“Ghost in the Shell”

LOUISA: 2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Adapting the classic Japanese manga “Ghost in the Shell” into a live action film sounds like a pretty magnificent idea for a movie, right? This sci-fi extravaganza tells the story of Major (Scarlett Johansson), a cyborg who has a machine for a body but a human mind. Her brain was rescued after she died and Major has been trained to be a rugged crime fighting soldier; it’s a sturdy story idea that’s squandered in this film.

The movie is a visually slick dazzler, an intense, lavishly structured, virtual feast for your eyes. It’s like a candy-colored version of “The Matrix.” Every frame is saturated with splashy and colorful artistry, but most of this beauty has no sense of purpose except to look cool and get a rise out of its core manga fans. There are too many corny, nonsensical visuals (like a bizarre giant hologram of a bikini-clad woman lifting weights) that will leave you scratching your head. Once the glossy sheen begins to dull, the story quickly fizzles. The look of the movie fits with the original work, but here it’s plagued with a boring and uninspired story that’s presented in a far too simple and straightforward fashion to do it any justice.

Johansson is quite good as the half-robot with a really awful wig, but she’s played this type of role before and has yet to convince me that she has any greater range as an actor. Her lunky walking posture is amusing and she is convincing as an ass-kicking woman (though not so much as a character who is of Japanese heritage; there’s been some controversy over this casting choice among Asian American groups). The supporting performance are altogether forgettable with the exception of the lovely Juliette Binoche as Major’s creator Dr. Ouelet and Pilou Asbæk who at times steals everyone’s thunder in his very minor role as Batou.

Overall the film feels like an empty, hollow shell with no brain or heart, a pulsating visual assault for your eyeballs that’s allowed to run rampant until it becomes an overgrown mess of slick colors and zero substance.

“Sing”

LOUISA: 1.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Oh, what “Sing” could have been if only the filmmakers had cared enough to fully flesh out their characters and the story. The idea of an animated musical set in the animal world and filled with aspiring vocal performers is a fun enough idea for a movie, and one that could’ve (and should’ve) been at least mildly entertaining. Too bad almost everything is so poorly executed that this dull, uninspired film has zero emotional impact.

The movie tells the story of Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) a down-on-his luck koala bear whose theater falls on hard times. In order to raise funds to keep his performing arts palace afloat, Buster devises an American Idol style singing competition. The final five contestants include a frazzled homemaker pig (Reese Witherspoon), a punk rocker porcupine (Scarlett Johansson), a gorilla born into a life of crime (Taron Egerton), a crooner mouse (Seth MacFarlane), and a shy elephant (Tori Kelly).

The animation is colorful and the characters forgettable, mostly due to the lackluster vocal talent (Kelly is absolutely abysmal here and is by far the worst of the bunch; McConaughey gave a much better performance in this year’s far better animated film, “Kubo and the Two Strings“). Instead of a compelling, touching or even engaging story, we just get a bunch of singing animals going through the motions.

The movie comes across as a junky mishmash of lame, poorly thought out ideas. I can imagine the writer’s room right now: “hey guys, let’s just throw a bunch of scenarios out there and whether they stick or not, let’s incorporate them into a movie.” Everything about this movie and its story is predictable, and in keeping with tradition of other craptacular Hollywood animated movies, there’s the requisite unfunny slang and unnecessary fart joke.

“Sing” is the same as watching some outdated, dumbed down reality t.v. singing competition show. The film is jammed with recognizable Top 40 pop songs to appease parents and the musical numbers are mildly enjoyable, but there’s not enough quality material to warrant a positive review.

“Captain America: Civil War”

LOUISA:  4 STARS  MATT:  3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

More of an Avengers movie than a Captain America movie, “Captain America: Civil War” will surely not disappoint fans of the Marvel mega-franchise. It suffers from the obvious, usual faults of most big-budget superhero flicks but in the end it accomplishes what it sets out to do in the first place: entertain.

“Civil War” splits up the Avengers into two teams: one led by Captain America (Chris Evans) and the other led by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Side one wants to keep the Avengers free from government oversight so they can continue to defend the world without any regulatory interference while the other wants to sign a treaty that holds the superheroes accountable. When each side calls on some of the Avengers to come help stand their ground, stuff gets serious!

