The original Guardians movie came out of nowhere.  As much as a $200 million movie ever could.  I have been a Marvelite my whole life and I didn’t know these Guardians at all.  Back in my day, they were led by a blue-skinned bloke with a fin on his head (yes, Yondu was very different in those days); so these characters were a complete blank sheet to me.  The film’s biggest stars are only doing voice work and James Who? was hired as writer/director.  The expectation was pretty-much zero, at least until the first trailer screened.
Y’know, this one ...

                The film proved to be an unexpected unalloyed joy, unlike anything that Marvel had yet produced, and rightly made both Chris Pratt and director James Gunn into stars.  But, here’s the thing, it’s not that difficult to exceed zero expectation.  The level of expectation for the sequel, on the other hand, is ... Well, out of this world.  (Sorry.  I won’t do any more of those.  Promise.)

                It simply isn’t possible for the sequel of a film that successful, to feel as satisfying, because we will be comparing it in a way that we weren’t with the first one.  That doesn’t matter, of course, because this film is now so anticipated that it will be review-proof.  Even if it stank, it would still make a billion dollars.  (It doesn’t stink.  Don’t worry.)  However, reaching to exceed this audience expectation is what, I believe, drives most sequelisers into making a second film which is the same as the first, only more-so.

                I understand that there is a certain pleasure to be had in seeing several familiar routines being run through in new, amusing ways (as, for example, with the two-dozen times James Bond has been issued with new toys that will save his life).  But that only gets you through the two hours you’re watching the film.  The law of diminishing returns applies to well-tried tropes; they don’t live with you afterwards and don’t inspire you to revisit the film because, in a very real sense, you’ve already seen it more than once.

                For me, a sequel is at its most alluring when it breaks its own mold and heads off in a different direction (provided it’s a good direction, obviously).  This, I believe, is also the only way a sequel can exceed your expectations, by completely ignoring them and going off in a different direction all its own.  This way, the film stands a chance of being as surprising as the first one was.  Aliens (1986) is the obvious example.  I’d also offer Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) - both of which, incidentally, this film echoes.  All three of those sequels were significantly different from the films which preceded them, and were all the better for it.

"That's no Moon!"  "Wrong film, Harrison.  They hired Kurt, not you.  Get over it."

                James Gunn is a very clever film-maker.  He knows exactly what he’s doing and he knows what works.  Therefore, Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 isn't a radical departure from the first film, but it isn’t a slavish copy, either.  It is, instead, more of a continuation.  It has the same characters (sort of), the same tone, the same childish sense of humour, along with an even-more vivid colour palette, and an even bigger universe to play in.

                The opening scene features the gang working as mercenaries for hire, fighting a huge Cthulhu-type tentacle monster, but seen from the point of view of the new(ish) character, Baby Groot, who is dancing to ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ and is totally oblivious to the pitched battle going on around him.  This sequence features several call-backs to the first film.  Which is great, ’cos it gets the fan-service out of the way early.
Production art of the opening scene beastie.  If it remind you of anything you might have seen in Gunn's horror debut 'Slither' (2006), I'd suggest that isn't accidental.

                 This beastie vomits in Technicolor, and that’s an indication that this film is going to be even more colourful than the first one was.  We get even more rainbow-coloured aliens; namely the gold-skinned Sovereign, a race of walking Oscar statues, who light one of this film’s various plot fuses.

                Possibly by way of inviting comparison with Empire Strikes Back, Gunn has our heroes propelled into an asteroid field as soon as they leave the planet, but there’s no point in anyone quoting them the odds as these asteroids teleport in and out of the way, just to make things even more interesting.  Besides, Quill and Rocket wouldn’t be listening, they’d be too busy bickering over who is the best pilot.

                Drax, meanwhile, is experimenting with having a sense of humour.  Oddly, I was finding myself resisting the film, until this scene featured Drax laughing hysterically, while a wide-eyed Groot sits and eats popcorn, during the mother of all space-battles.  That was it, I was on board.  It took about 15 minutes.

Come on, then, Mr. The Destroyer.  Show us your war face!

                It is to the film’s credit that Gunn takes the trust he has earned, and uses it to spend screen-time greatly developing the characters of Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), who was particularly poorly served by the first film (which must have been expecially vexing, since she committed totally to her big-screen big-break and shaved off her trademark red hair for the role).

                We also meet Quill’s dad, who was referenced a few times in the first film and who, the pre-release publicity has been telling us for a year or more, is called Ego (played by the shy and retiring Kurt Russell).  With a name like Ego, you might be forgiven for expecting the character to be a little self-obsessed, but he’s a charmer and a delight.  Initially.

