Review: Blinded by the Light

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There was a certain genre of films back in the mid to late 80s that featured teen characters who felt trapped or stuck in where they were in the world. These circumstances could be because of economics, social status, or even family keeping the main character down from embracing their dreams and aspirations. Movies like Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, even The Last Starfighter had themes of  chasing a dream that others say they can’t achieve or defying your parents who are keeping you down.`

It is perhaps providence that circumstances align for the existence of the uplifting comedy drama Blinded by the Light which not only feels like an 80’s movie but since it is based on a true story, takes place in the 80s. Based on the memoir by Safraz Manzoor, Greetings from Bury Park, Blinded by the Light is a comedic drama that is joyful and heart warming as well.

Javed Khan is is a sixteen-year old Pakistani Muslim living with aspirations of being a writer living in 1987 Luton. Unfortunately for his dreams, his working class father does not see writing as a career and on top of that the family is very traditional Muslim which still believes in arranged marriages and familial piety. In other words, a father’s word is law in the household. And one of those laws is no girls, and graduate college and get a good job as a doctor, or lawyer.

While at Sixth Form College, which is like an advanced placement school before applying for university, Javed begins to take writing classes. He also meets and befriends a Sikh friend that would change his life. While talking over lunch Roops lets him borrow a couple of cassette tapes to listen too. They are two tapes of Bruce Springsteen music who Roops claims speaks to their situation as marginalized kids from Luton.

One night, at a particularly low point of frustration with the world, he puts on the Springsteen tape and listens to The Boss. Almost instantly the raw voice and the lyrics about struggling through in a working class world resonate with him. Not only does the music speak to Javed, it is as if the lyrics of Springsteen become a character itself, floating across the screen as if it were alive.

Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start
The dogs on Main Street howl
‘Cause they understand
If I could wrench one moment into my hands
Mister I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land

Rejuvenated by the music of his new found hero, Javed finds enough confidence in himself to start turning in his poems to his supportive English teacher, played by Hayley Atwell. It also gives him the confidence to start talking to fellow classmate, Eliza.

But not everything is great for Javed as his father is laid off from the local auto plant where his traditionalist father had been working for years. His mother must take on more sewing work all the while preparing for the wedding of his oldest sister. Javed faces increasing pressure to conform to the traditions of his family and obey his father’s wish that he do better than becoming “just another Pakistani cab driver.” His father has no understanding or belief that a writer can actually make a living and scoffs when Javed is given not only an internship at the local newspaper but a front page byline. And music of Bruce Springsteen is definitely not understood by his father, who he calls “that Jewish American singer.”

Yet despite his problems at home, he still finds joy in the company of Roops and Eliza. His budding romance with Eliza is an almost by the numbers teen romance. With the music of Bruce Springsteen blasting through his Walkman leads to an impromptu serenade of “Thunder Road,” comically accompanied by a whole street full of shoppers. There is another semi-musical moment later where Roops and Javed hijack the school radio station to play Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”  Along with Eliza in true 80s montage style, they dance and cavort about the streets of Luton. These scenes are meant for laughs, are absolutely unrealistic, but are also infectiously fun.

Blinded by the Light is, on the surface, a rather trope filled standard comedy drama. But what it does different and does well is tell its story from the unique perspective of an immigrant family amidst the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s England which was a tumultuous time both economically and racially. It can not be ignored that being a Pakistani Muslim during that that time was not easy as Britain’s neo-Nazi National Front party were openly harassing them in the streets. The story is one many of us may already see play out ahead of time with no real surprises. But as with my review of The Farewell, it is the reason that inclusion and representation makes a difference. It is unique because it tells a story of a culture that is often ignored or marginalized. Yes it is a different culture, but the themes about family and working class struggles are universal.

Director Gurinder Chandra weaves everything together and allows us to peer into a family and community that is not shown enough in cinema. Probably best known for directing Bend it Like Beckham, it too dealt with rebelling against traditionalism.

The cast is filled with relatively unknown actors. Viveik Kaira is absolutely charming as Javed and is easy to relate to and empathize with throughout the film. He starts off as the typical awkward kid, shy and hesitant, but when he is in the Springsteen zone, he is a force of exuberance, charm, and confidence.

