I set myself several goals this year. Two of them were to read more and to also walk more. Hopefully read a book per week and walk 1000 miles in the year. A great way to combine these is to listen to Audiobooks when walking. A five-mile walk takes about 70 minutes and an audiobook is usually about 12 hours long. So a few walks combined with the commute to work means that an audiobook can be completed in about two weeks. Reading two audiobooks a month will help deliver that reading goal for the year.
There are spoilers in this. Seriously – see the film before reading this. For the TL;DR people. – I like the 2017 live-action version of Ghost in the Shell better than the Anime movies or TV series.
Ghost in the Shell has developed into a cult fan favourite over the last two decades. Lots of people are very invested in the 1995 Anime film, the Anime sequel film titled Innocence, and the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. All these were based on the Ghost in the Shell Manga books. I have the DVD's sitting here on the shelf. They are good, but I’m not as invested in them as some people are, nor do I consider them to be masterpieces. It’s okay that others think they are. As I’m known to say; if we all liked the same things it’d be crap. (That sentence is paraphrased from a Roger Taylor interview he gave backstage at the Queen 1982 concert at The Milton Keynes Bowl.)
This year we got the live action adaption of Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson. It arrived with a bit of controversy regarding the casting of Johansson in what many people see as a far eastern role. I never had any problems with the choice. Firstly this is a Hollywood film, and the current thinking in the studios is to put a well-known actor to American and European audiences in the lead to help fill seats. Secondly, and more story related, the character Johansson is playing is a cybernetic human with a full body prostheses with just a human brain in an android “shell”. This body is artificial and can have any appearance the manufacturers decide. The first scene of the film shows that the person the brain comes from is Asian (Played by actress Kaori Yamamoto). I had no issues with Johansson before seeing the movie, and afterwards, I have to say she was perfect for the role.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Ghost in the Shell takes place in a technically advanced mid 21st-century Japanese city called New Port City. Due to geopolitical events and war Japan is a major world power and the population in New Port City is very multicultural and has lots of ethnic mixing. In this future, the boundaries between humans and computers are essentially nil. With lots of cybernetic enhancements available to anyone who can afford them. What it means to be human when more and more body functions are enhanced or replaced by cybernetic parts is the central theme of Ghost in the Shell. The ghost refers to a person's consciousness or spirit, and the shell is the body that this ghost inhabits. Johansson plays a character called Major Mira Killian (her name at the start of the film anyway) who is the first successful full body prostheses with just the brain from her original remaining in a cybernetic shell. So the Major is an extreme version of the Ghost in the Shell paradox. Is she human? This idea of ghosts or spirits inhabiting inanimate objects, but still having some vital aspect, is a big part of the Japanese Shinto tradition, in which they are known as Kami. Or so I understand, but I’m not an expert. I don’t buy into it myself as I’m a strict materialist, but it’s a good premise for stories that address what it means to be human.
Plot wise the new 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell starts a year after Johansson’s character has been ‘born’ as a cyborg. She is part of a government security team called Section 9 that is tasked with dealing with cyber-related crime. Someone is killing scientists and managers from Hanka Robotics, the corporation that made Major’s cybernetic body. Investigating these deaths leads Section 9 to someone called Kuze (Michael Pitt). He captures Major when they do a raid on his location and tells her that the story Hanka Robotics told her about her origins is lies, and that the hallucinations she has been experiencing are her real memories that are suppressed by the drugs Hanka Robotics give her. Kuze says her parents didn’t die in a terrorist attack on refugee boats and that Hanka didn’t save her, but in fact stole her life for their own cybernetic soldier program. As they did to him, but he was a failure. Kuze lets Major go before he escapes, and she disappears into the depths of New Port City before confronting Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), her Hanka Robotics creator, and getting the truth from her. Ouelet tells her that Kuze was one of 98 previous failures that led to the success of Major. Ouelet is ordered by Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) the head of Hanka Robotics to terminate Major after she gives herself up to security. Instead, Ouelet helps Major escape and gives her details of her real past. Cutter attempts to kill Major and the other members of Section 9 to cover up the fact that Hanka Robotics had been abducting runaway teens off the streets to provide the brains for the full body prostheses experiments. Section 9 Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) kills Cutter after Major survives an attack on her and Kuze in New Port City. The film ends with Major back working with Section 9 after her cybernetic body is repaired, but this time under her real name of Motoko Kusanagi.
