Review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

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R.F. Kuang’s second book in her Poppy War Trilogy, The Dragon Republic, is not only as impressive as her first novel, The Poppy War, but is actually more mature in its writing style and confidence in storytelling that shows through the further world-building lore that is based heavily on Chinese history. There will be spoilers ahead for The Poppy War as this review will assume that you are already aware of the events, especially the end of that book.

After the events of The Poppy War, Rin and the surviving members of the Cike are on the run as the she is now enemies with the Nikan Empress who betrayed the nation to the invading Mugen Federation. She is also haunted by the death of Alton, the only other member of her Speerlie race. And even though she ended the war with the Federation by effectively committing genocide, chaos is left in its wake as soldiers without a nation to return to have resorted to wandering the country as bandits.

She soon finds herself joining with the warlord of the Dragon province who is also the father of her old school rival Nezha. It is the Dragon Warlord’s plan to lead a rebellion against the Empress and instituting a government based on democratic republic. As cynical as Rin is about this form of government she joins for the sake of vengeance against the traitorous Empress. Her best friend, Kitay,  from Sinegard Academy joins in the cause as well. Nezha, scarred and matured by the war is now a general under his father’s leadership.

New to the narrative is the nation of Hesperia. They come across as the equivalent of the Western European powers, equipped with firearms (something that the Nikari people have not seen) and airships, they are an imposing figure that allegedly supports the idea of a Dragon Republic. But they hold back on actual military support as they believe the Nikan people are not civilized enough yet. They also have their own agenda involving the spreading of their single deity religion and the examination of Rin’s shamanic power so that they can cure what they consider to be a manifestation of chaos.

The grim portrayal of Kuang’s world continues on an even broader scale as the scale of Rin’s observations on the war torn country around her expands to the multiple provinces. The effects of country that has just survives an invasion but now thrown into a civil war are all around her. There are mass exoduses and refugees fleeing from one place to another to escape conflict. On top of that is the lack of food for a population being overrun by conflict.

Rin still suffers from being more impulsive than she is smart — even though she is very smart. She is also still obsessed in following in the footsteps of Alton as a leader, even using his trident for which she is ill suited as a wielder. Her problems are even more compounded when her first face to face fight against the Empress results in her being cut off from her shaman powers.

Amid the cast of ambiguous characters with ambiguous motivations, Kitay stays the most true, and perhaps most innocent of characters. He also remains Rin’s truest friend. As in the previous novel, he anchors Rin as a moral compass and is the voice of reason. It doesn’t always work though. Fellow warlords and other generals tend to disregard some of his advice. Even Rin will give into her impulsive self than listen to reason much of the time.

Nezha’s character is much more fleshed out in The Dragon Republic as more is revealed about his family background and his motivations. His character arc is all the more intriguing when he and Rin come to know each other better and he also becomes a good friend to her. But he is also conflicted as a general and son of the Dragon Warlord who ultimately sees Rin as more of a tool of war and a bargaining chip that he throws to the Hesperians to study in exchange for their promised support. It becomes clear that the warlord is willing to sell her out if it is in his best interest.

The images of the after effects of war are haunting. There are many observations of starving peasants or bodies of civilian casualties littering field or floating in rivers. The Dragon province becomes a destination point for refugees fleeing starvation and band of former Mugen Federation soldiers now reduced to raiding defenseless villages. There is starvation and a definite lack of resources for these refugees which is made abundantly clear in the narrative.

Kuang’s structure and tone has definitely improved since the last book and events flow more naturally in the same three-part structure that was the structure of the first book. We also learn more about the shaman magic that Rin and others (including the Empress) have inherited. More is also revealed about the founding of the Nikan nation by the founding shamans. And with the introduction of the Hesperians, we get conflict not only in cultures but of religion as well.

Things coalesce in the third part of the book and it can seem to move quickly as groundwork that had been laid out throughout the narrative comes to a head as most of the novel’s plot threads come together with battles, betrayals and loss. As this is meant to be a trilogy, the novel ends at an appropriate point that does not feel like a cheap cliffhanger, but will still leave you with anticipation for the third and concluding book in the trilogy.

Ms. Kuang has grown quite a bit as a storyteller from her debut to her second novel and her ability to weave complex ideas has grown with her. He displays some great depictions of military tactics and action. She also manages to juggle a bigger cast and more complex issues such as politics and the plight of wartime refugees. Her main character, Rin has to go through a lot of development and emotional growth which she did not manage to handle as well in the first book. And the complexities of Rin’s character arc throughout the book is often filled with frustration, anger, and raw emotion as she has to examine what her place in the world is with or without her shamanic powers.

