A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 341 – Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence – February 4th, 2011

So, like last night’s movie, this was a new one for me. I feel less guilty about it since it came out after I finished college and smack in the middle of when I was in grad school. Graduate courses keep you busy, you know? I wasn’t watching many movies at the time and certainly not ones that required me to focus entirely on them for the subtitles and the philosophy. Because yes, this movie does indeed have a lot of talking about life and what it is and what it means and what qualifies as alive and ethics and so on and so forth, and it’s a good idea to pay attention.

Last night I know I bemoaned the lack of substance in the movie. It touched on things without really going into the depth that I know the material is capable of. Tonight I think there was a bit of a swing in the opposite direction. The movie does these very deliberate slow pans across the gorgeous scenery, with the characters standing still in the middle of it all, talking about philosophy. They quote Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible at each other and to be honest, it started to feel like it was going nowhere and I found myself looking down at my computer to escape it. It’s not that I dislike the topics at hand, it’s just that sometimes it felt like the movie was deliberately looking for ways to make it all seem super meaningful without actually managing to do so. There’s a long scene in a mansion, with someone Batou knows and he’s tricked him and Togusa and it’s all virtual reality, but not really and they talk and talk and talk. It felt like it went on for hours. And this isn’t what I wanted when I said I wanted substance.

Thank goodness there’s a little more meat to the movie than that. It’s not all just seasoning. The plot revolves around rogue androids who are really high end sex dolls. A number of copies of the same model have all gone on killing sprees, eventually self-destructing and erasing their own memories. Section 9, our bad ass government security task force, takes on the case when they find that at least one politician has been involved and that all of the families of people killed by the dolls have settled out of court instead of suing the responsible company. And once that’s established early on in the movie the rest of the story is about Batou – the super heavy duty cyborg who used to be partnered with Major Motoko – and his new partner, the almost all organic Togusa tracking down the point behind the rogues and discussing the nature of life.

You might have noticed that I described Batou as formerly Motoko’s partner. This is because this movie is picking up where the first one left off. Oh, it can be watched on its own, I’m sure, but it’s set in the same continuity, so Motoko is still officially MIA and the vast majority of the movie happens without her. And I think that might be the source of some of my problems with the movie’s long and meandering discussions of ethics and philosophy. Motoko has a vested interest in the questions she raises in the first movie, but Batou seems to mostly be considering the issues at hand here due to his relationship with Motoko and her absence. It puts it all at a remove, because the people talking are all looking at the issue from the outside, whereas Motoko looks at things personally.

The issues at hand are about the dolls and whether they are alive and whether they should be. They touch on how humans create machines to be more human without considering the consequences. And it’s all interesting stuff. After all, the whole plot with the dolls going rogue and murdering people, and the sinister source of the dolls themselves is heavy material. But for all its philosophical maundering, the movie never really hits any true insights. It asks questions and never looks for the answers. It never gives the characters the time to do so.

Once again, the animation is gorgeous, and sometimes the style backs up the material. In particular, when Batou and Togusa go to visit the forensics expert who’s recovered data from one of the self-destructed dolls they all have a discussion about whether the dolls are alive. This is the start of that whole train of thought and it’s introduced well. The forensics expert refers to the dolls as having committed suicide. This provokes a response from Togusa and a different response from Batou, allowing the expert to give them her thoughts on the matter, and all through it are shots of her lab. It is white and cold and sterile, full of dismembered robotic parts hooked up to diagnostic machines. And there is something about the pairing of a discussion of machines coming to life with scenes of them in pieces that simply works in a way that some of the later discussions don’t. I can appreciate the aesthetics of the film while still thinking that they don’t quite support the dialogue and vice versa.

