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Review – Girls Trip

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. With Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish, Kate Walsh. Written by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. Rated R for crude and sexual content throughout, pervasive language, brief graphic nudity and drug material. 122 minutes.

girls_trip_xlgTiffany Haddish in GIRLS TRIP is one of those out-of-nowhere breakout performances––like Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids” or Zach Galifianakis in “The Hangover”––where you can’t remember if you’ve ever seen them in anything before, but you know you want to see everything they’re in from now on. As the most unabashed and excitable of four friends reuniting for a road trip in this bawdy, good-natured comedy, Haddish runs away with so many scenes you might find yourself missing key plot points because you’re busy scanning the screen for her reactions. The actress, who previously played the wonderfully inappropriate sister-in-law Nekeisha on NBC’s late, lamented “The Carmichael Show,” brings a boisterous innocence to even the raunchiest material. When she’s being dirty she still seems awfully sweet.

That’s also a pretty good way to describe “Girls Trip,” which exploits a few gross-out girls-gone-wild gags but smartly never quite crosses the line between naughty and smutty. It’s already shaping up to be the surprise hit of the summer, which really isn’t surprising at all once you’ve seen it. “Girls Trip” has some big laughs––but more importantly, you really like these characters and feel good about laughing with them. It’s the kind of movie people tell their friends about.

Regina Hall stars as Ryan Pierce, a self-help author married to a hunky former NFL star (Mike Colter) and so ascendant in her career she’s already been dubbed “the second coming of Oprah.” When Ryan gets invited to give a keynote speech at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, she decides to bring along her old college girlfriends. Careers and families have kept this crew––formerly known as the Flossy Posse––apart for too many years, it’s high time for them to all get together and cut loose like the old days.

Of course things ain’t like they used to be. Queen Latifah’s former journalist Sasha these days hustles for a scummy celebrity gossip blog, barely one step ahead of her creditors. Jada Pinkett Smith’s Lisa was once the life of the party and is now a dowdy, overprotective single mom. Haddish’s Dina is still pretty much the same though––enthusiastically talking about how she’s smuggled weed onto the plane “in her bootyhole” and accidentally getting the Flossy Posse kicked out of various upscale establishments throughout New Orleans.

The plot kicks in when Sasha receives a paparazzi photo of Ryan’s husband getting down with “an Instagram skank,” and it turns out our rising star’s life isn’t as perfect as she makes it out to be on television. But her handsome husband and their allegedly idyllic marriage are such an important part of “her brand,” the suspense comes from the question of how much humiliation Ryan is willing to put up with for the sake of a pending TV deal.

One of the keys, I think, to the film’s success is that it’s about how these women all once again become their best and truest selves when reunited with their friends. Director Malcolm D. Lee, of “The Best Man” films and last year’s surprisingly sophisticated “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” shoots “Girls Trip” as a glossy, old-fashioned Hollywood “women’s picture,” lavishing attention on these beautiful ladies in their fine fashions and luxurious surroundings, while also sneaking in some thoroughly modern sex jokes––including something involving a grapefruit I can’t even try and explain, save to say that it in a just world it would be Tiffany Haddish’s Oscar clip.

The performances are hugely appealing across the board, with Pinkett Smith and Latifah at one point slyly acknowledging that this is the first time they’ve appeared onscreen together since the seminal “Set It Off” some twenty-one years ago. Like most Malcolm D. Lee movies, this one’s probably about fifteen minutes too long, as he often tends to get a bit over-enamored with the dramatic side of his comedies at the expense of keeping the story moving along. Nonetheless, time with the Flossy Posse is time well spent.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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FILM REVIEWVALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. With Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Herbie Hancock. Written and directed by Luc Besson. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language. 137 minutes.

zxkzoofbhvv_d9uoiklgk6bvgdzduyreuldgxpic0maIt’s funny because I was just complaining last week after watching that miserable “Apes” thing that summer blockbusters seem to have lost their sense of wonder. Nobody ever really marvels at anything in the Marvel movies, their wiseacre, in-jokey screenplays specialize in dragging the fantastic down to the realm of the mundane. Superheroes these days fight in empty stairwells and on anonymous airport tarmacs. Then along comes something like VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, a goofball romp from writer-director Luc Besson so visually bonkers and achingly sincere it’s almost impossible to absorb all at once. The movie is a cuckoo-bananas, madcap mess with stilted dialogue, iffy performances and the final half-hour just kind of stalls when it should soar. Still, I want to see it again as soon as possible.

