Ghost in the Shell (Sanders; 2017)

Before starting the review proper, I have to say that I have seen the original anime version of Ghost in the Shell, but it was in 1995 when it was first released.  I remember thinking at the time that the movie was “pretty good” but didn’t really have any large effect on me past that, and I haven’t seen it since.  My memories of the film now pretty much cap out at it was Japanese, it was animated, it was pretty good, and there was a tank near the end.  So, this review will not be a comparison to the original in any way and will just take this remake at its own merits.

Secondly, the controversy surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead, Major, in Ghost in the Shell is something I am largely aware of.  In determining how and if I should address that controversy in the film I found that I have so much to say about it that it’s worth an article on its own.  Look for that in this blog shortly, but for now I will just say I am aware of it, and I will speak about it eventually, but not in this review.

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Ghost in the Shell begins by introducing us to Major, a cyborg with a fully robotic body and the brain, but only the brain, of a human being.  We see her as she is initially being created, the doctors inserting the human brain into the robotic body which looks exactly like Scarlett Johannson, and as she blinks her eyes to signify that she is awake and aware, the doctors explain to her what she is.  In this explanation they make absolutely sure to point out that the robotic body is a shell and that her mind is a ghost.  So, she’s a ghost…  in a shell.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I think most of the movie going audience will understand the film’s title without that explanation, but the movie spells it out for us just in case, and not just that one time but several times throughout the course of the film.

Unfortunately, the film’s assumption that its audience is filled with idiots does not end there.  Nearly every move every character makes is accompanied with an explanation of exactly what they are doing and why verbatim as if we couldn’t possibly understand any of the film’s subtext without explaining it all for us.  This all makes for an aggravating and distracting experience where the dialogue in Ghost in the Shell is concerned, making me long for a film in which the characters didn’t speak at all and I could just enjoy the visuals on display.

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Those visuals, I did enjoy immensely.  The special effects and the creativity behind them in combination with the mood and setting they create are as fantastic as the dialogue is lousy.  Every scene we’re shown in this dystopian cybernetic future gives us a fully fleshed out, well conceived universe where overpopulation and pollution are rampant, and where the rich and powerful use holographic advertisements in every single square inch of skyline and sidewalk in an attempt to fleece a desperate populace giving us a vision at once incredibly colorful and bleak,  Many of you reading this have probably seen the trailer in which Major runs along the walls of a room filled with geishas and men in suits firing two pistols as she defies gravity.  As spectacular as this scene is, I wouldn’t rank it among even the top few most visually astonishing scenes in the film. The special effects team, art direction team, and cinematographers all deserve serious kudos for their work here.

The performances are also well done especially considering the script they were given to work with.  Scarlett Johannson is actually the weak link among the actors, as she doesn’t successfully convey the depths of confusion and anxiety that are so important to the ultimate development of Major’s character.  She plays the entire thing from start to finish as an aloof bad ass with an occasional quizzical attitude when the tragedies inherent in her history are revealed.  Pilou Asbaek as Major’s right hand man and possible love interest Batou, though, is excellent.  He comes across as what Major should be: badass, funny, vulnerable, and introspective all at once.  “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, one of Japan’s most popular actors, also gives a fantastic performance as Major’s boss Aramaki.  Even though he has not a single line in English he still portrays a character that is at once boss and father figure, the leader who cares perhaps too much for those he leads, without ever turning it into a caricature and surprises us more than once throughout the film with his acting choices which very much break from the way a character of this nature would normally be played.

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Final recommendation: Ghost in the Shell has serious script problems.  The dialogue is the worst kind of spoon fed tripe and the plot could be so much more thematically but ultimately ignores what could the more profound elements of itself and devolves into a video game complete with final boss monster (that’s kind of unfair to video games as their plots are getting better and better as time goes on – this is a 1995 video game).  However, it is a feast visually with a fully fleshed out world, beautiful camera work, and awe inspiring action.  The sound, including the music, aside from the spoken words are also excellent, and the acting is pretty darn good.  So, while the immensely flawed story and words make this a hard one for me to recommend overall, if you are the type who think nuance is overrated and you just want to see something cool, then this will do the trick.  If you need character development, subtlety, and rich themes to explore, though, Ghost in the Shell is one to skip. 

Beauty and the Beast (Condon; 2017)

From 1989 to 1994 Disney brought us four of their most revered classics (and, The Rescuers Down Under) all four of which were based on a classic tale hundreds of years old.  1989 started the Disney renaissance (it hadn’t had a truly classic animated film for decades before this) with The Little Mermaid based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name.  The original story was published in 1837, and so was the newest of the four tales they were to adapt over these five years, and focused on an unnamed mermaid who wanted to be human and marry a prince, and that is really where the similarities between the two stories end.  Disney “Disneyfied” the story by adding music, sidekicks, and by giving the story an action packed happy ending complete with a giant monster to battle.

1991’s Beauty and the Beast was more similar to its original fairy tale originally penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, but it was still Disneyfied in its own way.  While the original fairy tale did have the unnamed beauty falling in love with the beast at the end, there was no sideplot involving a jealous suitor and an angry mob attacking the castle, it was a story only about a couple overcoming their own prejudices and falling in love with one another.

Aladdin was the 1992 output from Disney studios, and is the one probably most removed from its original plot, but also the most improved through the Disneyfication process.  The original story from the 18th century is a somewhat unstructured story following the adventures of an arabic street urchin who does find a magic lamp with a genie, does marry a princess, and does encounter an evil sorcerer, but the specifics surrounding all those events greatly differ from the original story and the Disney reworking of the story did manage to add structure and humor missing from the original.