From a craft perspective, I loved this film. Johansson is excellent as the Major. Her portrayal of the angular and stymied movements of the artificial body are subtle but excellent. She walks and moves fluidly, but just different enough from a real human to signal that Major’s body isn’t human. The depiction of New Port City is incredible. With advertising holograms sprouting all over the place in the more upmarket areas, and plenty of squalor down in the narrow city streets. The CGI is great except for one bit near the end when Cutter is attacking Major and Kuze with a remotely controlled Spider Tank. There is a bit in which the Major is running away from gunfire and rockets where she jumps up on pieces of falling masonry to get to an overhead walkway. It looked wrong and rushed. I read somewhere that the CGI was only finished 2 weeks before release. So maybe they ran out of time. There is an excellent scene in which Major does a deep dive into a damaged Geisha Bot to read it’s memories before they fade. Inside the memories, you can see objects dissolving to pixels and dust as they fade away. That one weak bit of CGI at the end was definitely an aberration.
The subplot towards the end in which Major regains her identity as Motoko Kusanagi and reconciles with her mother Hairi (Kaori Momoi) is fantastic. The scene in their apartment is wonderful. The counter-play between the facially expressive mother and the passive android Major is excellent. As is the graveyard scene where Motoko tells her mother that she doesn’t have to come here anymore to see her grave.
Pilou Asbæk is excellent as Batou, and he and Johansson work together well. I liked that we get to see the origin of Batou’s cybernetic eyes in the film. The rest of the cast are also great. The music was probably not as good as the Anime film from 1995. Some of the same themes are in both, but the new one didn’t leave the impression with me that the 1995 music did.
But overall I like this 2017 live-action version of Ghost in the Shell more than the Anime versions. I went to see the new one several times in the cinema. I loved it every time. I watched the Anime version one day before going to the new one. It confirmed my view that the new one is better for me. But I’m not a big Anime fan. The fact that both exist is good. Having the new one doesn’t mean that the 1995 Anime, or the Manga books, are confined to history. It’s possible to like all, some, or none of them. I’ll be very surprised if Ghost in the Shell 2017 isn’t on my top 5 list of films at the end of the year. If it hadn’t been for that dodgy bit of CGI in the Spider Yank scene, I’d have rated it 10/10. As it is it's a 9 and I can’t wait to get a copy for home viewing later this year.
From a business perspective, the takings are creeping up towards a point where it might break even. Currently, it is sitting on $164M in box office takings, with a week of international takings still to be added. The production budget was $110M with probably about the same for marketing. Hopefully, DVD and download sales and TV licensing later in 2017 will tip it into profitability. I would love to see more films in this franchise with this cast.
As an aside. I can highly recommend the Edge.org question 'What To Think About Machines That Think' that has 192 essays on topics relevant to the issues raised in Ghost in the Shell.
No spoilers in this review.
Their Finest is a drama comedy film about the empowerment of women and the business of making movies. It excels at both brilliantly. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year, and the only film I’ve rated 10/10 on IMDB. It is an adaption of the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans and is set in England during the Second World War. It stars Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, and Bill Nighy plus a great supporting cast. The three principle actors all give great performances. Bill Nighy heartily sings a song I haven’t heard in decades. Track 19 on the soundtrack album.
The story portrays the making of propaganda films by the Ministry of Information Film Division for the 30 million people who went to the cinema every week in the early 1940’s. Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole who is conscripted to the Ministry to help screenwriters Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), by writing women’s dialogue, or ‘Slop’ as it is dismissively called, after Buckley saw some writing she had done previously. The Ministry wants a film that will inspire the populace and stiffen resolve for the war. Buckley, Cole, and colleagues pitch an idea about the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the script development and the making of the film are the main storylines of Their Finest. As a film about filmmaking, it succeeds wonderfully. Better than Hail, Caesar! that also touched on this subject from a different angle last year. The green-board evolution of the script over time provides an excellent backdrop to show progress in the office where Buckley, Cole, and Parfitt work.
Their Finest has the feeling of a 1940’s film while at the same time not feeling old. From the font in the opening credits to the sets depicting wartime London, the costumes (I want to buy a decent coat now!), and the music the period feel is spot on. They even have the institutionalised sexism nailed as well, which gives a nice counterpoint to the empowerment of women theme that runs through the film.
Their Finest is perfect. I can’t think of anything in it that disappointed or that I would change. Which is why it sports the 10 star on the picture above, and got rated 10/10 on IMDB. It comes with a huge recommendation from me. I plan to see it again in the cinema and I’ve preordered it on iTunes.
Spoilers aplenty below.
Live By Night is a gangster film set in early 20th century Boston and Florida. Ben Affleck, who also directs and wrote the screenplay by adapting a Dennis Lehane novel, stars as Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston-based Police Chief of Irish descent.
