CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the big movies of the moment
ANOTHER live-action remake, a 70s-set shootout, and an Academy Award-nominated documentary vye for your attention this week.
Ghost in the Shell - ★★★☆☆
Any live-action remake needs to justify its existence. Recent ventures from Disney have been limp. Lingering thoughts from Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast focus on how they were all sure-fire money makers for the company, but little else. Ghost in the Shell is proving to be the opposite, but it does use its new medium enough to feel worthy of the effort.
Predominantly, this is true of the stunning visuals. The world feels as empty as it did in the anime, despite all the cables and gargantuan adverts. Recreated shots from the source material are tasteful and faithful. Aesthetically, it’s sci-fi pornography, as bustling as The Fifth Element, making full use of 2017’s cinematic capabilities.
While the original was known for its intricate artwork, it’s the philosophy that cemented its classic status. Protagonist Motoko Kusanagi, or Major, is a cyborg insofar that she has an artificial exterior (the shell) with a consciousness (the ghost). Her nature leaves her open to hacking and manipulation, so when a seemingly malevolent force reaches out to her, he triggers glitches that interfere with her life. They lead to an identity crisis, provoking a mission to discover her true origins.
Aesthetically, it’s sci-fi pornography, as bustling as The Fifth Element, making full use of 2017’s cinematic capabilities.
The anime’s focus is on Major’s existential crisis. What is humanity’s relationship with AI; what is the mind’s relationship with the body; is the mind gendered; to what extent can an AI relate with humanity? These are present but sparse in the remake, focusing on a vaguer identity crisis, along with a more heartfelt (more Hollywood) familial storyline.
Scarlett Johansson is comfortable in this type of role, clearly devoted to sci-fi films (Under the Skin, Lucy, Her, to name a few). Her Major tries to provoke more sympathy than the classic, yet feels colder. Beat Kitano steals every scene he’s in as Major’s superior, exuding confidence and a comforting dominance.
It’s nowhere near the failure it could have been, but by having a piece of music from the original play over the credits, it’s an aural reminder that you could have watched the superior anime instead. It won’t make you think as much, but it really goes all out visually, making it bound to be one of 2017’s most visually appealing films.
Free Fire – ★★★★☆
A kinetic and physical maelstrom of bullets and insults. What ought to be a simple deal between one shady group of people and another goes south after Stevo behaved violently towards Harry's cousin. Harry, in return, behaves violently towards Stevo, whose associates react violently towards Harry's squad. Hired hands stay neutral for as long as a casual f-bomb and suddenly guns are pointed everywhere.
That you're constantly aware of where everyone is in the warehouse is remarkable, making Free Fire a ballistic game of chess. No less remarkable is how funny Sharlto Copley is, caught somewhere between an Austin Powers villain and Inherent Vice. Brie Larson is a bonafide reliable hand (though perhaps not for an illegal gun sale), taking on the role of the wild card in a room full of wild cards.
For all the head(shots) involved in its execution, Free Fire has loads of heart.
The surface level of ridiculousness is compounded by the constant feeling this could all have been avoided. Everyone takes themselves so seriously. They’re all so quick to anger and resistant to the idea of backing down that, once one fist flies, the only resolution is one involving bodies strewn on the floor. A handshake would be less entertaining, but the absurd premise is underlined by the immaturity of everyone present.
For all the head(shots) involved in its execution, Free Fire has loads of heart. Released while CGI behemoths Kong: Skull Island, Beauty and the Beast, and Ghost in the Shell are still showing, it's comforting to remember you can create peril, character development, a sense of place, and rounds of fun by simply giving lots of deplorable individuals far too many guns. Really damn great.
I Am Not Your Negro – ★★★★★
"The story of the Negro in America is the story of America, and it is not a pretty story." James Baldwin speaks throughout I Am Not Your Negro of being a witness. While some led peaceful marches (Martin Luther King) and others favoured physical retaliation against white oppression (Malcolm X, The Black Panthers), Baldwin watched and told stories.
The context within which a story is told can be the difference between profound relevance and misguided noise. Samuel L. Jackson narrates the unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, incomplete at the time of Baldwin's death in 1987. The context is 30 years later, in a world that has seen both a black president and continued systemic killings of black youth at the hands of the police.
Blackness is raising its voice in film, whether that's Best Picture-winning Moonlight or Ava DuVernay's 13th about racism in the prison system. I Am Not Your Negro splices together images of lynchings from the mid-20th century with mobile phone-shot footage of police brutality in the past few years.
The context is 30 years later, in a world that has seen both a black president and continued systemic killings of black youth at the hands of the police.
The film deals with the same demographic as Jordan Peele's Get Out. A generational gap in racism is artificial, and it is not consigned to history. Many of the people who benefited from segregation and spat on black children joining white schools are still alive. We are unable to distance ourselves from "them" - the racists, the KKK, the neo-nazis - because there was no tangible moment where we stopped being them. With Brexit, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Ukip, we see modern incarnations of the same resistance to black rights.
Just as artificial is the concept of “the nigger”. Baldwin says: “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I am not a nigger, I am a man.” I Am Not Your Negro is what Baldwin has learned from watching white people when no one was watching black people. False concepts, manipulative rhetoric, and limp gestures of respect are no match for a writer and witness to violence, hatred, and oppression.
Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is: Pledge your support today.