Put a pretty girl in some Lycra and, poof, you got a movie, right? Well, yes and no. It worked with Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich in the “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” series respectively, but not so much for Charlize Theron in “Aeon Flux” or Halle Berry in “Catwoman.” You can add Scarlett Johansson to that “not” list with this live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga “Ghost in the Shell,” done more righteously in the 1995 animation feature directed by Mamoru Oshii. Sure, Scar-Jo looks fetching, much as she does as the Black Widow in the “Avengers” series, and the film, helmed by Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) with lush cinematography by Jess Hall, might even be more optically alluring. The “Blade Runner”-esque reimagining of a near-future Shanghai is a wonderment in its own right and perhaps worth the price of entry, but not enough to atone for an inert script and robotic acting.
Things begin promisingly enough when Scar-Jo’s Major rises elegantly out of a synthetic pool, the first cybernetic organism manufactured by the Hanka Robotics corporation. Major’s a leap forward in human and technology fusion (the flesh and steel body being the “shell,” with her computer-infused brain the “ghost”), yanked from her scientific incubators (a matronly Juliette Binoche among them) and appropriated as a weapon to fight cyberterrorists. The target du jour is an elusive entity known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), who’s out to hack Hanka and the government to pieces. Major’s barely out of the lab when we get a glimmer of her prowess, leaping from a tall building and taking out a room full of assassins with barely a hair out of place. It’s a fiery, kinetic jolt that perhaps comes too early for its own good. The shell in which the film operates becomes quickly inconsistent in tenor and tone, bouncing from somber, semi-serious oppressive future vision (back to “Blade Runner”) to hyperbolic free-for-all and, in the process, uproots the prospect of suspension of disbelief.
Sadly too, Scar-Jo, so fantastic in “Under the Skin” (2013) and normally quite capable, comes off Ben Affleck-wooden here and is further undermined by the film’s lack of an emotional core. The device of Major struggling to tap into her “ghost” to discover her true identity, much akin to Peter Weller’s cyborg in “RoboCop” (1987), piques interest at turns, but ultimately feels tacked on and beholden to the larger sheen. The corporate and governmental double dealings, which strangely seem apt as metaphor for the Trump presidency and its shadowy ties to Russia, also could have been played for greater satire and bite but also become lazy and lackluster plot points. By the end of the film, everything’s empty and contrived. Then the “spider tank” shows up and hyperbole takes off her gown to reveal a not-so-appealing figure.
Much will be said about the women and their use of sex as a means to an end in Lars von Trier’s two part Nymphomaniac and Jonathan Glazer’s alluring new film,Under the Skin. Sex in both endeavors is a must; an addiction in the former and a tool for sustenance in the latter. But in both cases the women are driven by something beyond their control and as a result, they prey.
Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, with Stacy Martin as the young incarnation), the insatiable protagonist in von Trier’s pandering provocation, embarks on her first hunt aboard a train wearing gleefully self-described “fuck me” garb. She’s looking to achieve a series of bathroom conquests and baits the men, packed like sardines into cramped traveling compartments, with fluttering doe-like eyes as she requests help in finding the washroom, and later, for her crowing achievement, settles on a more stately married man in first class. He is so morally affixed and committed that to break that bond will yield the greatest conquest and the most points in an ongoing game of sexual one-upmanship with a fellow train cruiser. After swaying the reluctant mark, he passively empties himself into her mouth. The man is changed, drained, and emotionally shaken from the transgression he consciously wished no part of until mid-ejaculation. For Joe the act is simply a tally notch, a big bull buffalo on the savanna that her sleek apex feline sussed out, isolated, and brought down. How the man returns to his wife, or if his life is disrupted from the interlude, is of no concern.
In the wild, the act of predation is cold, calculating and necessary. There is nothing civil or remorseful about it. While Joe does it to feed her id or inner dysfunction, Scarlett Johansson’s intoxicating incarnation in Under the Skin, largely nameless but identified as Laura in the credits, does it out of rote need. She’s not of our world but something supernatural, a celestial traveler who has been transfigured to look like us, and on something of a farming mission to harvest human flesh for her ilk. The urgency of her assignment renders palpable and strong as she patrols the streets of Glasgow in an austere white van asking for directions (uncannily similar to Joe’s locomotive panderings). Continue reading
Jonathan Glazer, whose brief cinematic résumé began with “Sexy Beast” and includes 2004’s “Birth,” purportedly spent nearly a decade trying to bring Michel Faber’s otherworldly novel to the screen. The wait is well worth it. Glazer spins rapturous scenes that will be hailed universally as Kubrickian – and rightly so – but in the process also concocts an eerie, wholly unique experience that will resonate deep within viewers’ bones.
If you haven’t read Faber’s novel and have no discerning of its plot, educate yourself no more; going in less educated will yield you a better viewing experience. Glazer’s arcane imagery and Mica Levi’s all-consuming score forge an indelible confluence that is not your typical cinematic fare. Sure, there are arguably three acts, but it’s more a washing over than a sum of parts with a resolution; when “Skin” does subscribe to these traditional framework devices, that’s when it starts to loose its sheen and transcendent allure.
As strange as it may sound, American starlet Scarlett Johansson plays a taciturn female entity who patrols the weary streets of Glasgow in an austere white minivan. The credits identify her as Laura, but I’m not sure she’s given a name during the film. In any case, she’s not human. What she is and how she comes to be is part of the film’s pleasurable mystery; to tell you any more or to compare and contrast elements of Faber’s novel would be to do you and the film a disservice. Continue reading
‘Don Jon’: Self-pleasuring love story turns into a … well, touching good time for all
So you’re a ladykiller and you’ve got abs and a workout routine that would challenge The Situation (not to mention a bit of his Jersey gym rat accent), so why live the life of a chronic masturbator when you can have any babe in the house? A good question, and pretty much the rub of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s rom-com, where he not only tackles the role of the buff Jersey boy of the title but also makes his feature debut as writer and director.
The film’s intrepid protagonist is so tagged Don Jon (a play on his first name, Jon, coupled with that of the notorious lover, Don Juan) by his boyz because he always scores, though in private his ideal sex partner is 10 minutes of Internet porn and a tissue. Even after landing a nine (on a 10 scale), it’s not atypical for Jon to slip out of bed as the conquest du jour snoozes and fire up the laptop for a quick porno-boosted topping off. Continue reading