Life Unconstructed


This movie rolled up on Amazon Prime last night. Since I had just watched once of my not-so-guilty pleasures the night before (Streets of Fire) by the director, Walter Hill, and I’ve liked Michelle Rodrigue since her premier in Girlfight (excellent film!) I figured it would be Hill’s signature pulpy tough-guy movie schtick.

Hill is one of those directors that can make a bad movie so cool, it’s good (The Warriors, 48 Hours, Red Heat, Streets of Fire (Come on! SLEDGEHAMMER fight!), Last Man Standing), or take a total dump (Supernova, Another 48 Hours, Brewster’s Millions, or on screenplay duty for the execrable Alien 3.) The Assignment is stuck somewhere between.

The social justice warrior and transgender crowds, every ready to take offense, will immediately go apoplectic over the very premise. A cold blooded hit man (Rodriguez) kills the worthless but beloved brother of psychotic doctor Rachel Kay, who has him picked up by some of her underworld buddies and in a combination of revenge and social experiment about whether gender and identity are tied for physical expression performs a sex change operation.

Frank Kitchen (said sex change recipient) wakes to find himself a herself and proceeds to follow the revenge play tropes through the rest of the movie. High art? Nope. As exploitative as Pedro Alvodómar’s The Skin I Live In? Certainly not, although that is from a respected “important” director. It’s also obviously suffering from a low budget (it’s a Saban production, after all…) and Hill is working with what he’s got. There’s a lot of dark street scenes with neon lighting, shootouts in grimy rooms, and cartoonish thugs working for the “Doctor.” As such, it’s missing that cool style Hill usually brings to films like this.

Other than a few shots to establish Rodriguez’s character as a man (with full frontal prosthetic), then as a woman, and to highlight the discomfort with his new form, there’s little titillation to the movie. This is a straight tough guy revenge film, with Rodriguez doing sterling tough guy (but now as a woman) stuff: talking tough, blasting people with .45s, and generally acting passably well through it. Is Hill making any statements on gender issues or transgender roles? Nope. This is simply the hook for the not-so-good guy to do his…her stuff. Kitchen doesn’t want to be a woman, but too bad! Kay wanted him to suffer, but also to see if he would embrace his “opportunity” to be something different.

 

Weaver is incarcerated throughout the movie, and we swap between Kitchen’s story and hers. It’s an awkward construction, but the scenes between her blood-chilling “Doctor” and her psychiatrist (played by Tony Shaloub) are fun and played with the mirth a story like this require. It’s a lurid pulp novel story as the use of comic art transitions informs us: a bit stupid, but in the end mindlessly(ish) entertaining.

So is it worth it? On my scale of “Don’t even borrow it” to “Go full price and 3D/IMAX”, it’s a firm rent. If you like Hill’s pulp movies, like Last Man Standing or 48 Hours, you will probably enjoy it, even if it’s not good. If Hill had brought his style A-game, like he did to Streets of Fire or Last Man Standing, it would have definitely be a good matinee movie.

If you’re offended by anything gender-related, avoid it.

So, I’ve been reading some of the reviews. The fans of the original movie, and the snobby end of the film reviewing community are blasting it for various reasons. Others seem taken with it. I went this weekend with the wife to see the live action Ghost in the Shell.

I’m a big fan of the 1995 anime film and the subsequent Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. I’m a bigger fan of the series Stand Alone Complex, which hits many of the same beats on the nature of intelligence and humanity, gives the secondary characters more time, but has the time to build the world and political of Masamune Shirow’s future Japan. So I had high hopes, but low expectations — films like Ghost in the Shell rarely translate well for a general Western audience. And that was precisely who the filmmakers were targeting. This was an expensive movie; they need a wider reception than anime fans.

So…how was it?

The good: Johannsen manages to do an excellent job with the muted emotional expression the Major has in the anime. Pillou is superb as Batou (my favorite character of all the iterations…), and Beat Takeshi nails it as Aramaki. The practical effects — the Shirow-esque cars, the street sets, the use of an actual robotic skeleton and muscle model for the shell sequence — are all top notch, although I though the riot of CGI rendered holographic advertising was a touch much. The other good thing, the movie takes the cybernetics of this world right down into the Uncanny Valley. The cybernetics aren’t cool, they’re creepy — from being able to see how Batou’s new eyes are inserted into his eye cavities, to other bits and bobs, to the overly stylized geisha robots, everything is off.

The “meh”: The rest of th team doesn’t get enough time. This isn’t much different from the 1995, where Saito, Pazu, Boma, and Ishikawa only get a few moments, at best. The addition of another female officer for diversity-sake cut into the material that would usually go to Ishikawa. The bad guy is your standard-issue corporate bad guy, and the bad guy who is actually a victim of the Evil Corporation™ is underwhelming. We’ve seen this before. In the movie and show, the government and their machinations are the real villains.

The homages to the excellent action pieces from the 1995 film sometimes work, sometimes don’t. The street chase into the canal, where the Major kicks a guys ass while still camouflaged works here, as well; the geisha scene is riffing — much better — on the first episode of Stand Alone Complex; and the classic Major vs. tank scene is recreated but with a lot less verve. Overall, that balanced out for me as “meh.”

The bad: Togusa, the nearly all-human cop, is the entre for the viewer in almost every version of this universe, the guy you can kind of identify with. He gets nowhere near enough time on screen (but does use a Mateba, fans!) The change of Kusinagi’s background makes her more accessible for Western and general audiences, but loses some of the point of the character. The Major is so good at what she does because, in the other iterations, she’s been a cyborg since a childhood accident…she really is more machine, at times, than human. That was the crux of her identity crisis in the other iterations. The “fake background” subplot just doesn’t work as well.

Overall, the movie is a decent adaptation of a movie that is superior in many ways, but itself suffered from some of the cultural shortcuts in storytelling that Westerns don’t use. It’s less talky than the original, but that means the philosophical elements lack some of the impact. It is stylistically good, with a real tech-porn kind of setting, and aspects of it are truly excellent, but substance-wise it lacks some of the depth of the original (and a lot if you compare it to the mind-bending sequel Innocence.)

Is it worth it? If you’re a fan, yes. You will most likely enjoy it, but it might not topple the original in your affections. If you’re a fan of the SAC, you’ll like it less, I suspect. On my scale from “Never Watch It, Even If There Is Nothing Else On” to “Rent It” to “Full Price”, this is a solid matinee, and maybe a full price.

It’s been getting “meh” reviews and i wasn’t particularly interested in this series, so I went in with low expectations…but found myself enjoying Iron Fist, even though it is unquestionably the weakest outing of the Netflix/Marvel series.

The good stuff — the supporting characters are interesting and richly-fleshed out. In particular, I found Tom Pelphrey’s Ward Meechum and Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing to be the strongest of the bunch. Madam Gao, a recurring antagonist for Daredevil, is also nicely fleshed out. Finn Jones does a workman-like job with what he has as Danny Rand, the hero, but he’s quickly overshadowed by the more interesting Colleen Wing. The bad guys are also good — from the revenant Harold Meechum, to Gao and her nemesis inside The Hand, Bakuto (played with a nice oiliness by Ramon Rodriguez, who i vaguely remembered from The Wire.)

The “meh”: Where Daredevil used color motifs, lighting, and inspired fight choreography to play up the moral conundrums and physical pain of a vigilante’s life, and Jessica Jones played the noir detective look and feel to accentuate the themes of control and abuse, and Luke Cage used strong color palettes, urban music and fashion to craft a believable Harlem in the middle of the Marvel universe…Iron Fist is pedestrian. The fight scenes are not over the top Hong Kong Action Theater. They’re bland and uninspired. The blocking, the shot lists, the lighting, the use of color are something you would expect out of Law & Order: Superheroes. The other Marvel shows evoke the Miller/Mazzucchelli Daredevil run; Jessica Jones has that tired PI in a dirty world flavor; Luke Cage is decidedly Black America; they’re unique. Iron Fist doesn’t play up the Eastern mysticism, choosing a bland corporate backdrop.

That makes sense in some ways. Rand is a billionaire and heir to a massive company and the board doesn’t want him there. It’s a plot element that definitely should have been explored, especially as it is the motivation for the bad guys. BUT… He’s a “living weapon” from the mystical city of K’un L’un out to destroy the Hand. He’s just not dipped in the Eastern mysticism enough, whereas — for instance — Doctor Strange at least did a better job playing to that. The character does meditation and martial arts, sure, but the look of the show isn’t exotic enough to evoke that.

The “bad”: Really, it’s the focus of the show on the Meachum’s corporate machinations and the lack of fight scenes that flow and are elegant. The credit sequence should have informed the look of the fights, with loads of sweeping movement. Jones moves well, and the choreography is accurate to some of the forms used, but it’s not chop-sockey enough, and I suspect that’s what the fans wanted.

So is it worth watching? Yes. It’s a decent addition to the Netflix/Marvel catalogue, but don’t expect anything ground breaking. Substance-wise, it’s got a lot of good character development, especially in the supporting cast, and it breaks the 3rd Act Slump that all Marvel shows seem to have; unlike the others, it doesn’t have that episode 9-11 drag. But stylistically it’s weak tea.

So Black Campbell Entertainment has been up and running since August, but we didn’t start putting out product until October. In the last two months, we’ve put out three adventure scenarios (or modules for you old timers, like me…) for a total of six booklets.

I really wasn’t expecting a lot of traction. I’ve self-published before, so I’m aware of how slow the dribble of royalties can be for an e-book. And role playing games are a niche market of publishing. Add to that, I’m doing stuff for 1930s pulp games (although Victorian stuff is coming!), which is even more niche….a niche of a niche. So a cubbyhole in the publishing industry.

That said, we’re already exceeding my expectations on sales.

So I just wanted to personally thank everyone who worked hard on these books — Jim Sorenson, Matthew Bohnhoff, and Bill Forster, not to mention Susan Rhymer, who puts up with this and has lent her PDF wizardry to get the file sizes down.

Even more so, I want to thank anyone reading this who bought a copy of White Ape of the Congo, or Zugspitze Maneuver (which is suddenly selling very well, particularly for Fate), or Murder on the Hindenburg.

Lastly, I also want to thank those folks who have been reading the blog — whether it’s only a few posts, or those who have been regularly reading over the last eight or so years since it went up. I really, truly appreciate it.

Scott Rhymer

Here’s a cool little short out of Argentina…

Killer robots? Check. Marines in trouble? Check. Game over, man! Game over! Check

’80s style music? Check. Sci-fi setting with mythological callbacks? Check. Disney-ish computer animation? Check.

It’s like watching a newer version of a Heavy Metal story:

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