Spellbinding and Gentle — “The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House”

Two best friends leave their hometown for Kyoto. Kiyo and Sumire want to become geisha, who perform traditional forms of dance and music in present-day Japan. They live in a house with both practicing geisha (geiko) and apprentices (maiko). Sumire is a natural who loves every second of the training and picks it up with elegance and ease. No matter how hard she works, Kiyo washes out of it. She has no head for rhythm and choreography, and falls further and further behind the other girls.

On the verge of being sent home, Kiyo begins cooking for the house. The house’s usual chef is injured, unhappy with her commute, and the other girls have little idea how to cook. Kiyo quickly becomes the house’s new chef, or makanai.

“The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House” is a slice-of-life series that’s beautifully gentle. We see the characters’ daily lives and there’s no artificial conflict in the plot. Sure, there’s some inner conflict about what makes a few characters happy and one or two characters are difficult for some of the others to live with, but everyone sorts themselves out pretty well.

The series is less about these things and more about Kiyo and Sumire coming into their own. Kiyo is a remarkable character. Played by Mori Nana, there are moments where she’s disappointed, but she’s able to find so much satisfaction throughout her day. Kiyo never struggles to be herself, and as much as our storytelling prizes conflict, there can also be something captivating to find in its absence.

The realizations about character in “The Makanai” are subtle and rarely conveyed outright. It feels real that way. Did Kiyo want to become a geiko for herself or so that she could live life alongside her best friend? Can Kiyo not be trained as a geiko because she lacks ability, or simply because she’s someone who already is who she is – who can’t be molded because she’s already so shaped as a person? These answers matter, but they also aren’t crucial for the story to answer because the story is about the moment-to-moment experiences of daily life, and we only find these answers through those experiences.

Kiyo never seems disappointed that she can’t become a geiko. She’s heartbroken that she has to leave, not because she can’t train. One character suggests Kiyo will struggle with being lesser-than as the house’s makanai. The thought never crosses Kiyo’s mind. It’s the role that feels most right to her. She’s proud to share every dish and continue being a part of Sumire’s and the entire house’s lives.

The sense of watching “The Makanai” is to feel things slow down to its pace. It evokes a transcendent sense of calm. After I watched the first few episodes and stopped, I just listened to the wind outside and felt how still things were inside. It’s hard to describe the effect of “The Makanai” in exact terms. I want to avoid using Westernized descriptions like oneness, presence, or mindfulness because they’ve been co-opted as commercialized keywords for us as much as they still describe sensations.

I’ll go with something simpler. “The Makanai” makes me feel like everything’s OK. It doesn’t fix things in the world or make life easy, it’s not magical and it doesn’t cover things over, but it creates a space for gentleness – even to yourself. I wasn’t going through anything pressing or intense surrounding my watching it – it wasn’t soothing a stressor, though I’m sure it could.

We strive for moments that are special, unique experiences, to achieve something memorable. In doing so, we often overlook the ordinary moment we’re already in, that it’s nice to simply feel it slowly and calmly. It’s not difficult to hope a moment of joy or achievement never ends. What if those ordinary, everyday moments were something we also don’t want to end? The space the show creates is one where it’s OK to be still, listen, take no actions. It says that’s enough to be human. To experience is to be worthwhile, before function or schedule. To close my eyes and listen to that buffeting wind and feel still, that this is the best thing I can do in this moment. We don’t think like that or afford ourselves the time to fulfill that basic human need.

“The Makanai” doesn’t even ask us why not. It just creates the space for it that makes it obvious and recognizable, that clarifies how much we miss it.

There’s one scene where a girl wakes up early and asks Kiyo for something simple because her stomach’s upset. Kiyo cooks and listens as the girl talks about her younger sister. It’s a moment of two people sharing a space we don’t normally get to see, one that’s typically so unimportant it’s never thought of in Western series, or that’s left on the cutting room floor if it is.

The characters often call Kiyo’s food “ordinary”, or so the subtitles communicate. To us, this would be a deep insult. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, or a difficult translation, but it’s clear this is meant as a compliment and Kiyo always takes it this way. And why shouldn’t it be? “The Makanai” is almost entirely about the ordinary in its characters lives, and it feels so calm and peaceful for it. It makes the ordinary feel detailed and captivating, the way it actually is in our lives if we ever bothered to notice.

