Friday, April 19, 2019

Liz and the Blue Bird is a soft quiet delicate and surprisingly deep movie (Anime Review)

Liz and the Blue Bird - 7.5/10

For no apparent reason this time, I've decided to review the movie Liz and the Blue Bird in the form of an acrostic poem. It's probably because my early notes were more a list of experiences than my normal more narrative notes (which fits the ethereal nature of the film). I've never seen the show that this movie was spun off from, so I went into it totally blind and with no real expectations (other than hearing it had yuri elements). I hope you enjoy:

Lots of character nuance, and even some change, but little plot. That's not a bad thing.
Interesting lack of any exploration of the characters broader lives.
Zoom in on the movie and you'll realize it basically all takes place within the school.

Amazingly quiet for an animated film, there is almost no dialogue at all, and the whole thing moves at such a slow, but lovely and delicate pace.
Notable for how the entire media industry in Japan seems more willing to make a wide range of movies, and isn't limited to just big blockbuster-type storytelling, especially in animation. I really appreciate that.
Don't know whether I really find the main character believable, as she's so quiet and withdrawn, but not in a way like any real person I've met, more in a 'this is what I think internalizing girls are like' sort of way. But that doesn't make her less engaging as a character, and could provide a mirror for some young women's internal feelings rather than needing to be an authentic representation of an actual person. So it works in animation, in a way it wouldn't in a live action film, which is why animation is such a vital medium.

The basic story is of two bandmates in high-school as they work through a piece of music, their relationship, and their future while also reading and thinking through the story in a picture book.
How they bring the children's book into this, when I think back, seems pretty arbitrary. I'm not sure I really buy that a highschooler would carry a children's book around, then loan it to a friend, but the contents of that book form an important metaphor for the leads' story, more on that to come...
Even though I praised the diversity of stories and story-telling approaches in Japanese animation (and I am glad that this was released in the US), I'm still never-the-less reminded how many great manga never got translated into English or turned into anime.  I recognize that an unusually soft and subtle film like this only got a US release (and maybe only got made) largely because of the reception and popularity of Sound! Euphonium (the original show).

Broad sense of time, starting in the middle of their story and ending still in the middle of their story, so we know there was so much before and so much still to come, that nothing is fully resolved, with leaps of time throughout from hours to days to even months that pass between scenes.
Lots of room to add your own yuri vibes, it hints at some of the purest forms of yuri (the intimacy of close relationships) without ever reducing it to sexuality, service, or even necessarily romance.
Understated use of dialogue, it's has some of the least of any film in recent memory, and leaves us without any internal dialogue either, so we are left to scan faces, look at lighting, read timing, and subtle gestures to understand their inner thoughts, there is no exposition at all.
Excellent, even if you don't know or haven't watched the series it's spun off from (and I hadn't).

Blends several styles of animation pretty seamlessly, especially the art on the internal storybook which reminds me of how Chica Umino draws faces (Honey and Clover) and has a lovely crayon-like quality which is so different than the animation and character designs for the main story.
It doesn't completely resolve anything, but hey, that's life, and I like hopefully melancholy endings!
Respectfully kept the feeling small and didn't try to make it a giant epic just because it was a full-length movie rather than a 20 minute episode.
Deceptively rich, the metaphor of the storybook within the story seems to parallel the characters in one way early one, but it's actually not what you might think. The "flip" in our expectations (how the book relates to the main story) as we move to the later parts of the movie makes both so much more rewarding. We're like: "oh, I didn't see that coming, but it makes so much more sense" and adds a real richness and depth to the character's inner lives. I can't tell you what that flip is without giving away the magic of the final parts of the movie.

So there you have it. Basically, I really liked it because it was a delicate story of the relationship between two young women, told mostly without words, at a lovely, slow pace, with no real plot, drama, or much of anything you could easily grab at, with no pandering or service.

However, it didn't make as immediate and indelible an impact on me as some other recent anime films have, and it's not going to go down in the pantheon as a classic, I may not ever rewatch it (I probably will), but it's still important because of just how different it is for a full-length anime. It's perhaps overly sentimental in ways, and with some unrealistic depictions of teen angst (maybe teen angst is always unrealisticly real?), but it is a beautiful watch if you're in the right mood. I'm giving Liz and the Blue Bird a strong 7.5/10 (I really struggled not giving it an 8/10, so YMMV).

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Shortcake Cake volume 2 (Manga Review)

Shojo Beat
Volume 2 - 7.5/10

I typically only buy one or two manga volumes a week. I've got my favorite series and if they have a new one that week, I buy it first. So Shortcake Cake is a series that I pick up when I don't have a new volume or a missed volume of a favorite series to get. With volume 2 (Shojo Beat), I continue to like it enough to want to keep buying volumes as they come out, but it hasn't yet totally captured me to where I'd elevate it to my "must buy right now" list.

Shortcake Cake tells the story of Ten, who moves into a co-ed dorm at the urging of her friend. In Volume 2, Riku confesses to Ten who turns him down and we start to get the sense that Chiaki might have feelings for her as well. Of course, we're set up to root for Chiaki, the beautiful bookworm, and Ten to ultimately get together.

Rei, the mysterious, somewhat sickly, rich boy appears one day and wants to talk to Ten, he is rude and insulting, and then asks her out (obviously she declines). There is a connection between him and Riku that no one is talking about. Rei fills their dorm with flowers. Riku goes off to look for him in anger and Chiaki and Ten follow, worried about the connection between those two.

The next day, Rei is in their dorm waiting for her. When she tries to leave him, he tries to stop her, and we see that Ten can take care of herself, actually knocking him out to the point they lay him down in a bedroom to recover. Ten and the dorm mom attempt to hide him from the others but both Chiaki and Riku find out leading to confrontations. Ultimately, Rei leaves after Ten again shows her gumption and self-sufficiency in defending Riku. The volume ends with a critical revelation, but I won't spoil that here.

So here's what we have after two volumes: 1) an awesome heroine who doesn't need boys to protect her and isn't all boy crazy (actually seems indifferent to boys), 2) two nice pretty guys and a bad guy who all want her, 3) connections between the characters that will continue to drive the undercurrents of the story while still leaving time for day-to-day happenings and character exploration in the series. That's a pretty good balance and a big reason why I will continue to buy this series.

What's stopping it from bumping up my list is that it isn't told exclusively from Ten's point of view. It's more of a third person series but it does allow some time in each person's private thoughts. It just doesn't have quite enough of Ten for my taste. I tend to prefer a first person narrator with the lead heroine as the narrator (it's my same problem with Hatsu Haru which is otherwise amazing, we just don't get enough of our lead female in that series).

The art is relatively simple with most panels consisting of character heads talking. The backgrounds are simple or sometimes non-existent. The art is well done though, with good character designs. There is relatively simple use of screen tones, mostly black or a single gray tone for basic shading/coloring, but not the heavy-handed sparkly shoujo-style screentone use that I love. Each chapter moves quickly and the volumes feel a bit short as a result.

Two volumes in, it's a good series that has the potential to become great as it grows. There are no real red flags and a lot to like. This appears to be a romance shoujo with some good character development. My guess is that the longer it goes on and the deeper it gets, the more I'm going to like it, even to the point of maybe loving it. Its pace is good through two volumes but also doesn't have anything immediately grabbing about it, so that's why I'm hoping it'll be more a slow burn type series which means it'll keep getting better rather than just staying "good but not great." This volume is a pleasant 7.5/10.

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Monday, April 15, 2019

Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid was pleasantly low-fanservice (except the boobs - what's up with those anyway?) (Anime Review)

Tohru
Season 1 - 7.5/10

From the title alone, I was not going to watch Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid, assuming it to be a stupid shonen or seinen anime. But a good friend on twitter thought I might like it, and so I trusted her. Turns out, it's actually a very simple and sweet show. With gigantically unnecessary boobs. But sweet and worth watching none-the-less.

Based on a seinen manga, Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid is the story of Kobayashi - described as a typical office worker (she seems to be involved in software coding) - and a female dragon, Tohru, who becomes her live-in-maid. One night, Kobayashi had been out drinking and stumbled on Tohru who had escaped from her dimension to the human one after being mortally wounded with a giant sword. Instead of fearing her, Kobayashi drunkenly removes the sword from Tohru and invites her to move in as her maid. Why a maid? Apparently Kobayashi, and her office mate Takiya, have quite the thing for maids of all kinds (one of several commentaries on otaku/fandom).

