Two Ghosts in the Shell

We had a date night with the soon to be wife and decided to go see the new Ghost in the Shell film starring Scarlett Johansson. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the animation, so obviously I had to watch that soon after.

Ghost in the Shell [2017]


The Ghost in the Shell anime has been kind of a seminal work for me. By the time I saw the film, I’d read Neuromancer and I was familiar with the role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020, but this was the first time I saw strong visuals based on the genre. Obviously Blade Runner did exist and is a better film, but besides the cityscapes, it is visually very toned down. Ghost in the Shell on the other hand oozes cyberpunk visuals in every scene. In any case, with this background and with the trailers of the film looking very nice, I just had to see the new film. We received some tickets for the cinema as a Christmas present with the addendum that the giver of the present would baby sit, while we went to the movies, so we headed out on a date night to see this.

What is good about this film is the visual side of it. It takes some scenes straight from the anime and even the manga and transfers them beautifully on screen. It takes those scenes and runs with them in an elegant and imaginative fashion. There’s several occasions of being awestruck by the beauty of the film. There’s even more occasions of being inspired by the way this vision of the future is brought to the silver screen. It is by far the visually stronger piece of the two versions of this film.

The thing that didn’t work for me was change of focus in the plot. Instead of being about advancement of technology, specifically about the meaning of humanity in the face of artificial enhancements to human bodies and finally the birth of an AI, this is about Major (played by Scarlett Johansson) trying to come to terms with her new living condition. The Major was saved after a terrorist attack, but the cost was to replace everything in her with the exception of her brain with cybernetic parts, and she is trying to struggle with what it means to be 99% machine. The plot is moved forward by the revelation that she wasn’t actually saved, but stolen to be an experiment in how far cybernetic enhancements can be taken. There are further revelations about previous failed experiments and the Major manages to meet one badly disgruntled experiment that got away. At this point the Major becomes a liability, but manages to escape and the whole Section 9 key staff agrees with her – that she is not a liability and the party that has been funding the experiments is executed instead. Section 9 is somehow kept alive despite the execution, and life goes on with the Major having realized that the cybernetics don’t define her.

The Major comes off as an emo kid with her quest to come to terms with herself. The muddled corporate and government interests isn’t bad of itself, but the resolution is just full of gaps. Advancements in technology are turned into a thing to be feared, since they are demonized into experiments committed by people, who will forgo all morals in the name of progress. That is, the original is a somewhat intelligent essay on progress, how it can be used for good and bad, and how we can find meaning in the face of all that, while this is a very classic scifi from the time, when scifi was just a horror sub-genre (no horror though – even suspense is rarely there), where technological advancement was the root of all evil.

Despite the film being turned into a meaningless and weak effort, the visuals are stunning and the action is riveting. If you are a fan of cyberpunk and futuristic visions, that could be enough to salvage the film. For me, it was just enough.

  • Director: Rupert Sanders
  • Watched on: 1st Apr 2017
  • Watched at: Kinopalatsi
  • 2.5/5

Ghost in the Shell [1995]


I’ve seen this several times, but after seeing the new live action film version of this, I realized that I didn’t remember much about it, and I had to dig out the DVD from my shelf and give it another go.

Turns out that the live action version filled a few gaps on this cyberpunk classic for me – this was actually the first time that I managed to follow the plot completely. The plot is quite complex and the film puts little effort in making it understandable. There’s a lot of players, who aren’t properly introduced, or who play an important role, but come and go so quickly, that there’s not enough context to get the full meaning. There’s a few occasions, where it feels like 20 minutes of the film was lost on the cutting room floor by accident with some important bits of plot just gone. The live action film is done in current Hollywood fashion, where it is considered a failure, if the viewer has to put any effort into figuring things out. Despite the differences between the plots, the live action version filled a few gaps for me and I managed to follow the plot through. Nice bonus for seeing the live action version.