Based on the 1960s French comic book “Valerian and Laureline,” this is the movie Besson claims he has wanted to make ever since he was ten years old. That the film feels like a ten-year-old directed it is both an accurate summation of its shortcomings and a high compliment indeed. Set some 700 years in the future, the movie imagines an intergalactic utopia where all planets share knowledge and goodwill in a massive space station megalopolis and Rutger Hauer is president of the galaxy. Young Leonardo DiCaprio wannabe Dane DeHaan and runway supermodel Cara Delevingne star as agents of a peacekeeping federation, assigned by their supervisor Herbie Hancock (!!!) to investigate the disappearance of an obviously sinister military commander, played by Clive Owen with maximum sneer.

I honestly couldn’t summarize the permutations of the plot with a gun to my head, but basically Owen has done dire wrong to a planet of translucent-skinned, loincloth-wearing cousins to the Na’vi in “Avatar,” and the endangered tribe’s deceased princess has somehow beamed her consciousness into the not-exactly-crowded skull of DeHaan’s swaggering hotshot Valerian. Meanwhile, our hero is constantly trying to get into the space drawers of partner Laureline, prompting Delevingne to give her famously furrowed eyebrows quite an amusing workout.

But really the movie is about these two kids heedlessly running and jumping into one crazy, non-sequitur set-piece after another. Besson seems hellbent on putting every penny of the $180 million budget on screen, cramming the frames with so many bizarre alien creatures and spectacular vistas it verges on sensory overload. (This is a rare movie where it’s worth shelling out the extra bucks for 3D.) Anyone who’s seen “The Fifth Element” already knows that Besson’s ga-ga sensibility is unencumbered by taste, and there’s a rip-roaring recklessness to “Valerian’s” tangents–like the scene in which Laureline needs to locate her missing partner by sticking her head inside the ass of a psychic jellyfish. (I guess I could try to tell you why, but would any explanation suffice?)

My favorite bit finds Valerian cruising a red light district known as “Paradise Alley,” where everybody somehow still listens to Wyclef Jean and Rihanna shows up as a shape-shifting pole dancer for a side story that summons a surprising amount of pathos. Ethan Hawke hamming it up as a piano-playing space pimp named Jolly is not something I was expecting to see at the movies this week––or really ever––but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t delighted. This genuinely nutzoid sequence culminates in a Lewis Carroll-styled procession presenting food to a pot-bellied emperor of a species that looks like melting clay, while Delevingne models a hat the size of a helicopter blade.

Such a shame all this gaudy madness eventually has to settle down into some semblance of a story, and you can feel the film begin to deflate upon Owen’s return. The title character is also a problem, as there might possibly be a way to make Valerian’s antiquated lothario routine charming, but casting charisma-vacuum Dane DeHaan is certainly not it.

But really, who cares? Such matters feel like mere nitpicks when there’s this much invention and exuberance on the screen. The experience of watching “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is perhaps best summed up by a chase sequence in which our hero starts kicking his way through walls in the thickly settled title town. He barges through one wondrous world after another, giving us quick glimpses of odd environments and eerie extraterrestrials, and an imagination that apparently has no bounds.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

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FILM REVIEWNORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. With Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar. Rated R for some language. 118 minutes.

norman_the_moderate_rise_and_tragic_fall_of_a_new_york_fixerIt takes a lot less time than you’d probably expect to adjust to seeing Richard Gere playing a noodge. The suave, silver-maned matinee idol has been stretching his wings in offbeat projects as of late, whether as a homeless alcoholic in Oren Moverman’s excellent “Time Out of Mind” or here as the title motormouth in writer-director Joseph Cedar’s NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. Rumor has it that Gere’s gone indie these days because his outspoken activism on behalf of Tibet has made him unemployable in a new Hollywood hungry for Chinese box office. Or it could be just because independent films are where all the good roles are for actors his age. Norman is a great one.

He paces the streets of New York City all day on his iPhone, babbling into earbuds while trying to make one convoluted deal after another, most which seem to involve introducing people to each other. The self-proclaimed CEO of Oppenheimer Industries, Norman doesn’t appear to have an office but he does have a lot of moxie. He natters, he cajoles and he eventually badgers his way into situations and invitations far above his station. Norman’s a small-timer with dreams of being a big deal. His only skill seems to be making people feel important, but in the rarefied world he orbits sometimes that can be enough.

