The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Featured

2017 #57
Antoine Fuqua | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Magnificent Seven

Despite sharing a title and setting, this second Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is almost as different from The Magnificent Seven (1960 version) as that was from the original. Maybe that’s over-egging the point, but The Magnificent Seven (2016 version) is certainly not just a straight-up do-over of the popular Western classic.

The broad sweep of the plot is the same: a small town is being terrorised by a local big-man and his gang, so they hire a septet of down-on-their-luck warriors to defend them. Here, said town has been relocated to America (from Mexico in the ‘original’), and the characterisations of the seven gunslingers have been struck afresh rather than recreated, albeit with some near-unavoidable similarities to the previous seven.

What you want to see in the film affects whether these changes are sizeable or not. As I said, the basic shape of the plot remains untouched, with the defenders recruited one by one, training up the townsfolk, and then engaging in a lengthy climactic battle when the bad guys return to town. So at a story level it works as well as this tale ever has, with the same pros and cons for its characters: with so many principals some get shortchanged on screen time, but they’re a mostly likeable bunch. In the lead roles, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke are decent modern stand-ins for Yul Brynner, Steve Martin, and Robert Vaughn (respectively, more or less), though of course that varies depending on your personal like or otherwise for the actors in question.

The magnificent action

Looking to the combat, the film is again similar but modernised. The action scenes are slick, well choreographed and littered with dead bodies and big explosions, rather than the slightly off-the-cuff style of older action films. Framing it as a few-against-many last-stand skirmish, the film constructs the finale as a battle with strategies and tactics, ebb and flow, rather than an everybody-run-at-everybody-else free-for-all. That seems to be the way movies are going with their depiction of large-scale conflict, and I think that’s a good thing.

Where the remake’s changes have most impact is if you want to consider the film politically. The town in need of defending has been switched from a Mexican village to an American outpost, a symbol of good honest hard-working folk trying to establish a life for themselves. The villains terrorising them have been switched from a Mexican criminal gang to a power-hungry businessman, with a group of heavies and the local sheriff in his pocket. The seven encompass a greater deal of racial diversity: a black leader, a Mexican fugitive, an Asian knife-thrower, a Native American archer… The other three are white guys, but that doesn’t negate the point. In our modern political climate — particularly in the US — there’s a lot of different stuff to unpack there.

The diverse seven

I’m not sure the issues in question really need spelling out, so I’m slightly more curious how much of it was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, and how much an incidental side effect of changes they made just to differentiate the film from the 1960 version. Frankly, I don’t think the movie is interested in making any big political points — you can’t reasonably deny those readings are there, but it’s all subtext (whether intentional or, I think more probably, accidental) to be analysed by those who are interested. I think director Antoine Fuqua and co were more concerned with creating an entertaining action movie than a political tract, and I think they’ve achieved that.

Judged as such, The Magnificent Seven probably isn’t at the forefront of its form, but it’s mostly a rollicking good time. And, as if to cement what I was writing recently about my preferences generally erring towards modern cinema, I actually enjoyed it more than the 1960 one.

4 out of 5

The Magnificent Seven is available on Netflix UK from today.

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

2017 #56
David Yates | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Canada / English* | 12 / PG-13

The Legend of Tarzan

Reviving or continuing well-known IPs as action-packed summer extravaganzas is the order of the day in modern blockbuster cinema — witness the likes of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes and 2013 Lone Ranger — so I suppose it was inevitable that someone would eventually attempt the same with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Apes. As with the other films of its ilk, The Legend of Tarzan® (as its multiple title cards insist on calling it) is a mixed success.

Eschewing the “tell the origins (again)” form of most reboots, the film finds Tarzan long retired to England as Lord John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) when he is invited back to Africa by the King of Belgium to observe the wonderful work being done there. Initially reluctant, John is persuaded to go by his now-wife Jane (Margot Robbie), who’s keen to revisit their old friends, and American agent George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who suspects the Belgians of enslaving the Congolese people. Indeed, the whole invitation is actually a ruse, as Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) intends to deliver John to tribal chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who has an axe to grind against Tarzan, in return for the diamonds that a near-bankrupt Belgium requires. Naturally, fighting and vine-swinging and sundry acts of derring-do ensue.

