The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Review: Ghost In The Shell (UK Cert 12A)

Directed by Rupert Sanders (Snow White And The Huntsman), Ghost In The Shell is a live-action version of the seminal 1995 anime based on the manga by Masamune Shirow.

In the near future, cyberisation is now widespread. Criminals are becoming more sophisticated and, as such, a new way must be found to deal with the threat. So Section 9 was set up- a small group of police with various levels of cyberisation to help combat crime. The Major (Scarlett Johansson) is one of the operatives on the team. She has a full cyborg body and a human brain, and is the first of her kind. But whilst working a case, the Major becomes more and more aware that things might not be quite as she imagined...

Despite the furore over her casting and the subsequent accusations of white-washing, Scarlett Johansson was inspired casting as the Major. Johansson imbues the Major with some personality and doesn't just play her as a cipher. Because the script is so focused on the Major and her origins (something which is only mentioned very briefly in the anime), it needed someone with acting chops in the main role- and Johansson has that in spades. There's also a reason given in the story why a Japanese or Asian actress wasn't cast in the role, but to discuss that will take us into spoiler territory.

Generally speaking, the rest of the cast are strong. Pilou Asbaek provides strong support as the Major's partner Batou; 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano is particularly good as Section 9's boss Aramaki- who has an expanded role in this film compared to the anime- and who only speaks Japanese (although the other characters all answer him in English), There are several other characters in Section 9 but none of them have any discernible personality and there are a few too many.

Michael Pitt gives a chilling yet oddly sympathetic turn as Kuze, the nominal villain but (unsurprisingly) there's more to it than that. Doctor Who alumni Peter Ferdinando and Anamarina Marinca are strong as shady businessman Cutter and cyberised Dr Dahlin respectively. Finally, Juliette Binoche lends an air of gravitas to her role of Dr. Ouelet, the Major's de facto 'mother' who is hiding more than a few secrets of her own. I was quite surprised to see Binoche's name come up in the credits, and I did find myself thinking 'what's she doing in a film like this?'

There are a lot- and I mean, a lot- of nods to the original anime and its expanded universe that will give Ghost In The Shell fans a thrill (although some moments do tip over into quite blatant fanservice at times). Jess Hall's cinematography and the visual effects team's work are both superb, The fight choreography is also really strong throughout, especially the fight in the nightclub when the Major and Batou go in search of the mysterious hacker.but it's a shame that the final fight- between the Major and a spider-tank- is obscured by shoddy lighting.

Another problem is that the screenplay- by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger- completely eschews the subtlety and nuance of the anime, instead relying on clunky and obvious comparisons (even at one point spelling out what the title of the film means). Give your audience a bit of credit, for the love of God! We don't need everything spelled out for us!

All said, it's visually stunning with good performances and decent action. As a cyberpunk thriller, it's a decent enough film. But as an adaptation of Ghost In The Shell, it's lacking that spark that made the original so good.

Rating: 3 out of 5


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

We at the Watchers were saddened to hear of the death of Jonathan Demme. The Oscar-winning director passed away today at the age of 73 due to complications from oesophagal cancer.

Born in 1944 in Baldwin, Long Island, Demme started his film career working for Roger Corman, writing and producing Angels Hard As They Come and The Hot Box. He made his feature directorial debut in 1974 with Caged Heat, a women-in-prison movie, and followed it up with Crazy Mama, a comedy road movie staring Cloris Leachman and Ann Sothern. His final film for Corman's New World Pictures studio was Fighting Mad (1976), a drama about an Arkansas farmer (Peter Fonda) who wages a one-man war against corrupt land developers. 

Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat in Melvin And Howard
His next features- comedy Handle With Care (1977) and neo-noir Last Embrace (1979)- were relatively ignored but Demme began to make his name with the 1980 comedy-drama Melvin And Howard, the outrageous story of Utah service station owner Melvin Dummar who was listed as the beneficiary for a multi-million-dollar will allegedly written by the eccentric, reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. Starring Paul Le Mat as Melvin and Jason Robards as Hughes, the fim was nominated for three Oscars, winning two (for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Mary Steenburgen).

Demme's success with Melvin And Howard led to him being signed to direct Swing Shift. A romantic drama set during World War II, it stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Whilst it was intended to be a prestige picture for Warner Brothers, as well as a major commercial movie for Demme, it didn't end up as either; Demme clashed with Hawn (who was also producing) about the tone of the film- he wanted it serious, she saw it as a more lighthearted comedy- and he eventually renounced the finished product. Allegedly, a bootleg VHS of Demme's director's cut of the film exists which is radically different to the theatrical release. Despite the troubled production, the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (for Christine Lahti's performance as Hazel).

After Swing Shift, Demme moved on to other projects- creating the concert movie Stop Making Sense for the band Talking Heads, filming Spalding Gray's monologue Swimming To Cambodia and directing a documentary about Haiti's democratic rebuilding after dictatorship. In 1989, he directed crime comedy Married To The Mob starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine and Dean Stockwell (who got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod for his performance as a mafia boss infatuated with Pfeiffer's character). 

