Disney have never shied away from meddling with their own legacy (much as most of us wish they would). While fans may consider their animated classics sacrosanct, Disney continue to piss all over them with gay abandon, regularly presenting us with straight to DVD bilge like Aladdin and the King of Thieves and The Jungle Book 2. So it’s certainly no surprise that they would, without trepidation, continue their recent trend of making live-action adaptations of their animations, and follow last year’s The Jungle Book with another of their most beloved titles, Beauty and the Beast.
Unlike the Kipling adaptation, though, this live action take on the classic French fairytale hoves pretty close to the Academy Award-winning 1991 cartoon. Adventurously-minded, book-loving Belle (Emma Watson) lives in a small French town with her engineer father (Kevin Kline), where her days mostly consist of domestic chores, fending off the unwanted attentions of former soldier Gaston (Luke Evans) and being demonised by the populace for having the temerity to teach a girl to read. The shameless hussy!
Getting lost on his way home from a trip, Belle’s father stumbles on an enchanted castle, and makes the mistake of taking a rose from the garden without permission. He is imprisoned by the Beast, a human prince under a spell for being both a bounder and a cad, and is only set free when Belle trades herself for her father, and agrees to stay in the castle with the Beast and his talking, anthropomorphic, furniture. You know how this goes from here: it’s a tale as old as time, yadda yadda yadda (though I do have my doubts about just how timeless the whole “girl on bison” romance thing really is…)
Most of the cast, necessarily, are CG creations, but as far as the human portions go, Emma Watson is quite engaging as Belle, though she never seems quite comfortable when being asked to sing, Emma Thompson is game as Mrs. Potts, but she just doesn’t have the same charisma as Angela Lansbury (to add to the list of things I never thought I’d do: discussing the relative charisma of talking teapots), Kevin Kline gives a Kevin Kline performance, which is to say that he is bland, anodyne and forgettable, and Luke Evans is a just as preening, but far more entertaining, Gaston than the cel-drawn version.
The real stars, though, are the musical set-pieces. I don’t care much for the music, but the colourful and lively song and dance sequences are the definite highlights, and regularly cropped up just at the point where my interest was flagging. (And the apparently “controversial” scene with the gay character is both really quite innocent, perhaps even sweet, and also the highlight of the whole show, even if the character is an antiquated stereotype).
The biggest issue I have is an issue I’ve always had with this sort of fairytale, and that is that the romance simply isn’t tenable. We are never shown any reason why Belle would fall in love with the Beast: you know, the one who imprisoned both her and her father without trial. I think most people seem to just accept these things in this context, but it has always bothered me that the whole crux of such stories is apparently based on Stockholm Syndrome. But a pretty princess and some musical numbers are apparently more than enough for everyone else, so I guess I’m the weirdo.
I can only give a mild recommendation to watch Beauty and the Beast, but I will add the proviso that I never liked the animation, and enjoyed this considerably more, though I suspect that just means purists will hate it. But its polish and flair are undeniable, and I suspect most people who enjoyed the original will get a lot from this.
Before we say word one, this, more than most films we talk about would I believe benefit from you not knowing anything about it. To the extent that if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve probably been over-exposed to it. Listen further at your own peril.
Photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is nervous about meeting girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams)’s parents for the first time. Not just the usual apprehensions, as he’s a black guy heading into a very white suburb to meet a very white family. Not that Rose’s parents, neurosurgeon Dean (Bradley Whitford) and hypnotherapist Missy (Catherine Keener) disapprove of inter-racial relationships, but their attempts, Dean’s in particular, at making Chris feel welcome are clumsy to the point of, if not unintentional racism, at least cloth-eared insensitivity.
It transpires that Rose has forgotten that this particular upcoming weekend is her parent’s annual neighbourhood get-together, so all in all a great weekend of uneasy social interaction is promised. It’s enough to drive Chris to smoking, although Missy thinks she can hypnotise that craving out of him. Chris get some sympathy over the phone from his friend and TSA Officer Rod” Williams (Milton Howery), although mainly he gets a repeat of his advice that it was a bad idea to go in the first instance.
Before long, not only has Rose’s exuberant, weird brother Jeremy Caleb (Landry Jones) shown up, but the assorted oddballs of the neighbourhood have, who all treat Chris, well, weirdly. Really weirdly. And Chris notices the behaviour of the very few black people around is, also, weird. Really weird. And lo, weird things are indeed afoot, the details of which I suppose are best left to those who want to find them out themselves.