When it works, The Legend of Tarzan® is a straight-up old-fashioned adventure movie, albeit with slicker action sequences and created with lashings of CGI. When it doesn’t, it comes across as oddly muddled. As with so many blockbusters last year (Suicide Squad and Rogue One spring immediately to mind), it feels like it was chopped and changed a lot in the edit. It’s hard to pin down how exactly, but it’s something in the way it flows (or doesn’t) between scenes, or sometimes even within sequences. Considering that (just as with the other two examples I mentioned) there were reshoots, you think they’d’ve smoothed some of that out.

Me Tarzan, you jealous

Similarly, the effects are a distractingly mixed bag. A lot of the CGI is incredible — the animals look magnificent, for example; especially the gorillas, who are required to offer some kind of character as well as feature in action scenes. But the filmmakers have been overambitious in other areas. The film was mostly shot on soundstages, and the added-in backgrounds for outside stuff are painfully obvious much of the time. However, the worst bit is a sequence where Tarzan and friends swing on to a CG train that looks like it’s been borrowed from a 15-year-old computer game.

Fortunately the performances show a greater consistency. A tough training regime has left Skarsgård with the muscles required to look the part of a muscly jungle-man, but he also displays an adeptness for comedy — or, at least, a lightness of touch — that makes him an appealing hero. There’s a clear attempt to make Jane more than just a damsel in distress, albeit while still conforming to good ol’ Boys’ Own entertainment to some extent, and leading lady du jour Robbie helps give her character. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson brings easy confidence to his American agent, who serves as a kind of sidekick to Tarzan for most of the movie, acting as comic relief and action scene back-up. If anyone’s underserved it’s the villains, with Waltz solid but giving the performance he always gives (surely he’s capable of more?) and Hounsou being somewhat underused — his character has a highly emotional reason for wanting Tarzan dead, but there’s little time to feel that when there are bigger villainous plans afoot.

He does look cool, though

Tonally the film reminded me a little of something like Superman Returns — a movie made a long time after a forebear and with a whole new cast, but intended as a sequel nonetheless. Only, where Superman Returns was a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies, The Legend of Tarzan® is a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist. Its fictitious forerunner is some kind of Tarzan ur-film, a non-specific version of the Tarzan and Jane story that ends with them moving to England and adopting his familial title. This film assumes we’re all familiar with that broad narrative, or familiar with enough to subsist on a few choice flashbacks anyway. And, actually, that’s fine if you do know the story — it certainly feels like we don’t need it going over again… even if, personally, the only version I’ve actually seen is the Disney one. But I do wonder what younger people made of it all, because it seems to me that Tarzan may have slipped somewhat from the general consciousness, so perhaps they’re less familiar with said backstory. Or maybe they’ve all seen the Disney film too.

Also like Superman Returns, The Legend of Tarzan® ends up as something of a well-intentioned muddle. Some viewers will lose patience with it for that, but I at least enjoyed the movie it wanted to be.

3 out of 5

The Legend of Tarzan is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* English isn’t the only language spoken but, from what I can ascertain (by which I mean “I read this”), during the subtitled bits they’re speaking Generic Semi-Fictional African Language. ^

Guardians of the Galaxy 3D (2014)

Rewatchathon 2017 #8
James Gunn | 121 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Guardians of the Galaxy 3D

So, I just got a 3D TV. Well, it’s a 4K TV, but we’re interested in the fact it does 3D right now. And, to cut a long story short (literally — I wrote a 1,200-word post about this before deciding it was rambling and pointless), the impetus to get one now came from the fact that all TV manufacturers are ditching 3D from this year and I always kinda wanted it. (As to why I got a 4K one, apparently it makes for better quality 3D; plus it’s future proof — “future” being the operative word because I’m not replacing my Blu-ray player, I don’t keep a regular Netflix subscription, and Amazon Prime’s UHD selection (found on an otherwise-secret menu when you access it from a 4K device!) is quite pitiful.)

