GHOST IN THE SHELL



Scarlett Johansson getting in some practice at crashing through that glass ceiling,  She may be the highest-grossing performer in Hollywood, but she's apparently a long way shy of being the highest paid.
Getting caught up with a few films I missed when they first came out ... First off, Ghost in the Shell:

I had a fairly intense (if brief) affair with Ghost in the Shell some 20 years ago.  This would be about the time the VHS version was released by Manga Video here in the UK.  Manga did sterling work introducing us to anime which (as difficult as this is to imagine, now) was almost completely unheard of in Britain until they embarked on releasing their films in the early 90s.

It has to be said that they didn’t necessarily restrict themselves to releasing the best, highest quality films; and they were responsible for an entire generation of teenage (mostly) boys thinking that Japanese cartoons were called ‘manga’; but, y’know, little victories.

So, thanks to their work in making the western world aware of manga anime, I got the chance to write an article about it for the then-recently-relaunched (and short-lived) Penthouse magazine.  Yes, that Penthouse magazine.  And how did I sell the idea to them?  “Well,” I said, “Ghost in the Shell is about a fem-bot who gets naked to fight crime.” Easiest pitch ever.

This isn't a gratuitous shot of Scarlett Johansson nekkid, and it isn't included just to get my page views up, in any way.  Just so we're clear on that.
I’m not proud of that approach, but I needed the money.  And I didn’t just write about Kusanagi’s tits.  There was some real info in there too!  Honest.

Anyway, now the live-action remake has been released, despite the total absence of popular demand; and I finally got round to seeing it, I thought I’d put finger to keyboard again.

 So, let’s start, as we all should, with the original ...


And this isn't a completely shameless comparison of gratuitous nudity in the 1995 and 2017 versions.  So get that idea right out of your head.
The 1995 version (based on the 1989 manga by the enigmatic Masamune Shirow) is an unambiguous piece of ‘90s Cyberpunk.  Funny how that vision of the future already feels nostalgic and yet, oddly, contemporary ... Because so much of what Cyberpunk feared, has already come to pass.

Most of the characters we meet in Ghost in the Shell are ‘augmented’ in some way.  The  main character, Major Kusanagi, is a full-on cyborg, a human brain in a machine.  Total Robocop!  Her partner, Batou, has artificial eyes that let him see beyond the visible spectrum.  This actually proves useful in his work, rather as it did for Geordie LaForge in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  However, right from the get-go, Batou discusses the worries associated with having body-parts that belong to the homely sounding Megatech Corporation.  

Kusanagi, meanwhile, starts asking existential questions like: How can she know she really is a real living brain with a real soul (which they refer to, throughout, as her ‘ghost’, hence the film’s title) in an artificial shell built by the all-powerful Megatech?  ... How can she know she isn’t entirely virtual?

These concerns come about because they chase down an assassin who, it turns out, is a ‘ghost hacked human’ - his memories have been erased and he’s been reprogrammed - literally a meat puppet.  In this world, double agents don’t need to be brain-washed and indoctrinated, they can simply be hacked and reprogrammed.

Is it only in movies where people look at their reflection while contemplating the infinite?
This, essentially, makes Ghost in the Shell into an espionage thriller of the near future.  The unseen enemy is a shadowy character called ‘The Puppet Master’, after his penchant for hacking people.  If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want it spoiling, you might want to stop reading now - because it is entirely in-keeping with the nature of the movie that the bad-guy turns out to be ... sentient software.  A living entity that has spontaneously evolved in the ‘sea of information’ ... Which is lovely phrase for everything that is recorded and stored in an information economy.  Y’know all that info that Google gathers, listening to your phone calls, reading your emails, tracking your movements ... Yeah, all that.  That’s the sea of information.  It’s worth mentioning that Google was founded in 1996.  The year after this film was released.  Just saying.



So, the sentient software waxes philosophical about its own existence, as our two protagonists had previously; “Neither science nor philosophy can define what life is”, it informs them.

See, as well as being a glorious-to-look-at piece of Cyberpunk science fiction; and as well as being a decent action movie (and one that had an obvious and palpable influence on The Wachowski’s when they were planning their 1999 film, The Matrix); this film is a rumination on evolution, and on the development of what academics call ‘the machinic phylum’ (the artificial life forms that we will create and which will quickly grow and evolve beyond us).  Pretty heavy stuff for just a cartoon, yeah?

Now, let’s look at the other aspect of the film, the one that got Penthouse interested: its shameless sexism.

