The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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The Poppy War is the debut novel of R.F. Kuang and draws inspiration from Chinese history, myth, and wuxia martial stories. It starts off quite lightly with a heroine that is easy to root for in the beginning. But it turns itself into a grim and dark tale when she must make some devastating choices in the course of a terrifying war. There are some’][o9 spoilers in this review and I consider it necessary because it may be unsettling to some.

Rin was raised as a war orphan from the previous poppy war against the Mugen Federation. She lives with a family who treat her as nothing more than a servant. They can’t wait to be rid of their imperial obligation, and even plan to marry her off for money. She has other plans. Rin has a knack for learning and decides to train herself for the national entrance exams, which theoretically are not only open to all classes, but give an egalitarian opportunity for upward social and economic mobility by entering a university.

Unfortunately for a girl like Rin, even if she were to pass the exams, she has no money to pay for a university education. Her only chance is to score in the top one percent of the test takers to enter the Imperial War college in the capital city of Sinegard. It doesn’t come easy for her, but she studies and struggles hard enough to make it.

While there however, she finds that the egalitarian idea of the university is not as it seems. She finds herself shunned for her poor background as well as her darker skin. Her only real friend is Kitay, a fellow student, who is from the noble class and has an eidetic memory. Though his memory is photographic, he isn’t necessarily the best student. He is uninterested in martial studies and prefers the comfort of books.

Academy life is not easy for Rin, but she works hard at overcoming the many obstacles that stand in her way, including a Draco Malfoy like figure named Nezha. For her second year it is time for her to become apprenticed to a master to pursue her discipline. Rather than follow the course discipline of  strategy, which she excels at, she chooses the arcane and ridiculed discipline of lore, that is of course taught by the school’s most eccentric instructor. And she is the only student.

School life abruptly takes a dark turn as the Mugen Federation begins a war with her country of Nikan by invading its shores. The relative innocent school life is soon replaced by having to fight for real and not in the practice field.

As I’ve mentioned before, much of The Poppy War is based on real Chinese history and it is quite clear that the Empire of Nikan is analogous to China, and that the Mugen Federation is modeled after Japan. The setting is a cross between the Song Dynasty of the first millennium and the 20th Century’s Second Sino-Japanese War. In the strained history of China and Japan, one of the worst stains in history is the Rape of Nanking. China’s official death toll was 350,000 men, women, and children over a six week period. That atrocity is not often taught outside of China. And it is this bit of genocide that influenced R.F. Kuang to write the book initially.

With that warning out of the way, the chapters that do address the equivalent of the Rape of Nanking are graphic, but they are also related after the fact. It is gory, but compared to the real world equivalent, it is pretty tame.

Rin, the protagonist is no Mary Sue, for sure. All her achievements, as great and hard earned as they are in the academy, are illustrated by the author in an almost montage fashion. Some may find time too compressed at some points as there are passages mentioning that it took her a certain amount of months to get something right. But to me that saves the book, an already 500 plus page novel, becoming even longer with unnecessary exposition. Epic fantasy veterans may have a perception that the novel actually reads like a three books in one. This may come from the fact that there are three major parts to it, with the final third being a definite turn towards a dark resolution that does a better job of showing a person’s turn to the dark side of their nature than the Star Wars prequels.

Rin starts off likable and comes across as an almost stereotypical young adult protagonist. But what she initially shows as spunk and determination, we soon realize is impulsiveness and a hot temper. It will be that anger that eventually drives her forward in the final third of the book, to what may initially seem on the surface as the typical heroic finale, but ends up being a disaster of epic proportions. That temper and tendency to lash out also alienates her from the rest of her fellow students.

Nezha, who is initially Rin’s main antagonist, is himself not villainous and is more of a rival. Their antagonism is a clash of egos and class. Yet there is a reason that Nezha is favored among the teachers, he really is bright and accomplished, despite his arrogance and social status. But he and Rin’s fates will become intertwined as the novel goes on, and not particularly for the better.

