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Kung-Fu masters with heavy metal hair kick each others’ bodies apart while the Ol’ Dirty Bastard raps about running game. This is the first five minutes of the RZA’s heavily anticipated directorial debut, and it is exactly what we were hoping for. The action is frenetic, and bloody as hell, and the music, while sliding toward the more traditional as the film goes on, completes it to create a satisfying whole. The hip-hop/martial arts aesthetic has never been better, and The Man with the Iron Fists is not only an essential piece of that legacy, it’s self-aware and exciting niche entertainment.

A decently complex but well-designed story structure is held together by running commentary of the Blacksmith (RZA), who feels at once out of place, with his modern locution, and spiritually engaged. We move from character to character under this guide, learning who the players are and how every piece fits into place in anticipation of the final showdown. The plot builds toward what promises to be an explosive ending, telling of a shipment of gold that’s headed through the violent Jungle Village, where seven deadly clans have gathered to wage war. Infighting in the Lion Clan has put a warmonger on top, a goofball psychopath named Silver Lion (Byron Mann) who seeks to claim the gold.

He stays in Lady Blossom’s (Lucy Liu) hotel, the same place where later a mysterious gunfighter, Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), will establish his lethal presence. Meanwhile, Zen-Yi (Rick Yune) is told of his father’s death at Silver Lion’s hands, and treks back to Jungle Village to avenge him and take the clan back. Predicting this course of action, Silver Lion dispatches his chief assassin, Brass Body (Dave Bautista), to deal with it.

Everyone needs a weapon, and so they all turn to the Blacksmith, who only wants to leave with his woman, a Blossom Prostitute known as Lady Silk (Jamie Chung). There are many characters here and a lot of recognizable names. As a co-screenwriter, the RZA manages to balance all of them equally, allowing for even minor characters like the Gemini Killers (Andrew Li and Grace Huang) ample screentime for badassery. There are also some key cameos, though apparently I missed Eli Roth’s. Watch for that one, I guess.

With RZA as a director, this does in a few ways feel like a debut film. The camera isn’t always confident or well-placed (though a few shots are downright beautiful), but the action is great — hyperviolent, flamboyantly bloody, and visually stimulating. There’s a rhythm to it that I assume a rap producer must have a feel for — the speeding up and slowing down for crucial moments and amplification of impacts is second nature to someone who not only lives and breathes musical timing, but has gorged himself on a lifetime of martial arts cinema to know well what works and what doesn’t.

And the story is perfectly structured for this premise. It’s an action movie, so there’s no muddling of the action with boring mythology or cliché and boring characters as in the last live-action Hollywood Chinese martial arts movie — The Forbidden Kingdom. Though this lacks the star power of that movie, it has a cast that not only looks great in their crazy costumes, but provides energetic or appropriately brooding performances. A particular standout is Byron Mann, whose Silver Lion enjoys what he does just a bit too much.

Though the RZA as an actor seems to take a backseat to the others, he shows his stuff in the moments he provides for himself, playing the Blacksmith with a subdued rage and mystical spirit that comes through in those sad, sad eyes. His voiceovers are just so damn entertaining, and his physical performance is believable in its own, fantastical logic.

On the writing side, there is a lot of dialogue that works, but is somewhat ‘dropped’ by awkward shot choices. There’s a moment early on where one of Silver Lion’s cronies agrees with a fellow soldier in that very obvious, bandwagon way, and the Silver Lion begins to call him on it, which feels like the setup to a punchline that never comes — there’s never a reaction shot of the dude, or really any change in frame at all from Silver Lion. It’s the small things like these that will eventually have you wondering abour later moments, like when the female Gemini notes that the Blossom cook’s beef is spicy, and he responds, “Oh goooood,” rather strangely but seemingly deliberately. Why include that moment at all?

Complaints are small and those are all of them. The Man with the Iron Fists is a hugely entertaining action movie with memorable characters and a plot that builds and intrigues, rather than complicates and alienates. Tarantino provides an introduction and trailer for Django Unchained before the RZA’s movie starts, and the Jamie Foxx-led ‘southern’ looks damn good, but the bar’s been officially raised for balls-out, exploitative, genre-literate violence.

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A man like Neil Marshall makes Doomsday because he thought a futuristic soldier facing down a knight would be cool. A man like Neil Marshall makes two critically acclaimed horror movies and then obliterates expectations with his third.

A man like Neil Marshall is one the last great champions of genre cinema.

Though he’s in a league with Edgar Wright and Robert Rodriguez — the modern day John Carpenters of our world — he fell down with Doomsday, such that his next film, Centurion, went seemingly unnoticed, leaving his future in uncertain terms. It’s hard to believe, really, because the philosophy behind Doomsday was so genuine, though some might say naive. He wanted to make a movie so absurd you’d be compelled to laugh, but also find yourself enjoying some of the best R-rated sci-fi action in years — nobody makes movies quite like this anymore.

Dog Soldiers

I don’t think this is technically his feature debut, but it’s a strong start for a career nonetheless. Making use of minimalist settings and a creepy atmosphere, Marshall managed to make one of the few cool werewolf movies in existence. And certainly the last, though I’m sure a few movies made in direct answer to Twilight will challenge Dog Soldiers.

As one critic put it so well, this is like Alien, Predator, and Jaws all rolled up into one — but with werewolves. It feels derivative, but in that good way. It’s familiarity done with enough style and care that it feels fresh. There’s some gore, some ooh-rah soldier stuff, way too much foreshadowing, and a lame twist at the end. A formula for success, often necessary with such formulaic subject matter.

