I actually enjoyed Ghost in the Shell… yeah, I know. Let me explain.

It was, of all things, a review by The Economist that finally convinced me to give the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell a chance. I mean, I make no secret of the fact that it’s one of my preferred sources of news and opinion (even when I disagree with them they always make a strong, considered and even-handed argument), but that’s generally of the political and economic nature rather than whether or not the latest sci fi blockbuster out of Hollywood is worth watching or not. I found the review refreshingly free of the moaning and biases that I usually see on the nerdier side of internet. It was the last paragraph that really got my attention though:

Not everyone is happy about the “rainbow casting”. When Ms Johansson was announced as the Major, the film was condemned online as another example of “white-washing”, that is, the Hollywood tendency to take Asian roles and hand them to white actors. You could argue, as Mr Oshii has, that the new “Ghost in the Shell” is separate from the old one, and that there is no pressing reason why an American film should be identical to a Japanese one, or why a cyborg should be Japanese in the first place. (In the manga comic that inspired the first film, Major is called Motoko Kusanagi, but has blue hair and pink eyes). And while that argument hasn’t won over the detractors, the fact is that its racial diversity is one of its most distinctive and laudable aspects. A mono-cultural city just doesn’t make sense in science fiction anymore. The “Ghost in the Shell” remake may not be as pioneering as the anime was, but its mix-and-match casting is the most truly futuristic thing about it.

Truth be told I was one of those detractors. And now that I’ve actually seen the film I can safely say that I still am. It’s hard not to cringe a little at the makeup and digital work meant to make Scarlett Johansson look more Asian, and a late movie reveal of the Major’s origins can be taken either as further evidence of white-washing or an ironic wink by a self-aware movie-maker (white male chief executive pushing his own views of physical perfection and racial identity) depending on how forgiving you’re willing to be. Probably it’s both.

There’s no denying that ScarJo does an amazing job with the role, playing the cyborg slowly reconnecting with her emotions, struggling to deal with the existential crisis and confusion that follows. I know this sounds odd, but she act like what I’d expect a cyborg to look like, small things that come off as intrinsically unnatural and veer towards the uncanny valley. Her walk most of all, a long and stiff stride without any of the sway and swagger you normally expect from movie heroines, but exactly what you’d expect from a robot. Am I saying that an Asian actress couldn’t have done just as good (maybe even better) a job? Of course I’m bloody not. Am I saying that they were right to pick Scarlett Johansson for one of the few lead roles that could be made available for an Asian actress? Again, of course I’m bloody not. But I can recognise a good performance when I see one, and that walk impressed me.

The whole cast impressed me, quite frankly. I was worried at first about Pilou Asbaek as Batou, mostly ’cause he didn’t sound like what I’m used to. His voice wasn’t deep enough and the accent was wrong. But I got over it quickly enough. In the anime Batou is this big, imposing dude who naturally fills any space he’s in, but not because he’s trying; because he just is a big, imposing dude. And Asbaek nailed it. Michael Pitt stomps about doing a fantastic cybernetic Frankenstein’s Monster, furious with the creators that rejected and left him to die (also big props to the sound editors who had him sounding like a glitching computer). I would have liked to have seen more of the rest of Public Security Section 9’s team (Ishikawa and Saito were always favourites of mine), but I liked their inclusion of new character Ladriya (played by Polish-Kurdish Danusia Samal). And then they had motherfuckin’ ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano playing Aramaki (with a perfect haircut), and that’s all I need to say about that casting choice.

The visuals are stunning, drifting over enormous concrete blocks and shining skyscrapers equally plastered with garish neon advertisements. Body modifications are common and usually gruesome, practicality regularly winning out over aesthetics. The fight scenes are violent (without being bloody, thankyou M-Rating) and range from graceful slow-motion gravity-defying shootouts, to quick, grim, gritty and frenetic room-clearing, all of it artfully shot. The special effects are a stunning mix of practical effects and CG.

