TV: Please Like Me season 2 (2014)

creators: Josh Thomas & Matthew Saville
language: English and a bit of Thai
length: 10 episodes of about 25 minutes each
finished watching on: 1 May 2017
previous seasons: season 1

I can’t remember why I took such a long break from this series – there were a few months when I didn’t watch it at all, before picking it up again sometime this year. But I still get a strong impulse to watch it whenever I cook food, perhaps a habit, but perhaps also influenced by the importance of food in the series (they provide motifs for a lot of episodes and the episodes are named after food).

Basically, the series has found its feet here, but I feel it’s still far too full of cringe humour for my liking at the end of the day. Josh, the main character, is insufferable, to be honest, constantly nagging other characters for attention and validation.

I like how it deals very frankly and directly with mental illness. But it often goes from these moments straight back into something very cringeworthy for comedy’s sake, and perhaps back again, even ending one episode with the surprise suicide of a side character – I said in the review of the last season that I was annoyed that my favourite character had been killed off by the show, and this is the same. I think the tone wasn’t consistent in this area. Balance is important.

But it’s got some high points – Josh and his mum in the wilderness of Tasmania was a really nice episode, and I liked the introduction of Arnold, who as far as I know will end up with Josh in the next season.

Despite its negative points, I still identify with a lot of the characters and recognize the situations. I’ll still be continuing with the next season. Soon, perhaps!

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Film #286: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

creator: Walt Disney
language: English
length: 83 minutes
watched on: 28 April 2017

I think I watched this as a child, but it was so long ago I can’t remember it at all. Anyway, recently some of the less reputable shops in Japan have been selling old Disney movies for ¥80 a pop – it says on the sleeve that they’re now in the public domain. I suspect that this isn’t the case in America or the UK, but I don’t know. The knock-off DVDs are pretty low quality, though, of course. You can see the interlacing and it skipped a couple of times during the movie.

I kind of assume you all know what happens in this movie. I knew the basic story already, it’s just the details that have escaped me. I don’t really know what I expected from this period (compare with His Wedding Night (1917), for example), but the gender roles are ridiculously strong in this movie. Snow White controls everything around her with her beauty (the animals do her bidding when she sings), and her role in the dwarfs’ lives is to be a positive feminine force – she basically makes a deal to stay with them if she can do all their housework for them, and before she arrives, they’re slovenly, like college students. As for Prince Charming, I think he has a total of about two minutes’ screen time. Not quite enough to establish a romance, I’d have thought.

Things I liked included Dopey, basically a silent film character whose role is to provide slapstick humour, and the few sequences in the movie that were actually kind of scary, like when the dwarfs chase the witch away up a cliff during a thunderstorm. The dwarf characters are all established well and have distinctive characters, even when they have very little screentime – this is in direct contrast to movies (and indeed books) like The Hobbit. Over the course of that trilogy, I could only reliably distinguish about three of the dwarves by character, and I couldn’t remember any of their names.

It was also nice to hear the songs, although “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, it’s off to work we go” is still the only one I actually know in any capacity. And I found the film funny, mostly. It’s nice to revisit things like this. I got two more ¥80 DVDs at the same time, so I will eventually watch and review those too. Watch this space, I guess.

How about you? What’s your favourite Disney movie?

Film #280: Drive (2011)

director: Nicholas Winding Refn
language: English
length: 96 minutes
watched on: 5 April 2017

I must admit, I always thought this movie would be more like The Fast and the Furious, a series I’ve never been interested in watching (although perhaps I’m missing out). Cars don’t generally do it for me. So I was surprised to see it actually bore a lot more resemblance to Tangerine, at least in that there are a lot of shots of driving around suburban Los Angeles.

Ryan Reynolds Gosling is the main character, a getaway driver who also does stunt work for the movies as his day job. Bryan Cranston (love of my life) is his unscrupulous boss. Ryan is morose, and a man of few words – he grunts and barely says anything throughout the movie, except for a spiel about his five minute getaway rule. He falls in love with his neighbour, whose husband is in prison. After the husband is out, there’s a tense relationship between them, but they seem to make friends and do a job together.

Basically, without wishing to spoil anything, the movie gets very violent very quickly and often suddenly. There are moments that I felt it went too far – Ryan’s character obviously has unresolved issues of some kind when he’s beating up bad guys, and it’s enough to show him staving a guy’s head in without then jump-cutting to the bloodied cadaver. We see enough without seeing everything.

The romance for me was also too boring – I’m not sure they even kiss. The director said this was some kind of Platonic ideal romance, or something. The Disneyishness of it contrasts too much with the ultra-violence.

