Tag: scarlett johansson

Avengers: Endgame


Avengers: Endgame (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

It requires a daring decision to surprise me when it comes to modern superhero films and, quite miraculously, “Avengers: Endgame” manages to do so about fifteen minutes in. It has been a while since a Marvel film left me wondering, “So then… what’s next?” and it is a most refreshing feeling, a promise, a question mark followed by an exclamation point, that there is plenty more to unbox considering its hefty running time of three hours. The well-paced and consistently entertaining direction by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo gives the impression that just about anything can or will happen given that the material at hand is meant to be a closing chapter to one of the most ambitious projects Hollywood has given moviegoers.

The expectation is enormous and the picture delivers for the most part. The action sequences are busy but always given context in addition to being well-choreographed and so those giving at least a modicum of attention would not be lost; the special and visual effects are first-rate—certainly ostentatious at times but not once do they come across as empty decorations; there are enough moments of silence and ponderation given the fact that the characters remain in mourning over their fallen comrades and loved ones after Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeds in eliminating half of the universe’s population; and the direct and indirect nudges to Marvel films that came before are throughly entertaining—handled with creativity, humor, and a solid sense of foreboding.

And yet the picture is not without notable shortcomings. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely takes on a monumental task of putting together more than a decade’s worth of stories and creating an unforgettable, possibly instant-classic, culmination. While I admired that the goal is nothing short of magnificent, the work scrambles at times at trying to be everything at once.

Most noticeable is the humor, how it comes across as shoehorned—at times cringe-y—when events begin to feel a little grave. In previous films, the well-written and well-delivered comic lines succeed in alleviating tension. Occasionally, it works here. But not nearly all the time. I think the reason is because the heavy atmosphere of foreboding consistently points to the demise of characters we’ve learned to love. Laughter fizzles rather than helping to elevate excitement. In the middle of it, I wondered if it would have been a more daring decision to minimize the humor that Marvel films thrive on. It absolutely would have been more challenging.

Considering the running time, it is curiosity that there isn’t more in-depth character development. Instead, we receive one too many scenes or shots of our heroes looking solemn or trading conciliatory handshakes. Sometimes there are close-ups of tears flowing down one’s cheeks. I found the melodrama to be unnecessary; a more elegant choice might been to trust the audience to grab onto the story and understand the gravity of the plot without such dramatic signposts.

The remaining tension between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), for instance, may have been worth exploring. Instead, the two leaders are given only about three to five minutes to sort out their personal issues. People forget that Evans and Downey Jr. are dramatic actors; they work best not when the charm is on but when it isn’t, when the material demands that they let go of their masculine chain mail and reveal their character foibles.

While the chosen strategy is understandable from a point of view of an action-centric story, an argument can be made that an amplified drama leads to stronger moments of catharsis. Here, catharsis often comes in the form of surprise deaths and teary reunions. I was not particularly moved by any of them—with one exception that comes late into the picture.

Ghost in the Shell


Ghost in the Shell (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Rupert Sanders’ “Ghost in the Shell” offers the kind of entertainment that one can dive in and out of while doing laundry or some other chore around the house. This is a testament to the lack of depth in the writing—problematic because the material brings up questions about what makes us human, what it means to be alive, what it means to have an identity of our own, what we are in charge of in an increasingly automated world.

These are philosophical questions and yet, for some bizarre reason, the writing avoids rumination, as if the persons who helmed the screenplay—Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger—were afraid of or did not know how to build intrigue. This is a picture more interested in external stimuli rather than what it could potentially make the audiences feel or think about long after the film is over.

Its special and visual effects look expensive, occasionally impressive but at times distracting. I enjoyed that every time a scene takes place outside, roads and skyscrapers are overcome by advertisements, overwhelming people to buy products or to upgrade themselves through “enhancements,” cosmetic surgeries, to become a better, stronger, faster, more intelligent version of themselves. In a way, this is a hyperbolic version of our society—which would have been an effective critique had the writing been more willing to delve into the rules and ethos of its universe.

Less effective are beautiful but boring action sequences. While it offers a certain moody look reminiscent of pictures like the classic but, in my eyes, overrated “Blade Runner,” the stylized shootouts and hand-to-hand combat do not come across gritty enough to be believable even within the context of a futuristic world where the line between man and machine is blurred. We are simply not immersed into the action. Rather, we stand right outside it as we struggle to feel for the characters, to care whether they lived or died, whether they walked away hurt or unscathed. For instance, certainly we are supposed to feel connected to Mira (Scarlett Johansson), a creation who has a brain of a human being but the body of a machine. And yet we do not until she begins to ask questions about who she is, where she came from, who she is working for.