There’s no empty space in “The Makanai”. There’s always a conversation to be had, a human being to be better understood. Every scene features exchanges and actions. These moments may be quiet and uncomplicated, but every corner of the experiences we see feels inhabited and loved. Every action, no matter how ordinary, feels deeply real and human. Every person feels important, easy to understand but impossible to grasp, a universe of experiences even as they hang laundry, set out candied plums to dry, or watch someone having their photo taken. How often do we overlook these things in our lives?

Often, when a geisha dances we see less of the dance than the reaction of the person watching. This is how we know it’s art, to see someone else’s entire being changed for moments at a time. “The Makanai” reminds us that someone hanging laundry or cooking or listening can also be art, that as human beings our lives are filled with these moments that we’ve taught ourselves not to appreciate. In overlooking the ordinary, the everyday, how many opportunities to be moved and to appreciate the artist do we miss?

There’s a brief scene of Kiyo sitting over a river to enjoy a popsicle after a hard day of work, a moment that communicates how content and fulfilled she is to be here. I wish you could have seen my reaction as I watched, so I could convey to you this is art, that my entire being changed for moments at a time.

You can watch “The Makanai” on Netflix.

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New Shows + Movies by Women — Jan. 13, 2023

These January weeks can be a bit slow on certain kinds of new material. Most of what’s being held to this time of year are awards contenders looking to build momentum. Since studios overwhelmingly push films made by men and award shows favor highlighting films made by men, that means most of what’s being held to this time of year are films made by men.

That doesn’t speak to the quality of films made by women or men; it speaks to the bias that shapes who gets award marketing campaigns. It sucks, and it influences audiences to overlook many of the best films of the year simply because women made them.

It’s 2023 and we see occasional nominations for women, but realistically this hasn’t changed much. The Golden Globes happened this week and while there’s much to celebrate in certain categories, all 10 nominations in its two Best Picture categories were films directed by men. All five Best Director nominations were men.

This isn’t because women aren’t making good films, or because an entire gender had some kind of make-believe off-year. It’s because awards shows simply don’t pay much attention to women. Yes, sometimes a particular film or filmmaker breaks through, but it’s still a rarity despite women making many of our best films. And since award shows are essentially large advertising events in and of themselves, that means the films they advertise to onlookers are almost entirely made by men.

The films that studios give awards marketing campaigns are overwhelmingly made by men. The films selected to be viewed by these voting bodies are overwhelmingly made by men. The films nominated and thus advertised to audiences through awards shows are overwhelmingly made by men. They are not true representations of the best films made every year. Awards shows can’t figure out why they’re losing audience year after year when they’re an antiquated, tunnel-vision idea of what film can be. They fail to communicate the true breadth of modern filmmaking or the people who tell our stories.

NEW SERIES

Mayfair Witches (AMC+)
showrunner Esta Spalding

Based on the Anne Rice novel trilogy “Lives of the Mayfair Witches”, Alexandra Daddario stars as a neurosurgeon who discovers she’s the heir to powerful witches. The catch is that her family is haunted by a devilish spirit.

Showrunner Esta Spalding wrote and produced on “The Bridge”, “On Becoming a God in Central Florida”, and “Masters of Sex”.

You can watch “Mayfair Witches” on AMC+. One episode is out now. New episodes arrive every Sunday.

The Angel Next Door Spoils Me Rotten (Crunchyroll)
directed by Wang Lihua

Based on a light novel series, Amane and Mahiru are students at the same school who have never spoken. He lives alone and she’s a popular girl, but when he helps her one day, she offers to return the favor – breaking up his solitary lifestyle in a way that brings the two closer together.

You can watch “The Angel Next Door Spoils Me Rotten” on Crunchyroll. One episode is out now. New episodes arrive every Saturday.

NEW MOVIES

The Drop (Hulu)
directed by Sarah Adina Smith

Friends have arrived at a wedding, only for one of them to promptly drop a baby they’re asked to hold. What follows is a comedic exploration of conflicting marriage and child rearing ideals.

Sarah Adina Smith directs. She’s helmed episodes of “Legion”, “Hanna”, and “Looking for Alaska”.

You can watch “The Drop” on Hulu.

Noise (Netflix)
directed by Natalia Beristain

(No translated trailer is available, but Netflix has English options.)

A mother keeps up the search for her daughter, who’s been missing for two years. She meets other women whose daughters have gone missing and gets involved in the movement to change the government’s attitude toward the missing.

