Ghost In the Shell (1995)

Ghost in the Shell is a 1995 Japanese animated science-fiction techno-thriller film based upon the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow. The film was written by Kazunori Itō and directed by Mamoru Oshii; it is a Japanese-British co-production, and is one of the works, if not the single most prominent work, that led to the modern popularization of Japanese animation, known as anime, in Western culture. Anime experienced a surge of popularity back in the 1960’s with Speed Racer and Astro Boy, but it didn’t stick. Since the advent of the internet, however, anime has become progressively more and more popular outside Japan, with many appreciating the various art styles and dramatic flair that can be found in many animes. Ghost in the Shell, however, is considered to be the one that started the surge, and has remained immensely popular, even in the two decades since its release.

Ghost in the Shell takes place in 2029. The world is interconnected and many people have become cyborgs with prosthetic and cybernetic enhancements, with many possessing fully cybernetic brains, with their “ghost” being an individual’s personality and memories, hence “Ghost in the Shell.” The film follows Major Motoko Kusanagi of Public Security Section 9. She is one of few people with a fully cybernetic body, with no real human parts to speak of aside from her “ghost.” Section 9 is an elite cybercrime and intelligence organization on the hunt for a mysterious hacker known only as “The Puppet Master.” The Puppet Master apparently possesses the ability to ghost hack: hack into individuals and take over their body without their knowledge. Considered a very dangerous individual for obvious reasons, the film follows the hunt for The Puppet Master while The Major and Section 9 are drawn into a vast and far-reaching political conspiracy.

Ghost in the Shell features top-notch animation, which was created using a unique process called Digitally Generated Animation, a combination of traditional cel animation, computer graphics, and audio that is entered as digital data. It was the goal of animation director Toshihiko Nishikubo to depict film movements realistically. In fact, the animation team performed extensive research into firearms and bullet physics, noting, for example, that a bullet will create a spark upon striking metal, but will not do the same against stone or rock. The team also made character movement seem more realistic; The Major’s movements seem much more mechanical than her more human counterparts.

The most interesting part of Ghost in the Shell is the world itself. Set in an unnamed, post-World War III Japanese city, it almost feels like a real place. The characters in the story interact so fluidly and naturally with everything around them that you sort of almost forget you’re watching a science-fiction film, somewhat akin to the world of Blade Runner, which this film seems to draw from in terms of its “futuristic but natural-feeling” setting. Due to the setting feeling so organic and real, that makes the extremely deep themes explored by the film’s plot easier to digest.

Ghost in the Shell’s most striking aspect is its exploration of extremely deep ideas wrapped up in what would seem on the surface to be a straightforward techno-thriller. This film, however, is so much more than that. Through it’s main character, the film presents an intelligent discussion on what exactly it means to be human. The Major’s body is entirely machine, so what makes her human? Is it her brain, her personality? Is she human at all? What defines humanity? Is it something physical like organs, or is it simply sentience? These questions are the driving force of the entire film, and the whole film drives these ideas home in a flawless manner.

*Please keep in mind that I watched this film in the original Japanese with English subtitles, the voice acting in the dubbed version leaves much to be desired, and I would recommend the original audio*

Another question the film sees fit to ask is a question about the nature of reality. There is a point wherein The Puppet Master uses a normal truck driver as a puppet and a patsy to get him to ghost hack government officials. The Puppet Master does this by implanting false memories about a wife and kids that he doesn’t have.

Ghost in the Shell is an excellent and well-made anime film with enough entertainment to go around even if the philosophical questions do not interest you, but it is hard to deny that the philosophical questions are what permeates through the most. Ghost in the Shell has explicitly influenced many filmmakers and their techniques. Most notably, this film is a favorite of the Wachowski Siblings, being a very large influence in their 1999 magnum opus The Matrix, which borrows a lot thematically and stylistically from this 1995 film. The opening credits to The Matrix were directly inspired by Ghost in the Shell.

