Man Matter, Reviews

Ghost in the Shell 2017 Review

Overview

Ghost in the Shell (1995) was a ground-breaking anime movie that was not successful in Japan initially because the idea was so ahead of its time. But it gradually gained a cult following through word of mouth and people started to realise its philosophical underpinning. Eventually, an unknown pair of director brothers watched it and created “The Matrix Trilogy.”

After “The Matrix,” many other directors copied the concepts and visuals but all had to pay homage to Ghost in the Shell (GitS.) So how does the live-action adaptation holds up to the original?

Verdict:
Score: 7/10
Pros: Visually stunning but not ground-breaking. Holds true to the basic idea of the original. Well-acted with good pacing and superb cinematography. Good score although I personally prefer more of the original music from the 1995 score by Kenji Kawai.

Cons: The Story is a mess and not because it doesn’t follow the manga or various movies and anime in the GitS franchise. Another case of not pushing the envelope in order to sell the movie to more people, even though I suspect the box office will be better if they did. Ultimately, I guess the Director Rupert Sanders wasn’t deep enough to understand the 1995 movie.

No Spoiler Summary: GitS 2017 is a modest attempt to remake the 1995 masterpiece into something that will appeal to the wider global audience. I personally love the original movie, giving it a 9/10 for its deep philosophical question of what it means to be alive if only your brain is left of your ‘self.’ Do you still possess a soul, which is supposed to be at your heart, or is your entire being, including your soul, just some electrical impulses firing in your neurons?

GitS 2017 doesn’t go that deep but go in the other direction of your self or soul being your action and how you+your action relate to others and the emotional impact that it generates. Suffice to say, the movie lost almost all of the deeper meaning and spirituality of the 1995 anime in order not to confuse the audience. I get the feeling that the director and writers don’t get the original movie and tries so hard to explain everything (and doing a bad job at it) that GitS ultimately becomes a much shallower action sci-fi movie. Because the story is so obsessed with explaining everything, it didn’t have time for self-reflection or give the audience an introspective narration of where all these concepts are going to culminate. Unlike the Major, who is seeking her Ghost (her soul) and ultimately finding it, the movie comes across, ironically, as completely soulless. Something the Wacholski brother nailed in “The Matrix.”

The redeeming factors obviously are the visuals, stunningly animated, taking cues from Blade Runner (which GitS 1995 copies), the dark foreboding themes from GitS 1995 itself, the Major’s cyborg body, Batou’s part human/part-implant body, the action sequences which pay fan service to the 1995 movie but modernised with the CGI of today. Awesome!

The acting was good as well. Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of Mira/Major was intentionally uncertain in Act 1, loosening up in Act 2 as she discovers more about her past and almost human in Act 3 when she finally come to realise who she actually was before her transplant. The white-washing is way overblown, beside Scarlett Johansson’s Major being caucasian looking (she resemble ‘Major’ in the 1995 anime), the rest of crew are multi-national. The city is also obviously Hong Kong but the inhabitants speak Japanese like the 1995 movie as well, which is weird.

The scores and SFX are effective for this type of narrative style so it supported the movie in a good way, so the action part of the movie is well taken care of.

Go watch if you’re a fan of sci-fi or action movie. It’s still worth the ticket.

Spoilers Review:

Ghost in the Shell 1995 was NOT a fast-paced action anime movie, like Attack on Titans. Director Mamoru Oshii (PatLabor) had very little money to do a manga-movie adaptation so in order to save money, he rushed the project and completed a normally 3 year project in just over a year, using a combination of CGI, cell drawing and other tricks like slow-mo to pad the screen time. This severely restricted the ability to have many action sequence, which are VERY time-consuming to draw. He got creative and used nudity, short but intense fighting sequences, philosophical twists and internal struggle of the protagonist to move the story forward, and what a masterpiece he created, even though it was not understood by many upon release.

Those slow introspective moments are cheap to draw and animate, and the dialogue are also purposely kept to a minimum to let audience gather their thoughts as the plot thickens and twists. Using the brilliant atmospheric score from Kenji Kawai and stunning hand-drawn backdrops, he did a Stanley Kubrick (2001 A Space Odyssey) for Ghost in the Shell and over the year, got a global cult following, which granted him the chance to do GitS 2: Innocence, which had a lot more action but ultimately couldn’t top the first movie. “Less is more” is definitely true here.

