Movie review: Death Note

Movie reviews

Hello!

The latest of Netflix’s original films (and, arguably, the most interesting one) is streaming worldwide, so, let’s talk about it. This is the review of Death Note.

IMDb summary: Light Turner, a bright student, stumbles across a mystical notebook that has the power to kill any person whose name he writes in it. Light decides to launch a secret crusade to rid the streets of criminals. Soon, the student-turned-vigilante finds himself pursued by a famous detective known only by the alias L.

2017’s Death Note is a live-action adaptation of a beloved anime/manga franchise. The Netflix’s version of this IP has been called the ‘American adaptation’ with the hopes of stopping or minimizing the criticism on the topic of whitewashing. Weirdly, I haven’t seen the same argument being used to defend Ghost in the Shell. Also, I find it strange that, in this day and age, somebody would make a movie purely for the American audience, when it is definitely gonna be seen all over the globe.

Writing

Death Note’s script was written by Charles Parlapanides and Vlas Parlapanides (the duo behind 2011’s Immortals – a Henry Cavill pre-Superman film), and Jeremy Slater (who wrote, oh no, 2015’s Fantastic Four). Going in line with the idea of Americanization, the screenwriters efficiently grounded the film’s story in an American life by opening the movie with the sequence set in a stereotypical American high-school. This was a first and a very obvious change from the original material. As I’m not familiar with neither the original Death Note anime or manga, I’d be interested to find out what other changes occurred? How were the characters different (excluding the race switch)? How much of the original plot-points were retained? Were the changes made because of the Americanization or for some other reason? The picture still did have some Japanese elements (mainly two: the word ‘Kira’ and its meaning remained and a few minor Japanese characters were involved in the narrative).

Speaking about the fantasy part of the story – I found it very fascinating and now I get why every anime fan loves Death Note. I thought that the film set up the mystical side of its story very well, although Light’s transition into being the full-on Kira figure was a bit sudden. Nevertheless, I did like that the movie raised questions about the vigilante justice (on a massive scale) and questioned the limits that some people might be willing to push past. Other, more real-world-related topics, which were touched upon in the film, were bullying, anti-socialness, and the unproductive parent-child relationships.

As the narrative is usually made or broken by its characters, let’s discuss them. I very much enjoyed the writing for Light. I loved how smart he was and, yet, how he still made stupid mistakes appropriate for his age (like telling his girlfriend about the book, although, I’m quite happy that the scriptwriters allowed him to ‘show and tell’ rather than act like Iron Fist, who only tells his story without any proof and expects others to believe him). Light’s opposite and equal – L – was also quite nicely realized. I loved the fact that the stand-off between these two was happening on a whole other level of brilliance. Their genius-ness could be seen in 1)L’s initial detective skills and 2)Light’s ability to avoid culpability in the end. I also liked how the main difference – one’s readiness to kill and other’s refusal to, was highlighted in the movie.

Another important character in the film was Mia, Light’s girlfriend. The writing for her was the worst, mostly because the secrets and the reveals, related to her, were fairly obvious. However, I noticed an interesting parallel between Death Note’s notebook having an influence over Mia similarly to how Tom Ridley’s diary had a hold on Ginny in HP2.

Directing

Adam Wingard directed the 2017’s Death Note and did a good job. His previous work mostly belongs to the horror genre and it looks like he brought elements of it to Death Note too and turned the psychological thriller/detective thriller into more of a horror film. He did that by using plenty of jump scares and really gruesome and gory violence. The graphic content didn’t detract from the plot but it didn’t add to it either. The final product also definitely had a feeling of a Hollywood film, due to its soundtrack (by Atticus Ross and Leopold Ross) and all the slow motion (so the Americanization of the property continued from the script into the visuals and the sounds).

The character design of Ryuk was quite good. He looked terrifying enough and kinda reminded me of the clown in the new IT film. I applaud the filmmakers for using mostly practical effects – puppets and costumes -to bring this character to life (CGI was only used for the face). I’ll comment on the look of the other characters in the acting category.

Lastly, the 3rd act of the film was quite strong. The final chase (L going after Light) was neatly paced and I liked its instrumental score and the urban setting. The ferry’s wheel sequence was also exciting and entertainingly crazy, especially when all the characters came clean.