The Dragon Republic is more than a worthy follow-up to The Poppy War and I for one am in great anticipation of the final book because this is an amazing story that has been captivating from the beginning.

Final Score: 9/10

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Review: Joker is No Joke

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Be warned, Joker, directed by Todd Phillip’s, may be based on a comic book character that has had a long history in comics but on screen, but it will change the way you look at the character and the genre. If you had changed the names of some of the characters, the result would be a powerful modern noir film about a man’s fall from his already precarious grip on sanity to full chaotic madness. This is not a film for everyone and if you go in thinking it’s going to be some “comic book movie,” you may be off-put by it’s heavy nature and uncomfortable themes. Yet it is also an exemplary work of cinematic art.

When we first meet Arthur Fleck, he is a clown for hire. And in the opening scene he is one of those we most ignore on the street as we pass them by, someone holding a going out of business sign for a store. Nameless kids steal his sign and after a chase, they corner him and beat him up.  This is also our introduction to Gotham, a city that is reminiscent of the seedy streets of New York from the 70s and early 80s as portrayed in films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. But as a narrative, Scorsese’s King of Comedy is perhaps the biggest influence on Joker, as Arthur Fleck has spells of delusion where we glimpse into his imaginary world where he is accepted and even loved.

Gotham is a powder-keg city on the brink of exploding. Garbage is piling up on the streets because of a city-wide garbage strike. Unrest among the populace brews throughout the film as public tensions between the disenfranchised classes escalate steadily as the film progresses. There is rampant poverty and the Gotham itself is a decaying grimy city crowded with its own mad identity. Arthur Fleck may be insane, but so is the world around him.

Without a doubt, Arthur Fleck, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is the center of the film. It is not just a character piece, it is practically a one-man show. Sure there are other characters in it, but most of them are unnamed and just stepping stones towards his dark madness. Much of this is uncomfortable to watch as Phoenix’s portrayal of an already unsettled and unhealthy Arthur Fleck finds himself drowning in a system that has not only given up on him but the city as well. An early scene shows him with a social worker where it is revealed that he has already spent time in a mental institution, yet he can not answer the reason he was there in the first place. He is already on seven medications, yet he doesn’t feel it is doing anything for him. Later, city budget cuts will halt his sessions as well as his prescriptions. His social worker frankly tells him,”The city doesn’t give a shit about people like you. It doesn’t give a shit about people like me.”

The Joker is not just about the decay of a single human being but of a society. Society and and the uncaring system that created it let down not only a person that could have been helped but a city that could have been helped. And much of the the narrative displays that as Fleck’s personality spirals, so does the city as it become more violent and chaotic. And towards the end as the Joker is truly born, Gotham City becomes its most chaotic, reflecting the made state that Joker has now embraced.

This movie definitely has its violent moments but they are not, and I repeat, not, glorified or over the top like in Tarantino’s least violent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Now some of the violence may be disturbing or even unsettling. Good. It’s supposed to be because you don’t want him to do it, yet he does. Even in one instance of self defense, you think he’s defending himself, but then he crosses the line beyond self defense.

Joaquin Phoenix crafts an amazing performance as the troubled Arthur Fleck. He initially starts off as an awkward and apprehensive character who seems harmless at first but unfortunately as he progresses and gains confidence, he is also progressing into his darker nature. It is certainly one of the best performances I’ve seen all year and I would be surprised if he does not get at least a nomination for an Academy Award.

Francis Conroy plays Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother who as we see in the very beginning is home bound and dependent on her son . And as it will be easy to see almost just as early on is not that mentally stable herself. She obviously does not have as much screen time as Phoenix, but her performance does stand out for its subtle nuanced portrayal of another troubled person.

Robert De Niro turns in his usually impressive performance as Murray Franklin, a late night talk show host who is very reminiscent of Johnny Carson, right down to the rainbow colored curtains and his Ed McMahan lookalike co-host.

As much as joker was planned as a standalone movie, almost to be seen as an Elseworlds tale, somehow they just could not leave the connection to Batman and the Wayne family out of it. There is a subplot involving Thomas Wayne, played by Brett Cullen that it works for the most part, especially as the Thomas Wayne comes across as a bit of a jerk. But frankly including Bruce Wayne as a child in the movie was not necessary.

Hildur Guðnadóttir composed a score that is both haunting and oppressive at times. AT times it feels like a score for a horror film as an atmosphere of dread haunts her score in anticipation of fell deeds. Cello solos are featured throughout as Guðnadóttir is herself a celloist who had worked on scores for Sicario, and also composed the score for its sequel Day of the Soldado

Todd Phillips knows how to direct drama well, considering this is his background has been in comedies such as The Hangover Trilogy. He certainly knows how to shoot his film and get everything he needs out of his actors. But his script and direction are not perfect. Much of the plot is predictable, especially when we know what the end result will be. There are a couple of double twists that work though. But the is also an unneeded shoe-horning of Batman lore in to the narrative.