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Finally in 1994, Disney brought us Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” via the vehicle of The Lion King.  In the Disney version we are given a happy ending in which only the villain dies rather than nearly every major (and many minor) character in the story, plus they turned the story into “Hamlet: The Musical”, and as bad an idea as all of this sounds they actually pulled it off and gave the world a version of the bard which younger audiences will love even if the message of the story is exactly the opposite of the original.

All of these stories, except Aladdin, lost a little something in the translation, though they did all gain something else in return.  The Little Mermaid completely changed in theme and tone, but it gained optimism and excitement.  Beauty and The Beast lost time spent on the budding romance, but gained action and conflict, and The Lion King lost the darker themes of disfunction and depression, and became a story about perseverance and friendship instead.

Fast forward to 2010 when Disney brings us a live action version of Alice in Wonderland helmed by Tim Burton.  Once again Disney changes its source material, this time that source material being its own animated movie, and makes Alice a bit older, giving us a story in which she isn’t so much a little girl lost exploring an odd world but now becomes something of a feminist bad ass.  Well, at least kind of.  The movie didn’t entirely work, but it certainly didn’t fail, either, and most importantly it made enough box office money that Disney decided to continue the experiment of turning their animated classics into live action films.

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In Maleficent, they gave us a pretty great remake of Sleeping Beauty which ditches the archaic themes of the original and gives us a story from the villain’s point of view, and flips the story’s ending on its ear to give a message about what true love really is rather than what fairy tales portray.  Again, the movie had its issues, but it was a vast improvement on the original tale and the total change in point of view and theme was quite revolutionary.  In the live action Cinderella they didn’t change things up too much, but they dropped the music, and The Jungle Book did the same except for saving one complete musical number and a snippet of another, the real revelation here being the hyperrealistic animation of the animals which was a wonder to behold (and got the movie an Oscar).

Which brings us to right now and the release of the live action Beauty and the Beast directed by Bill Condon and starring Emma Watson as Belle, the titular beauty, and Dan Stevens as Beast.  This version is a reworking of their animated film, not the original story, so Gaston, LeFou, and the castle servants are all here, as is the music.  The only major changes to the original animated film are additions.  We are given a prologue showing how and why the prince was cursed to become Beast while the other additions are new musical numbers.  In all the film’s length is increased by roughly 40 minutes.

Since the story of Beauty and the Beast revolves entirely around the love story and the themes of learning to love someone you would never expect, the actors who have to sell the love story are of the utmost importance.  Dan Stevens, for his part, absolutely sells this part of Beast.  The addition of the opening scene in which we learn why the prince is cursed does an excellent job of setting up the prince as man unworthy of and unwilling to love.  When we first see him as Beast we completely buy him as a monster, and as the film progresses and he begins to open up, smile, joke, we absolutely get caught up in and believe his transformation.  Despite layers of makeup and CGI, Dan Stevens shines through all of that outer covering and lets us see the complex man inside.  As, for Emma Watson….  don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want the ending of La La Land spoiled (that will make sense once you read it, but don’t if you don’t want it spoiled, last warning).

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Emma Watson was originally cast as the lead in La La Land, but couldn’t ultimately play the role as she was too involved in filming Beauty and the Beast, so the part went to Emma Stone.  La La Land is another film that hinges completely on the actors selling the love story.  We need to know how important these two were to each other so that at the end when they finally acheive their dreams but have to do so at the cost of their own relationship, it hits you emotionally and doesn’t just become a matter of “so what?  they got what they wanted”.  That alternate world ending montage hits you right in the gut, but it never could have if the stakes weren’t so high, and the stakes couldn’t be high if Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling hadn’t just shown you they were in love, but made you feel it yourself and made you want a love like that of your own.  If Beauty and the Beast is any indication, Emma Watson could not have pulled that off.

Emma Watson is, however, a better singer than Emma Stone if Beauty and the Beast is enough to base that opinion on as she, and everyone in the cast, bring new life to the soundtrack which is arguably Disney’s best.  “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston”, “Beauty and the Beast” are all here, and all done spectacularly, better than in the original, in fact.  The live action adds a weight and depth to the musical numbers which the original simply doesn’t have, and all the performers here sing as well, if not even better, than in the animated version.  This is where Beauty and the Beast truly shines, and it shines so brightly in this regard as to be nearly blinding.

The visuals here are also incredible, though some things don’t work as well as when they are more classically animated, and those things are very specific to the point I’d almost have to make a list, which I won’t.  But, as a “for instance” Lumiere, played absolutely wonderfully by Ewan McGregor, is so much better in this style of animation as he now has some heft and is more than just eyes and a mouth drawn on a candelabra greatly improving the ways he can emote and move.  Mrs. Potts, however, doesn’t fare nearly so well, and works so poorly in this style as to be distracting whenever she is on screen.  The best way I know to put it is that while the camera work and special effects are always well crafted, the choices made as to the actual final appearance of all these elements can be extremely hit or miss, some being a wonder to behold others actively breaking the movie’s spell with their awkwardness.

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Finally, this review could not be complete without my mentioning how great it was to see Kevin Kline back on the screen as Belle’s father, Maurice.  The man has not missed a step and steals your attention every single time he appears on screen.  This man’s bad performances are rare, and I would rank his turn here among some of his best (though, nothing will ever beat his Otto from A Fish Called Wanda, in my opinion).

Final recommendation:  Beauty and the Beast‘s story ultimately fails where it’s most important, but it excels in most other areas.  The spectacle is, well, spectacular, the music is not just as great as you remember, but is perhaps even better, and most of the cast does a great job.  This could be a movie that disappoints due to its nearly exact duplication of the animated version with the few additions not being enough to make it anything new.  But, if you need a Disney fix and don’t care about repetition, then Beauty and the Beast is about as good a repetition as you can get, I just wish Emma Watson could have made me believe.