The first thing I watched was… the opening seven minutes of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary episode, actually (which has superb 3D). But the first thing I watched in full was Guardians of the Galaxy, because I’d been meaning to rewatch it before the sequel lands at the end of the month, and because I’ve long been curious about the 3D version’s shifting aspect ratio.

Regular readers may remember that I love a good shifting aspect ratio, and Guardians does not disappoint. As usual for these things, most of the film is at 2.40:1, opening up to 1.78:1 for selected sequences. Director James Gunn uses it in a similar way to Christopher Nolan, with a scattering of expanded shots here and there alongside some whole sequences, mainly used for action scenes and epic establishing shots. (That’s as opposed to something like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which has more-or-less half the film in one ratio and the second half in the other.) Even on a TV the effect is immense, the screen-filling interludes feeling genuinely larger and more impactful. This was helped no small amount by my new TV being 12″ larger, which doesn’t sound like much but actually makes a huge difference (as the actress said to the bishop). That said, pausing a moment to do the maths, it’s nearly a whole third bigger than my old TV, so no wonder the difference is noticeable. But I digress…

Knowhere's better in 3D

As with so many 3D blockbusters nowadays, Guardians was a post-conversion. Nonetheless, I commented in my original review that some sequences seemed to have been designed with 3D in mind — specifically the chase through Knowhere, which I described as “little more than a blur.” I feel like past-me was correct, because I had no such issues with the sequence this time out. Even though I enjoy it, I’m still one of those people who regard 3D as fundamentally little more than a gimmick (though I’ve yet to see Hugo, so I guess there’s still room for my own conversion to considering it a Serious Filmmaking Tool), but it does lend a scope, scale, and pizzazz throughout the movie that’s a lot of fun, especially during the big action sequences. Indeed, particularly when combined with the shifting aspect ratio, it makes for some very striking moments.

I’d hesitate to say the 3D improved my opinion of the film as a whole, but I think the second viewing certainly did. My aforementioned original review was pretty darn positive, though I think I’d remembered enjoying it less than I did because the praise it received in some other quarters went into overkill. On this viewing I didn’t feel the problems with pace that bothered me before; and while I continue to think Nova City could do with more development before the climax (I still can’t even remember its proper name), I found said climax to be less overlong and more structured. Obviously the film itself hasn’t changed (well, other than that extra visual dimension), but my perspective on it clearly has (in addition to that extra visual dimension).

Badasses of the Galaxy

For all the benefits of bigger screen sizes, extra dimensions, and an adjusted appreciation of its pacing, Guardians’ greatest asset remains its characters and how much fun they are to be around. They are primarily what make it a mighty entertaining movie, whether in two dimensions or three.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy is on BBC One tonight at 8:30pm — in 2D, of course.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

2016 #183
Justin Lin | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA, Hong Kong & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Star Trek Beyond

The cover of Star Trek Beyond’s Blu-ray proudly proclaims that it’s “the best reviewed action movie of the year”. I don’t think that’s true (Civil War, anyone?), but it does indicate the mindset producing these films nowadays: they’re not the serious-minded sci-fi the Trek franchise was once known for, but action-orientated summer blockbusters.

As that, Beyond is pretty entertaining. An overall lighter tone than the heavy-handed Into Darkness, plus competently executed action sequences and fewer incredulity-inducing contrivances, make for a fun adventure.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t succumb to the modern franchise proclivity for forcing third movies to be trilogy-formers. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising though: it was confirmed before Beyond’s release that a fourth (aka fourteenth) movie is in development, so obviously this shouldn’t feel like the end of the road for this crew. The upside of this is that Beyond can get on with its story, unworried about being Epic.

Explosive

The downside is it creates a “just another adventure” feel to the plot — a bread-and-butter situation for Star Trek’s original TV format, but underwhelming in an expensive blockbuster movie franchise. Consequently Beyond feels inessential. That’s an odd sensation in a franchise nowadays, where the usual MO sees every movie feed into a bigger multi-film narrative. But with Into Darkness being deliberately ignored here (thanks to its unpopularity with hardcore Trekkies) and Beyond functioning as “just another adventure”, Trek is almost a franchise-out-of-time, where individual instalments can be entirely enjoyed in isolation.

