Ghost in the Shell (2017)


Scarlett Johansson in her skinsuit; adolescent boys of the world, you’re welcome.

(2017) Science Fiction (DreamWorks/Paramount) Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Ashbæk, Juliette Binoche, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Michael Carmen Pitt, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Lasarus Ratuere, Yutaka Izumihara, Tawanda Manyimo, Peter Ferdinando, Anamaria Marinca, Daniel Henshall, Mana Davis, Erroll Anderson, Kai Fung Rieck, Andrew Stehlin, Matthias Luafutu, Kaori Momoi. Directed by Rupert Sanders

 

Technology is a part of our everyday lives. For the most part, it makes our lives easier although in many cases it complicates things. Biomedical advances have allowed people who would ordinarily have been disabled or worse to live full productive lives. As technology integrates itself more and more into our lives and even into our own bodies, at some point we must re-examine what it means to be human.

Mira Killian (Johansson) wakes up in the hospital with little memory of how she got there. Her physician, Dr. Ouelet (Binoche) informs her that she was the victim of a terrorist attack; her body was so torn up that her mind, spirit and personality have all been transferred into the body of an android. She will be stronger, faster, more powerful – and able to fight terrorists the way most humans could not.

A year later she is better known as Major (for her rank) and she and her partner Batou (Ashbæk) work for Section 9, a shadowy elite government strike force that takes on terrorists. A specific terrorist known as Kuze (Pitt) has been targeting scientists and executives of the Hanka Robotics Corporation, the conglomerate who happens to employ Dr. Ouelet and who were responsible for saving Major’s life.

Kuze seems to know more about Major’s past than the Major herself and the deeper Major looks into the CEO of Hanka, a smarmy man named Cutter (Ferdinando) to whom the head of Section 9, the honorable and imperturbable Aramaki (Kitano) seems to report, the more suspicious she gets of his motives. She begins to realize that she is in a nightmare from which there is no waking – and she might just be fighting for the wrong side.

Based on a 1995 anime (which was in turn based on a popular Japanese manga), Sanders has done a fine job in bringing that anime to the live action scene. Often the shots are literally perfect reproductions of the anime. The cityscape is absolutely breath-taking and while the overhead flyover shots get a little dizzying after awhile, the CGI background never lets the audience down.

Neither does Johansson. Already a fan favorite due to her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she has become one of the biggest stars in the world and this role is really perfect for her abilities. She exudes both grace and strength as well as intelligence and sensuality; it’s no wonder that a lot of fanboy types consider Johansson the most desirable woman in Hollywood. In some ways Major is one of the most complex roles she’s taken on; there is a machine-like coldness to her but at the same time she is tormented by tantalizing glimpses of her past. She is relentless looking in directions her employers don’t want her to explore, and when push comes to shove is willing to risk anything to find out the truth about herself and about Hanka.

Kitano, one of the most revered action stars in Japan who while little known to the general public in the United States is nonetheless held in high regard by those buffs of Asian action movies, shows us why he is the source of such affection. I am always a little leery of using the adjective “inscrutable” in connection with Asian actors but that word best defines his performance here. Partially paralyzed in the face due to a scooter accident 20 years ago, his expression is generally unreadable and when he explodes into action during a glorious sequence there is little warning. It is one of the most satisfying sequences in the movie.

There are a few problems here though. The plot is pretty convoluted and following it isn’t always easy. I get the sense that Sanders and the writing team were trying to make a film that was visually overwhelming (which it is), chock full of exciting action sequences (which it is for the most part) and also thought-provoking (which it is in places). While it is possible to be all of those things at once, it is a very difficult balancing act and Ghost in the Shell doesn’t quite achieve it and as I recall, neither did the original anime although it came closer than this.

Brilliant in some stretches, flawed in others, the film lacks consistency which makes it hard to appreciate those sequences that do work well – and there are more than a few of them. The sensory overload of the cityscape may be troubling to those who are easily overwhelmed but to those who appreciate the detail in the crafting of the futuristic landscape it will be an absolute dream come true. The detail in those backgrounds is truly astonishing but they’ll disappear in the wink of an eye. Never has a movie that looked like it belonged on a theater screen ever needed the benefit of a remote control so that viewers could pause the film just to take in the details. If only there could have been a little been more conciseness in the screenplay; this could have been the first peg in a tentpole franchise but sadly, the box office numbers don’t really support one.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects and action sequences are dazzling. Johansson is a natural action heroine.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit muddled. The film tries too hard to be all things to all people.
FAMILY VALUES: There is frequent violence, some disturbing images and a few moments of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The city depicted in the film, although not mentioned by name, is based on Hong Kong although with heavy digital additions.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I, Robot
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: David Brent: Life on the Road

The Last King of Scotland


The Last King of Scotland

Forest Whitaker points the direction his career is going after his performance here.

