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Posts Tagged ‘Scarlett Johansson’

How much do I really know about you, Constant Reader? What are the chances you know anything of me, beyond the confines of this screen? Pretty good, I suppose. Beyond that – I’m guessing there’s a good chance you’re bored and have nothing better to do, have at least a passing interest in and knowledge of movies… but that’s about it. So I’m going to assume you’re not necessarily completely au fait with SF subgenres, which is why we’re going to talk about cyberpunk for a bit, or that if you are, you’re a considerate sort and won’t begrudge me going on about things you already know. Okay? Glad we got that sorted out.

Cyberpunk has had mixed fortunes when it comes to the movies. The subgenre concerns itself with the nature and impact of mass information systems in a dystopian futuristic world, featuring characters of dubious personal morality and counter-cultural inclination. Themes of the porous boundary between human and machine are also common. The term itself dates back to about 1980 (although books with strong cyberpunk themes go back a bit further), which makes it slightly surprising that the first big movie in the subgenre, Blade Runner, came out only a couple of years later. After that, though, it was very much up and down – mostly down, in fact, with the likes of Freejack and especially Johnny Mnemonic leading one commentator to declare that putting all your money in a box and throwing it off a cliff was a safer bet than investing in a cyberpunk movie. Then along came The Matrix and everything changed again, for a couple of years at least. If nothing else, the Wachowskis gave the subgenre a significant mainstream profile.

I mention all this because it seems pertinent to any discussion of Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell, an adaptation of a seminal Japanese cyberpunk comic series. There have been a number of other movies of this name in the past, all of them animated; I think this too is relevant. Significant amounts of money and talent have been directed at the new movie, the production of which has not been without controversy.

The film is set in an unspecified corporate future where cybernetic prostheses have become common, but something wholly new is afoot: the insertion of a living human brain into a wholly synthetic body. We see this happening during the opening credits, and as the resulting cyborg entity takes shape, we recognise the shape as being that of Scarlett Johansson.

One year on and Johansson’s character, Mira, is a member of an elite security force known as Section Nine, under the command of fearsome old coot Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). When there is a series of murders of prominent cyberneticists and robotics scientists, the team goes into action, but as the case develops Mira begins to find herself troubled by hallucinations and long-buried memories. She has believed herself to be the orphaned survivor of a terrorist attack – but is there more to her past and origins than her manufacturers have told her…?

Before we go any further… Scarlett Johansson is an extremely attractive woman. I know that. You know that. She knows that. The makers of this film definitely know that, too, and if in the course of this review I ever seem to be (ahem) dwelling on the more striking elements of Johansson’s physiognomy, it’s only because the movie does so too. I have no interest in making prurient innuendos about, well, Scarlett’s bod. Well, very little interest, anyway.

So – where were we? Oh yeah. I went to see Ghost in the Shell with a colleague of a similar vintage, and as the end credits rolled, we looked at each other. ‘RoboCop but with a much more resplendent set of -‘ I began, and he cut me off by making a big thumbs down gesture, which was not a comment on my rapid response review but one on the movie itself (I presume). I would go further and say that Ghost in the Shell doesn’t just recall RoboCop, it also reminded me rather strongly of The Bourne Identity and even the 1995 version of Judge Dredd, in that these are all films wherein a fearsome, artificially enhanced enforcer discovers the truth about their own past and is forced to confront their own humanity.

And this isn’t necessarily a criticism, because (as I was saying just the other day, about Life) being derivative doesn’t automatically result in a bad movie, as long as you approach your subject honestly and take the trouble to focus on the story and telling it your own way. Unfortunately, something has gone a bit wrong with Ghost in the Shell, and while this isn’t a flat-out bad film, it’s much more of a generic action movie than you would expect given this property’s reputation.

After the film we came out and discussed the idea of personality being something that can be copied, modified, transmitted, and reproduced, and the implications of this for the concept of identity. By the time we had walked up the street to the traffic lights we had discussed what it would mean to be the ‘real’ you in a world where this was possible, and come up with several interesting twists and variations on the notion. So at least the film made us think. The problem is that our three-minute conversation had more philosophical depth and complexity to it than the whole of Ghost in the Shell, which is getting on for two hours long. What does it mean to be You, if your memories and body are both entirely artificial? is the question the film probably thinks it’s reflecting upon. Well, that’s a good start, but it doesn’t really take it anywhere, it just presents the question. You get a terrible sense that the film thinks it is being very profound indeed – you are practically beaten about the head by the profundity of it all, the profundity is rammed down your throat. If the film had concentrated on doing something more original with its SF procedural/action movie plot and left the audience to figure out the philosophical angles for themselves, it would have been more rewarding for everyone, I suspect.

