Movie reviews: 'Ghost in the Shell' has beauty but lacks brain
Published Friday, March 31, 2017 6:00AM EDT
GHOST IN THE SHELL: 2 ½ STARS
Can you steal someone’s life? It’s the question at the heart of “Ghost in the Shell,” in more ways than one.
Based on the Japanese manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow, it centers around a woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, rescued by scientists at AI robots manufacturer Hanka Robotics and turned into a weaponized cyber-human. “Your body was damaged,” says Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). “We couldn’t save it, only your brain survived.” Named The Major (more on that later) after her cerebral salvage she leads task force Section 9 who take down cyber terrorists and hackers by any means necessary. “We saved you,” continues Dr. Ouelet, “and now you save others.” The life the Major once knew is over but as the doctor says, “Your mind, your soul and your ghost, that’s still in there.”
On another level “The Ghost in the Shell” steals away the essence of itskmain character. The Major, or Major Motoko Kusanagi as she was referred to in the 1989 manga series and beyond, is a Japanese character in this case being played by the very western Johansson. Director Rupert Sanders dismisses the whitewashing criticism saying, “I feel that [Johansson] channelled the Major better than anyone else I could have thought of. She was my first choice and remains my first choice. She's the best actress of my generation and her generation and the person I felt most embodied the physicality and the ability to inhabit that role.”
I think Sanders forgot to insert the word “bankable” in there somewhere.
I’m not suggesting that Johansson isn’t a talented actor or capable of pulling off believable and exciting action scenes. In movies like “Lucy” and “Captain America: Civil War” she has credibly occupied the action space, bringing both toughness and acting chops to her roles. That’s not at issue. What is at issue here is that the character is decidedly Japanese. As a human brain in an entirely synthetic body, she is far from, as Johansson claims, “identity-less.” In fact she is the very embodiment of a culture’s fascination with technology and how that technology interacts with humankind. In this case the technology actually becomes human, or perhaps it’s the other way round. Either way, the cyberpunk heroine is a key figure in Asian science fiction and the new “Ghost in the Shell” conveniently ignores that fact.
More thought has been put into creating the world The Major interacts with. A mix of the original anime, “Minority Report,” and “Robocop” with a taste of “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix” thrown in for completists, it’s a sleek near future environment, dense with activity, like in New York City and Hong Kong had a baby.
It is also a place where it’s now possible to control people by hacking directly into their minds. To combat this invasion of the mind, the Major and Co. have their sights set on Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), a shadowy cyber terrorist who is targeting Hanka scientists. Complicating the mission are nagging memories of The Major’s former life that manifest themselves through a glitch in her wiring. She sees strange visions, sort of sensory echoes that hint at memories just out of reach. They are the ghost in the shell. She’s sort of like a high tech Jason Bourne, deadly with little recall of the past. “Who are you?” asks a woman who may or may not be The Major’s mother. “I don't know,” Maj says with a faraway look.
To get to the bottom of the artificial intelligence technology conspiracy that landed her with Handa Robotics, The Major goes rogue. “They created me,” she says, “but they cannot control me.”
One of the most popular Japanese animated series of all time, “Ghost in the Shell” is a beautiful looking movie, which, like its main character, is in search of its soul. Director Rupert Sanders has an extraordinary eye, whether he is visualizing the hacking of The Major’s mind, creating a nightmarish nightclub sequence or bringing surreal cityscapes complete with video statues and future world architecture to vivid life. The movie is never less that entertaining for the eye, passing the time in a wild swirl of colour and movement.
It’s a shame the story isn’t as entertaining. Filtered through a Hollywood lens, what was once a seminal work of cyber punk is reduced to a superhero origin story with action scenes aplenty. Most are beautifully staged even though the odd shot feels like out takes from an upcoming Black Widow spin off.
Johansson pulls off the cold efficiency of a machine tempered with emerging human feelings. She’s a killing machine but never more human than when she explores what it feels like to be flesh and blood, not synthetics and wires. Its territory she’s tread before, most notably and more effectively in “Under the Skin” but it’s an otherworldliness that suits the role.
Binoche as the empathetic AI specialist and mother figure is terrific and the legendary 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano isn’t given much to do, but does it with aplomb.
“Ghost in the Shell” is a gorgeous looking film that will engage the eye but not the brain.
THE BOSS BABY: 3 ½ STARS
Based on a 36-page book by Marla Frazee, “The Boss Baby” is a feature length riff on “Look Who’s Talking” as imagined by “Family Guy’s” Stewie.
Tim Templeton (voice of Miles Bakshi, grandson of animation hero Ralph) is an imaginative seven-year-old only child of parents Ted and Janis voiced by Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow. “It was just the three of us,” he says. “The Templetons. Three is the perfect number. Interesting fact, did you know the triangle is the strongest shape alive?” He’s content to be the centre of attention but his carefully constructed life is turned upside down when Mom and Dad come home with his little brother (Alec Baldwin).
The baby is… different. “I may look like a baby but I was born all grown up,” he boasts. Wearing a suit onesie he carries a briefcase and speaks the language of the boardroom. “He's like a little man!” says Mom. Seems he’s from a purveyor of fine babies, a company that supplies tots who arrive via a chute. Those who giggle when tickled are placed with families, those who don’t, like Boss Baby, are sentenced to a Kafka-esque, humourless life in BabyCorp management, kept infant-sized by special formula. “If people knew where babies really came from they’d never have one,” says Boss Baby. “Same goes for hotdogs.”
In his quest for a promotion and a corner office with his own private potty the ambitious Boss Baby lands with Tim and family. He’s placed himself with Ted and Janice to get closer to their boss, Francis E. Francis (Steve Buscemi), CEO of PuppyCorp. Francis is developing a forever puppy, a new designer models of Frankendog, each more adorable than the last. They’re so cute they threaten to soak up all the love usually reserved for babies. It’s a threat to BabyCorp’s giant-sized baby business and if Boss Baby doesn't get to the bottom of the puppy problem his special formula will be taken away and he will turn into a regular baby. With Tim’s reluctant help he takes on PuppyCorp.
Echoes of the lamentable “Storks” and its baby making company reverberate throughout the “The Boss Baby’s” infant delivery sequence but the comparisons between the two movies ends there.
At the mushy heart of “The Boss Baby” are messages about the importance of family and unconditional love and other kid flick platitudes, but at the forefront is Boss Baby as a more devious version of Beck Bennett, “Saturday Night Live’s” CEO with the body of a baby. Baldwin brings his distinctive rasp to the character, dropping riffs from his “Glengarry Glen Ross” super-salesman character. “Put that cookie down,” he scolds. “Cookies are for closers,” and “You know who else wears a diaper? Astronauts.” With an aplomb that makes the whole silly story worth a look.
Director Tom “Madagascar” McGrath uses various kinds of animation to paint the screen with vibrant colours and images. His ninja spy sequence is striking, drawing from kung fu movies and horror movies to create the film’s most interesting few minutes. Most characters resemble Margaret Keane’s big-eyed children but McGrath finds interesting ways to jazz them up. Baby Boss’s James Brown strut up walkway to the house is more than choreography, it tells you all you need to know about the character before you even see his face. A scene with incomprehensible Elvis impersonators is hilarious and strange for adults and kids alike. In those sequences and small character moments McGrath and company shine.
Despite those character and animated flourishes “The Boss Baby” doesn’t go out of its way to truly distinguish itself. It’s a pleasant diversion for big and small but the story and its lessons feel like things we’ve seen done before and done better.
THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE: 3 STARS
Based on the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, Warsaw Zookeepers played by Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is the tale of a couple who followed their conscience, rescuing more than 300 Jews during World War II.
The action begins in 1939, months before the German invasion of Poland. The zoo is a sanctuary, run by Jan and Antonina, who treat the animals almost like family. “Good morning sweetheart,” Antonina says, greeting a tiger before giving CPR to a baby elephant later in the day. Then Nazi bombs fall, scattering the animals, effectively shutting down the zoo. When Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) offers to move the zoo’s surviving animals to Germany for safe-keeping and selective breeding in the hope of bringing back from extinction one of Europe’s most imposing creatures, the aurochs, the Zabinskis make a counter offer. They propose running the facility as a pig farm, using garbage from the Warsaw Ghetto as feed. Their selling point? It will provide food for German soldiers. Their motive? To create a secret safe haven for Warsaw Ghetto Jews, a “human zoo,” as Antonina wistfully calls it.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a simply but effectively told hero’s journey. To her credit director Niki “Whale Rider” Caro has made a handsome movie about a harrowing time. It looks and feels like a big budget period piece, befitting the gravity of the story, but despite some memorable scenes the film feels like it left much of the drama unplumbed. It’s an important story but we don’t spend enough time with the rescued people to truly get a sense of their lives and the movie feels incomplete without as a result.
Chastain holds the center of the story, providing a steely, compelling—although distractingly accented—character. She shines in her scenes opposite Brühl, a series of cat-and-mouse meetings where she feigns friendship, bonding over a shared love of animals, with the Nazi to keep her hidden dependants safe.
Despite narrative flaws “The Zookeeper’s Wife” contains unforgettable images. The shots of children being comforted by their teacher as they are loaded onto Nazi trains are as memorable as they are heart wrenching. It also contains many instances of animal cruelty. I’m sure no animals were actually harmed during the making of this movie but it doesn’t make the killing of the zoo animals any easier to watch.
OBIT: 3 ½ STARS
What will people remember about you after you’re gone? Friends and family will have personal memories of course, but for many people the last legacy comes in the form of an obituary. “Obit,” a new documentary goes deep into how newspaper epitaphs are written at The New York Times.
Deadly boring? Not by a long shot. It’s a fascinating and funny look at obituarists and the work they do. We’re introduced to the department's editor, William McDonald, writers Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Paul Vitello, Paul Weber and the inadvertent star of the show, the wryly-hilarious morgue archivist Jeff Roth.
We watch as they decide on who will be included in the exclusive NYT obit page, how much space the dearly departed get—some legacies are whittled down to 600 words, others splayed out across multiple pages—and how they garner information. It’s an old fashioned process; phone calls are made to relatives, handwritten notes are taken. Sometimes mistakes are made, but just as often, as one of the writers notes, “I tend to fall in love with the people I write about.” Most importantly we learn the obits are meant to honour lives lived, not dwell on death.
There isn’t much in the way of narrative—this is more of a slice of life doc—but it does celebrate those no longer with us as much as it does the journalists who write the stories. Take for instance the case of John Fairfax. His claim to fame—he was the first person to cross do a solo crossing of the Atlantic in a rowboat—was just the beginning of his unbelievable life. We’re told he settled a dispute with a pistol at age nine, travelled the Amazon jungle as a teen and once apprenticed to be a pirate.
That’s a hell of a story and “Obit” tells it well, offering a lively look at the men and women who handcraft tales for people whose voices have been silenced.