Tag Archives: 2017

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Sanders

FEATURING: Scarlett Johansson, , Pilou Asbæk,

PLOT: While tracking down a terrorist, a cyborg cop discovers that her target may be connected to her own mysterious past.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghost in the Shell paints a vivid and sometimes disturbing vision of a future where power is consolidated in a handful of corporations and people are in thrall to robotics and body modifications. Some of the ideas remain surprising and unusual, but many more have been disseminated far and wide, leaving the story’s innovations dated and even tedious.

COMMENTS: The problem with being an innovator is that when others use and expand upon your innovations, you end up looking like you’re late to the party. Such is the position that Ghost in the Shell finds itself in; coming years after the original manga comic and a celebrated animé adaptation (which this reviewer has neither read nor seen), the new live-action film has to prove itself in a landscape that it has already influenced extensively. The result is that Ghost in the Shell, a slick-looking dystopian film interested in the loss of identity, is in the awkward position of being derivative of itself. The ad-dominated skyline of a neo-Hong Kong megalopolis is taken directly from Blade Runner. The visualization of the world as a wilderness of code references The Matrix. The incomplete android woman seems to shout-out Ex Machina. There are images that shock and amuse: a geisha robot who assumes the pose of a spider, a pair of flip-up eyes, an elaborate assembly line for building a humanoid robot shell. But too much of the film, while spectacularly realized, has a been-there, done-that vibe.

That puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Scarlett Johansson, and she is a strong enough actress to pull off the internalized torment of a character who is intentionally devoid of personality. Considering the collection of archetypes she’s acting opposite (the loyal partner, the duplicitous maternal figure, the absurdly cartoonish villain who actually utters the line, “that’s the problem with the human heart”), she manages to make a real person out of a  cypher who could easily have been little more than an ass-kicking sex object. However, given her previous turns as an alien attempting to decipher humanity, an operating system achieving sentience, and a party girl coming to grips with the untapped reaches of her own mind , it’s fair to argue that Johansson, like the movie she’s in, is revisiting old themes.

But it is impossible to talk about the actress without discussing the elephant in the room: based on the source material, her role is an Asian woman, which she is decidedly not. The whitewashing accusation is clearly an issue that resonates; the studio now admits that the controversy may have negatively impacted box office returns. It’s not clear-cut: Johansson’s performance does a lot to justify the studio’s trust in her, the history of race in manga is deeply complex, and fans in the story’s native Japan were completely nonplussed by the furor. Indeed, the new film itself stands as a kind of monument to the internationalization of Hollywood product. From the studios (American, Chinese) to the locations (Hong Kong, New Zealand) to the cast (American, Japanese, Danish, British, Singaporean, French, Romanian, Australian, Kurdish-Polish), Ghost in the Shell is aggressively global.

All this would be easier to dismiss if the adapters hadn’t written the controversy directly into the script. In this telling of the tale, the brain that is transferred into Johansson’s android body turns out to be that of a young Japanese woman. This makes the loss of identity palpable, in that this consciousness is transplanted with no respect to its sense of self, but that tragedy is terribly trivialized if you view the filmmakers as having done the same thing. The choice—whether through total cluelessness or extreme chutzpah—is a mortal blow to the story’s credibility.

Ultimately, the casting of Johansson just another example of the filmmakers trying to have it all. Her character is divorced from humanity, yet repeatedly sexualized. (In particular, in the wake of a bomb blast, the damage all seems to located primarily at her chest and genitals, meaning we are staring in the general vicinity of Johansson’s privates as a team of 3D printers reassemble her body.) It wants to be an action thriller with a brain, but the exploration of identity is entirely surface-level, while the action is perfunctory and punctuated by one-liners that fall flat. Beyond “let’s make a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell,” there’s not much of a reason for this movie, no greater vision. Since it doesn’t know what else it wants to be, it ends up being not very much at all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Visually, this film is stunning. The cinematography is beautiful, with some very innovative shots and framing, really making the most of this fictional future Japan’s shiny weirdness…  It could have been better if more care had been taken with the human side of things though: a bit more focus on the ghost, a bit less attention to the shell, if you like.” – Tim Martain, The Mercury (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DEATH RACE 2050 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: G. J. Echternkamp

FEATURING: Manu Bennett, Marci Miller, Yancy Butler,

PLOT: In a dystopian future, drivers compete in a cross-country race where the competitors score points for speed and vehicular homicide.