When Kobayashi wakes the next morning in her apartment, quite hung over, there is Tohru at the door requesting to come in. Reluctantly, Kobayashi allows it to happen (Tohru by this point is now in human form) and the show follows their growing bond and the cast of characters that surround them.

Here's the two coolest things about this show: 1) Kobayashi is presented as a pretty gender-neutral female. She doesn't do much with her hair, is flat chested, and wears a man's suit or a hoodie most of the time. She's as not stereotypical as they get for female leads in anime. 2) There is very slight, mostly implicit, yuri in this series - Tohru seems to be romantically interested in Kobayashi, and slowly, we get glimpses that maybe Kobayashi would be interested in her too.

Each show is just a comedy slice of life type thing, no big major plot, no worry or anxiety, which I like. This is a feel-good type show. Some shows are about office work, others about family, some about various holidays, or cooking dragon tail meat (a funny recurring joke). Just the ways that dragons sometimes uncomfortably fit in the real world but are slowly coming to comfortably fit into Kobayashi's.

The side characters are mostly interesting and fun. Kanna, a child dragon who moves in with them after being kicked out of home, is presented as a slightly chubby-legged loli-goth, and is probably meant to be fetishized by a certain subset of the audience, however, they never put her in adult situations, her youth and vulnerability are never taken for granted, and so other than her appearance, she's treated and respected like a child by the series rather than as fanservice. Sadly, Kanna isn't actually that interesting (it takes work to make a young child interesting in manga/anime - see Bunny Drop [Usagi Drop] for a great example - watch the anime or read the first-half of manga series only, the second half f's it up.)

But while Kanna, herself, isn't very interesting, I LOVED her friend from school, Saikawa. She is the bratty, perfect, do-gooder that everyone is afraid of, but Kanna's complete innocence wins her over and Saikawa spends the entire series mooning out in "romantic love" over every cute thing Kanna does. It's way over the top and way beyond what a child would do in real life, but it's hysterical, and also presented sweetly, not in any perverted way. Outside the main couple of Tohru and Kobayashi, Saikawa is my favorite.

There is another female dragon that is mistaken for a demon and uses that to taunt the young boy who summoned her. We'll come back to big breasts in a moment, but let's just say that this dragon, Lucoa would not actually be able to stand upright with the way she's drawn. Her breasts are used to taunt this poor innocent young boy, but the effects, as initially distasteful as her proportions are, are actually used to highlight the male fear of strong and powerful women through the eyes of this young naive boy. There is some surprising depth given to his reactions and the way Lucoa teases him. This isn't really fan service as much as perhaps commentary on those that fanservice is designed for.

There are two other main dragons as well, but all you need to know, is that the three female adult dragons all have enormous breasts. I get how the writers used Lucoa's as discussed above, but I can see no meaningful reason why Tohru and Elma had to have them and have them constantly bouncing. It's wonderful to depict women of all body types and shapes, it's not okay to make them have big bouncy breasts all the time. This was the part that feels like fanservice, in a show otherwise devoid of it. Too bad, this is really the only blight (other than Kanna's outfit) on the series. Thankfully it's a relatively minor one for me, but in the broader scheme it does perpetuate the skewed female proportions common in male-centric media. That's too bad.

The fourteen episodes are all relatively equal in quality. The animation is fine and appropriate for the series, if nothing special. It really was just a sweet simple show about two people each growing, and each growing towards each other: Kobayashi becoming more sociable and learning what it means to be a family, and Tohru learning what it means to be accepted and kind to others (even if they are lowly humans). I recommend this to anyone who likes silly but sweet shows with no real plot but won't be completely turned away by the unfortunate breast sizes given to the dragons. I'm giving this show a strong and surprising 7.5/10.

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Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Delinquent Housewife comes to a very quick and disappointing ending in Volume 4 (Manga Review)

Nemu Yoko
Volume 4 - 5/10

The Delinquent Housewife (Vertical Comics) has been a series that is a bit unique - in its art style, its plot (sorta), and its overall tone (it's light and serious, and funny and sorta romantic, and a bit servicey). It comes to its conclusion in Volume 4 and a quick and unsatisfying conclusion it is. That's too bad, because the series had potential - or more importantly, the story had potential. Potential that ultimately goes unfulfilled.

In the final volume, Dai's mom finds out about Komugi's (his sister-in-law's) past as a delinquent. Ultimately it looks like the mom doesn't really care (so much for that plot line) and Komugi gets slack and stops hiding her delinquent streaks (so much for that tension).

Things are going more or less okay and then they get the call that Komugi's husband, Dai's brother, Tohru is coming home. At the same time, Komugi comes to believe that her mother in law still thinks she's a terrible housewife and she leaves one night to cool her head. Dai comes with her and finally confesses his love for her. Things get awkward, then they resolve them (very quickly).

But I can't really get into what I think of this volume without spoiling the ending. So if you don't want spoilers, look away now and skip to the last paragraph...you still have time...okay, so the volume ends with Dai and Komugi resolving to be siblings and the final panel has Tohru knocking on the door about to come home and everything is fine and resolved. Yup, absolutely nothing meaningful happens to actually spoil.

The whole freaking series, which sets up for Tohru to abandon Komugi, and for Komugi and Dai to fall in love and have to overcome what that means to society/family, or for Komugi to reject Dai and go off to lead her own life without Tohru or Dai, or ANYTHING interesting...well, the series doesn't actually let any of these interesting scenarios happen. Instead, Dai confesses, Komougi turns him down, they work through being awkward in like a chapter (so quick), and then Tohru comes home. Everyone's happy. Nothing and no one is any different than when the series started. The end. Big waste of time!

There are other problems with the series. It had been hinting of PTSD for the mom related to the sound of motorcycle engines the day of her husband's death, but that trigger is only hinted at in this volume and then the mom gets over it and is fine that Komugi was a delinquent. It's totally dropped in a single panel. What? No big reveals about the dad's death? No big having the mom work through her fear and hurt, or for Komugi to have to re-earn her mother-in-law's trust?

And what about the girl who likes Dai? She's all but absent from this volume after some histrionics in the first chapter (unrealistic as they are). It isn't a very funny volume either, it isn't a revealing volume emotionally, it isn't a satisfactory conclusion (no one grows or changes), and it doesn't advance any of the more interesting storylines that could have grown from the setup.

Why did we go through four volumes of Dai pining for Komugi if nothing comes of it? I don't mean they have to get together. In fact, it would be more interesting for him to be rejected and have to work to understand why he fell for his brother's wife and was such a jerk to his brother by confessing. It would be better for him to have to work through what it means to learn to love someone else. It would be better for the jerk Tohru who abandoned his new wife to his family (whom she had never met before) to be made into a real ass who abandons her for real forcing her to strike out on her own. I want character growth, and pathos, and emotional development, and reconciliation of plot points that are left dangling here.

I'm just disappointed because it was sort of cool in the beginning - with its uniquely loose art and sloppy humor and awesome lead heroine - but it never rose anywhere close to its potential. This was just a poor (and fast) ending to a series with promise which makes me sad. This volume gets a 5/10, and at this point, having finished the whole series, I'm not sure you should bother reading it. Sorry to disappoint.

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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Ao Haru Ride volume 4 is a breakthrough for Kou (Manga Review)

Kou Mabuchi
Ao Haru Ride Volume 4 - 9/10

I love this series! Ao Haru Ride volume 4 (Viz/Shojo Beat) may be the best so far. I'm so glad this series is being published in English. It is sure to go down as a legendary classic of the genre.

Volume 4 picks up with Futaba and Yuri both trying to get Kou to notice them. They've decided not to let their mutual attraction for him ruin their friendship, but it's getting tough as they each have seen the other getting "close" to him. Volume 3 left us with Yuri and Kou having had some sort of moment that Futaba interrupts. Through her relentless persistence, Futaba manages to get Kou to tell her what happened. That's when she learns about Kou's mother's death; Yuri had seen the shrine and that's why she had left in tears.