I suppose the film also has as a theme the way in which modern society treats human beings as property: Mira is reduced to an object, a corporate possession, in the same way as Murphy in RoboCop. The key difference is that while the makers of RoboCop merely depicted Murphy’s objectification, here the film-makers are complicit in it: the film’s most indicative (not to mention absurd) moment comes when the bad guys open up at Johansson with the heavy artillery, and the only result seems to be that literally all her clothes are blown off. There’s a very good reason why Johansson spends an appreciable amount of time in a skin-tight flesh-coloured body stocking, and while the results are undeniably spectacular, you can’t help feeling that the film comes across as slightly leery too.

Is this the juncture to discuss the tizzy that some people have got into about the way that an originally Japanese character has been turned into a Caucasian for film marketing purposes? Well, maybe. My default answer is that it doesn’t really have to be a big deal: the entire cast of Seven Samurai changed ethnicity when it was remade as The Magnificent Seven, after all, and no-one ever complains about that. It gets a little more complex here, partly for reasons I am reluctant to go into as they constitute a mild spoiler, but also because the film goes to great lengths to present a world which is a non-specific amalgam of western and Asian cultures, without ever making it quite clear what country we’re actually in. I think this is another problem, actually, as it results in a less grounded narrative, and (again) all the art direction almost starts to get in the way of the story. We end up with a sort of cyberpunk soup, full of elements that we have already encountered many times before in other movies, and not redeployed with any great originality here. Maybe this is a faithful adaptation of a truly groundbreaking piece of SF – but the problem is that it was a groundbreaking piece of SF over twenty years ago, and nothing dates faster than SF innovations. Too many genuinely bad films have already pre-emptively ripped this one off.

That said, the look of the thing, while not ground-breaking, is comfortably lavish, and this is obviously a movie with serious studio backing behind it. No film with Takeshi Kitano unleashing his special brand of stone-faced bad-assery can be wholly a waste of time, either, and to her credit Scarlett Johansson also gives a fully committed performance. And, as I say, this isn’t exactly a bad film, but it feels curiously leaden and lifeless – neither the action nor the ideas sparkle or truly excite. Perhaps too many other films covering this kind of territory have already been made. Identity may indeed be replicable, because I feel like I’ve seen most of this movie before in other places.

 

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I am well aware that in respectable film-watching circles it is absolutely unacceptable not to like the Coen brothers. And I can see why: their films are unfailingly soundly made, well-performed, and interesting – often interestingly off-beat, of course. One of the films which impressed me most at the back end of last year, Bridge of Spies, was based on a Coen script. And yet I honestly can’t call myself a fan – there’s something just a bit too arch and mannered, too cerebral, about most of their films, as if they’re little formal exercises in film-making rather than genuine attempts at art or entertainment.

But hey ho. Their films look good and are generally well-liked and promoted, and currently drawing the usual happy critical notices is Hail, Caesar!, a film about (I suppose) the Hollywood studio system in the early 1950s. The central figure is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a very heavily fictionalised version of a real-life studio fixer whose job basically involves managing the complicated and colourful personal lives of movie stars so nothing embarrassing or compromising gets into the papers.

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As the movie opens Mannix is contemplating a move to a lucrative and less-weird job in the aviation industry, but he doesn’t have much time to think about that. In the space of one day, the filming of a major Biblical epic is jeopardised when its star (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Communists, hissy fits ensue when a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) is forcibly inserted into the cast of a serious society drama, a solution must be found for a pregnant-out-of-wedlock swimming-spectacular star (Scarlett Johansson), and so on. Will any or all of these things be resolved to the studio chiefs’ satisfaction?

I suppose this qualifies as another behind-the-scenes-in-classic-Hollywood movie, although all the actors involved are fictional, and the Coens have fun inserting pastiches of various genres which were popular in the 50s into the movie – there’s the titular Hail, Caesar!, which appears to be riffing off movies like The Robe and Quo Vadis, a comedy western, a black-and-white drama, a couple of musicals, and so on. These all seem to be very affectionate, and the attention to detail is (as you’d expect) highly impressive.

And there are also some very funny moments in the movie: one of the best appears (at some length) in one of the trailers, when Ralph Fiennes’ film director tries to coach Ehrenreich’s heroically dim cowboy in one of his line readings, while another concerns a meeting where Mannix has assembled a group of religious experts to ensure his latest Biblical epic will not prove theologically offensive.

