Ghost in the Shell (2017) [Midnight Movie]

I have a problem… call it cyberpunk addiction. Not only is cyberpunk my favorite setting for a story, it renders me completely incapable of being objective. What this means for me, the afflicted, is I somehow love Freejack, Johnny Mnemonic, Highlander 2, dozens of B-movies which played heavily on 1990s Cinemax, and at least a few questionable Billy Idol videos. I’ve got a fetish for anti-heroes, chrome, Japanese uber-corporations, questions about consciousness, and bio-electric peripherals which plug directly into the brain.

I want to turn on, jack in, and drop out. (Timothy Leary, by the way, was a pretty big fan of William Gibson’s Neuromancer.)

If that description reminds you of yourself, then stop reading this and go see Ghost in the Shell. Yeah, I know: remakes suck. Fortunately, this one feels more like an honest attempt at honoring the source material rather than a cheap cash-in (for what it’s worth, the original filmmakers seem to be giving this one their blessing). This ain’t Chips or Baywatch and, frankly, I want to see more cyberpunk in theaters (and more genre roles for Scarlett Johansson).

The original Ghost in the Shell is on my short list of favorite movies. The American remake, which initially sounded like a terrible idea (as all remakes do), looked surprisingly great judging from the abundance of promotional materials. For the record, I don’t mean it looked like a great movie; I mean it literally looked great, as in the trailer’s visuals were stunning. (I watched damn near every single one of the clips and trailers, and feel like they spoiled very little.)

And the movie itself is stunning to look at, too. The futuristic cityscapes just don’t feel like they were made with CGI… the neon, the towers, the holographic signs—every bit of it looks convincing in the way the camera and the characters move through it all. There are details here you simply wouldn’t see in most of today’s visions of the future: perfectly placed graffiti, realistic weathering, storm drains, antennas, cables, etc. (How often do you see window-unit air conditioners in futuristic movies? Not very often, I reckon.) If I had to guess, most of this stuff was actually photographed in real life and manipulated in post, rather than built from scratch like a phony-looking Star Wars prequel.

On the other hand, there are some aspects which come off a little wonky. Some of the things the actors do, particularly later in the movie, look a lot more believable in animation than they do in live-action. Meanwhile, the borderline Matrix-y stuff seems a little at odds with the movie’s serious, anti-fantastical tone.

So if you’re new to the franchise, all you need to know is Scarlett Johansson plays The Major, a mostly cybernetic agent for Security Section 9, which is kind of like a futuristic SWAT team that does a lot of work in cyber-intelligence and espionage. (When I say she’s “mostly cybernetic,” I mean she’s essentially a human brain in a robot’s body.) She and her optically-enhanced partner, Batou, are trying to track down a terrorist who’s hacking into the brains of the scientists who created The Major.

Whereas the original film (“original” to the degree it was based on the 1989 manga of the same name) was fairly dense and often ambiguous, the American version is unsurprisingly simplified and streamlined, though not insultingly so. A lot of the original questions and motifs remain, but the characters tend to dwell on them in dialogue (they say “ghost” and “shell” an awful lot, which kind of feels like Will Smith’s “suicide squad” line even when it’s coming out of the mouths of Juliette Binoche and Beat Takeshi). Other than that, I really don’t have any complaints. I really enjoyed this movie, though I don’t think the scripted content was as compelling as the visuals.

I honestly can’t tell if the average moviegoer would like Ghost in the Shell. I don’t even know if I would like it if I weren’t such a fan of the genre, and I tend to like damn near anything. This is old school cyberpunk, not the sleek, action-oriented post-Matrix stuff. Which makes it a shame that you can sometimes see the studio’s fingerprints on it… they obviously pushed for something more commercial than the original, but I have a feeling that and the watered-down rating are going to work against it finding the viewers who would appreciate it the most. Otherwise, it’s the rare remake which compliments the original… if you’re not automatically insulted by its existence, that is.

Ghost Story (1981) [Midnight Movie]

In 1979 Peter Straub published Ghost Story, a novel heavily inspired by Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, but a helluva lot better. It’s the kind of story which sinks its claws into you immediately. In the beginning, a man is driving across the country with a little girl. At night, when they go to sleep, he ties her up so she can’t escape… or hurt him. Ultimately, he believes he has to kill the little girl, but he fears he doesn’t have it in him.

