Ghost in the Shell Review

Ghost in the Shell is the last release in what has been a packed March for would be blockbusters. It was equally anticipated and dreaded by nerds, because it was an adaptation of a muck loved anime but also because they seemed deadest on scrubbing nearly everything interesting from it. The movie is not the complete disaster it could have been, like the Dragon Ball Z movie, but it also can’t meet the standards of the films that inspired it, like Robocop, Blade Runner and the original Ghost in the Shell movie. Ghost in the Shell is decently executed, but bland, emphasizing visuals and style over story.

I came into this not planning to even mention the whitewashing stuff. That conversation is an important one to have, but at some point you just have to deal with the movie that was made and not the one they should have made. But Ghost in the Shell makes it impossible to ignore this aspect by making it a central aspect of the film. Without spoiling things, how they handle the relationship between Scarlett Johansson’s Major and Ghost in the Shell usual protagonist Motoko Kusanagi seems to try to address concerns by doubling down on the problem. Instead of just doing its own thing, it draws attention to the difference and makes it impossible to enjoy the movie without the fact that they changed the race of the central character in mind. That approach contrast with how they handled Batou, who is also played by a white actor, but he just plays the character and is one of the best parts of the movie. Or they could have just left her Japanese like Chief Aramaki, played Beat Takeshi who speaks entirely in Japanese and is another high point.

Leaving aside her race, the changes made to the character make her a much less interesting protagonist. The Major is a stone cold badass, but Major (not the lack of definite article) is a robotic victim. Or I guess she a little of both. They strip the character of her identity and she spends the whole movie trying to figure out who she is. She still does some badass things, but not because she is innately a badass, but because she believes herself worthless and expendable. The whole movie is about her reclaiming who she starts out as in every other version of this property. Also, the story is now all about who she is, instead of being content to be a sci fi thriller. There are philosophical and ethical issues of identity and memory that are inherent in the concept of Ghost in the Shell, but this movie is very careful not to engage with any of them. There is little to no questioning in this movie, other than a tiny bit when Major realizes that the big mystery involves her personally.

Despite all my complaints, the movie is fairly well executed. It does a great job establishing in the setting, even if it isn’t interested in exploring it much. Most of the action scenes are well executed. The story makes sense. It is missing any semblance of a hook to take it from competently enjoyable to actually good. It is not unlike the director’s previous effort, Snow White and the Huntsman. That was another competently executed by barely engaging movie.

There just isn’t anything below the surface here. With the movie drawing attention to its whitewashing instead of just making the choice and going with it, it really needed to be good otherwise. And it kind of isn’t. Ghost in the Shell is all shell and no ghost.

**1/2

Jupiter Ascending

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Like the disappointing Seventh Son, Jupiter Ascending looked like it could have been just the sort of movie I love: cheesy, fun impossible adventure. It seemed to fit right into the mold of beloved (at least by me) films like Star Wars, Flash Gordon and John Carter. In some ways it is. In the moments when Jupiter Ascending shines it does so with a brilliance that is hard to match. No idea seems to have been excised. Space battles, palaces on gas giants, immortal humans and genetic farms; everything is thrown in in a jumble. It makes for a movie that is occasionally beautiful, occasionally terrific and almost always a little muddled.

While the Wachowski’s certainly deserve their reputation for making stylish movies with deeper themes than your average blockbuster, I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed more than one of their films before this. I liked the original Matrix; it is amazing. However, its sequels, Reloaded and Rejected Revolutions, left me cold. Hell, not just cold, angry. They are among the worst movies I’ve ever paid money to see in a theater. After V for Vendetta was simply not for me I kind of checked out on them. (I really should see both Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer at some point) Still, even in the movies I didn’t like their actions scenes were entertaining and coherent. Plus, that engaging style had clearly not abandoned them. Despite my misgivings, I was plenty excited for Jupiter Ascending. It just looked so weird, so out there that couldn’t help but be intrigued.

In many ways it lives up to that. It follows poor Russian immigrant Jupiter Jones who finds out that she shares her genetic code with a Space Queen of some sort and finds herself entangled with the murderous heirs of a space empire and protected only by Kaine, a former soldier with some dog DNA spliced in with his. She must navigate complicated family drama and figure out how to save Earth, which it turns out is little more than a gene farm.

