Finally we algorithmically alight on one of my most anticipated movies of 2017. Well, when I say ‘anticipated’ that was my initial reaction to the first trailer drop last Autumn, since then subsequent glimpses of this live-action remake of the acclaimed 1995 anime my enthusiasm has eroded somewhat, as further images have started to take the feel of a 1990’s direct to DVD B-Movie with slightly more production luxury and some impressive metropolospaces which will always tickle my cyberpunk creased cerebellum. I grew up with a deep appreciation of the then refreshing cyberpunk literature of Gibson and Sterling et. al, thus I’ve obviously seen the anime, but remember little about it other than the rather arresting image of the invisibility cloaked fembot plunging into technologically augmented action. I also like ScarJo when she’s in movie-star action mode and she’s been solid in some kinetic cued movies, but there are also the blemishes of Lucy and The Island in her filmography. Still, like any obedient genre SF soldier I downloaded* this on opening day, and have to concur with the overall assessment that this is a production which has its chimeral charms, but is far from the modern classic that some of us wanted it to be.
A century or so hence and the human race lives clustered in massive urban conurbations, while technological advancements have made physical bio-enhancements, hallucinatory street advertising and robotic automatons as ubiquitous in the environment as a new model iPhone or Galaxy in our contemporary phase of the 21st century. A paradigm promising and seemingly Chris Cunningham influenced technofetishistic opening introduces us to the Major (Johansson), the displaced consciousness of a terrorist attack survivor transplanted into a state-of-the-art next generation android at the behest of the shadowy Hanaka corporation, the spearhead weapon of a government sponsored anti-terrorism strike team known only as Section 9. When the bodies start stacking up from a plague of assassinations the only linkage meme is the victims work on the clandestine Project 257, leading the Major and her comrades on a mission which will slowly unveil her mysterious past and a wider cybernetic conspiracy….
What we have on our titanium tensed, carbonpolyetherine coated hands is a movie that processes its plot in binary fluctuation – neither as good as it should have been, nor as bad as it could have been. To begin with the positives if like me the imagery of a godsview camera swooping through a neon drenched, holograph haunted future cityspace teeming with futuristic tech makes you retire to your fainting couch like some 19th century influenza afflicted debutante then this is a movie for you. The world building is spectacular, and demands a Blu-Ray acquisition alone to sequentially frame examine the urban helliosphere which is teeming with background characters and production detail, while wisely avoiding the visual pollution miasma that George Lucas inflicted upon us with the prequel trilogy. Clint Mansell’s low-key but effective seething synth score coolly augments the impressive craftwork, as overall this is a scintillating simulacra of a future world that other genre fans will find beautiful to behold. Kitano Takeshi in a rare Western sourced role as the leader of Section 9 adds to the films oriental authenticity (and wins the films sole great dialogue exchange which we can consider ‘vintage’ Takeshi) as does Juliet Binoche as the Major’s Dr. Frankenstien surrogate, leading the medical project to bring our heroine back to artificial life while harbouring some unpleasant secrets of her own.
Moving from the ones to the zeros the film fails in tracing any sort of intellectual curiosity. After narratively erecting these questions around the implications of a replicated and decanted consciousness, or state intervention in our increasingly digitised and surveillance state sanctioned lives (all the more ironic that the film was released the same week that this passed into law after this was enforced in my country a few months ago) Ghost In The Shell singularly fails to adequately investigate these crucial arenas, preferring to follow the path of your standardised blockbuster workflow and formalised function. Flat dialogical idioms abound, such as cramming dialogue into characters mouths like ‘we cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do is what defines us’ hang listlessly on the screen, as when you unpack statements of that ilk you realise that it doesn’t actually mean or signal anything of merit whatsoever. ScarJo is merely adequate as the main character, she never invests her performance with any of the otherworldly eeriness of the quality of Under The Skin, neither through her figure movement nor wider physical presence – this strikes me as a serious oversight and wasted opportunity to truly capture the notion of a disembodied entity locked into an alien and unfamiliar hardware. Director Rupert Sanders proved he could handle impressive SFX in his previous film Snow White & The Huntsman and he graces much of the action sequences with an adequate understanding of choreography and physical space, although the final show-down closes the structure with a incorporeal whimper more than a blockbuster bang. Still, the film does have an overall sense of some physicality, some aura of density, mostly avoiding the uncanny valley trap where it is evident that the entire movie was lensed against a studio mandated green screen – there is evident location work and seething set design which also demands a repeat viewing.