Not that I think that’s a bad thing. Beyond may lack a certain epicness, but it’s entertaining enough for what it is.

4 out of 5

Star Trek Beyond is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Swiss Army Man (2016)

2016 #177
Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan
(aka Daniels) | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Swiss Army Man

If you’ve heard of Swiss Army Man, it’s likely for one thing and one thing only: this is the movie where Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe plays a farting corpse with an erection. But rather than the childish super-gross-out comedy that short pitch would seem to suggest, Swiss Army Man is actually quite a sweet indie comedy-drama. With some super-gross-out comedy thrown in, natch.

The plot that leads us to the farting boner corpse begins with Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on an island and, in his lonely despair, attempting suicide. Then he spots a body washed up on the nearby beach. It turns out this isn’t a new friend, because he’s dead. Hank dubs him ‘Manny’. One thing leads to another and Hank uses Manny’s gastric expulsions to create a kind of jet ski that propels them off the island. Hank soon discovers the corpse has myriad potential uses (hence the title), especially when he starts to talk…

Swiss Army Man is kind of like Cast Away if Wilson the volleyball was a farting corpse. Hank despairs at his situation, chats to the technically-inanimate Manny about it, and together they begin to work through the human condition. In between using Manny’s rigor mortis-powered limbs to chop wood, or his boner as a magic compass to guide them home, that is. I was going to say “it’s that kind of movie”, but I’m not sure there’s ever been another movie quite like Swiss Army Man.

He ain't heavy, he's my farting boner corpse

As well as the indie ruminations on the purpose and meaning of life, there are some mystery plots in play, just to keep things engaging. Who is the woman Hank keeps seeing in flashbacks? How many of Manny’s abilities are real and how much is just in Hank’s head? I mean, Manny can’t really talk… can he? What if Manny’s not the only one who’s dead? Maybe these shouldn’t be given so much focus — I don’t think the film wants to be about such plot mysteries — but they were the kind of things running through my head while watching, because you know there’s bound to be some kind of twist or reveal for what’s actually happening. Naturally, I won’t spoil that here; but perhaps the film plays even better on repeat viewings, when you can set aside such wonderings and focus even more fully on the friendship between man and corpse.

That’s naturally powered by the two lead performances. Dano is very good as a man who’s feeling suicidal for, as it turns out, more reasons than “I’m alone on an island”; though enacting such patheticness (as a human trait rather than a criticism of his mental condition) seems very much within Dano’s wheelhouse. Radcliffe, however, is simply brilliant. Manny comes back to ‘life’ as a kind of innocent, unsure of how the world works and driven by his basest feelings; a reflection of all our inner psyches, in a way. Physically constrained by being, y’know, dead, Radcliffe manages to convey so much despite — or perhaps even partly because of — the limitations imposed upon him.

Corpsehood

Made for a relative pittance, technical merits are also strong, with neat special effects to convey Manny’s abilities, and a very indie-ish but fitting vocal-driven score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. Interestingly, the Blu-ray contains an option to watch the film without the score, which (based on the few bits I sampled) creates a remarkably different experience. That’s true of most films, of course, but here it dramatically changes the mood of some scenes. It’s less magical, in a way, and sadder, and maybe creepier, which is not the point or message of the film.

“The farting boner corpse movie” is the kind of pithy description that will put many viewers off, but hiding behind the gross-out facade is a sweet comedy-drama about human interaction that, in its own way, is an incredibly moving, perhaps even heartwarming experience.

4 out of 5

Swiss Army Man is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Thumbs up

War on Everyone (2016)

2017 #52
John Michael McDonagh | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

War on Everyone

The third feature from John Michael “older brother of the guy who made In Bruges” McDonagh, War on Everyone is a comedy crime thriller about two dodgy New Mexico cops (Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård) who are tricked while trying to prevent a heist and so set about tracking down the stolen money — to pocket for themselves.