Fortunately for the movie, Motoko does show up near the end, though not in the form we’re used to. Which I like. I think it’s a good choice for this particular story that she be in a different body, showing just how fluid her physical identity is. She isn’t the body she inhabits and therefore she isn’t tied to a temporal form. It gives her character an interesting dimension. And because she has such a completely different view on the matter of what makes someone or something alive, her presence changes the whole dynamic of any conversations she takes part in. By the end, when the creepy dolls are attacking Batou and Motoko looks like they do, and they find a real organic person in the middle of it all, there’s some interesting stuff going on. Unfortunately, that’s where it ends. Thank goodness there’s the series.

February 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 340 – Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell – February 3rd, 2011

I feel so ridiculous admitting to never having seen this movie. I mean, I’m no expert, but I’ve seen a fair amount of anime in a few different genres. There was a time when Andy and I were going through the rather large collection at the video store we worked at and watching something new on a regular basis. How did I miss this? I’ve read the manga. I’ve watched the Stand Alone Complex series. I remember being told that the movie didn’t really live up to the source material, but I know tonight was the first time I’ve seen it for myself. I just seem to have missed a couple of anime classics, so it’s a good thing we’re watching everything we own, cause Andy’s better about buying them than I would be.

I will also admit that it’s been years since I read the manga. I’m far more immediately familiar with the SAC stuff than with the written material, so this isn’t going to be much of a comparison. I know I recognize plot elements, but I couldn’t say how closely it cleaves to its source. It certainly focuses on the more philosophical themes from the world it’s all set it, which is fine by me. I like the philosophical themes here. The question of what makes a person a person is one of the central issues I associate with Ghost in the Shell, regardless of format.

The setting for the movie (and all the material in the franchise, really) is a futuristic Japan in a world where cybernetic implants are the norm and cyborg parts and bodies are possible if you have the money for it. The more money you spend, the better your hardware is, with possibilities like enhanced sight, strength and even skin that can turn you invisible (though that last seems intended to be a government-only perk). Cyber-brain implants allow people to hook directly into an online network and even into each other, which means hacking isn’t just into people’s machines now. Your brain can be hacked too. The main characters for the movie are Section 9, an elite undercover government agency that handles network security. They are, as the young people say, Bad Asses. They’re also all using heavily modified cyborg bodies (except Togusa, who was recruited specifically because he’s all natural except for his cyber-brain implants, and Aramaki, the boss). But the most heavily modified of them all is Motoko, the Major. The only ‘real’ part of her left is her brain. Everything else is synthetic. And she’s beginning to have some questions.

The story of the movie follows a terrorist known as The Puppet Master. He’s a mysterious figure who’s been able to hack into protected systems, some of them inside people, and insert memories or instructions. And he’s been impossible to catch thus far. There’s a lot of politicking going on in the background of the movie. Machinations and plots and secrets. Plenty of maneuvering on the part of both the Section 9 folks and other government agencies and officials. And then midway through the movie a body is recovered. It should just be an empty cyborg shell, but it’s not. What differentiates a human from a purely cybernetic system is a “ghost”. And only humans have them. They can be dubbed, but dubs have flaws. And the body that shows up has a ghost, but no corresponding original owner. No human brain. It is a mystery, and Motoko wants to know if it’s possible that a ghost could be created by a program and if so, is she really real, or does she just believe she is because she’s been told so.

Now, the action in this movie is lovely. The visuals are gorgeous and the animation is beautifully done. There are some great car chases, and lots of fighting (including one fantastic scene where an invisible Motoko kicks a guy’s ass, throwing him around like a rag doll and since she’s invisible, all you see are the effects of what she’s doing). But while there’s plenty of action and lots of espionage hinted at, the point of the movie, and of the world as a whole, is the nature of personhood. What makes someone a someone, not a something? And will the definitions have to change as technology advances? The movie touches on it quite a lot and seems to be attempting to do more, but then it gets bogged down in extensive scenes of the city in the rain, or Motoko swimming, which is a pity. It’s not that long a movie, really, and the manga is a bit of a brick. So why the need for padding? And not padding that actually says anything about the world of the movie. Ah well. Maybe we’ll end up doing all of our television when we’re done with movies and I can really dig into all of this when we get to Stand Alone Complex. Or maybe tomorrow’s movie will do more with it. I don’t know. I haven’t seen the second Ghost in the Shell movie either.

