Critical Hit!!

pop culture (and everything else) explored

Good Criticism Digs Past the Tangible Details

A new review of Mamoru Hosoda’s film The Boy and the Beast came out today that has caused me to rethink my initial reaction to the film. While my review was largely positive, this review is largely negative, and I agree with every point it makes. This has caused me to write this short reflection piece. To wit, why have reactions to the film been largely positive when the film has such significant missteps? I wrote back in September how the film stumbles the most in its first section, though noting how it improves over time. I could have gone on to criticize the pacing problem in the first part, the characters who merely exist for exposition, but I tempered my criticism by emphasizing the more positive aspects to the film. I believe that because the film’s triumphant ending feels so cathartic, it largely erases from out minds the missteps that occurred along the way. I think back to Matt Singer’s review, and how he was in tears by the end when he first saw the film last year. I too left the theatre energized and content, perhaps too distracted by the good surface details to be concerned about its deeper flaws. Perhaps this shall serve as an example that films can always be reconsidered, and that good criticism must dig past the tangible details to truly get at the heart of the matter.


Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

Damage (1992), much his Irons’ previous film Waterland (1992), appears to be another prestige picture right in his wheelhouse. It’s based on a best-selling novel, with a reputable director (Louis Malle), and an excellent cast (Juliette Binoche, Miranda Richardson, Peter Stormare, etc.). Regrettably, I was unable to find a copy of Waterland, but I was able to see Damage. I’ve never before laughed so much at Jeremy Irons film in my life.

If you saw its trailer, or Siskel and Ebert’s multiple recommendations for the film (where I first heard of it), this may surprise you. After all, the story is about the passionate affair between a member of Parliament and his son’s fiancée, with Freudian imagery abound. Critics found it favourable, its stars excellent actors, and by all accounts the film looks good. But make no mistake, the film is trash, total lurid melodrama coated as a prestige picture.

Its trashy nature comes from the book it’s based on, a romance novel by Josephine Hart. The film is fairly accurate to the book, which isn’t necessarily in its favour. Damage revels in the seedy nature of the illicit affair, particularly graphic sex scenes that pepper early parts of the movie. Yes, they serve a purpose in illustrating how wrapped up Irons’ character Stephen is in passion, and illustrates the push and pull of control in his relationship with Anna, his son’s girlfriend turned fiancée, but the film itself says nothing new or relatively substantive. The film’s message is about exploring the damages (get it? GET IT?!) that love and sex cause, tossing out tawdry Freudian symbolism with an air of stale sophistication.

It’s predictable in the way that all affairs stories are. When Stephen asks what truly killed her brother, whom Anna is utterly fixated with, I knew she was going to say “love”. And indeed she does. Such predictability isn’t necessarily bad if it’s a good story told well. But this is pulp pretending to be art.

This isn’t to the say the film doesn’t understand how Freudian symbolism works, in fact, it’s Damage‘s clever use of symbolism that kept me intrigued in the film. The colour of clothing is often symbolic of the passionate relationship Stephen and Anna share, and the strange kinship they feel. Stephen will hold phallic objects such as a cigar or a cane, and when the film’s plot shifts toward the implied rivalry between Stephen and his son Martin (Rupert Graves), the film does crackle with delight. (They play pool in one scene, a game where you literally hit balls around with phallic objects! But I digress.) But this added symbolic layer can only improve a lurid tale so much, merely masking the trash.

The film is trash, but it is delicious trash. I was howling at some scenes, particularly the sex scenes, because otherwise the only other reaction I could have would be revulsion. There is the squick factor of a love affair between an older man and a younger woman because of unequal power dynamics, though it’s significant to note that Binoche’s elusive character is never diminished. No, instead, the early sex scenes appear utterly ridiculous, with a reverse Green Eggs and Ham approach to where they have sex (On the stove! In the Hall!). This kind of perversion is not dissimilar to Irons’ other roles; he often plays seedy characters, and has practically made a career out of it. But here, while he doesn’t play a despicable person, the perversion remains.