I’ve read that War on Everyone is massively offensive. Well, I mean, if you want to be precious about it, I guess some of it is. Maybe reading that left me expecting something incredibly outrageous, but sadly the film doesn’t hit those highs. I say “highs” — offensiveness for the sake of it is pointless, but some of the best material in the previous movies of the McDonagh brothers has come from a willingness to say and do un-PC things. War on Everyone doesn’t feel neutered in that regard, but nor is anything it does so striking.

Worse, it has a rambling narrative, wandering pace, and inconsistent tone. It’s not funny enough, frankly, but nor is the crime plot interesting enough to sustain the humour drought. Peña’s comedic gifts carry some of the flat material, though barely, while Skarsgård seems a little lost in an underwritten role. He and Tessa Thompson attempt to salvage something from a romantic subplot that springs from almost nowhere and then occupies a bunch of screen time to no one’s benefit. Caleb Landry Jones fares best as a foppish strip club owner, one of the henchman to Theo James’ big bad, whose entire character is basically, “he’s English — they make good villains, right?”

Not-so-nice guys

There are broad similarities to another irreverent comedy thriller from 2006 about a pair of not-so-nice fellas investigating a somewhat-complicated crime plot, but War on Everyone just serves to demonstrate how hard it is to do what Shane Black makes look effortless in The Nice Guys. I thought War on Everyone trailed well and looked like it would hit that same level, or at least something close to it, but sadly the final result feels fumbled.

2 out of 5

John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature, The Guard, is on Channel 4 tonight at 12:05am. I’ve got the Blu-ray knocking around somewhere; really ought to get round to watching it…

The BFG (2016)

2017 #51
Steven Spielberg | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA & India / English | PG / PG

The BFG

The writer/director team behind E.T. reunite for another tale of a young kid befriending a strangely-proportioned otherworldly creature who can’t quite speak English properly and has an acronym for a name. This one, of course, is adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, here rendered into live-action — or, for a large part, realistic computer animation — by director Steven Spielberg.

If you don’t know the story, it concerns insomniac orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who one night spots a 24ft giant outside her window. Wary of her informing the rest of the world of his existence, he snatches her up and carries her off to giant land. Despite Sophie’s fears, he doesn’t eat her, because he’s actually the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance, motion captured) — but his fellow giants are a different story. Led by Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement, also motion captured), they bully the comparatively tiny BFG and are a constant threat to Sophie’s life, so she concocts a plan, which involves a trip to see the Queen (Penelope Wilton).

For all its CGI — and, in creating a fantastical other-world adjacent to our own, there is a lot — much about The BFG feels pleasantly traditional, almost like a throwback to kids’ movies of a couple of decades past. This is partly the re-teaming of Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison, I suppose, but perhaps also the decision to retain the novel’s original 1982 setting. Not that you’d know it for most of the running time, until the Queen makes some telephone calls to “Nancy and Ronnie” (Reagan) and “Boris” (presumably Yeltsin, though that means someone’s got their eras mixed up); references that, coming quite near the end of the film, made me pause in the realisation that it wasn’t just set today (the reference to Boris made my assume the Queen was phoning our foreign secretary).

Window dressing

More than dated references, though, the throwback feel is thanks to the pace. I’d hesitate to call The BFG slow, but it’s certainly gentle for a good long while. I don’t think it needs to be a fast-paced thrill-ride, but a little extra speed early on, bringing the luxuriant two-hour running time down closer to the 90-minute mark, might’ve been beneficial. There’s certainly magic and wonder to be found throughout, which are very important aspects of a story like this, but I do wonder if kids might get a bit fidgety nonetheless, which would destroy the effect.

There is a lot to admire, however. The production design is superb, the giants’ environment full of stuff pilfered from the human world and re-appropriated into useful things — a ship for a (water)bed, for example, or a road sign for a tray; in one sequence, cars and trucks become roller skates. It’s all realised with startling detailed CGI. Okay, you’re not going to mistake the giants for upsized real humans (which kinda makes me long for a Hook-era version of the film, when they would’ve done it all for real with optical effects), but look at the small details — the texture of the giants’ skin, for example — and it looks phenomenal.

