by Philip Price
I wasn't sure how I felt about “Personal Shopper” until I got back to my hotel room after watching it and couldn't shake the feeling I was being followed. There is a weird, distinct feeling to the type of movie “Personal Shopper” is because it doesn't really feel like a movie as we've come to recognize them. Going into the film I had little knowledge as to what it was or what it was about other than the fact it starred Kristen Stewart and came from writer/director Olivier Assayas who also made the highly praised, but befuddling to me “Clouds of Sils Maria” (also starring Stewart). And so, while I was once again compelled to seek out the film due to the rave reviews it was receiving there was never a great sense of what I was getting myself into. While “Personal Shopper” doesn't fit squarely into any one genre it instead handles itself with the fluidity and unpredictability of real life where we simply take things as they come no matter how they might otherwise be classified. This is affirming in the sense that nothing is ever predictable about the film and one legitimately never has a clue where the film could go from one moment to the next, but it also makes the focus feel somewhat sloppy in its execution. Were there a clearer intent from the get-go the film's final moments might have been even more shattering than they already are. While there is plenty to feast on here, plenty of feels and subtle details that add up to something substantial as a whole the project is slighter than I would have initially imagined. Slight in that we never dig too deep into any one of those aforementioned facets that Stewart's Maureen is currently dealing with in her life. The slim script, the film runs a quick and quiet 105 minutes, hops from one point of stress for our protagonist to another-flustering both Maureen and the audience until the more supernatural elements of the script become the overwhelming interest in her life then causing everything else to begin to accentuate this point of conflict in terms of opening her eyes to what she's been searching for. What is it exactly that Maureen is searching for? There could naturally be one of a number of interpretations, but while I can appreciate what “Personal Shopper” does in its challenging of genre and the skill it displays in executing genuine chills it is ultimately more about what it has to say than what it actually says.
Speaking of slight, there is a real guerilla approach to Assayas' style as we are dropped into the film with no context and only a short introduction to Maureen before she is abandoned for the night in this large house, her purpose there unbeknownst to us. And though there is hardly anything to be gleaned from this initial scene the single, kind of gripping factor is that the film exists in a world where people talk about contacting the dead without looking at one another as if they're off their rocker. As we come to learn, this house Maureen is staying in is the one in which her twin brother passed away. The new buyers want to be sure it is free of any spirits and are thus allowing Maureen the opportunity to try and make contact with her brother. This threw me for a loop quite honestly as I didn't expect a film titled “Personal Shopper” to be something of an unconventional ghost story, but that's what it turns out to be. The film methodically layers in details surrounding Maureen's life including who she is, what she does, why she and her brother were so close, and what she needs in order to move past the fact the person she inherently shared everything with is no longer there to lean on. “Personal Shopper” never addresses such questions or purposes for such needs in an outright fashion, but more it suggests the facts and the reasoning's in a number of vague ways. This all is cohesive in a sense that Maureen may or may not be psychologically stable as she is certainly in a fragile emotional state given her twin brother has been dead for less than three months at the time of these events, but it is the double edged sword of Maureen returning to the real world that is both appreciated in the sense the film doesn't get carried away with certain genre elements, but is also detrimental in the way that the moment we step away from this driving narrative that is full of mystery and suspense Assayas derails the momentum he has so expertly and seemingly effortlessly crafted up until that moment.
This leaves the question of what does the titular element in the protagonist’s life matter in what is clearly the more significant aspect of her life? On a very basic level this is how she makes her living, but I highly doubt Assayas made his lead character a personal shopper rather than a grocery store clerk for reasons that amount to little more than he wanted to. We are meant to draw meaning and elicit a certain kind of interpretation. To put it plainly, Maureen goes back and forth between coping and dealing with the repercussions that are plaguing her life as a result of her brother’s untimely death due to a heart condition that she also has and that of a life where she serves as a personal shopper for a fashionista/maybe model/likely C-level celebrity who can't go out on her own as she'll be swarmed by those requesting selfies and the like. This level of the story reeks of superficiality, but there is clearly a point to it all as well. Is it simply to contrast the differences in material needs and stature based on brand as opposed to genuine, real life such as an instance of the death of a close family member? It would seem so until the personal shopping that Maureen does garners more and more screen time. Maureen begins to try on the clothes she is picking out and picking up for her client as if in what feels like an attempt to slip out of her skin and worn-out mentality for a brief time and enjoy the idea of what this lavish, care-free, celebrity for the sake of being famous person lives like. In turn, such segments only serve to beg the question of what exactly is going on and why am I watching Kristen Stewart mope around in attire that costs more than I've made in my entire working career? It is to this that “Personal Shopper” admittedly stumps me. Besides the aforementioned fact that Maureen is more or less leading this double life-her profession a last ditch effort to grasp at superficial straws to distract her from the ugliness of the real world-it is a choice that feels so subjective as to how different individuals might draw a correlation that I'd likely be open to a number of theories. What does seem to be of a universal idea is that there is ugliness and sadness in the world everywhere-even in those who look the prettiest and seem the happiest.