(2006) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Forrest Whitaker, James McEvoy, Gillian Anderson, Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney, Adam Kotz, David Oyelowo, Abby Mukiibi, David Ashton, Barbara Rafferty.  Directed by Kevin McDonald

Most of us are possessed of two faces; the one that we show to the world, and the one that is our true self. Sometimes these faces are very different indeed, and often those are the people who cause the world the most evil.

Nicholas Garrigan (McEvoy) has just graduated from medical school in his native Scotland, but he is in far from a celebratory mood. His overbearing father (Ashton), also a physician, treats his son like he had just won second place in a mediocrity competition and so Garrigan resolves to go anywhere – anywhere! – as long as it is far away from Dad. Therefore he decides to randomly spin his globe and wherever his finger lands, that’s where he’ll go. So he gives the globe a whirl and his finger comes down on…Canada. No good. You see, Nicholas in addition to wanting to get away from Dear Old Dad is also looking for a wee bit of grand adventure, so he spins a second time and this time his finger comes to rest on Uganda. Phew! Much better!

It is the early ’70s and as Garrigan arrives in Uganda to begin work at a remote medical mission in Uganda’s interior, General Idi Amin (Whitaker) has just seized power. This is met with much celebration from the people of that country, who see Amin as a simple man of the people who will restore Uganda to the people of that nation after years of corruption and economic ruin by the greedy parasites who had been running that country.

Garrigan isn’t really interested in politics, and to tell the truth, he isn’t all that interested in medicine either, although he does a fair job assisting the lone doc at the mission, a man named Merrit (Kotz). However, he is interested in bedding the good doctor’s comely wife Sarah (Anderson) who is appalled, but not uninterested herself. When Amin visits the village where the mission is, Garrigan goes to see his speech on a lark, and bullies Sarah into coming with him. On the way back, Garrigan and Sarah are pulled over by soldiers who order the doctor to see to the new president who’s been in a car accident.

The two Britons arrive on the scene to find a bit of surreality. A cow had wandered out into the row and had been hit by the president’s car, which was pretty much a wreck. The cow, in horrible pain, is bleating horribly in agony. Amin is screaming at everyone around him, soldiers are threatening the local farmers with machine guns and Amin’s arm is sprained. Garrigan treats the new president but is distracted by the death agonies of the wretched animal. Unable to make any of the soldiers understand his demands to put the animal out of its misery, he picks up the general’s gun and shoots it dead himself, not a smart move in front of a group of heavily armed soldiers guarding their recently injured leader. Things get tense for a few moments, but the revelation that Garrigan is in fact Scottish puts Amin in a great mood. The leader trades his general’s shirt for a t-shirt with Scotland emblazoned on it that Garrigan is wearing.

A little while later, Amin summons Garrigan to the presidential palace and makes him the extraordinary offer to be his personal physician. Even though Garrigan is desperately needed at the mission, he figures it would be quite fun to be in the inner circle of a world leader, so he accepts.

At first, life is great. Garrigan is treated as a member of Amin’s inner circle and given gifts and showered with all the luxury available in Uganda. Still, things aren’t perfect. Terrorist attacks from the president Amin ousted have come close to succeeding in killing Amin, and he is growing increasingly more paranoid. Then, there’s the matter of Amin’s son McKenzie by his youngest wife Kay (Washington) who has epilepsy; treatable, but his father hides the boy away, fearful that he will be considered weak if his children are not perfect. To make matters worse, the lovely Kay has caught Garrigan’s eye.

Amin is growing increasingly unstable, but Garrigan refuses to see it despite the warnings from the former physician to the president Dr. Junju (Oyelowo) who is now working in a modern hospital in the capital where Garrigan works from time to time. There is also a mysterious English diplomat named Stone (McBurney) who seems to know a whole lot more than he lets on and is eager to utilize the resource of having someone of his country so close to the unpredictable Amin.

