YOUR MOVIE LISTS: SCARLET JOHANSSON – 2017

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Scarlett-Johansson

YOUR MOVIE LISTS:  Scarlett Johansson

By Michael Arruda

Scarlett Johansson has made a few more movies since I posted this list in 2014.  Here’s an update, including movies through June 2017:

Welcome to another edition of YOUR MOVIE LISTS, the column where you’ll find lists of odds and ends about movies.  Up today, a look at films starring Scarlett Johansson.  Here is a partial list of her movies:

EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (2002) – frightened by giant spiders in this horror movie starring David Arquette.

LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) – hanging out with Bill Murray in Japan in this quirky film by writer/director Sofia Coppola.

THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE (2004) – lends her voice to this big screen adventure featuring SpongeBob, Patrick, and their undersea buddies.

MATCH POINT (2005) – really shines in this Woody Allen drama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

THE PRESTIGE (2006) – Part of the rivalry between magicians Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in this Christopher Nolan thriller.

VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA (2008) – Another Woody Allen drama, this time with Javier Bardem.

IRON MAN 2 (2010) – Hello Black Widow!  Johansson is the best part of this underwhelming IRON MAN sequel.

THE AVENGERS (2012) – Johansson’s Black Widow is the sexiest crime fighting heroine since Diana Rigg in the other THE AVENGERS, the 1960s TV show with Patrick MacNee.

HITCHCOCK (2012) – Playing Janet Leigh to Anthony Hopkins’ Hitch.

DON JON (2013) – Loses her boyfriend first to porn and then to older woman Julianne Moore in this quirky innovative movie by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

HER (2013) – seduces Joaquin Phoenix with only her voice in this Oscar-nominated movie.

CHEF (2014) – has too small a role in this comedy drama by actor/director Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – Black Widow is back and she’s still kicking butt and looking incredibly sexy doing it in this superior CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel.

LUCY (2014) – She’s the best part of this science fiction thriller about a woman who suddenly finds herself able to access her full brain capacity.

AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON (2015) – fourth appearance as Black Widow in this AVENGERS sequel, which is not as good as the first.

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016) – has one of the best scenes in the movie, a hilariously sexy sequence with Jonah Hill, in this otherwise underwhelming misfire by the Coen Brothers.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) – provides the voice for the snake Kaa in this impressive Disney remake of the Rudyard Kipling tale, well-directed by Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR (2016):  fifth turn as the sexy Black Widow in the third CAPTAIN AMERICA movie and one of Marvel’s all time best.  This rousing superhero film plays like THE AVENGERS 2.5 and contains some of the most entertaining sequences in the Marvel movie universe thus far.

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) – plays the lead role of the Major, a cyborg crime fighter, in this disappointing remake of the classic Japanese animated film.

ROUGH NIGHT (2017) –  it’s a girl’s night out gone wrong as Johansson plays a woman enjoying a reunion with her college friends when they accidentally kill a male stripper.  This dreadful looking comedy opened to negative reviews and received a “pass” by me, as in “I’ll pass on this one, thank you very much.”

And look for Johansson to return as Black Widow for the sixth time in the third AVENGERS movie, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, due out in 2018.  Sadly still no sign of that stand alone Black Widow movie,  rumored to be in the works a few years ago.

There you have it, a partial list of some notable Scarlett Johansson movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) – Straightforward Thrill Ride

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alien covenant

As a sequel to PROMETHEUS (2012), ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) works rather well.  But as part of the ALIEN universe, not so much.

ALIEN: COVENANT takes place ten years after the events of PROMETHEUS.  In an opening that is all too reminiscent of the recent— and inferior— science fiction movie PASSENGERS (2016), the spaceship Covenant is on its way to colonize a new planet, filled to the brim with sleeping human beings and embryos traveling to their new home.  But catastrophe strikes, the ship is damaged, and the crew awakes to save the day.

But the captain is killed, leaving the second in command Oram (Billy Crudup) to secure the ship and have it ready to continue the voyage.  But before he can do so, the crew receives a garbled message which they recognize as human, and when they trace the source to a habitable planet that is much closer than their original destination, they decide to investigate.

Of course, awaiting them there are both mystery and danger, courtesy of the events of the previous film in the series, PROMETHEUS.  Director Ridley Scott, the director of the original ALIEN (1979) has planned a prequel trilogy to his original science fiction shocker.  ALIEN: COVENANT is the second film in this trilogy, and so we are crawling closer to the events of ALIEN, and the Alien creatures themselves are evolving towards those familiar monsters we know so well.

I enjoyed ALIEN: COVENANT well enough, mostly because it was a well-paced thriller that kept me interested throughout, at least until the end, as at that point it had become rather predictable.  But I liked it better than PROMETHEUS, which attempted to be high brow science fiction but didn’t quite achieve its goal.  I liked the ideas which PROMETHEUS put forth, but not the way they were executed.

ALIEN: COVENANT is a far less ambitious movie than PROMETHEUS, but it works because it doesn’t try to be something it’s not.  It seems satisfied to be a straightforward science fiction thriller.