And the complaints I’ve seen are often minor and ridiculous, the efforts of folk looking for something to complain about. One reviewer was annoyed that all of Aramaki’s lines are delivered in Japanese yet everyone understands him just fine, without any explanation given to the audience as to how this is possible. Mate, it’s a fucking sci fi film where people talk telepathically and you can download an entire language straight into your brain, they don’t need to explain every little goddamned detail. Another complained about the mid-movie twist being too predictable. Mate, this film is not going for subtlety (they telegraph who the real villain is in the first bloody scene). Sometimes it’s not about the audience learning the big secret, it’s about the characters learning what we already know. That’s what made Columbo so great. And anyone who reckons that this film isn’t philosophical enough, does not ask what it means to be human often enough, quite frankly doesn’t remember the original anime film. By the time we met the original Major Motoko Kusanagi she’d been going through an existential crisis so long it had gotten boring (it was the sequel that got heavy with the philosophical discussions).

This is the kind of solid scifi that delivers a message not by directly asking a question but by creating a world in which asking that question is necessary and inevitable.

I really enjoyed this film. But I can’t recommend it. The Economist is right the diverse cast was one of the cleverest parts of the world we see in the film, but the fact remains that all the characters with the most lines, except for Takeshi’s Aramaki, are played by white actors. They might have been good performances, but they were where the diversity was needed most. So I cannot recommend this film.

That’s the great tragedy of this film. It’s a good movie brought down by the poor choice of a good cast. What a shame.

Old School Movie Reviews: Lethal Weapon (1987)

The movie that launched a thousand parodies, Lethal Weapon occupies a special place set aside for movies that set a standard for a formula which all others must now live up to. Even if it’s not particularly great.

I mean, it’s not bad. In fact I’d even go so far as to call it good. But it’s not great. The acting is often hammy or mediocre, the story is at best ridiculous and at worst senselessly fucking bonkers (why the hell did they use a recognisably CIA-quality bomb to blow up a hooker’s house? They could’ve just stabbed her or something), and the action is contextually over-the-top. Good fun to be sure, but that’s about it. Good fun.

And yet this film occupies a position of greatness. Believe it or not, that’s for a good reason. Now I don’t know if the buddy cop film existed before Lethal Weapon (and quite frankly I don’t wanna know), but it was the film that set the standard for what a solid buddy cop film was supposed to be. Created the formula, if you will, that all good buddy cop films follow. And most of that’s on the relationship between cranky veteran Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and young possibly-bonkers Riggs (a young possibly bonkers Mel Gibson).

Aside from the fact that Glover and Gibson have excellent chemistry together – they really bounce off one another and you buy the friendship that quickly develops between the characters – the film manages a “these guys are complete opposites” situation without falling into cliche by focusing on a difference in situation rather than a difference in values. It’s not “this guy is neat, but this guy is messy,” or “this guy is a playboy, but this guy a monogamous-to-a-fault virgin,” or even “this guy is honest and straight-laced, but this guy is cynical and not to bothered about committing the odd petty crime himself. Rather Murtaugh is a family man with everything to live for, able to put his experiences in the Vietnam War behind him, while Riggs is a widower with nothing to live for, possibly suicidal, who feels that the only time he was ever really good and useful was when he was breaking things and hurting people back in ‘Nam. Murtaugh need Riggs’ skills, but Riggs needs Murtaugh’s friendship and stability. Surprisingly brilliant for such a silly film.

Throw in the odd bit of social commentary (Murtaugh is obviously uncomfortable when a bunch a African-American children begin asking about his record of shooting black people) and there are more than a few vets these days recently returned from America’s latest failed foreign wars, and you end up with a timeless classic. Surprisingly timeless for such a silly film.

If you haven’t watched Lethal Weapon before (in which case where the hell have you been for the last thirty years?) I’d recommend giving it a go. It might not be great but it’s definitely worth watching.