Kulvinder Ghir deserves special recognition as Javed’s strict traditional father. It can’t be easy being both comedic and dramatic in the same scene as he carries the weight of both deftly, especially when playing opposite Viveik Kaira.

Hayley Atwell may be the best known of the cast but she is literally there as support for Javed. Yet her character is the first one that offers  encouragement to pursue his dream. She channels that one teacher that we all remember that was always there to encourage us.

As a son of immigrants and also Asian, many of the family issues that Javed faces about identity and where one belongs in society resonated with me, especially the desire to be a writer. Blinded by the Light may be a little clichéd, but it has enough working for it from its engaging cast to win you over. And of course the music of Bruce Springsteen helps a lot too.

Final Score: 8.5/10

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Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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Catherynne M. Valente’s Hugo nominated novel, Space Opera, tries its best to channel the spirit of Douglas Adams. And it does so well occasionally but in the long run its homages and self aware attempts style trip it up. What could have been a science fiction comedy of absurdities ends up being an uneven mixture short novel that feels like it could have been a novella.

We are not alone. Yes, there are not only other intelligent species out there in the galaxy, they are not sure if humans are sentient. So in order to gain acceptance into the galactic circle of civilized worlds they must prove they are sentient by participating in something called the Metagalactic Grand Prix – a singing competition. The participants must come from a list of acceptable singers that the council has picked. Unfortunately the list is all full of either dead people or people that are incapable of participating. The only one of the list able to compete is washed up glam rock star Dinesh “Decibel” Jones. The act doesn’t have to win, they just don’t have to be last.

Yeah, so the people of earth have to participate in an inter-galactic Eurovision competition. And if Earth finishes last, the human race gets eliminated and evolution is allowed for the future development of other sentient beings. Dinesh is reunited with his one surviving band member Oort St. Ultraviolet. With no real clue on what they have to do and no knowledge about how backstage machinations can take them out even before they reach the stage.

Catherynne M. Valente packs the book with some very colorful prose. And your mileage may vary, I though it was a bit too much flowery prose. You can forget any sort of science in this science fiction setting. You can, however, expect some intriguing aliens with some really bizarre backstories and unique personalities. But yet it does fly in the face of our expectations or even perceptions of reality. I am assuming that this is a conscious choice to be so esoteric and poetic. It has a time travelling Red Panda. Come on, you can’t tell me that’s not different.

Valente’s universe of strange aliens are without a doubt colorful and creative. Some feel almost dreamlike or straight out of a drunken hallucination. Your mileage may vary. Ultimately though it is a silly premise and while it is inventive, it unfortunately feels like a comedy skit that has been dragged on a little too long. Now, looking on the reviews on Goodreads, it is clear that I am in the minority in my opinion. That’s fine. It’s just my opinion and some things I just don’t get into as others. You are free to like whatever you like. And there is definitely much to like about Space Opera. Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet are an interesting pair that pair off of each other believably as old bandmates that have since gone their separate ways. The prose is certainly engaging but often left me with the feeling of “what did I just read?”

Space Opera is nominated for the 2019 Hugo award for best novel of 2018. I wish it luck. It is definitely different and an interesting ride.

Final Score: 7/10

Review: I Believe in ‘Yesterday’

 

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The first record I remember ever playing was by the Beatles. It was a 45 RPM single of “Let it Be” and I played it again and again. I was maybe twelve or thirteen with my little AM/FM with built in turntable. I have been a fan of the Beatles ever since. I distinctly remember the time and place when I heard over the radio about the death of John Lennon and it broke my heart.

Yesterday, a film directed by Academy Award winner, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) poses an interesting , and rather bleak idea. What if the Beatles had never existed? Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a struggling musician who has been working the pub and small club scene in and around Suffolk England for years now, and is about to lose all hope and just pack it in and go back to being a school teacher.

While riding his bicycle back home, there is a power outage…a worldwide power outage which lasts twelve seconds. Jack is hit by a bus and wakes up later in the hospital a bit bruised up, and missing a few teeth. He gets some really nice implants pretty quickly, later. I don’t know if that’s a commentary on British healthcare or not. By his hospital bed, when he wakes up, is childhood friend and manager Ellie played by Lilly James.

