The Ghostly Monthly Update for March 2017

If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who ya gonna call?

How about Scarlett Johansson in a skintight bodysuit? I’m sure plenty of people wouldn’t need something strange going on to want to make that call…


#30 Logan (2017)
#31 Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
#32 Demolition (2015)
#32a Deadpool: No Good Deed (2017)
#33 Long Way North (2015), aka Tout en haut du monde
#34 Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
#34a Hotel Chevalier (2007)
#35 The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
#36 Money Monster (2016)
#37 Room (2015)
#38 Warcraft (2016), aka Warcraft: The Beginning
#39 Kong: Skull Island (2017)
#40 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)
#41 Ghostbusters (2016), aka Ghostbusters: Answer the Call
#42 Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
#43 The Monster Squad (1987)
#44 Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), aka Kôkaku Kidôtai Inosensu
#45 Big Game (2014)
#46 Young Frankenstein (1974)
#47 Black Dynamite (2009)
#48 Ghost in the Shell (2017)
#49 Jackie Brown (1997)
Long Way North

Kong: Skull Island

Black Dynamite

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  • I watched 20 new films this March, making it my largest month for nearly a year, since last April’s 21.
  • It’s far head of the March average (previously 12.3, now 13.1) and also passes the average of the last 12 months (previously 15, now 14.75).
  • In terms of my yearly goal, it’s behind where I was last year (two-thirds there at #67) but ahead of every other year (including 2015 — aka The Year of 200 Films — when March ended at #44).
  • This month’s Blindspot film: plugging one of the few gaps in my Tarantino viewing with Jackie Brown.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS film: Room. Normally I’d offer a brief comment, but I already reviewed it in full here.
  • I watched three films starring Samuel L. Jackson this month. Even for a fella as prolific as he is, that’s still quite a number.



The 22nd Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
A tough contest this month between a couple of films I enjoyed an awful lot, but however much I was entertained by a giant ape beating up other giant monsters, the beautiful artistry of Long Way North just edges it today.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Not such a tricky choice here: easily the worst film I watched this month was the disappointing mess that was Warcraft.

Best Dialogue of the Month
You’d think any month with a Quentin Tarantino film in it would have this award sewn up, but not when in the presence of the genius that is Black Dynamite. I’d throw in a quote, but half of the magic is in the delivery.

Most Gratuitous Arse of the Month
Plenty of derrières on display this month, between Natalie Portman’s much-discussed bare behind in Hotel Chevalier, Scarlett Johansson’s extremely figure-hugging costumes in Ghost in the Shell, Bridget Fonda’s post-coital stroll in Jackie Brown, and Kong stomping around the place with nary a stitch on as well. But the fact someone bothered to draw the intimation of an arsehole on the dog in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence takes the biscuit.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Following a tip from Caz at Let’s Go to the Movies, I’ve been adding my reviews to IMDb of late. That paid dividends this month, with an extraordinary (for me) number of hits flowing towards Logan.



This blog’s 10th birthday celebrations continued (and concluded) this month by counting down my 100 favourite movies I’ve seen for the first time in the past ten years. If you missed it, you can read all about it here:


Things are beginning to look up for my Rewatchathon, as I actually rewatched more than one film this month…

#3 Gattaca (1997)
#4 The Nice Guys (2016)
#5 Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)
#6 Ghost in the Shell (1995)
#7 Hook (1991)

I think I was too young to properly appreciate Gattaca when I first saw it. Now, I think it’s a five-star sci-fi drama/thriller, and it would’ve contended for a place on my 100 Favourites if I’d got this rewatch in a couple of years ago.

Truth be told, I only watched the first 15 minutes of Power Rangers (then my NOW TV subscription ended and it cut me off), so I probably shouldn’t count it… but I would’ve found another way to finish it if those 15 minutes hadn’t been utterly terrible, so I say it still counts because I’d clearly seen enough.

