Category: 2005


Room

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When I was reading Robert McKee’s Story months ago to help with my screenwriting (that book can really only teach you structure; it can’t teach you to be a writer), he went off on a long tangent about how modern independent cinema has forsaken plot for mood and atmosphere and stylistic window-dressing. I bet Robert McKee would have really hated 2005’s experimental indie drama Room. Here is a film that is all atmosphere, and when it attempts to have an actual plot or conversations between its characters on screen, it falls completely apart. But when it focuses on atmosphere, there’s something hypnotic about this film.

As an experiment in free-associative storytelling (and masterful post-production on a limited budget), Room‘s plot is not nearly as important as the way the film makes you feel though there is the skeleton of a story here. Julia Barker (Cyndi Williams) is a desperate and exhausted married mother of two. Her life consists of dealing with her delinquent eldest daughter and being yelled at by her boss at the bingo hall where she works in addition to being some type of delivery woman. Julia’s life is a monotonous grind of work and an unfulfilling home life. And there’s no way it will ever change.

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But, Julia’s life does begin to change when she starts to experience blackouts accompanied by visions of a massive empty room. The visions are muddled and unclear at first (and never really clear up that much), but the room appears as a giant loft, the kind you’d find in Brooklyn these days going for exorbitant rates. And so, Julia steals the deposit from her bingo hall’s safe and runs off to New York City desperately trying to find not only this giant room that she keeps seeing in her head but to find change and meaning in her life for the first time in years.

I almost feel like that last sentence of that paragraph is a spoiler for this film because ultimately, the emptiness of our lives is the point of the film and what I believe the empty room that Julia sees symbolizes. I don’t think that the film is remotely subtle in trying to get that point across. And, honestly, that’s okay to an extent. As a meditation on the desperation of impoverished working women in America and the idea that a family isn’t the only key to female satisfaction, Room is surprisingly powerful, and the interludes where there’s no dialogue and we just see Julia’s frantic search for anything in her life are fresh and evocative filmmaking.

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And the film’s sound design and editing match the disorienting feel of Julia’s existential crisis. With industrial droning and a schizophrenic cutting rhythm, Room (when it does what it does best) places the viewer right in the mindset of a woman on the brink. It’s a shame then that the sections of the film that focus on Julia’s interactions with others or dialogue seem so stilted and unnatural. Perhaps the director was attempting to make a statement on the mundaneness of Julia’s existence. But it didn’t make it any less dull and difficult to sit through.

Room isn’t like a lot of films you’ve ever seen. The only comparison to spring immediately to mind is Inland Empire although Room is decidedly less ambitious or mind-screwy. For casual film-viewers, Room will not be a rewarding experience and you will likely leave it angry that you sat through it all considering the film’s denouement (which to be fair, I enjoyed), but at 73 minutes, Room is worth a watch from fans of experimental cinema looking for something that truly follows its own rules and doesn’t bow down to the logic or structure of conventional cinema.

Score: B-

 

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In the many years that I’ve closely followed the Academy Awards (starting in 2004 when Return of the King took home a record-tying 11 Oscars), I’ve only cared twice about who won Best Original Song. The most recent time was in 2012 when I desperately wanted to see Flight of the Conchords‘ Brett McKenzie win an Oscar for “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets. The first time was in 2006 where I would have likely started a riot if Three 6 Mafia hadn’t picked up the Oscar for their instant hip-hop classic “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” from 2005’s Hustle & Flow. No matter what your other thoughts are about the film, there’s no denying that song’s place in the canon of great original movie tunes. Now, if only the rest of the film were as great as that song and the performances from Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson (Baby Boy).

There are few things more upsetting as a socially conscious film-goer than when you watch an obviously well-constructed and well-performed film but are also forced to recognize that there are some thematic… missteps in the work. And more than any of us would like to admit, there are a lot of great films that simply do not know how to handle their female characters. And Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow is one such film. As a portrait of desperation and the lengths we’ll go to achieve a dream even when our backs are against the wall, it’s a soaring success, and its social realism and gritty approach are greatly appreciated. But when every single woman in this film is simply a literal sex object and simultaneously used to massage the ego and self-esteem of the male star, that’s a problem of our male-centric film industry.

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2005’s Hustle & Flow is an underdog story in the mold of Rocky or Brassed Off! although without the cheesy triumphalism of the first or the social criticism of the second. Djay (Iron Man‘s Terrence Howard) is a philosophical and hardscrabble pimp who gets by tricking his snow bunny prostitute Nola (Taryn Manning) under Memphis underpasses. He’s got a stripper, Lex (Paula Jai Parker), with a major attitude problem and a son she doesn’t care for, and he’s got a pregnant “bottom bitch,” Shug (Taraji P. Henson), that can’t trick at the moment, but she loves and supports her pimp. Djay’s life is going nowhere fast, but he finds a chance to be somebody when he hears that rap superstar Skinny Black (Ludacris) will be visiting the bar Djay sells weed to for the Fourth of July.

Djay has one dream in life, beyond scrounging up the money he and his girls need to get buy, and that’s to be a hip-hop emcee. And after a chance meeting with an old high school friend, Key (Anthony Anderson), who pays the rent as a sound engineer for local church recordings, Djay thinks he finally has a shot at making his dreams come true and to get his mixtape into the hands of Skinny Black before his time runs out. And with a help from a local pianist and MPC machine enthusiast Shelby (DJ Qualls), Djay sets up a small recording studio in his house as he deals with the toils of keeping three different prostitutes happy under his roof. Will Djay find the muse he needs to make a genuine rap banger, and more importantly, will Skinny Black listen to it even if he does?