When Jack says jokingly, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” she has no idea what he’s talking about, but he lets it go. Later, when he meets his friends, they give him a nice shiny new guitar. Appreciating the gift, he decides not to play one of his own songs, but “Yesterday,” one the most iconic songs in the Beatles songbook. His friends are mesmerized by the song, thinking it was something that Jack wrote and saying they have never heard of the Beatles. Jack thinks the joke has gone on too far and heads home. Looking online, he finds no results for the Beatles of the names of the individual Fab Four. His album collection is missing his Beatles records. At least David Bowie and the Rolling Stones still exist.

It dawns on jack that he may be the only one in the world who remembers the Beatles, so he decides to remember as many Beatles songs as he can, write them down and pass them off as his. What could possibly go wrong? He doesn’t quite achieve instant success, and still plays pubs but manages to get a demo disc made and a TV appearance on a local TV station. It is after the TV appearance that he is contacted by some bloke name Ed Sheeran, played by some bloke named Ed Sheeran. He is invite to join him on a tour as an opener.

Thus begins his journey towards stardom as he is approached by Sheeran’s American agent Debra, played to scene stealing perfection by SNL’s Kate McKinnon to sign him up for a recording contract. But left behind is Ellie who chooses to stay back in Suffolk as a school teacher, but not before admitting herself into the friend zone before Jack had a chance to process her confession.

Debra’s plan is to make Jack a viral hit before his first album is released. before long, his songs are getting huge buzz as they slowly get out into the internet. The early release songs are a hit and he is hailed as a genius songwriter.

Yesterday may not be the most original idea. It has probably been done before in other mediums, but this is definitely full of British humor and sweet charm. Himesh Patel performs the songs and plays the guitar with soulful dedication to the classic songs made famous by the Beatles and there are quite a few amusing scenes of Jack trying to remember words to certain songs. Eleanor Rigby apparently is his most beguiling.

Underlying the road to stardom is Ellie’s relationship with Jack, hiding her love away ever since they were seven years old. Jack goes from clueless to realizing that the only thing he needs is love. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can kind of see where this will end up. But even then, the payoff is warm and touching. And speaking of payoff, how he deals with that impeding wealth and fame is straight up fairy tale stuff.

There is no explanation on why the world no longer has the Beatles, or a couple of other things like Coke and Cigarettes. But with most fantasy, we are given the fantastical premise and whether it works for us or not is up to us. To me, a world without their music would be a pretty horrible world.

Yesterday is not a perfect film. It has a few flaws especially with the middle portion of how Ellie and Jack interact, but it is full of charm with of course music that the world loves. Himesh Patel is charismatic, and Lilly James is the perfect girl next door. Ed Sheeran seems to be having fun playing himself. And Kate McKinnon just steals every scene she is in.

Sick of blockbusters, remakes, and sequels? Give Yesterday a spin. Recommended

Final Score: 8/10

Review: Your Lie in April

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Music is a terrible thing…If you hear a marching band, you march, if you hear a waltz, you dance, if you hear a mass you take communion. It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism. So now, what was in my mind when I wrote this? Hmm? A man is trying to reach his lover. His carriage is broken down in the rain. The wheels stuck in the mud. She will only wait so long. This is the sound of his agitation. “This is how it is.” The music is saying “not how you are used to being, not how you are used to thinking…but like this.”

Beethoven, Immortal Beloved (1994)

Note: Almost all quoted dialogue is from the English dub as I feel is not only a faithful adaptation of the intended script but also an eloquent localization which flows more naturally when spoken in English. The result is very poetic.

Within the medium of anime, there is a genre called slice of life. Think of it as weekly dramas or sitcoms. They do not usually incorporate any fantastical elements like magical battles or big robots fighting each other. The is no world saving. What usually makes it stand out as a success is a cast of characters that draw the audience into their personal stories how they interact with others.

