Review: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka. Written by Kazunori Ito (based on the manga by Masamune Shiro). Directed by Mamoru Oshii.

I confess that although I’ve had Ghost in the Shell on my radar for at least ten years, I finally saw it because of the whitewashing accusations hurled at the 2017 live-action adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson, and I wanted in on the discussion. I don’t think whitewashing is as big a deal as some of my friends think it is, but I didn’t want to engage in the conversation without knowing what I was speaking about.

And you know what? Even if I did care about whitewashing, I wouldn’t make a big deal out of this one. The main character, Motoko Kusanagi, exists in a world where cybertechnology allows living brains to exist in cyber bodies. Further, it’s also possible for a human mind to exist in a cyber brain, the titular ghost in the shell. It’s unclear to me what in Motoko’s body and brain are the stuff she was born with, making ethnicity, race, and even biological sex meaningless. Yes, the film is set in Japan, but would an adaptation necessarily have to be, if we’re talking about some imagined world in some very distant future?

On a scale of meh to outrage, I rate the casting of Johansson in the Motoko role a meh, although my thoughts might change if I see the live-action adaptation.

The story is pretty complicated, and I had to pause the DVD several times so I could read the subtitles slowly, not so much in order to follow the plot as to get a grip on the multiple philosophical discussions. When the essence of your mind can inhabit a manmade physical brain, and when that brain can inhabit a manmade body, all kinds of issues related to the self come into play, and the film’s characters seem to spend a fair amount of time thinking about them.

A ghost in a shell can access information networks, apparently, and all the stuff this implies. If you’ve seen Her or Lucy, one wonders if Johansson is being typecast here, if such a role is typecastable. I know I’m being silly here, but consider the way actors like Wilford Brimley and Paul Giamatti are often cast, based not only on physical traits but a certain kind of chracter space they inhabit well, and is it so outrageous to cast Johansson based on acting history as opposed to skin color or the birthplace of her parents?

I’m not going to summarize the story because I don’t honestly know exactly what it is. This is not to say it’s not knowable. It’s just kind of complicated, begging for repeated viewings I couldn’t give it. I understand the major plot points, especially in the beginning and end, when I hit pause and rewind several times, so I’ll just say that the plot serves the philosophical mysteries pretty well, with a pretty decent balance between who-are-we-and-why-are-we-here conversation and i’m-going-to-shoot-you-with-this-blaster action.

The artwork is lovely if the animation is kind of rough at times. If one of the purposes of animation is to put you in an imagined world you wouldn’t see in real life, it accomplishes at least that goal beautifully.

Honestly, I kind of want more, except that I want a finite more, and this is the kind of plot that could go on and on with no real end. I don’t really want to get sucked into something like that. I still feel bad for having given up on The Big Bang Theory.

7/10
73/100

Review: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
Voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, Neil Patrick Harris, Benjamin Bratt, Bruce Campbell, Andy Samberg, James Caan, Mr. T, and Lauren Graham. Written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (based on a book by Judi and Ron Barrett). Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.

cloudy3aCloudy with a Chance of Meatballs might be the funniest movie I’ve seen this century. I have now seen it three times, and I keep finding new things to laugh about. It’s cute, smart, and clever, and its animation is sneaky terrific. It has that shiny surface a lot of recent 3D animation has, but it manages not to have just one look, at times looking like a box of Skittles and at others like a postcard from somewhere with foggy moors. I’m not exactly sure what a moor is, but I imagine a lot of damp greys.

cloudy2Like the earliest Pixar films, this picture by Sony Animation seems to be driven by a creative force that says, “What can we do that nobody’s ever done before?” This spirit permeates the animation, story, dialogue, and voice acting, as if every decision was made by a refusal to do what every audience has come to expect from any other film, or (at some of its funniest moments) doing exactly what other films do, but exaggerating them to the point of ridicule. You know those ten million other movies where a nerdy girl takes off her glasses and is suddenly stunning?  The writers in this movie do something different with that idiotic motif that makes me want to hug them.  Meatballs raining from the sky are really the least surprising thing about the movie.