It is in the case of Micha Eshel, an up-and-coming Israeli politician Norman barnacles onto in the opening scenes. Played by Lior Ashkenazi, he’s charmed by the old coot’s insistent chatter and lets his guard down long enough to accept a gift he really shouldn’t. Three years later Micha becomes Israel’s new Prime Minister and Norman finds himself finally allowed behind those metaphorical velvet ropes, free to jibber-jabber up and down the corridors of power. Of course, he blows it almost instantly by running that big mouth of his.

The second hour of “Norman” keeps the camera locked firmly on Gere as he sinks into a puddle of quicksand almost entirely of his own creation. There’s a plum supporting part for Charlotte Gainsbourg as a steely Israeli intelligence agent, and Michael Sheen is oddly convincing as Norman’s nebbishy nephew. By the time Steve Buscemi shows up as a disappointed rabbi you might be wondering if the almost all-Gentile cast in this extremely Jewish story is some kind of running joke, but the actors all pull it off so Mazel Tov, I guess.

“Norman” is mostly a one-man-show anyway, and we watch with morbid fascination as Gere talks up, down, around and in circles trying to stave off the inevitable. It’s a bravura turn, made even more impressive when realizing his Woody Allen mannerisms should by all rights seem silly coming from such a handsome goy. Gere––always a much better actor than he’s been given credit for––sells us on Norman’s desperation, on his aching need to be “somebody.”

Director Cedar pins him into tight close-ups that at times become visually monotonous, even when the performance dazzles. “Norman” flirts with redundancy as the title character circles the drain. (A few judicious trims to the third act would go a long way.) But when all is said and done––and believe me, an awful lot is said––the film remains a rare look inside a moneyed Manhattan subculture seldom seen at the movies. After meeting Norman Oppenheimer, you’re not likely to forget him anytime soon.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Their Finest

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. With Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jake Lacy, Richard E. Grant. Written by Gaby Chiappe. Directed by Lone Scherfig. Rated R for some language and a scene of sexuality. 117 minutes.

marquee-mobile_1492559833As sure-footed and satisfying an entertainment as I’ve seen so far this year, THEIR FINEST is a backstage screwball romance set during the London Blitz that balances ensemble comedy and wartime tragedy with sturdy, old-fashioned aplomb. It’s the kind of movie you can point to when people say they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Based on Lissa Evans’ novel, “Their Finest Hour and a Half” (a much better title), the film stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a copywriter conscripted by the War Department to write convincing female dialogue for their propaganda films. The fact that these guys refer to actresses’ lines as “the slop” might explain why they’re having such a rough go at it, but that’s just one example of the casual sexism Mrs. Cole encounters every day at the office. “You’ll be uncredited,” huffs an ever-officious Richard E. Grant, “and of course we’ll have to pay you less than the chaps.”

Mrs. Cole almost immediately butts heads with Mr. Buckley (Sam Claflin), a snooty scenarist whose condescension is even tougher to take because he happens to be right most of the time. The two are tasked with penning a big screen adaptation of an “optimistic and inspiring” news item about a couple of young country gals who stole their father’s fishing boat to go rescue some soldiers at Dunkirk. It turns out to all be a crock of baloney, but then nobody in the picture business has ever let the facts get in the way of a good story. Before long “The Nancy Starling” is headed into production––in glorious Technicolor, no less––with a few “optimistic and inspiring” embellishments.

One of which is a fictional uncle for the girls–a boozy old coot finding redemption by aiding them in their mission. It’s a plum role for faded matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard, played here with sublime self-absorption by the great Bill Nighy. Hilliard’s monolithic egotism can only occasionally cloud the realization that his stalled-out career is on the upswing lately just because all the younger actors are off fighting in the war. Nighy’s droll pokerface betrays an at times ineffable sadness–he’s an arsehole with hidden depths.

The other big addition to the cast is an actual American flying ace played by Jake Lacy, written in at the request of the War Department as an attempt to politely nudge the Yanks along into joining the battle. Problem is that nobody ever screen-tested the lantern-jawed hunk, and Lacy’s hysterically mangled line readings raise the bar for depictions of bad acting in the movies. I could honestly watch an entire spin-off sequel just of Nighy’s flustered Hilliard trying to tutor the handsome lummox on this fictional set.