But I liked the movie’s visual style, and its simplicity in composition and plot. There are a few good action sequences too. And I liked the music – I even looked some of it up to listen later. It’s definitely on the high end of the movie spectrum and has a lot going for it, even though I also think it goes too far with the gore and violence.

Book #130: Openly Straight (2013)

author: Bill Konigsberg
language: English
length: 339 pages
finished reading on: 6 Mar 2017

It remains the case, at least from what I can see, that it’s easier to find young adult LGBT novels than it is to find more grown-up stuff. Perhaps my readers have a different perspective? Let me know if you know anything good! Anyway, for me this follows on from similar books like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which I read last year. It’s similarly easy to read, and the story is also generally optimistic.

The conceit here is a boy called Rafe who is openly gay, but tired of being The Gay Kid at his school, and wants to be treated “normally”. So he ups and moves right across the country to attend boarding school in Massachusetts, where he decides he’s not going to reveal his sexuality straight away – going back in the closet, as his best friend and family term it.

The arc of the story is very predictable – I could tell what was going to happen within the first two chapters, as all the main characters are introduced. But this predictability is a boon in this genre, actually. It’s comforting to be able to know what will happen next.

The exploration of identity is interesting, but I’m definitely out of the target audience of teenagers still trying to work this stuff out. But I could see parts of myself in it too. I was never “out” in high school, but I would never have wanted to be seen as The Gay Kid. I’m reminded of something my coworker said recently – being gay is important to me but it’s not my primary identity, nor the first adjective he’d describe me with. His impression was that Americans seem to be more eager to make it the centre of their identities, and if I was American I might want to be seen as That Gay Guy.

Not sure about that, but that idea is reflected to some extent here – the other characters are shocked when they find out the main character is tired of broadcasting his identity in such a way, and it looks into the labels we apply to each other. Once he stops broadcasting that he’s gay, he immediately picks up other labels, such as “jock”. And it’s more subtle, but names, too, are very important in the book – the main character goes by different names to different people, and his friend gets angry when people call her the wrong name. I think this was a sensible choice from the author to demonstrate other shifts in identity that everyone makes.

I’m not so into many sports myself, and sports are also a big theme of the book – so I switched off a bit for the descriptions of soccer or American football, but I liked the bits where they went skiing. Selective, perhaps.

It gets very, very awkward at some points, though, in that way of teenagers unable to express their feelings well. Similar to Boys, the last movie I watched, it reminded me in a bad way of the anxiety of coming out.

So while I enjoyed its exploration of the character’s identity, and in general I found it easy to read and enjoyed the variety of characters and situations, I still think I need to get away from stories of coming out and coming of age.

And thus I reiterate my initial request – does anyone know any gay novels that aren’t about coming of age?

Film #263: Sing Street (2016)

singstreetdirector: John Carney
language: English
length: 106 minutes
watched on: 1 Feb 2017

Following a bit of a theme at the moment, I’m currently making my way through several movies I missed in the cinema last year (this follows The Jungle Book, Your Name, and a few others). I had a cold, and since Japan still has DVD rental stores, I went there instead of doing exercise, and Sing Street was plastered gaudily across the entrance as the latest release of that week. I also finally put my sofa to good use (I’ve had it for a few months, maybe since November), and the new wireless headphones my dad bought me for Christmas, and made a mini cinema setup in my room.

The movie is set in the 1980s (another theme I’ve noticed recently alongside things like Stranger Things is this 80s revival that seems to be happening), in Ireland. The economy is in freefall, and everyone is trying to get out – characters are constantly talking about going to London. The main character Conor’s parents are just realizing that they don’t want to be together anymore, and they have to take him out of private school and send him to the local public school. Then he starts a band to try and impress a girl, and the movie takes it from there. Basically all I knew before watching it was it’s an Irish musical film.

So first of all, the music in this movie is excellent, and I actually bought the soundtrack after watching the movie and still having the songs in my head for the next few days. The songs perfectly complement the story and the journey of the characters, and the kids who play the music are all very talented (a few of them are very much background characters of course). The visual style is equally important, as it’s the story of the pursuit of the perfect music video.

It’s a real old-fashioned feel-good movie – despite the rough situation economically and despite the homophobic and racist attitudes that are rife in the film, it’s still a very optimistic film. It blurs the line a lot between reality and the main character’s dreams and aspirations, never more obvious in the big setpiece scene where his imagination of what the music video should look like takes over, only to crash back to reality.