Old School Reviews: A Knight’s Tale (2001)

I recently found myself reading a book called Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle by Juliet Barker, a fascinating look into King Henry V’s famous victory over an overwhelming force of the French nobility. Great book, really interesting stuff, bloody hard to remember all the Johns, Henrys, Thomases and (delightfully enough) Lancelots. Anyway, it got me in the mood for some knights and chivalry, and I narrowed my choices down to a bit of Shakespeare or 2001’s Heath Ledger-led rock’n’roll-anachronism laden romantic-action-comedy/sports film, A Knight’s Tale. I made a decision, and I believe it was the right one.

As I said, Heath Ledger stars as William Thatcher, a peasant who poses as a noble born in order to compete in that most medieval of sports, jousting. Along the way he and his fellow peasant squires, Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), are joined by blacksmith Kate (Laura Fraser) and Geoffrey fucking Chaucer (Paul Bettany), love interest Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) and mortal enemy the Count of Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). He achieves fame, fortune and a loyal fanbase, including the Black Prince himself (James Purefoy). Gotta love the Medieval name drops.

There is a lot to love about the cast. Perfect fits across the board, fantastic chemistry and even the accents aren’t too bad. Shannyn Sossamon is able to convey so much through a coy smile or an irritated frown, and seems to be having an absolute ball in the role. Paul Bettany is always a delight to watch, a showman playing a showman with a gambling problem and an absolute conviction that his place in history is assured even if no one else can be convinced. Rufus Sewell plays the subtle arsehole like few others, maintaining a keen poker face so that every small display of overt emotion seems far more dangerous. Even smaller roles are well filled. James Purefoy makes for a prince who understands and respects the points and price of chivalry and knighthood. Scott Handy, playing Adhemar’s herald Germaine, is excellent, a little out of his depth compared to the swagger of Chaucer but a professional entertainer nonetheless. You feel quite proud of him when he gives his final introduction of the film. And of course there’s Heath Ledger. We lost a good one there and I will say no more.

The script is excellent. I mean the story is okay but the dialogue, the lines and delivery are brilliant. It’s actually surprising that this film never became one of my go-tos for quotes. I mean, “The pope may be French but Jesus is bloody English!” How fucking good is that? Very good. The answer is very good. And “why don’t I use some variation of that more often?”

The really genius part of this film though is its understanding of the subject matter, as demonstrated by, amongst other things, the music. Y’see, A Knight’s Tale is a sports movie. That’s what it is, dealing with class and privilege while pushing morals such as the joys of ambition, courage, bravery, determination and that good sportsmanship will always triumph over being a dickhead. We hear this in the music, with great rock anthems playing between, during and after the matches just as they do at any arena today. The film starts with ‘We Will Rock You’ and ends with ‘You Shook Me All Night Long.’ ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ plays during a parade and they dance to ‘Golden Years’ at a feast. And it’s fucking brilliant. Not just a fantastic soundtrack but one that forces the viewer to accept the analogy and frame of reference. The familiar absorbs the distant.

Sport is sport is sport. Something that I noticed reading that book I mentioned about Agincourt was that many of these nights and princes were, in fact, the honest to god sports stars of their time. Codes of chivalry and knighthood crossed borders, cultures and religions, and people of all classes held onto stories of epic deeds, duels and jousts. Fashion, sledging, rivalries and WAGs were as much part of the sport then as they are now. It’s honestly just a surprise that no one thought of this before (and no one’s really done it since). At the same time the film never forgets its time frame, the religion, filth and racism, making it all the grander.

If you like a sports film, watch this. It’s more light-hearted than Gladiator and just as quotable.

Good God! Are we getting back onto our regular schedule? We’ll see. We will see. 

Old School Reviews: Titan A.E. (2000)

It’s funny, there’s a lot of bad things I can say about Titan A.E. Part of that can be blamed on the time it was made and who it was meant to appeal to. Part of it is a feeling of shoddiness that the film never seems to get past.