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Terrence Howard gives the performance his career in this film. Had Howard now turned down the supporting role of Rhodes in Iron Man 2 (because of salary disputes) and subsequently piss off all of the big producers in Hollywood, I suspect he could and should have been a big star. The 2005 Academy Awards was absurdly competitive for Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman won for Capote and he was also competing against Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain), but Howard’s Academy Award-nominated turn in this film is one of the best of the aughts. Few performers have ever conveyed the feeling of having your back up against the wall and watching your life race past you as well as Howard does in this film. There’s a haunting intensity to the performance, and it’s a shame that he’s more or less disappeared from interesting projects in the 2010s.

And Baby Boy‘s Taraji P. Henson also gives her all to the thankless role of Shug. As I said, the women in this film are flat creations that are literal sex objects in that they’re all strippers/prostitutes (except for Anthony Anderson’s wife who has minimum screen time) and they have seemingly no real desires or character arcs of their own other than to support Djay in his journey. But despite that, Taraji P. Henson brings a wrenching emotional context to the character that certainly wasn’t in the script. She certainly at least deserved an Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars that year. It’s a sign of a great performer when they are able to wrest an astounding performance from a mediocre character, and Taraji P. Henson does just that.

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The film’s problems with women can be summed up in one visual from the film. And, spoiler alert, I’m going to spoil something major about the film, but the movie’s nearly 10 years old now, so get over it. Djay is in prison for assaulting Skinny Black after he rejects him. Nola has slept with a radio DJ and gotten Djay’s single played on the radio. The song is called “Whoop That Trick” and a new mother Shug is singing along in full head-banging mode to a song that’s about beating on a hooker which is what she is. It’s like the movie isn’t even aware of the irony of the moment although at times I suspect it is because like Black Snake Moan, there’s a certain element of blaxploitation revivalism to Hustle & Flow. Regardless, the film’s usage of a prostitute singing along triumphantly to a song about beating on her own kind is the worst kind of male tunnel vision.

And those glaring oversights make for a frustrating viewing experience because Hustle & Flow is the kind of underdog film I can actually enjoy (because most are total garbage excepting the documentary Undefeated which manages to be a masterpiece). I sort of actively hate most non-Outkast/non-Killer Mike Southern hip-hop, but this film’s A-Town via Tennessee soundtrack is fantastic, and the film’s got that grainy 1970s cinematography that seamlessly matches the film’s storytelling style. And, as I’ve said, Terrence Howard’s firebrand performance holds the whole film together when it threatens to fall apart. Hustle & Flow falls just short of being a great film, but if you can look past its casual misogyny, it’s a superbly performed tale worth your time.

Final Score: B+

 

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Long-time readers may remember that I have complicated feelings towards the horror genre. And by complicated feelings, I think that most of the output of the genre is unequivocal garbage. More than any other genre (except for like pornography), cheap, easily disposable horror is the mainstay of the genre and people think they can substitute cheap gore effects and tired cliches for strong writing and a genuine sense of terror. But, when good horror films come along (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, or Paranormal Activity), they are incredibly powerful experiences. And, one of my favorite horror films of the last decade is the British creature feature, The Descent. Though I found the sequel to be incredibly disappointing (mostly for abandoning the atmosphere and tension that made the original so brilliant), there have been few horror films of the modern era as terrifying as 2005’s The Descent.

So much horror today (and ever since the 80s resurgence of the genre) is predicated on massive amounts of blood and gore. This may seem like a weird thing to complain about (considering that The Descent is quite gory), but without characterization and atmosphere, modern audiences have become completely desensitized to gore. Most horror films (think the torture porn subniche films like Hostel or Saw) exist not to scare audiences but to satisfy their bloodlust. They go into the films hoping to see new and inventive ways for people to be killed and dismembered. And that’s not scary. It’s just gross. Horror films have always been most effective when the director and writer are able to create an empathetic relationship between the films’ doomed heroes and the audience. And that dedication to establishing sympathetic heroines is one of many reasons that The Descent is a modern horror masterpiece.

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One year after the tragic death of her husband and young daughter in a car accident, British adventure junkie Sarah (Shauan MacDonald) travels to America to go caving with her five best friends, including the adrenaline junkie Juno (Natalie Mendoza) that may or may not have been sleeping with her late husband. But the girls’ trip into a North Carolina cave system turns out to be a bigger adventure than they bargained for when Juno leads them into an unexplored cave system to up the group’s thrills. And if traveling through a cave prone to cave-ins and with no idea where the exits are wasn’t a big enough problem, it becomes readily apparent that these six action girls aren’t alone in the cave as they are slowly picked off one by one by a race of subterranean humanoids with a taste for human flesh.

What makes this film work where the sequel (or any other writer/director trying to handle similar thematic material) fails is how much this movie makes you wait for the bloody payoff. In fact, I almost think the arrival of the “Crawlers” is less scary than the cave exploration before hand. You don’t get your first  real sight of the creatures until more than forty minutes into the film. Before the caves are even reached, a good fifteen to twenty minutes is spent establishing the relationships and tensions of this group of friends so that you actually care about everyone and you know who everyone is besides Red Shirts A, B, and C. And that sense of claustrophobia and paranoia that the film establishes as the girls make their way through the cave before the creatures show up is simply suffocating in the best sense of the word.