Kitay remains the most relatable character, as he has no pretensions about his class or upbringing. He ends up being not only Rin’s best friend, but her only friend. He actually grew up with Nezha and shrugs off his insults, whereas they grate on Rin. His goal in life is just to be an imperial scholar serving the empire.

Kuang greatly impresses with her debut novel, and if you are like me, you will have some fun times trying to look for the references to real life Chinese history and legends. Of course the references to the real Rape of Nanking are no joy, but it really could have been a lot worse in it’s depiction of slaughter. Her characters stand out as multi-dimensional. And in the case of Rin, perhaps that multi-dimensional characterization is to a fault. I found myself rooting for her for much of the early portions of the book, and also found her frustrating later on. All this time, I had to remind myself that she and the rest of her fellow classmates are still students in their late teens forced to confront the horrors of war. She has a particular habit of leaping before looking and not caring about the end results of her actions.

The fact that these characters are in their late teens comes across as genuine. Yes, they are afraid, and they are appalled by the true horrors of war. They often make bad decisions when they are thrust into situations of command. The protagonists are far from perfect tropes and have definite flaws. Alton, former darling and superstar of the Academy in particular will make bad decisions that will have dire repercussions for the entire country.

Rebecca Kuang wrote this novel when she was 19 and coaching debate in China during a gap year. She graduated with a degree in Chinese History from Georgetown University a few days after The Poppy War was released. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Chinese Studies at Cambridge.

The Poppy War was nominated for Best Novel of  2018 for the Nebula Award, Best Novel for the World Fantasy Award, and best new author for the Hugo Awards. It won the Compton Crook Award for best novel from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. She is off to a very impressive start to her career. Her follow-up novel The Dragon Republic was released in August.

Kuang joins a growing list of Asian authors winning accolades and recognition within the science fiction and fantasy genre that bring a fresh perspective with their world creation. The Poppy War certainly is a different fantasy take from standard fantasy tropes cluttering the shelves. Its serious views of war and the aftermath of battle will haunt you. There is no glory or greatness in war, only pain, and death. I am glad to have read this book and look forward to reading more from Ms. Kuang.

Final Score: 8/10

 

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Review: Amazon’s “The Boys” is Absolutely Subversive

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Warning: This review will contain and reference graphic violence and language throughout.

If you are undergoing a bit of superhero fatigue because they all seem generic and PG-13 sanitized, the expletive filled and violent Deadpool films may fill that void. If you think those are even a little too sanitized, then The Boys series on Amazon Prime just may be your cup of tea. It out-swears and out-gores Deadpool. It doesn’t just paint superheroes in a bad light, it practically makes them villains.

There are many references to Marvel – and especially DC superheroes in the show. In fact, The Boys started out as a comic published by DC under their Wildstorm imprint, but the comic and label were cancelled. The Boys found its home with Dynamite publishing Now Amazon has adapted it for their Prime service.

Superheroes, commonly referred to as Supes in the show are commonplace personalities in the world, specifically the United States. They are looked up to and admired by the masses. In the opening scene, we see an attempted armored car robbery be foiled by two superheroes who have none too subtle similarities to the looks and abilities to Wonder Woman and Superman.

The very next scene shows us that some fucked up shit is going to be happening from this point on. Hughie (Jack Quaid) works at a Radio Shack like electronics store, not quite happy at his job. But he does have a great relationship with his girlfriend, until the day a superhero speedster known as A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) plows through her, leaving a pile of blood and gore.  Barely stopping he continues on his way.

The Supes are apparently under the umbrella of the Vought Corporation. They market the heroes and hire them out to cities for protection from crime. And they also produce movies staring these supes as well as create theme parks around them. Add toys and other merchandising and it is obvious that this is a huge corporate company with assets worth billions of dollars. And yes, it is probably a purposeful dig at Marvel Studios and Disney.