In any case, the film is a cyberpunk classic. It is one of the very first pieces of work in the cyberpunk genre, where the world is so vividly visualized, and it has influenced countless visions of the future ever since. Despite not being the first or even one of the best works in the genre, it is still most often the baseline for cyberpunk visualizations. It is a story about Section 9 government agency and especially about Motoko Kusanagi, an agent almost completely constructed out of cybernetic parts, going after a weird hacker, who turns out to be an AI escaped from military experiments. The plot is heavily dozed with ruminations about the nature of humanity in the face of exceeding amounts of artificial improvements and finally in the face of an actual AI – a completely artificial, self-aware, and intelligent being.

The film seems to exist mostly as a vehicle to ask the questions. Instead of providing answers, it points out a few things we need to give a bit of thought before long. Along the way it is a nice but not really an exceptional piece of film making. The chase after the mysterious hacker is interesting for a while, but there are a few occasions, where the film pulls out the rug from underneath itself just in order to advance faster into the questions it sees as interesting, that is, suspense is lost in the name of efficiency. There was opportunity for more, without cutting away from the philosophical questions that the film poses.

It is a testament to the film, that even after having seen it at least half a dozen times, it still had a few things to reveal to me, and it still held me captive for its duration. This is a classic for a reason and I heartily recommend it for anyone.

  • Director: Mamoru Oshii
  • Original Title: Kôkaku Kidôtai
  • Watched on: 11th Apr 2017
  • Watched at: Home (DVD)
  • 3.5/5

Évolution [2015]


I went to see Innocence by Lucile Hadzihalilovic at the local film festival, when it was playing, and I was enthralled. It was set in a boarding school for girls, but instead of getting an education there, the girls were being prepared for their role in the patriarchal society. It wasn’t as straightforward as that, but that was the allegory. The film has an oppressive atmosphere that is present everywhere, although you can never quite catch the cause of it. Seemingly mundane and innocent things happen on screen, but you feel like something really bad is going on. You expect the feeling to turn into something violent at any moment, but it never does.

As a child growing up, you are expected to accept many things without an explanation. In certain situations, that can feel oppressive and even threatening. Many of those things directly affect you, but you are still expected to just nod and accept them without any understanding of what is really happening. The film depicts young girls being molded into young women fitting into the role reserved for them by the patriarchal society without the girls understanding what is happening. The atmosphere makes you feel it through their experience – you don’t understand what is happening, but you have a feeling that it is something bad.

My head still spins at the way the film is put together. Naturally, I was disappointed, when I missed Hadzihalilovic’s follow up, Évolution, in a later edition of the same local film festival. Later I jumped at the chance, when I saw that Orion was playing it as their film of the month.

Èvolution takes the exact same point of view as Innocence. The film is about girls growing up in a world, where they don’t understand things happening to them, and they experience said things as threatening. This time around, it is not molding them into their role as women in patriarchal society, but about puberty – them turning physically from girls into women capable of birth.

Just as with Innocence, it is quite difficult to wrap your head around everything that is happening in Évolution. I went and read a bunch of reviews about the film, when I was thinking about what to write about the film in this blog. Even most of the positive ones seemed to conclude that in the end this film won’t give up its secrets and you just have to accept it as an enthralling but impenetrable piece. I don’t agree.

This time around Hadzihalilovic just fudges things up a bit more in her allegories. The girls are boys on screen. The adults are all depicted as red haired women with blank and bleached faces that have some alien things on their backs. Sex is a weird ritual performed hidden from the eyes of the girls. Menstruating is a horrifying disease nobody tells you about. And finally birth is some parasite sucking you dry.

In Innocence, you could mostly trust, that if you were seeing a woman on screen, it was a pretty identical woman, when interpreted through the allegory of the film. Here you can’t trust that anymore, but with a bit more work everything still becomes clear. I assume that the allegory shows in more physical and thus more visual ways here, because the change being depicted is more physical and visual, than it was in Innocence.

My head spins again. How can you build such an experience on screen with such acuity. Nothing is what it looks like, because everything is experienced through the eyes of someone, who does not understand anything about what is happening, but when you finally catch up with it, it all makes sense, but doesn’t reduce from what you just experienced. Hadzihalilovic is truly a genius director and I will be certain to keep up with her future works.