A lot of other stuff in this film, however, is more baffling than actually funny – Tilda Swinton appears in a dual role as a pair of identical twin gossip columnists, but quite how this serves the story is never clear. The idea is odd more than anything else. The film is stuffed with little nuggets like this, most of which remain resolutely undeveloped, just as most of the storylines never really seem to go anywhere or connect with each other. The Coens have certainly assembled a great cast, but despite their prominence in the advertising, many of them only appear in one or two scenes each – I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention that this in addition to the people I’ve already mentioned, performers like Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Michael Gambon are also prominent in this film – while making very unexpected cameos are people from (shall we say) different film-making traditions, for example Christopher Lambert and Dolph Lundgren (although Lundgren’s scenes appear to have been very heavily cut down).

The sheer profusion of characters and storylines, together with the period setting, rather put me in mind of Spielberg’s 1941, a far from perfect movie but still one I’m rather fond of. Hail, Caesar! doesn’t have the same kind of irresistible energy or gleeful sense of excess. The appearance of scenes where characters discuss theology and political theory (the movie deals with some of the same ideas as Trumbo, albeit in a totally different style) might lead one to assume that there’s actually some sort of serious theme going on beneath all the sketch-like comic scenes and dance routines, but if so I’ve no idea what it is. The movie ambles along amiably enough for nearly two hours and then it comes to a gentle stop.

This film is unlikely to offend anyone and as a tribute to old-fashioned Hollywood film-making it is amusing and quite charming. But it seems to me that there is very little of substance here, not just thematically but in terms of things as basic as characters and plot. Most importantly, it just isn’t funny enough: you sit there for long stretches thinking ‘hmm, this is a theoretically amusing concept’ but without actually feeling the urge to laugh out loud. Lots of talent – and I mean lots – has gone into making Hail, Caesar!, but there’s a real question mark over whether it actually provides more in the way of entertainment value than any of the corny old films it so cheerfully spoofs. I think there is less to this film than meets the eye.

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What in the world is more likely to get a sequel than a movie with a $1.5 billion box office? A movie with a $1.5 billion box office that’s a keystone of a sequence of over a dozen movies which has already made $7 billion. Yes, it’s time for the unstoppable colossus that is Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. I tell you, folks, there’s something almost unsettling about the sheer aura of implacable self-confidence that this extraordinary film gives off: it’s almost as if it doesn’t care whether you like and enjoy it (or even understand it) or not, it’s still going to make more money than the GNP of most African countries. Resistance feels useless.

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As things get underway, the Avengers are in the process of sorting out a HYDRA base in the obscure Balkan nation of Fictionalakia, which they do with a reasonable degree of alacrity: this is more an excuse for the director to get all flashy with the camerawork than a source of genuine conflict, though HYDRA’s pet superhuman pawns the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) give it a good shot.

This looks like the final victory in the team’s current campaign, and it seems to offer the opportunity for a significant step forward in the cause of global security: for Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) thinks he can use captured alien technology to create a sentient robotic security system encompassing the entire planet. He decides not to mention this side-project, codenamed Ultron, to the rest of the team, because what could possibly go wrong? To the surprise of nobody but Stark himself, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) turns out to be an indestructible genocidal maniac with a snarky line in repartee, and after delivering an admonitory spanking to the team flies off to set about his plan for global destruction, recruiting Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver along the way. But will they ultimately prove to be heroes or villains? One thing Marvel Studios’ lawyers are very clear on: they’re definitely not mutants.

While waiting for the film to start, I did find myself observing to a friend that it would be interesting to see how Joss Whedon coped with making a film with nine actual Avengers in it, and that’s before we even get to the villain or supporting cast. The answer, clearly, is to make a film which is almost ridiculously massive in every respect. It opens with a hugely lavish special effects action sequence and just gets bigger and bigger and (in true comic book style) sillier and sillier as it goes on. The crash-bang-wallop-zap-kapow is relentless, reaching an early peak in the long-awaited Iron Man-vs-Hulk fight, which brings new meaning to the word blockbuster, and proceeding all the way to a notably untrammelled climax. (One character even shouts ‘This is crazy!’ in the middle of the concluding chaos, which probably counts as an example of Whedon’s noted self-awareness.)

It does go on for a remarkably long time, but this is because in addition to the actual plot and his nine Avengers (in addition to the original cast and the two non-mutants, the ever-watchable Paul Bettany finally gets some proper screen-time as the Vision), Whedon also opts to include a coachload of other characters, either ones from previous movies, or ones destined for more signifcant roles in future projects: Don Cheadle has a surprisingly beefy role, and also present are the likes of Anthony Mackie, Stellan Skarsgard, and Andy Serkis. We even get to see what an Avengers works do looks like – needless to say, the world’s most famous nonagerian comic book writer puts in an appearance.