The Mexican film is directed and co-written by Natalia Beristain. She started out as a production manager and script supervisor before shifting into casting. She saw a Best Screenplay nomination at Mexico’s Ariel Awards for “She Doesn’t Want to Sleep Alone” in 2012, and a Best Director nomination for “The Eternal Feminine”.

You can watch “Noise” on Netflix.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

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The Most Joyous Series of the Year — “Spy x Family”

“Spy x Family” is one of the reasons I’m looking back at 2022 this way instead of just pushing a top 10 list. I’m not sure that I’d put the hit anime on a top 10 list. For all its unbridled enthusiasm and sense of joy, it has some pacing and focus issues and one or two subplots fall flat for me. Yet I’m going to remember it way better than anything I’d stick at #6 or #7 for the year. It’s going to mean more to me going forward than most things on a top 10 list would. So what’s the point of that list? We don’t watch series so we can organize lists. We watch series for how they bring out the human parts of ourselves that we don’t always get to feel in other moments of our days.

“Spy x Family” appears to land as the most popular anime of 2022 by far, and for good reason. In a land that’s based on the Cold War between West and East Germany, the spy Twilight is assigned to befriend a high-ranking government official who plans to restart an active war. The best way to do this is through the official’s son, who attends a prestigious private academy. Under the cover of Loid Forger, Twilight will have to adopt a child, find a fake wife, get his new child enrolled at the academy, and ensure that she performs well enough to join the social club of upper echelon students.

Things go off the rails pretty quickly. The child he adopts is Anya, who hides that she’s a telepath discarded from a state experiment. She’s not the age Loid needs to enroll her, and she’s not the academic standout that would get her in, but she can read his mind and fake exactly what he’s looking for.

Anya tells no one she’s a telepath – she’s scared she’ll be hunted and rejected. She does use her powers to help connect Loid with a potential new mom – a woman named Yor who’s an elite assassin. Yor’s fearful she’ll be investigated for the unofficial crime of not being married. Loid needs someone to play a wife. Yor needs someone to play a boyfriend. Anya takes care of the rest.

The pair agree to play out a fake marriage. Loid is unaware that Yor is an assassin, Yor is unaware that Loid is a spy, they’re both unaware that Anya is a telepath, and Anya knows everything about them to the detriment of anything academic. And that’s all way before they get the dog who can see the future.

What follows would usually be a comedy of strangeness, of hiding truths and miscommunicating with each other. Instead, it’s something rarer – a comedy of normality. Yor’s strength and martial prowess come off as normal to Loid because those are the kind of people he’s always been surrounded by. When they put on a massive role-playing game for Anya and a drunk Yor plays a witch who fights Loid, he doesn’t wonder why she’s a better fighter than the most legendary spy in the world. He wonders about the role-playing, “Why is she using physical attacks when she’s a witch?”

Raising her younger brother without parents, Yor imagines she has no clue how to parent despite being immensely caring, attentive, and fiercely protective. She’s never had anyone to affirm that she’s doing things right, and even if he can be slow on the uptake, this is what Loid can ultimately give her.

Anya has meant nothing to anyone, and has never had the opportunity to make anyone proud, but here has a chance to participate in an operation that can save the world – even if she misinterprets what’s going on half the time. What’s strange to the world around them is the greatest amount of normal and comfort any of the three has ever experienced.

We get to see spy missions, some with Anya and some without. These are routinely good and often ridiculous – finding microfilm swallowed by a penguin, winning a brutal underground tennis tournament. One of my favorite moments in the series is a brief vignette, only minutes long, where Loid meets with his handler, petals falling from a nearby flower. Loid quietly recognizes that his handler has overlooked a fine detail in her disguise, and when she asks him about the mission, he brags about Anya like any parent would – a gorgeous moment of two spies losing their edge for different reasons.

Anya is the series’ motivator, though. She’s a below-average student, but when her parents try to help her, she can only read their thoughts about spying and assassination. She’s not a savant or phenom, but a kid who knows she’s saddled with the fate of the world, something she understands by reading Loid’s mind, but can’t share with anyone lest she reveal her secret.

