Here Are The Semi-Finalists For The Best Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar!


The big shock?  The inclusion of Netflix’s Bright.  Over on AwardsWatch, Erik Anderson speculates this could mean that the Academy is warming up to Netflix.  If that’s the case, it’s certainly good news for Mudbound.

“Bright”
“Darkest Hour”
“Ghost in the Shell”
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”
“I, Tonya”
Victoria & Abdul”
“Wonder”

Here Are The 20 Semi-Finalists For The Best Visual Effects Oscar!


On December 4th, the Academy announced the 20 semi-finalists who are in the running for the Best Visual Effects Oscar!

And here they are:

Film Review: Ghost in the Shell (dir by Rupert Sanders)


Last night, I finally saw Ghost in the Shell.

Now, before I start in on this review, I should admit that I’m hardly an expert on the manga on which Ghost in the Shell was based.  (In fact, as soon as I wrote that previous sentence, I called my boyfriend over and had him read it, just to make sure that I was using the term manga correctly.)  A few years ago, I did watch Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film version.  And while I don’t remember a whole lot about the animated Ghost in the Shell, I do remember that I was never bored while watching it.  I wish I could say the same about the live action Ghost in the Shell.

Don’t get me wrong.  The live action, Westernized Ghost In The Shell is truly a visually impressive film.  It takes place in the near future, in the fictional Japanese city of New Port City.  New Port City basically looks like the city from Blade Runner, just with a somewhat more colorful visual scheme.  Everywhere you look, there are gigantic holographic advertisements and sleek, neon buildings.  But, as advanced as New Port City may look at first sight, it’s also full of dark allies, cramped apartments, and gray cemeteries.  Visually, it’s a perfect mix of  outlandish science fiction and brooding film noir.

Or, at least, it is the first time that you see it.  Unfortunately, director Rupert Sanders has a habit of using the visuals as a crutch.  It seemed as if, every time a new plot point was clumsily introduced, we would suddenly cut to another shot of New Port City at night, as if the film was saying, “Don’t worry about narrative coherence!  Look at the city!”

After about 15 minutes, I decided to take the film up on its suggestion.  I stopped paying attention to the slow-moving story and I focused almost exclusively on the visuals.  That’s a shame really because, from what I understand, both the manga and the original film are deeply philosophical works that balance style with thematic depth.  Unfortunately, since there’s no real depth to the live action Ghost in the Shell, you really have no choice but to focus almost exclusively on the style.

Ghost in the Shell takes place in a world where the line between human and machine has become blurred.  Everyone is getting cybernetic upgrades done.  One character, Batou (Pilou Asbæk), even gets new eyes halfway through the film.  Major (Scarlett Johansson) is unique because, while her brain is human, her body is totally cybernetic.  She is a member of Section 9, an anti-terrorism task force.  Major has only vague flashes of memory of who she used to be.  She’s been told that her parents were killed by terrorists but she doesn’t know if that’s true or if that’s just more manipulation from Cutter (Peter Ferdinando).  (It’s no spoiler to say that Cutter turns out to be a not nice guy.  He’s the CEO of a Hanka Robotics and when was the last time you saw a movie where a robotics CEO didn’t turn out to be a not nice guy?)  After Section 9 thwarts a cyberterrorist attack against Hanka Robotics, Major starts to wonder who she is and who she can trust.  Everyone tells her that, because she has a human brain, she’s also a human.  But Major still feels lost and without an identity.  When she starts to get too close to discovering her past, Cutter sets out to not only destroy her but all of Section 9 as well…

There’s a really good movie in which Scarlett Johansson plays a lost soul looking for her identity in Japan.  It’s called Lost in Translation.  Or, if you just want to see Scarlett playing someone who is learning more and more about herself and what she’s capable of, you could go watch Lucy.  (I don’t care much for that movie but some people seemed to like it.)  Or, if you want to see Scarlett play an enigmatic being who explores the world while hiding her true form in a human shell, you can always go watch Under the Skin.

(I highly recommend Under the Skin, which is as thought-provoking as Ghost in the Shell is shallow.)

