A short post this week. With just three items, one film, and pointers to six music releases that I liked.
My latest Weekly Digest on things that have caught my eye in the last seven days. Ten items, including two films, a brilliant streaming series, a musical drama, two music pointers, a few science items, and a cybersecurity article.
This week’s post has seven items plus one awful film, one good film, and five new music pointers! The music pointers now have both Apple Music and Spotify links.
The pandemic scuppered One Film Per Week in 2020. It was on track until the 29th of February when I saw Pixar’s Onward in the cinema. It was the 11th film I’d seen in a cinema in 2020. Then I did a personal lockdown before it was official. I wasn’t back in the cinema until the 29th of August to see TENET. My final 20202 cinema trip was on the 14th of September to see The Broken Hearts Gallery. Making a total of 13 films seen in the cinema during 2020. Hopefully, vaccination will allow 2021 cinema-going to get back to normal.
From the 13 films seen I’ve picked a top 5 for the year. I think that these 5 would have been on, or very close to a top 10 list.
One film per week continued during 2019. Since starting it in February 2015 I have seen 263 newly released films. This year I saw 56 new releases in the cinema. From these 56 here are my favoutite 10. They are listed in the order I saw them during the year.
One film per week is still one of the best decisions I have made in the last few years. Since starting it in February 2015 I have seen 207 newly released films. This year I only hit 48 in total due to a five-week gap in April & May due to a loud rasping cough that wasn’t cinema friendly. A few of the films I would have seen then I watched at home later in the year when they appeared on iTunes UK. With those and a few others that never made it to the local cinema, the total number of new films I saw in 2018 was 56.
From the 48 I saw in the cinema here are my top 10. They are listed in the order I saw them during the year.
I continued the One Film Per Week thing I started in 2015 this year. I highly recommend it. From the 52 films I saw in the cinema here are my favorite ten, in no particular order.
I’ve always felt more comfortable buying digital goods outright if I wanted them. But lately, I’ve been subscribing to more and more services to get access to content. I think I’m now at the point where I’m close to being fully in the subscription model camp. It’s been a gradual transition. Much like the (fictitious) slowing boiling a frog metaphor I haven’t noticed until it was over.
The transition started with Apple Music. I subscribed to that when it was launched in June 2015. I first used it as a way to get access to new music in high quality from a safe and reputable source. But for a long time, I was still buying any songs or albums that I liked and wanted to have in my iTunes library.
Over the two years since the Apple Music launch, I’ve subscribed to several other services on an annual or monthly fee basis. My subscriptions list at the end of July 2017 now includes:
That’s a lot of software service subscriptions. When you list them out, it shows that this is rapidly becoming the new model for digital sales.
I joined NowTV to get access to Sky Atlantic for Twin Peaks The Return. As a bonus, I also got access to Silicon Valley and Veep. Plus Westworld Season 1 will be available from 14th August. So NowTV is a keeper. I subscribed to Netflix to watch The Circle film as it didn’t get a UK cinema release, and I wanted to see it after reading the book. Discovered lots of other good content on Netflix that is well worth the modest monthly fee.
I think that NowTV and Netflix were the services that tipped me over into the subscription model camp. In the last few months, I’ve noticed that I’ve stopped buying albums on the iTunes Store. Rather I just add them to my library from Apple Music. Not sure this is a good thing for the artists. I wonder if the same thing will happen with films over time. I’ve just bought The Ghost in the Shell on iTunes. Will I stop doing that in future and just wait for films to appear on Netflix? Time will tell.
The one product area in which there hasn’t been a viable subscription model for me to adopt is for ebooks to read. I do subscribe to the Audible UK subscription service that gives a single audiobook of my choice per month. For ebooks, the biggest subscription service is Amazon Kindle Unlimited. I’ve looked at it in the past, but it didn’t have many of the books I wanted to read. I must have another look to see how many of the books I’ve read or bought this year are available there.
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 Tank 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.