This was the first time I’d watched Hook since childhood and, a few moments and images aside, I barely remembered it at all. It has things going for it (the sets are incredible and many of the special effects are fantastic), but it’s definitely the worst Spielberg movie I’ve seen (1941 still awaits…)


A big year for the MCU kicks off: I’ll be reviewing Iron Fist, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 comes to the big screen (over here, at least).

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.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

aka Innocence / Kôkaku Kidôtai Inosensu

2017 #44
Mamoru Oshii | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Nine years after he made the highly influential sci-fi action/philosophy mash-up anime Ghost in the Shell, writer-director Mamoru Oshii returned to that world to tell an original story (the first film having been an adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga) that once again butts action up against philosophising, though with diminishing returns.

Set a couple of years on from the original movie, it follows the first film’s sidekick, Batou (originally voiced by Akio Ôtsuka, and in the English version by the dub’s co-writer and director, Richard Epcar), as he investigates a series of murder-suicides committed by sex robots. It’s just the tip of an iceberg that leads to… some kind of conspiracy.

At the time of its release Innocence gained a lot of praise, as is plastered all over the DVD and Blu-ray covers (at least over here), with some hailing it as a more artistically accomplished film than its predecessor. With time I think that reaction has cooled considerably, and rightfully so. If there’s one criticism to be levelled at the first movie it’s that it sometimes stops dead for characters to have a thoughtful discussion about the existential quandaries that underpins their cyborg existence. Innocence ramps this up to the nth degree, with even more such chats that go on even longer, liberally peppered with quotations from other sources, an idea Oshii cribbed from Jean-Luc Godard. It feels like it.

Ain't she a doll?

While the first film clearly pondered what it means to be human, and where the line might be between an artificial creation and sentience, I can’t really recall what Innocence was driving at. Possibly several things. Possibly too many things. A lengthy sequence in the middle where our heroes find themselves repeating the same events over and over with slight variations is probably meant to be About something, but it just left me thinking of cheap referential jokes (“Locus Solus, I’ve come to bargain!”)

There are action scenes too, some of which are decent and some of which are hysterically overblown. There’s nothing that approaches being as iconic as any of the original’s multiple memorable set pieces. Where the first film broke new ground by combining traditional cel animation with computer-generated 3D, in a way that still holds up today, Innocence takes it too far, and looks dated because of it. The characters are always 2D, but often placed in CG environments, which are now 13 years old and feel it. It’s weird to think this is a film that was once hailed for its visual majesty, because a lot of it feels quite drab now. At times there’s an awful lot of brown.

Computer-generated brown

On its original release Innocence was called simply that, the Ghost in the Shell 2 prefix added to help sell it in international markets. Oshii’s view was that the film stood on its own and wasn’t your standard “Hollywood-style” sequel. I disagree. For one thing, the film makes many references to the events of the first movie, meaning a working knowledge is required to understand what’s going on at times. For another… well, with technical advancements that aren’t necessarily beneficial, grander but less memorable action sequences, and less coherent thematic underpinnings, it’s clear that Hollywood doesn’t have the monopoly on sequel-y sequels.

3 out of 5

The live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell is released in the UK today and the US tomorrow.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #36

It’s found its voice…
now it needs a body.

Original Title: Kôkaku Kidôtai
Also Known As: Mobile Armored Riot Police: Ghost in the Shell (Japan)

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 83 minutes
BBFC: 15

Original Release: 18th November 1995 (Japan)
UK Release: 8th December 1995
First Seen: DVD, 2000

Stars
Atsuko Tanaka (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Bayonetta: Bloody Fate)
Akio Ôtsuka (Black Jack, Paprika)
Kôichi Yamadera (Ninja Scroll, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie)
Yutaka Nakano (Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence)
Tamio Ôki (Journey to Agartha, Wolf Children)

Director
Mamoru Oshii (Patlabor: The Movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence)

Screenwriter
Kazunori Itō (Patlabor: The Movie, .hack//SIGN)

Based on
The Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊 Kōkaku Kidōtai, literally Mobile Armoured Riot Police), a manga by Masamune Shirow.

