The Mysterious Case of the White-sheeted Ghost (in the Shell)

We went out to see a movie last weekend. The usual assortment of trailers rolled before our eyes ahead of the featured film. One trailer stood out. It caught me off guard. Then my surprise turned to annoyance and dismay, and I wanted to stop it there, but it kept returning to my thoughts, and now I’m just fed up.

Here’s the thing…

  • There’s a popular manga series (Japanese comics) called Ghost in the Shell.
  • Ghost in the Shell has been adapted to the big screen in a live-action production.
  • The Japanese story is set in Tokyo, Japan.
  • The protagonist is Major Motoko Kusanagi, and she is played by… wait for it… Scarlett Johansson.

Scarlett Johansson isn’t Japanese? No problem! We have CGI (digital special effects), and we can use it to make her look Asian! Because the actress doesn’t have to BE Asian. She just has to LOOK Asian. “Asian” is all about how you look, after all. Japanese are actually bananas… yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Use CGI to turn Scarlett Johansson yellow! Also, we have clever make-up artists. We can do stuff to make Scarlett Johansson look Asian, so there’s no need to cast an actual Asian woman for the lead role. Thank heavens. There’s a billion dollars to be made from this picture, and we need Scarlett Johansson in order to make it.

Except the CGI and make-up didn’t work. It just looks like the crew tried to make Scarlett Johansson look Asian.

 

The many faces of Scarlett JAPANsson

 

Scarlett Johansson thinks she’s turning Japanese/I (don’t) really think so. (If you watched MTV in the 80’s, you can name that song.)

And if you were to insist that the ethnicity of the main character in a manga/anime movie is open to interpretation (to which manga and anime fans would say perish the thought), then at least don’t keep the character’s name “Motoko Kusanagi” when you cast Scarlett Johansson, for crying out loud. Keeping the name “Motoko Kusanagi” obliterates any argument that the character shouldn’t necessarily be of Japanese ethnicity. The old “anime characters’ features are made to look more western, anyway” argument doesn’t work, either. The characters are still Japanese. Major Motoko Kusanagi is Japanese. If artistic liberties had been taken with the character’s ethnicity, then no effort would have been expended to make Scarlett Johansson look the part.

When asked about it, Scarlett Johansson allegedly said that she didn’t mind taking a role that could have been given to an Asian actress because the role “empowers all women.” I’m not kidding.

We need to talk about Hollywood’s apparent problem with ethnic representation and how they’re going to reconcile it with their pride in being the paradigm of societal righteousness. Casting a Caucasian actor to portray an Asian character isn’t new in Hollywood, and Asians aren’t the only ethnic minority group of artists being passed over. Whitewashing is an on-going insult, a symptom of the institutional racism embedded in Hollywood. That racism doesn’t look to be going anywhere. No (privileged white) actor has the right to make sanctimonious speeches about the superiority of diversity and inclusiveness in Hollywood. The hypocrisy here is staggering.

Frankly, it makes my skin crawl, this idea of casting a white actor and then using CGI and/or make-up to adjust the features to match the character’s ethnicity when you could simply cast an actor of that ethnicity.

Ghost in the shell, indeed. One thing’s for sure: they nailed the invisibility part.

“La La Land” in a flash of whitening.

We went to see La La Land to catch up with the hype it’s been generating. Then, on Facebook the other day, I joked about writing “La La Land annoys me and I’m not sorry.” This was met with interest, and I do appreciate your interest! Here we go.

La La Land, a film widely beloved as a throw-back to Old Hollywood, has a core cast about as diverse as a pile of snowballs in a blizzard. We were both surprised by the extent of its whiteness.

Also, in a bizarre twist on the familiar trope, the story peaks when the knight in shining armor races up on his steed to rescue a damsel’s career in distress.

And there are no gay characters in La La Land, which I found to be an odd omission.

What is happening? At the Golden Globes, a highly acclaimed veteran actress extolls Hollywood’s diversity and then contrasts it with football and MMA. Football is indeed decidedly all-American. MMA, though, is an international sport that’s arguably more diverse than Hollywood… her example a blunder she makes due to her preconceived notions (effectively reinforcing conservatives’ view that liberals are elitist and hypocritical). Ironically, the notably nondiverse La La Land sweeps the same awards ceremony. Now the Oscar nominations have been released, and La La Land again leads the way. 14 nominations!

(This is not a commentary on those who enjoyed La La Land. If I had a penchant for romance films and musicals, I’d find it dazzling, too.)

La La Land is a boy meets girl story.

 

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The two artists collide and collide again and then again and then finally get together in rapturous love, but the missed-connections shenanigans continue. One aspect of the plot I appreciate – and it’s a major aspect – is the sincere concern each has regarding the other’s faithfulness to their art.

