Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Ghost in the Shell"


Has no one in the future seen Young Frankenstein?  Do they not realize how risky it is to put a human brain into another body, whether one fresh from a grave or manufactured by machine?  Have they not heard of Abby Normal?

Sure, at one point in Ghost in the Shell, the calm, quiet, not-at-all-mad scientist played by Juliette Binoche tells her creation, played by Scarlett Johansson, that there were 98 attempts to create a hybrid human-robot before her.

Ninety-eight?  I've heard of PowerPoint presentations with fewer drafts.  Yet, on the 99th try, the sinister ultra-mega-industrial conglomerate Hanka has successfully taken a human brain and put it into a cyborg body.  But why would this be a good idea?  What if, instead of the skillful brain of The Major, as Johansson's character is know, they had gotten the brain of, say, Woody Allen or Meryl Streep, and rather than shoot weapons and fight The Major had just wanted to make a doctor's appointment to see about the rash on her arm, or to become a high-quality actress?

Somehow, though, the doctor and Hanka -- a shadowy criminal enterprise, because no other kind of big company exists in action movies -- luck out, and they get a brain that can be trained to think and act like a precision machine, one that is manufactured through a process that is almost exactly like the one in the TV version of Westworld.  There are other similarities to Westworld, as well as to Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, like the "glitches" that The Major experiences -- flashes of her life before her brain was taken from her body and put in a Scarlett Johansson robot.

After a year of training to be an assassin-slash-vigilante, The Major gets her first assignment, which is to track down a mysterious man named Kuze, who has been engaging in cyber-attacks against Hanka.  Aided by a vicious guy with a tender heart (Pilou Asbaek), who ends up with the movie's best cyborg parts, she tracks down Kuze and begins to realize that she might not be as clear on her own history as she thought she was.

The Major's search for her sense of self is the best thing about Ghost in the Shell, even though it recalls so many other robots-with-human-feelings stories, including the compelling British TV series Humans, not to mention A.I. and Blade Runner, which is this film's biggest and most obvious visual influence -- to the point of distraction, actually.  It's to Johansson's credit that the middle portion of Ghost in the Shell is more compelling than it should be.  This isn't at all new territory, and Ghost in the Shell really has nothing new to say about the fine line between humanity and technology, a line that seems to be getting finer and finer every day.

As someone with absolutely no familiarity with the original manga comic or the 1995 animated film that came before this one, Ghost in the Shell intrigued me with its observations on the meaning of personal memory and kept me interested with its visuals -- at times, they look too much like Blade Runner for comfort, down to the always-rainy, overly grungy underworld of its near-future, hyper-techno urban cityscapes.  But its over-reliance on guns, gangsters and generic action scenes, especially a ridiculously bombastic and frenetic climax, had my eyes glazing over at times.

There are too many ghosts in the shell of this film, the cinematic ghosts of robots and dystopian futures we've seen so many times before.  Johansson and Binoche do particularly fine jobs at keeping the ghosts at bay, but they're always there, lurking on the sides. They haunt the film a bit too deeply, leaving Ghost in the Shell not without its merits but incapable of overcoming the same sensation that The Major has throughout much of the movie: We've seen this before.

Viewed March 28, 2017 -- Paramount Theater


Friday, March 24, 2017



Put a handful of people in an enclosed space and throw in an indestructible monster and you've got a can't-miss movie, right?  It must have seemed that easy to the filmmakers behind Life.  After all, it's been nearly 40 years since Ridley Scott made Alien, and Life follows the same basic premise.

There are a half-dozen astronauts (all right, so that's one less than Alien had) who discover a strange organism that comes aboard their spaceship, which in this case is the International Space Station.  It grows, as did the Alien, into a ravaging, bloodthirsty creature that won't stop until it kills them all.

Life hews so closely to the Alien structure that it's never surprising or particularly exciting, neither hardcore enough to work as science-fiction or suspenseful enough to work as a horror film.  Most disappointing is the creature at the heart of the story, a gelatinous, squid-like blob that jiggles and bounces across the screen without a sense of menace.

The creature begins as a hibernating single-cell organism found in soil samples from Mars, which, as the movie begins, are blown terribly off course and might be lost forever except that the space station crew is on hand to retrieve them.  The resident biologist (Ariyon Bakare) pokes and prods at the tiny, sleeping microbe, lo and behold, it stirs.  Word gets around fast that the ISS has found proof of life beyond Earth, and a little girl in Times Square announces that the thing shall henceforth be known as Calvin.