At last the evidence becomes so overwhelming that even Garrigan can’t refute it. Disappearances are rampant and bodies are so commonplace that Amin’s lackeys don’t even bother to bury them anymore – they just throw them in the river so that the crocodiles will dispose of them. To top it off, the not-so-bright doc has been bedding Kay, which is sure not to sit well with the increasingly unstable Amin, and the only worse thing than cheesing off a violent African dictator is cheesing off an insane violent African dictator. Getting out of the country is difficult; Amin, who is unaware of the affair, doesn’t want Garrigan to leave. Things are getting out of hand, but a hijacked airplane arriving at Entebbe airport may provide the opportunity Garrigan needs.

This movie begins and ends with Whitaker’s extraordinary performance as Amin. At once charismatic and sinister, Whitaker shows Amin to be both teddy bear and maniacal monster. This is an Oscar-worthy performance (he won the award for Best Actor that year), and all the raves that he received in the press are richly deserved. It’s fair to say that the main reason to seek out this movie is to watch Whitaker’s performance in it.

In some ways, the movie is also cursed. Whitaker is so good that none of the other actors, particularly McEvoy, can hold a candle to him and so you wind up wishing for more Amin and less Garrigan. The fictional character of Garrigan, to the credit of novelist Giles Foden, is not always the most moral or strongest character in the story. He is extremely flawed, and his flaws get him into trouble. The problem is that it wouldn’t take much to get someone in trouble in Idi Amin’s Uganda.

The trouble I have with The Last King of Scotland is its inherent schizophrenia. On the one hand, its a drama about Amin’s disintegration into paranoid madness as witnessed by one of his “inner circle,” and that story is compelling enough. Unfortunately, the last quarter of the movie turns into a by-the-numbers thriller as Garrigan tries to make his way out of Africa. The two movies mix like oil and vinegar, and I found myself losing interest as the movie wore on.

That’s not to say this isn’t a worthwhile investment of your time. McDonald, best known for his Oscar-winning 1999 documentary One Day in September about the Black September raid on the Munich Olympic games of 1972, evokes the Uganda of the early ’70s, from the abject poverty of the rural areas to the luster of the Presidential palace. There are some extraordinary moments, as when Amin has a chorus of African singers render their own interpretation of “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond” while the dictator watches impassively in full kilt.

Ultimately, I can recommend the movie strongly, mainly for the incendiary performance of Forrest Whitaker, although I have a few reservations about the movie overall. I think if it had stuck to the first personality of Amin, the movie would have been better served.

WHY RENT THIS: Whitaker’s Oscar-winning performance as Amin is one of the best acting performances of the 21st century so far; you will rarely see one any better than this.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The schizophrenic nature of the storytelling; Garrigan’s escape from Uganda story that takes up the final reel is less interesting than Amin’s story.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the violence is rather gruesome and there are plenty of disturbing images. The language can be foul and the sexuality intense.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first Western film production to film in Uganda since 1990 (Mississippi Masala); the black Mercedes limousine used in the movie as the presidential limo was the one that Amin actually used.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a terrific featurette, “Capturing Idi Amin,” which blends in historical footage as well as footage from the movie in discussing Amin’s influence on the region.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $48.4M on a $6M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sucker Punch

Right at Your Door


Mary McCormack just got in on the redeye.

Mary McCormack just got in on the redeye.

(Roadside Attractions) Mary McCormack, Rory Cochrane, Tony Perez, Scotty Noyd Jr., Max Kasch, Jon Huertas, Will McCormack. Directed by Chris Gorak.

When the chips are down, how will we respond? Will we take heroic measures to save our loved ones from harm, or will we save ourselves first?

Brad (Cochrane) and Lexi (McCormack) have moved in to a new home near downtown L.A. She works in an office, and he is a musician, so his hours are far more irregular. Still, he’s a good husband, preparing her coffee for her before she must get up to go to work and taking care of affairs for the couple while she is busy on the job.

It’s a morning like any other; traffic is bad as always but the smog’s not too bad, even if it promises to be a warm summer day. Lexi takes off for work, promising to use side streets after reports of badly backed up traffic on the freeways. Then things take a left turn.