“Personal Shopper” is a film I can't imagine one enjoying immediately, but rather it is an exercise in allowing the elements to grow on you and seeing if they compile in a way that either affects you on a basic human level or leave you bewildered by virtue of its vague and scattershot approach to such a story that deals in ghosts. No matter where one might come down on the film though, the thing most clear is that “Personal Shopper” makes waiting on a text message or a reply to a text message something of pure suspense that is then ratcheted up with tension due to the nature of the texts we see exchanged. The obvious question of who they are coming from never feels as pressing as what they could mean or how Maureen should maybe consider them in relation to her mental state. this is critical to understanding what, at the very least, Assayas wants the audience to take away from the experience; that it's not just our memories that will inform how we continue to perceive, learn about, and gauge the world around us, but how we construct those memories and the reflections of what are not actual ghosts, but our own personal demons. Personal Shopper is a film full of allegory and how we can run away from such demons or face them head on, but even in stating that I feel I might be somewhat off from how the other person in the theater might have interpreted what they saw. I won't pretend Stewart blew me away with her performance here. She was fine as was the rest of the small cast, but what is easily the biggest star of “Personal Shopper” is that of how Assayas lends his small-scale, soul-searching project a way to relay to the audience how to evaluate your own priorities and ideas of importance while simultaneously being freaked out by the capabilities of modern technology.
by Philip Price
What direction ‘The Fast and the Furious’ franchise might go in the aftermath of the untimely death of Paul Walker and the heartfelt sendoff that was “Furious 7” was always going to prove to be an interesting answer. And now, we have that answer in the form of “The Fate of the Furious” - the eighth installment in this accidentally successful saga that only continues to up the action ante while somehow managing to also drive the plot forward and successfully push the story in new directions. It must be said up front that if you're a fan of the series and what it's become then this latest entry will more or less satisfy you, but whereas up until this point it's been exciting and interesting to see where the next film would take the series the question of how long this can go on is certainly more prevalent as ‘Fate’ comes to a close. It's not that ‘Fate’ necessarily loses any of the steam from the previous films, but more that it's beginning to spin its wheels; ultimately leaving little new room for the series to expand. Sure, there are questions left unanswered that will undoubtedly be resolved in future installments, but now that we've built to the events of ‘Tokyo Drift’ and are in fact two movies past the moment of real momentum where Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the real big bad of the franchise, showed up and did his thing the question is now if there is anything left for the series to do to re-entice audiences. It is not without admirable effort that “The Fate of the Furious” attempts to re-ignite the investment in these characters and their on-going adventures as this latest chapter takes the route of fracturing the one thing that has always been the constant of “The Fast and the Furious” - its family unit. If you've seen the trailers or even any of the clips that have been released for ‘Fate’ it is likely that you're aware of the arc that Vin Diesel's patriarch Dom Toretto takes this time around. While this turn of dynamics among the cast is a welcome change in narrative direction it only works as well when it is able to balance itself with the overall tone of the franchise, but too often it takes itself a tinge too seriously and goes a shade too dark for this to both feel fresh while in the same vein as the outlandish, but supremely entertaining ‘Fast & Furious’ movies we know and love.