Lawrence Sher’s cinematography can best be described as beautiful ugliness. The grime and worn look of locations and interiors look authentic for a world that is meant to look like it is rotting. Much of it is shot in real locations in New York and every stain of rust and hue of graffiti shows.

There has perhaps been too much talk about various controversies that are connected to this movie. From fears that it may inspire someone to go out and commit violent acts like a mass shooting or that it fuels the rage of incels, it seems as people were determined to see it fail for the sake of seeing it fail. In my opinion it does not do that. I would recommend not only seeing this film with an open mind and no pre-conceived notions of it being based on a comic book character, but to see it as a quality film. Comic fans may be disappointed. Good. They need their views challenged. I believe this film succeeds in challenging pre-conceived views of not just the Joker but comic book based movies. What Zack Snyder failed to do with his Ayn Rand influenced attempts at grim and dark deconstruction of Superheroes, Todd Phillips succeeds in his auteur deconstruction of a iconic villain. This movie is highly recommended.

Final Score: 8.5/10

 

 

 

Review: Abominable is E.T. With Fur, But That’s OK

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Abominable by Dreamworks does not do anything revolutionary as far as American animated features are concerned. In fact it downright emulates a classic film of almost everyone’s youth, E.T. The Extraterrestrial. It’s not necessarily a bad thing since it still does does a good job of entertainment overall, despite its familiar plot. Some shortcomings come from a story that plays out as if there were scenes missing from the final cut that would have helped the narrative feel more fleshed out. But in the end, it is a cute entertaining film that is family friendly and treats their young characters as good kids trying to do the right thing.

Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennet)is a teenage girl living with her mother and grandmother in an unspecified Chinese city, though I suspect it is either Shanghai or a reasonable substitute. She spends much of her days doing odd jobs throughout the city for extra cash. All the while her family does not know this. All they know is that she disappears all day without telling them what she does. She has a little hideaway on her roof where she keeps mementos and the money that she has stowed away for what appears to be a plan to travel across China.

One night she discovers that an escaped Yeti is hiding on her roof and some bad guys are looking for him. You can tell they are bad guys because they all dress in black and their helicopters are black. She decides to hide him from their search lights and figures out he just wants to get home which happens to be Mount Everest.

She decides to initially get him on the next cargo ship that will travel up north in the Yangtze River.  But seeing that Everest, as she has named the creature, may not be able to survive on his own she makes the decision to make sure he gets all the way home. Along for the journey is her younger neighbor Peng (Albert Tsai) and his cousin, Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor). While Peng is the plucky and childlike adventurous type, Jin is more responsible but is also the typical teen concerned about his appearance and how many likes he gets on social media. The kids are pursued by the aforementioned team in black and are led by mega-rich guy Burnish (Eddie Izzard) who wants the Yeti as a prize in his collection of rare animals.

The majority of the film is a pursuit film that doubles as a gorgeous travelogue through the landscapes of China, including the giant Buddha of Leshan, and of course up to the very summit of the Himalayas. Accompanying the stunning visuals is an accomplished score by by Rupert Gregson Williams, which is highlighted by beautiful violin solos performed by Charlene Huang.

ABOMINABLE

The plot is very basic but it succeeds in its execution. The animation from Dreamworks and China’s Pearl Studios (technically a spin-off of Dreamworks Animation) is a solid presentation technically and artistically. The character designs are very expressive and are helped along with fine performances by the voice cast of mostly Asian and Asian Americans. The backgrounds of Chinese landscapes are without a doubt lush and a wonder to the eyes. My only issue is with the design of Everest which resembles more of a giant Muppet dog than human-like that lies mostly in our subconscious mythology.  He also has magic Yeti powers.

Every so often, Everest uses his powers of Yeti Ex Machina to get himself and the kids out of a jam and save them from not only the goons chasing them, but also starvation. He basically uses his powers when the plot calls for it, or if the writers don’t have a creative way to get out of the corner they are in. This is the film’s biggest negative and it comes across as a little lazy. Stuck on a cliff? Yeti Ex Machina!

For a movie that is as derivative it is, it still manages to lure you in with some great characters interactions, particularly between the kids. Yes, they snipe at each other and will bicker. But the bottom line, is that they still treat each other as family and have each other’s back. Yi’s family dynamic is tight and yet she feels distant from them since her father’s death. Yet her mother and grandmother are still there and have faith in her. Their relationship is as warm and inviting as any in the world. These are genuinely good kids trying to do the right thing no matter what. These characters will draw you in enough to care what happens to them in their adventure.