Reports of explosions throughout the city cause mass confusion. Brad can’t get in contact with his wife, who was in the area of the first explosions and he is frantic. He decides to go and get her, or at least find out what happened. This proves to be impossible, however, as the police are blocking access to main streets leading to the downtown area in order to facilitate emergency vehicles.

Still, the reports get worse. It turns out that these explosions weren’t just ordinary bombs; they were dirty bombs, loaded with a lethal toxin that is being carried on the ash. Brad makes it to a hardware store where he buys duct tape and other material to seal his house. He then returns home to wait for his wife but not before encountering Timmy (Noyd), a small boy whose mother hadn’t picked him up from school. Brad urges Timmy to run home as fast as he can, then continues to his own home.

As he frantically listens to the news awaiting any information, there’s a knock on his door. It’s Alvaro (Perez), the neighbor’s handyman. He is a long way from his home and there’s no way he’d get there in time before the ash overcame him. He asks for shelter in Brad’s home. Brad is at first reluctant, but then agrees.

Time passes and still no word from Lexi. Her mother calls and Brad assures her that they are both fine and riding things out at home. When she demands to speak to Lexi directly, he hangs up on her, unsure what to do and helpless to act. Alvaro is urgently badgering Brad to seal up the house, promising him that Lexi has probably taken shelter somewhere already. The ash cloud is getting closer and closer. Hammered by Alvaro’s urgings and his mind numbed by panic, Brad and his guest use sheets of plastic and the duct tape to seal up the house as best they can. He waits as long as he possibly can until, with the ash falling outside, he seals the front door.

The next day, there is a frantic knock at the door. It is Lexi, who has come on foot from downtown after her car was damaged in the blasts. She herself is all right, but she is coughing violently. She wants in. She is obviously infected, terrified and in need of comfort. Does Brad let her in and risk exposure, or does he keep himself quarantined and safe?

Director Gorak crafts a nice, taut drama that puts his characters in an unimaginable situation. To his credit, he doesn’t make Brad particularly heroic. Certainly he loves his wife and his worry for her is genuine. Given a choice to save his own life and hers, he makes a choice that might make some take pause, but seems to be pretty authentic to my eye.

The situation certainly seems realistic. The information that Brad receives is piecemeal and often wrong. Rumor and innuendo are valid sources of information in the world where the news is often confusing and nonsensical. He has to make decisions based on often-faulty or untrustworthy information. He relies on Alvaro who while seemingly calm is just masking an inner hysteria which is close to coming to the surface.

Nobody really goes into a full-on meltdown. There really isn’t any time for it. The panic shows in the irrational decisions, the eagerness to believe what they want to believe despite having no basis for it. Having been through a natural disaster, I can tell you that much of what Gorak is describing here is absolutely dead on. Remembering how official agencies and the media reacted in the wake of 9-11, it’s easy to see how misinformation would be spread by agencies eager to report any news at all, even if it can’t be verified.

This is certainly a study in human nature rather than an examination of how official agencies react in crisis. Our tendency is to do what is most beneficial to us at the expense of others even in the best of times, and crises tend to amplify our basic behaviors. The acting here is solid and authentic-feeling; nothing rings false. There is also a nice but unexpected ending, the nature of which I won’t reveal here.

This is not a spectacle in the least. The disaster is reported in an almost matter-of-fact matter and for the most part is described rather than actually seen. The fall of ash is eerie and snow-like, unsettling more because we know what the ash is carrying. We associate big special effects with most disaster movies and in a way, this is a disaster movie but this is entirely low-key. The special effects occur almost completely in our imaginations, where the budget is unlimited.

I liked this movie while I was watching it, but I liked it even more when it was done and the longer time has passed since I’ve seen it, the more I like it. To me, that’s the mark of a good motion picture, when the movie gets better as you think about it more. You may not find spectacle, but you’ll find insight and authenticity. Perhaps that’s what makes this all the more frightening; the unseen generally is the most terrifying thing of all.

WHY RENT THIS: An authentic look at human nature in a severe crisis. The filmmakers rely on the description of events rather than on special effects to make this more taut and effective.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some people may want something more spectacular than this in a disaster movie.

FAMILY VALUES: The situation is fairly adult and there is a child placed in harm’s way. The depiction of the toxin taking effect is scary, and the description of the explosions and their aftermath may be too graphic for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Filming took place in the Silver Lake districte of Los Angeles.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cache