What the giddy folks down on terra firma don't realize is that Calvin quickly morphs into an angry little thing, one that the astronauts theorize might have once lived in abundance on the red planet, though the movie never really builds on that theory at all.  Instead, it focuses on Calvin's only obsession: killing everyone it meets.

As Calvin grows, it becomes intent on survival, and the movie becomes merely a cat-and-mouse chase in a claustrophobic environment.  That's all well and good, except that Life doesn't clearly establish the rules of engagement, so Calvin takes on any survival ability that will push the plot forward.  He can survive in the vacuum of space, he can shove his tentacles down the throats of unsuspecting astronauts, he can wriggle his way into tiny spaces, he can even think and reason -- he can do pretty much anything, which means that Life bluffs its way along.

That would be fine if Life were really suspenseful, but too often it's just a visual and narrative jumble, even as it narrows down the crew to just two -- a scientist from the Centers for Disease Control (Rebecca Ferguson), who has shockingly little awareness of how to contain a deadly organism, and a  pilot (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has been on the ISS for more than a year.

Neither they nor the movie has a clear idea of how to proceed.  Their final inspiration comes from, of all places, the children's book "Goodnight Moon," and leads to a climactic plot twist that is not only easy to predict, but that feels as contrived as the rest of the movie.  It's a last-ditch effort to inject some life into Life, which is by no means a terrible film just a lackluster one, especially because it mostly -- and unintentionally -- serves as a reminder of a better, more exciting, more fulfilling and stylish movie about a spaceship and a really mean alien.

Viewed March 24, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Catching Up: "Moana"


It's quite a strange fault for a movie to have, but Moana just has too much going on.  You can't fault the filmmakers for having too many ideas -- except that, well, yes, you can.

It begins with a trickster demi-god who steals the heart of an island, then shifts its focus to a young woman whose heart yearns to see more than her small, provincial home.  Somehow, the ocean, or rather The Ocean, since its water has a personality of its own in Moana, chooses the girl to find the heart of that island, which is a small stone that must be restored to its rightful home, because -- and this is where I started getting a little lost -- the life force of the island from which it has been removed is depleting surrounding islands.

This isn't a simple story, even though for long, long stretches of this nearly two-hour film there are just two people on a small boat in the middle of a large ocean, which is generally not a compelling dramatic setup, Life of Pi notwithstanding.  And it requires a lot of manipulating in order to put Moana in just the right place in the vast, vast ocean.  Machinas ex from the deus quite frequently in Moana, complicating and frustrating efforts to really love it.

The biggest shame of all of that is that Moana has so very much to recommend it.  When you strip away the long, unnecessary sequence of weird (and adorable) coconut-shelled pirates that doesn't take the story anywhere, or the even longer and more unnecessary sequence involving a fluorescent, glam-rocker crab who sings a long and forgettable song, Moana is sometimes beautiful and sometimes wonderful.

It's the third time Disney has used the Pacific islands for inspiration, and as a whole, Moana doesn't compare entirely favorably with Lilo and Stitch or the all-too-brief but entirely splendid short film Lava.  Yet its rich and beautiful visuals, its strong characters and its warm spirit make it a nice effort, in spite of heaping plot point upon plot point.

The notion of a Polynesian girl who sets sail to search for a way to save her own island and its people is one with great inherent appeal -- by its very nature, it sets up a story of someone who needs to prove physical strength, personal courage and emotional upheaval, and there's something so innately beautiful about Polynesian culture that Moana has everything going for it.

So how does the film end up bogged down with so many extraneous characters and elaborate plot complexities?  It searches mightily, and rather unsuccessfully, to find a villain to counter the strength of Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho), and while the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) is a fun and funny guy, he ends up largely being along for the ride -- there because the story demands she find him, and once she does, they search for interesting things to do together.

As it stretches and stretches its thin story even further, it's easy to long for the days when a Disney animated film was considered lengthy at 80 minutes, when extraneous plot was anathema to the Disney way of storytelling.  A Young Woman and the Sea kind of approach, with Moana guided by the spirit of her recently deceased grandmother, could have made a terrifically lean and focused movie, because Moana seems overwhelmed by its story excesses.

