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A Moviebriefs Roundup of Recent Film Releases

As somebody with only a passing familiarity with the 1995 anime version of “Ghost in the Shell” and even less familiarity with the Japanese Manga or other iterations, I was able to enjoy the new film adaptation unencumbered by comparisons. Scarlett Johansson plays Major, the first example of a human brain transferred into a fully artificial body and an operative in an anti-terrorism agency. But terrorists aren’t her only challenge, as fragments of prior memories, the ghosts in her shell of a robotic body, flicker into her consciousness. It’s an impressive looking film, although watching this along with previews for “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” served as a reminder of the still remarkable 90 year old scenery of Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis.” This version of “Ghost in the Shell” will also be remembered as another example of a white actor playing a role previously portrayed as Asian, and it’s an odd choice in what is also an overwhelmingly Asian setting – it feels a little as though the screenplay ought to explain why somebody decided to make an agent stand out from the crowd rather than blend in. But, that said, the film is generally well crafted and a visual treat.

T2 Trainspotting” jumps forwards 20 years from the events of 1996’s “Trainspotting,” with Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton returning to the UK for the first time since he stole the proceeds from a heroin deal from his best mates Simon (Johnny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewan Bremner), and the violence-prone Begbie (Robert Carlyle). They’re not all as pleased to see him as he might have hoped, with Simon and Begbie apparently having spent the intervening two decades dreaming of opportunities to exact their revenge. And Spud’s in an even worse place in his miserable life. There’s a moment in the film when Simon accuses Renton of wallowing in nostalgia, “a tourist in your own youth” – and the film itself feels a little that way, with perhaps more value in reminding viewers of the original than in expanding the story. Although, to be fair, the characters do at least feel like they’re where they might have been expected to be 20 years later. This is probably a moderate winner for strong fans of the original but their friends who go along for the ride might wonder what all the fuss was about. (And I watched several people walk out of the screening I attended, apparently not fully aware of what they were in for – or disappointed that it took 20+ more minutes to unfold than its more original predecessor.)

The astronauts in “Life” are crewing the International Space Station when a vessel returns from Mars with soil samples that prove to include the first known extra-terrestrial life form. What starts out as a seemingly simple, microscopic single-cell organism soon takes on a more interesting and, ultimately, sinister form. As is perhaps inevitable, there are visual elements here that are reminiscent of 2013’s multi-Oscar-winning “Gravity” and thematic parallels with films such as “Alien.” My own disappointment with “Gravity” stemmed from the screenplay undercutting any great sense of suspense, as almost the entire game plan for the film is explained early on. “Life” avoids that quite successfully, even to the extent that one of the central characters, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, also seems to have been kept in the dark with respect to failsafe plans. It’s a neat film that manages to avoid being too completely predictable although, with a nod towards the comments made about “Ghost in the Shell,” it’s also one with a multi-racial cast that preserves most of its heroism and heavy-lifting for its whitest (male) characters.

Woody Harrelson plays the titular “Wilson” in this character study of a sad sack of a man. He’s lonely, separated from his wife, and prone to striking up conversations with people who have little or no interest in conversing with him. Much of this is framed as a commentary on isolation in a world of computer and tablet screens, but people have been reading books and newspapers, or listening to music through earphones for decades and Wilson’s the kind of guy who might have been irritating in any era. I watched Wilson shortly after having seen “The Sense of an Ending” (reviewed here) and, as happens with many films that have the misfortune to be released alongside other films that explore similar themes, “Wilson” suffers in that comparison. Both are films about men discovering their own ability to affect and alienate others, but I’d recommend “The Sense of an Ending,” or Bill Murray in 2005’s “Broken Flowers,” before “Wilson.”

As with “Wilson,” “The Zookeeper’s Wife” suffers from the way it will likely be compared to other films of its kind. Jessica Chastain plays half of the spousal team that own and operate the Warsaw Zoo at the start of World War II and the German invasion of Poland. After the majority of the animals are removed, and the situation in the City’s Jewish ghetto worsens, she and her husband (Johan Heldenbergh) decide to help as many Jews as they can, hide and escape from the Nazis. As with all such stories of risk in helping others during the Holocaust, it’s one that deserves to be known (and is one that is otherwise probably less familiar), but that doesn’t make it inherently cinematic. Put simply, the sense of jeopardy is less clear and overwhelming than in many related films. We, the audience, know the risks and likely outcomes of failure but more from other projects and reports we’ve seen than from what we’re shown here. To some extent, what we see is perhaps in keeping with what the participants were aware of at the time, without the clear lens of history, but that doesn’t translate into great screen tension. I’m glad to have seen the film, and to have learned of another example of heroism and rescue, but I walked away wishing I had been shown a documentary or perhaps the kind of project that reconnects family members of those involved.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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