Coughlin returns from the Great War in Europe in 1918 disillusioned by the killing of so many of his compatriots, while the people higher up in society remained largely unscathed or even profited from the war. He vows never to let anyone tell him what to do again and becomes a small-time ‘outlaw’ in Boston. He and two accomplices commit bank robberies and other crimes. They do this outside of the major Irish and Italian crime organisations operating in Boston who are fighting each other for control. Inevitably he gets caught up in the Boston gangster scene. In no small part due to the fact he is having a relationship with Emma Gould, the Moll of the head of the Irish faction Albert White. After a bank raid goes wrong, Coughlin and Gould plan to go to California, but White and his accomplices capture him with the help of Emma who betrays him to save herself. Coughlin seems doomed, but the police arrive to arrest him for the bank job, and therefore stop his murder. He only gets three years in prison largely due to the influence of his father who has damaging information about the prosecutor of the case.
Coughlin’s father tells him that Emma was killed by White, and when he gets out of prison he goes to the head of the Italian faction, Maso Pescatore, so he can get a chance to kill Albert White for killing Emma. Pescatore tells him that in the three years he’s been in prison White and his gang have been driven out of Boston. He gives Coughlin the job of running the Italian prohibition busting rum smuggling operation from Florida to Boston.
Coughlin takes over and runs the rum smuggling operation very successfully for years in combination with the Cuban’s and other immigrants. He falls for and marries Graciela, the sister of the head of the Cuban smuggling business. Everything is operating fine until prohibition repeal starts to be discussed. Coughlin attempts to build a large casino to switch the business from smuggling to gambling, but his plans are derailed by a young girl preacher who turns the town against the idea. At the same time, the local KKK faction is trying to muscle in on the speakeasy and future casino businesses. They also don’t like the fact that Coughlin and others are living with Cuban’s and other non-white people. Coughlin sorts out the KKK, but he later gets double-crossed by Pescatore. Fortunately, he see’s this coming and has a plan in place…
The acting in Live By Night is great. Sienna Miller as fantastic as the Moll Emma Gould. Her Cork accent is fantastic. Elle Fanning isn’t in the film much, but her portrayal of the young preacher Loretta Figgis is fantastic. Fanning was in my favourite film from 2016 (The Neon Demon). She is turning into an excellent actor. The rest of the cast are good, but Miller and Fanning stand out. The script is good, the cinematography is first class, and the film looks gorgeous. The sets and costumes all fit into the 1920’s to 1940’s vibe. Perhaps a bit to clean and sharp for depression period America, but I wasn’t there so can’t say. It didn’t detract from the feel.
I liked Live By Night. It had all the tropes you would expect in a north-east American gangster film. And you need those tropes in a film of this type or you might feel short-changed. It is done well and has a few twists you might not expect. I rated it 8/10. Close to a 9, but not quite. I would recommend seeing it.
La La Land has been winning all the plaudits recently. With almost everyone and their dog singing its praises. Pun intended. It also cleaned up at the Golden Globes, and will likely do the same at the Oscars, unless there is a backlash.
I’m going to take the contrary position and tell you that I don’t agree. I liked it as a film, but think it would have been better without the set piece bits that make it a musical. I’m not saying there shouldn’t have been any music in it. Quite the opposite. The music in the film that is performed in jazz clubs and concerts is excellent and fits into the story perfectly. There is even a version of City of Stars sung in the main characters apartment that advances the story. The City of Stars motif recurs throughout the film and is a fabulous piece of music. But there are about six sections in the film where the characters sing and dance rather than have a normal conversation. I think that these sections could be cut and it would make it a better film. Even if they are not replaced with anything.
Just my view. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of musicals. I rated it 7/10. It would probably have been a 9/10 if it wasn’t for those six or so musical sections.
I wrote a post about my freelance writing output in 2015 a year ago. How did the 2016 writing output compare?
I wrote 50 new articles in 2016. As compared to 48 in 2015.
I edited, and rewrote, 16 articles by others. As compared to 24 in 2015.
I haven’t counted the words this year. It’s a meaningless metric. Articles are as long or as short as they need to be to get the ideas and information across.
I didn’t hit the 25% target for income from writing that I wanted to. It delivered 18.8% before Tax. I didn’t do as much writing as I’d hoped for a few months from May to July due to some very early starts. Getting up at 03:30 four days a week turns your brain to mush! Want to hit 25% at least in 2017.