Just see this film. Don’t give up on it. Sit through it and concentrate. Spend time on it afterwards. When it finally opens up to you, wonder at the way it is put together, wonder at the way everything seems to perfectly fit together like a beautiful puzzle. The thing is, it doesn’t end there, it isn’t just a magically perfect piece of film making genius. It is also a film, that tells a very strong story. The story is rarely told, although it is very important. It teaches you about humanity. I feel kind of embarrassed at this point by the praise I’m heaping on this film, but the thing is, I have one final piece of it – the weird way the film is put together is there not just because Hadzihalilovic can do it, it’s there because it supports the story she is telling. Just see this film.

  • Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
  • Watched on: 17th Feb 2017
  • Watched at: Orion
  • 6/5

Marvel Cinematic Universe – Phase 1


I started this project of watching through the Marvel Cinematic Universe films in late April. The idea had been bubbling under for some time after repeatedly hearing that the MCU is more than the sum of its parts. I’d seen a few of the parts and they mostly did not convince me, but deep down I’m a fan boy of even super hero stuff, so I couldn’t avoid being intrigued. The final trigger was seeing a few more of the films, when Nelonen was showing one MCU film every Saturday during the spring.

The MCU films (and series to an extent) have been divided into phases. Currently films are being released for phase 3. The phases seem to consist of a bunch of films featuring individual Marvel heroes finishing off with an Avengers film that gathers all the heroes into one film.

This extended film universe project has been hugely successful. There’s been 16 film releases thus far and about 3 films scheduled per year for the future. In addition there’s 6 TV series with released seasons and further 3 scheduled to start already this year. The production rate seems pretty astounding.

There’s already imitators with DC Comics trying to build something similar with its cadre of heroes, and now even Universal Studios dusting off its B monster films of yore in order to build an extended film universe of its own.

I’ve now gone through all the films and series of phase 1 (well, actually I’ve seen two phase 2 films already, but I’m a lazy blogger). My reviews of the phase 1 products I’ve seen can be found here:

The MCU is the reason I’m watching the Marvel films – the wider universe and a meta plot that runs through several separate film franchises and connects them into one story. The idea that they might build something bigger than just individual films or even just franchises based on individual heroes. Phase 1… is starting to get there.

With the exception of Iron Man 2 and the phase finale, The Avengers (Well, even The Avengers can be thought of as the origin story of the Avengers, the group of heroes.), phase 1 consists of origin stories. Mostly they are bad. Super heroes are by definition on a level above us. At first glance they seem invulnerable and it would seem that they’d have to be able to build a happy life for themselves – being capable of what they are capable of must mean that they can build a fortune and a stable life and occasionally go face off with a big bad. This is obviously a bad premise for any story that’s supposed to have some drama in it. Hence, origin stories. They are meant to build some drama into the heroic characters, so that they can partake in dramatic stories. Unfortunately, at the same time we are talking about super heroes and that’s taking the story straight out of anything that is directly connected to our mundane reality and thus our capability of connecting with the drama is limited.

Watchmen (the comic, not the film) spends great amounts of time taking its super heroes apart and showing the flawed characters underneath the masks, and does it really well, but that’s pretty much the only super hero product that succeeds in that. These films – not so good. Marvel has always been the popcorn of super heroes, so the fan base has expectations of popcorn. Marvel has to meet the expectations, if they want to keep building the universe. Unfortunately, it means that popcorn takes over, drama is very thinly built and it the whole just doesn’t work. The exception to this is Iron Man, as the character is a playboy billionaire, who works better with popcorn.

The lone TV series connected to phase 1, the Agent Carter stories, turned out mostly to be a waste of time. While it shows some glimpses into the birth of S.H.I.E.L.D. and some other important early players of the game, it headlines a character, who is either dead or otherwise completely sidelined by the time of the main MCU events. This is a pity as I liked said character. Despite the agent Carter, the series veered into deep boredom by season 2. I expect that this is a problem with most of the MCU series – they can’t contain major events important for following the meta plot, as most of the audience is doing that just through the MCU films, so the series are bound to struggle with irrelevance and boredom. I expect to be skipping most of the series in later phases, as there’s more and more of them being produced all the time.

