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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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