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And, The Descent is a film built entirely on the perfect call-and-response of tension and release. You would think that a film as reliant on jump scares (and fake jump scares at the beginning) would not fare well upon repeat viewings. That is… not the case. In fact, because of the excellent costume and make-up work of the “Crawlers,” the tension of waiting for them to make their inevitable, terrifying appearance becomes even more unbearable on later viewings. Particularly, the now classic scene when they first make their appearance known to the group while Sarah uses a video recorder’s night-vision mode. And when the violence arrives, it is so brutal and against characters that we actually give a shit about, that it carries more visceral impact than a year’s worth of horror movie deaths combined.

Also, The Descent is a massive fuck-you to the misogynistic and male-dominated world of horror. Women tend to be the primary cannon fodder of most horror films (and yes, most of the main characters of The Descent die), but in The Descent, the bad-ass female heroines avoid every negative female horror stereotype that they can. And when they make mistakes that lead to their deaths, they are generally believable and realistic human error. For example, Juno’s decision to explore an un-marked cave system totally fits with her character’s adrenaline-fueled need to prove herself and a different character, the possibly lesbian Holly, had complained about the “tourist” cave they were supposed to be exploring. One of my biggest complaints about horror films is that characters don’t act in rational ways, and The Descent totally avoids that trap.

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I’ll draw this review to a close mostly because I need to start getting ready for class (I woke up at 4 AM this morning; I have a meeting with my adviser at 8:30 AM; and I work tonight until 1 AM. Oy vey), but if you couldn’t tell, I could rave about how much I love this movie for another 500 words or so. I’ve seen it a little over half a dozen times now, and each time I notice a new bit of foreshadowing or I think I notice a creature in the edges of some shot before they’re supposed to actually show up. That’s the sign of a great film. Great movies offer you something new each time you see them, and The Descent clears that bar. I rarely find a film to be legitimately scary. Even the horror movies that I tend to love don’t scare me very often (I more often appreciate their technique and atmosphere), but The Descent is an honest-to-god scary movie, and those are so rare that you can’t pass them up when you find one.

Final Score: A

 

The LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community has transformed into the forefront of the modern civil rights movement. Cinema, with its long history of political activism (within the lives of its stars and the content of its film), has a moral obligation to be one of the voices of the LGBT movement. Yet Hollywood (and to a lesser extent, the independent studios) has failed to produce a rich library of queer cinema, and the LGBT-themed films that are made are often preachy, heavy-handed affairs that do more to call attention to sexual inequality (which was a noble cause twenty years ago when gay cinema was first becoming its own subgenre) than attempting to normalize such behavior for mainstream audiences. Perhaps that’s why director-writer Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica was such a refreshing change of pace. As much a father-son “road movie” as it is a look in the life of modern transexuals, Transamerica joins A Single Man and Brokeback Mountain as some of the most stirring LGBT cinema of the 2000s.

For the vast majority of us, we are born a gender, and we give little to no thought to that fact. We are simply men or women. Yet, a small minority of the population experiences a phenomena known as “gender dysphoria,” wherein they are deeply unsatisfied with the gender they’re born into. In adults, this often results in transexualism where surgical and chemical modification occurs to transform a man into a woman and vice versa.  Whether those in the religious right wish to admit it or not, people have a right to say what their gender identity is, and if a man wants to be a woman, she should be identified as such. In Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica, the womanhood of the male-to-female transexual Bree Osbourne (Desperate Housewives‘ Felicity Huffman) is an accepted fact for all but the end of the film (and only then, it’s questioned by a hysterical religious mother). While Bree is far from perfect and has the neuroses and moments of weakness that plague the rest of us, Transamerica is more concerned with a quiet character study of one woman’s realization that she has a son and the fact that she will need more in life than sexual reassignment surgery to feel happy and whole.

Played with a deep, almost intentionally robotic voice by Felicity Huffman, Bree is a portrait of carefully maintained order. Because she had no control over her own body, she is trying to wrest control out of every square inch of the rest of her life. On the week before her sexual reassignment surgery (where she will finally be a woman physically as well as mentally), Bree’s carefully maintained world of order (and loneliness) is shattered when she discovers that she has a son, Toby (Frozen‘s Kevin Zegers), from the sole heterosexual relationship she ever had. Bree has a history of ignoring facts about her life that she doesn’t like. She’s actually a chronic liar and lied to her therapist about being a virgin and lies about her parents being dead among many other falsehoods. Bree’s therapist refuses to clear her for sexual reassignment surgery unless she confronts this issue with her son. Bree hops a plane from L.A. to New York where she bails Toby out of jail. But rather than telling Toby that she’s his father (or that she’s transgendered), Bree pretends to be a Christian missionary and takes Toby on a road trip across the country that becomes a journey of self-discovery for both father and son.

Felicity Huffman astounds every second that she’s on screen. While some may find her performance to be unnaturally restrained, Bree is a woman who has been robbed of control of one of the most defining aspects of her life. Of course, she would then try to remain in perfect control of everything else, and emotional restraint is the key. When any thing happens to crack her perfectly maintained armor (from an eight year old girl asking her if she was a boy or a girl to being forced to accept that she has a son in order to get her surgery), Bree quickly devolves into an emotional wreck. With Felicity Huffman, the simple act of control and self-restraint becomes a cinematic seminar on how to show internal struggle physically. It is Bree’s restraint with the moments where she breaks down that ultimately define this tender and wrenching performance. From dramatic moments where her mother tells Bree she misses her son only for Bree retorts, “Mom, you never had a son,” to lighter, comedic moments that play off of Bree’s absurd formality, Felicity Huffman delivers an emotionally complex tour-de-force turn.