More importantly, the acting is pitched perfectly. Clement and his cohorts manage to be both menacing and comical by turns, Wilton brings easy class to the Queen, and Rafe Spall has an amusing little supporting role as a palace footman. However, Rebecca Hall is utterly wasted in a strangely nothing-y part as the Queen’s assistant — I can only presume this was either one of those “I love the book so will take any role” situations or one of those “my part was mostly cut” situations.

Big star, little star

But the real stars are the two leads. Ruby Barnhill was the result of a months-long search for the perfect Sophie and it was worth the effort. Called upon to be confident, scared, awed, and ingenious, Barnhill’s performance is precisely calibrated — “subtle” would perhaps be overselling it, but she lacks the histrionics you get from weak child actors. She’s overall charming, which is important in engaging us in the relationship between her and the BFG. In the giant role, Mark Rylance is, of course, sublime. He may have been recreated in the computer, but all of his personality shines through, his expressions and mannerisms both believable and familiar if you’ve seen him in his corporeal form. It’s one of the best-yet advocacies of so-called “performance capture” (where the actor’s whole performance is captured by those grey jumpsuits with little dots on, as opposed to just “motion capture” where it’s only their physical moves being digitised and supplemented by animators — both are the same process really, it’s just someone coined a different term to indicate when more of the actor’s own work is retained).

Considering the level of challenge The BFG clearly presented to Spielberg (in the special features he talks about how at times he was unsure how to make the movie, with all the tough requirements of different scales, etc; he and his team actually spent a whole summer making the movie in previsualisation before they did it for real the year after), it’s something of a shame that it’s destined to be regarded as a minor work in his canon. I’m not going to argue it deserves a greater status among his venerable output, but it would be a shame for it to go ignored because of that.

4 out of 5

The BFG is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of this week.

The Witch (2015)

aka The VVitch: A New-England Folktale

2016 #171
Robert Eggers | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA, UK, Canada & Brazil / English | 15 / R

The Witch

There’s a lot to commend in this debut feature from writer-director Robert Eggers, the story of English settlers in 17th Century America who are banished from their community and begin to be affected by a supernatural force in the woods.

With dialogue lifted from contemporary reports of witchcraft, it has a level of period authenticity that is rarely seen. I thought it was an immensely effective choice for evoking an entirely different era, but others find it a distracting affectation. Also distancing for some viewers is the understated style — it’s more of an arthouse period flick than a gore ‘n’ guts chiller; like a horror movie made by Terrence Malick. Much like the dialogue, I thought that gave it a level of realism. You know this isn’t a true story because such occult happenings aren’t real… but if they were, they’d be like this.

It’s not a horror movie that suits all tastes, then, but I thought it was v.v. creepy and v.v. good.

4 out of 5

Don’t Breathe (2016)

2017 #21
Fede Alvarez | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Don't Breathe

One of the most talked-about thriller-cum-horror movies of last year, Don’t Breathe (which is available on Sky Cinema as of last Friday) concerns a gang of young house burglars — Rocky (Jane Levy), who’s doing it to help get her little sister away from their good-for-nothing parents; her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), who’s a bit of a dick; and Alex (Dylan Minnette), who’s secretly in love with Rocky, and whose dad runs a security company from which they ‘borrow’ the necessary information to access homes without setting off the alarms. After a big final score, they set their sights on the remote home of a chap (Stephen Lang) whose daughter was killed in a car accident, from which he netted a hefty settlement. Plus he’s blind, so it’ll be easy money. Right? As is no doubt obvious, the blind bloke turns out to have a few secrets up his sleeve… and down his basement…

Despite how it was advertised (doesn’t that poster scream “horror movie”?), really speaking Don’t Breathe is a thriller — it’s about a trio of crooks trying to rob a home and its owner fighting back. Though I suppose it depends what you use to define “a horror movie”, really. I tend to think of them as featuring an enemy who is either supernatural or possibly supernatural, but I suppose the only real prerequisite is that they be scary. Don’t Breathe doesn’t have a supernatural villain (though the blind man’s abilities do stretch credibility), but it’s so gosh-darn suspenseful that the viewing experience is similarly tense to a horror movie, even if outright scares are few. And one memorable scene in particular is certainly classifiable as horrific, most especially for female viewers. So, as a sub-90-minute exercise in mood and thrills it’s a very effective viewing experience; but it’s best not to stop to think about the practicalities if it were real because a lot of the film doesn’t withstand scrutiny. I won’t rehash all of the plot’s logic gaps (there are plenty of articles online that already do that, if you’re interested), but I think it’s best enjoyed as a go-along-with-it experience.