Although ‘Major Kusanagi’ has been given a deliberately asexual name, and behaves in an entirely professional mission-focussed manner, she is presented initially in a very sexualised way.  Her invisibility relies on her nudity.  Some will argue that she is actually wearing skin-tight armour.  Yeah?  But did it have to be skin coloured?  Couldn’t it have been black?  No, cos then she wouldn’t have looked ... naked!  

She is clothed through most of the film, has to be, otherwise where would she holster her gun?
During the opening montage, we see her re-birth as a cyborg, floating down tubes in amniotic fluid, her shell peeling off, revealing new pink skin beneath and, yes, she’s naked.  It all seems to be part of the fetishising of some Western (and particularly American) traits you’ll see in anime and manga of the time ... Tall characters with non-oriental faces, round eyes and large breasts.

As titillating as it is, this prurient objectification adds nothing to the character and actually makes it tougher to then take her seriously.  Jason Bourne doesn’t have to get his kit off to fight.  James Bond doesn’t have to whop his knob out before fighting Spectre.  He saved that for the lay-deez.  This type of sexualised depiction of a protagonist is hardly an improvement on the role women play in the Bond films, where they are there to look good, get shagged and then get killed.

Fortunately, the film’s serious consideration of the nature of physical and philosophical existence helps you forgive it for this lapse in taste.

Let’s fast-forward now to the live-action remake ...

In some obvious ways, the 2017 version of the film is very faithful to the original.  Its marketing certainly features The Major’s nude-suit as much as the original did, with the added matter that, if they’d made it black this time, it would have made Scarlett Johansson virtually indistinguishable from her Black Widow persona in the Marvel movies. 

As an aside, I can sort-of see the appeal to Johansson of appearing (apparently) nude in the fight scenes.  As my partner pointed out to me, Scarlett's a good looking girl, why shouldn't she be proud of that fact?  She doubtless puts a lot of work into looking like she does so, why not have some photographic evidence so that, one day, she can say "Look, kids, grandma used to be really hot!" 

I guess it's part-and-parcel of the recent non-troversy over Emma Watson appearing partially topless on a magazine cover.  It's all about choice.  Why shouldn't she choose to appear like that?
 

So, yes, I can understand that.  But I still can't pretend that her (or Jennifer Lawrence in the X-Men films) appearing all-but naked, carries the same cultural signification as Bruce Willis stripping down to his vest in Die Hard or even Chris Hemsworth getting his shirt off for no good reason in The Avengers.

Anyway ...It didn’t take long for the visual similarities between the two versions of Ghost to be noticed - this short comparison video emerged, just based on the footage in the trailer ...




Okay, you may say, it’s a re-make, of course it’s going to look like the original.  But, if I may be permitted to retort; what is the point of remaking something if you don’t improve upon it, add something to it, make it pertinent to a new and different audience? 

This rendition follows many of the original film’s elements slavishly and, apparently, uncritically.  A couple of the major action scenes are lifted pretty-much intact (and, in one case, literally shot-for-shot) from the original.  But, where the original version was relentlessly forward-facing, this version is much more about looking backward.

The re-named Major Mira Killian is, actually, the first full cyborg of her kind, which makes her very special (where, in the ’95 version, she isn’t considered especially unusual).  She is obsessed with her past, with the fact that she can’t remember where she came from.  

Is it only in movies where people look at their reflection while contemplating how much extra they can charge for the nude scenes?
The question “Are you human?” is not now considered unusual.  She goes to a prostitute just to get some idea of what it is to be human - She’s fascinated by the physical sensation of being flesh and blood.  She’s more concerned about the shell than the ghost.

The search for the ghost in the machine is what Blade Runner (1982) was about.  And Robocop (1987) and, in both cases, the key to this was the recovery of memories.  The Major goes back to her old stomping ground - just like Robocop/Murphy does.  The original film was about the scary bleeding edge of tech, and the effects that can have on narrative.  This version is all about the same thing every big SF film since Star Wars has been about - extracting yourself from the tech.  This makes this new version of the film feel very familiar and overly nostalgic, in ways the original film simply wasn’t.

Another thread that repeatedly surfaces here, is the notion that humans are superior to machines, and only the villains think otherwise.  “You’re reducing a complex human to a machine” says Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the walking exposition machine (who isn’t a machine, ironically).  Cutter, the boo-hiss CEO of the evil corp (here renamed Hanka), simply replies, “I don’t think of her as a machine ... She’s a weapon.”

