Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Ghost in the Shell started as a Japanese Manga (comic), was adapted to a well-received animated film in 1995, then a successful animated series that ran from 2002-2005, and then another movie in 2004, another movie in 2006, and another in 2008, and a reboot of the story in 2013.  All of these are based on the original manga, and have been received differently. When it was announced that there would be a live-action film based on it, expectations were higher than high.

Throughout these interpretations is the same basic story. It is the future. Robotics and cybernetic implants are commonplace. Many people are enhanced with implants and can do extraordinary things. That also leads to crime. Within the Japanese government, Public Security Section 9 is a force who deals with counterterrorism and all sorts of computer/cyber crime. There are variations to this in the various instances of the adaptations, but the rest of this review discusses the film in question.

The Major(Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind – her brain is placed in a completely cybernetic body. Her sense of self is called the Ghost, spirit, or soul, if you will, and her body, the Shell. As a human, she was rescued from downing, and as such, the Hanka Corporation chose her for this experiment. Deemed a success, she is assigned to Section 9. Fast forward to a year later, she is the point person on a suspected attack on a hack involving a high-level person in the Hanka Corporation. Someone is trying to steal information from him by sending a robot geisha to a dinner/reception he is holding. Something is amiss, and the Major is put on the case.

That all transpires within the first 10-15 minutes of the film, and I will not divulge any more. There is a lot of furor about the casting of Scarlett Johansson, because the Major has always been a Japanese woman.  I personally was disappointed, originally, and I don’t know why it was done, but perhaps it could have been related to getting funding/approval for the movie to be made, at all. I will say that they “address” that in the story, but I won’t say more, as it’s part of the story.

There is plenty of action in this film. It’s all highly choreographed, as have been the various animations in the past. The kineticism and energy of these scenes have been one of the most appealing aspects of the previous incantations, and here they meet expectations. The computer and hacking scenes are a little less interesting, as the previous shows have made a strong effort to ratchet up the visual nature of them. Here, they are interesting, but not as visually stimulating.

Along with the visual, there is a lot of dialogue to pad the story with “history” and explanation of the concepts. Those moments can drag for people who are familiar, but they are necessary for people who aren’t.

This film is visually stunning. This is a very rich world, and they can only do so much in a movie that runs 1:47. There are a couple of characters who are well known within the series, but are relegated to them having a scene or two that seem perfunctory, like “I’m this guy, and I do this (and then they do it)”. Again, that’s them loading up the story so there can be a sequel, or they are providing these  elements to make the faithful happy. I can’t say, though there’s a ton of material to cover for this movie so that people understand what’s going on.

One aspect of the previous versions of this show has been the music. The choices were always interesting and full, on their own. Many different styles were used. Here, Clint Mansell, an exceptional composer, has done a decent job, however none of his work was truly memorable. There’s nothing “wrong” with what he wrote, but it didn’t fully work, for me.

The background cityscape this movie exists in is full of Eye Candy – super-sized advertising via hologram, people with various implants walking in the background, crazy vehicles of all sorts and sizes, and so on. There’s a lot to see, and I suspect after several viewings there will still be more to discover.

All this being said, it is a good film. It’s an updated re-telling of the 1995 movie, with some things added on that came along from the series. The final confrontation is acceptable, but not mind-blowing.  I did see it in 3D, but there wasn’t enough that used it well (besides the city scenes) that I recommend you see it in 2D. Overall, it’s a mixed bag, and I suspect people that aren’t too familiar with the story will like it more than those who are.

 

Logan (2017)

Logan is the latest film from the Marvel X-Men comic book franchise. This review presumes you are aware of the previous movies, if not the comics. Its primary focus is on the X-Man Wolverine, aka Logan (Hugh Jackman).

It’s a few years in the future. Mutants have been eradicated from the face of the Earth, except for a few holdouts, like Logan. The remaining ones are in hiding. Logan is eking out a meager existence as a Limo driver. We see that he’s living in Mexico, and most of the money he earns is to pay for medications for Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is very ill. Also with them is Caliban (Stephen Merchant), another mutant who takes care of the three of them.

All of them are getting by, until one day, a woman approaches Logan, and says she knows who he is. She wants to pay him to drive a little girl to a remote place in the Northern U.S.  The girl’s a mutant, too, but Logan initially refuses, for fear of being discovered, however, fate has other plans. There are people searching for the girl, and they’re not too happy. The movie becomes a chase, but that’s only a part of the story.

This is a well known story, at the fundamental level. The world-weary guy who wants to remain alone is thrust into the role of caregiver, and realizes what must be done. The first example of this that popped into my head was Father Goose, but there are many others. It’s a good story, if told well, and in this case, it is. In previous X-Men films, the mutants and their powers are at the forefront of the story, but in this one, they almost take a back seat to the plot. I am pleased that they do, which allows the writers to come up with a real story that, on its surface, is a bit silly for most of the X-Men movies.