The tone is caught in a strange space between child-friendly animation and that gritty, grimy place we usually call “young adult” in a rather obvious attempt at pandering to adolescents with disposable income and a desire to be treated like a grown-up. There’s no swearing and the sexual innuendo is no worse than Monsters Inc. but the violence is surprising. We see one alien get comically blasted into goo, eyes and teeth, a number of sentient bat-bird things blown out of the sky, a few bloody wounds, and, at the end someone getting his fucking neck snapped. At the same time the sense of humour, when it occasionally appears, is as childish as a straight-to-DVD Disney movie. Throw in a high-concept sci-fi plot and moral that’ll fly over the heads of most “young adults” and you end up with a tone that, while not messy as such, is too far one way and not far enough another to have the kind of emotional weight that the movie seems to want. Add in the music, safe post-grunge rock that I’m honest to god surprised didn’t include Pearl Jam, and you end up with some late-nineties/early-aughts executive committee’s definition of cool.

The animation is a similar hodgepodge of traditional (and probably budget friendly) 2D and what was not-even-really-cutting-edge-anymore 3D computer generations. It’s a mix that swings wildly between tolerable and jarring. A few of the 3D models, the individual Drej drones for example, fit into the environments and move about smoothly enough, but more often than not it’s that ugly, undetailed rendering typical of much low budget fare. This get’s even worse when you consider some of the films that were coming out at the same time (the above mentioned Monsters Inc.Shrek, even Fox’s own Ice Age). Meanwhile Titan A.E. can’t even seem to render a pretty cliff. What makes it worse is that the 2D animation, which still makes up a majority of the film’s visuals, is similarly lacking in quality. Movement and outlines are often choppy, sloppy and overall just lacking in a layer of polish. All in all, not as pretty as a film with a 75 million dollar budget should have been. You can’t help but wonder if they had used 2D animation for the whole thing it would have been a much better looking film, and more fondly remembered as a result. But 3D rendering had become the fashion by that point, and so this is what we got.

So yeah, there are problems with this film. But there’s also a lot of good things to say as well. The character designs are excellent, both human and alien, with little details and consistencies that add to each. The alien character Preed for example is voiced by the charming, extravagant and educated Nathan Lane, but his character is ugly badly dressed and battle-worn (one of his ears is missing, replaced by cybernetics in his scalp), showing him to merely a thug pretending at being a gentleman. The alien designs are familiar enough (Stith looks like a kangaroo, Gune looks like turtle) for us to identify them and identify with them while still looking sufficiently unreal, and their voice actors commit to the roles and personalities beautifully. Would have been nice if the asian character Akima had been voiced by an asian actress, but this is the world we live and at least the crew allowed for some multiculturalism. The character development feels as natural and unforced as is possible in 94 minutes, the plot develops quickly enough. The use of lighting and colour is excellent and the script and dialogue is snappy and a pleasure to listen to.

But it is that high-concept sci-fi that I really love about this film. The message about humanity that it is trying to push. Y’see the film starts with the alien antagonists, the Drej, deciding that the human race has become to much of a threat to be allowed to continue to exist, so they come over and blow up Earth. Now, a thousand books, movies and video games that have come before usually fall within the grim’n’gritty themes of humanity probably deserving it a little bit, claiming that our propensity for violence and destruction would shake up any galactic order. But the Titan that the Drej fear so much is not a tool of destruction, it is in fact a tool of unparalleled creation damn near close to magic. To the contrary, it is the Drej who are only capable of destroying, who are incapable of creating, and terrified at what those creators are capable of.

And it is so fucking refreshing for a science fiction plot that’s not “human beings could have such potential if they just stopped killing each other and everything they meet”, and is instead “human beings reached their potential ages ago, it was fucking amazing and now we need to protect it.”

There’s something very hopeful about that. Something very encouraging. And a great lesson to be remembered as science moves forward. It is not the destroyers who wield true power, but the creators. And those that build will ultimately triumph over those that tear down.