I find it interesting that Jeremy Irons recently commented on the voyeurism of these scenes, for while they do illustrate the shifting nature of control in their relationship and intentionally avoid nudity, I ultimately found their effect distancing and difficult to watch. Now, I did literally distance myself from my screen when watching these scenes, for reasons I’m still not sure of. Part of it was watching it with my partner, who vocally mentioned how seedy this was right from the start, colouring my vision of the entire film from the get-go. Part of it was having seen so many serious Jeremy Irons films that watching him writhe around naked is just humorous to me. And part of it is that the scenes themselves just feel baffling. Was Malle trying to distance ourselves form enjoying the passion onscreen? The actors have chemistry, but I never found the scenes sexy.

This film reminds me of another prestige trash film I saw recently, Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012). Whereas that film relishes in Southern trash stereotypes, aiming to shock, this film focuses on the elites of society. In other words, people who have something to lose if an affair is found out. Both are firmly prestige trash films, though Damage at least has a director who understands the basics of cinematography.

At the very least, this film has taught me a few things. For one, it illuminated how nearly every story of an affair deals with the rich and powerful. This is because they have something to lose. By contrast, Irons’ earlier film Betrayal is a better film because it focuses on the emotional affect such affairs have on relationships. The only thing this film has taught me is one of Irons’ acting traits, what I’ll call the glazed glare, Irons’ character stoically staring, usually coupled with an inability to act or speak. For Irons, it is all about the mannerisms of eye contact in the film, and give him away to other characters that something’s up. Watching this film enabled me to name that aspect, at least.

Now, I don’t think this film is a good film, but it is great trash. I do recommend it for those curious, but if you want something more substantive, I would recommend tracking down a copy of Betrayal. Either way, you’ll have an enjoyable experience.

Sexism in Frasier

I’ve started watching Frasier again after taking a break. What I’ve particularly noticed is the depiction of sexist action and language, with a progressive punchline calling out said sexism. While the show’s politics are relatively progressive, I am concerned about the depiction of sexist actions as the set up for jokes.

Ideally, sexist transgressions should not be happening in the first place. Frasier’s co-worker Roz should not have to have her butt slapped or have demeaning comments about her sex life for these to be humour in the show. Season 2, Episode 7 is the episode I’ve been watching that has both of these events. Now, Roz makes comments near the end of the episode pushing back against the constant jokes about her sex life, but they don’t appear to amount to a significant change. They are, rather, necessary expressions to keep the show’s progressive facade running. While Frasier isn’t a politically reprehensible show, it  is nearly the progressive show it appears to be.

Kevin Spacey: Movie Star

I’ve been watching Kevin Spacey ever since he relaunched his film career in 2014. Now, Spacey hadn’t necessarily been absent from the world at large, but rather held his presence the popular Netflix show House of Cards. But at the Oscars 2014, that changed. Spacey was asserting is status, not just as an actor, but a movie star. His elegance in his Oscar presentation reminded everyone what an actor’s presence could bring.

Kevin spacey's face photoshopped onto other stars

He also brought meme-ability.

What makes me say this was the time when he relaunched himself into the public sphere? Well, his follow-up appearance that night on Jimmy Kimmel was very indicative of his intentional efforts to be seen as a movie star, specifically. From that post-Oscar interview, he specifically plugged his new website, and mentioned that his absence from the silver screen was due to his recent stints in the theatre. He also plugged an exclusive clip of him and Jimmy Kimmel on his site; people seized the moment so much it crashed his website.

From that interview in 2014, it was clear what Spacey’s intentions were. He made himself more public, whether it be the new face of E*Trade or making a guest appearance on Jimmy Fallon. Again, all things to raise publicity, all right after the 2014 Oscars. Now, we might ask, how successful has this been? Has Spacey’s image as a movie star specifically been reestablished? What are his current projects?

Kevin Spacey is staring in a talking cat movie?!? Yes indeed.

Now, I’ve always found Spacey to be a bit of Daniel Day-Lewis type. That is, somewhat persnickety about his film roles, usually leaning towards things of critical acclaim. So when I heard about this film yesterday, my mind somehow got me to think it was Kevin Costner who was voicing the talking cat in this film. That, after all, sounds much more plausible. But I was mistaken, as I have delightfully (?) learned.