Ultimately, the clever plot, an X-Men movie style character-driven focus, and immensely likeable actors save the day (and this overly long film) from being a complete disaster. Even fans will have to admit that the first half of the movie isn’t very good, but the last half is so incredibly well done that I quickly forgot (and forgave) the awful first hour and the slow, stumbling start. Once the Avengers choose sides and start a mini-battle on the runway at an airport, things really get cooking and never let up.

Super archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is as rugged as ever, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) literally gets into Iron Man’s suit, and winged Falcon (Anthony Mackie) soars opposite War Machine (Don Cheadle). Once Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) starts carelessly hurling cars off the parking garage deck with her mind, I was hooked. This is a beautifully conceived action sequence and it was the highlight of the film for me.

Most of your favorite characters are here (noticeably absent are Thor, Hulk, Loki and Pepper Potts) and there are lots of insider references to die-hard fans of the Marvel universe. The movie is packed with little surprises too, but viewers unfamiliar with the characters and backstory may get temporarily lost. Captain America (Evans) and frenemy Bucky / Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) keep up their easygoing, believable chemistry as two childhood friends who now find themselves (sometimes) on the opposite sides of right and wrong.

Adding gravitas to mix are the always exceptional Paul Bettany (Vision) and the often underrated Daniel Brühl (Zemo), while Rudd, Downey and Mackie contribute their usual brand of sarcastic-laced humor to keep things fun. Chadwick Boseman (channeling a young Chiwetel Ejiofor) joins the cast in a super sweet catlike getup as Black Panther. By far the best new addition is the hugely charming Tom Holland (Spiderman), an actor once and for all playing Peter Parker exactly as he should be: a sweet, nerdy boy who’s coming of age with his new superpowers. I can’t wait to see more of Holland’s Spiderman, he’s that good.

The effects are enjoyable too (an early scene with a young Robert Downey Jr. is quite an amusing use of CGI) and the story is strong. The film takes on an ambitious challenge and tackles some tough questions about violence and justice, which I applaud. It’s been far too long where we get movie after movie of the Avengers blowing shit up, destroying buildings and killing innocents. Finally they are being taken to task for their careless approach to saving the world.

Not to gloss over the truly bad parts of the film, I must point out there’s no denying the opening action sequences are absolutely terrible. So terrible that I was thinking to myself “oh man, this is going to be a LOOOOONG movie to sit through.” The super fast cutting means you can’t tell what the heck is going on half the time. The musical score is loud and harsh and the sound effects are too cartoonish (a film that presents itself as taking place in the real world should have authentic bone-crunching sounds).

The worst — and I mean the worst side of bad you can imagine — is the horrendous editing in the first action sequence, particularly when it comes to Scarlett Johansson‘s (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow) stunt double. The filmmakers didn’t even try to make it appear that Johansson was actually doing any of her stunts, instead showing us rearview shots of what looked like a petite dude in a redhead wig. It’s so bad that I want to see the movie again just to pay even closer attention to the editing failure. It would be funny if this wasn’t such a huge budget movie! C’mon Disney, get it together (see more visual and editing shortcuts in their 2016 film “The Jungle Book“).

Other than the frantic editing, poor original score and snail-like pacing, the other laughably bad aspect of the movie came in the form of Olsen’s sometimes there / sometimes not Russian accent. It would fluctuate in and out, scene after scene, to the point where it was like she forgot that Wanda was supposed to be from Russia. Olsen is a great actress so I left the theater scratching my head over this pretty serious lack of attention to detail.

I have to mention Stan Lee’s cameo, one of the most fun in any Marvel movie. He has a small speaking part near the end of the film and I’m still laughing about it two days later. (If you see this film, please make sure you don’t violate the Moviegoer’s 10 Commandments).

The movie’s themes of friendship, loyalty, accountability and revenge are incredibly well done and compelling. I can’t divulge too much because I want to avoid giving out any spoilers, but let’s just say many of the conflicts in the film are extremely astute and insightful. This is a good movie, and it’s a superhero movie done right.

MATT SAYS:

“Captain America: Civil War” represents a slight improvement over most of the recent the character-specific movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but not by much.

As the film opens, we find Cap (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, who faded in and out of a Russian accent several times during the movie) fighting some baddies in a third-world country, attempting to avert yet another major, potential world-ending disaster. As their mission ends in the loss of innocent lives (yet again), these members of the Avengers find themselves subject to enhanced scrutiny on the global level. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of having an increased degree of oversight placed on all of the Avengers and their activities; Captain America is very firmly against it. These ideological conflicts lead to the titular civil war. Unless you’ve been living in seclusion, you already know all of this.