The volume gives us more of the backstory on his mother's death, how Kou was left to care for her when his dad and older brother went their various ways after the divorce. We also learn that Kou was putting so much time into his own studies, that once he realized his mother was dying, he felt he had squandered his time with her and he carries that regret to this day.

As the semester progresses, Kou is struggling academically despite his natural ability. So Futaba, Yuri and the rest gang up to keep him studying, but he continues to neglect it, even running out on them once. However, Futaba keeps chasing after him, reminding Kou of what he used to like so much about her. There are some real emotional breakthroughs for Kou in this volume, and we see the cracks in his facade beginning to open.

One of the best parts of this volume is how perfectly it depicts depression. Kou's lack of stamina, drive, caring for others or what they think of him, his general apathy are so perfectly in line with the symptoms of major depression. Ao Haru Ride is proving to be a series that can delicately handle the truth of mental illness without reducing it to cliches or over-dramatic pulp.

And that actually defines all the other parts of the series as well, whether it is the romance, the friendships, their pasts or their presents, the series treats it all as normal day-to-day lives and doesn't stoop to over-sentimentality (beyond what would be normal for teens) or unnecessary dramatic plot points to force the issue. There really is no "plot" per se, it's all about the ways people interact and change over time naturally. I love that about this series.

This is a short review of volume 4 because I really only have praise for it. The art continues to be as amazing as the writing too. If you love shoujo, then this is one of the best series I've ever read.

Having just read some old shoujo series that have some really really icky things in them like lack of consent, physical violence against women, manipulation of women, etc... (I'm looking at you Happy Marriage and Hot Gimmick - I had to stop reading that last one after only a volume - wow is it awful) - it's heartening to read a shoujo series that is true art in both a literary and visual way but also treats its characters respectfully and while none are perfect, it doesn't somehow manage to idolize terrible men (yes, you Happy Marriage and Hot Gimmick).

Instead, we get nice but slightly damaged people who are doing their best to move forward and treat each other well. They're all working to grow and change and support each other. It does this with the perfect balance of reality, kindness, love, humor, and drama. None of the characters are stock archetypes either, they all have uniqueness that lifts them above the genre. Ao Haru Ride volume 4 gets a 9/10!

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

How I imagine my first HRT appointment going



Don't mind the crappy artwork, just me having fun! Here's the full strip if you want it that way:

Feel free to spread it around, just credit www.yuristargirl.com if you don't mind!

also, feel free to follow me on twitter @yuristargirl

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

After the Rain volume 3 - Sweet and maybe predictive (Manga Review)

Akira
Volume 3 - 8.5/10

First, can I say how much I love the size (as in page count) of After the Rain?! These are hefty volumes and I truly appreciate that. Yes, they're more expensive, but I love the 2 for 1 sizing. It seems to be a thing lately for older series to be re-released that way and I'm starting to see more new releases (like this one) coming in that format as well. Great choice! On to the review of Volume 3.

We pick up with Akira (the injured high-school track star and current waitress) still in love with her middle-aged, divorced, slightly balding restaurant manager (which could be awful, but isn't for those who haven't read this series yet). The volume has a bunch of little episodes that add up together nicely including things like the school festival and knitting a scarf for Christmas. In one important episode, Akira and the manager (and his son) run into each other (really?) at an amusement park only to then run into the chef and his step-sister (the chef's romantic interest?) which means that any time they would have had together is spoiled by the unexpected company. After some needling by the chef, Akira asks the manager out on a friend-date. In this volume, we also get a little bit more insight into the managers past as a young author/husband.

What's really important about this volume is that it starts to place Akira's former running career at the center. At the restaurant, Akira runs into a young runner from another school who used to idolize her. She learns about Akira's injury and it turns out she has the same one. She can't forgive Akira for giving up when she's worked so hard to come back from her own injury just to race Akira and pushes hard against Akira because of it. Akira dreams about running. Akira also bumps into her estranged best-friend Haruka while Haruka is out running. She watches Haruka running from the library window on another day. And Haruka also bumps into the manager and his son and helps him pick out his own running shoes. Again and again throughout this volume, we keep coming back to running, including the manager's own potential growing awareness of that aspect of Akira that she's repressing.

What is critical about the focus on running, is it continually sets the foundation that this series isn't really about Akira and the manager coming together as a couple and instead will focus on how she puts her own youth back together after the serious trauma of her injury. Maybe he too will be healed through their friendship and get back into writing novels. If I could foresee where this is going, then that's what I would want. The relationship should be one that brings them both back to what they love, even though they ultimately won't be together as a couple. It would be the right way to go and this volume certainly bolsters that delicate possibility.

On the relationship front, Yui, a peer from the restaurant, has an interesting opinion when Akira confides in her that there is someone she likes (but doesn't say whom). Akira states that she's told him her feelings, that they went on a date, and that they text each other, but that he referred to her as a friend. Yui believes he's keeping Akira on hold. I'm not so sure about that. If he were a teen boy, this would be my conclusion too, but as an older divorce`, with what we know about his personality (and kindness), I bet he's lonely and likes the friendship, but I really don't see the author giving us any signs that he's romantically interested in Akira (although he does seem flustered by her in a being-uncomfortable-around-her sort of way). His lack of interest in a romantic relationship is a good thing for my long-term enjoyment of this series. The romance needs to remain one-sided for the series to keep its tone and value. Other stories can explore May/December romances, and maybe there are even times to explore the impact of adult/teen relationships (as icky as that is), but with the soft, slightly pensive, melancholy, wistfulness of this series, having the manager actually reciprocate would ruin the mood of the story. It's an interesting moment between Yui and Akira and works well if we assume that the manager isn't keeping her on hold so much as never doing anything to actually lead her on in the first place.

The writing continues to be strong. I love that despite her cold, tall, beautiful looks, Akira keeps being presented as a normal person. For example, taking part in her class's haunted house at the school festival early in this volume. She might look somewhat stuck-up and aloof, but she isn't, she's just a bit quiet and reserved, but apparently nice and friendly and part of the class. That she has no big personality quirk and is normal is one of the appeals of her character and the way she's written. She's an amazing silent observer, but also has these totally honest teen moments.

The art continues to be well done and different from other series. The art has a very long line (and person) quality with some simple sketchiness. There is moderate detail in the backgrounds, and good use of tones, but it isn't an overwhelmingly technical art either. It's got a good flow to it, and it still has the hand-drawn aesthetic rather than looking as if it was illustrated on the computer. There's a great panel of Akira looking out, defending her decision to keep loving someone who doesn't love her back rather than moving on. There's another great shot of Akira, the manager, and his son from behind, making them almost look like a family. Great writing and interesting art that reinforces the mood.

I'm still loving this series. Three volumes in, it doesn't seem quite as ground breaking to me as it did when I read the first volume. But that's to be expected now that I've gotten used to it's brilliance. But boy, was that first volume a revelation to me. But so far, so good with keeping up the quality, mood, pace, and direction from volume to volume. Volume 3 is a solid 8.5/10 as part of a brilliant series. I just hope it keeps up towards an emotionally rewarding (and bittersweet) ending. If it does, it will go down as one of the greatest series ever.

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Sunday, April 7, 2019

Alita, Battle Angel - a review and thoughts - lots of them (Movie Review)

Alita: Battle Angel - 5.5/10

I finally went out to see Alita: Battle Angel. I have never read the manga so I had no pre-conceived notions. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, nor was it as good as it could have been. I'm going to do a summary of the story for people who might not know much about it, and then proceed to list what worked and what didn't. Trying something new with this review.

So the movie's plot is as messed up and overly-dense as could be and only had minimal internal explanation (often through stupid exposition), so I could be very wrong with this summary, but let me give it a try: Centuries (?) before the movie takes place, humans had colonized Mars. As things went on, the mars humans ended up attacking (did they really start it or was it the Earth humans?) the Earth. At the time, there were these big flying cities over Earth. As part of the attacks (including on the moon - which was a pretty cool flashback) the flying cities were targeted. Now, only one remains after the defeat of the Mars humans. The Earth elite live on that flying city while the rest of Earth humanity lives in various slums on the surface.

