Critical Hit!!

pop culture (and everything else) explored

When the fanfic becomes canon – JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven

The logo to JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven (PS4) is a game that’s made for the fans. Not only is it the ultimate crossover event for the series, it creates situations that speaks the characters of the series in ways only fans can understand. Now, the title of this post isn’t perfectly accurate, as the video game JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven is not technically canon. Still, creator Hirohiko Araki wrote the story himself, and he envisions the alternate reality we all want – one where the lives of fan favourite characters are restored through the ultimate crossover event. Old Joseph Joestar remembers how Caesar died, sees the process happening before him, and stops the hot-headed Caesar to save his life. Part 3 Polnareff meets the Part 5 crew before he began researching the arrows. And the ending to the game is, well…

A gif of Doctor who saying everybody lives!

It just goes to show how perhaps no one loves JJBA characters more that Araki himself, as just might serve as an example of a creator making fan-fiction for his own creation.

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Defining Anime

Geoff from Mother’s Basement made a new video recently critiquing how we current define anime, and what definition(s) we should take moving forward. I find the idea of anime as a series of movements interesting. I also like his point of how we can get more people talking about animation in its various forms. I do think, however, that his conceptualization of anime itself as a movement has some problems. A lot of what I disagree with I’ve articulated in my two-part series What is Anime, but I’ll take some time to expand upon a few points I disagree with.

One problem is that the idea that anime is a collectively agreed upon movement is not true in Japan. Creators like Hayao Miyazaki, Kuri Yoji, Furukawa Taku, and Aihara Nobuhiro express their disdain for anime, which for them means television animation in Japan. You can read more about that in the open access article  “To Be or Not to Be – Anime: The Controversy in Japan over the “Anime” Label” by Sheuo Hui Gan.

There are also contexts that can get lost if anime is conceptualized as one giant movement. The big eyed aesthetic is something that has historical and political contexts emerging from the beginnings of television animation in Japan. The “big eyes” come from Tezuka, who got them from Disney comics during the occupation. The fact that the fattened, big eyes aesthetic is then taken back to America is a fascinating cultural flow that I think gets lost when the discourse of anime is changed to a movement rather than a locus of production centred in Japan. Another important piece of knowledge lost is how stylistic cost cutting is something that emerged from a political and economic context of Japan, particularly emerging during Japan’s Americanization in the 50s. Keeping a definition of anime that focuses on Japan’s production, distribution, and consumption helps keep these histories of imperialism and aesthetic within the public discourse.

Comparisons to the French New Wave, and how he conceptualizes it are a bit murky. French New Wave films are recognizable as French New Wave because they are films produced in France during the 50-60s with certain aesthetic and stylistic flair. The movement is located in a distinct, defined political, historical, and economic context. When we say Tarentino and others are influenced by the movement, we recognize they were not directors working in France in the 1960s, but rather the French New Wave as a movement in filming had dramatic effects across the globe in envisioning new methods of filmmaking. The same is for anime. Many western animators (Genndy Tartakovsky, for example), are influenced by anime, but we also recognize he is not an animator working in Japan, but rather globalization developments, technological changes, and global cultural flows all have a hand in spreading anime’s influence around the world.

Hence my hesitation to call it a movement, at least in the very general sense that Geoff uses. There are certainly many movements within Japanese animation (such as genre shifts, aesthetic changes, etc.). But I do think for concrete discourse and study of anime, Japan as a locus of history, politics, economics, imperialism, and more is essential for understanding anime both as a product (shows, OVAs, films, etc) and a process (the anime industry that shapes these products).

Faeries

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons 

Faeries (1999) is about two young siblings falling into the arbitrary laws of faeryworld and how they ultimately help save the kingdom from evil. Well, really, its the older sister Nellie that saves the day. Her young brother George mostly just gets in the way.

