We look at two new movies this week, Ghost in the Shell and The Zookeeper’s Wife
FILM: THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
CAST: JESSICA CHASTAIN, JOHAN HELDENBERGH, MICHAEL McELHATTON, DANIEL BRÜHL
DIRECTOR: NIKI CARO
Two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain stars in The Zookeeper’s Wife in the title role of Antonina Żabińska, a real-life working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds during WWII. Niki Caro (‘Whale Rider’, ‘North Country’) directs the movie from a screenplay by Angela Workman, adapted from Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book of the same name which was based on Antonina’s diaries.
The time is 1939. The place is Poland, homeland of Antonina (portrayed by Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh, of ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’). Devoted to each other, the couple thrive as personal and professional partners; the Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. With reserves of energy, Antonina rises every day to tend to both her family and their menagerie, as the gates to the majestic zoo open in welcome…until the entrance is slammed shut and the zoo is crippled in an attack as the entire country is invaded by the Germans. Stunned, the couple is forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Golden Globe Award nominee ‘Daniel Brühl’ of ‘Captain America: Civil War’). Heck envisions a new, selective breeding program for the zoo.
Antonina and Jan fight back on their own terms, and covertly begin working with the Resistance – realizing that their zoo’s abandoned animal cages and underground tunnels, originally designed to safeguard animal life, can now secretly safeguard human life. As the couple puts into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, Antonina places herself and even her children at great risk.
FILM: GHOST IN THE SHELL
CAST: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Chin Han, Michael Carmen Pitt
DIRECTOR: Rupert Sanders
Set in a near-future society where the line between humans and technology is increasingly blurred, the live-action feature ‘Ghost in the Shell’ traces the origins of Major (Scarlett Johansson), the first successful cyber-enhanced human and leader of the crime-fighting force Section 9. When terrorism reaches a new level that includes the ability to hack into people’s minds and control them, Major is uniquely qualified to stop it. As she prepares to face a new enemy, Major discovers that she has been lied to: her life was not saved, it was stolen. She will stop at nothing to recover her past, find out who did this to her and stop them before they do it to others.
Since the publication of Masamune Shirow’s original manga in 1989, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ has inspired a devoted worldwide following, including influential filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and the Wachowskis. The epic media franchise already includes two anime feature films and two television series, as well as novels, video and mobile games.
Over the past three decades the popularity of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ has continued to grow as its central themes have become more pertinent. “It’s a cautionary tale about technology,” says producer Avi Arad, the former Chairman, CEO and founder of Marvel Studios. “‘Ghost in the Shell’ raises interesting philosophical questions in a futuristic setting, but it also happens to be relevant to issues we face right now. It’s about what defines us as individuals — our history versus our actions. And it does all that in the context of a big, exciting action film.”
The film began its long journey to the screen, when Avi Arad pitched the project to Steven Spielberg — with help from an unexpected source. “I ran into Steven and his young daughter on the beach in Malibu,” he recounts. “She knew everything you can imagine about ‘Ghost in the Shell’. She did the pitch for me. That started the ball rolling.”
To helm the ambitious project, the producers selected British director Rupert Sanders, best known for his dark action epic, ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’. Sanders was already very familiar with the first ‘Ghost in the Shell’ anime feature, which he lauds as a milestone in the history of modern cinema for the way it blends a quintessentially Japanese milieu with popular science-fiction tropes. “The grown-up animation is pretty spectacular,” says the director. “It set the standard for a futuristic global aesthetic. The character of Major is fundamentally exciting — she’s so powerful and sexual. She’s a human and she’s a machine. The mix of all these elements was very intoxicating to me as a filmmaker.”
Throughout the writing, development and shooting of the movie, the filmmakers referred back to the manga and the anime for inspiration. In addition, Mamoru Oshii, director of the two animated features, and Kenji Kamiyama, director of the television series, were invited to visit the set during filming in Hong Kong.
“Rupert has made his own version of this story,” says Oshii. “This is the most gorgeous film made in the series so far. Rupert starts with compositions, colors and lighting ideas. As a director myself, I believe it’s best for the director to do what he envisions, so I wished that for Rupert. Scarlett Johansson has gone above and beyond my expectations for the role of Major.”
Fighting cyberterrorism unexpectedly puts Major on a path to self-discovery, says Johansson. “Rupert and I talked a lot about her quest for self-identity and the need to know the truth about where she came from. This character comes to believe that she has both a life she’s been given, and a life that she chooses. That’s the real reason I wanted to do this film. Finding one’s true identity, the feeling of isolation that is part of the human experience, as well as the connection that we all share — these are always relevant themes.”