Perusing the comments of the Nine Lives film illustrates how strange it feels for Spacey to star what appears to be a low-brow family friendly comedy.

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.43.29 AM

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Certainly, this turn towards the comedic wouldn’t feel so disjointed if it weren’t for Spacey’s lengthy buildup of serious natured. But I think this role and his upcoming projects reflect a change in Spacey’s approach to role selection. Looking at his IMDb, it looks like Spacey has a mix of projects coign up, from the serious (Elvis & Nixon) to the respectably comedic (Baby Driver). what’s notable here is the diversity of roles. Spacey has realized that being a movie star means getting your face out there, no matter the costs, and that being a star means you have the flexibility to be everywhere.

So, yes, Spacey’s choice to be in a talking cat movie is strategic. In the long run, it may just be a small cost to pay for the limelight.

Seize the Moment!

I am not nearly well enough of a writer to feel like I can dole out advice, but here it goes.

There is a myth that you can only write when you are “inspired”. The best writers know that you write of r living, whether you feel up to it or not. What’s better for you as a growing writer it to write early and often, and make it a natural part of your life.

Now, that being said, when you are inspired to write, seize that moment. This is something I just learned from my research supervisor. My previous writing plan as to do all of my research first, then do all of my writing later. This model completely ignores how the writing process actually works, and how moments of inspiration and research breakthroughs can happen during the reading and note-taking process. Those moments are precious; write them down!

How to Clear your Inbox

Within the past two years, I became somewhat preoccupied with “Lifehacking.” Part of this stemmed from a healthy desire to improve my life, whether it be learning about financial advice or better way to clean a home.

The unhealthy aspects of life hacking is a subject for another day, but for now, I shall revel in a touch in the life hacking language and present my tips on how to keep a clean inbox.

1: Respond to emails as soon as possible

If you have the ability to answer a question or respond to a problem when you get the email, follow through immediately. This is something that takes energy and presence of mind, that latter I find you eventually accumulate over time. For the former, I find that I became unreachable during the more stressful times in undergrad, and the didn’t have the energy to properly respond to even the simplest of tasks sometimes. One could say hat an email inbox is reflective of life, both in terms of events and activities, and perhaps even mental health. To bring this back around to my point, clean out your inbox regularly to have a clean (er) mind.

2: If you don’t know the answer yet, say so.

Often you may be asked a question or someone requires your input that you just can’t give yet. If this is the case (and time is pressuring the emailer), be transparent when you’ll get the required information, and if possible, give an accurate estimation of when you’ll get back to them. This helps keep communication and expectations clear, and gives you a deadline to propel you. This self-imposed deadline should be maintained, however, as failure to uphold your promise shows you to be unreliable.

3: Use other tools to prioritize 

Some people use their email as a to-do list, or let emails pile up in their inboxes as reminders of events and meetings. I used to to this in undergrad. It is not a good practice. Using a calendar to schedule events and meetings will be much more useful, as you can plan out when you are and are not available. Archive important emails, delete non-essential ones.

4: Unsubscribe

Do you follow a publication through Facebook or Twitter, or have it set as a favourite website in your bookmarks? Then you likely don’t need their daily email. Unsubscribe.

Did you sign an online petition, and find you are getting emails from the affiliated organization you don’t want? Unsubscribe.

Taking the time to unsubscribe at the first instance will save you more time rather than deleting every email you get you don’t need. Command + F for Mac and Ctrl + F for Windows to find text like “unsubscribe” or other similar phrases quickly on an email.

5: Do a weekly sweep

As you cull your inbox daily, you can also go through your email once a week to make sure there isn’t any unwanted emails. It’s another small step to keeping it clutter-free.

Overall: Take a look at your inbox.

Is it functioning right now? Could it work better? What are the steps you could take to make it work better for you?

A Change in Languages

For my degree, and ultimately my future, I am shifting my language learning efforts from Spanish retention to acquiring Japanese. My Spanish is at least adequate, studying it from middle school to well into undergrad. I once even thought of getting a minor in Spanish. But now, multiple things compel me to move to Japanese.