I do recommend this film. Please note that it is rated R for violence, and there is a lot in this movie.

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

After the success of 2014’s The Lego Movie, Warner Brothers decided to continue along the same lines, and created 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie, using the Batman character they had in that film. Batman was voiced by Will Arnett, and he returns for this film.

Batman is awesome. Everyone loves him, and thinks he’s the greatest, but, we find out his biggest fan is himself. The film starts with Joker (Zach Galifianakis) attacking the city’s power generation station, demanding that the mayor cede control of the city to him or else he’ll destroy it. Of course, Batman comes to the rescue, but not before meeting pretty much every villain that he’s ever fought, even ones I barely remember. He saves the day, yet again, but the villains avoid capture.

After this latest victory, Police Commissioner Gordon decides it’s time to retire. His successor is his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson). Joker returns to interrupt the celebration, and tries out a new method to mess with The Bat. It’s pretty effective.

That’s just the first 10-15 minutes of the film. I’ll spoil nothing further. The movie is fast-paced, and never slows down. Something’s always happening, or about to happen.

The Lego Batman Movie is first and foremost a comedy. There’s a lot of humor to be had, in all aspects of Batman-dom, from parodying previous iterations of the character, to making fun of the ridiculousness of some of the things he does. Almost all of it is clever and funny, a tough combination to pull off.

It’s definitely worth seeing. I highly recommend it. It’s rated PG, and all the kids in the theater really liked it, including me.

 

 

Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures is a movie whose title has a double meaning. This movie is about specialized mathematicians who work at NASA, before the launch of the first Spaceships. The “Figures” refers to both the numbers in the calculations, but also the people who performed that work.

View the trailer here.

In the 1950s qnd 1960s, Americans were working on their space program, initially under the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). In 1958, President Eisenhower essentially created the NASA as we know it today. Back then everything was new. Computers, as we know them today, were in their infancy, and the term computers referred to actual people who performed the calculations that modern computers do today. There were pools of computers who were given the task of verifying scientist’s work, and also calculating the numbers that literally got the space program off the ground.

The movie focuses on three African-American women, friends who are a part of the ‘colored’ pool of computers for NASA, at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Segregation was still going on, and the women in the pool were loaned out for specific projects.  Each one has to overcome the biases inherent in the job, as well as the underlying  racism.

Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is assigned to the Space Task Group, the ones who are making the final calculations for launching and landing the actual spaceships. Given the stress of the job, no computer has lasted with the group for more than a short time. Katherine is determined to succeed, despite the situation. Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) is an arrogant scientist who doesn’t make things easy for her.

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) gets assigned to the engineers who are trying to get the space capsule working. She encounters less bias on the job, but still has huge hurdles to face.

Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) has become the de-facto manager of the computer pool. We find early on that she’s a tinkerer, and knows how to get things done when it’s needed. Her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), is more of a roadblock to everything Dorothy tries to accomplish.

This is an excellent movie. It walks you through many of the things that had to be in place before space flight was achievable. They really took the time and effort to get the feel of it right. Speaking as The Man, I could gloss over the racism that shows up throughout the film, but I am totally unqualified to comment any further. It’s a big part of what is accomplished in the movie, but not the only part. This movie is based on real events, and real people, and it needs to stand on its own, and it does that extremely well. As a movie, it’s one of the best I’ve seen in years. I cannot recommend it enough.

Once you’ve seen the film, and you really should, come back and visit this link, which explains the truth behind the film. In order to make Hidden Figures, some of the timeline has been rearranged, and some other facts that would get in the way of making the film are combined and/or adjusted, but their impact is definitely felt.

 

Sing (2016)

Sing is a new animated release from Universal Pictures. It is a movie with music and singing, rather than an actual musical. I’ve been told recently there are pedantic people who make the distinction that a ‘true’ musical involves music, but the music is a part of the flow of the film, and it is used to express emotions of the actors singing, and, is usually is often not recognized as separate singing in the film. Sing is about performing music, and is therefore different. Just covering all bases here.

OK, now that’s out of the way, the basic story takes place in an unnamed city, presumably San Francisco. Animals live together in harmony. Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a koala bear, owns and operates a failing playhouse that’s on the verge of foreclosure.  He comes up with one last, desperate attempt to drum up business, by holding a singing competition. Thanks to his aging, inept secretary, Miss Crawley (Garth Jennings), a lizard, the competition is announced with a much larger grand prize than Buster can afford. It draws a lot of interesting characters, such as Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a pig who’s mom to many, many offspring, Mike (Seth McFarlane), a mouse, who’s a crooner in the style of the old Rat Pack (does that make him part of a mouse pack?), and Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a porcupine whose style leans towards thrash metal. There are many others, but only some are chosen for the competition.