From the director of “Straight Outta Compton,” but maybe more relevant to today's discussion, “The Italian Job” (2003), “The Fate of the Furious” comes to us courtesy of F. Gary Gray or the fifth director to take a crack at this franchise. Again scripted by Chris Morgan who has more or less been the architect of the series since ‘Tokyo Drift’ we pick up with Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in Cuba as they are finally taking their honeymoon and basking in the fact all seems to be right and calm in their world. “The Fate of the Furious” opens as one would hope any ‘Fast & Furious’ movie would-with a street race featuring hot rod cars, scantily clad women, and a soundtrack with a bass so heavy you feel like you're actually sitting in one of the cars on the screen. And while Gray opens his film by paying homage to the origins of the series while simultaneously acknowledging how much it has grown with little more than the scale on which a simple street race is captured we quickly move past the fun and games and into something a little more sinister. On the streets of Cuba Dom encounters a more fair-skinned individual than is common in such parts of the worlds who, unbeknownst to Toretto at the time, is known as Cipher (Charlize Theron) or one of the world's elite shadow hackers. Cipher convinces Toretto to assist her in her evil plan by holding something that must be severely damning over his head as our protagonist hardly flinches when Cipher states her demands. Right about this same time Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's Luke Hobbs is recruited to perform an off the books mission that asks him to chase down one of many McGuffin's in this movie that has him recruit Toretto and his team; this inadvertently setting up the perfect time for Dom to start his services for Cipher. After double-crossing Hobbs and bewildering the rest of his "family" that includes Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) Dom essentially leaves Hobbs to take the fall for their unsanctioned action sending him to the same prison that not only holds countless baddies he helped put away, but also Deckard Shaw himself. Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) shows up with a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) to lend Hobbs a hand with the ulterior objective of recruiting both Hobbs, Shaw, and Toretto's team to not only figure out why Dom has gone rogue, but to also end whatever game Cipher intends on playing.
What has been consistently surprising to me since the fourth film in the series is just how well Morgan and Universal have structured the world-building of this franchise and how well they have planned out the next steps in the story with each film progressively building atop everything that occurred in the previous film. This is a series where, as an audience member, one needs to have seen the previous films in order to understand what all is going on and who exactly everyone is to fully appreciate the breadth of the saga and the depth of the details. This is not to be undervalued in a world where not long ago sequels didn't care as much about continuity, but since the structuring of these films around the events of ‘Tokyo Drift’ and beyond it has become clear just how vital the mythology that each piece adds to the bigger picture is and what it could ultimately mean further down the road. “The Fate of the Furious” is no different and dammit if I'm not still sucked into the melodramatic, cornball, serial nature of the whole thing. In this regard, what this newest chapter does to not only build on the past, but towards the future is to give a slightly darker shade to the lengths Dom is willing to go to in order to keep his family together. For the sake of doing something different with the character though, unfortunately the film as a whole spends too much time on this turn of events to the point it doesn't take the time to relish in and take advantage of everything else it has to offer. Case in point: Theron as the villain. While the ‘Fast & Furious’ purist in me has a fair amount of trouble believing the likes of Roman, Tej, and especially Letty would have as easy a time as they seemingly do letting Shaw into their gang as an ally rather than an adversary given he killed one of their best friends and actively hunted down many of them the combination of friction and comic relief the script lends Shaw and Hobbs' interactions is almost enough to make me forget such details. The point is-Shaw was and is a solid, unforgiving, yet charming antagonist that was a formidable threat because he very much thought the same way as many a member of Toretto's gang. With Theron you have an actress who could do any number of things with a role like this, but rather than give her the room to explore as much she is cooped up on an airplane (fast and) furiously punching at a keyboard so as to hack faster than everyone else around her.
The same could very well be said about Helen Mirren's sweet but all too brief appearance in the film and even to that of Russell's Mr. Nobody who was a highlight of the previous picture, but is largely relegated to a conveyor of exposition here. I also couldn't help but feel a little awkward at how obvious Eastwood's character, while a completely different personality, seemed to be filling in for the absent Brian O'Conner. Maybe most unfortunate is the fact we can really feel that weight of that missing relationship at the heart of the film. Straining the film even-as if Morgan and the producers were unsure what to do with the rest of the characters without that element of Brian there to integrate and play off of. That said, whereas “The Fate of the Furious” tries to have its cake and eat it too in regards to darkening the tone while keeping the focus largely on the team component rather than allowing such darker caveats an actual chance to breathe Gray and his film still offer some of the more breathtaking action set pieces and some of the best, pure action visuals that we've seen in some time. For starters, the opening street race is a welcome return to the roots of the series, but watching a similar sequence in the 2001 original as compared to what we have here is like night and day. It's the spirit that counts though, and Gray nails that in this critical sequence that sets the tone for the rest of his film. From that point on there are at least three other action sequences that are genuinely thrilling to witness on the big screen (and more specifically, the IMAX if you have the opportunity). From a prison break sequence that has Statham's Shaw going head to head with Johnson's Hobbs with Shaw demonstrating a penchant for parkour and Hobbs using the brute force of his body to a legit ginormous set piece in the middle section of the film when we're taken to Manhattan that has Theron's Cipher taking over countless cars and auto-piloting them to a target she's after-the scale is breathtaking, the execution is clean, and the impression it leaves is unmistakable. And that's all without even going into Statham's hand to hand combat aboard a plane or the rest of the crew's ice excursions in Russia that include a nuclear submarine. “The Fate of the Furious” goes big in more ways than one and some of it works while some of it doesn't. It was bound to happen when things become this bloated, but Gray, his seasoned cast, and Morgan still have enough of a hold on their material to ensure that, if nothing else, this Fast is still fun enough despite itself.