What connects about her is that her parents do everything they can to shield her from their burdens, but because of who Anya is they never have any chance of doing so. All they can do is support her through them. In between dodgeball tournaments, craft fairs, and dog adoptions, there’s something about this that speaks to our modern moment. Anya’s played as the cutest thing on television, as a character who exudes ‘must be protected at all costs’, but her attempts to befriend a politician’s son and help Loid succeed in his mission are nearly all remarkable misfires because kids aren’t tactical. They’re unpredictable, pushing boundaries, fearing the lack of them, and just getting a sense of how the world works. In its own way, amid dozens of unrealistic events and satires, “Spy x Family” gives us one of the most accurate depictions of how a kid acts.

Anya stands up for others and what she witnesses as the truth, but she’s also a huge troll who’s naturally curious and likes seeing what she can get away with. She tests out empathy and ego, lying and self-sacrifice. She’s a kid who barely knows anything, except the reality that the future of the world hinges on her accomplishing a mission way beyond her capabilities. Even if it’s desperate, doing something is better than not taking any action.

That’s why “Spy x Family” is a joy. It has a couple subplots that I’m not big on, such as Yor’s brother who works for the secret police and harbors an obsession for his sister, or Loid’s protege who wants to take Yor’s place. The series is a remarkable, quick-witted comedy, sure, but it’s also one where Loid repeats his mantra of creating “a world where children won’t have to cry anymore”, something Anya believes in and takes to heart because she’s never known a world like that before.

We root for Anya partly because she’s an innocent kid with a streak of gremlin, but mainly because this is her chance to live a life where she has hope and is protected. The fate of the world is abstract and hard to grapple with. The fate of one kid is something we can feel in our bones and fight for. We need to see this family work, and as it messily comes closer together, it’s a joy to have it reaffirmed for us that yes, this is a family that cares for each other more and more by the day.

“Spy x Family” is a cleverly over-the-top spy anime, a savvy comedy, a solid actioner, a beautiful story about adoptive family, but what works best about it is that it’s a story of a child finally having the opportunity to be happy and loved.

And its theme songs are absolute bops.

You can watch “Spy x Family” on Hulu or Crunchyroll.

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Freudian Slipstream — “Copenhagen Cowboy”

Where to even start with Nicolas Winding Refn and “Copenhagen Cowboy”? You might know Refn as a purveyor of neon-tinged, retrowave, masculine hyperviolence who makes films that either criticize toxic masculinity or that start out doing so but get distracted admiring how masculine they are.

Is there a really impressive shot you like? Prepare to stare at it for the next minute or so. I tend to think Refn comes down on both sides. He’s got films like “Only God Forgives” that mostly succeed in dismantling harmful aspects of Western masculinity and colonialism. He’s also got movies like “Drive” that revel in it a bit too much to remember to say something about it.

He also makes films without Ryan Gosling. Elle Fanning-starrer “The Neon Demon” was both praised as a feminist takedown of a brutal, abusive fashion industry that chews girls up, and criticized as a film that fetishizes and vilifies girls. It certainly didn’t help when Refn declared the film “beyond feminist” and refused to explain this beyond “It’s what you make it”. Refn’s often embraced polarization by saying that if audiences either love or hate his work with little in between, he must be making good art, which is a fancy way of saying, “Hey, free publicity”.

He enjoys his ambiguity and just in case any of his films starts getting a little plot-intensive, he’ll hit you with a long scene of someone staring at some flowers or wallpaper, or just have the character walk away and let you do it yourself.

“Copenhagen Cowboy” is a six-episode Danish series about a spirit named Miu who’s treated as a good luck charm. We meet her after she’s been sold to a brothel – not to work there, but to bring luck to the owner’s sister. It’s made clear the workers there are trafficked, their papers withheld so that they have nowhere to escape. It doesn’t dawn on the owners, but maybe it’s not the best idea to bring a supernatural being into that type of situation and start demanding ultimatums.

The series takes a number of turns – a half-vampire sex predator becomes obsessed with Miu, we get a few scenes of his dad who tours the world giving lectures about how great his penis is, Miu gets involved with the Chinese mob and tries to rescue a girl, she picks up kung fu which happens to be handy in a surprising number of situations. It sounds episodic, but believe me it doesn’t feel that way.

Do you like it when an actor walks up to their blocking in a way that breaks immersion before standing there emotionless for a long period of time, only to cut to another shot of them standing there for an even longer period of time, and after about 30 seconds they finally give an over-deliberate line reading of exactly one short sentence? Do you want the show to take an hour to tell you what could’ve been accomplished in 15 minutes?