This is definitely a good-natured kid’s movie, rated PG, however, it’s rather entertaining. The characters are rather fleshed out, and each has a good story, with something to prove. There is some danger involved, but nothing too wild, or even scary. It is a PG film, after all. There is humor, too. What impressed me most was the musical selection. It was pretty diverse, including some Sinatra, Beatles, and relatively current pop songs. You get the sense that the songs were chosen to distinguish the different characters, and it’s a nice blend of styles.

I rather enjoyed the film. I was also surprised that I lost out seeing it at one theater by showing up too late (it was sold out), and the next screening at another theater was pretty full, as well, perhaps due to the holiday.

The movie is available in 2D, and 3D, however, I don’t think there’s a need to see it in 3D.

 

Star Wars: Rogue One (2016)

Capsule Summary (spoiler free):

Star Wars: Rogue One is a story told in the Star Wars Universe, and it fits in the timeline of the series. It does not follow the sort of storytelling that the rest of the Star Wars Saga does, which makes it a refreshing change. It ties in well with the rest of the movies, and is worthy of the Star Wars name. There are some liberties taken with CGI rendering, and most of them work well. Others, not so much.

Very Highly recommended. There are bits of violence, possibly making it unsuitable for young children.

I will likely see it again, in the near future.

 

Standard Review (contains plot spoilers):

The story takes place close to the beginning of  Star Wars: A New Hope. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is essentially an orphan. As a child, her parents are taken away by the Empire, and now, she’s in Imperial prisoner.  She is liberated by people working with the Rebellion, because there are rumors that the Empire is building a super weapon, which her father helped build. She was raised by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who has necessary information for the Rebellion, but is not working with them.

She is sent to draw him out, and to convince him to share information. The rebels put her in the care of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who fly her to meet with Saw and convince him to reveal what he knows. Cassian is ordered to avoid Imperial entanglements, but it’s impossible when the planet they’re going to is full of their forces.

The story spirals outward, mostly out of control. Jyn, who’s lived alone for years, is convinced that her methods are the right ones, but she has to convince others of that, even though they don’t trust her.

The tension and urgency are palpable. Others are drawn into the story, as we, the audience, are. There comes a point where you realize, “Oh, it’s ON NOW!” and you are swept away into the story and can’t help but take it in, with all the implications they bring. I thought it was a clever manipulation, and to me, it works well.

Regardless of what you may read below, I really enjoyed the movie. The story was good, and I didn’t mind that the traditional Star Wars “text crawl” was absent from the beginning of the film. It’s certainly better than the big nostalgia throwback that was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which I also enjoyed, but Rogue One was much more unique.

 

 

Some comments about the CGI (BIG SPOILERS):

There is HEAVY use of CGI for some of the characters. For years now, when doing CGI animation of characters, they will record the voice actors as they’re reading the script, and map their expressions onto the characters they portray to give a better sense of the emotions involved. That’s been done with fantastical characters that couldn’t be done with makeup and/or prosthetics. This time, they map those expressions onto real people’s faces instead, who are unavailable due to death or age. The biggest and most important of these was for a reappearance of Grand Moff Tarkin, previously played by Peter Cushing, but now is a CGI character. He appears throughout the movie, and it mostly works, but I couldn’t help but be a little creeped out by it. Most people won’t be bothered by it. You can read up on the uncanny valley, which describes this phenomenon. They do it with several characters, and it’s passable, but after a while, it becomes gratuitous. There’s one such representation at the end that I just couldn’t accept. You’ll know it when you see it.

 

Office Christmas Party

Well, OK, then. Office Christmas Party. You’ve seen this sort of movie before. Have a huge party that gets out of hand, and more often than not, there’s some underlying crisis that has to be dealt with. In many cases, the party is the culmination of all the built up tension where it comes to a head, at the big party everyone’s trying to get to, or the main characters are the hosts. More often than not, it’s only a part of the overall story. Think of films like PCU, or Weird Science. However, in this case, as with Bachelor Party, the Big Party is pretty much the entire movie.

Clay Vanstone (T. J. Miller) is the local branch manager of a tech company that his sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is running. He’s the footloose and fancy free kind of guy, and she’s hard-nosed and cold. In defiance of his sister, he sets up the party that she nixed at the last minute, in order to woo a potential client. Along with his right hand man, Josh (Jason Bateman), they conspire to get the client to the party, where it’ll all work out.

Of course, with parties like this, they get out of control well before anyone realizes it. The play is made for the client Clay (Courtney B. Vance), while everything else is going mad. That’s the general story.

What will set a film like this apart from others is how it plays out. Sure, there’ll be people losing their inhibitions, and there’ll be damage. There will be outrageous behavior as people keep doubling down. That’s a staple of this kind of film, but is it enough?