by Philip Price
There is something to be said for movies that have no particular ambition due to a level of self-awareness. There is something to be said for swallowing your pride, accepting the reality of the situation, and doing what you can with the given factors. It's admirable and with such unabashed pride in the face of acceptance there is charm to be found. A different, slightly quirky, break from the norm type charm and this is what “Going in Style” relies on to let its audience know it is well aware of what it is and that it has no qualms about it. If you don't have any qualms with the type of entertainment a movie like “Going in Style” promises to deliver then you likely won't have any issue with the movie either. “Going in Style” is exactly what one would expect it to be given it comes from screenwriter Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent,” “Hidden Figures”) and by his pen is an updated version of the 1979 film of the same name that starred George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg. What made “Going in Style” a movie worth re-making seems to have been absent from the consideration of the studio and filmmakers and more was simply an excuse to round up some of our best aging actors, throw them in a film together, and let the chemistry and credibility do the rest of the work. If one has seen the like-minded “Last Vegas” then you know this actually turns out fairly well and to no surprise “Going in Style” yields much the same results. A superfluous and completely unnecessary re-make, no doubt, but a frothy enough excursion you don't take seriously enough to be upset about.
But what of the director of this re-envisioned “Going in Style”? Well, that would be Zach Braff. The same Braff that made his feature directorial debut with 2004's “Garden State” that was lovingly adored by all the millennials who didn't yet know we had a name and the same Braff who didn't direct another feature for a decade until his crowd sourced “Wish I Was Here” made little to no impact in 2014. Braff has seemingly since resigned to a life of studio paychecks making a TV movie in 2015 and now taking the helm of the film that is the subject of this review, neither of which he had any other creative influence on. Braff became known for his everyman quality, his authenticity in his comedy and persona as honed on “Scrubs” and one would be forgiven if they expect to find as much in his latest effort, but there is nothing of the sort here. “Going in Style” is directed and executed in as vanilla a fashion as one could imagine. This doesn't necessarily mean anything is wrong with the film-there is a distinct lack of Viagra jokes-but rather that there is nothing to assist in helping the film stand apart from those that are of a similar nature. The only thing striking about the picture is that it was somehow able to recruit such a strong cast and in the performances and rapport our three leads give and demonstrate we have something to distract us from how plain this thing is otherwise. Who exactly has Braff and Warner Bros. rounded up for this re-make though? Well, that would be Michael Caine, the man with the golden voice Morgan Freeman, and everyone's favorite curmudgeon Alan Arkin. Having these three men together in a room to spitball ideas about how to replace their pension that has suddenly been taken out from under them is enough to garner a few laughs if not incite some social commentary on what it's like to grow old in the United States and how well we take care of our elderly, but the film couldn't really be bothered to explore as much. Instead, the whole idea of putting these three iconic actors in different settings and relying largely on fish out of water humor to get laughs is about where the film settles on being content with itself. Ultimately, neither the movie nor its characters feel as sly as they need to.