Looking like Zac Efron’s long lost brother, Kevin Zegers gave the film a much needed dose of wounded youthful vitality (that may seem oxymoronic but Toby was nearly as complex and contradictory as his father). Like Channing Tatum in Magic Mike, Zegers has one of those intensely sensitive faces that nearly transcends traditional performance rules. Zegers doesn’t have to do much other than be on the screen and look hurt for a scene to succeed, but he does that and so much more. Throughout the film, you discover that Toby has been the victim of sexual abuse, prostituted himself to men while in New York (and on one heart-breaking occasion, on the road with Bree), and has a drug problem. Yet, Kevin Zegers (with help from the script) lends Toby a shattered innocence. With his stuffed monkey and the action figure that sleeps above his bed, Toby is a poster-child of being forced to grow up too quickly even when you still cling to the vestiges of your innocence. Other wonderful turns in the film include Lost‘s Fionnula Flanagan as Bree’s hysterical mother and Graham Greene as a Native American that gives Bree and Toby a lift (and has a flirtation with Bree ignorant of her sexual history) after their hideous station wagon is stolen.

Transamerica isn’t simply a smartly written and terrifically acted film. Director Duncan Tucker also fills the film to the brim with gorgeous scenery and countless moments that tease at an ironic dichotomy present in the road trip. With many scenes shot at what Terence Malick called the “magic hour” (the hour before sunset which was the primary time he shot for Days of Heaven), Bree and Toby’s journy across the United States attains a nearly supernatural beauty of crimson suns dipping into lush, hill-lined lakes or boundless Midwestern plains. In his attempt to normalize transgendered behavior, the road trip segments (which are the strongest moments in the film before the ending tries a little too hard to “say” something) could have been about any father and son crisscrossing their way around America. In this case, the son doesn’t know who his dad is or that his dad is living as a woman.

Perhaps the most inspired choice though was for Duncan Tucker to show Bree seamlessly fitting into the deep South communities that she and Toby roll through. As she tells her sister, Sydney, after Sydney recommends a garish and loud outfit, “I’m a transexual not a transvestite.” Though the film does an impressive job of making the masculine but otherwise attractive Felicity Huffman look more mannish than usual, Bree can mostly pass as a woman (though the graphic sight of her penis more than destroyed that illusion). Few characters are more inherently blue-collar than Graham Greene’s Calvin Many-Goats, and he starts to fall for Bree over the two days they spend together. Dressed like she’s just left for tea with the local ladies’ association and with a somewhat stilted elegance, Bree was once a man, but she’s put all of her energy into displaying herself as a woman.

The decision to score Transamerica with primarily country songs and bluegrass instrumentals added another layer of ironic (and hilarious) commentary to the film. The film winds it way through what Sarah Palin would have called the “Real America” and you’re left with the indelible impression that there are far more Bree’s out there than you think. Proving that a film can be quiet but still powerful, Transamerica avoids the usual rules of tragedy that define much of LGBT cinema (even many of the films that I love) and tries to capture something a little more down-to-earth and commonplace (but no less beautiful). If cinema has the ability to transform lives, this film’s portrayal of a flawed but inherently relatable transgender woman has the power to create a dialogue on gender identity and the continuing absurdity that we even have to have a battle over LGBT rights in this nation.

Final Score: A-

 

 

I nearly forgot to do this post. I just spent the last two hours playing Chrono Trigger (in the continuing series of Don putting dozens hours of RPGs and never actually beating them), and I was about to start watching Being John Malkovich (yep that’s my next movie review) when I remembered that I hadn’t done my Song of the Day post yet. We’re one step closer to being done with Saturday (Sunday was only three acts for me so it will be short) at Bonnaroo. After Childish Gambino’s set, I bought some pizza, filled up my water bottles (though I still managed to be dehydrated to the point of passing out by the time Red Hot Chili Peppers finished), and made my way to the What Stage to see the Roots and the Red Hot Chili Peppers who were on next. I missed the beginning of the Roots set but since I don’t know that many of their songs, that was okay. I’m not all that familiar with their music. I’ve never gotten into the Roots (though every time I listen to their tunes, I really enjoy them), but they sounded really fantastic. They had the energy and improvisational nature of a jam band and they were a great fusion of hip-hop and rock (as well as jazz at times). I just picked a song off their greatest hits album that I really like. I’m not sure if they played it at this year’s Bonnaroo. So, enjoy “Proceed 2” by the Roots.

 

While Elfen Lied the anime (which I’ve only seen an episode and a half of because I couldn’t bring myself to watch it when there was any possibility that another person would enter the room) was eventually brought to the states and even given a proper dub, there has never been an officially licensed version of the Elfen Lied manga brought to the U.S. If you read the manga (and have a basic grasp of America’s sad past in regards to obscenity laws), you might understand why no publisher would want to take that sort of risk. I know I feel like I say this after every volume, but Elfen Lied keeps finding ways to up the “incredibly fucked up” factor and I’ve seriously determined that Lynn Okamoto is in serious need of psychological counseling because no emotionally sound mind could come up with this kind of shit. Yet, I still enjoy his depravity so I’m probably wrong in the head because I found this story of racism, xenophobia, and isolation to be endlessly compelling and one of the most deeply psychological anime/manga this side of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