Right, there’s a lot of dog and wolf jokes/puns at the start of the movie. It feels like a beginner’s screenplay in that regard, but it isn’t quite enough to push it over the edge, into absurdity. Leave that for the one after next…

The Descent

I don’t care for this movie. It’s drawn out and the monsters are not scary or that well-designed. Visually, that is. In other regards, there’s implied history to them, and it’s pretty creepy, but I actually prefer the nonsense lizards from The Cave, or whatever the fuck. The Descent was white-knuckling in its first half, with these women being claustrophobic in caves, and getting stuck and running high tension. I can’t imagine a better place to set a horror movie. Cave-diving is not escapism, James Cameron.

The flaws of this movie, like the aloof narrative and out-of-the-blue moments could at the time be excused, or even appreciated, as horror movie unpredictableness, but the next movie would paint them in a new light.

Doomsday

When Doomsday was announced and the trailer was released, people whined. They said, “It’s 28 Days Later meets Mad Max meets Escape from New York.” Now, I don’t know what fucking planet these people live on, because no way does the combination of Mad Max and Escape from New York equal anything but Yeah. Was it just the derivative nature of the project that got people so frazzled? Perhaps it was an insult to their intelligence, because they perceived the movie to think it was being original, on the grounds that, well, most movies tend to do that. But of course the rip-offs were so glaring that it seemed to taunt the audience.

Doomsday, rather, the reaction to Doomsday, is proof that we live in a cynical movie-watching world. As soon as one watches the film, they’ll realize that the director was not only paying homage to these earlier movies, but having a complete blast with them. It’s the same principle, but on a much different level, as what Peter Jackson did with King Kong. Marshall wanted to introduce this genre to a wider audience, though he may not realize just how inventive the film actually is.

Yes, it uses the structure of Escape from New York as a base, but that’s fine because just like how Waterworld is a perfect Mad Max 3, this is a great sequel to Escape from L.A., following in the same conventions that that film set up — that being, this premise of crazy people clustered together is going to breed some batshit insane obstacles for the hero to meet. This post-apocalypse movie isn’t just about zombies or cannibals or viruses — Rhona Mitra’s character Maj. Eden Sinclair (awesome name) is going to fight medieval knights in an arena and get into car chases with barbarians who tape their beheaded girlfriends to one piece so they can drive together.

Doomsday in this regard recalls Total Recall, another gory 80s movie that didn’t come out in the 1980s. And much like Total Recall, Doomsday in its day was not well understood. There’s a joy in novelty and invention in Doomsday, and a lot of these scenarios and things are born out of sources we’ve all enjoyed, but kicked up to a new extreme. It’s not only one of the best sci-fi movies of the decade, but one of the goriest and most fun action movies too. This rabbit will be blown up by sentry turrets for — well, for absolutely no reason.

Marshall also introduces two things here that carry over into his next picture: a strong female character, and an impressive ability to have the audience invest in characters they know nothing about. For the latter, we have these two soldiers who survive by Sinclair’s side longer than they have any right to. I assumed they’d die at every encounter, because truly this is her show, and these guys have no characterization. What they do have, and this was seen in Dog Soldiers, is solid chemistry. Despite the carnage and the macabre setting, these two have a laugh as they take out cannibals with axes, and by goofing around — and even just surviving up to a late point — I didn’t want to see them die. For an action movie, this is a preferable, on-the-fly alternative to actual characterization. Good on you, Neil.

Then of course we have the tough girl, played by the woman who looks like a tough girl despite the beauty — Rhona Mitra. While she may not be as compelling to watch as the next female character to be discussed, Maj. Eden Sinclair is one cool chick, with a fake eye and a knack for killing gladiators. She’s a badass, but she’s a believable badass. Not only does Rhona Mitra look like an athletically capable woman (rather than Milly from Hard Revenge Milly, to use a recent example, who looks like a pretty normal person you’d see walking around), she isn’t the action hero god that trounces everyone. She gets beat up and tossed around, and this puts her on an equal playing field with the villains.

Last post I lamented the fact that Milly wasn’t the action hero god. That’s because I want a movie like hers to be a slasher flick, but with Doomsday, it’s more appropriate that Sinclair is a realistic badass. It heightens her moments of victory, and adds tension to hand-to-hand fight scenes with spears in swords… in the future.

Doomsday will keep you guessing, and Neil Marshall leaves you in good hands with Eden Sinclair, who’s got the tacit nature of her most obvious inspiration — Snake Plissken — with an all-soldier, no fucking around attitude that’s pretty rare, even for dude action heroes. It’s confidence without the one-liners, and the badassery to back it up.

Neil Marshall is also ballsy enough to take an unbelievably beautiful South African stunt woman and paint her face beyond recognition, and then behead her… and then reattach the head in vain. I am so ashamed that I skipped this movie when it came out in theatres. It’s right up there with Slither and so many others…

Centurion

Doomsday was a sci-fi movie that wanted to be a sword-and-sandals movie, so let’s just make a sword-and-sandals movie. While this one lacks the wacky nature and imagination of its predecessor, it has the same level of bloodshed and action. If you’re in town for a straightforward, bruising actioner, Marshall is your man. Centurion stars Michael Fassbender and Jimmy McNulty himself as soldiers of the Ninth Legion, which went missing during the expansion into Pict territory. This is that story, though historical accuracy is not something we come to a movie like this for.

We come because we know it’s going to be a ride, one with plenty of blood and running around in beautiful Scotland scenery. There’s also a lovely Olga Kurylenko all done up to look like a barbarian, whose Etain is savage as hell but still manages to look sexy. Indeed she is the greatest draw, and plays a great part in the film. Centurion, despite the violence and overall intensity (“I AM A SOLDIER OF ROME! I WILL NOT YAAYLD!”), borders on generic, and requires that iconic image of deadly Etain with her facepaint to stand out.

There was a moment in Centurion where I felt the story could’ve capitalized on the L.L. Cool J mentality from Deep Blue Sea, that of having two stories interwoven, where one is basically irrelevant and all the better for it, but the two soldier who get separated don’t have much screentime as such, and leads to an anti-climax within the narrative. I really thought that dude was gonna kill those wolves and make it back, which would’ve made no sense and been more Marshallian.

