Ghost in the Shell (2017) – Review

The fuss of casting a white actress in the lead role of Ghost in the Shell can at last take a (temporary) backseat. It helps that the actor in question is Scarlett Johansson, she has the screen presence to divert attention to what is important. As always, that should be the plot.

Playing the role of the Major, a rank we see her attain here after a short opening sequence that reveals her “creation” and/or alteration. She is Mira Killian, her brain is planted into a perfect engineered cybernetic body made by Hanka Robotics. The CEO there, Cutter, sees her as a weapon and wants her up and running as soon as possible.

The designer, Juliette Binoche’s Dr Ouelet (because white people make, as well as look, like the best of Asia in this future world), sees Major as a living person. Most definitely not an object. And therein begins our moral tale of consciousness and what constitutes life. However, unlike the animated original, these themes – along with the entire movie – have been made more accessible for a mainstream audience.

It means the deeper philosophical questions have been dumbed down and the action sequences, instead pioneering like its forbearer, become generic and lifeless. They do pay homage to scenes from the original, at times it’s as if moments have been lifted from there. And the authenticity of the environment is solid throughout.

It falls down when it comes to adding suspense and the journey Major undertakes to reveal her true identity (it isn’t Killian). It’s noble they tried to add the backstory in what they must be hoping is a franchise, but everything is far too obvious.

Whether it be Hanko turning on Major, to the main plot of seemingly malevolent AI that is looking to bring down Hanko. This third-party intelligence is at odds with Major’s views of the world, leading to Hanko losing faith, despite Dr Ouelet’s protests.

It seems tech companies like to be run by bad guys once they’re making revolutionary strides forward. Hanko is like RoboCop’s OCP. A company in deep with the government and run lawlessly from within.

Visually, it can be stunning at times. A body suit clad Johansson is always going to be easy on the eye, and as mentioned, the set pieces breathe life into the world they are trying to replicate from the original. Perhaps the finale goes too big on the Hollywood action, and the setting feels at odds with all that came before it.

But as something to look at, whether it be Major, Hideo (we see why he needs the goggles), the city, or most of the fight scenes, it deserves the title: Ghost in the Shell.

It even tries to carry the heart of the original and gets a free pass, this time, because of the leading lady.

Sadly, it just lacks that something special beyond the performance of Johansson to make it noteworthy. The 1995 version was ground-breaking in many ways, this is the exact opposite. It plays it safe, using standard techniques and methods we’ve seen a million times before in countless forgettable movies.

Hopefully there is enough of an interest to allow Section 9 another chance but without Rupert Sanders in the director’s chair.

5/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Review

It’s time for another addition to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, thankfully, we get served a film that still feels fresh when the monotony of the rest of the market pounds relentlessly forward. This is highlighted from the start, with – probably – the best opening credits sequence ever seen in any film. Ever.

The Guardians are well established now, and fighting a massive pink beast fishy thing. But that’s all going on in the background while Baby Groot is dancing away to ELO. It’s immediate relief that the humour from the first film remains, it’s just the scope that is getting upscaled.

The main cast all return, even Vin Diesel to “voice” Groot. This time they actually feel like a better fit. We see them on the run after Rocket (the Racoon Bradley Cooper) steals from the Sovereign race moments after receiving applaud for completing a mission.

These folks feel at first, like a novelty cameo before the real story starts. Just a planet of gold skinned and haired, genetically engineered perfectionists. As it happens, they are involved throughout as they seek to avenge the stolen batteries and make an example of the Guardians.

As with all films of this nature, we have subplots on the go. Rocket’s is how he pushes people away when he feels them getting too close. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) have the “unspoken thing” going on. Best described by Quill (Star-Lord) as Sam and Diane in Cheers. Gamora reminds Peter, she doesn’t know what Cheers is.

Gamora also has sisterly love going on with Nebula (Karen Gillan, not ginger, now shaved and blue). She was the prize from the Sovereign race and prisoner-turn-accomplice.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. See, the Guardians do the classic team-up movie trick of running separate missions. After badly crash landing on a planet, where Drax (Dave Bautista) is dragged behind the ship like a water-skier gone wrong, hitting every tree in sight at speed, resembling Wile E. Coyote (suspend that disbelief or the film ends at this point), the group are visited by Ego.

No, no, no, not Kanye West, but Kurt Russell, a god claiming to be Quill’s dad. So, leaving Rocket behind with a tied-up Nebula and Baby Groot in order to carry out repairs, Drax, Gamora and Quill head to Ego’s home planet.

As they dash off, Yondu’s Ravagers arrive to capture Rocket. They’ve been hired by the Soveriegn to find the Guardians. But that all goes bad when the Ravagers rebel and Yondu himself loses his men and his freedom. Seems some thought he always protected Peter back when he worked with them, and still gets favouritism.