It’s an animated film, and it’s terrible. It smashes traditional 2d cel animation with CG and even miniature sets… I think? The only way to access this film is watching a low quality rip on Youtube, as this film has been justifiably forgotten. It does have a few interesting things, namely 1/2 of a good voice cast (Kate Winslet, Jeremy Irons, Dougray Scott), a wedding scene that happens in the middle of a film as opposed to the end, Dougray Scott is actually sweet as the faery Prince, and… ok maybe that’s about it too. Otherwise the film is filled with fantasy tropes (orb of power) and frustrating arbitrary dining rules (like the myth of Persepone, except … even cheaper.) The character designs likely belong to the Bad Character designs tumblr as well.

Unfortunately, Irons is barely in the film, as he plays the Shapeshifter, the evil brother of the Faery Prince. As a result, much of his character’s screen time is spent imitating other characters, so we the audience rarely get the luxury of Irons’ voice. When Irons does speak, he adds a nasality quality to his voice to sound reedy and raspy rather than the richness his voice can deliver. You can tell how he’s only a half-step away from his Profion voice in Dungeons & Dragons (2000).

Ultimately, Faeries is only interesting for how much of a forgotten movie it is. Its iMDB page is hilarious sparse, and little information about the film is available online. Watch it if you like to find forgotten media on the internet.

The Man in the Iron Mask

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

The poster for The Man in the Iron Mask

Bros bein’ bros.

For the next entry in this series, we’ll skip the near-impossible to find tv movie Mirad (1997) and jump to Jeremy Irons’ next item in his filmography: The Man in the Iron Mask (1998). What to say about this film, when it some of the most middle of the road filmmaking I’ve even seen? This isn’t to completely discredit the movie, but it is a kind of film Hollywood doesn’t make too often anymore: the medium-budgeted film. No franchise expectations as an adaptation, but merely a historical period piece.

It’s similar to Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers adaptation, in that it doesn’t have enough so-bad-its-good moments to keep the film alive. Instead, while this film is certainly more competent than Anderson’s disappointment (save for Orlando Bloom’s gloriously campy performance), The Man in the Iron Mask is just that: competent. It’s mostly notable for all the big names attached, and the small but notable qualities they add to the film. John Malkovich has some hilarious scenes that emerge from his particular acting style, which often amounts to over enunciating his lines. Coupled with his musketeer role as Athos, aka “the angry one”, Malkovich provides a few (unintentional) laughs, particularly within his first scene in the film.

Gerard Depardieu plays Porthos, aka “the comedic relief.” He doesn’t get much to do unfortunately, so the movie shoves some conflict that he’s suicidal because his lust for life no longer satiates him. This results in Jeremy Irons as Aramis, aka “the priestly one,” conniving a way to save him in a skit that is rather humorous. Irons here plays another priest character (a Jesuit even!), who is also basically “the smart one,” as opposed to his tendency to play characters tainted with sin. Gabriel Byrne is D’Artagnan, aka “the loyal one”, and if it wasn’t clear by now, this film distills characters to their bare essence and works from there. And of course, we can’t forget Leonardo DiCaprio (the main reason this film made money in a post-Titanic world) as both the corrupt King Louis XIV and his twin brother Philippe, playing whiny aristocracy and Perfect Cinnamon Role, respectively.

All the performers do a good job, but the film is passable. Part of the 90s charm of this movie is because it’s full of 90s men acting in a thoroughly 90s period piece. Of course this doesn’t save the film from its more tedious moments, as the script has some clunky set up and payoff. Furthermore, the film just isn’t that notable, as there isn’t much to comment on aside from the more nitpick criticisms I could give.

Irons plays another Jesuit priest, which makes it clear he is typecast as more that just lecherous people, but also saintly figures as well. Either way, his characters are also usually smart or cunning in some way, people coming from an upper class background or cultural clout. And in the end, The Man in the Iron Mask is another literary adaptation to add to his high brow portfolio, a competent and ultimately welcome addition to his career.

