Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – Movie Review

guardians of the galaxy

You might expect a movie studio at the top of its game to play it safe rather than strike out in new, bizarre directions. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine any other studio giving the greenlight to Guardians Of The Galaxy – a huge blockbuster movie based on a title unfamiliar to anyone who isn’t a comics aficionado, starring a relatively unknown actor playing a character most people have never heard of. And yet, Marvel scores once again with its willingness to head off the beaten track. GUARDIANS is a fun, fizzy delight, even as it mines some surprising depths of emotion from its ragtag group of anti-heroes.

Peter Quill (Pratt) – a human abducted from Earth as a child – has grown up into an intergalactic thief who has no idea what he’s getting into when he takes possession of a mysterious Orb. Little does he know that Ronan (Pace) – a genocidal Kree radical – will do just about anything to get his hands on said Orb, including sending alien assassin Gamora (Saldana) after it. Gamora, as it turns out, has an agenda of her own. Trapped in an intergalactic prison (long story), Peter and Gamora are forced into an uneasy alliance with three other misfits: a brainy, sarcastic raccoon-like creature named Rocket (voiced by Cooper), a giant tree by the name of Groot (Diesel), and the vengeance-minded Drax The Destroyer (Bautista).

The truth is that there’s almost too much going on in GUARDIANS. Not only do we meet a host of characters we’ve never met before, on a raft of new planets teeming with brightly coloured life and detail, we’re also introduced to several plot lines all stuffed somewhat awkwardly into the film. We have Ronan’s planet-destroying aspirations, which are somehow bound up with the evil plans of Thanos – that creepy purple- skinned dude who popped up at the end of The Avengers. Peter’s kidnappers turned surrogate ‘family’ are also on the trail of the Orb, turning up at moments both enormously convenient and inconvenient to the plot. It all makes sense in the end, but until it all clicks into place, it can make for a rushed, unsettling experience.

But, despite its occasionally unwieldy script, GUARDIANS triumphs because of the gang of scruffy losers (a term that will take on a different, more heartfelt meaning during the film) at its heart. Director James Gunn, who co-wrote the script, clearly feels a strong affinity for each one of these outcasts, all of whom are easily outlaws in some (if not all) parts of the solar system, each one battling – at least initially – to save his or her own skin rather than to save the world. It’s fascinating to watch the five members of this unlikely group slowly banter, bicker and batter their way into becoming a team.

Most joyfully of all, Gunn never loses sight of the prickly, selfish side of his characters. He gives them plenty of rich, emotional moments – whether it’s Peter and Gamora bonding over the loss of their parents, or Rocket’s ability to read a whole range of meaning into Groot’s extremely limited vocabulary (‘I am Groot’) – but never allows the film to descend into dangerously sentimental territory.

In fact, Gunn pumps up proceedings with a healthy, hearty dose of humour. Films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) have always been more tongue-in-cheek than the likes of the considerably more dour Dark Knight franchise, but GUARDIANS is a heady trip of a different order. It practically delights in bursts of odd, subversive comedy, and actually dares to punctuate its most epic face-off with a sly homage to, of all things, Footloose.

Pratt – so winning in TV’s Parks And Recreation – holds the emotional core of the film together. He exudes an easy, rakish charm that makes Peter both dashingly arrogant and achingly vulnerable. He’s matched very well by Saldana, who is clearly delighting in the opportunity to play the world-weary, no-nonsense Gamora – bred into a killer, born a fighter. The rest of the cast does justice, too, to the film’s cheerful swing from drama to comedy and back again: Bautista brings unexpected pathos to Drax’s occasionally comical determination to avenge his family against Ronan, while Cooper sounds completely unlike himself – in a very good way – as a creature who hides a world of hurt beneath his mouthy exterior. Even Diesel manages to find a great deal of depth in a CGI character who only communicates via the same languid burst of three words.

If anything, GUARDIANS is let down by a trio of not particularly threatening villains. Pace snarls and spits in heavy make-up, but can’t quite rustle up much in the way of nuance or genuine menace. Ronan is a one-note madman, with so little in the way of backstory that he automatically becomes less interesting. Thanos, too, now voiced and performed in motion-capture by Brolin, doesn’t get much to do beyond lounge on his space throne. Only Gillan’s cyborg Nebula manages a smidgen of complexity; even then, she struggles to be half as fascinating as her conflicted “sister”, Gamora.

