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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 7, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 14
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Imagination and ingenuity can't stop Baby from being awful
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE BOSS BABY
Now playing


Unknown to all humanity, babies aren't always what they appear to be. Some of them, like seven-year-old Tim's (voiced by Miles Bakshi) brand new baby brother (Alec Baldwin), are actually employees of Baby Corp, working hard to make sure infants remain beloved and adored the world over no matter what cute obstacle may arise. Normally sticking to their heavenly corporate offices high up in the clouds, this Boss Baby has been sent to Earth to investigate the goings on at Puppy Co., the threat their furry four-legged product presents not to be underestimated.

The Boss Baby, loosely based on the best-selling picture book by Marla Frazee, boasts an admittedly wacky premise, the whole conceit a Tex Avery meets Chuck Jones flight of fancy that's as silly as it is nonsensical. Directed by DreamWorks veteran Tom McGrath (Madagascar, Megamind) and with a script by Michael McCullers (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), there's a little more crazed ingenuity here than I anticipated, some of the concepts and ideas, while still insane, sparkling with an upside down whimsical ingenuity that's unexpected. The whole thing is a giddy, energetic throwback to cartoon showcases of the 1940s and '50s, all of it presented with an enthusiastic glee bordering on impressive.

Even so, this movie was not made for me. In fact, I'm fairly certain I hated it. Other than an inspired early sequence where Tim and his new sibling are waging kid-powered war, the latter figure assisted by a number of additional fellow Baby Corp employees also clandestinely hiding amongst the clueless suburban parental units, there wasn't a lot that captured my attention. While the visual style of the film was impressively crafted, the majority of the jokes just kept falling continually flat. Worse, some of them were just plain out of touch with reality, the fact the filmmakers still think it's humorous to make fun of little boys for having gender neutral, feminine-sounding names just plain idiotic. I couldn't stand this stuff, and the more McGrath and McCullers crammed tone-deaf jokes and gags like this into their story the angrier I got, my growing fury making it increasingly difficult to enjoy the creative sequences they did manage to come up with, the rancid taste of the abhorrent bits overpowering all they touched.

Baldwin is funny, and while not exactly a surprising choice to play this character he still does what he can to enliven and elevate the material wherever he can. But much of the remaining members of the supporting cast, most notably Steve Buscemi as the conniving Puppy Co. CEO and Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow as Tim's oblivious parents, are given precious little to work with and have a heck of a time trying to make gold out of any of it, a lot of their verbal jokes and jabs falling hopelessly flat. As for Tobey Maguire, if this were Stand by Me or some similar sort of coming of age remembrance piece his voiceover narration would be more than adequate. As this isn't that type of movie, as good a job as he does, it still feels anachronistically out of place, and while I get the idea of what McGrath and McCullers were going for, frankly I just don't feel like it works.

It's somewhat weird. The Boss Baby is hardly terrible. It has moments of wit and ingenuity that are undeniably impressive, and with Baldwin reveling in playing a character so obviously in his wheelhouse I can't say the picture is entirely devoid of laughs. That being so, I still did not enjoy watching this motion picture and, more to the point, I can't imagine many others doing enthusiastic backflips over it either. It just isn't all that good, and honestly I don't have anything additional I feel like adding.


Oddly progressive Assignment a maddening disappointment
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE ASSIGNMENT

Now playing


Professional killer Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) isn't a nice guy, this scuzzy assassin more than happy to slink around dive bars and sleep in dingy, rundown motels just as long as the job gets done. But after he's double-crossed by his most recent employer Honest John Hartunian (Anthony LaPaglia), the hitman is all but certain he's about to go down for the long dirt nap.

So imagine Frank's surprise when he wakes up in a new hotel room, clothes in the dresser drawer, some pills at his bedside and a couple hundred dollars to pay for various incidentals like food. But something else has also changed. Frank has had full sexual reassignment surgery, a mysterious voice on a recorder letting him know in no uncertain terms she's done this to him both for revenge and as a scientific experiment. She wants to know if he will change his ways if given a fresh new start, that he'll give up killing and embrace the femininity she's surgically gifted him. But all Frank wants is revenge, and as soon he can acquire a gun he intends on hunting down all who did this, especially the secretive doctor who altered his body so significantly.