Lolita

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons 

Lolita (1997) is not a terrible film. It does, however, suffer from a fundamentally compromising tone problem, that of an oppressive respectability that suffocates many of Jeremy Irons’ projects. With a preference for literary and other high brow adaptations, it’s remarkable Irons was never tapped for a Merchant Ivory project, and many of his films aim for that level of monied respectability. But is the wrong tone for this film, as it fails to consistently capture how the protagonist Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator, a central crux to the comical and critical view of Humbert.

Lolita is about the obsessions of a pedophile. The novel (which I have not read, nor have I seen Kubrick’s version) is full of high literary humour, whereas this adaptation is a dour drama, dampening what humour it does stage with a treacly score by Ennio Morricone and a dead serious tone. Scenes such as Humbert Humbert (Irons) slipping and sliding in a hospital or a naked Clare Quilty (Frank Langella) being chased throughout his manor by Humbert have humour embedded within them, but Morricone’s score is used to create drama and suspense instead of propelling the humour. Such drama is compelling throughout the film, but in the end the audience must question why this film makes us feel for Humbert Humbert. Instead of a consistent tone of mockery that reveals Humbert as an unreliable narrator, the film portrays scenes in lush detail, yet fails to capture the derisive humour that surrounds our pathetic protagonist. There are some exceptions. Some scenes make the unreliable narrator more obvious, such as Humbert’s idyllic, idealistic gaze as he looks at Dolores for the last time as he wants to remember her, not as a pregnant woman, but the 12-year-old he loved. Another captures his paranoia, stretching and warping the film in a distinctly 90s fashion to illustrate his obsession. Finally, the narration by Irons illustrates Humbert’s perverse mindset, such as Humbert casually clearing his conscious when he finds out Dolores (Dominique Swain) was sexually active at summer camp. He wasn’t even her “first lover”, Humber narrates coolly, in an attempt to erase culpability for his pedophilic desires.

However, Humbert’s role as an unreliable narrator is inconsistent. Morricone’s score is probably meant to imply the artificiality of Humbert’s view – that he sees Dolores through an idealized gaze, but it is never employed with the irony it needs to present such a worldview. Instead, it functions as prestige lining, embroidering the carefully framed tableaux instead of undercutting them to reveal Humbert’s fabrications. Thus, the film often walks the dangerous line of glorifying what it should be condemning. While the film is entertaining in terms of drama, its function as a prestige project drama undermines the tonal consistency required for such a project.

This isn’t to say the film never critiques the sexualization of young girls. As Mark Nicholls (2012) writes, “it is clear to anyone who opens a magazine or watches any form of screen entertainment that, as a culture, we remain ambivalent as best as to what we think about the sexualization of teenage girls” (189). Dolores continuously looks at various magazines and comics as she adorns her walls with idealized images of women. This begs the question of how the media glamourizes and sexualizes young girls. As Humbert writes in the novel, Dolores’ profession was “none, or ‘starlet'”, illustrating how Dolores’ expectations are warped. But so to are Humbert’s, and the film would be much more successful if it made Humbert’s unreliability as a narrator consistently clear.

Irons, of course, is perfect to play the role of Humbert Humbert. The gazing, the lusting, the creepiness, the narration, it’s all a perfect fit for Irons, who, as Nicholls describes, often plays “the prince of perversion” (2). Irons is practically born for the role, balancing wistful gazes with authentic nervousness, and paranoia with power. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, creating compelling chemistry between characters that will twist you along throughout the drama. It’s only a shame that such drama lost some of its teeth in adaptation. In the end, the film’s prestige portrait of Humbert is more that what he deserves.

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Nicholls, Mark. Lost Objects of Desire: The Performances of Jeremy Irons. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.

 

The “Feminism” of Paul Feig’s Cinema

I tried watching Bridesmaids (2011) today, and it was really, really hard to watch. It’s terrible people being terrible (main character’s privacy is severely violated, her good ideas get shut down, etc), and people interacting with no emotional honesty. Things probably get resolved in the end, but I didn’t want to have to wait through the suffering. (This is not to say that women can’t do physical or grossout comedy, but I just wish it didn’t come with the mean-spiritedness.) I had to stop watching partway through.