And here we have her fully clothed, a weapon wielding a weapon.
Here, The Puppet Master is portrayed as an actual person: Kuze, who - and I’m about to spoil the film’s shocking revelation for the three people and a dog who won’t have already guessed by the time the film tells us - is a prototype of the cyborg.  So The Major isn’t the first at all, she’s just the first that worked.

At one point, Cutter complains that humans are less controllable than the machines: “That’s the problem with the human heart”.  But this film isn’t about the heart.  It’s about the exterior.  The surface.  Director Rupert Sanders came from advertising - so his career experience will be all about the look, the shell, not the substance beneath!

Never-the-less, it’s nice to see the (now) old-fashioned paranoias of Cyberpunk filtered through cutting-edge 21st century CGI.  I’d love to have seen what they could have done with Johnny Mnemonic, if they’d had this tech back in 1995.  I think the days of making William Gibson’s Neuromancer into a movie have probably gone, because reality has caught up with a lot of the things the 80s Cyberpunks worried about, but Count Zero, or the short story Burning Chrome, still would make good movies!

Less real than real, is our motto.  If this image reminds you of the fate the male protagonists underwent in Terminator, Robocop, Empire Strikes Back or the almost-completely-forgotten Bruce Willis masterpiece (!) Surrogates (2009), you're completely alone.  No idea what you're on about.
As with the original version of Ghost, Scarlett Johansson is presented in a sexually enhanced way when fighting.  Even though she wears the nudesuit for just a matter of minutes - that is where pretty much all the trailer footage and publicity stills came from.  Yet, after an unmistakably feminine introduction, it’s interesting that, when Johansson gets to explore the character further, she has gone to lengths to de-sexualise her character when she’s fully clothed.  She dresses in jeans and a bomber jacket, so looks oddly like a 1970s skinhead, and she stomps around like a man, walking from the shoulders rather the hips.

None of this is to say that the film isn’t a visual treat, full of engaging moments and enjoyable supporting performances.  I particularly enjoyed Pilou Asbæk’s turn as Batou, her steadfast partner; and Takeshi Kitano is as inscrutable and rock-solid as ever as Police Captain Aramaki.  Michael Pitt also does well with the little he’s given to work with, as the scarce-half-made-up Kuze.  As he demonstrated in the TV show Hannibal, he’s skilled at giving strong performances whilst unrecognisable under make-up.  Otherwise,  the music (by the always-reliable Clint Mansell along with Lorne Balfe) is subtler that the urgent percussion of the original, and more enjoyable because of it.  Importantly, Johansson carries the film well.  She represents both the steely resolve and the inner turmoil of the character. 

The film is full of the ideas we will continue to need to come to terms with as the 21st century rolls on (provided our insane rulers don't nuke us back into the dark ages, of course); as we increasingly integrate machines into our lives, and become ever-more dependent upon them, and those machines become faster and smarter.  It's good that a big, flashy Hollywood movie is tackling such issues, even if I'm a bit disappointed by the answers it offers.

Michael Pitt is visually very impressive as Kuze, but sadly underused.
For me, this film fails to embrace the future the way that the original did.  Instead, The Major searches for where she came from and desires to return to the human.  This ‘returning to the womb’ trope is a common subtextual theme in films that reference robotics, most obviously in the character of Data, in Star Trek: The Next Generation (which I'm beginning to realise, is actually a very Cyberpunk show); the only difference here is that the character it applies to is female. 

Ironically, the remake of Ghost in the Shell resolutely refuses to accept or trust technology whilst, at the same time, being totally dependent upon it to create all its lovely visual effects.  It never ceases to amuse me that huge corporations keep using state-of-the-art computers to make films that tell us to distrust huge corporations and their state-of-the-art computers.

Ultimately, then, the ending of Ghost in the Shell 2017 is much less enigmatic and less willing to take risks; this ending is much more emphatic, much simpler, much more American.

Just like The Major is.   

But that’s a controversy for another time.


Dir: Rupert Sanders

Writers: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger

Dur: 106 mins
  
There's a lot in this film reminded me of this Bjork video ... Which is also from the 90s.  It's a beautiful thing, directed by madman Chris Cunningham.  Enjoy ...




