Ghost in the Shell

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Beat Takeshi

Director: Rupert Sanders

Writers: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger


When a film has generated such widely publicised controversy as Ghost in the Shell has, it’s often difficult to divorce the topic from the movie itself. As a critic it is my duty to evaluate each film I watch by its individual flaws and merits. The reality however is that no film is released in a vacuum and, as a viewer, I cannot help but have my perception altered by the circumstances surrounding a movie’s release. With that in mind, I’m not going to turn this review into an essay about feminism, whitewashing, or about America’s view of Japanese culture because I am not nearly smart or qualified enough to write one. Ghost in the Shell is a movie first and foremost and that’s how I plan to approach it. It isn’t a good movie but it is a visually stunning one. It is also a movie with poorly thought out morals and philosophies, insubstantial character development and a troubling relationship with race.

Set in a future where cybernetic enhancements have become a norm for human beings, the movie follows Major Mira Killian (Scarlet Johansson), a human whose brain was placed inside an entirely mechanical body after her own was damaged beyond repair in an accident. Now working for the anti-terrorist bureau Sector 9 with Batou (Pilou Asbæk) under Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Beat Takeshi), she combats threats and keeps the country safe. However she starts experiencing hallucinations and is puzzled by their meaning and significance. Her designer, Dr. Oulet (Juliette Binoche), dismisses them as glitches, but Major suspects they might be related to her past, of which she has little memory. Her confusion, as well as her suspicion that her friends and colleagues are lying to her, lead Major to start questioning her humanity and her place in the world. This existential crisis comes in the wake of an attack carried out by a terrorist known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), whom Major must track down and stop.

The anime this movie was based on had a compelling story that raised complex questions about what it means to be human. This film discards much of that complexity and depth in order to focus on how heroic and unique Major is, thus, intentionally or not, providing a quintessentially American type of narrative. Time and time again the movie periodically reiterates how special Killian is and how she is the only person (machine? being? entity?) of her kind without ever going deeper into the larger questions raised by her existence, or indeed by the very nature of the world they live in. What does identity mean to these people, especially Major? Where does one draw the line between human consciousness and artificial intelligence? What effect has technology had on the concept of race and gender? The film raises and alludes to all sorts of questions along these lines but never provides any detailed exploration or genuine insight.

The debate over whether the actress playing the main character of a Japanese manga should reflect their racial origins is one that I’m not prepared to go into. Johansson has proven herself in the past, both as an actress (Under the Skin, Her) and as an action star (The Avengers, Lucy), so I suppose it’s fair to say that I was prepared to accept her casting should she give a performance worthy of the character. The performance doesn’t work however because she was never able to form a convincing emotional connection with her character. Maybe this is because the character is tied so strongly to Japanese culture that no Caucasian actress could have built that connection, or maybe the fault lies elsewhere. In fairness, I don’t think the rest of the ensemble fared much better. Besides Batou I honestly cannot remember a single member of Killian’s team. Binoche does a decent job as a character whose presence hints at an intriguing mother/daughter relationship that I wish could have been explored more, but alas the film was too busy focusing on Major and how special and unique she is. Pitt as the villain is just bland and forgettable.

The movie is poor enough on its own. The characterisations are weak, the story is dull and the themes lack depth. What really kills Ghost in the Shell though is its problematic relationship with race. Perhaps the film could have survived the controversy if it merely side-lined any matters of race and just focused on the story it was trying to tell. Instead it fully addresses the issue in perhaps the most awkward, misguided way it could possibly have chosen. Far from allaying any concerns viewers might have had, the film ends bringing even more attention to the problem and throwing fuel onto the fire it started. I suppose the film should get some credit for at least trying to be representative by going to lengths to depict Japanese culture in its futuristic setting and featuring a not insignificant number of Asian actors in its cast. It is telling however that four out of five of the main characters are played by white actors. The film is often visually beautiful and has some great action as well, but narratively it feels soulless and empty. Kind of like a shell without a ghost.

