Night at the Museum’ which may run in the neighboring cinema hall. And that cinematographic metaphor reminding a famous ceiling painting? is it parody?
‘Lucy’ has many good premises and wastes most of them.
‘Under the Skin’ is directed by Jonathan Glazer whose best known previous achievement is ‘Sexy Beast’- a violent thriller made in 2000, which has allowed Ben Kingsley to make one of his most ferocious appearances grabbing on his way an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. This time the star is the gorgeous (in many ways) Scarlett Johansson, who has used us lately with … unusual roles such as the ‘voice off’ from ‘Her’, or the ruthless killer in the recent ‘Lucy‘.
The role played here is that of an alien female, with Scarlett entering the skin of a terrestrial young woman coming to our planet on a mission to kill. Driving a truck, she wanders the city of Edinburgh and its suburbs in search of men whom he lures (something that us not too difficult even for an alien who entered under the skin of Scarlett Johansson) and then kills and dips them in a bath of black substance in which they enter without seeming to be aware of the danger. The goal is enigmatic to the crime film watchers, those who are really interested in a possible explanation of everything who will find it documented in the novel that inspired the book which is written, by the way, in a lighter style, very different from what we get on screen.
The spiritual and emotional worlds of the serial alien murderess and of the terrestrials seem completely disjoint at the beginning. As the action slowly progresses, change happens. The main character seems to begin to be interested in the motivations of the acts of humans, in the strange mixture of empathy and indifference, of love and hate which makes each of us. Which of these aspects will prevail, and who eventually is the more more dangerous of the species – I will let those who plan to watch the movie to guess. I will only say that, despite the slow pace and the fact that the film is hard to fit into the classical genres of ‘science fiction’ or ‘movies with aliens’, or even ‘horror films’, attentive and patient viewer swill be rewarded a superb acting performance by Scarlett Johansson, and the screen presence of extras surprised by hidden camera when climbing up in a truck driven by Scarlett; by a bleak but beautiful cinematography; and by a maybe ambiguous message which ends by asking questions about ourselves, the human species.
One just needs to search how many movies include the word ‘chef’ in their name in order to understand how daring an enterprise director-writer-actor Jon Favreau took upon himself in making yet another comedy about master cooks. No need to mention, not all films about ‘chefs’ include ‘chef’ in their title. And yet, here it is, Chef is the comedy of this summer, at least in what I am concerned.
I know too little about Cuban food, and even less about Cuban junk-food. Good chances are however that I will taste some at the first opportunity to despite the protests of my dietician. The rather trivial story is about a cook who cannot really exercise his art, and has the guts and will to quit at the right time, and the luck plus support from a wonderful kid and delicious ex and future wife to make it in the change of path. The understory is maybe about the director Jon Favreau himself and his fight to make a film which is as much a crowd pleaser as Cuban sandwiches are, but can also contain and radiate quality despite what critics say.
There are certainly many good reasons to like this film. Some are related to acting, starting with Favreau himself who is so good that I completely forgot that he is also a director, until the presence of stars like Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., or Scarlett Johanssohn who visibly enjoy being on that screen. There may be also one more reason and this is the ‘I’ll do it my way’ message of the film which may have been the motto of the director-writer-actor himself when daring to turn what should be a very over-used theme into a nicely paced and fresh comedy – one of the best I have seen lately. The character has passion, the director has passion, and as a viewer I fully bought it.
I have no luck this year with the films that are favorites in the race for the Academy Awards. Or maybe they do not do well with me. I liked almost none of the ones I’ve seen so far and I found myself disagreeing pretty much with the audiences and the critics. That was the case with ‘ Gravity ‘ with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, so it is with ‘Her’ made by Spike Jonze, a director of ambitious projects and always interesting to watch . From this point of view I appreciated the movie, I like movies that try to send a message and say things in a different way. Jonze managed to do this with ‘Being John Malkovich’ in 1999, failed with ‘Adaptation’ in 2002, and fails here again IMO, although as I said others differ. At least he does not fail for not trying.