Like Departure, the scenes showing the parents’ divorce hit close to the bone, too. The movie has real heart but could be very raw with the emotion. Like Your Name, I was worried that the romance would be trite and hokey, but I was cheering them on by about halfway through when the romance kick starts properly.

It’s also a very funny movie – it produces laughs very easily. I was giggling at a lot of the lines, but not just that – as I mentioned, the movie in general has a good visual sense, and the director knows how to pull off a good visual or slapstick gag. I’m thinking in particular of the “cool” boyfriend having trouble driving his car, or the cut to the kids smoking in the shed moments after telling their mum that they never did such things.

It’s a small thing, but one thing I liked a lot was the teenagers in this movie are really teenagers. Especially the ginger kid who does all the filming – he looks really young, as do the main characters. When I was growing up, there was a strong tendency to put 20 year olds in teenage roles, especially in American movies, and I’m glad to see that movies have by and large moved away from that.

Another comedic moment was the disclaimer in the end credits – beyond the usual “this is fiction” disclaimer, there’s a note that says the real Synge Street school, where the film is mostly set, is, 30 years later, much more multicultural and a really accepting environment. The intolerant attitudes from the teachers and pupils in the film don’t make it come across well, of course.

I’m just sitting here writing it trying to think of a way to fault the movie. Too much homophobia, perhaps, but as in the disclaimer above, this is accurate to the era in which the movie is set. Perhaps I find it unrealistic that they get so good at music so quickly, but again, this is part of the whole thing the director is doing where it’s unclear where the music ends and where Conor’s imagination takes over. Everything seems to just… fit.

So yeah, I liked it. I think everyone should see it. What did you think?

Book #119: Language Lessons (2011)

langlessonsauthor: Jay Bell
language: English
length: 47 pages
read on: October 31 2016

This was my second foray into the world of free Kindle books after The Metamorphosis, but it’s not out of copyright like that other book – rather it’s a short story that the author decided to release for free. It’s on the Amazon Kindle store if anyone wants to try it.

It’s written by Jay Bell, who also wrote the Something Like Summer series. Like that series, this is also a gay romance story, although it’s not part of the same storyline or anything, like the sequels to that book had been.

The length of the book meant it jumped rather abruptly between sections of the story. It starts with the main character hooking up with a guy across the street, also without much preamble, proceeds to hooking up the other guy with an ex-boyfriend, and then suddenly switches to the main character pursuing a completely new character he’d met in a restaurant, but with an eye to love instead of sex, which is unusual for him.

My main problem was the main character, who is a conceited little shit – he’s 16 and already far more confident than any 16-year-old has any right to be. He’s obsessed with looks, and tries to dress very prim and smart because it gives him an air of masculinity or authority, or something. Several times he’s outright rude to other characters. I wouldn’t like him if I met him in real life. That said, he redeems himself a bit with the second storyline, where his insecurities are more in play. If he’d been around 23 or 24 I’d have bought the character more, but I don’t identify much with characters who are getting a lot of casual sex at 16, as that was never the case for me – I wasn’t even out of the closet at that point.

It’s a fairly simple story, free and short, and on that count I think it was fine. It just wasn’t great.

Book #117: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (2015)

svhsaauthor: Becky Albertalli
language: English
length: 303 pages
finished on: 27 October 2016

Just like the last book I read, I wanted to finish this one quickly so I could get started on my new Kindle (which I got for my birthday). So I ended up reading the last portion of the book in one sitting.

The book is a “young adult” story about gay teenagers. I’ve mentioned it before, but I don’t think I had access to any such things when I was a teenager… but whether I’d have taken the opportunity at that time is a different story. Being in the closet does that to you. I’m making up for lost time now.

The central character is Simon, who is in the closet, but seems to be comfortable with himself – just not ready to tell the world yet. He’s writing to someone that he met through Tumblr (another modern institution that didn’t exist in the previous decade), who goes to the same school, and trying to work out the other person’s mystery identity. At the same time, a rather despicable boy discovers the emails and blackmails him into trying to hook him up with a girl.

The depiction of the main character is spot on, I think, and his/the author’s sense of humour is well-observed. It captured the awkwardness of teenage years well. I really felt for the characters, despite now being in a stage of life where I’ve largely stopped caring about people’s reactions (ie. I’m not generally scared of coming out anymore).

I did often feel like the main character was being a bit stupid, or thinking the wrong thing. For most of the book, he thinks the mystery emailer is one particular character, and it’s fairly obvious that that’s not the case, and it’s wishful thinking. It’s like a narrative trope, or something. At the same time, the eventual answer to the mystery seems to come out of nowhere – the hints and foreshadowing are there if you know what to look for (the main character smiles at him in a certain way about two thirds of the way through the book, for example), but the character was so minor up to that point it’s a genuine surprise.