For several reasons, most notably the film’s philosophical intellect, as well as just being a generally very well-made film, Ghost in the Shell is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, works of anime ever made. Its influence can be seen even outside of Japan in several Western productions. Its influence is the reason for the entire medium of anime being repopularized in Western countries. With gorgeous animation, a fully-realized world, interesting characters, and an interesting plot to boot, Ghost in the Shell is an excellent film that I would recommend to anyone, not just anime fans.

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Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed is a 2016 American-French action-adventure film based upon the video game series of the same name. The film was directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage. Assassin’s Creed stars Michael Fassbender (one of my favorite actors), Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, and The Wire’s Michael K. Williams.

Assassin’s Creed was first released in 2007. It is an open-world stealth-action game set primarily during the Third Crusade. A young man named Desmond is abducted by Abstergo, a multinational technology giant that is a front for the mysterious shadow organization known as The Templars, on the hunt for mysterious and powerful artifacts which they will use to control the world. The Templars have been engaged in a centuries long shadow war with the Assassins, who are sworn to protect the world from the Templars by any means necessary. Desmond, though raised as an Assassin, left the clan and had been working under assumed names in New York City to protect himself. Under threat of death, Desmond begrudgingly agrees to assist them. He uses a machine called The Animus to access and relive the memories of his ancestors, first Altaïr ibn-La’Ahad. The majority of the game is spent as Altaïr, and you traverse the vast city of Jerusalem uncovering a story of betrayal and intrigue while… you know, doing Assassin things. Desmond later escapes with help from Assassin’s working undercover in Abstergo, and once again must enter the Animus and search for the mysterious Apple of Eden, which was hidden by Assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze during the Italian Renaissance. Desmond and his allies end up in a desperate hunt for the Apple, which brought about the end of an entire ancient civilization. He is aided by holograms of the leaders of this ancient civilization: Jupiter, Minerva, and Juno.

The film version forgoes any of the more interesting aspects of the game’s storyline for something much more streamlined (and boring). Callum Lynch is the son of an Assassin who, for reasons unexplained, ends up on death row. His death is faked by Abstergo and he is then forced to relive the memories of Assassin Aguilar de Nerha during the Spanish Inquisition. Callum is put under the watchful eye of well-meaning doctor Sofia Rikkin, daughter of the head of Abstergo. The Templars want the Apple because it contains the genetic code for free will, which they will use to subjugate the human race and create “a world of peace.”

Assassin’s Creed was often borderline nonsensical and often just plain boring. The action featured in the movie is very pedestrian, bland, and nothing special, and several of the characters’ motivations are either poorly set up or not set up at all. Sofia eventually betrays her father and assists Callum in rescuing the Apple, but she has no reason to do so. Callum and her never develop a romantic relationship, unless you call a strange, sorta, kinda friendship in a scientist-subject dynamic a romance. Not much in the present-day narrative made much sense to me. In the games, “synchronized”was just a way of saying you had finished a portion of the game. (i.e. If you had completed a task, quest, section, or objective, then that portion of the memory in the Animus was 100% synchronized.) In the film, there is a part where Callum is in the Animus, reliving the memories of Aguilar, and Sofia overdramatically states “He’s synchronized!” They never explain exactly what this means.

So the plot of the movie is bad. Badly plotted movies can still have interesting characters, action, or good acting. Assassin’s Creed has nothing. It isn’t even noteworthy in its badness, just boring. The fatal flaw in Assassin’s Creed is the way in which it is set up on a basic level. Unlike the game, in which the memories of the past are in order with logical progression, with only minimal interruption, the film constantly switches between the perspectives of Aguilar and Callum, which is very jarring. Not only that, but when Callum goes back, Aguilar is suddenly captured and must escape, and is later giving the Apple to Christopher Columbus. You have no idea how he got captured or why he gave it to Columbus. Aguilar also has a girlfriend you never care about. In fact, you do not give two craps about anyone because A. The script has nothing to make you care and B. Nobody ever emotes. Nobody has any real emotion, except Michael Fassbender’s acting switch is apparently stuck in “brooding and vaguely angry” the entire movie. This confuses me, because nobody in this movie is a bad actor, some are actually quite good. Also, considering Fassbender also produced this film and had actual stake in its success, I would assume he would at least try. But no, not even Evil Alfred, Jeremy Irons, tries at all.

