Review: Ghost in the Shell

Directed by: Rupert Sanders
Written by: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Takeshi Kitano
Released: March 30, 2017
Grade: B-

Ghost in the Shell
For those needing the background check, Ghost in the Shell was a Japanese comic that became an animated feature film that became a successful computer game that became a television series.  The next stage in its evolution is that of a live action Hollywood film with a sizeable budget.  The idea was tossed around for a while but it finally ended up in the “to do” basket of director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and Huntsman).

What I find most attractive is the world in which this film is set.  Society has reached a point where robotics is now a part of life.  As an example, those that have lost an arm in an accident can now have a new one built which can be attached with relative simplicity.  It’ll function better than the old one!

The latest creation of Hanka Robotics is to take a human brain and insert it into a full robotic body.  The first person to undergo such surgery is The Major (Johansson) but it wasn’t by choice.  Her last memory was of being on a refugee boat which had been sunk by terrorists.  Her parents were killed and she was badly injured.  She would have perished if not for the work of Dr. Ouélet (Binoche) who was able to save her brain and place it in a new, powerful robotic body.

The Major now works for a secretive organisation known as Section 9.  Their mantra isn’t well explained but they appear to be come kind of government approved authority who rid the streets of bad guys.  Their latest mission is track down Kuze (Pitt), a mysterious assailant who has been hacking into the “minds” of robots and using them for his own purposes.

I might have laughed at such a premise 50 years ago but as technology moves forward at a rapid rate this world may become a lot less fanciful.  There’s already talk of robot droids and soldiers.  What would happen if someone was able to hack into these and alter their programming?  When they’re controlled by changeable code as opposed to a rational, feeling mind, are the risks not higher?

Sanders has tried to give this film the look of a Japanese manga comment with its setting, costumes and colours.  The problem is that the script doesn’t amount to all that much.  The Major talks about the “thick fog” that blankets her old memories and we follow her search for answers.  The tone is heavy throughout and while Scarlett Johansson commands a strong presence in the leading role, the same can’t be said of the supporting characters.  They’re a little bit dull.


Review: Land of Mine

Directed by: Martin Zandvliet
Written by: Martin Zandvliet
Starring: Roland Møller, Mikkel Følsgaard, Laura Bro, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Oskar Bökelmann
Released: March 30, 2017
Grade: A-

Land Of Mine
When it comes to filmmaking, something is thriving in the state of Denmark.  Over the past decade, we’ve seen a flurry of great films from Danish directors including Melancholia (Lars von Trier), An Education (Lone Scherfig), Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn), The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg) and In a Better World (Susanne Bier).  At the Academy Awards, Danish movies have been nominated in the best foreign language film category for 5 of the last 7 years – more than any other country over the same period.

Land of Mine was nominated at this year’s Oscars and it’s a relief to see it receiving a release, albeit a limited one, in Australian cinemas.  The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival more than 18 months ago and it’s been making its way around the world ever since.  As part of that journey, it was runner-up for the Audience Award at the 2016 Sydney Film Festival.  It clearly has appeal with both the critics and the broader public.

Directed by Martin Zandvliet, Land of Mine recounts a fascinating piece of post-World War II history that few people will be familiar with.  Denmark was an occupied territory under Germany during World War II.  Suspecting that the country would be attacked by sea, German soldiers laid roughly two million land mines beneath the sand on Denmark’s western coast.  As WWII came to a close, the issue of the land mines was a concern for the Danish soldiers who had helped reclaim the country.

In the opening scene of Zandvliet’s film, we are introduced to a Danish sergeant, Carl Rasmussen (Møller), who has been given custody of 10 young German prisoners of war.  He promises them freedom if they clear a section of beach which contains roughly 150,000 land mines.  It may sound like a barbaric, impossible act but Rasmussen has zero empathy.  Such is his rage towards the Nazis and their occupation of his country, he doesn’t even feed them for the first few days.  The Geneva Conventions carry no weight and he couldn’t care if they live or die.

I’ve seen plenty of great WWII films that make an impact through bloody, gory, violent action sequences.  Land of Mine does the opposite.  The tension comes from moments that are eerily quiet.  You’re watching a young kid with shaky hands try to remove the detonation device from a buried land mine.  No dialogue is necessary and all you can hear is the sound of wind and crashing waves.  There were parts where I couldn’t look at the screen.  I closed my eyes, bowed my head, and hoped that an explosion would not follow.