Now, this movie could have easily been told as an American tale starting off in an typical American city with a Bigfoot substituted for a Yeti. And honestly it could have worked just as well as far as overall plot. But with China as a setting it offers quite a unique perspective, not only of what the countryside and cities are like, but of it’s culture. As much as the film does a great job of just showing magnificent landscapes of China, it does not do so in a pandering way. At no time do we or should we feel that we are undergoing a geography lesson other than how far the Himalayas are. The cultural identities of the characters are not treated as some exotic alien culture but as a matter of fact. That is because the universal bonds of family and friendship cross cultural barriers.

Final Score: 7.75/10

Review: Hustlers Will Shake You Down

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This is story about control
My control Control of what I say
Control of what I do
And this time I’m gonna do it my way
I hope you enjoy this as much as I do
Are we ready?
I am ‘Cause it’s all about control,
And I’ve got lots of it

Janet Jackson: “Control”

This is a movie about control. And it’s also based on a true story. Hustlers begins with the opening of Janet Jackson’s famous song, “Control,” playing and we are introduced to our main character, Destiny a new stripper at a high end New York strip club. She is literally taken under the wing of Ramona, a veteran of the club who shows her the ropes of the club. Money is easy to make under Ramona’s tutelage as many of their customers are wall street high high-rollers willing to drop hundreds — even thousands — of dollars in a strip club, for just seeing some T&A up close and personal. Things don’t go so well after the financial crash of 2008 and after some time apart Destiny is back working at the club but in thew shadow of the recession, business is no longer booming. That is until Ramona, Destiny and a few others decide to take matters into their own hands and go fishing for customers to hustle into spending large amounts of money in the club, maxing out their credit cards in drinks and tips. And folks, especially you guys out there (you know who I’m talking to), if you come to Hustlers expecting some titillating strip scenes with T&A all up in your face, you’re gonna get played — and rightfully so. This is an exceptional crime drama that seems to get a lot of its filmic influences from Martin Scorsese.

Side note. First of all, I’ve been to a few strip clubs, usually not sober, and I was not really into it. And most of the time the guys in the audience looked like they were just passing time. It was never like it is portrayed in the movies. Second of all, I did not know you could charge tips at a strip club. I’ve also only been to the low lying ones in my city, in neighborhoods most people would not want to wander into. Also, San Francisco had (and probably still has) weird laws about which clubs can serve alcohol and what the strippers can do.

It is without a doubt a crime film and is most reminiscent of Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The ladies are all likable and we especially end up caring most for Destiny, who is played by Constance Wu, and her family. Jennifer Lopez as Ramona is believable as the veteran and eventual ringleader of the group. And she turns in a strong performance as someone who is always working an angle. While we get much focus on them, we get only passing back stories for the rest of the crew, unfortunately. Destiny anchors film’s point of view character. She ends up representing the normal everyday girl that spirals into a lifestyle of crime.

This movie also makes it clear that even though crimes are being committed against these men, none of these victims are in the least bit sympathetic, except for maybe one.  In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a sympathetic male character in the film. Most of these guys are the same Wall Street wolves that crashed the economy in 2008, and it’s made pretty clear they don’t deserve our sympathy in the first place. If you think this is a film that is some anti-male jeremiad then you are missing the film’s finer points. But if you are a man, you may just find yourself feeling stupid. “Oh, I’d never get fall for that hustle.” you may say. Yeah, you probably would. But you may also look at how you look at or treat women who work these jobs differently. That is not to say that they are all going to drug you and max out your credit card, but they are regular people trying to make it in a country that is just one big hustle. Unfortunately their way of making it involves ripping guys off of tens of thousands of dollars at a time. I may not be qualified to call this a feminist film, but it certainly is about a handful of women who seize control from men who typically have exploited them in all sorts of manners as shown in the film.

Once the hustling schemes are set, we get many, perhaps too many, montages of the scam. They find a mark, get him interested in the company of these beautiful women, he gets slipped a spiked drink, and one of them decides that it’s a good idea to go to the strip club. Next thing you know he’s spent thousands of dollars on a bar tab and tips. It is such an simple shuck that only men would fall for something like this. And once things get going good, we are treated to scenes, on top of the hustling scenes, of the girls living the life and spending money on bling like there’s no tomorrow. They even throw a Christmas party where they exchange overpriced gifts with each other.

The movie is framed in flashbacks as told by Destiny years later as she is being interviewed by a reporter. Julia Stiles plays the corresponding role of the reporter who wrote the original article from which the film is based on. You’ll end up getting the feeling that this is a confessional. Destiny frames and anchors this story. After all, this is her story. And through her, we get the most personal, especially her desire to take care of her elderly grandmother.