Now that you have some background of GitS 1995, it’s time to see what worked and what didn’t in GitS 2017. The story is completely different from the 1995 movie. There are fan service scenes like the Major kicking the punk in the drain scene where she fought him whilst being naked & invisible, and the scene where she jumped off the roof of a high-rise naked and shooting someone through the windows. The Geisha bots are from GitS2, the final Act where the supposed villain turns out to have a crush on Major, the Spider tanks are all there.

The universe (story) is completely different too. Instead of the Puppet Master aka Project 2501 (an information gathering Sentient AI), they lumped up the Hideo Kuze character with Puppet Master to become Project 2571 (the Ghost in the Shell project.) This movie is played out more like an origin story where Major just joined Section 9 instead of the 1995 movie where she’s well established, confident and kicking ass.

Being an origin story, it’s very important to establish an emotional connection with the main characters. This worked out well as I was genuinely emotionally invested in Mira (a nickname given by Dr Ouelet – her creator). How she became “Major”, a military rank was never explained.

In Act 1, her brain has just been inserted into a cyborg shell. She (and the audience) has no idea of her past. Our past memories defines our soul, so at this point, she has little soul because it was erased. However, glitches/flashback/feedback started appearing in her consciousness without reason and Dr Ouelet would keep erasing them.

However, her investigation into the murder of the scientists at Hanka Corp, which made her shell, soon attracted the attention of a dangerous cyborg criminal called Kuze who view her as an equal. After trapping her in his human brain driven private network/lair, he revealed that he was a failed iteration of her own shell, which the Hanka Corp tried to kill. This prompted Major to seek out the truth of the origin of her organic brain that ultimately led to the discovery that her real name was Motoko Kusanagi. She was declared dead a year ago and is survived by her mum.

She was a runaway with Hideo Kuze, her lover and they were harvested along with 97 others by Cutter, a Hanka Corp senior executive who wanted to create super-human soldier weapons for sales. After Major discovered the truth, Cutter ordered her back to Hanka to have her killed too. For unknown reason, she complied and returned to Hanka Corp where Dr Ouelet injected a serum to release her memory block instead of the poison as ordered by Cutter. Cutter then kills Dr Ouelet after she helped Major escape and he ordered a kill-strike on all of Section 9 personnel.

Fortunately, Section 9 is an anti-terrorism group and they made short work of the strike team from Hanka Corp. The final showdown in Act 3 starts when Major went back to the place where Cutter kidnapped her group. She meets Kuze, who can sense her after he hacked into her Ghost previously, and they discovered that they were lovers. The romantic moment was interrupted when the spider tank fired a shell which crippled Kuze. Major tried to fight the tank with an automatic rifle to no effect. She finally goes invisible and jumped on the tank to pull out its control unit, thus disabling it but not before also tearing off one of her arm and rupturing dozens of muscles.

After remembering, she finally reclaimed her home and return to her real biological mother and goes on to become the confident Major Motoko Kusanagi that we know from the 1995 movie.

The one part that I didn’t understand was Kuze told Major he will always be with her in the networks and then switches off. So did his ghost die? Major shedding a tear suggested he did but she should still be able to feel his presence on the Internet, so why did she cry?

I think Scarlett Johansson was correctly casted because she was convincing as Major. So are her co-stars like the famous Takeshi Kitano’s Aramaki-san (Battle Royale), tender yet tough sidekick Batou played by Pilou Asbaek. Special call out to Chin Han (2012) as Togusa-san. The Section 9 outfit is newish when the movie started but their dynamics grew as the movie progressed. I would really love to see this team get more chances to work together in future. Yes, I want a sequel for sure. I think Scarlett Johansson deserves her own franchise instead of being just “Black Widow” in the Marvel franchise. That will depend on global receipts for this movie.

If there is a sequel, I’m hoping they will do an Iron Man where the first movie is the origin story and Iron man 2 explores some of the “skeleton in the closet” situation so that they can flash out some of the philosophical question raised by GitS 1995.

I think a new director is required because Rupert Sander doesn’t seem to grasp the opportunities presented by the ability to separate your soul from your body and uploading it onto the Internet, which is what GitS 1995 is about. The problem is also endemic to the rest of the crew and even Scarlett Johansson. When interviewed, she struggled to explain the deeper implications of mind out-of-body. Her answer in that interview was deeply unsatisfying philosophically.