Old school reviews: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Not long before I left Australia the family gathered around and slid our copy of Mel Brook’s 1974 monster movie satire, Young Frankenstein, into the player. Early in the film, Frederick Frankenstein, is giving a lecture to a group of medical students only to have one of them stand up and begin asking questions about the work of his late grandfather, the famous Victor Frankenstein. The scene goes on, poor Mr Hilltop gets kneed in the balls (“give him an extra dollar”) and irritating medical student becomes even more irritating. And then, at some point as he brings up Dr Frunk-en-shteen‘s heritage, my dad points out that “He looks like Kevin Rudd!”

We all watch the scene, and the actor a little closer. “Oh my god,” I think it was my mum then said, “he even talks like Kevin Rudd!” The whole family cracked up laughing. Then cracked up again when Gene Wilder stabbed himself with a scalpel.

There’s no point to this anecdote really, beyond saying that loving this film has always been a family affair. Y’see, this is my dad’s favourite film. It’s not all that hard to make my dad laugh, but when he really loves a bit of comedy, when he’s really enjoying himself, well, let’s just say it’s fucking infectious. As a result Young Frankenstein became something of a family meme. I’ve talked about how my best mates and I are able to talk almost entirely in movie and Simpsons quotes, but amongst my family the go-to was always something from this movie.

Goddamn, especially that scene where he’s dreaming in bed. “DESTINY! DESTINY! NO ESCAPING THAT FOR ME!”

I think that a great film, a really great film, always has this communal aspect. That ability to fit the jokes into other situations, or simply cause a chuckle by invoking memories. Group reverence rather than individual reverence.

This is also the mark of a great actor. It’s an amazing thing that even, what, twenty years after he was last in a cinema, Gene Wilder’s death has marked so many people so deeply. He had and still has such a profound influence on the popular consciousness. I mean shit, every actor that plays the role of Willy Wonka from now until forever will be compared to the Gene Wilder version, a role that has become subject to some of the longest running memes I’ve seen on the constantly evolving internet.

A true entertainer and clown, and I say that in the best way possible. Watching him be hilarious seemed like the best tribute I could think of. Watching with my family will be one of the first things I do when I get home.

Old School Movie Reviews: The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

I don’t normally do sequels, do I? I mean, I can’t think of any I’ve done so far. Definitely none in the next review after the original. So this is a first.

Released five years after The Three Musketeers, 1998’s The Man in the Iron Mask is more spiritual rather than direct sequel. Different actors, slightly different relationships, some similar treason.

In this case we have Gerard Depardieu as Porthos, John Malkovich as Athos and Jeremy Irons as Aramis pitting themselves against Gabriel Byrne as D’Artagnan in a plot to replace King Louis the IV, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, with his twin brother Philippe (the titular Man in the Iron Mask), also played by Leonardo DiCaprio. We also have Anne Parillaud as the Queen Mother and Judith Godreche as the lovely Christine, who becomes Louis’ mistress after he murders her fiance (Athos’ son Raoul, played briefly by Peter Skarsgard). Great actors at the worst of times, some of them obviously having an absolute ball with the characters (Jeremy Irons and Gerard Depardieu in particular). The best has got to be a young but still talented Leonardo DiCaprio, going from the petulant and arrogant Louis to the gentle, kind and generally overwhelmed Philippe. He plays two genuinely different characters and showed his skill early on. Great actor.

The action is, if I’m to be perfectly honest, a little disappointing. There are fewer fights than you’d expect, and most of them are honestly a little disappointing, except for the final desperate fight against the King’s Musketeers in the bowels of the Bastille. It’s meant to be more of a heist film, more character driven rather than a straight up action film and it more or less works. But you still expect a little more swashbuckling from any movie that involves the famous musketeers (something that even Porthos complains about at one point).

