Ghost in the Shell (2017)

For F*** Magazine

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

Director : Rupert Sanders
Cast : Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Peter Ferdinando
Genre : Sci-fi/Action
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : PG-13

“Oh boy.”

That’s the common reaction when the live-action Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is mentioned. There’s a cybernetically-enhanced elephant in the room, (it’s got retractable metal tusks) but we’ll get to that later.

It is the future, and robot technology has become commonplace, many humans augmenting themselves with cybernetic implants. Hanka Robotics has gone a big step further, implanting a human mind into a fully synthetic robot body. The result is Major Mira Killian (Johansson), whose creation was overseen by Dr. Ouélet (Binoche). The Major works for the Section 9 task force, under the command of Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Kitano). Alongside her colleagues Batou (Asbæk) and Togusa (Chin Han), the Major must hunt down a shadowy villain named Kuze (Pitt), who has been remotely hacking Hanka’s products, making various robots turn on their owners. At the same time, the Major is haunted by visions of a burning pagoda, and seeks to piece together the mystery of her former, human existence.

The elephant is on its way – hear that synth-tinged trumpeting? First, some background: Ghost in the Shell is based on Masamune Shirow’s manga, first published in 1989. The manga was adapted into an anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii in 1995, and has since spawned other films, anime television series and video games. Ghost in the Shell rode the cyberpunk wave of the 90s, and has proven to be a deeply influential work. It was one of the main inspirations for The Matrix – the Wachowski siblings reportedly screened the 1995 film for producer Joel Silver, saying “we want to do that, but for real”.

One of the myriad issues with this adaptation is that it’s late to its own party. Filmgoers have seen similar futuristic cityscapes and high-tech prosthetics in other sci-fi films. It’s akin to how John Carter arrived around 100 years after its source material was written, with Star Wars and Avatar among others having become popular in the intervening years. There are plenty of eye-catching visuals in this take on Ghost in the Shell, but one gets the sense that director Rupert Sanders is dutifully duplicating the imagery from Oshii’s anime film, divorcing those images of their intended impact.

And now, the elephant. The protagonist was originally named Major Motoko Kusanagi, and the casting of Johansson led to widespread outrage, making ‘whitewashing’ a household phrase – even though it’s something Hollywood has done for years. Here is an action heroine in a big-budget movie, a role that could’ve and should’ve been played by an Asian actress, but a white actress was cast instead for box office appeal. Some make the argument that Motoko has no assigned race, as she is an android, and that ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ is a pseudonym. By this logic, an Asian actress still could have played the part. If this were a movie about Catherine the Great, Boudicca or Joan of Arc, retaining the original historical context, that wouldn’t have been possible.

“Maybe it’s much ado about nothing,” this reviewer told himself, taking his seat during the screening. “Maybe it’ll be so much fun I won’t notice. Maybe it’s a non-issue”. It’s not. It’s a non-non-issue. It’s an issue. Because so much emphasis is placed on the Major unearthing her past and coming to terms with the life she had before her brain was plopped into a robot shell, questions of identity fuel the plot. Like it or not, race is a part of one’s identity – not the sole part, mind you, but depending on the person, a key one. Without giving too much away, the big plot twist carries with it some ghastly implications where race is concerned.

To be fair to Johansson, her casting makes sense on some levels. She has considerable action heroine cred from playing Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has been in sci-fi films like The Island and Lucy, and played an artificial intelligence construct in Her. While Johansson handles the fights well and gets to show off her toned physique in a skin-tight bodysuit, the Major is mostly confused rather than confident. While some episodes of Stand Alone Complex have hinted at it, Motoko’s back-story in the original Ghost in the Shell is not a driving force of the plot. By making the rediscovery of her past the Major’s primary motivation, screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger have reduced the character to ‘Jason Bourne as the Terminator’.

Noted Japanese actor-director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano makes what is only his second appearance in a Hollywood film, after 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic. All his dialogue is in Japanese, he gets to retain his dignity and has a few moments of badassery. Asbæk is not as physically imposing as most fans would expect Batou to be, but he’s fine. Pitt’s role is minimal, his character being something of a composite of Kuze from Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig and the Puppet Master from the original manga run and the 1995 film. While there’s an attempt to make him sympathetic even as he carries out ruthless acts, we don’t get to know enough about the character to feel for him.

While not to the extent of 2014’s Godzilla, Ghost in the Shell is yet another Hollywood tentpole movie that wastes Binoche’s considerable talents as an actress. The character of Dr. Ouélet is comparable to Gary Oldman’s Dennett Norton in the RoboCop remake. A lot of this film reminded us of the RoboCop remake, only that was more fun. We also have Chin Han sporting a hairstyle that’s even more awkward than the one he had in Masters of the Sea. We did not know such a thing could be possible.

It may sound pretentious to scoff at a movie for “dumbing things down” for American audiences, but it’s hard to argue that this isn’t what Ghost in the Shell is doing. The source material’s heady themes of transcendence and the nature of consciousness are largely unmined, and the unfettered sexuality is neutered. Ah well, maybe there actually was an Asian actress in a co-lead role, but she was just cloaked in thermo-optic camouflage.