For one, my research lies in Japanese animation. Obviously, language acquisition would be a great boon to my research, but would also help me achieve another goal: a graduate diploma in Asian research offered at my university. As language acquisition and (some degree of) fluency is one of the requirements, switching to Japanese is highly desirable now.

Duelling Streak and Lingots

I’ve practiced my Spanish everyday with Duolingo for over 150 days straight.

But another reason for the change is, frankly, boredom. Duolingo, the website I used to practice my Spanish, often ended up feeling like a chore to visit, despite setting a low bar of completion for myself. Perhaps such monotony is something I’ll seek to avoid in my new studies.


Romanticism and Modernsim in the Music of Genesis

When discussing progressive rock with my partner, we concluded that prog rock music can be sorted into three categories:

  1. Conservative: Artists who fall into this category usually lean heavier on the classical influences in prog rock. In the case of Genesis, this conservatism also includes classical tendencies, with songs often dealing with pastoral scenery and draws from distinctly British forms of storytelling.
  2. Progressive: Bands that fall into this category actually push the forms and boundaries of prog rock. King Crimson is an example of this, consistently evolving in style and tone,  from classically composed rock jams to avant-garde eclecticism. If that wasn’t progressive enough, the band’s guitarist, Robert Fripp, even invented new forms of tape looping and tuning.
  3. Non-Rock: Some prog rock bands don’t even make “rock” music. Gentle Giant’s music, for instance, blends a variety of genres, and rarely sounds like rock at all.

While Genesis dealt with classical influences, such as stories involving the pastoral British countryside, this did not preclude the band from dabbling in science fiction. Foxtrot (1972) has both “Watcher of the Skies,” a song about an alien coming to view a decayed Earth, and “Get ‘Em Out By Friday,” a song that envisions the future of factory life and the exploitation of working class. But in both cases, particularly the latter, it could be argued that technology itself is vile, particularly compared to the Romanticism on display in other album cuts such as “Time Table” and “Can-Utility And The Coastliners.” In the early 70s, Genesis’ music primarily consists of stories taking place in the past, or in the (contemporary) British countryside, or both.

Not so with their 1975 effort, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. This is album is a significant shift in a number of ways. Brutal modernism replaces the classical Romanticism, both in music and in lyrics. The guitars and percussion are often sharper and rougher compared to previous albums, as Peter Gabriel shrieks and shouts as he performs songs such as “Back In N.Y.C.” (he even swears in that one!). Modernist exclamations replace Romantic lyricism, as this double record concept album tells the story of Rael, a young man who becomes ensnared into the fantastical realm of underground New York City, rather than a Romanticized Britain. In both music and lyrics, Genesis pushes towards a modernism aesthetic.

Album art for The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

The modernist tensions within the album are well-represented in the album art.

This isn’t to say Genesis completely disregards is previous affinity with classical Romanticism. While the story begins in downtown NYC and its brutalism, the concept album largely deals with a fantastical world hidden underneath. Technology is still reviled, as the terror of the modern city is explored through the metaphor of the fantasy underground. In “The chamber of 32 Doors,” Gabriel sings:

I’d rather trust a countryman than a townman
You can judge by his eyes, take a look if you can
He’ll smile through his guard
Survival trains hard

I’d rather trust a man who works with his hands
He looks at you once, you know he understands
Don’t need any shield
When you’re out in the field

Technology and the city is yet again reviled in favour of the pure countryside, but this Romanticism does not coat the entirety of the album. While the album has mythical creatures such as the Lamia, it also indulges in surreal imagery, such as the “Carpet Crawlers” trying to escape the labyrinthian New York underground and the body horror of “The Colony Of Slippermen”. There are tensions between Romanticism and Modernism throughout the album, creating a singular effort in the Genesis discography as a hybrid fantasy epic.

Best Anime of 2015

And thus begins the year end lists of 2015. As with all of these lists, this list is not definitive, merely what I was able to see this year. This list will encompass both 2015 releases, and a separate section for those series I watched that also deserve mention.