Before the film was even released in cinemas, Marvel announced that a sequel would be coming in 2017. It’s a no-brainer as to why. The film is smart, funny and quite wonderful on its own merits. But, even more crucially, GUARDIANS is a gamble that pays off handsomely for Marvel. It opens up the MCU in, quite literally, all directions. Don’t be surprised if you see our more earth-bound heroes heading into space sooner rather than later. The film also adds a new cast of lovable rogues to the MCU’s roster of characters: a gang who, one might say, are actually all the more heroic for being people who would ordinarily be running in the opposite direction from any galaxy-guarding duties. Frankly, we can’t wait to see what they get up to next.


9 out of 10 stars


Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) – Movie Review

Nearly ten years after the last film, this long awaited sequel takes us back to Frank Miller’s dark, grey and white hellhole city, and reintroduces us to Marv (Mickey Rourke), the bruised and battered anti- hero who spends his nights lusting after stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) in a saloon bar, who finds redemption after saving a homeless guy from some drunken college boys. Nancy herself is a tormented soul, still having visions of her departed hero Hartigan (Bruce Willis.) But this is the guy who saved her from the beastly son of Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), who’s targeted her for revenge in place of him, and has also run chancer Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) out of town. Meanwhile, there’s the tale of the temptress the titular suffix is referring to, Ava (Eva Green), who’s got embittered tough guy Dwight (Josh Brolin) wrapped around her little finger.

In an industry where the cash cow sequel is quickly churned out to a hugely successful film, writer/director duo Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez have shown admirable restraint, if nothing else, by making fans wait nearly a decade for this follow up to 2005’s adaptation of Miller’s graphic novel starring Bruce Willis, who has only intermittent moments this time round as a mere spook. Retaining the distinctively grey, bleary background look and not skimping any more on the brutal, blood splattered violence of the first film, the makers have delivered a film that has all the fundamentals right, but doesn’t quite come together the way the original did.

By making the fans wait so long, you would hope that the golden pair were trying to prepare something genuinely masterful, with every little cylinder firing just right, and the film doesn’t shatter this illusion. The problem here may be over ambition, with a desire to recreate the flashy, comic book style of the novels coming at the expense of a truly coherent, at times even logical story. While the atmosphere, the low pitched, gravelly delivery of the dialogue and the moodily grey and black settings still carry it along nicely, without a solid structure at the heart of it, after a while it all gets a bit too much.

For all this, though, the characters, the driving force of the film, are no less engaging. Brolin is a suitably picked lead tough guy, who does the whole mumbling, brooding thing just brilliantly, who has perfect support with Rourke as his cohort. Probably most impressive is once again Boothe as the sinister, evil villain, who does cold and icy just great. The only thing that lets everything on the surface down is the misfiring Pulp Fiction style narrative structure, the one spanner in the works in what is otherwise still an exhilarating, distinctive experience unlike any other.


7 out of 10 stars


Noah (2014) – Movie Review

We all know the tale; it’s been told, parodied, and stereotyped to the point where the original context can get lost in the flood of pop culture. In this modern telling of the story of Noah’s Ark, the film definitely emphasizes the mythic aspects to deliver a larger-than-life spectacle. As expected, you will see fantastic visions of creation and death, hoards of animals entering the Ark, the the deluge sweeping over the Earth. What you may not expect is that the film also includes a massive army of barbaric hoards clashing with fallen angels, flashes of magic and mysticism, twists in morality that challenges Noah’s heroics, and an overall tone that’s grim, brutal, and somber. And yet, despite so many liberties, it still captures the essence of the story in its own unique way.

The film is somewhat split in half. The first half contains all the big-scale setpieces, containing plenty of special effects and scenes of war. Once the flood commences and the big battle ends, the film settles down and becomes a brooding drama. Pacing becomes herky-jerky because of this; audiences wanting action might enjoy the first half and get bored by the end, while others may feel the opposite. The overall tone is very grim, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing the raw brutality of the world of sinners and the struggle for survival. Parts of it will work, parts of it might not; ultimately this movie will be different from person to person, and it will likely be one of the biggest love-it-or-hate-it films of 2014. It will depend on your disposition on the storytelling.

