Out on Friday 31 March
Ben Wheatley brings the big guns. Cristian Mungiu lays bare a world of systemic corruption. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch cut up a mysterious corpse.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Ghost in the Shell, Free Fire, Graduation, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Man Down, Fear Eats the Soul, Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang, Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?, Don’t Knock Twice, Smurfs: The Lost Village, The Void, and The Tickling Giants.
For the best movie reviews, subscribe to Total Film.
Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell isn’t the first attempt at adapting anime in live action – Attack on Titan, for example, was released in 2015, and Akira’s red motorcycle has stalled in various levels of development hell for more than a decade – but it’s by far the highest-profile Hollywood attempt. And while it’s not without glitches, the US film has enough flashy sci-fi action and dazzling visuals to suggest it might yet inspire a new wave of anime adaps.
Like Attack on Titan and Akira, Ghost in the Shell is technically adapted from the original manga comic books, but it takes liberal inspiration from the previous anime adaptation, while also drawing on elements from its sequel and TV spin-off.
Indeed, the story will be familiar to anyone who saw Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film. Security task force Section 9 is a secret government division investigating cybercrime and terrorism. Major (Scarlett Johansson) is a cyborg, with a memory-wiped human brain controlling a wholly artificial body, created by Hanka Robotics.
‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano (Zatoichi, Hana-bi), in only his third American film, plays Chief Daisuke Aramaki, who oversees the unit, which also includes burly Batou (Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbæk), sporting the kind of angular blond haircut that wouldn’t look out of place in a 16-bit beat-’em-up. Major and the team are called in when a shady hacker known as Kuze (Michael Pitt) starts targeting Hanka employees.
Ghost 2017 thankfully streamlines some of the more impenetrable elements of the original, becoming easier to follow in the process – no prior knowledge of the franchise is required at the door. The story might be simple, but it remains timely, gesturing to themes of privacy, identity, immigration and terrorism.
Ultimately, it’s just an excuse to enter the jaw-to-the-floor-stunning visual world that’s been created by director Rupert Sanders (Snow White & the Huntsman) and co. It’s the most staggeringly detailed and impressively realised sci-fi location since James
Cameron welcomed audiences to Pandora, and one of the few recent blockbusters to benefit from the 3D treatment. From run-down neon-tinged streets to gleaming corridors and floating holo-ads, the stereoscopy boosts the immersion in the tangible environments. It’s not just the near-future, presumably-near-Tokyo-but-not-specified cityscape that impresses. The gadgetry will also have your eyeballs bulging.
In the pre-credits opening, as Major’s body is created (one of several visual cues directly invoking the anime), she’s surrounded by a phalanx of medical technicians kitted out with vital-sign-measuring holographic visors. It’s one of many neat details (cybernetic enhancements, a scuttling arachnid geisha-bot) that help bring the grimy retro-future metropolis to life.
Johansson wears a “thermo-optical camouflage” skin-suit that can turn her invisible, and it at least provides her with a little more modesty than the anime’s fully nude Major. Most of the (well-staged) action scenes have Johansson at the centre, and she acquits herself admirably in the ass-kicking department, having already proven her abilities as the MCU’s Black Widow.
The casting of a caucasian lead caused a ‘whitewashing’ controversy that’s continued to plague the film, but the narrative does at least provide a reason for the change [withheld for now to prevent spoilers] that may or may not offer some placation.
By necessity of the plot, Major remains a mostly blank slate throughout. It’s a controlled performance by Johansson, who captures the character’s uncanny emptiness, even if the result is that she’s not the easiest central character to root for, even as flashes (or “ghosts”) of her previous life start appearing before her eyes.
As such, the film lacks an emotional anchor, and some of the reveals don’t give the feels like they should. It doesn’t help that the plot is join-the-dots predictable for the most part, even if you’ve not seen the original (or indeed the no-surprises-left-unspoiled trailer). Pitt’s Kuze, for example, feels more effective when he’s skulking in the shadows, and the final showdown would have benefited from more oomph.