While these characters are fictional, such events did take place across Denmark between 1945 and 1947.  Close to 1,000 German soldiers, many of them teenagers, lost their lives in trying to defuse the land mines.  Once a section had been cleared, they were forced to walk across the area, arm-in-arm, to make sure none had been missed.  It’s not shown in the film but these “death marches” were often attended by Danish villagers who watched them like a sporting event.

It’s no surprise that Land of Mine has sparked controversy and debate.  The Nazis were responsible for the death of millions of people between 1939 and 1945 but the film will leave many feeling sympathetic towards these German prisoners of war.  We learn more about their past and we see the effects of the painstaking exercise on their fragile psyche.  Rasmussen also softens as he gets to know the boys.  He starts asking the same question that is asked of the audience – do two wrongs make a right?

Shot on location at the same Danish beaches were the mines were buried 70 years ago, Land of Mine is a compelling, fascinating history lesson with a moral that is just as relevant today.


Review: Loving

Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Michael Shannon
Released: March 16, 2017
Grade: A-

While it’s not particularly creative, the title of Jeff Nichols’ new film does serve two purposes.  Most obviously, it signifies this is a love story.  It’s a drama about two people who want to spend the rest of their lives together.  Secondly, it is referring to the characters’ names.  It is based on the true tale of Richard and Mildred Loving – a couple who played a small but important part in America’s history.

Spread over several years, the film begins in 1958.  Richard (Edgerton) and Mildred (Negga) are a young couple from Caroline County, Virginia.  He works as a labourer and she is pregnant with their first child.  Not yet married, the two travel to Washington D.C, obtain a marriage licence and return back home.  Richard has found a nice piece of land and is keen to build a house for his wife and future children.

While it all may sound very simple and idyllic, there’s a catch.  Richard is a white man and Mildred is a black woman.  Virginia has laws which prevent inter-racial marriage.  Police storm into their bedroom one night and take them both into custody.  The authorities proclaim they have not just broken the written law but they’ve also acted against “God’s law” by sleeping together and bringing a mixed-race child into the world.

We’ve seen movies that recount true stories of the civil rights movement.  Examples include Mississippi Burning, Malcolm X, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Help, The Butler and Selma.  Those films are filled with heroic characters that have changed the world.  The same applies in Loving but what’s most striking is the reluctance of its two leading characters.  They didn’t like the law but they didn’t have the courage (and money) to retaliate.

They weren’t imprisoned for their marriage but the judge essentially banished them from the state for 25 years.  They had to say goodbye to their family, friends and colleagues and try to start a new life in Washington D.C.  It was hard but they did their best to make it work.  In 1964, Mildred wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy pleading for assistance.  Her request was granted and she was allocated a free lawyer by the American Civil Liberties Union who would help appeal the original judge’s decision.

That’s all I’ll say on the plot so as not to spoil the ending for those unfamiliar with this famous legal case.  Ruth Negga (World War Z) picked up an Oscar nomination for her performance and she is wonderful as the quiet, reserved Mildred who slowly finds the nerve to fight back against the system that wronged her.  Australian Joel Edgerton (Warrior) brings similar personality traits to his character (he’s even more passive) and is also very good.  They’re not a talkative, laughable couple but get a clear sense of the love and affection they share.

38-year-old writer-director Jeff Nichols is quickly building an impressive resume with this following in the footsteps of Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special (all released in the past 5 years).  Rather than fill this movie with courtroom sequences, he takes the opposite approach and focuses largely on the relationship between Richard and Mildred.  Nichols rationale is logical – if you see how beautifully and simply these two love each other, how is their right to be married even worth arguing?  Why do we even need dramatic scenes involving judges and lawyers?

At a time when an increasingly level of fear is being generated by political leaders, Loving reminds us how much have things have changed over the past half-century and what we need to keep protecting.


Review: The Boss Baby

Directed by: Tom McGrath
Written by: Michael McCullers
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Miles Bakshi, Tobey Maguire, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow
Released: March 23, 2017
Grade: B+

The Boss Baby
The Boss Baby comes together surprisingly well but it does take a little time to wrap your head around the complex scenario.  It’s the latest animated feature from Dreamworks and is split between two worlds.  On the ground, Tim Templeton (Bakshi) is a 7-year-old who lives with his mother (Kudrow) and father (Kimmel).  They’re a happy, loving, tight-knit family.