In this case, I say it is. It’s a little choppy, but the individual scenes and performances stand up. You see the stereotypical people doing some of the stereotypical things, but people like Kate McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer and Rob Courddry put their own zing to the scenes they’re in. Even though you can more or less typecast these actors in they roles they play now, they still give good performances here that make the film funny along the way.

Given the kind of film it is, there’s a certain amount of predictability to it, but overall, I was pleased by it. There are some good laughs in the film, but not great ones. Still, I enjoyed myself.

The film is rated R for adult behavior and language, and has a runtime of 105 minutes, so it doesn’t wear out its welcome. There are a couple of outtakes during the credits, but that’s about it.

 

Moana

Moana is the latest film from Pixar/Disney. It is based on the legends of the peoples of the Pacific Islands. You can catch the trailer on the IMDB site, or here.

Moana is the tale of the daughter of an island’s chief. Everything is peaceful and the people are happy, but that’s about to change. When she was little, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) would listen to the stories her grandmother would tell of how her people came to be. They were always fanciful and also scary. Things were such that they never leave their island, not even to venture past the reef that surrounds it. Problems start happening with their food supply, and Moana relies on the stories she used to hear to find a solution, to seek out the Demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to fix things. If it were only that simple.

First and foremost, this is a musical. I wasn’t aware, though. However, the songs are happy and funny. It certainly helps that some of the songs and lyrics were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame. This is also a comedy, of sorts, and rather funny. I found myself laughing throughout the film. Much like any decent kid’s film, there’s plenty of humor for the adults. Moana has a companion, a rather confused chicken, “voiced” by Alan Tudyk.

I really enjoyed myself at the screening. I highly recommend this film, and I already put it in my top 10 films of 2016. It is available in 3D, but I did not see it that way. It was not necessary to see it that way, though I’m sure there were some benefits of the 3D experience.

There is a funny post-credits scene.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a movie that exists in the world of Harry Potter, written by J.K. Rowling. In essence, it is a prequel to that story.

You can view the trailer here.

In the 1920s, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a Magizoologist, a Wizard who studies Magical creatures. He arrives in New York City, and is on a journey to meet someone. While on the way, he bumps into a Non-Mag (non-magical person, or a muggle), and The Old Switcheroo happens, and they accidentally swap cases.

He manages to catch the eye of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is a member of the Magical Congress of the USA, similar to England’s Ministry of Magic. She’s noticed that his case had magical animals, which is against the law in the U.S., and brings him to the Magical Congress, but they are more concerned with more dangerous matters, as strange things are happening in NYC. Is there a connection between these problems?  What do you think?

It’s a good tale, with a lot of heart and emotion. There is a sequence of “Hey, look at the creatures” which reminded me too much of that moment in the original Jurassic Park film. This is, at its core, a kid’s film, and some of the same sort of irritations from the Harry Potter movies are here, too. I won’t go into them here, but it suffices to say that they hampered my total enjoyment of the movie.

I still recommend it, though. It’s available in 3D, but I saw the 2D version, and do not recommend you spend the extra money to watch it any other way. There’s good acting, and they were rather successful in capturing the spirit of the ’20s, so it works on several levels.

Arrival (2016)

Arrival is a science fiction film, based on the short story “Story of Your Life”, written by Ted Chiang. The story won several awards in 1999 and 2000.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a professor of linguistic studies. She is on her way to teach class when she walks past many students hovering around a TV, where news is coming that aliens have arrived on Earth, and no one knows what to do. They appear in 12 places around the world, and no one knows what to do.

Shortly afterward, she is visited by a Colonel Weber (Forrest Whittaker), who asks for her assistance in communicating with the new visitors. She resists but eventually consents. She is teamed up with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who’s handling the science of the meetings. Col. Weber implores them to find a way to communicate with the aliens, and is demanding to know what their intentions are.

This movie is a slow potboiler of a film. It plays out in a plodding manner, letting the enormity of the situation sink in to the characters, and the audience, as well. I really can’t talk about the story that much, because it would spoil the experience. There’s the underlying urgency to understand, and it provides the base for the film.

Going back almost 40 years, Close Encounters of the Third Kind attempted to tell the story of encounters with aliens, and it was incredibly stunning, visually, but, to me, was a bit flat. To this day, the 5 notes and those 5 hand gestures never meant anything to me, and they never bothered to reveal what they meantl. That film frustrated me, while it entertained me.

Arrival answered some of those questions, but not all of them. It has a heart that you won’t find that in many science fiction films. This movie was a unique experience, giving me something I haven’t seen 1000 times before.

I strongly recommend Arrival, and I already know that it’s one of my top 10 films of the year.