Still from Death Race 2050 (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being the fifth film to bear the Death Race marque, the 2050 incarnation is a pretty straightforward race picture, with some absurd gore and strident satire glommed on for extra measure.

COMMENTS: The title card identifies this movie properly as Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050, and when you get to be 90 years old and won an Oscar just for the sheer volume of your output, then you’re damned right you get to throw your name up there. But now that he’s put himself front and center, it’s important to remember that a lot of Roger Corman movies are bad. When we think of filmmakers like , James Cameron, or Ron Howard getting their start in Corman’s low-budget film factory, the context is that they are all talented filmmakers who overcame humble origins. Death Race 2050 does not manage to outshine its pedigree, whether that be the Corman exploitation mill, the shadow of the original Death Race 2000, or the many films from which it liberally borrows. In that sense, it’s a fitting addition to the Corman canon.

Allegedly, Corman instigated the idea after a journalist suggested that his original Death Race had much in common with The Hunger Games. Evidently, he opted to solidify the connection by carrying over as many elements of The Hunger Games as he could legitimately steal, from the bread-and-circuses atmosphere to the preening chief executive to the destitute-man’s Stanley Tucci who emcees the whole affair. But it owes just as much to the rock-stupid future depicted in Idiocracy, to say nothing of the original film, whose beats are carefully replicated here.

Ostensibly the tale of a fallen America’s favorite bloodsport, Death Race 2050 pits five cars against each other in a race across a country that is largely free of people, presumably because they all remain indoors to enjoy the race from their squalid-yet-VR-enabled homes. Given how many of the remaining citizens wind up dead at the hands of the racers, it’s hard to tell whether reality TV is the ultimate killer, or the only thing keeping our descendants alive.

As for the racers themselves, one is a robot car susceptible to brain damage, while two are stereotypes (a black nationalist rap star whose hit song consists almost entirely of the poetic lyrics, “Death Death Kill Kill”, and a fundamentalist Christian televangelist who proudly builds her pulpit on terrorism). That leaves two for our primary showdown: Jed Perfectus, the probably-gay prima donna with a chip on his shoulder who struts around practically naked (he has a spectacular chin, but beyond that is not exactly a flawless specimen), and Frankenstein, the world-weary champion who is pretty much annoyed with everyone. Overseeing all of this is Malcolm McDowell, honing his accumulated phoning-it-in skills with a barely-trying American accent and a floppy hairdo that might remind viewers of another arrogant leader who cons the public and suffers from narcissistic personality disorder.

The writers want to have fun with the rampant commercialism that has destroyed the country (the best such joke is this wonderful location card: “Washington, D.C. [formerly Dubai]”), but the humor is paper-thin. For every joke that carries a little weight if you stop to think about it (i.e. the aerosol cheese that’s also a mood stabilizer), twice as many are simplistic (the new American flag replaces the stars with dollar signs), depraved (a passenger literally has sex with the robot car), or low-hanging (fans drink paint-can-sized beverages labeled “Zoda!”). The film is aware of its limitations (a conversation between two women takes place in “The Bechdel Lounge”) but helpless to overcome them. Characters switch sides just because, abandon long-held beliefs just because, and generally do whatever is required to get them to the next jokey part of the country.

But you’re not really watching Death Race 2050 for its Thurberian wit, so who cares as long as there’s some thrills in this Death Race? Which turns out to be an even bigger problem: no one believes for a minute that these cars are going faster than 30 mph, even fewer will imagine that these actors got anywhere near the steering wheel, and most of the carnage consists of bloody entrails being hurled at windshields. When you aim to combine satire and action, and don’t really score on either count, you’re setting yourselves up for disappointment.

Death Race 2050 wants to be a few different movies, but doesn’t really score at any one of them. As a result, it’s never actively bad, but not particularly good, which makes it very disposable as entertainment. Fortunately, there are four other Death Race films you can try.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Death Race 2050 is grating and insane … Even more than the original, this flick is a garish cartoon and as such, it will likely isolate audiences looking for the humorless thrills of the previous Death Race series or those just looking for a straight action flick. No, this incarnation of Death Race feels like a smutty app from Hell, rather than a conventional genre film.” — Chris Alexander, ComingSoon.net

LIST CANDIDATE: A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Harry Groener

PLOT: A young executive goes to a remote spa planning to recover his company’s CEO, who appears to have gone insane and joined a wellness cult; circumstances lead him to become a patient as he investigates the place and learns its dark secrets.