The first problem with “Civil War” is that it does take its sweet time in getting started. There is (dareisayit) too much emphasis on exposition and setting up the conflict between the two warring sides. After the opening action sequence, nothing much happens for the next 45 minutes or so. We are re-introduced to characters that we apparently should be familiar with, but those of us who are casual fans will find ourselves slightly confused as people and events are referenced that we sort of remember from the previous MCU but have mostly forgotten by now.

It starts to get interesting by the halfway point, when we see the big fight between heroes that is highlighted in every trailer, commercial, and teaser reel. Of course, the problem with the big fight is that we all suspect that they aren’t going to kill one another; they may have political differences from one another but the battle is not driven by any deep-seeded hate or fundamental conflict of ideology that can raise the stakes and lead to someone getting killed. Without those stakes, it’s difficult to care very much as the good guys all fight one another. I was surprised to find that the best thing about the big battle was Ant-Man (I disliked the stand-alone movie almost as much as Louisa did), but Paul Rudd really added a much-needed degree of levity to the action and was finally allowed in that scene to be “Paul Rudd.” So the big battle scene was sort of a wash for me: there were some enjoyable elements, but fundamentally it was lacking in gravitas.

Okay, so let’s recap the bad: the first 45 minutes were sort of boring and the big battle sequence was anticlimatic and lacked emotional weight. Added to that, the direction was haphazard and inconsistent — as before, the Russo brothers once again overused shaky-cam and quick-cutting to disguise their lack of talent for filming action. Finally, the involvement of Spider-Man (which was spoiled by the many commercials and trailers) seemed like kind of a throw-away. I mean, I really liked this version of Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and I look forward to seeing more of him, but I’m not sure that he was as important to this story as the Marvel execs said.

Now on to the good. First and foremost, it was very refreshing to see a Marvel movie where the central conflict is not driven by some world-ending CGI whatsit (e.g., “Captain America: The Winter Soldier“; “The Avengers“; “Avengers: Age of Ultron“; “Thor: The Dark World“; “Iron Man 2“), but instead is character-driven. Later in the movie, the fight between Tony Stark / Iron Man, on the one hand, and the Winter Soldier / Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and Captain America, on the other hand, becomes very personal and very compelling. I actually believed that these characters were ready to kill one another, for reasons that were not driven by politics.

The Bucky-Cap relationship also worked well for me. This is one element that I remember well from the previous “Captain America” movies, and I really felt the connection between the two of them. When the two conflicted with one another, it was instantly compelling and I really cared about both of them. In some ways, “Civil War” is the most human of the MCU movies because it was so intensely personal — particularly as between Stark, Cap, Bucky, and the Black Panther.  Bucky’s going off the reservation also led to one of the most impressive scenes in the movie — one involving Cap, Bucky, and a helicopter.

Another thing I liked about the movie was its next-level use of computer graphics to re-create an incredibly realistic and lifelike version of Tony Stark / Robert Downey Jr. at a younger age (specifically, about the age he was when he was in “Weird Science“). I know it must have cost the studio a bajillion dollars to pull off, but the effect was flawless. Seriously, folks: if you haven’t seen the movie yet and go to see it after reading this review, please try to appreciate how amazing that one scene is. I don’t know if it was possible only because RDJ had a good amount of source material to use from back when he was working as an actor at that age, but I really hope we get to see more of that in other movies in the future.

Finally, all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies do a fantastic job of recruiting first-class acting talent. In addition to Downey Jr., Olsen (who gets a pass from me on the accent thing because she really is a talented actress who was good in the movie otherwise), Mackie, Evans, Johannson, and Rudd, you have Paul Bettany (Vision), Martin Freeman (Everett Ross), William Hurt (Secretary of State Ross), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), and Marvel newcomers Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) and Quentin Tarantino alumnus Daniel Brühl (Zemo). Boseman did an excellent job, and Brühl — as one of the key instigators — brought to his role the essential humanity that was needed to give this story a heart. His performance was easily my favorite of the film.