Still, director Ridley Scott and his team of writers, John Logan and Dante Harper, continue to flirt with the deeper theme of the origins of life.  As android David (Michael Fassbender) says to his human creator at the beginning of the movie, “If you created me, who created you?”  That’s the million dollar question being put forth in both PROMETHEUS and ALIEN: COVENANT.  It’s a thought-provoking question, but a part of me has to laugh when I think that somewhere down the line the vicious alien creatures from these movies is going to be somehow tied into the origins of humanity.

This is Harper’s first screenplay, but John Logan has a list of very impressive writing credits, having worked on the screenplays to such films as GLADIATOR (2000), STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002), and SKYFALL (2012).

But again, ALIEN: COVENANT works best as a thriller, and director Ridley Scott does a nice job at the helm and creates some decent suspenseful scenes.  The sequence where two crew members first become infected, and then are raced back to the ship for medical attention where it proves far too late to save them is one of the more riveting sequences in the film.  And what would an ALIEN movie be without an alien bursting from someone’s chest?  Yup, there’s one of those scenes here as well.

Michael Fassbender plays the dual lead role of “brother” androids,  David, who we met in PROMETHEUS and as we find out in this movie was the only survivor, and Walter, a member of the crew of the Covenant.  Fassbender is very good, as always.

Billy Crudup plays the ineffective Oram, a man forced into the captain’s seat obviously before he was ready.  Katherine Waterston plays the Sigourney Weaver-type role, Daniels, the woman who pretty much becomes the leader of the group.  Danny McBride plays Tennessee, and I guess the ALIEN films like southern geographical character names, since Tom Skerritt’s character’s name in ALIEN was Dallas.  Here we have Tennessee.

None of the other characters are really developed all that well, and no one else in the cast really stood out.   They were all pretty much cardboard characters.

But I didn’t mind that all that much here, since I enjoyed the mystery and the thrills.  The alien scenes here are quite good, although they pale in comparison to the original and its sequel, ALIENS (1986).  I was intrigued for a while, as I was happy to go along for the ride with these folks as they searched for answers about the planet they had landed on and were hoping to call home.  Likewise, I enjoyed the alien scenes.

But about two-thirds of the way in things began to grow predictable and I pretty much knew exactly where this film was going.  I hoped that I would be wrong, and that I would be surprised instead, but that wasn’t the case.    In terms of plot, especially if you’ve seen other ALIEN movies, you can figure out the ending long before it occurs.

Even so, ALIEN: COVENANT was an enjoyable thrill ride for me, and in spite of not absolutely loving this one, I am definitely looking forward to the next installment of this reborn ALIEN franchise.

—END—

 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017) – Less of an Awesome Mix

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I loved the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014), and it instantly ranked as one of my favorite Marvel superhero movies.  As such, I was really looking forward to VOL. 2, and I fully expected to like it.

I did not.

As GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017) opens, old friends Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and newly born Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are busy saving the galaxy from bad guys, in particular taking on a giant monster in order to protect a civilization’s valuable commodity, batteries.  They’re also busy arguing with each other, and their banter is certainly one of the more enjoyable parts of the movie.

When Rocket steals some of the batteries they were supposed to be protecting, Queen Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) sends an armada of ships in hot pursuit to get the batteries back.  Our friendly neighborhood galaxy guardians are rescued by Ego (Kurt Russell) who claims to be Quill’s long-lost father.  He’s also all-powerful and invites Quill and his friends to his own personal planet which he made himself to show his son what a wonderful life he had been missing.

Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) has been shamed by his fellow traders because he had taken part in the buying and selling of children.  Yondu decides it’s time he makes amends, and he seeks out Quill, one of those former children.  And the Guardians will need his help because things are not what they seem with Quill’s dad, Ego.

The biggest problem I had with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 is its story.  The Guardians of the galaxy are a fun group of wise-cracking, in-fighting misfit superheroes, but in this movie their main adversary is Ego, and for most of the movie, they don’t even know he’s an adversary.  Instead, they spend most of their time dealing with Ayesha, who really isn’t that interesting a character.

Another subplot has Gamora contending with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), another story that isn’t all that interesting.  Then there’s the cutesiness of Baby Groot.  Now, I had fun watching Baby Groot, but I thought the film went overboard with all the cute stuff.

In short, I love the main characters, the guardians, and I still had fun watching them.  But they’re stuck in a story here that absolutely bored me.  And once more, as if it’s a mandatory part of the Marvel movie formula, there isn’t an intriguing or worthwhile villain to be found anywhere in the galaxy.

Chris Pratt returns as Star-Lord, and he’s as handsomely charming as ever, but he’s in this flat story with his dad Ego, and the character suffers for it.   Likewise, while I really enjoyed  Zoe Saldana as Gamora once again, she too is hindered by her main story, the ongoing rift with her sister Nebula.

Dave Bautista probably fares the best in his return as Drax, as he has some of the funnier lines in the film.  But in terms of action, Drax doesn’t do a whole lot.  Bradley Cooper is enjoyable again voicing Rocket, and then there’s Baby Groot.  I have no problems with Baby Groot, but if the main story of this one had been stronger, I wouldn’t have found the cutesiness here with Baby Groot so grating.