A government SWAT team led by Dr. Nousou and her brainwashed squad of three clones of Lucy arrive at the Maple Inn completely busting down one of the doors. Despite being thrown up against the wall by one of the clones vectors, Nyu never transforms into Lucy and simply can’t understand what is going on. It isn’t until Kohta interferes and gets shot in the back that Lucy finally awakens, grows out her horns to be at bunny-esque proportions, and goes H.A.M. on every living bad guy in the room. She just cuts one of the Diclonius straight up in half which forces the remaining survivors of her initial attack to retreat. They think they can stay out of Lucy’s range and run away, but she knocks a motherfucking helicopter out of the sky and throws it at Dr. Nousou. The two remaining clones try to hold it up and Lucy just decapitates one of them. The last tricks Lucy by making it look like she’s sacrificed her own life to die with Nousou under the helicopter but she really forced a hole in the bottom for them to hide in til the fight was over. However, the clone that Lucy chopped in half was actually Mariko (Kurama’s daughter) and in her last breath she used her vectors to break one of Lucy’s mega-horns (and another government agent shot off the other one reducing her back to Nyu). Kurama shows up at the Maple Inn and drags off the lifeless corpse of Marika as his mind completely snaps. We learn a little more of Lucy’s backstory where after she went on the killing spree that ended with the murder of Kohta’s family, she kept killing random civilians around the town giving in to her evil side until a little girl she befriended nearly dragged her out of her funk. However, the little girl had an abuse father which the little girl murdered and as the girl and Lucy tried to hide, the government agency (which was tracking Lucy) showed up and shot (and killed) Lucy’s new friend permanently cementing her transition to the dark side.

While I forgot to mention that Kohta survived being shot, the incident (and seeing one of the clones cut in half) forced him to recall what Lucy did all those years ago and now he has sworn revenge on her. The inn is destroyed and everyone is living with Yuka’s family, except for Nana whose Yuka’s mother doesn’t trust because of her horns. Nana goes off to the beach to help feed a homeless man that Mayu had been taking care of. It turns out that man is Kurama, who completely rejects Nana in favor of his lifeless corpse of a daughter. Nana momentarily succumbs to the darkness inside her but then the scene fades away and we only see her later cradling the potentially still alive Kurama in the forest back to her regular kind self. Nyu is being held hostage (and naked) by Director Kakuzawa in his irradiated pond which is also the grave of a million deformed diclonius baby as his people attempted to breed their perfect savior. He is going to rape and impregnate Lucy so that he can be the new God of the new Diclonius race and overthrow humanity. However, Nyu finally snaps at the last moment and without becoming Lucy gains vector powers of her own which (with the possible, ambiguous help of Kakuzawa’s daughter Anna) are now stories tall. Also, Nousou took the brain control chip off of the remaining clone which immediately decapitated her and is now likely on a murderous rampage around Kurakama.

If you were to judge a volume of Elfen Lied by the number of times that I used the word “fuck” as some part of an exclamatory phrase or “jesus christ” in a similar manner, it would be pretty difficult to top this one. There is something brutal and absoluteyl disturbing happening every 10 pages or so (sometimes even more often). If this isn’t the most graphically violent volume of the series yet, I have no clue what would be. Yet, there is so much more going on than just a wee bit of the old ultra violence (to quote A Clockwork Orange). We got deep, deep insight into why Lucy hates Kurama so much (killed her last real friend). We know why any harm coming to Kohta instantly sends Nyu into full-blown crazy Lucy mode (she honestly wants to repent for what she did). We got some more look into Nana’s deep-seated rejection issues and the incident that may have finally sent her off the deep end. Kohta has finally remembered what happened when he was a child which means any possibility of a happy ending at the Maple Inn with the whole group together is completely impossible. Kakuzawa proved that he was one of the most sadistic and evil villains I’ve ever encountered as he tortured and taunted the innocent and defenseless Nyu, knowing full well that she wasn’t Lucy. This volume provided everything that makes Elfen Lied great and deeply unsettling.

I really want to play Mass Effect 3 a little bit tonight before I go to bed (even though I have tomorrow off, I have to spend the first part of it working because there was some serious miscommunication at work) so I’m going to draw this review to a close. There are only two volumes of Elfen Lied left. It’s 19 chapters I believe. I can’t believe I’m finally so close to being done with reading this entire series. The only other manga series I’ve read from beginning to end was Death Note (which was way before I started this blog though it is on my shortlist of things I want to review but more likely the anime which I’ve never watched all the way through despite owning it in the entirety). Considering that I’m basically only a fifth of the way through Bleach, it will be a long before I ever finish it (if I ever actually finish it). It’s cool to know that this is a franchise I’m actually going to get the all the way through. I’m actually thinking of replacing this once I’ve finished it with the Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books which I actually own physical copies of at home (and that I’ve been meaning to reread for a long time now). Actually, that’s totally what I’m going to do. Now, I’m very excited.

Final Score: A-

I just want to clear something up right away before there’s any confusion. I’ve been giving the Bleach manga the exact same score that I just gave to the German art-house film Faraway, So Close! and I want to make sure that there’s no confusion as to whether I actually think these are equal pieces of art. Obviously, that film is of far more substantive value and engages me at a more appreciable intellectual level than Bleach could ever hope to accomplish. It is without question a better piece of art. It’s in its own league compared to Bleach. However (and this statement applies to all of the reviews I do so let it be your guide for understanding how my scoring system works), Faraway, So Close! also overreaches itself intellectually and doesn’t hit at the same kind of gut, visceral level as better art house films (like its predecessor Wings of Desire). I hold serious movies to much higher standards than I do a manga series that is explicitly for children. Faraway, So Close! demands your critical attention so it gets it (for better or worse). If a work is meant to be taken seriously intellectually, that’s how I approach it critically. If a work is simply meant to enjoy it, then a significant portion of its grade will be based on how much I was able to enjoy it. Bleach is a fairly enjoyable shonen fighting series and succeeds at its goal. Faraway, So Close! is an almost-great film that ultimately misses its goal but remains a beautiful film. Hence, they both get “B”s. That’s the end of my rant on my grading process.

