Ghost in the Shell

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new film on the Thursday before release date, but I did here, so let’s see if I can unpack this complex film experience, topic by topic:

It’s a Remake

I did see the original Ghost in the Shell anime a couple of decades ago. I remember not liking it, and that’s all I remember. I couldn’t tell you if anything in the 2017 version is like or not like the original. So keep that in mind.

If you care about the premise, here you go. A woman’s brain is placed into a robot that looks eerily like Scarlett Johansson, and she kicks a lot of ass.

Personally, for the record, I don’t care if films get remade. Bad, good, indifferent. I don’t care. You want to remake Die Hard, more power to you. You want to remake it for a different culture or audience? Go for it. Personally, I’d love to see the film reimagined with the lead as a woman. An Indian woman if you want. Have fun.

Actually, the way they address the fact that Johansson is playing a character known as “Motoko” is pretty deftly done.

Okay, back to the review.

It’s Gorgeous

I knew from the previews this would be the illegitimate love child of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element in look. And it works. The futuristic-retro cars, the multi-layered roadways, the endless high-rises decorated with mammoth holographic ads, the robots, the computer interfaces. Everything worked for me. It was without a doubt the best thing about the film.

The Acting is Spotty

Johansson as Major, the central figure of the story, does good work, though there’s nothing in the performance that anyone familiar with her work in the Marvel films will find surprising. Major and Natasha Romanov have similar character arcs, actually.

Pilou Asbæk turns in the best performance in the film, as Batou, Major’s sidekick. He’s funny and heartfelt and effective in a fight. He has a great presence. I expect to see more of him in the future.

Takeshi Kitano is also pretty good as Aramaki, Major’s boss at this police organization. Though, I suspect there’s some fan service for this well known Japanese actor that kind of goes over my head. There were one or two scenes where I could tell I was supposed to be in awe of this guy, and the film hadn’t really earned my awe. Still, though, nice performance.

Michael Pitt is entirely forgettable (and leaning into annoying) with his performance of Kuze, a mysterious terrorist figure that Major is chasing. Bleh.

Juliette Binoche is poorly used as Dr. Outlet, the scientist responsible for Major’s resurrection. Binoche has such a presence, casting her as this weak of a character seems dissonant.

Peter Ferdinando is pointless as Cutter, a honcho (the honcho?) of Hanka Robotics, the firm that seems to run the world with their robots. As a villain, he’s neither empathetic nor easy to root against.

The Story is Spotty

I loved the first, say, thirty minutes of the film. Then the middle third was okay. The finale was just boring. It’s rare for me to start checking my watch on a film that clocks in at less than two hours.

I didn’t analyze the story enough to really find plot holes, except for one. There is a point in the film when the robotics company guy has lost track of Major. She’s basically a robot he built, right? How can she not be lo-jacked? Dumb.

Anyway.

The Race Thing

I do have some thoughts on this. There’s been plenty of sturm and drang over the fact that they’ve whitewashed this property. As I said before, if you want to remake for a different audience and alter the race/gender/whatever of the characters, I don’t care. But the end result should be logically consistent. And this one wasn’t.

They never specify what city this film takes place, but there are plenty of hints that we’re in Asia somewhere. There’s Japanese script everywhere, the head of the police group speaks only in Japanese, most of the advertisements have Asian themes to them. There’s even a bit about Major being a refugee who came to this country, which I liked. The very Anglo-looking Johansson being a refugee puts this definitely into a different kind of world than we’re used to. All of that indicates we’re in an Asian (perhaps Japanese) place which is dominated by that culture.

But with the exception of Kitano, the Chinese guy from The Dark Knight, and one small role for a Japanese woman (which I won’t spoil here), everyone else is either European or African. (Mostly European.) So, does that mean we are in Tokyo, and Japanese culture and language continues to persist, but Europeans have taken control of the place? Or are we just lucky enough to be seeing a story that just happens to be about European characters.

I get that they were going for “colorblind” casting. But when the themes of race are baked into every aspect of the production design, you can’t simply wish away contradictions in your casting.

The Upshot

This film was diverting and enjoyable, but uneven enough that it’s hard to recommend unless you simply enjoy looking at amazing visuals.

Moana

I have a five-year-old daughter. Recently, my wife and I took her to her first in-theater movie experience. (Except for one of those thirty-minute-long IMAX documentary films.)

My daughter is a bit on the sensitive side. She finds the giant squid in Finding Dory too much. But it’s hard for me to argue with her on that one. Watching Moana she had to contend with a lava monster, an oversized crab, and a pirate navy of freaky coconut creatures. She spent a lot of the film in the hallway with her mother. But man, did she have a lot to say about it afterward. Her deconstruction of the character of Maui kind of took my breath away. It was insightful and likely accurate; and I never even thought about it.