They don’t end up together, but they get what they want, professionally: at the end, he’s opened his jazz club, and she’s reached stardom.

She reached stardom because she wrote a play at his encouragement, and when that led to a call for her possible big break, he heroically raced across a state line to collect her and get her there.

The one black character in the film plays a pivotal, yet behind-the-scenes role. Interestingly, the white lead character envisions a livelihood in an old-school jazz club, and the black background character convinces him that the way to go is to make money playing keys with a touring pop band.

So I have questions, beginning with: Stone and Gosling? Why? They’re excellent actors, but they’re clearly not singers and dancers. And why is Hollywood enamored with La La Land to the point of 14 Oscar nominations? With its nostalgic, retro tone, the film seems intent on recapturing the magic of a Hollywood moment that took place in the 50’s/60’s, an exceptionally racist moment in Hollywood history… and not a good moment for women in the industry, either.

From the standpoint of craft, the film is undeniably glorious. But in this time of political fervor driving Hollywood even more to give impassioned speeches for inclusiveness and equality, the favoritism toward La La Land is off-key.

Hell or High Water. (Non-review movie review! NO SPOILERS.)

You may have noticed that my non-review movie reviews are almost all positive. That would be because I prefer to “review” movies I like. Generally, if I don’t care for a film, I won’t write about it. I’ve seen fewer than 10 movies this year, and only two of them were disappointments. (I’m looking at you, Captain America: Civil War and Suicide Squad.)

This brings me to the part where I declare, for what little it’s worth, that Hell or High Water is easily the best film I’ve seen this year. It is brilliant.

The story, which takes place in Texas, though the movie was filmed entirely in New Mexico, is about relationships. Two parallel, family relationships.

 

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Complicated dynamics relationships. Love shown in funny ways relationships. Beer as an olive branch relationships.

Big talk, slick talk, real talk, risk-taking relationships. Loyalty to the bone relationships.

Stoic guy, desperate guy relationships.

Hell or High Water is a testosterone-driven story, so don’t go in looking for strong female characters. The few women in the mix are peripheral. We never get to meet the most important woman in the film, because she’s dead. Central to the plot, but dead.

Thankfully, no one saw the need to throw in a love interest, because that would water down the beautiful disaster that is the protagonists’ predicament.

With the action fueled by family hardship, the events amount to a test of emotional stamina in the context of moral limits. Pacing is critical. We’re fortunate in the hands of director David Mackenzie (Starred Up); we trust that he can calibrate the hell out of a story, and he doesn’t fall short. Hell or High Water demonstrates how restraint can heighten the tension in a film and effectively build its suspense. Here, we see it masterfully done. I was hardly aware that I was holding my breath.

Not to mention, it was fantastic to sit down in a theater and find myself before a fine piece of writing. Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) wrote an intelligent film of considerable depth. I loved the unconventionality of the plot arc barely descending after the climax. The film leaves you hanging on the other side, but near the top, right where you want to be and don’t want to be.

Again, restraint.

 

 

As a result, we walked out on a variety of cliff-hanger that demands no sequel.

I highly recommend this film, if you don’t mind a little gunfire. It’s really, as I said, about relationships.

 

Don’t Breathe. (Non-review movie review! NO SPOILERS.)

Don’t Breathe is a thriller/drama, otherwise known as a thrillama. (Adorable, right? If that term didn’t already exist, it does now.) It’s categorized as a horror film because there’s no other way to describe the shit that goes down.

 

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Don’t Breathe is an anomaly of a horror film. There’s no hint of the supernatural. No monsters or creatures of lore. No deranged killer wearing a mask while hunting people. No scheming lunatic masquerading as an ordinary person in unsuspecting victims’ lives. No lethal super-virus trampling international borders. No evil aliens or UFOs. No colossal, razor-toothed fish torpedoing out of the ocean. No natural disaster threatening humankind with the apocalypse in a planetary meltdown. No serial killers. No creepy dolls. No clowns stalking children in the Carolinas. (Oh, wait… that’s not a movie. That’s really happening). (It’s not a movie yet, that is.)

There’s just a guy.

And he’s both a victim and a victimizer.

He has reason to do the things he’s doing, as he is being provoked. In his own home.

He does have an obsession, shall we say… but by the time it rears its head, the reveal is powerless to overtake the action and suspense already blurred in full throttle. We’re brought back to the central terror, albeit minus any sympathy we may have had for the guy.

Likewise, a reveal in the backstory of another character serves in the reverse: it seeks to help us feel sympathy for her, lest we’re feeling 100% like “she’s getting what she deserves”… though some of that sentiment may remain. It did for me. There can be no justification for her actions, but at least we’re given some kind of device with which to understand her emotional motives.

