GHOST IN THE SHELL is based on a 1989 Japanese manga (comic) by Masamune Shirow. Scarlett Johansson‘s Major is a human brain transplanted into an engineered yet human-looking body.  She’s designed as the perfect soldier in a future that makes us question the limits and benefits of technology.  Rupert Sanders (SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMEN) directs Juliette Binoche, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Pilau Asbaek, Michael Pitt, Chin Han and Lasarus Ratuere.  The diverse cast represents eight different nationalities.

Ever since Scarlett Johansson’s casting, the Internet has been abuzz with talk of “whitewashing”.  This process is substituting a white actor in place of another race, despite source material which seems to dictate otherwise.  It’s actually a bit ironic that American audiences have been so vocal about the casting. Manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) are littered with characters who have distinctly Western features.  Japanese cultural norms are such that an entire population of women seek to fulfill a new standard of beauty based on Western media exports.

From a sociological perspective, this is certainly an issue within the country and will likely continue to be one for the foreseeable future.  However, in examining the movie from within this prism, Johansson’s casting is the perfect choice.

History dictates American audiences have no problems substituting one Asian actor for another.  Twelve years ago,  the distinctly Japanese story MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA cast a Chinese actress in the title role.  Ziyi Zhang is undoubtedly a great actress, but isn’t her casting just as egregious as Scarlett Johansson’s?

For more about “whitewashing” in GHOST IN THE SHELL, as well how gender and Japanese culture were integrated, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

An interview with ‘Sharknado’ writer Thunder Levin

Will lightning strike thrice?

Who better to ask than Thunder? That would be Thunder Levin, the writer of the campy, over-the-top “Sharknado” movies — the latest of which, “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!,” premieres on July 22.

For those unfamiliar with the “Sharknado”oeuvre, the films center on a strange weather phenomenon: A hurricane that precipitates a tornado. Together they suck up live, hungry sharks that subsequently rain down on humanity. In a kind of Darwinian miracle, during those few airborne minutes the sharks evolve sufficiently so that being out of water does not impact their appetite.

“Oh Hell No!” features returning stars Ian Ziering (“Beverly Hills, 90210”) as Fin and Tara Reid (“American Pie,” numerous embarrassing YouTube videos) as April, a shark-fighting couple. Together they conquered the beasts in Los Angeles (2013) and New York (2014). Yes, April lost her left hand to one chomper, but when you’re fighting airborne killer sharks with your bare hands, well, stuff happens.

For the moment, when “Sharknado 3” opens, all is well. April is with her mom, played by Bo Derek (who is still at least a “9”) and daughter, played by Ryan Newman (the young actress from Disney’s “Zeke and Luther,” not the Nascar driver of the same name) in Orlando. April is also with child.

The appropriately named Fin is in the nation’s capital receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom for past heroics, when… You’ll never guess: There’s a hurricane, a tornado and sharks. Go figure.

The White House, the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian are all destroyed. But Fin manages to save the president (played by Mark Cuban) and heads south to be with family.  But — wait for it — more sharknados threaten the entire Eastern Seaboard, especially Orlando.

Levin spoke to JTA by phone from Los Angeles, where he was at the tail end of a promotional tour that included Comic Con. At one session, he casually mentioned he always considered the films ripe grist for a Broadway musical — which caused a stir on social media.

That sort of blew up,” Levin said. “We’d all been joking about that since the first one. The only thing more absurd than ‘Sharknado’ is ‘Sharknado the Musical.’ But I started in musical theater in high school and was a director and stage manager in college. I think it would be a blast. I can imagine shark puppets dropping in the audience.”

“Sharknado” wasn’t Levin’s first venture into horror humor. He made his bones in 2008 as both writer and director of the feature film, “Mutant Vampire Zombies From the Hood.” He’s also directed and/or wrote “American Warships” (about an alien attack on an American plane) and “AE: Apocalypse Earth” (refugees from earth on a hostile alien planet) — so it wasn’t a great leap to sharks falling from the sky.

People constantly ask, “‘How do you come up with these crazy ideas for these movies?’” he said. “There’s no good answer to the question. I don’t know. There’s no secret, ancient book of sharks.”

Actually, the original idea for the Sharknado series originated with Asylum — the production company with which he’d worked his previous movies — which wanted to do a feature called “Shark Storm.” They approached Syfy, and it turned out the network already had “Sharknado” as a title.

“Asylum came to me and asked if I’d be interested in working on a film called ‘Sharknado,’” Levin recalls. “Only I heard ‘SharkNATO’ — and asked what do sharks have to do with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?”