Even with a bunch of at best average films and a mostly irrelevant series, the phase 1 starts to show the strength of the meta plot and the MCU. The films contain more and more hints and scenes about the meta plot the later they were produced. The Avengers brings this to the front for major parts of the film. Ultimately at this stage, the meta plot is stuck in the same struggle with the individual origin stories – it is being introduced, justified, dramatized, but in the end, brushed aside too quickly for audience expectations of popcorn.

Still, I’m hooked. The meta plot has caught me. I’m watching all the films waiting for glimpses of agent Coulson or Nick Fury or something. It is kind of like with the X-Files series in the past – the weird unexplained thing of the week got boring quite fast, but I was looking towards all mentions of Deep Throat or any other character connected to the deep plot that was running through the series. It’s a fun feeling.

It has been a somewhat conflicted ride thus far, but I guess I’ve swallowed the hook, line and sinker. I’m at a point, where I’m sad to see the phase 3 films in theatrical release, as I feel like I should see all the phase 2 and earlier phase 3 films, before I can go see the latest ones, so I can follow the meta plot as it unfolds. Oh well, I’ll catch up with them pretty soon at this pace and then I can enjoy my fan boyish giddiness with the other fans at the premiere of whatever the next film will be at that point… I feel weird to say that I’m looking forward to it.

The Avengers [2012]


After a bunch of origin stories for the various heroes, this film brings the heroes together and the phase 1 of the MCU to a close.

Loki was set adrift in the finale of Thor, and now turns up in earth preparing the way for his new allies, the Chitauri, to invade earth. Loki enters earth via the Tesseract, an artifact held in a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. Loki promptly converts a few S.H.I.E.L.D. agents into his followers and escapes. The heroes that have gained their origin stories earlier in the MCU films are then gathered up on the S.H.I.E.L.D. flying air craft carrier with even Thor arriving in pursuit of his brother. This was obviously Loki’s plan all along – get the Avengers together, sow disorder and chaos among them, escape, and open a portal to bring the Chitauri to New York. Obviously, S.H.I.E.L.D. allowed this to happen to give the Avengers a reason to actually work together (death of agent Coulson) and thus stop the invasion and Loki. Furthermore, the whole chain of events gives Nick Fury a justification for The Avengers in the first place – Earth needs a defense force and The Avengers are it as demonstrated during the battle of New York.

It is nice to finally see a bit more of the meta plot, the structure intended to hold all the MCU films together, that is, the S.H.I.E.L.D. We even see the World Security Council, that seems to be in control of S.H.I.E.L.D., although Nick Fury is something of a rogue – he seems to agree on the goals, but takes liberties with the methods.

As an individual film, this is a fun romp. The fight scenes are mostly interesting as there’s more heroes involved and thus more variety. The calmer sequences are mostly nice, as there’s more surprising interactions, and some actually impressive revelations. The dialogue is kept on a not too serious level, so it is fun to follow.

The climax, the battle of New York against the Chitauri, is unfortunately a bit of a letdown. The Chitauri are boring – it is just about taking out the next half a dozen Chitauri infantry and the next Chitauri war machine, interspersed with scenes of the heroes becoming more and more desperate as they are taking small hits all the time, but there’s no end to the Chitauri force. Loki is mostly sidelined during the fight, so he completely fails to impress.

Altogether, it seems that everyone involved had loads of fun creating this – as the screen time between all the heroes is pretty evenly split, the script or the performances don’t even try to reach deeply personal or dramatic depths (which the MCU has mostly failed to do thus far).

One of the more impressive films of the MCU, as it aptly avoids the weaknesses of the franchise. I did hope for even more time spent on the meta plot, but, oh well, I had a lot of fun with this.