Summary: While it showcases familiar key visuals, Ghost in the Shell retrofits a Hollywood sci-fi action plot onto sophisticated source material. The negative buzz about casting a white actress as the protagonist is also fully warranted.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The 33

For F*** Magazine

THE 33

Director : Patricia Riggen
Cast : Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Jacob Vargas, Juan Pablo Raba, Coté de Pablo, Juliette Binoche, Rodrigo Santoro, Gabriel Byrne, Bob Gunton
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 19 November 2015
Rating : PG (Some Violence)
From the Atacama Desert in Chile comes the true story of courage and perseverance under pressure and underground. On Thursday, 5 August 2010, a major cave-in at the San José copper–gold mine traps a group of 33 miners 23 000 feet under the surface. The group is led by Mario “Super Mario” Sepúlveda (Banderas) and shift leader Luis “Don Lucho” Urzúa (Phillips). Among the 33 is Álex Vega (Casas), whose wife Jessica (de Pablo) is pregnant with their first child, and the troubled Darío Segovia (Raba), who is on poor terms with his empanada vendor sister María (Binoche). As the loved ones of the stranded miners grow restless with no news on the well-being of the 33, Minster of Mining Laurence Golborne (Santoro) coordinates the rescue efforts, collaborating with chief engineer André Sougarret (Byrne). As the nation of Chile and the world at large rallies around “Los 33”, rescuing the miners becomes a priority for the Chilean government, headed by President Sebastián Piñera (Gunton). In the face of insurmountable odds, faith and blue collar spirit must win the day.

            The 33 is based on the book Deep Down Dark, journalist Héctor Tobar’s account of the 2010 Copiapó mining accident. The film is in the English language and is clearly gunning for mass appeal, couched as an inspirational tearjerker that is a celebration of the “triumph of the human spirit” and all that good stuff. It may seem cold of us to be this cynical, but nearly every move The 33 makes seems right in line with established disaster/survival story formulas. Also, the ordeal was so well-documented that practically everyone who goes to see the film would already know the outcome, and the process leading to said outcome as depicted here is rather tedious. Structurally, The 33 is primarily comprised of a “three steps forward, two steps back” dance of some progress being made, only for the rescuers and/or miners to run into a setback before breaking through again. It gets repetitive rather than riveting the longer it goes on.

            Director Patricia Riggen does make some solid stylistic choices, and even though the 33 miners are cooped up in a small refuge underground, the story does have sufficient scope to it. The scene of the initial collapse is frightening and harrowing and the production values can’t be faulted, with the environment coming across as suitably foreboding. In a bid for added realism, actual news footage is spliced in and Chilean TV present Mario Luis Kreutzberger Blumenfeld, better known as “Don Francisco”, plays himself. The miners’ Catholic faith and how their belief played a key role in sustaining them is also showcased.

            There is a scene in which the exhausted, starving miners fantasise about their loved ones bringing them the favourite foods they have so craved. It is corny and a little silly, but it possesses a combination of warmth, levity and sad longing that lifts the film above the standard tropes it presents us with up till that point. This reviewer found that to be the movie’s single most memorable moment.

            Every time a film based on a true story is made, there must be a bit of a dilemma with regards to casting. While a marquee name draws the crowds, thus drawing attention to the film, this might also pull the viewer out of the story. Banderas does bring plenty of star quality to bear as the charismatic and earnest “fearless leader”, though his performance is a touch theatrical at times. Phillips is something of an underrated actor and he’s excellent here as the second-in-command. Naturally, 33 characters is too many for each to be meaningfully developed, so the fact that most of the miners blend together can’t be held against the film.



            The casting of actors of different nationalities and ethnicities from the real-life figures they’re portraying achieves varying degrees of success. Binoche is commendably convincing, but Gunton’s accent slips a whole lot. Santoro is well cast as the slick Minster of Mining, because we’re conditioned to expect that a handsome government guy in a suit won’t actually get anything done. The interplay between Golborne and head engineer Sougarret is sometimes more interesting than the interaction among the miners themselves.

            There’s a scene around the middle of the film when de Pablo (who is actually from Chile), sitting with others around a fire at the base camp, tearfully sings a ballad expressing how she years for her husband to be returned to her side. That’s only one of many melodramatic moments in The 33. Sure, there are parts that manage to be genuinely moving, but it’s all pretty obviously engineered. Engineered entertainment value is a whole different ball game from engineered pathos. One gets the feeling that this story would be better served by a documentary featuring interviews with the real-life miners, their family members and the engineers and officials who orchestrated the rescue interspersed with re-enactments, as opposed to a generic survival drama movie.



Summary:The true story of the 33 Chilean miners is inspiring, but this film is a rather rote affair that is occasionally lifted by good performances and strong production values.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong  

Godzilla (2014)

For F*** Magazine

GODZILLA

Director : Gareth Edwards
Cast : Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn
Genre : Action, Sci-fi
Opens: : 15 May 2014
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)

It has been ten years since Godzilla: Final Wars, and the King of Monsters has returned to reclaim his rubble-built throne in this film. Lt. Ford Brody (Taylor-Johnson) is an explosive ordnance disposal technician, who has a young son (Carlson Bode) with his wife, nurse Elle (Olsen). As a child, Ford lived in Japan, where his parents Joe (Cranston) and Sandy (Binoche) were supervisors at a nuclear power plant. A catastrophic incident in which the power plant was attacked by a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, or MUTO, still haunts Ford. 15 years later, the MUTO has re-emerged and as the military scrambles to fight it, scientist Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Watanabe) believes only one thing can truly stop it: the powerful ancient creature known as Godzilla – but not without causing its share of damage.