Probably my favorite performance in the whole movie belongs to Michael Rooker as Yondu, in the largest supporting role in the movie.  Yondu was in the first film as well, and the character is further developed this time around, and Rooker is more than up to the task of fleshing out this bright blue character.

Karen Gillan gets more screen time as Nebula as well, and a new character Mantis (Pom Klementieff) gets to enjoy some fine moments, mostly when interacting with Drax.

But the villains fall completely flat here.  I had been excited about Kurt Russell playing Ego in this movie, and there’s nothing wrong with Russell’s performance, but I found the character boring.  Likewise, Elizabeth Debicki did nothing for me as Ayesha.  The biggest knock on these villains is their agendas are dull.  Ayesha is just chasing down stolen batteries and looking for payback, and Ego is all about what his name implies.  All this evil power, and nothing to do with it.  What’s a villain to do?

Sylvester Stallone shows up for about five seconds as Stakar Ogord, in a role that’s clearly a set-up for a future movie.

James Gunn, who wrote and directed the first GUARDIANS movie, is back doing both here in the sequel.  He scores better behind the camera than at the keyboard.  I thought the film looked great.  I saw it in 2D, and it looked fine, although I wouldn’t have minded seeing it in 3D, but the times didn’t work out for me.  The visuals are eye-poppingly colorful and cinematic.

The action scenes are so-so.  While fun and lively, none of the action scenes here blew me away.  Some went on too long and made me yawn.

Again, the biggest knock on this one is its screenplay, by director James Gunn.  The story did nothing for me, and the villains were disappointing.  Ego has all this power and ability and he seems to know nothing about what to do with it.  Boring.

And the film’s theme, that they are more than friends, that they are family, has been done to death already and didn’t add anything fresh to this sequel.

As expected, the film does have another awesome mix as a soundtrack, so there are no complaints here.

Like other Marvel movies, there is an after credits scene. No, wait, that’s not quite accurate.  There are several after credit scenes, so you if you want to see them all, you have to wait till the very end of the movie.  That being said, to be honest, I didn’t like any of these after-credit scenes.  It’s a case where more doesn’t mean better, which is a nice microcosm of the entire movie.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 brings our entertaining squabbling guardians back to the big screen, and they are certainly fun to watch, but they’re stuck in a dull storyline that doesn’t do them justice.

The awesome mix volume 2 simply isn’t quite as awesome the second time around.

–END—

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

THE CIRCLE (2017) – Cautionary Tale Almost Thought-Provoking

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circle

If there’s one fundamental weakness about THE CIRCLE (2017), a story about a young woman’s involvement in a cutting edge social media company that threatens to change life as we know it, it’s that in this day and age where we see technological advances unfold on a seemingly daily basis, the ideas it presents as potentially dangerous and disturbing are already happening.  As such, none of what occurs in THE CIRCLE is all that mind-blowing or insightful.

THE CIRCLE is based on the novel of the same name by Dave Eggers and tells the story of Mae (Emma Watson) whose life is going nowhere as she is stuck in a thankless temp job, until she catches a break when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) who works for the hottest company on the planet, the Circle, gets her an interview there.  The interview goes well and Mae is hired (of course).

The Circle is a social media company run by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) that is all about connecting people across the world, gathering information and data, and doing away with privacy and secrets, all in the name of making the world a better place.  For example, their technology is able to help police locate missing children within minutes.  Bailey promises that politicians and dictators will no longer be able to operate in the shadows.  All decisions will be public and in real-time.

They’re able to do this as they unleash a new technology, miniature cameras that are practically invisible and can be placed everywhere around the world.  Not only do these cameras provide live video feeds but also satellite data of the area.  The Circle utilizes other innovative technologies as well.

At first, Mae is somewhat skeptical as she finds it all a bit much, and she’s also initially put off by the company’s social policy which encourages its workers to remain on “campus” over the weekends and engage in social activities with fellow employees.

But when Annie arranges for Mae’s parents to be on the company’s health care policy, which is a huge deal because Mae’s dad Vinnie (Bill Paxton, in his final film role) suffers from multiple sclerosis and his present insurance covers very little of his treatment, Mae begins to see the company differently.  She rises in the ranks and soon catches the eye of her boss, Mr. Bailey.

Eventually, Mae agrees to take part in a huge cutting edge experiment, where she will be connected online 24/7, inviting the world to join her every minute of every day.

Pardon me for not finding this so “cutting edge.”  Why not?  Because we do it already!  Go anywhere in public on any given day and you’ll see nearly everyone walking around with some sort of smart phone or mobile device.  We’re there already.

And that’s the fundamental problem I had with THE CIRCLE.  The dangers of what its “science fiction” tale are trying to predict are already happening.  The world is already connected.  Privacy is pretty much gone.  Cameras are already everywhere.  Heck, we have a U.S. President who’s addicted to a Twitter account.  In fact, I’d argue that what’s currently happening in real life in terms of our society’s dependency on technology is far scarier than what’s depicted in THE CIRCLE.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t get some things right.  It does.  The point about the Circle wanting its employees to socialize together over the weekends jabs at what many companies do today, viewing the social aspect of its employees nearly as important as the work aspect.  To” old timers” like myself such notions are cringe-worthy. Work is work, not a playground.  In fact, my first thought when Mae is introduced to her co-workers on her first day was that there was no way I’d ever be able to work for a company like the Circle.  It makes STAR TREK’S Starfleet Academy look like boot camp.