“When they explained, I said, ‘Tornadoes? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard — I’m in,’” he recalls.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic. “For the first ‘Sharknado,’ we couldn’t get anyone to be in it,” he said. “We ended up temporarily changing the title to ‘Dark Skies.’ When we finally told the cast the real name, they were not happy.”

Yet the film became a surprising hit, eventually. When it debuted, it was seen by slightly fewer people than Syfy’s typical film audience. But it wasn’t how many people watched that proved important — it was whowatched. The  Twittersphere lit up as celebs like Wil Wheaton and Olivia Wilde discussed the show, and it was the subject of the last tweet Corey Monteith sent before he died. As a result, the audience for subsequent showings exploded, and “Sharknado” spawned “Sharknado Two: The Second One” and now, “Oh Hell No.”

Although Levin is not involved in casting, he’s aware that it’s no longer a problem. In fact, part of the fun of watching the “Sharknado” movies is picking out the names of the rich and famous or rich and notorious: Michele Bachmann, Ann Coulter, Frankie Muniz, Jackie Collins and Penn & Teller, among a host of others.

In addition to star Ziering, included in the pantheon are a couple of notorious Jews, Anthony Weiner and Jerry Springer. Bernie Madoff was otherwise engaged.

Levin grew up in New York City the son of a Christian mom from Liverpool, England and a Jewish father. “My father went to temple and I went along with him a couple of times,” he said. “But it’s really hard for me to talk about religion, because I didn’t have faith instilled in me by my parents.”

But Levin believes his sense of irony and humor are descended from his father’s side. It’s “informed by New York City and its large percentage of Jews,” he said. “You know, growing up I thought the U.S. was 50 percent Jewish and 50 percent Christian. I was shocked when I found out that wasn’t so.”

If his sense of humor was courtesy his dad, Levin’s fascination with science fiction came from his mom. “When I was a little kid, ‘Star Trek’ was my favorite show and the only one my mother would let me stay up to watch,” he said.

“I wanted to grow up to be Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock,” he said. Levin recalls that when he was 7 or 8, someone gave him a book, “The Making of Star Trek.” Though he found the text dry, he was drawn to the photographs — particularly one of studio techs working on the Enterprise.

“I realized there was a way to get on there without being Kirk,” he said. “Another seed was planted in 1977 when ‘Star Wars’ came out and completely blew my mind.”

Levin further enhanced his geek cred by standing in line with 100 buddies for six weeks (they rotated) to be the first to see “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” in 1999.

That explains a lot. Which leaves only one question: Thunder — really?

“It was the ‘60s and strange things were happening,” Levin said. “My mother went into labor during a thunderstorm and said to my dad, ‘Let’s name him Thunder.’”

Good thing he wasn’t born during a sharknado.

“Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!” debuts on the Syfy network Wednesday, July 22, at 9 p.m.

VIDEO: Woody Allen and the Jewish robots (from ‘Sleeper’)

Woody Allen is fitted for a new suit by robot Jewish tailors—from ‘Sleeper’


Watch Out

When Bill Platt pitched his action-oriented “Darklight” TV movie two years ago, he hoped to create a new genre: “Chai-Fi.”

The 32-year-old filmmaker intended the project — inspired by the Jewish “demoness” Lilith — to merge his heritage with his sci-fi obsession.

“I wondered if I could make Jewish legend fun for audiences who liked ‘The Matrix,’ he said. “And I wanted to see if I could create my own Jewish superhero.”

He wasn’t imagining a comedic MOT superhero like Jonathan Kesselman’s “The Hebrew Hammer” or Alan Oirich’s Menorah Man. Platt rather set his sights on Lilith, the talmudic demon queen turned feminist icon. The film — typical Sci-Fi Channel fare — is more for “Battlestar Galactica” fans than Lilith aficionados. Yet Platt did meticulous homework at the University of Judaism’s library.

Traditional sources describe Lilith as Adam’s surly first wife who considered herself his equal; declining to be dominated, she ultimately fled the Garden of Eden and morphed into a murderous incubus.

“Darklight” reimagines Adam’s ex as an immortal who suffers amnesia, who eventually uses her powers to thwart a plague. It’s the kind of debut feature one might expect of the enthusiastic Platt, who’s always been a bit chai-fi.

Growing up in Reston, Va., he immersed himself in his Conservative Hebrew school as well as comics and the “Star Wars” movies. At NYU’s graduate film program, he honored his Jewish grandparents — who had supported his superhero fixation — with a short starring Yiddish theater star Mina Bern.

His futuristic police thriller, “Bleach,” won the 1998 Student Academy Award and jump-started his career as a producer of the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Exposure Studios”; when he suggested “Darklight” to that network in 2002, he brought genre elements to the Jewish-inspired character.

Like any self-respecting superhero, Lilith has an arch-nemesis, a mad scientist, and a superhuman task: saving mankind.