Don’t Breathe is smart, unlike a great percentage of its ilk. I enjoy a stupid, campy horror flick as much as the next devoted fan of the genre, but Don’t Breathe is a pleasurable breath of fresh air, as they say. Director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) crafted it into an exhilarating and tight ride.

I think I’ve said all I want to say that I can say without spoiling it for you, if you haven’t seen it. This aptly-titled film is worth the price of its ticket. (An alternate title could be Why Everyone Should Know How to Hot-wire a Car.) I recommend this film highly if you enjoy horror and/or thrillamas, if you don’t mind a bit of gore… and a lot of breath-holding.

Lights Out. (Non-review movie review! No spoilers.)

We went to see Lights Out two Fridays ago, which happened to be the night of our first major monsoon storm of the season.

It was daylight when we went in, and darkness with rain, booming thunder, and flashing light when we went out. The movie had been darkness and flashing light, too. All kinds of light. Flickering light, steady light, florescent light, candlelight, black light, light bulbs, headlights, stage lights, overhead lights, lamp lights, cell phone light, you name it.

 

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Lights Out is an old-school horror film that benefits from its uncomplicated plot, one part jump scares and one part jittery suspense. (In another dimension, one part atmosphere, one part sound design, both exquisitely crafted.) (In yet another dimension that’s irrelevant, no part award-winning acting.)

We didn’t care about the acting, and we didn’t care much about plot, although the plot in this film isn’t badly lacking. We just cared about being spooked by the monster as we sat ensconced in the dark theater.

See, in this movie, you don’t know when the lights will go out, and the first thing you learn is that when the lights go out, scary things happen. Lights Out preys on – or resurrects – our fear of the dark. It’s a simple premise, and that’s why it works.

Rather than wasting time and effort trying to impress us with plot complexity, character development, and CGI effects, the film teaches us how to react. It lends a coat of paranoia to each interior scene, each room, confining tension within the walls. The attention paid to the integrity of each scene maintains the mood, and I appreciated this consistency. There we were in a house that seemed real, with lighting that seemed real (not forced, as props as central motif can seem), holding our breath the whole time. Lights Out is back-to-basics, monster-under-the-bed horror, enjoyable and making no apologies for its lack of embellishments.

I found the monster in Lights Out to be satisfying, too. It’s scary because it’s elemental. It’s unencumbered by CGI overload, devoid of the cheesiness that often ruins the spook potential of contemporary horror movie evil entities.

To make my conclusion as simple as the movie itself: Lights Out is an entertaining horror movie.

 

Ghostastic Crazy: Ghostbusters 2016 (Non-review movie review! No spoilers.)

I went to see Ghostbusters 2016 with Callaghan, my partner in all kinds of crime.

 

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We’d both seen the original Ghostbusters  in the 80’s. He loved it. I don’t remember much about it; while I liked it, it didn’t make such an impression on me that I got caught up in the enduring excitement over it. So there we were at the theater, an original Ghostbusters fan and an original Ghostbusters mildly interested viewer, going in to see 2016’s version.

We found Ghostbusters 2016 to be wondrous. It’s daffy. It’s unapologetic. It’s funny, even hilarious at times. Yes, we laughed, often glancing at each other to find that we were reacting the same way. We also did a lot of leaning in and whispering to each other.

(One of many benefits of those glorious wide, puffy recliner seats in movie theaters is that you can whisper to each other without disturbing others.)

Our whispers mostly went as follows…

Callaghan: Holy sh*t this is funny!

Me: It totally is!

And…

Callaghan: I think this is better than the first one!!

Me: So do I!!

And…

Callaghan: Hell yeah!

Me: This is awesome!

And…

Callaghan: Hahaha Ozzy!!!

Me (at the same time): Ozzy!!

And then…

Callaghan: Is that Sharon? Where is Sharon? That must have been Sharon (Osbourne).

Me: I don’t think that was Sharon.

Callaghan: It kind of looked like Sharon.

And…

Callaghan: I love this!

Me: This is great!

You get the idea.

I don’t know what we were expecting, but we both loved it, and we both said we’d see it again.

We consciously opened our minds before we went in. This was necessary because the movie has generated a brou-ha-ha in the existing Ghostbusters fandom, some kind of kerfuffle that I swear has been the second-most pervasive topic on my FB newsfeed lately, the first being, shall we say, general furor of a political nature.

In fact, the outrage over politics only slightly overshadowed the outrage and scorn over Ghostbusters for a while as people engaged in flame-wars on Ghostbusters-related posts. I don’t know if this is still going on, because I’ve stopped paying attention.

The truth is, I haven’t clicked on any of the articles or blog posts. I just skimmed the titles, snippets, and comments as I scrolled past, because I knew I was going to see the movie, and I didn’t want my head all lit up with the acrimony and disdain flung about on the Internets.