Writer and director Walter Hill's latest violent noir thriller The Assignment fits comfortably alongside Johnny Handsome and Extreme Prejudice as far the veteran filmmaker's extensive filmography is concerned. It is a tough, brooding piece of pulp fiction where bodies fall freely, blood is spilled and revenge - not justice - is on the mind of the two primary characters. Its hot-button, admittedly exploitive central premise notwithstanding, this is a fairly typical effort for the 48hrs. and The Warriors auteur, playing with themes and concepts that anyone familiar with even a small handful of any of his previous features would recognize instantaneously.

The worry going in, understandably so, was that Hill was going to deliver something insultingly transphobic, that he was using the sensationalism of the concept to drive things in a way that would marginalize the Transgender experience in ways that would be regressively offensive. What's odd is that, even with this exploitation element front and center, the script is actually quite profound as it discusses gender and gender identity issues, a long monologue delivered by the brilliantly evil Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver) around the film's midpoint astoundingly insightful. More than that, Hill never labels Frank Kitchen as being anything other than who he is, a man who has been surgically mangled and not any sort of blasphemous examination of the male-to-female Transgender experience. The movie believes in science and, if anything, praises Trans individuals for their courage and tenacity, a moderately unexpected turn of events as far as I was concerned.

All of which makes the narrative laziness of everything else happening inside The Assignment all the more frustrating. Hill, working with co-writer Denis Hamill (Critical Condition, Turk 182!), is going through the motions as far as the main revenge storyline is concerned. Worse, the pair do the film no favors in regards to the framing device they've concocted, an incarcerated Dr. Kay talking about what she did to Frank Kitchen and why she did it to an incredulous penal psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub), in hopes of being let out of the psych ward in order to stand trial for a variety of crimes she wants publicized. By doing things this way, the movie ends up having nothing in the way of tension or mystery, the whole thing ending up being more of a pretentious talk-a-thon character study than the violent, bullet-riddled revenge thriller hinted at early on.

Not that there isn't plenty of blood and guts. Once Frank gets things in some semblance of order, he goes on the requisite killing spree, hunting down one-by-one all those who physically mangled him. But there's such a matter-of-fact tediousness to these sequences that suspense is all but nonexistent. More, because of the framing device, there's also little tension, the idea that Frank is going to get seriously harmed by any of the underworld thugs he encounters in his quest to discover the truth close to nonexistent.

Weaver, given so much preciously conceited psycho-babble dialogue the sheer volume of it is honestly impressive, still makes an aggressively unsettling villain, the veteran actress having something of a jovial, free-spirited field day as she gleefully plays up Dr. Kay's vain self-important madness. She and Shalhoub have terrific rapport, both making what they can of their scenes together, helping give the movie an urgent agency it otherwise lacks. It's also nice to see veteran character actor LaPaglia back in action, and while he's underutilized, the key moment where his low-level Mafioso helps Frank Kitchen put things in perspective is still rather excellent all things considered.

Then there is Rodriguez. While I think putting a Trans actor in the role would have given the story more heft, that doesn't make the popular action actress' performance any less brave. Rodriguez does a fine job overall, never playing Frank as anything other than the man he is, even post his forced transformation, while the sequence where the hitman discovers what's been done to him while staring into a mirror is heartbreakingly raw and viscerally startling. But once that's accomplished there's precious little for the actress to do, and as such maintaining interest in Frank's endeavors grows more and more difficult as the film progresses towards its inevitable conclusion.