The major sporting event is a type of roller-ball/roller-derby with cyborg people. There is a big underground market for their parts and gangs of people who go out and attack cyborgs to steal their parts. There are also bounty hunters who get paid cash to catch criminals of all sorts. One of the best cybernetic engineers (Doctor Ido) also happens to be a bounty hunter and on one of his scavenging trips for parts in the local dump, finds the head of a cyborg young-lady that contains a living human brain, but is otherwise completely synthetic.

He connects this head to the body he made for his now dead daughter (plot plot plot plot) and we meet Alita for the first time. She doesn't know who she is, but is presumed to be a teenager and in one scene, proves she's got some special fighting skills. As her memories slowly return, she pursues various means of understanding her past while also pissing lots of bad people off. As part of this, she finds another body, what turned out to be her true body, that of an elite cybernetic martian warrior. After a horrible situation, the doctor has no choice but to plug her in to this new body and suddenly we (and she) come to understand that she's really a young adult elite fighting machine left over from the Martian/Earth war.

Then comes so much more plot, Ido's ex-wife, the guy in the city above, the cyborg sport, etc...I mean more plot than it is possible to describe, and in fact, it's all but incomprehensible really. There's also a romantic sub plot that ties into some of the action (more on that later). There's lots of fighting, etc... I won't give you any more details, other than to suggest that the movie is leading towards a reckoning between Alita and those running things up in the floating city.

So here's what works:
1) We don't actually get the final reckoning. Much like the ending of the first (and only?) Matrix movie, we're left understanding Alita's untouchable power and nearly divine calling, and we know what's coming, but it ends with that promise on the horizon. Leaving the audience knowing she'll be awesome and the salvation but not actually depicting it worked so well for the Matrix (and was ruined in its sequels by actually showing it - but showing it differently than any of us would have imagined). It will be interesting to see if this cliff-hanger or sorts spawns sequels or not and how well they do at fulfilling the vision.

2) For all the weirdness of how Alita's face is depicted (see below), the actress and the motion capture end up creating someone we do genuinely root for. She is an engaging screen presence, somehow despite being completely CGI against live-action actors.

3) This has some of the best fight scene editing in decades. Normally fight scenes are so frenetically edited that you can't tell a single thing that is happening (see Michael Bay). But here, through long shots, careful planning, lots of slo-mo, and other maneuvers, the fights are incredible clear and worthy of our time. Very very well done.

Here's what didn't work:
1) the plot. Oh my god. There was soooooo much plot. And more annoying than the long running time and over-abundance of plot points, was the poor editing where out of nowhere a character would know something they didn't previously know but we have no idea how they could have learned that new information. It suggests that there were lots of scenes cut out. And even though the theatrical release was too long, it might actually be improved with an even longer director's cut that restores the missing scenes. Better, would have been a much more streamlined narrative. I don't know what the narrative in the manga was, but whether this was true to it or not, sometimes things have to be different in a film to make it work. This plot did not. Overly complex but under emotional.

2) The eyes and the CGI in general. Much has been made of the decision to have Alita have large anime-influenced eyes but in a live-action envisioning. Many have commented with concern that she is the only character with the large eyes, but I actually think that all the Martian soldiers had them, so maybe they developed large eyes due to low light on Mars or it is part of their cybernetic designs. Whatever. It neither worked nor didn't work, but was a bit strange. You get used to it after a few minutes, so it's not distracting.

But the problem isn't their size, the problem is that they are CGI which means they're dead. The eyes are so important in a live action film and this hurt here because we never really feel that she is real, we know she is animated. Further, because Alita was all CGI, they didn't get her arm movements right during her non-fighting scenes. There's a weird balletic movement to the arms and hands and fingers in so many CGI characters in films that many in the audience won't notice it (having become used to it), but it simply is not how real people carry their upper bodies or use their arms. One particular moment that stood out was as she is coming down the stairs, squatting and looking through the railing, the way her hands too gracefully glide over the rails, just took me right out of the scene.

I'm also a fan of practical effects because they have a weight that CGI doesn't. Whether it is people, explosions, backgrounds, sets, etc... I like as much practical effects as possible (including good old matte paintings). What really really really kills me is that every background in CGI films has this ethereal, misty, soft-lighted approach. Maybe it worked for Lord of the Rings, but it isn't realistic, it looks animated, and it takes me out of the film. Also, everyone had cybernetic parts, but few (if any) were done practically so again, there is a lack of grounding, a lack of solidity. I almost wish the film had been a complete CGI animation like a Pixar film rather than live-action with CGI everywhere. Most people aren't bothered by this the way I am, but hell, it's my blog.

3) The romance - yuck. One, we don't need every heroine to have a love interest for us to connect with her. But if you're going to do it, do it well. So first, the guy they have her fall for is not a good actor, is not beautiful, but nor is he unique or quirky either. He's like someone who would have been the second choice actor to be on some soap opera, not a leading man or up and coming true actor for a big budget film. I don't know anything about him or his relationship with the director, but of all the men on the planet, why cast him? So then all the scenes with him, all his relationship to the plot, all her scenes of caring about him, being led astray by him, etc... are wasted because we don't care about him and don't want them to actually get together. She's too good for him but that isn't explored. Instead, we're supposed to root for them and be pained with the way things get "resolved." Could have cut this whole thing out entirely, focused more on her and Ido in a father/daughter way, and it would have been a much better film.

4) The whole film was very white. Yes, there were some side characters and background characters of color, and I won't get into the debate about whether the doctor and Alita should have been Japanese as even the manga creator isn't committing one way or another on that.  BUT, by hundreds of years in the future, there should have been a lot more diversity. The one black actor who had a sizable part was of course the villian. Why couldn't the love interest have been black, or Asian, or latinx, or Persian, or anything other than a mediocre, not-quite-good-looking, can't act white dude? I expect more diversity in the 24th century or whenever it was set. I also expect more diversity in the 21st century.

5) Alita's characterization. Wow has she got a screw loose, but not in a good fun way. Some scenes she's a starry-eyed teen, others she's a battle hardened young woman, other's she's super in love, other's she's a badass, other's she's getting manipulated and willing to give up everything for the stupid dude, other's she's running away, other's she deferential. Basically, it feels like what an adult man thinks a teenage girl is like - all hormones and inconsistency. And then I notice the script was co-written by James Cameron and I said to myself: "Oh, it really is what a old man thinks a teenage girl is like." But it's not what they are like, and the constantly labile personality is jarring and has no real motivational or emotional thread running through it. Hire a woman to write the script next time, would ya?!

So sounds like a lot more that didn't work than did. And that's true. And yet, I didn't hate it. It was big and bold and had some amazing moments, and the joy of the fight scenes and Alita's overall engaging performance (motion captured though it was), managed to turn the tides. This is a film I would watch again to see what more I could make of it, but I hope that will be in an extended director's cut that may help even out some of the plot and characterization problems mentioned above. As it stands in its theatrical version, I can only give it a 5.5/10, as being just enough of an enjoyment to overcome it's many problems, but not one I'd recommend to people either.

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Friday, April 5, 2019

Transparent Light Blue - a very bad self-contained yuri volume (Manga Review)

Kiyoko Iwami
I'm am always thrilled when a self-contained yuri volume is released. Transparent Light Blue by Kiyoko Iwami and published in the US by Seven Seas is five chapters that cover two stories about high-schoolers in love. Could have been amazing, but it ended up being a pretty awful volume.

The first story is three chapters and is the titular story of the volume. It concerns three friends who grew up together in an apartment complex since they were little children and are now in high-school. At the start of the story, Ichika has started dating Shun (the lone guy in the group) and Ritsu is showing her jealousy.

I'm not going to bother sharing much else because it's only three chapters long. But it starts on a VERY bad note with what seems like a heavy petting session between the girls depicted with sounds, phrases, and depictions that are downright pornographic.

So let's stop right here and make very clear that I have little to no tolerance for fetishizing high-school sex. I get that high-schoolers have sex and it is entirely possible to tell a story about that and do so without turning it into child porn. But the way this story opens is not okay. However, it's also not what it appears to be. That being said, that scene could have been handled much more subtly and achieved the same story effect.

