Director: Lucia Aniello
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Kate McKinnon, Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer
Lucia Aniello’s Rough Night takes a comedy sub-genre that is usually male dominated, the massive party/night out that goes terribly wrong, and flips the genders. The thing is though, that aside from a few notable exemptions the majority of films in this particular sub-genre are terrible. So, true to form, Rough Night is too. Borrowing its central premise – a party derailed by the accidental death of a stripper – from Peter Berg’s 1998 film Very Bad Things, Rough Night is a derivative mashing together of The Hangover, Bridesmaids and Weekend at Bernie’s.
A group of old college friends whose lives have taken them in different directions are reunited after almost a decade for a bachelorette weekend blowout in Miami. The bride to be, Jess (Scarlett Johansson), is in the midst of running for state senate in South Carolina, so isn’t exactly in the mood for a party weekend, but her possessive best friend, now school teacher, Alice (Jillian Bell) is insistent. Continue reading
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Christopher Walken, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito
Disney has always had a knack for squeezing every last dollar out of their intellectual property. Their most recent endeavour has been to recreate their classic animations as live action films for a new generation. We’ve had Maleficent (a reimagining of Sleeping Beauty), Cinderella and now The Jungle Book. But to call Jon Favreau’s film live action would seem a bit of a stretch when Mowgli himself is the only live element on screen.
Scripted by Justin Marks, this Jungle Book draws in equal parts from Rudyard Kipling’s original stories and the 1967 Disney animation which is, for so many people, the definitive version. Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley) narrates the tale of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a man-cub raised by wolves in the jungles of India. While a much loved member of the pack, Mowgli develops slower than his brothers and sisters. Behaviours that are to them second nature need to be learned by him, and he is constantly being scolded for his tricks – using tools to solve problems rather than doing things the wolf way. Continue reading
Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L Jackson
The 2012 superhero team up movie The Avengers, the culmination of Phase One of Marvel Studios plan for blockbuster world domination, was an enormous success taking $1.5 billion worldwide and becoming the third highest grossing film of all time. So naturally expectation is sky high for their next gathering, Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is still haunted by the events of New York which concluded The Avengers. Knowing what forces exist in the universe he is acutely aware of the limitations of the Avengers. They can only protect the world from so much. With the help of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) he has been secretly working at a plan he calls Ultron, which he imagines as “a suit of armour around the world.” After the Avengers reclaim Loki’s sceptre from a Hydra bunker, Stark and Banner try and harness its artificial intelligence and plant it in Ultron. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so sure enough this plan backfires. Designed to keep the peace, the sentient Ultron (James Spader) sees allowing the Earth to evolve through the elimination of the human race as key to achieving that peace. Continue reading
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked
It is a commonly believed myth that humans only engage 10% of their brain’s capacity. It is a favourite of science fiction speculation; just imagine what could be achieved if we could tap into that dormant 90%. The latest and most outrageous film to ponder this question is Luc Besson’s Lucy.
Lucy is an American student living in Taiwan who, thanks to her new loser boyfriend, falls in with the wrong crowd. Abducted by a Korean drug cartel, they surgically implant a pouch of their new super-drug CPH4 into her stomach for her to smuggle into America. But the pouch springs a leak, and as the synthetic drug floods into her body it starts to unlock the full potential of her mind.
While a number of films have previously toyed with the 10% idea, Lucy must be the most far-fetched exploration we have seen. As Lucy’s brain function increases, rather than becoming an ultra-high functioning human, she becomes almost godlike. She can read minds, manipulate time and space, and defy gravity. This is quite a leap to take, and the film does not offer adequate justification for what we are seeing. Usually a movie like this would engage some sort of pseudo-science (i.e. the DeLorean can travel through time because it has a ‘flux-capacitor’), but even Morgan Freeman’s character Prof. Norman, whose lecture on the potential of a fully functioning human brain is intercut with Lucy’s experiences, admits his theories are just hypotheses with no actual scientific proof supporting them.
The silliness of this premise wouldn’t be such a problem if the film didn’t take itself so seriously. Lucy seems to believe it is making profound philosophical points about the very nature of existence, but it is not. There are moments of humour in Lucy, and it is surprisingly simple humour. Were the rest of the film delivered in the same tone, embracing its silliness, it could be quite a fun movie. But because the majority of the time it takes its premise so seriously, it is hard to enjoy.
The other problem Lucy’s godlike powers create is that with every action sequence there is less at stake. The more powerful she becomes the less legitimate tension can be created by the illusion that she is in danger.
Despite all this, one cannot deny that Besson certainly had a clear vision. For all its faults, Lucy is a bold and interestingly executed film. Besson employs an almost impressionist montage style to bring his themes to the fore. When we first meet Lucy, as her boyfriend is trying to convince her to deliver a suitcase to the mysterious Mr. Jang for him, we momentarily cut away to an image of a mouse carefully approaching a sprung trap. As Lucy enters the hotel with the case, the scene is intercut with footage of a gazelle on the savannah being circled by cheetahs. This stylistic approach – far and away the most interesting thing about the film – continues throughout, being used to illustrate Prof. Norman’s theories, and results in film which feels like Tree of Life spliced with Salt.
Misrepresented in advertising so as to look like an all-out action movie with a butt-kicking heroine, this will undoubtedly help its box office takings but result in a number of miffed customers. Part science fiction, part action movie, part philosophical rumination, Lucy does not really satisfy as any of them, and for a film about unlocking the potential of the human brain, it manages to be quite dumb.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Lucy? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Directors: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan
Captain America: The First Avenger was the most divisive of the first phase of Marvel’s Avengers movies. While some people really liked its war-time narrative and the old-fashioned heroism the character represented, others, more drawn to the charismatic egotism of Favreau’s Iron Man or the brooding menace of Nolan’s The Dark Knight,struggled to get behind it.