What, that’s ridiculous! What kind of masochist would enjoy that kind of filmmaking? Hey, wussup. As a connoisseur of series and movies where people stand there and look striking while nothing in particular happens, my biggest problem with “Copenhagen Cowboy” is that it’s not always using that nothing very well. Refn circumnavigates any acceleration of pace. When something is actually taking shape in his stories, he uses shots where nothing happens to return to ambiguity. This often means removing meaning, not adding it.

People doing nothing can tell you a lot and enable you to investigate their surroundings, their relationships with each other, the nuances of how they hold themselves in their environment. You can tell a lot from someone who’s not doing anything, especially in the hands of a filmmaker who can load up on detail. The thing with Refn is that he’s a relentlessly Freudian filmmaker. He’s given many interviews about this. Freudian filmmaking can be really interesting, but it also tends to implement its visual metaphors only one layer down. Subtext is often one-to-one, and not all of it is subtle. Modern audiences trained on quick editing can recognize and acknowledge a lot of Refn’s clever details pretty quickly, and then sit there for another 30 seconds a shot wondering when we’ll move on. Without deeper layers of complexity, we’re left to bask in Refn’s colorfully cool and moody visuals.

Admittedly, when the visuals are this good, the one-takes this choreographed, and the 360-degree panning shots this tense, I enjoy just sitting there and admiring the craft. After the first few episodes where I knew what to expect from the pace of the visual language, it was even fun to just sit there and vibe with Refn at the level of, “Hell of a technique, dude”.

In terms of the storytelling, I do like the way Miu’s supernatural abilities are hinted at slowly. They’re never named, we’re just expected to infer what some of them may be: healing, cursing, absorbing others’ skills, perhaps elements of suggestion, it’s hard to say. We’re left to wonder just how much she’s influenced someone else, if doing so is even a power she has, or if her more practical actions simply changed the situation’s outcome. This is where Refn’s tendency for ambiguity works really well.

So too in Miu’s inscrutability. She gives very little reaction to anything that happens around her. She’s a spirit, and her alienness to this world comes through in Angela Bundalovic’s preternatural stillness and non-reaction. Conveying character when asked to barely move, speak, or even have a character as we understand it is nearly impossible. She does a phenomenal job of embodying the role and the idea that Miu is both real and very out-of-place. At a certain point, this does get back to the whole doing-nothing aspect, so let me briefly go through a few different versions of me loving nothing:

“Titane” can melt you down with its scenes of people doing very little. A scene where almost nothing happens can change your entire understanding of who someone is and how they view themselves.

“Cracow Monsters” is usually doing something, but it takes breaks now and then to watch people do a bit of nothing. These can be understood as complex moments where their relationships to each other change without any meaningful words or actions to suggest this.

I’ve often said that a good fight scene should be able to act like a dialogue scene – it can change our understanding of desires, relationships, power dynamics, backstories, often without a word spoken. Refn does a good job of delivering this with Miu’s fight scenes, but a good scene of people doing nothing should be able to do the same things. That doesn’t mean it always has to, but it should demonstrate a reason for being there.

I think of these scenes of ‘nothing’ as fundamentally different from fiction filmmaking that incorporates everyday tasks in a semi-documentarian way, or that use interstitial scenes of inaction such as the concept of ma that’s often found in Japanese cinema. The arthouse approach to nothingness doesn’t pursue cinema verite in order to accentuate realism, and it doesn’t give you breathing space to feel calm (as in a Studio Ghibli film). These artsy scenes of characters doing nothing are there so you can think, analyze, and look at them much like you would a painting in an art history class – to pick them apart and create an escalation of analysis in your own mind – a tension you create within yourself.

One of my favorite films of people doing not-that-much is “Under the Skin”, where most of the film involves long takes that depict a character bombarded with our world’s strangeness. This might be the closest comparison point for “Copenhagen Cowboy” since both deal with a fairly emotionless but dangerous figure who presents as feminine and is alien to our world. Yet “Under the Skin” uses its long moments of people standing still to question boundaries between the chaotic and orderly, and how we institute coded relationships of predatory hierarchy into our own culture.

This highlights both the appeal and the major issues with “Copenhagen Cowboy”. Not to get all Frasier vs. Niles here, but with “Copenhagen Cowboy”, Refn has brought Freud to a Jung fight.