The screenplay by director James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers covers a lot of ground but ultimately is too superficial to make much of an impact. In spite of its innovations or maybe because of them, The Circle never felt like a real company to me in this movie. And Mae, a fairly likable character, was never fleshed out enough to be someone I really cared about.

As such, Emma Watson does an okay job as Mae.  She was criticized for her performance as Belle in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) for being too plain and flat, but I thought she caught Belle’s persona rather well.  After all, Belle is bookish and intellectual, and she’s not supposed to be portrayed as a princess type.

I found Watson even less engaging here as Mae, but again, she seems to have been saved by the source material.  After all, one of the points THE CIRCLE is making is that we are all so connected to our technologies that it’s taking away from our real life relationships, and so it’s possible that Mae is supposed to be superficial and shallow.  Either way, she is, and for right or wrong, Watson nails this disengaged personality.  She does come to life for one scene, when her friend Annie gives her the news that her dad will be covered on the company health care policy.  Watson shows some genuine emotion here.  I wish she had done this more often.

As Mae’s friend Annie, Karen Gillan does a nice job.  At first, Gillan makes Annie the go-getting workaholic, but things gradually change as Mae rises in the company, something that Annie sees as a threat.  Throughout the film, Gillan displays more emotion than Watson ever does.  We’ll be seeing Gillan again next week as she reprises her role as Nebula in the Marvel sequel GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017).  She also was in THE BIG SHORT (2015).

Perhaps the strongest performance in the film, and I suppose this should come as no surprise, belongs to Tom Hanks as Circle founder Eamon Bailey.  There’s something genuinely creepy about Bailey, and I think it’s because Hanks plays it straight.  In other words, he doesn’t make Bailey sinister or imbue him with hints of ulterior motives.  He plays him like a syrupy sweet sincere man, like that older uncle who seems for all intents and purposes to be a nice guy but perhaps lingers with that hug a bit too long or looks you in the eye as if he’s seeing through you, and there is just something off-putting about him, although you can’t put your finger on it.  Hanks plays Bailey like this. It’s a subtle, masterful performance.

It was also a bit sad to see Bill Paxton in his final film performance.  He’s excellent, as always, as Mae’s very sick father.  His passing earlier this year made his performance here as the seriously ill Vinnie even more poignant.

Glenne Headly plays Mae’s mom Bonnie, and she’s very good as well.  Headly has made a ton of movies, but I still always remember her for her hilarious role as Janet Colgate in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988) which also starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin.

I thought Ellar Coltrane was ineffective as Mae’s friend Mercer.  He’s supposed to represent the last gasp of humanity, as he shuns social media and constantly laments to Mae that her new way of life is awful and that there is something dreadfully wrong with it.  Unfortunately, nearly everything Mercer says is cliché, and he tends to whine a lot, and so whenever he was on screen I wanted to kick him in the pants.

Likewise John Boyega (Finn in the new STAR WARS movies) was disappointing as Ty, a shadowy figure at the company who befriends Mae and who is always telling her of the dangers of what the company is up to.  The character is just begging for a larger role during the film’s third act, but this never really happens.  Boyega isn’t on-screen enough to have much of an impact in this one.

Director James Ponsoldt does an okay job at the helm, but things could have been better. First off, there’s no sense of pacing.  Suspense never builds, and the film never becomes the type of thriller it could have been.  It’s all rather stoic and plain, and there’s very little emotion to be had.

I had very low expectations for this movie, because I had heard less than flattering things about it, but it wasn’t awful.

Its story about the dangers of social media and invasive technologies is interesting but falls just short of being thought-provoking because these dangers have already come to pass, and so the story seems old hat and as a result more tepid than titillating.  It should have taken things farther.  For instance, what could people with access to this type of technology really do?  I can come up with a few better ideas than just watching one young woman go through her day.  The forces behind the Circle should have been more ambitious, and the stakes much higher.

On the other hand, I wasn’t completely bored.  And I enjoyed the two solid albeit supporting performances by Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton.

In the lead Emma Watson lacks emotion and depth, and she doesn’t really make Mae a person I cared for all that much, but considering the story THE CIRCLE is trying to tell, that may have been the point.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) – Soulless and Empty Science Fiction

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Just in case you don’t get the title, it’s all spelled out for you in the opening moments of the film, all very neat and tidy.

See, as GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017), a new science fiction film starring Scarlett Johansson and based on a comic and classic anime movie from 1995, opens, we are told that the Major (Scarlett Johansson) a cyborg who now works as a soldier fighting crime has had her brain implanted into an artificial body, thus her soul, or “ghost” is inside an artificial “shell.”

Oh, now I get it!  Ghost in the shell!  Gee, I don’t think I would have figured that out without that crystal clear explanation!

Talk about dumbing things down for your audience.

And like this silly pointless explanation, in spite of the extravagant special effects and eye-popping visuals, GHOST IN THE SHELL is about as imaginative as yolk in the shell.