It happens in a lot of Paul Feig’s movies. A lot of women just suffer, and it’s supposed to be funny, but the resolutions are never “things get better”, but the system usually stays the same, just slightly altered. Spy (2015), for instance, does end with Melissa McCarthy becoming a full spy, but still is given embarrassing and/or humiliating fake ids for her work. This is not progressive, nor is it funny.

Feig’s work with leading female comedians often gets highlighted as “feminist”, but the reality is that Hollywood is so backwards with its rampant sexism (and racism, and homophobia, etc.) that the few films that do star women are heralded as progressive pieces of media, when the reality is they do little more that perpetuate the status quo. It also doesn’t help that Feig, who started in TV, shoots with a banality that illustrates his limitations as a director. Rather, there is a lack of imagination throughout his films, both in terms of filmmaking, and what feminism, including feminist humour, can actually be.

Chinese Box

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons 

Chinese Box (1997) is not a remarkable film. My expectations shrank when I found out the director Wayne Wang also directed Maid in Manhattan (2002). Rather, I found interest in the various elements of Jeremy Irons’ career, and how it distills and reflects them within the backdrop of Hong Kong. Set during the 6 months before Hong Kong’s turnover to China in 1997, the film explores Hong Kong, a “Chinese Box” as it were, a puzzle to solve, though the lives of John (Irons), a British journalist, his sometimes lover Vivian (Li Gong), and the charming yet mysterious stranger Jean (Maggie Cheung). The film juggles a lot of elements – John and Vivian’s affair and their struggle to reconcile their relationship, John’s fascination (and creepy obsession) with Jean – amidst the backdrop of Hong Kong in transition.

The thread that ostensibly ties the various plot points together is John’s ruminations on Hong Kong. As John recounts to Vivian, he desires something that isn’t “here today, gone tomorrow.” Vivian responds that “You won’t find that in Hong Kong.” The encounter mirrors their relationship of course, one held in indeterminacy as Vivian struggles with living in Hong Kong as an immigrant from the mainland. But by the end of the film, the “Chinese Box” of Hong Kong, its mysterious essence, is that it is always changing. Scenes throughout the film, between business hot shots, British commentators, and more highlight this fact, but it never ties together as a fully realized theme as other Last Generation filmmakers have explored before. In fact, the film presents Hong Kong as a place of constant change from the beginning, so the film’s exploration on the subject never feels like it reaches a proper maturation.

Image of a watch with Chariman mao on it from chinese box

At the beginning of the film, we see CG images within a Chinese box pass by, including a watch with Chairman Mao. The arm jitters about, as if time struggles to move forward, a reflection on the anxieties of the changes to Hong Kong.

Much of this film echoes similar explorations in British Hong Kong’s ‘Last Generation’ cinema, film that reflected the anxiety around Hong Kong’s turnover to China, initially announced in 1984. Films such as Rouge (1987), C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri (‘Xin buliao qing’, 1993), and Chunking Express (1994) explore the transient nature of Hong Kong, and reflect on the changes to come. In fact, Chris Doyle, the director of photography for Chunking Express, was the DP 2nd unit for Chinese Box, and I suspect he may have lent his apartment for filming for Chinese Box as he did for Chunking Express. The film is also similar to the previous entry in this series, Stealing Beauty  (1996). Both films use handheld consumer cameras to clearly situate the film in the 90s, both films also deal with Irons dying from a serious illness (AIDS in Stealing Beauty, leukaemia in Chinese Box).