“Under the Skin” is a Jungian film about the relationship between social dynamics and human development, the habituation of processing, and mutable ideas of self-definition. Its progression and conclusions are messy and socially contextual. Each new layer of metaphor screws up the previous so that there is no clean-cut read of its subtext.

This might be getting well into the weeds, so what the hell am I talking about?

Refn wants vampire dad to sit there and loquate about how great his penis is and how he’s forming a religion around it. This can be read as exactly what it is. You don’t even need a psych student who just wrote a paper on Freud to dive into it. Everything’s right there, the dialogue has no subtext.

Other things that do have subtext include a gangster walking in front of a painting of a burned out city while he irons out the details of an arms shipment. Then he walks away, leaving us with a lingering shot of the moment of destruction captured in the painting. There’s subtext, but you don’t even have to look for it when it takes up the whole screen.

There’s incest, castration, a lot of metaphors about pigs: pigs eating humans, humans being pigs, Miu viewing humans as pigs, humans viewing each other as pigs, men and women viewing each other as pigs. You need a pig metaphor, come on down to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Emporium of Pig Metaphors and Fine Furniture.

The thing is, Refn knows how to take Freud, apply it to male characters, and often come out with something remarkable. Here, he’s got a feminine character in a land of male-driven toxicity and abuse. He needs to be able to stretch into territory he normally hasn’t attempted.

“Copenhagen Cowboy” is a more isolated story that feels like it happens in a vacuum. Refn loves his shadowy, colorful neon dioramas, though here he also briefly flirts with satiny hues and giallo-esque gel lighting. This all still holds great capacity for psychological storytelling the way Refn likes to do it, which means we get at a lot of meaningful, easy-to-read metaphors for the men in the story, but very little about Miu or the other women in the plot.

This works to an extent – she’s alien to this world and our culture and Miu should be inscrutable to each other. Yet this also means Miu’s point in the story – her agency as a character – often exists just to get us to the next scene where men tell on themselves through her. When she does start to make plot decisions, Refn needs to take us over to the vampire family for incest, penis lectures, and adventures in castration.

Refn knows how to tell these stories in isolation when it comes to men, because he can translate that isolation in his storytelling as an aspect of what traditional masculinity asks of men. He’s built his style to do this, the plot-in-a-vacuum, the retrowave diorama, every little thing he does serves that considerable and impressive ability. His talent to depict a story in that sense of isolation and pick apart toxic masculinity go hand in hand, so Refn can Freud it out as the day is long. The isolation is of service wherever that’s the central focus.

Here, he’s trying to deliver a very different story about a very different set of relationships and social dynamics, but he’s just not shifting out of the mode he’s used for so much of his other work. There is a lot of interesting work happening for all the men in “Copenhagen Cowboy”, but inscrutable or otherwise, Miu often seems like more of a vehicle for men to get that focus than she does as a fully-fleshed out character with her own agency.

For all Refn’s drawn out sequences, his deliberateness has always masked an incredibly tight sense of editing. He understands his male characters enough to get right up close to them and translate who they are, their relationships to each other, even their wants and how they feel that particular day. He knows how to do this with ease, he can convey exactly who a man is in seconds. The extended shots when it comes to men give us a chance to really turn over who they are in our minds.

Refn does not have the same level of understanding or attention to women as he does men. We’re too distant from Miu even if she is supposed to be inscrutable, and the other women characters here are either catty or sheepishly subservient. Women can be on-screen scene after scene but they never get the depth Refn provides men.

The men never become window decorations, and even the worst of them is seen as a full character. Yet as much as Refn wants to pick apart toxic masculinity, he also doesn’t know how to portray women as the focus. This means when we’re left in those moments of ambiguity with Miu, we don’t have a good way to use the extra time to turn her over in our head and consider her. We’re given countless angles to consider each man, but we barely have one angle through which to understand Miu or any other woman in the slow-motion and doing-nothing sessions Refn gives us to contemplate.

I still enjoyed watching “Copenhagen Cowboy” from a perspective of “I definitely won’t see this anywhere else”, and the performances are all excellent. I appreciated the subtlety of its supernatural elements and many of the one-takes are absolutely phenomenal. It’s also fun to pick up on Refn’s niche tastes in cinematic history, especially if you share a good amount of them – retrowave, giallo, English horror, anime, exploitation, cutscene. If there’s a second season, I’m interested enough to watch it.

