GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence, Suggestive Content and some Disturbing Images

Directed by: Rupert Sanders

Written by: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler & Ehren Kruger

(based on the manga GHOST IN THE SHELL by Masamune Shirow)

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbaek, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche & Lasarus Ratuere

A live-action adaptation of GHOST IN THE SHELL has been in the works since 2008 and it comes as a hotly-anticipated big-budget release. 1995’s anime adaptation of the manga is widely considered to be one of the greatest animated movies of all-time and this 2017 tentpole release had quite a lot to live up to. However, fans of the original anime should calm their skeptical prejudgements and newcomers to the material should feel welcomed here. 2017’s GHOST IN THE SHELL is a somewhat brainy, visually stunning  blockbuster that will entertain moviegoers from start to finish.

In a future where technology has become more prevalent in our daily lives and citizens pay to have robotic upgrades surgically placed into their bodies, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind. Major has a human brain in a cybernetic body. She has the capabilities of a superhuman android and the willpower of a human. With the aid of her protective partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek) and the authority of Section 9 Chief Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), Major is thrown into a search for deadly hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt). However, this hunt quickly turns into a conspiracy that goes far deeper than she ever imagined and Major begins to uncover dark secrets about her forgotten past.

There are distinct differences between the GHOST IN THE SHELL anime and this live-action movie that fans will undoubtedly identify. I have only seen the 1995 film, so that’s my basic knowledge of this franchise. It might be blasphemy to diehard fans of the material, but some of the changes made in this 2017 adaptation actually improved the story for me. On the other hand, certain changes did seem dumbed down a bit too much. The first thing that needs to be praised is this film’s look. Director Rupert Sanders knocked this atmosphere out of the park. The visuals are amazing (echoing a BLADE RUNNER-esque future) and the action scenes are stunning. This film’s moody music is original, but remains distinctly reminiscent of the 1995 score.

One improvement that 2017’s GHOST made over 1995’s GHOST is that Major has become a more relatable protagonist. The original film had Major waxing philosophical about the meaning of life and existence itself, all while looking pensive and feeling purposely hollow. This new film lets us see Scarlett Johansson’s perfectly-acted Major exploring her humanity and questioning her identity. Instead of talking about what separates her from other humans, she actually demonstrates it by touching someone to see how they feel and constantly deriding her own robotic features. A few twists pop in later on that further dive into Major’s past and I thought these bits made the film more exciting overall.

However, some new twists on the material are, unfortunately, very predictable. This new GHOST IN THE SHELL is stronger in the way it crafted Major to be a fleshed-out heroine, but weaker in the way it structured the overall story. You pretty much know where things are heading from the first frame. Certain clues are laid in advance to obviously set up plot points that arrive later on. The journey to and discovery of these would-be revelations is fun to watch, but there are spots where this film occasionally slows to crawl. I found myself twiddling my thumbs and waiting for characters to discover things that the audience already knew in advance. Still, the plot’s predictability doesn’t put too big of a damper on things, because the action scenes are stellar and the overall style is awesome.

Fans of the GHOST IN THE SHELL anime will likely have a good time watching this film because it replicates certain scenes straight out of the original film. There’s just different context thrown behind them. I do wish this movie had been rated R, but the PG-13 rating only popped into my head during one scene (which seems like it was significantly edited down for a softer rating). As for the rest of the supporting cast, Michael Pitt did a solid job as villainous Kuze, whose backstory is significantly different from the source material’s antagonist. Takeshi Kitano (who I will always know as the coach from BATTLE ROYALE) gets his share of bad-ass moments as the Section 9 chief. Meanwhile, Danish actor Pilou Asbaek makes a perfect Batou. He has his share of comic relief moments and seems like a lovable sidekick.

2017’s GHOST IN THE SHELL is a visually awesome, action-packed, and (somewhat) brainy piece of sci-fi entertainment. Though the story may have been dumbed down in this new version of the material, the disconnected main character has been built up in an improved way. This movie has its pieces of fan service, while remaining accessible to moviegoers who aren’t familiar with the material. The cast is pretty great, with Scarlett Johansson easily putting in the best performance as Major. If you want a cool science-fiction actioner, then GHOST IN THE SHELL should satisfy your cinematic craving!