Assassin’s Creed was a nonsensical and boring critical and commercial flop, and for good reason. Even though (contrary to popular belief) there are video game plotlines that would make great films, there has yet to be a good adaptation which would legitimize the medium. This is because, for whatever reason, screenwriters choose to needlessly alter the plot when the original plot worked just fine. In fact, both the film and the games would’ve been better if they had eliminated the present-day storyline until you wanted to focus entirely in the present, and instead gotten us invested entirely on the Assassins of the past. Instead, the film is all over the place from a narrative perspective, and you either don’t care or don’t understand what is going on as a consequence. Assassin’s Creed is a big-budget borefest, a failed franchise launch that proves that people have yet to take video games seriously as a medium, and is disappointing as a stamdalone film and a horrible adaptation.

 

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is a 2005 American neo-noir crime comedy film written and directed by Shane Black in the Lethal Weapon screenwriter’s directorial debut. The film stars Robert Downey, Jr, Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan. The story takes place in Los Angeles, California. Harry is a petty thief who accidentally wanders in into a screen test while running from the police. Harry, who had his witnessed his partner-in-crime be shot and killed moments earlier, has a mental breakdown, which is mistaken for character acting by the producers. He is sent out to L.A. and is to be given private detective lessons by experienced P.I. Perry Van Shrike, A.K.A Gay Perry. Harry also reconnects with an old friend and the girl of his dreams, Harmony, an aspiring actress. Harry and Perry accidentally stumble upon a murder mystery while on a routine surveillance job, while Harmony and Harry attempt to solve the mysterious death of her twin sister.

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is a great film in every way. I don’t think I really have anything bad to say about it. It is hilarious while also providing a tight and interesting mystery plot. It accomplishes everything it sets out to do, it definitely gets the neo-noir feel right, it’s an interesting mystery, and it is laugh out loud hilarious. Harry regularly provides sarcastic, fourth-wall-breaking commentary throughout the film, delivered in only the way RDJ and Ryan Reynolds can do. Shane Black is a witty comedic genius, with a sense of humor unlike even the most experienced screenwriters. The “Definition of an Idiot” scene had both me and my friend dying of laughter, and it may be the most simplistic joke in the history of comedy, and it is awesome.

The movie is able to keep the laughs going throughout, but it also makes you genuinely feel about the characters. This is, I think, Robert Downey, Jr’s specialty. Even pre-rehab and pre-Iron Man, Downey as an actor had been graced with likeable “everyman”-type qualities that are in full effect here. You root for him, you root for Harmony, you root for Perry. Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, in addition to being hilarious and even engaging from a mystery aspect, also has a very honest and sweet quality about it, and that is what takes the film from “great” to “excellent.”

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is so good, in my opinion, that I honestly can’t think of a whole lot more to say. The film, full of hilarious, endearing, and downright interesting moments, owes a lot to its actors and their abilities, but owes a whole lot more to its brilliant and underrated writer/director Shane Black, who, a decade and change later, still does not get the credit he deserves. Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is a cult classic film and a high watermark for both the comedy and neo-noir mystery genres that should be enjoyable for everyone, and you should definitely check it out. Although I just discovered this film recently, it is now one of my favorites.

Logan

Logan is a 2017 American action drama film with superhero elements written and directed by James Mangold. Logan is the tenth film in the X-Men film franchise and the eighth and final appearance of Hugh Jackman in the role that made him famous, James “Logan” Howlett, also known as Wolverine. The film also sees Patrick Stewart returning (also in his final appearance) as Professor X/Charles Xavier. Both these men had originated these roles seventeen years earlier with the original 2000 smash hit X-Men, which, along with Spider-Man, is credited as the major catalyst for the resurgence of mainstream superhero films into popular culture. Logan is more than another entry into the franchise, it is a swan song for two of the most integral people, two people undeniably responsible for the franchise’s initial success.