It’s the near future— although the spectacular cityscape makes it look like the far distant future— and as the movie explains in its first few moments, the Major is a cyborg who fights crime.  She works for a division run by the noble Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) and her favorite crime fighting buddy is fellow cyborg Batou (Pilou Asbaek).  He’s a cyborg because he loses his eyes in an explosion and receives new and improved versions.  It’s what everybody does in this society:  upgrade their bodies with machine parts.  It’s one of the more fascinating parts of a story that isn’t very fascinating.

Whenever Major is injured, she visits her doctor, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who makes the necessary repairs and asks her how she’s feeling.  It seems to be important to Dr. Ouelet that Major not forget her humanity, as she constantly reminds her that she’s more than just a machine.  She tells Major that her brain inside this shell enables her to keep her essence, her soul.  It’s a thought-provoking concept that sadly is hardly explored in this movie.

But Major’s department is also run by a cliché evil baddie named Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) who is supposed to be a good guy but is so obviously crooked he might as well be wearing a name tag with the word VILLAIN printed on it.  One of his first lines in the movie is when he’s arguing with Dr. Ouelet about Major’s future, and whereas the doctor argues for her humanity, he calls her a weapon and declares she works for his company.  Oh no!  It’s another dreaded evil company!

When a new threat emerges, killing the scientists in this company, it’s up to Major to stop it, and along the way, she learns shocking information about her past that was kept from her by her doctors, a “revelation” that is clearly given away in the movie’s trailers, and so it’s not a revelation at all.

For a movie that talks about souls and humanity, GHOST IN THE SHELL is as lifeless as an empty egg shell.  The screenplay by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger, based on the comic “The Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow, is anemic and flat.  The dialogue is uninspiring, and the story dull and mindless.

Director Rupert Sanders does a nice job with the visuals and adds some nifty cinematic touches.  The dazzling futuristic cityscape is satisfying although not entirely original, as it is clearly reminiscent of the look of Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (1982).  These visual effects are the main reason to see GHOST IN THE SHELL, although on their own they’re not enough to save this movie.  Not even close.

Surprisingly, Scarlett Johansson is rather dull as the Major.  She doesn’t act like a cyborg with a human brain.  She acts like a robot, pure and simple.  And the generic naked body suit which she wears throughout the film when she disrobes makes her look like an undressed department store mannequin.  It’s a rather laughable look, which I’m sure the filmmakers were not going for.  Her Rated G naked body is symbolic of the whole movie:  it’s a whitewashed lackluster tale with any and all intelligence bleached out.

You know, a few years back, when Liam Neeson was making all those TAKEN movies as well as other action flicks with similar themes and plot points, the joke was, okay, which family member is Neeson trying to save in this movie?  Because he kept showing up in similarly conceived actioners.  Likewise, this is the third time Johansson has played this type of role.  She played a similar role in LUCY (2014) a film in which her character discovers unlimited brain capacity, and she played a mysterious woman who turned out to be an alien in UNDER THE SKIN (2013), all similarly themed characters who learn “shocking” secrets about themselves.  Of the three, her work as the Major here in GHOST OF THE SHELL is the least satisfying.

I found the rest of the cast to be dull and uninspiring.  Pilou Asbaek is okay as Batou, although he looks like Billy Idol on steroids impersonating  Wolverine.  Likewise, Juliette Binoche is just okay as Dr. Ouelet.

Sadly, I didn’t care about any of the characters in this movie.

The film also does a terrible job establishing a sense of place.  It certainly looks like it’s taking place in a city in Japan, yet no mention is ever made in the film of exactly where they are, what country or city.

I was bored with GHOST IN THE SHELL from the outset.  At least during the first half of the movie, I was somewhat entertained by the film’s visual landscape, but without a solid story and interesting characters, I pretty much lost interest during the film’s monotonous second act

I found GHOST IN THE SHELL to be a major disappointment.  It’s about as thought-provoking and compelling as those awful RESIDENT EVIL and UNDERWORLD movies.

Without a doubt, it’s my least favorite Scarlett Johansson movie.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

LIFE (2017)- Science Fiction Thriller Pretty Lifeless

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life-movie-poster

Life.

A great name for a breakfast cereal.  Works for the board game, too.

But for a science fiction horror movie?  Not so much.

And the title is the least of this movie’s problems.

LIFE (2017) takes place aboard a space station where six astronauts make the remarkable discovery of the first extraterrestrial life form, and this occurs before the opening credits. This life form starts off as a single cell organism but quickly grows, and the next thing the scientists know, the thing escapes, and it’s none too friendly.

Hmm.  A deadly alien creature loose aboard a space station terrorizing its occupants? Sound familiar?  Of course it does!  And while it would be unfair to completely dismiss this movie as a straight clone of ALIEN (1979), because there are differences— LIFE takes place on a space station orbiting Earth, while ALIEN took place on a space ship in deep space, for instance— it’s similar enough to draw comparisons, which doesn’t do it any favors since LIFE is vastly inferior to ALIEN.