There’s kid killing and CG blood explosions — that which we adore from Doomsday, but none of the same elements that make you say ‘wow’ and sit up, save for a particularly nasty eye-trauma. Good, but not great. Memorable certainly for Etain, a performance that’s subtely animal, though we get the feeling that a great deal is blasting through that bloodthirsty brain of hers, maybe even some humanity.

Conclusion

Neil Marshall is a complicated thing. We’re not used to filmmakers who make movies because that’s their interest, and they want to make movies. Odd as it is to say. He’s not interested in the business or in making money, but having fun, which produces some of the most unpredictable and lively entertainment in movies today. Whatever his next movie will be, I can’t guess at subject matter, certainly, I can only hope that it arrives soon.

Bloody Battle is 10% more futuristic than its predecessor, as measured in the new style fancied in the gangsters of the day — gas masks. The two movies take place in a familiar post-apocalypse, one where it’s likely that down under Master Blaster upholds his power in Barter Town, though Japan has a more cyberpunk feel (if Versus can be said to have a horror movie feel, for example). The war-torn buildings and desolate interiors offer an appropriately impressionistic environment for our formidable heroine Milly, though they also offer the audience’s best guess that Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle is after all, a budgeted affair.

Though a larger world is implied, much of the story unfolds in parking garages and non-descript warehouses, with the occasionally dressed-up set peppered in for world-building’s sake. Fortunately, by the endgame this actually registers as insignificant, because the action these environments house is a specific flavor of stylized ultraviolence, one with flying kung-fu, cool poses, and wacky weapons that inflict impressive spectacle when unleashed on smug, gas-mask-clad do-wrongers.

The action in the film is one end of the Hard Revenge Milly equation that’s so frustrating. The premise of this sequel doesn’t stray far from the original’s plot, certainly not for the purposes of puzzling out what’s so problematic in an otherwise highly entertaining gore-fest. Milly, after massacring the gang that brutally murdered her husband and set her baby on fire, while at the same time tearing her body apart with knives and forcing her to watch, finds herself hunted by friends of the gang — as we learn from the hardly comparable Chan Wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, revenge is a cyclical, spiralling affair.

At the same time, Milly is approached by a young woman whose lover was killed, and seeks training for vengeance of her own. It may not sound like much, but keep in mind that the original movie was 45 minutes long, and this one still isn’t quite average feature length, clocking in at 74 minutes.

So what’s the trouble with Hard Revenge Milly?

The opening fight scene embodies a rare and beautiful ideology in action movie filmmaking, where the action hero is depicted as a slasher villain in how he/she dispatches foes. The only contemporary example that springs to mind is the critically discarded Punisher: War Zone, a film that sees Frank Castle slaughtering villains as if they were zombies — heads explode, bodies explode; the carnage is front and center, and there’s a gleeful joy in the application of a crazed badass to the action.

When this badass is essentially the Terminator, the entertainment is in the creativity of the hero killing slimy villains rather than the drama of ‘will the hero prevail?’ since there would clearly never be a question (there never is a question, regardless of what action movie you’re watching, but let’s not parade on the dreams of the Len Wisemans and the McGs of the world*). Punisher: War Zone succeeds where the 2004 Punisher fails (for one) in the villain department, because there’s a nemesis cold war going on — Frank Castle might be crazy, but Jigsaw and Looney Bin Jim are batshit. John Travolta? Not very threatening and surely no threat to Thomas Jane, which deflates the drama of ‘will the hero prevail?’

War Zone goes above and beyond, then, where Castle has gangsters to kill like a regular Jason, but with more RPGs, and these guys are no threat, but also a villainous element that provides any measure of suspense. Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle, as well as its predecessor, have the same pretty Japanese pop-singer dude who happens to be a badass.

It’s odd, because while the end fight of the original is much longer than any other fight scene in the movie, it’s less entertaining because the guy offers a sizable opposition, and this is not what we were being driven toward with Milly tearing through people earlier. What makes this guy special? His kung-fu seems to be pretty good but he looks like everyone else and isn’t characterized appropriately in this regard. The sequel does a little better by having the villain be a cyborg, but any cyber-fuelled cool factor is negated by his villainy stemming purely from his sexual deviance — aka homosexuality. That’s great, guys.

This may sound like a lot of talk for something pretty unimportant, but the in-the-moment result is that Milly gets thrown around a lot by these lame villains where she should be trouncing everyone, save for something actually impressive. Anything other than yet another gangster dude. Like the Bride, Lady Snowblood, or Lady Vengeance, Milly gets her gender-equality fair share of the action movie beating, but to me it doesn’t make a lot of sense given the premise of what these movies are. This might sound like sexism, and it probably is, but this time, I honestly just don’t give a fuck. I don’t want to see a woman nicknamed Hard Revenge Milly getting her arm chopped off and defeated, only to win with further cyborg upgrades further down the road.

Not to mention that Milly technically falls into that more recently popular category of kick-ass females, here dubbed the Dragon Tattoo category, where only rape or violence against the heroine can incite bloody rebirth. That’s not a big deal here, because not only is Milly’s origin story so absurd, the movies are extremely obviously not meant to be taken very seriously.

I mean, look — when Milly cuts some dude’s body with her elbow sword, their high blood pressure sprays in an initially hesitant fountain in the grand tradition of Chinese and I think Japanese cinema. It’s great, silly fun, but it is metered a bit by Milly’s qualified badassery. That said, Bloody Battle is an improvement over an already entertaining original, one that reaches for eleven on the novelty dial in the fight scenes: we never know what her metal body’s gonna drum up next to slice and dice her foe, or what lethal new form this familiar weapon will take, but we know it’s gonna be bloody as hell. Meanwhile the action is intense and fantastical, remaining compelling through the whole of the two films with the promise that they’ll end in brutal, comedic splatter.