The last two years were big for me as a burgeoning otaku, as I finally accumulated a little spending money to buy series both classic and contemporary. Enrolling in grad school in the fall has severely tampered with my media consumption, but I have watched enough to assemble a brief list of the best anime series I watched this year. So, in alphabetical order:

Best Anime of 2015

The Death Parade Logo from the final episode

Death Parade probably wins two awards this year. One for having the best first episode to a new series (not just anime, but *any* series that aired this year), and another for the best opening animation of the year. Lusciously animated by MADHOUSE, this series has some of the most beautiful animation I have seen this year.

Death Parade Ice Skating GIF

Of course, that’s not its only strength. As the series explores the tales of characters and how they lived and died, Death Parade touches upon the variety of experiences that make us human, from the lurid to the banal, from the tragic to the humorous. Some of the series’ best episodes were some of the most affecting television I’ve seen in recent memory. The series is streaming at FUNimation.

Title Text from One Punch Man

ONE PUUUUUUUUNCH! If Death Parade didn’t exist, One Punch Man would probably top the list for best opening this year. The energy of the opening number perfectly captures the series, a show  with zany energy that fuels both its over the top humour and jaw-dropping animation action scenes.

Image from One Punch Man Episode 11

Don’t let Saitama’s simplicity cool you. The series also boasts dynamic character designs, from bishōnen allure to the chiseled angularity a la JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. One Punch Man is a joy to watch, balancing its humour with social commentary on what it truly means to be a hero. I can’t wait for the season finale next week. The series is streaming on Daisuki.

The title screen from Yuri Kuma Arashi Kunihiko Ikuhara does it again. The anime auteur’s latest, Yuri Kuma Arashi is a polemic against Japanese media that portrays lesbians either as “just friends” or dangerous predators, critiquing media stereotypes while displaying the beauty and power of love between women.

Yuri Kuma Arashi GIF with Bears

Ikuhara’s works is well-known for its dense symbolism, and while layers of symbolism coat the series, the show’s beating heart for its characters and themes is dead clear. The series is streaming at FUNimation.

Classic Series Catchup

These are series I missed the first time around, but have since caught up with.

Space Dandy: Why did I wait? Season 2 was even stronger than the first, with stronger stories with emotional highs, wonderful sci-fi designs, and outrageous animation to tie it all together. This series is streaming on FUNimation.

Yuki Yuna is a Hero: I can literally affirm that this is a show that has changed my life, as I’m trying to incorporate the Hero Club’s five tenets into my life. This is another show that also reveals what it takes to be a true hero, not magical girl powers, but the passion to help others and the courage to act. The show is streaming on Crunchyroll.

The Tatami Galaxy: Masaaki Yuasa is one of my favourite directors in animation today because he understands the importance of movement. To quote Norman McLaren, “Animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn,” and this is something clearly illustrated in Yuasa’s work, whether it be his episode of Space Dandy, or this series, which uses simple yet elegant character designs for their expanded movement and expression. The show is streaming on Hulu.

Noximilien l’Horloger“: This is an episode OVA of Wakfu, with character designs my Masaaki Yuasa and directed by his frequent collaborator Eunyoung Choi. So of course it’s wonderful. I’ll end this list here by noting that with the rise of transnationalism, the notion of national cinemas, such as anime, are increasingly destabilized. Wakfu is itself a French show inspired by Japanese animation, and turns to Japanese animators for the OVA episode. This kind of transnationalism is where animation has been heading for decades, and reflects the larger trend within cinema itself. Unfortunately, this episode is not available for legal streaming, though you can find copies of it on the web.


Heteroglossia in Uncle Tom’s Cabin

“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!” – The Smiths, “Paint a Vulgar Picture”

An excerpt from a final exam in a Survey of American Literature course.

Heteroglossia is a concept Mikhail Bakhtin describes as “the multiplicity of social voices through the interplay between authorial speech, narrator, speech, inserted genres, and character speech,” a description well suited to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe uses all of these traits Bakhtin lists to portray almost every possible viewpoint on slavery occurring at the time of her writing to refute various pro-slavery arguments and reinforce anti-slavery arguments, influencing her audience’s worldview to favor anti-slavery.