For all that criticism Ghost In The Shell does have its moments. There is the impressive opening after which it flatlines for the next hour or so from a plot and pacing perspective, but it does start to pick up some momentum and genuine interest after the Major starts to penetrate the identity of her nemesis and his links to her fabricated past. Naturally, all this manga mandated machinery clanks and smoulders in the shadow of the imminent Blade Runner sequel of which footage has been seen at this months CinemaCon and apparently is stunning, I just hope this physical wreck can continue toward its post retirement date of October 2017 and bask in the return of such a crucial cinema text which still throws its shadow over these SF pretenders to the cybernetic throne. So, overall this film is a strange beast, a movie with the aura of a 1990’s cyberpunk pretender lacquered with a 2017 state of the art CGI carapace, with very few queries coiling under its alabaster shell. If you want to truly fire up the synapses and contemplate our slow march to increased fourth wave industrialisation or the A.I. apocalypse then I’d suggest a revisit to the likes of Ex Machina, or HBO’s impressive Westworld reboot, but visually at least this is the closest we’ve got to the majesty of the seminal Neuromancer yet, so if you recalibrate your sensorial input nodes then Ghost in The Shell is a programme just about worth pursuing;
* Well, when I say ‘downloaded’ I’m just speaking metaphorically, I did go and see this at the cinema and didn’t resort to clandestine activities so don’t set the Paramount lawyers on me, OK?
Stephen King fans like myself have been waiting for years to see lovely Pennywise in the shivering flesh, as let’s face that 1990’s TV adaptation is not good. Finally he’s here to tell us ‘we all float down here’;
When I first heard of the fevered instruction Get Out in the context of a horror film my mind listlessly wanders to this sequence from suburban squirm fest The Amityville Horror, a yuppie nightmare of home ownership, economic stress and familial strife lurking behind those white picket fences. A submerged evil uncoiling in suburbia continues in this culturally incendiary movie, the debut effort of comedian Jordan Peele of Comedy Central Emmy Award winning smash Key & Peele fame. Riding the crest of a spectacular word of mouth wave with screenings literally bringing the house down – even us jaded critics are citing it as the best fun they’ve had as an audience inclusive experience in years – the movie is a 2017 cluster of cultural gelignite, an explosive comment on modern race relations, liberal guilt and an increasingly diverse and fractured first world society. Naturally, as a die-hard horror fanatic I couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about and with a few minor reservations this is a terrific little picture, combining an iconoclastic brew of The Stepford Wives with Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, garnished with a deadly dose of The Wicker Man for good, gruesome measure.
Budding student photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya, probably best known as Emily Blunt’s partner in Sicario) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (probably best known as one of the quartet of leads in Girls that isn’t Lena Dunham) prepare for a weekend trip to meet her wealthy yet staunchly liberal parents, Dean and Missy, portrayed by a perfectly cast Catherine Keener and Bradford Whitford. Chris is understandably nervous at meeting his partners folks, always a potentially stressful experience in the first phases of a serious relationship, an anxiety which is enhanced by his being a person of colour and her pure WASP pedigree. Rose placates his nerves by assuring him that her parents are so liberal that they are sure to impress him with their support of the then sitting president, and her prediction that they would explain to him that they have voted for Obama again if he could have stood for a third term soon comes to pass. Initially all seems quaint in the impressive Connecticut suburbs, but small details of unease start to coalesce – the house groundskeeper and domestic assistant (both of African-American ethnicity) affect a glassy-eyed, robotic subservience which no-one else seems to notice, and certain phrases and behaviours of the Armitage’s extended family and friends seem slightly off-kilter and…strange. I’ll say no more as it is crucial that you into this experience as ignorant as an Alabama knitting circle, as a horrific plot slowly materialises out of the midnight mists….