This movie is also interesting for its essence as a sequel. This is an instance where the follow-up deconstructs the original, showing the aftermath of the events in the first movie and the effects they have on the heroine. She isn’t just a killing machine, she’s a killing machine with no sense of control and a lost past that she can’t even be sure of. In a peculiar moment, Milly questions her memories in a spot of dialogue lifted straight from Ghost in the Shell. The self-deprecating doctor character plays Batou here, swatting down her Shirowesque cyber-Descartes existential quandaries much in the way the audience might.

Philosophical questions about revenge are paid equal lip service, but it amounts more to an intriguing setup to a theoretical third installment than an actually compelling discussion. Milly might be cursed by her vengeful journey, which infects others and only begets violence and death, but we’d rather see her kick some ass than mope around like the Major.

Or get her ass kicked by the villains, for God’s sake. Somebody needs to give this director, Takanori Tsujimoto, a bigger budget and put the lead, Miki Mizuno, in more action movies — they make a great team.

 

*Because I like Len Wiseman for some reason and I really enjoyed Terminator Salvation for some reason

Total Recall is pornography.

I’m ashamed of myself — I was railing against the Total Recall remake in the days before its release, though mostly in jest, saying things like “It was Arnold, not Philip K. Dick, who made Total Recall great” and other words of wisdom in a similar vein. I wanted to see Total Recall for reasons a product of hard cynicism — ranging from “I wonder what an Arnold movie is like without Arnold” to “I refuse to see Batman Begins 3*”, but didn’t include “I’m going to enjoy this.” Why wouldn’t I enjoy this? Despite the director’s not sterling resume, and the bland, depressing source (remake of an adaptation of an uncinematic short story), this movie is a complete joy, an absolute gem.

Total Recall 2012 benefits and suffers from its modernity. Gone are the more outlandish elements, like vagina-faced mutants and ancient aliens, and with those things the rapid-fire pace of imagination that elevates the original, which is reduced somewhat, though a significant residual fleshes out the world. And what a world — there is a broad and intimate attention to detail in a cityscape that takes turns being as big, beautiful, and absurd as the green and vertical city from Vanquish and the best Blade Runner mean streets since the original, beating out strong contenders for the throne like Natural City.

Granted, this reeks of ‘Christ, why even bother,’ much in the way of Natural City, and it’s true — Total Recall makes Minority Report seem more important than it is for crafting a Phildickian utopia that isn’t flooded by rain and defended by not umbrellas but neon parasols. It’d be a real issue if the city wasn’t so busy, so energetic, serving as a satisfying and dazzling backdrop for action that’s more intense and entertaining than expected in a PG-13 movie. It’s good action, not splatterfest action like the original. They’re both good, but in different ways. Nobody’s getting used as body shields, but I think Kate Beckinsale just punched Colin Farrell in the face with her vagina.

There’s zero-gravity, futuristic gadgets, and some very cool-looking robots thrown into the mix. It’s a streamlined art direction that offers a more focused, cyberpunk look than the original at the price of a playful, more unpredictable quality (like Inception vs. Paprika). Bill Nighy plays the resistance leader, but rather than being a mutant on the stomach of some other dude, he forgets where he is and assumes it’s The Matrix Reloaded, saying things like “Memories are constructs of the Mayan-dah,” and then looking up and winking at the Architect, who’s of course always watching.

The characters are pale shadows of their former selves (with one alarming exception), as there’s nothing visually interesting about them, and the serious attitude of the film keeps dialogue on the straight. I never realized how much of a non-character Quaid was until someone un-Schwarzenegger played him — he’s a blank slate searching for his identity, which is a compelling premise for a character, though better yet a short story, but doesn’t make for a particularly charming or memorable hero. He’s good at killing people, and that’s what counts, along with the generally strong performances — Bryan Cranston will never play a goof again, you can count on it.

When the fight is done and the hero and heroine look in each other’s eyes, it hit me what a hollow experience this movie was, favoring the ideas over any character development or drama, and not expounding on those ideas as expertly as the author, or introducing any new concepts. But then I thought back and remembered how much I actually enjoyed Kate Beckinsale’s character going around doing stuff. It’s sad that Richter and Sharon Stone’s characters have been combined into one, such that Ironside never gets his arms chopped off by an elevator, and nobody gets pierced through the skull with divorce, but Beckinsale plays one awesomely ass-kicking lady, a villain who isn’t sympathetic or interesting, but is extremely fun to watch. She runs hard after Quaid, and her physical performance heightens the action. And obviously, she looks good doing it all.

But this amounts to little more than pure guilt — guilty pleasure of the highest order. Total Recall may not be considered very important in the realm of science-fiction, but it’s unique for being one of the few action movies with nearly non-stop action. Quaid and Jessica Biel bound from set-piece to set-piece as the collateral damage and body count rise faster than you can groan at all the visual homages that put Terminator Salvation to shame. Why did the director say this movie would be more like the short story than the original movie? It’s just less like the original movie. There’s no tiny alien invasion, or anything completely odd.

This is a good thing, however. Total Recall 1990, an adaptation of a pretty good short story, is a really fun story, and I appreciate its immortalization in remake form, as well as the remake itself, which is an energetic and colorful adventure with a lot of pretty things to look at**, whether that be the city, the action, the robots, or the very attractive and active lead women.

*(On The Dark Knight Rises): Hey, the fights may be hampered by poor fight choreography and dumbass costumes, but he finally nailed the cinematography (stood still) and surrounded the action with pure spectacle — more like Batman Begins than… that other one

**(On Art Direction): Just one problem: the guns. The pistols were fine, but I recognize the rifles from reality, or at least, the reality of near future weapons that find homes in like, Ghost Recon. They look cool, but why not design something new? I could be wrong… maybe it was just a dream.