“Going in Style” begins by introducing us to Joe (Caine) as he walks into a bank and is told his house, which he's recently bought so that his daughter (Maria Dizzia) and granddaughter (Joey King) may move in with him, is under foreclosure because he hasn't made so many payments. This is due to the fact the bank tripled Joe's mortgage under a technicality that Joe was told was very unlikely when he made the purchase. In the middle of this discussion with a very smug teller (played hilariously by Josh Pais) the bank in which Joe is sitting comes to be robbed by three masked gunmen. Rather than being frightened, Joe watches in a kind of admiration as the three men perfectly orchestrate a heist and time it so that they are in and out before the authorities are able to arrive. As a star witness to the events, Caine reports his account of the heist to Detective Hamer (Matt Dillon), but can't seem to shake the feeling of how impressive the whole experience was. This of course leads into the unfortunate circumstances that are the inciting incident of the film where Joe, Freeman's Willie, and Arkin's Albert are informed the steel company they dedicated thirty plus years of their lives to is packing up and moving their manufacturing base out of the U.S. making them legally free of paying pensions or other retirement funds to U.S. based workers. Of course, as Willie and Albert already share an apartment together in Brooklyn with Joe living across the street and worried about how he's going to pay the bills the three of them know they have to do something and do it fast. As Joe is inspired by what he saw in the bank at the beginning of the film he proposes the three of them do the same-only taking what the company owes them. Willie sees no other way, but Albert is sternly against it. Of course, they too have their reasons for feeling such ways; Willie has a daughter and granddaughter of his own that he doesn't see often as he can't afford to travel and Albert has recently engaged in a relationship with Annie (Ann-Margaret) that he doesn't care to disrupt with potential jail time. Of course, as this is a movie we know the trio will ultimately decide to take matters into their own hands and do so by reaching out to Joe's loser son-in-law (Peter Serafinowicz) who refers them to a colleague named Jesus (John Ortiz) that might actually help them pull off the seemingly impossible.
What all of that tells you, the reader and potential viewer, is that there is plenty going on here to distract from the fact that there isn't much below the surface. Again, this is fine-not everything has to be Shakespeare or Kubrick, but while “Going in Style” more or less adheres to the mantra of, "what you see is what you get," that doesn't mean it necessarily had to. There is prime real estate for the film to both be the light and funny piece of Sunday afternoon entertainment that it is while at the same time delivering a clever account of what the elderly are having to think about and deal with in the years they should be able to be relaxing and getting the most out of their existence given the fact that time is limited is very much at the forefront of their minds. Of course, this version of “Going in Style” was never going to have it in its heart to be dark or even close to realistic about such issues, but through the way in which it was executed it might have at least had a more specific point of view. A firmer stance on what it was standing up for, if you will. I was at least hoping at one point or another (especially when Christopher Lloyd's character would show up spontaneously) that the three leads might at least throw out a few lines concerning their own mortality and how happy/unhappy they were with what their life had amounted to, but nothing of the sort ever comes to pass. Rather, Braff and Melfi have together crafted a film without any of the sincere bitterness its characters are feeling, but more one in which the consequences never feel real and we, the audience, always trust things will turn out for the best no matter how big of a mess Joe, Willie, and Albert get themselves into. There isn't much more to be said about a film that prides itself on skirting over the heavy stuff in favor of being that pure vanilla flavor in all of its ordinary glory. Of course, for audiences this means it demands less from our brains which isn't always a bad thing, but given we get so many comedies like this a year it's a question of how conditioned have we become to turning off our brains and not demanding more from our entertainment? This isn't an issue to squarely be brought up with “Going in Style,” but it's the kind of stuff “Going in Style” makes me consider due simply to the fact it may be enjoyable, but it's only intermittently engaging.
by Philip Price
First impressions undoubtedly set a tone that will forever tinge the perception one has of another person or thing-such as a piece of entertainment. The first impression given by “Life” is that of an old-fashioned horror movie. Sure, the comparisons to “Alien” are easy and to obvious extents, valid, but “Life” gives such an immediate indication of being inherently old-fashioned in its approach to what would still be new frontiers that one can't help but to allow those tendencies to carry on throughout the entirety of the film even as it becomes slightly silly and a little long in the tooth. “Life” accomplishes such vibes by taking pride in showing the audience things we've become conditioned to by the movies that truly are spectacular were we to actually step back and appreciate them once in a while. Whether it be something as simple as the view of earth from space or the way in which director Daniel Espinosa's camera flies as effortlessly through the spacecraft in zero gravity as the characters do-these actions and spectacle are more appreciated due to the sense of sincerity the tone and score from Jon Ekstrand give off. Espinosa's film, which was written by the guys who wrote “Deadpool” and “Zombieland” (Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick), places itself squarely into the horror mold while utilizing the always compromising environment that is outer space to heighten the tensions and push the suspense up to eleven. In short, “Life” doesn't take so many notes from space movies as it does scary ones. Life is a thriller that means to make you claustrophobic despite the fact escaping said confined space would result in a slow, likely agonizing death. There are no good options except to stay and fight and so, as our six-man crew is picked off one by one, we are exposed to the dangers of curiosity outweighing fear. We are exposed to how being blinded by what such discoveries promise can distract from the potential trouble at hand, but “Life” never becomes too heavy handed or ham fisted in these explorations of our psychologies or mentalities. Rather, the film finds a large entertainment factor in coming up with different types of situations to find that tension and suspense in-leaving the larger ideas to fill in the gaps in between; almost as if the residuals of the more striking moments are intentionally left to linger and for viewers to comprehend once the shock wears off. It's an idea that's easy to propose, but “Life” pulls it off rather well and is all the more fulfilling for it.