The action scenes are great, kinetic but also highly readable. The numerous weird and wonderful things put on the screen are beautiful, reminiscent of Star Wars in their variety and imaginativeness. Channing Tatum’s Kaine is an excellent hero, and Sean Bean is fun as the conflicted Stinger. The highlight is Eddie Redmayne as the villain Balem, who seems almost perpetually overcome with ennui, except for when he bursts out with uncontrollable rage. He makes for an enjoyably hateable villain. Mila Kunis, while adding almost nothing to the action parts, is largely enjoyable as Jupiter, who despite being the focus of the plot is shockingly passive. Like the viewer, she is given no clue as to what is really going on and spends her time listening to other people explain things or being saved by Kaine. I really did by the romance between those two characters, but otherwise she is given little to do.

Really, that lack of explanation is the real flaw here. Some details are eventually eked out, but for most of the movies runtime what exactly is going on is hidden from the viewer. Titus, one of the fighting Abraxas siblings, apparently plans to marry then murder Jupiter. Why is never made a particularly clear. Exactly how power family Abraxas is is never made clear. How the government of this space empire is set up is not clear. Nothing, outside of the two brothers wanting Jupiter dead because she is messing up their inheritance is made clear. While the everything else is beautiful in its excess, the plot lacks the clear through line of something like Flash Gordon or Star Wars. It doesn’t help that movie spends a lot of time on asides that don’t seem to add anything at all. There is a Gilliam-esque scene dealing with space bureaucracy that, while amusing, seems to be from another movie entirely.

As unfortunate as some of Jupiter Ascending’s missteps are, though, I can’t bring myself to dislike it. Seeing Tatum fight a space dragon while flying around on rocket boots is just too entertaining. Or watching Redmayne pulled along on a chariot with a living woman’s torso for a masthead. Or seeing Mila Kunis fall from so many high places, only to be saved at the last minute. It is highly entertaining, but the plot is way too overstuffed to be called genuinely good. Jupiter Ascending is full of great ideas, but they do not come together to form a cohesive whole.

**1/2

The Expendables 3

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The Expendables is a movie series built on the gimmick of gathering up aging action stars and jamming them all on screen together. The problem with that is that after you’ve seen it once it starts to lose its punch. So they are left dragging more and more bodies off the street to keep the thrill of seeing all the stars in the same movie. So far, The Expendables has been able to keep bringing in new names. The problem then becomes giving all of these stars things to do together. That is a problem this series has never quite cracked. The bus load of new names added to this one didn’t do anything to alleviate that problem. Still, The Expendables 3 is a largely entertaining film. It is overloaded with characters, repeats a lot of plot points from the last film and is somewhat compromised by its PG-13 rating. But it is also often delightfully, ludicrously fun.

The character overload is a big problem, especially for a movie that sells itself on having all of these people in it. The movie is crowded and no one really gets a chance to shine, other than Stallone who is the one that the film revolves around. The original Expendables crew is shunted off for the bulk of the runtime, Arnold seems to champing at the bit to have more to do, and Jet Li is wasted yet again. That is just the returning stars. Banderas and Snipes bring some fun energy to the film. Banderas’s character’s enthusiasm contrasts with the tough guy characters that the rest of the crew plays, while Snipes’ comes off as more than a little crazy. The other newcomers don’t fare much better. Kelsey Grammar is fun, but he seems largely out of place and his recruiting section is overlong and saps most of the energy out of the middle of movie. After that, he’s gone. Harrison Ford seems engaged, even if all he’s asked to do is be grumpy. The kids that Stallone recruits, a group who barely get names let alone personalities, give a nice contrast to the old cast members, but don’t get enough time to distinguish themselves. Except for Ronda Rousey, who can fake fight as well as she can actually fight or just beat the crap out of a lot of dudes on set. Mel Gibson, who as ever is an entertaining performer regardless of his personal problems, does his best to make Conrad Stonebanks a memorable villain.