Up in the sky, exists Baby Corp – a company that has a monopoly on the baby market.  They produce the newborns and deliver them to the doorsteps of waiting families via taxi.  Storks are no longer required apparently.  Not all babies follow that path though.  Those that aren’t quite as fun or ticklish are deemed to be “corporate” material.  They remain in the sky and keep the company running.  While they have adult-level intelligence, they retain their baby form because of special anti-ageing milk.  Confused yet?

This is where The Boss Baby (Baldwin) fits in.  He’s been sent by Baby Corp to the Templeton family on a secret mission.  There has been a worldwide drop in the demand for babies as families are leaning more towards puppies instead.  On top of that, the aggressive CEO of Puppy Co. (Buscemi) has revealed that he’ll soon be making an announcement that will send shockwaves through the industry.  It’s clear that puppies now have the upper hand in the battle for market share.

The Boss Baby and his team of spies must infiltrate Puppy Co. and put a stop to their plans before it’s too late.  Once Tim gets over the shock of having a baby brother who talks, drinks coffee, and holds business meetings, he agrees to help out too.  It’s a strange adventure that provides plenty of laughs for both and adults and kids.

The theme that comes through strongest is that of sibling rivalry.  The arrival of a new, attention-soaking baby into the families makes Tim feel like an outsider – something he doesn’t react well too.  Adding to this fun subplot is the fact he is also trapped.  He knows his brother isn’t a “real baby” but he’s unable to convince his parents who believe his silly claims are fuelled by jealousy.  There’s an overlaying theme of reality versus fantasy but you’re best to discover that for yourself.

Alec Baldwin has one of the most distinctive voices in Hollywood and he’s great as the loud, angry, aggressive Boss Baby.  He’s the star of the show and soaks up most of the screen time.  Steve Buscemi makes the most of his quick cameo as the head of Puppy Co.  The other two voices you may recognise are Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow as Tim’s parents.

Reviews from the United States on The Boss Baby have been mixed but as an animated feature that does things a little different from others, I’m siding with those who have their thumbs up.


Review: Kong: Skull Island

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Thomas Mann
Released: March 9, 2017
Grade: C+

Kong: Skull Island
In case there was any confusion, this film has nothing to do with the King Kong released in late 2005.  That was directed by Peter Jackson (with Australian Naomi Watts in the lead role) and was fairly faithful remake of the 1933 original.  This is part of a new “monster” franchise that will culminate in 2020 with Godzilla v Kong.  I can only hope it’s better than Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.

Given the reboot, time is needed to introduce a fresh group of characters.  Bill Randa (Goodman) leads a secret government organisation that wants to set foot on the last unexplored piece of land on the planet, Skull Island.  People laugh at his crazy conspiracy theories but he believes it is home to giant lifeforms that live below the surface.

The year is 1973 and events take place in the days following the end of United States involvement in the Vietnam War.  With Skull Island located in the South Pacific, Bill gets permission to the military’s resources to get his team there safely.  Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) leads the helicopter squadron and is excited about one final mission before his tired men head back home to the States.

Others along for the ride include James Conrad (Hiddleston), a British pilot who has been engaged for his “tracking” abilities, and Mason Weaver (Larson) a photojournalist who is curious about the mysterious mission and what they may find.  There are other scientists and military folk but given they are played by largely unknown actors, you can expect most to meet a quick demise.

Kong is the first creature they come across – a giant beast who wastes no time in defending his turf.  John C. Reilly, who plays a WWII pilot trapped on Skull Island for 28 years, sums it up best when saying “you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs unless you’re picking a fight.”  Packard and his crew attack Kong but it ends badly.  The helicopters are destroyed, the body count is high, and those that survive are unsure how to get to the agreed-upon rescue point.

It gets worse.  It turns out that Kong is one of the least dangerous creatures on the island.  There’s an assortment of giant spiders and lizards that will jolt many in the audience.  It’s here where the amazing work of cinematographer Larry Fong (Watchmen) and the visual effects artists is most evident.  They’ve created a claustrophobic world and put these characters in a situation where escape feels impossible.  It’s not for the squeamish.