This story takes a lot of liberties from the Bible; if it’s a word-for-word accurate account you want, the film will disappoint. Some of the changes are purely cosmetic, to give the film a kind of high-fantasy aesthetic (such as the inclusion of The Watchers). Some changes are made to make the plot more convenient. The biggest alterations involve the addition of the descendants of Cain, providing human antagonists for Noah to fight in a big battle, and one central villain to draw out even more drama. One other big change that might upset purists is what’s done to Noah and his family; the film contrives a huge drama out of their legacy, going so far as pushing them to odd and amoral directions that truly challenge our notion of what could have happened in this ancient story.

All that being said, I felt the liberties with the story were warranted, because the film methodically creates many long threads of conflict and entwines them into one big braid of a plot that gives it momentum and drives the characters to their most logical directions. Without all this drama, the characters really wouldn’t have much to do, before or after the big flood. As it is, the film fills itself up with so much conflict that it gives the characters life and minds of their own, and their actions generate some very complex dynamics that ultimately contribute to deeper thematic depth.

I think the film’s greatest strength is the subtext: the film is loaded with ideas and themes concerning creation, mankind’s sin, judgment, mercy, and morality. Most of these ideas are conveyed sublimely through the use of powerful images and punctual dialogue. In the end, we’re made to understand on a deeper level exactly why the flood happened, why Noah acts the way he does, why things play out the way they do, and what the implications are. Most of the film’s conflicts revolve around the sanctity of creation; the film shows a lot of brutality as the descendants of Cain defile creation, in contrast to Noah who tries his best to preserve it. As the film goes on, themes of environmentalism, industrialization, and resource depletion become very blatant, offering a frightening reflection not only of the past, but also of what could come in the future. The final message, however, is an uplifting one that I always found most elegant: the idea that the end is also the beginning. This is a rather bleak apocalyptic tale, but the film radiates hope by its end.

The film is well-crafted with some very incredible photography and editing. There are a number of scenes in the film that are appropriately powerful and moving, thanks to the way it unites key imagery and symbolism with the narrative. Russell Crowe is as good as usual, and does have some great standout scenes. Jennifer Connelly is perfectly compelling in her role, and I was surprised that Emma Watson put on a great performance as well. Everybody else does alright. Writing gets the job done well, but most of the dialogue seemed pretty blunt. This production spares no expense on the real-looking sets, props, and costumes. Some special effects are okay, some were made to look a bit archaic on purpose (namely the Watchers, who are animated in some kind of stop-motion style), and some effects are incredibly brilliant. Clint Mansell’s music score is as elegant as ever.

The film will not sit well with everybody. Some folks will be bored. Others might be upset that it’s not 100% true to the Bible. However, Noah is a film experience I personally valued a lot; its issues didn’t really affect me that much, and I grew to admire the story and all it meant on a deeper level. With its blend of action, visual splendor, and compelling storytelling, I felt it was a fairly moving picture.

However, this is not an easy movie to casually recommend. You might love it. You might hate it. It’ll all depend on your views of the Bible, of director Darren Aronofsky, and of Hollywood and its embellishments. The best I can say is give the movie a try, because this really is a one-of-a-kind epic.


8 out of 10 stars


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) – Movie Review

amazing spider-man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the unwarranted and unnecessary sequel to 2012’s equally unnecessary and unwarranted The Amazing Spider-Man. It almost goes without saying that this is a staggeringly transparent cash- grab on the part of Sony and to a lesser extent Marvel, but the question is, is it worth your time and money?

The short answer is, absolutely not. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 evokes unavoidable comparisons to the masterstroke of the 2002-2007 trilogy, Spiderman 2, which was unquestionably superior in literally every conceivable fashion. As a matter-of-fact, you’ll often wish – during TASM2’s 140 minute runtime – that you’re watching Spiderman 2. But how can that be? As Buzzfeed like to remind us, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are delightful; Dane De Haan is a promising young actor with a striking resemblance to a young Leonardo Di Caprio and Jamie Foxx is an experienced actor playing a potentially strong villain. Behind the camera, director Marc Webb impressed everybody with (500) Days of Summer and a string of well-known music videos, so what could go wrong? The answer, as is often the case in failed blockbusters, is lazy, shitty writing. It will be of no surprise to anyone that screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have each had a hand in at least one Transformers movie. But I digress.