It is difficult to dance around this one and retain spoiler integrity so I’ll just say that the praise the film has attracted is definitively deserved, in yet another storming debut to the horror movie Hecate. Although it follows the contours of a horror film, especially the concept of a naive, increasingly suspicious innocent being inculcated in a deadly conspiracy the social and political themes are smoothed under numerous narrative and allegorical levels, so that a second viewing will be essential to judge who finely Peele’s excellent script was engineered. The jump scares are kept to an intensified minimum, the film preferring to build an increasing sense of mysterious dread through which the thumbscrews are tightened, before all hell breaks loose in a final and expectation flouting finale. All the leads are solid and treat the material with the respect it deserves, it plays more serious than other horror-comedy hybrids like The Evil Dead or An American Werewolf In London for example, struck more from the mould of The Cabin In The Woods with a deft understanding of genre conventions.
TSA agent and Chris’s best friend Rod Williams (LaKeith Lee Stanfield) is the comic relief, the surrogate for the audience whom plays a sassy, exuberant sort and gets most of the films belly laugh lines, even if at times it feels he’s wondered in from a Wayan brothers picture. The good news is that Peele has revealed he has scribed four other horror scripts before he got this one off the ground, and given its $5 million budget to its stratospheric $150 million (and counting) return I’m positive we’ll be seeing more from him soon. Just to be slightly contrarian as a genre nerd I’d have preferred it if it had spent just a little more time moving through the central film’s plot premise, I think some of those narrative nuances got a little lost in the mix, but to be fair the more I’ve thought about it the satire is revealed to be more deeply layered and constructed that a first impression suggests, with visual metaphors and plot devices building a deft oratory on the diseased state of the American body politic. This is simply essential viewing, a vibrant new addition to the pantheon of pandemonium that squirms in the recent slipstream of The Witch, It Follows and The Babadook, so Get Out and see it immediately. A-hem. Sorry;
Looks like its time again for the annual glut of gloomfest thinkpieces of the state of the industry, yet somehow cinema still marches on, as it has, for almost 130 years. It’s been quite a journey;
New film from Martin In Bruges McDonagh, I thought his last effort Seven Psychopaths somewhat missed its mark, here’s hoping he’s back on target. A good cast and I think this trailer should make you chuckle a couple of times, especially if you admire spectacular swearing;
To accompany the UK release of Kelly Reichardt’s acclaimed new movie Certain Women the BFI have launched a short retrospective of her work, and invited the curious chronicler of the American dispossessed, of those living their quiet lives in the margins of society over to introduce some of the screenings and discuss her work. I first stumbled upon her films in the most serendipitous way possible, renting a DVD of Wendy & Lucy knowing nothing of its story or maker, being faintly aware of its reputation and critical praise. I was utterly blown away by the films direct empathy for its central character, for its near unique emphasis on middle America and the faint political underpinnings of a social structure in crisis, welded together with the then arising ‘austere’ stream of cinema which adopts a narrow but effective array of techniques in order to replicate reality – diagetic sound only, 100% location shooting with single camera takes, a loosely explored, improvisational performance structure. In the intervening decade Reichardt has become one of the finest practitioners of the form, and slowly built a formidable auteur reputation and a string of awards from the festival circuit, while darting through an eclectic array of subjects and situations – the eco-warrior movement, 19th century US pioneers, a triumvirate of women seeking solace and security in an anxious world. She is unquestionably one of the most accomplished US filmmakers working today, whose career I follow closely, so naturally I jumped at the chance to see her speak of her craft and revisit her work on the screen as intended.
