Ghost in the Shell (1995) – Review

With the new Hollywood remake out in cinemas, it was inevitable the Manga original was going to get a revisit. Or for some, a first viewing. The new Ghost in the Shell is best-known – for the time being, at least – for being responsible for reigniting the whitewashing in American movies. The original was the attempt to penetrate the western mainstream. It failed. But was it fairly overlooked?

It’s interesting when you ask people about Manga. Some will mention Akira before tailing off. Many recognise the niche films as a mark of honour. A nineties cult that defined a new type of geek-cool. For our in-house WWE expert, Clive Balls, who spent time living in Japan, they are more than quirky, in many ways they already trump Hollywood.

To the man in the middle (me), they are somewhere in between. Atmospheric animation that delves into thought provoking issues. They’re certainly not cartoons. They are the Japanese graphic novel without the awkward ties to forties comics.

Ghost in the Shell was a film ahead of its time. It took on artificial intelligence long before the current Westworld revival. It deals with gender and strips away all preconceptions long before the world at large listened to LGBT rights. The makers envisioned large networks and interconnectivity while we were all accessing the internet with dial-up.

The story centres on Major (she’s the Scarlett Johannson character). An outwardly looking female but her nakedness that reveals the dream body is purely to activate camouflage. The strength she displays and all her drives are asexual. She is something else in a world where cyborgs are commonplace, each believing they possess a soul – the ghost in the shell.

A complex argument of what defines consciousness, the individual traits that are left behind, creating the person.

As revelations unravel, Major worries that her ghost could just be clever programming. This comes about when her unit, a government agency, realises a hacker is at work, it appears the corporation that makes government cyborgs has been infiltrated.

The Puppet Master, is the name the hacker goes by, and it sets Major up for a showdown. With it, a deep insight into her own existence.

To go into further detail will unravel the apex of the story. The main takeaway from Ghost in the Shell after all these years is that the mood and feel stands up to anything that has come since. Some hallmarks have been outright robbed in major Hollywood films. The way characters move during action scenes is now the way CGI enhanced stuntmen do combat.

The soundtrack could be where Manga borrowed ideas from western sci-fi, even when using traditional Japanese songs, in terms of tension building. But the pacing is a let-down. The philosophical statements are unlikely to be surpassed in the 2017 live action remake but the flow of the film has room for improvement.

To answer the question in the opening paragraph: Yes, originally it was overlooked when it should have been embraced rather than copied. But time has aged some of its parts and degraded the once four-star film.

6/10

Rogue One – Review

Last year JJ Abrams gave us the soft reboot to the Star Wars universe. It got the ball rolling for Disney and now we get the first of the spin-off movies. It comes in the form of Rogue One, a true prequel to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, as it tells the story of how the Death Star plans ended up in the hands of the rebels.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn (picture a diluted Rey). She isn’t force sensitive and has daddy issues like Luke Skywalker. A lot like Luke. It seems, to her, for some unknown reason, daddy has turned to the bad side. But we see at the start of the movie, he is reluctantly dragged away by the Empire to finish his work on the Death Star.

She has to go rogue (excuse the pun) as a kid, and is saved by an extreme rebel, Saw Gerrera. This character is played by the usually excellent Forest Whitaker. He isn’t so great here, it’s as if he took his (good) eye off the ball. The performance is somewhere between campy, empty, exaggerated.

Her father (like Luke’s, remember) is on a path to redemption and she’s the tool. TV’s Hannibal Mads Mikkelsen plays the role, he leaks a way for the rebels to get the blueprints to the Death Star and points them in the right direction when it comes to faults.

You know that major gripe about a super-space station being so vulnerable to what looks like a stupid oversight? Well, that is explained away: the designer put it there on purpose.

Mads as Galen Erso comes with only one complaint – we don’t get to see enough of him.

What begins as a darker Star Wars film, can’t help slip into a lighter version. In the final moments, I had to remind myself I wasn’t watching Star Trek Beyond. That’s right, the adult Star Wars film turns into the friendliest sci-fi of the summer.

It still manages to feel like it belongs with the original trilogy (blue milk, anyone?) and we do get some throwbacks. Peter Cushing is raised from the dead via CGI to resume his role as Grand Moff Tarkin. It’s a decent effort in terms of effects but he lacks the humanity, and the supreme acting ability, of the long-deceased legend.

He’s not bossing Lord Vader around this time, but Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, who proves to be a worthy central, if slightly inept, villain.

Darth is back, in a few fleeting scenes. Vader now struts around like a catwalk model. Whoever says the fear factor has returned never appreciated seeing him for the first time before Lucas destroyed his mystique.

A hint of force sensitive individuals comes in the form of Chirrut Îmwe. He is a blind man that uses the force to be as effective as any fighter on screen. And fair play to Disney, they could have had him brandishing a light sabre in the final third but resisted. It means the idea that the Jedi are myth in A New Hope still rings true.

NB, George Lucas: This is how you avoid plot holes.

We know the ending, otherwise there’d be no A New Hope. How we get there is engaging. And like Star Trek Beyond, you’ll not think about it a few months from now.

It could be telling that it’s not had quite the same push as The Force Awakens. They’ve let this one out on its own merits, to find momentum under its own steam. A movie of two halves will leave all fans 50% satisfied.

7/10

(It’s touching, in light of recent events, that the final shot is a CGI Carrie Fisher as the original Princess Leia. May the Force be with her, always.)

Captain America: Civil War – Review

If you eat too much of anything, however much you may enjoy it, you’ll eventually become bloated. 2016 could be the serving of one superhero film feast too many. To make matters worse, here is a review for another that sees good guys face good guys. Can Captain America: Civil War add energy to Marvel’s concept and make us forget the market is oversaturated?