  • Director: Joss Whedon
  • Watched on: 13th May 2017
  • Watched at: Home (Nelonen)
  • Fanboy grade: 4/5
  • 3/5

Thor [2011]


Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is set to inherit his father’s, Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins), throne, but he is a brash young man, who hungers for war and glory. He does a foolish thing and brings the Asgardians on the brink of war with the frost giants of Jotunheim. Instead of a throne, he gets banished to Earth without his powers. His brother’s, Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston), plots are twisted and filled with even more hubris. I don’t think there’s a single person or being involved in said plots, who doesn’t get double crossed. Well, the father ends up in some godly sleep that may last for years, and Loki claims the throne. His intention is to prevent Thor from returning, to slip some frost giants into Asgard to threaten Odin’s life, and to swoop in to save the day in order to seem worthy of the throne in his father’s eyes. Thor, in the meanwhile, has to do without his powers and hammer, when Loki sends a war machine of some sort after him on Earth. When he performs a selfless act to save his love interest, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and her colleagues from the war machine, instead of dying, he regains his powers and use of his hammer. He swoops back to Asgard just in time to stop his brother from destroying Jotunheim and the frost giants completely, and obviously Odin wakes up just in time to witness the whole thing. Loki chooses to not be saved and falls into a void, while Thor is still left without a throne, but at last gains his father’s trust. Asgard is left without Bifrost, which is their primary means of traveling between the worlds, so Thor is left without Jane for the time being.

It is often quite painful to write those short plot descriptions, while reviewing these Marvel Cinematic Universe films. They are quite bad. You have to have some thick, bottle bottomed fanboy glasses to get through these films without balking at everything. Oh, and Chris Hemsworth is the worst of the MCU super hero actors I’ve seen thus far. I’m not sure, if he was told to play it like this – I mean Thor is a brash god, who is either drinking ale and being merry, or bashing some skulls and being merry, or sulking. But Hemsworth’s takes that description and manages to make it even more naive.

We see more and more of the S.H.I.E.L.D. in each of these films, but the mode is the same – they are a faceless government agency, that has a slightly less intimidating face than most faceless government agencies as depicted in films. They act as a backdrop that has its hands in everything and as a deus ex machina, but nothing more is revealed. I guess they’ll get to it in the next film, The Avengers. We get even more glimpses of Nick Fury, of agent Coulson, and for the first time, of Clint Barton / Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

Despite Hemsworth, this is actually one of the better films in the MCU thus far. The big bad is deeply connected to the rest of the characters, so you don’t just nod of, when he has screen time, and the supporting cast is pretty great in terms of the actors, and doing a decent job being entertaining.

  • Director: Kenneth Branagh
  • Watched on: 25th May 2017
  • Watched at: Home (DVD)
  • Fanboy grade: 3/5
  • 1.5/5

Iron Man 2 [2010]


This is a classic sequel suffering from classic sequel syndrome. The protagonist has a new tragedy that is a bit far fetched and everything is bigger and more dramatic… which means that there’s less emotional attachment to anything and the film is just worse. Now Iron Man is dying. The arc reactor is powered by palladium, which builds up some poisonous gunk in his system and we keep getting blood toxicity readings throughout the film. Using the suit makes the toxins release faster. Due to dying, he is alternating between self destruction and trying to do something meaningful with his life, including handing over his company to Pepper Potts. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly the tech that was supposed to be 10 years away from anyone, who is not Tony Stark, is there. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a scientist that Tony’s father got deported, builds him some neat laser whips and takes Iron Man for a ride. Vanko is caught and jailed, but sprung from the prison by Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). He is a wannabe Tony Stark, who controls a military contractor that is trying to fill the void left by Stark Industries leaving military tech behind. Nick Fury shows up to cheer up Tony Stark, who ends up figuring out a new chemical element from stuff left behind by his father – the material neatly solves the palladium poisoning issue and Tony is back in business. Obviously Vanko betrays Hammer and uses Hammer’s resources to build an army of Iron Man like drones that he utilizes to attack Iron Man in a personal vendetta. Iron Man is now helped by War Machine/Lt. Col. James Rhodes, who got a suit by “taking” it from the self-destructive Tony Stark. “Taking”, because, well, Tony can prevent that from happening, but I guess that was another moment of self-destructive behavior / trying to do something good. The big bad is defeated by the duo – hurray.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this film in full before, but I’ve seen long bits of it, when it has been running on TV and I’ve had it open in the background. Some parts were very familiar, but others I’m very sure I haven’t seen before.