February 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 316 – Matrix Revolutions

Matrix Revolutions – January 10th, 2011

Well, this is it. The last of the Matrix movies. And by now I’m well and truly ready to be done, because this movie is such a gigantic and overblown spectacle that there is no topping it. To be honest, it’s left me a little speechless. Not in awe, I assure you. Just. I’m at a loss for how to talk about this movie. It’s such a conflict in my head.

You see, I want to like this movie. Honestly, I think it’s better put together than the second movie and I am so very pleased by that. There’s some good stuff here and I really really really want to like it. But it is so very over the top and there’s lots of pointless philosophizing and they seem to have tossed in everything but the kitchen sink here. Check out the tvtrops page on this series and look at the list of tropes present. I got sucked in for an hour just reading the list, not even linking outside of the page. The prior two movies set so much up in terms of mythology and philosophy, not to mention the actual plot(s) and character arcs. There’s simply so much to be done and close out and it all had to come together in something huge because you can’t have it come together in something smaller than its predecessors, right? I’d be curious to see that done, actually. It’s certainly not done here.

We know from the outset that we’re going to have to have the epic battle of Zion. It’s a giant Chekhov’s bullet. The last movie ended with the machines digging their way down to the city and the ships destroyed and chaos reigning and so on and so forth. They were readying for a big fight, so that big fight had better damn well be in the next movie, right? Right. And then there’s the big revelation that Neo can control machines outside of the Matrix. They’ve got to do something with that too. And then there’s Smith, who’s been replicating himself by infecting other programs. And add on to all of that, there’s all the questions about the nature of the Matrix and its history and how Neo’s changed things by not doing what the Architect expected him to do and there’s the Oracle and Seraph and the Merovingian and his crew and everyone who believes in Neo and that’s a hell of a lot to have to wrap up.

It’s not really all that surprising that they ended up actually naming a character in the movie Deus Ex Machina. I mean. Really. I was not shocked. When you’ve built up as much as this movie has, there’s only so much you can do to close it off. And I think there came a point where the Wachowskis just sort of threw up their hands and decided to hell with it, let’s just have Neo meet God, like Shatner did! Why not? It feels like that’s what you do when you’ve built up a huge symbolic philosophical messiah story but don’t have the answers you were hoping to find before having to write the end.

I know I’m rambling, but like I said, I’m sort of at a loss. Really, though, I do think this movie’s structure is a little more coherent than the second movie. It doesn’t have quite the same “action – philosophy – action – philosophy – action” thing going on and that’s good in my book. While we watched it I likened it to Return of the Jedi, actually, with the secondary heroes (Niobe, Morpheus, etc.) rushing off to help out in the big battle of doom against impossible odds while the hero (Neo) goes into the enemy base to try to face down their leader one on one. There’s probably a trope for that, but I’m not going looking for it lest I lose another few hours to that site. Regardless, I think it’s a fairly solid construction once it gets going Unfortunately there’s a lot of faffing around before that. Because at the outset Neo is stuck in Limbo and there’s a whole bit where Morpheus, Trinity and Seraph need to go deal with the Merovingian to get him back. Make no mistake, this whole bit is only in here for the sake of the pretty. Why not let Neo find his own way out? We’re talking about a guy who can stop Sentinels outside the Matrix and resurrect himself from the dead, diving into other programs to destroy them. And he can’t get out of a coded loop of a train station?