The Story
Japan, 2029: Public Security officer Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team are assigned to track down and capture a dangerous hacker known as the Puppet Master, but they soon find themselves embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy…

Our Hero
In a future world where humans can undergo varying degrees of cyberisation, Major Motoko Kusanagi is a “full-body prosthesis augmented-cybernetic human” — only her brain is organic. Her body is a generic mass production model, so she can blend in while being a kick-ass law enforcement officer.

Our Villain
The Puppet Master, a cyber criminal who hacks into people’s brains and gives them false memories. But is there something even worse going on behind the hacker?

Best Supporting Character
Kusanagi’s second-in-command Batou is stoic to the point of brusqueness — apparently quite a different characterisation to his portrayal in other Ghost in the Shell media.

Memorable Quote
“If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: overspecialise, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.” — Major Kusanagi

Memorable Scene
Pursuing the Puppet Master, Kusanagi comes face to face with a six-legged tank. After a blazing gun battle, she tries to physically rip it open, her cybernetic body straining to breaking point — and beyond…

Technical Wizardry
Ghost in the Shell was groundbreaking in its skilful combination of traditional 2D animation with CGI additions. It used a process called “digitally generated animation” (DGA), which combined cel animation with computer graphics to create lens effects that simulated depth, motion, and unusual lightning techniques, as well as mixing in 3D CGI and digital audio.

Letting the Side Down
In 2008, Oshii revisited the film to create Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which regraded the colour, replaced some of the original animation with new CGI, omitted several scenes, and featured a remixed and re-recorded soundtrack. (More details here.) As is almost always the case when directors fiddle with their creations decades later, it wasn’t well received by fans.

Next time…
As befalls many a popular anime franchise, Ghost in the Shell has spawned a raft of sequels and reboots. The only direct sequel, Innocence, was released in 2004. TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex ran for two seasons between 2002 and 2005, with the first run compiled into movie The Laughing Man and the second into Individual Eleven, all of which were followed by a final film, Solid State Society. Another reboot came in 2013 with direct-to-video series Ghost in the Shell: Arise, which so far totals five episodes and, last year, continuation film Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie. (Only four episodes have so far been released in the West, but the movie — which continues the story from the fifth episode — came out on Monday in the UK. Just to make things more complicated.) A live-action American remake is currently shooting for release in March 2017 — you’ve probably heard about it.

Awards
5 Annie Awards nominations (Animated Feature, Directing, Producing, Writing, Production Design)

What the Critics Said
“When Akira first blasted out of Japan back in 1991 it looked like the Western concept of widescreen animation would be changed forever. […] Unfortunately, it was not to be. Sure, on video, the Manga scene has gone from strength to strength, but as far as theatrical releases are concerned, nothing has really come along to match Akira’s sheer retina-scalding magnificence. Until now. […] From its baddie-eviscerating opening sequence through innumerable car chases, shoot outs and tongue-in-cheek dialogue exchanges, this is exactly the kind of film that James Cameron would make if they ever let him through the Disney front gates.” — Clark Collis, Empire

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“both the film and Oshii have fallen into a kind of disrepute among the anime community. The common line on GITS is that it’s wordy, masturbatory, and pretentious with nothing going on intellectually and that the (plainly inferior but more easily accessible) GITS: SAC is a better alternative. I wanted to write this article to respond to that notion. GITS is a highly thoughtful film and worthy of comparison to virtually any scifi feature you could name. ” — tamerlane, too long for twitlonger

Verdict

Ghost in the Shell was the first anime I consciously saw, which maybe helps it earn a place here. It’s an initially accessible movie that’s also very complicated — there are pulse-pounding action scenes and a thriller storyline to keep things exciting, but also a lot of deep philosophical discussions, touching on themes of gender and identity. I think for some viewers the latter are a negative, while for others they’re the entire point. (I imagine the forthcoming Hollywood remake will either ditch or seriously curtail them, but you never know.) The combination makes for a stimulating (in multiple senses) sci-fi actioner.

Next… who ya gonna call? #37 !