This is in contrast to Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss and Hugo Weaving, who were able to explain very clearly their roles and the deeper implications of their being in “The Matrix”. This is a testament to the geniuses of the Wachowski brothers and it really shows in the screenplay.

The ordinary happy ending is also unlike GitS 1995 which ended with the Puppet Master AI being merged with Major’s organic brain to become a new entity that exists both in the real AND virtual world with all the information and networks on the Internet as her playground. Plus she got a new shell from Batou as a parting gift.

In conclusion, I think GitS 2017 hit enough of the right buttons to be a good enough adaptation but it really didn’t have or didn’t devote enough time to explore any of the really interesting concepts that deal with the mortality of human beings if your brain can be separated and placed in a cyborg body that doesn’t die. Or the director and script writers simply aren’t equipped to answer deep philosophical questions. Fans of GitS 1995 will probably hate this movie but non-fans will appreciate the 2017 version because it isn’t as mind-bloggling.

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Fatherhood, Man Matter, Opinions, Reviews

Beauty and the Beast (2017) An honest in-depth look

I LOVE the Disney animated movie (hand-drawn cartoon) Beauty and the Beast (1991). It is my favourite Disney animated movie of all times. (Not counting Pixar 3D-animated movies.) I was a kid back then but I can still remember the ballroom scene that composite hand-drawn cartoon with the 3D-CGI ballroom and chandelier. It resonated with me because the visuals were stunning, the song was sung with such feeling and it just builds and builds to a crescendo, leaving me breathless and watery-eyed at the same time. And I was in love with Belle. 😉 She’s smart, beautiful & has a mind of her own. Oh, and she’s French!

The new BatB “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) made a heroic effort to turn a fantasy cartoon into a live-action movie and while it gained a lot of realism, it lost a lot of charm & grace… and a little bit of comedy. This doesn’t make it a bad movie because I still scored it a 7/10 for explaining much of what the 1991 movie passed on without explaining, and the shear size and technical achievement of making the castle & fantasy characters believable in the real-world. However, I wasn’t able to be fully immersed in the story or suspend my disbelief until the final act of the movie when the pace picked up and the emotions swelled.

Score: 7 / 10
Pros: The story does work and filled in a lot of missing details from the cartoon movie. The sets and characters are well animated and looks real. The acting was decent and towards the end, you may even shed a tear. There are more songs for the title characters, which really helped you care for them towards the end.

Cons: The Director’s or Producers’ pacing is too uneven, starting out slow, plateu in the middle, then shoot you to space right at the end. Fans of the 1991 cartoon knows what to expect next but new viewers may get lost. Major plot points can be condensed. This even affected some of the songs which develops the individual character’s story arc.

More Cons: Emma Watson was really wooden in some scenes and I blame it on the Director. See the Chip blows bubble scene…

Spoilers ahead!

Let’s go in-depth into BatB (2017)

With the remake of any beloved movie or franchise, the new crew has the unenviable task of living up to the expectations of fans, while coming up with something new that can stand on its own. Unfair comparison is inevitable because when you watch a movie as your younger self, you are more impressionable compared to your older jaded soul. This is called nostalgia and it affects almost all of us. With that in mind, I will try to be as impartial as possible. If it’s my preference vs the director’s choice, I will highlight that! Other than that, I will review this movie like any other.

The movie opens differently from the original. Instead of a monologue of the story with a stained glass “slideshow,” BatB (2017) opens with a ballroom party where the Prince was dancing & swooning guests until the old haggard lady came in looking for shelter from the bitter cold. The opening scene sets the tone of the movie and it completely fell flat emotionally.

It could have been set as a fantasy (flashback) scene like in the Labyrinth (1986) with a dreamy whimsical tone or it could have been dark & foreboding like Maleficient (2014). Instead, the director went for a Prince not accepting a rose and getting turned into a goat-head giant sprouting orang-utan fur. It was neither fearsome nor sad. The cartoon stained glass at least show the Prince in anguish. This is just boring… like so many other reviewers who noted the director just going along for the ride, not taking any risks or driving a singular vision that could make this movie great.

If you’re coming into BatB for the first time, you will be wowed by the baroque costumes and the grandiose castle and that’s great. What I’m saying is the director could have taken these sets & settings and made them GREAT. And that is my biggest problem with this movie. After Maleficient, I was ready to see more grandiose in Disney life-action remakes and I was disappointed in that respect.