This is what’s frustrating.  Scarlett Johansson gives a really good performance in Ghost in the Shell but she’s continually let down by a script that refuses to take the time to really explore anything.  We get a scene or two of Major wondering what it means to be truly human but the movie is always more interested in getting to the next action scene.  There’s a lot of talk about what it means to be human but there’s no real exploration.  Ghost in the Shell has all the depth of one of those old sci-fi shows where aliens (and, occasionally, androids) approach bemused humans and ask, “What is this thing that you call laughter?”

Ghost in the Shell ends with the hint of more films to come.  Personally, I’d rather see Scarlett Johansson in a Black Widow solo film.  When is that going to happen, Marvel Studios!?  Let’s get to it!  As for the live action Ghost in the Shell, it’s just frustrating and forgettable.

But the city looks really good!

Neon Dream #13: 川井憲次 – Making of Cyborg


I can’t say that any entertainment franchise has given me more cause to think than Ghost in the Shell. It presents a mid-21st century post-apocalyptic earth in which society has more or less stabilized. Events revolve around Public Security Section 9, a counter-terrorism agency focused on investigating cyberterrorism, which is rather interesting because the original manga by Masamune Shirow launched in 1989, before cyberterrorism actually existed (or the modern internet, for that matter). Throughout their investigations, the team deals with the social and philosophical issues that arise in an age where society is fully integrated across a world-wide network and technology has been integrated directly into the body, rendering people intimately vulnerable to hacks and computer viruses.

I am as guilty as most of having never read the original manga. I became acquainted with Shirow’s world through Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), both directed by Mamoru Oshii, and the 2002 anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, by Kenji Kamiyama. While the two directors take rather different aesthetic approaches–the movies present Section 9 as a harsh, disenchanted unit in a somewhat dystopian world, whereas the television series is lively and a bit cartoonish–both remain dedicated to questioning the impact of highly integrated technology.

Stand Alone Complex lies much closer to the root of my music series, because some of the key issues it tackles have since arisen online in the real world. Everyone is well familiar with the use of V for Vendetta-styled Guy Fawkes masks in protests originating from the internet, but there is a decent chance you have also caught a glimpse of an odd blue smiley face among the rabble. The Laughing Man image originates from Stand Alone Complex, where it functions as a mask employed anonymously by individuals taking public action independently of each other. At first, an advocate for social justice uses it to disguise himself while committing a ‘terrorist’ act, but the image quickly overreaches his motives. Others commit unrelated political sabotage under the guise. Corporations employ it to discredit their competitors. Pranksters use it as a sort of meme, forming the shape with chairs on a rooftop and cutting it into a field as a crop circle, for instance. The image has no concrete meaning, and everyone who uses it essentially ‘stands alone’, but the public perceive the Laughing Man as a single individual.

The actual anime gives a fairly shallow interpretation of this. The creator of the image, Aoi, explains that he never intended the mask to become a social phenomenon, and that its arbitrary usage dislodged the image from its original meaning. He sums this up by asking “Who knew that copies could still be produced despite the absence of an originator?” The ‘profoundness’ of this ties back to a long history of bad philosophy which assumes that signs have universal objective meaning in some sort of fundamental way which mystically transcends subjectivity of the mind. Basically, certain Greek ideas saw a resurgence of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, probably as a consequence of high society’s fascination with antiquities at the time. The plethora of ready-at-hand counterexamples to these archaic notions provided easy meat for countless grad students to earn their PhDs, so long as they did not throw the baby out with the bath water and ruin the game for everybody else.

But I digress. While the intended idea behind “Stand Alone Complex” is a bit naive, the Laughing Man does represent a unique sort of game that can only be played in the information age. To the public, the Laughing Man was a single individual, or at most a closely coordinated group, but the participants knew better. They knew that there was no real ‘Laughing Man’, but their independent actions were performed under the expectation that they would be written into ‘his’ public profile. The game was exclusive; you had to be aware of the mask in order to dawn it. The game also had rules; an action totally out of line with the Laughing Man’s pattern of behavior would be perceived as a fraud. (You could not, for instance, reveal the truth behind the Laughing Man.) By playing, you added a little piece of yourself to the puzzle, and it might slowly assimilate you in turn.

Ghost in the Shell has remained a uniquely relevant franchise in science fiction because it got so many ideas right. In 1989, at a time when internet was still a novelty of college libraries, the manga offered a world of total connectivity, where every human and device belonged to a global network. In 2002, Stand Alone Complex introduced the Laughing Man, and shortly afterwards the real world knew an equivalent. Whether this bodes well for the franchise’s dabblings into cyborg technology, only time can tell, but history has certainly made an inherently fascinating fictional world all the more compelling. In the Ghost in the Shell universe, science has fully bridged the gap between computers and neural systems, allowing electronic implants to directly convert wireless digital information into stimuli compatible with the senses. The average citizen possesses visual augmentations which allow them to directly browse the internet via voice command. More complex technology delves deeper, creating a sort of sixth sense whereby users can engage a network through thought command. Some individuals, especially accident victims with the means to afford it, might have their entire bodies replaced by neurally triggered machine components.

The 1995 Ghost in the Shell film gets especially creative in tackling this–enough that it became the chief inspiration for The Matrix four years later. It revolves around brain-mapping technology and its implications regarding sentience and identity. From the start of the film, the ability to copy and read brain data appears to be common. Presumably, these digital copies would remain stagnant until encoded back into a neural network, but as the government develops better software for interpreting and editing the massive content at its disposal, funny things start to happen. The software gains a sort of temporary sentience while performing its complex tasks, and eventually it uploads itself to a cyborg body in an act of self-preservation. This new entity possesses the capacity to read other augmented brains and incorporate them into its internal network. At least, that is how I’ve interpreted it. The movie does leave a lot to the imagination. Perhaps it is recycled from earlier science fiction, and far-fetched besides–I wouldn’t really know–but Ghost in the Shell presents it all as if it were right around the corner, not lost in a distant galaxy of Star Trek.

Ghost in the Shell is so steeped in ideas that it’s a wonder I don’t forget it is a collection of animations, not a book series. Stand Alone Complex is presented as rather typical–and relatively forgettable–anime, but the 1995 movie definitely denies dismissal. It is a real work of art. The city is dirty and a bit washed-out without feeling downright destitute; the masses still lead normal lives. Emptiness expands upward; the characters are perpetually surrounded by massive, sort of dusty-looking structures that feel vacant despite signs of life. The music is simultaneously vast and minimalistic. Generally, the artistic direction projects a feeling that the protagonists are isolated–cut off from the massive world surrounding them–perhaps by the knowledge they possess.

The score Kenji Kawai (川井憲次) crafted for Ghost in the Shell ranks among the best soundtracks I’ve ever encountered. Without it, the film might easily unravel. The plot really does take a lot of creative liberties. What amount of entertainment value could convince people to open up their brains to potential hacking? Or, if they are doing it to maintain memory backups, why is a brain hack so devastating? Can’t you just resume from your last save? Why would a hacker go to the trouble of replacing an entire memory system in the first place, if they could just encode an impulse into an existing one? To these questions, I say “shhhh!”, because Kawai has so utterly convinced me that my cyborg brain will be shipping in from Japan any day now. The music shrouds the film in imminent mystery. It is a moment of quiet awe, before the very foundations of human experience become uprooted and replaced by a higher state of computer-enhanced perception.

‘Interesting’ nerd note on Kawai: while the majority of his discography appears in anime and film, he is credited with arranging the TurboGrafx-16 port of Sorcerian, one of Yuzo Koshiro and Takahito Abe’s better 1980s NEC PC-8801 projects. I am pretty excited to dig that one up. Aren’t you? …Bueller?

Neon Dream #1: Maserati – Inventions


On a bit of a lark, I posted an article last week about some of my odd experiences as a kid on the internet in the 90s. That got me listening to a bunch of music that has no obvious connection to the things I wrote about. My metal choices became more industrial. I fired up the Lost in Translation soundtrack for the first time in ages. I fell in love with vaporwave’s sardonic spin on muzak and smooth jazz… Hey, this sounds like an excuse to post a music series!

90s internet was obsessed with fantasy and science fiction. “Nerds” were more likely to be online. (My family got dial-up because my mother was a computer programmer.) Free online gaming was dominated by MUDs and forum RPGs, as they were well suited for text-based environments and stemmed from a long tradition. Most of all, it was the easiest place for that demographic to congregate. (Why do we have Sports Bars but not Dungeon Masters’ Taverns?) If you came to the internet enjoying console RPGs, you might well leave loving anime and Dungeons & Dragons, too, and sharing an odd obsession with that island off the east coast of Asia that gave us so much of it. Japan was an exotic world full of technologically advanced cities, as I imagined it, and its number one export for me was high-tech fiction.

