The Golden Cane Warrior

starstarstarhalf
“I guess Golden Cane Training Montage wouldn’t be as marketable.”

Veteran martial arts guru Cempaka has been training her four students, the children of other gurus she defeated, for years. It’s time to pass on the ultimate move, and the titular artifact which goes with it. She selects Dara (Celia) as her heir, but before Cempaka can bestow the necessary knowledge, she is attacked by Biru (Rahadian) and Gerhana (Basro), two of the students passed over for Dara. In the ensuing fight, Cempaka is killed and the cane stolen by Biru. The injured Dara is found and nursed back to health by the mysterious Elang (Saputra), a man with a murky past and no shortage of his own skills. Biru and Gerhana frame Dara for the death of their mistress, and use the cane’s power to take over the local area. Can Dara track down the last living practitioner of the Golden Cane style, and learn the skills necessary to defeat her fellow students?

Indonesia seems to be an increasing source of action films of late, though this is both different in style from, and not as good as, The Raid. It trades contemporary grit for a more classic and historical approach. Not that there’s anything wrong with this approach, intrinsically. It’s just that if you aren’t bringing much new to the table, then to make an impression, you have to do what you do well enough to make an impression. This only succeeds sporadically, and is bogged down by a middle section that’s positively glacial in pace. From when Dara falls off a cliff at the end of her first duel with Biru and Gerhana, the action takes a back seat until the final rematch. Cue instead, the training montages and drama that falls well short of being… well, dramatic.

Fortunately, the action which bookends this troublesome section is not bad at all. Though, unfortunately, the editing style is a little less than traditional, and appears more informed by MTV than classical kung-fu. This makes it hard to tell exactly how skilled Celia and her friends are; at least it never descends into incoherence, and you can tell who’s doing what to whom. The fight between Dara and Gerhana is likely the highlight, the two women battling both outside and inside, throwing everything they can at each other.

Of course, you wonder why Dara doesn’t break out the Golden Cane move quicker. Logically, it’s a bit like having a machine gun in your back pocket, yet still deciding to fight your opponent with a stick first. Dramatically, it’s both essential, and in line with the tropes of the genre. To be fair, you will need to accept that this is a film content to follow well-trodden paths, rather than breaking any new ground of its own. Even allowing for this, while delivering a couple of memorable moments, it certainly does not come anywhere near justifying its 112-minute running-time.

Dir: Ifa Isfansyah
Star: Eva Celia, Nicholas Saputra, Reza Rahadian, Tara Basro

Guangdong Heroine

starstarstar
“A heroine has no name.”

This is something of an obscurity. It’s available on YouTube, which is where I saw it, but I was unable to find an IMDb entry for it, or any other information beyond what is present at the source. It’s hard even to tell when it was made, because it’s a period piece, set (I’m going to presume) during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the 1930’s. We first meet the heroine (Yu) – who is never referred to as anything except “Guangdong Heroine” – as a schoolgirl, when her and a friend are attacked and raped by foreign soldiers. Unable to cope with the shame, her friend throws herself off the cliff, just before Ms. Heroine is rescued by the timely arrival of a group of rebels. She joins them, and rises up through the ranks, eventually taking over when their leader passes away, naming her as successor.

She becomes a leader of the resistance, famed throughout the province to the extent that various copycats take her name, while carrying out attacks on the occupying forces. But she has issues of her own, worrying that she is not feminine enough to attract the co-rebel for whom she has affection, the equally clunkily-named Tiger Four (Wei). The two eventually begin a relationship, but juggling romance and duty proves problematic. Things come to a head when a group of her soldiers rape a Japanese woman they took captive: Heroine has a zero-tolerance policy for such things and the perpetrators are sentenced to death. Which is awkward, since it eventually turns out that Tiger endorsed their actions. Justice therefore demands that he, too, suffer the same penalty. Will romance trump fairness?