The release of this Godzilla film marks Big G’s 60th anniversary; the creature has appeared in a staggering 30 official films (including this one) since 1954. The original film was a serious-minded one but over time, it’s become harder and harder to take the creation seriously, the iconic kaiju sometimes regarded as camp and mostly viewed as a friendly mascot (look for “Godzilla happy dance” on YouTube). Director Gareth Edwards, who became an overnight sensation with his micro-budget creature feature Monsters in 2010, has delivered an incarnation of the monster that can indeed be taken seriously. With Godzilla, the creature’s second proper Hollywood outing, Edwards has crafted an effective disaster movie which possesses admirable scope and scale. In an age where moviegoers are difficult to impress, this is pretty darn impressive. The sheer amount of visual effects work and the number of major action set-pieces in this one film is hard to wrap one’s head around and yet, it’s not overwhelming or repetitive. 

We’ll be upfront about it: the plot isn’t Godzilla’s strongest point. The protagonist is little more than “the soldier” and his wife is merely “the nurse”. There are more than a handful of contrivances which repeatedly position Ford Brody in the middle of the action and he must be followed around by the same guardian angel who was looking out for Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane in World War Z, seeing how he survives multiple catastrophes with nary a scratch. Seeing the future Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as a married couple might gross some of the geekier audience members out a tad. However, there are definitely things about the narrative that work: it’s couched as a conspiracy thriller of sorts and the downright terrific opening credits are presented as a montage of Godzilla’s appearances throughout history, which the relevant authorities have tried to conceal from the public. Even though the military plays a pivotal role, Godzilla does not come off as jingoistic.
In addition to essentially being a scaled-up take on Monsters, Godzilla also takes a handful of pages from Steven Spielberg’s playbook. The late reveal of the titular monster (it’s approximately an hour in before Godzilla shows up proper) echoes Jaws, as does the surname “Brody”. The post-9/11 disaster movie feel is reminiscent of War of the Worlds. The daddy issues are present in many of Spielberg’s works. The father who grows obsessed with an outré subject is from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And of course, there’s the Jurassic Park connection, not just with the giant creatures running amok but also in scenes like a helicopter approaching a jungle. But while Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was an unsuccessful Jurassic Park rip-off, the above influences enrich Edwards’ work and do not stick out as being “stolen”. 

As of late, we’ve heard complaints of blockbusters being stuffed with too much wanton destruction, to the extent that scenes of major cities being levelled no longer carry any weight. Here, there is calamity with consequence; Edwards striking a difficult balance between the visceral thrill of seeing giant monsters punch each other and the solemnity of witnessing cities laid to waste and countless lives destroyed. Japanese fans have complained that Godzilla appears to have become the Burger King of all Monsters, having packed on the tons. Yes, Godzilla does seem a little pudgier here, but his presence is no less awe-inspiring and in spite of the extra weight and relatively small head, nothing seems very “off” about his look here. The character animation on Godzilla and his MUTO opponents is excellent; the creatures end up being great “actors” thanks to the emotion the visual effects artists imbue their facial expressions with. There’s also just enough of a nod in their movements to the heyday of men in rubber suits shoving each other about a model city without coming off as silly.  

Despite the cast not being the main draw, nobody in Godzilla is terrible. Taylor-Johnson borders on wooden but still brings a humanity to Brody, though at 23, he does seem a little young to be the father of a five-year-old. We do wish Elizabeth Olsen had more to do; she isn’t in the thick of the action for most of the film. Bryan Cranston is good as the troubled, slightly manic dad, though he isn’t in the film as much as the trailers would lead you to believe, playing more of a supporting role. Ken Watanabe is perfectly respectable, but he does constantly look worried/constipated. Sally Hawkins, in her first big-budget blockbuster, doesn’t have much to do either as his assistant. David Strathairn is the standard military type here but thankfully, isn’t characterized as ridiculously hard-nosed.
While the “human element” might be lacking somewhat, there is more than enough in Godzilla to get emotionally invested in and thanks to Edwards’ vision, this does stand above the loud, noisy blockbuster pack. The high-altitude low-opening parachute jump scene towards the film’s climax is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, a moment of calm in the midst of the storm. For the most part though, the 3D effects are not sufficiently noticeable. The spectacle is massive but not numbing and the film takes itself just seriously enough without being droll and depressing. It is respectful of the original 1954 film while offering enough to make modern jaded audiences sit up and take notice. And as an added bonus, at no point does Matthew Broderick remark “that’s a lot of fish”. 

Summary: While there isn’t as much to the human characters as there could’ve been, Gareth Edwards serves up a spectacular royal rumble fit for the king. 
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong