Tag Archives: Action

CAPSULE: GHAJINI (2008)

DIRECTED BY: A.R. Murugadoss

FEATURING: Aamir Khan, Asin, Pradeep Rawat, Jiah Khan

PLOT: A dashing young CEO suffering short-term memory loss hunts the gangster who killed his fiancée.

Still from Ghajini (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghajini is mostly just clumsy blockbuster entertainment, appearing weird only to Westerners unfamiliar with Bollywood’s much looser tolerance of narrative coherence. In its home country, it was actually a hit, both financially and with critics.

COMMENTS: At about the thirty-minute mark of Ghajini, an unprepared viewer might assume someone at the DVD factory in New Delhi messed up and burned reels from a different movie onto the disc. Up until this point, you’ve been watching a dark revenge thriller about a tattooed amnesiac maniac. Suddenly, a narrator introduces himself as Sanjay Singhania, suave cell phone magnate, a prelude which segues into an MTV-style video with dancing girls, and then we find ourselves immersed in a sappy mistaken-identity romantic comedy, with a model pretending she’s Sanjay’s boyfriend, while unbeknownst to her he’s pretending to be an actor helping her with her deception… try not to get whiplash from one of the most violent tone shifts you’ve ever seen in a commercial film. What turns out to be a flashback lasts for about 45 minutes (with more upbeat musical numbers), ending on a “will they get married” cliffhanger… and then we’re back in the first movie, where the tattooed man delivers a brutal beating to the police officer who had been reading his diary. We’ll return to the lighthearted romantic comedy again later, which ends as all good comedies do… with the brutal torture and killing of the female lead after she uncovers a kidney-stealing ring preying on orphan girls.

Ghajini is pretty exhausting, honestly. It steals borrows plenty from the (vastly superior) thriller Memento, only with an anti-hero who has gained bone-crunching kickboxing skills along with short-term memory loss from a blow to the head. Oh, and musical numbers, and, as mentioned, a romantic comedy with a tragic ending as a bonus film. All this in a mere three hours! If you’re looking for even more, there’s the hammy performance of beefy Aamir Khan, who, despite his impressive physique, turns out to be better suited to comedy than action/drama (where he relies on over-the-top, animalistic howls and face-churning grimaces to convey grief). You also may have fun picking out the plot holes, like the basic question: why, if the hero is a multi-millionaire, does he choose to live like a squatter in a run-down apartment rather than using the vast resources at his disposal to bring his enemy to justice? I mean, a competent personal assistant would have been far more helpful in keeping him on-task in his revenge quest than a bunch of mysterious scribbled notes, Polaroids, and tattoos are.

My guess is that the romantic comedy portion of the film (which has no third act) was adapted from an unpublished screenplay the studio had lying around, and incorporated to provide chick appeal and a more natural substrate for the mandatory Bollywood musical numbers. To make things even more confusing, Ghajini is a Hindi-language remake of a 2005 Tamil-language film of the same name, by the same director, with some of the same cast. complained about Ghajini‘s similarities to Memento but did not take legal action; however, Murugadoss was sued (and even briefly arrested) by the producers of Ghajini (2005) for not properly securing remake rights.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an experience almost too stimulating for the non-Indian nervous system, a blockbuster layer cake of full-strength escapist entertainment.”–David Chute, LA Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “jenn” who called it “an indian remake of ‘momento’… its a bit weird… its like momento, u know…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

301. FANTASY MISSION FORCE (1983)

Recommended

Mi ni te gong dui; AKA Dragon Attack

“If it sounds ridiculous, that’s only because it was.”– Jackie Chan on Fantasy Mission Force (quoted in Keith Bailey, “The Unknown Movies”)

DIRECTED BY: Yen-Ping Chu

FEATURING: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Yu Wang (Jimmy Wang Yu), Yueh Sun, David Tao, Jin Fang, Shiu Bu Lia, Ling Chang

PLOT: Four Allied generals have been captured by the Japanese. Mercenary Don Wen is hired to liberate them, and recruits a team which includes “Old Sun,” escape artist “Greased Lightning,” two kilt-wearing soldiers, con man Billy, and Lilly, Billy’s bazooka-toting on-and-off girlfriend who tags along when she hears about the cash reward. Tailed by rogues Sammy and Emily, the team encounters Amazons and a haunted house on their way to a surprisingly bloody showdown with the kidnappers.

Still from Fantasy Mission Force (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Yen-Ping Chu (sometimes credited as “Lawrence Full” or “Kevin Chu”) is the director of sixty-five (mostly kung fu and comedy) films; this is his only effort which is marginally well-known in the West.
  • According to persistent but unconfirmed rumors, a Triad-connected movie mogul ordered a hit on Jackie Chan when he decided to change studios. Jimmy Wang Yu intervened to settle the dispute, and as part of the deal Chan agreed to lend his growing star power to two of Wang’s movies (this being one).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An ambush by ribbon-shooting ninjas? Bloody ghost hands waving wads of toilet paper? Assault of the Road Warrior-Japanese-punk Nazis? Your opinion on this one is as good as ours, and it’s likely to change many times during the movie as some new amazement pops up. We’ll just go with any shot of the assembled team: Old Sun in his top hat, Brigitte Lin in black leather with a bazooka, Billy in his white suit and Elvis sideburns, the kilt-wearing pair of misfits… as weird a group ever formed to fight an anachronistic battle against fascist kidnappers somewhere in Canada, Luxembourg, or Taiwan.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Scottish/Chinese mercenaries; toilet paper ghosts; Japanese Nazis in Chevys

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Packed with kung fu, shootouts, flying ninjas, hopping vampires, and slapstick comedy reminiscent of Benny Hill, Fantasy Mission Force is one of the only commercial entertainments ever released where you can honestly say you have no idea what will happen next. It’s a pulp surrealism masterpiece, set in a previously undiscovered movie universe at the conjunction of the Shaw Brothers, , and the Three Stooges.


Original Cantonese trailer for Fantasy Mission Force

COMMENTS: Although some reviewers are reluctant to discuss the Continue reading 301. FANTASY MISSION FORCE (1983)

CAPSULE: TOKYO DRIFTER (1966)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Tetsuya Watari, Tamio Kawaji, Ryuji Kita, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani

PLOT: Tetsu tries to quit the yakuza life after his boss goes straight, but a rival gang leader wants the building they own—and Tetsu’s life.

Still from Tokyo Drifter (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a rare case of a movie being screened out by competition from its own maker. Had Seijun Suzuki never made Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter just might stand as the most unusual yakuza picture ever made (at least, until arrived on the scene). But Suzuki took his deconstruction of the genre so much farther the very next year that Tokyo Drifter, while a stunning visual achievement, seems conventional in Branded‘s wake. Unfair to Drifter, which should stand alone on its own strange merits? Perhaps, but these two films, made (almost) back-to-back and leading to Suzuki being blackballed from the Japanese film industry for genre rebellion, will always be linked together in film history—and Branded to Kill will always be remembered as “the weird one.” You are still advised to watch them both.

COMMENTS: A movie so cool they ripped off its title for a Fast and Furious installment, Tokyo Drifter is an exercise in pure style. Seijun Suzuki, bored with the generic gangster scripts Nikkatsu Studios kept giving him as a B-director, amuses himself with outlandish set pieces while deconstructing the genre before our very eyes. The plot is a standard tale of loyalty and betrayal, merely an outline for Suzuki to hang his experiments on. Scenes are clipped—for example, how does Tetsu appear in the driver’s seat of the kidnappers car, other than by magic? How is his showdown on the train tracks resolved? We never see him actually escape. How does he evade certain death time and time again, with Viper showing up each time to drive him to his next drifting destination? It all makes sense, but only mythologically. Tetsu is a heroic archetype, a chosen one, undefeatable but cursed to wander forever without satisfaction. Suzuki simply chooses to cut out a lot of inessential exposition and get right to the cool stuff. He gives us the elements of the myth without bothering with the logistics.

Whereas the followup film, Branded to Kill, is a record of haunted  characters and obsessive themes, Tokyo Drifter is a thrill ride of stylish moments. The film is suffused with comic book colors and Pop Art sensibilities, and magnificent sets inspired equally by German Expressionism and Surrealism. The prologue mixes black and white with color sequences (and one shot incorporating both color and monochrome). Tetsu is seldom caught without his stylish powder-blue suit, which remains unrumpled no matter how many tussles he gets into. His gun blazes with a bright pink muzzle flash. The soundtrack is cool, Bond-ish spy-jazz, with a “drifter” theme song for Tetsu (performed as a torch song by his chanteuse moll, and whistled by Tetsu to announce his presence). Tetsu’s is a world of alleyways of full of jazz bars advertising their disreputable wares with garish neon signs. In an Old West-themed saloon in a U.S. Navy town, he gets caught up in a brawl that turns into havoc-laced slapstick straight out of a Mel Brooks movie. What you’ll probably remember best are the sets: Kurata’s office, which has Roman frescoes on one wall, and an abstract red and white light sculpture on the opposite wall. Even more impressive is the Club Aires cabaret, where the wild finale happens. It features an Expressionist door mounted atop a staircase and a sculpture of a slender, Dali-esque figure hoisting a giant doughnut above his head. At night it’s a complete black void, except for a spotlight, a glowing white piano, and a glowing red torus. Drifter may not have made bank, but Tokyo Drift wishes it could be a fraction as groovy as its swinging forebear.

The Criterion Collection disc (DVD or Blu-ray) includes two Suzuki interviews and the original Japanese trailer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…kitted out with plot ellipses, bizarre sets and colour effects, inappropriate songs, absurd irrelevancies (nice hair-drier gags!), action scenes that verge on the abstract, and some visual jokes tottering precariously between slapstick and surrealism.”–Geoff Andrews, Time Out London

CAPSULE: TAKASHI MIIKE’S “DEAD OR ALIVE” SERIES (1999, 2000, 2002)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Riki Takeuchi,

PLOT: The original Dead or Alive, is a crime/yakuza adventure with a bizarre ending; Dead or Alive 2: Birds involves two hitmen who eventually join forces to kill for charity; and Dead or Alive 3 is set in a post-apocalyptic world.

Still from Dead or Alive 2 (2000)

WHY THEY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The three films in this trilogy are unrelated except that they each star Riki Takeuchi and Shô Aikawa. The best, the original, is the least weird, while the sequels grow increasingly strange, but drop off in quality. They are necessary entries for Miike fans, and worthwhile ones for followers of Japanese extremity and pop-surrealism, but none of the three manage to nail the right combination of weirdness and distinction to earn spots on the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made.

COMMENTS: It’s only natural that the first entry in Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy would be the best: otherwise, why try to recapture the magic twice more? Not only is it the pick of the three entries, it also starts with the series’ most memorable sequence: a scorching five-minute heavy metal montage of strippers, cocaine, noodles, blood, gunfire, sodomy, and more blood (and more noodles). This virtuoso sequence is equally thrilling and confusing; but, as it turns out, all of a piece, telling a tale of yakuza warfare between rival gangs. What follows is a relatively straightforward, though densely plotted, crime story, with a Chinese gang facing off against a Japanese gang facing off against the cops. Of course, Miike the provocateur can’t resist throwing in a gag-inducing, scatological prostitute drowning. That’s unnerving, but he ends the tale with a bewildering curve ball that abandons the shaky realism of the previous story altogether in favor of a Looney Tunes apocalypticism. There are no survivors, and the audience may feel scorched, too.

The second installment, subtitled Birds, again moves in an unexpected direction. Rather than rivals on opposite sides of the law, Takeuchi and Aikawa are now hit men who, through incredible coincidence, grew up as childhood friends before independently finding their way into the assassination biz and being assigned to take out the same target. Unexpectedly, Birds almost plays like an art-house drama for the first two acts, striking a nostalgic tone as the two killers return to the island orphanage where they were raised and reconnect with each other and the community. Miike always zigs when expected to zag, so it’ s almost natural that he would follow the adrenaline rush of Dead or Alive with the reflectiveness of Birds. The second film morphs, too, with an impressionistic third act that sees the assassins sprout wings and go on a proceeds-to-charity killing spree that includes a Mexican standoff with a dwarf.

Dead or Alive 3: Final is in many ways the weirdest of the series, but unfortunately suffers from lower production values. On Arrow’s DVD, a note appear before the movie explaining that there are no HD masters of the film in existence and they used the best materials available (which include burnt-in Japanese subtitles for scenes in which characters speak untranslated Chinese and English). Most of the video has a jaundiced yellow-green cast to it, which may have been intentional, but does not make for an attractive visual milieu. The plot is inspired by (to the point where you’re tempted to say “rips off”) Blade Runner, but with Miike twists. In this dystopia, an evil mayor with a skinny sax-playing boytoy enforces homosexuality by the use of medication, and procreation is a crime punishable by death. Aikiwa uses his replicant superpowers smoke cigarettes to the filter in a single inhale and to snatch bullets in midair or redirect them with u-shaped tubing that’s lying around post-apocalyptic Japan. The final battle between Takeuchi and Aikawa is a wire-fu spectacle in an abandoned warehouse which ends in a typically nonsensical, out-of-nowhere fashion with the two molded together into a penile mecha.

“What is this?,” Takeuchi asks of the characters’ predicament at the end of Final. “I don’t know,” Aikiwa responds. “It’s this.” That’s probably as good a description of Miike’s whacked-out movies as you’re going to get. In the supplemental material, the director says, “the films I want to make are ones where I can say, ‘I don’t know how I feel about it as a film, but I like it anyway.'” There’s a punkish “take it or leave it” attitude in the Dead or Alive films, which experiment with logic and narrative from within the most formulaic genres, making Miike something of a grindhouse . The series spans the director’s most fertile and febrile period, from 1999-2002, when he was making up to eight films a year. It’s the period that also brought us such singular atrocities as Audition, Visitor Q, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and Ichi the Killer. I wouldn’t count any of the Dead or Alive films as top-rank masterpieces in the Miike universe, although the first comes close. But they are all expressions of the director’s vision: uncompromising unexpectedness, with one brow held high and the other low.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… for someone on Miike’s wild and amazingly dexterous wavelength, these films represent nirvana: a hit of pure aesthetic cocaine.”–Chuck Bowen, Slant (DVD series release)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: WONDER WOMAN (2017)

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) is reaping critical praise, and opened with an astounding one hundred million dollar weekend box office. It’s being hailed as the best movie in the DCEU—i.e., D.C. comics extended universe—although I’m not sure how exactly that’s different than the DC movies that preexisted that label.

Still from Wonder Woman (2017)Regardless, this is the first big screen standalone treatment of the character, which originally debuted during the Second World War, created by William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter. Wonder Woman was always a kind of female variation on Superman. Paradoxically, she was both a symbol of female empowerment and a pinup bondage fantasy. Initially, under the original artists, she was more feminist than titillating. Predictably, it was the pinup quality that drove the bulk of her fan base and informed most of her subsequent incarnations, the notable exception being the series helmed by George Perez’ silvery pencils. Even then, “Wonder Woman” comics never equaled the sales of her male counterparts. When it was announced that Israeli actress Gal Gadot was being cast as the big screen Wonder Woman, a lot of fanboys harped, comparing her unfavorably to 1970s TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter—because, frankly, Carter has more robust cleavage. In 2011, an updated TV movie was planned, but once publicity stills were released of actress Adrianne Palicki wearing a long pants version of the red, yellow, and blue suit, the DC fundamentalists were up in arms. They wanted legs, dammit, and went the politically correct route of whining about political correctness. The movie, which apparently was a pilot for a series, was purportedly wretched anyway, and seems to have vanished from memory. Five years later, when Gadot’s cameo proved the only bright spot in the execrable Batman vs. Superman, the fanatics were finally appeased, and thankfully silenced.

Wonder Woman is well-crafted, entertaining, and has a charismatic lead, which says a hell of a lot more than the recent crap fests Man of Steel, the aforementioned BvS, and Suicide Squad. It gets right what all those films missed—it remembers that simplicity, primary colors, and ethical nostalgia, all wrapped up in a lasso of fun, are the attraction of the DC characters, who are really more appealing than their angst-ridden Marvel competitors. With a few exceptions, the multiple DC based TV series (live action and animated) get that right (i.e., “The Flash,” “Supergirl,” and the recent “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders,” which could as easily have been dubbed “The Return of Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar”).

One of the main positives here is the direction of Jenkins, who is far better suited to the material than the dullard boys have proven to be. Predictably, right-wing fan boys, while giving faint praise and Continue reading ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: WONDER WOMAN (2017)

285. DEAD LEAVES (2003)

“A guy with a TV for a head and a girl with a panda-like mark on her face find themselves naked on Earth with no recollection of how they got there. After attempting to violently acquire food and clothes, they get arrested and sent to the Lunar prison Dead Leaves… and things get weirder from there.”–Dead Leaves synopsis from the listicle “15 Bizarre Anime That Make You Wonder ‘Wtf Did I Just Watch?’

DIRECTED BY: Hiroyuki Imaishi

FEATURING: Voices of Takako Honda, Kappei Yamaguchi, Amanda Winn Lee (English dub), Jason Lee (English dub)

PLOT: Pandy, a woman with mismatched eyes, and Retro, a man with a television for a head, awaken naked with no memories and immediately go on a crime spree. Quickly arrested, they are sent to Dead Leaves, a prison housed on what remained of the crumbling moon, where they have sex and then arrange a prison break. Pandy grows pregnant and comes to term in a day, and faces a giant caterpillar monster with the help of her precocious newborn son.

Still from Dead Leaves (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • The directorial debut of Hiroyuki Imaishi, who had worked as an artist on many animes, including the TV version of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and it’s bizarre theatrical incarnation.
  • Released as an OVA (original video animation, a common direct-to-video release strategy in Japan).
  • Dead Leaves was made with the American and European secondary markets in mind. The English dub was made contemporaneously with the Japanese version.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dead Leaves‘ images, while carefully painted, streak by almost too fast for the eye to register, leaving an impression of havoc rather than focusing on particular images. Since the main characters—especially monitor-faced Retro—appear most often, it’s their faces that stick most in the memory.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: TV-headed Retro-reprobate; penis drill; inexplicable psychedelic caterpillar

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dead Leaves moves so fast and makes so little sense that it’s the equivalent of putting an ultraviolent manga in a high-speed blender and trying to read it while the pieces swirl around. The plot is nearly incomprehensible, but somehow involves mutant clones and a psychedelic caterpillar. Weird? Hell yes. Recommended? Well, definitely not to epileptics. Even for older folks with a healthy neurobiology, the breakneck pacing is as likely to induce a headache as an adrenaline rush. It’s definitely one-of-a-kind, though, and as an experiment in compressing as much berserk and illogical anime flavor as possible into as short a running time as possible, it’s worth a look.


Short clip from Dead Leaves

COMMENTS: Although the director advised the audience at Dead Continue reading 285. DEAD LEAVES (2003)

284. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

“Being the Batman fan that I am, I pretended to like the film. I passionately defended it to my ‘non-Batman’ friends who found it ‘weird’ or ‘dumb.’ But eventually, I gave in to the fact that this film plain sucked. This macabre, morose, dark abomination was a Batman film in name only. Frankly, I felt screwed by Warner Brothers and Mr. Burton.”–Bill “Jett” Ramey, “Batman on Film”

“It’s human nature to fear the unusual.”–The Penguin, Batman Returns

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Danny DeVito,

PLOT: The film sets Batman against three new villains: Oswald Cobblepot, a deformed outcast who lives in the sewers and adopts the name “the Penguin”; “Catwoman,” former secretary Selina Kyle turned feminist avenger after a near-death experience; and Max Shreck, a wealthy retailer who wants to build a power plant opposed by Gotham City’s mayor. With differing agendas and shifting loyalties, the three form a plan to run Cobblepot for mayor and to frame Batman for the city’s crime problem, while Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne and Selina pursue a romance, not realizing that they are sworn enemies. After the superhero foils the initial plot, the Penguin pulls out a more elaborate, apocalyptic plan.

Still from Batman Returns (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tim Burton, who had scored a blockbuster with the original Batman (1989),  was reluctant to produce a sequel. Warner Brothers convinced him to helm the film by giving him almost complete creative control. Heathers‘ Daniel Waters was brought in to shade Sam Hamm’s too-sunny original script. It was a move the studio came to regret (the film was profitable, but not as big a hit as its predecessor, and parental complaints that it was too violent/sexy/weird for kids spooked the suits). Neither Burton nor star Michael Keaton returned for the third movie in Warners’ Batman franchise, which went in a lighter, more family-friendly direction under Joel Schumacher.
  • Angry parents boycotted McDonalds for (unwisely) including Batman Returns action figures in Happy Meals, complaining that the movie was too violent for kids.
  • Oscar-nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. Also nominated (unjustly, in our opinion) for a “Worst Supporting Actor” Razzie for Danny DeVito.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I’m going to go with the army of penguins equipped with missiles striped like candy canes (remember, this is a Christmas movie).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kitty corpse revival; poodle with a hand grenade; missile penguin army

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Let loose with a budget of $80 million and almost complete creative control in 1992, Tim Burton smuggled weirdness into the cineplex in the guise of a superhero sequel. The resulting picture has as many excesses as you can possibly sneak into a blockbuster: suggestive S&M duels between sexually repressed loners clad in fetish gear, a carnival-themed gang who unleash their surreal clown fury on Gotham at Christmas, and an army of penguins led by a deformed sociopath.


Original trailer for Batman Returns

COMMENTS: Earning over 260 million simoleons at the box office—although some ticket buyers probably asked for a refund—Batman Continue reading 284. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

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

CAPSULE: HIGHWAY TO HELL (1990)

DIRECTED BY: Ate de Jong

FEATURING: Chad Lowe, Kristy Swanson, Patrick Bergin, C.J. Graham

PLOT: A supernatural cop abducts an eloping lover and takes her to a literal Hell; her beau must rescue her from her predicament.

Still from Highway to Hell (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a fun movie with a cute premise, but it stays well within the comfort zone of your average ’90s frat boy. It’s a good beer-chugger, but it never jumps the cliff into weirdo land, when it very easily could have. What a shame!

COMMENTS: Just to get it out of the way, the band AC/DC has nothing to do with this movie, nor does their warbling appear on the soundtrack. The title, however, is shown in the first shot after the credits, as the title of an arcade video game. Confused yet? So are our protagonists, Charlie and Rachael, who are paranoid about being tailed by a cop due to their clandestine wedding plans, but don’t have the presence of mind to remove the huge pizza delivery sign from the top of Charlie’s car, which marks them with a big red arrow. As they head to Vegas to get married, they stop off at the proverbial Last Chance gas station, where they get warned by the attendant that theirs is not the safest course. Guess who’s not heeding that warning?

With absolutely no foreplay, the couple find themselves detained by a “hellcop,” who looks exactly like you’d expect a hellcop to look. Rachael is now a hostage and Charlie tasked with rescuing her. With a plot no more complicated than a Super Mario Brothers’ game, the festivities are now underway. The gas station attendant turns out to be just the guy to prep Charlie for his quest into the “hellzone,” the capitol jurisdiction of Hell City and the place of Rachael’s eventual incarceration. Charlie drives through a portal to get to this alternate universe, which looks just like the rural Arizona desert, and then has all kinds of encounters and misadventures with the citizens, who act pretty nonchalant about living in hell. As he careens from Satanic ice cream scoopers to patchwork biker gangs, who variously help or hinder his quest, you get the idea that this road movie was conceived with the cool-factor riding shotgun, common sense taking a backseat, and logic banished to the trunk.

What the movie lacks in depth, it makes up in pace. We hardly have time to ponder the silliness of frying eggs on the sidewalk (hell, it’s kinda hot, you know), before we’re being preyed upon by a AAA tow truck driver: “anarchy armageddon annihilation.” Then it’s off to Hoffa’s bar, where the go-go dancers are so hot that they literally set your arm on fire when you try to grope them. You have to be charmed by the extra dose of corny imagination, even when it’s wasted on lame sight gags. It’s also such a product of 1991 that it has cameos by Gilbert Gottfried, Lita Ford, and more than one Stiller. The whole comes off as a Python-esque series of sketches, connected more tightly and produced on a much higher budget. This is one movie where people can tell you to go to Hell, and they’re doing you a favor because you were asking for directions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…doesn’t have the coin to fully create a towering vision of the underworld, but it offers enough strange encounters and environments to pass, giving the effort a nice lift when attention turns from Charlie’s panic to the land’s weirdo inhabitants.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)