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Ghost in the Shell Starring: I watched the dubbed version, sorry. Lots of them sounded like Peter Bergman. Director: Mamoru Oshii. Screenwriter: Kazunori Ito.
Iíve tended to stay away from anime, not because I think itís bad, but because itís such a vast and varied field that itís difficult to know where to start.  Itís kind of like being a rock and roll fan all your life, and deciding that, maybe, you should know about jazz as well.  If you already know jazz, you know that there are thousands of musicians with thousands of albums from across the decades, each one having its champions and detractors.  Where one plunges a toe into this gigantic body of water can be an intimidating decision.  Itís little wonder that folks go back to what they know, with perhaps Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme mixed in as part of the abandoned experiment.  Itís scary to step outside known boundaries without a guide.

The other thing thatís kept me from anime is the fans.  These people are absolutely crazy.  Like fans of the Macintosh, they insist not only on the primacy of their chosen object of devotion, but of its centrality as well.  Everything from the past few years, according to these folks, finds its roots in anime.  Anime is everywhere!

Like the Macintosh, I donít deny that these things are made with care and concern for a truly fine product, but I donít buy the idea that it has infiltrated everything and that movies nowadays are simply all variants of anime. 

But anime fans, apart from their crazy-ness, do have intelligence and taste.  So when someone I respect, like Steven Den Beste, recommends Spirited Away, I went out and got a copy.  And that turned out to be one of the most beautiful films Iíve ever seen, and I highly recommend it.  Iíll never review it here, because it deserves to be seen without any preconceptions at all.  Iíll just say, watch it.

Mr. Den Beste also mentioned that he found Ghost in the Machine to be thought-provoking, so I kept an eye out for that one as well.  Itís more expensive than Spirited Away, so it was a while before I bought this, but at last there was a sale and here it is.

I was less impressed with Ghost than with Spirit (hey!), but thatís hardly surprising as Spirited Away is really one of a kind.

Ghost seems to be a variant on the Blade Runner story, asking what makes a person, a person?  What makes us who we are?  What defines something as being ďaliveĒ as opposed to a machine (driven by electronics or DNA) that speaks and moves?  

All these ideas are overlaid on a basic crime story, taking place in a future world which seems to consist of one huge city, and where cybernetic enhancement seems to be common among the populace (one startling scene shows a guyís hands suddenly exploding into dozens of sub-fingers, the better to operate a computer console).  Our heroes, female and male cops, seem to be almost entirely machine, except for the data patterns that make up their personalities, and the female even has doubts about that.   They work for Section 9, which seems to be law enforcement though it is unclear whether this is government or corporate or just folks who like enforcing laws.  The largely human characters, the chief scientist and a rookie cop, are important but stay in the background.  Rookie especially seems underused.

Sorry about the lack of character names, but I honestly couldn't catch most of them. The dubbing is quite good, but a lot of the details just whiz by. (I watch foreign live action films with subtitles, but I watch foreign animation dubbed. I don't really consider an animated character to have the same nuance that a live action actor has, so the voice here is less important to me. Watch me get letters on that. Anyway, given the story here, dubbed is perfectly apt.)

Section 9 is on the trail of ďthe Puppet Master,Ē who has developed a technique to implant fake memories in people and thus, to make them do his bidding.  The search for this mastermind leads to some surprising conclusions, especially for our heroine. 

The film is certainly filled with a lot of interesting discussions and interesting ideas.  I just wish it had more time to explore these ideas; as it is, it kind of introduces them and then lets them sit there for a moment, before it moves on to the next action sequence, or perhaps another discussion. 

Or, most frustrating in an eighty-two minute film (including lengthy credits), it moves on to some lengthy pan through the city while the heroine looks soulful and atmospheric pop music plays.  These sequences did nothing but tax my patience; I would rather have the film do more with the ideas it introduces.  More time spent on any of them would have been time better spent.  As an example, the Puppet Master makes his appearance and explains who he is and what he wants, and itís a really interesting avenue.  But the avenue is one way and weíre not going that way. 

It was the same way with most of the intriguing ideas the film introduces.  They were so undeveloped that they almost werenít integral to the story, just sort of an intellectual glaze draped over the film.

Still, the ideas are there, and one has to give credit for that.  Theyíre good ideas, too, and itís better to have them, confronted or not, than just empty visuals and action sequences.