Grade: B+

SUPER TROOPERS (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, Sexual Content and Drug Use

Directed by: Jay Chandrasekhar

Written by: Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter & Erik Stolhanske

Starring: Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, Erik Stolhanske, Marisa Coughlan, Daniel von Bargen & Brian Cox

SUPER TROOPERS is a goofy comedy that was penned by and stars the Broken Lizard comedy team. This indie effort was inspired by the group’s experiences as they travelled across the country under the influence of drugs. As they were constantly pulled over by various police officers, the group began to wonder if the officers were aware of their drug-addled state and if they had a sense of humor. Thus, this cult comedy was born. This film has built quite a reputation for itself and even has an Indiegogo-funded sequel currently in the works. Though it’s far from perfect or great, SUPER TROOPERS is a charming, crude laugh-fest.

In the small town of Spurbury, Vermont, five state troopers (Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, and Erik Stolhanske) patrol the highway. This small band of uniformed ne’er-do-wells have a penchant for rowdy pranks and have found themselves in a fierce rivalry with the local police department. As federal budget cuts wait on the horizon, the Vermont state troopers might unemployed in the near future. However, they get their chance at redemption when a corpse turns up in their small town and a giant semi-truck full of weed is seized. Can these five troopers save the day and keep their jobs? Possibly, if they can stop fooling around and drinking for five minutes.

I understand and appreciate SUPER TROOPERS’s main appeal. This film was clearly written by a comedy trope because it runs through many hilarious set-pieces that almost feel like webisodes of an online comedy series. These moments involving routine traffic stops, outrageous pranks, and confrontations over possible spit in a burger are all genuinely funny in a really juvenile way. The film also has a few colorful characters in three stoners who bookend the film (in two of the funniest scenes), Brian Cox as the frustrated chief of the Vermont troopers, and Kevin Heffernan as the obnoxious slob Farva.

However, the writing falls by the wayside as the rest of its characters range from good enough to one-note cut-outs. A significant subplot is given to Paul Soter and Marisa Coughlan’s characters as they become involved in a so-so romance. This subplot has its moments, but somewhat serves as a driving force for the weaker main storyline that ties everything together. Steve Lemme is fun as the most rambunctious trooper of the bunch, but Jay Chandrasekhar and Erik Stolhanske both seem sadly underdeveloped. The rival police antagonists aren’t given nearly enough screen time (about four short scenes) for the viewer to really to care about their existence, other than Daniel von Bargen’s dickhead chief of police.

Though it has many funny set-pieces (ranging from training with bulletproof cups to pulling over two sex-crazed German lovers), SUPER TROOPERS’s main plot leaves quite a bit to be desired. The conspiracy of a drug ring and a dead body is brought into conversations, but doesn’t really play a giant role until the final third. By the time the last 30 minutes roll around, it feels like this half-baked script is unnecessarily rushing through plot points that could have been extra effective/interesting if more time was spent on letting them sink in.

As a whole, SUPER TROOPERS is exactly the kind of film that it was intended to be from the get-go. This is a wacky comedy about prankster state troopers that engage in all sorts of shenanigans and occasionally do their jobs in a silly manner. The characters are split across the board in that half of the troopers are legitimately funny to watch and the other half are a bit too bland to care about. The paper-thin plot that holds genuinely funny set-pieces together is weak, but you don’t walk into a movie like SUPER TROOPERS for the story. If you want to laugh and enjoy crude humor, SUPER TROOPERS is a fun time!

Grade: B

FRONTIER(S) (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: NC-17 for Extreme Sadistic Graphic Violence and Gore

(French with English subtitles)

Directed by: Xavier Gens

Written by: Xavier Gens

Starring: Karina Testa, Aurellen Wiik, Samuel Le Bihan, Estelle Lefebure, David Saracino, Chems Dahmani, Adel Bencherif, Maud Forget & Jean-Pierre Jorris

FRONTIER(S) is another example of New French Extremity and had a rather rocky road to American theaters. This gorefest was originally slated as part of the After Dark Horrorfest 2007 (remember when that cool little experiment backfired?). However, it never hit screens in November 2007 because this film got slapped with an NC-17 rating for its sheer brutality. In May 2008, FRONTIER(S) hit 10 theaters and was quickly released onto home video a few days later. Besides being extremely gory and aiming to extremely disturb its viewer, FRONTIER(S) is also an extremely entertaining treat for horror fans!