The director’s next project is Godzilla vs. Kong for Legendary’s MonsterVerse.

Acting

Nat Wolff was really good in the lead role of L. He played the lead character as a psychotic but vulnerable genius.Wolff is slowly building his career, he first popped on everyone’s radar with a small part in The Fault in Our Stars and later starred in the John Green follow-up movie Paper Towns.

L was played by Lakeith Stanfield. The actor had previous small roles in Selma, Straight Outta Compton and Get Out (which I’m going to review in a couple of days). The idea to cast an African American actor in the role added some diversity and accuracy for a US-based film. Still, I don’t think that this type of diversity can work as an apology for not casting Asian talent in any of the lead roles. And yet, while the character did not retain neither its original race nor the iconic hair, his sitting position remained the same, which was a nice. Also, if we take the character’s look on its own and don’t compare him to anyone else, I have to admit – L did look very cool .

Mia was played by Margaret Qualley (The Nice Guys). I thought that she was the weakest of the cast. Her character’s shadiness was very obvious, presumably because the actress performance lacked subtlety. Willem Dafoe voiced and did the facial expressions for Ryuk. His voice fit the character neatly and the facial expressions were sinister enough.

In brief, Death Note was an okay adaptation of a beloved anime (but honestly, the bar has been set pretty low by Ghost in the Shell). Whitewashing aside, the film had a couple of writing problems, but, in general, was enjoyable.

Rate: 3/5

Trailer: Death Note trailer 

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Movie review: Ghost in the Shell

Movie reviews

Hello!

Hollywood’s first big attempt at recreating a beloved anime property has hit theaters, so, let’s discuss it. This is the review of Ghost in the Shell.

To begin with, the 1995’s Ghost in the Shell movie was my introduction into the world of anime as an adult. During childhood, I would sometimes watch Dragon Ball Z after school, however, in later years, I got really into American and British films and TV series, so there wasn’t really enough time for the pop-culture of the Far East. Nowadays, as anime is becoming more and more popular and easily accessible, I’m tasting it bit by bit. What are some shows or pictures I should watch? I really loved the recent film Your Name and would have loved to review it but, sadly, I couldn’t find time to do that.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. I thought that the original animated picture was really cool. I liked the visuals and the themes. It had an unexpected, interesting, and exciting ending and a unique soundtrack – nothing that I’ve ever heard before. I have yet to watch the sequels and the TV shows of this franchise or read the original manga but I’ll definitely put them on my infinite list of things to do.

IMDb summary: In the near future, Major is the first of her kind: A human saved from a terrible crash, who is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world’s most dangerous criminals.

SPOILER ALERT

Writing

2017’s Ghost in the Shell’s script was written by Jamie Moss (known for writing Street Kings), William Wheeler (wrote Queen of Katwe and contributed to the upcoming The Lego Ninjago Movie), and Ehren Kruger (wrote the last 3 Transformers films). It was inspired by/based on various different elements from the Ghost in the Shell franchise as a whole rather than just the 1995 movie. The writing for a film was a mixed bag. The narrative, during the first two acts, was pretty basic: the characters were just going from point A to B to C. The story did pick up in the last act and felt way more cohesive but also way more complex and interesting. And yet, for a plot set in such a futuristic world, it had a very traditional and very basic villain – an evil businessman.

Speaking more about the characters, their development was scarce. The supporting cast was just there to serve the story and to fill in space on the screen. The main character did not fair much better either. She was introduced as an individual without the past with only fragments of memories (which turned out to be false). Only in the third act, she and the viewer find out her true background, which was super problematic in itself by being connected to the whitewashing issue.

So, if Major’s real mother was portrayed as Asian, that means that the real Motoko was also an Asian young woman. On the other hand, the shell, built by Hanka Robotics, was that of a white person. So was this the filmmakers’ way of justifying casting Scarlett Johansson? If that’s the case, then it’s a very flimsy explanation. In general, everything in the screenplay appeared as flimsy and inconsistent. It might have worked conceptual, but fell flat in execution.

For example, the picture attempted to tackle big ideas, like humanity, AI, memories, and identity, but the treatment of these ideas was so convoluted and, one again, inconsistent. At the end of the film, Major embraced her identity by saying that her memories do not define her. And yet, she was only able to embrace her identity, when she find out her true past. Practice what you preach! In addition, the fact that Major even began to question her existence came out of nowhere and way too suddenly.

Directing

Ghost in the Shell was directed by Rupert Sanders. This was his only second feature film, the debut being 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman, which did earn a sequel/prequel for which Sanders did not return. His work on Ghost in the Shell was of mixed quality. I didn’t think that he paced the movie that well, but he did have impeccable visuals, which were both gorgeous to glance at and interesting to analyze further. The whole mise-en-scene did look like it was ripped from animation. If I tried describing it in relation to other live-action films, I’d say it was most similar to Blade Runner’s world with some more color of The Fith Element’s world thrown in. Plus, the opening ‘creation’ sequence reminded me a lot of Westworld (the white liquid) – another great futuristic property.

And yet, while the mise-en-scene was really cool, it had a very much Asian/Japanese flavor. The soundtrack was also very much one from the Far East. Now, this was very good for a film trying to replicate an anime feel but this was not good for a movie who had a multinational cast. I didn’t think that it would take me out of the movie but it did. If they wanted to have the multinational cast, I felt that they should have brought more global elements into the setting as well. But then, the film wouldn’t be Ghost in the Shell, although I didn’t feel that it was Ghost in the Shell now either.

Acting

To discuss the cast of the movie is to get into the issue of whitewashing. I don’t feel too well versed on such a complex issue so I’m just gonna briefly state my opinion.  Since it is a Hollywood remake I didn’t really expect them to cast a Japanese actress in a lead. I also am a fan of Scarlett Johansson so I’m a biased in that I’m happy that she was the one who got the role. Then again, I do feel that the filmmakers should have stayed true the source material and focused more on the creative rather than the financial aspects of the project. Moreover, as I have already mentioned, the discrepancy between an obviously Asian/Japanese setting and a multi-national cast did take me out of the movie.

That last thing – the film’s multi-ethnic supporting cast – is another problem in itself. Was it a step forward, trying to present a multi-cultural/multi-nationalistic world? Or was it a step back and a failed opportunity to showcase Japanese or at least broadly Asian talent in a Western-made picture?

Speaking of the actual actors in this role, Scarlett Johansson was good but I did not think that she made the role totally her own and proved us that she was the only one, who could have played Major. Needless to say, I much prefer her as Black Widow or Lucy. The prominent Japanse actor Takeshi Kitano, who was supposed to be the saving grace of this film, did not have much to do and was basically wasted in the role. Michael Pitt played the most interesting character: I actually wish that the movie would have focused on him. Game of Thrones’s Pilou Asbæk was good and I did like his character’s look, but once again, there wasn’t much for him to do. Lastly, Juliette Binoche – a French art-cinema actress – was also underused in her role.

In short, Ghost in the Shell was an okay movie. If felt uneven, inconsistent, and convoluted. The whitewashing of the main character and the majority of supporting cast did actually ruin a lot of other elements of the film.

Rate: 2,5/5

Trailer: Ghost in the Shell trailer

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Movie review: The Great Wall

Movie reviews

Hello!

Welcome to a review of the movie that is either groundbreaking or just a continuation of the oldest Holywood tradition. It’s The Great Wall!

IMDb summary: European mercenaries searching for black powder become embroiled in the defense of the Great Wall of China against a horde of monstrous creatures.

My introductory point about this film possibly being groundbreaking has to do with the circumstances of its creation. The Great Wall is the first major co-production between US and China (Kung Fu Panda 3 was also a co-production and came before this movie, but it was an animated project rather than a live-action one). And yet, this movie has also been accused of whitewashing – the old trend for Hollywood, which only recently started receiving some backlash. So, can this film be a start of something new or is just the same old thing?

Writing

The picture’s script was written by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro (writers of the Prince of Persia movie), and Tony Gilroy (writer of the first 4 Bourne films and Rogue One). The combined previous filmography of these screenwriters is of mixed quality and the writing for The Great Wall is also kinda mixed, mostly leaning towards mediocre.

To begin with, the whole decision to have a white lead was not explained that well during the runtime of the picture. It made sense to have a white lead and a supporting cast, full of Chinese actors, from the business standpoint, but it didn’t make much sense story-wise. The film, at least, stated that Matt Damon was not supposed to be playing a Chinese character but a European explorer, who is looking for gunpowder, so Damon’s casting cannot necessarily be called whitewashing. However, the decision to focus on a European hero, who saves China, brought up the whole ‘white savior’ debate. The fact the character’s arc begun with him wanting to steal the gunpowder didn’t paint the best picture either. Is the film, then, only reaffirming colonial thinking or is trying to tell a historical story accurately?  In short, I, personally, didn’t think that the picture gave a good enough explanation for having a European lead (played by an American) in a foreign setting. Even the film The Last Samurai came up with a better reason.

Speaking about the other aspects of the writing – I did enjoy quite a few of them. I liked the world-building and the mythology that the film was inspired by. I loved the idea to have a variety of specialized parts of the army. I liked that the lead character was written as an archer, because of my personal fondness of archery. I appreciated the fact that two languages were used in the film – it made the movie seem more as a co-production in contrast to it appearing as if Hollywood just hijacked another foreign story. I also loved that so many female warrior characters were written into the story. I don’t actually know if that is historically accurate, but I didn’t care much, in the moment of watching the movie. The picture’s attempt to have an underlying important theme – the opposition between paid participation and the true loyalty – was also commendable. While this debate wasn’t really treated as fully as it should have been, I like the fact that the film at least tried to be something more than it ended up to as.

And that final something is the fact that the film’s story was just kinda meh. The narrative was simple and straightforward – nothing one hasn’t seen before. It had two obvious plotlines – the first about fighting the monster and the other about stealing the gunpowder – which converged in the end. The main character’s change of heart during the finale was predictable and cliche. Basically, for a movie that did something very different with its financing and production, The Great Wall should have also done something new and interesting with its story.

Directing

The Great Wall was directed by Zhang Yimou. The majority of his films act as Chinese submissions for the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language category, so he is an accomplished director. His direction for this movie was quite nice too and I do think he did the best he could with the given material.  The action scenes looked cool and I liked the massive scope of them. The film had some impressive long takes too. The historical setting, as well as the different sections of the army, were also realized well enough. Plus, the design of the monsters was varied and quite interestng (they kinda reminded me of the zombies from World War Z because of their movement and the sounds they emitted). However, the CGI definitely could have been more photorealistic, especially in this day and age.

My favorite action sequence was the first battle, mostly because it was reminiscent of the final battle from The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, although not as good. I also really liked the smaller corrida-type (Spanish bull-fighting) fight scene, in which Pedro Pascal’s character was luring the monster and Matt Damon’s character was trying to shoot it with an arrow. I also loved that the battle scenes had a diegetic beat – the drumming within a story provided a rhythm for both the characters, who were fighting, and the viewers, who were just enjoying the soundtrack. Lastly, the scene with the Chinese lanterns also looked lovely but, as weird as this sounds, it didn’t felt unique. These lanterns are now used all over the world for various celebrations (or in movies, like Tangled), so their usage in an actual Chinese setting didn’t seem as unique as it should have.

Acting

Matt Damon played the lead and did as good a job as he could have. Honestly, he has never been my first choice for a historical movie but he did make the role work. Even with all the whitewashing backlash, Damon will be fine, as his career has been going great. While his return to the role of Jason Bourne wasn’t as positive as it could have been, his work on The Martian is still on everyone’s minds. Besides, in addition to acting, Damon’s producing work has been going great, as the film he recently produced – Manchester by the Sea – is a big awards nominee this season.

Pedro Pascal played a supporting role and brought a tiny bit of a different kind of diversity into the picture. Pascal impressed everyone on a single season of Game of Thrones and I am kinda surprised that his work on GOT didn’t lead to more roles for him. Nevertheless, I really liked his The Great Wall’s character’s sass – it pleasantly reminded me of Oberyn.

Willem Dafoe also appeared in the movie and didn’t have much to do, while the Chinese part of the cast delivered great performances. Jing Tian was amazing as the female lead, while Andy Lau and Zhang Hanyu did a good enough job with what they were given as well. I really wish that I knew more about these actors and their previous filmography.

In brief, The Great Wall was a film, whose behind the scenes story was more interesting than its on-screen plot. While it might have broken grounds from the business standpoint, it was nothing more than average from the creative one.

Rate: 3/5

Trailer: The Great Wall trailer

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