On Ego’s world, his empath helper, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), shares a closeness with Drax and starts to drop the hints that Ego might not be an entirely good god.

This is where the generic, overly simplistic plot is showed up for what it is. Kurt Russell as Ego is great at playing the larger-than-life, slightly untrustworthy father figure Peter craves. His explanation of how he started as a consciousness millions of years ago and created a world before deciding to walk as a man is grand without being grotesque.

The problem is, it all starts to feel very two-dimensional. The movie only holds together at this point because of Zoe Saldana’s performance. She gives the picture its heart and direction. Without her, it would have been a bland mess. And with a film with so much neon, that would have been a neat trick.

Gamora Vol 2

The values of family, companionship, are the main drive. It should also be noted, that Marvel deserve some credit for allowing this part of the MCU to remain largely untouched by the main series. The Guardians still feel special and protected from the oversaturation of the superhero market.

Weak plot aside, by the movie’s end – and long closing credits with multiple scenes – just as you can’t deny Baby Groot is cute, you can’t help but feel a warmth inside. It’s a feel-good factor movie, that shouldn’t be able to trade with so little substance – but does. Maybe we’re all suckers for classic songs, 80s references, and cameos of digitally restored David Hasselhoffs?

7/10

Baby Groot

WWE Payback 2017 – Results and Review

To some degree, this year’s edition of Payback manages to live up to its name. Also, we got matches that went against the predictions of many fans and pundits.

To kick us off was the United States title bout between former best mates Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho. Beforehand two things were continually repeated. The first was it’d be match of the night. The second, there was no way Y2J could beat Owens.

Not because he’s not good enough or worthy, but because he’s leaving WWE again soon to tour with Fozzy and it’d undo putting KO over at WrestleMania.

Don’t cha just love it when a certainty goes the other way.

It was a good match – as expected. The story of the characters translated into clever spots. Owens reading the Jericho playbook and pouncing with various counters. And the finger stretch of KO. Well, that happened again and it made Jericho go ballistic.

Jericho Owens Payback 2017.png

An injured finger meant no ability to reach the rope and Jericho secured gold with The Walls. Expect him to drop the title on SmackDown Live this week.

New rule for these WWE PPV reviews: unless it’s a 205 Live event, I refuse to comment on the Cruiserweight Division. With such a strong identity, it shouldn’t be present on RAW or its PPVs.

No problem welcoming The Hardy Boys (or Boyz, whatevs). They defended the tag gold against Sheamus and Cesaro. This was a better match than expected. Matt took the ring to start and the crowd once again shouted “Delete.” This time he acknowledged and used the chant himself.

Whether this means WWE has given permission or if Broken Matt Hardy is willing to face legal trouble, is something we’ll find out in the passage of time. We’ll also see if the heel turn from the contenders after their defeat means their beatdown will be a catalyst for The Hardys becoming broken in the WWE.

Broken Matt Hardy.png
Broken Matt Hardy?

Another shock result was Alexa Bliss beating Bayley. The smart money was on Bayley retaining but with the heat growing between these two. It’s easy to see why Vince wants to pull the trigger on Alexa’s push. She has a good look and is convincing in the ring. The problem WWE has now is the RAW Women’s Division feels flat.

Alexa Bliss Payback Champion.png

This match summed it up. It wasn’t bad but it won’t live long in the memory.

Unlike the House of Horrors match. It was horrific, alright. Okay, elements were conceived well. The music was eerie, the camera work decent (apart from when you could see the cameraman’s shadow, d’oh) but this wasn’t the supernatural fright fest Bray promised, we expected, and the match needed.

A reincarnated Sister Abigail? Nope.

Monsters coming out of walls? Nope.

Dangerous props hurting Randy Orton at will? Nope.

A dirty kitchen with a heavy refrigerator? Er, yeah, that’s about the sum of it.

WWE House of Horrors.png

Maybe Bray Wyatt loves watching reality TV shows where filthy houses get cleaned and he sees messy ones as horrible? In this case, it was a House of (cleaning) Horrors. But a scary place Randy “can never leave”? Please. It’s best for everyone concerned if we leave the concept fast.

Wyatt jumped in the limo back to the arena.

To fill the gap, The Kingslayer faced one of HHH’s henchmen, Samoa Joe. These two are a great example of wrestling in this world of entertainment. No doubt that Seth Rollins is the more agile but Joe holds his own.

To tell the match they went down the old path of Rollins still suffering from a dodgy knee. It’s a leveller and gave Joe something to focus on. It gave us a Texas Cloverleaf to admire – and we just don’t see enough of those nowadays.

Rollins won as expected but with a clever reversal into a pin from a submission position. It was intelligent and doesn’t harm Joe at all.