We finally discover exactly what Kukaku Shiba’s plan is to get the Ryoka into the seireitei. She’s going to use a massive cannon to shoot them over the seireitei‘s walls. However, there is an invisible forcefield around the walls and the ryoka have to learn how to focus their kido (spiritual energy) into a specially designed sphere that will allow them to pass through the forcefield (rather than explode on impact). Everyone but Ichigo picks up the trick quickly enough although when he finally learns how to do it, his massive kido nearly destroys the practice space until he figures out how to decrease it to manageable levels. While all of this is going down, the thirteen captains of the Soul Society are holding a meeting to determine the fate of Gin Ichimaru for allowing the ryoka to escape alive. He tries to play dumb, but it’s obvious that what he did was a grave offense to the other captains and that he knows more than he’s letting on. Their meeting is interrupted however by an alarm declaring intruders in the seireitei (which I’m assuming we’re supposed to think means the ryoka but I have a suspicion that there are other forces at play). When it’s finally time to shoot the ryoka over the seireitei, things are going according to plan until the group actually hits the barrier where their shield dissolves and the group is split into four parties and shot in separate directions into the seireitei. The four groups are 1) Ichigo and Ganju, 2) Orihime and Uryu, 3) Chad, and 4) Yoruichi (with Chad having basically sacrificed his ability to be with the group to make sure Orihime and Uryu were together).

Once everybody lands, no one is in any immediate danger except for Ganju and Ichigo. Chad causes an enormous crater but finds shelter in a tree before any shinigami can arrive at the scene. Uryu and Orihime have shelter and no one suspects Yoruichi of being anything since he’s a cat. However, the second they land Ichigo and Ganju are greeted by two members of the eleventh squad, Ikkaku Madarame and Yumichika Ayasegawa. Ganju knows that he’s outclassed and runs away (while being chased by Yumichika). His story in the volume ends with him being cornered at a massive pit where Yumichika offers him to either by his sword or to fall to his death in the pit. Ichigo chooses to stay and fight Ikkaku. They draw first blood simultaneously with both striking a blow on the other. However, Ikkaku reveals that he hasn’t shown his zanpakuto‘s named shenkai form yet which is a spear that also funcftions as a nunchuk spear thing (and is the coolest shenkai yet). He proceeds to beat the holy hell out of Ichigo until he slices open Ichigo’s arm which brings out Ichigo’s survival instinct and he turns the tables on Ikkaku and appears to kill him when Ikkaku turns down an offer to surrender after being critically wounded.

This paragraph of analysis will mostly be me talking about the anime (which was four episodes for this volume instead of the normal two or three which is part of why it took me so long to find the time to watch it all. I can read an entire volume in an hour. It takes nearly two to watch four episodes of the show so it came down to finding the free time) and things that I thought were cool in terms of changes/stylistic differences and some new things I don’t like. I really don’t like the new opening theme song that started on episode 26 or the video that was used for it. It just made the show seem like way more of a conventional shonen fighting anime and it lacked the quirky urban fantasy aesthetic that I found so appealing about the beginning of the show. I know that the series is going to continue moving further and further away from the things that I loved about it though so I need to hurry up and get over it or just give up on the program. There were a lot of things in the final episode of the anime that I watched that weren’t in the manga but I’m assuming that most of it was just the anime editing in parts of the rest of theryoka’s story that we won’t see until volume 11 so that Ichigo wasn’t one of the only characters that we kept seeing. Also, I did appreciate the way that the fights are easier to follow in the anime because sometimes I think Tite Kubo makes exactly what’s happening in the fight scenes a little too vague and it’s hard to get why someone went from suddenly winning to losing.

I could go on this whole rant about how tired I’m starting to get of this whole “Ichigo gets his ass kicked and then miraculously gets much stronger” narrative device that Bleach seems hell bent on using or the way that no one else in the ryoka has done anything remotely useful since they awakened to their spirit powers (which seems like ages and ages ago). I think I might have spoiled something for myself on wikipedia where Uryu actually does do some fighting next volume which is good because I think Ichigo is a cool dude and a serious bad-ass but I like the other people in his nakama just as much as him. Also, Tite Kubo really needs to slow down on introducing so many new characters. I know I’ve made this complaint before but it got out of hand this volume. There’s just a never-ending stream of new people to learn about and there’s not enough substance to their character for them to stick in my mind for the less than a few pages they are on at any given time even though they could become more important down the road.

Final Score: B

It’s very rare on my frenzied and uncomfortable subway rides these days (though I’m sure I’ll be missing them as much as everything else about this trip when I go back home next week) that I have time to truly enjoy the music I’m listening to. More often than not, it just serves as background noise so I can forget that I’m on a crowded train with a hundred other people that I don’t know and I don’t want to make eye contact with. Yesterday, I was on one of those lovely moments when hardly anyone else is on the train and I could really enjoy myself (well as much as you can enjoy a train ride). “Abel” by the National (off their breakthrough album Alligator) came on my iPod and it’s one of those songs that just grows on you more and more after every listen. My favorite the National album is probably Boxer, but damn, if “Abel” isn’t just one of those songs that once you play it once, you have to hear it about four or five more times in a row before you’re finally satisfied. Matt Berninger’s sudden shift from an Ian Curtis baritone to a full-throated punk rock scream is just a force of nature in and of itself, and the song is just catchy as fucking hell. I literally listened to it six times in a row on the subway yesterday and it’s the obvious choice for today’s song of the day.

 

For those wanting to hear May’s song of the day playlist, you can find it here on Spotify. If you’re interested in a broader selection of tunes, you can find the whole playlist for 2012 here.