So, just to be slightly unconventional like her films we’ll begin with the Q&A before getting into the movie, as that was the sequence of events on the day. She took a while to get warmed up and was a little inarticulate, but that was more to do with the difficulty of explaining her process which she explained is more felt instinctively than through serious cognitive concentration. I hadn’t clicked that she always works as her own editor, cutting the picture ‘in-camera’ during the shot, which may prevent the gift of having an independent, fresh pair of eyes to assess the material, but cleaves closer to her original conception of the picture. She noted how difficult it was to make ‘quiet’ films, pictures without instructive soundtracks, devoting attention to the sound mix by writing out an aural schemata similar to a storyboarding for the visuals. All her films are shot in natural locations which maintains a verite intensity, and creates a certain frisson while shooting as the crew grapples with unpredictable elements such as the weather, animals, and inquisitive natives. Her rehearsals with actors consist of making them conduct the chores of their characters, of living their everyday repetitive lives, such as the pioneer camp for Meeks Cutoff, or servicing a farm for Certain Women, rather than running lines or script table reads, so the actors can build a muscle memory that serves the part. Finally, the inevitable influences and favourites question was posed, and as a film scholar she cited a few expected maestros – Sirk, Fassbinder, Bresson – and mourned how terrible 2016 was with the loss of both Kiarostami and Chantal Ackerman.
As the daughter of a crime scene technician and narcotics agent it is no surprise that Reichardt’s films are studious investigations, methodical in tone, perhaps a little distanced and sociological in their cool observation than some would prefer. Shot on location in Portland, Oregon Wendy & Lucy is a few days in the life of financial economic refuge Wendy (Michelle Williams) who is traversing the country to Alaska, in search of seasonal work at a fishery factory. Sleeping in her dilapidated car and keeping a keen eye on her meagre budget her only companion is her mongrel Labrador Lucy, a unique source of affection in her difficult environment. After a bad choice leads to her being separated from her companion the film follows a modest path of her attempted reunification with her mutt, orienteered through William’s heartbreakingly discreet performance which fully inhabits the role of the proud disposed and forgotten. The drama arises from the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential of incidents – a stuttering car engine signalling economic panic, a simple yet critical offer to use a mobile phone – which are bracketed by Ozu pillow-shot interludes to build a sense of time and space, weaving a tapestry of realistic rigour.
Wendy & Lucy is simply a beautiful, discreet haunting modern classic, drip feeding character texture through action rather than reaction, while offering a historical portrait of an entire segment of society. released in the year of the worst global crash of 90 years it is a moving vision of any strata of society, their precarious existence balanced where one poorly judged decision can threaten the entire fabric of safety after the social contract safety net was withdrawn by successive neo-liberal administrations. Reichardt cleaves to the bone in terms of plot and narrative, it follows a directly linear sequential path, coolly observing the situation and character actions without judgement, yielding a space for the audience to form their own conclusions and connections. It’s from those hesitations, the muted, reductive dialogue, the slow imperceptible construct of screen realism that the oblique politics creep into the work, enforced further through the absence of any diagetic sonic crutch to signal how we should feel in certain sequences, and a sparse 78 minute run time. It’s a cinema of quiet anxiety and gentle loneliness, as in the final reel Wendy marches off into the distance, to face an uncertain future alongside swathes of her forgotten generation;
Just a little something to keep you reprobates entertained and educated while I assemble my Get Out review. It was good.
The fact that this destructive bacteria, whom actually shares the namesake of PKD’s imaginarium of a false, withdrawn, corrupt & corporate overlord disrupting and frantically attempting to massage civilisation is beyond satire – and when was the last time you checked the legitimacy of your pets?;
About a third of the way through Kong: Skull Island, Warner Brothers latest bid to recapture the franchise crown from the house of mouse, marooned Second World War airman Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) yells how happy he is that a military expedition has finally arrived to save him – ‘I heard you were coming, they told me you were here’ he feverishly exclaims. The problem with this exchange is that he is alone on the remote pacific atoll of Skull Island, exiled since he crash landed almost thirty years ago, apart from the standard issue deployment of a primitive tribe whom have also just discovered the expedition, mere moments before. His potential saviours are a reassigned Vietnam Marine unit – this film is set in the early 1970’s for no qualitatively discernible reason – captained by a standard issue Samuel L. Jackson blustering lazily through his usual blockbuster bricolage. That such a elemental disregard for narrative script logic has surpassed the studio QC test speaks volumes of this productions disregard for the audiences intelligence (who are they, exactly?), the incremental tip of an insulting iceberg, in what I am afraid to report is this year’s worst movie so far – and I’ve seen Hacksaw Ridge.
