No one’s laughing now, Arthur.
This is my review of Joker!
Arthur Fleck is an aspiring comedian who works as a freelance party clown and lives with his ailing mother in a crime-infested Gotham. Arthur suffers from Pseudobulbar affect (PBA for short), a condition in which the sufferer experiences fits of sudden, uncontrollable laughter and/or crying. As a result, Arthur is mostly isolated, and any time he does interact with others his PBA outbursts result in disdain at best and harassment at worst, even after he hands them a card explaining his condition. After a series of misunderstandings, beatdowns and personal failings, Arthur Fleck descends into despair and the Clown Prince of Crime is born.
Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck/Joker is masterfully nuanced. Arthur’s entire character is defined by pain. Though already teetering on the edge of instability, Arthur maintains a barely-flickering hope that he was born into the world to bring laughter and joy. He tries to be kind in a world that forbids kindness, his efforts to spark joy turn to ash, and his own imbalanced mental state prohibit him from receiving the basic human decency he desperately craves. Given that Pseudobulbar affect is not often shown on film, it was relieving to see that his PBA-induced laughter is not overdone or mocked; it is realistically depicted as a socially-isolating condition. The best thing about Phoenix’s performance is that there is both great empathy and caution towards the Joker character. He is a struggling man unable to thrive in a cruel world and turns to crime as a result. His pain is felt throughout the film, but his evil actions later on are not glorified.
I really love that Gotham is a pit of misery in this film. Past Gothams on film have been either too clean or a middle-of-the-road “crime-riddled but not really” vibe. Gotham is a big, loud city where crime and despair meet to dance. The citizens of Gotham range from apathetic and cruel to what I call “nice-in-passing,” the kind of nice where a person briefly asks, “Are you okay?” only to walk away and return to their own preoccupations. This has been the trend of society in recent years, and Joker does not shy away from this reality. While people do try to show niceties to one another, we have forgotten the art of empathy. As much as I love compassionate characters, I appreciate that Arthur didn’t have that one magically kind friend/family member whose disappearance/death is the catalyst of his downward spiral.
This has been said in other reviews and I will say it here: This movie does have a lot to say about today’s society. If anything, the story is a call for empathy. It asks us not to pity the downtrodden, but to make an effort to understand them. All Arthur truly wants is a hug, a pat on the back, for even a total stranger to say, “You’re doing a great job!” but all he receives are backs turned and punches to the face. His wounds from others are then transmitted to others, and the vicious cycle of abuse continues. As much as American society loves the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative, how is a person supposed to reach to the top when their needs are ridiculed, their struggles dismissed, and their dignity is trampled upon?
Arthur lives with his ailing mother, who herself suffers from the delusion that Thomas Wayne will come to rescue them from their dilapidated living conditions. There is a twist revolving her that feels a tad underdeveloped. We learn that she has narcissistic personality disorder, but the actual portrayal of NPD is barely explored. She comes off as more of a defeated, preoccupied, brittle woman than a narcissistic parent who violates personal boundaries and projects their vanities onto their children. Given the film’s concern for mental health, it is sad to see this condition underwritten.
A part of my criteria is a film’s home re-watchability factor. Joker is a great movie, but it is definitely a theater movie, which is the nature of Oscar-contending films. No doubt the film itself would play well in any venue, but the experience is less impactful on a small screen during the day.
God in All Things
In this new segment of CGB reviews, I discuss where Christian elements can be found in film. As bleak as Joker is, God is in the frame, and here’s how.
When I first saw the trailer for Joker, it made me think of Saint Irenaeus’ quote, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” What is the opposite of the human person fully alive? The answer: The glory of Hell is the human person fully destroyed, and that is what we see in Joker.
Arthur Fleck is flawed but inherently good, as we all are. In the first half, he expresses his natural desire to bring joy and laughter to the world. However, as the film goes on, he descends into a distorted version of himself. His good qualities diminish and his worst qualities are amplified. When he cannot make the world a better place, he instead submits to the world’s darkness and becomes one with it. The final scene shows that he has brought joy through anarchy and laughter through nihilism, which is the exact opposite of God’s will for us.
When the compassion of Jesus Christ is cut off from our broken world, the cruelty of Satan ensnares the vulnerable. Nothing is more heartbreaking to Jesus than to see His most wounded children turned away from His care.
This movie is really great!…
….IF you haven’t already seen Pan’s Labyrinth.
This is my review of The Shape of Water!
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at a top secret research facility circa 1962. Though a hearing person, she communicates with the few friends she has via American Sign Language (yes, as an interpreting student, I will get into the accuracy of the ASL in this film). All is well and mundane until a mysterious amphibian fella known as “The Asset” is brought into the lab to be both tested and tortured by Strickland (Michael Shannon). A woman with no voice, Elisa begins to form a bond with this voiceless creature that leads her to do what she has never dared before.
The Hits Sally Hawkins is probably one of the best mute characters in recent memory. Elisa is a woman defined by powerlessness; no voice, lowly job, even her home is a one-room apartment in a dumpy complex. As I mentioned, Elisa is not Deaf, but a hearing woman, yet she uses ASL to make herself heard. This is kind of a side note, but in the film we see what is called the Helper Model, which was the first service model of interpreting. Basically in the days before professional ASL interpreters, family, friends, teachers and members of clergy served as “interpreters” for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing. In this movie, Elisa’s friends, a fellow janitor named Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins), her neighbor, are her helpers. They don’t sign to her, but they understand and interpret sign-to-voice what she says when others address her. However even her language holds little weight in a speaking world. Her budding relationship with The Asset is contrary to her everyday existence; she teaches him ASL, she provides him with food and companionship, she is the one who eventually breaks him out of the research facility. She has power in this relationship that she never has in her day-to-day. Okay, yes, Eliza and the Asset do consummate their romance. However there is no full-blown sex scene. It’s literally this: She undresses, walks to him in her shower and pulls up the curtain. That’s it. There is another scene where she quite literally floods her bathroom (good luck getting that to dry later) and swims naked with the Asset, but by this point, the movie has built enough context so that this scene signifies that she essentially wants to be a part of his world. If you’re now singing “Part of Your World” from Little Mermaid right after reading this, well, I’m sorry not sorry. 🙂
In regards to the ASL, I’d say 98% of the signs and grammatical structure are accurately used in this film. I did see one or two old signs that are no longer used within the Deaf community (such as the sign for “mute,” which is used because Eliza is in fact a mute character), but otherwise Eliza and the Richard Jenkin character sign better than the “interpreter” guy at Nelson Mandala’s funeral.
A major theme throughout the film is the reality of those who have no power. Every protagonist is an individual who is powerless in their own society. We’ve covered Eliza’s powerlessness, Zelda is African-American and given the time period, she has zilch power in white America, Giles is subtly implied to be gay and closeted, so no power or agency for him, and of course the Asset is subjected to daily torture and abuse by Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland. Speaking of Strickland, his character is the exact opposite of Eliza, Zelda, Giles and the Asset; male, white, heterosexual and in complete control of everything that goes on in the research facility. Now his character could be seen as created to vilify conservatives, but both the script and Shannon himself make this character three-dimensional. His power makes sense within the context of the time period the story is set in. His oppression of the other characters is more subtle and realistic as to how someone in his position would act; he is never seen whipping Zelda or raping Eliza, but his casually racist comments and implications that these characters are beneath him make for a compelling villain.
Okay, Guillermo, can we talk?
Now I LOVE Pan’s Labyrinth; it was my 100th review here on this blog. That movie was a major game-changer for me and it’s one of the reasons I developed a passion for languages (I did try to learn Spanish a few years after first watching Pan’s, but the Lord guided me to ASL instead; thank You Jesus 🙂 ), but as good as Shape of Water is, the plot relies way too heavily on story elements from Pan’s Labyrinth.
Here, as a Pan’s fan, let me just walk you all through what it was like to watch Shape of Water.
Act I: Okay, this is good. Beautiful color palate, nice greens and midnight blues…I’ve seen this color palate before, but whatever…the main villain is an oppressive, toxic-masculinity tyrant…huh, kind of reminds me of Captain Vidal, but Michael Shannon’s guy is different enough. Okay, I like this, and hooray for ASL on the big screen!
Act II: Huh, this movie has a sympathetic doctor character who stands up to the tyrannical toxic masculine villain…oh, hi Dr. Ferrero from Pan’s Labyrinth! Come to think of it, the powerless characters theme is similar to Pan’s…nah, this one’s different enough…
Act III: [SPOILER!!!…though not really if you’ve seen the first ten minutes of Pan’s] Okay, this whole third act is nearly identical to the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth! Hmm, let’s see, a short-haired brunette gal standing in the rain who gets shot in the stomach by the tyrant villain. Also there’s a brief musical montage that rips off the “what-could-have-been” ending of La La Land.
So what’s my whole point? On it’s own, this movie is great…BUT if you’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth, which is even better, Shape of Water is just good. Now the reusing of plot elements don’t destroy Shape, but it is a little worrying that this movie is so dependent on the eleven year old predecessor. Look, Guillermo, I know that Crimson Peak, an original story by yourself, didn’t work out so well at the box office, but you can still create original stories that don’t need to be spoon-fed by a previous work. Going forward, an artist needs to branch out and try new things. At some point the copying of tropes that worked in the past will tire and your work will become dated.
Overall The Shape of Water is definitely an experimental film, primarily with the premise of “why doesn’t the creature from the black lagoon get the girl?” question. The movie is held together by excellent performances, a fantastic representation of American Sign Language, and the intrigue of the premise. Hopefully this will be the only time Guillermo del Toro copies and pastes from Pan’s Labyrinth and will create works that stand on their own in the future. But for now, I’m glad The Shape of Water is receiving all the accolades it has clearly earned.
Guys and gals, after a two-month absence, I’m back!
This is my review of The Disaster Artist!
Based on the book “The Disaster Artist,” the making of “The Room” is chronicled through the tumultuous friendship between Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) as they meet in an acting class, form a bond and travel to LA together to prove all the naysayers wrong. The end result is “The Room,” a film both infamously terrible and an instant classic. Before I go on, yes, I have seen The Room and will be reviewing it soon.
The heart of the story is the relationship between Wiseau and Sestero, mostly shown through Sestero’s perspective. Experiencing Wiseau’s strange nature through Sestero’s eyes was a smart choice since it balances out the weirdness of the story. Speaking of Tommy Wiseau, James Franco’s performance is amazing! The accuracy and attention to detail is noteworthy. Everything from the off-putting accent to the hair, his mannerisms; James Franco transforms into Tommy Wiseau. I appreciate how the film never makes Wiseau into a joke, rather it humanizes him and works around his eccentricities, preventing him from coming off as a caricature. As for Dave Franco, while his performance isn’t anything remarkable, he is the grounded and sensible friend who keeps Wiseau’s oddities in check. The fact that brothers James and Dave Franco star as Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero heightens the chemistry between the protagonists, making their relationship believable and natural.
Having never read “The Disaster Artist” book, I didn’t realize until halfway through the film how one-sided and toxic Wiseau and Sestero’s relationship is. He doesn’t try to break up Sestero and his new girlfriend, but his disapproval of the romance is loud and clear. His mistreatment of the cast and crew of “The Room” is not sugarcoated at all; we see him humiliate Juliette Danielle during the awkward sex scene by pointing out a zit on her shoulder, he refuses to turn on the air conditioning, causing a cast member to faint and getting into shouting matches with the cameraman and producer. Wiseau himself could range between codependent and emotionally abusive, but both James Franco’s performance and the film make it very clear that he only has the propensity for being difficult and not abusive by intent. Due to minimal emotional intelligence and a lack of social skills, Wiseau is portrayed as a man who does have a good heart, but chooses self over others more often than not.
The big question with this movie is does it work on its own in spite of “The Room” being the backdrop? As someone who has seen the original “The Room,” but is not a mega-fan, I say YES! The first hour is an underdog story that humanizes the relationship between Wiseau and Sestero, while the second hour continues to develop their troubled friendship all while successfully recreating iconic scenes from “The Room.” The underdog aspect of the story remains front and center even as the making-of comes into play.
Honestly my only complaint would be that the third act feels somewhat rushed. SPOILER: So Sestero and Wiseau have a big confrontation and then Sestero walks off the set of “The Room.” One fade to black later, Sestero looks up while driving and sees a movie poster for “The Room.” Sestero and Wiseau meet again (after an unspecified amount of time) and they make up pretty quickly. Given how much Wiseau has taken advantage of him, I kind of wish we had see Sestero resist forgiving Wiseau, even just a brief look of consternation on his face before realizing what brought him and Wiseau together in the first place. Granted, having never read the book, I don’t know if this is how it happens in the novel, but it felt very rushed to me.
Guys and gals, The Disaster Artist is anything but a disaster. This is a fantastic biopic of how the best-worst movie of all time came to be. A well-crafted script, an endearing love for “The Room” permeating from every actor involve, and the chemistry between James and Dave Franco bring Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero to life, enabling we the audience to empathize with their wild journey towards turning a crazy dream into a cult classic reality.
I wonder if holy water would’ve worked on Pennywise. I guess I’ll try it out the next time I see a killer clown while grocery shopping.
This is my review of It!
Based on both Stephen King’s novel and the 1990 miniseries of the same name, It tells the story of the Loser’s Club, a misfit group of outcasts who begin experiencing frightening apparitions and visitations from Pennywise, a demonic killer clown who has been terrorizing Derry, Maine for thousands of years.
The kids are the heart of this story and these child actors are absolutely fantastic! Their chemistry with one another is impeccable; I could believe that these kids would hang out at a Starbucks after school together. While it is uncomfortable to see twelve-year olds dropping F-bombs, I honestly prefer that over cheesy phrases that no kid would ever say. I like how they don’t go into long diatribes about their friendship. Their bond is shown to us through their actions and decisions as a group, how they come to each others’ rescue whenever one of them is reeling from an encounter with Pennywise. Much like the first Alien movie, this film spends its first hour fleshing out Bill, Stan, Ben, Beverly, Eddie, Richie and Mike and establishing them as friends through circumstance. You get the sense that it is in being rejected by others that they have come to accept one another.
All right, let’s talk about Pennywise because, by God, how can you not talk about Pennywise?! Bill Skarsgård nails it as Pennywise. Gone is the witty banter of Tim Curry’s interpretation of Pennywise. This Pennywise is basically a Machiavellian demon, one who rules his chosen targets by presenting himself as their worst fears made manifest. After we meet him in the film’s first eight minutes, the movie then proceeds to build up the terror of anticipating his unpredictable presence rather than having him screech at the kids in every single scene. He is featured more prominently in end of the second act and the entire third act, but for the first hour and a half, he’s like the Fire Lord in Avatar: The Last Airbender; shrouded in mystery and kept in the shadows with a single red balloon being his calling card.