★★

Captain America: Civil War

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely


In order to talk about Civil War, I feel like I first need to talk briefly about Batman v Superman as both films have virtually the same concept. Although I enjoyed Dawn of Justice I felt that the movie suffered from a lack of focus and direction. Snyder, being the great visual director that he is, delivered spectacularly on the action but where he fell short was in the characters’ motivations and the thematic conflict. These elements might have been allowed to flourish had the movie not been so cluttered with subplots, tie-ins and cameos that were immaterial to the central conflict but, alas, it wasn’t the case. This is something that the Russo Brothers clearly understood when they directed Civil War. They understood that character is more important than spectacle; that conflict depends more on motivation than it does on combat; and that a movie can be cluttered with subplots, tie-ins and cameos as long as they exist to serve the central conflict. This is why it is not an exaggeration to say that Civil War is Dawn of Justice done right.

After a mission in Lagos goes badly and results in civilian casualties the government decides to push for a Hero Registration Act to keep the Avengers in check. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), feeling guilty for the part he played in Ultron’s creation and Sokovia’s destruction, supports this bill. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) however believes that government supervision would hinder or even compromise his ability to save lives. This disagreement causes a rift between Captain America and Iron Man that is made all the worse when Bucky (Sebastian Stan) resurfaces and commits a terrorist act in Vienna. Determined to bring Bucky in himself and to protect him, Captain America has to work against the government and enlists Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to his cause. It is up to Iron Man to stop him with the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Vision (Paul Bettany). This conflict escalates into an all-out war between the two sides with the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) at the centre of it all.

As the summary has probably shown there are a lot of characters in this movie, something that I found to be an issue with Age of Ultron. What makes it work however is that the Russo Brothers, drawing from their experience with such shows as Community, approach this film as an ensemble piece. As the film builds up to its climatic battle between the opposing sides, it masterfully shifts enough of the focus onto each character so that they all have a reason to actually be there. It helps that many of these characters are already familiar to us from the previous films and therefore don’t need any introduction, but still each one is given a motivation that is made clear to us without drawing the focus away from the central conflict. And yet this is a Captain America movie and not an Avengers movie. Although the film makes terrific work of the ensemble at its disposal, the movie belongs to Cap above all others and allows his part in the story to take precedence above all others without making it all about him. The film demonstrates a superb balance in its focus that should make movies like Dawn of Justice blush with shame.

While Civil War is a movie that is very much built on conflict and character, it also boasts of some of the best action that Marvel has ever put on screen. The tunnel chase scene alone is a stunning sequence of intense running, flying, driving, punching, kicking and clawing but it is the airport fight where the film truly shines. Bringing all of these heroes (including Spider-man) together into a single arena and pitting them against each other is epic enough, but the way the film played their different abilities against each other and allowed each character their own moment in the spotlight raised it to a whole new level. The film is full jam-packed with strong action and compelling conflicts but, being a Marvel movie, it also makes room for much humour and light-heartedness. Even when the conflict between Cap and Iron Man escalates in seriousness, watching them fight each other never ceases to be fun.

As far as superhero blockbusters go there is very little to fault. I suppose I could have used a little more focus on the villainous Zemo and perhaps a slightly stronger motivation from him but that’s just a nit-pick. This is as magnificent as a superhero movie can get. When Civil War is compared with Dawn of Justice the contrasts between them are incredibly revealing. Dawn of Justice is what you get when your movie contains little more than impressive action. Civil War succeeds where the Batman v Superman failed by placing its emphases on its characters and employing them to serve the central conflict above all else. Civil War is captivating, immersive, hilarious, action-packed, thrilling, emotional and fun. It is the pinnacle of everything that Marvel does well and is without question one of their finest cinematic offering to date.

★★★★★

The Jungle Book

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

Director: Jon Favreau

Writer: Justin Marks


Of all the Disney movies to be treated to a live-action remake, The Jungle Book is perhaps the most beloved of all. It boasts of unforgettable characters, enjoyable music and a timeless charm, traits which leave little room for improvement. Although I can understand why Disney might want to update some of these tales and introduce them to a new audience, I so far haven’t been sold by any of their attempts. On one end of the spectrum is Cinderella which contains some aspects that were better than the original but also just as many that were worse. On the other end was Alice in Wonderland which completely and fundamentally misunderstood what it was that made the original cartoon (and the books for that matter) good in the first place. The Jungle Book has posed a curious dilemma for me because while there are very few aspects of the film that I’ve found to be worse than the original, there are just as few that I’ve found to be better. I enjoyed the film, there’s no question about that. The trouble is that I’m not sure whether this film should actually exist.

Like the 1967 cartoon The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man cub”. As an infant Mowgli was found alone in the jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and was taken to the wolf pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) where he was raised by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Years later Mowgli is discovered by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a ferocious tiger with a bitter hatred of men, who swears he will kill the boy. Mowgli agrees to leave for the sake of the pack and runs away with Bagheera. The two are separated when Shere Khan makes his attack, leaving Mowgli stranded in the middle of the jungle. After an encounter with Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an enormous python with hypnotic powers, Mowgli falls into the company of the bear Baloo (Bill Murray). The two form a friendship as Mowgli agrees to help him make preparations for the winter. Mowgli however remains in great danger as Shere Khan relentlessly continues the hunt for him.

Although the same characters, songs and basic plot as the original cartoon are all present in this movie, it should be noted that it is by no means an exact copy. The Jungle Book offers a slightly different take on the story by drawing inspiration from Rudyard Kipling’s original works. Thus the film includes such additions as the Law of the Jungle, details of Mowgli’s backstory and the red flower. There is certainly a degree of weight and significance to the characters’ actions that isn’t present in its predecessor but it doesn’t always work to the film’s advantage. Shere Khan for example is an attempt by the film to combine his literary counterpart, a manipulative brute who wants to rule the jungle, with that of the cartoon, a charming but menacing beast who simply does as he pleases, and the result is a confused character with an inconsistent motivation. I was never sure whether Shere Khan’s ultimate plan was to assert his dominance in the jungle or to simply kill Mowgli. In either case the plan he concocts just doesn’t make sense to me.

I think the confusion with Shere Khan is symptomatic of a certain disharmony in terms of story and tone. The original books, on one hand, are serious in their approach as they tell tightly-structured stories with clear morals while the Disney cartoon, in contrast, is much more light-hearted and is more interested in simply portraying comedic highlights and character interactions than in focusing on its narrative. Both of these stories had clear ideas of what they were. It seems to me this film wants to be the best of both worlds: an enjoyable, daring and adventurous family movie with a serious story complete with comedy, music and darkness. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film fails to blend these two different styles together, there were still moments when I felt it struggled. For example in the scene where Mowgli meets King Louie (played magnificently by Christopher Walken), the character comes across as brutally intimidating and for a moment I was afraid for the little boy. The tone in that scene was then shattered when Louie suddenly burst out with ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, a song that has no business being sung by a ruthless, terrifying giant.

However I’m getting too caught up in the negatives and want to talk about the positives, of which there are a lot. For one thing The Jungle Book could very well be the most visually stunning film of the year with its breathtaking landscapes and astonishingly lifelike animals. The animals may not have the advantage of being as expressive as those in the cartoon but that’s when the voice acting comes in. Whatever my issues with Shere Khan I definitely cannot dispute the menacing charm in Elba’s voice. Murray is also perfectly cast as the lovable Baloo and provides the film with plenty of heart and laughs. The bond he forms with Mowgli is a truly affectionate one and when they sang ‘The Bare Necessities’ together I was grinning from ear to ear. Mowgli himself is played splendidly by newcomer Neel Stehi whose performance is especially praiseworthy considering that he was the only living breathing person actually in front of the camera. That the jungle and the animals in it were able to come to life in this movie is a remarkable achievement in both visual effects and direction.

The one issue that continues to nag at me however is that, as much as I enjoyed this movie, the visuals were the only aspect that I found to be substantially better than the cartoon while the characterisation of Shere Khan was the only part that I found to be worse. The rest of the film, while certainly different in terms of content, still felt more or less the same in terms of the impression it left on me despite its attempts to distinguish itself. The film draws so heavily from the cartoon that I don’t think it’s possible to assess it in isolation and, as enjoyable as this movie could be, there were moments when I felt my enjoyment was inspired more by my nostalgia than by the movie itself. And yet, for children who may not have grown up with the cartoon the way I have, I can absolutely imagine their imaginations being awestruck by the visual spectacle and their hearts being captured by the delightful characters. I’ve tried for so long to reconcile my feelings for this film that I’m not sure I could ever choose a star rating that can truly encompass them. However, in the words of the great Roger Ebert, “your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you”. On that basis I have to give The Jungle Book credit for the enjoyment that I got from watching it, however ambivalently.

★★★★

Hail, Caesar!

Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen


This latest offering by the Coen brothers is one that harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time before television when film was the single most popular form of daily entertainment. The studios were titans, the movies were phenomena and the actors were gods. The film’s 1951 setting marks a time when this age of glitz, glamour and glory was nearing its end following a decision by the US Supreme Court to abolish the studio system and end the monopoly of the ‘Big Five’. Cinema approached an age of uncertainty with the adoption of TV on the rise, as was the fear of Communism and McCarthyism. Many of the films Hollywood made at this time were escapist fantasies from majestic westerns like The Searchers to dazzling musicals like Singin’ in the Rain to biblical epics like The Ten Commandments. This age of disenchantment, paranoia and frivolity, all based around the movies, is the perfect setting for a Coen brothers movie.

The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood ‘fixer’ whose job it is to preserve the public image of Capitol Pictures and its stars. When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s biggest production ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is kidnapped and held for ransom, it becomes Eddie’s job to recover him without the press finding out. Along the way he must also deal with such problems as the pregnancy of Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a celebrated actress who remains unmarried, and the grievances of the esteemed director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who finds working on his period drama with the inept Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) impossible. Mannix is also offered a job by an airline company, a prestigious job with better pay that would allow him more time with his family, and must decide what working for the studio really means to him.

I’m a little stumped by Hail, Caesar! The Coen brothers have never been ones to opt for simple, conventional narratives and their off-beat, eccentric style has always been liable to throw some viewers off at first. However I couldn’t help but feel lost while watching this film. I was definitely entertained by it but, when it was over, I was left wondering what had actually happened and what it was all for. The stars whose roles amounted to little more than cameos, the stories that were left unresolved, the outlandish plot developments; all of these had me wondering what on earth Joel and Ethan Coen were thinking as they made this film. However I must remind myself that these concerns are also present in The Big Lebowski which is by all means a great movie. The Coen brothers are two quality filmmakers whose work has proven to be largely consistent (with a couple of exceptions) and are therefore entitled to a certain degree of trust and faith.

Faith. Based on the closing monologue to ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (the movie within the movie), faith seems to be the idea behind it all. Faith in an institution, faith in an ideology, faith in a greater being; these are all featured prominently in the film. The protagonist Eddie is an earnest, well-meaning, god-fearing man whose work often requires him to do things that weigh heavily on his conscience. Every night he unloads his sins onto his confessor, looking for direction and reassurance. In other words he is suffering from a crisis of faith. Brolin is excellent in this role. I think the reason I felt perplexed though is that the film felt bloated to me. There is so much going on in this movie on top of Eddie’s story that the central point kind of gets lost in the middle of it all. Layered storytelling is nothing new to the Coen brothers but the film’s larger purpose usually remains prevalent through it all. Here it just seems like the story took a backseat to the comedy, characters and homages.

With that said, the comedy, characters and homages are all splendid. The film’s recreation and parody of Golden-Age Hollywood is spot on and was a constant pleasure to behold. Standouts as well as Brolin include Clooney as the oblivious and impressionable movie star, Ehrenreich as the hopelessly miscast actor and Tilda Swinton as a pair of twin sisters who run rival gossip columns. There is also a one-off appearance by Frances McDormand that is pure gold. The movies featured within this film pay tribute to many of Hollywood’s classic tropes including the stylised looks, the song and dance numbers and the large and extravagant sets. ‘Hail, Caesar!’ itself is basically a reimagined Ben-Hur. The comedy jumps between satire and farce and leads to some hysterical moments, one of the best being Laurentz’s futile attempts to direct a refined performance out of Doyle.

After watching about half a dozen Coen films before this, I’ve reached a theory that they all follow one central theme: shit happens, and it happens for no reason. This is why I think their films often end without reaching a definitive resolution, because you cannot resolve chance. These is no blatant deliberation to their stories, they are just a string of events that simply happened. In the end, when it’s all over, life goes on. What I think sets Hail, Caesar! apart though and prevents it from attaining greatness is that the larger point it wants to make gets buried underneath the multitude of stories and characters that, while entertaining, lack depth. One of the things I love about Fargo is that it always feels like there is something larger at stake in the film’s conflict and that all of the characters, including the minor ones, have a purpose. Hail, Caesar! simply doesn’t have enough of that. What it does have is an ensemble of entertaining characters, great comedy and a wonderful retrospective of classic Hollywood.