It’s the inexplicable and unexplained post-apocalypse, where we’re told that Japan is nothing but a wind-swept plain. Elsewhere, in the two abandoned buildings of this plain, Milly seeks hard revenge for the murder of her family and the fleshy parts of her body.

Hard Revenge Milly is a smart action movie. Not only does it grab the attention immediately with some sword-thanked arterial spray, it deals directly with the genre’s #1 problem — action movies can be unbelievably, shockingly boring. It does this by its runtime, which is roughly 43 minutes (it lasts the whole way, through the credits and after), effectively minimizing the exposition and everything between the fights that is empty content. There is almost no actor who can carry a movie without playing a character, which is why Arnold Schwarzenegger movies (barring End of Days) will always be great, and that’s often what happens in action movies across the globe. The effort given toward an original, compelling story is akin to the writer sullenly kicking an empty soda can across a dusty road.

Whether it’s reliant on special effects or physical combat, action can be pretty expensive, and cannot realistically fill 100% of the movie. Usually, unless it’s a John Woo flick, the action will be peppered in. To be fair, a lot of Hard Revenge Milly is talking and her waiting around for the action. Fortunately the action feels like live-action anime, which may sound pretty crass or cliche, but the end result is that while the choreography may not be as complex or impressive as we’ve seen elsewhere, there’s a fantastical logic to the martial arts that makes it difficult to keep up with, but what we do know is that those violent flashes sure look cool.

As we learn from Versus, there’s a tendency with these overly violent, stylized action movies coming out of Japan (perhaps taking inspiration from Versus) to favor how things look over the movement, such that still frames taken from any point in a fight scene will be well composed and super cool looking. This is where the anime comparison comes in — as early Japanese animation featured a lot of drawn still frames being physically manipulated for the camera, a style that’s been updated over the years to largely the same effect, where there’s detailed characters jumping through the air but moving somewhat stiffly when compared to the detail-lite but smoothly animated Disney cartoons.

With Hard Revenge Milly, there’s probably twenty total minutes of violence, but it’s pretty fun to watch for just such animated reasons. In one instance she does this kick thing and kind of flies off the guy, only to follow up with another attack in the next shot, sans any sense of momentum… or reality. She’s also got a sword — which extends from a pretty odd spot on her arm — that magically grows when convenient, like John Cho’s in Trek ’09. That’s the true joy in a movie like this, though the inventiveness of dismemberment tactics and the absurdity of the violence. Martial arts killers in Japan have an extra talent to turn people into geysers, which never gets old. Thankfully, because this movie isn’t really a movie but a short film, it doesn’t get old, which makes me wonder about the sequel, Bloody Battle.

Futuristic cell phones

There’ll be a review shortly for that one because there’s more I wanted to say about villains and feminism and stuff.

Like Prometheus, I guess I never really truly imagined the day would come. Prometheus doesn’t even feel real to me — the Alien cycle is the closest thing to Star Wars I have in terms of movie fandom, and not even those damn dirty execs want to touch that franchise after two clunky AVP flicks. Prometheus won’t have the iconic Xenomorph, but it’s got Stringer Bell, so the excitement factor is through the roof. 2012 is officially the next 2009 — John Carter, Prometheus, Total Recall, Cosmopolis, even The Avengers (which was good!), and I suppose The Dark Knight Rises (don’t care!) — and now I’m hearing news that a real live, actual factual Blade Runner sequel is on the books, but for truth? It’s a good time to be a scifi fan, at least on the big screen. On TV… I don’t know. People seem to like that AMC zombie show.

On June 1st, Prometheus lands (using Halo marketing-speak), and it’s success will not only signal the future of this series within a series, but how Blade Runner 2 might shake out. In my opinion, Ridley Scott hasn’t made a good movie since Gladiator — but has he had to? Most filmmakers can’t lay a claim to three of the greatest movies ever: Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, in this case, but Ridley Scott can. But now he’s doing something very, very important to the landscape of science-fiction — coming back to it.

Sure, we may tire of retreads and sequels, but the universe of Blade Runner at least, is rich (Alien is often said to be better unexplored, I agree) and inhabiting a subgenre screaming out to be revisited — hasn’t been done proper since ’03, though we’ve been getting recent respites in other fronts like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a Ghost in the Shell… Lucas Special Edition every so often. All of these things have been hugely influenced by the 1982 greatest-SF-movie-of-all-time, and have roots in cyberpunk’s 90s glory days. I’d love to return, and maybe this new Blade Runner will usher in a new generation of creators tuned into artificial intelligence and cyborg proxy soldiers, to whom the name “Tetsuo” means spinning dick-drills and giant nuclear babies that explode and destroy Tokyo.

I wonder if this new Blade Runner will be influenced at all by the over-the-top Japanese sensibilities that were themselves influenced by the original tech-noir, and the debut novel of the godfather of cyberpunk. That would be a strange and rare cycle between east and west that I’ve only so far seen in westerns. There’s a back and forth in the lineage of chambara (that the right term?) samurai and westerns, which are linked thematically; each generation become spritual successors of each other — between Ford, Kurosawa, Leone, and now Miike. It’s interesting, and if it happened to cyberpunk I feel like it’d be as natural.

Although thematically all cyberpunk is pretty much the same — what is human? What… do robots do? How fun would VR really be? — and not as poetic in this regard with the gunslinger/samurai, ritualistic violence and honor parallel, Blade Runner might use a touch of exploration, though being novel certainly didn’t help it commercially the first time around. I just think that by 2016, maybe 2017 when considering a two-three year turnaround time for Scott (after a movie set in the Middle East following Prometheus), we’ve seen it all. Cyberpunk was considered dead — for Christ’s sake there’s a subgenre called postcyberpunk — Blade Runner’s had its day in the sun.

Look Familiar?

