Ghost in the Shell (2017)

I feel like I was uniquely qualified to enjoy watching the live action Ghost in the Shell, a hunch that paid off nicely. First, I watched the movie weeks after its fiercely negative hype had already died down. I also caught a free screening, which eased a lot of its potential moral dilemma in regards to its white-washed casting. Then there’s the fact that I have no personal attachment to its source material, having never read the original manga or seen the anime film that followed in the 90s. I went into Ghost in the Shell expecting nothing more than Blade Runner-runoff eye candy and a deliriously vapid sci-fi action plot. The movie did not disappoint on either front. It’s an intensely beautiful, intellectually empty spectacle overloaded with laughably stilted dialogue and nonsensical plot machinations. I would never hold it against anyone who takes offense with how the movie functions as an adaptation or how it handles the casting of its front & center protagonist, but divorced from that context and considered solely as a trashy sci-fi themed shoot-em-up, it’s a deeply silly, surprisingly entertaining film.

In two upfront information dumps, one provided by onscreen text and one delivered by a slumming-it Juliette Binoche, we’re explained to be living in a dystopian techno-future where the cutting edge of robotics is bio-enhancements to the human body. Routine cosmetic surgery outfits citizens of a Future Tokyo with everything from robo-eyes to robo-livers to enhance both the practical and the recreational aspects of modern life. Scarlett Johansson’s cyborg protagonist is the next logical step in this technology: a human brain/soul (“a ghost”) implanted into a completely synthetic body (“a shell”). She’s not allowed to be her own autonomous person with this new merchandise, however. It turns out the Evil Corporation that implanted her ghost in its new shell intends to use her solely as a militarized bio weapon, erasing memories of her true past and ordering her to strike down people she might consider comrades if given freedom of choice. This inevitably leads to a dual quest to both track down her (embarrassingly ill-considered) origin story and to take down the corporate monsters who own her. And if that weren’t enough of a by-the-books superhero plot for you, she begins & ends the film perched like Batman on the edge of Tokyo rooftops, surveying the city she’s reluctantly doomed to protect.

What a city it is, though. The delicious synths, neon lights, and post-Blade Runner grime borrowed for this dystopian techno-future make for a surprisingly intense visual experience despite Ghost in the Shell‘s cookie cutter superhero plot. Billboard advertisements have evolved into kaiju-sized holograms, layering an eerie artificiality onto the city like .gifs flickering on a gigantic smartphone. The range of influences on this visual palette cover everything from the legitimately respectable (The Matrix, Advantageous, The Congress, Paprika) to the trashy media I probably shouldn’t champion as much as I do (Nerve, Tron: Legacy, Demolition Man, Johnny Mnemonic). This isn’t the first time I’ve had that reaction with director Rupert Sanders either. I remember leaving his Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White and the Huntsman thinking it hopelessly vapid, but hauntingly beautiful, like a feature-length perfume commercial. I’m not exactly sure what product Ghost in the Shell would be selling me as a 120min advertisement. Maybe those Pop Tarts with the bright blue icing or, I don’t know, light-up Reebox? Whatever it might be, I was totally on the hook to make the purchase even while recognizing to an extent just how much of a sellout dweeb with no moral compass it makes me.

The moral crisis at the center of Ghost in the Shell‘s production is the casting of ScarJo in the lead role, a character initially depicted with Asian characteristics in the original anime and manga. The live action version decided to double down on this casting choice by not only outfitting Johansson with an Asian-style haircut and making her & the few other white characters (in an otherwise diverse cast) the constant center of attention, but also by making her character a literal Asian woman trapped in a white woman’s body. If I were at all taking this film seriously, as I assume many dedicated Ghost in the Shell fans have, I could see finding that choice horrifically misguided. Instead, it plays to me as humorously clueless, just another colossal misstep in a film that’s essentially a long line of colossal missteps. Besides the racial implications of ScarJo’s casting, the film also hilariously misuses the cold, inhuman delivery that she’s employed so well in films like Lucy, Her, Under the Skin, and The Jungle Book. It might entirely be a question of quality in dialogue too. I can’t say that Johansson is doing anything especially different in Ghost in the Shell than she does in any of her other non-human roles, but something about her robotic delivery of lines like “I will find him and I will kill him. It is what I am built for, isn’t it?” that plays more like an SNL sketch than a legitimate character study. By the time a villainous Michael Pitt arrives to attempt to out-do her robo-speech, all bets are off and Ghost in the Shell plays like an oddly violent, expensive-looking comedy.

Your personal experience with this disposable sci-fi action spectacle is going to depend almost entirely on how seriously you’re willing to take it. For those expecting an intricately crafted visual feast that presents a glimpse of a haunting, technology-ridden future, Ghost in the Shell will only offer you morsel-sized scraps: creepy “geisha bots” with segmented faces, neon-lit nightclub shootouts, a sea of writhing bodies in a brief dive into a machine’s subconscious, etc. What’s a lot easier to latch onto is the humor in the movie’s overblown absurdity. Spider tanks, robo-Yoda speak, casual references to something called “The Lawless Zone,” digital cloaks, blatant ogling at ScarJo’s naked, Barbie doll-smooth body: Ghost in the Shell is teeming with ridiculous production details and screenwriting choices. Any awe I had for its visual craft was equally balanced out by my frivolous amusement with throwaway lines like, “Your shell belongs to them, but not your ghost. Your ghost is yours.” Like the Super Mario Bros. movie, this strange mess of a film is fundamentally misguided as an adaptation of its source material, but also surprisingly impressive in its attention to its intricate Blade Runner Jr. production design and charmingly dopey in its reductively simplistic superhero narrative arc. It’s a delightfully dumb source of sci-fi action entertainment as long as you don’t ask for too much intellectual stimulation from it. You’re not going to get it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Jungle Book (2016)

