Nestled between William Gibson’s claim-staking 1984 novel Neuromancer and the Wachowskis’ gamechanging The Matrix, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 cops-and-cyborgs tale Ghost in the Shell is almost assuredly better known than widely seen – next to Akira, it’s one of the few anime titles that folks who don’t know an Astro-Boy from a Dragonball Z can namecheck. Watch it now, and you’ll see how Oshii’s manga adaptation both grafted earlier influences onto its source material and influenced countless works that came after it. Like its main character, the movie caused ripples even when its presence seemed invisible. The animation was gorgeous. The live-or-MS-DOS existentialism was chic. It had a spider tank, which falls somewhere on the Cool-ometer between an AT-AT and Mechagodzilla.
Whether we were truly clamoring for a live-action version, one that would make Major Motoko Kusanagi a flesh-and-blood(-and-pixel) heroine and try to one up Blade Runner in the neon urban clutter department, is a moot question. It’s here, uploaded into the mainstream mainframe, complete with a movie star, a jumble of elements from Ghost-related offshoots and several greatest-hits moments. The amniotic birth scene that breaks Major out of her pale humanoid eggshell, a thug beatdown in what looks like a large public puddle, that arachnoid assault vehicle – you can check them all off your list. It looks cyberpunk-as-fuck, even if its vision of metropolitan meltdown now comes off as nostalgic futurism. (This is easily the most visually sumptuous movie … of 1996.) What you have, however, isn’t a cyborg fusion of mid-Nineties brand recognition and 2017 blenderized-blockbuster spectacle so much as a paranoid android running on a low battery. “All shell, no ghost” is a low-hanging-fruit diss. It’s also apt.
So we join the good folks of cybercrime special unit Section 9 and their MVP, Scarlett Johansson’s Major, right in the middle of a stakeout involving a business exec assassination, deadly Geisha-bots and cerebral hacking. A mysterious hooded figure takes credit for the hit; after Major deep-dives into the hard drive of a recovered killer droid, he warns her not to collaborate with the Hanka Corporation, the city’s major manufacturer of artificially intelligent beings. She and her bottle-blond partner Batou (Danish actor Pilou Asbaek), who’ll get an optical upgrade that brings him up to speed with his anime counterpart, keep tracking the bad guy and fend off numerous attacks from slimeballs and remote controlled innocents. Major suspects the hallucinogenic glitches she keeps experiencing, however, hold the key to her pre-crimefighting identity. Viewers, on the other hand, will wonder when the movie is actually going to start; even after a half-dozen chase scenes, shootouts and swooping cityscape shots, there’s the feeling that things are constantly on the verge of kicking into a higher gear that never quite comes.
Still, while you suffer through the narrative equivalent of an OS spinning pinwheel, you are gifted with distractions like a gorgeously rendered, highly lysergic cosmopolis littered with giant holograms of koi and Kabuki-costumed figures. (The production design feels like an amalgamation of various underground sci-fi and totemic pop-cultural worse-case scenarios recycled for multiplex eyeballs – call it Hot Dystopic.) You get Clint Mansell’s droney-dreamy score, Juliette Binoche looking very scared and later, Michael Pitt looking very scarred. Takeshi “Beat” Kitano pops up in what feels more like a nod to his Johnny Mnemonic bona fides than anything else – until he’s allowed to dispatch henchmen with a suitcase and a death stare, at which point you’re reminded he’s a living Japanese-cinema legend and not just a piece of culturally appropriated furniture.
Speaking of which: Yes, you also get Scarlett Johansson simultaneously channeling her best-known role (Black Widow) and her best performance to date (Under the Skin) while sporting a Chelsea haircut and skin-colored catsuit. Accusations of whitewashing have dogged the production since her casting was announced, and whether the production would have been better served by an Asian actor in areas other than cultural sensitivity and common sense is debatable; take out the obvious bottom-line factor of hiring a bankable movie star, and you still have a problematic movie that’s coasting on borrowed chicness. (There’s an “explanation” for the primarily Euro-Caucasian leads in the story itself that could not feel more reverse-engineered.)
We’ll gingerly suggest that if you had to employ an Occidental tourist for this role, you could do a lot worse than Johansson, who knows how to hold your attention whether sprinting or standing still. She’s found a comfortable niche playing characters that don’t seem to feel at home in their bodies, their brains or their human being-ness, newly discovered or freshly enhanced. These roles seem to rely not so much on her bombshell factor as her facility with a blank affect, though you need a director who knows how to use it properly in service of a bigger vision – a Jonathan Glazer (Skin), a Spike Jonze (Her) or even a Luc Besson (the wonderfully WTF Lucy). And you don’t hire Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) because you want a visionary, you hire him because he will finish a job and make it look sleek.
Which is why, in the end, you get Johansson spinning her wheels in a stock hero’s-journey story that feels stripped for exotic spare parts. The secret-sharer sense you got from watching the original, the idea that you had come across a low-frequency transmission that felt subversive yet familiar enough to strike a chord, has been surgically removed. All that’s left is big-budget cybersploitation scrubbed for a global audience, a machine designed to collect money. Who stole the soul? For a movie steeped in aspects of the singularity, there’s nothing very singular about this Ghost in the Shell at all.