If Ghost never feels fully original – you’ll constantly be reminded of other sci-fis besides 1995’s Ghost, and the final voiceover feels cribbed from Batman Begins – it benefits from feeling self-contained, and moves with much more zip than Sanders’ gloomy Snow White.
This is a rare blockbuster that doesn’t sacrifice its standalone quality in a bid to build a franchise. Though if this does end up warranting a follow-up, we wouldn’t need any convincing to dive back into this world.
THE VERDICT: Not the most original film you’ll see this year, but Ghost in the Shell’s visually stunning sci-fi world demands to be seen on the big screen.
Director: Rupert Sanders; Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Juliet Binoche, Michael Pitt, Takeshi Kitano; Theatrical release: March 31, 2017
Brit director Ben Wheatley follows up High-Rise with another ’70s showcase. Swapping a tower block for a warehouse, he boldly builds an entire film around the mother of all Mexican stand-offs. Any one-location movie is a risky proposition, but Wheatley and co-writer/co-editor Amy Jump double their difficulties by stripping backstory to the bare minimum and letting the bullets fly.
To get some idea of the eardrum assault that is the Free Fire experience, picture True Romance’s magnificent ending stretched out to 90 minutes. It starts with two gangs arriving at a Massachusetts docks, circa 1978, for a major arms deal. In the red corner: Provisional IRA members Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy), joined by hired muscle Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti).
Supplying 30 assault rifles is South African gun-runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley), with a manner so cocksure you just know he’s getting a bullet from someone. His back-up includes Harry (an unrecognisable Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor). And somewhere in the middle, brokering the deal, is Armie Hammer’s sharp-suited Ord, his associate Martin (Babou Ceesay) and Justine (Brie Larson), the lone lady amid this tidal wave of testosterone.
Within minutes, it becomes clear this deal isn’t going to end well – the guns are the wrong sort and, worse still, Harry recognises Stevo from an unpleasant altercation the night before. Boys will be boys, of course, and it’s only a matter of time before punches are thrown. Wheatley doesn’t immediately pull out the big guns, though, letting tensions simmer until one bright spark can’t resist it.
When the caps start popping, it’s an orgy of noise, dust, bullets and screams that feels like it’ll never end. But Wheatley and Jump are smart enough to know that pumping lead for an hour-and-a-half simply won’t play. And so alliances are made and broken, as characters literally stagger from pillar to post, just as others realise the only way out is to call for back-up – no mean feat when the only phone in the building is upstairs.
It’s an intelligent piece of thriller engineering, oiled with ’70s style and some wonderful lines (mostly spoken by Copley, who has a field day with phrases such as “badinage” and “redeem yourself”). It’s also seasoned with some choice soundtrack cuts (John Denver gets an ironic airing, his twangy tones as memorable as Reservoir Dogs’ use of ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ in one particularly horrific scene).
True, Free Fire’s assault on the senses will annoy some, and it arguably lacks the layers of some of Wheatley’s earlier films. But for those craving an old-school thriller with blood on its hands (for starters), this is one hot ticket.
THE VERDICT: Loud, ripe, violent, bloody and blackly funny, Free Fire cocks its gun right in your face. See it – and bring earplugs.
Director: Ben Wheatley; Starring: Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley; Theatrical release: March 31, 2017
Absorbing and intricately plotted, this family drama from Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) unfolds in a bleak Transylvanian town, where local surgeon Romeo (Adrian Titieni) fatefully compromises his moral principles to boost the exam grades of daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus).
Masterfully filmed in long takes, this slow-burner lays bare a world of systemic corruption.
Director: Cristian Mungiu; Starring: Adrien Titieni, Maria-Victoria Dragus; Theatrical release: March 31, 2017
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
This literal chiller sees Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch play father-son coroners with a mystery on their slab: a beautiful corpse whose innards reveal a centuries-old history of torture and terror.
As stiffs return to life, André Øvredal (Troll Hunter) ruthlessly ratchets the tension – with no little assistance from Olwen Kelly, conveying menace without moving a muscle.