Bad guys gone good?

One point of contention for many seems to be the likeability or otherwise of the characters. The ostensible heroes are a gang of crooks who we first meet robbing the home of an undeserving victim, and being needlessly destructive about it too. You might think this sets the blind man up as some kind of avenging hero, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that he’s an even bigger bad guy… so are we meant to side with the crooks after all? For me, this raises a question I’ve come up against before: does a movie actually need to have any likeable characters? Some people need that, for sure, but I don’t think a film does per se. I’m not sure Don’t Breathe has really thought through its position on this issue, which makes reading online commentary about this point a funny thing. For instance, I saw someone argue that the writers make no effort to make us like the burglars — so, what’s the whole thing with Rocky trying to get her sister out of their shitty life for, then? And then another person stated that they actually found themselves liking two of the “bad guys” — so, if the burglars are the bad guys that makes the blind guy the hero? I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know why holding that opinion is either, a) ridiculous, or b) deeply troubling…

As I said, it’s best not to think about it too much. I think Don’t Breathe is perhaps the movie equivalent of a theme park attraction: designed to thrill you and scare you during its brief duration, not withstand plot and character scrutiny when dissected afterwards. That’s why my rating errs on the lower side, though if you want nothing more than a gripping hour-and-a-half it maybe merits another star.

3 out of 5

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

2017 #48
Rupert Sanders | 107 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA & China / English & Japanese | 12A / PG-13

Ghost in the Shell

A few decades in the future technology has continued to proliferate to the point where the majority of humans are cybernetically augmented in some way, whether it be eyes that have additional functionality, like zooming or x-ray, or fingers that split into dozens of segments to type faster, or a stomach that can process alcohol quicker… However, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind: a human mind in a fully cybernetic body. Along with her team at anti-terror unit Section 9, they find themselves on the trail of a cyberterrorist who is murdering high-ranking employees of Hanka Robotics — the company that built the Major. As they dig further, they begin to uncover a startling conspiracy. Well, of course they do.

Although officially (as per the credits) adapted from Masamune Shirow’s original manga, this iteration of Ghost in the Shell creates a new narrative, but builds it out of liberally repurposed imagery, sequences, character traits, and more from the popular 1995 anime adaptation and its sequel, and apparently from the Stand Alone Complex TV series too (I’ve never got round to watching that so can’t vouch for its use here). Though to say “new narrative” is something of a kindness because, intricacies aside, the story isn’t new at all. A familiar narrative is not necessarily a barrier to enjoyment — to invoke it for the second time in as many GitS reviews, Doctor Strange had a rote “Marvel superhero begins” storyline but made up for it with flashy visuals and a good amount of wit, resulting in a movie that I enjoyed very much. Ghost in the Shell also has flashy visuals, as you’ll have no doubt noticed from the trailers, but instead of wit it has all sorts of existential philosophy to ponder upon.

Shoot first, ask questions never

Unfortunately, it doesn’t bother to. It certainly raises some of those issues, but I think it may do so by accident: director Rupert Sanders and co have clearly decided to focus on the action-thriller aspects of previous Ghost in the Shell material in their reworking, but have unavoidably swept up some of the philosophising in the process; but because they have little to no interest in actually exploring those questions (Sanders has literally said as much in interviews), they all lead to nowt. Some of the quandaries Ghost in the Shell’s world poses have been well-considered elsewhere — Blade Runner is probably the most obvious example — but, I think, not all of them. For instance, there’s rich potential in the stuff about having your brain put in a brand-new body, especially given some of the twists and revelations about that which come later on, but it doesn’t feel like the film has much to say about it. It’s a thriller movie that uses those elements to generate plot twists, rather than a film that’s interested in examining what they might mean to a human being who experiences them.