You see, that there is the problem. There’s just too much to answer and the answers weren’t set up to fit the world that had already been built. So there are indeed answers, but they only make sense with rules set forth in this last movie. There’s no possible way it can stand on its own, what with it being so heavily dependant on the world building and plot set-up in the earlier movies. But it’s such an entirely different creature than the other movies. Yes, it’s got plenty of action and philosophy and people zipping in and out of the Matrix and Smith being a maniacal badass and Neo being all messianic (down to the blinding, which is definitely a trope – Dune, anyone?), and lots of women kicking ass and I truly do like the battle at Zion. But it’s also got a level of technology that is, in the movie, indistinguishable from magic. Why can Neo do the things he does? It’s not that he’s simply better able to manipulate the Matrix. It’s that he’s special. And he uses his special magic powers to fix everything. I don’t hate that ending, it just seems ill-suited to the story the first movie set in motion. Still, it is a gorgeous movie, and it does have Zee and Niobe and Trinity being awesome and I do love all three of them. And it’s got Hugo Weaving being fantastic and it’s got some interesting stuff about the programs who aren’t so set on eradicating humanity. So I don’t hate it. I don’t love it, but I enjoyed it despite its many flaws. If only it had been more in line with its predecessors. Oh well.

January 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 315 – The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded – January 9th, 2011

Ah, it’s sequel time. I have to admit, I’ve only seen the Matrix sequels a few times. I’ve seen the first movie countless times, but the sequels, while pretty, lack something. It’s a pity, what with the promise the first movie had, but then that’s how it goes. I don’t dislike the sequels, but they disappointed me, so while I do enjoy watching them, and I certainly had moments tonight when I found myself grinning, the spark that made the first movie so uniquely fantastic is missing.

I think part of it for me is that this movie seems to embody the concept of trying too hard. With the first movie to live up to where do you go? More fight scenes, more bad guys, more chases and machines and tech and Neo doing impossible things and oh yes, lots more symbolism. And it’s all crammed in there so tightly none of it really has the space to breathe. There are these wonderfully tantalizing bits and pieces but before we can really get a sense of them there’s another fight scene, and it makes me wonder if the tantalizing bits are cut off because there are too many or because none of them were ever truly thought through.

We rejoin Neo and Trinity and Morpheus well enough after the events of the last movie that they’ve already been back to Zion enough times for Neo to gain a somewhat unwelcome following. People gather at the door to his quarters, waiting for him to come home. They give him offerings in hope that he will somehow be able to protect their family and loved ones. The messiah plot is very clearly carried on here, with Neo knowing he is this figure they’re looking to but not knowing what to do about it. He has horrible prophetic dreams of Trinity falling out of a building and dying (which is the opening scene, so twice now the movies have opened on Trinity kicking ass) and it’s made clear he has no idea what it all means. And I’ve got to give it to Keanu Reeves. For all the disparaging comments made about him and his lack of emotion, there is one moment in this movie where he somehow manages to convey the helplessness and sense of being overwhelmed through a single facial expression. The man can act!

So the ship returns to Zion and there’s a big orgy before the whole place prepares for war, since it’s been discovered that the machines are digging in to reach Zion and destroy it. Morpheus is waiting for word from the Oracle, defying orders of the military commander, Lock. There are meetings of the various ship captains and meetings in Zion with the council and Morpheus has a vaguely Cassandra type role here, being the true believer but being disbelieved himself. There’s a lot of arguing about whether or not they need to talk to the Oracle and whether they can afford to go back into the Matrix when the machines are so close and they need ships but of course they do go back in and the Oracle sends Neo on a quest to find the Keymaker and that leads them to an obsolete program named the Merovingian and his cadre of dangerous goons and meanwhile Agent Smith is replicating himself out of control and that’s not even touching on the new upgraded Agents who are also after them. So basically there are three different groups after Neo and his friends in the Matrix, a crapload of machines tunneling into Zion in the real world, and lots of little conversations about the nature of the Matrix and the programs within it.