Wai Ching Ho, probably best recognized as Madam Gao from Netflix’s Daredevil, Iron Fist, and Defenders, play’s Destiny’s grandmother. She is probably the hippest Chinese grandmother I’ve ever seen. Playing against type, she is well aware of where the money comes from and is even there during the gang’s Christmas party having herself a good old time.

Rapper (and former stripper herself), Cardi B cameos as a fellow dancer at the club. Her role may have been played up more in the advertisement but she is not one of the main characters. Lili Reinhart has some great little bits of characterization as the nervous member of the crew who tends to nervously throw up every other scene.

Written and directed by Lorena Scafaria, who does not have a history of big budget productions, Hustlers has a look of a higher budgeted film than it’s reported $20 million. It was filmed on location in New York and apparently at a real strip club. Neither of these are cheap to do and it is a testament to the creative talent behind the scenes to milk not only a great look but a great sound to the movie. Much of the soundtrack are jukebox hits from Janet Jackson, Fiona Apple, Britney Spears, and even Lorde.

Hustlers may not revolutionize film. But I think having a deft female writer and director at the helm helps it serve up its story in a very entertaining manner without being exploitative in its adult subject matter. Lot of guys may not like it because they think they came for a big screen strip show, then get shown how dumb they can be.  That’s on them. Enjoy  the film for the crime drama that it is.

Final Score: 8/10

Opinion: Your Racial Slurs are not Comedy

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Warning. I will be using some strong language. And I get a little pissed off.

I’ve not been a consistent viewer of Saturday Night Live for many years now. I have managed to catch a few episodes over the last few years and still found it mostly entertaining. When news broke that for the first time in over 40 years, SNL had hired its first cast regular of Asian decent, my reaction was “What took so long?” Rob Schneider, a former SNL alum is one quarter Filipino and fellow alum, Fred Armisen is a quarter Korean, who for the longest actually thought he was a quarter Japanese. But Bowen Yang is the first full-Asian cast member. He was a staff writer for the show last year and stepping in front of the camera is a big step up for him and a significant, though long overdue step for representation.

Also announced as new cast members were Chloe Fineman whose claim to fame is her range of impressions. And the third name joining the cast was Shane Gillis, whose claim to fame, apparently, is using racist slurs in the guise of comedy. Gillis and Matt McCusker are seen in a clip from their podcast Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast he is seen mocking Chinese overtly. Interestingly, the podcast episodes have since been scrubbed from YouTube and iTunes. It was only through digging around by journalists that these comments surfaced. And it’s not as if the comments are old and could be attributed to being outdated, they were from 2018. :

A September 2018 episode of “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast,” which Gillis co-hosts with fellow comic Matt McCusker, shows the comedian mocking Asians. “Damn, Chinatown is fucking nuts,” Gillis says in the clip, before adding, “let the fucking chinks live there.” Gillis and McCusker then mock Asian accents and complain about the “fucking hassle” of ordering food from someone who doesn’t speak English well.

Source: The Daily Beast

But it is not only Chinese that Gillis disparaged:

In a separate podcast, “Ep 144 – A.I. is Racist,” Gillis and McCusker make fun of Asian accents about 22 minutes and 20 seconds in, referring to the video game “Clash of Clans” as “Crash of Crans” in a mock Chinese accent.

A little more than 21 minutes into “Ep 146 – Live from Shane’s Parent’s Basement,” while talking about the Battle of Gettysburg, Gillis refers to soldiers yelling as “so gay.” About 29 minutes into the podcast, Gillis uses the word “retard,” and “f-ggot,” and shortly afterward he and McCusker joke about “hot Southern boys” being raped during the Civil War, comparing it to “having gay sex in jail.”

Gillis, in describing women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the war, refers to them as “flat chested f—ing bitch[es].”

Source: Variety

His homophobic comments did not stop there though:

… Gillis and McCusker chat about comedians who adopt a more confessional style, like Judd Apatow and Chris Gethard, and mock them using homophobic slurs, calling them “white f*ggot comics” and “fucking gayer than ISIS.”…

Source: Vulture.com

Let’s be perfectly clear here. He was not playing a role. It was not some heated conversation and it was not a stage performance or persona. These remarks were during a podcast where everything is casual and open. He was playing himself. They weren’t putting up an act, they were two dudes talking racist shit. There was no fucking joke there.

