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photo cap: Where is the soul? A gynoid in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.

Being Human
By Shawn Stone

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Directed by Mamoru Oshii

By any measure, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is a terrific film. It posits a disturbing yet fascinating future in which the interface between man and machine is barely distinguishable, and, with a textured attention to detail and color, presents a world both beautiful and cold—an exquisite corpse. (What, the film seems to ask, is the nature of being alive?) Oh, and, while it’s animated, the compelling story makes this Japanese film seem more real than the average blue-screen effort with live actors. Plus, you don’t need to have seen the original Ghost in the Shell to follow the story.

If anime is the last bastion of film noir, then Ghost in the Shell 2 has a doozy of a noir plot: Upscale female sex robots, or “gynoids,” available only to the wealthy and elite, are flipping out and slaughtering their owners. In fact, the film opens with one of the scarily perfect “women,” with the unreal aqua-blue eyes, ripping off its “skin” in an attempted “suicide.”

Sounds creepy, huh? It is. And there’s no comic relief when two lead characters, cops, settle into their investigation of the murders. Batou, a cyborg with only traces of a human mind, is paired with Togusa, a
mostly-human rookie. In this off-kilter pairing, humor is replaced by an endless stream of philosophical aphorisms. (It’s not an entirely humorless setup; at one point the characters take the exchange so far that even they find it absurd.) And, as philosophical bullshitting goes—in any cop film there’s the element of the partners trying to one-up each other—the dialogue remains engaging.

Along the way, they meet up with a variety of people whose humanity may or may not bear any relation to whether or not they’re actually made of flesh and blood. These characters are drawn in loving detail, literally and figuratively. It may sound like a cheap trick, giving the cyborg cop an affectionate hound dog as a pet, but the relationship yields as many curious insights as any other in the story.

The mix of talk, action and imagery is perfectly balanced. There are only a couple of ultraviolent set pieces, but they will not leave wanting those who prefer animated carnage. The visual motifs—Blade Runner-style dystopian vistas and beautiful 19th-century mechanical figures—are wonderfully deployed. Best of all, the film ends by turning the conventions of film noir inside out.

The cumulative effect of all this philosophical and emotional questioning is quietly powerful. Combined with the stunning visuals, the film’s melancholy vision of the future is bleakly eloquent. The last image—of two dolls, one “alive,” the other “dead,” facing each other with equally blank expressions—is a disquieting and satisfying conclusion.

Die Young Stay Pretty

Bright Young Things
Directed by Stephen Fry

In college I had the great fortune of having a professor, Dr. Arthur Young, who, in teaching a class on the 20th-century novel, encouraged his students to read not just the works themselves, but any and all materials relating to the time period in which they were written. For instance, in reading Virginia Woolf, I immersed myself in books about country homes and Edwardian entertaining, economic treatises and histories by Lytton Strachey. The overall effect, of course, was to get a much better understanding of the authors’ perspective, historical context and the characters’ lives.

I’ve often thought about this approach, particularly when watching too many bad or misguided period movies immersed in costumes and home decor, but have little to no sense of what the times were about. That said, I was happily surprised that Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry’s take on Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, displays such cognizance, not to mention dazzle and energy. Set in pre-World War II London, the movie follows the madcap antics of a bunch of young dandies, rich or pretending to be, as they drink, dance and party their way through life.

Seen primarily through the eyes of Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore), a struggling novelist trying hard to make enough money to marry the lovely Nina (Emily Mortimer), the movie thoroughly captures Waugh’s sense of humor as well as his wry affection for his wayward characters. These include Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy), a penniless baron who trades on his “in” to social functions by writing under the pseudonym Mr. Chatterbox for publisher Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd); Agatha, a daffy party girl (Fenella Woolgar); Miles (Michael Sheen), a flamboyant homosexual with a thing for race-car drivers; and Ginger (David Tennant), Adam’s monied rival for Nina’s affections. There are many lavish set pieces, including an “inferno”-themed masquerade and a highly comical soiree featuring the preaching of evangelist Mrs. Melrose Ape (Stockard Channing). The lives of these bright young things is capsulated quite effectively toward the end of the movie by Aggie, who, hospitalized in an insane asylum, cries out, “Drive faster! Faster!”

As mentioned, Fry gives his source material incredible verve and spirit. There is constant movement, be it dancing or chasing errant paparazzi or, in Adam’s case, running down a drunken major (Jim Broadbent) who owes him money. Ever-present is the foreboding of war and disaster, and ultimately, nearly everybody in the film meets with a sad end. Still, the director salvages a lovely, believable ending that pays a budding respect to that madness of youth while raising a glass to the joys of mundane domesticity. In doing so, he pays true homage to Waugh’s novel, and that, in itself, is a major accomplishment.

—Laura Leon

Forget the Titans

Friday Night Lights
Directed by Peter Berg

How did that old quote go?
“The only things that come from Texas are beers, steers and queers.” According to Friday Night Lights, high school football players can be added to this short list of Lone Star exports.

In the God-forsaken flatlands of Odessa, Texas, where oil derricks pop up in unlikely places like the school parking lot, there isn’t much to do except work, get drunk, sleep and die—and follow the local high school football team, the Permian Panthers. And follow them with a fanaticism usually reserved for the armed legions guarding the homeland from barbarian hordes.

Short, clever montages neatly, and bluntly, sum up the situation. We see the players’ homes, which are marked with huge front-lawn signs identifying player and position. We hear the local radio call-in shows, on which topic A is always football. We see the girls chase after the players, greedy and ravenous; we see the local know-it-alls crowd around the coach, supportive or threatening, depending on last week’s score. The direction, by Peter Berg, is bracingly unsentimental.

This is a good thing, because the story itself is packed with sentiment. There’s the fumble-prone player feeling the pressure of his family’s expectations; the quarterback with the not-quite-right mom; and the showboating star who pins all his hopes on a pro football future. The tension between the story and storytelling gives the film just enough grit, for example, to make things like Tim McGraw’s less-than-stellar performance as a drunken fool of a football dad tolerable.

The moral—or is it amoral?—center of the story is Billy Bob Thornton as coach Gary Gaines. Whether at the pro, college or high school level, football is a game of dizzying complexities and intense specialization. The coach functions at the level of CEO, trusting many of the details to assistants. Thornton plays the character as man who’s greatest talent is knowing when to keep his emotions under control and just shut up. It’s fascinating to puzzle out just what kind of man he is, as the film works its way to the inevitable “big game.” Thornton’s big-game halftime speech is one of the film’s best moments.

If Friday Night Lights seems incomplete on any subject, it’s race. Racism rears its ugly head early, never to return again, but the story’s focus on a multicultural few doesn’t alter the fact that most of the Panthers (and their cheerleaders) are white. When the Panthers square off against an all-black team in the championship, one can’t help but get the sinking feeling of having seen this movie before.

—Shawn Stone

Bombs Away

Head in the Clouds
Directed by John Duigan

Written and directed by John Duigan, Head in the Clouds is a glossy melodrama set in 1930s Europe. The world may be on the brink of war, but the film is in the soft-focus mold of previous Duigan films such as Sirens, Wide Sargasso Sea and The Journey of August King. Since his career has been on the wane every since he showed promise with 1991’s Flirting, one might assume that Duigan would try to veer from his formula of lush production, unconvincing characters and leering art-house erotica. But no, Head in the Clouds offers all this and more: Working on an epic scale—the intrusion of World War II on three bohemians in love—Duigan has achieved a career high in photogenic vapidity.

The character with her head up her rump is Gilda Besse (Charlize Theron), the self-indulgent daughter of a French aristocrat and an American heiress. Sexually freewheeling, Gilda has a scandalous reputation, which does not deter mild-mannered Guy (Stuart Townsend), an Oxford-scholarship student from Ireland, from falling madly in love with her. “You’re very modern,” he tells her. And she takes to him, too, sort of. Several years after their one-night-stand, she sends for him to join her in Paris, where she works as a celebrated photographer. Gilda also has a protégé, a Spanish stripteaser, Mia (Penelope Cruz), who goes to nursing school. Although the three live together, clueless Guy doesn’t know that Gilda and Mia are lovers (maybe he’s too dazzled by the lingering close-ups of Theron topless in the tub). And despite his penchant for Helmut Newtonian tableaux—at one especially lascivious point, Gilda takes revenge on Mia’s abusive, art-dealer boyfriend by horsewhipping him into a fit of giggling—Duigan doesn’t have the nerve to openly acknowledge the women’s relationship.

Inspired by newsreels, Guy and Mia join up with the Spanish Republican Army, leaving Gilda to amuse herself as best she can while the Germans conquer France. After the inevitable tragedy, Gilda grows a conscience, and of course, suffers for it. But then, people in love do the craziest things; just look at Theron, who followed up her Oscar-winning, career-making turn in Monster with this piece of clichéd fluff in order to team up with Townsend, her real-life boyfriend. Playing a passive character with unvarying blandness, Townsend has about as much chemistry with Theron as his Lestat did with a marble statue in Queen of the Damned. For her part, Theron easily conjures the dazzling creature that the film strains so hard to create. She also imbues Gilda with more substance than the script does, imbuing her apolitical hedonism with a shred of conviction.

Apparently, Duigan was aiming for Dr. Zhivago-style fatalism flavored with the decadence of Scott and Zelda and Henry and June. But the stagy plot is driven by the director’s desire for stunning layouts rather than by the desires of the characters—a dinner party with Gilda’s imperious father occurs for no other reason than the picturesque opportunities of his palatial chateau. Similarly, Duigan’s vision of occupied Paris is so enchanting, you have to wonder what the French Resistance was resisting. Even so, it does not serve the film well that the most believably passionate character is the Nazi officer (Thomas Kretschmann) in charge of crushing the resistance.

—Ann Morrow

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