Strip it all away, and you're left with a few truly splendid songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina and a wonderful story about the journeys people take to figure out how they fit into the world.  Moana's journey of self-discovery and growth wisely does not require a love interest in Moana -- but it would have been even wiser for it not to have digressed quite so frequently.  Its meanderings lose the focus of what's really important: the way that a perilous journey can define the soul.

In that, Moana finally does deliver on its emotional promises, and does so with genuine satisfaction, but it takes the long way round the ocean to get there.  The very long way round.

Viewed March 23, 2017 -- Blu-ray

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Kong: Skull Island"


Every generation gets the big-budget movies it deserves, and Kong: Skull Island is the final proof that this generation is in a lot of trouble.

The Sixties had its widescreen, increasingly bloated and out-of-touch movie musicals.  The Seventies combined auteur-influenced with the blockbuster mentality.  The Eighties added massive star power (and lots of synthesized music).  In the Nineties, the writers ruled with original stories.

And since the dawn of the Third Millennium, what?  Well, think of it this way: Since 2000, the charts of the top 20 films of each year have been ruled by sequels and remakes.  Hollywood has no interest in telling original stories that will inspire filmmakers and audiences for many years to come; they want to make money, and the best way to do that is to give people something they've already seen.

Kong: Skull Island is a sort of apotheosis of that mentality, a movie that gives us plenty we have already seen, almost nothing we haven't, and then goes even further by reducing it story to the most meager possible outline of a plot.  Though I've admittedly become more cynical and curmudgeonly as time wears on, Kong: Skull Island made me feel even more world-weary and exasperated with the state of modern filmmaking.  It made me sad.

It also, frankly, made me bored.  Now, as every 11th-grade English teacher in America has said at least once, only boring people are boring, and Kong: Skull Island left me thinking that perhaps that is true.  Maybe I have become boring in my hope and expectation that a movie will make at least the barest of effort to keep me entertained by showing me something other than computer-generated sets and art-directed creatures.  If Kong: Skull Island is less than exhaustingly boring, then I apologize for my infinite boredom as a human being -- but this movie is a crushing bore.  It could have been silly, I would have settled for silly.  It could have been excessive, I would have settled for excessive.  But it's boring, and that's just something I can't settle for.

Kong: Skull Island takes place in 1973, after a short World War II prologue, and the story is this: a satellite has discovered a previously unknown island, perpetually surrounded by a hurricane-force storm, to which a joint scientific-military exploration is sent.  Once there, the expedition meets the massive gorilla known as Kong, and finds out that the island is filled with all sorts of other gigantic creatures.  Then they rescue the guy from the World War II prologue, who has been living on the island for 26 years.  Then they go home.

Nothing else of consequence happens in the movie.  Not one of the characters is interesting enough to become the center of attention, not even Kong himself, who isn't even in half of the movie.  Let me say this again so you understand: The makers of Kong: Skull Island did not think enough of their title character to give him the starring role in the film.  He has a great introduction, in which he is angry that the U.S. military has invaded his island and that they've started dropping bombs all over it.  For about 15 or 20 minutes, he takes down all of their helicopters.  It is a good, well-crafted sequence, but it means nothing to the film.

There are some minor discussions of whether maybe Kong was right to be mad about people coming in and tearing up his home, but those scenes don't go anywhere.  Some of the people who go the island are scientists, but they don't seem at all interested in what they find.  The military people like Samuel L. Jackson's character just want to shoot everything.  There's also a guy played by Tom Hiddleston whose function I didn't quite understand, and and a photographer played by Brie Larson who rarely snaps the shutter while taking photos and hasn't brought along any other lenses, or even much film.  There are some other military people who get eaten and attacked and eviscerated.  And there's John C. Reilly as that World War II veteran who is slightly crazy.

For long periods of Kong: Skull Island I thought about things I shouldn't have been thinking about, like whether Brie Larson will regret following up her Oscar-winning performance in Room with this or if the paycheck more than justified it, and I thought about all of the people sitting in front of computers around the world who made these creatures come to life, and I thought about the meetings at Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment where they talked about franchises and global marketing stunts.

