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Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell


Ghost in the Shell is based on a manga series, which was later adapted into an animated feature in 1995. Partly inspired by Arthur Koestler's The Ghost in the Machine and partly an inspiration for The Matrix, this much-loved Japanese series continues to inspire. Now unveiling its latest iteration, an almost inevitable live-action adaptation, starring Scarlett Johansson and directed by Rupert Sanders, we get a chance to see Major come alive... even if her shoes seem too big for her.

The film takes place in the not-too-distant future, as we're introduced to Major... a cyber-enhanced human designed to be the perfect soldier and weapon against the world's most dangerous criminals. It loosely covers the same ground as the anime Ghost in the Shell as a complex hunt for a mysterious hacker unfurls with great revelations around Major's identity, the criminal mastermind and the crime-fighting organisation she represents.

While Johansson has worn skintight outfits playing Natasha Romanoff in The Avengers, she's gone as skin tight as it gets in playing Major, adopting a translucent costume. The visual effects around this outfit make it almost like a character in itself, which certainly helps since Johansson is playing Major in a performance, which is almost as alien and robotic as her take in Under the Skin.

She's supported by Pilou Asbæk, of Game of Thrones fame, who makes the best animation to live-action transition as her beefy and loyal sidekick. Takeshi Kitano is tremendous as Aramaki, rooting Ghost in the Shell at home and delivering most of his lines in Japanese. Juliette Binoche echoes her role in Godzilla as the conflicted Dr. Ouelet, while it's great to see Michael Pitt getting some more prominent screen time.

"I'm Major... in Japan."

While faithful in terms of basic plotting and some direct adaptations of scenes from the original Ghost in the Shell, the film has its own flavour. "Own" may be a bit generous when you contrast their effort with influences like The Fifth Element, Johnny Mnemonic and Blade Runner, tent poles for the live-action adaptation. While watching the 1995 anime film draws direct parallels with The Matrix, it's almost like they've fought against this contrast with the live-action film.

Major is reminiscent of Leeloo from The Fifth Element. Both beings are secret weapons and find themselves in a similar urban environment in terms of design and infrastructure. Ordinarily, this role would've been awarded to Milla Jovovich, who has become the quintessential kick-ass female lead, powering this type with The Fifth Element and recurring roles in Resident Evil. While Jovovich may have been a better casting call, Johansson's star power makes her more bankable.

The Johnny Mnemonic chicken-or-egg factor and Keanu Reeves correlation with The Matrix makes its release in the same year as 1995's Ghost in the Shell, quite curious. The opening scene has some synergies with Johnny Mnemonic, which while inferior and locked into the '90s, covered similar stylistic terrain in terms of Yakuza-inspired cyber criminal warfare.

While Blade Runner is scheduled for a reboot with Blade Runner 2049 later this year, Ghost in the Shell has incorporated a similar mix of decaying environment, dark mood and ominous atmosphere. This will help warm fans up for the reboot, but also shows how safe and magpie-orientated the new Ghost in the Shell really is under the direction of Sanders.

The cinematography is quite dazzling and the environment has depth and weight, a surprising amount, considering the degree of CGI. The translation of style is mostly on target and the film-makers have used an enhanced version of the soundtrack from the anime version. The strongest changes are made in the character's origin story, a few revelations and in the casting department... a point, which while criticised, has been handled quite deftly.

Ghost in the Shell is a beautiful and serviceable adaptation, which doesn't tarnish the series or break new ground. While we're not as invested in the characters as we'd want, the treatment is brooding and the stylistic choices are familiar and eye-popping enough to smooth over rough edges. The experience isn't entirely satisfying, but it does deliver on its promise of escapism.

The bottom line: Mesmerising

 
Movie Review: Jagveld (Hunting Emma)


Jagveld aka Hunting Emma is an outback crime thriller based on the novel by Deon Meyer, which tracks the journey of a young woman, who is pursued by a gang of drug smugglers after she witnesses them killing a traffic officer. Byron Davis makes a directorial debut working with a notable South African ensemble in Leandie du Randt, Neels Van Jaarsveld and Tim Theron, with support from Tertius Meintjes, Albert Maritz, Edwin van der Walt and Bouwer Bosch.

Jagveld is in the same league as Beyond the Reach and Desierto, as a cat and mouse hunt unfurls over a dry and dusty landscape. While similar, Meyer's story has a fresh twist turning the prey into a wiley predator as we get up-to-speed with a Tomb Raider style heroine. It would have been much edgier if the film had hinged on current socio-political issues in South Africa with a similar bent to Desierto, but it's more concerned with kicking ass and driving its vengeful brand of feminism, despite the overt sexualisation of its lead.