But there is something interesting, something I like to stress as often as its relevant (not often) is women in science-fiction. Two of the most inexpilcably successful SF franchises of the day — Resident Evil, going five strong and soon to be six, and Underworld, on its fourth — feature female protagonists. So we’re getting there, but how about good characters, and good movies? Alien was both, and we’ll get that again with Noomi Rapace in Prometheus — and then with Blade Runner 2, believe it or not.

Some of the earliest news on this recent development is that Scott and co. (Hampton, but so far no Peoples, I gather) are pursuing a strong female lead, and this is very exciting.

So what’s to concern over?

Well, I suppose that this is just another in the line of redos and continuations of old properties, but hey — Blade Runner is Blade Runner. I love The Thing ’82, so I was super-excited when the new one was coming out, but Blade Runner is like… personal top five, and without a doubt the greatest science-fiction movie of all time. More of the same would be a hell of a thing.

For more on Blade Runner, check out the Blade Runner Directory

Hey guys, I don’t ever do this, but I’m gonna go ahead and recommend picking up The Thing on Blu-Ray when it drops on the 31st. There’ll be a new review shortly after then — just to show my appreciation. It’s a movie that somehow introduced novelty into its form as a remake, and makes for a highly entertaining monster flick.

This sounds like advertising, and I’m even wondering why I write this. The Thing (2011) isn’t the best movie I saw that year, but it’s very close to my heart. It also gets mixed into a fandom-related argument I find myself engaged in — don’t let personal bias get in the way. I won’t promise you’ll be blown away, but The Thing (2011) is like all remakes, prequels, sequels, or 3D re-releases: it does nothing to sour the original’s reputation as a classic, and stands on its own as an effective entry into sci-fi/horror canon.

Ghost Protocol is the rarest type of film, one where I never once notice its length. It could have gone for three hours and I wouldn’t have noticed. It combines the best of a thriller and an action movie, where it entertains between all the big set pieces, and of course really shines during those big set pieces. Going in, I was a bit worried. Not only did I believe that movies are an inefficient medium for this type of entertainment, I remembered that I hated this type of film. It shares qualities of James Bond and Jason Bourne, but it’s actually a good-time movie, one with the imagination and light-heartedness to stand apart from its overly gritty contemporaries.

A few years ago, probably 2007 or whenever Casino Royale came out, I came to terms with my thoughts on the action movie, and the thriller movie. In trying to parse out just why I didn’t like Casino Royale, or any James Bond movie not starring Pierce Brosnan (although strangely I suppose I did enjoy The Man with the Golden Gun when I saw it), I happened upon a television, which had on display Jason Statham’s face. I decided that this was The Transporter, or one of its sequels, and thought hey I like Jason Statham. Something happened to me then that had never happened before: in ten seconds, I was overwhelmingly bored by a movie. It was just him expositing, talking about drugdealers or something. I recognized this scenario as one of obligatory exposition, and couldn’t handle it.

When two characters sit down and move forward the plot, sometimes that’s fine, if the story is interesting enough. The story in an action movie is rarely exciting, even if it isn’t formulaic: guy’s daughter is kidnapped, goes after those responsible to bring her back. Is that Commando, or Taken? If it’s girlfriend it could be The Marine and a number of side-scrolling beat-em-ups on the Nintendo. The Hollywood action movie is also typically a high-budget affair, so set-pieces are those invested in. You can’t pack ninety minutes of high-budget action into a movie — those in-between moments are a necessity. Some filmmakers are able to make the in-between just as entertaining, like Robert Rodriguez or Jonnie To. Others aren’t.

Now, when you say “thriller,” my mind goes right to Jason Bourne. When I saw The Bourne Ultimatum in theatres, I must have been fourteen. I wanted an action movie. But this thriller didn’t have enough action to compete with John Woo, and not enough drama to be anything else. I simply could not wrap my mind around what made those movies so popular. Nowadays I get it, though I still have yet to revisit that particular trilogy. Maybe when Jeremy Renner stars in The Bourne Legacy, I’ll check that one out. One series that this confusion still holds for is Bond, because none of those movies — with the exception of the nineties and early 2000s era — have over-the-top action (or Colin Salmon*). And of course, none of them have compelling stories or drama.

All that leaves is the character. James Bond is similar to Indiana Jones — he’s cocky and he’s a womanizer, but James Bond to me isn’t nearly as cool. Probably because being cool is the only thing he’s there to be. He drinks his drink and has PG to PG-13 sex with women, never once drinking from the Holy Grail or, I don’t know, tossing the idol. Where’s the draw? I’ll take Mission: Impossible over James Bond any day, although ironically Ghost Protocol is the only one I’ve seen in full.

Ghost Protocol does not deal in overwrought storytelling — its exposition is light on its feet, being delivered while other things are going on, and never the exact center of attention. While story is being processed, beautiful locales are on display and characters are interacting with their often witty back-and-forths. Here characters are actually intriguing despite being flat, such that I genuinely hope to see all four back in another movie, hopefully teamed up with Ving Rhames. Maggie Q I could go either way on. Simon Pegg is Simon Pegg — put him in a good movie and he’s great (in a bad one he’s good), Paula Patton is the attractive and very badass agent, and Jeremy Renner is the data analyst — with a secret. Each character gets his or her moment in the sun, so they don’t feel like dead-end red shirts or useless expendables here to make Tom Cruise look more like an action star. He does look an action star — I think the gratuitous rock-climbing sequence in Mission: Impossible II he demanded from director John Woo is evidence enough.

Beyond that, most of the time the actual exposition is, quite simply, compelling. As an operation is being laid out it’s pretty neat, but doesn’t of course match up to the execution. The gadgets and even the ingenuity these characters utilize make for very tense, very creative near-future espionage situations. It’s like Metal Gear Solid, but just a movie, not a movie with quick-time events. In one instance, a massive image screen is used to fool a guard into believing nobody is in the hallway, when in fact Simon Pegg and Tom Cruise are there, and in another, the team fools two people into believing they are meeting in one room, while in reality, two meetings are taking place, and they’re intercepting information. In the latter example, disguises and contact lens cameras are required, and when things go wrong, fast-thinking and briefcases that print paper inside get thrown into the mix.