The “ghost” in the title refers to the human soul, but there is nothing soulful about the film. Somewhat interesting is the friendship between Mira and Batou (Pilou Asbæk), both working for the government as anti-terrorist agents, but the screenplay actively avoids meaningful conversations that reveal about how they perceive and process the world, their goals as to how they could try to change it for the better. Isn’t a part of what makes us human the ability to relate with others in meaningful, messy, complicated ways?

“Ghost in the Shell” is a product of the desire to make a quick buck rather than to create a work that can potentially stand the test of time. A commonality among great science fiction pictures is that they strive to say something about the world of today and exploring that thesis like an excellent research paper. There is a balance between technical details and information that can be understood easily, a certain universal factor. Here, there is only pretty visuals and fast-paced action, pedestrian from flesh to wiring.

The Jungle Book


The Jungle Book (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

These days it is simply not enough to have beautiful images gracing the screen, especially when it comes to family-friendly films where every age must be engaged and entertained. “The Jungle Book,” directed by Jon Favreau, is able to translate a Disney animation classic, about a boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) who is raised in the jungle by wolves, into a live-action adventure that is full of thrills and wonderment. Favreau takes a beloved material that has been told a number of times before and breaths new life into it.

Although the majority of the animals are made using a computer, they are convincingly life-like. The details of their furs, ears, snouts, tails, and eyes are impressive; the longer one admires every feature, the more tactile they appear to be. But it doesn’t stop there. Look at how the filmmakers manage to capture the correct posture of the computer-animated animals when they rest, eat, and interact with one another. One gets the impression that great efforts were made to research actual animals in order to create a most convincing universe.

The film offers numerous memorable sequences, from Mowgli being mesmerized by a giant Indian python (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) to heart-pounding chases involving a villainous Bengal tiger (voiced by Idris Elba) whose face is half-burnt. But one might argue that the best parts of the movie are times when nature is front and center. Two standouts include a terrifying mudslide as unsuspecting water buffaloes make their way on the side of a mountain and the other involves Mowgli’s attempt to kick down honeycombs hanging from a cliff as he is stung by bees.

These two scenes are vastly different yet somehow they fit perfectly in the film. For instance, the former is drenched in black and gray while the latter features kaleidoscopic hues. The mudslide scene reflects a struggle for survival, as signaled by rapid camera movements, while the honey gathering scene highlights a growing bond between a man-cub and a new friend (voiced by Bill Murray)—this time the camera still and overall tone playful. The balancing act is assured and professional. What keeps it all together is the consistent eye for detail.

Admittedly, it took me a good while to get used to the animals’ mouths moving when they speak. The mouth movements and voices are not distracting—in fact, all of the voice actors are well-chosen—but the partnership is, at first, unnatural. After about thirty minutes, however, the transition was complete and I was able to get into the reality that some of the animals were able to speak.

“The Jungle Book,” based on the collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling and screenplay by Justin Marks, dazzles and delights the senses. It might have been improved if the subject of belongingness and home were explored more deeply and with more mature insight.

Under the Skin


Under the Skin (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Some movies are so defiantly opaque that one cannot help but marvel at the brazen display of pretension oozing through the screen. Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is that type of picture. There is absolutely an audience for movies like this, but I was not impressed.

Scarlett Johansson signs up to be objectified. The first half involves her character seducing men in Scotland and luring them into a house where, once inside, it is pitch black and the unsuspecting prey is eventually swallowed by a calm liquid. We watch Johansson stripping off her clothes until she is down to her bra and panties, all the while retaining a blank look on her face. The second half is somewhat similar although the performer soon reveals her breasts and crotch. It is all supposed to be “artistic,” I guess.

The screenplay is insistent on not answering any nagging questions and so it fails to connect to the audience beyond sensory level. Why is Johansson’s character, who seems to be an extraterrestrial being, only targeting young white men? Who is “she” exactly and what is her purpose? What are the men used for? Food? Energy? Eventually, we are allowed to observe what happens underneath that mysterious liquid. However, it serves only to showcase visual effects that is not even all that striking.