Because they enjoy sniping at each other so much, we as trained moviegoers know it’s only a matter of time before Mrs. Cole and Mr. Buckley will begrudgingly fall into one another’s arms. Indeed, some tiresome business with her inattentive husband (Jack Huston) provides the movie’s most predictable dramatic detours. “Their Finest” works much better as a workplace romantic comedy, albeit one where WWII casts a long shadow, disaster always just an air-raid siren away. It’s a very funny movie but it also understands how the world can be a terribly sad and unfair place, especially during this particular moment in history.

I’ve never been much for movies about “the magic of the movies,” whether we’re talking “The Artist” or “La La Land” I have little patience for Hollywood’s love affair with itself. And yet in this film the eventual unveiling of “The Nancy Starling”––complete with note-perfect Technicolor mimicry and magnificently dated special effects––captures a rather wondrous communal feeling. The audience, exhausted by the ravages of this damned war, joins together to laugh and cry at an admittedly cheesy melodrama in a great big group catharsis. It’s a marvelous argument for what movies can do. Optimistic and inspiring, even.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Circle

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FILM REVIEWTHE CIRCLE. With Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, John Boyega, Ellar Coltrane, Bill Paxton. Written by Dave Eggers and James Ponsoldt. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use. Rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use. 110 minutes.

the-circle-2017One of the more enjoyable movies nobody saw last year was “A Hologram for the King,” director Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of a Dave Eggers book that starred Tom Hanks as an over-the-hill salesman struggling to hang on to a demeaning new job at an upstart tech company. The film wasn’t so much released as it was taken out back behind the barn and shot, which is a shame because it had a lot of odd, charming idiosyncrasies and moments of real truth, most of them found in Hanks’s quietly soulful performance. (I think we take him for granted because he always makes everything look so easy.)

Another April, another Dave Eggers adaptation with Tom Hanks as a guy at a tech company that’s being quarantined like the measles by its distributor. (This one wasn’t even screened in advance for critics, almost unprecedented for a film with such a distinguished pedigree.) A big difference is that this time, instead of a starring as a workaday schlub, Hanks has a supporting role as the Steve Jobs-like founder of a Google-ish monolith with utopian dreams of a surveillance state.

An even bigger difference is that THE CIRCLE is a terrible, terrible movie.

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, an idealistic post-grad overjoyed to get a job in “Customer Experience” on the title company’s massive Bay Area campus. It’s a workaholic cult of shiny, happy millennials speaking almost exclusively in marketing buzzwords, and right away we can tell something’s amiss. Hanks has a grand old time playing up the sinister side of his avuncular persona–the performance has the insinuating edge he seemed to be trying to smuggle into his work as Walt Disney in that neutered Mousechwitz propaganda film, “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Director James Ponsoldt specializes in earnestly plodding indie dramas like “Smashed” and “The Spectacular Now.” There’s nothing in his stylistic arsenal to suit the surreal requirements of Eggers’ story, which is sort of a panicky, Luddite “Invasion of the Facebook Friend Snatchers.” Mae undergoes at least two or three massive personality shifts that make no sense whatsoever, a characterization as wobbly as Watson’s American accent. The plotting takes bizarre detours almost into the realm of science-fiction, but Ponsoldt insists on shooting it all with the granola aesthetic of a Sundance also-ran about a family farm. He’s an astonishingly wrong choice for this material, which is already pretty thin soup to begin with.

No points for guessing that Hanks’ privacy-obliterating ideals aren’t all that altruistic. But what may surprise you is what a poor case the movie makes against 24/7 surveillance as a fact of life, with no real ideas behind its portentous, already dated statements about The Way We Live Now. Eggers’ book was released in 2013 but the film feels like it was made at least fifteen years before that. (Mae’s allegedly culture-defining decision to webcast every banal detail of her life suggests Eggers never spent much time surfing camgirl sites.) As far as clueless alarmism goes, the “The Circle” will make a great double feature with Sandra Bullock’s 1995 camp classic “The Net.”