The plot is largely inconsequential, just a reason for the team to fight. On a mission Barney finds out their target is actually the thought dead co-founder of The Expendables. So he jettisons his crew and takes on a group of youngsters to go get him. Things go badly. The new kids in peril plot is not unlike the inciting incident from the second film, where the team is out for revenge for the death of the new kid. While the conflict between Barney and the villain is more personal than in the previous movie, the conflict plays out largely the same. Also, this time the movie is rated PG-13 rather than R. While the fight scenes are still entertaining, they are certainly not as visceral as in previous movies.

That contributes to the fun, Saturday morning cartoon vibe that the movie has going on. Banderas and Snipes play essentially cartoon characters and that final glorious fight is just straight up ridiculous. Despite being edited to never show the results of any gun shots or thrown knives, all of the fights in this film are fun. It starts with a crazy assault on a train and just gets more over the top from there. The biggest flaw in the Expendables 3 is that it doesn’t fully commit to being over the top. It flashes the craziness, but still tries to let Stallone have somber moments contemplating his mortality. Not that it isn’t possible to handle both in one movie, but The Expendables 3 doesn’t come close to managing it. The plot is predictable; they didn’t need to belabor it. Just give us viewers the violence we came to see.

The entertaining parts were entertaining enough that it is easy to forgive the less entertaining parts. I can’t say I actually liked the movie all that much, but I did leave the theater with a smile on my face. That is what is really important.

**1/2

Prometheus Review

In the month or so since it has been released, Ridley’s Scott’s pseudo Alien prequel Prometheus has been discussed to death. Whether it is because they felt the movie did not live up to their expectations from Ridley Scott or whether they found the film genuinely thought provoking, it has been far from difficult to find opinions about Prometheus. As late as I’m getting to this, I’m not sure I have much to add to the discussion. For once, just about everybody is right. Prometheus is a thought provoking film. It is also a complete mess. For me, the good outweighed the bad, but I can understand someone feeling the opposite.

The bad in this movie is pretty bad. Characters do dumb things just to help move the plot along, plotlines appear and disappear seemingly at random, and sometimes Looney Tunes-esque slapstick ruins supposedly dramatic moments. The whole set up is a take on those idiotic ancient aliens “theories.” A lot of this stuff is hard to swallow. The script could have used either one more or one less pass, depending on where these problems came from. Most of the problems stem, though, from the wholly forgivable crime of trying to do too much. I’d rather a movie fail with ambition than succeed without it.

There are several great performances in Prometheus. Noomi Rapace is terrific as the main character, competent and quick thinking. And Fassbender does a great job as the secretive, and secretly more human than he lets on David. Nearly everyone does a great job with the material they are given. And while Prometheus doesn’t do so great a job with its science, it does raise some interesting question about the relationships between parents and their offspring.

Where Prometheus truly shines is in its visuals. It is the most visually stunning film I’ve seen in some time. Often big special effects budgets are spent with the effect of only making the movie look like everything else, or making sickening action scenes. Prometheus is clear and wonderful. The world they are on truly looks like an alien planet. When other parts of the film falter, it never, ever stops looking good.

I guess this turned into a pretty wishy-washy review. Possibly this is because one of the big draws for this movie, its connections to the Alien franchise, mean almost nothing to me. I didn’t like Alien, mostly just because it is a horror movie and I do not like horror movies. I was also not a big fan of Aliens. I didn’t see it until 2005 or so, and it never left much of an impression on me. I’ve never seen any of the other Alien movies. I had no expectations. I do like many Ridley Scott films, though I have a big hole in that I’ve never seen Blade Runner, he is what got me to the cinema. What I saw was the Robin Hood to Alien’s Gladiator. Not strictly a bad movie, but not an especially great one.

**1/2

Not the Brightest Day

Green Lantern Review

Green Lantern is about 5 years too late to the superhero movie party. Back when viewers were suffering through Daredevil, Catwoman, Fantastic 4, and Ang Lee’s Hulk (seriously, just because you like his movie about gay cowboys doesn’t make Hulk not a turd) Green Lantern would have seemed pretty good. It treats its subject with great, even undue, respect and is reasonably well acted. Unfortunately, in this post-Nolan Batman, post Iron Man landscape Green Lantern just isn’t up to par. Continue reading