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Animation is taking the spotlight again this week, as the BFI has added some anime classics to its streaming service as part of its ongoing Japan film season - including a handful of works by Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children and Summer Wars well worth a look), as well as Mamoru Oshii’s sci-fi masterpiece Ghost in the Shell.
Beyond that, a humble mixture of beloved works from last year in the form of Rian Johnson’s genre-busting whodunnit Knives Out, as well as indie director Steven Soderbergh’s slick, charming heist flick Out of Sight.
A good weekend for attractive actors quipping.
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Knives Out - Amazon Prime Video
After a (bizarrely controversial) entry into the blockbuster Star Wars saga with The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson returned to making fun, subversive genre plays with Knives Out. A contemporary and self-reflexive twist on the whodunnit, the film fits an exemplary cast into a narrative as precisely built as a Rube Goldberg machine, and how satisfying it is to see how all the disparate pieces fit together. It’s smart, but not self-indulgent, as each new twist unfolds with breezy humour, each one-liner or visual gag expertly carried by its sterling cast.
Ana De Armas shines despite being given the more sincere parts of the film, a mixture of steely resolve and earnest kindness that somehow doesn’t feel cloying or boring. It’s also a good balance to the pure venom of the Thrombey family – the pathetic power grabs of Michael Shannon’s character Walt, the vicious barbs of Jamie Lee Curtis’s Linda and spoilt nihilism of Chris Evan’s Ransom – as well as the dinner party racism of the entire family.
It’s a big ensemble to balance, and Johnson does a fine job of it - with many of the actors playing against type to greatly entertaining effect. Between this and Logan Lucky, Knives Out also stands as concrete proof that Daniel Craig should be made to do loopy southern accents as often as possible.
Also new on Prime Video this week: Gangs of New York, My Best Friend’s Wedding
Ghost in the Shell - BFI Player
A foundational sci-fi anime, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell and its combination of green hues and cyberpunk world-building with questions of how we relate to our own flesh became much of the basis for the Wachowski Sisters’ own masterpiece The Matrix. But Ghost in the Shell is plenty important even in isolation, and extremely compelling viewing in its own right. Imbuing its futuristic landscape with a deep paranoia, as well as existential uncertainty, it was a stunning combination of all of Oshii’s work up to that point - Patlabor’s fear of a technologically empowered government, Angel’s Egg’s exploration of humanity’s inclination to destroy itself.
Powered by an otherworldly score from his frequent collaborator Kenji Kawai, the film takes on an almost spiritual tone, immediately setting it apart from the synth-laden soundscapes that characterise many future dystopias. While the jargon can occasionally get overwhelming, it’s nice to see a sci-fi thriller so content to take its time and just build a moody atmosphere. This isn’t to say that Oshii doesn’t bring the goods when it comes to action - the climactic fight between the Major and the Spider Tank is among animation’s best set pieces. Even leaving aside the vast influence of Ghost in the Shell, it’s a force to be reckoned with, and utterly essential viewing.
Last and First Men - BFI Player
The first and sadly only film from the late acclaimed Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (known for his work with Denis Villeneuve), is a strange, foreboding dissection of the idea of utopia. Set billions of years in the future, the film forgoes physical performances entirely, the only guide through this black and white imagery of real brutalist monuments is the disembodied voice of Tilda Swinton, an unnamed narrator directly addressing the viewer as she retells the history – triumphs as well as failures – of this future earth. It’s all impressively eerie, as the slow moving black and white imagery combines with a sparse score made from discordant notes and choral chants from Jóhannsson, all to a strange and moving effect.
It’s conducted with a kind of meditative calmness, even though though it tells the story of the entropy and eventual extinction of mankind. While its leisurely pace might frustrate some, Last & First Men is quite fascinating. It’s an unconventional work that makes you wonder just what Jóhannsson might have done next, his images just as strong as his haunting musical compositions.
Also new on BFI Player this week: Wolf Children, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Out of Sight - Netflix
One of American indie cinema icon Steven Soderbergh’s finest films (and perhaps among his most undersung), Out of Sight marks the director’s first partnership with George Clooney in this story of overconfident thieves and odd couple romance. The film follows Jack Foley (Clooney), a smooth-talking career criminal who breaks out of jail in order to commit one final heist. Along the way he bumps into the Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), and a strange, combative (and frankly, really hot) romance begins between two people on the opposite sides of the law. Adapted from an Elmore Leonard story (watch out for Michael Keaton playing the same character he did in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown), Soderbergh’s dialogue is sharp and funny, with legendary editing work from Anne V Coates to match it – this film might have one of the best edited sex scenes since Nicholas Roeg had to improvise on Don’t Look Now.
It’s also just a supremely good heist caper, Clooney’s performance here laying a lot of the groundwork for Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11, which this is very close to in spirit. It also has a lead turn from Jennifer Lopez that remained unmatched until her performance in last year’s Hustlers.
Out of Sight is as charming and sexy as it is visually accomplished, and is not one to be missed.
Also new on Netflix this week: Deep Impact, The Peanut Butter Falcon