When these comments from only a year ago resurfaced, he issued a twitter response:

You know what the real false outrage is? The real false outrage is from people defending him saying that comedy is no longer sacred and that pioneers like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy would be silenced in this current culture. I am old enough to remember Richard Pryor’s comedy. I have never herd him use a racial slur against any other race. Yes, he did use the N word, but he never used the word chink as far as I can remember. Here is audio from one of his famous bits about Chinese food:

Here is Eddie Murphy who is in this famous segment mocked people mocking Chinese:

Now, the above bits were genuinely funny, told on stage as part of an act. Shane Gillis was not on stage. Look, as a comedian, you get pretty much free reign to say whatever you want. You should be allowed to be provocative. but you should also be ready for that pushback. Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special for Netflix Sticks and Bones received some pushback for offensive material. I have watched it. Yes some of the material pushed the boundaries of good taste, some of which wasn’t even funny — such as his bit in the beginning about Michael Jackson’s victims. But if someone is holding up Chappelle’s latest comedy to Shane Gillis, they are stretching it. Now there are plenty of people online defending Gillis — especially since SNL decided to fire him. Theses defenders just happen to mostly be white. As for an Asian voice, Rob Schneider (he is one-quarter Filipino) is also defending Gillis. So to Bill Burr and Jim Jeffries, here’s a joke for you — go fuck yourselves. Rob Schneider has his own history of racially insulting acts so he is probably the last person that should be defending racist comments. In fact, he should be the last person defending comedy. So Schneider should shut his punk-ass mouth.

So let’s have some perspective from persons of color. The fine dudes at Double Toasted offered their perspective and main host, African American film critic Korey Coleman went and substituted the N word for what was said about Chinese people, except for Chinatown, he used Compton. “You’d have to dig a hole, apologize, and hide in that for two years before you showed your face again.” Korey goes on to say, and I’m editing a little, “Everybody wants the N word for themselves…and listen, not everybody’s gonna get that word. My man talking about being called Fredo (referring to Chris Cuomo being called Fredo)…that is not the N word. But as far as that C word goes, I’ll give y’all that, because it was used to put people down.”

There have been, of course a few online reactions from members of the Asian American community to Shane Gillis one of which is from fellow blog and podcast site, the Nerds of Color. It was also addressed by They Call us Bruce podcast. Chinese American YouTube personalities, the Fung Brothers have put up their reactions to Gillis’s comments. David and Andrew Fung have had a long career usually focused on food, but they have also been outspoken about Asian American issues and our place in American culture. David Fung: “Just because you’re a strong comedian if you’re racist, you get in trouble…nobody is saying he can’t live his life. Nobody is saying he should be thrown in jail, killed. I’ll just say this, I think a lot of Asian Americans are affording him a lot more humanity than he affords us.”  I highly recommend both the Double Toasted and Fung Bros videos.

I am glad that Shane Gillis was eventually fired from being on Saturday Night Live. But it should not have come to this. SNL should have done a better job of vetting its new cast members. And on the note of Saturday Night Live’s own history, defenders of Gillis point out the show’s own history. So let’s address one of the elephants in the room, John Belushi’s Samurai skits back in the 70’s. That was forty years ago, and we knew it as a parody of Samurai films that were popular at the time. And  most racially charged skit was a a classic skit that commented on how words can be offensive.

See, there is actually nothing inherently wrong with these words. What is wrong is their context. And Shane Gillis as some bloke sitting at a table with some other guy complaining about Chinese and gays is providing a window into what his personality really is. There is a big difference between Mel Brooks using the N word all over Blazing Saddles, who was making a comedy about racism, compared to Quentin Tarantino who feels he can drop the word all over his movies just because he feels like it.

The whole Shane Gillis situation shows that we still have a long way to go as far as how race is addressed in this country, even in comedy. You can not disguise your racist rants as “just comedy.” There’s no “just” anything. Yes, they are words, until you use them wrong and in a malicious way like Gillis. I’m glad SNL fired him and I hope he can learn something from this as he is still a young 31 years old. But of course his supporters are all up in arms about “cancel culture” and “political correctness.” Go fuck yourselves. How’s that for political correctness? Now don’t get all upset because I wasn’t being a nice obsequious Chinese.

For further insights from better more enlightened people than me about Asian Americans and Asians in pop culture. I recommend following The Nerds of Color and They Call Us Bruce. Both podcasts are on iTunes and wherever you prefer to get your podcast fix like Soundcloud or Google. Believe me, they are better spoken on these issues than I am. Hopefully I wont’t have to write another post like this again. But I have a feeling it won’t.

Carole & Tuesday is a Netflix Must Watch Anime

 

carole-tuesday-titlecardNetflix has been getting into the anime streaming game for some time now with some exclusive titles, some of which they genuinely produced as opposed to slapping their name on it as a Netflix original. Their binge model of dropping all episodes at once has largely been a success for the streaming company. In the case of anime that they have exclusive licenses to, the show may have been running for months before it shows up on Netflix. Carole & Tuesday is such a show.