I do want to note that the visuals and the action sequences are pretty good, too, particularly a shoot out in an abandoned museum.  The cityscapes and graphic sequences are also attractive, though the animation and design sometimes borders on the downright primitive.  Perhaps that is some kind of statement, who knows?  If nothing else, if you watch it with people, it will certainly spark a lot of discussion and that can only be a good thing.

Thereís quite a lot of the heroine topless and a couple of gruesome (though quick) deaths, but otherwise this is an interesting film for all ages.   It has lots of ideas, and while it doesnít really develop them, perhaps thatís what youíre supposed to do.  It is, after all, about defining and overcoming oneís boundaries and limitations, perhaps the film couldnít do this for itself so itís counting on you to complete its mission.

And while I donít think Iím going to push this on everyone I know the way I did with Spirited Away, I think I may definitely watch it a few more times.  I donít know what more thanks a movie could ask for.  Perhaps if movies become sentient, one of them will tell me what more theyíd like.  Of course, that idea scares me.  Sentient entertainment, thatís all we need.

Highly recommended, with some tiny reservations.

Incidentally, Charles Mingusí The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady is a good place to begin to explore jazz.

War of the Worlds
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins. Director: Steven Spielberg.  Screenwriters:  Josh Friedman, David Koepp.
If youíve read any of these reviews, you know that though Iím picky and finicky, Iím actually pretty easy to please.  Iíve liked some stuff that other people thought were utterly unentertaining films.  I always watch everything with an open mind.  Itís the only way to enjoy what a film has to offer.  Approach me with a sincere desire to entertain and/or enlighten, and Iím there for you.

Iím a huge fan of the George Pal version of War of the Worlds (warts and all), and despite the fact that Iím not really a fan of Tom Cruise or Steven Spielberg, I was looking upon the updated War of the Worlds with anticipation.   Spielberg is the ultimate movie machine, and with state of the art CGI, well, Iím sure I could overlook some Tom Cruise.  What the heck, eh?

Of course, when I sat down in my seat, I put all that aside, and prepared to be objective.  And, alas, I found I liked parts of this film, but overall, it was disappointing.    There seemed to be so many wrong choices made, from not telling us about the characters to the design of the Martians to the overuse of the hand-held camera. 

I mentioned that there were some parts I liked.  Most amazingly, I really liked Tom Cruise.  Iíve never been a fan of his, he always seemed stiff and artificial in the films Iíve seen him in; he projected the air of, Here I am acting.  I am acting this character.  Watch me act.

Not so here.  His performance throughout was believable and excellent.   While I still caught myself thinking, Thereís Tom Cruise, for the most part he came across as a character and not an actor.  Kudos to Mr. Cruise.  He took a difficult character (the film tells us almost nothing about him) and made him work.

The one part that didnít work was his relationship with his kids.   I gather that Mr. Cruise was divorced or separated from Miranda Otto.   The two of them had two kids together, a son perhaps sixteen, and Dakota Fanning, perhaps nine.  But Mr. Cruise was such an awkward non-parent (which was a plot point, but an awkward plot point) that it was hard to believe he had ever been in the presence of these children before.    Or any children, for that matter.  He didnít know about his daughterís food allergies?   Or the ribbon she carries everywhere?  Iím surprised he knew her name.

I donít blame Mr. Cruise for this, but rather screenwriters Jesse Ferguson and David Koepp.  Thereís some guy named Tim whoís there, is he the step dad?  A friend?  Miranda Ottoís brother?   Who knows?  Yes, sheís pregnant, but given what we have to work with, she could be pregnant with Tomís third child.  It would make as much sense. 

For the most part, the characters and their links with each other are the weakest parts of the film.  This is bad here because Tomís quest is to bring his kids back to their mother, ie, itís all character based. 

In order to feel empathy with folks, we have to know who they are.  So when they sacrifice themselves, we can feel sad or whatever.   Otherwise, itís just an scene in a movie, like a car crash or someone bursting into song (or flame).  The emotional resonance of the scene is lost.

In particular, Iím thinking of the scene where Mr. Cruiseís teenage son has toÖsee whatís happening on the other side of a hill, where soldiers are battling the Martians.  Iím not sure why he has to do this, although we are ďpreparedĒ when he talks in an earlier scene about how Mr. Cruiseís plans are always to run and hide, while he wants to confront the invaders.  Okay, sure, usually though, a gun or even a pointed stick would be handy.  Bravery is fine but generally aliens need something more physical to persuade them to abandon their plans.  Oh, and if youíre devoted to your younger sister, now might be a good time to demonstrate that.  Unless the script says otherwise.   Sigh.

Needless to say, thatís the last we see of the lad, but also needless to say, in a Spielberg film, thatís only the last we see for a while. 

Tim Robbins also makes a kind of awkward character.  Heís given most of Wellsí tunnel soldier speech (in weird phrasingóin Wells, the idea of Martian pets was a hope, here itís a taunt), but otherwise he's kind of a nut and kind of unbalanced in a way we donít really get to know very well.   He tells us his family is dead, okay, but how did he get this strange?  And why has no one else availed themselves of his basement, or he made the offer?

Another bizarre thing that I wasnít supposed to dwell on, but it kept appearing again and again:  Mr. Cruiseís path was always clear and free of debris when he traveled by car.   And when he needed to be the first in line, there he was.   Yeah, just a plot point, but it was odd to see him drive away when a jet airliner had just exploded and crashed over the house he was in.   Yet there he was, driving away through a nicely cleared path.  

Next, we come to the Martianís plans.  (Theyíre never referred to as Martians, by the way, in all the film).  Anyway, apparently, they decided ages ago (one estimate is a million years) that they should plant their tripod war machines in the earth, should the need to invade Earth ever arise.  WellÖI can surely admire their forward thinking.   Iíve got to be reminded when I need to pay bills, let alone anything more than six months in the future.  Good for the Martians that they can foresee the need, as it were.

Anyway, sometime early in the 21st century, they decide now is the time to begin the invasion.  I assume that a) their technological advances since, havenít made these tripods obsolete (a million years is quite a stretch of time), and b) when they planted them originally, they ignored the microbes in our ecology becauseÖwell, the microbes were tiny and stuff, who cares about tiny things?   But good on them for planning that any intelligent species on the planet might have advanced weapons, and that the tripods will need force shields.  I hope the Martian who insisted on that got a bonus and a promotion.   Because, really, weíre not talking Martians who are observing us NOW and can say, ďTheyíve got bombs!  Bring the tripods with shields!Ē  Weíre talking Martians who planned all this a million years ago and thought, Hey, these primitive hominids might have bombs someday.  Shields, that sounds good.

Anyway, thatís what weíve got.  The scenes of the tripods rising from the ground would have been pretty cool, had Mr. Spielberg chosen a more straight-forward way of showing this.  Instead, we have clouds of dust, brief glimpses, and reflections in car windows.   I canít imagine what the thinking behind these choices was.  Suffice to say, I think they were bad choices.  Good heavens, we have alien invaders in strange machines.   Why would you show this reflected in car windows and camcorder viewfinders?   (Especially camcorders not affected by the EMP pulses.  Oh sorry, wasnít supposed to notice that.)  Does that make it more ďartyĒ?  If it does, I suggest you abandon the artyness, Mr. Spielberg.   It drew me right out of the story.  I was aware, instantly, that I was being shown a movie and not being told a story.  (There is a difference between the two.)

The other explanationóthat the effects werenít up to snuff, so they had to be hidden this wayóI find hard to believe.  Come on, this is Steven Spielberg, if he canít get state of the art special effects, well, weíre all doomed.

Thatís all nothing, though, in the end.  The biggest failing of the film is that there really arenít any ideas here.   Itís a mixture of the H.G. Wells novel (the red weed finally makes an appearance) and the George Pal film (the ďMartian eyeĒ scenes are duplicated from that earlier film).   Itís other peopleís thoughts and other peopleís ideas, mixed together in the hope that no one will note the dreadful lack of originality.  Hey you could get lucky.

Oh, wait, there was one original idea.  Aside from the fact that the war machines have been buried for a million years (rolls eyes), thereís the idea that the Martians themselves arrive via lightning strike.   Pardon me while I roll my eyes again.  Why didnít they use a magic wand, for crying out loud?  Same difference.

I can appreciate that the film-makers are trying to update the story to todayís technology, the same way George Pal did.  But thereís a reason some things work, and some things donít.  It would have been better if they arrived via meteor, like the novel and the earlier film, methinks.  But then, Iím not rich and successful.   Oh, and Iím also not bitter.   About not being rich and successful, I mean.

There were some sequences that worked pretty well.  The attack on the boat, and the aftermath as the tripods attack the survivors on the shore, with Mr. Cruise and family trying to escape and nearly running into a newly emerging tripod.   That really caught the sense of helplessness and chaos of the situationóthe idea that there was nowhere to run to, and the idea of running was futile, because there was probably already a machine there. 

The bits in the tripod cages worked well, especially as those who were prepared to shoot Mr. Cruise for his van, earlier, now (though different people) in the depth of despair, chose to join the young soldier in helping to pull Mr. Cruise from the Martian mawÖI think that says something about depth of desperation; whereas earlier, the chance of a car was enough to sacrifice oneís humanity, now in the bleakest spot (soon to be Martian food), people pull together.   A nice thought, though my honesty insists I note it seems kind of tacked on for the star (an earlier victim received no such help), so that he could have a kind of action sequence and could also, by his lonesome, bring down a tripod.  Go Tom! 

Some of the scenes of the tripods stalking around were pretty cool, but for the most part, Mr. Spielberg seemed to shoot these from the worst angles imaginable, as mentioned.   One of the most (potentially) impressive shots is shown on the fuzzy monitor in a news van.   Why was Spielberg hiding this stuff? 

If he wanted to hide things, he should have hidden the Martians some more.  As with the tripods, he spent most of the Martian screen time in shadows and reflections, but alas they got their close up, Mr. DeMille.   And they look like the creatures from Independence Day, itself a rip-off (though an entertaining one) of Palís War of the Worlds!   Mr. Spielberg, please!  The brief glimpses of Palís utterly weird, completely non-human Martians still resonate decades later, while these refuges from Patrick Tatopolis just look like digital nobodies.   

We even get the ďhandĒ scene from Palís film, but instead of a single hand clawing at the air, instead we get two hands, and a pan into a Martian face that, basically, belches to show heís dead.  

One element of the Pal film that needs mentioning is that the Martians remained really vague.  We see one, briefly, as it puts its hand on Ann Robinsonís shoulder, and then gets a pipe in the eye.  Here, they poke through family photographsÖitís the difference between mysterious, dangerous enigma, and over-explanation.   You see?  The Martians are just like us, only more advanced technically.  In Palís film, they remain without any human characteristics or motivations to the end.

Itís always been one of my pet theories that the Martian injured in Palís film was their equivalent of an entymologist, probably laughed at by the other Martians when he said, ďBut we could learn so much from them!Ē   None of the other Martians take the slightest interest in us.  Here, theyíve got the idea that our artifacts and such deserve study.  How sad.   Because why would they blast us, if they thought we might have something of value in and of ourselves?   Because itís in the script.

What else?  An utterly undistinguished score by John Williams.   I hope Mr. Spielberg watched the directorís cut of this and wondered why he keeps employing the man.  Donít get me wrong, Mr. Williams can write great music, but heís spread way too thin.   Let him concentrate on Star Wars III, and hire Howard Shore or Edward Shearmuir or Michael Giacchino to write the music.  The only time the score made an impression at all was when it was over-the-top obvious (blindfolded Dakota Fanning), and at the end credits, when it was low strings and brass.

So, ultimately, what do I recommend for you, my loyal readers (pause for laughter). 

Honestly, I donít know.  I appreciate the attempt to do something different, and I appreciate Mr. Cruiseís acting skills, but I donít think itís enough. 

Many movies walk a fine line.  There are some where the virtues outweigh the flaws (Land of the Dead, recently).   There are some that are nice tries, but not for me (Are We There Yet?).  And there are some that collapse, like a Martian war machine inhabited by deathly ill Martians, against the slopes of their own baggage.  Whatever that means.

The best part of all was when I was driving home, listening to Tangerine Dreamís ďNebulous DawnĒ in the car, and in the distance, some lightning flashed.  Man, that had resonance.   I was completely creeped out.  It was a really unsettling experience, honestly.  I really hate to point out it was twenty minutes after the movie was over.

So where do we go?   Iíd love more than anything else to recommend this film.  I really, really wish I could recommend this film.

And I think Iíll leave it at that.

Maybe in another fifty years, I should live so long, someone will finally get this right.