TASM2, much like its predecessor, tediously and uncharismatically explores the mystery of what happened to Peter’s parents, while Peter himself unconvincingly gets adjusted to his new life as Spiderman. Typically, there is also an antagonist who pops out of the woodwork courtesy of Oscorp (which surely by now should’ve faced at least some legal scrutiny for becoming a world-leader in the manufacture of supervillains), and Harry Osborn also appears as the harbinger of an inevitable Green Goblin return. This much has surely been made obvious by the trailer.

While this movie has some legitimately impressive action set-pieces, it succeeds only in turning a respectable group of lead actors into scenery-chewing, Saturday-morning-cartoon caricatures. During the film’s non-action scenes, the leads unforgivably adopt ham-fisted pseudo- representations of their real-life personalities – I’m referring in mainly to Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone here. It becomes insipidly clear as the film goes on that their off-screen personality as a “cute celebrity couple” has been allowed to directly influence the writing. Often it feels as if they’ve just been thrown into a scene and told to improvise, and riff off of their natural chemistry. This is cute to watch, but when you suddenly remember that the last scene finished with an argument (or even an official break up at one point) it does make you question how well the writers knew their own screenplay. They chuckle and fawn giddily over each other, in spite of the fact that the narrative demands that they behave otherwise – like real human people would.

Poorly written scenes are not in short supply, and they encapsulate the knuckle-bitingly poor dialogue that mutilates this movie from beginning to end. The dialogue in the original trilogy was far from Shakespeare, but it was firm, utilitarian dialogue that moved the plot along. Here, everything is awkward and confused. It also through this poor scripting and story-telling that it becomes unescapable to realise Peter is in fact, quite obnoxious and douchey in this incarnation of Spiderman. Look at the plot from the villains’ point of view as the film goes along, and you’ll see what I mean.

Ultimately, TASM2 just left me feeling quite sad. The writers’ tendency to open up plot holes the size of craters, and the bizarre shift toward Adam West Batman-style “campy” villains just made everyone seem like a dick who wasn’t worth rooting for. By rebooting the Spiderman franchise this early – and getting a great cast to boot – Sony have made the unspoken promise that they’ve corrected the mistakes that the original trilogy made, and even improved upon its positives. However, they have achieved neither. This series has thus far done everything that the original series did, but slightly worse. Anything new it’s tried to do, it has done poorly, and frankly I feel like a sucker for going to see it.


5 out of 10 stars


Innocence: Ghost in the Shell (2004) – Movie Review

I feel a little guilty talking about this movie right now. It’s a little like going to class without having fully digested the previous night’s reading assignment. Sure, you read it through fairly deeply. You take notes. Maybe you had a midnight BS session with your roommate or the kid down the hall.

Maybe you were a little drunk. For whatever reason, you think you might have missed something important. Image Hosted by That’s more or less Ghost in the Shell 2’s 100 minute running time in a . . . ghostshell. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is in subtitles (the way it should be) and the animation is some of the most beautiful I’ve seen since . . . ever. Your eyes pull double duty, straining to digest polysyllabic words stacked 10 deep while soaking up animation of unrivaled scope and grandeur. Beauty and the Beast has nothing on this.

It’s a much more assured and revelatory work than it’s 1995 predecessor.

Credit Mamoru Oshii with improving upon every facet of an already intelligent and fascinating premise. Yes. Everything is better.

Much of the first Ghost in the Shell felt like a fleshing out of the various philosophical topics woven into the game of Artificial Intelligence. It was about debunking the line of demarcation between man and machine. It was about finding something unique in humanity amidst the clamour of our technological near-future. Oshii was struggling with this right alongside his characters, and it showed in a somewhat lackluster visual presentation, a jumbled thesis, and a messy ending. The plot itself, a techno-noir murder mystery, felt tacked on. Still, the original Ghost in the Shell was something to behold.