Director: André Øvredal; Starring: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond; Theatrical release: March 31, 2017
Director Dito Montiel reunites with his A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints star Shia LaBeouf for this tale of a troubled US Marine searching for his wife (Kate Mara) and son in a seemingly post-apocalyptic America.
LaBeouf is committed, and it’s fun seeing him go toe-to-toe with Gary Oldman (as his boss). But amid Montiel’s jigsaw-like structure lurk some generic revelations. Disappointing.
Director: Dito Montiel; Starring: Shia Labeouf, Katie Mara, Jai Courtney; Theatrical release: March 31, 2017
Fear Eats the Soul
Prejudice scalds and moral hypocrisy stings when a 60-yearold cleaning woman (Brigitte Mira) marries a thirtysomething immigrant (El Hedi ben Salem) in this devastating 1974 melodrama by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
The prolific auteur was a huge admirer of Douglas Sirk, and there are echoes here of All That Heaven Allows, but the intensity is all Fassbinder.
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Starring: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi Ben Salem, Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann; Theatrical release: March 31, 2017
Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang
Tearaway twins Zip (Raúl Rivas) and Zap (Daniel Cerezo) are packed off to a summer school that’s more like borstal, run by an eyepatched tyrant (Javier Gutiérrez) with an anti-fun agenda.
Glue-in-the-shampoo hijinks give way to a treasure hunt with some mild Indy Jones-esque peril. A wholesome kid-flick more suited to CBBC than the big screen.
Director: Oskar Santos; Starring: Javier Gutierrez, Raúl Rivas, Claudia Vega; Theatrical release: March 31, 2017
Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?
Sibling documentarians Barak and Tomer Heymann craft this moving portrait of Saar Maoz, a London-based, gay Israeli Jew. Diagnosed HIV positive, he’s preparing to reconcile with his religious family after 19 years.
Juggling heartbreaking frankness with uplifting scenes of love and solidarity, this is a sensitive exploration of family, faith and opposing cultures.
Directors: Barak Heymann, Tomer Heymann; Theatrical release: April 2, 2017
Don’t Knock Twice
Inventive camerawork and a creepy (crawly) monster can’t save this messy supernatural horror. Katee Sackhoff and Sing Street’s Lucy Boynton star as a mum and daughter fighting a witch in Wales.
Director Caradog W. James conjures eerie reds, and Javier Botet (Mama) terrifies as the withered crone, but the film’s nonsensical mythology quickly unravels. Shame.
Director: James Caradog; Starring: Katee Sackhoff, Lucy Boynton, Richard Mylan; Theatrical release: March 31, 2017
Smurfs: The Lost Village
Smurfette (Demi Lovato) addresses identity issues on a quest to a secret Smurfs enclave in this starry-voiced, all-animated adventure. Pity no original ideas await her as the plot loses focus in the garish fauna.
Trolls’ Poppy would gag on the sickly sweetness here, against which Gargamel’s evil puns can’t compete. “Prepare for Gar-mageddon!” Or worse: more Smurfs films.
Director: Kelly Asbury; Starring: Demi Lovato, Rainn Wilson, Joe Manganiella, Jack McBrayer, Danny Pudi, Mandy Patinkin; Theatrical release: March 31, 2017
A ragtag group cower in a near-deserted hospital, with cloaked figures amassing outside and a gateway to Hell yawning in the basement…
Blending The Thing, Prince of Darkness, Hellraiser and Lovecraftian cosmic horror, this falls flat in suspense and characterisation, but ace ’80s FX – all liquefying latex – will delight genre fans. Directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski are ones to watch.
Directors: Jeremy Gilliespie, Steven Kostanski; Starring: Kathleen Munrow, Aaron Poole; Theatrical release: March 31, 2017
In 2011, comedian Bassem Youssef began the life-threatening ride of creating Egypt’s first satirical TV news show, as the Arab Spring brought huge upheavals to a country that had never known a free press.
This funny-sad chronicle of how the ‘Egyptian Jon Stewart’ got squeezed between his 30 million-strong audience and various pissed-off presidents is both smart political primer and tense cautionary tale.
Director: Sara Taksler; Theatrical release: March 31, 2017