Demme's career by this point was already incredibly eclectic and, in 1991, he added another genre to his filmography- thriller- when he directed The Silence Of The Lambs. The film adaptation of Thomas Harris' 1988 thriller, The Silence Of The Lambs is widely considered as one of the best book-to-screen adaptations. It is also a masterclass in tension, character and pace. Demme's direction is superb and he gets superlative performances from his entire cast with Anthony Hopkins' chilling yet urbane turn as Hannibal Lecter cementing him in cinematic history. Released on Valentine's Day 1991, the movie grossed over $270 million dollars at the box office and is one of only three films to win the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. The Silence Of The Lambs was Demme's first and only nomination for Best Director. 

Demme with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins at the 1992 Oscars
From serial killer thriller to courtroom drama as Demme's next film was Philadelphia (1993), with Tom Hanks as the HIV-positive lawyer suing his employers for wrongful dismissal.  Hanks went on to win the Best Actor Oscar for his thoughful and heartfelt performance. In 1998, Demme directed the film adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved with Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Thandie Newton in the cast and, in 2002, he directed The Truth About Charlie (a loose remake of the 1963 Cary Grant movie Charade). 


Demme then directed the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate with Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep. As remakes go, it's pretty good- updating the Cold War paranoia of the 1960s to a post-9/11 world. After this, he worked on documentaries about singer Neil Young and former US President Jimmy Carter before returning to feature films in 2008 with the low-budget drama Rachel Getting Married, a story of addiction and deep family secrets. Anne Hathaway received her first Oscar nod for her lead role as Kym.

Demme continued to make documentaries- including two more about Neil Young, one about musician Kenny Chesney and one about Carolyn Parker (the last woman to leave her neighbourhood when Hurrican Katrina struck New Orleans). He also directed for TV, shooting episodes of A Gifted Man, Enlightened and two episodes of the US version of The Killing. He also directed A Master Builder and the 2015 Meryl Streep movie Ricki And The Flash. His last completed film before his passing was a musical documentary about Justin Timberlake.  

Aside from feature and documentary work, Demme also directed music videos, including 'I Got You Babe' by UB40 and Chrissie Hynde, 'Streets of Philadelphia' and 'Murder Incorporated' by Bruce Springsteen,  'The Perfect Kiss' by New Order and 'Gidget Goes To Hell' by Suburban Lawns. 

Few directors can lay claim to such a varied and eclectic filmography but, as Edgar Wright said him his tribute, 'he could do anything'. Demme could never be pigeonholed as a drama director, a thriller director. He was successful at all genres, always able to get strong performances from his cast and working well with his cinematographers to get a strong visual style. Tributes have been paid by many actors, writers and directors with Kevin Smith praising Demme's 'honest cinematic storytelling' and Jim Jarmusch calling him an 'inspiring filmmaker... and truly wonderful and generous person'.

He is survived by his wife and three children. Our thoughts are with them at this very sad time.

The Watchers
(Rhys, Matt & Tez)

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Countdown: 10 Actors Who Have Played Multiple Comic Book Characters On Screen

It was announced yesterday that Josh Brolin has been cast as Cable in the upcoming Deadpool 2 movie. Comic book movie fans will know that Brolin also plays Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Before he played Captain America, Chris Evans also appeared as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in two Fantastic Four movies. Brolin's Deadpool co-star Ryan Reynolds was also Hal Jordan in the Green Lantern movie, while Halle Berry has played both hero and villain as Storm and Catwoman respectively.

So here are ten more actors who have played different comic book characters on screen.

1. Ben Affleck

Before he was the Dark Knight, Affleck was Daredevil in the 2003 big screen version.

2. Angela Bassett

Appearing in Green Lantern as Amanda Waller, Bassett is taking the role of Queen Mother Ramonda in the upcoming Black Panther film.

3. Willem Dafoe

Dafoe played Norman Osborn/Green Goblin in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films; he will be playing Atlantean advisor Nuidis Vulko in Justice League and Aquaman

4. Laurence Fishburne

Known for playing Perry White in the DC Extended Universe films, Fishburne provides the voice of the titular character in  Fantastic Four: Rise Of The SIlver Surfer.

5. Tommy Lee Jones

From villain to hero: Jones played Harvey Dent/Two-Face in Joel Schumacher's camptastic Batman Forever, before taking the role of Colonel Chester Phillips in Captain America: The First Avenger

6. Michael B. Jordan

Jordan is one of the few bearable things in Josh Trank's disastrous Fantastic Four reboot; he will appear in Black Panther as the wonderfully named Erik Killmonger.

7. Michael Keaton

From hero to villain: Keaton played the lead role in Tim Burton's two Batman movies, and will play Adrian Toomes/The Vulture in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming

8. Nicole Kidman

Kidman appeared with Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever as Dr. Chase Meridian; she will also play Queen Atlanna in the upcoming Aquaman film.

9. J.K. Simmons

Oscar-winner Simmons will be swapping The Daily Bugle for the Gotham City Police Department, going from playing J. Jonah Jameson in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films to Commissioner Gordon in Justice League.

10. Terence Stamp

Stamp played General Zod in Superman and Superman II (and also went on to be the voice of Jor-El in Smallville). He also played Elektra's mentor Stick in the 2005 Daredevil spin-off.

Bonus: Sylvester Stallone

Stallone played Judge Dredd in the 1995 film version of the 2000AD comic; he has a small role in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (but the character has not yet been revealed)