“Life” follows the lives of six astronauts who are living aboard the international space station. They have been waiting eight months for the arrival of a pilgrim capsule from Mars that holds samples from the planets soil. Naturally, the capsule has been damaged, struck by debris, and has since veered off course. It is now up to biologist, heroic astronaut, and all-around daredevil Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) to successfully reel in the capsule so that the scientist on board, Hugh Derry (a fantastic Ariyon Bakare), might begin to study the sample and hopefully discover the existence of a living organism outside of earth. What are the odds, right? Well, this is a movie so, pretty darn good. Also on board the ISS is quarantine officer Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), mission commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), pilot Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and crew doctor David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal). Interesting fact: at the point in which we meet them Jordan is on his four hundred and seventy-third consecutive day in space giving the indication not that the guy necessarily loves space, but that he definitely isn't too fond of people. We gain little tidbits of knowledge such as this for each of the crew members, sans Golovkina whose attributes come through more in her actions than any such exposition, but more importantly is the film established the camaraderie and chemistry between the members of the team while dealing in some specific dynamics that make the ultimate outcome for each of the individuals resonate that much more.
As it goes without much of a surprise, Derry does in fact discover a single cell organism within the sample (shocker, I know) that he is able to cultivate into a multi-celled organism after a few atmospheric adjustments. Though Derry is drunk off the discovery the remainder of his team begin to worry themselves with the fact the creature, which is named Calvin after a school that won a contest to name the alien decided to give it its namesake, is growing at such a rapid rate and rather than being more cautious, Derry is making simple mistakes such as forgetting to secure the lab in which Calvin is contained. The film gives itself a solid 40 or so minutes of set-up and character development until everything goes sideways. This is a rather effortless transition as we know all will inevitably go south, but that the script implements the necessary instabilities not only in the situations, but in the characters so that once things due in fact go south we know there is no going back no matter how much we may like these people and continue to root for them.
And so, the key to “Life” succeeding on the forefront and, by default, its larger ideas remaining with us days after seeing the film is the level of suspense and ultimate tension it delivers. What “Life” has up its sleeve that most horror movies do is that we know the antagonist will have malicious intent, but what it has that most horror movies don't is the fact the audience doesn't know what weapons that antagonist yields in order to accomplish such intent. Freddy has psychological warfare and knives for fingers, Leatherface has a chainsaw, Michael Myers has a kitchen knife, and Jason wields a machete, but given we meet Calvin in a stage of infancy there is no telling what he might be capable of or how he might become this being that may not even be completely hostile in his innateness, but simply understands that to ensure his survival-he must kill those who pose any kind of threat. With such an antagonist set in place there is also an inherent sense of tension-we know Calvin is up to no good because this is a movie, but we don't know when or how he'll strike. It doesn't hurt that we're also given that solid first act to become invested in the personalities on board the ISS so that not only is there suspense in what Calvin is capable of and what he might do, but also because we are now emotionally invested in what is going on. What is creating the suspense and ultimately the overriding tension is this level of uncertainty. Uncertainty as to what the most immediate threat in our characters' lives is capable of and uncertainty as to how these characters might even hope to compete with limited resources and only a limited amount of sustainable space. As the film progresses and Calvin demonstrates more and more of his "weapons" we are privy to the fact that these astronauts really do stand less and less a chance of surviving the bigger and more advanced their adversary grows. Calvin isn't shy about showing his dominance which would seemingly deflate the tension considerably, but this is why the setting is important. The characters are not only facing an unknown hostile creature, but are doing so in an atmosphere that is intrinsically hostile thus giving cause for that constant layer of uncertainty which increases the suspense every time Calvin makes a move.