bear

fourstar

I’ve gone on record as not being a particularly huge fan of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies, but it seems the director might’ve learned a thing or two about how to deliver a big budget CG spectacle while helming that franchise. Favreau’s latest effort, The Jungle Book, is a “live action” remake of a Disney animation classic & marks the director’s most impressive work to date. I put “live action” in quotes because there’s really only one live action character here existing in a computer animated world, newcomer Neel Sethi as the protagonist Mowgli, which sort of positions The Jungle Book among nostalgia-inducing titles like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and, less deservedly so, Cool World. The film intentionally cultivates this nostalgic lens through certain subtle details like a decades-old yellow font for the credits that look like they were lifted straight from an ancient VHS cassette. It’s a smart decision that eases the audience into a certain level of comfort & familiarity despite the state-the-art technical prowess on display. Again, Favreau seems to know exactly what he’s doing here, as if he’s seen it all before.

The story of The Jungle Book may be familiar to many audiences by now, but I’ve personally never read its Rudyard Kipling-penned source material & it’s been a good two decades since I’ve seen the Disney original, so I honestly didn’t remember jack shit about it going in. The only detail of The Jungle Book that was clear to me when I entered the theater yesterday was the character Baloo’s personal anthem “Bear Necessities”. Indeed, the modern version of this story doesn’t truly come alive until Baloo’s personal laid back huckster philosophy enters the scene. Early depictions of the lovable scamp Mowgli interacting with various animals of the jungle (after being raised by a pack of wolves like a little badass) range from cute to terrifying to majestic, but also lack a distinct personality & emotional pallet that Baloo brings to the table. The Jungle Book is a two-fold tale of revenge (one for Mowgli & one for the wicked tiger Shere Khan) as well as a classic coming of age story about a hero finding their place in the world, but those plot machinations are somewhat insignificant in comparison to the emotional core of Baloo’s close friendship with Mowgli (which develops a little quickly here; I’d like to have seen it given a little more room to breathe). So much of that impact rests on the all-too-capable shoulders of one Bill Murray, who delivers his best performance in years here (outside maybe his collaborations with Wes Anderson).

You might think that performance wouldn’t matter so much in a film populated with CG animals, but part of what makes The Jungle Book such a technical marvel is how realistic the animal faces are while still retaining the expressive qualities of the actors who voice them. The film essentially looks like those nature-themed t-shirts you can only seem to buy at national parks & gun shows come to life, but it’s the motion capture technology that adds a whole other layer of awe to the film’s visuals. Lupita Nyong’o is very sweet as the wolf mother Rashka who tells who tells Mowgli things like “No matter where you go or what they call you, you will always be my son.” Christopher Walken is wonderfully bizarre as the mythically gigantic orangutan King Louie (I’m guessing his uncomfortable turn as Captain Hook last year was a kind of dry run?). ScarJo & Idris Elba are both effectively terrifying in their respective roles as a murderous snake & tiger (with Johansson more or less combining her parts in Her & Under the Skin on her end). None impress quite as much as Murray does here as the con artist bear Baloo, however. Just look at his Harry and the Hendersons moment when he has to push Mowgli away despite his deep affection and you’ll find more pathos in those thirty seconds than most of the rest of the film could carry with all the time in the world. Murray has always been exceptional in his interactions with children on camera & his casting here was a brilliant choice that elevated the material greatly in terms of emotional impact.

That being said, I do feel there was somewhat of an emotional deficit at work here that made The Jungle Book more of a technical achievement than an all-around cinematic one. This was the most awe-inspiring depiction of talking animals I can think of since George Miller’s Babe (and one of the best depictions of animal coexistence politics since Babe 2: Pig in the City), but it didn’t quite reach Babe’s emotionally impactful penchant for drama. I could easily recommend The Jungle Book the same way I’d recommend a Hugo or a Dredd. You have to see this movie in the theater. You have to see it in 3D. I just don’t think it commands quite the same emotional weight as some of Disney’s more pointed work, with Zootopia being a great example from earlier this year. I should note that I might’ve been a little distracted by exceptionally poor movie theater etiquette at the particular screening I attended (screaming children, repetitive Facebooking, 4/20 bros acting unruly, the full gamut), but my emotional detachment from the film still remains true. It was beautiful to look at & Baloo made it fun, but I wish it had hit me harder square in the feelings.

It’s also worth mentioning, because it’s such an unfamiliar reaction for me, that the end credits for the film might’ve been my favorite part of the whole ordeal. The obnoxious crowd scuttled out of the theater & left me mostly alone with a beautiful pop-up book animation on a blue velvet background that made excellent use of the 3D technology on hand by playing with depth & scale. Walken’s weirdo performance also returned to serenade the (mostly empty) crowd with more New Orleans-inspired tunage and that oddly nostalgic yellow font returned to make me feel warm & fuzzy for reasons that are difficult to pinpoint. All that was missing was some extra Bill Murray content. It sounds kind of vapid to say, but the end credits in itself seemed to position The Jungle Book as a huge advancement in cinema’s visual tools, with encouraging implications as to how that advancement could be applied in a meticulously manicured art film (once it’s more affordable/accessible). The film was visually fascinating & at times wildly fun, but for the most part it just made me excited about the future of movies in general.

-Brandon Ledet