It’s so very messy. And I haven’t even gotten to the Architect. I find it frustrating because there are all of these very interesting little moments. Neo’s conversation with the Oracle about how programs do what they’re intended to do and you never notice them. The Merovingian and his group of werewolves and vampires and ghosts and the implications of his cause and effect mentality. His wife, Persephone and all symbolism going on there. The Keymaker and Seraph, programs with very specific purposes. And as soon as they’re touched on there’s a fight scene. The Oracle spouts a lot of stuff about purpose and then buggers off just in time for a mob of Smiths to show up. The Merovingian rambles about causality and then kicks them out. Persephone shows up to give some more little clues and then we get the staircase fight scene with the goons, none of whom are ever really given much in the way of purpose or character. And then there’s the chase scene. And all the while there’s stuff going on in the real world that I’m sure is very important but it’s all chopped up. Oh! And there’s a traitor! Because we’ve got to have a traitor. And his name is Bane. Of course. Because Cypher wasn’t obvious enough.

And that’s my other problem here. The symbolism isn’t symbolism anymore. It’s flat out telling you what to think about the people who get introduced. Bane? That’s not a metaphor, that’s a label. But I could deal with that. It’s not like Neo and Morpheus were terribly subtle in the first place and there are things I like, such as the names of the various ships (Mjolnir, Osirus, Logos, Caduceus, Brahma, etc.). Some things are done well. I really like Zion, which is a giant bunker of a city. I just think there’s too much packed in, so by the time you reach the Architect and he starts in with the SAT vocab test of an explanation of what the Matrix is and Neo’s place in it, it’s just more noise. And essentially he tells Neo what Agent Smith told Morpheus in the first movie: Humanity is flawed and needs suffering. There needs to be a rebellion and a release valve. He just takes ten minutes to say it.

Seriously, I don’t dislike this movie. I just went into it hoping for more answers than I got. It felt like this movie was a lot more style-over-substance than the first one was, which made me sad. Oh, I still enjoyed the gorgeous visuals and the fact that both Trinity and Niobe (one of the captains, played by Jada Pinkett-Smith) get to kick a hell of a lot of ass. I do love the highway chase scene with the evil twins. I love the possibilities and I love the concept. I enjoy the little clever bits like references to Bible verses and classical literature. I just wish there had been some editing done. Maybe instead of three factions trying to get Neo and his pals it could have been two. Maybe a fight scene could have been taken out (the one with Seraph comes to mind – what’s the point there, again?). Maybe the scenes with the real world could have had less back and forth and political wrangling. I don’t know. It’s a lot of fun and has some great stuff in it, it just feels overloaded. Like the Wachowskis came up with so many cool ideas they couldn’t bear not to include them all. It ends with a fantastic revelation about Neo and his power in and out of the Matrix and it’s fantastically fun overall. But it clocks in at over two hours and I refuse to believe that at least fifteen minutes couldn’t have been cut to make it a tighter, sharper, cleaner and overall better movie.

January 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 312 – Johnny Mnemonic

Johnny Mnemonic – January 6th, 2011

When we finished watching this Andy and I had a little discussion about the timeline of the internet and modems and methods for getting online. I vividly remember my first email account, which was a bare bones account I used pine with. My second email account was on AOL, which is also where my internet addiction formed. I had a hard time making friends in school who shared my interests, but AOL had a great group of MST3K fans and they met in a chat room every night and I usually joined them for at least an hour. Oh, the money I must have cost my parents with that habit. But my point is that by my early high school years getting online wasn’t super difficult. By my sophomore year I know I was browsing the web. Which is what makes movies like this and Hackers so amusing to compare.

Both this and Hackers came out in 1995. By the time Hackers was out in theaters the characters’ amazement at 28.8 baud modems seemed quaint, and they were only supposed to be present-day. This movie is set in 2021, about 25 years after it was made (allowing for production time and whatnot). The story it’s based on was first published in 1981, expanding that to a 40 year gap. So I’m not going to snark too much about the dated technology. Sure, it’s amusing to hear someone reference people using VCRs, and the televisions are all CRTs and yes, the VR gloves and mask are highly amusing. But well, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy came out in 1995 too. So really, the reason the tech seems so very silly in here is that I think it’s a slightly updated view of what might be possible in the future, but not straying terribly far from what was possible at the time. Hackers stuck to what was possible at the time, but they were set present day. I want more from the future than some VR gloves and bundles of coax.