It is mentioned that there are over 200 heroes in the country but the prime spot for any of these heroes is to be a part of The Seven, a superhero team that is basically the Justice League. After the retirement of a member, a young and relatively naive superhero from Iowa is given the opportunity to join The Seven.

Coming to Hughie’s life is Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), who claims to be a Fed, but as Hughie says, he looks like he came out of a porn version of the Matrix. He ostensibly gives Hughie the opportunity to get some payback against the supes and particularly A-Train by planting a bug in their headquarters.  All he has to do is accept the $45,000 offer from the Vought corporation and sign a non-disclosure agreement.

As you can imagine, things don’t go entirely as planned. Hughie’s life is in danger from invisible superhero Translucent. Butcher saves him and the two take Translucent prisoner. It turns out that Butcher is not who he claimed to be but that he is hell bent on exposing the supes for what they are — a bunch of self-serving sociopaths who care nothing for the public other than their polling numbers, their fake personas, and profits from endorsements. Butcher has no compunction killing supes and hates them all for reasons that are revealed in a later episodes.

Spanning eight episodes, there is practically no filler in this lean series. Every episode advances the story forward. The show takes the concept of superheroes and subverts them more than any other media has ever done, perhaps even more than Watchman. And it is very difficult to give an in depth review without too many spoilers. Each episode is a revelation and they are several arcs that encompass the entire first season run.

In any other comic book universe, the members of The Boys which include other members, Frenchie (Tomer Capon) and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonzso), would be considered super-villains. But in this world, The Boys do not have super powers and they don’t have tons of money. These are working class folks, each with reasons to hate supes.

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But the world loves its superheroes and think that they can do no wrong. Even in a superhero survivors therapy group, there is no real animosity towards them. But because of their larger than life personas and relentless corporate marketing, the heroes are treated like gods. And the biggest face of that pantheon is Homelander, played perfectly by Antony Starr. Homelander is basically a combination of Superman, Captain America and maybe All Might from the My Hero Academia manga and anime. He even has a flag as a cape. Too bad he’s the biggest cunt in the series. Out of the other Seven, he is an the true sociopath.

Possibly the second most popular member of The Seven is Queen Maeve, (Dominique McElligott) a character analogous to DC’s Wonder Woman as personified by Gal Gadot. She’s definitely in on the dirty business of the superhero life but she is also sympathetic to Starlight’s plight as the new girls and shows genuine remorse for some victims that she can not save while, Homelander shrugs it off and seizes it as a PR opportunity.

Underlying the background of these supes is their control by corporate ownership of Vought, which to them not only is their source of fame and money, but their protection from undue scrutiny and lawsuits. It is soon apparent that they have more than a marketing interest in their supes as they push for lawmakers to allow them to serve in the military as weaponized soldiers. Right away, that is a red flag in any movie or television show, even one that is subverting the genre. They also market the idea that supes are blessed by God to protect people.

The Boys does more than subvert the superhero genre, it gives it a big middle finger to its face. It also is a scathing critique of the cult of personality associated with superheros by painting them as egotistical hypocritical figures who think they are above the law. Now, one can’t but help that in real life comic book movies, Marvel ones in particular, are extremely popular. But none of them, not even the dark visions of Zack Snyder, address the day to day implications of having that much power over a population of non powered beings and the ramifications of how much terror they really cause. Yet amidst all this dark subversive storytelling is also dark subversive comedy that dials up the satire to 11.

The cast is full of personality and Karl Urban chews up his scenes with a plethora of cunts and fucks coming out of his mouth, which is supposed to be a British accent, but sounds more Australian (Karl Urban is from New Zealand). Fellow New Zealander, Antony Starr plays Homelander as the perfect all-smiling all-American hero, while underneath, he’s as total bastard, more of the Evil Superman than the kid in Brightburn. Chace Crawford plays The Deep, an unlikable person from the start who is also a joke to the rest of The Seven because his superpower is talking to fish. Though he is not really deserving of our sympathy, his back story is very interesting. Erin Moriarty Starlight serves as the only supe deserving of our sympathy as she serves as the idealistic one from the small town but thrust into the dark fucked up reality of the corporate superhero world where her image is controlled and her popularity is polled daily. Simon Pegg is featured in a couple of episodes as Hughie’s father which is an homage to the comics, since Hughie was modeled after Simon Pegg.