That is how I came to engage futuristic universes like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Japan brought cyberpunk into the mainstream for my generation. (It was years before I watched Blade Runner.) The internet was the new frontier of technology, so the genre sort of resonated with the medium through which I encountered it. Ghost in the Shell in particular asked a lot of relevant questions regarding how technology impacted identity. On the internet, anonymity was a sort of virtue, and that always fascinated me. I also saw, as time went by, a lot of commonalities between the internet and cyberpunk’s dystopian societies. Corporate monopolies replaced niche vendors. Advertising expanded wildly, still all in-your-face pop-up adds pushing pornography and all-you-can-eat, 0%-down, free trial chances to become an instant winner. Forums became overcrowded, scaling up from hundreds of active users to tens of thousands. Screen names ceased to provide even temporary identification as people no longer bothered looking at them. Copycat conformity and superficial cheap thrills dominated where people had once engaged each other with thought and imagination.

In both cyberpunk and the internet, you had an acknowledged gap between the corporate world and the masses. In Final Fantasy VII, for instance, Midgar’s dark, towering inner city emitted a filth of neon commercial sleaze and ill-earned luxury that opposed the sunshine and suffering warmth of its dilapidated ghettos. This disparity was clear, both to the player and to Midgar’s fictional inhabitants. The antagonists were balding, broad-wasted businessmen and corporate gangsters. The heroes toppled the system through sabotage, creating a ripple effect that rocked the masses and–not so much in FF7, but definitely elsewhere–turned them against their corporate overlords. The fact that capitalism felt evil or sleazy, both online and in the fiction, proved awareness of the gap. If the system was working properly, the masses would willingly accept their position and not eye commercialism warily or respond to tremors beneath. There would be no vulnerability–no means to revolution–and subsequently, in a lot of these stories, nothing to drive the plot forward.

The gap emerged in fiction because it made for an interesting story. It emerged in real life because the internet simply hadn’t been reigned in yet. Corporations were still scrambling to keep up with rapidly changing demands emanating from an unregulated hive mind. In both cases, the appeal was a sense of empowerment. Anonymity within an unstable system enabled anyone, theoretically, to mastermind changes in behavior of the masses and then slip back into the shadows. It was a utopian dystopia. It was too easy.

Today’s social media, integrated subliminal advertising, and tailor-made instant-gratification entertainment indicate a highly functional, invulnerable corporate society. The internet is a bleak, soulless place where people narrate their artificial lives to the wind, proudly displaying every ounce of their shallow identities. You might grasp the banality for a moment and try to spread the word, but open ears are hard to come by, and before you seek them you just have to watch this Youtube video about the 10 craziest moments in… something. C’est la vie.

But that is why internet and the 90s makes me reflect nostalgically on sweaty used car dealers in crooked toupees; Tokyo as an exotic, futuristic world; Groomed corporate elites snorting cocaine on their private jets; Sleazy, shameless advertising; Revolutions begun by untraceable, nameless figures in archaic chatrooms; The machine consuming itself and collapsing into anarchy; Most of all, the freedom to roam a vast, incomprehensible urban landscape without consequence.

Maserati are a post-rock band from the music capital of the southeast: Athens, Georgia. “Inventions” appears on their 2007 release, Inventions for the New Season (which I always thought was a really awkward title). Their line-up at the time included the late Jerry Fuchs, who was involved in a lot of significant acts before his tragic death: !!!, MSTRKRFT, LCD Soundsystem.

This song found its way into my mix as a result of my brief foray into RPGMaker. I got it in my head to make a cyberpunk RPG based loosely around a collaborative story that I took part in back on the Nintendo.com forums in ’98. Futuristic tile sets were pretty hard to come by, and I turned to music to set the tone of the game. I put “Inventions” to work when the player finished up the introduction sequence and became free to explore. The song captured for me the feeling of walking along the massive streets of a futuristic city in the dead of night.