Every season, there are dozens of anime series that come out encompassing different genres. The slice of life genre has its fair share of titles and of course there will be ones that rise to the top in terms of quality. Every once in a while, there are titles that not only rise to the top of its genre, but rises above all other shows in the medium to become true works of art. Let us look, with some minor spoilers, at the beauty of Your Lie in April.

In Your Lie in April, Arima Kosei was a former prodigy pianist who was on the track to being a star. One day, after the death of his mother, he suddenly stopped playing in the middle of a performance. His two best friends are Tsubaki Sarabe, a tomboyish girl who has known Kosei since they were little children, and Ryota Watari, captain of the soccer team who likes to think of himself as a playboy and likes the company of girls he considers cute. By the way these kids are the most poetic and articulate middle-schoolers ever. The series is very well produced and is absolutely beautiful to see. It is captivating and will break your heart more than once during the 22 episode run.

Kosei’s for the last few years has been basically wading his way through life after the death of his mother. He emotionally broke down in tears on stage. It is soon evident that the reason for this is that he’d been emotionally and physically abused by his mother to become a great pianist. Critics labeled him the human metronome, someone who plays pieces exactly as they were written.

When he first meets Kaori Miyazono, a fellow student, he is intrigues by her free spirit attitude. Ostensibly he and Tsubake are the tag alongs for a introductory meetup between Kaori and Watari because Kaori apparently likes Watari. It turns out that Kaori is a violinist and that she is on her way to a competition. In competition, the players are assigned a set piece that is supposed to be played as it is written. In this case it is the Kreutzer by Beethoven a piece for Violin and Piano. All the other pianist play well and according to the way it is written, but when it is Keori’s turn to play the Kreutzer, it is not as it is written. It is paced differently and alive with flourish and passion. This annoys the judges who mark her down, but it wows the audience. But is the fictional above quote from Immortal Beloved can be taken at perspective, it is like a heart agitated and exited.

While at a cafe together, Kousei shows some kids how to play Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but he stops in the middle and leaves after improvising. He confesses to Kaori later he can not hear the notes of his own playing once he starts to concentrate. Kaori knows that Kosei used to be an accomplished pianist and is determined to bring his talents out again. His other friends are all for this as they know he’s been aloof, merely content at coldly transcribing pop songs to sheet music for piano. “For people like us, life without music is death.” she tells him.

She tries to convince him to be her accompanist for the next competition. He is constantly surrounded by the planned piece, with either sheet music taped to his text books or the music playing over the school’s PA system. Up until the day of the competition, he still refuses. “You’ll have me this time,” Kaori tells him. “I know you can’t hear your own notes and that you’re all kinds of rusty. I know all of that. And I want you with me anyway. Maybe we bomb out there. Maybe we step off that stage in defeat. We are going to play. If there is a crowd and a chance to play, I’m taking it. I’ll give it everything I’ve got. And the people who hear, they’ll never forget me. Part of me will echo in their hearts forever. I think those moments are why I’m alive. I was put on this earth to make music, and so were you. So please, be my accompanist. Believe in me, even a tiny bit.”

In his first public appearance since he broke down, he is unable to keep up with Kaori’s free spirited and lively playing. He starts off well, but haunted by the memory of his mother who literally beat it into him to him, he becomes lost. His ability to hear the notes, once again leaves him as he loses confidence. He ends up halting completely.

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The competition is over for them, now. But Kaori merely gives Kosei a look and says “Again?” She starts from the top and once again he tries to follow. We hear her thoughts as if he were communicating with him telepathically. “It’s dark and we can’t see where the road leads, but trust in me and take another step. The stars will light our path however faintly. I know they will. Come on, our journey awaits.” At this point she’s just playing to play. “She moves me forward, relentlessly, like a heartbeat. Her music is everywhere.” he thinks to himself as he unleashes himself on the keys not as an accompanist but as a soloist. One of the judges observes it is like observing a musical brawl.  Yet, there is so much spirit and bravado that even though they are now out of competition, they have the audience enthralled, resulting in a rock concert style standing ovation. “The cool dry air, the sent of dust, my journey has begun,” says Kosei to himself.

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Yes, they were disqualified, and their performance was technically a train wreck, but slowly Kosei begins to open up and try to come to grips with the inner pain he still carries from his mother’s treatment of him.