Logan, partially based off of the 2008 comic book storyline of the same name, takes place in the year 2029. There has not been another mutant born naturally for 20 years at this point. Following the disillusion of the X-Men, Logan has been living off-the-grid on the U.S.-Mexico Border taking care of a dangerously ill, ninety-year-old Charles, who is now prone to uncontrollable seizures. Xavier, who possesses the most powerful telepathic mind of any mutant ever discovered, is also experiencing fits of Alzheimer’s and periods of delusion. His seizures are very dangerous and have the potential to harm everyone in the vicinity if not dealt with. Logan is working as a chauffeur to make ends meet, making drug deals to acquire the medication necessary to subdue Xavier’s episodes, with help from another mutant, the albino tracker Caliban.

Logan himself is also dying. His regeneration factor no longer works and his adamantium-fused skeleton causes him constant pain and is slowly killing him. He is hard-drinking, cynical, and nihilistic. His devotion to his former mentor is the only thing keeping him from suicide with a specialized adamantium bullet.He is approached by a young mother, desperate to get her and her young daughter to North Dakota, with promises of enough money so Logan and Charles can buy a boat and escape to the high seas. An offer too good for Logan to refuse, he is drawn into a saga of violence, death, despair, and rediscovery.

You will notice that I avoided terming Logan a superhero film; that’s because it isn’t. It is a dark, mature character study of a man, a deeply-flawed, 150-year-old man who used to be a superhero. James Howlett was born in the later 1880’s, yet is ageless because of the degenerative healing factor provided by his mutation. He has been a veteran of all major wars since his birth in one way or another, before becoming Weapon X and eventually finding redemption for his sins with Charles and the X-Men. He has seen things, done things that he cannot take back. He cannot live with all the people he has killed. Logan is an analysis of a man with a century and change worth of self-hatred, rage, and anger.

Logan might be the best film in the entire franchise, challenged only by Days of Future Past and technically Deadpool. Like any good film, it knows there has to be substance to a story to be good. Logan is a film of substance. The action is not flashy, nor heroic. This is not a heroic film. It is a deep dive into the darkness of the soul, by way of a great script and great directing by director of the very disappointing standalone film The Wolverine back in 2013. I was pleasantly surprised, as it seems Mangold has discovered there are a lot of people who emotionally invest in these characters, and the action, though important, often should take a backseat to emotional connection, something Logan does very, very well.

Logan is the second film to be rated R after Deadpool. This was a very smart move, as, in addition to the blood, dismemberment, and swearing, which is honestly necessary to parallel the emotional brutality of the narrative, it also allows for the exploration of highly mature themes, like loss, death, consequence, and hope in the face of adversity. Logan is a film that pulls no punches in any sense, whether physical or emotional. It is a brutal, almost saddening journey to watch, and it is a better film because of that.

All of this is amplified by truly amazing performances by Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. I feel I cannot describe exactly how great these two were, so I will just say this: they friggin’ nail it! This is a return to form that shows the viewer exactly why these actors were skyrocketed into the spotlight for their portrayals of these legendary characters, later becoming respected actors in their own rights. The characters themselves have remained and will remain long-lasting mainstays of popular culture. Young newcomer Dafne Keen is also great. The Spanish-English 12-year-old proves that being a kid is not an excuse for being a horrible actor, because she hits it out of the park.

Ultimately, I think the people behind Logan finally understand what these characters mean to people. Comic books like X-Men (which began in the 1970’s) were initially marketed to children. Those children formed an attachment to these characters. They felt for them emotionally, they were invested. Then, those kids grew up. Superheroes are no longer just for kids, as anyone who’s seen the enjoyment that Iron Man or Civil War can give to an adult audience knows. The people behind Logan knew how to give fans exactly what they wanted.