In the 9 years that have passed though, Oshii definitely did his homework. In a time when everyone needs a kickass firewall for that lumpy grey mass between their ears, knowledge is immediately available to all, and the section nine detectives Batou and Matoko use all the net has to offer in contemplating their place in the vast, jacked-in world they inhabit.

They drop anecdotes about Descartes, quote Confuscious, the Old Testament, reference Rabbi Judah Low ben Bezalel and the Golem of Prague. They quote Milton. I studied English literature and I can’t quote Milton.

But then, maybe it takes someone like Milton, someone with sympathy for the devil, to live as a human in a world where men are ever more becoming mechanized, and the machines they build take on the characteristics of their creators.

Maybe it took Oshii a few years slogging through the quagmire of western skepticism and self-doubt to realize that.

The plot this time–another nod to noir–is more focused and accessible, except for the beginning of the third act, when someone hacks Matou’s brain. Things get a little fuzzy then, but they’re supposed to.

I don’t believe the philosophy involved can totally reveal itself in one sitting. Certainly, trying to flesh it out here would be pointless and boring. Suffice it to say that in Oshii’s future, humanity has angst to spare and it looks like things are only getting worse.

Even the animation choices reflect a feeling of alienation, and shows such painstaking love on the part of Oshii. The movie is dominated by advanced computer graphics and lush matte paintings for its backgrounds and many of the dolls (see also: robots, see also: gynoids, see also: sexroids etc, etc). Cars, library Stacks, great post-apocalyptic landscapes are by turns vivid and dingy and exploding with detail. They burst off the screen. Batou and Matoko and the rest of the humans (as well as the gynoids who have been given ghosts [souls]), in contrast, are cell animated the old fashioned way. In this environment they seem helplessly two dimensional, out of place and almost inferior–which is just the way they actually feel. And when a gynoid, through pursed lips and with seductive langour, pleads “help me,” the hackles on your neck are at full attention. Brilliant.

I took notes during this movie. I felt compelled to. I think I’m going to find some pop-culture doctoral program and write my thesis on it. The depth and breadth and sheer complexity of the imagery and symbolism in Ghost in the Shell 2 is crippling. It feels at times like Heart of Darkness, but is careful to remain far less turgid and depressing. It fully warrants a second or third viewing, to mine the depth of what Oshii is offering.

At a time when the vast majority of films–even art-house flicks–opt for allegorical poverty rather than alienate potential ticket sales, it’s all the more refreshing to see a beautiful, self-assured movie that’s content to do more talking–about Milton for godsake–than shooting.


9 out of 10 stars


Ghost in the Shell (2017) – Movie Review

ghost in the shell

These are the sorts of consciousness-expanding questions that have animated the “Ghost in the Shell” franchise for more than two decades. The world of GITS is part futuristic action movie and part philosophy lecture, in which artfully constructed animated action sequences serve as vehicles for investigations into the nature of consciousness. It’s a showcase for what top-notch animation can do — one that the new movie never quite manages to match.

However, it might take a few months—or maybe even a few years—but eventually, Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell will have an afterlife. The live-action adaptation of the Japanese classic is a complete Cyber Bore, narrative-wise, but for those who gush over big- screen artistry, there’s plenty to get lost in: the opulent, expansive CGI visuals; the gorgeous Clint Mansell/Lorne Balfe score, pulsing and plunging like a Tangerine Dream nightmare; even Johansson’s stoically acrobatic performance, which proves once again why she’s one of the most in-demand action-film stars in the world. It’s one of those films destined to be salvaged by the web, where the movie’s defenders will advocate for it via frame-grab sprees or the occasional sub-Reddit threads. Ghost will find its followers.

In the here-and-now, though, Ghost in the Shell is an all- encompassing embarrassment, the kind of movie you might not want to admit you watched—and which, judging from the box office, not a lot of people bothered to see in the first place. The film earned just $19 million domestically in its opening weekend, coming in third behind the still-running Beauty and the Beast and the surprise smash Oh Look, Alec Baldwin Is a Talking Baby, I Guess That’s Cute to Some People? That crash came despite the fact that the latest version of Ghost—which is based on the long-running manga and anime series—was gifted with an estimated $110 million budget, a major star, a teen- baiting PG-13 rating, and a nearly 3,500-screen opening weekend. In what’s been a notably healthy box-office year, Ghost should have shellacked the competition.