FREE FIRE




                Free Fire is engaging and witty, and has one or two nice surprises in store.  With an opening dialogue exchange which includes the line “I look like I tried to fuck a reluctant panda bear”, you know you aren’t in for an entirely serious time.
                What you are in for is the little micro-budget Brit-flick that could.  That could, in point of fact, cast a pretty impressive list of, if not A-listers, certainly upper-echelon B-listers!  But, I guess that’s what happens when you get Martin Scorsese onboard as a producer.
                Ben Wheatley, and his co-writer (and missus) Amy Jump, demonstrate that they have real range, delivering this film on the back of the chilly social satire of High Rise (2016) and the esoteric so-called ‘English Eerie’ of A Field in England (2013) and Kill List (2011).
                Here we have an action comedy, light on plot and motivation, heavy on the gun-shots and the snappy one-liners. 

"Let's go to work."  Left to Right we have Armie Hammer, Enzo Cilenti hiding away at the back, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and the cool-even-in-that-tache Michael Smiley.
 
                I did think, while watching it, that Free Fire would make an interesting double-bill with High Rise, which Wheatley made immediately before.  That film concerns itself with society’s elite, steadfastly refusing to admit that anything is wrong, or that any of it is their fault, while their society unravels and descends into primordial chaos.  This film features the scum of the earth, who already know and accept that the world is chaos, but hold everything together through personal attributes such as adherence to politeness, chivalry, loyalty to family or maintaining an emotional distance.
                As with High Rise, which is sort of set in the 70s, but not really, this film doesn’t tell us the period directly; but the sideburns, porn-star ‘taches and wing collars let us know that we’re embedded somewhere in the heart of the 70s. 
                Cillian Murphy (getting to use his actual voice and accent for once) heads a motley crew of Irish villains (presumably IRA, although the film is careful to leave this vague) who are in America to buy a van-load of sub-machine guns.  Now, the perceptive viewer and student of Chekhov may be tipped-off by the presence of a large number of guns and a lot of unchecked testosterone, into thinking that things are not going to go by the book.  Unless that book is a novelisation of The Wild Bunch.
                The point of no return comes very early, when the first bullet is fired and, thereafter, it’s gunfire all the way.  This film will come in useful for people wanting gunshot sounds effects, 'cos they’re all in here.  I mean, seriously, all of em. 

The stars of Peaky Blinders, SSGB and Luther reminisce about the good old days in the BBC canteen.

                Plot-wise, there isn’t much to tell you.  Several of the characters take a dislike to several other characters (I know, who’d’a thunk?) and spend much of the movie trying to kill that person.  There is a very extended sequence - the bulk of the second act, in fact - where the cast are crawling around on their elbows, throwing insults, complaining bitterly, and shooting wildly at each other.
                It is to the credit of the cinematography (by Wheatley’s go-to guy, Laurie Rose) and the editing (by Jump, again) that you can follow all these over-lapping conversations and simultaneous story threads, whilst also maintaining a reasonably good idea of where everyone is in relation to each other.  That said; don’t expect to ever know exactly what’s going on because the camera stays down at floor level with the shooters, gritty and claustrophobic.  
                I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film where so much footage was shot from about a foot off the floor.  Not even Spielberg’s ET (1982) made such use of low angles.
                “So, Ben, what’s my role?”
                “Well, Brie, basically you spend the first twenty minutes fending off the advances of a cheesy South African.  Then you spend the rest of the movie crawling around in the dirt, on your belly.”
                “Great, I’m in.”

Please, someone, remember to frisk the chick, she might have a ... okay, never mind.
                Although Free Fire lacks the visual poetry of a John Woo, the wry eloquence of a Tarantino, and the relentless invention of Gareth Evans’ The Raid (2011), it has creditable echoes of all of the above.  There are also several chuckles to be had - mostly courtesy of Sharlto Copley doing his usual turn as the pompous, self-deluded Vern.  You’ll also enjoy the comedy stylings of a surprisingly likeable Arnie Hammer, who remains calm, collected and cynically philosophical throughout.  And, of course, there’s the always reliable Michael Smiley (returning, as Wheatley’s good luck charm) who is, if there’s any justice, teetering on the brink of a big Hollywood breakthrough with this.
                The action is also set to a wonderfully bouncy score by Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury (who also scored 2015’s Ex Machina), as well as featuring the second outing of Creedence and Run Through The Jungle in less than a month.  It’s now officially Brie Larson’s theme tune, since it also featured alongside her in Skull Island!
                So, make 90 minutes to see Free Fire.  And see it at a cinema with good sound, to make the most of those gunshots and ricochets.  Oh, and keep your head down.

How many films did Ben Wheatley make last year?  That's right: Two.  Count 'em.  Two!  Suck on that, Michael Bay!
 Dir:  Ben Wheatley.
Script:  Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump.
Dur:  90 mins
Cert: 15