The story takes place in Los Angeles sometime in the not too distant future. It could be 2025 , could be 2030 out there. If more films that anticipated future we deal with image pre- or post- apocalyptic future , in ‘Her’ all social and political conflicts seem to be resolved, and everything is clean and polished . This image of ‘the future if things turn well’ is filmed on location in LA and Shanghai with computer enhancements. It is significant that in order to create the ‘realistic’ Los Angeles future landscape the filmmakers filmed some of the scenes in the Shanghai of today today! Only a semi – permanent haze seems to indicate that not all environmental problems have been solved properly, although the air conditioning seems to work perfectly all the time.
As social conflicts were resolved people seem to have enough time to take care of themselves. The film heroes are not significantly different than the New York yuppies of our time – they are prone to introspection and melodrama , and feel miserable and self- compassionate in breakups . The main character of the film named Theodore (played by the wonderful Joaquin Phoenix holds a job of the future – composing handwritten love letters, of course with the help of computers. Each of the characters , each of the figures that appear on the screen even for a fraction of a second holds in its hand, pocket, or ear the devices which connect them to applications and operating systems . It is a world in which the descendants of the iPhones and the natural extensions of Facebook have become the physical and intellectual extensions of humans.
But what about human feelings?
The main plot of the film begins to unfold when Theodore buys a new operating system for his computers and appliances. Simply called OS / 1 it has not only a phenomenal capacity calculation and a female voice belonging to no other than Scarlett Johansson , It is actually a She. She also has the capability to self-learn, to continuously improve her know-how and make the best decisions for the good of its users.
When Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson are together on screen even if she is only present with her voice, when he is struggling with loneliness in the final stages of a divorce , and she in turn is un-experienced in the facts of life, but willing and able to learn more and do everything for him, Hollywood logic requires them to fall in love , and it does not matter that she is nothing but a sublime collection of algorithms – she acquires the ability to feel and to love. Love is beyond physical connection , that much we know. What the film tries to say is that no matter what we are, no matter how and where we are, as long as there is a feeling there can be love.
I will let you discover how the story ends after watching the movie. Many of the film’s fans were convinced. Some other like me less. A few left the hall before getting to see half of it . One of the difficulties viewing is related to accepting the film convention. Computers have a soul? It’s a question that was already asked by science-fiction writers since Isaac Asimov, or by Kubrik in ’2001 – A Space Odyssey ‘ one of the masterpieces of the genre. Who does not accept the existence of the soul and love beyond strictly human context will have a problem with watching this film which takes the premise very seriously. Otherwise, for these who have a hard time accepting the convention, about half of the film may seem ridiculous, because it is composed of dialogues between Theodore and Samantha (yes, that’s her name on the incarnation of OS / 1 ), that is of Phoenix and a voice from the off. Remember how you find those who spoke on the speaker phones in cars stopped at traffic lights until you are used to the fact that it is not a crazy person talking to himself in the car ?
It is not with the convention that I had trouble watching this movie but with simplistic sentimentality of the plot . What we really have here? A lonely man meets a smart girl , beautiful , and yet inexperienced in life. Together learn to know one another , she learns to express her feelings, she discover him and she understand him, she learns to love and to make love. But there many reasons that men do not understand because of which she cannot only be his. After I accepted effects and was able to disregard them (that is what the director wanted me as a spectator!) I was left with an ordinary and melodramatic romance. And the fact that I know something about the technology behind the film did not help at all in making more interesting. On the contrary .
The basic premise of the film that thinking machines would be capable of feelings, through a simple extension of artificial intelligence algorithms is in my opinion flown. Feelings are not just an extension of human logic, and love can not get perfecting algorithms, adding memory, and increasing speed Internet access.
Sometimes I feel sorry for not liking a movie. It usually happens when I see tones of good intentions and talent put into a film, and yet the result is a disaster, or very far below the expectations. This is the case with this film written, directed and acted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. If one looks at the cinematographic record of this 32-years young man he will see 63 movies on his acting record, 6 entries as a director and only 2 as a writer. These numbers actually tell the story of why ‘Don Jon’ is such a failure (IMHO of course).