Logan is a great film. It is a great addition to the franchise that almost makes up for the failures of the previous entry, while also being a great film by itself. As Logan does not rely heavily on the X-Men or other connections except for, obviously, the characters featured in the film itself, I do not think a newcomer would be hopelessly confused. Logan isn’t a superhero film, it’s about a really emotionally messed up dude who used to be a superhero, is a century and a half old, has metal claws, and can regenerate from injuries. It’s not a superhero movie, and to that effect, I would challenge you to go see it even if you are not a big fan of superheroes. It features solid performances from everyone, and is full of emotion, drama, and some brutal action to boot. It was, in summary, a fitting goodbye to Jackman and Stewart’s most famous and well-known roles that everyone is sure to appreciate on some level.

Atomic Blonde: Red Band Trailer

Atomic Blonde is an upcoming spy thriller action film directed by David Leitch, John Wick co-creator and future director of the Deadpool sequel. The film is based upon the 2013 graphic novel The Coldest City by Anthony Johnston and will feature a script by Kurt Johnstad. The film will star Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, and John Goodman.

Atomic Blonde, as well as its original source material, tells the story of Lorraine Broughton, an MI-6 agent sent to Berlin to investigate the death of an undercover agent and retrieve a list of every Western officer working in Berlin, which is in possession of a Stasi agent that the undercover man was able to flip, codenamed Spyglass. Set in 1989, the story is set in the backdrop of the extremely volatile and dangerous period  leading up to the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall on November 9th. Lorraine is forced to partner up with Berlin Section head David Percival, and the two forge an uneasy alliance with each other.

As John Wick remains possibly my favorite film of the straight-up action thriller genre, I was immediately interested in what its creators, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, were planning next. Stahelski went on as the sole director of the equally brilliant John Wick: Chapter 2, as Leitch was busy with this new project. As he has been attached to direct this film since early 2015, I immediately purchased and read through the source material as I knew I was automatically going to see this film, as, at the time of writing this, I am automatically interested in anything either of the two men create. The graphic novel presents an old-school le Carré-esque story with much more focus on tradecraft and double agents. That type of story is very much a niche and is not for everyone, as tradecraft and mystery-driven spy thrillers are often deliberately slow moving and cerebral, which is a turn-0ff for mainstream audiences. So when it comes into converting The Coldest City into the action-focused Atomic Blonde….

I have absolutely no objections whatsoever. The trailer starts with a sampling of what I assume will be a breathtaking long take action sequence. I have often described what a long take is in other reviews; it is a portion of the film that is shot continuously, meaning no fancy camera tricks and no breaks. Normally for fight sequences, it’s “kung fu move, cut, kung fu move, cut, kung fu move, cut.” With a long take, there are no breaks. For further examples of long takes, see both seasons of  Daredevil and the first season of True Detective. I am overjoyed that both these two men know to cast people who can actually pull off action sequences like this themselves without a stunt double. Keanu Reeves is apparently immortal, and Charlize Theron has proved her action chops in Mad Max: Fury Road. The sequence in question, though it certainly stole the show in this trailer, is not the only thing of note here. There are several glimpses here of sequences that are sure to give the film’s spiritual predecessor a run for it’s money.

All of this focus on action is not to discount the fact that Charlize Theron is an Academy-Award winner and a truly talented actress in her own right, on top of being physically fit enough to pull off a film like this, and James McAvoy, though overshadowed by X-Men co-star Michael Fassbender, is a very talented actor, whom I hazard will have some awesome highlights of his own throughout the film. On top of that, the wonderfully skeevy Toby Jones is here, being wonderfully skeevy. With such plot-heavy source material to work with, even though they are certainly not following the graphic novel to the letter, there’s more than enough to create an engaging plot; if you can make one of the most engaging action films in the past few decades using a dog and a car, a good story with the material here should not be hard at all.

Atomic Blonde might sound like a cheap California-produced porno, but make no mistake; this neo-noir spy film, directed by the guy who created one of my favorite films of all time, starring a very beautiful, award-winning, and talented actress and a woefully underrated and talented Scotsman, is officially my most anticipated film of the summer. Atomic Blonde is set to be released on July 28th, 2017.