Also in true comic-book style, the lavish property damage is leavened by some slightly histrionic soap-opera style interactions between the principal cast, but I would honestly argue that finding a space in a film like this one for actors to genuinely find their characters and act is as impressive an achievement on Whedon’s part as any of the technical wizardry or plot-wrangling on display elsewhere. Whedon’s stated intention was to favour the characters who don’t appear in movies of their own, especially the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and he pretty much pulls this off – although his attempts to wrong-foot the audience are somewhat undermined by Marvel’s fondness for announcing the cast lists of future movies several years in advance. Personally I could have seen a bit more of the Vision, but there is a huge amount to squeeze in and on the whole the film does the best in can in the circumstances. Elsewhere, I found that Whedon’s brand of self-aware knowingness was getting a bit predictable – I was able to more-or-less guess what some of the jokes would be, so perhaps it’s just as well that this film marks the end of his association with the Avengers films, at least: I suspect the writer-director would agree, because to be honest the film sometimes feels like a monumental contractual obligation – it’s never less than competent, but (not inappropriately for a film largely about androids) it often has a curiously mechanical, joyless feeling to it.

At least the sense one sometimes gets watching Marvel movies, that of characters being laboriously shunted around in order to facilitate the launching of the next instalment, is less pronounced this time. But I do wonder how this film will play with some sections of the audience: if you know who Baron von Strucker and Ulysses Klaw are, get all the other references, and have been meticulously keeping track of the meta-plot about the Infinity Stones, you’ll be in some variety of heaven, while if you’re a non-discriminating partaker of overblown CGI action you will find nothing here that disappoints you either. However, if you’re a normal, mature person who expects a film with a bit of focus and a recognisable beginning, middle and end, this may not be your best choice of night out.

However, I get a strong sense that Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t really care about that as it cruises merrily toward the various box-office records it will reduce to smithereens. This doesn’t feel quite like it’s raising the bar on the comic-book movie in the same way that the first film did, nor does it really seem to be intent on allowing the franchise as a whole to regroup: it just looks like another attempt by Marvel to see how crazy they can get before they lose the audience. I suspect they still haven’t reached that point. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a bloated carnival of absurd empty spectacle held together by ridiculous soap-opera plotting, or a grandiose monument to Marvel’s ambition and skill in growing their world-conquering franchise-of-franchises, but either way it’s going to be more or less unavoidable for some time to come.

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For a long time there was a disquieting rumour that the directorial career of Luc Besson had some kind of self-imposed limit: Besson having decided as a young man that he was only going to do a certain number of movies and then quit the business. Thankfully (for I always find Besson’s movies to be interesting and entertaining), this idea seems to have been abandoned, and indeed – after a fairly long stretch between 1999 and 2010 where his only credits were for the oddball Angel-A and a couple of children’s films – Besson seems to be back in the saddle with something like his old regularity.

As a writer and producer Besson is known for a seemingly-endless stream of efficiently barmy action movies, but his work as a director seems to be moving in a more challenging direction. No film is actually easy to make well, but a narrative-driven genre movie is certainly a less daunting prospect than a metaphysical examination of the human condition. For me it is telling that one of Besson’s more recent producing credits is for the environmentalist documentary Home, which certainly leans in this direction, and it may perhaps give us a different perspective on his new movie Lucy.

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The film opens somewhat unexpectedly with some cells replicating via the wonders of CGI, followed by an equally CGI ape-creature going about its business in the ancient past. But from here we go to much more familiar territory for Besson-watchers, as we meet Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), a young American woman apparently studying in Taipei, although it has to be said neither script nor performance are really convincing on this point. Lucy’s sleazy boyfriend co-opts her into making a delivery to Mr Jang (Choi Min-Sik), yet another of those terrifying Asian gang-lords who are such a frequent figure of the Besson canon. The delivery turns out to be of a mysterious new drug, and Jang expresses his gratitude by having a packet of the stuff surgically implanted into Lucy’s gut so she can carry it through customs for him.

However, Jang’s staff are not quite up to speed on the plan and prior to taking Lucy to the airport decide to have a bit of fun with her. There is a scuffle and the packet bursts, flooding her system with the chemical, the main function of which is to massively increase brain function. The film would have us believe that most people only use 10% of their brains, but in Lucy’s case this figure begins to spike dramatically.

According to Lucy, using more than 20% of your brain actually gives you superpowers: the ability to disregard pain and fear, in the first place, but then fearsome bodily co-ordination, the power to manipulate electromagnetic fields, and then more and more cool stuff as time goes by. There is always the danger your body will spectacularly disintegrate, apparently, but the cool stuff surely makes this risk worthwhile. Lucy decides to make use of her new powers by flying off to Paris, where she can find leading brain expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). Always assuming Mr Jang doesn’t catch up with her first, of course.