The story is one of many told in the novel, in which a group of old timers call themselves The Chowder Society and sit around a fireplace, sipping brandy while telling each other spooky tales. The tales don’t have to be true, but they aren’t always made up, either. Their wives and acquaintances think they’re crazy old fools—they think they’re crazy old fools because they have no idea how they come up with this stuff. Yet they carry on regularly, almost obsessively, even when people in their small town begin to drop dead. The meetings always begin with a question: “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” To which the designated storyteller always replies, “I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me….”

That’s such a great line, but I don’t remember hearing it anywhere in the movie. There’s a lot from the source material that’s abandoned, which isn’t unusual for an adaptation. What is unusual is the movie could have included a lot more of the original story if it didn’t become so fixated with its flashbacks. The flashbacks seem to take even longer in the movie than they did in the book. Meanwhile, I don’t think newcomers are going to truly understand what, exactly, The Chowder Society is all about—the movie almost portrays them as if they really are crazy old fools. Worse, most of the great stories Straub had his characters tell in the novel are boiled down into one, which is straight up lifted from Edgar Allen Poe.

In the movie version: David Wanderley, son of The Chowder Society’s Edward Wanderley, sees a ghost which scares him enough he falls through the window of his high-rise apartment. David’s twin brother, Don, returns to his hometown for the funeral, which is where he gets mixed in with his father’s old friends. He buys his way into the secretive group with a story of his own: the ghost who seduced and murdered his brother had previously seduced him with ill intent as well. The next few bits of the plot aren’t necessarily spoilers for the movie, but they are for the novel. I won’t tell you that, but I will tell you the worst thing that happened to me: I nodded off about midway through the movie. (To be fair, I was slightly hungover.)

You would expect (and probably want) a movie based on Ghost Story to fill its cast out with the likes of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, but the filmmakers defy expectations and cast Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Melvyn Douglas in the lead roles. Alice Krige is really the only person cast to type here, playing the seductive ghost who agonizes the film’s male characters, young and old alike. She manages to stand out, too, pretty much embodying the character I envisioned in the book.

Technically it’s a pretty good movie, but I think people who haven’t read the book are going to feel a little lost while those who have read it will feel slighted. I liked it, but didn’t love it. The problem with adaptations, especially the ones which change so much of the source material, is my memory blurs the details between the two. Years down the road, I’d much rather read the book again than watch the movie.

Repo Man (1984) [Midnight Movie]

“Ordinary fuckin’ people… I hate ’em.” — Bud

Otto (Emilio Estevez) is “just a white suburban punk” (his own words) who loses his shitty job stocking groceries in a shitty store. After finding his girlfriend in bed with another punk, he takes to wandering the streets of Los Angeles, looking for trouble as he chugs his beer.

Beer, like most of the consumables in Repo Man, is labeled generically. People who live in this version of LA, which is portrayed no more seriously than Grand Theft Auto’s highly satirical Los Santos, are too busy being hypnotized by their television sets to worry about the freedom to choose; there’s no need for brand names because it’s all the same shit anyway. You just get Beer.

A stranger named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) spots Otto on the sidewalk and offers him a job as a repo man. Bud’s eager to share his trade secrets: a repo man shall not cause harm to any vehicle, a repo man thrives on tense situations, and a repo man does speed. Whenever they’re not repossessing cars and getting shot at, they’re starting fist fights and car chases through the Los Angeles River.

Why? Because why not.

Meanwhile, a suspiciously odd driver is making his way through town in a Chevy Malibu. We don’t know much about him, but we do know whoever looks in his trunk gets vaporized by something extra-terrestrial in nature. (It’s worth noting that Weekly World News is the newspaper of choice in Repo Man.) One day there’s a $20,000 bounty put on the Malibu, pitting Otto’s friends and rivals against one another. Otto’s friends and rivals, by the way, are pretty indistinguishable.

Amidst the flurry of action-packed scenes are relatively quiet ones in which the supporting characters launch into wordy monologues about life, the universe, and everything… without saying anything significant at all. (It kind of reminds me of David Byrne’s True Stories… so much of this stuff isn’t relevant to the plot, but then again, there really isn’t a plot.) Miller, a grease monkey, makes far-out observations which might sound sensible coming out of the mouth of a new age guru, but if you actually look for meaning you’ll find a whole lot of nothing. Otto, who’s too stupid to look for meaning in the first place, just kind of raises an eyebrow.

Back to Bud: he’s a well-meaning everyman who’s fearful of commies and convinces himself his hard work is going to result in the American dream. (His idea of the American dream is running a repo business of his own.) In other movies, the main character’s protégé might have shone light on the film’s deeper meaning by becoming a thinly disguised parrot for the filmmaker’s beliefs. In this movie he’s just a guy who hates bums… Christians, too. It probably doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have to mean anything when it’s as witty as this.

So yeah, Repo Man isn’t a typical movie. It’s a movie that feels just as fresh, unpredictable, and effortless as it felt the first time I saw it. Even the most conventional aspect of the movie—the trunk-kept MacGuffin—refuses to adhere to any traditional rules of storytelling. Whenever you hear screenwriting experts go on and on about the importance of structure and carefully measuring the beats of your plot, you’re not wrong to think: “Yes, but you won’t ever make a movie like Repo Man that way.”

Come to think of it, I have no idea how this movie got made. It’s too funny, too alien, and too genuine to have been created by a mere human. I can’t imagine it working on the page and it shouldn’t work as a film, either. Somehow it does. And how it manages to sustain its breakneck pace until the very end, I’ll never know. Impossibly, Repo Man doesn’t get bogged down by cramming too much into it the way Buckaroo Banzai did (a movie I also adore, though not as much as this one); somehow it thrives on becoming bloated with too many characters, too many subplots, and too many words which don’t necessarily mean anything in and of themselves, but speak volumes about the film’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude.

Honestly, I don’t know why this uneven movie runs like such a finely tuned machine. Yet for anyone raised on Mad Magazine, it’s just about the perfect middle finger to all that is average. Stay in this weekend and watch it instead of going to see Movie.

Ichi the Killer (2001) [Midnight Movie]

I can say without exaggeration that Ichi the Killer is a vile movie. If images of graphic violence have ever scarred you, you should avoid it at all costs. There are people who have legitimate reasons for not being able to stomach this level of imagery, and then there are people who simply dislike it. That’s fine. To be clear, you’re not supposed to like it, which seems to be lost on many of its most vocal critics.

Despite multiple recommendations, I initially avoided Ichi the Killer because I assumed the violence was going to be all style and no substance. I never understood the popularity of The Boondock Saints, which seemed utterly forced to me. Crucify me if you must, but it’s high up on the list of reasons I disliked so many genre films from the late 90s and early 2000s. I assumed Takashi Miike was a Japanese Troy Duffy because so many of the people who recommended Ichi the Killer were fans of Saints.

In other words, my expectations led me terribly astray. Hey, I’m only human. I try my hardest not to pre-judge movies, but sometimes it can’t be avoided when there are millions of them to choose from.

Thankfully, I quickly discovered Miike’s Audition and fell head over heels in love with it. I think that movie is best described as beautifully horrendous. Or horrendously beautiful, take your pick. I’ll probably watch it again soon as I continue to thread my way through Miike’s overwhelming filmography.

The special quality that drew me into Audition is hyper-realized in Ichi the Killer. The opening scene depicts the brutal rape of a prostitute. Meanwhile Ichi, the hapless hero, is shown masturbating as he peers through the window, watching the gruesome scene unfold. We later learn Ichi was traumatized by witnessing the rape of a classmate when he was in high school. The event had a very unfortunate effect on him, which isn’t sugarcoated in the least. In some ways Ichi is just as monstrous as the film’s villain, which makes it hard to like him at times. Maybe you’re not supposed to like him, but you should (and probably will) pity him nonetheless.

Although the story revolves around Ichi, Miike mostly focuses on Kakihara, a sadomasochistic gangster whose mentor has disappeared. What the audience already knows is the missing crime boss is dead, but Kakihara assumes leadership of the gang and launches a twisted inquisition to track him down. Kakihara has scars reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker (I’d be willing to bet that wasn’t accidental on Christopher Nolan’s part), only his are so deep he has to keep them pinned shut with facial piercings. And whenever he has a cigarette, he exhales the smoke from the sides of his face.

Like Ichi, Kakihara is also a victim of untold abuse, which he suffered at the hands of the very man he’s risking everything to rescue. In an attempt to assuage his sense of loss, he has a potential love interest chain him up and beat the shit out of him, but it doesn’t do the trick. He needs more. While interrogating members of other gangs, he employs needles, hooks, and scalpels, but he just isn’t his old self until he learns Ichi is coming to kill him next. The fear of impending death, it turns out, makes Kakihara giddily excited because he has seen Ichi’s work and admires it greatly. “I’m scared!” he says with a childlike glee. “I have goosebumps!”

I’m leaving an awful lot out, as I often do, to avoid even minor spoilers. Yet what I want to talk about most is the ending, which is both extremely satisfying and anti-climatic. Hollywood has programmed us to expect everything to be neat and tidy by the time the credits roll, expecting the surviving characters to be miraculously cured of their afflictions. Yet Ichi the Killer has set itself up in such a way that if it gives us what we expect to see, it will only leave us disappointed. Either way, you won’t necessarily be happy with the outcome, but I maintain you’re not supposed to like it.

I keep saying you’re not supposed to like it, which is misleading because I very much liked it as a whole. The movie can have you laughing (nervously, perhaps) when you aren’t peeking through your fingers or reeling in disgust. Like Audition, it’s a beautiful movie which can turn hideous at the drop of a hat, especially when it isn’t cutting corners with cheap CGI. There are plenty of scenes in which it goes too far, maybe even way too far.

That’s probably the point. Miike obviously isn’t concerned about viewers who will take a knee-jerk moral stance, which is refreshing in the era of corporate-owned studios frequently bowing to the slightest bit of social media pressure. (Mob mentalities do not make good writers and the trend to give audiences exactly what they think they want is the biggest reason I don’t go to the theater much anymore. Criticism is fine, but so is making movies which will generate strong criticisms.) The only thing Miike’s concerned about is being true to his characters, so it isn’t a movie in which traumatic events make heroes out of victims, but a movie in which traumatic events fuck people up in complex, unpleasant, and inconvenient ways.

I think that’s much more effective and true-to-life than heroes who solve their problems with a loaded gun (not that I have anything against a good revenge tale). So you killed the person who fucked you up. Now what? You stop being traumatized? Once again I point to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the rare example of a genre film which points out that surviving isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Ichi the Killer is another example, though in a much different way.

As with many movies which get banned by governments around the world, it’s probably not so much the content that scares them, but the power behind the movie. There are those who love Ichi the Killer and those who hate it. They’re both right. I happen to be one of the people who love it. Maybe I’m just a masochist, but I need this much more than I need another Thor or Batman movie.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) [Trailer]

Kubrick movies often had great marketing. Imagine seeing this vague trailer and knowing nothing else about the movie other than the fact it was Kubrick’s last. Then, armed with precious little plot information, the movie just kind of… happens to you.

Great use of music and mystery. The aspect ratio seen in this trailer is actually Kubrick’s preferred format for this film and many of his others. He makes a strong case for squarish images. 

Blue Ruin (2013) [Midnight Movie]

Last year I featured Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, which I liked a lot. The movie has continued to grow on me. I love crime movies, scenes of genuine terror, and mean bad guys. Green Room checked all of those boxes while subverting the usual cliches—I loved it when the closest thing to a hero begins to tell his life story, and the lead female interrupts him to point out she doesn’t give a shit.

There’s a bit of that in Blue Ruin, too. A gun nut who may have had some experience killing people advises the main character not to give any big speeches before blowing the bad guys away. Just pull the trigger and move on with your life. When the main character fails to heed this advice, it almost gets him killed.

Blue Ruin was one of those movies I really wanted to see, but it somehow slipped through the cracks for me. (I assumed Blue Ruin was Saulnier’s first film, but it turns out he made a movie called Murder Party first; I’ll be catching up on that one sometime this year, too.) Now that I’ve seen it I can say it’s one of those movies I live to see. Maybe I didn’t like it as much as I currently enjoy Green Room, but I have a feeling this one will grow on me as well.

Macon Blair, who plays the wildly bearded Dwight, is first seen soaking in a bathtub. When he hears a noise in the house he leaps through the window like a startled raccoon. It turns out Dwight doesn’t live here and the people who do have unexpectedly come home. Dwight actually lives in a beat-up car just off of the beach, which is where he’s been living ever since his parents were murdered. Since he leaped out of the stranger’s tub with nothing more than a bath towel, we learn early on he’s an expert at acquiring clean clothes. This is a skill which will prove useful more than once throughout the movie because things are going to get very bloody.

I didn’t know who Macon Blair was before this movie. He’s already becoming one of the my favorite actors.

I want to be vague about the next few bits because the movie is so much more exciting if you know next to nothing about it. Treading lightly in regards to spoilers: the man who murdered Dwight’s parents has just been released on a technicality, and Dwight decides he’s going to kill him. There’s not a whole lot of thought put behind the plan, but Dwight’s sister is on board until she realizes the murder attempt makes her family a target.

Long story short: it’s an extremely entertaining crime thriller which examines the self-destructive nature of revenge (and blah blah blah) without becoming the least bit preachy. And if you want to know more about the plot before seeing it, see any other review, but I’m telling you: if you like grizzly crime movies, this one’s a winner. There’s really nothing else you need to know before seeing it.

Is this movie and Green Room part of a planned trilogy of “color” films? I hope so. Red Rune? Orange Doom? Yellow June? The possibilities are endless.