The casting of Leandie du Randt, makes it seem like the part of Emma was written with her in mind, taking us from her pre-school teacher job and pacifist mindset into much darker and dangerous terrain. While being blonde and wearing hot pants puts her in a box, it's her hiking boots, MacGyver temperament and tough-as-nails determination that makes the character relentless and complex like Bambi with an AK-47. While Neels van Jaarsveld is dealing with a fairly stereotypical Western style villain, he oozes cool menace, looks imposing against the skyline and it would've been great if they'd unpacked the character of Bosman more. Tertius Meintjes adds his weight as Emma's father, who could warrant a spin-off film, while Tim Theron looks like he spent a lot of time bulking up and while breaking new ground as a bad guy, adds brute force as the second-in-command, Piet.

Jagveld aka Hunting Emma film

"Have you seen this boy?"

Jagveld is a low budget production, but it's incredibly resourceful, leaning on the talents of its posse and using the desolate outback terrain to good effect. The visuals are compelling, taking notes from epic Westerns as tracking and survival tactics come into play. Unfortunately, Jagveld gets bogged down by inconsistencies, far-fetched story ideas and fundamental flaws. A smaller crew of criminals would've given us a chance to know the henchmen and leaders better, giving depth and realism preference over body count.

It's promising yet tonally-challenged, starting like an indie crime thriller and then deviating into a Tarantino-style action comedy caper, never completely comfortable in its own skin or with its overarching vision. While suspenseful, a few unintentional laughs and some cheesy one-liners loosen and break the grip. The intensity is dissipated by comic relief as it moves from a cold-blooded thriller in the vein of Desierto into the pulp kingdom and comic book stylings of Hollywood. Contrivances and a few missteps spoil its arthouse ambitions, yet it remains entertaining as a lightweight "skop, skiet en donner" thriller.

Part of the joy is in watching the cast turn to their dark sides, and while a mixed bag, its refreshing and admirable to see a trickier genre film emerge from South Africa. The twists-and-turns keep it loosely compelling if you're able to just roll with it and the father-daughter back story keeps it emotionally present like a reverse version of Taken. The screenplay is flawed and some of the dialogue is clunky, but Jagveld is a fun ride if you liked Beyond the Reach and Desierto.

The bottom line: Fun

 
Movie Review: Nocturnal Animals


Nocturnal Animals tells the story of a wealthy art gallery owner who is haunted by her ex-husband's novel. Juxtaposing the cold, artistic reality of a divorcee, now remarried and alienated, with the dusty, gritty world of a self-reflecting novel, we experience a dark, disconcerting and tense atmosphere.

Tom Ford's A Single Man is a conventional drama by contrast... both films have style, both are enhanced by strong performances, except it seems as though Ford is taking a page from David Lynch . Switching between a surreal reality and a novel reflecting a symbolic rehash of a failed relationship, we try to make sense of a woman's current turmoil and the events that led to her divorce.

This drama is loaded with first-class actors. While Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal essentially drive each of their worlds, they're supported by Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Adams delivers a strong performance as a jaded woman suffering pangs of nostalgia, a role that underlines her Oscar nomination for Arrival. Gyllenhaal has established himself as a dependable and bankable actor, whose dark drama empire continues its steady expansion with a more vulnerable turn in Nocturnal Animals.

Nocturnal Animals

"You are baby, you are."

Shannon is the real deal... an actor who's so committed to the craft that it's become a battle with himself rather than awards season. Then, to top off an already strong ensemble we have Aaron Taylor-Johnson who's almost unrecognisable in the kind of dangerous and unwieldy performance you'd expect from someone of Sam Rockwell's calibre.

While Adams and Gyllenhaal deliver the sort of quality performances we've come to expect from them, the scene-stealing is left to Shannon and Taylor-Johnson. Shannon's small town "Sheriff" role is beautifully controlled and he slips into the performance behind the moustache and drawl of a seasoned campaigner. Taylor-Johnson is more unpredictable, delivering a wacky performance, which leaves us on edge as he commandeers one of the film's most suspenseful scenes. His despicable, self-contained and psychotic alter-ego keeps the atmosphere electric.

We're mesmerised by the visuals and entranced by the vivid performances, but this is a case of style over substance. Ford's visual poety is compelling and he creates some truly tense moments, but the storytelling does seem somewhat scattered like the last traces of a dream. The experimental slant and unsettling violence certainly keeps you on edge, but the story doesn't hold together as beautifully as the visuals would have you believe. It's a must for Lynchland fans and will appeal to fans of the strong ensemble, who deliver maniacal charm and fire.