Irons’ character, a Briton, begins to die as the British empire in Hong Kong withers away. The parallels are quite clear, despite how John distances himself from his more narrow-minded British compatriots. Irons’ character reflects a decaying British presence in Hong Kong. The question then becomes, does his absolutely perverse behaviour throughout the film (slut-shamming Vivian, stalking Jean, treating both as objects rather that human beings) supposed to be a reflection or even critique of the British gaze and rule of Hong Kong? While Jean initially rebukes his investigative advances (he films her without her consent, and she forcefully shoves the camera away), John’s creepy behaviour is rarely critiqued in the film. When Jean tells a story of her being raped by her father and a police office through camera footage (a lie, but not known at the time), John and his male friend do not react, but rather evaluate the footage for its artistic merit, and discuss whether they would have sex with her based on the damage she may have received from the abuse. Is the takeaway that John is a reflection of the colonial mindset? Perhaps. Throughout the film, John is linked to images and sounds of a beating heart, such as the beating hearts of freshly butchered fish in the market or the beat of the factory machinery nearby. In the end of the film, John sits and closes his eyes on a pier of Hong Kong, filming himself. Meanwhile, Vivian looks at a beating heart in the market, and the film cuts to credits. Does John finally succumb to his leukaemia and die, like the fading British empire? The film leaves it ambiguous, as we never see the heart stop beating, and the sound of the machinery only stops when the credits rise. In the end, if the film was critiquing the colonial gaze through the character of John, his arc would require much more criticism for his creepy, obsessive behaviour with the women in his life.

Of course, Irons playing a creepy stalker is well at home in his portfolio of playing perverse characters. The film’s attempt at reflection on a serious subject (the transfer of Hong Kong) fits right into his portfolio as well. At the very least, Chinese Box made me recognize again that Irons often narrates the films he stars in, a trend that started right from the beginning of his career in Brideshead Revisited (1981). Irons’ deep, weathered voice makes for excellent narration material, and many films capitalize on this asset.

Overall, this film is a somewhat forgettable entry into Irons’ career. While the main trio of actors are excellent, the material fails to give a compelling story.

Peter Gabriel and the Animated Music Video

I’ve been thinking about how, of Peter Gabriel’s many accomplishments, one of the best has to be bringing animation of all kinds (claymation, experimental, etc) to the masses through his excellent music videos. Songs such as “Digging in the Dirt” (1992), “Kiss That Frog” (1993), and yes, even “Steam” (1992) introduced a variety of animation techniques that were not only cutting edge, but many of which were revolutionary for their time.

And of course, there is the classic “Sledgehammer” (1986). With animation from Aardman Animations and the Brothers Quay, the video is still to this day the most played music video ever. And for good reason. With numerous seamless transitions in animation styles and materials, the video is a captivating and exciting watch. And of course, it’s also weird. With dancing supermarket chickens, a sledgehammer being made of sledgehammers, and Gabriel walking away in a suit covered in white lights , this and more leaves the viewer stunned and perhaps even perplexed in the end. And that’s fantastic. Gabriel and his music video directors make use of the ample creativity that animation allows, making some of the most striking and memorable music videos in history.

Reflections on my first Teaching Assistant Position

Last semester, I worked as a teaching assistant for an introductory film course. I am done teaching for now, and I thought it was appropriate to reflect on my experiences to better improve my pedagogy.

Things that I did well:

  • I think I did well in teaching the basics of film form and style. Specific activities focused on assessing cinematography, mise-en-scène, and other elements of film form were relatively successful.
  • The class activity recommended by a friend of mine worked very well. You start by having students work individually on a few questions, then have them pair up and compare answers. Then have pairs link up with other pairs to make groups of four, which will then report back to the class.

Things that could have gone better:

  • I’ve been relatively well in terms of accommodating students, but in a few instances, it would have been beneficial to have been stricter, or most specifically, be willing to correct them. Thinking more about how to better assess these issues, I believe using more leading questions will allow students to figure out the correct answers.
  • I was very generous to students – giving them candy after halloween – but this also was stressful.
  • I always felt I was teaching somewhat by the grit of my teeth, even when I prepared for tutorials.

I am taking various teaching workshops to improve my teaching, and I look forward to teaching again

My first published academic paper

I am pleased to announce my paper “Recreating Reality: Waltz With Bashir, Persepolis, and the Documentary Genre” has been published by the Animation Studies Online Journal. Read it here.

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