From what I can gather, though, people are mad because the new movie called “Ghostbusters” features female ghostbusters… of all things.

Oh, and they’re mad because Melissa McCarthy is the Grinch who stole Ghostbusters.

And to think that all this time, I’ve been oblivious, blithely unaware that ghost-busting was a male-dominated field in the first place. I guess there are a few remaining men-only jobs, including catching ghosts. As it happens, at least one of the ghostbusters in 2016’s movie does sweat the machismo. She just happens to be a woman. And no, I’m not talking about Melissa McCarthy. I’m talking about Kate McKinnon.

Kate McKinnon’s character, Jillian Holtzmann, is weird, bad-ass, and wildly exaggerated. She’s a caricature. She’s brash, in-your-face, and unpredictable. She reminds me a lot of Lori Petty’s Becca in Tank Girl (1995), another rollicking, campy action/comedy/sci-fi flick (which happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time). Tank Girl isn’t highly rated. Neither is Ghostbusters 2016. But there are cases of lower-rated movies that are fantastic, fun jaunts with cult movie potential, and these two are great examples. Ratings are irrelevant because we’re just there to have a good time. We’re not afraid of no bad reviews.

 

Becca in Tank Girl on the left. Dr. Jillian Holtzmann in Ghostbusters 2016 on the right. NOT UNLIKE.

Becca in Tank Girl on the left. Dr. Jillian Holtzmann in Ghostbusters 2016 on the right. NOT UNLIKE.

 

The entire cast performed well, starting with Kristin Wiig’s character (Dr. Erin Gilbert) getting livid at Melissa McCarthy’s character (Dr. Abby Yates) and subsequently heading over to confront her. The two former best friends end up working together again, but not without the shade of their rift as the invisible third person in their duo. Leslie Jones’ character (Patty Tolan) brings the reality factor, and she does it with comedic aplomb. The dynamics between these four distinct personalities are amusing to watch.

Chris Hemsworth as the dumb blond secretary (Kevin Beckman) is hilarious, too, and also well-cast.

In our opinion, Ghostbusters 2016 is well-written with well-timed dashes of comedy. We loved the cameos and the setting of the digital world we now inhabit (Erin gets mad at Abby because of something she saw online). If the makers utilized CGI in the cheesiest way possible, they pulled it off as an effort that serves the movie well. This movie is supposed to be zany, not realistic.

Let’s be real. This is art, so it’s subjective. Not everyone will like this movie. But to go in already not liking it because the cast is female is unfair. Callaghan pointed out that women (especially as portrayed in movies) tend to be more attuned to the supernatural, which is true, from what I understand… so it makes sense that the ghostbusters are women. If The Conjuring’s paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were to check out the haunted sites in the Ghostbusters movies, it would be Lorraine who’d experience most of the ghostastic crazy, and the craziest of it all, at that.

Callaghan can’t see the reason for the big deal because this new Ghostbusters plot barely resembles that of the first one, he says. As far as he can tell, this new one isn’t even a remake… it’s a different movie altogether. I have to trust him on this since I don’t remember much of the original’s story.

Ghostbusters 2016’s plot nods and winks at the old one more than copies it, and the nods and winks are as funny as hell.

Oh, and I’m a fan of Fall Out Boy’s cover of the theme song, too (featuring Missy Elliott).

 

The Nice Guys (Another informal review that’s not a review.)

The Nice Guys. The Nice Guys are Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, and from the title you know that their characters are either a). literally nice guys, or b). guys with nice-guy hearts buried somewhere deep in a flailing chaos of beating people up and sometimes killing them.

Of the movie’s various brands of humor, at least one will make someone in the audience laugh at least once. In my book, this signifies a successful comedy: make everyone in the audience bust up laughing at least once. When we went to see it, everyone laughed more than once, including us.

What the Nice Guys lack in aplomb, they make up for with dumb luck, and it is hilarious. The last time a dubious (yet strangely compatible) pair of investigators made us laugh like that was in Rush Hour. If Rush Hour had a grittier, hard-boiled cousin, it would be The Nice Guys.

 

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The writing is smart and crisp, the acting is effortless, and the fight scenes are interesting, with plenty of elbows thrown. Refreshingly, there were more elbow strikes than punches, fight scene choreography reflecting our growing public enthusiasm for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). I’m not sure if this counts as an anachronism, but I certainly enjoyed it. It’s about time Hollywood realizes that elbows are more practical weapons than fists in street fights.

If you’re a fan of Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Rush Hour, comedies, action flicks, or 70’s-ass suits and ‘staches, you might find it worth your while to catch The Nice Guys while you can.