I liked it, anyway. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in young adult gay fiction, which is probably not most of my friends, but hey. How about you, the reader? What did you think?

Book #84: Stardust (1998)

stardustAuthor: Neil Gaiman
Language: English
Length: 382 minutes (6 hours 22 minutes)
Finished listening on: 15 April 2015

Oops… what with a family wedding recently I’ve kind of let this hobby slide. And maybe it’s only me who cares, but I actually finished this before the last book I reviewed, and somehow they got mixed up. At least the number is correct! It’s been a while, so welcome back everyone.

Today I’m going to think about the book Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Stardust was previously a movie that I watched on a plane a couple of years ago on a whim having known nothing about it. This time it was also a reintroduction of sorts to audiobooks, as I renewed my subscription to Audible again recently (managing somehow to grab a three month half price deal).

First off I want to say that it’s disappointing that there were no cross-dressing pirates in the book – there were pirates though, at least. In fact, I think the same goes for a lot of this: it’s that rare book that suited being made into a film, as that lent it a particular visual style that it didn’t have in the written form.

I’m sure that Gaiman’s descriptions are perfectly adequate, but the book was pretty short and has somewhat of a road trip structure to it, as the characters travel across the land of Fairy, so it darts around very quickly between different scenes and situations, without pausing much for breath.

Of course, the book does allow an insight to the characters’ minds that a film doesn’t afford its viewers, and basically it was fine. I think I possibly understand why this book and movie aren’t so well known or aren’t Gaiman’s most popular, however, and I guess that’s how cutesy it is. The saccharine central relationship almost got a bit much, and the main character insufferable for being unable to detect it.

As a piece of fantasy, incidentally, I think it works very well. I’d recommend reading it, overall. Whatever flaws it has are mitigated by the short length.

Book #85: Something Like Lightning (2014)

Something-Like-Lightning_by_Jay-Bell_Cover-ArtAuthor: Jay Bell
Language: English with a bit of German
Length: 367 pages (virtual)
Finished reading: April 22 2015

I read the previous book in Jay Bell’s Something Like… gay romance series, Spring, about a year ago, and I think the series dropped off my radar for a little while because I didn’t realise this was out until this year. Fortunately, this is written as a much more original story, similar to its direct predecessor and unlike some of the previous entries in the series.

It’s from the perspective of Kelly, the boyfriend’s ex in Spring. There he was quite a minor character, and it took me a while to remember any details about him, so I was midway through the second or third chapter before I remembered that he loses his leg, as is depicted on the front of the cover. To be fair, this is a known event if you’ve read the last book, but I imagine it would have had more impact if I hadn’t been expecting it.

Perhaps that’s the danger of reading about the sane events again. That said, I had either forgotten or not realised in the first place that Kelly was black – I think I’d pegged him as an emo kid when the last book described him as “dark” – perhaps it’s my personal failing that I don’t pick up on similes so easily. Or I just didn’t remember anything about him. Anyway, the author doesn’t explore racial issues as much as he explores the identity crisis that happens when Kelly, formerly a star athlete, loses his leg and becomes disabled.

I thought the writing was, as always, compelling enough to keep me reading at a fast pace, and like the last book, I was finished in a few days. I thought the characters were fleshed out well. I was a little disappointed that it was moving so much further from the original storyline – in particular, the character Ben from the first book is met only briefly, and it’s not clear what his relation is to the other characters. Maybe that’s realistic, though.

I was also rather disappointed with the ending – it’s not as unambiguously happy as the previous books, and it ended on a sequel hook, as it looks like Bell has actually planned the next book now, from Kelly’s new boyfriend’s perspective (it turns out he’s another character that was briefly mentioned in the last book but not fully explored – here he seems troubled but we don’t really know why).

I’m still wondering whether the reason why I like these books is because they’re one of the vanishingly few gay-themed series I’ve read, but I find them so easy to read that I have to recommend them whole-heartedly! But as I think I’ve said before, this is the fifth book in the series, and it’d be better to start with the first.

Book #43: Something Like Summer (2011)

sms-coverauthor: Jay Bell
reader: Kevin R. Free
language: English and a tiny bit of Spanish
length: 576 minutes
finished listening on: 31 October 2013

I forgot to use my Audible subscription until mid-October when I had built up a couple of book credits, and I picked this book out of the Gay & Lesbian section. I wasn’t completely convinced by the synopsis – it begins with a romance between a gay guy and a closeted jock at high school, a plot that has been played out many times in gay movies and that I think is unrealistic and wish fulfilment at best – but it seemed to get good reviews, so I went for it.