There are three good scenes surrounded by close to worthless, deathly boring, lifeless expositions. The event that unfolds at a rocky beach, for instance, commands true suspense. The raw image of people being swallowed by increasingly strong and violent waves makes us wonder at which moment we will no longer see a person struggling. Second, the young man with a deformity offers a glimmer of true emotions in an otherwise emotionally static script. Lastly, the final scene in the woods shows how good the movie could have been if the writers, Walter Campbell and Glazer, had allowed us to empathize with the protagonist more often.

It takes great talent to turn style into substance. This is why names like Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick hold value to me and the name Glazer does not. In Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” while the ending sequence boggles the mind, at that point it requires that we be confused or not know how to respond exactly because the story takes a leap into the unknown. In “The Tree of Life,” the lyricism is welcoming and consistent. Although a sensory experience for the most part, we understand the core of its subjects.

“Under the Skin” is an art-house film with a small brain and even smaller ambitions. If Glazer’s intention were to create a picture for the sake of it existing, then congratulations. But let us not pretend that this is anything remotely original or, worse, attempting to set the standard for anything. It will not be remembered fondly twenty or thirty years from now. This I guarantee.

Don Jon


Don Jon (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) claims to value only few things in life: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. Though Jon is able to bed just about any woman he sets his eyes on, he remains convinced that porn is better than real sex. When he begins to date Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he is challenged to keep a distance between himself and pornography since she thinks the whole thing is sick and disgusting. This proves difficult not only because getting off at pornhub.com has become a part of his daily routine but it is also likely that he might have an addiction.

Comedic on the surface with a few layers of questions worth asking that envelop its dramatic core, “Don Jon,” written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a joy to watch even if the subject it tackles—addiction to pornography—is not always pretty. This is partly due to the charming performances by the leads, Levitt and Johansson, and how the screenplay allows the characters to become more than stereotypes. Don could have easily been some sort of meathead and Barbara being some blonde curvy bimbo.

The three relationships unfold: between Jon and Barbara, between Jon and an older woman (Julianne Moore) who catches our protagonist watching porn on his phone, and between Jon and his precious videos. Each his handled with intelligence and no one (or thing) is treated like a joke. Instead, the characters are allowed to be imperfect and messy. We even watch them being hypocrites once in a while. We judge them through what we value in terms of what we believe a healthy relationship should be like.

The weakest part of the picture involves Jon’s family mainly because they are one-dimensional, not at all matching the more subtle aspects of Jon’s life. The father (Tony Danza) is a typical tough guy who cannot seem to pry his eyes off the television, the mother (Glenne Headly) keeps asking when her son is finally going to get a girlfriend so she can have grandchildren, and the sister (Brie Larson) is always on her phone and does not say anything until the movie is almost over.

The whole sham of somebody not speaking until she has “words of wisdom” to impart annoyed me immensely. And when she does speak, she does not say anything profound. This surprised me because many reviews claim that it is one of the best scenes in the picture. I was far from impressed. I thought her “words of wisdom” is glaringly obvious within the first forty minutes. There is no punchline or real insight.

“Don Jon” is most entertaining when it shows believable characters, having us like them, and then discovering something about them that feels a little off. That is why the Swiffer pad scene, hair gel appraisal, and others like it—a normal activity followed by an unveiling of an ugly (or beautiful) trait—make an impact and create rippling effects that challenge (or strengthen) the foundation of a relationship.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

In my original review of Joe Johnston’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” I asserted that the picture is nothing more than a movie that happens to have a superhero in it. The predecessor, though the action sequences are beautifully shot, is flat, boring at times, and has a villain with an endgame so confusing and paradoxical, the material never gets a real chance in engaging the viewers. The core is hollow.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” based on the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the same writers as the original, feels and looks like a completely different movie. It has more inspiration, enthusiasm, well-timed comedic moments, and characters worth caring about. As a result, a highly entertaining and confident mainstream blockbuster is created and just about every scene gets it right.

Each time a vehicular chase is involved, one can always expect three elements: a ridiculous amount of wasted bullets, glass shattering in every direction, and, perhaps most importantly, an increasing level of suspense. If one comes to think of it, the approach is not dissimilar to the better installments of “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. Let us take the pivotal scene with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of an espionage agency called S.H.I.E.L.D., behind the wheel as an example. It is, in a way, inspired by horror greats: utilizing a simple thing as space to trigger our hearts to beat that much faster.

It begins with a glance at a man in a police car while at a stop light. Notice as the action unfolds, although the violence grows incendiary, accompanied by a boost decibels, there is increasingly less space for our eye-patched hero to wiggle through. Assuming that one has seen him in other Marvel installments, we already know how effective of a fighter he is when he is free to move around. But this time the conflict is fresh because not only is there no room for escape, no one is coming to help him. We believe that he is in genuine danger. We hold our breath as the intimidating masked man with a metallic arm gets ever closer.

The plot is technical and almost irrelevant but here it is: S.H.I.E.L.D., under the direction of a senior official named Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), is about ready to launch its latest creation called Project Insight. It involves three heavily weaponized helicarriers that, in theory, will protect seven billion people across the globe. They are so advanced that once they are in the air, they never have to land. By sharing a connection with satellites, these helicarriers will supposedly be an effective tool to terminate acts of terrorism before they even occur. Though a man born in the 1920s and later cryogenically frozen for about seventy years, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) sees through the flaw in the project immediately. He claims what will be achieved is not true freedom but fear.

The final statement above hints at a more interesting Captain America. While I find his background to be sufficiently absorbing because he was so determined to become a soldier despite weighing only ninety-five pounds and standing at about five feet four inches, I have always found his reasons for wanting to become a soldier lacking special depth. He always wants to do the right thing—not like Iron Man, who can be a jerk sometimes, or The Hulk, who is almost always out of control. Here, the definition of the “right thing” is a muddled a little bit. And yet it is enjoyable that his character arc is not so obvious as to cause his change to come off as false. Thus, we look forward to the further changes in his reasons for fighting in the inevitable sequels.

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a superior follow-up in every single way. The action is more thrilling, the motivations of the villains make more sense (even though their identities are able to be seen from a mile away), and we learn something new about our heroes. It is—without a doubt—a step forward for both the “Captain America” franchise and the Marvel universe.

Her


Her (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Deciding to dive into a film with a premise that is potentially rife with unintentionally funny and embarrassingly awkward situations, given that the main character gets into a romantic relationship with his operating system, “Her” ends up being quite a delightful surprise. It is sweet, amusing and accessible, but it also has insights when it comes to the complexities of human connection—what seems so real and substantial one minute can feel so fleeting and imaginary in the blink of an eye.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a lonely man who remains to live in the shadows of his impending divorce. He has the papers but he refuses to sign and send them. To him, it is neither the right time nor does it feel right. When he purchases an operating system, who names itself “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), he is slowly pulled away from the shadows and learns to open up to someone new. That someone new just happens to be a machine. Is there something wrong with that?

Writer-director Spike Jonze creates a futuristic world that is a patchwork of past and future. The orange glow, a technique usually used to denote a past, gives the picture a dream-like, sunbaked atmosphere. On the other hand, the lifestyle of advanced technology and infrastructures of futuristic Los Angeles communicate otherwise. In that way, it is a science fiction film in concept but its essence is grounded in a sort of parallel reality. The images are easy on the eyes.

It is up to us to do the judging. Either one buys the romance or is repelled by it completely. After all, the central relationship is between man and machine. Samantha may sound just like a human being. She may claim to feel a spectrum of emotions like joy, love, jealousy, and hurt. She says she has needs and has dreams. But the fact is she is not a person and will never be a person. Is it all an illusion?

Jonze is a smart director—one who has consistently turned an original vision into reality—and so he anticipates and avoids the trappings of the romance genre. Casting Phoenix is an advantage because he can be unpredictable. Part of the excitement is wondering what he will do next—how his character will react to more familiar situations like a blind date or consoling a friend who is at the end of her wits (Amy Adams). From the moment Theodore activates the OS to the final shot of the L.A. skyline, Phoenix embodies a character that we want to see achieve some sort of happiness. Theodore may be a sad sack at times but, through his conversations with Samantha, we learn that he is aware of his limitations and that he can be impossible. Aren’t we all?

“Her” makes an interesting double feature with Steven Spielberg’s undervalued “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” about a robot in a body of a child who goes on a journey to meet The Blue Fairy so he can make a wish and be turned into a real, live boy—parallel to Samantha’s obsession with having a body. Though the scope and mood between the two are worlds apart, both pose similar questions about mankind’s relationship with machines and machines having human-like consciousness.