Carole & Tuesday is a 24 episode series that is produced by Studio Bones with exclusive international streaming rights belonging to Netflix. Though the streaming giant was not involved in actual production, it is still labeled as a “Netflix Original.” Netflix has decided to cut that 24 episode season into two parts and deliver part one while second half is still being broadcast in Japan. They have also included an exceptional dub to go along with the show which I think fits it all the better as we shall see in a little bit.

I had been anticipating Carole & Tuesday since I’ve seen early preview clips on YouTube and even more excited after seeing musical clips from the performances. I’m anxiously awaiting the second half of the show. Hopefully it’s only a matter of a few months because this show is a delightfully entertaining with an infectious spirit that will have you falling in love and rooting for the title characters.

We are first introduced to Tuesday as she runs away from her wealthy home with a robotic rolling suitcase and a guitar (a Gibson acoustic, of course) on her back. In an opening montage it becomes clear that the setting is not only the future but that it also takes place on a terraformed and colonized Mars. Carole is a girl that seems to have trouble keeping a part time job. While performing on the street with her keyboard, Tuesday is captivated by Carols’s music, and the magic of the show is born.

It is the most simplest of stories, two girls meet, form a bond, discover their love of music and decide to make their musical dreams come true together. Carole writes great melodies and Tuesday has a knack for lyrics, all they need is work. Unfortunately in this futuristic world, songwriting and music composing have been replaced by AI and efforts are seen at best quaint, and at worst unwanted.

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In contrast to their lofty dreams is Angela, an already successful model who is being steered towards singing by a controlling mother who also acts as her manager. She is coached by an unemotional vocal “coach” that is training her voice to conform to his Artificial Intelligence created songs.

Tuesday and Carole end up getting the attention of Gus, a down on his luck music manager, who has seen better days who usually spends his days drinking his sorrows away lamenting better days. After seeing a viral video of the pair singing, he leverages his way out of the bottle and into their lives as manager. Dragged along for the ride is Roddy, the nerdy sound technician(and source of the viral video) who has an awkward crush on either Tuesday or Carole. It is possible he’s crushing on both. It’s not really clear, and that is somewhat charming.

Things go a bit rough at first for the pair in the beginning, especially after they get conned by a little beer-guzzling robot video director. But all the pieces will gather together for Mars’ Brightest, the biggest singing competition on the planet that is similar to modern singing competition shows like American Idol that are popular now.

Underlying the story is a few commentaries about the nature of stardom and also of social media. One of the featured singers is best known as a social media star, basically posting Instagram or YouTube videos of himself just being in front of things calling attention himself. Yes, it’s very similar to our present day “influencers.” Stalking is personified in Cybelle who has an unhealthy obsession with Tuesday. And of course, the main crux of the story is that Carole and Tuesday write their own music as opposed to ling an AI do it for them.

Overall, the show is just plain fun and will make you feel good on a dreary day. The characters are all interesting and the acting in both Japanese and English are exceptional. In fact, I lean more towards the English dub as all the songs, except for one in French, are sung in English as they were in the Japanese broadcast version.

The show’s lead director is Shinichiro Watanabe, who is best known for the classic anime Cowboy Bebop. In fact, I have a sneaking feeling that somehow the two shows are connected, not just because of the Mars setting. And if you are familiar with Cowboy Bebop, then you should be prepared for top notch quality in not only animation but music as well. In fact, every episode title is named after a famous song such as True Colors, Every Breath You Take, Born to Run, Dancing Queen, etc. Each episode also features the corresponding 45 RPM that the title refers too as eyecatches (title cards that appear in what would be the beginning and end of a commercial break in Japan). Details like this really show that the producers love their classic pop music.

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It must also be pointed out that even though this is an anime with some exaggeration of characters, the character design of our main stars is not only beautifully done but done in a manner that does not overly sexualize them — in other words they look like normal young women. And I must also add that this particular anime has done an exceptional job in not making persons of color look like the racial caricatures they have looked like in the past.

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I found myself, like Roddy, just crushing on the pair of rising stars and found their spirit of not giving up while climbing uphill and keeping their spirits positive to be infectious. It’s as easy to root for these girls as it is to love them. The first twelve episodes complete a major story arc. But it does not close out the show as the second half promises to continue the next phase in their story. Even the show’s rival and antagonist, Angela, is a fascinating character who may have a bad attitude, but is still sympathetic.

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Carole & Tuesday is an absolutely binge-worthy series and will be a delight for everyone. It is appealing for most ages except for some light swearing and one song in particular which is filled with f-words. It’s played for laughs but it is extremely catchy. For reference, it’s Episode 9’s performance by the Mermaid Sisters. Below is the video.