So let’s rewind a little and outline the plot, as much as there is a semblance of such things. Bill Randa (John Goodman) is the senior executive of the secretive government organisation codenamed Monarch, a unit charged with investigating the mysterious and clandestine caverns of the globe. Despite being enveloped in a mysterious, permanent storm which obscures any satellite penetration (not to mention defying the laws of physics) he has spent years lobbying for an expedition to Skull Island, a remote archipelago situated in the deeps of the Pacific Ocean, which due to its unique qualities has never been crawled over by scientists like a phalanx of curious climate attuned toddlers. So finally, despite being ignored by centuries of inquisitive homo-sapien exploration Randa finally convinces the powers that be to assemble a B-Movie battalion of character tropes to see what’s going on, and whom, or indeed what might be roaming around this Eukaryoteic eden.
Quite how you waste an ensemble cast of Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchel, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Terry Notary is a gargantuan achievement, as no attention has been aimed at assembling any sliver of adventurous creation, Hiddleston in particular being spectacularly miscast as some roguish adventurer in a desperate grasp for Han Solo symbiosis. Second lead Larson as Mason Weaver, a self-proclaimed ‘anti-war’ photographer recruited to the mission also yields no internal instruction or arc, no political purchase or indeed personality, but she does get the ‘best’ line in the film when she reports for duty and a surprised military attaché exclaims ‘Mason Weaver? But (dramatic pause, scrolling through the ship deployment manifest)…but…you’re a woman?’…’Last time I checked!’ she retorts. Alas, I am not joking.
After half an hour of this tedious stumble through the labyrinth of lazy Hollywood engineering I recalibrated my expectations accordingly, as even if we can’t have anything resembling fun characters or dialogue, any graze of excitement or energy we can at least reel in some scintillating CGI and mirthful monster mayhem, right? Wrong. Blockbuster brawlers such as Guillermo and Jackson have consistently and correctly reasserted that an essential element of any monster movie is to invest your creations with some semblance of personality, a trait that is fully absent here, there’s just no there there beneath the CGI carapace. The main draw of the movie, the almighty Kong who squats atop the pinnacle of American monster movies since 1934 in this incarnation is simply boring to behold in all his supposed simian stupendousness – it’s all inertia, with no metaphoric gravity nor heft. That critical, fatal flaw is reinforced in the design of the perfunctory flora and fauna of Skull Island that assail our heroes, the supporting characters are picked off red-shirt style with no human dimension nor consequence, as we progress through a plot untroubled by interest or consequence. Sure, I am fully aware that you should perhaps check in any concerns of reason or logic at the ticket collection booth – this is a big, loud, brash blockbuster intended to deactivate the cerebellum – yet the flippant lack of quality or design in any other dimension of filmmaking, the set pieces, the SFX, any sense of exotic adventure or mysterious investigation, they all render this movie as mediocre par maximus.
Predictably the wider movie references are speared throughout the film like a postmodern skewer (including a nod to this), but the obvious antecedent is Apocalypse Now which I detected from the initial trailer and the colour palette, period soundtrack and those images of mosquito framed choppers shrouded against a blazing oriental sun. A cold opening of Marlow’s initial arrival on the atoll in 1944 is pinched from Boorman’s Hell In The Pacific when a Japanese airman is also marooned along with Marlow, a plot point which is suitably set up and then thoroughly abandoned. Gentle reader, given the deliberate historical locality I’m not necessarily expecting some squirming subtext of an arrogant battalion of Westerners invading an exotic oriental locale, raining napalm and ordinance on the denizens and arousing the wrath of some ancient, gargantuan, elemental wrath, but a movie on this scale has to be fun on its own genre terms, and on that front Skull Island fails abysmally. Once again the studios have drafted in a talented Indie director, Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts (helmsman of 2013’s charming Kings Of Summer), and ruthlessly crushed any potential flourish or notable technique, as all must be in thrall to lowest common denominator blockbuster banality personified in the near ubiquitous and groan inducing post credits sting – see also Jurassic World. Doug McClure must be spinning in his volcanic grave, as taken as a franchise inceptor or mere creature feature Skull Island is a colossal disappointment;