After a right-wing candidate’s election sparks riots in Paris, a street gang plots to escape the city. To do this, they will need cash and they solve this problem by quickly pulling off a robbery. Yasmine (Karina Testa), Alex (Aurellen Wiik), Tom (David Saracino) and Farid (Chems Dahmani) decide to hide out (with their suitcase of illegally acquired cash) in a small inn near the border. However, this decision may have been their gravest mistake because the family-run establishment happens to be owned by a sadistic, inbred group of psychopathic neo-Nazis. Lots of gory violence ensues.

The premise of FRONTIER(S) is simple to a fault, but the script unsuccessfully attempts to pull off a half-assed message too. This mainly comes in the political backdrop of France being the starting point for this story, wherein the gang’s mistakes launch them out of the frying pan and into the fire. It’s clear that director/writer Xavier Gens was trying to make a statement by having one of the gang members be openly Muslim and cut to an awkward transition of a Jesus statue for no apparent reason. However, I don’t think he succeeded in this at all. He further makes the viewer shrug their shoulders by throwing in awkward transitions of landscape shots that slightly interrupt the film’s flow. This all being said, Xavier Gens’s FRONTIER(S) also succeeds in many different (more visceral) areas.

Though I suspect Xavier Gens tried to make this film as disturbing as humanly possible, I actually felt that FRONTIER(S) was a very fun thrill ride. Again, I don’t know if this film’s intention was to be entertaining from the get-to, but I definitely had a lot fun watching it. This script feels like a love-letter to 70s slasher films and shocksploitation cinema, while never really leaving a bad taste in your mouth. There are gallons of blood and gore, but these bits resemble 2003’s TEXAS CHAINSAW remake cranked up to 11. Be prepared for things to get ultra-gory, but also be prepared to be totally entertained. After all, this is a slasher movie that features crazy cannibal Nazi rednecks on the outskirts of France.

Though occasional stylish transitions can be jarring, the film’s cinematography is stunning. I don’t know what it is about the New French Extremity titles that I’ve seen so far, but French directors seem gifted with the slightly disturbing ability to film horrible things in beautiful ways. FRONTIER(S) is no exception as the viewer is thrust into the hellish inn (and a nearby abandoned mining facility) with a grim atmosphere. In almost every scene, the viewer can see every speck of dirt, bead of sweat, and gush of blood…and they’re all gorgeous.

The gang characters are a bit weak as Yasmine is clearly the final girl from the get-go and the only “good” person worth caring about. Karina Testa gives a great performance as this female protagonist trapped in a Nazi cannibal-filled nightmare. She gets her share of bad-ass heroine moments and delivers the best damn kill in the entire film (you’ll know it when it happens). Testa also receives a couple of scenes that reminded me of Marilyn Burns (from Tobe Hooper’s original TEXAS CHAINSAW). The other gang members are just lambs to the ultra-sadistic slaughter. It also doesn’t help that these three guys are scumbags and the viewer will most likely to be rooting to see their gory demise, rather than wanting any of these pricks to survive.

The performances are significantly better from the neo-Nazi family of psychopaths. It looks like Xavier Gens scoured the French countryside to find actual French neo-Nazi cannibal rednecks and then just hired them on the spot as actors. Each antagonist has a distinct look and colorful personality behind them. My favorite of the villainous bunch was easily super-muscular Goetz (Samuel Le Bihan) who looks like he could break a man in half with his bare hands and is legitimately terrifying. Patrick Ligardes doesn’t receive much screen time as the most calculating member of the Nazi bunch, but makes the most of his role. Estelle Lefebure rocks as a slutty, gun-wielding clerk. Meanwhile, Maud Forget is a bit too over-the-top as super-shy Eva and Jean-Pierre Jorris chews the scenery as the sick Nazi grandfather/head of the family.

FRONTIER(S) clearly wears its horror influences on its sleeves. There’s plenty of nods to TEXAS CHAINSAW and even touches of THE DESCENT, but this French film is gorgeous to look at and has lots of style. The story may not be original and the characters are mixed (lots of them are one-dimensional victims and villains), but this will thoroughly entertain gore-loving horror fans and packs plenty of memorable moments into its well-paced 108 minutes. FRONTIER(S) is basically THE FRENCH CHAINSAW MASSACRE and I mean that in the best way possible!

Grade: B+

IRREVERSIBLE (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

(French with English subtitles)

Directed by: Gaspar Noe

Written by: Gaspar Noe

Starring: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel & Jo Prestia

Often listed as one of the biggest examples of the New French Extremity movement, IRREVERSIBLE is an amazing feat of filmmaking. Originally pitched by Gaspar Noe as a tragedy done MEMENTO style, the film tells its deeply depressing story through reverse-chronological order. This means that we start the film with the end credits and end the film with an opening shot. It’s an artsy experiment that constantly keeps the viewer engaged, even when the story’s slower-paced beginning arrives at the tail-end of this emotionally draining experience.

Loving couple Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel), along with their best friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) go to a drug-filled, alcohol-fueled party. However, the night spirals out of control after bad decisions are made and a tragic chain of events sets off that will forever shape the course of these people’s lives in a matter of hours. Think of this artsy rape-revenge flick as a rewound story of revenge-rape. We see the ultimate outcome first, then watch the events initially spiraling out of control, and then go back to the initial build-up.

IRREVERSIBLE’s reverse-chronological narrative isn’t just a fascinating experiment from a cinephile’s perspective, but it also serves as a tool to keep the viewer constantly engaged in the narrative. We want to see how things wound up where they did and it’s a tense journey, even after we know the worst scenes have passed. The final 30 minutes of this movie (a.k.a. the first 30 minutes of the story) contain lots of foreshadowing and manage to make the tragic events even more tragic through small details. There’s one horrifying revelation that comes midway through (even though we already know what’s coming) that had me floored. It’s as if Gaspar Noe thought of every possible way that he could make this film as depressing as possible and then wrote them all into a single script. Still, the backwards-foreshadowing never seems over-the-top and further gut-punches the viewer’s already damaged emotional state.

IRREVERSIBLE’s cinematography is purposely erratic and wild. It’s like they gave the cameraman a cocktail of drugs and then told him to go crazy while filming. Characters have conversations as the lens zooms in on their faces and various body parts, and scans the background. Remarkably, this doesn’t feel distracting or nearly as pretentious as it sounds. Instead, this technique helps cement the viewer into the movie and blends right into the unconventional backwards narrative. The music score seems natural to the various environments (fading in and out of a club, playing in another room as a couple tease each other in bed), while the classical score at the end of the movie (beginning of the story) hits the viewer like a ton of bricks.

The performances come off as entirely natural and the dialogue almost seems ad-libbed. Monica Bellucci’s Alex is innocent and caring, making her fate even more difficult to watch (even though we’ve already seen it happen before we truly meet her). Vincent Cassel has a remarkable screen presence in nearly every role he’s taken, but his stint as Marcus just might be one of his all-time best performances. Albert Dupontel plays supporting character Pierre, but his story arc winds up as one of the most fascinating bits of the film. Dialogue from the beginning of the story (given during the final third) highlights just how much he evolves as a character over the course of the night.

If you haven’t already guessed, IRREVERSIBLE is a tough film to watch. One of the early sequences contains a graphic piece of violence that is highly disturbing. The detailed gore effect mixed with a faint lighting of a club and the wild camera work is downright cringe-inducing. The build-up to that moment is tense too as we see lots of sexually explicit shots and get the sense that some bad stuff is about to go down. This film is also notorious for a grueling 10-minute-long rape sequence. Even though Monica Bellucci is breathtakingly beautiful, director Gaspar Noe successfully makes this scene absolutely horrifying and it won’t seem the least bit erotic to any sensible human being (unless you’re a sicko or a possible psychopath). This haunting scene lingers long after its ended (even though nothing truly terrible happens in the final third of this film).

IRREVERSIBLE is a fascinating experiment in filmmaking and storytelling. If a fan were to edit this film in chronological order, I feel it would still make a deep impact. The reverse-chronological order adds to its depth and gets the viewer thinking about this rape-revenge tale in new ways (revenge-rape). The acting feels completely natural and the frenetic camera work adds to this film’s sheer artistic power, never once feeling pretentious or distracting. This film is amazing, but it’s not one that I’m likely to stick on much in my lifetime. IRREVERSIBLE is a work of art that repeatedly pummels the viewer’s emotions, sometimes in ways they least expect. To put it simply, IRREVERSIBLE is a stunning masterpiece of transgressive cinema!

Grade: A+

INSIDE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: NC-17 for Strong Bloody Violence, Gruesome and Disturbing Content, and Language

(French with English subtitles)

Directed by: Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo

Written by: Alexandre Bustillo

Starring: Alysson Paradis, Beatrice Dalle, Nathalie Roussel, Francois-Regis Marchasson & Jean-Baptiste Marchasson

Throughout the 2000s, French cinema underwent a radical movement known as “New French Extremity.” This cinematic movement featured filmmakers tackling dark, disturbing subject matter and then pushing it as far as they possibly could. The 2000s wave of transgressive cinema had plenty of dark dramas, but also left its mark with gore-soaked horror films. While the best of these French Extreme horror flicks is easily MARTYRS, I would argue that the second-best is home-invasion horror flick INSIDE. This movie is vicious. brutal and unforgettable.

After surviving a traumatic car accident that left her face scarred and her husband dead, very pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is miraculously one day away from giving birth to her baby. However, the mother-to-be soon finds herself in a night from hell when a crazy woman (Beatrice Dalle) breaks into her home. The menacing stranger wants the unborn baby inside of Sarah’s belly and will employ extreme means to get it. Her weapon of choice is a large, razor-sharp pair of scissors. A bloody struggle ensues between Sarah and the woman. As more people arrive at the house, more bodies begin to pile up.

To put it lightly, INSIDE is a brutal viewing experience. This is one of the goriest films I’ve sat through and also one of the most disturbing movies ever made. This is not happy entertainment, but it’s an intensely suspenseful and terrifying near-masterpiece of horror. You’ll likely want to avoid this film if you’re pregnant and I mean that in the nicest way possible. As a man who is incapable of carrying a child in my body, I was petrified and wincing at every cut/stab/slice. There’s one particular moment that always makes me grab my gut every single time I see it and it’s pure nightmare fuel. I can hardly imagine what an expecting mother might feel while watching this movie. INSIDE knows how to crawl under your skin and chill your blood. It does this for almost the entirety of its brief 82-minute running time.

The realistic gore and intense scenario wouldn’t hold up if there wasn’t a genuine talent behind the camera. Luckily, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo crafted this film in a classy way that only elevates its vicious impact. The cinematography is professional and beautiful, even when a white bathroom becomes stained with crimson bodily fluid. Bustillo’s screenplay also invites logical excuses for people to enter the house and quickly escalates scenarios in a mostly believable fashion. There’s one shocker of a scene early-on that left me floored and showed this movie wasn’t messing around. INSIDE is here to brutalize its viewer and masterfully succeeds in doing so.

The two main performances belong to Alysson Paradis and Beatrice Dalle. Paradis serves as the bloodied and battered protagonist, who’s trying to stay alive and save the life of her unborn child. Though Paradis’s Sarah has understandable moments of shell-shock and tearful breakdowns, she also has badass heroine bits in which she fights back with whatever is around her. Beatrice Dalle is intimidating as the mysterious woman who wants to cut Sarah open. Dalle does menacing like nobody’s business and comes off like a ferocious animal in many scenes. The tension between Paradis and Dalle’s performances only further push the suspense to an almost unbearable level.

Though it’s beyond stellar in many ways, INSIDE has three hiccups that keep it from horrific perfection. The first of these are frequent scenes of a CGI baby in Sarah’s womb. One of these serves as the opening shot of the film and others occasionally makes their way into tense confrontations. These bits distracted from the live-action struggle at hand and didn’t look nearly as professional as the rest of the film. The second problem comes in the arrival of a cop and a criminal. While their initial introduction is solid, these two make ineptly idiotic mistakes like fumbling with a flashlight and searching for bandages…while they should be escorting Sarah straight out of the house. Finally, there’s one moment in the final 15 minutes that feels oddly out-of-place. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know it when you see it.

Handful of flaws aside, INSIDE is one hell of a horror movie. This film doesn’t milk its darker-than-dark scenario purely for shock value, but is legitimately well made and builds a thick layer of suspense that is sure to make the viewer uneasy. INSIDE also goes to extremely nightmarish places that other scary movies wouldn’t dare touch. The final minutes will likely leave you stunned and are sure make a lasting impact on your movie memories. If you think you can handle it, I highly recommend INSIDE. Just be warned, this film isn’t for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs.

Grade: A-