There may be some elements of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon in this scenario (Everyperson has their intellect massively boosted), but the most recognisable elements of this film are resolutely old-school Besson: the ass-kicking heroine, the Asian gangsters, the world-weary French cops who show up towards the end. On the other hand, the film rockets off into some very weird areas unlike anything Besson’s really touched since The Fifth Element, and he himself has described his ambitions in making it as a mixture of Leon, Inception, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. So perhaps the polarised reviews and general bemusement which have greeted Lucy are understandable.

Some people have treated Lucy as either a straight thriller or a superhero movie with philosophical ideas above its station, but I think this really does it a bit of a disservice. Right from the start the film is rather adventurously directed, with the opening sequence – Lucy being taken by the gangsters – intercut with thematically-relevant stock footage of cheetahs hunting a gazelle. Even after this, the plot about Lucy and Mr Jang is interspersed with scenes of Morgan Freeman delivering a preposterous bafflegab lecture, which most often consists of his narration playing over cod-profound images of wildlife and nature. It’s like a strange mash-up of Nikita with Koyaanisqatsi or Samsara (indeed, footage from Samsara turns up) – but then that’s really what Lucy is.

That said, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss Lucy as a routine thriller with dollops of added pretension: I got the distinct sense that Luc Besson wanted to deliver a film about the nature of being human and our place in the world, but decided to make it a bit more commercial by adding a few gun-toting gangsters into the mix. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s utterly ridiculous – at times Lucy plays like an absurd deadpan comedy. It’s hard to express just how wacko Lucy gets in its third act without spoiling the plot, but it is waaaaay out there.

Certainly, as an action thriller Lucy isn’t going to supplant Leon in anyone’s top ten, though this is mainly a function of the plot rather than anything else: Lucy’s powers develop so rapidly that the other characters lose the ability to realistically threaten her very quickly, though for form’s sake there is a massive gun-battle near the end of the film. This was a bit disappointing as I would have enjoyed seeing Johansson take out a few more vanloads of goons.

On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson gives a seriously impressive performance – rather better than the film strictly deserves, if we’re honest. Her fear and distress in the opening sequences (I feel obliged to mention that these do border on the misogynistic, but I expect Besson would defend them by saying they just increase the impact of Lucy’s ultimate transformation and empowerment) are replaced by a superhuman detachment and intelligence, but there’s also a moment where she tries to describe her expanded perceptions to her mother which is genuinely moving. Perhaps most impressive is her ability to deliver some of Besson’s vaultingly silly and pretentious dialogue with an impressively straight face – though this is also true of Morgan Freeman, and the scenes near the end where the two of them earnestly debate the nature of reality while a full-scale gang war rages in the next room are cherishable.

As you can probably tell, I did enjoy Lucy rather a lot: to be honest, the combination of highbrow philosophical SF and old-school action movie tropes doesn’t quite work, and the movie grows increasingly absurd as it goes on, but I couldn’t help but enjoy its ambition. It is an incredibly ambitious film, conceptually, and if it occasionally doesn’t hit the targets it sets itself there is a lot of entertainment to be had along the way. And you have to admire Luc Besson’s drive to keep doing new things – this certainly isn’t his best film ever, but it’s probably his craziest, and that’s an excellent second-best.

 

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It was fashionable, about ten years ago, to declare that we were living through the Golden Age of the Comic Book Movie. Implicit in this, of course, was the suggestion that one day the ‘Golden Age’ would end and we would go back to the bad old days when Joel Schumacher directed Batman films and David Hasselhoff played Nick Fury. Obviously it hasn’t happened; no year is complete without at least four major productions based on either Marvel or DC characters, and – if we’re honest about it – the overall standard of these is generally pretty good.

Much of the credit for this must obviously go to Marvel Studios, who hadn’t even released a film when talk of the ‘Golden Age’ first happened, but are now a major feature of the pop culture scene. Owners of the characters who Marvel farmed out prior to the creation of their own studio are now copying their franchise-of-franchises model (forthcoming X-Men and Fantastic Four movies will apparently be linked, while The Amazing Spider-Man looks set to spawn a glut of spin-offs), while even their old rivals at DC Comics seem intent on inverting the Marvel Studios’ model by using a team movie to lay the groundwork for various solo-hero projects.

It’s got to the stage where things are rapidly becoming traditional: the first Marvel Studios film of the year is a sure sign that summer is on the way – this being ‘summer’ in the cinema-release-schedule sense, of course. Cinema summer used to start in the middle of May or even later, and run until late August, but it has gradually been creeping out in both directions. This is why, only quite shortly after the official start of the British spring, I was able to go and enjoy Marvel’s latest would-be summer blockbuster, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (directed by Joe and Anthony Russo).