‘Going in Style’
If you want to hang with a trio of old-coot charmers, you could do worse than Going in Style, a comic softball that, for the price of a movie ticket, puts you in the pleasurable company of Morgan Freeman, 79, Alan Arkin, 83, and Michael Caine, 84. The movie is no bargain, but the actors keep delivering dividends.
Constructed from the blueprint set in 1979 by director Martin Brest and now-deceased stars George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg, this remake is the same tired piffle about three Brooklyn-based seniors who decide to rob a bank. This new version, directed with a sitcom-anvil touch by actor Zach Braff from a flimsy script by Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures), at least does its audience a favor by bypassing the expected jokes about erectile dysfunction. Plus the topicality and villainy come in the form of corporate greed – a nice touch given that one of the film’s executive producers is Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Caine’s character, Joe, is at war with a New York bank that has tripled his mortgage payments. His best buds, Willie (Freeman) and Albert (Arkin) are also mad as hell, given that the steel company they slaved for is outsourcing to Vietnam and vaporizing their pensions. (Robbing the evil financial institutions is always the best revenge, it seems – see last year’s Hell or High Water.) The codgers watch Dog Day Afternoon as primer in what not to do, enlist the services of a professional thief (John Ortiz) and resort to being adorable when all else fails, which it does, quite often. Arkin wins the prize for not flashing a cute twinkle every single time a plot hole needs to be covered. His flirty scenes with the wonderful Ann-Margret as a supermarket manager are a much-needed bright spot.
There are times when Braff and Melfi hint at the darkness of a world that ignores seniors by making them invisible. But this new version of Going in Style sells uplift so hard it loses touch with reality – and any genuine reason for being.
‘The Boss Baby’
Let’s address the elephant-sized diaper in the room, shall we? No, The Boss Baby is not about Donald Trump. Not that director Tom McGrath, or screenwriter Michael McCullers, or anyone at Fox or Dreamworks Animation would ever say that it was; it’s safe to assume that this adaptation of Marla Frazee’s 2010 children’s book was in the works long before our current administration slithered its way into office. But given that this tiny tyrant is voiced by none other than Alec Baldwin, who’s carved out a lucrative side career imitating an infantile commander-in-chief, and that the film revolves a tantrum-throwing toddler in a suit, well … you can see why people might draw conclusions. There are some key differences between the two, it should be noted. Baldwin’s Boss Baby isn’t trying to have any of his non-pale-hued fellow babies deported. He also seems to be a born leader.
Alas, this isn’t the Trump-trolling toon you’re looking for. People may search for protest art hidden among the potty jokes, but the closest they’re going to get to a subtextual statement is the Beatles’ “Blackbird” on the soundtrack – and that’s been repurposed as a lullaby. This is an innocuous enough mishmash that relies on the sight of a kid in itsy-bitsy sock garters and shirttails, screaming into a Fisher-Price toy phone and shaking his Pampered moneymaker. The only ones being pandered to here are folks who’ve watched that viral dancing-baby video several billion times and anybody willing to treat animated movies as nothing more than visual babysitters.
So yes, on the plus side, you do get Baldwin in comic beast mode, voicing a miniature Wall Street master of the universe that, per the natural selection process that happens at the babymaking assembly line, is fast-tracked as “management.” He’s sent to Earth as the newborn brother of Tim (Miles Bakshi), a seven-year-old who’s miffed at having to share his parents’ attention with the family’s latest addition. There’s a reason behind all this, something about a conglomerate called Puppycorp trying to corner the market on cuteness and only Boss can keep the natural adorability pecking order intact, but who’s kidding who: This is an excuse for the actor to trot out his best 30 Rock inflections and spout CEO wisdom literally from the mouth of babes. (You wish someone would accidentally hand the kid a yellow citrus fruit, so he could take a bite then yell, “Good god, Lemon!”)
And because this single-joke premise really isn’t enough to sustain a feature-length movie, a certain spit-everything-up-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks mentality kicks in, resulting in a hodgepodge of disparate elements hitting you every few minutes. In addition to the requisite flood of “Dreamworks Face” mugging, you also get a few conspicuously Toy Story-looking fantasy sequences, a Genddy Tartakovsky-ish interlude and several manic moments that suggest the animators have been huffing on Tex Avery’s fumes. The pop-culture references range from the obvious to the musty; there’s a set piece set to the Seventies S.W.A.T. theme, and a key plot point, if you want to call it that, hinges on a gaggle of Elvis impersonators. Deep pathos is Pixar’s department. The Boss Baby is content to just hire celebrity voices and rifle through platitudes: Family is important, imagination is good, displacement anxiety is natural, your parents still love you, babies in business suits are cutie cute-cute, yadda yadda yadda. This is harmless filler, the kind designed for long car rides and cross-country flights. It’s a cinematic pacifier.