I was rather looking forward to Get Out, as it had been getting good notices from people who normally know their onions, and also horror films, it being primarily the horror movie expertise I was relying upon. The onion question will have to be resolved another day. Get Out does a number of things rather well, and I found myself very much wanting to like it. It’s a likeable film. The actors and performances are likeable. It’s likably written. The general concept is likeable. It’s got likeable production values.
I didn’t like it.
By which I don’t mean to say I hated, or even disliked it. It’s still a much better film than most horrors. Unfortunately it’s just a little frustrating, because it seems like minor changes would make it much more enjoyable.
Primarily, it could do with building a little bit more tension in the opening stretches, which it wasn’t doing too bad of a job with for about fifteen minutes. A lot of that tension deflates when the hypnosis element is introduced, and it’s introduced quite early indeed. It’s not the silliest thing that the film will throw at you, but I’d rather all of the nonsensical stuff was thrown at us in quick succession over the last half hour, rather than incrementing the silliness levels in half hour segments.
But, it does not, and for my liking at least, gives us rather too long to think about what it’s proposing, and the myriad reasons it makes no sense in its own internal logic, let alone scientifically. I can’t really describe any of that without being too spoiler-y, so you’ll just have to trust me. I’m quite trustworthy.
It’s, more or less, that one structural decision that holes the rest of the film, for me. Everything else, more or less, works quite well, and it’s an unusually assured outing for Jordan Peele. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it works better when it’s being funny than being scary, and indeed is funny enough that I can almost recommend it on that basis alone.
I suppose, its worth pointing out again that I’m just generally less enamoured about the concept of “horror movies” in general, to the extent that it’s only the absolute best that I like. On this calibration scale, this suggests that this is not an all-time classic, but for those audiences more forgiving of the genre, a very solid outing.
And of course, by far the most fanciful suggestion in this movie is that people would willingly use Windows Mobile phones in 2017. Now, that really would require brainwashing.
The Guardian article mentioned in our subsequent discussion is: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/28/get-out-box-office-jordan-peele
The warning signs come early in Ghost in the Shell, the live action adaptation of the anime classic discussed at least twice before in podcast passim, opening with a wall of text explaining the basics of its world. Set in the not that distant future, humanity has figured out how to interface directly with machines, and has embraced cyborgisation, replacing flesh and bone with metals and plastics. My main issue with this text is not, necessarily, that it exists, it’s that it shows everything it says perfectly well in the following few scenes. I suppose it’s good that this film is accessible to people with no rudimentary understanding of visual storytelling, I guess.
Leading the field of robo-stuff is Hanke Robotics, who are now developing the first fully robotic body, or Shell, in the parlance of the times, which looks a great deal like Scarlett Johansson. Into this they plug the brain of one Mira Killian, who we’re told had her body destroyed in the same terrorist attack that killed her parents. The CEO of Hanke, Peter Ferdinando’s Cutter, decides that Killian should be sent to Section 9, Japan’s counter-terrorism unit, and a year later Mira’s a Major in the unit. The film presents those events just as breathlessly as I just did, in the hopes that you won’t notice how none of that makes a lick of sense, due to how poorly the changes to the Major’s past over the anime have been thought through in this adaptation.
Anyway, if you let that slide, we’re now more or less in line with the original, as Section 9, headed by Takeshi Kitano’s gruff Chief Daisuke Aramaki investigates attacks by someone calling themselves Kuze (Michael Pitt), and Killian and her team are called to an attack on one of Hanke’s senior staff by a hacked robo-geisha. Putting the hacked geisha down, Killian undertakes a risky connection to the downed machines AI core, which gives her information on where Kuze’s hiding out, but also puts her herself in Kuze’s sights.
While Killian and her right hand man Batou (Pilou “Rice” Asbæk) follow Kuze’s trail into a variety of traps and cool-looking, if ultimately pointless action sequences, Kuze’s busy progressing his plan which appears to be to kill off everyone on the project that created Killian’s shell. This begins the process of Killian having to question her past and her loyalties as the revelations come forth of things not being as they initially seemed, leading to an ending that’s looking for a more cathartic, generically happy ending for the Major than the anime, but winds up just being the final length of rope the film needs to properly hang itself.
Now, that all probably sounds quite negative and, spoiler warning, I’m not recommending this film to anyone, but there’s elements of Ghost in the Shell that I can certainly appreciate. It’s clearly had a lot of considered work put into, particularly on the aesthetic level. Even aside from the mix of practical and digital effects work, which is all very impressive, there’s few films I’ve seen lately that pick a visual style and run with it as well as this. While, obviously, inspired by the anime and the ball of inspirations that took, there’s hints of other influences from other sources, even video games – I’d be surprised if someone one the production design wasn’t a fan of Mass Effect. Visually, it’s a treat, with my only slight niggle being that it rather over-eggs the Blade Runner-eque holographic ads, blowing them up to skyscraper size and looking a bit daft in the process.