While the ending maybe isn’t as climactic as one would imagine it should be, and the denouement feels a pint cheesy, I enjoyed it all. In fact, the former helped me along with the whole time thing. When the climax hit, I hardly realized. Tom Cruise was fighting the villain, and I thought to myself: Oh, this movie must be over soon. That’s kind of sad.

I really don’t have much to say here: it’s a very good time at the movies, a true blockbuster that doesn’t push genre boundaries, but revels in its form. I don’t know why this movie wasn’t called Mission: Impossible IV (who am I kidding, of course I do) but hopefully it isn’t the last sequel, and there’s much more to come. And although I did mention earlier that movies are an inefficient medium for this kind of thing (something I’ll try to expand on later), TV or video-games can’t always have Tom Cruise scaling the largest skyscraper in the world.

Man, when he said “mission accomplished,” and pushed the button, I died in laughter.

*Colin Salmon is a totally cool guy. Anybody who likes Paul WS Anderson movies should recognize him, and he was going to be the next Bond on the recommendation of Pierce Brosnan. But the studios went with Craig. Nothing against Daniel Craig, of course. He was great in the Dragon Tattoo, another movie out right now worth seeing. Make it a double feature.

So interweaved are elements as science, philosophy, cyberpunk, police procedural narratives, conspiracy, comedy, and action, the work blends conventions to invisibility just like the technological binding holding each characters’ spirits in a bodies. No saying that any of these elements is up to the par set by succeeding entries in the series, but Shirow’s original was the first, and the first to do it right. This in itself is compelling; from what I understand of the man’s earlier works, The Ghost in the Shell came out of nowhere in terms of pure Shirowesque creativity. The first volume of the manga is a stand alone work, where a story arc is uncovered across a series of smaller stories. We follow Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team of elite Japanese police known as Section 9, a cyborg special-ops squad dealing in anti-terrorism. Like 24‘s CTU, but more high-tech and with less betrayals. As they tackle troubles of the day, they explore some pretty lofty ideas that often coincide with the artist’s more cartoonish tendencies in the illustration.

Going into the manga, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect. Shirow has often attracted criticism (at least, from the three anime-related podcasts I subscribe to) for being the idea-man, and nothing else. He’s given the world Ghost in the Shell, but really he gave Mamoru Oshii Ghost in the Shell, and he made something great with the material. Having finally read the thing for myself, I can say that this is not entirely true, but not unfounded either.

The chief issue one familiar with the anime might find paging through the comic is its tone. Whereas the two movies are deadpan serious, and the series feels very western in its handling of light-heartedness (in moderation), the comic is relentless in its plain goofiness. The humor itself isn’t necessarily terrible, but its presence is felt, and it feels inappropriate. Every issue ends similar to how some of the Stand Alone episodes of Stand Alone Complex do — the Major and Batou solemnly discuss the philosophical or psychological undercurrents of what just happened. Sometimes this will include a panel of the guy who’s been hacked to believe he’s got a wife and kids, and this moment is pretty sombre, but also a satisfying conclusion. Classic Ghost in the Shell. But then we get one more panel at the bottom with superdeformed Aramaki barking some order and the Tachikomas, or Fuchikomas, squawking about a farcical robot rebellion.

It’s not fair to say that this is simply what to expect when one reads Japanese comics, because the last time I reviewed a manga it was Phoenix, and that was consistent in art style and tone throughout. At the very least, it was balanced, confident in its tone. Yet, I can’t help but imagine that indeed this is simply what to expect when one reads Japanese comics. Why else would Shirow include it? He’s got to be playing to a culture, a rich history of titles with these types of jokes and breaking the seriousness every once in a while.

That would be perfectly fine were it not for what the humor sidelines often distract from. The Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow to me was like the bible for the rest of the series — from this point stories were drawn for elements in Innocence, episodes in Stand Alone Complex, and the arc for Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell SAC: Solid State Society. Because of this, the stories are a delight to behold. It also takes the approach closer to the series than the movies in terms of the characters; Saito and Pazu and Boma aren’t seen a whole lot (I’m pretty sure “Paz,” as he’s called, never makes an appearance), but they’re there, where they never show up in the films (except for Saito for a frame or two in the first movie, without his eyepatch).

The artwork, when it isn’t superdeformed, is in my opinion pretty superb. I qualify with “in my opinion,” because my experience with the medium is limited, so it’s difficult for me to judge what truly great comic art should be like. The cityscapes and robot designs are particularly striking; Shirow undoubtedly has an eye for design, which I suppose is why Shinji Aramaki gets hired to bring his stuff to the silver screen. Guns are another big thing for me, and they get their due, as do the vehicles.

Most impressive would have to be the cyborg stuff. When somebody gets shot up real bad, the metal gets all jagged and wires stick out. Sometimes — as in the making of a cyborg — we see heads split open and mechanical brains inside. The detail in these drawings is inspiring, and we couple that with footnotes provided by the author that discuss the ludicrous science behind it all.

It’s certainly a unique experience, and though it’s been recognized time and again that The Ghost in the Shell exists mostly to create a formula for other things, its own merits should not be undervalued. There is a great deal of entertainment and provoking thought to be had in the volume, and if you’re as big a Major fan as I am, it’s always nice to see her in more adventures. I suppose that if you’re a real Major fan though the series would constitute as the “more adventures,” but whatever. To each his own Ghost in the Shell.

It will be difficult for me to get across in words just how much I appreciate the Ghost in the Shell series, how much it means to me as a fan of science-fiction and… things that are good. I suppose that’ll make the next post somewhat ironic, but beyond that it’s all uphill, or downhill–good stuff anyhow, all good stuff. Ghost in the Shell appeals to me on almost every level as someone who’s watched a fair to nearly good amount of science-fiction movies and shows and never really ‘fallen in love’ with anything beyond the nostalgia movies of childhood.