I highly recommend this show not only as an anime but as television series. Like Cowboy Bebop, this is one of those titles that anime fans can recommend to non anime viewers. It is extremely accessible and filled with great tunes that blend naturally into a animated series filled with delightful characters of heart and charm. And for days when you are feeling maybe a little down, tune in to Carole & Tuesday for a show to make you feel a little better about the world. Oh, and you too will want a robotic AI owl alarm clock. Although I’d go for a penguin one.

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Final Score: 9/10

The first volume of the vocal collection is available on iTunes digitally. Amazon Music sells individual songs as opposed to the album.

If you are interested in artists behind the singers in the show follow this link. http://caroleandtuesday.com/music/artists/

“Penguin Highway” is a Surreal Anime Delight

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What would you do if one day dozens of Adelie penguins started showing up in your little suburban town for no apparent reason? This becomes the trigger event for a surreal, yet beautiful, coming of age anime from anime film Penguin Highway that is sure to bring some delight to a dull day. And if, like me, you happen to have a love of penguins, you will be in for a joyful animated treat.

Aoyama is an overachieving self admitted genius. He is also in the fourth grade. Yet he keeps extensive notebooks on daily observations in life as his goal is to become a Nobel Prize winning scientist. He has a natural scientific curiosity about everything which is encouraged and cultivated by his parents. But frankly, he’s not as much of a genius as he thinks he is as he is a little clueless in may other areas as will be shown in the film. But he is definitely above average in the class. Fellow classmate, Hamamoto is a girl that he admits just might be smarter than him. His best friend, Uchida serves as the devoted sidekick who tends to states obvious facts that everyone misses such as who has a crush on who.

Aoyama has a fascination with the local dental assistant who is never really named but either addressed as Miss, or Onee-san, the honorific for big sister. We normal people would call it a crush, but he has no clue about that aspect of life. He also has an odd curiosity and fascination with her breasts. Though charming initially, it does become a little creepy as the film continues. Aoyama may be precocious but he is appropriately awkward in the world and sometimes his curiosity gets the better of him as he tries to see how long a person can go without eating.

One seemingly normal school day, penguins are spotted by many people in town and Aoyama decides it is his mission to investigate the phenomenon and solve the mystery of their sudden appearance. He discovers that they are Adelie penguins which are native to the Antarctic and not escaped zoo animals. A Japanese suburb is definitely not their natural habitat. Aoyama discovers that the ones that were rounded up by the local authorities suddenly vanished while in the truck carrying them.The mystery deepens and the game is afoot as Aoyama feels he has to get to the bottom of this enigma. And in true young kids fashion, the film’s Scooby gang is soon on the case.

He is of course teamed up with his classmates and Onee-san in his effort to solve the mystery of the penguins. By using observation and deduction he is determined to get to the truth. This truth will end up leading Aoyama and company on a road filled with surreal penguin appearances and disappearances,  inter-dimensional bubbles, and of course a little young romance.

Penguin Highway is the debut feature film of Hiroyau Ishida, but you would not think so as he deftly handles the story elements of the children with quite a bit of finesse  and never makes them seem annoying in their rambunctiousness as so often happens anime. Based on the novel of the same name by Tomiko Morimi, each of the characters are given their main moments and even the bully character is not really all that bad.

The final act comes together in a literal flood of adorable penguins and a dreamlike town that bends reality like a drug induced vision that is cute, funny and mind bending. Don’t let the fact that I absolutely love penguins and animes that feature them are especially endearing. This is a film that is heartwarming and quint and tells a story that can only be done in animation. On top of that it celebrates intellectual curiosity and the belief in science and the scientific method of evidence gathering.

But the final act may not make a lot of sense to many people and may leave some with more questions than answers while the final credits roll. But perhaps that is a good thing and maybe we’ll have to keep thinking about it later. Of course this is also all the more reason to watch it again.

At its heart, Penguin Highway is as simple a coming of age story as they come — except there’s space-time bending and penguins. It is uplifting and the visuals are absolutely stunning. If you happen to catch it dubbed the young characters are actually played by age appropriate actors. Although in some scenes, their young inexperience in voice work is evident.

I first saw Penguin Highway as an early screening during 2018’s Crunchyroll Expo and was deeply impressed. When it received a theatrical release, it was fairly limited but now it is available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo at all major retailers by Eleven Arts Entertainment and Shout Factory. If you are interested in a Collector’s Edition, it is available to order from RightStuf.com which is probably the largest online retailer of anime and Manga in the world if not America.

Final Score: 9/10