So, this deadly organism which is both incredibly strong and smart, sets its sights on picking off the crew one by one.  The crew see it as their mission to either destroy the creature or at the very least, make sure it never makes it to Earth.  Easier said than done. And just why is this creature killing people?  Well, according to the scientists, it’s not because it hates people, but because it’s simply trying to survive.  It also has the nasty habit of entering people’s bodies, and when it exits after killing the person, it’s bigger, so I can only guess that it’s consuming the person’s innards, although this is never made clear in the movie.  Perhaps it’s killing people because it fears for its own life, although it became aggressive first before it was ever attacked.  Of course, it might have simply seen humans as a threat.  Or perhaps it just likes to kill.  Why am I offering all these guesses?  Because the film never really says.

One of the reasons I wasn’t all that excited about LIFE was I had seen the trailer multiple times and it seemed to give away a lot of the movie and it also made it seem like a dull clone of the movie ALIEN.  So, I felt somewhat optimistic when about 2/3 of what was shown in the movie’s trailer occurs in the opening moments of the movie, before the opening credits.  I thought, maybe there are some decent surprises ahead.

Alas, the only surprise was that a certain prominent cast member didn’t survive in this movie for very long.

The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick doesn’t create any memorable or interesting characters, nor does it provide for a compelling story.  We hardly get to know any of the characters, and when their lives were in danger, I simply didn’t care all that much.

The idea of finding the first extraterrestrial life form isn’t handled with any sense of grandness or awe, and the actual creature didn’t impress me, either.  Unlike the Alien in ALIEN, we learn very little about this creature.  It looks okay, but it’s hardly terrifying.

The film also really struggles to build any decent suspense.  Late in the movie, when all hell is breaking loose, we get to see Jake Gyllenhaal’s character deal with his fear by reading the children’s book Goodnight, Moon.  Oooh, scary!

Reese and Wernick are the guys who wrote the screenplay for DEADPOOL (2016) and ZOMBIELAND (2009), two films I liked a lot.  But they also wrote G.I. JOE:  RETALIATION (2013), a film I didn’t like.  Where does LIFE fall?  Let’s put it this way.  LIFE is no DEADPOOL.

The cast is largely wasted because none of their characters are developed.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays astronaut David Jordan, and he’s probably the character we learn the most about.  For instance, we learn that he’s about to break the record for the most days spent in space by a person, and we learn that he prefers it in space, as he is rather disillusioned with the world below.  Yet, unlike another disillusioned astronaut, George Taylor (Charlton Heston) from the classic movie PLANET OF THE APES (1968), David Jordan doesn’t get to have his beliefs challenged by a society more barbaric than the one he left behind, nor does he even get to be in the forefront of his own movie.  He’s just one of the six on board the space station, going through the motions of being chased by an alien.

The other lead belongs to Rebecca Ferguson who plays astronaut Miranda North, and she’s pretty much in charge of security.  It’s not one of Miranda’s better days.  We learn very little about this character, and Ferguson doesn’t really get to do much with the role.

The other big name in the film is Ryan Reynolds, and he plays Rory Adams.  Likewise, his talents are also largely wasted in a very underdeveloped character.  Rounding out the cast of space station astronauts are Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Murakami, Olga Dihovichnaya as Ekaterina Golovkina, and Ariyon Bakare as Hugh Derry.  Their roles are pretty much cardboard cutouts of scared astronauts on board a space station terrorized by a deadly alien.

LIFE was directed by Daniel Espinosa, who also directed the action film SAFE HOUSE (2012) starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, another film I wasn’t all that crazy about.  LIFE is very similar in terms of quality: it’s okay, but at the end of the day it’s nothing all that special.

The opening shot in LIFE of the space station emerging from the darkness just outside Earth’s orbit is a good one and is probably the most cinematic shot of the whole film.  If only there were more shots like this.

The scenes of suspense and horror just aren’t all that intense, and I really didn’t find LIFE scary at all.  Part of the problem here is the alien creature really isn’t very frightening.  And none of the astronauts’ deaths are all that horrific, save for one, and even this scene pales in comparison to say the alien bursting out of John Hurt’s chest in ALIEN.

The pacing is off, and I found the film rather slow.  As the movie went along, the suspense sadly did not build.  Like I said, in a key moment near the end, Jake Gyllenhaal’s David Jordan pulls out Goodnight Moon and starts reading.  It’s supposed to be a poignant and terrifying moment, but I took it for what it was:  main character reads from a children’s book when frightened by the alien monster. Imagine if in PLANET OF THE APES Charlton Heston, rather than screaming, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” quoted Mother Goose. Something tells me it just wouldn’t have been the same.

LIFE is a mediocre science fiction horror movie.  It’s not all that awe-inspiring, so don’t expect anything deep like ARRIVAL (2016), and it’s certainly not all that scary, so don’t expect ALIEN.  Instead, in terms of quality,  it reminded me of another flawed science fiction film which came out last year, PASSENGERS (2016) with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, only LIFE has an extra passenger, a murderous alien life form.  Not that it matters much.  LIFE is just as dull as PASSENGERS was.

Yup, at the end of the day, LIFE is pretty lifeless.

—END—

 

 

 

SHOCK SCENES: KING KONG APPEARS! (2017)

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I wrote the following column in 2015, in which we looked at King Kong’s entrance scenes in the various King Kong movies.  Well, here in 2017, we’ve just had another Kong movie, KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017).  And so, here’s an updated version of this column to include KONG:  SKULL ISLAND.