This show is most definitely not for everyone. It can be crass, crude, gory and uncomfortable. But it is also one of the best takes on superheroes up to date. It turns the idea of superheroes on its head and subverts the idealized idea of them. This show would not be possible and probably be as good as it is if it weren’t for how popular the superhero genre is right now. Avengers: Endgame is now the highest grossing film of all time and it was only a matter of time that a film or television series was made as an anti-superhero series. Now I’ve not read the comics that the series is based on but I never at one time felt it was necessary to have read them to get enjoyment out of it. Thankfully, Amazon has already greenlit a second season and I look forward to it as it ended on a massive cliffhanger.

Final Score: 8.5/10

 

 

One Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Fractured Fairy Tale

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I have a great amount of respect for Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker. He is a combination of modern pop culture auteur and big name money-making director. The period of 1969 in Hollywood, was a pivotal period for the town. It would also host one of the most tragic crimes to haunt the city since the Black Dahlia. To this day, the memory of  it is fairly fresh. Tarantino has chosen to address that period and time in a unique way with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The Tate Murders by the Manson Family may seem like a subject of poor taste even, for a Tarantino film, and I must admit to having a minor sense of dread through the first two of the two hour and forty minute running time of the movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton a one time hot property in Hollywood westerns and action films. His glory days were as a 1950’s bounty hunter in a television show called Bounty Law. But since then, he’s been languishing in B movies and guest appearances on other shows as the bad guy of the week. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, Rick’s best friend and his stunt double for many years. Both have found their careers waning in a Hollywood that is changing. Dalton lives right next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, the new young faces of Hollywood. It is also a world he doesn’t think he’d ever be a part of. Next door neighbors to one of the hottest directors in Hollywood and he’s never met him or Sharon Tate.

More than any other Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not have an overall plot like the claustrophobic The Hateful Eight, or alt-historical Inglourious Basterds. Most of his films may seem like they lack a plot, but they tended to coalesce in the end to tie everything together. This is a character driven piece that also serves as a love letter to a bygone period in Hollywood glitz and glamour.  Rick’s latest bad guy of the week show is on Lancer, a real television show that ran from 1968-1970. During the filming, it dawns on him that he truly is a has been and is old news.

Cliff has not exactly had a stellar career himself and his reputation is somewhat tainted as he may or may not have killed his wife. The last time Rick managed to talk stunt coordinator Randy (Kurt Russell) into having him on set, he started a fight with Bruce Lee (Michael Moh) and dented the car of of Randy’s wife (Zoë Bell). So most of the time, Cliff spends his days running errands for Rick, driving him around (because Rick had his license suspended after the last DUI), and fixing things around the house.

While driving about Los Angeles, he picks up a hitchhiker who he’s been seeing all over town. He gives her a ride to the Spahn Ranch, which is the historic compound of Charles Manson and his “Family.”  That sense of unease starts to settle in right about here. And as the compound was an old western set, it has a certain tension about it that is evocative of how Sergio Leone would film scenes that were pure tension leading to brief moments of violence.

Interspersed between the stories of Cliff and Rick is Margot Robbie absolutely exuding charm as Sharon Tate. The up and coming starlet spends much of her time having a good time around town, visiting a bookstore in Hollywood and even watching her own film, The Wrecking Crew at a movie theater (single screen, kids). We don’t see much of her for a good portion of the film until the third act where she is very pregnant. And frankly, Tate, as a character just sort of breezes in and out of her scenes like some wisp. Margot Robbie isn’t the only person to get the short straw even though she shares the billing. The women really get little to do. The most significant female role that effects that interacts with the male leads is a child actress played by Julia Butler who gives precocious acting observations and opinions while Rick is on the set of Lancer.