Thanks again to those who asked me to do writing for them. Let’s create all the content in 2017 🙂
I saw 55 films in the cinema this year. Here are my top 6 from this years selection:
Room – This is not the film you would think it is from the description. It is not a horror film. It is not a explicitly sexual or violent film, although there is some of that. It is about a 5 year old boy, and his mother, discovering the world after she was held captive for 7 years. So the boy has always been a captive. He only knows about Room where they live. Until he turns 5 and his mother starts to tell him about the outside world. I cried, laughed, and at one point my heart rate must have been up about 140 bpm. The performances by Brie Larson as the mother and Jacob Tremblay as the boy are remarkable. I was fully invested in the characters. Hence the heart rate thing. The supporting cast are also good. It was easy to rate this 9/10. Came very close to being a 10. Once again, it’s not the film you think it is.
The Big Short – Can a film make you root for the financial traders and market analysts who foresaw the 2008 housing crash in the USA, and who bet that it would happen in order to short the market and make money? Turns out you can. Bankers don’t rate too well in opinion polls about professions. But at the end of the day they are just people. And if they are interesting people then their story will be interesting. The characters in this film are interesting. I really liked it. It breaks the fourth wall quite a lot and this usually makes me twitchy. But it works in this. I thought Steve Carell’s character and performance was great, although the whole cast is good. Vinnie Daniel politely asking the auditors to leave Mark Baum’s office is brilliant.
Maggie’s Plan – If you showed this film to someone without credits and told them it was a Woody Allen film they would believe you. It’s actually a Rebecca Miller film and its better than the film Woody Allen released in 2016. I loved it. Have watched it several times since seeing it in the cinema. As good every time. The whole cast are brilliant. Julianne Moore especially so.
The Neon Demon – What to say about The Neon Demon. It is sharp edged, stylish, colourful, beautifully shot, has a great score, and a set of background songs. It tells the story of a teenager who moves to Los Angeles to pursue a modelling career. She very quickly gets booked by some big photographers and fashion designers. Much to the chagrin of a group of existing models and fashion industry insiders. Who then take some extreme measures. It’s a wonderful film covering ego, jealousy, shallowness of people, and obsession. One of the best films I’ve ever seen.
The Meddler – Another film with a Woody Allen vibe. Which is a lazy description. It’s much more. Susan Sarandon plays a widow who moves from New York to be near her daughter who is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. She can’t help getting involved in her daughters life, and when rebuked, her friends lives. Great script and performances from Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne as the daughter, and J. K. Simmons as a retired cop.
Me Before You – There was a lot of negative flak about this film before it was released. People said it promoted the idea of euthanasia for people with disabilities. Turns out the film isn’t pushing that agenda. If anything most arguments in the film are against doing that. I’ve never watched Game of Thrones so hadn’t seen Emilia Clarke in that, but I had liked her in the latest Terminator reboot. I liked Sam Claflin in The Hunger Games. Both are brilliant in this film. Emilia Clarke has one of the most expressive faces I’ve ever seen. Her eyebrows seem to have a life of their own. She is awesome in this. Sam Claflin is also great, and he is only using his head to act as he’s playing a character paralysed from the neck down. This film raises several important issues, and deals with them responsibly. At the same time it is a funny and poignant story in its own right.
I only managed to get through 16 books in 2016. I had to do some very early starts (03:30 four days a week) in day job for a few months and it turned my brain to mush. That’s all sorted now, so hopefully I’ll get more reading done in 2017. From the books I did read here are my top five. These would have been up there even if I read 50 books this year.
Here are my favourite new tracks released in 2016.
Here is an Apple Music Playlist with the 5 tracks.
I liked Sully: Miracle on the Hudson a lot more than I thought I would. It’s a dramatisation of the events that happened in January 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 had to land on the Hudson River in New York after a bird strike damaged both engines shortly after takeoff. The actual flight time for Flight 1549 was only 208 seconds (3 minutes and 28 seconds), and the film is 96 minutes long. The flight scenes are repeated several times, but even so, there is a lot of additional time to fill.
The bulk of the film is taken up by the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) investigation, flashbacks to when Captain Chesley Sullenberger was learning to fly (including a similar incident in a Navy Phantom jet), and the reaction of Sully and the crew on being thrust into the national spotlight. I thought the flashbacks and the scenes were Sully was thinking about what might have happened if he hadn’t decided to ditch in the Hudson River were great. All the flight scenes in the film are excellent. Including those showing crashes that Sully imagines. I want a flight simulator that’s as good as that! The only disappointing part was the CGI of the water splash on one shot of the plane skidding on the water.
The NTSB investigators are depicted as very aggressive and as if they are looking to blame the pilots for the loss of the aircraft. I don’t know if the original investigators were that aggressive. I doubt it. But it probably had to be done to inject drama into the film for the non-flight scenes. Sully is worth seeing. See it in iMAX or MAXX if you can. Just for the flight scenes over New York alone. I rated it 8/10.