What isn’t intelligent is the continuation of the House of Horrors match, as per the stipulation – it ends in the ring. Why was Wyatt still staggering around after a cosy limo drive to the arena? I mean, no matter the beating, you ain’t so bad after 30 mins of chilling.

Michael Cole trying to big-up the House as a place of purgatory is almost as laughable as the match itself. And guess what . . . yeah, Randy made it back from that place and looked fresh as a daisy. At the match restart, only one thing was expected – RKO from Outta Nowhere.

We got that but also Jindar Mahal with the WWE Championship as a weapon. That same title Bray Wyatt has suddenly lost interest in when it comes to the rematch he is owed. WWE messed up transferring him to RAW. It robbed him of a legit WWE Title rematch and all of his momentum.

This meaningless win just places him in further limbo.

Two men far away from that are Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman. They faced off with the former Shield man heavily bandaged. There’s always the fear with Roman this means he’ll suffer only to look like even more of a Superman.

Roman Reigns Braun Strowman Payback 2017

 

But this match showed WWE Creative can listen at times. The best way to keep Reigns face (although, why on earth do they want to?) is to garner sympathy. He suffered through this match with only a slight comeback. Strowman’s victory came from a clean pin. Reigns kicking out with one surprise before falling.

After the match, more shocks came. Strowman took the steel steps into the ring, stood them tall on their side, and dropped Roman onto them. Then – this was the kicker – he picked them up, lifted them tall over his head, and slammed them into a defenceless Reigns.

The blood was pouring from Roman, and even the chants of “Thank you, Strowman” didn’t take away from the impact. This was brutal and even I felt sorry for Reigns.

Overall, a decent PPV.

7/10

Roman Reigns Payback 2017

 

Kong: Skull Island – Review

“Let’s face it baby, these days, you gotta have a sequel,” to paraphrase Stu from the 1996 film Scream. If that was remade today, it’d be something like this: “‘cause let’s face it baby, these days you gotta have a shared universe.” Thanks to Marvel’s unprecedented success at juggling many balls in one massive shared cinematic universe, every studio and its dog is trying the same trick.

The latest Ghostbusters was supposed to launch a shared series of films. It failed. Of course, DC is trying the same. It’s struggling. Legendary is trying its hand with a MonsterVerse, which brings us to the relaunch of King Kong. This trip to Skull Island is primarily to familiarise the audience with King Kong in the universe that 2014’s Godzilla took place in.

The opening credits use the same montage technique as the Gareth Edwards monster film but there is no direct connection, Godzilla showed the years 1954, 1999 and 2014. Kong’s tale predominantly takes place in 1973 (after seeing a US pilot and Japanese dogfight counterpart crash land on the island in 1944).

The premise being John Goodman’s Bill Randa wants to travel to an island that defies detection. He’s convinced – because of something he saw as a child – that prehistoric animals exist in the modern day. He thinks Skull Island is a haven for them. Of course, he’s correct, and the island isn’t just home to a massive monkey. There are things that make the dinosaurs look fluffy.

Randa uses the end of the Vietnam war to leverage the powers that be to use the returning military for a little excursion. Enter a team. Shared universes need teams, even if the decades that divide the movies means it’s a onetime shot.

Tom Hiddleston is James Conrad, a former SAS man turned mercenary, reminding us why he can never be James Bond. Brie Larson turns up as photographer Mason Weaver. She is a do-gooder that has been on the cover of Time and is looking for the next big shot, regardless of the danger. And we have Samuel L. Jackson playing Preston Packard, the leader of the squadron assigned to land on the island.

Brie Larson Hiddleston Kong Skull Island

Along for the ride are a few scientists, their biggest contribution is discovering we live in a hollow world. Yep, we can forget science when given massive monkeys with five fingers. Do we need pseudo-science to makes sense of it? Clive Balls does believe the world is flat, so perhaps some people will buy into this. Plus, it could explain the appearance of further beasts in upcoming Godzilla films.

Because the scientists need to probe, they dropped seismic charges to determine the composition of the land mass. Or as they appear to Kong: bombs.

There is no slow build-up and a big reveal to Kong like in all of his previous outings. Here, the King is front and centre from the off. He takes out the incoming helicopter squadron with ease. The moment is perhaps to pay homage to the original battle from 1933 on the Empire State Building. If so, all it does is alert us to the fact there is no tension or investment.

The survivors meet up with that crashed 1944 pilot, he turns out to be Hank Marlow, played by comic actor John C. Reilly. He provides relief in a film that doesn’t really need any. Godzilla (2014) was criticised for being too dark. It literally lacked a colour palette. This movie goes too far in the opposite direction.

The banners on buses and building gave us the hint. Those garish colours fill the big screen. What it loses in mood swings it toward cartoon. In doing so, the characters follow suit. Samuel L. Jackson, as well as reusing his own lines from Jurassic Park, and paraphrasing himself from Pulp Fiction, becomes the single-minded human antagonist.