Obviously a troubled production, the movie is riddled with strange logic leaps and chucks of post-dubbed dialogue played off the back of the speaker’s heads. Uncomfortably awkward performances by “Boyhood’s” Ellar Coltrane and former Stormtrooper John Boyega are more cut-around than edited. Danny Elfman’s incongruous action movie score blares over conference room conversations as if they were Spider-Man rescuing a subway car.

The movie’s one great moment finds Hanks surveying the situation, putting a big fake smile and taking a sip off coffee as he mutters, “We are so fucked.” He must have just seen the dailies.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Fate Of The Furious

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FILM REVIEWTHE FATE OF THE FURIOUS. With Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron. Written by Chris Morgan. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language. 136 minutes.

forsazh_8_74b7b492b17364dd2fbd8f2a68504a3dThey probably should have called it a day last time around, when the clumsy, jerry-rigged “Furious 7” went out on a semi-incoherent, affectingly melancholic note after trying to cobble a movie together from footage co-star Paul Walker filmed before his tragic death under circumstances the picture did not exactly make it easy to forget.

It was a heartfelt, albeit kinda lousy capper to a franchise that had gotten awfully lucky in the third installment with the arrivals of director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan–who took a bargain basement “Point Break” knock-off and spun it out for the next four films into a sprawling, insanely crowded, time-jumping action melodrama modeled on Hong Kong’s euphorically pulpy Golden Harvest films of the late 1980s. I’ll maintain that “Fast Five” –the series’ zippy zenith that snuck up on everyone back in 2011–is still the best John Woo movie John Woo never made.

Alas, director Lin left to go make “Star Trek” flicks a couple sequels ago. And while “Friday” and “Straight Outta Compton” helmer F. Gary Gray doesn’t do a half-bad job here, he also can’t conjure Lin’s ardent, goofball sincerity. You’re always aware THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS is a mercenary product that has no real reason for being except to make more money and more “Furious” movies, collecting characters and co-stars like a lint-roller while putting them into increasingly absurd and strangely weightless vehicular cataclysms.

This time, Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto–the family values-minded patriarch of our expansive, outlaw clan–is blackmailed into becoming a villain by the fearsome, anarchist hacker Cipher, an aptly named, shockingly boring white chick with dreads played by the insanely overqualified Charlize Theron. If the idea of Furiosa taking on the Furious is enticing to you, forget about it. This most intensely physical of actresses gets stuck behind a keyboard for the entire picture, barking orders and typing adamantly. How does anyone watch “Fury Road” and then not let her drive?

Dom turns heel and absconds with a super-scary electro-magnetic pulse device, leaving Kurt Russell’s smooth-talking CIA fixer to get the band back together and try to take him down. I so appreciate the way Russell approaches this performance, as if tickled pink by the absurdity of the exposition his character exists only to deliver. He demands that Jason Statham’s bad guy from the previous picture become part of the crew, and our gang doesn’t take long warming up to the dude who cold-bloodedly murdered their beloved little Korean buddy last movie, which is kinda weird.

“It’s shit but I didn’t-not enjoy it,” a colleague said to me about this film the other night, which is perhaps the best way to explain its bloated, Roger Moore-era 007 charms. Every time I was exasperated by “The Fate of the Furious” and about to give up on it, something odd and wonderful happened -–whether that be the splendid sight of Dwayne Johnson coaching his kid daughter’s soccer team, or Jason Statham cementing the series’ John Woo bona fides by re-enacting everybody’s favorite scene from “Hard Boiled.” Helen Mirren has a cameo so delightful I’m still smirking just thinking about it, and ditto for the sight of Tyrese attempting to drive an orange Lamborghini while spinning out across the frozen Russian tundra.

It does have the lugubrious, nothing-matters quality of those eighties Bond films, though. So for all the wit of the remote-controlled “zombie cars” sequence that takes Manhattan but looks as if it were filmed anywhere else, there’s still some business with a submarine that goes on for so long you’ll laugh remembering they said they were only going a mile, and then try to do the math in your head. Gray also succumbs to some big tonal miscalculations. A series regular is callously executed in a scene that throws off the goofball charm, a moment far too unpleasant for a picture this silly.

But Johnson, perhaps trying to make up for what amounted to merely a glorified cameo in “Furious 7” works overtime here, selling the hell out of his terribly hokey one-liners with such gusto it almost feels like he’s kidding but not quite and that’s what makes him The Rock. Scott Eastwood is a lot of fun as a mealy-mouthed government toady, so between this picture and “Snowden” I’m amused that the kid is carving out a career playing the kind of uptight pencil-pushers his dad used to punch out at the end of every one of his 80s movies.