The meatballs fall from the sky because Flint Lockwood, a young genius inventor, has created a machine that turns water into food. His town on a small island in the Atlantic has seen rough times after the collapse of its one-strong sardine industry. Now, since the world doesn’t like sardines anymore, the locals are forced to eat them for every meal. Flint’s idea could turn things around for his community. But as with all his inventions, something goes wrong. Unlike his previous foul-ups, this one seems pretty great. Food falls from the sky, delighting the locals and drawing the attention of a national weather channel, who sends its newest intern, Samantha Sparks, to cover the story. When things get out of hand, it’s up to Flint to save not only his town, but the whole world. He’s joined by Samantha, her cameraman, a pet monkey named Steve, and a grown man in a diaper.

cloudy1The first half of this movie is hilarious, especially for those who appreciate a clever sight gag or bit of playful dialogue. It rewards multiple viewings because there’s so much interesting stuff packed into visual and verbal presentation. I love how it doesn’t take very long to set up and gets right into the heart of the story. The second half is a bit on the wild action-adventure side, something that doesn’t thrill me much, but even in the middle of crazy stunts and heroic sequences, there is a clever, creative touch.

It’s a very good film. I wouldn’t put it up there with the greats because it either shoots for the heart and is off by a little, or it never really wants to go there. Not every animated movie can be Beauty and the Beast, and that’s okay. It’s more than enough as an exercise in super-creative silliness, and it is the first movie to make me regret not seeing it in 3D on a big screen. I’m probably going to have to buy this.

8/10
87/100

Review: Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea (2014)
Voices of Brendan Gleeson, David Rawle, and Fionnula Flanagan. Written by Will Collins. Directed by Tomm Moore.

sots1Ben is resentful of his little sister Saoirse, who still cannot speak at the age of six and who is little more than a thorn in his side.  His father and grandmother are of very little comfort, and it seems all Ben has are the stories his mother told him when he was younger. Sometimes, Ben shares these stories with Saoirse, more to frighten her than encourage her, but these legends of Ireland seem to resonate with Saoirse even more meaningfully than they do Ben.

sots2Song of the Sea has a lot in common with the earlier film by Tomm Moore, The Secret of Kells. Both are rich with the folklore of Ireland, both are highlighted by beautiful artwork and music, and both reach into the sensitivities of their young audiences, touching on cultural identity and familial loss. Maybe it doesn’t take as much courage as I imagine for a storyteller to wriggle into those spaces where children are vulnerable, but I find it admirable when he or she executes it in non-gratuitous, effective ways. The sentiments are so genuine that I would caution parents to screen this film first before deciding whether their children are emotionally equipped to handle its themes.

sots3The story, art, and larger themes are perhaps just a click or two below The Secret of Kells, but Song of the Sea spends more time than its predecessor on character development, offering a slightly more satisfying experience. This may be nitpicking, though, because both are lovely to look at, although this film is a lot cutesier, which may be an improvement or not.

I like it.

7/10
73/100

Review: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
2005 English dubbed version: voices of Alison Lohman, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Patrick Stewart, Chris Sarandon, Edward James Olmos, and Mark Hamill. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

nausicaaNausicaa is the teenaged princess of the Valley of the Wind, a peaceful kingdom that has remained untouched by the killing spores that have ruined other towns and taken over the forests. Because the valley remains mostly pristine, it is the object of desire for other kingdoms who have not taken such good care of their lands, and the aggressive army of Tolmekia threatens to move in, bringing with it an unsafe willingness to manipulate nature to do its bidding, an ignorant exploitation that threatens its own survival as well as that of the Valley of the Wind.

These three conflicting factions–the Valley of the Wind, the invading Tolmekians, and the gigantic forest insects called Ohm–seem unavoidably headed to a war that will destroy them all, but Nausicaa, who appears to be gifted with an ability to understand plant and animal life, seeks to bring peace without anyone’s resorting to violence, seeing it as the only way for all to survive.

valleyNausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is the first of Hayao Miyazaki’s feature-length animated films. It predates his Studio Ghibli, which was built on Nausicaa‘s success. People often speak of it as an environmentalist film, but while it has elements of that theme throughout, its dominant theme is of pacifism, with strong undercurrents of feminism, and it seems to target a younger audience that will be forgiving of its heavy hand. A pleasant surprise is how solidly science-fiction it is, with rather elaborate imaginings of a made-up ecosystem. Miyazaki, who based the film on a manga he wrote, definitely moved more into realms of fantasy as his career progressed, but this story is textbook SF.

While the artwork is up to the Ghibli standard, the animation seems crude by comparison to the rest of the studio’s formidable work, reminding me more of television-quality cartoons than the brilliant work it produced in later decades, and the pacing seems more suited to the Saturday-morning crowd. My favorite thing about a good Miyazaki film is its quiet, reflective moments, which are completely lacking in this film.

However, its main character is among Miyazaki’s most likeable, a sensitive, strong, intelligent young woman determined to fight for the common good, rather than just for the survival of her people. Nausicaa grasps the profound interconnectedness of her people with the land, and her people’s land with other people’s lands. It’s impossible to determine whether her understanding of the planet’s creatures is the product of her sympathy for them, or whether her sympathy comes from taking time to understand them, an ambiguity that adds to the film’s complexity and fortifies its themes. Nausicaa, unlike some of Miyazaki’s other heroines, is a fully realized character impossible to root against. Young viewers will find in her not only a heroic saver of worlds and defender of forests, but an admirable daughter, friend, and person. Highly recommended for young viewers.

78/100
7/10

Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

howlsSophie is a teenaged hat-maker who angers (and is cursed by) the Witch of the Waste. Now an unrecognizable, very old woman, Sophie finds herself in Howl’s moving castle as she seeks a reversal of the curse. There is some kind of war going on, and although Howl refuses formal invitations to join one side or another, he is involved in an alter-ego form, attempting either to help one side or simply break up the hostilities. Yeah, the story is kind of fuzzy to me, and I’m not going to pretend I got it all.

Howl is some kind of wizard with an incredible vanity problem, at one point becoming depressed to the point of inactivity for some issue involving his hair. Somehow, Sophie (who could do a lot better, if you ask me) falls for him, and if you’ve seen a fair number of films directed by Hayao Miyazaki, you know that her love for him has great power. Like, world-saving power. There are also a wheezing dog, a turnip-headed scarecrow, and a talking fire demon with Billy Crystal’s voice (in the English dubbed release), and they are all appealing enough that the confusing story doesn’t really matter too much. I think I got enough of it at least to embrace the symbolism and develop a genuine fondness for the central character.

movingOne thing I appreciate about Miyazaki’s stories is that they hold to a kind of inclusion that makes any living creature worth caring for. When Sophie takes on her old-woman appearance, her problem is never that she is an old woman, as if being an old woman is somehow undesirable. She is instead dismayed about not being herself, and at times she embraces all the pluses and minuses of being in an old woman’s body. If the director sometimes goes overboard with preachiness, at least his heavy-handed messages are backed up by a graceful, delicate realization of characters.

It seems I write about this whenever I write about Japanese animation, but the Japanese aesthetic that appreciates the beauty in the impermanence of a moment is my favorite thing about the genre, and Miyazaki’s films, by virtue of incredible animation, illustrate it better than anyone else’s. There are moments where we are asked to pause, to soak up a moment, and to appreciate it while it lasts. They are my favorite parts of his films, and there are enough of them in Howl’s Moving Castle to make up for any bizarre, unexplained behavior by its characters.

I have to say that I didn’t love this movie. I barely liked it, but I did like it for all the usual Miyazaki reasons, minus great storytelling.

6/10
68/70