Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.8).

It's this need to make a statement through a forced symbolic metaphor that really drives home the feeling that Oshii is a really pretentious director... but for some reason, this doesn't bother me as much as I think it should.
Ghost in the Shell review by Bennett the Sage

The driving plot of this sci-fi anime is about government agents trying to track down a criminal who conducts political assassinations by hacking into people's cyborg-enhanced brains.  But not far below the surface, it's really about examining what makes us human: do our unique identities and personalities (our "ghosts") come from the physical lump of flesh they happen to be housed in (our "shells")?  Are they instead a deterministic result of our accumulated experiences?  Or is there some third option?  The film is very obviously inspired by Blade Runner; like Blade Runner, it suffers from some pacing issues, but they're much milder here, and this film delves deeper into the questions raised than Blade Runner ever does.  In turn, this film was the direct inspiration for The Matrix, both in philosophical outlook and in a number of action scenes; basically, if you liked The Matrix but thought it needed longer philosophical monologues with more cyborgs and less virtual reality, this may be your dream film come true.  Score: 4 stars out of 4.

PS: generally avoid Ghost in the Shell 2.0 if you can (it's a poorly done special effects do-over for a film that didn't need one), and definitely avoid the terrible English dub AT ALL COSTS (most of the English voice actors are fine, but the Major's voice actress does an astoundingly bad job: it's the sort of thing you might describe to your grandchildren in a dark room with a flashlight pointed at your face).

Saturday, October 22, 2011

TRON: Legacy (2010)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.0).

This sci-fi film, much more fast-paced and action-oriented than the original TRON, is an audiovisual treat that almost deserves (in good ways and bad ways) to be called SHINY THINGS: THE MOVIE.  And yet the plot is actually pretty decent, especially by Hollywood standards, despite having a few holes and other issues.  In some ways, the movie is a dark mirror of the original movie: the programs' changed religious views, the updated virtual world being heavily informed by cyberpunk, and Daft Punk's high-energy thumping action soundtrack are all a sharp contrast with TRON.  Which is kind of a shame at times: the sequel is so focused on being dark and sleek that it manages to feel shallower than the simple-but-earnest predecessor, even though this film clearly received a more careful analysis of the meaning and symbolism going into it.  In particular, the final resolution of TRON feels much more powerful than anything this film accomplishes; this film talks a bigger talk than TRON, but it doesn't bother showing us why the events matter because it wouldn't look stylish.  That said... while the first film was better storytelling, if nothing else you should watch the sequel right away for the visuals and the music, which are approaching the low end of Matrix territory and will probably grace the audiovisual vocabulary of future films.  Score: 4 stars out of 4, but one start is just for the shinies and another star is for the expected cultural importance.

TRON (1982)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.7).

TRON is a soft sci-fi adventure film that spends most of its time in a fantastic virtual world representing the inside of a computer ruled by a fascist operating system.  (It dates from an era before GUIs had shaped the public's ideas about computers, so it actually has a good excuse for its naïveté... unlike, say, Hackers.)  The film was a commercial flop and a disappointment for Disney (known in that era as "that theme park company that sometimes releases mediocre movies"); it also got snubbed at the awards for using CGI (even though most of the effects are rotoscoped or hand-drawn).  Despite all the negativity, the movie had pacing issues but was actually pretty enjoyable, and its cult following kept it bubbling on the cultural back burner for the next 3 decades, eventually spawning a successful sequel.  The film's pace sometimes drags, and it's shockingly earnest in a way that wouldn't work in a modern film, but it's a fun romp through the most un-gritty, un-cyberpunk depiction you've ever seen of a virtual world.  Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Hackers (1995)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (5.9).

Let's get the obvious out of the way: this film is bad.  I think the film is trying to be a comedic thriller à la Sneakers, but can't be bothered to take itself seriously enough for the "thriller" part to work.  And the hacking is at best loosely based on things that were already obsolete in the 1980's, never mind by the time this film came out.  That said, the film's badness is an enjoyably campy love letter to the old BBS era of the 1980's.  If you went through a teenage phase where you thumbed through BBS text files like the Anarchist Cookbook, perused 2600 and Phrack, collected a virus zoo on floppy disks, or read the Hacker Manifesto and ever took it seriously... well, the 80s called and they want their acoustic-coupled modems back.  Score: 2 stars out of 4, plus one star if you have friends to help you mock the movie.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (8.0).

Jokingly called a "romantic comedy with zombies", or "rom-zom-com", this film is a highly self-aware take on the zombie genre with a large dose of British humour.  The most obvious interpretation of the film is as a commentary on George Romero's "X of the Dead" films: those films had a strong message that when humans lose their compassion for each other, they become no better than the savage zombies that are trying to eat them; but here in Shaun of the Dead, the humans who live in daily rituals, selfishness, and mindless consumerism are just like the zombies... and that's OK (says the film's very tongue-in-cheek "message").  Score: an easy 4 stars out of 4.

Scream (1996)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.2).

Add this to the list of films that I somehow never saw until years after they were relevant.  Long after the 80's slasher films had burned out any credibility for the horror genre, this film (directed by Wes Craven, naturally) revitalized the genre, and its opening piece set a new bar for realistic gore... thus, sadly, making this film indirectly responsible for the Saw series.  Sigh.  Anyway, the film itself is actually pretty good until it reaches the end, at which point the killer's identity is revealed and it becomes painfully dumb.  Notable for having a soundtrack that is at least two notches better than the film itself; it sounds like the soundtrack to the most awesome post-apocalyptic zombie film ever, but somehow transplanted into a merely passable (and very non-post-apocalyptic) slasher film.  Score: 3 stars out of 4, but one of those stars is due to the cultural context.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Black Sheep (2006)

Links: Wikipedia, IMDB (5.9).

This film is a horror comedy from New Zealand about flesh-eating were-sheep.  As you might expect from the silly premise, it's more comedy than horror, albeit with some gross-out gore and the rare moment of legitimate tension.  In general, the film consciously copies the comedy/gore "splatstick" style of the other noteworthy New Zealand horror comedy, Peter Jackson's 1992 Braindead/Dead Alive.  I thought there were some minor problems with the film telegraphing its intentions too clearly, and the sudden tone shifts for just one scene at a time were unpleasantly jarring, but overall it was fun, which is ultimately what counts.  Score: 3 stars out of 4.