Okay, enough about the target demo. How did Moana affect me?

Dang, this is a good film. One opening scene, with the title character Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) as a toddler, was astonishing. Not just gorgeous animation (which it is) but brilliant animation storytelling. You learn what you need to know without a single word of dialogue.

Soon enough Moana grows up to be a girl of indeterminate age, but likely a teenager. She’s being groomed to take over as chief of the island on which her people have lived for many years. (1000, if Maui is to be believed.) Her father (Temura Morrison) is adamant that what has worked this long–staying safe behind the reef–will continue to work. But an impending ecological disaster pushes Moana to take a risk and go out to sea in search of the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson).

The balance of the film is a buddy action comedy with these two (and a couple of enjoyable side characters who don’t actually speak) as they try to accomplish the quest steps needed to get everything back in order on Moana’s island.

Pretty much everything about this film works. The settings are lush and amazing. The performances are spot on. The story is straightforward enough for kids, but not simple and not dumbed down. The music is heartfelt and touching when its supposed to be, and hilarious at other times. (Kudos to Jemaine Clement for his portrayal of the most impressive crab in cinema history.)

This could be my favorite animated film.

2016 Movie Wrap Up

I didn’t see as many films as I would have liked, and I’ve reviewed even less. But, for what it’s worth, here’s what came out this year that I did see:

The Great

Captain America: Civil War

Zootopia — I like the direction Disney is taking their CG animated films. Frozen was okay, Tangled was great. This is a hoot, too.

Moana — Loved this movie. Full review to come…

Deadpool — What is there to say about this film that hasn’t been said? From the opening titles to the after-credits scene, it’s just so much fourth-wall-breaking goodness. Loved it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arrival

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

The Good

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Doctor Strange

Jason Bourne — There’s no loss in quality of action, but the story this time seemed spare even for a Bourne film. Points to Alicia Vikander for her delightfully amoral character.

Star Trek Beyond

Ghostbusters

The Magnificent Seven — A fun ride that I’ll probably never revisit.

The Shallows — I considered bumping this to the “Great” section. It’s consistently nerve-wracking and almost makes sense. This is the highest possible praise for a creature feature.

Deepwater Horizon

10 Cloverfield Lane — I suspect I would have liked this more if not for the Cloverfield connection. The finale felt out of the place with the first four-fifths of the film.

Hail, Caesar!

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

The Okay

Finding Dory

Suicide Squad

X-Men: Apocalypse — There’s stuff to love and stuff to hate in this film. A full review will be along at some point…

London Has Fallen — I’ll give it this: it’s dramatically better than the original.

The Bad

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — This was right on the edge between “Okay” and “Bad” for me. Some of it was kind of interesting. A few moments were brilliant. But, man, way too many dream sequences, Snyder!

Independence Day: Resurgence — Blurgh.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

I’m a member of the generation for whom the original Star Wars films are foundational. They are what science fiction epic blockbusters are supposed to be. I’m also a guy who thinks Star Wars is a lot of fun, but the films aren’t going on any of my top ten lists. I also thought the first and third prequels were bad, and the second was pretty good. Also, The Force Awakens is my favorite Star Wars film, by a pretty dramatic margin.

roaswsRogue One is an odd bird, then. It’s not a “saga” film, and so it’s supposed to feel a little different. No opening crawl. No Williams score. And the Skywalker clan are reduced to cameos. I was okay with that. In fact, I kind of wish it was more different. But I’ll get to that.

First, the good. Good performances, particularly from Felicity Jones as Jyn, Diego Luna as Cassian, Ben Mendelsohn as Krennic and Alan Tudyk as K-2SO. (K-2SO is possibly my favorite droid now. Sorry, BB-8.) Everyone else is also fine, but not quite as amazing. Great effects. It’s the most beautiful Star Wars film, I think. Great story. I won’t delve into spoilers, but it does an admirable job of organically retconning more than one of the oddities of A New Hope. I liked seeing a ton of new planets. I loved seeing the darker side of the Rebellion. I even loved that one actor reprising his role from the prequels.

The problem is, I don’t know exactly. I mean, yeah, I got sick and tired of the references to A New Hope. Two or three would have been fine, but it was kind of overkill. Did we really need two digital recreations of actors? No, not really. (Only one of which was actually good, by the way.) And out of 8 Star Wars films, 6 of them specifically reference the Death Star. I know, the Death Star is critical to this film’s entire story, but that just underlines the sameness of the films.

But the main problem I had is that I just didn’t care very much. About anyone. Will Jyn be reunited with her father (Mads Mikkelsen)? Didn’t care. Will Cassian and Jyn come to terms? Whatever. Will the team manage to get the Death Star plans to the Rebellion? Well, yeah. They will. But how will they do it? However they’ll do it, I guess. I didn’t even much care about any character deaths. (I won’t spoil who dies.)