It’s a solidly-made item, though rather confusing. Heroine may have a sister who moonlights as a prostitute. She may also have another sister who is the daughter of a Japanese commanding officer. Or the film’s subtitles may simply be using “sister” in its meaning of Communist camaraderie, it’s hard to tell. The movie needs to be much clearer: it is certainly capable of this, such as when Heroine has her future told by a street fortune-teller. None of the vague “You will go on a journey and meet interesting people” nonsense here. He tells her: “The gap between your eyebrows shows death… In no more than half a month, you will be executed,” adding in a not very reassuring way, “Please don’t take offense. This is predetermined.” Chinese street fortune tellers clearly do not mess about.

Overall though, this is not bad, with some surprisingly epic battle scenes (I’m not sure the American Humane Society would agree, because some of the horse-falls look a little tough; there’s another scene early on which is also not going to impress PETA), and Yu has a steely determination about her that’s appealing. On the other hand, I would likely have been more interested in how she rises from violated schoolgirl, to become the heir apparent of a rebel clan, rather than what she does after she gets there.

Dir: Bai De-Zhang and Xu Xun-Xing
Star: Yu Lan, Lau Wei, Bai De-Zhang, Lisa Lu

The Glass Gargoyle by Marie Andreas

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

Taryn St. Giles is an out of work archaeologist, who has taken up bounty hunting in order to pay the overdue rent, after the untimely death of her current patron. However, her latest target turns out to be considerably more than she can handle. For Alric is a master of both disguise and hand-to-hand combat, and Taryn’s pursuit of him rapidly entangles the heroine in a deepening web of magic and intrigue. The titular artifact – which doesn’t actually show up until well into the second half – is a potential gate, which could open a doorway and leave this world a thoroughly unpleasant place for just about everyone. Fortunately, Taryn has friends both academic and physically-inclined on her side, as well as a trio of semi-domesticated fairies. Though the last-named are engaged in their own war, with a local family of squirrels.

That last sentence should give you an idea that this is not a novel which takes itself, its world or its heroine entirely seriously. And that’s half the appeal, with Taryn being a snarky yet persistent little tomb raider, who is genuinely appealing. Her curiosity is forever getting the better of her – but she has to rely much more on her wits than any Lara Croft-esque antics. Well, except when intoxicated, when she gets a bit… strange. That change manifests itself in a couple of different ways, at least one of which proves essential to the plot at the climax. It’s the only true major set-piece in terms of direct action involving her, but Taryn’s other qualities – bravery, loyalty, inquisitiveness and a moderate resistance to magic – are sufficient to get her over the threshold here. Indeed, it came as a surprise in the middle of the book, when she explicitly stated she has “no real skill” with weapons.

This wasn’t the only unexpected twist. While there are references to trolls, elves, etc. it also turns out that one major character is mostly feline and another is (I think) snake. That aspect of the world could have been made a great deal clearer. Otherwise, however, Andreas has a good eye for quirky personalities. Particularly outstanding are the trio of fairies – Crusty Bucket, Garbage Blossom and Leaf Grub – and their monarch, “High Queen Princess Buttercup Turtledove RatBatZee Growltigerious Mungoosey, Empress of all.” Glorious.

Both Taryn and Alric appear to have their share of dark secrets buried in the past – very deeply buried, in her case. While I strongly suspect there will be more romantic tension down the road, those aspects are kept light here. Indeed, Taryn’s spectacular fail of a dating experience, chronicled here, would likely put me off the opposite sex for quite a while. It works perfectly well as a standalone book, building to an appropriate finale and wrapping up most of the immediate loose ends, yet leaving enough intriguing questions dangling. I’m left inclined to pick up the second volume.

Author: Marie Andreas
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

Goddess of Love

starstarstar
“My super crazy ex-girlfriend.”

Right from the start, it’s established that Venus (Kendra) is not the most mentally stable of creatures, alternating between emotional fits in the bathtub, drug abuse and her day job as a stripper. That’s pretty much the trifecta of Stay Away for any man. But she ends up dating one of her strip-club customers, Brian (Naismith), a photographer who likes Venus because… she reminds him of his late wife. Which as opening lines go, I’d imagine would rank highly as Stay Away for any woman. While initially working far better than you’d expect, that only makes the eventual crash and burn of their relationship, all the more brutal.