—Michael

 

SHOCK SCENES:  KING KONG APPEARS!king kong 1933 poster

By Michael Arruda

Welcome back to SHOCK SCENES, the column where we look at memorable scenes in horror movie history.

Up today is the big guy himself, King Kong.  With apologies to Godzilla, King Kong is the baddest monster on the planet.  Sure, Godzilla is known as the King of the Monsters, and he’s been in more movies than Kong, but Kong is King as well, and the one time they squared off in a movie, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), it was Kong who emerged victorious.

Today we’ll be focusing on King Kong’s entrance scenes, the scenes in his movies where he first makes his dramatic appearance.  We will concentrate mostly on the original KING KONG (1933) and its two remakes, but we will also look at the Japanese films and the awful KING KONG LIVES (1986).

KING KONG (1933) is the classic giant monster movie, one of the most exciting and well-made monster movies of all time.  It has aged remarkably well and still appeals to modern audiences.  The film is chock full of classic scenes, and Kong’s first entrance is no exception.

It starts when the Natives on Skull Island abduct Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and bring her back to the island where they plan to offer her as a bride for Kong.  With Max Steiner’s memorable music blaring, the Natives lead Ann beyond the great wall where they tie her up so she can await the arrival of Kong.

With the beats of a gong, the Natives summon their king, and moments later, he arrives.  First we hear his roar— the special effects department used a lion’s roar played backwards and at a lower speed for this effect— and then as he knocks a tree over, Kong makes his appearance, and we see Willis O’Brien’s remarkable stop-motion animation effects as Kong breaks through the trees and descends upon Ann.

King Kong discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in KING KONG (1933)

King Kong discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in KING KONG (1933)

We then see a close-up of his monstrous face, which was in reality a huge model of his head built by O’Brien’s special effects team.

As first entrances go, it’s a classic.  It’s fun to imagine what it must have been like for movie audiences back in 1933 seeing Kong for the first time.  It must have been awesome and frightening.

The special effects here work so well.  To see Kong standing there, with Ann Darrow, with the great wall behind her and the Natives standing on top of the wall, and it all looking so real, is truly astonishing.

KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) is a silly movie that is only notable for pitting these two legendary monsters together in one film.  Since Kong died at the end of the original KING KONG (1933) falling from the Empire State Building in probably the movie’s most enduring image, there really couldn’t be any sequels.  There was SON OF KONG (1933) which featured a younger cute and cuddly Kong Jr., but that was it.  There were plans for a Kong prequel of sorts, a story which would have taken place in the middle of the action in KING KONG, which would have been built around a storyline of the adventures of Carl Denham and the crew of the Venture on their way back to New York City with King Kong in tow on a raft, an adventure that would have seen Denham and company and Kong face off against a new threat, but that project never got off the ground.

Perhaps the worst looking Kong in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Perhaps the worst looking Kong in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

So decades passed before Toho, the Japanese movie studio which brought Godzilla to the world, secured the rights for the Kong character and made KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Kong’s first entrance in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA isn’t memorable at all.  We hear his roar first, and then suddenly he’s there, showing up at the Natives’ village to fight off a giant octopus.  Toho always used the man-in-suit method to create their giant monsters, and their Kong suit in this movie has to be the worst looking King Kong of all time.

KING KONG ESCAPES (1967) is yet another silly Toho movie, supposedly made to tie-in with the 1960s animated TV series KING KONG.  It certainly plays like a Saturday morning cartoon, which is the complete opposite of the original KING KONG which was much more akin to the relentless ferocity of JAWS (1975).  That being said, I have to confess, I like both Toho King Kong movies.

Kong to the rescue in KING KONG ESCAPES.

Kong to the rescue in KING KONG ESCAPES.

Still, KING KONG ESCAPES has nothing to offer in terms of Kong’s first appearance.  On Kong’s island a dinosaur shows up and scares young Susan (Linda Miller).  When she screams, the camera cuts away to a close-up of Kong’s face.  His eyes are closed.  He opens them to reveal eyes that look like they belong on a Sesame Street Muppet.  We then see him sitting in a cave.  He quickly gets up and races to the scene to protect the young woman from the dinosaur.  What a gentleman!

KING KONG (1976) the incredibly hyped remake by producer Dino De Laurentiis was a box office bomb and panned by both fans and critics alike.  It’s a pretty bad movie, but in spite of this, surprisingly, it does enjoy a few fine moments.  Kong’s initial entrance is one of them.  In fact, it’s so good that I’d argue that of all Kong’s entrances, it might be the best!  It’s certainly the only part of this 1976 film that even comes close to equaling anything done in the 1933 original.

This time, it’s Jessica Lange who’s captured and tied up as the Natives summon Kong.  I actually love the way director John Guillermin conceived this sequence.  We see trees being knocked over from Kong’s point of view, and we first see Kong through close-ups of his face, and it’s the best most authentic looking face to date, thanks to the incredible make-up of Rick Baker.  We see Kong’s eyes as he marches through the trees towards Jessica Lange.  Close-up, Kong looks as menacing as he’s ever looked on film.  It’s a thrilling sequence, probably the most original and thrilling part of this 1976 flick.