This opening scene could have been done in a much darker note showing the terror & decay of the inhabitants and the amnesia that befalls their loved ones at the neighbouring village with the aftermath of the villagers losing their children, who became teacups. It would also be a much sharper contrast when Belle starts her whimiscal “Little Town” song showcasing her loneliness and dissatisfactoion of living in a village without teenagers. The issue of not going “the extra mile” continues in Act 1 & 2.

After this, it cuts to Belle’s opening number and that is my second-biggest issue with this movie. Throughout the movie, Emma Watson’s singing was heavily synthesize with Auto-Tune. Being the title singing role, I would rather they get a professional singer like Ariana Grande to dub over Emma’s singing rather than hearing an unnatural synthesized voice, if Emma really can’t sing. Disney has done this in many of their movies where the singing voice is different from the speaking voice. I’m a fan of Emma Watson and her Auto-tuned singing really irritated me on many level.

My third biggest issue is with Emma Watson’s acting or Bill Condon’s direction. Animated Belle was spunky, intelligent, compassionate and graceful. Hermione (Harry Potter franchise) was spunky, intelligent & compassionate (but not graceful). So what happened to Emma Watson? Her performance was pretty sub par in many scenes and I’m willing to bet it’s the director’s fault.

I heard Emma had a very active role in redefining Belle to cater to the feminist movement. However, not all the scenes worked and it’s the director’s job to decide what scenes to keep or cut. Animated Belle was really into books and she seem to have gotten a lot of that from the bookstore, hence she’s smart but innocent. Emma’s Belle showed much less interest in books and the movie show her going to a church for books? And there was less than 10 paperback size books on the counter. How many of those are bibles I wonder… And just like that, the fountain scene was cut. Emma’s Belle did show she can use her smarts with her own invention and that worked for the movie.

The 1991 cartoon movie skipped many plot points to maintain a very focused pace including cutting the entire fantastically animated sequence with the wonderful song “To Be Human Again” from the theatrical release. When I watched the Remastered BatB (1991), I completely understood why it was cut in the first place. It didn’t contribute to the movie story-wise and inserted a 5-minute break to the pace. All the characters had overtly mention their longing for Belle to break the spell multiple times, which meant turning back to human again. There isn’t any need to waste 5 minutes of screen time to reinforce something the audience already knew.

This is the next problem I have with this movie. The pacing is slow. The songs are longer, even the “Be my guest” sequence didn’t get interesting until the last 15-seconds, but the first minute of the build-up was so slow! And Belle STILL didn’t get to eat anything except for the pudding that was not trashed by the Dishes & their Friends. For some reason, the director wants us to wait and wait till the end before he blast us with everything the CGI department can throw at us! He could just increase the tempo to match the animated movie & it’ll be fine! So I didn’t really enjoy most of Ewan Mcgregor’s “Be My Guest.” Also, Ian McKellen’s Cosworth was quite boring.

It’s the same with the entire movie. Act 1 & 2 was slow & draggy, and while I appreciate the story really being fleshed out to explain so many questions we had from the cartoon, the build-up could have been better handled. There were so many padding in Act 2 between Gaston and Maurice when a brief scene would suffice. I mean there’s a 2 minute sequence of Gaston trying to kill Maurice and Le Fou trying to stop him. Then a 3-4 minute sequence of Gaston framing Maurice and getting him locked in a cart bound for the asylum. The cartoon’s way was much more effective in this instance and moved the story quicker. Of course, it could be the producers wanting to give the wonderful Kelvin Kline more scenes, in which case, I feel the script was really weak with respect to Maurice, Agathe & Gaston. They should either cut that section out completely or show how Agathe is involved in all of this.

So, I just wasn’t emotionally involved in Act 1 & 2. Even the humour fell flat.

At this point in time you’d be wondering with so many negative comments, how the hell I gave this movie a 7?

Well, it’s because despite the director’s best efforts to dumb and slow down the movie, all the main cast did put in a really decent performance especially during their introduction and character development sequence when they’re singing. Besides Emma’s Auto-Tuned singing, everyone else’s was fine, which is weird since they only did it for Emma Watson.