Taken in this context, “Life” is a fine example of how genres can seemingly be smashed together to pull the best parts from each and create something even more interesting if not necessarily revolutionary at this stage in the game. The thing is, “Life” is by no means a science fiction film and doesn't use anything other than the setting of that genre to enhance the perception that there might be something more to this horror flick than blood and jump scares. “Life” is a horror movie through and through, but it is smart enough to know its setting is the bomb below the table despite the fact the audience is aware of it from the beginning. It would be easier to think of Calvin as the bomb under the table, but the film itself never tells us Calvin is of a bomb-like nature we are only left to assume as much because “Life” wouldn't be much of a movie if he wasn't. Making the audience aware of the dangers of space and all that can seemingly go wrong in the environment by making the introduction to the film that of a mission to rescue the damaged capsule that carries Calvin we are immediately made aware of the suspense in the situation. That even without the presence of an unknown alien life form-the combination of humans and space travel is enough to incite as much. The general state of anticipation that follows when Calvin is discovered is what then lends the film its great amount of tension. As Calvin grows-so does the intensity, as the tension grows-so does our emotional investment. Life walks these lines in fine form delivering a rather simple premise made effective by exercising some of the oldest tricks in the movie-making handbook. These well-worn, but successful techniques are only aided by the likes of actors such as Reynolds playing into expectations, but against type. And the film isn't able to navigate these courses of uncertainty followed by suspense that are always tinged with tension through to the end the efforts by Gyllenhaal and Ferguson especially aide the film in coming to a satisfying conclusion. The screenplay is gasping for reasons to go on longer than it needs to by the final act, but the actors are so committed to the peril their character’s face that it's hard not to want the whole ship to stay afloat. “Life” is a fine example of what getting back to basics can do with a little modern initiative. It plays the game by having all its factors taken into consideration and play into the piece for maximum effect with only a few missteps along the way sidelining its otherwise admirable efficiency.
by Philip Price
For all the hoopla surrounding the whitewashing of what were originally Japanese characters and the hype that surrounded the source material from which “Ghost in the Shell” is based one might imagine it being easy to go into this movie with some sort of expectation. Given I have no connection to Masamune Shirow's original 1989 manga or the 1995 anime and understood that in order for such a property to get the big budget Hollywood treatment that it would require someone like a Scarlett Johansson in the lead role I went into “Ghost in the Shell” with no qualms and more or less an open mind in the hopes that ScarJo was only continuing to make interesting action movies concerning A.I. as she'd done not three years ago with “Lucy.” While “Ghost in the Shell” doesn't feel like a breakout in the same way that Luc Besson film was it is still very much an entertaining if not more dour experience than I half expected it to be given the color scheme of the marketing. Speaking to color scheme, it is in the futuristic environment that “Ghost in the Shell” finds its greatest strengths. Rather than simply offering a few neat visual cues here and there director Rupert Sanders owes his production designer, Jan Roelfs, and art department a huge thank you as it is this fully realized if not somewhat familiar future world that gives the film a sense of uniqueness despite its overall derivative nature. Of course, the deal with “Ghost in the Shell” is very much the same as the case was with 2012's “John Carter” in that much of what the source material inspired in popular culture (namely “The Matrix”) this big screen feature will now be accused of resembling. It's a sad state of truth, but the order of exposure appropriates how properties are perceived in the larger scope of the public eye and in some cases can tarnish the brand name. “Ghost in the Shell” isn't bad enough to offend or truly tarnish the name of the material it has re-imagined, but more it isn't noteworthy enough to seemingly live up to the past incarnations that share its namesake. Given I have no connections to those earlier versions of these ideas I actually came away thinking Sanders film was well constructed, that it held more emotional heft than expected, and executed its main ideas clearly if not as effectively as it could/should have.
And so, if you're like me and go into this film not knowing exactly what in the world Shirow created is about you'll quickly learn that “Ghost in the Shell” chronicles a future world (we're never told exactly how far into the future this is intended to be) where humans are allowing more and more of themselves to become robotic in nature and thus the inevitable idea of placing certain person’s brains in better, more badass bodies is born and being done via scientists such as Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) and large corporations run by faceless CEO's. Out of these experiments we get the first successful case of a soul or ghost if you will, in the form of someone's brain, being transferred into that of a new, advanced shell. This shell looks like Johansson who, after completing the process and or/transplant surgery successfully, is named The Major and enlisted to work in a unit at the Department of Defense. It is here that our story really begins as Major and her peers, most notably right hand man Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and superior Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), begin investigating a case where major players for robotics companies are being killed off which of course leads to much deeper, more complex questions and discoveries Major is forced to ask about herself and where she came from. Again, in my experience there was no preface to what “Ghost in the Shell” would entail and so the linear fashion in which the story is delivered lends great curiosity as to what all of these little elements we're being given might ultimately add up to. This is great as I was consistently engaged and despite the fact I felt we settled into the world the movie presented it never felt as if we became too comfortable with the narrative. Rather, the issue comes in the all too familiar scenario where the parts are greater than that of their sum. The questions posed are interesting and could potentially lead to fascinating discoveries and conclusions, but while there is some emotional substance as mentioned earlier, the conclusions the film does in fact draw are never as satisfactory on the level of intrigue the audience was at when those questions were posed.