They take a premise, which is that in the future we’ve blurred the line between metal and flesh, man and machine, such that our brains are computers and can be manipulated. But what of humanity?, and they don’t just make it about a detective or some dude, they make it about a paramilitary organization within the Japanese government–and they run into some crazy stuff. Of course, Ghost in the Shell 2 is more about detectives, but you still get the same dose of robot suits, cyber-terrorists, gadgets, gross bodily harm, artificial intelligence, and existential musings the series is known for.

It’s cyberpunk, or post-cyberpunk if you must, with a heavy philosophical bent. An obvious influence on the Deus Ex series in this regard (though it’s probably more successful), and something that took a few notes itself from the likes of Gibson and Blade Runner. The world it creates is much more frightening than 2019 Los Angeles, or the Sprawl, however, as the future tech has become so advanced it’s invisible. You can have a shotgun in your arm and walk around town fully loaded while none would be the wiser. That’s not really the scary part, but it’s kind of a fun idea. What’s scary is the ability to be hacked…

We don’t really feel for computers when they cluck up–we feel for ourselves and our wallets. But what if we could be compromised mentally by the will of some motherfucker with good hacking skills? What if an artificial life form created on the Net wanted no more than to exist, but first needed you to believe you have a family when you don’t? One minute you’re some poor dude and the next you’re a terrorist. Or, one minute you’re a terrorist and the next you’re a meat puppet killing all your friends and waiting for somebody to cap you–depends on who’s team you’re on.

Ghost in the Shell is much more concerned with cyborgs and virtual reality than megacorporations or cyber-drugs or androids; there’s a prevailing preoccupation with the man-machine interface and the loss of humanity. The Major can’t quite be sure of herself, as her body was patched together before our very eyes in a lab, and there exist fake memories, like Blade Runner. Might she just be a collection of false lives inside a robot shell? At least she’s got her personality… but we’ll get into that.

This choice of cyberpunk tropes is what I like most and least about the series, but we’ll get there too…

Before we begin, I suppose I should note something. I’ve never watched a single volume of Ghost in the Shell with the original language track, so… see ya.

If you’ve decided to stick around to see what I have to say–thank you, that’s very courteous. The truth is: the dub is excellent. Which dub? All. With the exception I suppose of the first movie, all the voice talent is consistently good. There are those weird pauses and awkward intonations that you’d expect from any translated work, but these are few and far between, and perhaps appropriate, given the inhuman nature of the cast.

Ghost in the Shell is one of my very favorite things in the realm of science-fiction, so I’ll try to do it justice here. It’s all worth seeing, so if you haven’t yet, I recommend you get your ass to Amazon right quick, and here to help is a Ghost in the Shell Buyer’s Guide, because it can get kind of confusing:

(These are things that I’ve bought–they’re all good. I won’t speculate on anything)

1. Ghost in the Shell DVD, released by Manga Entertainment: $10 on Amazon. Light on special features, from what I recall, but it’s probably the most essential to own for any cinema buff. If you prefer high-def, you’ll have to settle for Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which is nearly the same movie, but with awkward CG rendered scenes in the beginning.

2. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence Blu-Ray, released by Bandai Entertainment. There was a big curfuffle surrounding the original US release of Innocence. The DVD by DreamWorks Video has apparently a terrible subtitle job, which is basically just closed-captioned. If you want to know that a helicopter is making noise or that footsteps are happening, check this one out (Netflix ships this one), but if you want a real version or the English dub, look no further than the excellent Blu-Ray disc. Along with the Stand Alone Complex cast dub, it’s also got some Oshii-esque special features: a trip to Cannes and a look at how some scenes were animated. It’s $149.99 New on Amazon, which is shocking because it definitely was not that when I picked it up. Sorry. The DVD version, with its weird naked girl cover is equally absurd, at $49.99. The poop CC version will have to do, it’s a more modest $11. Honestly, the CC isn’t that terrible…

3. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – I have yet to buy this one, because I watched it all on Netflix streaming, which it is currently on right as we speak. At the time, 2nd Gig wasn’t, so…

4. Ghost in the Shell: Anime Legends 2nd Gig, released by Bandai Entertainment. If I remember correctly, this is the same deal as the Cowboy Bebop I have–something like a Franchise Collection line, I don’t really know. It’s the cheaper version of the real thing, so you get all the discs but it’s bare bone–no special features. Being the whole second season I suppose $20 on Amazon isn’t bad, especially compared to the current cost of a new ‘real’ version, which may have better cover art, but’ll run you in the ballpark of $299.99. Used is only $24.95 at this moment, so if that doesn’t bother you it’s probably worth it. Like the first Gig, this is on Netflix streaming, so there’s an instant alternative if you have the subscription.

4. Ghost in the Shell SAC: Solid State Society Limited Edition Steelbook, released by Manga. Yikes this one is also expensive, running at $37.98 Amazon price. I paid maybe $20 for it so maybe the tides will turn in time. As it stands though it’s not a terrible deal. Three discs, including the soundtrack, which is pretty good–From the Roof Top by Ilaria Graziano is awesome–but not the series’ best. Considering the Blu-Ray is ten dollars cheaper I’d probably go for that one. The Limited Edition Blu-Ray is so expensive that it isn’t even available. (laughs)

5. Ghost in the Shell, PS2 game. Yeah I bought this for some unreasonable amount of money for the PS3, a system that refuses to play it. I think it was like $3, which wouldn’t be so bad but I also bought one of the PS2 classics–Zone of the Enders 2–the same day, and it wouldn’t play either. Thanks, Sony. You’re a pal.

So that’s the list. Pretty expensive. But worth it. I guess there were also two books, but… damn it. I’ll get to those later.

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