That scene and its relation to the rest of the story is still pretty gross and unbelievable even if it isn't porn. In fact, this whole story reads like a man's fantasy about lesbian high-school girls. I don't know anything about the mangaka, but it appears to be a female name. I won't make any assumptions about their sexuality or gender since I have no background knowledge about the mangaka, but if it is from a woman, it's surprisingly crass. The depictions of sexuality are not realistic nor appropriate, there is manipulation between characters (also not cool), there is lack of consent in various ways (really not cool), and so many other problematic moments that it's hard to imagine it isn't coming from the mind of a perverted man. But who knows, maybe there are creepy women out there too.

The second story does a little better, but not much. It's about a couple of waiters/waitresses in a cafe. One girl is interested in another girl. But when she accidentally takes the girls apron with her, she dresses up her co-worker in it and fantasizes while touching the co-worker (all without consent). I also can't tell you much because there is a twist, and I don't hate the twist itself. I just hate the way it was depicted and written.

In the story we also end up with an adult (manager) kissing a minor child, and we have fetishization of cross-dressing. All that does is harm trans and gender-nonconforming people and it's time to stop accepting it in manga/anime.

The five chapters of this volume (2 stories) have about as many problematic moments as you could reasonably fit in if you were actually trying to see how many you could cram in. The fact that doing so probably wasn't the point is really scary. At least if that was their goal, then it would have been job well done. However, while titilation was clearly part of the deal, in a series labeled "teen," this is so far from okay as to be a blight on Seven Seas record. The fact that this got published at all and then picked up in the US when there are so many not-okay things in the story is really disappointing. This reads like bad male fantasy lesbian fan-fiction or something. Yuck.

I actually liked the art. It has a detailed but slightly sketchy quality. People are easily distinguishable. There are some nice backgrounds, and clothing, and shading. Too bad it was wasted on some pretty sickening content.

Basically, these two stories in Transparent Light Blue, are not what I consider yuri. Sure they have girls in sexual situations with other girls, but this is all about fetishization, not about people. People can have complex emotions, people can do bad things, people can be a mess, people can be mean, people can be all sorts of things and make for important literature out of it. But what's here is nothing but fan service in the worst ways - dressed as something benign. This is a very trashy volume. It gets an "unacceptable content" 3/10 rating. Too bad. This continues a string of single volume misses over the past year. There must be better stuff out there to bring to the U.S.

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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl Volume 8 was fine (Manga Review)

Nagisa Tatsumi and Hikari Torayama
I so like the idea behind Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl (Yen Press) as a series, but have been up and down on each volume. Volume 8 arrived last week (and I devoured it) but I'm only now getting to my review. Like previous volumes, half the time is spent on Ayaka and Yurine, whom I love, while the other half focuses on another "couple."

Our newest couple is Hikari and Nagisa, both of whom have worked for the student council and are now going to run against each other in the upcoming election for president. What the rest of the student body doesn't know is that Hikari can't stand Nagisa, Nagisa can't understand Hikari's popularity, and they both live together. Hikari's parents are away with work (I do wonder what work manga parents do that take them overseas for such long stretches) and so she has been living with her "rival."

While living together, Hikari gets to see the messy but real sides to Nagisa. As they prepare for the election, they finally get to a point where they both must face their feelings about each other, as well as their intimate knowledge of each other, and decide what sort of race they want to run. This is a story that is devoid of obvious romantic interest and is focused more on an odd-couple friendship that seems to be blooming. While not super exciting, it is well done, and the resolution rewarding and extended beyond just the student council election (which I'm happy about).

Yurine and Ayaka on the other hand perplex me. Not them so much as the way they and their stories are written. The writing of their characterizations, particularly Ayaka's is inconsistent volume to volume. Just like so many other volumes in this series, Volume 8 presents Ayaka as seeing Yurine as only a rival she must conquer. But this confused me as there were so many times where they were getting closer in past volumes and Ayaka had been acknowledging her growing feelings. But here, there was a regression to a more initial state.

BUT then they end up progressing forward once more and giving us hope that they may finally become the couple we've been waiting for. I don't mind a nice long slow journey, it's the back and forth without meaningful emotional explanation and disjointed writing that is bothering me. I think of the scene on the beach in a prior volume where it was clear where they were heading, or the growing way that Ayaka was confronting her mom's criticism of her, only for her characterization in this volume to feel many volumes regressed. Thankfully, the end result of this volume was a glimmer of forward progress. As always, I won't spoil the good details for you.

In all, this volume was fine, but not great. The art continues to have some nice moments, but the lines can get heavy handed (and not always in an intentional way) and the basic anatomy isn't real strong (arms and perspectives especially can get weird). Couple that with our secondary couple being a somewhat perfunctory (if enjoyable) non-romantic story (at least I liked the characters) and a strange blandness to Ayaka's initial characterization, especially in the first chapter, and it's just not one of the best of the series. I'm giving it a reluctant 7/10. But with only two volumes to go, I'm still rooting for Ayaka and Yurine to become a true couple.

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Sunday, March 31, 2019

Bloom Into You Volume 6 is a lot of bluster to get to the point (Manga Review)

Nanami Touko Koito Yuu
I've had mixed feelings all along about Bloom Into You. Surprisingly, the anime actually helped me like the manga better. So I've been eagerly awaiting Volume 6 which takes us beyond where the anime leaves off. Sadly, this volume is mostly god awful filler before finally getting to a meaningful moment.

Quick summary: Nanami Touko is the 2nd year head of the student council. Koito Yuu is a first year helping out with the council. Yuu has spent her life not understanding love and not particularly caring about it. She has a wonderfully sweet but slightly gender-non-conforming style, and is somewhere between asexual or aromantic (not exactly sure about this yet). This is a needed character in manga.

Out of nowhere, Touko confesses to Yuu, knowing that Yuu cannot reciprocate. However, Yuu is drawn to protecting Touko and pledges to stay by her side. As the months unfold, Touko and Yuu develop some light physical intimacy to go along with their budding emotional relationship. But Touko is struggling with the legacy of her deceased older sister and escaping her shadow (self imposed as it is) and Yuu is suddenly having feelings and sensations she's never had before. This leads into the production of a student council play at the school festival, written by a friend, something Touko is determined to do to carry on her sister's wish for the student council to produce a play.

Volume 6 picks up with the play itself, a thinly veiled exploration of Touko's inability to be herself and living as if she is a replacement for her sister (something no one asked her to do). Sadly, the majority of this volume is the play itself, which is so poorly written (in typical highschool fashion) as to be nearly unreadable. It is absolutely accurate for how a highschooler would write, but that doesn't make it good entertainment in a manga. We've also had so much of this play in snippets of rehearsal that this volume seems wasted rehashing it. What matters most is the new ending that Yuu helped to write and forces Touko's character to reconcile many parts of her personality into an integrated whole, something that Yuu wants for the real Touko.

So after several chapters of slogging through a poorly written school play that is a such a clearly forced metaphor for Touko, we actually get to some plot between Touko and Yuu. And that part I won't share, because it would be too big a spoiler. But there is a misunderstanding that is going to set up some much needed conflict that will hopefully give the next volume some weight that this one was missing.

My hope is that as this new conflict is resolved, we will perhaps find Touko and Yuu moving into another phase, one that (if handled thoughtfully) will allow the author to explore Yuu's asexuality or aromanticism (not sure exactly as she seems to struggle to connect romantically but likes the kissing, but it's not yet clear) in a new context, the context of an actual relationship. We need mirrors for those in the asexual/aromantic community, we need portrayals in the media, and we need them to be honest explorations of the differences between romance and sexuality. I hope that volume 6 portends to that possibility in the future of the series.

On its own though, this volume was pretty lame and disappointing. I'm giving it a 5.5/10 because it was a slog, and didn't do much until the end. It might be needed for the series in the long-run, but it doesn't hold up on its own and I think some of the boring stuff could have been shortened. However, I'm eager to see where the series goes from here having set up a new and important conflict between Yuu and Touko.

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Saturday, March 30, 2019

Reevaluating Mathew Good's album "Lights of Endangered Species" 8 years later

Matthew Good Band
* updated at 3pm 3/30/19

I found Canadian alt-rock band Matthew Good Band around age 20, the year their album "Beautiful Midnight" was going to make it's U.S. debut (in horrifically altered form - I have only ever owned the Canadian version). They have been a seminal presence in my life ever sine. Three of their four albums prior to breaking up still regularly haunt my iphone's playlist. I still bang out covers of some of their songs when I'm tooling around on my guitar. I still want to be them.