It begins when she sees the name “Christine” (Sandy) pop up on his phone, setting off a downward spiral of insecurity and paranoia. Brian admits it’s an old flame, whom he still uses as a model, but Venus suspects there’s a lot more going on than photography. This doesn’t endear her to Brian, who stops replying to her text messages, and tries to end their relationship. Which works about as well as you’d expect – especially if you ever saw Fatal Attraction. Venus decides that the best way to Brian’s heart apparently lies through… Well, Christine’s rib-cage – though getting there requires some ramping up of their rivalry. And it turns out Christine has a vicious streak of her own, when pushed far enough. But how much of what’s unfolding has any basis in objective reality – as opposed to being merely shrapnel from Venus’s disintegrating psychological state?

It’s a tale as old as time, true as it can be: don’t stick your dick in crazy. But it’s still a topic worth revisiting, albeit likely for entertainment value, more than any educational purposes. The movie benefits by a good performance from Kendra, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Knautz. That likely helps defuse some criticisms of exploitation – while the stripper angle does appear to exist, largely for titillation, Kendra the writer can hardly be exploiting Kendra the actress. On the other hand, it’s not exactly what anyone would call a sympathetic portrayal of mental illness. The only person who shows even some concern for Venus’s plight is colleague Chanel (Scott), and that doesn’t make it to the end of the movie intact.

Still, it’s not unpleasant as potboilerish entertainment, particularly when Christine and Venus start going at it. I also appreciated the gradual slide into a state where you can never quite be sure of the accuracy of what you’re seeing. Everything is experienced from Venus’s point of view (which is where it differs from Fatal Attraction), and the unreliability of that perspective becomes increasingly called into question as the film proceeds. Technically, it’s reasonably sound, though a few rough edges did stick out, to remind me of its low-budget nature. But it’s perhaps best taken as a modern-day version of a morality play: don’t cheat on your significant other, do drugs, or date strippers. Rules we can all strive to live by.

Dir: Jon Knautz
Star: Alexis Kendra, Woody Naismith, Elizabeth Sandy, Monda Scott

GLOW

starstarstarstar
“Fully deserves a GLOWing review.”

I have only vague memories of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which never quite made the same cultural impact on the far side of the Atlantic as in their native country. I seem to recall seeing a couple of episodes, deciding it was a bit crap, and then slapping in a Megumi Kudo barbed-wire death match tape instead. But my interest was rekindled by the wonderful documentary, GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and it appears I may not have been the only one. [Incidentally, we re-watched the doc after finishing the series; it’s still very much recommended, and likely even better as a parallel version to this] The creators of the show were inspired by the same film to create their take, a heavily fictionalized telling of the show’s origin, from auditions to their first TV taping.

It focuses on Ruth (Brie), a largely failed actress, who goes to the audition out of desperation. There, she meets the motley crew of other women, whom director Sam Sylvia (Maron) – a veteran of B-movies such as Blood Disco – has to try to lick into shape. The main dramatic tension is between Ruth and Debbie (Gilpin), a soap-opera actress, with whose husband Ruth had an affair. Their spat inspires Sam to recruit Debbie, who would provide much needed star-power – but convincing her to get on board is an issue in itself. And there’s then the issue of her severely strained relationship with Ruth. While this may give their in-ring conflict credibility, it comes at a cost.

This is a great deal of fun, striking a very impressive balance between the drama, comedy and – to my surprise – the wrestling elements. For the show does a particularly good job of explaining both the appeal of the sports entertainment in question, and the work that goes in to making it look good. Here, it probably helps that real wrestlers were involved: Chavo Guerrero was the main consultant, and his uncle, Mando Guerrero, helped train the original GLOW ladies in the eighties. Fans will also spot John Morrison/Johnny Mundo, Brodus Clay, Carlito and Joey Ryan in various roles. It’s not at all a parody of the sport; to a significant degree, the original GLOW felt like that. But it also does extremely well at linking the wrestlers and the characters they play, and showing how the latter evolve and develop out of the former.

So Ruth becomes “Zora the Destroyer”, a Soviet antagonist to Debbie’s All-American “Liberty Belle”, whose frosty face-offs mirror the women’s real-life grievances. It’s these, along with the other characters, who are the show’s greatest strength: even relatively minor supporting ones are deftly sketched, and feel like real people, rather than caricatures. Special credit to Maron, who takes a character that could be a real bastard (far and away the most significant man) and gives him depth and humanity. Yes, he can be that bastard – but he knows what he’s doing, and genuinely cares about making the show the best it can be, even if he has to tread on a few toes to get there. Having been on the fringes of both B-cinema and independent wrestling, we’re aware of how true to life that is, and based on the doc, it doesn’t appear too different from Matt Cimber, the show’s actual director.

The two lead actresses did virtually all their action – there was occasional use of stand-ins, but mostly for reasons of fatigue. Brie said, “Wrestling matches are meant to be done once a day for maybe 20 minutes. But then we would shoot them for 10 to 12 hours so our stunt doubles became our tag team that we could tag in when we needed a rest.” Otherwise, it’s almost all the actual women, and that adds a level of authenticity to proceedings that helps. If no-one’s going to mistake the pair for Manami Toyota and Akira Hokuto, they’re perfectly credible, given the original show’s undeniable limitations in the area of actual wrestling. 

If you’re a child of the 80’s – and those were my teenage years – you’ll be in heaven, as this is a true period piece, from the music, through fashion, to things as basic as telephones. With wires. Attached to the wall. [It was a dark, dark time…] There is an occasional tendency to drift into feminist showboating, and some of the off-GLOW drama feels more like it comes from one of Debbie’s soaps. Otherwise, this is near-perfect, and certainly the best truly original series which Netflix have produced to date.

Created by:: Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch
Star: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, Sydelle Noel

Girl of Fire, by Norma Hinkens

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

You might be forgiven for expecting something Hunger Games-like, given Katniss was referred to frequently as the “girl on fire,” only one letter different from the title here. That really isn’t the case at all: though both are, broadly speaking, science-fiction, instead of an urban dystopia, this is sprawling space opera. The heroine, 17-year-old Trattora, lives on Cwelt, a fringe planet largely overlooked and bypassed by the rest of the galaxy. She’s a chieftain’s daughter there, but was adopted, and is clearly different from the rest of her people; she yearns to find the truth about her ancestry.

Her chance comes in the form of a trade-ship, captained by the untrustworthy Sarth. For it’s discovered that Cwelt is a source for dargonite, a mineral now in high demand for its use in cloaking technology. Before this can be announced, the planet comes under threat from the raiding Maulers, and Trattora strikes an uneasy bargain with the visiting captain, to sell dargonite in order to buy ships which can defend Cwelt. However, after an apparent double-cross, Trattora steals Sarth’s ship from under her nose, and strikes out on her own, to take care of business – and also locate her biological parents.

The latter thread doesn’t occupy much of this, the first volume in a trilogy called ‘The Expulsion Project’. That title is explained at the beginning: proceedings open with her parents on Mhakerta, sending Trattora into space, in a last-ditch effort to escape the clutches of an all-powerful AI who has taken over their planet. The only thing Trattora has left as a link with her parents is a bracelet – when she finds a similar item belonging to Velkan, an indentured serf in Serth’s crew, she realizes there are apparently others like her. But this book is more concerned with her attempting to sell the valuable minerals, and adapting to life in a universe very different from the one to which she is used.

The cover is rather misleading, since as soon as Trattora gets off the surface of Cwelt, she more or less abandons the “barbarian chic” aesthetic, as far as I can tell. Probably wise: carrying a spear around would likely attract undue attention in any space-faring civilization. Indeed, she largely avoids violence, hence the low kick-butt quotient. She still qualifies here, due to what would probably be described on her resume as “a pro-active approach to problem-solving, demonstrated ability at adapting to new situations, and proven leadership skills.” She’s certainly brave, prepared to risk everything to save her adopted home planet, loyal to her friends, and resourceful – all-round, she has the qualities of a good heroine.

I’m less convinced with the writing when it comes to the universe building, beginning with planet names which feel like the author made them up by pulling tiles from a Scrabble bag. You don’t get much sense of a structured universe, despite the apparently overwhelming presence of “The Syndicate”, a group whose power is vaguely ineffectual, except when necessary to the plot. This is where the “space opera” label becomes something of a double-edged sword. While I appreciated the brisk pace, Trattora and her pals whizzing from one incident to the next, the idea of a teenage girl hijacking a spaceship on her first trip off-world, from its far more world-wise captain, with most of the crew supporting her, was only one of a number of moments which stretched my credulity. It was just far too easy.