What keeps the Pennywise apparitions from becoming too repetitive is that they are used to establish the worst fears and darkest memories of our protagonists. Bill is forced to revisit his guilt over Georgie’s death when he follows Pennywise (disguised as Georgie) into his flooded basement and faces not-Georgie, who is wearing the same yellow raincoat he was last seen wearing on the day of his death. Mike’s first Pennywise encounter comes to him in the form of burning hands trapped behind a door, a gut-wrenching representation of the family he lost in a horrific fire. These scenes are critical to the character development, as well as for getting a sense of Pennywise’s possible omniscience and immortality. I really wonder if this is what it would look like if God actually gave Lucifer a free hand. Luckily the old serpent can’t do squat without God’s permission, and after seeing this movie, I’m most certainly glad that’s the case!
Speaking of which, I would like to say that while this is a secular film, it would not be far-fetched to call this an unintentionally accurate portrayal of what it is like to deal with spiritual attack. Not so much the over-the-top scares, but in the depiction of the unnerving reality of being bullied and harassed by evil. Granted, this isn’t a de facto story of spiritual warfare, but I do feel that those who do work in that field (such as those involved in deliverance ministry and maybe even exorcists) could benefit from watching this film. Spiritual attacks certainly make life challenging, but they can also serve as a wake-up call to run to Jesus if you’ve been moving away from Him for a while.
There’s this really unnecessary love triangle between Bill, Bev and Ben (try saying those three names ten times fast) that the filmmakers do try to develop, but it ultimately falls flat because it’s just a distraction from the main plot.
Speaking of Bev, she has this reputation of being promiscuous, even though we see that it’s not the case at all. This point is hand-fisted throughout the film. Now while I am glad that slut-shaming is addressed in this film, it gets tiresome by the fifteenth time a character throws an accusation of promiscuity in Bev’s face. There’s a more subtle way to write slut-shaming into your movie, and I hope filmmakers learn how to do so.
The very end of the film features the kids basically making a blood pact that they’ll return to Derry if Pennywise returns. Yeah, I felt that was a bit much. Hey, guys, I think a verbal agreement would’ve been just fine, but what do I know? I guess being stalked by a killer clown can make you resort to extreme measures.
Overall It can certainly be called a crowd-pleasing horror flick. This movie is like Deadpool in that it’s better watched with a group of friends at a midnight screening. Fortunately even if it weren’t a midnight movie, the script is well-written and stands on its own two feet. Add to that the stellar performances of Bill Skarsgård and the child actors, and excellent directorial work from Director Andy Muschietti, and you’ve got yourself a Stephen King adaption worthy of the hype and applause it has received.
Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, pray for us.
Given that the new It film is immensely dark and heavy, I thought it’d be fun to add the Nostalgia Critic’s review of the 1990 miniseries “It” as a bonus feature. 🙂
I cannot believe this happened in America…and yet, in a most depressing way, I actually can.
This is my review of Detroit.
On July 23rd, 1967, an after-hours unlicensed bar called “Blind Pig” had been raided (for the third time, according to historical records). As bar patrons were taken into police custody, a Molotov cocktail was thrust at police, setting off a riot that would throw all of Detroit into anarchy. With residents looting and officers arresting left and right, trust between kinsmen had evaporated. The spirit of hate and violence found its way to the Algiers Motel, where various people had sought refuge from the chaos outside. When one of the motel guests, a man named Carl Cooper, shoots a starter pistol out the window, the police outside are alarmed and suspect there to be a sniper. They end up at the doorstep of the Algiers Motel and from there is the beginning of a horrific night: Twelve people–ten black men and two white women–are harassed and interrogated by three Detroit police officers for several hours in a search for a rogue sniper. False executions, beatings and, eventually, actual deaths–specifically the murders of Carl Cooper, Fred Temple, and Aubrey Pollard occur within the walls of the Algiers Motel.
So I did some research on the 12th Street Riot and the Algiers Motel tragedy (it’s commonly called an “incident,” but I’m calling it a tragedy), and based on what I read and the information I collected, I think that both events were recreated the best way they could have been. The movie opens with the Blind Pig raiding and the riot that ensues provides context leading up to what happened at the Algiers Motel. The first twenty minutes have a sense of grand scale and visual storytelling. If anything, this film is a thoughtful depiction of two things: the mob mentality and anarchy. We see the bar patrons and observers angrily question the nature of the arrests in the opening scene, and it is made clear that raids such as these are commonplace but infuriating for all who are subjected to it. This certainly does not justify the Molotov cocktail being thrown at police, but in terms of the narrative it does provide context. The first hour presents a picture of harassed people succumbing to blind anger and a plethora of police officers– who were probably not prepared for a riot to literally conquer an entire city–reacting the best and worst way they know how. I mentioned anarchy and that is because Detroit has a beleaguered past and the descent of a city to the depths of chaos is masterfully portrayed in this film. Characters are seen running into grocery stores and rushing out with food, but because we are first shown looters fueling the flames, the sense of who is friend and who is foe is significantly blurred, which is typically how things play out in real-world riot situations. There’s a particularly heart-wrenching scene where it had been previously established that there were rogue snipers targeting officers. With this in mind, we cut to a young black girl peeking through closed blinds. The camera then focuses on an officer who looks up and raises his gun at the window where we can only see the girl’s eyes…but not her face.
Now let us talk about the actual Algiers Motel storyline itself. Halfway through the second act of the film, I found myself thinking that the Algiers Motel plot is both a strength and a weakness of the film. I will explain the strengths first.
As a depiction of authoritarianism and realistic racism, this movie does a damn good job at showing both. It is clear right from the get-go that the officers who are interrogating the Algiers Motel residents are less concerned with finding the starter pistol and are fueled by the thrill of having power over vulnerable human beings, as well as their own personal prejudices. In terms of realistic racism, kudos go to Will Poulter, whose performance as Officer Philip Krauss is humanistic and terrifying. This is not a cartoony racist; this is a racist person who you could conceivably pass by at the grocery store. He’s not a moustache-twirling villain and he’s not given any overtly racist lines to spout out. The racism of Philip Krauss is all in his attitude, in his treatment of the rioters leading up to what happens at the Algiers Motel. A nuanced portrayal of an individual who sees certain groups of people as subhuman is far more unnerving. You don’t have to use the “N-word” to be a racist. It is how you perceive and treat those who are of a different race than yourself that speak volumes about your view on human dignity.
If you watch the second trailer for Detroit (Detroit Trailer 2 on YouTube, if you’re interested), it shows a gripping scene from the film of John Boyega trying to recollect and explain to two detectives what happened at the Algiers Motel.
I am sad to say that this scene is not the first scene of the movie and it really should have been. The raiding of the Blind Pig bar is the opening scene, and as compelling as it is, it lacks the introduction of our main characters. This leads into the main problem with Detroit: there is no one main character to gravitate towards and this is a chaotic story that really needs a consistent point of view. John Boyega’s security guard protagonist Melvin Dismukes is marketed in both trailers as the film’s moral center. However, the movie struggles to balance the character arches of both Melvin Dismukes and Larry Reed, the lead singer of The Dramatics, played brilliantly by Algee Smith. As a result, John Boyega’s character is certainly sympathetic, but doesn’t evolve into an empathetic three-dimensional character. Because the film is more focused on what happens rather than getting to know all who were involved, there’s no one character to connect with and feel the story through, which makes Detroit more of a spectator experience rather than a cinematic participation. This is why Detroit is an unfocused narrative that would’ve made an excellent docudrama on the History Channel.
Here is the downside of the Algiers Motel plotline: As the second act of the film goes on, the Algiers Motel story devolves into an audience endurance test. To be fair, because everything that happens in this plotline is intertwined, i.e. if one scene is cut from it, entire context is lost, I don’t know how the filmmakers could have shortened the second act. That said, there is a way to properly lengthen such a heavy plotline so that it doesn’t become too long and lose impact.
I would like a final point that having John Krasinski, or Jim from The Office, play a hotheaded lawyer in the last twenty minutes of your gritty drama is a little distracting. Just saying.
Overall Detroit will make you angry. Whether you are black, white, whatever your background is, the ending is an egregious miscarriage of justice worthy of righteous anger. Despite its setbacks in characterization and narrative focus, Detroit gives us a consummate picture of a frightening time in American history that we are seeing play out once again in 2017, a time when everyone thought they were in the right and nobody took the time to even consider that they could be wrong. It depresses me and yet it does not surprise me that this tragedy happened in America. Let us do our very best to ensure that another Algiers Motel does not happen in the land of opportunity again.
Saint Martin de Porres and Saint Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.
You’re gonna need a nap after this movie because MY GOODNESS, this is quite an intense experience!
This is my review of Dunkirk!
The year is 1940. Nazi Germany has invaded France and, as a result, thousands of Allied soldiers are now held hostage on the seaside town of Dunkirk. On the surface, the situation might not seem so urgent (just stay put in that town and wait for help to come along)…until we realize that the Allied perimeter is shrinking and–ergo–German forces are closing in on the vulnerable men. In addition, these are 400,000 men who are needed back in England to protect the homefront. Told from three perspective angles–land, air, and sea–we the audience watch with bated breath the horrors these men endure as they desperately await deliverance from the evil closing in on them.
In reviewing movies, something I have learned is that with certain film pieces–primarily ones with unconventional narrative styles–is to look at what the filmmaker’s intention was in the creation of the project. When I kept hearing from friends who had seen the film that there was little dialogue and essentially no main protagonist, I knew that finding out Christopher Nolan’s intent would be key in giving the movie a fair review. Sure enough, I came across a quote from Nolan himself where he explains the main goal of Dunkirk:
“The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?” –Christopher Nolan on “Dunkirk”
With that in mind, did Christopher Nolan achieve his goal in employing visual storytelling to chronicle the battle on Dunkirk?
Ladies and gentlemen…YES! He did and he did it masterfully. This isn’t like with Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” where the historical narrative gets bogged down by a clichéd romance between Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale. No, this is a straightforward visual saga of 400,000 men trying to keep their heads above water (quite literally at some points in the film) as they fight to stay alive each day and night. To quote YouTube movie reviewer Ralph Sepe Jr., “A really great film is one you can watch with the sound off and still know what’s going on.” Dunkirk is most certainly an experience and one that should be viewed in IMAX. Granted, it would still be effective without IMAX, but for an even more dramatic effect, I would recommend seeing it in IMAX. The bang and clamor is palpable as the men go from one brush with death to another. The visual experience of Dunkirk is so visceral that you WILL hear the bullets whizzing by your ear. Your heart WILL pound rapidly at each and every bomb that falls from the sky and blasts the sand beneath their boots. This movie provides very little breathing room, i.e. no scenes of the men joking with bottles of beer in hand, so expect to be holding your breath many times throughout the film.
Yes, there is very little dialogue in this film, and in a strange way it actually works to the film’s advantage. Let’s be honest: In a high-stress situation, would there really be any small chit-chat going on? No, I don’t think so. Okay, maybe there’d be that one guy who tries to lighten the mood, but even he would have one thing on his mind in the midst of danger: “Survive.” Because there’s no cheesy sentences about a girlfriend back home or clichéd speeches about freedom and the American way, the story is what take center-stage–as it should be. While there is no main protagonist to relate to, this enables the audience to care for all the men, which from a Catholic perspective brings to mind the Church’s stance on the dignity of every person; how whether you know somebody’s name or not, they have an inherent dignity simply because they are.
A friend of mine pointed out, “Notice how there is very little blood. Nobody gets decapitated or anything. Saving Private Ryan focused on the physical aspects of war; Dunkirk is more interested in the psychological.” You are definitely right, M.P.! This movie will definitely leave you in a state of dread and anticipation. The first five minutes puts us through sudden gunfire that will leave you shaken, and you’ll be even more anxious when the men narrowly survive the first round of bombs dropped. The film is unrelenting in not letting a single moment pass without the men coming face-to-face with some form of catastrophe. The end result is that we, the audience, are right there with them. Our hearts are pounding as loudly as theirs, we tremble every time the characters look up at aircrafts hovering over them in the ashen skies, we do not feel safe on land or sea. Even the skies bring the promise of hellfire upon these stranded soldiers. Yes, there are physical deaths and wounded fighters, but the psychological hell of waiting for a bullet to come for you burns itself into your brain all the way to the end credits.
This movie does not transition between Acts very well. The majority of mainstream films follow a three-act structure. I’ll give just one example:
The First Act of Pan’s Labyrinth begins with the faun’s narration of the fairytale and ends when–in present day–the faun tells Ofelia that she has to find three items before the full moon. The Second Act starts when Ofelia crawls into the large tree to confront the Toad and ends when [SPOILER] her mother dying in childbirth. The Third Act begins at Carmen’s funeral and leads us to the climax and resolution.
Case in point: With Pan’s Labyrinth, you knew exactly when and how the story was progressing. Meanwhile with Dunkirk, it was a bit hard to tell where we were in terms of story progression. I actually had to look at my phone at one point, and I saw that it was only 9:00 and I was at the 8:00 screening. I wouldn’t have pointed this out if it weren’t for the fact that SO MUCH happens in the first act that I thought we were somewhere in the second act. You know those movies that have a scene or two that is all shot in one take? This whole movie felt like it was done in one take, which would be revolutionary if there were indicators in the plot that, “The first act is drawing to a close, now we’re heading into Act Two.” The weaving and connecting of the storylines on air, land and sea was a tad clumsy.
I kind of wish it had an ending that was a little more hopeful. Basically if you’ve watched The Theory of Everything all way through (which you absolutely should do because it is amazing), the vibe you got with the way that movie ended is the same one you’ll feel at the end of Dunkirk. I’ll just put it this way: For a movie that markets the triumphant rescue of 400,000 men, the actual triumph is really downplayed. Going back to Christopher Nolan’s intent, maybe that was the point, but still a small spark of hope after being rescued would have been welcomed.
Dunkirk is, above all things, an experience. A bone-chilling, white-knuckled, gut-wrenching depiction of war. Crisp camerawork, subtle acting and to-the-point storytelling elevates Dunkirk so that it stands firmly among the great war movies all while standing alone as a unique art piece in modern cinema.
A very learned friend of mine had this to say about The Shack: “Perhaps God used flawed means, such as a movie like The Shack, to show us a much bigger and more completed portrait of His love.“
This is my review of The Shack!
Mackenzie Phillips, or Mack as he is called, is your average working man. He has a wife he adores and three kids (Josh, Kate and Missy) he would die for. He is especially close to his youngest Missy. During a camping trip, Mack sees Josh and Kate on a canoe when Kate stands on it and causes it to capsize. While Missy is focused on her coloring book, Mack rushes to the lake to save Kate and Josh. He gets Kate and Josh safely back to shore…but Missy is nowhere to be found. A desperate search leads to the devastating discovery that Missy has been murdered by a serial killer.
Only her red dress remains.
Completely torn apart by the death of his child, Mack is angry when he receives a note in the mail that reads, “Mack, it’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together,” written by someone called Papa–which he rightfully perceives to be a cruel joke. This single note leads Mack to the very shack where Missy’s dress was found. However, instead of finding her killer, Mack finds the very Person he’s been running from: God. He meets God in the form of the three persons of the Trinity: The Father (Octavia Spencer), the Son (Avraham Aviv Alush) and the Holy Spirit (Sumire Matsubara).
Before We Commence…
So before I begin this review, there are a couple of things I’d like to address: The original novel by William P. Young is NOT a theology book. It was never meant to be one. While both the book and the film do have quite a few theological hiccups that I will make note of, to completely dismiss the story is missing the forest for the trees; it’s like denouncing Beauty and the Beast because of its Stockholm Syndrome-esque undertones and ignoring its emphasis on redemption, forgiveness and the freeing power of true love. That said, I can see the arguments for and against The Shack; those who deeply care for theological accuracy are right to err on the side of caution. Meanwhile, there is nothing wrong with those who do find meaning in the story’s overarching message of God’s love and healing power. My point is this: By all means, stay true with your convictions, but be sure to view all things in a balanced perspective.
Okay, so with all that out of the way, let’s get to the review.
The portrayal of the Trinity is absolutely masterful. Yes, yes, The Father, aka “Papa” is an African-American woman, the Son is an Israeli man, and the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman. I understand that there’s an uber-problematic “God the Mother” movement, so portraying God as a woman is a controversial artistic choice. Fortunately, there’s this beautiful little thing called context and it is important sometimes….actually–scratch that–ALL THE TIME! 😀 Anywho, so the reason God/Papa is manifested as a woman is because the only comforting person Mack could turn to during his turbulent childhood was his next-door neighbor, who happened to be Octavia Spencer. This is how he perceived comfort and unconditional love. A close friend of mine pointed out to me that in the book, it is better explained when Papa says something to the effect of, “If I came to you in My true form, you would not be able to handle it.” This explanation does conform to what we know from Sacred Scripture, where we see Moses having to cover his eyes when he approaches the burning bush. It speaks of God’s pastoral nature and how He meets us where we are so that He can begin to guide us to where He wills us to be.
Back to the Holy Trinity: When Mack asks, “So which one of you is…[God?]…” all three of them respond, “I AM.” All three of them are distinct in personality, yet united in purpose. They each have their own individual creative gifts: The Father cares for the dwelling place, the Son is a carpenter (imagine that 🙂 ) and the Holy Spirit tends the garden. During my second viewing, I noticed how the Father, Spirit and Son have their own style of clothing, yet their color schemes always match one another.
One Person I am especially fond of is The Holy Spirit. If you’ve been following Catholic Girl Bloggin’ for a while, you may have noticed that I’m a big fan of the Paraclete. Let’s just say He’s helped me out quite a bit within a last year and has become my hero as a result. 🙂 Anyway, as you can imagine, an accurate and sensitive portrayal of the dove from above matters a lot to me. So how did Sumire Matsubara do? My friends, she is a wonderful interpretation of the Holy Spirit! Ethereal, kind, consoling, this soft and breezy figure breathes life into the role. She drops some convicting truth bombs on Mack in a comforting way, much like the real Holy Spirit. I like that she’s a gardener because it speaks of the Holy Spirit’s own life-giving and creative nature. Also, ten extra brownie points for making her shoulders shimmer every time she walks in sunlight.
Sam Worthington gives this performance his all. An anguished father drowning in his own personal Hell, all he wants is justice and revenge; anything will do. Having survived a brutal childhood, he managed to create an idyllic family life that was shattered at the hands of a callous predator and cannot bring himself to even begin putting back together the remnants of his broken family. Though the faith of his grieving wife never wavers, Mack flat out (and understandably) blames God for this injustice upon his family. Mack is a tortured soul in desperate need of healing and restoration, and Sam Worthington has the everyman persona and depth that such a role demands.
This movie really nails the love and mercy of God, and it’s not a permissive love where Mack is allowed to remain angry and jaded. It brings to mind an epic quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “God seeks us where we are, not so that we stay there, but so that we may come to be where He is, so that we may getbeyond ourselves.” The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit seek out Mack where he is in his grief and [quite literally] bring him to where they are (the titular Shack) so that he may be challenged to grow, heal and move on. Each person of the Trinity empathizes with Mack all while slowly but surely bringing him out of his inward anger. This movie really demonstrates that at its core, Christianity is an encounter with a Person: Jesus Christ. It is an encounter that will change you and the course of your life forever. By the end of his journey, Mack is a changed man. His perception, his actions, even his family are fundamentally transformed by this spiritual odyssey. To encounter Christ is to be changed to your core, and if anything, the Shack understands this and it is a point that this movie hits right out of the ballpark.
So early on in the movie we learn that Mack may or may not have succeeded in poisoning his drunken, abusive father. This is brought up in Tim McGraw’s narration of Mack’s childhood (though I kind of wish Octavia Spencer’s Papa had been doing the narrating, but whatever)…and then is NEVER brought up again. There is a deleted scene where it is mentioned, but it’s clear that the filmmakers weren’t quite sure what to do with this aspect of Mack’s character.
Though I did praise to high Heaven the film’s portrayal of the Holy Spirit, I will admit that the script does get a little wishy-washy with the Advocate at times. They definitely got the “comforter and consoler” to the tee, but keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is both the love of God and the wrath of God. Sometimes He roars, sometimes He whispers. He will sound the alarm and shake an unrepentant sinner to their core if that is what it takes to save them. If there ever are future cinematic depictions of the Holy Spirit, I do hope that He is written as the kindly Teacher who will lay down the law with (holy) fire when necessary.
I was all onboard with The Son’s character until He said this line: “Religion…it’s too much work. I don’t wants slaves; I want friends.” I literally facepalmed and said aloud, “Darn it, you had to go there?!” Yeah, the Son went the same route as the “I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” guy. Granted, I probably should have seen that coming given that the author has a more–let’s be kind and call it–progressive view on religion than a Catholic gal like myself, but still…WHY?!
All right, so the biggest theological elephant in the room concerns the sovereignty of God, i.e. the “God in the control” aspect of Christian doctrine…and this is what the movie tries to tackle and, at the same time, also tiptoes around. Throughout the flick, Mack challenges the Father about why an all-powerful and merciful God would allow the innocent Missy to be brutally murdered. The movie tries to use the “God is good” and “God can bring marvelous good out of terrible tragedies,” but it tiptoes when God’s goodness and control are further challenged. There is one unspoken question that does loom over the script: Was Missy’s death the work of evil, the will of God or maybe even both? If one of the main characters wasn’t God Himself, then this question could afford to go unanswered. However, because the Triune God is one of the story’s protagonists and the movie is trying to make sense of this tragedy, the question itself almost can’t be answered because it would create some plot holes. Suffice it to say, Papa tells Mack (paraphrasing here), “I can bring incredible good out of unspeakable tragedy. Remember that I do not create the tragedy.”
I think it’s okay to admit that the topic of God’s sovereignty is a very difficult one to comprehend with our finite understanding. Now that does not mean that we shouldn’t bother to study it; on the contrary, study and read every book written on the subject to your heart’s content! However, keep in mind what Saint Thomas Aquinas once said, “If you can understand it, then it’s not God.” Learn and try to understand, but don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself unable to fully comprehend the mystery of our God.
Is the Shack perfectly sound on a theological basis? No. There are some questionable lines and logic that will rub people the wrong way. As I said before, I completely understand students of theology who will not get behind The Shack. They are not wrong in their caution.
All of this being said, as a conversation starter on the love and mercy of the Lord, as a tale of one man’s spiritual journey towards healing and restoration of self, The Shack shines bright. It stumbles on some theological aspects of Christianity, but in demonstrating the radical transformative power of an encounter with Jesus Christ, the Shack does not hold back and shows this element of the Christian religion in all its glory. Perhaps movies like The Shack are willed by God to challenge believers and non-believers alike to go out and learn what the Christian faith is truly all about. Those concerned about theological errors can be emboldened to study more and argue eloquently, while those who find meaning in this story can be renewed in God’s love for all humanity. That, my friends, is how God writes straight with crooked lines; by using flawed means to show us a much bigger and more completed portrait of His everlasting love.
Two years ago today, Catholic Girl Bloggin’ was launched and boy, what a wild ride it has been! I would like to thank my followers from WordPress and Facebook for all the support. I don’t know where I’d be without you guys and gals.
Let us celebrate with a review of Wonder Woman!
Diana is (quite literally) the only child on an island of Amazonian women. She grows up to be a skilled fighter, ready to defend her island against Ares, the god of war, a.k.a. this story’s version of Lucifer. Then one day, a World War I plane pierces the force shield that keeps her island invisible to Ares. Inside the plane is Captain Kirk–I mean–Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Diana jumps into the sea, saves Prince Eric–sorry, I mean–Steve and carries him to shore. No, she doesn’t sing to him, but she does ask him who he is. With the lasso of truth, the Amazonian women get Steve to reveal that he is an American spy who has discovered a terrible plot from the Germans to use chemical warfare to claim victory in this war. Moved by his testimony, Diana sees an opportunity to enter our world, join the effort in World War I and defeat Ares, the one responsible for pitting men against each other.
Gal Gadot is a fantastic Wonder Woman! Ever an idealist, her black-and-white view of the world is grounded in her compassion for others and her belief in humanity’s potential for goodness. This makes her naiveté seem less childish, coming from a place of empathy, not ignorance. I like how she’s not totally clueless when she first steps onto the shores of WWI-era London, but she doesn’t completely get the hang of modern-day living in one fell swoop. Her fish-out-of-water innocence is believable and her strength is unquestionable. What really makes her shine is her compassion for others. Her view on humanity’s goodness is a tad romantic, but it is also similar to Catholic theology of humans being born inherently good. Her desire to save humans never comes off as condescending, as in, “Oh, these poor weak humans are so helpless and I’m the only one who can protect them.” Rather she sees very clearly the threat of Ares and recognizes that humans don’t know what she knows about him, so the sooner she can find and kill him, the safer humans will be.
Chris Pine really shines as Steve Trevor. Granted, Steve’s character on paper is pretty typical (good dude who finds himself in a situation he didn’t ask for), but Chris Pine makes him so likable. Charming but never arrogant, he treats Diana as an equal. He is protective of her without patronizing her. Their relationship is not based on obligation just because she saved his life. Because she helps him get off Themyscira (her Amazonian island) and he agrees to take her to the war, there was a potential danger of their relationship becoming one where they inadvertently use each other, but fortunately the script focuses more on the fish-out-of-water aspect, so they have a legitimate reason to stay together before they fall in love.
I really gotta applaud the film for NOT saturating the Amazonian women with makeup. We are allowed to see their wrinkles and crow’s feet, which makes sense because these women are always out in the sun, training and caring for their island.
Without giving too much away, one of the strongest aspects of the script is that it is respectful to both Diana’s otherworldly beliefs and Steve’s reality. There’s never a scene where Steve spats out, “It’s all make-believe! Ares, Zeus, clay babies, none of it is real!” While she does become discouraged when things don’t turn out the way she had hoped, Diana doesn’t throw in the towel with a jaded attitude. Diana and Steve are very tactful when handling each other’s thought process, adding to their very equal relationship. We know that Steve really does find her world hard to believe, but he has seen enough and experienced enough to know that Diana is who she is and he respects that. As for her, Diana grows in maturity and forms a more well-rounded view of the world while holding on to her convictions.
The movie uses slow-motion a little too much. I’m not saying it doesn’t look cool when it is used, but it does get repetitive after a while.
Okay, so the island of Themyscira (try saying that ten times fast) is hidden by an invisible force shield that Ares, an immortal god of war, cannot find…and YET Steve’s plane pierces right through it with no issue. In addition, the very-mortal Germans pass through the veil effortlessly. Granted, this doesn’t ruin the movie for me at all, but it’s about as laughable as how [SPOILER for the movie “Arrival”] the climax of Arrival is solved by a phone call. I get it, you need an inciting incident to get the plot going, but it’s still kind of funny to me.
As much as Ares is built up in this film, Ares himself is pretty generic. Yeah, he’s basically the DCEU’s version of Lucifer, but he’s still a “gotta destroy this world and replace it with a better one because humanity sucks” kind of guy.
Praise Jesus (and director Patty Jenkins) for FINALLY giving us a solid DCEU (DC Extended Universe) movie! Despite a few clichés and generic plot points, the greatest strength of both the titular character and the movie is its heart. Wonder Woman is a much-needed home run for the DCEU thanks to a strong and compassionate heroine, a romance with tons of chemistry and a balanced approach to its ideas.
Side Note: I really think that Wonder Woman is going to be the best part of Justice League. I’m callin’ it right here, right now.
Come, Sweet Paraclete!
Imagine if you will the Apostles in the upper room. Jesus has just ascended into Heaven and they are sitting around, twiddling their thumbs, wondering, “What the camel are we gonna do now?” Maybe one of them looks over at Peter, who responds with something to the effect of, “I’m just as lost as you are, guys.”
Meanwhile let’s imagine that Jesus is back up in Heaven, looking down at His disheartened Apostles, His beloved friends. He turns to the Father and says, “Is it time to send him down there?” “Yes, My Son, it is time.”
Back on Earth in the upper room, a sudden mighty wind shakes the walls, causing the Apostles to look around frantically and jump from their chairs. Darting their eyes upward, they see a large flame above them. The single flame splits into individual flames, each one resting atop their heads. A deep sense of peace and power fill them from within, casting out all the fear and uncertainty that had been perturbing them. As if their bodies are functioning without them, they begin speaking in other languages as if they have been fluent their whole lives.
That night in the upper room, the Holy Spirit made his public debut as he came upon the Apostles and overshadowed them with the love of God.
Friend and Champion
So before I explain Pentecost, I think it would help to understand the Holy Spirit himself. Who is he, a distant force or a most determined Advocate of our salvation?
The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. He is the love between the Father and the Son manifested. While the dove from above does make his official appearance in the Acts of the Apostles, we are foretold of him through the Old Testament, starting with Genesis.
Genesis 1:1-2, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters.”
Did you catch that last line? “…while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters?” Sound familiar? The Spirit came in the form of a mighty wind that shook the walls of the upper room where the Apostles were residing.
We see him again in the Book of Samuel just after Samuel anointed Saul.
1 Samuel 10:10, “When they came to the hill, there was a group of prophets to meet him; then the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them.”
It is not until the Annunciation when we finally hear of the Holy Spirit by name. After she is told that she will give birth to the Messiah, Mary reasonably asks the Archangel Gabriel how this virgin birth is to happen, “since I have no relations with a man?” she questions.
Luke 1:35, “The Angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
Then, at Jesus’ baptism, there is a visual representation of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 13:16-17, “After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I AM well pleased.”
We can safely say that the Holy Spirit has been active throughout history and continues to be flying around the globe to this day. With this logic, we can conclude that the Holy Spirit is not some vague, distant ghost who does little and says even less. The third person of the Trinity is alive, vibrant and ever seeking the salvation of our souls. There’s a reason why he is also known as the Advocate, Comforter, Helper and so on. Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes upon us as a roar, a mighty wind that shakes us to our core and wakes us from our apathy. Other times the Holy Spirit is like a feather landing on our heads; sudden but gentle. He whispers to us and caresses our souls with the love of the Father.
Now that we know who the Holy Spirit is, we can move on to understanding what Pentecost is.
A Church is Born
Pentecost is what happened in that upper room. The Holy Spirit, having first appeared to Mary in a private setting, then revealing himself again in the public setting of Jesus’ baptism, was now making himself known once more in a small room where the apostles were gathered in seclusion. He came upon them and brought them out of their isolation, bursting open the closed doors of fear and doubt into a world hungry for the Good News. He empowered them, equipped them and readied them for their mission: To preach the Gospel to every living creature and baptize the masses in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
This mission is alive and well today. It is the duty of every Christian to pick up the torch that was handed down to us at our baptism. However, our world does not make that task easy at all. Our world fights against us, making that path difficult to say the least. This is where the help of the Holy Spirit is absolutely needed. As scripture has shown us, the Holy Spirit is not an abstraction or an uninvolved force; he is a person. He is the love between the Father and the Son and as it says in 1 John 4:18, “Perfect love casts out fear.” As our advocate, he speaks to us and for us. As our comforter, he lifts us up when we are knocked down. As our helper, he guides us to wisdom and truth. As our friend, he is always there for us and ready to stand beside us.
Let us end this piece with a prayer to the Holy Spirit.
Holy Spirit, you are welcome here.
In your presence there is no room for fear or anxiety.
You are the champion of our souls and the fiery advocate for our salvation.
Come fill our minds with knowledge and truth.
Come fill our hearts with compassion and love of neighbor.
Come fill our souls with the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding.
May your friendship and unfailing help in our lives shape us into the men and women Christ has called us to be.
CGB: (Wakes up in a shiny high-tech laboratory) Where…where am I? (Hears a high-pitched chuckle) (EnterTHE LAUGHING MAN, a scientist) THE LAUGHING MAN: Hello Catholic Girl Bloggin’. CGB: What happened to me? THE LAUGHING MAN: You were a refugee. CGB: Oh, well, that’s convenient. THE LAUGHING MAN: We rescued you when your raft sank. CGB: Way to attempt to make a statement about the refugee crisis in your script even though in reality, Hollywood cares as much about refugees as Willy Wonka does about a bratty child. THE LAUGHING MAN: (Shrugs) Just be grateful that Hollywood cares about refugees while it’s still convenient to. Anyway, we saved you and now we have redesigned your entire being so that you are the first sentient cyborg. CGB: (Tries to sit up, but finds that I am strapped to the way-too-bright table) Are you about to tell me that the big twist is that I used to be a person of a different nationality but then you placed my brain in a Caucasian gal’s body? THE LAUGHING MAN: (Stares blankly at me) How do you know the seemingly smart, yet accidentally racist plot twist? CGB: My real last name is of Portuguese origin–was I Ofelia from Pan’s Labyrinth?! THE LAUGHING MAN: No, you were actually– CGB: Oohh, I know! I was Moana of Motunui?! Can I have the little pig as a pet? I love Pua! THE LAUGHING MAN: What film do you think you’re in, Miss Bloggin? CGB: The live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell starring not me, but Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese protagonist Motoko Kusanagi!
This is my review of Ghost in the Shell (2017)!
The Major, also known as Motoko Kusanagi (not much of a spoiler; even I knew that’s what her real name is and I’ve never even seen the original 1995 movie!) is a humanoid cyberborg who works at Hanka Robotics as a perfect super soldier hunting down the worst of the worst. An encounter with a geisha robot leaves her shaken and questioning her forgotten past and current existence. While that inner drama is going on, a mysterious cyberterrorist called Kuze begins terrorizing Hanka Robotics and it’s up to the Major to stop his anarchic reign.
My friend and fellow blogger who wishes to be known as The Laughing Man will be helping me analyze this live-action Anime remake. My points are in blue and his are in teal.
The Hits CGB: The Major/Motoko herself is a pretty compelling character. Though her character is essentially every “humanoid-cyberborg character contemplating their purpose” ever, Johansson’s performance engages us in her personal odyssey. The Major is flesh and metal, brain and code; an invincible, yet not indestructible sentient being who finds herself seeking connection and questioning her blurry origin. Little hints and pieces about her past are slowly and subtly as puncturing bullets hit her targets. While she is stone-faced and focused, there is a deep vulnerability to her–dare I say–a humanity within her sleek armor that make her weaker moments believable and sympathetic. Both the script and Johansson do a phenomenal job at blurring the Major’s character so that you don’t forget she’s a humanoid cyberborg, yet you believe her very real, very human thoughts and feelings. Instead of hammering us over the head with her robotic body or human nature; rather Scarlett Johansson’s performance as the iconic Major is allowed to speak for itself. The world design is astonishing to behold. I love the city segments where we can just watch the Major walk through cyberpunk Tokyo and we get to see all the lights and hologram projections throughout the day-to-day. Those geisha robot things are super creative and I wish we saw them more in the movie. I wouldn’t mind a climactic battle involving the Major doing battle with those robotic geishas coming at her. If this movie gets a sequel (it probably won’t, but hey, a girl can dream, right?) I would hope to see that! There are quite a few recreations of the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie and, for the most part, these recreations were done with careful consideration of those scenes. Even though I am not a Ghost in the Shell fan, I can tell that a great deal of care and effort went into being as respectful to the source material as possible, which is to be commended. I give this movie a lot of credit for making me ponder something that I haven’t really considered: What exactly makes us human? The movie cleverly calls into question whether it is having a physical body or just the existence of the soul with or without the body that makes us truly human. Is the physical body a necessity or a formality while the soul and mind are the defining characteristics of being human? Can you still be human if your entire body is metal, but your brain is that of a flesh-and-blood person? These questions that came to mind made me further appreciate that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, for He is Who made us human. While the movie itself never actually answers these questions, any believer would find it suitable to bring questions such as these before our Lord and allow Him to guide them to His Truth. The central theme of both this film (and the Anime it is based on) is identity and this theme is well handled. I would argue that the search for identity is the beginning of the search for God.
Genesis 2:7, “…the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.”
LM: Much like the 1995 original and the Stand Alone Complex television series it spawned, the 2017 Ghost in the Shell works in large part because of its cyberpunk aesthetic. The film is undeniably stylish from a visual standpoint, even as its narrative follows the well-worn trajectory of the cinematic origin story. The production design is immersive and breathtaking. Scenes shot within hotel conference rooms, nightclubs, and tenement buildings feel lived-in. I wouldn’t hesitate to draw comparisons to the original Star Wars or Avatar. In terms of its overall design, the film is a triumph. The designs of various cybernetic characters are also a sight to behold, what with their adjustable eyes and flamboyant costumes. In many respects, I was reminded of the Capitol from The Hunger Games. The action set pieces are also exhilarating. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s opening sequence. As robot commandos storm a hotel conference room, we are immediately captivated. Not only that, but the film foregoes many of the action movie tropes that have given contemporary thrillers a bad name. I can’t recall any instances of shaky-cam, and most of the action sequences were simple enough to follow. A confrontation involving Section 9 Chief Aramaki was especially thrilling to watch and absolutely dazzled me the first time I saw it. And then, there’s Scarlett Johansson’s performance. As somebody who supported her casting from the very beginning, I was very pleased with her work here. She turned the Major into a compelling character, one whose identity crisis and desire to belong were captured especially well in two surprisingly intimate scenes. The Major’s interactions with some of the film’s secondary characters – including Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Ouelet – help the audience empathize with her. She might be a cyborg, but she feels like a full-fledged person (like a lithium flower just about to bloom). Speaking of which, the scene where the Major is being “built” is handled extremely well, even as it copies the same sequence from the original. There’s a poignancy to some of the film’s later scenes that resonated with me in ways I didn’t expect. Going into Ghost in the Shell, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of emotional character development. I was anticipating a dumbed-down action vehicle with sci-fi elements. But director Rupert Sanders and his team of screenwriters have injected the film with a hefty dose of pathos. Of course, I can’t describe some of the movie’s later revelations without delving into spoiler territory, but rest assured, there’s more to this remake(?) than meets the eye.
The Misses CGB: There are three scenes, including an action sequence, that feature seizure-inducing lights. While I don’t have epilepsy or sensitive eyes myself, viewers who have these conditions may want to be aware of these scenes. The first incidence happens in the opening credits, and two of them occur in the second act. The climactic battle is pretty tame in terms of rapidly-flashing neon strobes of light, but still, knowledge is power.
Batou…yeah, even in the trailers he felt very off to me. There’s something very restrained about his character. I can tell that there is more to his character in the Anime than what the film is allowing us to see. He’s not a bad character per se, he’s perfectly serviceable as the Major’s friend and confidant, but he’s your typical stoic tough guy with a soft spot for our main protagonist. While I praised the handling of Major’s character to high Heaven, now I must go into how the technicalities. What do I mean by this? Well… Okay, so the Major is the first sentient robot person–that’s all fine and good–BUT they make a big deal about this only to show us humans who have those two holes in the back of their necks like the Major does. There’s one scene where a scientist is killed by Kuze and he first takes off a half of her face which reveals wires and metal instead of tissue and bone, i.e. she was a robot-ish person. What?! You have humans who are actually robots and there are robot characters who act more human than the humans. Now this may be how it is in the original source material, but even if that is the case, this is not explained very well or even at all. So while doing this collaboration, Laughing Man (LM) and I decided not to reveal the big plot twist, hence I will say this: the twist itself is problematic, but would probably be less so were it not for the fact that it brings to mind a certain person named Rachel Dolezal.
LM: There’s no denying that Ghost in the Shell lacks the philosophical rigor of its predecessors. In the hands of a truly visionary filmmaker (think Arrival’s Denis Villeneuve), this could have been a more thoughtful meditation on the ways in which technology blurs our human identities. While Johansson turns the Major into a believable character with great emotional depth, I often felt as though the film gave in to its baser urges. Make no mistake: the various set pieces are thrilling to watch and well pace, but they couldn’t help but feel lacking in originality. This becomes even more evident when the film borrows visual references from the original. These homages are frequently distracting and serve no other purpose but to remind the viewer of the (superior) 1995 version. The plot is also a bit of a mess. Not only that, but it is also far less interesting than the Major’s personal journey. CEO Cutter of Hanka Robotics is nothing more than a generic corporate villain, while cyber-terrorist Kuze’s complexities are buried beneath some truly hideous costuming. The design for this character is particularly bad, which is a shame because the relationship between his character and the Major’s is one of the movie’s high points. Ghost in the Shell also does a great disservice to its secondary characters. Section 9 team members such as Togusa, Ishikawa, and Saito are introduced briefly and only show up when they have a critical role to play. Not only that, but the dynamic between the members of Section 9 is woefully underdeveloped. The TV series recognized the importance of the interplay between its characters. Unfortunately, that is a quality this adaptation lacks. While a series of shootouts towards the end of the film do the characters some level of justice, there was still a great deal of wasted potential, particularly when it comes to the Major-Batou relationship. At times, the film’s overreliance on visual effects becomes apparent. The hologram advertisements in many of the outdoor scenes feel intrusive and somewhat gaudy. Indeed, there are numerous instances when the film’s aesthetic makes it feel overly stylized. The score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe can best be described as workmanlike. It lacks the memorability of earlier compositions by Kenji Kawai (featured in the end credits) and Yoko Kanno. In fact, the score doesn’t even measure up to either of the two theme songs, performed by Origa, from Stand Alone Complex.
Verdict LM: Having seen the movie twice, I remain conflicted. Originally, I gave it a B+. However, upon a second viewing (and increased exposure to the source material), the film’s faults became more apparent. On the one hand, I feel like Gene Siskel, when he changed his grade for Broken Arrow after listening to Roger Ebert’s assessment of the film. On the other hand, I don’t want to let other critics shape my perspective on the movie, which I found rewarding in its own ways. Tentatively, I have no qualms about giving the film a B and recommending it, even as I consider the possibility of revisiting it a second time.
CGB: Frankly, my dear guys and gals, I thoroughly enjoyed Ghost in the Shell. Sure, it’s pretty standard as far as sci-fi flicks about humanoid cyborgs go, but it’s certainly no Dragonball: Evolution. While the things that don’t work fall flat, the things that do work are worth noting. Everyone involved really cared for this project and while it hasn’t been a critical or commercial darling, it’s better to put effort into something and have it fail than to just throw something half-hearted out into the open for quick cash. A thoughtful performance from Scarlett Johansson, breathtaking visuals and a respect for the source material make this adaptation of Ghost in the Shell better than it should have been. The glaring flaws are still there, but the sum of its parts make those flaws forgivable. I don’t think I’ll be seeing again, but I wouldn’t mind picking it up when it comes on DVD.
CGB: (Sits up on shiny laboratory table) And that was the review of 2017’s Ghost in the Shell! Boy, we did pretty good, Laughing Man. (Looks around) Laughing Man? (No one is around) Is this gonna be like Passengers, where I’m all alone on some overly-complicated spaceship? (EnterKAEL) KAEL: Everything they told you…was a lie. CGB: (Turns around) Are you Kuze?! KAEL: My name is Kael. (Puts on some wicked sunglasses) That is all you need to know. CGB: (Searches for weapon, but is empty-handed) W-what happened to the Laughing Man? KAEL: A friend of yours? CGB: Yeah, friend and collab partner. Also, the person who would know how to get me out of here and back home. KAEL: To find him, you’ll need to go to a very important…. CGB: (Braces self for an impossible task) Bring it on! KAEL:…Interview. CGB: (dumbfounded) Wait, what?! KAEL: At a very…circular place. (Raises eyebrow) You are very confused. CGB: Did my face give it away? KAEL: No, my telekinesis did. (Looks to the right) Go out that door and you will see. CGB: (Opens mouth) KAEL: Yes, the key to getting out of here was literally right in front of you the whole time. CGB: (Walks pastKAEL, looking freaked out, but saying nothing) (Opens door, is blinded by sunlight) (Vision clears) (Looks up) What the? The Circle? (Looks up at the sleek building ahead) Is this that Circle place from the Emma Watson and Tom Hanks movie?!