The supporting characters of Batou and the Chief are well adapted, feeling like their source material but not slavishly so, and both Asbæk and particularly Kitano are given their moments to shine. A major role is also given to Juliette Binoche as Dr. Ouelet, one of Hanke’s chief boffins, who also winds up carrying almost all of the emotional intensity of the film and does as well as can be expected, although really more of that should have been offloaded to Johansson.
Narratively, though, it’s a bit of a mess. It’s going heavier on the action than the source, and that’s fine, but these feel even more like isolated islands of shootybangs in a sea of dense cyberpunk waffle than the anime, which was already at the limits of tolerance for that sort of thing. To a degree it’s a similar problem to that mentioned when discussing Spirited Away on our Miyazaki episode – the overarching goals of the characters are clear enough, but the actions everyone takes to get there don’t seem altogether coherent, at least on a first view. Particular mention goes to Kuze’s cobbled together network of hacked humans, which is an awesome visual that had no relation to anything going on, unless I blacked out for the sentence where they mentioned what possible use it was. Perhaps it makes sense if you’ve seen the Stand Alone Complex stuff.
As such, it soon becomes very difficult to care about anything Ghost in the Shell offers up. This, primarily, is the film’s problem – it winds up being quite boring. Not all that surprising, really, as it’s also something levelled at the anime, but the real tragedy is that they’ve minimised much of the questions raised and left unanswered by the original which was the primary reason people liked it.
The problem is not that changes have been made from the original – if I wanted to see the original film again, I’d just watch the original film. The problem is that without exception, everything that has been changed makes the film less interesting and, consequently, harder to engage with, even although the thought process behind them was pretty clearly to make the film more palatable to a wider audience.
The changes to the Major’s character are supposed to give her character a more conventional through-line, and changing from the original’s Puppetmaster to the TV series’ Kuze should give a more relatable antagonist, with a backstory to leverage in the final act. Between these major strokes and a host of minor ones, this ought to be a more accessible film to a mass market, but all it does is round off all the interesting edges, leaving a boring slab of product.
The whole whitewashing thing has, I think, been poorly analysed from all sides, but I think it would be interesting to know what’s the chicken and what’s the egg here – the idea of the change to the character or the casting of Johansson. At any rate, it’s not all that important, as I’m sure everyone will do their best to take the wrong lessons away from it anyway.
I’ll always come back to the position that if you make a substandard film, or a niche film, you may well struggle to find an audience, and sometimes you’ll make a substandard niche film, and you’ll really struggle to find an audience no matter who you cast. It’s afflicted the likes of Tom Cruise and Will Smith, and Johansson is no less vulnerable to it. Not, I suppose, that anyone sets out to make a substandard film, but it’s always a risk.
If you’d simply cast, say, Rila Fukushima or Chiaki Kuriyama or anyone else in this script, it’s not going to stop it being a dull film, and it’s not going to be any more successful. It would, however, knock out the need for some identity gymnastics in the final act that, as mentioned, make the Major’s character much weaker overall, but by that point the jig may well have been up anyway. It’s a bit too spoiler-y to get into here, unfortunately, but in solving for the colour of Johansson’s body, I think they’ve greatly weakened the character’s identity and motivation which is in large part, along with an understandably deliberate emotionless performance from Johansson, makes the lead character unable to carry the film. Maybe without that anchor it would be better. In fact it would, because the original is better.
However now we’re getting into a circular argument, where if we take out all the changes they’ve made to the source material, you might as well just watch the source material. Perhaps the solution would have been to go a completely different direction and create a new story in this setting – the various Ghost in the Shell animated series, films and OVAs seem happy to go off in different directions and tones, there’s no reason this couldn’t have done the same, apart from the usual appeals to nostalgia that, if we’re honest, might be the main reason this was made in the first place.
And of course, the counter-argument from a icky business viewpoint, if this had turned out to be a really good film, there is still a – ick – brand value from having a name like Johansson that would help the profitability, which is the only art a studio cares about.
But none of this is a science. There’s plenty of bad films with bad casts that make money, and good films with good casts that lose money, and every permutation in-between. If anyone had a handle on this stuff, we’d be awash with great films, all perfectly cast, and a cursory glance at the cinema schedules will tell you that’s not the case.