At no time does Kong: Skull Island impart the sense that a group of storytellers sat down and thought, "Wow, we could really sink our teeth into rethinking the whole King Kong thing -- we could make this an exciting, relevant thriller, because this story needs to be retold."  Mostly, it imparts the sense that Kong: Skull Island will soon be followed by Kong: New York and Kong: Escape.  At that point, the lean and mean original movie will have been carved into three two-hour features, at which point Kong will meet Godzilla, another Warner Bros. monster.  That's when the destruction will be so big and massive that only Batman or Superman or the Justice League will be able to save the world in what could be the ultimate franchise extension.

That would be, I fear, the movie we deserve.

Viewed March 19, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, March 11, 2017

"Get Out"


There's a big, rambling house in the countryside, away from the eyesight of prying neighbors.  The residents of the surrounding hamlet are, at best, eccentric.  Strange things seem to happen at night.  And there are far, far too many smiles.

These are the familiar elements of Jordan Peele's gleefully inventive Get Out, a movie that I've heard described as a "horror satire," but that's wrong in a couple of important ways: it's not a horror film, it's a tremendously crafted suspense-thriller; and it's less a satire than a sharp, observant view of the state of post-Obama race relations in the United States -- that country where some pretty prominent people still try to justify slavery and a movie that glorifies a time "of Master and of slave" is still considered one of the greats.

But, ho hum, who would want to see that kind of a movie?  We've moved beyond race.  We don't see color.  But writer-director-producer Jordan Peele knows better than that -- and he also knows his movies, and he's taken careful notes of the ways in which really classic thrillers work, and the ways in which "horror" films have become cheap and lazy.  Get Out is neither cheap nor lazy (except economically -- the movie cost less than $5 million to make, and you'd never know it), it's a fiendishly clever assimilation of cinematic devices and pointed, salient commentary.

The most extraordinary thing about Get Out is that it goes right up to the wall of propriety -- and smashes through it.  This is a film that works on multiple levels, and the kind of film that twists and turns in on itself so enthusiastically that the very best thing you can say for it is that it only hints at its depths in the first viewing.

To describe the plot beyond the most basic setup would be going too far: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a black man dating Rose (Allison Williams), a white woman who takes him home to her folks in upstate New York.  His best friend Rod (Lil Rey Howery) tells him not to go, and on the way in to the country one of those scary-movie things that always happens to couples on their way to the country happens to Chris and Rose.

And there are weirder things once they get there, not the least of which are the groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and his wife Georgina (Betty Gabriel, in one of the most eerie and aware performances you're going to see on screen this year).  And then things get really weird.

So, let's recap: House in the country, strange servants, creepy things afoot.  These are the elements we've seen in movies since the silent era, and Peele doesn't even try to make them feel new.  He wants them to feel familiar and disturbing, even funny -- and Get Out is frequently very funny, and finds its anchor in the fantastic work by Kaluuya, Williams and, mesmerizingly, Catherine Keener as Rose's mother.

There's also the disquieting sense that Chris is both way ahead of and way too far behind the plot to figure it all out, and in that respect, Get Out reminded me of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby.  (That one of its less visible but more pivotal characters shares a name with one of the key characters in that film can't be a mere coincidence.)

Perhaps most satisfying and surprising about Get Out is that the first drop of non-animal blood doesn't appear on screen for nearly 90 minutes.  Peele knows what so few filmmakers seem to understand today -- that it takes more than torture-porn scenes and loud noises to drive an audience into a state of suspense, and that what keeps a great thriller going is a sense of unraveling mystery.

If he couldn't deliver on making a terrific thriller, he couldn't add in the underlying commentary, which at times is wonderfully subtle  One disturbingly weird scene in particular might be a head-scratcher ... until you realize what exactly is happening.  If it doesn't hit you for a while, don't be ashamed, it does seem like a head-scratcher -- but, go ahead, Google exactly you saw and at that point, if you hadn't figured it out already, the whole movie will lock into place and have you spinning, like its main character does himself at one point, into an entirely different dimension.

Viewed March 11, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"Hacksaw Ridge"


A cross accompanies the title of Hacksaw Ridge, both on its poster and on screen, signaling fair warning: This is not a subtle film, nor is its director, Mel Gibson, interested at all in leaving its symbolism open for interpretation.  Hacksaw Ridge seems appropriately named, offering all the gentleness of having your legs cut off with one.