It blows my mind that I’ve now read 79 issues of Bleach, and I’m still so microscopically behind in the overall plot of the series. The last issue to be published in Japan was #490 to put this into perspective. Now, if I maintain the momentum I’m at (which is reading 79 issues in a little over a month), I could theoretically catch up with the manga in about six and a half months. I don’t really see that happening because there’s not even a guarantee that I’ll still be this invested in the story a month from now. Our heroes have finally reached the Soul Society, and for better or worse, Bleach has officially become a very different comic from the quirky urban fantasy that I was unironically enjoying when I first began this series. I can already see how it’s becoming a more standard shonen series. The universe is still intriguing so I don’t care too much (though having watched the professionally translated anime as I’m reading the shoddily fan-translated manga, I’m growing tired of how shitty the translation work is in the version of the manga I read), but I can definitely see where this jarring transition rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Also, Tite Kubo keeps introducing an endless stream of new characters without giving any of these newbies a chance to really develop which is becoming semi-distracting.

Ichigo, Uryu, Orihime, Chad, and Yoruichi (from now on, this group will be referred to the “Ryoka” because that is the term in-universe for people who enter soul society without being cleansed by a shinigami) make it through the portal between the regular world and Soul Society by the skin of their teeth. However, their first test in Soul Society comes the second they land in the slums of Soul Society where the newest souls live. When they try to enter the Seireitei (the inner circle of Soul Society where the shinigami live), a massive wall appears along with a giant named Jidanbo who challenges Ichigo to a duel. Ichigo easily dispatches the giant (he spent five straight days training with Uruhara after he learned the name of his zanpakuto and has gotten immensely stronger), but a far more serious threat immediately emerges. The shinigami captain who was taunting Byakuya Kuchiki last volume (about the execution of Rukia), Gin Ichimaru, appears and slices off the giant’s arm (who was letting Ichigo and his nakama as respect for defeating him). He is preparing to execute the defenseless giant when Ichigo steps in to protect the honor of a man he just defeated. However, despite his zanpakuto being about as big as a dagger, Ichimaru easily defeats Ichigo and the door to Soul Society shuts behind them.

Ichigo’s decision to risk his life in order to protect Jidanbo earns the Ryoka the respect of the souls living in this section of Soul Society, including Shibata, the little boy whose spirit had inhabited the parakeet way back in the beginning of the series. Ichimaru’s arrival (and the re-closing of the gate) means that the security near the gate will be even tighter than before and the Ryoka will need another way into the seireitei. Yoruichi (who seems to know everyone in Soul Society) investigates the slums trying to find a person named Kukaku Shiba. As they’re investigating Kukaku’s whereabouts, a young man on a boar arrives (along with henchmen who are also riding boards) named Ganju Shiba that hates shinigami even more than Uryu did. He picks a fight with Ichigo and they fight roughly to a draw (and we learn that Ichigo is a pretty decent martial artist even when he doesn’t have his sword). However, the clock rings 9 and Ganju retreats under mysterious circumstances. The Ryoka is finally able to find Kukaku Shiba, who lives out in the middle of the Soul Society countryside in a house with a pair of giant fists holding a banner and a massive “chimney” behind it. It turns out that Kukaku Shiba is a woman (and a bad-ass one at that). She agrees to help the Ryoka get into the seireitei on the condition that they bring her brother along as a guide. Of course, the brother turns out to be Ganju and Ichigo and Ganju resume their fight (which Kukaku violently stops). And we finally learn her plan to get them into the seireitei. She’s going to shoot them in with a giant cannon.

This volume presents a bit of a conundrum. A lot of the material was really cool. We learned more about the hierarchy of the Soul Society. Specifically, we know about the fuedal Japan caste system that separates the shinigami from the regular souls (and also that Rukia and Renji both came from the lower castes originally. Also, we see the darker sides of Soul Society. Even in death, you aren’t reunited with your family which means that the things Ichigo and Rukia told Shibata when they cleansed him weren’t true (though you always got the idea during those scenes that Rukia was holding something back). You learn that the souls in the slums have a very low opinion of shinigami and that some people, like Ganju, don’t think that any of them are good. We know a little bit more about the process that is going to be used to execute Rukia, and through the introduction of a character named Aizen (whose true nature has been ruined for me by being roughly ten years late to this particular dance), we get hints that Rukia’s execution is certainly not normal and that someone may be pulling the strings to make it happen. However, for all of this cool stuff, the plot has gotten too complicated without becoming more substantive to back it all up. There were many, many new named characters introduced this volume, and to be honest, none of them really struck me as particularly interesting or compelling. I’d say Ichimaru was pretty bad-ass but he was introduced last volume. I’ve read where Tite Kubo just introduces new characters when he has writer’s block, and that unfortunately just means there could be dozens and dozens of flat and one-dimensional characters before I know it.

I’m going to stop now because I have to review an excellent German film, Wings of Desire, that I just finished and I want to have the energy to give that my full attention. Anyways, I’m still willing to put my time into Bleach and I don’t think that the quality has dropped in. Actually, besides the way that Tite Kubo introduced a million characters without really saying anything about them, my only complaint about this volume was the way that the other members of the Ryoka whose names aren’t Ichigo contributed jack squat to the proceedings. I like ensemble pieces, and by giving Ichigo a nakama of friends with super-powers, I thought that’s what Bleach was doing. If they all just sit around and watch Ichigo do bad-ass things and don’t commit any acts of bad-assery themselves, it’s not very entertaining. One man heroics get stale. I hope the rest of the Ryoka have their time to shine.