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Chris Evans (the other one) is, naturally, back as the steroidally-enhanced ex-corpsicle, and very logically the man with the shield is now working as an agent of SHIELD itself (although if one of his missions has been ‘make the TV series less disappointing’ it doesn’t seem to have worked, based on the episodes we’ve seen over here at least). This is despite his growing concerns over the intrusive and authoritarian methods SHIELD is increasingly adopting, and a lack of transparency within the organisation.

However, the increasing tensions between Cap and co-workers like Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are put on hold when senior elements of SHIELD come under attack. Dark forces are at work behind the scenes, and soon enough the star-spangled man is forced to go on the run from his own government’s intelligence apparatus, pursued by SHIELD itself and a shadowy, decades-old cyborg killer known only as the Winter Soldier.

As usual, I will answer the most important question first: yes, there are teasers after the end titles – two of them on this occasion. The second one isn’t much cop, but the first one is interesting. In any case, sitting through the credits gave me a chance for a nice chat with the guy sitting behind me concerning the status of the Rights-Fudge Twins, who will be appearing in wholly different incarnations in this year’s X-Men movie and next year’s Avengers sequel (as both mutants and members of the Avengers, they are covered by two licences, so their main superpower is essentially the ability to make entertainment lawyers very rich).

What about the rest of the movie, though? Well, as noted above (not to mention previously), Marvel are quite simply very good at making a certain kind of film, and they have not dropped the ball on this occasion. The plot is extremely robust, the effects are immaculate, the action is very well staged and there are laughs and more thoughtful moments in all the right places. Lots of familiar faces reappear from other movies (I see this is being advertised in some countries as a sequel to the first Captain America movie, but it really follows The Avengers at least as directly), plus some new characters are introduced into the mix. I found the movie version of Batroc the Leaper (played by Georges St-Pierre) to be pleasingly realised, but on other hand the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) largely seems to be present to beef up the film’s special-effects quotient, and I’m not sure how effective the revelation of the Winter Soldier’s secret really is. Obviously the highest-profile new face in this movie is Robert Redford as SHIELD commander Alexander Pierce, and while it’s nice to see the veteran star in such a high-profile movie, he doesn’t quite get the material he needs to shine.

The Winter Soldier is less SF than Iron Man 3 and a lot less fantastical than Thor: The Dark World, and this by default puts it towards the grittier end of the Marvel canon (although this is obviously a relative thing: there’s a limit to how gritty a film featuring flying aircraft carriers and malevolent AIs can truly be). It clearly wants to be about the tension between public safety and personal privacy, with Captain America obviously flying the flag for individual liberty, but this never feels like much more than a sprinkling of thematic dust on a big blockbuster machine of a movie. That said, Chris Evan does a genuinely impressive job of making Cap a stand-up, decent, idealistic guy without turning him into a prig or a bore, and the contrast between him and the Black Widow (who’s much more pragmatic) is nicely achieved.

The real genius of Marvel’s approach to all their films is that, so far, they’ve shown very good judgement when it comes to knowing how much they can vary their basic formula without losing the audience or destroying the unity of their films as a whole. That these films are conceived as part of a larger narrative is clear (and there’s a reference to Doctor Strange in this film which may suggest one direction this narrative may go in future), and while this has obviously worked on a number of levels, it does mean the films feel perhaps a little lacking in individual identity. Certainly, looking back at my reviews of Marvel Studio films all the way back to The Incredible Hulk in 2008, my general response has always been very much the same: they make technically brilliant, accomplished blockbusters that supply everything you would expect from the form, but somehow lack that extra bit of vision and individuality that lifts them above the level of simply being great entertainment. Well, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a vehicle for one of Marvel’s touchstone characters, so perhaps it was unreasonable to expect it to be too daring (on the other hand their next film, Guardians of the Galaxy, promises to be utterly insane), and it is after all, ultimately a superhero blockbuster. Most people will go to see it expecting nothing more than an entertaining movie from a well-loved brand: and they will not be disappointed. The Golden Age shows no sign of finishing just yet.

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By the time I hit my early teens I was already irretrievably an SF and fantasy fan, and keen to educate myself in the genre. Bearing this in mind I would routinely record and watch any film cropping up on TV which was even casually described as belonging to either genre – most often science fiction, of course, as full-blooded fantasy films were very thin on the ground until only a few years ago. As I result I spent many hours ploughing through fairly unrewarding material – there can’t be many 14-year-olds even today who’ve made the effort to sit through Quintet, Alphaville, and The Man Who Fell To Earth.