In conclusion, I liked “Captain America: Civil War” more than I thought I would. I would like to see Marvel do more of these character-driven films that don’t depend entirely on aliens or giant robots to drive the story. This was certainly a step in the right direction, but the Marvel movies have a long way to go before they can match the greatness of “Star Wars.” As far as I’m concerned, “The Force Awakens” set a new bar for how good Disney can make a movie when it really wants to do it right.

“The Jungle Book”

LOUISA:   2 STARS  MATT:  2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“The Jungle Book” is a film that’s the very definition of a conceptual failure. It tries far too hard to be a real crowd pleaser, adding a little bit of this and a little dash of that in a desperate attempt to have something for everyone. Viewers will quickly realize that the film can’t be everything for everybody, and sadly is not as splashy as its trailers suggest. Instead it’s just dull.

This latest Disney film is at once an intense adult drama and a kid-friendly flick with talking animals; it’s both savage and cheerful. This dramatic, constant shift in focus reeks of trying to be a ‘one size fits all’ adaptation of the story. The fluctuating tone is confusing: is this movie about scary, menacing animals or simply a joyous romp filled with silly songs? The forced musical numbers feel as if they were thrown into the mix to appease die-hard fans of the 1967 animated Disney original just when things start to get a little too dark, resulting in what becomes sort of a commercial break and interruption to the story.

It goes without saying that this movie is weird.

The film was predominantly crafted on computers at it shows. The jungle looks fake and the animals look fake; as a result the entire movie feels fake. Now I know live animals can’t be used to film a movie like this (and I’d never advocate the use of real animals, period), but the movie is more focused on being technical and mechanical instead of enchanting. The animated animals are lifelike to a point, but they speak in modern jargon to keep the youngsters interested. The movie wants its hyper-realistic animals to look and feel authentic yet they talk in slang and sing silly songs. The story is decent enough but the effects are too distracting (especially the minor background animals who don’t look or move like real animals). This mismatch doesn’t work, making the CGI animals more confusing than thrilling.

Adding to the less than enchanting feel of the movie is the mediocre voice talent. It’s fine but none of the voice actors give a particularly memorable nor endearing performance. These are pedigreed actors too, so I know they are capable of much better work. Ben Kingsley is bland and understated as regal black panther Bagheera, while Idris Elba seems to be phoning it in as villainous tiger Shere Khan. There are more disappointing turns from Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), Christopher Walken (King Louie), Giancarlo Esposito (Akela) and Garry Shandling (who adds zero comic relief as Ikki). Bill Murray as Baloo the bear is the best of the bunch, which isn’t saying much because who doesn’t love Baloo? And why can’t the monkeys or elephants talk?

Both Murray and Walken have strained musical numbers where they both are doing more shout-like riffing than actual singing. I love “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” (I was singing along in my head and tapping my feet to the beat), but the songs have been ruined by these poor excuses for musical ‘performances.’ Johansson actually has a decent singing voice but doesn’t get her own screen time for Kaa’s classic musical number (“Trust In Me” is instead slapped over the end credits).

I saved the worst element of the film for last because I hate to tear apart an acting performance by a little kid (and I don’t want this to come across as some sort of adult critic bullying a child actor), but Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is terribly annoying! His performance almost reaches the badness of Jake Lloyd as young Anakin Skywalker in “The Phantom Menace.” Sethi portrays Mowgli as an awkward, immensely irritating man-cub and a bit of a whiny brat! How has he, after a decade of being raised by wolves, survived in the jungle for so long? The kid pretty much sealed the deal in ruining the movie for me. That’s really the best casting Disney could do?

Too bad Shere Khan didn’t just eat him early in the story, it would’ve saved us all a lot of wasted time.

MATT SAYS:

“The Jungle Book” is a bit of a mixed bag.

First, the good. I was quick to criticize the casting of Bill Murray as Baloo; as a fan of the original hand-drawn animated Disney movie, I always thought of Baloo as having a deep voice fitting of a bear and I wasn’t ready to accept anything but that. I have to admit, however, that he won me over — Murray’s take on Baloo (the ultimate lazy bear) is perfect and Baloo is just as lovable in this version as he was in the original. I also enjoyed Idris Elba’s Shere Khan — intimidating and scary with understandable motivations. The animation of some of the main characters, like Baloo and Bagheera, is also good and I had no problem accepting their inhabiting the same world as the human Mowgli.