This probably falls into the category of a fun read rather than a good one, and is thoroughly disposable fluff. While there’s nothing wrong with that per se, this likely panders a little too much in the direction of the young adult audience, to be entirely acceptable for anyone who has grown out of that group.

Author: Norma Hinkens
Publisher: Dunecadia Publishing, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Girl in Woods

starstarstarstarhalf
“Why we don’t camp, #273.”

It’s always interesting when reviews of a film are deeply polarized, and that’s the case here. The first page of Google results run the gamut from “I simply despised the film as a whole” to “The images are frightening within, and the only thing better than the scares are the performances.” While I lean toward the latter, I can see how this could have failed to make a connection with some viewers, and if that happens, then there isn’t much else to prevent the former opinion. It’s the kind of film where there isn’t likey to be a middle ground in reactions.

Following an awful childhood trauma, Grace (Reeves) has grown up into a troubled soul, but has finally found some peace, through her boyfriend (not without his own issues) and pharmaceutical help. However, that’s all shattered on a weekend trip to a cabin in the forest; on the way there, an accident (or was it?) occurs, leaving Grace stranded, alone, in the woods and very poorly equipped to survive. For what follows is a gradual and relentless shattering of her sanity, as the stress builds up and the drugs run out, and she tries to get out of her predicament. Grace’s personality splits into three distinct versions of herself – then there’s the darkly aboriginal creature who appears to be stalking her.

Meanwhile, we get flashbacks to Grace’s life with her mother (Carpenter) and father (Perkins), shedding some light on the cause of her mental fragility. It’s not much of a stretch to see Grace’s lost physical state as a metaphor for her psychological one: the title (and yes, that is it – I didn’t miss out a “the”) suggests the same. Since her character is on screen in virtually every scene, it’s a movie which really stands or falls on whether you buy in to Reeves’s performance – or, more accurately, performanceS, since many of these have her interacting only with her other selves. After some shaky moments early on, I found the approach kinda crept up on me, and some of the three-way scenes are near-impeccable, both technically and dramatically.

When your story largely involves watching someone lose their mind, keeping it interesting for the viewer is not an easy task to pull off. Benson succeeds, even if you’ll be reluctant to commit too far, because it’s clear that what Grace remembers, and what actually happened, may be radically different things. There’s a sudden effort at the end to tie everything together into urban legend, which I’m not sure is particularly helpful. It seems to come out of nowhere and feels like pandering toward a sequel. Trim those few minutes off, because you’ll know the “true” ending when you see it, and it would be a tighter overall product. Yet, there’s still enough of merit here to make it worthwhile, if admittedly this could be seen as merely confirming our strong preference against woodland wandering.

Dir: Jeremy Benson
Star: Juliet Reeves, Charisma Carpenter, Lee Perkins, Jeremy London

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

starstarstar
“Majors in stunning visuals; minors in everything else.”

I really wanted to like this. Seriously, this had the potential to be thoroughly kick-ass, innovative and visually stunning, in a way never before seen in action heroine cinema. However, the end result is only somewhat kick-ass, and might have felt more innovative. if Ghost in the Shell hadn’t already been strip-mined for ideas over the past two decades, as noted over the weekend, by everyone from James Cameron to the Wachowskis. Rather than pushing the imagination envelope further, Sanders and the film’s script seems content to coast along on the original ideas, and these are no longer as cutting-edge as they need to be.

The story still concerns the Major (Johansson), here the marginal survivor of a terrorist attack, who has her brain transplanted into an entirely artificial body by the Hanka Robotics corporation. She has become the top operative of a government security group Section 9, working alongside somewhat-cyberized Batou (Asbæk) and the still entirely human Togusa, under the command of Aramaki (Kitano). Hanka becomes the target of a series of cyber-terrorist attacks, investigated by the Major, despite experiencing “glitches” of audio-visual hallucinations. The culprit is revealed to be a hacker known as Kuze (Pitt). Turns out he has more than a slight connection to the Major, being in possession of disturbing information about her origin, as well as her life before becoming a full-body cyborg.

The story has a very clever approach to the whole “whitewashing” controversy: at least initially, rather than Motoko Kusanagi, she has been reinvented by Hanka Robotics as Mira Killian, who give her a whole new set of memories, which may or may not be accurate. It’s this quest for her real identity which drives the plot, containing more than a few echoes of Robocop. And that’s an illustration of the main problem here: it feels less like anything cutting edge, than a conglomeration of elements taken from films which has gone before. That half of these stole from the animated Ghost, doesn’t help the live-action version much.

There are are some aspects which work. It looks lovely, and I can’t say I felt shortchanged by having gone to the cinema to see it: though even here, it’s like Blade Runner with less rain and more daylight. The cast are good too. Johansson has the correct deadpan approach, Asbæk is ideal for the hulking Batou and Kitano knocks it out of the park, as the most bad-ass bureaucrat you’ve ever seen [this will be absolutely no surprise if you’ve seen classic Kitano films such as Violent Cop]. However, in action, it only works in intermittent moments, such as the raid against the hacked geisha robots, or the battle against the spider-tank – the latter certainly lives up to expectations from the other versions.

The aspect which did work better than in the animation was the blurred line between humans and cyborgs, which is more striking when you have real people involved. There’s one scene, for instance, where Kuze is talking to the Major, and he simply reaches out and lifts a quarter-panel of her face off. It’s a startling image; truth be told, perhaps too startling, as I spent the rest of the scene thinking, “SCARLETT JOHANSSON IS MISSING PART OF HER HEAD!” rather than about the conversation between the two characters. I’ve also heard a number of people say this was a case where 3D genuinely improved the experience – we saw it in 2D, in deference to Chris’s motion sickness, which ended 3D viewing for us at Avatar.

At a brisk 106 minutes, it doesn’t hang around, though the story appears to shift gears at about the half-way point, and becomes more focused and driven. It’s still barely able to scratch the surface of the universe: having watched four movies, 52 TV episodes and four hour-long OVAs over the past couple of months, I was painfully aware of how much was going on that had to be utterly discarded here – yet they still found time to include a number of scenes e.g. the water fight, which felt inserted, purely as homages to the original material. Did appreciate the way languages were completely fluid: Aramaki spoke all his lines in Japanese, yet the Major was entirely in English, as if this was as much a stylistic choice as the shape of your “shell.”

Unfortunately, it looks like this will likely be one and done for the franchise, with the film being crushed at the North American box-office by – pardon me while I throw up – Baby Boss. If the makers are to recoup their investment, it will need to follow in the footsteps of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and perform well in overseas markets. [RE: TFC has now taken 11x as much in foreign markets as it did in the US/Canada] Action heroine fans will be hoping for better results on June 2, when Wonder Woman opens.

Dir: Rupert Sanders
Star: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano

Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie

starstarstar
“Not be confused with the old movie.”

Really, that was the best name they could come up with? Oh, well. “A rose by any other name…” Released in Japan in June 2015, more or less on the 20th anniversary of the “not-so-new movie”, I guess, it’s the most recent incarnation of the animated universe. This is more or less a direct follow-on from the Arise series, following up on the “Firestarter” arc, the name for both a wizard-class hacker and the virus they have created. As such, you’d definitely fare better if you’ve seen that series first, since (as we’ll see) it has enough issues with new plot elements, and doesn’t bother with much explanation about any pre-existing ones.  This feature is also using the same redesigned character designs, and with the Major (Sakamoto) operating in conjunction with Section 9 and Aramaki (Juku), rather than under his direct control.

The main incident under investigation is the assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister, blown up with a briefcase bomb, during a meeting. That’s the simple synopsis. The more accurate one would involve a complex and tangled web of government departments and their intersection with elements of the military-industrial complex. It’s a alphabet soup blitzkrieg of acronyms: MOD, MOC, DFA. Or was it MFA? Either way, it becomes awfully hard to keep track of who is doing what to whom, for the sake of which alliance. Perhaps it makes more sense if you have a pre-existing awareness of the intricacies of the Japanese federal bureaucracy. Otherwise, you’ll be left scratching your head and/or yawning for significant chunks of this.

Which is a shame, as there are some aspects which are still enjoyable. I particularly liked the idea that the head villainess actually uses the same make and model of prosthetic body as Major Kusanagi, so in effect she is hunting her own doppelganger. This ties together with more information on her childhood, in a cybernetic orphanage, which is being run for purposes that are very far from charitable. There is more of a sense of team here. The Major refers to her colleagues as “parts,” something they take to mean they’re expendable – or it could actually be high praise, given the nature of her existence. It’s symptomatic of the ambivalence about technology that has been present throughout, over a period now spanning two decades.

The action is as impressive as it was in Arise, with a number of show-stopping set-pieces, pitting Kusanagi and her team against a range of opponents, from near-human to entirely artificial. There are also surprisingly poignant moments, such as their questioning of a former active-duty soldier whose job is now to receive the last words of his colleagues. This renewed his purpose in life, after he had been left behind to wallow in his obsolete prosthetic body. But these elements just make the murky plotting all the more frustrating, and I can’t help suspecting the writers confused obscurity with depth.

Dir: Kazuchika Kise
Star: Maaya Sakamoto, Ikkyuu Juku, Kenichirou Matsuda, Tarusuke Shingaki

Ghost in the Shell: Arise

starstarstarstar
“Brains and brawn.”

Much more a reboot, complete with a redesigned lead, than any kind of sequel, this four-part series of hour-long episodes received a theatrical release in Japan, before being released on DVD. In a typically confusing GitS universe approach, it was then broadcast on TV in 10 episodes, with extra material added. I mention this only because it’s the four-part version which will be reviewed here. It starts before Major Kusanagi (Maxwell) joins up with her boss, Aramaki (Swasey): initially, she’s part of the 501st, a counter-cyberterrorism group which owns her cyborg body. However, Aramaki offers her the opportunity to go freelance under him, doing similar work, and assemble a team who will largely be free from bureaucratic oversight.

Over the course of the four episodes, she recruits others whose names will be familiar. For example, ex-Ranger Batou (Sabat), comes aboard after initially being part of a team working against Kusanagi, who are trying to prove government complicity in war crimes. This is an interesting change, compared to the previous versions, which always seemed to join Section 9 “in progress,” and provides some intriguing insight into what makes – literally, to some extent – the Major the way she is. For, in this incarnation, we discover that she has been in her prosthetic body since birth, and has never known any other way of life.

The other main focus is the dangers of a society which is totally reliant on technology, because of the horrible opportunities for exploitation it presents to terrorists. Even the heroine is not immune to being hacked, and one of the themes is the implications of a world in which you can’t trust your own memories, when these could be false implants. This makes police work incredibly hard, because as is pointed out, even if someone admits to committing a crime, they could actually be entirely innocent. This illustrates the nicely cynical streak here, concentrating heavily on the potential downsides of scientific advancement.

I found the main strength to be the much better balance struck between the intellectual and action elements. If you’ve read the previous reviews, you’ll know I’ve rolled my eyes at the uber-dense lumps of philosophy, shoehorned in for no reason more necessary than, apparently, to prove how well-read the script-writer was at college. Here, those are refreshingly absent, although you still need to be paying damn good attention to the plot: I made the mistake of drifting away in episode 2 for a bit, and finally had to admit defeat, cranking things back to re-watch what I’d missed.

The battle sequences are awesome. Whether it’s the Major going up against another enhanced human, or taking on a massive battle-tank which has been hijacked by a pair of “ghosts,” these are slickly animated and edited with precision, in a way from which many live-action films could learn. They’re also incredibly violent, both on a personal level and in terms of the material carnage caused by them. But such is the joy of cyborgs, they can take a lickin’ and keep right on tickin’… The result is a rare combination of action and intelligence, that offers something for both the lizard portions of the brain, and the more highly-developed parts.

Dir: Kazuchika Kise
Star (voice): Elizabeth Maxwell, John Swasey, John Swasey, Jason Douglas