I’ll save you reading 500 words and give you the answer now: It’s a big, fat, No!

Now I’ll humbly explain why.

It starts with so much promise. Captain America and his team (Black Widow, Falcon, Scarlet Witch) are heading an espionage mission in Africa. At this point I found myself applauding the Captain’s films. I like how they blend superhero with spy movie. Had this remained the case – indeed, remained a Captain America film – we wouldn’t have had a problem.

The problem came when Scarlet Witch, by accident, threw a baddie into a building full of innocents.

Cue the morale debate about should superheroes be allowed to go around without anyone giving them orders. A little bit like the Superman subplot in Batman v Superman but without any of the meat on the tired old bones.

Rather than it be an area of worthy exploration, it becomes nothing more than a plot device. And what a dire plot. Captain’s buddy, Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier, appears to blow up the UN when all The Avengers minus Captain America sign a new treaty, placing them under the control of men rather than being outside of the law.

Obviously, Captain America has to defend a guy he shared double-billing with on the last solo movie poster and Iron Man has to stick to the letter of the (new) law and treat him as a criminal. Also pretty obvious, is how it’s all been a set-up to make Bucky look bad. The motivations and the main bad guy an extraneous excuse to see our heroes have a fight.

Once the action starts, you may ask, surely it masks the poor plot?

Nah, not really. Ant-Man steals the show in the main battle, which is more like handbags at ten paces. And proving that Marvel fanboys make the most noise but the least sense, I can now confirm the new Spider-Man is the worst incarnation seen on the big screen.

Andrew Garfield must be wondering how on Earth Marvel couldn’t have shoehorned his version into the movie instead of this lame replacement. The teabag I squeezed out of my cup ten minutes ago has more screen presence than Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. As Spider-Man, things do improve, but Garfield was more wisecracking and it felt more natural.

While I will never deny the beauty of Marisa Tomei, is it really progressive to have her as Aunt May? The moral compass of a young hero that still looks like the lap dancer from The Wrestler? Yeah, that’ll work, Marvel.

The flaws in the films message and the bad guy’s main intention fall apart in the final scenes because it is plain stupid. His idea could never have worked and there’d always be some version of The Avengers regardless of infighting.

Sadly, due to overeager reviewers and the fanboys, there’ll always be Marvel movies like this.

It isn’t the worst ever (it can thank Iron Man 2 for that) but it isn’t far behind. It seems unfair Marvel can be applauded for another misfire while DC struggle for any type of credit from mainstream critics.

If things don’t vastly improve in the MCU, sooner or later others will speak up, and 2018’s Infinity War may forever be in pre-production.

5/10 (It would have been 4/10, if not for the opening Captain America elements.)

Star Trek Beyond – Review

To boldly go where the Kelvin Universe (Geek-speak for the JJ rebooted universe) has never gone before . . . back to the old feel of Star Trek’s Original Series. That was the mission statement following Trekkies dislike of Star Trek Into Darkness. Were they right to moan? Has the movie pulled it off?

Well, they were a little out of order slating JJ Abrams for paying too much homage to the source material (ring any bells, Star Wars fans?). But to be fair, no film should tamper with The Wrath of Khan. Into Darkness doesn’t deserve the bad press, mind. With the latest movie, Simon Pegg stated they had heard the complaints, loud and clear, and had addressed them.

That can’t be argued with. Star Trek Beyond moves past any pretentiousness (not that I personally had a problem with any aspect of the rebooted universe) and feels very much like an updated episode of the Original Series. Even the bad guy, Krall (Idris Elba under a ton of prosthetics) has a base that could have been lifted from the sixties show.

That’s not to say it looked dated or old fashioned – it was nostalgic, in all the right ways. It understands the styling of the day, the attitudes, the simple approach to honest sci-fi.

It isn’t soft, either. In the opening battle scene, you realise the Enterprise crew are in serious peril. And you can’t see a way for them, their fear is felt in the cinema seat. It’s just the bright costumes, buddy-buddy atmosphere, and one-dimensional villains, are all so swinging sixties.

Teaming the crew off in mini-groups once they are abandoned, allows them to finally get the screen time required for character exploration.

The standout performers are Karl Urban as Bones and Zachary Quinto as Spock. The former has the voice of DeForest Kelley’s McCoy down to a tee. His grislily demeanour that is hiding a good heart comes through. Thankfully, this extended appearance should put to bed talk of him wanting to leave due to being under-utilised.

The new Spock receives word that Prime Spock, our beloved Leonard Nimoy, has passed away. Both on and off screen, it is a call to take on the mantle now. Honour the name and respect the man that came before.

Chris Pine plays James T. Kirk with a better mix of Shatner and his own take than he managed previous. There are signs he will fill the big shoes and do the role justice. Whereas Zoe Saldana, will go on to expand the part of Uhura in ways denied to the original actress, Nichelle Nichols.

Sofia Boutella, made a strong impression in a supporting role as a lonely survivor on the planet that aides the crew. It is possible she could return in future instalments. That would be a welcome addition to this version of Star Trek.

Ultimately, the last action scene aside, it relies on the crew rather than special effects to make its impact. Okay, Justin Lin does repeat that absurd, diving through the air, grab hands act, lifted straight from the saving Letty scene in Fast & Furious 6, but he shows there is more to him than cars. He is a Trekkie.

With that, we get classic Star Trek. Which means, while the curse of the odd-numbered films is avoided once again, it is wholesome fun but fails to leave a lasting impression.

It will be one of the best films of this summer . . . but you won’t remember it ten years from now.

7/10