This essentially outlines the biggest flaw of the film in that it barely skims the surface of the themes it means to represent. There is one exchange specifically, where Dr. Ouelet attempts to console Major by telling her that she is, "what everyone will become one day," to which Major responds, "You have no idea how alone that makes me feel." This more or less encapsulates several of the things “Ghost in the Shell” seemingly wants to touch on be it the importance we place on scientific advancements over that of individual life or that of the fact one will never be able to have their cake and eat it too. Meaning, this idea of taking a functioning member of society's brain and placing it within the confines of a robot killing machine doesn't automatically result in what either the defense coordinators or the investors had in mind. It's either all robot and no compassion or what is more or less a human being, but should we ever introduce that human element into that of a majority mechanical shell-the results will always be the same-unpredictable. One thinks we might have learned as much by now, but this is yet another flaw in human nature; we are meant to learn from our mistakes, but most of us can't help but to keep repeating them. In that vein, “Ghost in the Shell” repeats many of the same pitfalls movies like it have run into in the past. As stated, there are portions of the film that easily stand on their own and provide an intriguing story and compelling enough characters that we're at least interested in them when the more engaging parts of the story kick in, but mostly the movie’s script (written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger) doesn't know how to balance the pleasing of the fanboys, the introduction of its premise and players to a wider audience, and the establishing of all the elements that are necessary were this to ever spawn a sequel or become a franchise. It won't, somewhat unfortunately, but again that is because the producers were likely too focused on the "What could be" rather than the "here and now". This is most evident when it becomes clear we, as viewers, haven't settled into the movie despite being an hour in due to the fact the narrative itself is just getting going as we cross that mark. We've established who the Major is and how she came to be, sure, but the necessary turn her character takes that should have spurned from the inciting incident doesn't happen until the end of the second act.
Speaking of Major and who she is and how she came to be it was always going to be curious how Johansson might approach the role-how she might differentiate it from her previous heroine's such as the aforementioned Lucy as well as Black Widow. Though Major is mostly a robot the point is that it is the shell that belongs to those attempting to control her and not the ghost that still lives inside. Point being, it would only seem natural that she has a personality due to this combination of components, but Johansson possesses little personality here with the most memorable thing about her performance being that of the stilted yet direct walk she takes on every time she moves. It would be admirable to think in terms of the actress communicating much of her internal conflict, and there is a lot of that there-the character reaches a point of epiphany where she realizes nothing she has including her thoughts are real or even hers, through facial expressions and the change of her strict posture to that of the more limber, less strict body language that overcomes her the more she learns of her past. But as this is a movie that takes on the beats of a standard procedural with a hefty budget it's not hard to impose any number of trope-like characters we've seen in this role before over Johansson's Major due to the fact that for the most part she's a blank slate. All of that isn't to say Johansson's turn as Major is terrible or detrimental to the film in any way it simply doesn't make an already generic feeling actioner that much more plain. Fortunately for “Ghost in the Shell” the action set pieces along with the lived-in nature of the environment separate the film from falling completely under the generic umbrella. Though the climactic fight scene is plagued by one too many special effects shots where it looks like the budget ran out before they could finish rendering prior to that the action scenes are well paced and widely shot. The quick cuts and close-ups are completely absent and Sanders allows the movements of his protagonist to really be accentuated without ever resolving to tactics such as mega-slow-motion. We are allowed to soak up the moments and what is occurring and how the objective is creatively being accomplished rather than rushing us through them and asking us to rest assured our hero is badass enough to accomplish what the movie is telling us she is badass enough to do. We see why Major is desired to be the way of the future. It's only a pity “Ghost in the Shell” isn't equally as innovative, but instead is neither wholly intriguing nor as emotionally resonant as it would need to be in order to be this sullen and still agreeable.