Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Let’s get this first part out of the way:

If there is one thing I’m tired of in the realm of film and television, it’s pre-emptive complainers trying to de-rail everything before it even comes out. with any review of this live action American/Chinese Ghost in The Shell film, everyone has drawn battle lines in regards to the elephant in the room of “Hollywood whitewashing”; in fact, I would say you were almost expected to take a side, and if you took a side that many didn’t like you’d get lectured by the other. It’s annoying that folks are getting in fights and “unfriending” each-other because of opinions over a goofy sci-fi film, but that’s our modern society I guess. Some popular reviews from major sites didn’t even talk about the film, they just reviewed everything that was in some way perceived as racist to stoke the outrage fires, this honestly comes across like they never actually watched it.

I’m not going to dwell on this topic too much because I can see both sides and don’t think arguing over whether or not Scarlett Johanson should or should not be cast as The Major actually addresses the actual problem that Hollywood has with representation. The internet witch hunts and rage were nearly identical to what people attempted to do with both recent Star Wars films, and even last years re-boot of Ghostbusters, and I honestly don’t care anymore. I’d rather discuss a film based on an anime/manga property that I’ve loved for upwards of 20+ years, and how it turned out.

/end rant

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Ghost in The Shell has been a favorite of mine for a VERY long time. I recall being first introduced to it through my older stepbrother that loved cyberpunk stuff – he had the original Masamune Shirow manga laying around at some point when I was visiting and I was enthralled by what I saw. Not too long after that, I was able to rent the anime adaptation from one of our local video stores and was hooked on the franchise from that point forward. every continuation has been something I get really excited about – all the movies, games, TV shows etc. That said, I was torn when they announced that a western adaptation was going to be produced a few years ago.

Readers may recall that I’m pretty vocal about my dislike for most anime adaptations because they don’t treat the source material with respect and are generally bad (Dragonball Evolution is the king of this). That goes for live action adaptations produced in Japan itself. I am always annoyed when they discuss a possible Akira remake because the two directors that were vocally lobbying for it seemed determined to completely alter the entire premise of the story into something else. I recall at one point, the script going around had Kaneda and Tetsuo, protagonists of the film, gender swapped and made into former lovers – nope! Any such fears that I had with Ghost in the Shell were calmed when the released the first trailer – the logo was there, scenes appeared to be adapted directly from the 1995 film, characters looked almost correct – “wait?! was this going to be okay somehow?” the controversy I touched on above was something that troubled me a bit, but I figured I’d give it a shot and see what happens.

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quick verdict – Ghost in the Shell 2017 is good, not great, and it’s not deserving of the critical heat it’s getting online.

An argument can be made that many of the visual flourishes in this film seem like a road often traveled, somewhat dated, nothing new. That’s by design, as many scenes are literally directly lifted from the 1995 film – keep in mind that the source material is nearing thirty years of age if you go even further back to the comic. it’s filled with typical cyberpunk aesthetics, and much like steampunk, or post-apocalyptic fiction – straying too far from the agreed upon tropes is never a great idea. Most “cyberpunk” properties follow a set groundwork laid by much older films like Blade Runner, books like Neuromancer, and the like. Ideas like megacities run by huge militarized corporations, dingy slums filled with bright holographic neon lights, weird Asian and Western culture amalgamations and the idea of trans-humanism seem passe today, but we seem to be ever closer to that very reality. it might not look the same, but in many ways cyberpunk is closer to our modern society than it was back in the 80’s.

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I mentioned that some scenes were directly influenced by the Mamoru Oshii film of the same name, and I would even go as far as to say that this was almost a shot-for-shot remake of that very film with a little bit of some of the sequel material sprinkled in. This is a double edged sword in many ways, as seeing scenes like the building infiltration, the spider mech fight, and the cloaked fight with the hacked garbage man was cool, but a lot of those scenes were a lot cooler and more fleshed out in the original film. This was because there was a decent amount of new material – some adapted from the comics or TV series taking up the runtime. Reading reviews online, a constant complaint I kept seeing was that “The Major got a new backstory” which is funny because Hideo Kuze and his revelations at the end of the TV series factor into this film quite a bit, meaning that people have not seen Stand Alone Complex and should not be commenting on it as if they are authorities on the matter.

For much of the film, we know The Major as Major Mira KIllian – a cyborg created by a large robotics company named Hanka Robotics. She was a survivor of a refugee boat accident – something that left her family dead and herself severely injured. Her brain was the only thing salvageable from her body, so it was put in a new body as a second chance at life as long as she’s cool being basically sold to the government as a weapon. Of course, this is all BS and the driving force behind The Major trying to piece her previous life back together.

much like the backstory stuff, I saw people complaining that the inclusion of Hanka was a new addition to the franchise, but they were actually an organization from the original comic, although not as major as here. In both versions they are a VERY bad company, as the comic version of Hanka was caught in a scandal where they were dubbing the ghosts of children into a mass-produced consumer robot to achieve a greater sense of human personality. Here, without going into too much detail – they are trying to create a race of perfect soldiers with human brains in a cybernetic body, where they get these brains could be an issue.

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In some ways, making Hanka Robotics a major plot point in the film is actually going against one of the major philosophical ideas from the original manga. In a world where the internet is literally in and around you at all times, and cyber-warfare is something even low-level street thugs dabble in from time to time, old ideas like national sovereignty and borders are basically obsolete. Section 9 always skirted a fine line between acting within the scope of normal law enforcement, and treating the Networks as a free for all that the old ways stood against. Leaving out some of this diplomatic and political intrigue sort of boils down the role that Section 9 and Hanka have as nothing more than a Corporation acting as The Government and Section 9 acting as their willing lap-dog. I guess in some ways that’s a telling indictment of the current status-quo with our own corporations, but something that I wanted to point out as a major difference. Hanka is also a convenient way to have a blatant “villain” rather than the numerous ephemeral “gray area” antagonists the material usually features.

There are a few differences like this that are not huge deal breakers, but sort of “dumb down” the ideas from Ghost in the Shell to a more palatable product for those looking to see an action popcorn movie rather than a philosophical look into trans-humanism. I’m not annoyed by this in any way because no two versions of Ghost in the Shell are exactly alike. The manga, the Oshii films, The TV series, and the recent Arise films are all different parallel versions of this story, and none of them are very much alike to be honest. I actually prefer the TV series Stand Alone Complex, to the films and dislike the manga sequel. with a franchise like this, there are many ways to look at the story – something for everyone.

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When it comes to casting, I absolutely loved the job they did. And yes, Scarlett Johanson did a fine job no matter what internet folks want you to believe. Pretty much every character from section 9 is present aside from Paz, seemingly replaced by a new character named Ladriya, I’m pretty sure she’s not from any previous version, but could be wrong. Takeshi Kitano (As Aramaki) is my favorite Japanese actor, and having him be such a badass in this film was awesome. He has, by far, the best line in the entire film where he chumps out an entire squad of armored assassins with a briefcase and quips “Never send a rabbit to kill a fox”. I wanted to clap at that very moment, but that probably would have made everyone mad in the theater.

Chin Han is also great as Togusa, perhaps my favorite character from the TV series. He’s not a major part of the film by any means, but I was glad to see him in there. Finally, I wouldn’t be able to discuss this without talking about Batou, as played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk. I’ve somehow missed him up to this point, but he was really good – he really captured the character and was perhaps the truest to the source material of anyone in the film.

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I’ve already written a lot here, and I don’t want to spoil more than what I have since the film does have a few mysteries and twists. To reiterate from above Ghost in the Shell 2017 is a good, but not great film that stayed close to the source material with a few alterations. Yes, these alterations sort of “water-down” some of the themes of the source material itself, but this was a summer popcorn flick, I was never under the assumption that this was going to be a complex film for jaded otaku. I enjoyed the casting despite the online backlash, and would be up for a sequel if one ever materializes. That is unlikely as the film hasn’t really caught the box office on fire, but who knows. I am sad that there was no reference to any sort of mobile tank unit like the Fuchikoma / tachikoma / Uchikoma /or Logikoma units from the numerous iterations of the franchise. This was no surprise as they are not present in the 1995 film either unless you count the spider tank.

I’d say ignore the haters and see this for yourself – I’m not saying you’ll like it, but it’s not the bucket of dog turds everyone wants it to be.

 


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Concert Review: English Beat w/ Deco Auto 3/24/17

I used to have a long commute to work every day, so my chief companion quickly became my car stereo. It took about a year, but I ended up rage-quitting local radio stations completely once I realized that my local “hard rock” station was garbage and that my local “alternative” station was basically folk music garnished by seemingly mandatory Pearl Jam songs. I bought Sirius XM to alleviate all my radio woes, and immediately fell in love with a channel on there called 1st wave.

Whenever I tell folks that I’m into 80’s new wave music, I think a lot of folks assume I love bands like Hall and Oates or something, but honestly I’m only really into that late 70’s – early 80’s scene that sprang up (mostly) in the UK – great news, that’s what they play! I think one of the first times I was listening to 1st Wave Dave Wakeling (of the English Beat and General Public) was on a talk show segment hosted by Richard Blade and I immediately realized just how much I loved the band, and my love for ska was re-energized.

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Readers may recall a while back I was talking about “trying to see more bands on my ‘musical bucket list'”, so when The English Beat popped up on my Jambase page I had to immediately snag some tickets. I’ve always been a fan of ska music, so getting to hear one of the pioneers of the 80’s second wave of ska/two-tone/reggae was definitely something I’ve wanted to do. Some of these bands rarely come over to the United States anymore, but the good news is that Dave Wakeling happens to live in California, so he tours here all the time.

Before I get into the show itself, I wanted to talk about the venue the show was held in, Knuckleheads Saloon in Kansas City, MO. This was my first time at this venue, and I was really impressed. I’m not a big blues aficionado, which is the style of music most featured at this venue, but I’d love to come here again –  I’ll have to keep an eye out on acts coming in from time to time. This is a promotional ad, but shows off the Place better than I could attempt to describe it.

The compound is made up of a number of venues, with our concert taking place in “The Garage”. This was a roomy music hall with standing room at the front and back, a bar, and some tables – since we arrived early we were able to score some choice table seats.

The supporting act for this show was a local band called Deco Auto which is a power pop band in the vein of a lot of those early 90’s alternative bands that used to get tons of radio play like Weezer and Superchunk. While their music isn’t really my standard listening, they were pretty good even though they had a few technical difficulties during their set. For a few of their songs, one of the vocalists was sadly muted lower than she should have been so we really couldn’t hear the full impact of their music. The highlight of their set was a cover of the Blondie Song “Hanging on the Telephone”, which is always fun to listen to.

Their Bandcamp page

Oh wait, you thought you had seen all of my crappy concert pictures in previous posts, think again – this is a snap of Deco Auto doing their thing.

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Next up was the main event – finally getting to see The English Beat live! Honestly the band shows absolutely no signs of loosing any steps – the music sounds every bit as good as the original albums from 30+ years ago. The set-list was the following:

Rough Rider, The Tears of a Clown, Hands Off…She’s Mine, Twist & Crawl, Rude Boy Skank, I’ll Take You There, Save It for Later, Whine & Grine/Stand Down Margaret, Too Nice to Talk To, Can’t Get Used to Losing You, Sole Salvation, Tenderness, Ranking Full Stop, Mirror in the Bathroom

There was a LOT of music from their first album which coincidentally is my favorite album of theirs due to the heavy ska and reggae influence. later albums somewhat shifted to arena rock, which is good, but the older stuff is my preference. conspicuously absent was the song “I confess”, perhaps one of their biggest hits, but I’ll gladly trade it for “Tenderness” from General Public.

This iteration of the band is Dave Wakeling on vocals, Nucci Cantrell on drums, Matt Morrish on sax, Kevin Lum and Minh Quan on keyboards, King Schascha on vocals and MC duty, and Brad Engstrom on bass guitar. For those unaware, there are actually two touring versions of the band going around – one helmed by Wakeling and another helmed by Ranking Roger, former bandmate of Wakeling’s in The English Beat and General Public. It seems as though there is no bad blood between the two, as the band originally broke up because the rest of the band wanted to stay in the UK and joined the Fine Young Cannibals, Wakeling moved to the US at some point and it was simply too hard to be a band at that point. Both Roger and Wakeling wanted to tour as themselves, but were always labeled as “The English Beat” so they embraced it.

The cool thing is that both singers bring a bit of a different flavor to the music, so having new albums coming out from both bands this year is a blessing for fans. I recently picked up Bounce, the new album from the UK version of the band – hope to review it on here at some point.

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All-in-all, I had a blast at this show, and hope to get to see the band again next year as they release their new album Here We Go Love. I was also glad to see that despite the age of the band there were fans at the show from pretty much every living generation in attendance. I keep thinking that we’re long overdue for a fourth wave of ska music to get big in the US, seeing so many people supporting a band like this makes me hope that’s true.

In case you’ve never seen this band:


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Mystery Science Theater 3000: 11×01

 

It’s less than a week from the premiere of the eleventh season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, so if you’re like me you’re pretty excited to see what happens. Thankfully, Kickstarter backers past a certain level got to see an advance screening of the pilot episode over the weekend, and since I was unable to wait another week to watch it, I caved and booted it up. I’ll try to keep a ton of major spoilers out of this review, since this is technically a pre-screening, but be warned – there will be a few in here. You may have a number of questions now – Did Joel an co. recapture the Magic? Is Jonah a good host? Are the bots more than a shadow of their former selves? are the riffs pretty good? are there celebrity cameos? If you’d like me to answer yes to all the above – you’re in luck!

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On the host front, you couldn’t find a better fit than Jonah Ray as Jonah Heston. I’ve been a fan of his for a number of years largely due to his many podcast adventures on the Nerdist Podcast alongside Chris Hardwick and Matt Mira. While real life Jonah be be sort of curmudgeonly and grumpy, Jonah Heston is very cheerful and peppy – much like both of his predecessors. Considering that the entire point of the show is a group of mad scientists basically trying to drive a guy crazy, having the host be happy makes it that much more fun. The bots are also back in full force, with all of the voice actors doing a great job. The one jarring difference is that Gypsy, the sole female member of the Satellite of Love now has an actual female voice, rather than a husky voice provided by a guy for comic relief.

We do see a bit of the circumstances that lead to Jonah being on board the Satellite of Love (which is now tethered to a moon-base on the dark side of the moon), but they don’t dwell on it. there is no mention as to how any of the bots came back, or what happened to Mike Nelson, the previous host. Honestly, this is a show that doesn’t need to be bogged down with exposition, so I wouldn’t care too much if we never find out – keep in mind “Just repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax”.

What we do know is that Jonah Heston is an employee of Gizmonics institute, and is in charge of delivering a cargo of asteroids harvested from deep space. Co-workers apparently talk him up to be one of, if not THE best at what he does, with his only downfall being a rebellious streak. He is minding his own business when a distress call rings through the airwaves. Our new “mads” headed up by Kinga Forester (daughter of Clayton Forester and Granddaughter of Pearl Forester) have concocted a plan to shanghai a good Samaritan, just like himself, and force him to be the new test subject for a new iteration of the Mystery Science Theater experiments.

The first experiment – a bad monster flick called Reptilicus.

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Repticilus is a 1961 “kaiju” movie in the same mold as Godzilla made by Danish filmmakers that really had no business trying to make such a film. In many ways, its like a lot of the early Hammer science fiction and Monster films, notably Quatermass and X: The Unknown, in that the main characters are scientists and they are fighting a monster that they do not understand. These films from nearly a decade prior had great acting for this sort of film, and cutting edge special effects – this one – Not so much. Honestly the entire films down down around the shoddy special effects and film quality of the monster itself – a creature that has been realized as a bad puppet with perhaps a single string making it’s head writhe around.

These scenes are notably inferior to other scenes to where it almost looks like an entirely different movie has been spliced in. One of the funnier riffs involves this disparity where someone exclaims that “it’s raining tar” due to the large amount of film imperfections on that given scene. Reptilicus becomes unintentionally hilarious when he starts eating people, an effect realized through a terrible mat overlay as far as I could tell, and his acidic green slime attacks. Sometimes less is more with films like this – a lesson learned from 1954’s Gojira (Godzilla) in spades. that film barely shows the titular monster so you’re never left to face the fact that he’s a dude in a suit – Reptilicus however overstays his welcome.

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I am left VERY happy with this new season so far. I think my only quibbles with this new version of MST3K is that some of the riffs are slightly too rapid fire – some scenes go from riff to riff without any real time to breathe. The good news is that the writing is pretty solid, so one never really gets too tired of the jokes. Also, this first episode is also pretty sparse on interaction between the SOL crew and the “Mads” – we see some some good interactions at the beginning, involving an invention exchange, and some pretty solid banter, but they disappear soon after.

I’m really looking forward to more MST3K, it really feels weird having new episodes considering I think I was in high school when it was still on in the past. Much like the revival of Doctor Who, there are some changes – some that won’t please everyone, but this is in every way classic MST3K. Welcome back, hope you stay a while!

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The Monday Meme: I’m Coming Down

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Image from: IT


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Tales of Masked Men (2012)

About the same time Netflix added the first two seasons of the hit Robert Rodriguez show, Lucha Underground, it seems they have also added a couple of Lucha Libre documentaries to their ever-expanding library of great stuff. Tales of Masked Men (2012) is the first one I decided to watch, mostly because it was super late and the whole thing was just about an hour-long. I’m not certain if it premiered there, but I know this film was aired on PBS at some point, which shows the sort of program that it is. The documentary is both a historical analysis of the origins of the sport, starting in the 1930’s with such men as El Enmascarado (purported to be the first guy that wore a mask in Mexico City), Masked Basque, and Masked Marvel, but it also stands as a sociological film, looking at the society in and around Mexico City.

Described by cultural anthropologist Heather Levi as “a sport in the key of melodrama,” Lucha Libre springs from the same root as American professional wrestling (i.e. Olympic and Greco-Roman style competitive wrestling), but has taken on the unique characteristics of Mexico and the country’s long-standing fascination with masks. Masks conceal faces but not feelings, allowing luchadors to transform themselves into either the character of a rudo, the rule-breaking villain, or a técnico, the fair and square, technically proficient hero. Practiced in large and small arenas throughout Mexico and the U.S. as well as other countries, this “working class” sport is truly interactive, with multigenerational fans passionately involved in the high drama of the ring.

–The website for the film

As one lady in one of the “on the street” interviews states, “For Italians there’s opera, For Mexicans there’s lucha Libre”, which really goes to show how the sport is regarded by many people in modern-day Mexico. Sadly, just like in America with its own strand of professional wrestling, Lucha Libre is often looked down upon by those that seem to think that the whole thing is a bait and switch act played to fools, but they are the real fools because fans know exactly what is going on. Nobody, apart from small children and perhaps the mentally challenged, think it’s real guys – get off your arrogant high horse.

I liked some of the discussions of this ever-popular “you know it’s fake right?” question that folks seem to always have – and anyone that says this has to be ignorant of just how physical the whole thing is. yeah, outcomes are pre-determined, and there are pulled punches, but I’d challenge any of the naysayers to step in a ring and jump from ropes, do flips, and entertain a crowd. It’s a melodramatic live-action comic book, full of real-life superheroes.

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After a bit of this cultural discussion, the film shifts into a series of profiles of prominent luchadors (wrestlers). The legendary El Santo (The Saint) is the first Luchador profiled. debuting in around 1934, Santo was a largely poor journeyman wrestler that toiled around dingy independent arenas until he decided to don a silver mask and become a “Rudo” (bad guy). Despite his penchant for cheating and getting disqualified, Santo easily became the most popular wrestler in all of Mexico (turning him into a “Technico”, or good-guy), a fact that landed him numerous film roles. Eventually he transcended the sport and became a living legend and symbol of Mexico until his death in 1984.

Many anecdotes were shared for Santo (born Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta (September 23, 1917 – February 5, 1984)) including the fact that he seemed to never lose sight of the fans, and did everything in his power to make them happy. It was said that he would even forgo pay, if the show he was attending did not have enough money to pay the rest of the talent, he would have rather they split his guaranteed sum than let his brothers go home penniless. I know it’s bad to speak ill of the dead, but it legitimately seems like Santo was a truly good person.

One of these days, I need to try to get some of his films, such as one where he and another Luchador named Blue Demon fight werewolves and vampires because wrestling is serious business.

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Next up was Mascarita Sagrada (Little Sacred Mask), perhaps the most famous Mini-Estrella in all of Mexican wrestling. While many see “midget wrestling” as exploitative here in the US, it’s as popular as ever in Mexico with many of the mini counterparts to normal sized wrestlers becoming more popular than their larger namesakes. One of the more interesting things said during the interview is that Sagrada originally hated Lucha Libre, he saw it as a sport for uneducated people much in the same way that people up north sometimes look down at pro wrestling as a sport for rednecks. He wanted to get into Kung Fu, and used Lucha Libre as a way to train until he fell in love with it.

He was trained by two prominent little people wrestlers named Gulliver and El Gran Nikolai, two men that pretty much started the division in Mexico in the 1960’s. At one point he relays an anecdote of a class he was in as a small boy, one where a teacher asked him to get some folders from a high shelf. Friends and enemies alike mocked him for not being able to reach said shelf, so he set a chair up in front and grabbed the folders. He knew that in that moment, much as in life, if he had said “I can’t” his entire life would have been stunted from that point forward. That’s how he lives his life – never letting his size get in his way.

There is a version of Mascarita Sagrada currently on US Television on Lucha Underground, however it is very likely that it’s not the same guy as the original one here, as he is older.

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Finally the film shifted to another dynamic – a father and son tag team. Solar is one of the last working wrestlers from the “silver era” of Lucha Libre, and while many of his contemporaries have long since retired, he is still there running the ropes at 60+ years old. I recall seeing Solar in the short lived Lucha Libre USA show that ran for three seasons on MTV2 and Hulu, where he even won the Lucha Libre USA Heavyweight Championship at one point. I had no clue how old he was on there, as he can still move like a man much younger!

His son is training to follow in his father’s footsteps as El Hijo de Solar or Solar Jr. At the point of this film, he was still very much a greenhorn – not ready to be a star, but he was learning from one of the best. who knows if he’ll be as good as his father, hell he may even surpass him in every way – it’s just cool to see them together. The documentary went a bit into the succession of masks and how luchadors will usually pass their persona down to somebody else – for instance, there is now a THIRD El Santo, Dr. Wagner, and second Blue Demon out there – keeping the whole thing alive for years to come. We don’t really have that much in American Pro Wrestling, I can honestly only think of a few times where a moniker might be passed down – like in the case of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, or “Gorgeous George”.

All in all, this was a very good, albeit short documentary. It’s tailored in such a way that total newbies can watch for the human drama unfolding, others will love seeing cameos from a ton of their favorite wrestlers in the background of shots.


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The Monday Meme: Haters

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Easily the Best Part of Tonight’s WrestleMania 33!

After weeks and weeks of legal issues, and claims of medical tests delaying a return, it looks like many were caught off guard with tonight’s most talked about moment –  The Return of Team Extreme / The Hardy Boyz to the WWE. If you missed it, there was a six man tag match scheduled at WrestleMania where the defending champions The Club were set to face Enzo and Big Cass and Sheamus and Cesaro. WrestleMania hosts, The New Day, seemed to be injecting themselves into the match when this happened:

Still no word on whether they’ll be able to use the popular “broken” gimmick, but this is a good first step!


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