“It’s amped-up tikkun olam,” Platt said. “She’s repairing the world, except she’s doing it on a grand scale, one curse at a time.”

“Darklight” airs Sept. 18 at 9 p.m. For moreinformation, visit .

Invasion of the Creature Feature

In 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a mannequin-like figure mysteriously appears on a billiards table, a half-formed thing without hair, face or fingerprints. Meanwhile, a woman insists that her uncle isn’t her uncle, but an imposter who looks just like him; husbands say the same of their wives and children of their parents. The town doctor finally discovers the awful truth: giant, fluid-oozing pods are producing human clones, part of a plot to — what else? — take over Earth.

But the science fiction classic isn’t just another alien invasion B-picture, according to Jordan Peimer of the Skirball Cultural Center. It’s among a group of 1950s sci-fi flicks that mirrored red scare paranoia — four of which will screen at the Skirball’s upcoming “Red Menace Film Series.”

The films, which include “Red Planet Mars,” “Invaders From Mars” and “Invasion USA,” “played on the fear that Communists were secretly infiltrating America,” Peimer said. ” Suddenly people you knew and loved could be replaced by soulless automatons.”

The series, which accompanies the Skirball’s “Arnold Mesches: FBI Files,” began when Peimer first saw that exhibit at Manhattan’s PS 1 gallery about a year ago. There, he learned that the FBI started spying on Mesches, a one-time Communist Party member, during the McCarthy-era blacklists. The collages, inspired by his FBI dossier, included an image of Robby the Robot from the 1956 film, “Forbidden Planet.”

While looking at Robby, Peimer suddenly remembered another sci-fi classic, 1978’s remake of “Body Snatchers,” and reviews that described the original as a political allegory.

“I had always thought of those kinds of movies as guilty pleasures,” he said. “So the idea that they actually could contain a sociological message startled me.”

Peimer figured a series featuring such films could parallel the paranoia reflected in Mesches’ work. Accordingly, “Red Menace” includes movies such as “Red Planet Mars” (1952), in which radio signals reportedly from space spur earthlings into a mass panic. In “Invaders From Mars” (1953), a UFO turns humans into brainwashed (read Commie) aliens.

“The films all describe an inhuman enemy that threatens American society, and that wants to purge it of religion and emotion,” said Julianna Brannum, a consultant who helped plan the series.

If the movies seem melodramatic by today’s standards, consider the source, Brannum suggested.

“They reflect the level of hysteria people felt about the red menace,” she said.

“Red Menace” consists of two Sunday afternoon double features: On Feb. 22, “Red Planet Mars” screens at 1:30 p.m. and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” at 3 p.m.; on March 28, “Invaders From Mars” screens at 1:30 p.m. and “Invasion USA” at 3 p.m. For tickets, $8 (general per double feature), $5 (students and members), call (323) 655-8587.

The Arts

Photo design by Carvin Knowles

Aronofsky’s Original Formula

By Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor

Debut filmmaker Darren Aronofsky manages to sound incredulous about the Jewish sci-fi flick that has made him a star. “You don’t think God, math and bad-ass Jews makes for a Hollywood movie?” he quips of “PI,” which won the director’s prize at Sundance and a $1 million distribution deal.

The disturbingly visceral thriller (you could call it “Eraserhead meets Frankenstein”) features neither aliens nor humongous reptiles. Rather, it centers on mad Max Cohen, a tortured, paranoid mathematics genius on the verge of a startling discovery. For a decade, he’s been trying to decode the hidden numerical system that governs the universe and, specifically, the stock market. On the brink of success, he is pursued by representatives of a sinister Wall Street conglomerate and a Chassidic sect bent on dissecting the numerological codes of the Torah. When Max’s supercomputer spits out a number that may signify the ancient Hebrew name of God, it’s a secret some are willing to kill for.

The Kafkaesque, hallucinatory “PI,” which has jarring, grainy black-and-white images and a fingernails-on-the-blackboard score, recently broke box-office records in New York. It’s not for everyone, however. While many of the notices have been glowing, some reviewers have deplored what they perceive as the film’s “freakazoid intensity,” “film-school-style trickery,” glib theology and “midnight movie” attitude. Yet even the less-than-ecstatic notices have praised Aronofsky’s talent and referred to “PI” as “smart” and “engrossing.”

During a recent telephone interview, Aronofsky, 29, wasn’t as concerned about the reviews as he was his depiction of, well, “bad-ass” Jews. “Any time you put the words ‘Jew’ and ‘conspiracy’ in the same sentence, you’re treading on dangerous ground,” says the director, a graduate of Harvard and the American Film Institute.