But then they broke up, and Matthew Good embarked on a solo career that has now lasted far longer than the band's own brief 6 years. This morning, meaning to take out his second solo album, I accidentally put his 5th solo album ("Lights of Endangered Species") into my computer (yes, a CD in a CD drive) and proceeded to listen to it on my studio speakers. This was probably the first time I'd listened to it on them. I'm glad I did. It's lead me to reconsider it's value in the pantheon of his and the group's albums.

While "Beautiful Midnight" was my introduction, it wouldn't take me long to go back and listen to the prior two albums. Matthew Good Band's debut was "Last of the Ghetto Astronauts" which has a couple amazing songs, but overall sounds like an indie band of the mid-nineties and struggles to firmly remove itself from the 80s and early 90s rock. To put it frankly, it's just not a cohesive sonic vision of an album and doesn't scream "professional".

Their next full release was "Underdogs" which may have the best opening track of just about any album of the era. For a sophomore release, this is one of the best albums I own, and captures all his anger, the bands intensity, and the fierce melodicism of his singing and the underlying music. It's early, but it is fully formed and one of their best albums.

This was followed up by (the Canadian version only please) "Beautiful Midnight" - the culmination of late 90's Canadian Alt-rock (think Our Lady Peace and Finger Eleven as other contemporaries). It still had some of the instrumental sparseness of mid-nineties rock but there was also some amazing production around the jagged guitars and fierce singing. This was the height of Matthew Good Band. An album that stood on it's own as individual songs and as a collected work. It embodied all of the sonic features of the band as well as Matthew Good's lyrics and unique singing style - targeted yet interestingly phrased timing, amazing pitch but incredible vulnerability, wrapped in anger and sadness and depression and lyrics you might not want to really understand because they were clearly insight into a man who was grappling with dark places. "Beautiful Midnight" was the culmination of "phase 1" of their sound.

What feels to me like the next phase in their sonic evolution was their fourth album, "The Audio of Being" which retained the lyricism, melody, and intensity of the former two records, but began to add in some lushness, some slowness, some ambiance and clearly did so to create something almost akin to a album-length single work than a collection of songs. This was an album that was meant to be listened to as an album, in order, in one sitting, and worked best that way. It was a solid release, and despite some great songs, was probably just a tier below their prior two. It would be their last.

After breaking up, Matthew Good began was has now been a 17 year-or-so solo career. But the second phase of their sound wouldn't end with "The Audio of Being." To the contrary, his first solo release, "Avalanche" was the apotheosis of this next phase. Gone was the need to fill an album mostly with high energy rockers baked in naked aggression and he now fully embraced the inter-connectedness and sonic ambiance of "The Audio of Being." Where "Audio of Being" was straddling two worlds, the new Matthew Good sound was here with "Avalanche." It was a breath-taking album, incredibly well recorded, with great songs, and a album-length consistency and vision. He wasn't afraid to take long long minutes with minimal music or singing, of slowing things down, of bringing in the timpani, or orchestrating a haunting vision rather than leading a stadium in hit after hit. Phase 2 was here, and it was brilliant.

But then came "White Light Rock & Roll Review," his second solo album. While it had one or two "good" (?) songs, it was a blow to my expectations. After four consecutive incredible albums, this was a clunker. It was stripped down, but not in the mid-nineties couple of guitars way, it was hollow. The production was not memorable, the songs were missing their vibrant insight into his mind, the melodies not interesting, and the music empty. One should have seen this coming. For all it's incredibleness (and it is), "Avalanche" couldn't quite shake the feeling of being a bit empty itself. While it is a masterpiece, it sounds like one man. The Matthew Good Band albums all have the collected hearts of the members surrounding each passage, but on "Avalanche" every musical line, every instrument, basically points you back to his voice. He is front and center and really quite alone on that album - the musical lines and styles, even though played by others, have a uniformity. But the songs, the singing, the production on "Avalanche" were amazing and being the first solo album, one was amazed that his genius was continuing, so the singular focus wasn't distracting. But on "White Light..." the loss of heart hurt. It was just a forgettable album that also seemed a direct assault on the phase 2 sound of the prior albums. It was intentionally pushing away from that densely produced but sonically spare vision, but not into anything interesting or emotionally potent with its attempts at raw intensity.

That album was followed by "Hospital Music," a mostly acoustic album of forgettable songs and then "Vancouver," which was so middling (not necessarily bad), that there is not much to say. *update 3pm 3/30/19 - I do want to spend a moment more on "Hospital Music" though. It was written following Matthew Good's psychiatric hospitalization and subsequent diagnosis of bipolar disorder. So while it may not resonate with me, I don't want to disparage something that probably has great personal significance to him. The challenge of being a consumer and critic is that to subjectively document how art impacts me I risk offending or hurting the creator. That is not my intent at all. My opinions cannot and should not ever be equated with an objective view of the art, nor a commentary on the personal value it has to its creator. I want to be sensitive that although I did not resonate with "Hospital Music" (despite being a life-long sufferer of extreme mental health challenges), that doesn't mean others won't or that it doesn't have value. Also, if you are suffering from mental health challenges, please reach out for help. At the very least, here is the national suicide hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

It turns out "phase 2" would be a brief two albums, and "White Light" would presage a phase 3 that would include "Hospital Music" and "Vancouver." Phase 3 could best be summed up as "really well recorded local music performed by an incredible singer and band." Imagine that local band that's been trying to make it for 20 years, that just can't get their big break, hires a major national act to cover their songs and pays the best producers to produce the album. That's what phase 3 is: mediocre, forgettable, but not bad, songs played and recorded really well. It is the smoggy twilight that hides the colorful sunset to a brilliant, maybe too bright to be sustainable, early career.

And then comes "Lights of Endangered Species," an album so late in the journey that I had probably only listened to it a couple times. But I remember liking parts of it. Yet somehow, it never really stuck with me and ultimately, after that first few weeks of listening when it came out, just got put away and forgotten. Until I mistakenly put it in this morning instead of "White Light..." What I got, was a reminder, that although far from perfect, far from a repeat of the albums that defined my early twenties, this was a talented singer, songwriter, and a well produced album that works as a whole album - if not necessarily as individual songs.

I'm not sure I ever listened to it on my studio's speakers, but this is a really well recorded album. I believe it is produced by the same producer as "Avalanche" and certainly sonically it bears many hallmarks - the kick drum's sound is clear but authentic, the snare real and so much more than just a sample, there is texture and depth to the recording. But this is also, and maybe that's why I get it now, an album not for teens or early-twenty-year-olds, but for middle aged folk, which I now firmly am. Maybe it aged better because I've aged. It isn't memorable, save for maybe the last song, but has moments of the melodicism of the early releases. It has some of the expansiveness of phase 2, but it also has some of the local-band-ness of  phase 3, especially with the heavy use of a brass section (BRASS SECTION IN MATTHEW GOOD!?!?!?!). Not perfect, but not an affront either. It might be the most fulfilling of the "phase 3" albums.

It's interesting to consider what might have happened if this had been the follow-up to "Avalanche." Sonically, it is the most like it, and it has, in my opinion, better songs than the three in-between it and "Avalanche". What I'm most disappointed in myself about is that I haven't bought the albums that come after this to see what they might offer. Are they more of this? Are they a new phase? Do they rise above the low-point or do they continue it, making "Lights of Endangered Species" a brief respite from an otherwise forgettable string of albums?

Certainly, "Lights of Endangered Species" if considered as the quiet, thoughtful album, as counterpart to the brooding of "Avalanche" and the blistering of "Underdogs" and "Beautiful Midnight" has a strong place in their history. I'm glad I re-listened, and I might again. But it also has inspired me to check out the more recent albums to see what they might offer and how they might relate. I'm also going to go back and give "Hospital Music" and "Vancouver" another listen to see what I might have missed, what I might not have been ready for. I'll keep you posted.

ps. you'll find several of his albums in my favorite albums list here.