It is clear right away that Kosei is attracted to Kaori not just for her musical abilities but for how he makes him feel more alive than he has in years. “The girl who likes my best friend,” he even thinks. Yet, he also knows his best friend likes her and she likes him. Yet, Watari doesn’t have a bone of jealousy in his body and encourages him to be play with Kaori. Of course, Watari is a good hearted playa, so of course he’s got another girl. And as par for the course with standard anime and melodrama tropes, Tsubake as been developing feelings for Kosei too.

As dramatic as the subject matter is, there are great moments of comedy between the characters, much of it slapstick and stylized in chibi transformations where the characters become mini caricatures of themselves. Much of that slapstick humor comes at the expense of Kosei, though as he is often kicked, slapped and yelled at by caricature versions of his friends. This is of course played for laughs and stands in total contrast to the flashbacks of when his mother would abuse him both verbally and physically. This may be more disturbing to some than others and some of you may not see the difference between the slapstick chibi violence and the  memories of Kosei’s past.

Kaori manages to talk (i.e. trick) Kosei into entering a competition featuring Chopin’s Wrong Note Etude. As the layers of Kosei’s old pain is peeled away, the scabs are exposed. Hidden within his pain was the belief that if he were a better piano player, his wheelchair bound and sick mother would get better. Yet, we are still watching the deconstruction of a young boy who is dealing with repressed pain, maybe even depression. Kosei’s memories come flooding back during the competition as he faces down the looming presence of his mother’s shadow, and looks toward Kaori for his inspiration.

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In many ways, Kosei shares SOME qualities with Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion in that he has led a traumatized life. His pain and trauma stem from merely wanting approval and acceptance from a parent. Yet, he evolves beyond being the human metronome. He has learned to play with heart and love. It even inspires his old competition rivals.

Some of the elements that make the simplest of stories succeed and resonate is of course is in the execution. Your Lie in April is an absolutely beautiful modern anime with warm colors contrasted with the stereotypical flutter of falling cherry blossom leaves. You can tell that this show was not skimped on. Much of the musical performances on piano and violin look rotoscoped which gives it a look of authenticity.

And of course, the music is from some of the greatest classical composers of all time. On hand are Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Kreisler, and Mozart. The original music is good and as well and has a top notch opening song by the group Goose House.

The writing, once you accept the fact that these are the most eloquent middle-school kids in the world, is beautiful. The dialogue when it is not being comedic, is near poetic in the English dub or even when reading the subtitles. The writing works in subtle and complex ways of proving a narrative and advancing some important themes. Kosei may be just be one boy in an average middle-school. But his story just doesn’t effect himself, his success and failures relies on and effects all those around him, from his rivals to his best friends. His joys and sorrows (which are also two musical pieces used, Love’s Sorrow, Love’s Joy) are deeply connected to everyone.

Your Lie in April teaches us is that we matter to our friends and our joy brings them joy. We need personal connections not only to live but to lift each other up. Koari is the greatest personification of that. We can probably relate to those points in our lives where we fee down, with low feelings of self worth. We are not good enough, we can never live up to what is expected of us. So when Someone like Kaori comes along saying something like, it’s all right, be what you are, live like there’s no tomorrow, it is a wish many of us desire over most difficult of times in our lives.

Your Lie in April has more than its fair share of melodrama beyond what was already mentioned. Some of the supporting characters do not have much of a story arc outside of Tsubake. Kaori’s back story is revealed even slower than Kosei’s and it is not until the final episode 22, the finale that we learn her story fully. And we also find out the significance of the title, Your Lie in April. I’ve known grown men to totally break down in tears by the end of the series.

The beauty of the series is not just the gorgeous art but in the main characters. While some may feel like there is too much internal monologues of Kosei and a few others, it actually allows us to enter into not only their personality but  their souls. It makes the show all the more compelling and we end up rooting for Kosei to succeed.

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I am an unabashed fan of this series and have watched it several times. It is filled with beautiful animation, classical music, exceptional English dubbing, and poetic writing. It says to the audience, you don’t have to go through life alone, there are people who care for you and even love you. Highest Recommendation

Final Score: 9.5/10