Now the bad. First, as Mowgli, Neel Sethi ranges from terrible (shouting all of his lines like he’s playing the Easter bunny in the school play) to grating to merely passable. And before you tell me I’m being unfair because he’s a little kid, I ask you to first check out the performances of kids in other movies like “Demolition” and “Sing Street,” to name some recent movies, and “The Descendants,” “True Grit,” and “Let Me In” / “Let the Right One In” for some older ones, for examples of just how good child actors can be. Amazing that Disney and director Jon Favreau let the fortunes of their new franchise rest partially on the shoulders of this shouty, irritating kid.

And then let’s talk about how the other animals are animated. The smaller the character’s role in the film (and, in the case of the field mice and flying squirrels the smaller the characters), the worse they are animated. Seriously, some of those little creatures in particular looked terrible. It’s as though Disney spent all of its animation budget on the key players and went with bargain-basement effects for the others.

Finally, the story itself is a bit of a drag. While the original clocked in at a neat and tight 78 minutes, this bloated affair takes nearly 30 more minutes to tell the same story, and it shows. Demanding run times of nearly 2 hours must be a thing in Hollywood; it seems like they are de riguer for every big-budget movie that has been released in the past 5 years, regardless of whether the story merits it.

On the whole, “The Jungle Book” is forgettable. Although it has its good points, the film never gets good enough to deserve a recommendation.

 

“Hail, Caesar!”

LOUISA:     3 STARS     MATT:   3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Packed with a who’s-who of A-list stars, “Hail, Caesar!” is an utterly confusing and borderline mess of a movie. It seems like one very long and very confusing in-joke about the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system.

The oddball script doesn’t make much sense even for those who are well versed in the history of Hollywood. I counted at least a dozen “WTF?” moments that left me scratching my head and wondering what the heck the intention of this movie is. It’s sort of an unsuccessful satire, it’s sort of a fun period piece, it’s sort of a comedy / musical, it’s sort of a commentary on movies and religion and politics and Communism. There’s no clear focus. In the end, “Hail, Caesar!” comes across as a very angry hate letter to Hollywood (which isn’t surprising given that it’s made by the Coen brothers, themselves a pair of nonconformist filmmakers).

At least the movie is mildly amusing with some phenomenal performances from the star-studded cast (a very funny George Clooney, a very penitent Josh Brolin, a comically frustrated Ralph Fiennes, and a simply charming Alden Ehrenreich in particular). Sadly, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and Jonah Hill have their talents mostly wasted with storylines that enter with a bang and simply go nowhere. I hated how these characters were just abandoned and I wanted to see more.

The bright spot in this mess is Channing Tatum, playing a Fred Astaire type character who, well, let’s just say he makes a rather dramatic exit from the story. Tatum’s musical number is one of the best things I’ve seen in a movie in a while. It brought me pure joy (but who doesn’t love to watch him dance?)

The filmmaking style of the movie is as lovely as expected but in the end, “Hail, Caesar!” is dragged down with way too many insider Hollywood studio jokes that just aren’t funny. Fans of the Coen brothers will still enjoy it, but this isn’t a movie for your average audience. If you’re a fan of their other comedy work, go; otherwise, you should wait for Netflix.

MATT SAYS:

A meta, referential and quasi-reverential cinematic love letter/hate tract to the golden age of Hollywood and the studio system, “Hail Caesar!” isn’t for everyone. Yes, it’s chock-full of big A-list stars and yes, they have some fun and interesting material to work with. But that doesn’t mean you’ll like it.

When you watch a film like this, you can just feel it losing the audience. People go to see it expecting a comedy (which it sort of is) and start out laughing loudly at just about everything that could remotely be classified as a joke, even if the joke isn’t very funny. As the picture unspools, the laughs slowly taper off. By the time it gets to something that is actually very funny, the picture is met with mostly silence — the audience having disengaged with it long before.

There are some good bits here — I enjoyed seeing its fictionalized version of Hollywood in the fifties and its behind-the-scenes, exaggerated view of how movies are made (a dance sequence featuring Channing Tatum is particularly memorable). Some of the cartoonish characters are lots of fun to watch (most notably Tilda Swinton‘s feuding twin gossip columnists).

That said, this “movie about moviemaking where they are shooting multiple other movies within the movie” feels a little too insider-y, like it was made for a handful of historians and old-timers who will be able to catch all of the references and understand who is being portrayed and/or satirized. Maybe those folks will find this hysterically funny and completely coherent. The rest of us, however, will leave feeling slightly confused by the experience.