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Friday, March 22, 2019

Improving Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (cause it wasn't as awful as I thought it would be)

Valerian and Laureline
So I finally watched "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets." (Currently free on Amazon Prime) I thought it would be absolutely awful and it actually wasn't, but it wasn't exactly good either. I'm a huge fan of Luc Besson's film "The Fifth Element" and while it wasn't anywhere near that monumental triumph, it also wasn't a burning pile of poo like the Wackowski's "Jupiter Ascending" or James Cameron's over-hyped and nearly unwatchable "Avatar." (Yes, I really really dislike that film)

However, this isn't a review of Valerian. Instead, it's a list of what could have been done to improve it. Because that's more fun to write. Go read someone else's review if you want to know what it's about and whether you might like it. Try this one from Rolling Stone.

So how do we improve a super expensive and mediocre movie:

1) Cast actors who can act. Sounds simple given the planet's overabundance of talented and under-employed actors. However, we're stuck with the two absolute worst actors in the lead roles. While there is no doubting that Cara Delevigne is stunningly beautiful, there is also no doubting that she is a horrific actress. Her face is useless for expressions, she can't deliver a line with any timing, she has zero emotional range, and you absolutely will never feel any connection to her. Pairing her Dane DeHaan, who can best be described as being from the Keanu Reeves school of acting, has zero screen presence at all and no emotional skill. Now I love, I mean LOVE, Keanu Reeves, and he is perfect at all he does, but the man can't act. I mean, I don't know what he's doing on screen, but it just isn't acting. But for him, it works. It works so very well. For Dane...not so much. And unlike the eye candy of Cara Delevigne, Dane DeHaan doesn't even have that going for him. So he can't act and he isn't anything much to look at. What was the casting director going for exactly?

2) Cast diverse actors. There was absolutely no meaningful diversity in this movie. Not only are our two leads incapable of acting, they, and the vast majority of the cast, are as white as they come. Yes, I know there are many aliens and so we can't expect racial diversity as it is meaningful in American society to matter amongst alien species, BUT most of the speaking roles are given to human characters, and most of those are white. Three small exceptions are a shape shifting blue squid that often dons the guise of a black woman and a few moments of black man who we think is the head of the humans as well as a black solider who was killed for trying to hold his commander accountable for genocide. However, the shapeshifting alien/black woman dies saving Valerian who has promised (as the white hero) to save her from a life of human trafficking. The black leader of the humans has three meaningless lines, delivered through a computer screen, in 137 minutes of film time (pure tokenism). As I said, the black solider is killed for trying to hold the white commander accountable but has no meaningful dialogue. So two of the three end up martyred to save either a white lead (who can't act) or a race of VERY white humanoid aliens. There is a token Asian character, but all the rest of the soldiers, generals, commanders, merchants, tourists, etc... are white (and almost exclusively men). Why not cast actors of Indian, Persian, Hispanic, black, Asian, or any background who can act in both the lead and side roles? Why go out of your way to have a very white film made with people who can't act when whiteness serves no story-related purpose? You can't argue they were the best for the roles, because ANYONE on the planet would have been a better actor and being white had nothing to do with the role. Whether it was a conscious choice to cast mostly white actors or evidence of long-standing implicit bias, it was a very very white film.

3) Move your gender roles beyond the 1960s. So where is Laureline's name in the title? Her name is in the French comic it's based on. But no, we're going to give the film an incredibly long title but have no room for the female lead's name in the title, just the man's. Further, although there is a moment that plays off this, Laureline is frequently made to stay back by Valerian in classic chauvinist fashion. But why does Valerian have to be a male chauvinist whose heart changes over the course of the film at all? I haven't read the comics, but I don't care what he's like there. We could do with some sensitive, compassionate leading men who can also still be good space agents. And we could do with the two of them sorting out their feelings as two equals, not as an asshole man being changed by the love of a woman. Laureline is presented as great at what she does and there is no meaningful reason why she couldn't be the focus of the film. But it's Valerian who gets most of the big combat scenes even though Laureline shows that she can handle herself in a fight just fine. And she also is put in the place to get rescued by Valerian for no good reason. In fact, the entire episode that has her get captured and him saving her only exists to show off his skills and ultimately introduces and kills off the black/shape-shifting blue squid. It doesn't actually drive the plot forward and could have been completely left out of the movie. The one time she rescues him, it's not so much a rescue as it is just finding him and then she gets herself into trouble requiring him to rescue her anyway. Let's make them equals and let's make the emotional struggle between them not about her undoing his chauvinism, but about genuinely trying to decide if they are compatible as people who talk and think about interesting things. The Han Solo/Princess Leia thing they try to do just didn't work. We had one of those, it was of the times in 1977, but this is the 20-teens and we deserve a kind and balanced leading man along with a strong, competent, and doesn't-need-to-prove-herself to anyone leading lady who engage in meaningful dialogue not just banter.

4) Hire a better editor. The editing was terrible at times. Not only was it long, with some scenes that could have been dramatically shortened and whole segments (see above) removed entirely, but the editing on the timing of dialogue quips to end scenes was awful. Lines were delivered just a hair late, making the comedy fall flat. I don't care whether the actor's really had bad timing, or if this occurred in ADR, but the beauty of editing is the ability to remove a little time to make the line hit better. Given that the actor's couldn't act at all, this is the least they could have done. Further, most of those end quips weren't necessary. A little eye roll or facial expression would have done the trick. But sadly, most of these moments are given to Cara Delevigne who clearly can't manage a convincing eye roll anyway so they needed to give her actual dialogue to make the joke. Then they botched it with poor editing. And don't get me started on the poor ADR where entire paragraphs of speech didn't match the lip movements. Yuck. Given that terrible syncing, they could have hired someone else to overdub the two leads and at least improve the acting.

5) Get rid of CGI (or at least reduce its use). Give me some damn space ship models, some matte paintings for backgrounds, and some honest to goodness latex costumes for aliens. It's not that I hate CGI, but there's just too damn much of it. I'll take practical special effects any day. It has a tangibleness that you can't get with CGI; there's no weight to CGI, no gravity. Use CGI to clean it up, use it to supplement, but come on, for someone who used practical effects so well in The Fifth Element, there is just no excuse here. I don't care if some things are un-filmable unless you use CGI, maybe it would make a film better if writers and directors were forced to find meaningful writing, characters, and plot approaches to solve the filmmaking dilemmas rather than just adding more CGI to achieve what's in their heads.

The thing is, all of these problems were avoidable. Who's doing quality control on these $200 million movies? Yes, I know the financing was very different on this one giving Luc Besson a lot of control, but what about those trash heaps I mentioned above like Jupiter Ascending and Avatar (not to mention many many many...most big CGI movies)? Someone needs to ask, "really, these are the BEST two actors you could find? I have two baristas at the Starbucks near Broadway who would love these roles and can actually act!" Same with the diversity, either you find it meaningful to cast the incredible beauty of the human species or you don't. And if you don't, it says a lot about you. There was nothing in this story that needed even a single white actor. So you can't blame it on taking place in the corporate world of the 1960s or at Yale (pretty much any time) as to why there were so many white actors. And for the writing (gender stereotypes), poor editing, and bland special effects, those are production decisions that also show more about the people making the film than the potential of the project itself. In other hands, this could have been a great film. As it was, it wasn't bad, but it certainly wasn't what it could have been.

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Sunday, March 17, 2019

On Temporary Hiatus

Thank you to all who have been reading and commenting on our manga, anime, book, and odds-and-ends reviews. I am on a temporary hiatus with no set return date.

As some of you know, I am a trans girl who finally come out to my wife and daughter (almost a year and a half-ago now). We have been working the past year and a half as a family on how this will effect us and things are going really well. Taking baby steps every so often and adjusting and getting stronger as a result. Things are great, but, things are also getting really busy.

Between work, family, and my transition-related things (like electrolysis 1-2 times per week), I'm finding myself quite busy. Also, I'm feeling mentally very exhausted with all the changes this is bringing in my life and our lives and processing all that. As a result, I'm just not able to get to this blog several times a week like I would like to. I'm still reading manga, watching anime, reading books, and writing (a bit) of my own stuff. But I need this as a formal hiatus so I don't feel like I'm just leaving this abandoned. I do hope to return shortly.