From the MCU point of view, we get more crossing over. Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is on assignment from S.H.I.E.L.D. to watch over Iron Man, agent Coulson pays a visit and Nick Fury has a quick scene. Even the big bad is tied in with Howard Stark, Tony’s father, who was there in practically all supers related events before he died.

Still, this is a bad story about trying to cope in the face of dying (which is solved by deus ex machina) and fighting a meaningless baddie in the meanwhile. Robert Downey Jr. is still great as Tony Stark, when Tony is not wallowing in self-pity, unfortunately the chemistry between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts is mostly gone, Sam Rockwell is just ridiculously bad in every scene as Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke feels like he is on whatever stuff ruined his face.

Some decent fight scenes, but not counting the increased connections to the rest of the MCU, this is just worse in every way compared to the first Iron Man.

  • Director: Jon Favreau
  • Watched on: 25th May 2017
  • Watched at: Home (DVD)
  • Fanboy grade: 2.5/5
  • 1.5/5

The Incredible Hulk [2008]


The Marvel Cinematic Universe got off to a quick start by releasing two films on their first year of releases. It was only five years earlier, that the very bad Ang Lee version of Hulk came out. I went to see that, because Ang Lee. The disappointment still stung, when this came out, so I skipped this then. Later on, I’ve seen big parts of this film, but never in full, so it was clear that I needed to watch this completely for this MCU project.

Yet another origin story… Well, the true origin is only told in flashbacks, but what happened right after – how Dr. Banner (played by Edward Norton) tried to cure his affliction. The origin – he was part of a secret military project (a continuation of the project that spawned Captain America as told in his origin film), and decided to try a serum on himself without knowing, what it actually was, and turned himself into the Hulk. The Hulk comes out, when his pulse hits 200. For a 40-something doctor, his pulse seems to race towards that number pretty easily as seen very often with Dr. Banner glancing at his sports watch. Happily he can just breath calmly for three seconds and see his pulse drop by as much as 40 beats per minute. That’s some breathing technique! Oh well, obviously there’s no cure, but he gets to meet his love interest, Dr. Ross (played by Liv Tyler), and is chased by the general responsible for creating him, General Ross (played by William Hurt. Finally, his nemesis for the film, The Abomination, is revealed, when a soldier under General Ross’ command, Blonsky (played by Tim Roth), imbibes a bit too much of the same serum that created the Hulk in the first place. A few city blocks are leveled and Hulk comes out victorious.

Compared to the MCU’s opening film, Iron Man, this is just bad. There’s some big names here, but the results just don’t fly. The Hulk’s story is intended as tragic, but it just doesn’t fly. There’s only so much compassion the audience can feel towards a guy, who pauses every five minutes to take a quick breath. The Hulk is entertaining tossing around tanks and bashing the Abomination around, but that’s about it.

As a part of the MCU franchise, the film still feels a bit left out. There’s the usual nods towards the rest of the MCU, but this film contains the first major MCU role that had the actor change – Edward Norton probably just didn’t want to return to the MCU films and Mark Ruffalo plays Dr. Banner later on. The Hulk himself is also very different from his later appearances. Here he is a tragic character, but later on, he is having fun – he is dangerous still, but having fun. Here he is vulnerable – he is wounded by mere tanks and some crowd control ultra wave weapons, but later on he tosses gods around like rag dolls.

Ang Lee’s Hulk was a major disappointment, but I had my expectations way higher then. This is just, I don’t know, forgettable. The story does make the MCU a richer place, but that just barely justifies the existence of this film.

  • Director: Louis Leterrier
  • Watched on: 24th May 2017
  • Watched at: Home (DVD)
  • Fanboy grade: 1.5/5
  • 0.5/5