As for Diesel, it is an act of enormous bravery for a man of his age and thickening build to wear white jeans in a major motion picture. Bless him for that, at least.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Ghost In The Shell

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. With Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Takeshi Kitano. Written by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler. Directed by Rupert Sanders. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images. 107 mins.

ghost_in_the_shell_ver5_xlgAn eye-popping technical wonderment without much going on underneath the hood, GHOST IN THE SHELL is a $110-million Hollywood reworking of Mamoru Oshii’s seminal 1995 anime, and eventually becomes something of a metaphor for itself. The searching, philosophical qualities of the original picture (and presumably the manga by Masamune Shirow upon which it was based) have been tossed aside in favor of bold-stroke, blockbuster battles between good and evil, less concerned with what it means to be human than with showing Friday night audiences a grand old time. As far as dumb action movies go, this is a great-looking one, but it should have been so much more.

Scarlett Johansson stars as Major Mira Killian, a special-ops cyborg fond of flesh-colored jumpsuits and leaping through skyscraper windows with pistols ablaze. She and the gang from covert Section 9 protect an unnamed, bustling future metropolis from cyber-terrorists, occasionally pausing to get touch-ups on their personal robotic enhancements from a warmly maternal doctor played by (of all people) Juliette Binoche. But when a mysterious hacker (Michael Pitt) begins picking off corporate honchos that hold the patents on our Major’s super-skeleton, the plot, as they say, thickens.

Oshii’s sometimes tediously chatty original film was fixated on questions of the singularity and the soul, with the Major struggling to assert her humanity despite being a disembodied consciousness inside a machine. It’s the kind of role that almost feels like typecasting for Scarlett Johansson when you consider the post-human trilogy of “Her,” “Under the Skin” and “Lucy” from a few years back. As a performer, Johansson is capable of a steely, magnetic reserve that’s both empathetic and otherworldly. She can also fight like hell in a catsuit.

Johansson isn’t as revelatory as she was in those other pictures, but she’s still awfully fun to watch here, a shapely vision erupting from the water while wearing a cloaking device that flickers like an old TV on the fritz. The rococo visual design pig-piles neon greens and pinks with backdrops so dense with detail that my eyes often strayed around the screen, ignoring the story to take in the sights. There’s also one marvelously haunting scene in which the Major contemplates a colleague’s physicality and Johansson makes visceral the yearning to once again be human.

Alas, since this is an expensive corporate product, we don’t have much time for metaphysical mumbo jumbo. Instead we’ve got cleanly-drawn lines with a glowering, one-dimensional baddie named Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) working for the mega-cybernetics company and unleashing his private army against the good folks of Section 9, who in addition to the Major include Pilou Asbaek’s cuddly bruiser and a commander played with incomparable cool by the great filmmaker Takeshi Kitano. He’s such a badass that he talks in Japanese the whole time and everybody in the film understands him, as if he were speaking English like the rest of the cast.

It’s precisely that sort of cross-cultural mishmash that’s made “Ghost in the Shell” a subject of controversy ever since this American remake was first announced. While the setting is never named, the movie obviously takes place in Tokyo (either there or on planet “Blade Runner”) with a ton of Asians in supporting parts, yet a pretty young white chick got cast in the lead. Now I’m not gonna mansplain to angry thinkpiece writers about how Hollywood economics work, but there are very few female stars who can secure a budget of this size and I’m sorry the lady robot isn’t ethnic enough. (Seriously though, this isn’t like Emma Stone playing Allison Ng in “Aloha.” The Major’s head is made out of titanium. Also, how many major studio blockbusters have juicy roles for Takeshi Kitano?)

The movie rather klutzily tries to tackle this taboo head-on when we discover that Major Mira Killian actually used to be one Motoko Kusanagi, a runaway-turned-activist kidnapped and brainwashed by those nasty bastards at the lab before her consciousness was implanted in our heroine’s exoskeleton. That’s right, “Ghost in the Shell” is ultimately about a Japanese troublemaker abducted by a large corporation and made over into a hot, rule-abiding Anglo movie star in a ludicrously expensive undertaking. Like I said, a metaphor for itself.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.