In the meantime, here are the series I'm currently reading that I would recommend. Please check them out (by buying them legitimately please):

Bloom Into You - a subtly different yuri series focusing on an asexual lead character

Hatsu Haru - a fun typical high-school shoujo with two really likable leads

Ao Haru Ride - one of the greatest shoujo series ever

Kiss & White Lily For My Dearest Girl - a nice yuri series focusing on many highschool pairings, the main couple makes it worth it.

Fruits Basket Another (where is volume 3?!?!?!?!) - a fun mini-series about the children of the characters from the original Fruits Basket

Nameless Asterism - a yuri high-school love triangle

Shortcake Cake - a traditional high-school shoujo series with a likable lead

After the Rain - a soft, subtle, understated series about a young girl and a middle aged man, and while that sounds creepy, it isn't in the least. An incredible, and unexpectedly great series.

The Delinquent Housewife! - broad comedy about a young woman, ex-gang member, who marries a business man who ends up leaving her with his family while he's away. Enter the younger brother who pines for his new sister-in-law.

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GUEST REVIEWS: 
Also, if you are interested in doing guest reviews in my absence, I'd love for you to contact me. The guidelines are simple:

1) You must legally read or watch the manga/anime. No reviewing fan subs, no scanlations. You must buy it, borrow it from a library, rent it, watch it on a LEGAL streaming service (Crunchyroll, HiDive, Amazon, Netflix), etc... No exceptions. We unilaterally and unequivocally support creators.

2) Your review must adhere to the values of this site, most importantly respecting all human life as amazing and important in all its diversity. We also support historically marginalized communities including racial and ethnic minorities, religious minorities, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and women (and yes, trans women are most definitely women!). We promote loving kindness and compassion in all we do.

3) Your review must be your original work and not owned by another site or publication. You must have full rights to use your work on this site.

4) I reserve the right to make all editorial decisions about what will and will not be posted on this site based on any and all criteria I so chose and may change that criteria and my mind at any point in time. I may revoke publication and remove content at any time for any reason I so chose. I make no promises to you or anyone. No contributor is entitled to any payment or ownership right in this site or its content in any way.

If that all sounds good, send an email to j a i m e l u s t i g @g m a i l .com or by using the contact/email link in the right-hand side bar with a suggested guest review.

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I hope to see you all again in the near future as my time and mental energy return. But please know I, and the family, are doing really well. Miss you!
- Jaime

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (Book Review)

Curtis SittenfeldI deeply deeply love "Prep" by Curtis Sittenfeld. I really really liked "American Wife." But I've felt very indifferent about her other three books ("Man of My Dreams," "Eligible," and "Sisterland"). They weren't bad by any stretch, but they didn't have the magic of both content and prose that the other two works had.

I went into Ms. Sittenfeld's short story collection, "You Think It, I'll Say It," hopeful that it would have the magic of "Prep." Unfortunately, with only a one small exception, it was more like her other works: fine, but not "for the ages."

I'm not a huge fan of short stories overall, they just have never done much for me. I like to get the depth of a character over time as they change, and by their very nature, short stories typically operate in an abbreviated time-frame. But putting that aside, there is the quality of prose to evaluate and whether there is any emotional connection formed with the reader.

For the most part, I found the prose good but not great, and experienced very little that drew me in to the characters. Many of them weren't very likable or even necessarily relatable. Many seemed like cliched sketches and not actual flesh and blood people, as if each was designed to fulfill the point of the story.

The plots were largely about young and middle-aged women, mostly from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds, exploring jealousy, sexuality, infidelity, regrets, and even some political sentiments; these are all rich and important things to explore. However, there wasn't much new added to the discourse by these stories, no insights. Also, the politics felt tacked on, almost a need by the author to explicitly repudiate President Trump (and believe me, I'm all for repudiating him) simply because the book was published and set in the current time period. Yet, it felt jarring and out of place against the more personal sentiments of the stories.

And so sadly, very little of the plot or character exploration felt new or insightful. Sometimes new isn't needed, sometimes a book can cover the same old ground but create deep emotional resonance with a reader: "Yes, that's me, I felt like that too!" But these stories simply did not do that for me. I can't speak to what others may take away from them, but they felt very by-the-numbers, with predictable outcomes and no real insight into the human condition. With one exception. One very amazing exception.

The third story, "Vox Clamantis in Deserto," tells of two college students, one visiting the hometown of the other. Given that it's a short story, I can't tell you much more, because the plot is brief but important. But the middle of this story is Ms. Sittenfeld at her finest. For a few pages, at the height of the action, the prose sings, the emotions are real, the experience vivid, the connections to our own lives pulled taught.

Interestingly, there are similarities in the plot to "Prep" and I can't discount the impact that those years (teens/college) had in my own life, so there is the very real possibility that I'm responding to "Vox Clamantis in Deserto" in ways others might not. But I am sure that those middle pages, the chief encounter between the young woman and her friend's boyfriend, are written at another level compared to the rest of this collection. The prose there is lucid and visceral in a way the rest of the collection (and even the rest of that story) simply isn't.

However, Ms. Sittenfeld tries to make something out of this story and concludes it in a relatively perfunctory way that ends up reducing and diminishing the power of those few pages in the middle. The wrap-up is indicative of the way all the stories end, with a nice neat bow, almost a lesson, and in that conclusion, we lose the intimacy of the chief experience within the story.

But oh, what a few wonderful pages she gave us. It shows what she is capable of, and given that she has sustained that for entire novels, I will continue to be an avid reader of hers. Even at her most run-of-the-mill, Ms. Sittenfeld's writing is a nice read. But when the magic creeps in, she shows the talent to be remembered. At the very least, she has given us an all-time classic in "Prep." I'll keep holding out hope for another work of that sustained brilliance.

Sadly, "You Think It, I'll Say It" is not that book. While perfectly pleasant, it gets a 6.5/10. Readable, some people might really connect, but overall the prose is adequate, the stories predictable and hardly revealing. Yet there is the middle few pages of "Vox Clamantis in Deserto" which almost single-handedly justifies reading the entire book.

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Sunday, February 24, 2019

Hatsu Haru volume 5 might be one of the strongest so far (Manga Review)

Riko Takanashi Kai Ichinose
Hatsu Haru is becoming one of my favorite series. Volume 5 (Yen Press) continues the strong shoujo story of Kai (the former playboy) and Riko (his childhood frenemy).

Volume 5 picks up with Kai giving up on Riko due to her not understanding his confessions and his belief that she and his friend Taka are in love. Kai knows what a great guy Taka is and believes he can care for Riko. Their friend Ayumi hatches a plan to prove to Kai that Taka and Riko are not together.

During this same time, Riko is confronting her own strange feelings that Kai is going back to his playboy ways and giving up on the girl of his dreams (which she doesn't realize is her). When Taka questions why she's taking it so personally, it starts her spinning, leading to some wonderful comedic moments with her.

No matter Kai's seeming determination to give up on Riko, he just can't shake it, and in fact, when she falls ill due to exhaustion, he goes into hero mode in several ways. This is also evident when he checks up on her during the wedding of her long-time crush and pseudo-older-brother, Suwa. The intense emotions both of them are experiencing come to a head at the wedding...but I won't spoil it for you!

The pacing of the volume is fairly quick (injuries, weddings, beach, school, etc...), but the writing is clear. We still get most of the volume from Kai's perspective, but thankfully we do get some more time with Riko and her experiences. If there were any weakness in the series, it's that it is a bit focused on Kai's perspective. I'd love to see more of a 50/50 balance with Riko's perspective. Minor complaint though.

The art continues to be very strong, with clear character designs. I love the way Fujisawa-sensei does eyes, particularly Riko's. It's somewhat unique and I love it! The screentone use is wonderful, the backgrounds have tons of detail, and the art is overall crisp and inviting.

While in many ways the series is a by-the-numbers opposites attract/childhood friends get together story, it continues to be so well written, with such likable characters, and quality writing/art, that it is simply a joy to read. Sometimes you want a series that gives you exactly what you want, and this is it. A perfect, sweet, funny, high-school romance.

Volume 5 is one of the strongest in a very strong series. I'm giving it an 8/10 because it packs so many wonderful moments in throughout. I'm delighted with this series!

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