Nevertheless, he insists, New York audiences have been cheering on the Chassids, whose intentions are noble. The religious Jews want to usher in the Messianic age; plus, they counter what Aronofsky perceives as the ubiquitous film stereotype of Jews. “I’m tired of the victim image,” he says. “I wanted to smash it. I wanted my Jewish characters to have more of an edge.”

Aronofsky says that he grew up amid “tough Jews” in Brooklyn, where his father taught science at Yeshiva of Flatbush. He was “a typical, bratty Hebrew-school kid” who preferred science fiction to Judaica; who wrote book reports on Rod Serling; who pretended the gears of a pocket watch were his bionic guts.

His feelings about Judaism changed when he visited Israel after graduating high school, although the trip got off to a rocky start. Aronofsky arrived with dreams of picking avocados in idyllic fields; instead, he was put to work in a kibbutz plastics factory, where he felt like a character from “Modern Times.” He fled in the middle of the night two days later, and ended up shekel-less and homeless in Jerusalem. While hanging out at the Western Wall, he was approached by members of a Chassidic sect who offered him free room and board if he studied each morning at their yeshiva.

It was at the sect’s headquarters and later at Aish HaTorah’s “Discovery” program that Aronofsky first learned about kabbalah and the famous “Bible codes.” He was so fascinated that when he began Harvard several months later, he spent hours perusing esoteric books in the library and researching Jewish mysticism, parallels between Purim and the Holocaust, and, especially, gematria . “I was possessed,” says the filmmaker, who ultimately merged his obsession with the work of several “bizarre conspiracy theorists” to invent “PI.” He completed the film before the publication of Michael Drosnin’s best-selling book, “The Bible Code.”

Aronofsky says that he most resembled his tortured protagonist as he struggled to write “PI,” “hunched alone in a room, suffering.” He often wrote the script in the homes and offices of friends and relatives, hopping from location to location whenever he felt his muse wane. As research, he interviewed several visiting Israeli kabbalists; he also turned to Yisrael Lifschutz, founder of the Hassidic Actors Guild, whose motto is “pay us for pais .” Aronofsky and producer Eric Watson scraped together the $60,000 budget, in part, by soliciting $100 donations from friends, relatives and shul members.

Their efforts paid off, big time. The temple members are getting a 150-percent return on their investment. And Aronofsky is getting nearly $1 million to write and direct his next film, “Proteus,” about a U.S. submarine dodging Nazis and monsters during World War II. He also has been signed to develop and direct the feature adaptation of the comic book”Ronin” for New Line Cinema. If it gets produced, he stands to pocket $650,000.

“Proteus” also has a Jewish theme, but Aronofsky isn’t worried about being typecast as a Jewish director. “I want to make a movie about the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and I’m adapting Hubert Selby Jr.’s book, ‘Requiem for a Dream,’ in which several main characters are Jewish,” says the filmmaker, who still shares a Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y., flat with Watson. “One day, I’ll also make a movie about my Hebrew-school classmates, a bunch of smart, smart-alecky guys I’m still friends with today.” Aronofsky pauses, then laughs. “It will be like a Jewish ‘Stand By Me.'”

Above, Sean Gullette, left, and Ben Shenkman from a scene in “PI”

The Emperor Has No Clothes

At a recent screening of “PI,” 28 critics were in attendance. Seven departed before the film was over, while the woman on my left dozed fitfully through most of the film. This should serve as fair warning that “PI” faces some difficulties and has received, silently at least, a mixed reaction.

The reasons for the rejection are visible on the screen. Shot on a low budget of $60,000, there is considerable voice-over and little dramatic action, and the print is assaultive, with harsh contrasts of black and glaring white light, so that the film resembles one of the early German expressionist efforts of the late 1920s.

Depending on your outlook, the story is either a profound commentary on purity and obsession, or a jejune and pretentious clump of clichés, thinly disguised by the overlay of science fiction. I side with the latter view.

What makes “PI” interesting is that its director-writer received $1 million to make his next film, “Proteus.” It suggests to me that the instant an artist is labeled as the newest experimental figure in films, art, literature, etc., or the moment he or she is acclaimed at Sundance, he or she is quickly transposed onto the pages of Time, Vanity Fair, Vogue; morphed into a segment on “Charlie Rose;” and nestled somewhere on the Internet.

There is no time for the “experimental, cutting edge” nature of the work to evolve into a finished film or, as is more often the case, simply to disappear mercifully from view. Instead, to be identified as a “hot” prospect is to be granted fame of a sort for a while, and to be embraced by Hollywood and the mass media.

What is notable about “PI” is that its director was quickly given a $1 million film deal. Granted, that may be walking-around money, and its purpose simply a way for producers to cover all their bets. — Gene Lichtenstein, Editor in Chief