Kong's looking mighty ferocious in the 1976 KING KONG.

Kong’s looking mighty ferocious in the 1976 KING KONG.

It’s also helped along by John Barry’s music score, which as a whole, I don’t like at all.  But in this scene, it’s probably Barry’s best moment.

At this moment in the movie, the film truly captures the awe of King Kong.  The build-up—audiences hadn’t seen a serious Kong since the 1933 original, the anticipation, is wonderfully captured in this sequence.  And when the camera pulls back, and we see Kong’s entire body for the first time, Rick Baker in his ape suit, he’s awesome to behold, and when he roars, the film nails King Kong at this moment perhaps more effectively than any other moment in any other King Kong movie.

And then— it’s all downhill from there.

It’s amazing how quickly and how far this movie falls after this scene, which is the story for another article.   A lot of it is the silly script, but most of it is the special effects which to me has always been the main reason this 1976 film failed.  Rick Baker’s ape suit looks fine, and in terms of how he looks, he blows the Toho Kongs out of the water, but at the end of the day, it’s still a man-in-a-suit which has never ever been a completely satisfying way to make a giant monster.  The hype for the 1976 KING KONG was all about the giant mechanical robot of Kong that was built and was supposed to be the main special effect in this film, but a not-so-funny thing happened:  it never worked. It appears in two brief scenes in this film for a mere few seconds.

But Kong’s first entrance in this 1976 film— priceless.

 

KING KONG LIVES! (1986) is the horrible sequel to KING KONG (1976) that is believe it or not even worse than the 1976 film.  In this one, scientists bring Kong back to life after his fall from the World Trade Center so the first time we see Kong in this one he’s a patient in a laboratory.  Not very exciting.  Neither is this movie.

Kong the patient in KING KONG LIVES.

Kong the patient in KING KONG LIVES.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KING KONG (2005) is Peter Jackson’s homage to the 1933 original.  Jackson’s obviously a fan of the original Kong, and this was clearly a labor of love, but strangely, it’s a very uneven movie.  The scenes on Skull Island are exceptional and make this one worth watching for these scenes alone, but surrounding these scenes is a dull opening in New York City, and the climax which also takes place in New York also doesn’t really work.  Kong and Ann share a romantic moment in Central Park?  Seriously?

Now while I love the Skull Island scenes, I’m not so hot on Kong’s first entrance.  Why?  Because it’s oddly all very undramatic!  It’s Naomi Watts who’s abducted for Kong this time, and when Kong appears, he just sort of shows up, coming out of the jungle swinging his arms and roaring.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and it plays much closer to the mundane first appearances in the Toho movies than the well-crafted and dramatic entrances in the 1933 and 1976 versions, making it yet another contribution to the reasons why the 2005 version is an uneven movie.

Kong looks impressive in the 2005 Peter Jackson KING KONG, but film is uneven.

Kong looks impressive in the 2005 Peter Jackson KING KONG, but film is uneven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017) was just released a week ago, and while many fans are instantly calling this the best Kong flm since the 1933 original, I was only lukewarm on it.  I found the script rather stupid, the characters dull and not developed to any degree of satisfaction, and Kong himself, while looking fine, rather boring.

Kong in this movie is probably the least satisfying Kong in any of the movies for the simple reason he has zero personality.  In the other movies, Kong showed a wide range of emotions, from anger to rage to ferocity to even tenderness, but here, he’s just a slow moving enormous creature who fights monsters and humans.  Blah.

There are actually two entrance scenes here for Kong.  The first is a teaser, in the opening moments of the film, which takes place during World War II.  Both an American and Japanese pilot crash land on Skull Island, and they quickly become involved in hand to hand combat, when suddenly King Kong appears.  We see his giant hand, and they see him.

Kong’s official first appearance comes later in the movie, which now takes place in 1973, as military helicopters carrying the scientific expedition to Skull Island suddenly encounter Kong who introduces himself to the copters by hurling trees at them.

Kong-Skull-Island-Kong

Kong battles helicopters in KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017)

This scene had the potential to be awesome, but the full effect of this first entrance is never as cinematic as it should have been.  Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts seemed satisfied to film this as a routine war scene as opposed to a larger-than-life Kong-makes-his-first-appearance scene.  Too bad.

Like the entire movie, Kong’s first entrance in KONG: SKULL ISLAND falls short of expectations and never rises above standard giant monster fare.

 

You can’t really argue that any other Kong movie is actually better than the 1933 original KING KONG.  It simply hasn’t been surpassed yet.

However, I can and will argue that in terms of first appearances, if any other film challenges Kong’s first entrance, surprisingly, it’s the 1976 version of KING KONG that does this.  Director John Guillermin pulls out all stops and creates an impressive and thrilling first Kong scene, combined with John Barry’s effective music—the only moment in the film where his music works—, as well as Rick Baker’s amazing make-up, makes this moment as good as Kong’s opening moment in the 1933 film, and way better than similar scenes in any of the other Kong movies, which is saying something, since the rest of the 1976 film is so bad.

So there you have it.  A look at King Kong’s first entrances in the KING KONG movies.

Hope you enjoyed today’s SHOCK SCENES.  I’ll see you again next time when I look at more classic scenes from other classic horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.