This tin-eared understanding of the source material stretches in every direction. Take the role of the bin man, for instance, and how it’s been repurposed here. How that character’s been tricked, and Section 9’s uncovering of it, is quite an affecting sequence in the original film, as well as contributing a lot to the film’s cogitation on how much our memories make us who we are. In this remake, the fundamental facts of the man’s case are still the same, but there’s very little feeling or emotion there. It’s just a plot point; a stepping stone on the way to the next bit of the narrative. I guess to most people watching Hollywood blockbusters plot is paramount, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have both driven the story onwards and contributed something meaningful.

Geisha gone gaga

Despite the focus on plot, and the relatively brisk running time of an hour and 45 minutes, Ghost in the Shell manages to drag on occasion. Perhaps the filmmakers felt they had licence to do so thanks to some of the slower sequences in the original film, but at least those were busy with philosophising, while here they’re just… I’m not sure, really. It was probably a form of exposition — slow, unfocused exposition — but dressed up to look like it might be something more. Conversely, at other times the relatively brief running time is to the film’s detriment, with characters and plot elements going underdeveloped. For example, we never really feel the brewing conflict between Hanka Robotics, the government-funded tech company that built the Major, and Section 9, a government anti-terror task force. We see some of the arguments between the heads of each organisation, but the fact they both answer to the government is only alluded to rather than enacted — the Prime Minister and what s/he might do is invoked on more than one occasion, but no one governmental personage ever appears to actually weigh in on matters. Considering the importance of all that to events in the third act, I thought it could’ve done with a few more building blocks.

If we set aside the wasted potential to engage with the thought-provoking topics its world raises, and the few storytelling fumbles like the one just discussed, Ghost in the Shell is a solid straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, with a decent if familiar revenge-ish story eventually emerging and some competently realised action scenes — though the very best of the latter are all homages to the original movie, which probably did them better. The design work is often exemplary, with some striking cityscapes and technology (the robotic geishas that have been quite prominent in the marketing, for instance), and Sanders and DP Jess Hall usually lens it all to good effect. That said, this is a future world that doesn’t really feel lived in — it looks like it’s just sprung out of the mind of a designer, or a comic book artist. Some might think that’s the fault of the source material being a comic book, but I don’t think it’s true of the earlier film, at least. The rubbish collectors are again a good example: in the original movie you really feel like they’re on their usual rounds, until Section 9 track them down and it explodes into an action sequence. In this version, they merely exist because a bin lorry is the kind of thing that would make a handy battering ram (and also as another nod to the anime, of course).

Unspecified future cityscape

Funnily, for all the film’s faults in not talking about anything, there’s a lot to talk about with the film itself. I haven’t even touched on the whole whitewashing controversy, though to be honest it never bothered me that much anyway — I mean, it’s a US-led English-language remake, of course they’re more interested in a big-name American star than racial fidelity. Not that it’s cut and dried anyway: you might assume she’s Japanese, but the ’95 movie was supposed to be set in a future Hong Kong (for its part, the live-action movie never names the city or country it’s set in). Also, without meaning to spoil anything, the film itself touches on the issue. I thought how it did that was solid, though (as with everything else) under-explored, but others consider it an empty gesture to try to excuse the whitewashing.

I find it a little tricky to sum up my reactions to this new Ghost in the Shell, because they were kind of… nothing. I walked out of it feeling reasonably entertained by the action scenes and thriller storyline, though I would argue both could’ve been even stronger; and while I may lament its lack of engagement with the issues its world inherently raises, it does so little to tackle them that I almost just shrug it off — yeah, it probably should do that, but it doesn’t do it badly, or half-heartedly, it just doesn’t. Exactly what you want or expect from Ghost in the Shell may well dictate one’s reaction to it as much as the content of the film in and of itself, which I think is perfectly adequate for what it is. It could have been so much more, though.

3 out of 5

Ghost in the Shell is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now.