So, there’s certainly nothing to be embarrassed about in the film. It’s a fine addition to the franchise. But it just doesn’t connect with me on an emotional level.

Ghostbusters (2016)

gI have to admit that I’m the demo who thinks the original Ivan Reitman directed Ghostbusters is a perfect movie. But I also have to admit that I don’t have a reactionary view of remakes in general. Want to remake a film I love? Go ahead. Have fun. Maybe I’ll even like it. I’ll take a well-intentioned remake over a lazy sequel or prequel any day of the week.

The other thing I have to admit is that the fanboy backlash at remaking the film with women in the lead roles was so ugly (not to mention stupid and unnecessary) that I was more predisposed to like the film, just to spite the sexist buffoons.

All in all, the film is pretty good. The cast is (mostly) fantastic. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are the new ghostbusting team, with the dim-witted help of Chris Hemsworth. They all knock it out of the park. Neil Casey is a bit of a waste as the bad guy, and the cameos by actors from the original film are fine. (Bill Murray is the weakest, Annie Potts was the best.)

What does set the film apart are the effects. These ghosts are weird and scary and intriguing. There’s no attempt to try to explain why some of them look like people, and others look like dragons, and others look like parade balloons. You just go with it and enjoy the show.

Apart from the effects, every aspect of this film is inferior to the first, but not terrible by any means. I’m kind of sorry it didn’t do well enough for a sequel, because the tease in the after-credit scene definitely made me happy.

Suicide Squad

ssDid I like Man of Steel? Yes, I did. Did I like Batman V. Superman? No, I did not. So I had high hopes yet middling actual expectations for this new addition to the other comic book cinematic universe.

Mostly, this was an enjoyable ride. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has this crazy idea. In a world where Superman is “dead”, the government wants someone on their side who is more than just a normal soldier. They want people with special abilities. But, since Aquaman and Wonder Woman aren’t in this movie, they just grab up the folks they have in prison that fit the requirement, stick remote-controlled bombs in their heads, and make them into a team. I guess this idea made some kind of sense in the comics, but on screen, you just have to go with the flow, or else you’ll second-guess every second of the film.

So, who’ve we got? A guy who never misses a shot (Will Smith), a psychotic former psychologist (Margot Robbie), a gang-banger-turned-fire-demon (Jay Hernandez), a walking crocodile (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), an archaeologist possessed by the spirit of an ancient sorceress (Cara Delevigne), a dude who uses boomerangs (Jai Courtney) and another dude who is really good at tying knots…I think (Adam Beach).

Who else do we have? Their military dude minder (Joel Kinnaman) and his sidekick, a girl with a magic sword (Karen Fukuhara). Oh, and Harley’s old boyfriend, a guy called The Joker (Jared Leto).

Dang. Doesn’t it feel like introducing all the characters would take the whole film? It kind of does. The actual plot is somewhat thin. One of the team decides to try to end the world, and the rest of the team has to stop them. There’s friction and bonding and double-crosses.

It’s kind of funny (Robbie steals the show) and it’s kind of exciting. But it never really gels as an Avengers-style team up, nor really devolves into a Pulp Fiction-style crime adventure. I would have preferred one or the other.

On the whole, it’s kind of forgettable, but harmless entertainment.

Finding Dory

fdSo, I have a young daughter. If not, I would probably have skipped this one. The Pixar films just exhaust me now. [Insert Cars joke here.] I did see, and mildly enjoy, Finding Nemo. I have to admit that the premise of this one is one of the better sequel ideas ever. Take a character with zero backstory (obviously, because she has memory problems) and use the sequel to dig into that history.

The flashbacks to Baby Dory as her loving parents attempt to build a life for their memory-challenged daughter are the very definition of cuteness, with just a pinch of heartbreak. It’s impossible not to care about Dory’s quest to find them after a freak accident triggers a key memory.

Following a completely pointless action sequence wherein Dory, Nemo and Marlin escape a giant squid, we arrive at The Jewel of Morrow Bay, California, a marine life institute where Dory was born. More characters are introduced: a wily octopus, a sweet whale shark, an insecure beluga whale. As all Pixar films must do, the obstacles thrown into the hero’s path are insurmountable…until they’re not. The protagonists hurt each others’ feelings…until they apologize. And the finale is big and exciting and over-the-top.

It’s hard to argue against the merits of the highest grossing animated film of all time. (It’s raked in over a billion dollars worldwide.) But I found the story strangely convenient. Many of the characters were sheer window dressing. (I’m looking at you, Nemo.) But it’s a touching tale about family lost and regained, and in that way, I still kind of like it.