I’ve lost the thread of this argument. I guess what I’m loosely saying is that, not to deny anyone’s lived experiences, casting Scarlett Johansson in this film was most likely not an attack on Japanese culture, but a calculated risk to increase the appeal to a wide audience. I’m all for more diversity in film, and this would have been an obvious and high-profile way to do that, but it has chose not to. I’m fairly sure that was a commercial rather than cultural decision, but feel free to vote with your wallet if you disagree.
I am, however, convinced that the reason it’s cratering at the box office is that, in fact, it’s a really dull remake that’s not as good as the original. My recommendation? No matter what your reasoning for not watching it is, the correct decision is to not watch it – certainly not now. Fans of the anime will probably get something from it, but only at the value of a three quid rental rather than the ludicrous cost of a trip to the cinema.
The real irony is that Major Makoto, as I’ve always read her character, would not care what ethnicity her shell was styled to be, just about the combat capabilities of it.
It is the end of the Vietnam War, and the US is in the process of repatriating its troops from Asia. Two representatives of a mysterious agency known as “Monarch” are desperately trying to get funding, before the wartime excesses cease, to mount an expedition to Skull Island, where they hope to find monsters.
Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) volunteers his helicopter infantry unit to escort the Monarch expedition, and in typically subtle military style, announce their arrival on the island by carefully mapping its topography using seismic charges (“bomb the shit out of it”, to you and me). This rather unsettles the local wildlife, particularly a sodding great monkey that the locals call King Kong. Kong decimates the military force, and the scattered survivors must attempt to reunite and fulfil their objectives (or, in Packard’s case, get revenge on Monkey Boy). These plans are complicated somewhat by the island being full of numerous enormous, deadly, beasties, and you just know not many will survive.
You don’t need to be told much more – it’s a monster movie, and I’m sure you know what to expect, at least in broad terms. The key to a film like this is always to get your audience so caught up in the action, however silly or implausible it may be, that they don’t find themselves thinking “Wait a minute! You’re going to walk across this whole island in a couple of days? So that means it’s a very small island? So all of those gigantic creatures we’ve seen would have eaten every viable food source within, charitably, a few weeks? Your ecosystem makes no sense!”
The fact that I thought that very passage while watching this tells you as much as you need to know about how successfully Skull Island managed it, but it did have its moments (and it’s actually pretty hard for me to shut down that part of my brain entirely). On the upside, it’s vastly more entertaining than Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong (a low bar, I know, but worth mentioning nonetheless), and while most humans are given little of interest to work with, the charmingly goofy John C. Reilly is entertaining, and the design of the human settlements and artwork is pretty interesting.
Crucially, the creature effects are impressive, Kong in particular, who has about eleventy times more personality than most of the humans in the film. It’s just a pity that they made Kong so preposterously large (he’s 4 times the height of Jackson’s creature and, yes, the ecosystem thing is still bothering me), particularly given that the chosen size is less to do with it being appropriate to this film, but, rather cynically, is more to do with the fact Legendary Entertainment intends for Kong to go toe-to-toe with Godzilla in a future film.
Where it suffers is from feeling very much like it was pasted together from off-cuts from, or homages to, other things. It’s a monster movie made by someone with an Apocalypse Now obsession, with dialogue straight from any second rate post-Vietnam War movie, and a soundtrack that wasn’t so much carefully curated as lifted wholesale from the “Best of the 70s” CD your dad bought for £2 at the petrol station.
Most of the soldiers are faceless creature-fodder, and disappear quickly, but the ones that stick around a little longer don’t fare much better: having any character at all, let alone any development of same, was obviously not deemed top priority. Samuel L. Jackson is operating on auto-pilot as the disgruntled Preston Packard, unwilling to accept the ending of the war.
Non-military personnel get a pretty raw deal also, particularly Brie Larson’s photographer Mason Weaver. “I’ve taken enough photos of mass graves to recognise one” she tells us. Such insight and expertise! Sadly, anyone with working eyes and an understanding of the words “mass” and “grave” is going to have no trouble recognising one either. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s all of the bodies that gives it away.
John Goodman is woefully underused (you only need to look at Trumbo to see how much of an impact he can make with minimal screentime) and it is, shockingly, Tom Hiddleston that is the most engaging human after Reilly. Every other human, sadly, is entirely forgettable.
I wouldn’t go so far as (or even close) to say Kong: Skull Island is good, but it’s not bad. I sat for a couple of hours and it passed pleasantly and quickly enough, and I think those more fond of creature flicks than I am will get a reasonable reward. Just don’t make any effort to see it, but if it comes to you through any of your myriad boxes and devices, wire in.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (facebook.com/fudsonfilm), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you on the 1st with a look at some films based in LA, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.