So let us address the elephant in the room. This movie is not about the Manson Family murders. The Manson story and the Tate story is peripheral to Rick and Cliff’s story. And without giving away anything, bare in mind that Tarantino does not make historically accurate films even if they are in historical settings. His point seems to be that Hollywood is at the cusp of change in 1969. Taking place a year after Robert Kennedy’s assassination in a California hotel, as the country seems to have lost its innocence with Kennedy’s death, Hollywood is about to lose its innocence with the horror of the Manson Family. Charles Manson is played by Damon Herriman who has portrayed the infamous cult leader twice now, once in this film and again in the upcoming second season of Mindhunter for Netflix. He’s obviously doing something right since he’s darn creepy in the few scenes and lines given to him.

The Dragon in the room is Bruce Lee. Now Michael Moh portrays Bruce Lee very well but he also plays him as not a person but a caricature of not just Lee but of the Kato character from The Green Hornet. Sure cliff is a total tough guy and can hold his own. But in real life, just like when we were watching the Batman/Green Hornet crossover that Kato would kick Robin’s ass. We all know that Bruce Lee would really kick Cliff Booth’s ass. He’s not only nerfed in his skill but he is also mocked it, which I think is quite disrespectful. Film portrayals never do enough research to figure out hat he fighting style Lee used in his films was not how he sparrerd in real life.

This is unabashedly a love letter to the lost richness of not only Hollywood but old L.A. where extinct icons of late 60s Los Angeles are portrayed in their heyday as we drive along with Cliff in Rick’s Cadillac. And no matter how you may feel about Quentin Tarantino as a director, his movies are without a doubt shot really well. Much respect is due him for still using film in the age of digital. The nostalgic scenes of driving around the city with old Hollywood landmarks still standing were recreations, and not computer generated — another point of praise owed to Tarantino. Older Los Angeles and Californian natives may enjoy that nostalgia like I did, others may not realize how much has changed since then since it is before their time.

But the film is ultimately a collection of character piece scenes that showcase the talents of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. When the dual are on screen together, they are captivating. This may go down as one of the biggest bromances in film history. The two actors have a natural chemistry together as if they have made dozens of films together as opposed to this being their first. But because it it is more character piece than plot driven it can feel dragged out and disjointed. There really is not a plot to speak of and as star studded as the cast is, outside of DiCaprio and Pitt, the rest of the cast is relegated to cameos, even Margot Robbie. Nevertheless, this is some of the best work that DiCaprio and Pitt have ever done.

The tone of the ending and the way it ends is going to be divisive in some ways. Debra Tate, Sharon’s surviving sister, did give the movie her blessing after being reached out to by Quentin Tarantino. But it does seem like a total tonal shift in the way the movie had been coasting through for the last few hours. It’s as if the director felt obligated to insert his signatu7.5re staples and tropes into it. It’s not horrible, but it is unexpected and came across as cartoonish. I was not sure if the laughter in the theater was nervous or cathartic at what it could have been. This film will do well for for history buffs.

In some ways, this is Tarantino’s most accessible work, but it is also uneven plotless film with a collection of character scenes, some of which are brilliant in either the way they are acted or shot, but other scenes bloat running time make the movie feel long. It could run shorter. And in fact, if the whole Manson subplot were eliminated it could have been a fine straight up comedy and avoided an ending that plays loosely with history. But Tarantino is not telling history here, he’s telling a fairy tale. It’s a fractured and flawed fairy tale, though. It also does nothing positive for the women characters considering 1969 was a pivotal period in the Women’s Movement. And like practically all film portrayals of Bruce Lee, it chooses to portray him as a mirror of his on screen personality as opposed to the real him.