The bottom line: Spellbinding


 
Movie Review: Logan


We're living in an age of superhero origin stories, reboots, spin-offs and stand-offs. The superhero craze continues to reinvent and elevate comic books into the realm of film with an ever-burgeoning list of heroes and villains. One success story has been Wolverine, one of the few X-Men characters who has appeared in every media adaptation of the X-Men franchise. From being part of the team to branching out in several stand-alone films, Hugh Jackman has made the character of Wolverine almost like an alter-ego thanks to his considerable range of talents. Having played Wolverine in nine X-Men films, it's getting to that point where like most Bond actors, he doesn't want the role to define him. While Jackman has already developed a strong association with the character, it was time to mix things up.

With a so-so outing in X-Men: Apocalypse, which seemed like the rise and fall of an '80s metal band, it became apparent that the franchise's success hinged largely on Wolverine's screen time. Furthermore, despite the best efforts of Bryan Singer, the X-Men franchise needed to be grounded for some self-reflection. This is what makes Logan refreshing. Director, James Mangold, has reinvented his own Wolverine concept... following up with a gritty, realistic and grisly film in favour of the CGI-heavy Highlander style, The Wolverine.

Signalling his intent to zero in on the character, they've dropped any mention of X-Men and gone with the title, Logan. Set in the near future, we're introduced to a husk of the man as we know him, as Logan's attempts to hide and reduce the legacy of Wolverine are thwarted by the arrival of a young mutant in need of his help. Instead of another claw smash-and-grab, we're taken on a more introspective journey with a cast including: Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Richard E. Grant, Stephen Merchant and introducing Dafne Keen.

Logan Wolverine

"No, Freddy Krueger got the idea from me."

It's as if a Mel Gibson star vehicle script was reinvented as a Wolverine film, not shying away from extreme violence but retaining its rogue underdog nature. Much like Blood Father and Get the Gringo, there's a similar energy in terms of characterisation, cold-blooded killing and tongue-in-cheek comedy. We're slowly immersed into this "foreign" world, which seems a lot more like the earth we know than the X-Men universe. Instead of an over-reliance on effects, Mangold allows his talents to act, giving them more face time and creating some touching moments through the rich relational dynamics.

The performances help us bridge the gap into this gritty, real and deconstructed take on Wolverine. Jackman is a versatile and celebrated actor, who doesn't need a moment to get into the head space of Logan, delivering a self-doubting, vulnerable and troubled man. While it is difficult to watch him struggle as a bedraggled Wolverine, he remains strong for those around him. This makes his journey more enjoyable for his undying commitment and veteran skills, much like the Taken action thriller trend. Then, Stewart also relishes the opportunity to add some humanity and ragged texture to a latter day Professor X. Together with young Dafne Keen, it's a strong co-lead unit, deftly delivering punishing action and touching drama.

While we're used to seeing superhero films that overwhelm the senses with CGI and over-the-top superpowers, James Mangold has decided to put the franchise in reverse. He's reinvented the typical Marvel format by creating a gritty on-the-run action drama sci-fi thriller. Borrowing aspects from action franchises like Mad Max, Terminator, Die Hard and Rambo, he's tailored a dusty and realistic on-the-run road movie, which has many similarities to Mercury Rising and even Little Miss Sunshine.

The post-apocalyptic feel and desert car chase showdowns have a Mad Max: Fury Road feel about them. The killing machine entrusted with protecting instead of destroying is reminiscent of the Terminator's trajectory. Having an outgunned, seasoned underdog like Logan at the helm against an army of henchmen has echoes of Die Hard, while Rambo: First Blood comes to mind as we witness heroic armed forces action against the backdrop of nature. Elements from Little Miss Sunshine come into play as key characters follow similar paths and share parallels on this borderline quirky road movie. Logan also serves as a tribute to the classic western, Shane.

Logan has many strong influences as it leans on tough-as-nails old school action of the '80s instead of churning out yet another slick superhero flick. There are several big laughs and a few unintentional ones when you take a step back from the action. While Mangold has pulled off this ambitious take with flair, it didn't need so much explicit violence, which intensifies to the point of saturation.

The seemingly limitless hordes of henchmen give Wolverine enough trouble along with "middle management", but Logan had a conglomerate when it needed a stronger nemesis. Mangold's thoughtful direction and several strong performances make this ambitious take entertaining and refreshingly different with many memorable moments.

The bottom line: Gritty


 
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