Still from A Cure for Wellness (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s uneven to the point of frustration, A Cure for Wellness is going to be the weirdest Hollywood-backed movie of the year, making it one we need to consider. Gore Verbinski blew all the Hollywood goodwill he earned from directing the Pirates of the Caribbean series on this majestic vanity, so we are unlike to see anything this strange in cineplexes for a while.

COMMENTS: A Cure for Wellness is a spin on “Dracula”‘s basic plot. Dane DeHaan is Lockhart, the Jonathan Harker character, sent to fetch the Reinfield character (Harry Groener as CEO Pembroke) from the castle (now a sanitarium on a Swiss mountaintop) run by a mysterious aristocrat (now hospital director Volmer, a name that sounds like it could have come out of an unpublished Bram Stoker novella). The villagers living at the base of the mountain despise the residents of the castle—er, spa—-and there’s even legends about ancient degenerate evils perpetrated by an evil Baron on the site now occupied by the sanitarium. There’s a Mina Harker-ish love interest (Mia Goth’s waify Hannah, enticing  both Lockhart and Volmer). The bulk of the film has Lockhart imprisoned and convalescing, under friendly pretenses, in the demonic lair, investigating his surroundings and his host and making terrifying discoveries (Harker’s scenes inside the vampire’s castle were always the best part of “Dracula”). Water takes the place of blood as a symbol of the leeched life-force.

It’s a sturdy and well-tested horror structure, disguised just enough by the modern setting. Unfortunately, it does not completely pay off. Gore Verbinski has a chance to update the dusty old tale with new satirical furnishings: digs at the modern corporate structure and the wellness movement. The targets are set up, but not knocked down. Lockhart has a rich psychological backstory explaining how he became such a selfishly driven bastard, but while flashbacks suggest this history might hold a key to the story’s deeper meaning, it turns out to be either window dressing or a red herring. A Cure for Wellness can’t decide if it wants to be a straight horror story, a twisty psychological thriller, or a pure Surrealist dream movie. It doesn’t commit to any one of the these genres, and in the end it settles for what may be the least interesting possible compromise between the trio of possibilities. (A movie’s not knowing what it wants to be is no bar to weirdness, but in this case I suspect the rough edges are more a result of waffling than of artistic dementia).

When Lockhart first meets Pembroke, he has been tracking him through the spa’s labyrinthine steam room. He enters a room and finds that the exit has disappeared; impossibly, he’s now trapped inside four walls, filling up with steam. Turning in circles, he suddenly spies an doorway in one of the walls; a stag walks past it. He exits the chamber where he was trapped and finds the CEO sitting on a bench, sweating. Immediately, he forgets the previous minutes eerie events and starts interrogating his quarry about why he left the corporate boardroom. He doesn’t waste time asking why wild animals are roaming the halls; his experiences are immediately forgotten. That sort of thing suggests either sloppy screenwriting, or an “it’s all a dream” interpretation (a reading the script supports by repeatedly referring to a dreaming ballerina figurine crafted by Lockhart’s mom). If Wellness means to be a dream film like that more famous Surrealist institution down the road, The Hourglass Sanatorium, however, it shouldn’t take it’s silly conclusion so darn seriously.

It seems more likely that the script simply incorporates fuzzy possibilities of hallucinations into the story as a way to have its cake and eat it to. Fortunately, the cake is good–if, at two-and-a-half hours, there’s a little too much of it. Verbinski fixates on the eel as a horror image. They show up in the strangest places, and elicit delicious chills almost every time. The sanitarium is a winning setting, and slow camera pans through its off-white halls provide effective suspense. Also, I would advise not going to the dentist for at least a week after seeing this film. The whole thing may not add up to much, but the ian intensity of individual scenes is undeniable. I was totally enthralled by Wellness for the first hour or so, before it’s structure began to crumble into repetitive noodling. But it’s rare to see this much money thrown at the screen to evoke such elaborate weirdness—so I would urge readers to get out and see it on the big screen during its sure-to-be-short run.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…about as weird as modern Hollywood movies get… Simply put, nothing stranger is likely to make it to multiplexes any time soon. Savor the oddness.”–A.A.Dowd, The A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

SATURDAY SHORT: BLACK HOLES (2017)

Dave, an aging astronaut teams up with a sentient cantaloupe on the first ever Mars mission.

This concept piece is currently being made into a full-length television series, and the team has turned to crowd funding to help cover the costs. If you’d like to help the cause, please visit their Kickstarter page.

Content Warning: This short contains some cartoon nudity.