But on the internet, Ghost has been a dud-in-the-making since at least January 2015, when Johansson’s casting was first confirmed. The news set off a two-year-long preemptive outcry on the web, where online petitions and thoughtful Twitter threads addressed the film’s whitewashing and cultural appropriation. That’s been a point of contention with several works from the last year, including Doctor Strange, The Great Wall, and Netflix’s Iron Fist, but Ghost in the Shell’s transgressions were perhaps the most deeply felt: Here was a landmark piece of Japanese pop-culture—one whose what- does-it-mean-be-human? ideas and hacker-trash aesthetic had already been co-opted by US-produced films like The Matrix and AI—being re- imagined with a white American lead actress and an English director (Snow White and the Huntsman’s Rupert Sanders). It didn’t help that, a year before its release, rumours surfaced that the filmmakers had tested digital effects that would have allowed certain performers to “shift their ethnicity” so they could resemble Asian characters. By the time the film opened on Friday, it had shifted from “problematic” to full-on off-inducing: Wait, didn’t we all agree this was a bad idea?

The overall result is a movie that’s all borrowed parts, with no depth or connection. The layers never quite come together to form something more. It wants to be a movie about the search for consciousness, but, unlike its source material, it doesn’t have a soul.


6 out of 10 stars


Ghost in the Shell (1995) – Movie Review

Ghost in the Shell is a visually stunning animated masterpiece. Japanese animation has always been in a class of its own, so I won’t even attempt to describe the incredible attention to detail and beautiful imagery in this movie. In this case the animation is merely icing for what is one of the most important works of science fiction in recent years.

Every generation has had books and movies that have contributed to our collective understanding of reality. Prior to World War II this included books like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” and Huxley’s “Brave New World”, and later Orwell’s “1984”. Today most warnings about the future fall into the category of science fiction. Science fiction began to fill this role when Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001” warned us of the potential for humanity to create intelligent, even sentient computers that could murder their human creators. “2001” envisioned computer intelligence imprisoned in the physical body of a computer. Where “2001” left off, Ghost in the Shell begins.

Ghost in the Shell tells the story of a future in which a computer program, Project 2501, becomes self-aware and begins a quest to fill basic needs it feels are qualifiers of being alive by controlling computers and people to achieve its ultimate goals. Whereas the HAL-9000 computer was relatively harmless, owing to its confinement in the Odyssey space ship, Project 2501 is a recognition that the global internet could have dire consequences for all of us. By comparison, this new villain is virtually invincible. But is Project 2501 a villain?

Most people who have told me that they didn’t like this move said that they didn’t understand it. Indeed, the story and concepts are very complicated. I have watched it several times and still get new things out of it every time. Roger Ebert called Ghost in the Shell, “Unusually intelligent and challenging science fiction, aimed at smart audiences”.

Ghost in the Shell is full of fascinating dialog, such as this diatribe about the cycle of life and death by Project 2501. “A copy is just an identical image. There is the possibility that a single virus could destroy an entire set of systems, and copies do not give rise to variety and originality. Life perpetuates itself through diversity, and this includes the ability to sacrifice itself when necessary. Cells repeat the process of degeneration and regeneration until one day they die, obliterating an entire set of memory and information. Only genes remain. Why continually repeat this cycle? Simply to survive by avoiding the weaknesses of an unchanging system.”

Thus Ghost in the Shell goes beyond simply a prediction or warning for the future: it attempts to contribute to our understanding of reality by breaking existence down into biological terms and making us question, along with the characters in the movie, whether or not any of us has a soul. The characters in Ghost in the Shell are unusually deep and are a refreshing change from the one-dimensional stereotypes we’ve become numbed by in modern media. Ghost in the Shell would be required reading in many high school and university courses if it weren’t for the fortuitous fact that it can be enjoyed in this beautifully animated feature film. This is one of the few movies ever made that everyone should watch at least once.


10 out of 10 stars