I rather suspect teenage SF junkies of the future, if they’re anything like me, will have their own lists of films-described-as-SF-but-not-exactly-being-commercial-cinema. Hurtling onto this list may well be Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, which is about as avant-garde as a prominent release gets these days, but I suspect many teenagers will not find it much of a chore to watch. This is another of those challenging experiments in absolutely minimalist storytelling, where the burden of deciding exactly what’s happening in the story is left up to the viewer. It’s not quite as utterly oblique as Upstream Color, but it is still rather like a Shane Carruth movie, were he to make one featuring hefty quantities of a naked Scarlett Johansson.

Under the skin poster

Yes, this is the Scarlett Johansson as a naked alien femme fatale SF sex horror movie. The film may be called Under the Skin, but it’s the skin itself which is the most striking thing about it, and I fear it seems to me that it’s impossible to review this movie usefully without talking at length about the copious and somewhat graphic nudity involved in the movie. I am aware of the impression this may give you concerning my own priorities when it comes to films, but, well, that can’t be helped. Glazer’s film is impressive enough to deserve being taken seriously.

The film concerns an unnamed woman (Johannson) who spends her time cruising around the greater Glasgow area in a white van picking up random men. It is clear from the opening, in which she strips the clothing from a corpse which has been deposited in a mysterious white void, that she is from Somewhere Else, but her nature is not immediately apparent. Once she has acquired a beau, she lures him back to her base of operations, which is a black void that does not seem to be tied to any particular location and appears to have somewhat different laws of physics. She removes some or all of her clothes, he removes all of his… at which point things take an unexpected and rather unwelcome turn, from his point of view at least.

The film follows the woman through this ritual a number of times, never really bothering to elucidate exactly what is going on. She seems to be supported in her activities by a motorcyclist, who effectively tidies up after her, but their relationship (like nearly everything else) remains unarticulated. Later events perhaps cast some light on this, but discussing them in detail would take us perilously close to boundaries of reviewing good practice.

Anyway, you may be thinking, especially if you are young and male, that many of your Christmases have come at once: this is a movie in which Scarlett Johanssen first appears naked, repeatedly strips partially or wholly, and is the subject of a number of painstakingly lit and photographed nude scenes. And yet, while the film has an undeniable erotic power despite its narrative idiosyncracy, this is inextricably linked to a strange power to disturb and unsettle.

I am sure this is entirely intentional: there is clearly a fierce intelligence and calculation at work in the making of this film – one does not make a film as sexually charged as this one, with a title like Under the Skin, and cast in the main role the only person to be named the World’s Sexiest Woman twice, without giving the matter some serious forethought. At the very least, a Hollywood star like Johansson is at least as incongruous a presence in an arthouse low-fi SF movie as an otherworldly sexual predator is in contemporary urban Scotland – but the actress dials down her natural glamour quite a few notches and spends the film in a brunette wig, to say nothing of the convincing English accent she adopts.

This may explain the quality of some of her interactions with her victims. I was not surprised to learn that most of these roles are played by non-professionals, but the modus operandi of the film-makers did startle me a little: apparently Johansson’s initial encounters with most of them were filmed with hidden cameras, with the men involved unaware of exactly who it was they were speaking to. At this point the film crew would jump out, proffer a release form, explain what was going on and what would be required for their involvement to continue, and then see who was willing to sign up. Given the nature of the film, I would be fascinated to know just exactly what the rate of uptake was.

Even so, the key scene of the film – and certainly the most disturbing one – sees Johannson attempting to seduce a man badly afflicted with neurofibromatosis. I have to confess to being quite uncomfortable with this kind of physical disability, and watching the man manipulated was deeply troubling. But more than this was the looming prospect of the inevitable sequence with the two of them naked together. It may just be my own personal attitudes involved, but my response was strongly ambivalent, if such a thing is possible. I am pretty certain this is exactly what the film-makers intended. I have to admire their intelligence and guile even if I am somewhat inclined to think ill of them for making the prospect of a naked Johannson considerably less appealing than I would have thought possible.

This is the kind of performance that many critics automatically describe as ‘brave’ – this of course being code for potentially unflattering or unusually revealing. Nevertheless, Scarlett Johansson approaches the film seriously and seems entirely committed to it, even if her involvement in it seems more based around her physical appeal than her undeniable ability as an actor. It’s understandable that Johansson should want to exert her star power by leading a few less obviously-commercial projects such as this one, but while this is a very impressive film in its own way, I’m not entirely certain it is going to be remembered for the right reasons.

As you may be able to tell, this is one of those fairly uncommon films which has – ironically enough – got under my own skin, and I find myself struggling to process my own reaction to it. The obliqueness of the story is striking, although the general sweep of the narrative becomes more discernible as the film goes on, but for me the heart of the film is in its exploration of unsettling themes of exploitation and our relationship with our own bodies.  In a way I feel manipulated and challenged by the film in a way with which I’m not entirely comfortable, but at the same time I have to admire the self-evident skill that has gone into its creation. Under the Skin is certainly one of the most striking and memorable films of the year so far. I may never look at Scarlett Johansson in the same way again – and certainly not as intently.

