Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche
Directed by: Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”)
Written by: Jamie Moss (“Street Kings”) and William Wheeler (“The Hoax”) and Ehren Krueger (“Transformers: Age of Extinction”)
In the ’90s, adolescent me had all kinds of under-the-radar alternate entertainment thrown at me by virtue of being a socially-awkward fat nerd. Some things stuck hard, like comic books, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.” Others even I deflected, like Magic: The Gathering and anime—then only accessible on VHS from higher-end comic book shops, not counting the mass-market, sanitized Japanese exports like “Sailor Moon” and the fledgling days of “Pokemon.”
I feel like I gave anime a fair shake, though, and hyper-violent cartoons with occassional nudity was an easy sell anyway. But still, nothing. As I moved into my 20s, the ubiquitousness of DVDs led to me sampling one of the masterworks of the genre I had long heard about, 1995’s “Ghost in the Shell.” And again, it didn’t take. I shook hands with anime and we went our separate ways.
But, because genre filmmaking is a beast that can’t be satiated, it was only a matter of time before “Ghost in the Shell,” with its cyberpunk-robot storyline easily retrofitted for American audiences, was given the big-budget Hollywood treatment—and the endlessly debated, probably problematic whitewashed casting that goes with it.
Set in a future where humans augment themselves with cybernetic implants and live in cities filled with Golem-like holographic advertising avatars, “Ghost in the Shell” opens with the creation of the Major (Scarlett Johansson), the first synthetic humanoid with a real human brain inside of it under the care of Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). Major’s real body was damaged in a terrorist bombing, so she is told, and Ouelet saved her life. Since the Major is a product of the probably-evil Hanka robotics corporation, she is of course weaponized and made to hunt down terrorists with a multinational team, including the hulking, dog-friendly muscle with cybernetic eyes Batou (Pilou Asbæk), the closest Major comes to having a partner. They’re on the trail of a super-hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who’s working to assassinate Hanka scientists—but his reasons remain mysterious until the Major is able to get close to him and recover her memories, changing everything.
As a dull amalgam of “Blade Runner,” “The Matrix,” and HBO’s “Westworld,” “Ghost in the Shell” is a beautiful-looking film that proclaims to be about identity, but fails to find one of its own. Its the type of movie that, 15 years ago, cinephiles would have salivated over as showcases for their home audio/video setups—a special-edition DVD in a shiny foil packaging, all gloss with nothing underneath. It’s a shame, too, because Johannson once again proves herself to be a badass female action hero in an industry severely lacking them. After this and the travesty that was “Lucy,” can we stop dicking around and just give her a “Black Widow” movie already?
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson
Directed by: Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”)
Written by: Jay Cocks (“Gangs of New York”) and Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”)
As a film almost 30 years in the making, from one of the most prolific, respected and decorated filmmakers of his time, it’s almost impossible for Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” to not have impossibly high expectations. Sprawling, beautifully bleak and yet quietly presented, the first trailers indicated that this wasn’t your average Scorsese. As we move into the final wave of awards season films, all eyes are on Scorsese to see what exactly he has been sitting on for decades.
After the disappearance of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a pair of Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Gariupe (Adam Driver), head to the dangerous land of Japan to track him down and to spread the word of Catholicism. As the two priests enter Japan, they see that being a Christian in Japan is a death sentence and they fight to keep the faith alive while trying find their mentor and keeping and their whereabouts a secret.
As an actor on the cusp for a while, “Silence” sees a fully realized Garfield. It’s a physical performance with a bit of weight loss, but also a sorrowful, charismatic, heartfelt and at times, humorous performance. It’s his film to carry with Neeson and Driver taking a bit of a backseat and he handles it well. Much of the rest of the cast is Japanese and very solid across the board. A lot is being made of the performance of Issey Ogata who plays the Inquisitor, and it’s valid. It’s almost strange as the performance seems hammy and cartooney yet completely works due to its commitment and darkly funny personality.
With a film this steeped in the story of priests and Catholicism, it is almost impossible to not say that what the audience takes from this film will largely depend on their own personal beliefs. At a minimum, however, the themes that can be extrapolated come down to “how far would one go to defend what they believe in?” As we watch our protagonists given time and time again to pull themselves, and those who follow them out of a situation at the expensive of selling out their believes, we see their struggle and their faiths tested. Scorsese deserves credit for not delving too far into forcing his beliefs on his audience, but the undertones are unmistakable. Is it meditative? Of course. Is it extremely religious in its themes? Absolutely.
“Silence” feels almost aggressively long, which isn’t helped by its slow pace. While much of the movie is compelling and ripe with strong performances, there are several false endings and a few check your watch moments. As a comprehensive piece, “Silence” probably falls around the middle or mid-to-lower range in Scorsese’s filmography. That isn’t to say it is a bad film on any level. It’s harrowing and challenging. It’s well performed and well written. There’s fantastic sound design and beautiful cinematography. But in the end, it remains a tough nut to crack and a little difficult to connect with on a level beyond its religiosity.