★★★★

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Cast: 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, Andy Serkis, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Joss Whedon

Writer: Joss Whedon


Usually when I review a film from a series I like to briefly discuss my thoughts on the films that came before to provide context. However a discussion on the Marvel franchise could take up an entire article so instead I’ll settle on just discussing the first Avengers film. For me The Avengers is the perfect superhero film. While earlier films like Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight had already perfected the superhero formula, The Avengers took the genre onto a whole new level. It was the first film to ever bring together an ensemble of heroes who had already been introduced and developed in their own films and it pulled it off beautifully. It brought together all of these brilliant characters and, by allowing them to interact and work off each other, created a dynamic quality that no film had ever really done before. It was an incredibly well executed film that had the perfect amount of action, the perfect amount of humour and the perfect amount of character. I couldn’t wait to see the Avengers’ second outing together.

The film opens with the Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), leading an assault on a Hydra base to recover Loki’s sceptre. There they encounter the orphaned twins who were subjected to Hydra’s experiments, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who has superhuman speed, and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who has the power to manipulate minds. Wanda infects Tony Stark’s mind and gives him a vision of his worst fear come true. Stark sees a dark, forlorn future; one where he stands alone surrounded by the corpses of his fallen comrades as the Earth falls to the alien threat they failed to stop. Stark is deeply affected by this vision and resolves to prevent it from ever happening.

Upon studying the sceptre’s gem, Stark and Banner discover an artificial intelligence that Stark believes could be the final piece they need to create the Ultron program. Stark envisions Ultron as a global defence program designed to protect the Earth from the alien threats that the Avengers would be unable to fight themselves and convinces Banner to help him complete it. Ultron (James Spader) becomes sentient and turns on his creators. Ultron sees himself as the next evolutionary step and thus believes that the only way for world peace to be achieved is for humanity to be annihilated. The Avengers band together to stop him but are then overcome with fears and doubts that threaten to divide and destroy them.

Like its predecessor, Avengers: Age of Ultron delivers on the action, the humour and the character. However the inherent weaknesses of the Marvel franchise become more noticeable in this film as they become more difficult to manage. After the way The Avengers developed the Marvel franchise and set it up for further growth, the success, acclaim and demand that followed meant that the sequel was inevitably going to try and go even bigger and further still. This means more characters to juggle and more interactions with the other Marvel films. So, with a gigantic line-up of future films already in development and a large ensemble of major characters played by actors who are contracted to appear in them, Whedon thus doesn’t have the creative freedom to take the risks and tell the story that he might otherwise have done in a perfect world. In addition to this we the audience are becoming so accustomed to these massive blockbusters that they’re almost starting to feel a little generic and the action is starting to look a little familiar. Still, with all of that weight and pressure bearing down on this film, Whedon, being the master craftsman that he is, just manages to create a worthy sequel that is entertaining and exciting to watch even if it didn’t amaze us in the same way that The Avengers did.

With such a gargantuan number of characters to feature and develop, the film is able to provide a balance between them and allows each major character a moment or two to shine. While Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk remain the stars of the show characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye (who many felt were underused in the first film) are given extensive roles and compelling arcs this time around. The film also has a number of new characters to deal with, most notably Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Despite a limited amount of development and screen time these two characters are nevertheless able to create a memorable impression complete with motivations and distinctive personalities, if little else. There is also the titular villain to consider who (thankfully) is one of the Marvel franchise’s more entertaining and memorable villains. Ultron is strangely emotive for a sentient being and shows an indignation and a fallaciousness that is very… human. Spader’s voice is both menacing and sardonic and complements the character perfectly.

I liked this film a lot but I didn’t love it. As good as it was, it was missing that little bit of magic that was present in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. Maybe this is because the film had so many different characters and arcs to balance that it was never really able to find a clear and distinct focus. Maybe it’s because my expectations were overly amplified by the incredible quality and success of this franchise. Maybe (hopefully not) it’s because the Marvel franchise is starting to collapse on itself and that this film marks the beginning of the end. Whatever the reason, Age of Ultron is nevertheless a good, entertaining film that offers plenty of thrills and plenty of heart. There is some great action, there is a good amount of humour, and the characters are as enjoyable as ever whilst delivering a decent amount of development and emotional moments. The challenge of running the Marvel franchise is only going to get more difficult from here and so I hope that the Russo brothers are up to the challenge.

★★★★