For Hill, The Assignment is a return to his low budget roots. Yet the film is light years from the assertively macho masterworks like The Driver, Hard Times or Southern Comfort, while on an action front there's little to talk about, so even second-tier efforts from the director like Red Heat, Last Man Standing or Bullet to the Head look like masterpieces in comparison. As it is, The Assignment isn't close to the offensive abomination the controversy surrounding its making and release has led some to believe. But while I'm happy Hill has such progressive beliefs as they pertain to gender identity, I'd have been even happier had he and Hamill written a thriller worthy of such open-mindedness, his latest feature nothing more than a maddening grindhouse disappointment.


Post-war grief gives way to newfound hope in Ozon's spellbinding Frantz
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

FRANTZ
Now playing


World War I has come to its bloody conclusion, and young Anna (Paula Beer) mourns the loss of her fiancé Frantz (Anton von Lucke), killed fighting the French in a lonely trench on a remote battlefield she will likely never visit. She lives with her slain beloved's parents Doktor Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and his devoted wife Magda (Marie Gruber), each of them attempting to grieve in their own way each and every day.

On one of her frequent trips to the church graveyard, Anna stumbles upon a shy Frenchman also there to pay his respects. After some dogged determination to learn who he is, turns out the young man, Adrien (Pierre Niney), himself a military veteran, knew Frantz back in Paris before the war. Initially worried as to how they'll respond to him, Anna brings Adrien to meet Doktor Hoffmeister and Magda, and while the group's early conversations are justifiably stilted, after awhile the longing for information and the need to have a concrete connection to their son takes hold of the parents. Much to the bewilderment to the town at large, this strange quartet forms a strong friendship, all of it built on each individual's memories as they pertain to Frantz.

French auteur François Ozon (In the House, Swimming Pool), working in collaboration with Philippe Piazzo, presents Frantz, an adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 classic Broken Lullaby, and in the process crafts a distinctly feminine version of the story that is beautifully refined and intimately profound. Telling things from Anna's point-of-view, allowing cinematographer Pascal Marti (The New Girlfriend) to paint with both vibrant, electrifying color and shrouded, passionately melancholic black and white, this gorgeous stunner held me spellbound first frame to last, the film a piece of pure cinematic wonderment audiences eager for something substantive should make the effort to see.

For those new to the story, and considering Lubitsch's film isn't exactly easy to find or see that's going to be just about everyone, things regarding Anna, Adrien and the Hoffmeisters are never what they appear to be. But there is nothing untoward going on, no one involved in this emotional mélange wanting to cause undue heartache or trauma to anyone else they are conversing with. Truth becomes lie, fiction becomes fact, grief is assuaged and forgiveness is sought. Through it all, Anna must discover who she is, what she wants from life and what she is willing to do to carry on now that Frantz is no longer physically with her, where she is willing to go to find answers to these questions the palpitating heart beating at the center of Ozon and Piazzo's moving adaptation.

I'm being coy for a reason. The journey Anna takes is delicately nuanced, and while it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize Adrien isn't who he proclaims to be, his knowledge of Frantz is so richly extensive it's easy to miss all the hints Ozon craftily drops as to what is going. Even so, the revelations, when they come, happen with a matter-of-fact certainty that's startling, the beauty of the truth being laid bare no matter what the consequences a breathless summation to the film's first hour. The two actors, Beer and Niney, are extraordinary during this moment, the way both communicate on a wavelength brimming with guilt, recrimination, fear, heartache and understanding something hauntingly special.

What's amazing is that this is only the film's halfway point, Ozon dropping the hammer on what's going on but doing so in a way that allows the remainder of the story to naturalistically flow from there. Anna, for reasons having to do with her crippling affection for Frantz as well as her selfless love for the Hoffmeisters, becomes the mirror image of the stranger who came from France and helped ease the pain of two parents who never imagined their grief could be assuaged. She continues a lie because she knows it gives them comfort, goings so far to journey to Paris herself in order to learn more about Adrien and to find out how he's doing after unburdening himself of such a catastrophic secret.

Newcomer Beer is astonishing. Ozon keeps her front and center in practically every scene. Her transformation is key. The way Anna comes to understand the repercussions of this war, the singular human destruction that has taken place on such an unimaginable scale unlike anything the world had ever seen up to that point, it forces her out of that personal bubble of grief, the young woman's eyes opening more clearly than they ever have before. Beer travels between a number of different emotional layers with graceful majesty, each second a revolving door that helps increase understanding of the woman's pain as well as the ways she might hopefully be able to deal with it.

Ozon takes no sides and also doesn't pull punches. There are no easy answers as everyone has been dealt a heavy blow by the war and all of them are having trouble figuring out how to cope now that it has come to an end. Peace proves to be every bit as contentious and belligerent as the conflict was, and even with bombs no longer dropping from the sky and with no more bullets whizzing through the air, none of that means people are able to go back to the lives they knew before having survived events as earth-shattering as these.

But what does that journey feel like? What are the difficulties, for soldier and civilian alike, to find a way to carry on and look at life again as if it is full of possibility and wonder and not walk under a cloud of despair, grief and regret? This is the road Anna is on, Ozon tracking her as she deals with so many conflicting emotions and desires, all of them augmented to varying degrees by the loss of Frantz, her relationship with his parents and the introduction of Adrien into her life.

It's miraculous, there's no other word for it. The emotions Ozon deftly has his characters transition through are amplified by precise bursts of color, these transitions signifying the softening of grief and the remembrance that life's promise still exists even in the petrifying crucible of post-war reconstruction. By the time it comes to an end, Frantz has made a permanent imprint, the hope for a better tomorrow after a cataclysmic yesterday striking chords of promise that make even the harshest of injuries feel as if they someday can be healed.


Reinforcing Transgender theory

Revered director Walter Hill courts controversy with gender-bending noir thriller The Assignment
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

I am a Transgender woman. It's not something I talk about in great detail, mainly because I'm a reasonably private person and I feel like my work as a writer and a film critic should speak for itself devoid of labels or preconceptions. I just like to keep my personal life somewhat separate from my professional one, and while I'm not against talking about who I am and the journey I'm on, I just don't think it should be the primary element making up how the world views either me or my work.

When dealing with a film like Walter Hill's The Assignment, maintaining that distinction is unavoidably impossible. The movie is a dark, dingy noir thriller about a professional killer, Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez), abducted by a brilliant if psychologically unstable scientist, Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), and then given a forced gender reassignment surgery as punishment for assassinating her brother years earlier. It's a seedy, obviously exploitive premise, and one that could also be viewed as dangerously transphobic, and as such watching the film devoid of my own personal experiences was pretty much hopeless.

Gifted the opportunity to speak briefly with the legendary filmmaker on the telephone, Hill the driving force behind such unabashedly pugnacious and masculine classics like The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort, The Long Riders and 48hrs., the director seemed to be seemingly as excited to talk to me as I was to chat with him. 'I'm so happy you called!' he exclaimed with hearty exuberance. 'I haven't had the chance to talk about the movie with a Transgender viewer. This is very exciting; I hope that's all right to say.'

As I didn't see any other way to have this conversation with the filmmaker other than to be totally open and upfront as to where I was coming from, I had no problem whatsoever discussing The Assignment with him coming from that base of knowledge and mutual respect. Additionally, I had to admit to Hill how initially nervous I was to watch the movie considering the uncomforting nature of the major plot elements, my affinity for his filmography and fondness for down and dirty grindhouse cinema notwithstanding. All of which added to my being quite surprised just how progressive and open-minded his and co-writer Denis Hamill's script proved to be as it related to issues of gender identity, a laudable trait I never could have anticipated before watching.

'That doesn't surprise me at all,' he admits, referring to my initial nervousness to view his film. 'Before the movie was even made, it immediately came under attack, as if I would make a film that was exploitive or negative about the Transgender situation. We live in gender fluid times. Especially compared to the world and the country I grew up in, and I think that's terrific, and I have said all along to anybody who would walk into the bar and have a drink with me that the movie actually reinforces Transgender theory, at least as I understand it, which is we are who we are inside our head. That's the determining factor.

'Frank Kitchen, he's Frank Kitchen. That does not change. You start the movie, and I do realize it's very much in comic book shorthand, but he's a guy and he loves being a guy, and then he goes through a forced genital alteration which is very different than going through a traditional gender reassignment process. After, he remains a guy. Because that's who he is.

'As far as I understand it, that perfectly reinforces Transgender theory, which I whole-heartedly support. And, really, that's another thing. And I don't know how you could watch any of my films, as dark as some of them might be, and ever think I'd want to go out and hurt people who have gone through a difficult process in their lives and have hopefully gone on to a happier state. I would never want to exploit that, and that isn't the movie that I feel like I made. It's a little disheartening to think some people would think that without even taking a look at the film.'

That, in my opinion, is the crucial point. While some of what he says is admirably progressive and ahead of the societal curve, especially for a grizzled, 75-year-old filmmaker known for tough guy thrillers like Extreme Prejudice, Wild Bill and Trespass, other aspects of his statement do feel as if they're being said by a man set in his ways and unable to understand why some would take offense at the narrative scenario his newest film toys with. But the key is that they should still see The Assignment in order to enter the discussion, not doing so adds nothing to the debate but clueless angry noise not worth paying attention to.

What I discovered is that, by and large Hill is spot-on in regards to his assertion how positively his story portrays the Transgender experience. Dr. Kay might be a psychopath, but she still cares for her patients with a level of understanding and commitment that's startling. Halfway through the movie, she delivers a speech (one that's admittedly rather pretentious in its psycho-babble obnoxiousness, it must be said) where she explains the psychological and physical aspects of the Transgender journey in exhausting minutia. This is a blunt discussion that adds an unforeseen layer to the film, and as such paints a clear picture as to why Frank Kitchen responds to his traumatic disfigurement as he does, the killer holding on to his masculinity even as his external physical gender has been permanently altered.

'I admit I got on the Internet so I could sound literate as far as that aspect of the film was concerned,' admits Hill. 'I honestly did not do a lot of research. I went with my gut. The movie posits a doctor who has lost her license who is also an intellectual, is narcissistic and is a rather uber-mensch type personality. I always said her personality was modeled in Gore Vidal, who I knew a bit, and I think he'd be amused by that statement. But, this woman has been discriminated against, blocked and had her ambitions forcibly held in check for no other reason than she's a woman. She takes that personally. She's also obviously insane. But she still cares for her patients. She still understands them. She has done her homework, she knows the research and she continues to be at the forefront of her chosen field, even without a license. I needed that to come through when she's talking about her Transgender patients and why Frank Kitchen is not Transgender even after what she's done to him.

'This allows [Dr. Kay] to be juxtaposed against this criminal person who is from the bottom of the underclass, a Darwinian survivor from the streets, and the movie becomes this saga of twin avenues of revenge both characters see before them. The movie, I think, doesn't turn either one of them into a saint, but I also think the audience gets a sense of sympathy towards both characters to some degree. They're both chastened by the process of going against one another. What's the old phrase? They're both sadder but wiser. She comes to grips with her principles and she's going to live her life, even in the remarkably constrained circumstances she finds herself in because of her criminal acts, staying true to her intellectual beliefs. He's going to move on and still use his lethal skills as he moves forward in his life, in effect also staying true to his personality even if his body has been changed against his will.

'That was always the idea. Making a statement about the Transgender experience, that honestly never entered my mind. To go back to what you were saying at the start, I never wanted to get into answering any of the questions people were asking as we were making the movie. I felt that the movie would be my answer.'

All of which allows the film to explore a form of duality anyone familiar with Hill's work will find instantly recognizable, he's just put a type of spin on it this time around that's guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows. 'In general media, I realize that I'm not page one material,' he says with a friendly laugh. 'And I imagine there are many wanting to speak with me more because of the film's subject matter more than they do for any other reason. But in the modest corner that I am in as a filmmaker, I've always been pleased to be referred to as a genre director or as an action director. I like action director thing because I think it sounds so cool, action director Walter Hill, but the truth is I've always tried to make these things a little more complicated than straight-ahead genre films. I don't think I've always succeeded at that, I have had my missteps, but I always make the attempt, especially as it concerns the complexity and duality of the characters.

'Most genre films, characters respond to narrative. I think in most of my films, the narrative deals with the characters first. They push the narrative. They're the driving force. I like characters and I want them to be interesting and complex. It's their story. They should be worth spending time with.'

It's at this point where our interview goes off the rails a little, Hill justifiably curious to know how I felt about the internal elements inside his movie, eager to know if there was anything I found objectionable or tone-deaf. Unlike so many who ask questions of a Transgender person, he isn't interested in the ins and out of my transition, doesn't ask objectionable questions as to my present physical status or where I'm at in my journey. Instead, he was interested in the psychology of the transition, wanting to know how my personal perspective influenced my watching of the film.

'There's a lot of irony in the movie,' he attempts to explain. 'But I don't think there's anything mean-spirited. At least, that was not the intent. But, you're a part of this. You know more about the subject than I ever will. As I mentioned, you're the first Transgender person I've talked to about the film. I'd really like to know your thoughts.'

It's weird being put on the spot like that. I didn't want to admit I was disappointed in The Assignment, that I sadly found it lacking as a thriller and that many of its components didn't work nearly as well as I hoped they would. But I was still excited by the movie, happily inspired by the way it spoke so clearly and urgently about the Transgender experience. While certain elements made me uncomfortable, while what happens to Frank Kitchen is abhorrent, that did not diminish the authenticity driving the conversation as it pertained to gender identity, reassignment surgery and the social and medical obstacles that face male and female Transgender persons alike. In other words, Sleepaway Camp or Dressed to Kill Hill's film most decidedly is not, at least as far as how it understands Trans issues, and while entertainment value was a different discussion entirely, this was still a major plus to my way of thinking.

But while I was never offended by the film, I also couldn't help but wonder what might have been possible had the filmmaker cast a Transgender actor in the role of Frank Kitchen. As terrifically brave as Rodriguez's performance proved to be, as great as the actress is as the character, the idea of a female-to-male or male-to-female actor challenging themselves in order to portray him was an idea I could not get out of my head.

'First, I'm so glad you mentioned how brave Michelle's performance is,' says Hill. 'It's so true. I asked a lot of her, asked her to go places she wasn't sure she could get to. I think she's gutsy as hell and delivers a terrific performance.

'To answer your question, I have to confess the answer to whether or not we thought about hiring a Trans actor is sadly no. It never entered our mind. The pressure to get the movie financed was so great, and the only way to get the money was to have name casting. It was that simple. This was still, which I'm sure you noticed, a very moderately budgeted film, and we shot it in a little over 20 days. This was not a big Hollywood production in any respects whatsoever.

'But even then, I had to make sure I had names above the title or else we'd never get the money to make the movie. These aren't huge stars, but Michelle and Sigourney are obviously very well known, and having them involved ensured we'd be able to get financing. To have open casting I would have had to have made the movie for a fraction of the cost and shot it in something like six days, and considering the complexities of the script that would have been impossible. I couldn't have done it.

'So did I think about it? No. I did not. Would I have loved to have had open casting? Would it have been interesting to see if a Transgender actor would have auditioned for the role? Yes. It would have been. But it just wasn't in the cards. The movie never would have been made.'

'We did talk about Frank being played by a male actor,' adds the filmmaker after a moment or two of introspection and thought. 'That was something we pondered. The thing was, the more I thought about it, the more I realized the performance would be more about the makeup and the prosthetics than it would be about the performance. That didn't sit right in my head.'

As disappointing, if equally unsurprising, as this answer proved to be, that did not mean Hill didn't think outside of the box he and Hamill had initially written for themselves. 'In the original version of the script, Dr. Kay was a man,' he proclaims. 'When I made the decision to flip that over, the film really became clear in my head. I just thought that was more interesting, and as soon as I made the switch Sigourney was the first person I sent [the script] to. Thankfully, she saw in it what I'd hoped we'd written, that it went beyond the usual mad doctor stereotypes, even found in comic book form, and I was very happy when she decided to come aboard. We have a long history together, of course, having made Alien [Hill was one of that film's producers and has been a vital member of the franchise's creative team ever since], and she to my mind was perfect for this particular character.'

With our time running out, I realized I could keep talking to Hill for much longer than our allotted 15 minutes, this conversation proving to be a fascinating and insightful back-and-forth I didn't want to end. While I wanted The Assignment to be better than it was, the fact it led to such a dynamic, complicated discussion brought a gigantic smile to my face. I was glad I watched the movie and even happier I'd been given the opportunity to speak so candidly with its director, this open dialogue a refreshing revelation that had me looking at my own journey in ways I hadn't in quite some time.

As for Hill, he has his own ideas as to what he hopes general audiences take away from the experience of watching The Assignment. 'I think in our gender fluid time this is a piece of entertainment that could possibly contain more for audiences to ponder than initially meets the eye,' he states plainly. 'It's an entertaining revenge story in a gender fluid environment, and I also think the acting is very good. Michelle, Sigourney, Tony [Shalhoub] and so many of the others all did a great job for me, and did so under not very easy circumstances.



'And, Michelle in particular, again I agree with you. I think this a very brave performance. She understood the character and his relationship to the narrative has so much to do with his body. Michelle unhesitatingly stepped forward and really went for broke. She's a very vibrant personality, and I loved working with her. I love her. She and I slugged it out, and I respected her right away. If audiences were to look at Michelle in a new light after seeing her performance here, that would be great, too.'


Visually stunning Ghost a perplexing, insensitive failure
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

GHOST IN THE SHELL
Now playing


Paramount Pictures' adaptation of the landmark Japanese Manga Ghost in the Shell, itself already transformed into a classic animated feature in 1995, has been the subject of great debate and discussion since the moment the Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) directed feature went into official production. The main reason for this was the casting of international superstar Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, claims of the Hollywood whitewashing of another Asian property reverberating just about everywhere.

It is interesting in many ways that the movie itself tackles that controversy head-on, most notably in a way that is both daring as well as a significant change from the source material, screenwriters Jamie Moss (Street Kings), William Wheeler (Queen of Katwe) and Ehren Kruger (The Ring) taking a major risk by doing so. It's a fascinating what-if scenario, one I don't want to go into in any sort of great detail as those who choose to buy a ticket should discover the ins and outs of this particular revelation without my spoiling it for them. Problem is, what is posited is also never discussed or debated, this major plot revelation treated as an excuse to tug at the heart strings, bring strangers together and instigate a gigantic action sequence that takes up the crux of the story's fiery climax.

I almost can't fathom why they all decided to go there. It's almost as if, in the pursuit of showing they were more culturally sensitive than the skeptics decrying the remake wanted to believe, Sanders and his gaggle of writers concocted a scenario that could potentially take the wind out of their critics' sails. But by not really diving into the complexity of the issue, not talking about how this cultural erasure could affect an individual to such an insidiously terrifying degree, they instead augment the very critique they were striving to circumvent. It's a damning turn of events, one that showcases a level of cluelessness that's close to alarming, erasing any good will I might have been caring for this new interpretation of the material to the point it practically no longer existed at all.

Making matters worse? There is an additional attempt to make this argument moot by also offering up a rich and culturally distinctive ensemble featuring a cadre of character actors from around the globe. Even then, however, save one notable, and important, exception, none of them get to do very much, folks like Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Lasarus Ratuere, Yutaka Izumihara, Tawanda Manyimo, Adwoa Aboah and Kaori Momoi around more to provide racially sensitive window dressing than they are anything substantive. It's a head-scratching turn of events, and for the life of me I can't quite figure out what anyone involved was thinking, all of it leaving such a bad taste in my mouth I'm finding it difficult to talk about the movie at all even though there was quite a bit about it I did find worthy of complimenting.

Taking place sometime in a future Tokyo where the line between human and robot begins to grow slimmer by the second, the core plot revolves around Section 9 operative Major (Johansson), a cybernetic crime fighter powered by the human brain of a young woman who was the victim of a horrific terrorist attack one year prior. While her body is synthetic, her soul, or her 'ghost,' as the woman who saved her, Hanka Corporation scientist Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), calls it, still remains, each day a burst of seemingly new sensations Major can't be certain she's experiencing for the first time.

Even so, she's the perfect cop, Section 9 head honcho Daisuke Aramaki ('Beat' Takeshi Kitano) treating her as an equal in every respect, allowing her to take charge of his elite unit no questions asked. But when the group comes up against their most dangerous opponent yet, a terrorist calling himself Kuze (Michael Carmen Pit) currently waging war against the Hanka Corporation and their most valued scientific minds, everything Major thought she knew about who she is as well as the reasons for her creation all come into question. Truth and lies mix into one, while the illusions that helped make her into a lethal enforcer for justice suddenly start to fade into the background. Soon, Major finds herself at an unfathomable crossroad, all the choices open to her appearing to lead directly to her destruction and nowhere else.

Only the barest bones of that plot have anything to do with the actual source material, which honestly isn't as bad a thing as it could have been. The screenwriters have streamlined the proceedings considerably, wiping away many of the more esoteric and ephemeral themes that made, for me at least, the original 1995 animated feature such a richly rewarding science fiction discovery. But this reworking into noir-drenched buddy cop mystery, Major spending the majority of the movie attempting to discover the truth alongside her second-in-command Batou (Pilou Asbæk), isn't that terrible an idea, the intricacies of the case relatively intriguing.

It isn't enough. As spectacular as some of the imagery might be, as magnificent a visualist as Sanders undeniably is, there are still long stretches where the whole thing plays more like a psychedelic music video for composers Clint Mansell (Noah) and Lorne Balfe's (13 Hours) stirring score more than it does anything else. There's little in the way of character development for any of the supporting players, while Kuze is far from the pitiable villainous figure born of incomprehensible misfortune as he by all rights should be. There's a lot of sound and one heck of a lot of fury, all of it impressively composed and staged, yet it all frustratingly builds to little that's interesting, the climax itself signifying nothing substantial as it plods its way to the inevitable setup for a sequel the studio would likely love to see someday come to fruition if this film proves to be a hit.

Johansson is admittedly solid as Major, her chemistry with Danish actor Asbæk superb. Sanders also uses Japanese icon Kitano magnificently, those longing for the celebrated writer, director, comedian, painter, composer and actor to strut his violently kinetic stuff likely won't walk away from the film disappointed as far as that item is concerned. But there are so many boneheaded creative mistakes watching them smack one into the other with such ghastly consistency frankly boggles the mind. Ghost in the Shell is a stupefying failure that's close to unforgivable, its apparent inability to understand what it gets wrong and why a perplexing mystery even Major herself wouldn't be able to solve.


Cirque du Soleil presents Luzia - a beautiful and inspiring 'waking dream of Mexico'
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SMC's Born This Way Spring concert a life-affirming affair
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Clean Bandit gets everybody moving at The Showbox
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2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Pearl Jam are local rock legends and LGBT allies
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Clean Bandit gets everybody moving at The Showbox
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2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Pearl Jam are local rock legends and LGBT allies
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Going all the way: Diamanda Galás
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A Proper Place makes its world premiere at Village Theatre
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Murder for Two - slays
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Introducing Gay hip-hop artist Cakes Da Killa
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Letters
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La La Land in concert on its way to Benaroya Hall, Barry Manilow officially comes out
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Imagination and ingenuity can't stop Baby from being awful
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Oddly progressive Assignment a maddening disappointment
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Post-war grief gives way to newfound hope in Ozon's spellbinding Frantz
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Reinforcing Transgender theory

Revered director Walter Hill courts controversy with gender-bending noir thriller The Assignment

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