In the end, I wasn’t disappointed. I set out on my bike to the park to get exercise, and couldn’t stop listening to the audiobook, even when I was browsing Don Quixote for a Hallowe’en costume. The first part of the story is indeed exactly what I’d expected plotwise, but in the second half, the story takes a very different turn, as the two guys lose touch and go to college, before meeting again when the time isn’t right, causing drama. But the first half still hooked me – if the overarching plot left something to be desired, the characters, occasional humour, the plot twists I wasn’t quite expecting, and the minutiae made it worth it. It is a coming-of-age story, but as the first lines of the book note, it’s not a coming-out story (at least not for the main character), the two so often confused in gay media and the latter so hopelessly overdone that I’d just be bored if I had to listen to that. The author also knows how to tug at the heartstrings, making it an emotional journey at times.

The main character is Ben, who is brave and outspoken but also reckless. He makes many mistakes over the course of the book, but because the story stays with him throughout the book, I could see his character evolving – I feel in much greater detail than I’ve seen in other novels in the past. I also cared a lot about what happened to him during the story after only a short amount of time.

The other guy is Tim, who is a closeted jock in the first half of the book, but shy and concerned about his image. In the second half of the book, he comes out of the closet and starts chasing Ben quite aggressively even though Ben is now dating someone else. Basically a lot of his actions come across as dickish, especially when he breaks off their relationship (yup, predicted that coming a mile off…), and at times it’s unclear why Ben is so head-over-heels for him, although at the same time it’s clear enough underneath the thick exterior that he loves Ben quite strongly.

The other characters are Allison, Ben’s best friend, who has her own subplots and acts as a kind of grounding force a lot of the time, and Jace, Ben’s partner in adult life, who doesn’t seem to have any negative qualities about him at all, so I found him the obvious choice between the two potential lovers but almost unrealistic in the way he seems to take things in his stride most of the time. The fact that there were only about four main characters meant that the story was much more focused on those characters rather than introducing too many others, and helped build up those characters to a far more believable level.

I was also very happy with this book because although they seem to have more exciting lives than me (for instance, as I mentioned with indignance in a recent review, I never had any extravagant love affairs at high school) I can see some of my life in the life of the characters. Perhaps this is the effect of such a paucity of decent gay literature out there, but I liked it when the characters entered their twenties and went to college, because I feel more affinity with those years of my own life.

The story spans over a decade, and one thing I’d have liked to see a bit more would be more acknowledgement of real-life changes during the period discussed, which would have helped ground it more in reality. Jace is a flight attendant, so some mention of September 11 would have been relevant and interesting. The story is mainly set in Texas, so some mention of the supreme court repeal of Texas’s sodomy laws would have been nice to hear about. Instead, apart from almost being caught by the police sucking each other off, the characters never find their sexuality challenged by the outside world, more like what one is beginning to find in the modern age. They even get married, and there’s no mention that it’s not actually legally binding. Who am I kidding though… that’s pretty good. Not having the story be about gay issues or coming out or other anxieties about being gay is a breath of fresh air compared to all the movies I’ve seen over the years where those issues are front and centre, although they are present, especially in Tim’s character.

I liked it overall, very much, but I had quite a big issue with the ending. The author seems to write himself into a corner, with Ben potentially having to choose between the perfect guy and the high school sweetheart, both of which choices would be heart-breaking for him and the readers, and the eventual option he chooses is to kill one of them off (with an aneurysm), which is even more heart-breaking and rather sudden and unprecedented (unless I missed some kind of very subtle foreshadowing early on). I actually felt cheated and angry at that ending, because its purpose narratively is very clear to me.

It’s not a perfect story, but it fulfills a lot of what I’ve been looking for in a gay romance themed novel. There are plenty of other things I’d like to say about it, but this will do for now. Jay Bell is a skilled author, and I’m now looking forward to reading his other books – he’s already written two more stories in the series, which instead of sequels are the same overall story told from the opposite perspectives of Tim and Jace. They are also planning a movie (out next year I believe/hope), apparently because the book was so successful with fans – also the reason this audiobook was even released. That gives me something more to look forward to.

My final thought is, it’s kinda weird walking down the street listening to this and hearing a sex scene starting. They’re quite explicit, and although I know no-one else can hear it, I still felt embarrassed! I guess those are the risks you have to take!