Final Score: B

I have something sort of embarrassing to admit. While I’ve been watching/reading Bleach and Elfen Lied (as well as reviewing them on here), I’ve been reading Naruto off and on (I can’t sit through the anime. I just can’t do it). Even when the adventures/villains in Naruto are cool in that “appeals to my inner child” kind of way, the series suffers from one absolutely major problem that I had to stop reading the books because it bothered me so much. Generally speaking, most anime do a good job of introducing new powers for the heroes. The series quickly establishes a set number of superpowers that our protagonists may have and through training or duress (but in those situations, the powers have been alluded to in the past like becoming a Super Saiyan) they gain others. Villains can suddenly gain new powers but that’s for plot twist value. In Naruto, it seemed like four or five new abilities were introduced in every single fight like the author was just pulling the universe’s rules out of his ass. It really bothered me and thankfully,Bleach has managed to not fall prey to that anime shortcoming (though Ichigo’s status as a “determinator” is still pretty ridiculous).

The last volume ended with Uruhara’s assistant Tessai severing Ichigo’s soul chain saying that the only way he can become ashinigami (and now not become a Hollow) is to forcibly regain his soul power in the short time he has left before his transformation. Put under a binding spell, Ichigo is dropped into a massive pit with three days to get his powers back. We see some quick scenes where Chad and Orihime are being trained (in far less “life-and-death” stakes) by the talking cat Yoruichi (I’m just going to assume there’s a story there) to awaken their own spiritual powers at will rather than under moments of great duress. Similarly, back in the Soul Society, we learn that (as Rukia predicted) she is to be executed in 25 days, most likely at the request of her brother Byakuya (though that isn’t made clear). We meet to other members of the Soul Society hierarchy. One’s name is Gin Ichimaru (I think) and Kenpachi Ziraki. I just looked it up. They are captains of different divisions (like Byakuya). Ziraki taunts Byakuya about Rukia’s fate but the incredibly swift (and I’m assuming powerful) Gin stops their from being any potential violence. Back in Uruhara’s shop/training area, the 72 hours come and go and Ichigo makes no progress in regaining his powers. As the last of his soul chain is devoured, he begins to transform into a hollow and Tessai decides it’s time to kill Ichigo before he becomes what one would assume would be an absurdly powerful Hollow.

While Ichigo’s body is becoming covered in the Hollow “material” (?), he begins to have a vision of a strange man in a cape in a world of boxes. The man tries to tell him his name but Ichigo is unable to hear it. Suddenly, the world begins to dissolve around Ichigo and the man implores him to find the box with his shinigami powers (at which point Ichigo remembers Ishida’s story about how shinigami‘s soul ribbons are red). Ichigo finds the hilt of his zanpakuto (though not the blade). In  a massive explosion, he destroys the giant implement Tessai was going to use to kill him and emerges out of the pit in his shinigami robe. He also has a Hollow mask on but with one quick bash of his sword’s hilt, Ichigo is back to his normal bad-ass self. He passes his second test and now must do his third and final one which is to knock the hat off of Uruhara’s head who draws his own zanpakuto (which means he’s hiding something about himself). Uruhara nearly kills Ichigo when Ichigo sees his zanpakuto‘s spirit again and finally learns the swords name, zangetsu. It becomes a massive sword whose type I can’t really name and Ichigo easily (in one swing) knocks off Uruhara’s hat (and would have killed Uruhara if he hadn’t put up a shield). Seven days later (after Chad, Orihime, and Ichigo all say goodbye to their families), they return to Uruhara’s shop one last time (along with Uryu) to finally enter Soul Society. Uruhara has created a massive portal but he gives them a dire warning. They only have four minutes to make it through. Any more and they’ll be stuck between the world’s forever and thus they head out with Yoruichi as their guide.

Once again, Bleach continues to expand the mythology of the series and I still enjoy it. It hasn’t become overly complicated but it also isn’t mind-numbingly simple like say the mythology of DBZ. The way that their weapons are apparently sentient spiritual beings reminds me at least a little bit of Soul Eater (though those weapons were straight up people. Kind of. I never really understood how the hell that all worked). And while it still bothers me that it took Ichigo simply learning his sword’s name to quickly overpower Uruhara (who is perhaps the “Big Good” of the series to the “Big Bad” that is [for now] Byakuya), at least it was a suitably bad-ass moment. And while I can’t make up my mind whether or not his current zanpakuto (when it’s named) looks cooler than the sword when it was unnamed, I definitely know that Renji’s flail-sword was much more bad-ass. However, the art-work (on the show especially cause it had color) where we see Ichigo with both the soul reaper stuff and the Hollow mask with all of the bandages flowing off of him cause of Tessai’s spell was one of the best drawn scenes from the series so far. It really sold how bad ass that whole moment was.

I could probably write a little bit more but I still have to review Glee from last night plus do my “Song of the Day” post so I’ll draw my rantings about Bleach to a close. We began the Soul Society arc the second that Rukia ran away from Ichigo’s house and three volumes later, I’m still enjoying this story. Maybe things will change when we actually reach the Soul Society, but I’ve even enjoyed the scenes that I’ve read that have occurred there. There’s this interesting feudal Japan thing going on that lends it an air of mystery (at least to me as a non-Japanese person), and there are certainly bad guys and good guys in the group. The series teased us that Renji was the real psycho of his duo but we’re quickly learning that title (of villain if not psycho) goes to Byakuya, and that there might be people within the Soul Society that are even worse than him. Tite Kubo keeps crafting a really cool world and as long as this world remains interesting and I keep learning awesome new things about it, I’ll keep giving this series my attention.

Final Score: B