After being frozen for half a century, thawed out in the modern day, and having played a key role in The Avengers, Cap is back for his second solo outing. Still trying to get his head around the changed world he now finds himself in, Steve Rogers carries around a notebook in which he lists things he needs to catch up on. This list is different for different cinematic markets, with Australian audiences seeing a list that includes ACDC, Tim Tams and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. With no family and few friends, he immerses himself in his work, protecting his country as SHIELD’s most devastating soldier. But when it becomes apparent that SHIELD has been compromised, and it looks like Nick Fury is involved, Rogers finds himself on the outer, not knowing who he can trust. Alexander Pierce, the Secretary of SHIELD, employs the full force of the organisation to try and bring Captain America in. This includes the mysterious Winter Soldier, a super-soldier who for decades has been believed to be the stuff of legend.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an interesting blend of the new and the old. It is very much a film for the post-9/11, war on terror world. Its central thematic discussion concerns the appropriateness of forfeiting freedom in the name of security, and the morality of pre-emptive strike justice, eliminating threats before they become threats. Yet while dealing with these quite current themes, the movie has the feel of a 1970s paranoid conspiracy thriller like Three Days of the Condor (which also starred Robert Redford) thanks to its narrative about the criminal infiltration of government institutions.
This blend of the new and the old is also evident in the characters. Steve Rogers is a man of the 1940s, confronted by a world which is more complex than the one into which he was born. It is not just culture and technology which he has to catch up with. His sense of morality is also challenged. Rogers is a moral absolutist. For him there is a clear right and wrong, and this causes him to butt heads with moral relativists like Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff, for whom the ends tend to justify the means.
Where this film really stands out compared to some of the others in the franchise is in the chemistry between its stars. Evans, Johansson, Jackson and newcomer Anthony Mackie all play off each other quite well. The film also continues to develop those characters returning from previous adventures. In particular Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha ‘the Black Widow’ Romanoff, who has been a supporting character in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, is really made a focus of the film and is fleshed out into quite an interesting character and a great foil for Captain America.
As is to be expected from these movies, the action sequences are top notch. Evenly scattered through the film, they never drag and are different enough from each other that they capture your interest. The film contains the expected nods to the other characters from the Avengers franchise, but where once these moments were cause for excitement, since The Avengers they only serve to make you wonder why it is those heroes being alluded to are not choosing to get involved in this particular international disaster. More interesting are a couple of nods to other films. In particular there is a little something in there for the observant Pulp Fiction fan which is really top notch.
In all though, the combination of good action, strong characters and a decent storyline makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier one of the better Marvel movies and ensures the franchise will continue to motor along.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde
Spike Jonze has demonstrated a knack for left-of-centre, surreal storytelling with films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. His latest and it should be said finest film, Her, is no exception. In the near future – and a surprisingly utopian one given the cinemas penchant for dystopian visions of the future – we meet Theodore Twombly who works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com where he puts his skills as a writer to work penning letters for people to send to lovers, friends or grandchildren. A lonely and anti-social man still recovering from a marriage breakup, Theodore becomes intrigued by an advertisement for the newest computer operating system, or OS – the first to feature artificial intelligence. “It’s not an OS – it’s a consciousness.” He buys himself a copy and after asking him a couple of questions to calibrate itself to his needs the OS introduces itself, or rather herself, as Samantha. Her cheerful, friendly demeanour instantly brings some light to Theodore’s life and the two become friends. Samantha organises Theodore’s life and Theodore helps Samantha unpack and understand the world. Before long their relationship becomes romantic.
The central premise of Her – a man falling in love with his computer – sounds like that of an absurd comedy but Jonze chooses to treat it with great sincerity. As such, what we end up with is a surreal, existential exploration of the nature of love, what it is to be human and our relationship with technology. The beauty of this film is how not far-fetched it manages to make this premise feel. We are already hopelessly dependent on technology. Anyone who has ever been forced to go even a short period of time without their smart phone or an internet connection can attest to that. Jonze simply takes that dependence to the next step, asking whether as technology becomes more sophisticated it is possible that dependence could become an emotional one. Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is treated with a surprising normalcy. Theodore’s friends hardly flinch at the idea that he is having a relationship with an OS. In fact, we are told that he is far from the only person out there in such a relationship. There is even talk of a woman who is having an affair with someone else’s OS.
Jonze’s screenplay is remarkable, but it falls on the film’s two leads, Phoenix and Johannson, to sell the authenticity of the relationship and make it all believable. Both actors rise to the challenge, delivering brilliant, unconventional performances. Phoenix is typically chameleon-like as Theodore, this insecure, isolated but deeply thoughtful man. So much of this film is dependent on his face as the nature of the story requires him to deliver the majority of his performance in isolation, relating to a character that isn’t physically present. Johansson’s performance is quite special. Completely disembodied, allowing her no physicality to employ, she nonetheless manages to create a full and empathetic character in Samantha. While it is the screenplay that makes Samantha think and feel, it is Johansson that give her the spark of humanity and enables us to understand how Theodore could fall in love with her. It isn’t objectophilia. It is a genuine two-way relationship.
As the film progresses the story becomes just as much Samantha’s story as it is Theodore’s. Artificial intelligence has usually been treated with suspicion in film. It is seen as dangerous and threatening – think of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Her, we empathise with Samantha. In a variation of the Pinocchio story, Samantha struggles to reconcile the fact that while she thinks, feels and experiences emotions like a human, she is not one. The latter half of the film poses some quite interesting psychological questions about the limitations, or lack thereof, of artificial intelligence.
Her is one of the most touching, thought provoking and unique films of the year.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean