Apr. 5th, 2017

First, let me address one point: Casting Scarlett Johannsen as the main character is NOT a “whitewash”. “Major Kusanagi,” as she’s generally known, has never, ever been drawn as Asian-looking either in the manga or the anime. She’s always had round eyes, and, when in color, they are blue (or red, in one of the animes), and her skin is white. “Section 9,” the special law enforcement group she belongs to does not exist in any recognizable version of Japan, instead it’s “manga Japan,” which, in that, as well as other works, is populated by racially ambiguous people, many of which are pale-skinned, round-eyed, and have hair in Caucasian shades (when it’s not blue, purple, or other colors not occurring in nature). The director of the animated films, Mamoru Oshii said: “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.”

That being said, we went to a preview of the movie at the Oriental Theatre on Wednesday night, March 29. I liked the movie a lot, and Georgie did, too, as it didn’t exceed her tolerance for violence and flashing/booming.

The movie looks great to my eyes. The long shots of the urban landscape are amazing, rife with gigantic advertising holograms, which Georgie called “Blade Runner all grown up.” The opening sequence of the creation of the Major’s cyborg body is pure science-fantasy, but beautiful, and almost mystical as her framework is levitated through the various stages of its “birth.” That life is not going to be quite easy for the new being is immediately apparent with the dialog between her creator, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) and the owner of the company that created her, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), in which he declares, “She’s a weapon.”

Flash ahead to a year later, and “the Major” is lead operator for “Section 9,” here described as an anti-terrorist unit, where her strength, speed, and ability to make herself virtually invisible, are of great use. Her ability to “deep dive” into cyberspace is less well understood, and her commander, Aramaki (veteran Japanese action actor “Beat” Takeshi Kitano), is uneasy with her using it. She has an uneasy comradeship with the other members of her unit, Batou (Pilou Asbaek), Han (Chin Han), Ladriya (Danusia Samal), and Ishikawa (Lasarus Ratuere).

I was really struck by Ms. Johannsen’s abilities as a physical actress. Although her role as Marvel’s “Black Widow” is superficially similar, both being female super-agent action heroes, the characters are quite different. I was particularly struck by the Major’s walk, which is a heavy-looking flat-footed trudge, as though she indeed had a steel skeleton. She walks with her head pushed forward, sometimes “forgetting” to move her arms, subtly underlining that she’s only had this body for a year and is still learning to use it. Similarly, her resting expression is very neutral: you don’t see thoughts cross her face, except when she is speaking or taking action.
The plot has some similarities to the 1995 animated film, with the major antagonist having the ability to “hack” people’s minds, but goes in a very different direction, becoming the Major’s origin story, which is more detailed and dark than any version given before.

Ms. Johannsen is well supported by the cast, especially Pilou Asbaek as Batou, and Marion Cotillard as Dr. Ouelet, who are the human heart and mind of the movie, respectively. It’s also good fun to see Mr. Kitano “taking names” in a wonderfully no-nonsense style. Peter Fernandino as Cutter is a villain for the 21st Century, taking personal command of mayhem with a remote-control interface.
The film’s portrayal of “augmentation” is quite compelling, and a lot of ways evocative of what the “man-machine interface” might be like. In other ways, it is quite fantastic and dreamlike, with robotic arms repairing the Major’s damaged muscle fibers by painting on new material with brushes. It’s never explained how she can jump off the top of a skyscraper (her favored method of “tactical insertion”) without harm, but still be damaged in combat. Of course there’s lots of over-the-top combat, but shooting and exploding is at a tolerable level. There’s some blood, shown as the aftermath of being wounded, but not much. No bad language or sex. We do see quite a lot of the Major’s artificial integument, but it’s not what one would call sexual nudity (unless you are already a robot fetishist--).

Recommended for fans of anime, SF/action, and superheroes.
On Saturday, April 1, we went to the Milwaukee Art Museum to see the new exhibit, "Milwaukee Collects," which is made up of paintings and other objets d'art in the private collections of residents of Greater Milwaukee. The more than 100 works on loan came from nearly 50 collections, showing a great deal of community support. Some of the named donors included names well-known as patrons of the arts, and some unknown to us, and some remaining anonymous.

The exhibition is organized in roughly chronological order, with 19th Century pieces first up. These included representational and sentimental pieces such as Ludwig Knaus' "The Golden Wedding," (http://www.artnet.com/magazine/news/jeromack/jeromack5-16-7.asp); Eduard von Grutzner's fond paintings of portly monks, one of which, "The Catastophe" is in the Museum's permanent collection (http://art-now-and-then.blogspot.com/2014/04/eduard-von-grutzner.html); and some non-Academy French paintings, such as "Elodie with a Parasol," by Jules Breton (http://urbanmilwaukee.com/2017/03/10/art-private-collections-of-the-wealthy/nggallery/image/elodie-with-a-sunshade-bay-of-douarnenez-woman-with-parasol/).

By far the largest part of the exhibition is 20th Century work, and the sophistication of the local collectors is impressive. While "usual suspects," like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein are represented, there are significant examples from important art movements like the "Ashcan School," the "Chicago Imagists," and the Dusseldorf School. We fond particularly amusing Erika Rothenberg's 1991 "Another Century of Progress," one of her "signboard" series (http://erikarothenberg.com/#works)a rather more humorous bookend to works like "America, the Greatest Nation on Earth" (not part of this exhibition).

Also just opened is the the exhibit "How Posters Work," which is a display focusing on the graphic design elements that make posters, now a fading art form, effective. Items from the Smithsonian Cooper Hewett collection are central to the show, which includes industrial and governmental designs, as well as examples of posters for films, plays, and concerts.

These were both very interesting shows and we were glad to have seen them.

Milwaukee Collects runs through May 21.
How Posters Work is on display through June 25th.

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