For that matter, the image of men with dangling sinew and tendons where their legs once were is an one Gibson returns to over and over in the movie.  So is a majestic reverence and awe with which his fellow soldiers gaze, in the end, upon Pvt. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield).   But it's not the reverence that pervades Hacksaw Ridge, it's the violence, and it's easy to mistake much of the brutal, cruel, torturous imagery in Hacksaw Ridge for Gibson's earlier film, The Passion of the Christ, which does not at all seem unintended.

Hacksaw Ridge is as much a story of the resolution of faith through violent torture as Passion was, and if Doss is not represented here as the son of God, he is not terribly far off.  He is mocked and ridiculed by all because of his fervent religious beliefs until finally, through agonizing tribulations that no human being could possibly suffer, he is redeemed in the eyes of those who doubted him.

Did I mention this is not a subtle film?

The big question is whether Hacksaw Ridge is a good film, a film worthy of seeing, and in the end it's hard to give it anything but a strongly qualified recommendation; though it has a meaningful, even stirring, message and a compelling story, it is not a movie that most people would be able to sit through without flinching -- and Gibson, as he did with the blood-soaked Passion and Apocalypto seems to think that the best way to depict violence is to show every stomach-churning moment of it.

But to what end?  Hacksaw Ridge is not just a difficult film, it surpasses being a harrowing experience; in the end it is merely exhausting, a grueling and often laborious mixture of heartfelt story and near-pornographic violence.  Gibson revels in the visceral experience of bringing his audience to its knees, which would serve him well as a director of thrillers or horror films but does not mesh with what he must believe is an unassailable right to express himself as he sees fit.

He has that right, and it is a right worth defending, but it does not serve the film well.  Nor is Hacksaw Ridge entirely convincing in everything that comes before its hourlong descent into unrelenting violence.  Garfield plays a Virginia simpleton whose upbringing cannot be described without resorting to the use of the word "hillbilly."  He's a thickly accented local yokel who enlists in the Army despite his deep, heartfelt adherence to the strictures of the Seventh Day Adventists.  He interprets the Sixth Commandment not just as a prohibition against killing a human being but against even touching a weapon.  (Or, at least, that's the official version; the film itself gets a little confused when it shows, in flashback, the one time Doss fired a gun -- his belief seems to be more a personal guideline than a religious one.)

But before he goes, he needs to marry the local beauty (Teresa Palmer), who pledges to stand by her man, no matter what.  And he needs to defy his hard-nosed father (Hugo Weaving) before being carted off to training camp where his barracks are filled with the kinds of characters that used to be referred to as "straight from Central Casting."  There's the muscle-head, the bully, the goon, the Italian, the All-American boy ... and the tough-as-nails sergeant (Vince Vaughn) who insists his men call him "Sarge" and who has it out for Doss.

The lengths to which Doss goes to uphold his faith are impressive, and are the most interesting and rewarding sections of Hacksaw Ridge, and when it gets to the titular cliffside in Japan, the movie takes on a palpable tension.  The first moments of the battle are suitably nightmarish and intense.

After that, the movie doesn't know when to stop.  It keeps pummeling us over the head with insane levels of violence that certainly demonstrate the horrors of war -- but why?  This isn't an anti-war film, nor is it a story that focuses much on religious faith outside of a brief (and compelling) court-martial hearing.

The main action is about how Doss, through what appears to be pure luck and good fortune, survives the largely lethal battle for control of the summit, then stays behind to rescue wounded men.  What he does is incredible, but the thematic question of whether it was motivated -- maybe even, if the movie were braver, aided -- by religious faith is never really addressed.  Gibson and screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan are more intent on the machinations of the fighting and on getting as gory as possible.

Amid all of it, the lanky, awkward, boyish Garfield finds and holds onto a strong character, even when the motivation is lost.  All of the cast is uniformly excellent, with the soldiers managing to differentiate themselves just enough.  Even more effective is a post-action coda with the real people who inspired the characters; their few moments on camera provide the most human element to the film.

All the while, Gibson seems never to have met a CGI effect he didn't want to try.  He's like a sadistic, violence-loving, blood-and-guts version of George Lucas or Peter Jackson. Warfare aside, the film's over-reliance on digital effects can be overwhelming.

While there's a lot to admire in Hacksaw Ridge, there's even more to turn away from.  War is hell.  We know that.  Movies about it don't need to be hellish or quite this stressful.

Viewed on DVD -- Feb. 28, 2017