Stowe uses numerous social voices to portray numerous possible viewpoints on slavery to communicate her anti-slavery message. One way she does this is by using inserted genres into her novel.  For example, at the beginning of chapter 12, the passage begins with an epigraph, a quote from the Book of Jeremiah. By using such a quote, Stowe helps set up a theme of morning for loss of family, the separation of family being a big argument against slavery as a moral evil. By using an epigraph, Stowe also creates some room for conversation and commentary between both texts. Stowe employs this effect again when she quotes Hamlet in chapter 10, this time focusing conversation about the geographic removal of slaves. By taking various quotations from other texts, Stowe allows other texts to give voice to other opinions that support her message of anti-slavery.

Stowe also uses narrator speech to comment upon the action occurring in the novel and give voice to yet more opinions to support her message of anti-slavery. Stowe’s narrator is often sarcastic in her description of events to comment in an entertaining fashion while often masking anger at the situation. A good example is when the narrator first introduces Tom Loker saying that “could our readers fancy a bull-dog come unto man’s estate, and walking about in a hat and coat, they would have no inapt idea of the general style and effect of his physique” (122). By describing his formidable strength, Stowe is setting up another double in her novel, as Tom Loker is the very antithesis of Uncle Tom. This particular characterization also supports Stowe’s anti-slavery message by influencing the audience to prefer Uncle Tom over Tom Loker. This is just one example of many in how Stowe employs her narrator voice to comment upon the novel and reinforce her anti-slavery message.

Authorial speech is another technique Stowe employs to comment upon the action of the novel and reinforce her anti-slavery message. Instead of being sarcastic, her authorial voice tends to be more direct and serious about the events unfolding in the narrative. When Mr. Wilson talks with George in chapter 11, the authorial voice sheds light upon the character of Mr. Wilson, stating that “Mr. Wilson’s mind was one of those that may not inaptly be represented by a bale of cotton, – downy, soft, benevolently fuzzy and confused” (185). The authorial voice here is sympathetic to this character, illustrating that he is conflicted with either obeying the law and turning George in, or following his conscious and letting him escape. This is important in that the authorial voice illustrates the unfairness of the Compromise of 1850 and humanizes Mr. Wilson. Throughout her novel, Stowe employs authorial voice as well to continually comment and support her various arguments against slavery.

Finally, Stowe employs numerous characters that voice nearly every opinion about slavery at the time to illustrate and refute them. For example, in chapter 12, where Haley ventures down the Mississippi river, various characters such as Lucy, various women and men, Uncle Tom, Haley, auctioned slaves, and John the drover all voice their opinions. This chapter is specifically highly symbolic as a representation of the voices of America, and thus well illustrates all of the different views on slavery in conversation with each other. In conjunction with these voices, Stowe also illustrates every form of slavery in her novel, from the mildest form to its most severe. With all these different perspectives, Stowe refutes those in support of slavery and highlights those anti-slavery opinions through the character’s discussions and her own narrator and authorial voice. At the end of the chapter, the authorial voice takes command and preaches upon what the reader has seen, questioning “But who, sir, makes the trader? Who is most to blame?” (212). Stowe presents various viewpoints on slavery to debunk the arguments for it while

As a highly sentimental and popular text, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was also highly effective in influencing the reader’s perceptions of slavery. By illustrating nearly every viewpoint on slavery and commenting on it, Stowe addresses her own audiences’ numerous worldviews, strongly refuting those who held pro-slavery sentiments. And as a serialized novel with cliffhangers and emotional sentimentality, the combination of good storytelling with didactic criticism was likely to influence those to either change their opinions about slavery to be anti-slavery, or reinforce those who were anti-slavery already. The use of narrator voice in talking directly to the audience was also strongly influential, in that it often encouraged identification and empathy with the plight of the characters. All these techniques, combined with multiplicity of viewpoints on slavery, allowed  nearly anyone to identify with the novel and characters, strengthening Stowe’s effective arguments against slavery.

When President Lincoln said to Stowe that she “wrote the book that started the great war,” his comment on how effective her novel was wasn’t totally inaccurate. Stowe’s use of heteroglossia throughout her novel enabled her to present multiple views on slavery and influence her reader through identification and commentary to become against slavery. As a novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is likely one of the best examples of heteroglossia in literature for all time.


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