                It’s just a delight to see Russell having fun on the big screen again, and actually quite poignant to see the digitally-de-aged version they give us for the flashback to 1980 (the year the real Russell was wearing an eye-patch and shooting Escape From New York).

"You thought your prison escape was impressive.  That was nothing, kid!  Listen ..."

               When comic-book legend Jack Kirby created Ego, as a character in The Mighty Thor comic, he was visualised using a cutting-edge photo-montage technique.  Gluing photos together, photocopying them and laying drawn artwork over that genuinely was cutting edge comic-book art in 1966. It also gives something of a 3D effect which, of course, will be an important ingredient in this film version - for those willing to pay extra to see the digital fireworks.

I remember really not liking these photomontages at the time.  But, nowadays, I think about the tight deadlines Kirby worked to, the insane amount of work he produced, and then I think about the time he spent creating these montages, when it would have been so much quicker and simpler to just draw the picture.  And now they impress the hell outta me.

                In the film, Ego’s planet is a visual feast, one more visually beholden to a Rodney Matthews or Bruce Pennington than directly to Jack Kirby.  But the overall feel of the film, from the colours in space, to the psychedelic shapes and patterns we see throughout, are very much a response to Kirby’s visual experiments from the sixties.

                The masterstroke in Gunn's script, is to split the team up.  So Quill, Gamora and Drax go with Ego; while Rocket, Nebula and ickle Baby Groot stay behind, and get mixed up with Yondu’s gang.  From here on in, the two stories run in parallel and, I must say, it reflects on Gunn’s confidence as a story-teller that neither of these plot-lines is in a hurry.  Yes, Chris Pratt is the star, but everyone else gets a fair showing here, too.  The film is a genuine ensemble piece.  Gunn shares Joss Whedon's ability to juggle a huge number of characters and yet give them all room to grow.  It's quite a trick.

                Pappa Ego rattles off pages of exposition to Quill, about what it’s like being a Celestial, with the power to create life; while Drax strikes up a friendship with Ego’s assistant/slave/pet, Mantis (played by new recruit, Pom Klementieff), and Gamora is left with precious little to do, save fend off Quill’s persistently childish attempts to woo her.

"I'm auditioning for the remake of Jaws.  What's your next job, Basil Brush The Movie?"
                Meanwhile there is long (and I do mean really looooong) comedy sequence on Yondu's ship, featuring Rocket trying to explain to Groot how to break him out of jail.  This sequence is delightful, deliciously funny, and adds literally nothing to the plot.  But you don’t care because, if you have any heart, you’re just enjoying spending time with your CGI friends.

                If the film has a theme, it’s about families and the way they are complicated.   In the first film, Drax and Gamora begrudgingly admitted that the others were their friends.  Now that relationship steps up and they consider each other family.  But, of course, with Quill adjusting to meeting his long-lost dad, plus sisters Gamora and Nebula still dealing with their own daddy issues, and (at least in an off-camera sense) a substantially increased role for the director’s brother, Sean Gunn, as Yondu’s lieutenant Kraglin ... There’s a lot of family fun to be had.

                The film glitters with other gems, too.  Rocket gets to chew off some wonderful insults, and go full-Rambo on an entire army in a forest.  Yondu has a wonderful moment showing what his little remote control arrow can really do.  Sly Stallone has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo.  Stan Lee’s there, of course.  And there are more little in-jokes than you can point a no-prize at (far more, I’m sure, than I spotted in one viewing) plus a riot of  audacious visuals and outrageous imagination throughout.

"Strike a pose for the group shot, guys.  Suck in those ... Damn, Karen, you is tall, girl!"

                The ending is very much as you’d expect, lots of bright colourful stuff flying around.  Lots of noise.  The inevitable count-down clock.  Lots of CGI that will look mind-blowing on an IMAX screen and - surprisingly - a properly emotional coda.  Yes, there are five end-credits scenes (one of which - involving a golden cocoon - got this old Marvelite genuinely excited for the upcoming Infinity War film), plus there are one-or-two other little surprises in the background images while the credits are rolling, so keep 'em peeled.

                And I haven’t even mentioned your new favourite soundtrack album.

                Gunn has confirmed that he will be back to round out the trilogy with Guardians vol 3.  Which is very much as things should be.  It’s Gunn’s Galaxy.  He does things wonderfully there.

Night-night, Baby Groot, see you next time.  Night-night.

Dir: James Gunn
Writer: James Gunn
Cert: 12A
Dur: 136 mins


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 ...