He’s miffed Kong killed his invading crew. Hank Marlow explains, Kong keeps the dangerous monsters at bay and the island’s indigenous people safe. Jackson doesn’t care. It’s as unrealistic as his pouch – something a soldier returning from years of war in Vietnam just wouldn’t have.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts must have had a checklist of classic Kong shots – like the blonde woman lay in King Kong’s open palm – but he missed the vital element. Kong’s powerful scenes work when you feel for the character. In this outing, we don’t have time to care for the big guy.

And Brie Larson, arguably the most talented actor in the film, can get the damsel in distress and looking up in awe facial shots down to a T all she wants, it means zero if the world she’s working in is soulless.

The action is visually perfect, the actors do their best with a limited script, but it lacks the intelligence Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla strived for in pursuit of a more accessible action flick. I hope to see Kong again, next time I hope he reminds us why we used to care.

6/10

Logan (2017) – Review

If Get Out sold us short on the trailers, then Logan reset the balance. We know it’s Hugh Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine, and the arrival of young girl in the said trailers indicates X-23 is likely to be brought into the X-Men cinematic universe. It’s also clear we’re heading for a serious drama, less superhero feast. Knowing all this doesn’t detract from what we’re given.

Many are saying we should thank Deadpool for Wolverine getting – at last – an adult movie. Let’s face it, his previous two solo outings were subpar. And that’s being nice about it. The studio told director James Mangold and Hugh Jackman to make the film they wanted. Why don’t studios just do this all the time?

We find an aged Wolverine in a future where mutants are a distant memory. The disappearance of those with special abilities is explained clearly. Richard E. Grant’s Zander Rice has developed the vaccine earlier X-Men films fought against. He describes getting rid of them no different than curing Polio outbreaks.

The aging of Wolverine is a little less clear. We’re led to believe that perhaps it is the adamantium slowly poisoning the body, acting as a cancer. This just doesn’t wash with me. Sorry. But he’s had it long enough to dispel that theory. However, we have excused the fact his adamantium magically reappeared at the end of Days of Future Past so we can just accept the idea he’s not in the best of shape.

Neither is Professor X. He’s being kept locked away in a metal container, on lots of meds, to protect the world from his brain. See, it’s a massive problem if your head is classed as a weapon of mass destruction but you’re suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Logan’s joint carer for Charles Xavier is Stephen Merchant’s Caliban.

Quick segue here, so Tómas Lemarquis played Caliban in the very average X-Men: Apocalypse. The two versions in no way can be married up. It’s effectively a different character with the same ability (they’re trackers, in Logan, Caliban is captured and used to track the escaping Wolverine(s) and Professor X). It raises the question: Is Logan really canon?

It feels like a set-up for a continuation or a spin-off but could remain standalone. The future of mutants is preserved because Zander Rice has been attempting to weaponize strands of DNA with powers. Hence the arrival of the excellent Dafne Keen as Laura, or X-23, or future Wolverine.

As the story unravels, and Logan tries to get Laura to her meeting place, we realise some of these children have been saved from the clinic. The displays of abilities are the only let-down of the movie. They are clearly working to a tight budget and it betrays the feel of the majority of the film. The legend of the X-Men has made it to comic book form, which Logan explains is overblown nonsense.

The idea the reality was grittier fits the grittiness we see for the first three quarters of the story.

The only other problem is the appearance of a younger, healthier Weapon X. The film didn’t need cheap parlour tricks to slow Logan down. But it does offer a mirror on his growing and real humanity. So perhaps it was a good move?

The catalyst and reason for Logan to open up to his feelings is, of course, Laura. She steals scenes without using words. As there ever been a child actor so expressive and effective? Not to mention kick-ass bad. She’s determined and also vulnerable, she needs Logan’s love.

Charles Xavier also prods the conscious of Jackman’s character. Here it is touching as we see two old friends, with years of history, care for one another. Logan looks after his body and protects his mind. Not just from destruction but the truth of some unknown atrocity Professor X is guilty of committing.

In return Charles reminds Logan he is good. He can be saved.

The tone of Logan is perfect and as the main X-Men franchise loses its spirit and becomes more and more the mindless blockbuster it once stood apart from, this is a reminder that the best comic book films are the ones with heart.

It is graphic in parts. The stall is set out in the first scene when Logan places his claws through the skulls of carjackers. But it is never played for the sake of shock. It’s a movie trying to be honest.

Patrick Stewart announced on The Graham Norton Show this would also be his last film connected to the X-Men universe. By the end, you can understand his reasoning. There’s nothing a future film maker will be able to offer that bests this complete picture.

It is a passing of the torch. In Dafne Keen’s hands, it’ll be carried safely.

9/10