I don’t know. This film is a weird one. It’s not as good as I remember it being but I can’t exactly put my finger on why. Probably lot’s of little things. Like, it’s got a good sense of humour but a few of the jokes fall a little flat. It does a good job of setting up Louis as a monster who believes his crown (ordained by god) makes him immune to consequences both in this world and the next, but a couple of his decisions are just stupid for the plot’s sake. At one point some rotten fruit is thrown as D’Artagnan and he skewers it with his sword. This is used as a moment to remind both the audience and a mob of rioters what a fucking badass D’Artagnan is supposed to be, but the fruit spends so much time flying through the air (while shocked rioters look on and D’Artagnan decides which piece of fruit he’s going to skewer) that it becomes less impressive than it should have been. Little shit like this, it adds up.

But, as good as I remember or not, I still like this film. Helps that I’m a big fan of Jeremy Irons though. I’ll push through some pretty awful fucking movies if it means I get to enjoy a bit of Jeremy Irons, and this is far from awful.

Old school movie reviews: The Three Musketeers (1993)

Way back in the tail end of the nineties and beginning of the aughts there was a bunch of movies that would be played (it seemed) every few months during the ‘family’ slots on the commercial free-to-air stations, basically 7:30 on a saturday evening. For a good few years one of these films was the 1993 version of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling epic, The Three Musketeers.

I can’t in good conscious call this film epic. It’s not big enough, not grand enough. Too localised, too personal. But it is swashbuckling good fun, and that is all it needs to be.

The acting, while nothing I would call Oscar worthy, is cheerful and entertaining. Kiefer Sutherland broods appropriately as Athos and Charlie Sheen plays the relaxed, smooth-talking Aramis fantastically straight. A much younger Chris O’Donnell plays a rosy cheeked and curly-haired D’Artagnan that is endearing instead of annoying (which often seems a challenge for the generally much younger, less experienced actors required to play a brash, naive and often foolish character). Rebecca De Mornay hits the correct notes as Milady De Winter and Gabrielle Anwar does a decent job with Queen Anne, both of whom are badly underused characters. The three that I really enjoyed, however, were Tim Curry, Michael Wincott and Oliver Platt as, respectively, Cardinal Richelieu, Captain Rochefort and Porthos. Lotta commas in that last sentence. I am not rewriting it though. Anyway, Tim Curry as always brings his wonderful voice, sense of timing, flair for the dramatic and smug smile to the maniacal villain. He’s always a joy to watch and he looks fantastic in red. Michael Wincott is fantastically menacing, an appropriate foil for the fast-talking musketeers and has such an excellent voice for villainous roles as well. And Oliver Platt gets Porthos so right. I don’t know if I should be surprised that the talented character actor is able to bring such a larger-than-life persona to, well, life, but he does. Someone who revels in battle and destruction, the one who laughs in the face of danger and jokes around death, so that you never actually believe them to be in danger in the first place.

The plot is a little nonsensical but it hits the right notes (D’Artagnan pissing off and planning to duel the musketeers, Cardinal bad, possible war with England and the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Anne may or may not want to fuck someone other than the king, D’Artagnan finally becomes musketeer), but a film like this doesn’t need to be perfectly accurate to either history or its source material. You don’t expect it to, and at least it doesn’t have any fucking moronic flying warships. The fights are entertaining. Generally on a smaller scale than what we tend to expect in out swashbucklers these days, but that makes them more intimate, allowing us to see more of the characters in each fight.

It’s definitely not perfect, of course. My biggest gripe is that Milady De Winter, Queen Anne and Constance, three excellent female characters, are largely delegated to the sidelines. We’re told that Milady is dangerous, but we don’t actually see her being particularly dangerous. Queen Anne spends most of her time being threatened and terrified by Cardinal Richelieu or complaining about how long it’s been since she last got some. Constance appears, I dunno four times? Once to tell D’Artagnan her name, once to tell the queen how bad she wants in her bloomers, once to pass D’Artagnan a sword and then at the very end for him to kiss her. Not exactly a compelling character, aye?

But yeah, I enjoyed watching this movie. It’s a little dated but not horribly so, and the characters are, for the most part, wonderful fun to watch hamming about on screen.