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When I was a callow university student, many years ago now, I ended up taking as my dissertation topic the subject of the philosophical underpinnings of Artificial Intelligence. Highblown as this may sound, what it really boiled down to was my discussing endless repeats of Knight Rider with my supervising tutor over lavish quantities of coffee and doughnuts. Nevertheless, the dissertation itself turned out to be reasonably successful and I have taken a certain smug satisfaction from the way in which developments in the field have turned out to be broadly in line with my own poorly-articulated musings.

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I have retained an interest in the subject, too, and so I was always likely to go and see Spike Jonze’s Her, which – promisingly – looked like a non-action Hollywood SF movie, with the nature of AI as one of its central themes. However, I was somewhat rattled to find the film focussing on a fairly nondescript man heading into early middle age (he is played by Joaquin Phoenix) – he is socially reticent, has a failed marriage behind him, occasionally twiddles on the ukulele, and struggles to find the time to properly pursue his twin interests in peculiar computer games and internet pornography.

To be honest, friends, I was frankly wondering if I had grounds to sue the makers of Her for unauthorised use of my life story, but then the film launches off into rather less alarming territory. The man, Theodore, purchases a new OS (this is how the film labels an AI), which turns out to be voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The OS christens itself – or should that be herself? – Samantha, and she quickly makes herself an essential part of Theodore’s life. The relationship – or should that be quasi-relationship? Part of the cleverness of the film is how utterly nonjudgemental it is about this – between Theodore and Samantha quickly deepens, to their mutual satisfaction, and when Theodore’s continuing lack of romantic success leads him to the brink of despair, the possibility of an even deeper and more intimate connection occurs to them both. But is this particular state of harmony between man and machine even possible?

It is, of course, rather gratifying that what’s indisputably a serious science fiction film in the most rigorous sense of the term has made it onto the Oscar best film sort-of-short list. It hasn’t got a chance in hell of actually winning, of course, largely because I don’t see the Academy being quite prepared to take to its bosom a film with quite so much graphically articulated and somewhat kinky sexual content in it. I don’t generally have a problem with this sort of thing, but my general feeling is that the only thing worse than watching other people at it is listening to them talk about it, and there is a degree of the latter in Her, some of it quite bizarre.

Nevertheless, it is all perfectly consistent with the world of the film, which is a low-key, urban, somewhat hipsterish utopia (if that’s not an oxymoron). It is a world in which human interaction has become mediated by technology to a much greater degree – this is established from the very start, when we learn Theodore’s job is to write other people’s personal letters for them. It is a parody and exaggeration of our own, but not an absurd one, and it’s this which gives the film a certain relevance (well, maybe not if you live outside the First World, but since when are Hollywood movies ever made for that audience?).

And yet, as mentioned before, this is not a polemic, reactionary, or overtly traditionalist movie, bewailing the collapse of human-to-human contact in modern urban society. It pointedly does not present the relationship between Theodore and Samantha as something deviant or unhealthy. It is remarkably even-handed and actually rather sly in the way it plays with the audience’s expectations: I was expecting the story to ultimately find Theodore forced to choose between his empty and pointless liaison with Samantha and a decent, genuine relationship with a real person (perhaps Amy Adams’ equally lonely neighbour), perhaps with the time-honoured kicker of the AI turning into a vengeful simulant of Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction. This does not happen; the film pulls off the neat trick of remaining thoughtful, sensible, and yet unpredictable to the end.

Jonze’s script is thoroughly admirable, but its realisation is equally impressive – I’m not at all surprised that Joaquin Phoenix has been nominated for a raft of acting awards, rather that he hasn’t actually won more of them. He is in practically every scene of the film and manages to make a potentially inaccessible character very human and sympathetic. Johanssen is also good – but then Jonze has attracted an excellent cast, including Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt and others (Kristen Wiig and Brian Cox are amongst those making voice cameos).

This isn’t a flashily conventional movie, but rather a disconcerting and perhaps somewhat disturbing one. I can imagine some audiences being ultimately repelled by the fact it is about the fundamental nature of humanity and our shifting relationship with technology, than an orthodox romance – I liked it very much for exactly the same reasons, which may say more about me than the movie. History will prove the extent to which Her is either an oblique commentary on modern society, or a prophecy about the rise of post-human culture, but, for me, at this moment in time it is an impressively thoughtful and very accomplished one. It won’t win the Best Picture Oscar, and perhaps it doesn’t even deserve to. But for such an unusual film to end up on the shortlist should speak to its very high quality.

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