Don Jon has in my eyes the most unbelievable and PC-twisted story that I have seen lately. Jon (J.G.-L. himself acting) is a blue collar (way of saying, we never know what his work is) young guy from New Jersey. His life is as empty in content as any life of a hero from New Jersey seems to be in movies – he works, goes to the gym, drives as crazy to church on Sundays, then confesses the sins of the previous week to the priest, and begins sinning again. At night he hangs out in discos with his friends, chases girl, beds a number of them – not in the low numbers, and they are all good looking. Did I say he is good looking too? There is only one problem – he is also a porn addict. After having sex with women, he sneaks out of the bed to watch porn! Even when he meets ‘the most beautiful thing in the world’ (Barbara – Scarlett Johansson) and falls in love with her he cannot give up his habit. Which of course, endangers the relationship. Well, losers and twisted minds exist, and they make movies about them, some are good. The problem is that in this story the script decided that vice needs a cure, and the cure comes under the face of a much older woman (Julianne Moore) who teaches him a great secret – well, I will not tell more, just that this seems so conventional that it is really ridiculous.
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is actually a perfect fit for the role, and Scarlett Johansson succeeds to bring to life the emptiness behind the physical beauty of a ‘suburb princess’. Julianne Moore is a fine actress, but unfortunately she fails to convince and lacks the magnetism necessary to make the ‘cure’ credible. It was also great to see again Tony Danza of ‘Who’s the Boss’ fame as Jon’s father (or Jon’s variant 25 years later). Director Joseph Gordon-Levitt has some interesting ideas, although I am not crazy about the trend of using video clips techniques in a repetitive manner in feature movies like this one. Unfortunately neither the actors (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt), nor the director Joseph Gordon-Levitt could compensate the flaws of the script written by writer Joseph Gordon-Levitt. From my point of view his only success with ‘Don Jon’ is to have made the first film with Scarlett Johansson that I did not like.
There is a woman behind any great man, or so they say. According to the story told in ‘Hitchcock’ this may never have been more true than in the case of the famous master of suspense that was Alfred Hitchcock. His wife Alma Reville was a talented script-writer, a focused and sharp assistant-director, and above all a dedicated wife who not only did all she could to support in many ways the genial director, but also made sacrifices and put intentionally in shadows her own self to ensure his indisputable success. Sacha Gervasi‘s first(!) long feature film is apparently the saga of making the masterpiece of the horror genre called Psycho, but for me is before all a film about Mrs. Hitchcock.
One thing that Hollywood knows to do well is movies about Hollywood. This is the case again with Hitchcock, a film which radiates love for cinema, succeeds to be funny and is a reverence at the same time towards one of the directors who was a darling and a maverick of the film industry at the same time, dominating the suspense, horror and spy films genre in the 50s. We see him here at the top of his creativity, after a series of successes which he knows he must avoid repeating in style in order to stay relevant when crossing the threshold of the age of 60. This is not simple even for the legendary Hitch, as the (Hollywood) system would rather have him go on the safe path of blockbusters, and much of the story in the film is about taking artistic and personal risks in order for him to make the movies he wants. His eccentricities and oddities are presented in details and with delights, yet they hide his more serious search for artistic truth and a fight against aging and the drought of creativity he fears will come with the years. Hitch takes an enormous bet, but we all know the results. Psycho as well as his next film The Birds are the two peaks of a fascinating filmography.
The cast is fabulous, but here in my view lies also the weaker point of the film (all relative, of course). I was not thrilled by Anthony Hopkins‘ rendition of Hitch. One of the actors I always thought can do no wrong is over-exaggerating in this film the physical dimensions of the character. 17 years ago he succeeded to be more Nixon than Nixon himself in Nixon, and one year later he repeated the performance in Surviving Picasso. In both movies he played the characters from inside, understood and lived them. In this Hitchcock his act has a dose of unexpected artificiality. This only makes even more blatant the superb acting of Helen Mirren, radiating inner strength and intelligence in one of the best roles of her career (and what a career she has!). Scarlett Johansson is what we expect in the juicy role of Vivian Leigh, Hitchcock’s blonde du jour in Psycho. The biggest surprise comes however from James D’Arcy who is such a perfect clone of Anthony Perkins that I suspected for a few seconds that some special effects were used to built a computerized image of the late actor. The Hitchcock wrapping imagined by Sacha Gervasi for the whole film works quite well. The personal troubles of the character are not completed elucidated, this film is not a deep analysis of the creative processes of the great director, but the film is overall fun, and this is the essence of the work of Hitchcock – challenging the viewers but eventually delivering entertainment, not cinema theory. Hitchcock is fun.