Final Score: 7.5/10

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

The Lion King 2019 – Why? Just Why?: A Review

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GHOST If thou didst ever thy dear father love–
HAMLET O God!
GHOST Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
HAMLET Murder!
GHOST Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
HAMLET Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love, 30
May sweep to my revenge.

Disney has a series of nature documentaries labelled as Disneynature. They have a tendency to anthropomorphize the animals in these documentaries. A recent one about Adele Penguins focuses on one specific penguin as the camera crew follows him around and searches for a mate and lives out his year or so why having someone provide internal dialog and one sided conversations with other penguins and animals. That kinda works in short bits and is funny.

I kept thinking of those Disneynature documentaries while watching the latest Disney remake The Lion King. Then they start to talk, and it just feels off.  Now, there is nothing technically wrong with The Lion King, but it does nothing besides being a technological marvel. Director Jon Favreau had quite a bit of success with the Disney remake of The Jungle Book.

After the murder of his father, young lion cub Simba believes he is at fault because of the machinations of his uncle, Scar. He flees the scene and the pridelands where he meets up with the comedic dual of Timon and Pumbaa which brings some much needed personality to the movie by the midway point. They sing, they trot around, they get revenge on Scar, etc. I mean, come on, it’s been twenty-five years and it’s pretty much a shot-by-shot remake, these aren’t spoilers. But in the long run, Timon and Pumbaa are one of the saving graces of the film.

There are shots in this that are phenomenal and look right out of something shot by National Geographic or BBC’s Planet Earth. And for me, when I see CG animation I can never help but look for flaws and that maybe something can be done better. This is a near flawless movie on a technical level. They photo-realism of the animals and the entire computer created environments is astounding. And the crew who created this world along with director Jon Favreau should be applauded for their work. But technical brilliance can only go so far.

As far as the performances go, the actors are more than serviceable. Donald Glover as the adult Simba is fine, not particularly great. John Oliver does well as Zasu. And believe it or not, James Earl Jones, now with an older voice is even better as Mufasa than when he first voiced the role a quarter century ago. Seth Rogen is great as Pumbaa, but he also is basically playing himself. And Beyonce basically does not really do any voice acting so much as play herself as Nala. Chewetal Ejiofor does well enough as Scar, but they did him wrong for his musical moment. This is a hugely talented cast, yet some of the performances come across as flat. And when that happens, it’s not the actor, it is the voice direction. I don’t know wheat happened in the recording studio, but something was certainly missing.

Even if I were to disregard the existence of the original, at a certain point, the marvel of the computer animation wears off and you are taken out of the realism by the fact that these are animals talking and singing. And it also becomes apparent how simplistic the story is.

Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what I or paid professional critics say, The Lion King is going to make a lot of money. Kids are probably going to dig it, though in my showing I notice some fidgeting for most of the film until towards the end. Disney knows how to make money on remakes. Okay, Dumbo was a box-office bomb. But what does the audience actually want? Do they want a shot by shot remake of what they already own on DVD and Blu-ray? Or do they want an original take on the old story. That debate is currently going on with nostalgic old folks like me about the upcoming Mulan and The Little Mermaid. But with stories like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and even Aladdin, they are stories that can be remade endlessly.

Of course there’s the argument to be made that this is for a generation of kids who may have never seen The Lion King. Really? In this day and age of DVD, Blu-ray, UHD disc, and digital streaming? Plus a whole generation of parents that hold the original in high regard? No, that dog don’t hunt. And speaking of home video, this is probably better served on home video because you can just plain stop after so long or just skip to certain scenes you like. Maybe this is the first time kids will be exposed to The Lion King and ts perfectly serviceable for them, at home. Because seriously it is cheaper to buy the movie than it is to get the kids to the theater, pay for parking, get the popcorn and sodas, and multiple tickets than just waiting a few months for the disc. But if you want to show your kids The Lion King for the first time, the original is available.

Final Score: 6/10

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