The strong visuals are offset by a disappointingly dull screenplay.  There are far too many characters to develop fully and even the big names don’t seem to get enough attention.  Oscar winner Brie Larson (Room) just walks around taking photographs and Tom Hiddleston (Thor) just keeps pointing people in the right direction.  The only two who entertain are Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) as the gun-loving colonel and John C. Reilly (Chicago) as the lost, semi-deranged pilot.

The contrived actions of these characters are also frustrating.  It brings back memories of goofy horror films where people do the exact opposite of what they should (so as to prolong the narrative).  Why do they agree to split up and head into hazardous territory for no logical reason?  There are also scenes where they narrowly escape a life-and-death situation and then, for whatever reason, shrug it off and forget the danger as if it’s a non-event.

Kong: Skull Island has big creatures.  A shame it can’t offer big thrills and big laughs.


Review: Beauty and the Beast

Directed by: Bill Condon
Written by: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopolous
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Released: March 23, 2017
Grade: A-

Beauty and the Beast
Since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves back in 1938, Walt Disney Animated Studios has been a powerhouse when it comes to animated features.  Their films continue to enthral young children and create life-long memories.  I have a colleague at work who has seen Frozen a few more times than he’d like… but that’s because his own kids love the characters and the songs so much.

We’ve seen an interesting shift over the past decade with Disney translating some of its iconic films in a live action form.  Alice in Wonderland (2010), Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016) were all based on animated features previously produced by the studio.  Beauty and the Beast continues the run and will be followed by more in the coming years including Mulan, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King.

For those a little too young to remember, the original Beauty and the Beast was released back in 1991.  It reeled in $145 million at box-office and became the first animated film to ever be nominated at the Academy Awards for best picture.  It was surprisingly short by today’s standards.  The film had a running time of just 84 minutes.  It’s worth noting because this remake clocks in at 129 minutes – highlighting that a few parts of have been changed to add more detail to the narrative.

The broad story is relatively the same however.  There’s an unkind prince who levies high taxes on his kingdom’s poorest citizens.  Instead of giving back to the community, he wastes the money on lavish parties in his expansive castle.  He’s about to learn that what goes around, comes around.  An enchantress places a spell on the prince and turns him into a ugly beast.  He will only return to human form if he can find true love and have the feelings reciprocated.  That won’t be an easy task given his hideous appearance.

Through the use of an elaborate opening musical number, it’s now time for Belle (Watson) to enter the picture.  She’s a farm girl who loves her father (Kline) but has grown tired of the provincial life.  She wants to leave behind the small minded people from the village and explore what the rest of the world has to offer.  She’s also keen to get away from Gaston (Stevens) a high-ranking soldier who is trying to win her affections but won’t take no for an answer.

Through a series of well-timed events, Belle ends up at the beast’s castle and an unorthodox love story begins.  Helping push them together are a group of talking objects including a candelabra (McGregor), a clock (McKellen) and a teapot (Thompson).  They all have a vested interest in breaking the spell since they too were once humans who served loyally under the prince.

In terms of spectacle, director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) has spared no expense.  The sets, the costumes and the visual effects make this a true epic.  As the Beast, Dan Stevens looks as real as anyone could imagine.  He’s not wearing a mask or a costume.  His character was created using head-shaking digital imagery.  The talking objects, all with recognisable voices, are adorably cute (especially Chip the teacup).

The cast didn’t need to spend too much time learning the song lyrics.  That’s because they’ve been singing them since 1991.  This updated version uses many songs from the original with a few new ones thrown in.  Several cast members have a background in musical theatre and that’s evident when you see the choreography throughout.  Singing on screen is something new for Emma Watson (Harry Potter) but she has a voice and charm that fits the material.

Given the love for the original and the fact this is a faithful adaptation, there’s a familiarity about the material that’s a little difficult to shake.  Trying to stretch it out beyond two hours with its simple message (beauty lies within) also creates a few lulls in the second act.  The supporting characters do a great job picking up the slack during this phase.

With La La Land winning the Oscar for best picture (well, at least for a few minutes) and Beauty and the Beast getting released, it seems that musicals are back in fashion.

You can read by interview with star Josh Gad by clicking here.