Dan Stevens’ Beast was spot-on as a reluctant tyrant led astray by his father. Emma’s Belle was spunky & somewhat intelligent and she did shine in a few scenes (Act 1 & 2), although not graceful or genuinely curious (or excited) about living in an enchanted castle. Kelvin Kline’s Maurice’s tragic back-story of his wife’s death to the Bubonic Plague and his over-protection of Belle was believable & touching. Luke Evans’ Gaston is well portrayed as a megalomania & schizophrenic war-hero. Josh Gad’s LeFou lost the comedic sidekick role and became Gaston’s lover-in-the-waiting + moral compass.

Gaston’s self-admiration in the mirror scene was a highlight and it really contrasted with the director/producer not going all the way for each and every scene, like when Belle was teaching the little girl to read. They didn’t show the girl’s parents summoning the other villagers to pull Belle and the little girl apart with the girl being scolded by the parents and the rest of the villagers trashing Belle’s donkey-driven washing machine (which is a brilliant device that could have washed half the town’s laundry at a go!) This would have added 10 second of Belle’s disbelief and disgust of their petty small minds and added emotional depth in Act 1 that arc towards Act 3 when the townspeople were manipulated by Gaston to “Kill the Beast.”

The pivotal scene where Belle and Beast felt something inside them and Belle sang “Something There” started slow but build up faster than “Be Our Guest.” It worked and we gained more insight into why Belle could ever learn to love the Beast. The Beast was starting to melt and it showed in Dan Stevens’ performance, even beneath all that orang-utan fur. 🙂 By the end of the song, he had even learned to laugh and shot Belle down with a giant snowball, one of the few scenes with unexpected humour.

The most important scene of the movie has to be the ballroom dance scene where their love blossomed. The set was very well done and the mood/lighting was impeccable. Belle’s gown was BEAUTIFUL and the Beast suit was well-done. However, as with the rest of the movie, the magic isn’t turned on till the very end of the ballroom scene . I think it has to do with the cinematography being too choppy. There just wasn’t enough of the grand sweeping pans and pullback + zoom-ins from the dance to a wide-angle shot of the ballroom. The camera was dead set on the couple dancing and it cuts in and out of the scene instead of the original slow panning and zooming. However, the last 1/3 of the sequence did work when the music swells and the magic starts with the Beast sweeping Belle off her feet. Some may prefer this although I personally prefer the original 3D animated sequence.

I also prefer Angela Lansbury’s Mrs Potts rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” because everything just felt heightened. The notes soared higher, the musical crescendo was more majestic, so much so that you feel your soul being lifted as well. And it ended so sweet and gently. Emma Thomson did a decent job but Angela Lansbury did it with 1 take, hitting all the right highs and lows. I also prefer Celine Dion & Peabo Bryson’s rendition of “Beauty and the Beast”, although Ariana Grande & John Legend take was awesome too.

After this, the final Act starts when Gaston locked up Maurice & Belle and the pace picked up considerably. The music and singing also somehow picked up several notches with “Kill the Beast.” The director seemed to be in a rush to finish the movie and it seemed to make the movie MUCH more enjoyable! The plot was tighter, the action was swift and decisive. Mrs Potts recognised her husband from the village during the castle lobby fight sequence! Belle and the Beast tag-team to fight Gaston and Gaston’s cowardly act of begging the Beast not to let go, then shooting the Beast in the back made more sense than the original.

All the actors also seemed to wake up and really pulled their acts together. Belle suddenly became fearless and compassionate, Beast truly showed his aggressiveness and resolve, Gaston became the jealous & cunning nutcase he truly is.

After the last petal fell, BatB (2017) did something unexpected and pulled a tear-jerker by showing all the castle inhabitants turning to lifeless object in addition to the beast dying. Belle cried and finally confessed her love for the Beast. At this moment, the mysterious enchantress returned to break the spell, resurrecting and reforming the Prince. The castle staff reanimated & returned to their human form while winter turned to spring. And as a bonus, the village invaders suddenly remember the castle and their loved ones working there. This absolutely made a lot of sense retrospectively.

This last 10-15 minutes of the movie really saved it. While it’s still not great enough for me to give it 7.5, it made me feel it was still worth my money bringing the family to watch it. Without it, I would have rated this movie a 6. It’s interesting to note that when I watched BatB on 16/3/2017, IMDB showed 6.1, but as of 18/3/2017, IMDB shows 7.6. Rotten Tomato also went up to 71% while Metacritic remains at 65.

I would recommend you go watch it. You will probably enjoy this more if you’ve never watch the animated movie first because there’s a reason the 1991 movie is rated an ‘8’ on IMDB.