Unavoidable issues of dated science fiction aside, there’s a lot more wrong here. I am not unfamiliar with the cyberpunk genre, I promise, but while I’ve read other works by William Gibson as well as a number of other authors, this particular story slipped right by me. So I can’t say for certain just how it was shifted for the screen but I can say this: William Gibson wrote the screenplay. And I hate to say this, but he should have stuck to prose. Ye gods, what a clunky movie. Now, I’ve read a quote from Gibson where he states that the movie was heavily recut before release and that it ruined a lot of what they’d made, but I’m sorry. Recutting does not explain Johnny’s ridiculous speech about wanting his shirts pressed. Recutting does not excuse the exposition spouted by a bit character at the beginning so we in the audience can learn how a courier like Johnny works and the risks inherent in the job. I mean, does a courier who carries data in an implant in his brain really need to be told “If you carry too much there’ll be seepage and it could kill you.” because I’m pretty sure he’d know that.

Then again, while I do think that a lot of the dialogue is awkward at best, the plot issues I’m willing to blame on the editing. Johnny gets a huge download of very sensitive data and suddenly finds himself on the run from the Yakuza. But then there’s actually two factions from the company that hired the Yakuza? I think? It’s possible the Japanese version explains the antagonists better but the US version, which is ten minutes shorter, doesn’t. And then there’s the mysterious ghost in the machine, and a street preacher who’s got tons of cybernetic implants and also acts as a hit man? Cause the Yakuza, working for an evil pharmaceutical corporation, wasn’t enough. But like I said, who knows if the preacher (played by Dolph Lundgren to make him even more bizarre) was better explained and incorporated prior to editing. Who knows if the evil corporation and the people involved got more background. I would hope so. I would hope that the plot with the plague that’s sweeping through the population would be given more time since it’s a crucial part of the movie. But in the movie we get, none of that happens. So it’s just a muddled mess.

Now, all that being said, I did have some things I liked about the movie. Sadly, this is not a high point for Keanu Reeves, who I think tried to emote too much here. It comes off so very artificial and forced and it’s painful to watch. But balancing him out are Ice-T and Henry Rollins, playing secondary characters who help Johnny out when he ends up running, forced into the slums and underground world of people fighting against the all powerful corporations that run everything higher up. Ice-T is the leader of the LoTeks, a band of rebels who strip information out from the big guns and fire it back out to the public. Rollins plays Spider, a doctor who helps care for people struck by the plague and who also does cybernetic implants as a side gig. They are the best things about this movie. Spider has some of the best lines in the movie and Rollins plays him well. Ice-T as J-Bone gets to be a bad ass, which he is quite excellent at. Sadly, J-Bone doesn’t get to do as much as I’d like, but he gets a couple of moments. I was disappointed in the character of Jane, a stand-in for the original Molly from the story thanks to some rights issues. I don’t blame Dina Meyer. It’s just that the character only gets a couple of very short bursts of awesome and then she’s sick and desperate and they even shoehorned in a romantic moment between her and Johnny. But I was talking about what I liked. Sorry.

The problem is that while this movie has a crapload of potential and what should have been a fun cast, it ended up being a morass of dystopian cliches and junkyards and dated tech and GUIs. And that I could have handled, had the plot been tighter. Had the writing been sharper. Had everything come together gracefully. But it didn’t. None of that happened. And that’s sad to me. It’s disappointing, and so I’m glad I didn’t go see this when it came out. I liked Gibson and I liked the possibilities the internet had at the time and if I’d seen this then I would have been crushed. Now I knew better before we put the disc in. And so I could content myself with Rollins and Ice-T and that will have to be enough.

January 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment