Total Recall

75/100

Before watching Studiocanal’s new restoration of the 30-year-old science-fiction adventure Total Recall, I had only vague memories of seeing it on opening night. I mean, I remembered that I hated it, but I wasn’t sure why. I was already a Paul Verhoeven fan based on RoboCop, though I didn’t know anything else about his work. I know I was put off by the scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger puts a bullet in a woman’s head and then yuks it up with one of his trademark murder jokes. Sure, the screenplay has taken pains to establish the character’s unforgivable duplicity, but that’s the problem: She’s disposable, and she’s a punchline. (No wonder Sharon Stone jumped at the chance to play a serial murderer of men in Verhoeven’s next film.) And I recall that I was annoyed beyond reason by the film’s climax, which involves a very sudden change to the environment on Mars. The science behind it struck me as insultingly preposterous. Still, I think what I really objected to, what actually offended me, was the light tone. After RoboCop, which struck me as an appropriately sick joke about fascist tendencies in American law enforcement (still in the news!), I guess I expected Verhoeven to treat Philip K. Dick’s epochal ruminations on human consciousness, thought, and identity with some gravity (cf. the similarly Dick-inspired Blade Runner) instead of turning them into a wildly overblown comic-book complete with an absurdly-ripped muscleman as the self-doubting superhero at the centre of the action. That’s on me; Looking back on Total Recall after three decades, I can see it more clearly. For Verhoeven, the cartoonishness is the point.

Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...

Requiem for a Dream

68/100
A woman undergoes shock therapy in a scene from REQUIEM FOR A DREAM

Few films are anywhere near as well made–as fierce and committed–as Requiem for a Dream, which stands as a 20-year-old landmark in an especially fertile era of New York indie filmmaking and one of the most expertly executed feel-bad narratives in the history of popular culture. Darren Aronofsky is a hell of a director, but he’s always been a little, well, intense for my taste. He’s got vision and passion to spare, and he clearly inspires dedication and devotion from his actors, yet I always feel there’s something critical missing from the films themselves. If π is David Lynch without an angle on the truly bizarre and Black Swan is David Cronenberg without the painful psychological acuity, then Requiem for a Dream is John Waters without the sense of humor. I know Waters is friendly with Aronofsky, but imagining him watching this in a dark theatre and positively cackling at its most painfully outré gambits is what helps get me through its pitiless final act.

Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...

Shivers

92/100

SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. In some sense, Shivers, a venereal horror movie that invites you to track the vectors of sexual intercourse among a group of apartment-dwellers, is a parody of a soap opera where the point is who is sleeping with whom. It’s also a spit-take on those sex-ed hygiene films that try to frighten teenagers into abstinence. Set almost entirely in a Montréal apartment complex and photographed in a jaundiced palette that leans towards yellow-green, it’s about the proliferation of parasites that make their way from body to body by a variety of sickening means, transforming their hosts into insatiable sex maniacs. Shivers was Cronenberg’s first commercial feature, and by the director’s own admission he was hardly equipped at the time to head up a production with any significant budget. And yet it’s some kind of masterpiece. If it’s a naive film in some respects, it benefits from naivete. The hurried, sometimes awkward mise en scène may as well be deliberate, given that it jibes so well with the film’s chilly, alienating tone. Any cut corners in lighting, design, and special-effects work only enhance the generally grody feel. And there’s a lot that’s grody about Shivers. That’s why it works so well as a chilling overture to a filmmaking career that critics have described as The Cronenberg Project, one in which the director uses film after film to explore love, sex, physical transformation, and mortality.

Certainly, Shivers is Cronenberg’s sleaziest film. As the director himself put it in the Faber & Faber volume Cronenberg on Cronenberg: “Critics often think I’m disapproving of every possible kind of sex. Not at all. With Shivers I’m a venereal disease having the greatest time of my life and encouraging everybody to get into it.” Is he kidding? Well, yes and no. It’s true that there is something devilish and knowing about Cronenberg’s shotgun marriage of the low-budget monster movie and the low-impact skin flick. But even though the denizens of Starliner Towers, the mixed-use real-estate development where the film is set, are among the most boring protagonists in 1970s horror cinema, Shivers doesn’t pretend that sex, all sex, is good, clean fun. The movie’s monster is the creation of a mad doctor who implanted it in a teenager he had been grooming for some time, an unsavory scheme with unplanned consequences, as the newly promiscuous woman became a super-spreader for the parasitic disease. At first, those infected notice only strange shapes under their skin, accompanied by feelings of unease. As the disease progresses, the critters’ hosts become bolder, venturing out of their now-boring bedrooms into the building’s common areas to find new partners, expelling heat-seeking, penis-like slugs along the way. Rape is explicitly on the agenda, as are incest and pedophilia, which are suggested in brief, unsettling vignettes. You could ask: is sexual abuse still abuse if the victim has been biologically altered to enjoy it? Well, as a tool designed specifically to strip people of their agency, the Shivers monster is immoral.

Cronenberg doesn’t dwell at any length on these concerns, though. Shivers unfolds in a series of abruptly alternating standalone episodes, the purpose of toggling between them partly just to propel the film forward during some slow patches. So we cut away, repeatedly, from Dr. Hobbes (Fred Doederlein) strangling, stripping, and scalpel-ing Annabelle (Cathy Graham) to watch Nicholas Tudor (Alan Migicovsky) clean his teeth and see the property manager (Ronald Mlodzik) introduce a young couple to the building’s amenities. Even the big centerpiece sequence in which a parasite sneaks into the tub where Betts (genre legend Barbara Steele) is bathing and swims up, singlemindedly, into the space between her thighs, is broken up: We see her start the water for her bath before Cronenberg cuts away, not returning to her tub for more than four full minutes. It all makes Shivers a bit of a disorienting experience; the fragmented assembly is a little hard to get a grip on in one viewing.

Cronenberg dramatizes most of it in the affectless manner that would become a defining (and enabling, on a budgetary level) style of his early work. The performances are mostly stiff and restrained, which could be blamed on mediocre acting, but I think they must be at least somewhat directed that way. While I love the early films, emotional depth wasn’t really a Cronenberg specialty until he started working with actors of the calibre of Christopher Walken (on The Dead Zone), Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis (both on The Fly), and Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers). The accelerated shooting schedule didn’t allow time to shoot much coverage, so the action was captured with a minimum of set-ups, and the lighting and camerawork are plain. Sound is important, despite Cronenberg’s use of library music for the film’s score. The sonic backdrop here includes classic horror-movie stings, with strings and percussion and kerplink-kerplunk keyboard atonality, but also a growling drone that increases in volume along with the intensity of the action, augmented by some successfully sickening foley effects. The overall effect is alienating; Shivers does feel almost like the parasites themselves could have directed it.

But Shivers has a sense of humor. As evidenced by Cronenberg’s jovial claim that it has a happy ending if you’re rooting for the parasites, it is self-consciously aware of the type of movie it is. It’s not camp, exactly, but when an older resident (Nora Johnson) lunges from her apartment to drag a passerby into her fantasy, she declares, “I’m hungry…hungry for love” in a knowing riff on a Boris Karloff monster-grunt and/or a George Romero zombie that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Waters film. I love the scene where Dr. Hobbes’s associate, the pickle-munching Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver, in a performance straight out of a 1970s TV police procedural), rings up Dr. St. Luc (Paul Hampton) to explain what Hobbes was up to and, more crucially, what his philosophy was. Cronenberg dares the viewer to pay attention to his exposition dump, given that the screen is full of an annoyed-looking Lynn Lowry, who is the nurse undressing in a bid to distract the doctor from his call.

Lowry is something special, by the way. Steele may be the genre pro in residence, but Lowry has a unique, otherworldly look that makes it hard to take your eyes off her. Cronenberg gives her character, Forsythe, a crucial, creepy monologue near the end of the film in which she describes her dream of making love with a dying man, who tells her that “everything is sexual, that disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other.” She becomes convinced in her dream that “even dying is an act of eroticism,” maybe a recasting of Georges Bataille’s Nietzscheanist line that “eroticism is assenting to life even in death.” She leans closer and closer to the doctor, her fervor increasing until she attempts to pass a parasite from her mouth to his, and he slugs her. This, too, is funny, in its way–his very physical rejoinder shuts down her philosophical assertion, and his next act is to cover her mouth with a piece of tape, as if to keep her quiet, although of course he is trying to ensure that more parasites won’t spill out of her.

Nurse Forsythe eventually gets the last laugh. As another Cronenberg character would later put it, she has become dangerous because she now has something Dr. St. Luc does not: a philosophy. That’s another way to look at Shivers. As the building’s tenants are turned, one by one, they don’t behave like victims. Instead, they seem to become emboldened and empowered–newly confident and assertive. They present to some degree as self-styled visionaries, eager to recruit true believers. And that’s where the line blurs: Shivers is a science-fiction horror movie about a disease spread by a parasitic monster, but it sometimes feels like it’s about cultists in the same way that some vampire movies feel like they’re about cultists. Nobody wants to be attacked in the dead of night and have their blood drained by a grim creeper with a Hungarian accent, though once bitten, the victims mostly agree that it’s cool to be a vampire.

Lynn Lowry and Paul Hampton

Then again, Cronenberg might have come close to giving away the game in a 2000 Critical Quarterly interview with Adam Simon. He compares the film’s climactic moment–in which Nurse Forsythe finally presses her open mouth against the doctor’s face, allowing the parasite to enter him–to “the concept of losing one’s virginity, that you are no longer innocent, the Catholic view.” Maybe Starliner Towers, in all its grey repressiveness, is Cronenberg’s peculiar inversion of the Edenic ideal, with Dr. St. Luc filling the role of a boring-as-hell Adam who has to be wrestled by Eve into accepting the so-very-delicious apple she plans to shove down his throat. This Biblical reading of Shivers subverts scripture one last time: Adam and Eve were ashamed as they were cast from the garden, but the infected pour out of the Starliner Towers parking garage in a long line of cars, driving towards the city and looking for a good time. Just as God tempted innocence with abandon and saw innocence lose the fight, Shivers pits the squares against the party people, and the party people come out on top. There’s something genuinely transgressive, even by Cronenberg’s standards, about that image: all those horny monsters in human skin lighting out for the city, the cheesy, unpretentious grins on their faces signaling a celebration of their new flesh.

THE BLU-RAY DISC
Shivers made its Blu-ray debut on a 2014 Region B release from Arrow Video. The new disc in Lionsgate’s Vestron Video Collector’s Series seems to have used the same video master, albeit with the compression cranked way up. Arrow’s transfer had an average bitrate of around 35 Mbps, which Vestron slashes to just 26 Mbps. The difference is most evident in the grain structure, often looser and muddier on the Vestron release. (It’s not clear why Vestron got so stingy with the bits when there is plenty of space left on the BD-50 platter.) The first pressing of Arrow Video’s disc, taken from a recently-minted Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) restoration, included a censored version of the film, an embarrassing error that was corrected in subsequent editions; Vestron’s disc contains the correct, unedited version. Anyway, the TIFF color grade appears to be identical across both versions, except where the comparative smoothness of the grain on the Vestron release shifts the perceived color ever so slightly. It’s a pretty finely detailed grade, pushing the overall palette towards a queasy yellow-green pallor while keeping skin tones mostly accurate and realistic, but dynamics have been limited, with a lot of detail that was clearly visible on the 1998 Image Entertainment DVD crushed into inky black shadows. There is a bit of flicker in the darkness of a few scenes, too.

While this is presumably Cronenberg’s preferred look, since he’s said to have supervised and approved the 2013 TIFF remaster, on the new audio commentary featured herein he claims not to have watched Shivers in “decades,” so who knows? At any rate, Vestron’s monaural 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is notably superior to the Arrow version, whose loud and muffled sound is probably due to attempts to use low-pass filters and dialogue normalization to reduce the audibility of background noise. Vestron’s track sports lots of varying ambient room sound from the original dialogue tracks, which I suppose can be distracting, especially if you’re listening closely with headphones. Still, the overall quality is brighter, with broader dynamics, and the music cues, especially, play out on the Vestron disc with substantially more detail and definition. A voucher for a digital copy is slipped into the box, so you can have Shivers with you any time.

Chief among the special features are two new audio commentaries moderated by writer-filmmaker (and former Fangoria editor) Chris Alexander, one with Cronenberg and the other with co-producer and production manager Don Carmody. The Cronenberg yakker will be of special interest to fans, naturally, and newbies to Cronenberg and/or Shivers should find it particularly informative. Cronenberg talks about landing his first job directing a commercial project and, in the process, recounts some of the history of the Cinépix production company founded by his mentor, John Dunning, and André Link, which got its start selling softcore sex films into European markets. (Fun fact: in 1998, Cinépix changed hands and was renamed “Lions Gate Films.”) Among the less well-trod paths Alexander leads him down are a discussion of his experiences acting in other people’s films and an ode to les Fournier Frères, the old-school stuntmen who oversaw the automobile action that takes place in the garage underneath Starliner Towers. I was a little surprised to hear that Cronenberg apparently still has a grudge against the late Dan O’Bannon, whom he has accused repeatedly of stealing the reproductive parasite concept from Shivers for use in Alien. He’s fairly good-humored about it, but it’s an axe he’s been grinding for decades. “The evidence is circumstantial, but it’s evidence,” he says. Alexander’s conversation with Carmody covers too much of the same ground, although he delivers some amusing anecdotes. Explaining how smoke was generated on set in scenes where a Shivers slug was supposedly eating into a human body, he remembers pouring titanium tetrachloride directly on Joe Silver’s skin. “It was a terrible idea,” Carmody says. Then, he adds, “We pulled that same trick in Rabid on an actor. He ended up suing us.”

HD video featurettes include “Mind Over Matter with Writer/Director David Cronenberg” (12 mins.), in which the director again tells the story of how he hooked up with Cinépix, and we see glimpses of a shooting draft of the Shivers script. Cronenberg remembers the Canadian government taking grief for partially financing the project when a writer for Saturday Night attacked the film under the headline “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is: You Paid for It,” but notes that Shivers made more than enough money to return the government’s investment. In the engaging “Outside and Within with Special Make-Up and Creature Effects Creator Joe Blasco” (13 mins.), Blasco says he agreed to work with the then-unknown Cronenberg solely on the strength of Barbara Steele’s name on the cast list. He insisted on doing her make-up as well as the effects work, fulfilling a long-standing dream: “All this other stuff was gingerbread, as far as I was concerned.” Blasco does make the eye-opening claim that he directed the special-effects scenes himself, explaining that Cronenberg “was welcoming any help he could get.” Near the end of the segment, he pulls out one of the actual creatures used on the film and muses, “I think it looks more like a penis than a turd.”

“Celebrating Cinépix: The Legacy of John Dunning” (10 mins.) is a loving encomium to the studio’s co-founder, built entirely around an interview with his son Greg. The younger Dunning says his father probably could have retired from the business on the earnings from their 1969 hit export Valérie, but instead pumped his profits back into film production. Among the special interests of Cinépix were movies with female protagonists, Dunning says, citing Ilsa, the notorious “she-wolf of the SS,” as an example. He also reveals that his father, disappointed by the quality level of the kills in the 2009 My Bloody Valentine remake, had been hoping to produce a sequel to that film when he died in 2011. John Dunning himself speaks in a vintage audio interview that plays alongside the disc’s Still Gallery (9 mins.), discussing his career during the early years of Cinépix. “If I pioneered anything,” he says, “It was to break the censorship in Québéc.” And he, too, remembers the Ilsa series fondly: “She sold around the world. She became an icon.” The gallery itself features a so-so array of production stills highlighted by a nifty collection of international key art and video boxes.

The last major extra is an archival Cronenberg interview from 1998 (21 mins., upconverted from SD to 1080p), a holdover from the Image DVD. It’s a slightly different perspective on Shivers from a somewhat younger Cronenberg, touching on everything from pre-production to the film’s release and legacy, but it generally repeats stories already conveyed elsewhere on this disc. He does add some detail to Carmody’s titanium tetrachloride anecdote, remembering his phone call to producer Ivan Reitman: “Ivan, the actor is vomiting in the hall…. No, it’s not part of the scene. I think he might have to go to the hospital. I’m not sure.” In the end, Silver did not go to the hospital. He finished vomiting, Cronenberg says, and then shot the scene. Two versions of the same 90-second theatrical trailer (a poor-quality, overly noise-reduced HD transfer promoting the film as Shivers and a much nicer version selling it under the alternate title They Came from Within), a single one-minute TV spot for They Came from Within, and a series of three radio spots complete this edition.

Ghost in the Shell

85/100

I’ll get this out of the way first: the soul is the ghost and the body is the shell. The title is a reference to Arthur Koestler’s book The Ghost in the Machine, which itself refers to a term coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle to describe the duality of mind and body. The writer and illustrator Masamune Shirow borrowed and altered the phrase for his serialized 1989 manga Mobile Armored Riot Police, which bore the subtitle “The Ghost in the Shell.” I haven’t read the manga, but the animated feature it inspired is positively heady with ideas. Ghost in the Shell is a cop movie about robots with human souls. It’s science-fiction about the human rights of artificial intelligence. And it’s a fantasy about a sexy cyborg who knows how to use a gun. It’s all of those things, and it’s a disquisition on human consciousness, a meditation on urban loneliness, and also, maybe, a poem about unrequited love. It’s extraordinary.

Ghost in the Shell is dense with intrigue, and while I’ve always found the specifics elusive (it’s one of those movies that dumps truckloads of exposition on you in conversations between otherwise nondescript characters), the main throughline follows mostly cybernetic Major Motoku Kusanagi (voiced by Atsuko Tanaka in the Japanese-language version and Mimi Woods in English) and her only partially enhanced partner, Batou (Akio Ōtsuka/Richard Epcar). The two are tracking the Puppet Master (Iemasa Kayumi/Tom Wyner), an anonymous adversary who “ghost-hacks” victims, implanting them with false memories in order to manipulate them from afar. The Puppet Master proves hard to track down; like the serial killer in Se7en, released the same year, this slippery mastermind finally arrives on the scene unexpectedly, essentially surrendering to the police.

The story, though, barely matters. Ghost in the Shell is remarkable in the same ways Blade Runner is remarkable. It features main characters who are troubled by the status of their consciousness–their present-day selves are defined by the memories of experiences that determine their personalities, and those memories are always at some risk of being lost forever. The picture introduces big ideas about sentience and free will and then leaves you to stew in them as Kenji Kawai’s wildly evocative score plays over futuristic but weirdly familiar cityscapes. There’s a scene a half-hour in where Batou and Kusunagi go boating so she can scuba-dive in the ocean water off the coast of New Port City, an island metropolis based on Hong Kong, where the action takes place. Instead of discussing the case, the two of them talk about what it means to be human. She asks him how much of his body is original, rather than cybernetic; he asks her if she’s drunk. She responds by describing how the artificial components of a cyborg body can immediately metabolize alcohol–the ultimate buzzkill.

Batou suggests they’ve both sold their souls to their government keepers, but Kusunagi points out that they can resign any time they like, if they agree to let the state reclaim their synthetic components–and their memories along with them. And then Kusunagi delivers a monologue, straight to camera, about the composition of her body and mind: her face, her voice, her feelings about her future, the wealth of information her cybernetic brain accesses via the Internet. She declares, as the cityscape seems to press in from behind her, that the defining presence of her consciousness is also a confining force that establishes the boundaries her mind can operate within. And then, in a genuinely creepy flourish, both Batou and Kusunagi hear a disembodied voice (her voice) narrate a verse from First Corinthians, the one about looking “through a glass darkly,” unable to discern the true nature of the world, from which Bergman took the title of his famous film about the lopsided relationship between humans and God.

The ensuing spectacle stops the narrative dead for an impressionistic interlude. This dialogue-free, three-and-a-half-minute segment of film is a bold gambit for auteur-driven anime, especially for anime as story-heavy as this. Instead of learning more about the hunt for the Puppet Master, we get a multiplicity of views of New Port City–buildings under construction surrounded by shells of prickly scaffolding, raindrops creating concentric rings in puddles of standing water, shop-window displays and multiplicities of advertising billboards, even a sad-eyed basset hound–as seen by Kusunagi. In a shot that wouldn’t be out of place in a Miyazaki film, a group of children carrying yellow umbrellas runs across the bottom of the screen, dwarfed by the apartment buildings and skyscrapers that tower above and behind them. In a sequence I like to believe Oshii lifted from The Double Life of Véronique, Kusunagi sees her doppelgänger through a cafe window as she sails by slowly on a water taxi; it’s the only time during the film when she looks genuinely alarmed. When Kieslowski’s Weronika glimpsed her own double through the window of a moving bus, it felt spiritual, like an out-of-body experience. Oshii’s Kusunagi, though, has only spotted another cyborg that shares her physical shell–an apparently unwelcome reminder of her not-humanness.

Kawai’s music for the film, which highlights this segment, features a show-stopping synthesis of Bulgarian folk-singing styles (think “Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Vol. 2“, if you know that album) executed by Japanese singers over thundering, echoing drumbeats. I hate to compare it to the Vangelis score for Blade Runner because, aside from the New Age-y feel and the fact that it’s set to near-future metropolitan imagery, it’s really only superficially similar, but it serves the same function. Just as Vangelis’s music powerfully fills the aural spaces left empty when Harrison Ford’s VO narration was removed from reissues of Blade Runner, Kawai’s melancholy chorale enhances Oshii’s images of urban alienation. The look of Ghost in the Shell was something new, too, combining traditional cel animation with experimental computer-graphics techniques and still-new nonlinear editing systems to execute a complex, layered aesthetic that suggested depth without negating the special handmade quality of 2D animation. The results are remarkable. There’s a lot about anime that I just don’t get, but I get this.

Ghost in the Shell has held up fine over the years. Better than fine, actually. Some viewers have found in it an interesting consideration of transgender issues, preoccupied as it is with the idea of human consciousness as a kind of spirit embedded in a physical machine that may not be a perfect match. I’ve seen Kusunagi described as an “androgynous” figure, which is a little hard for me to swallow, given that she’s deliberately drawn with large breasts and a shapely ass. Then again, when she suits up she becomes a soldier of indeterminate gender, and a scene in the film’s climactic action sequence reveals her to be completely jacked, rippling with enormous muscles as she tries to pry open an armoured tank. Kusunagi really can do anything a man can do, and then some. One thing she can’t do, however, is reproduce. And there’s another theme underlying Ghost in the Shell, which wants to know: what good is it for you to evolve into a new version of yourself if your humanity goes extinct in the process?

There’s more. Partway through the film, a software tool that has become sentient requests political asylum, comparing its own viral qualities to the replicative nature of human DNA. To make this application in person, the AI, which is essentially agender, has occupied its own female cyborg body, a pale blonde counterpart to Kusunagi. (Hanging from an overhead apparatus, its nude torso torn in half so that wires, tubes, and musculature hang out through the body’s midsection, it reminded me of the Indonesian Leyak, an undead vampire that victimizes pregnant women.) Eventually, it approaches Kusunagi with a proposition: it wants to merge with her so that it can reproduce over the ‘net, explaining that her biological status would ensure genetic variation in their offspring as opposed to bit-perfect copies. That variance would guarantee, the AI says, that a hereditary version of itself endures even once the original is deleted. After the AI makes this proposal, Oshii cuts to a two-shot of their faces, aligned on their noses, one seen in profile in the foreground and the other turned towards camera in the background. I understood this as a direct reference to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, which is about a merger of sorts between two women, one of them representing humanity, the other God. I see the influence of Tarkovsky, too, in the huge, wet, cathedral-like space where this evolutionary negotiation takes place. In return for her cooperation, the AI promises Kusunagi unfettered access to the vastness of an otherwise inaccessible network. “Your desire to remain as you are is what ultimately limits you,” the AI says. She believes him.

The 2017 live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell came under criticism mainly for casting Scarlett Johansson, instead of a Japanese actress, in the role of Kusanagi. Fair enough (though to be honest, I was more upset that the film had the good sense to cast Beat Takeshi and then barely used him). The project was, alas, misbegotten from the start, not just because Ghost in the Shell already had a live-action remake, more or less (it was called The Matrix), but also because the Hollywood model had no interest in engaging in the shambolic philosophical discourse that made the animated original special, if a bit impenetrable. Times being what they are, not even the original film’s habit of displaying Kusunagi’s apparently nude body from a variety of angles made the transition to the remake. (I say “apparently” because there’s some debate about the nature of the “therm-optic” camouflage that allows her to become invisible; suffice it to say, if she’s wearing anything in these sequences, it’s a thoroughly transparent layer.) In the 1990s, overt sex appeal was considered a marketing hook; these days, it’s widely derided by anime aficionados as “fan service.” So Johansson donned a generic white skinsuit that emphasized the cybernetic material’s plasticity rather than fleshiness, which seems to me like a mistake.

The visibility of Kusunagi’s body serves an interesting purpose by demonstrating that sexualization, in the world of the film, is a non-issue. She spends a large portion of her time visibly naked, yet no one seems to take note, least of all her. There are no leering glances, no stage-whispered asides about her fuckability. Only Batou, the tough guy who won’t tell her he loves her because it wouldn’t matter a lick if he did, seems distracted by her nudity. When she beats the hell out of a recalcitrant suspect in a shallow pool, it’s Batou who wraps his jacket around her shoulders to cover her. On the boat, after Kusunagi goes diving, she strips out of her scuba gear in his view, and he looks away. And at the end of the film, as Kusunagi opts to merge with a totally artificial intelligence, it’s Batou, pounding beers that will never intoxicate him, who facilitates her desired evolution despite knowing it will mean the death of their relationship. “You can stay as long as you like,” he promises, just before she heads for the door. Of all Ghost in the Shell‘s characters, it’s poor, chivalrous Batou, with his hulking, chiselled musculature, who’s a little too tender for these times.

THE 4K UHD DISC
Any modern transfer of Ghost in the Shell is going to present a challenge. The very circumstances of the film’s making–all of the elements were digitized and assembled in computers before being written out to 35mm celluloid on a film recorder at whatever level of quality was possible in the mid-1990s–limit the clarity of the final output. While it would theoretically be possible to return to all of the original analog elements–assuming they still exist–and rescan them at higher resolutions for a remastered version, the process would be incredibly painstaking and almost certainly cost-prohibitive. What we have instead seems to be a 4K scan of one of the film elements used in the original photochemical print-making process, perhaps an interpositive. While a 1080p HD transfer can resolve more information than a 480p DVD, I’m skeptical that this new UHD version brings any more measurable detail to the party, and a cursory A/B comparison of the new UHD disc with the included Blu-ray didn’t reveal any. There is, on the other hand, an increase in perceived detail, thanks to the contrast boost provided by HDR (I reviewed the Dolby Vision version), which seems to give the image extra depth and definition. That’s a welcome bonus, since the image is soft by nature, and Ghost in the Shell isn’t going to get any sharper than this.

Welcome, too, is the disc’s faithful reproduction of the film’s very unusual look, characterized by the deliberate use of diffusion techniques to give some shots a milky, even smeary haze. What may be missing in pure detail is somewhat made up for by Dolby Vision’s accurate representation of the picture’s muted but sometimes complex colour schemes, which can now extend farther into the highlights of the image. The biggest complaint I have has to do with the zealous use of digital noise-reduction techniques in an attempt to scrub out film grain. Ghost in the Shell has long been the victim of aggressive denoising; the original VHS and DVD versions were rife with hideous ghosting artifacts created by anti-noise software that was confused by the lines of the film’s animation. The result here is that the cels are impressively grain-free, except when they’re not; some shots were clearly processed in a way that blends grain temporally across multiple frames, giving the backgrounds a weird texture, like an uneven layer of paint drying in time-lapse. (This happens because dust and scratches, when they appear, are averaged out across multiple frames, creating a blended appearance that changes subtly over time.) Word from those in the know is that this is the same transfer used for an earlier UHD version out of Japan, so Lionsgate had little say in the matter one way or the other.

Dolby Atmos mixes are available for both English- and Japanese-language versions of the film (the tracks are in 5.1 TrueHD on the BD), with a number of minor differences between the two. I listened to the entire Japanese track with a 7.1 speaker configuration and then sampled the English track for comparison’s sake; I was surprised to find that while both were full of highly directional sound effects, the location of different effects in the sound field varied between the two. Neither seemed to be more active than the other in terms of directionality–they’re just variations on the same engaging multichannel soundscape. A Japanese 2.0 PCM track also graces both the UHD and BD versions. As for the subtitles, they track the audio. If you’re listening to the English-language option, you get “dubtitles” that translate the English dub. If you switch to Japanese-language dialogue, you see a more detailed and, I assume, somewhat more accurate translation. My ears perked up early on, when Batou tells Kusunagi, “There’s a lot of static in your brain,” and she deadpans, “It’s that time of the month.” That joke, underscoring the film’s themes of human-ness and reproduction and which I had never heard before, was replaced by “must be a loose wire” for the English-language release. That’s not simply a more concise translation; it undermines the film’s subtext. Later, when Kusunagi’s explaining the disparate elements that make up her consciousness, she specifically calls attention to her ability to interface with the ‘net: “There’s the expanse of the data net my cyber-brain can access.” The English line is substantially more opaque: “I collect information to use in my own way,” which could mean, you know, anything. I highly recommend watching the Japanese audio with English subtitles, though anime remains the one realm of hardcore cinephilia where fans can say things like, “I don’t like to read movies” without getting laughed out of the room.

Leading the extra features is a running audio commentary teaming Mary Claypool, who wrote the script for the English dub, animation producer Eric Calderon (an interested observer who didn’t work on the film), actor Richard Epcar, and animation critic and historian Charles Solomon. (This track was recorded with all of its contributors participating remotely, apparently during the COVID-19 crisis.) Talk about “fan service”–everyone here loves the movie a lot. Maybe a little too much, though they are all experts in anime in a way that I am not. Solomon, meanwhile, brings a bit of literary scholarship to the room, opining on how the work of Murakami and Mishima relates philosophically to Ghost in the Shell. Still, I feel other claims that go unchallenged are suspect. At one point, Epcar claims that Ghost in the Shell was, improbably, the best-selling videotape of 1996 in the U.S., and nobody ever calls him on it. (According to the January 11, 1997 issue of BILLBOARD, the top-selling video of 1996 was BabeGhost in the Shell placed 19th, falling in between Casper and Disney’s Aladdin and the King of Thieves–a respectable showing, yet not the cultural phenomenon Epcar suggests.) Later, as the credits roll, Calderon comments that Kawai’s music has “changed so much from the middle to the end” of the movie–but the end-title music we hear as he speaks is actually a track from the U2/Brian Eno side project Passengers that was added to the English-language version. Although I consider this an error on his part, the Japanese version of the film should end with one more Kawai piece. Unfortunately, the audio on the Japanese track here is the same as on the English, suggesting either an oversight or perhaps a music-rights issue.

Most of the same crew, excepting Solomon, are featured in “Accessing Section 9: 25 Years into the Future” (19 mins.), a featurette that also contains observations from Les E. Claypool III, billed as “supervising sound editor” (he apparently beefed up the Japanese crew’s original FX work), Tokyopop founder Stu Levy, ANIME NEWS NETWORK editor at large Justin Sevakis, writer Northrop Davis, and actor William Knight, who plays the official Aramaki in the movie. Mary Claypool remembers that she was given only two weeks to write the English dialogue and takes credit for improvising a fan-favourite line near the end of the film. Hao Li, the CEO of a startup called Pinscreen, spends the last three minutes fretting about the appearance of Ghost in the Shell‘s technology in the real world. “It’s almost not a movie you watch. It’s a movie you study, and think about,” he says, as if that’s a good thing.

Next up is “Landscapes & Dreamscapes: The Art and Architecture of Ghost in the Shell” (11 mins.), a highly informative interview with Stefan Riekeles, an expert in anime architecture who demonstrates his intimate familiarity with the movie’s artwork. He dismisses the film’s convoluted story as “a kind of superficial hook to get people into the world” before identifying Oshii as the first director to ever location-scout an anime movie. He describes the work of location photographer Haruhiko Higami, who shot Hong Kong reference photos in black-and-white, as well as that of art director Hiromasa Ogura, who took shots specifically for colour reference. Because the climate in Hong Kong was so warm and humid, Ogura’s camera lens would fog up as soon as he went outside; the results were so compelling that that foggy look was incorporated into the texture of the actual film. Also on the UHD BD are two trailers. In the first one (1:37), presented in native HD, an excitable narrator promises cutting-edge sci-fi entertainment for “young adult audiences;” it feels like an industry promo. The second (1:49) is in Japanese with no subtitles.

The rest of the extras are exclusive to the accompanying BD. “Production Report” (27 mins.) is a vintage EPK-style making-of designed like something you might have expected to watch from a CD-ROM in the mid-1990s. Smaller windows are laid out inside a 4×3 frame, one of them displaying relevant scenes from the movie and the other showing one in a long series of talking-head interviews. On-screen text identifies the speakers and spells out the questions each is responding to. The whole thing has been upres’d to 1080p. It’s a little goofy and superficial, but there are long segments dedicated to aspects of the production process that really were groundbreaking at the time. Among the highlights are Kenji Kawai’s discussion of his score (including a translation of the lyrics from the chorale portions), as well as a very brief interview with Oshii himself. The piece follows the film through its premiere at the 1995 Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival, and checks in briefly with the cast and crew afterwards. “Of all my films,” says Oshii, “this was, surprisingly, easier to watch.” Finally, “Digital Works” (30 mins.) is an SD Japanese-language featurette made at 1.33:1 with burned-in English subtitles, again upres’d to 1080p. It goes into even more detail on the film’s production workflow and features a good demonstration of how varying levels of diffusion were added when the original animation plates were photographed, and how CAD drafting software was used to recreate some of the artists’ designs in 3D. It’s not uninteresting if you care about how animation is made, though be aware that the then-emerging digital processes it depicts would be considered hopelessly rudimentary today.

The Spy Who Dumped Me

59/100
Kate McKinnon and Mila Kunis

The Spy Who Dumped Me is a lot — femme-centric rom-com, violent action-thriller, dopey spy farce, and genial paean to friendship in the face of adversity–and director Susanna Fogel revels in the tonal disparities from its opening sequence, which intercuts an enthusiastically mounted, bullet-riddled chase scene set in Vilnius, Lithuania, with scenes from a birthday party for Audrey Stockman (Mila Kunis), a 30-year-old grocery clerk who’s just been blindsided by a break-up text from Drew Thayer (Justin Theroux), her boyfriend of one year. The party’s been organized by Audrey’s devoted pal Morgan (Kate McKinnon), an aspiring actress whose ceaseless shenanigans help blunt Audrey’s sadness. It quickly becomes clear that, somehow, the guy hiding out from Lithuanian thugs in the gloomy, desaturated espionage thriller is Drew himself. When Morgan grabs Audrey’s phone and sends a text calling him a “worthless nutsack” and promising to “set his shit on fire,” Audrey gets a returned phone call from that other movie, in which Drew beseeches her to reconsider. Fogel keeps this up for a solid 10 minutes before the film’s title appears on screen, and it’s an intriguing overture.

The idea of a female-fronted, R-rated spy movie isn’t especially novel in the aftermath of Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow, but there is something delicious about the notion of a couple of completely ordinary millennials boasting and bluffing their way through a multinational conspiracy plot. The funny business isn’t as funny as it should be — too many gags don’t land, and some of the scenes have a choppy quality, suggesting they never quite came together in the cutting room. But Fogel cuts no corners getting her spy-movie pastiche on screen, which helps propel things forward. Second-unit director Gary Powell is a veteran of Jason Bourne, James Bond, and more, and with his assistance Fogel pulls off stunts and executes camera moves that shouldn’t really be possible in a romantic comedy–including a great shot that begins inside an apartment, then follows closely behind and beside Theroux as he takes a running jump off a balcony, rolls off the back of a panel truck, commandeers a motorcycle, and rides off. Scenes shot in Vienna have the sophisticated gloss of a Mission: Impossible movie, and the large-scale modernist architecture of Budapest provides some especially imposing locations as the film’s mood grows darker near its midpoint, when Audrey and Morgan are taken hostage and briefly threatened with torture. That’s when we meet Ivanna Sakhno, who gives an intensely deadpan performance as Nadedja, a round-eyed, tightly strung Olympic-gymnast-turned-assassin with a sadistic streak and a probably unhealthy attachment to her balance beam.

00278.m2ts_snapshot_00.02.49_[2018.10.28_17.28.32]

Before long, the picture springs back into a more broadly comic mode, even developing a second, more devastatingly handsome spy, Sebastian (Sam Heughan of Outlander), as a love interest for Audrey. More than anything else, though, The Spy Who Dumped Me builds a showcase for Kate McKinnon, who first appears high-stepping her way into the frame as she sings “Happy Birthday” like the love child of Liza Minnelli and John Cleese. And she swings, struts, and sashays her way through the increasingly violent proceedings with brio as Kunis plays straight woman to her lanky, savvy jester. Her outfit for the first third of the movie is a black-and-white tank-top, suspenders, and capris combo that suggests a knockabout lineage dating back to vaudeville and silent movies. It is possible Fogel is so smitten with McKinnon that she allows her to overplay this shtick–the extended climax has Morgan fulfilling her longtime dream of performing on stage in a Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze act. (“Remember your training from the New Jersey Circus Center,” she tells herself.) This bit of business is meant, I think, as a triumphant sally into surrealistic lunacy — and there’s something so spectacularly unflattering about McKinnon’s outfit, as well as the way the harsh stage lights hit her face, that you have to admire her commitment–but it seems to go on forever and, worse, separates Morgan from Audrey.

If McKinnon’s constant mugging threatens to deprive her co-stars of oxygen, she nevertheless brightens the film considerably and even gives it a measure of poignancy. The love life described by the title belongs only to Audrey; Morgan is single when the movie begins and single when it ends, and there’s the faintest hint that her surface outrageousness hides a loneliness and insecurity underneath. (She’s stunned into silence when Drew responds to one of her jokes by calling her “a little much.”) But she’s not bitter about it–far from it, she plays Cupid. In one scene, the pay-off to a long-running gag, she’s delighted to learn that Audrey has the film’s MacGuffin hidden inside her vagina. When Audrey retrieves it and hands it to a nonplussed Sebastian, the look on McKinnon’s face is, well, not lascivious, exactly, but kind of wicked. She’s watching a connection being made, and she’s excited for her friend — though not sappy about it. It’s a broad moment, yet well-observed and almost precious in context. The Spy Who Dumped Me isn’t totally successful, but with character beats like this in her wheelhouse, Fogel deserves another shot.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

74/100

I remember the summer of 1991, when Terminator 2: Judgment Day landed in movie theatres with all the fuck-you noise, power, and momentum of a Ford Freightliner crashing from an L.A. thoroughfare overpass into a concrete spillway below. It was the year of Operation Desert Storm and the ending of the Cold War, the year LAPD officers were videotaped beating Rodney King. With the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still a few months away, latter-day cock-rocker Axl Rose still led the most popular band in America. It had been a pretty good year for women in film, even if the material was grim — Jodie Foster helped open The Silence of the Lambs at #1 in February and Davis/Sarandon kick-started a thousand feminist (and anti-feminist) thinkpieces when Thelma & Louise arrived in May. But the main movie event of the summer was the testosterone-laden sequel to The Terminator. Serenaded by a hit single from Axl’s Guns N’ Roses, heralded as the most expensive movie ever made, and stuffed with apocalyptic imagery, T2 roared onto screens, smacked you upside the head, and stole your lunch money, then smirked about it as it strolled away.

Continue reading

The Hurricane Heist

62/100

The Hurricane Heist gets down to business from the moment the opening credits appear on a dark screen and we hear the rumble of thunder on the soundtrack. It’s 1992, and Hurricane Andrew is slamming the fictional town of Gulfport, Alabama, making orphans of two young boys named (no kidding) Will and Breeze, who watch helplessly through the windows of a farmhouse as their papa is flattened by debris. As the storm clouds recede they clearly resolve the features of a demonic face, laughing at the children from the heavens. (I think I said this out loud in my living room: “Wow.”) Fast-forward to the present day, where a guilt-racked Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) is sleeping his way through days and nights as a handyman (and ladies’ man) while semi-estranged brother Will (Toby Kebbell) has earned himself a job as a synoptic meteorologist–that is, he drives around in a weather-nerd Batmobile, analyzing storm fronts and predicting their impact, determined that the skies will mock him no more. Bringing the high concept to this pity party is new-in-town treasury agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace), who happens to be charged with protecting $600 million of U.S. currency earmarked for destruction at a government facility. Unfortunately for her, the paper shredder is temporarily offline and there are villains about who plan to use cover provided by an incoming hurricane to make off with the cash before it can be destroyed. It gets a little complicated–the money ends up locked in an impenetrable vault inside the compound and Casey ends up outside, tooling around with Will. Together, they need to foil the robbery and rescue the hapless Breeze, who is being held hostage inside as the winds grow stronger and stronger.

Continue reading

All the Sins of Sodom

78/100

Sex and cinema have a complicated relationship, and sex-film director Joe Sarno understood this better than most. In the U.S., nudity and simulated sex are generally understood as appeals to prurience–and, often, commercially exploitative gestures–but they can be more than that. They have to be, if they are part of a serious film. A filmed sex scene may be arousing, sure, but it’s also a vehicle to express character. Depending on performance and visual approach, screen sex can demonstrate frustration and restlessness as easily as romantic contentment; an actor can convey self-loathing instead of, or in addition to, satisfaction. That dicey territory–the sex film that turns you on while treating the action as problematic–was Sarno’s turf.

Continue reading