That said, it only reinforces my perception of Refn as a filmmaker. He’s done the work to criticize toxic masculinity and systemic abuse in an extremely skilled, sharp, and thorough way. That deserves praise. He also can’t stop admiring his own work in doing this long enough to realize he hasn’t done the work in grasping, deferring to, or presenting women’s perspectives, agency, or voice. That deserves criticism. I say all this realizing Sara Isabella Jonsson Vedde wrote the series. There’s a lot that gets done in “Copenhagen Cowboy” that Refn is uniquely talented in accomplishing. There’s also a lot that’s written into the show but left on the table because Refn steamrolled what he wanted to do instead.

There’s both good and bad in “Copenhagen Cowboy”, both piercing and oblivious, both a clear-eyed call-out of systemic masculine abuses, as well as witnessing Refn practice his own more individual ones. It’s both worth it and not.

At the end of the day, if you’re interested in Refn’s work or want to give the series a try, take the chance. You’ll know pretty quickly if you want to continue. If you dislike slow series or Refn himself, there’s not much for you here. I tend to love the slow, artsy school of cinema more than nearly everyone I know, and this stretched my tolerance for slow pace to its limits.

You can watch “Copenhagen Cowboy” on Netflix.

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New Shows + Movies by Women — Jan. 6, 2023

And we’re back. This feature always gets a brief holiday break so I can prep year-end work. We start 2023 with the 137th entry in “New Shows + Movies by Women”. For the time being, it’s still going to focus on what’s accessible from home. I want so badly for theatergoing to be normal again, but hospitals and the health care workers we once cheered for are still overburdened with cyclical COVID spikes, many chronically ill and disabled people who are more susceptible to COVID still can’t leave home safely, and I don’t want to participate in normalizing case numbers that we recognized as unacceptable not so long ago.

I’m not judging anyone if they do decide to go to the theater right now. For instance, it might be a lesser risk to myself and others where I live, although they are recommending masking again even here. Yet I have family living in states which pretend COVID doesn’t exist and so are rife with it, where the simple act of going to school carries great health risks. I’m not a public health specialist and can’t break down to readers in different states and countries where it’s safer to go to the theater on a weekly basis, so my coverage at least for a bit longer is going to stick to what you can watch from home. Thanks for understanding that, and I hope it’s fun and useful for folks either way.

This week features new series from Brazil, Japan, and the U.S., and new films from Colombia and the U.S.

NEW SERIES

Will Trent (ABC, Hulu)
co-showrunner Liz Heldens

A special agent who grew up in the foster care system solves mysteries and tries to take care of those left behind by the system.

Liz Heldens showruns with Dan Thomsen. She’s produced on “The Dropout” and “The Passage”.

You can watch “Will Trent” on Hulu, or weekly on ABC. The first episode is out, with a new one arriving every Tuesday.

Lady Voyeur (Netflix)
showrunner Marcela Citterio

In this Brazilian series, a woman named Miranda uses her hacking skills to sate her voyeurism. This gets her embroiled in a mystery that involves her dream man.

Marcela Citterio has mostly written Brazilian shows, but might be most familiar to American audiences for penning the short story on which Nickelodeon series “I Am Frankie” was based.

You can watch “Lady Voyeur” on Netflix. All 10 episodes are out.

Technoroid Overmind (Crunchyroll)
directed by Im Ga-Hee

(No English trailer for this one, but Crunchyroll has options.)

Humans live in a tower after the world’s been submerged underwater. Here, androids compete to entertain both human and android counterparts.

Im Ga-Hee’s done episode direction on series like “Sonny Boy” (one of my top series of 2021) and “Tiger & Bunny 2”.

You can watch “Technoroid Overmind” on Crunchyroll. The premiere is available and a new episode arrives every Wednesday.

NEW MOVIES

The Kings of the World (Netflix)
directed by Laura Mora

In this Colombian film, five young men undertake a risky journey to recover a piece of land that was once stolen from one of their grandmothers.

Laura Mora has worked in the industry for 20 years, and her 2017 film “Killing Jesus” won Best Film, Director, and Screenplay at Premios Macondo, the Colombian Academy Awards. Mora started out in the industry as a caterer before working several years as a script supervisor and continuity director, as well as a field coordinator for Anthony Bourdain’s Colombia episodes of “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown”.

You can watch “The Kings of the World” on Netflix.

Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul (Amazon)
directed by Adamma Ebo

The wife of a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor tries to rebuild their congregation after a scandal. Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown, and Nicole Beharie star.

Writer-director Adamma Ebo has previously directed on “Atlanta”. She started out as a script supervisor.

You can watch “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” on Amazon.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

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The Most Stunning Series of the Year — “The English” & “First Love”

“The English”

There was no shortage of beautifully filmed and designed series this year, but one stood out as striking enough to surpass everything else I saw. “The English” demonstrated a staggering visual sense of endless wilderness, an infinite natural backdrop both gorgeous and intimidating. It contrasts this with pernicious and ironic iconography that represents the destruction wrought by colonization and Westward expansion. The show’s use of natural light shows that few lighting and color-grading effects can match the simplicity of filming at certain times of day – even if that restricts the time you have to capture a scene.

The Western stars Emily Blunt as Lady Cornelia Locke, who’s come to the American West to kill the man who killed her son. Chaske Spencer plays Eli Whipp, a Pawnee scout for the U.S. Army who seeks to live the rest of his life in quiet despite a world that’s determined to kill his people. Naturally, they link up, discover a shared past, and guns blaze.

“The English” doesn’t shy away from commenting on the unbridled savagery of European colonizers, assessing the genocidal history of “Manifest Destiny”, and linking Christian expansionism as directly responsible. Its main story may be equal parts romance, actioner, and tragic backstory, but “The English” picks apart imperialism and methods of forced assimilation thread by brutal thread on its way.

I do have a few issues with “The English”. It’s so eager to demonstrate its clear mastery over every era of Western that the pacing has a few hard shifts. A separate B-plot that eventually ties in hides its secrets and never gives its characters enough time to burn into memory, meaning every time we switch to it, it’s overly confusing. I normally love overly confusing, but I just had to shrug my shoulders and go with it. A few supporting performances here and there try way too hard and cross over into sketch territory. These are infrequent, but enough to notice.

As briefly as it can frustrate or confuse, these elements are ultimately pretty easy to set aside. What really lingers is the unparalleled cinematography, seeing for miles at times, the haunting use of light and shadow in others, and never letting go of a special kind of magic that feels truly cinematic and larger than life. I remember my breath being sucked away at one point as a horse and rider are silhouetted by the sunset in the dust they kick up, a shot that requires complex choreography yet was only possible to capture for a few minutes in a day before the sun changed angle.

If you appreciate the patiently developed tableau of classic cinema and can accept a great series that makes occasional storytelling mistakes, “The English” is a visual feast with superb leading performances and a driving sense of purpose. (Read the review.)

A close runner-up:
“First Love”

I could say many similar things for “First Love”, a Japanese romance series that tells the story of lovers in the 90s who reconnect today. Yae wanted to become a flight attendant and travel the world, but an accident prevented this. Now, she’s content working as a taxi driver, but struggles bridging the gap to her son Tsuzuru, who lives with his father. Her former lover Harumichi works as a security guard after serving as a pilot, but when they meet, she doesn’t remember him.

“First Love” is remarkable for director Kanchiku Yuri’s choice to film in the style of each narrative’s time frame. She echoes the dramatic approach of each era’s storytelling, the parallel stories told during the 90s and today changing down to shot choice, coloration, and even hints of picture clarity. As the flashback begins to catch up, these choices also change according to those times. It’s not the kind of thing that jumps out and hits you over the head; it’s used subtly and in service of the story.

The match of directing, cinematography, costuming, set design, and even dance choreography comes together to highlight the strange mix of quietly trying to find satisfaction in life against a backdrop of loneliness and disappointment. It serves as a phenomenal metaphor for Japan’s Lost Generation, which includes Gen X and Millennials who saw a stiff economic downturn as they entered the job market. Yae’s and Harumichi’s own stories and careers reflect this as well.

The wintry setting of Sapporo, Japan is used exquisitely, sometimes just in the daily routes Yae takes around the city, and sometimes more dramatically – as in a youthful confession of love in a blinding snowstorm. Kanchiku Yuri accomplishes one of the best directing jobs of the year, and I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever she does next. On top of this, Mitsushima Hikari gives one of the best performances of the year as the adult Yae.

Like “The English”, “First Love” has long streaks where it feels like it’s the best show of the year, but it’s similarly undermined by some of its writing. It relies on a key plot device that’s cliché (at least among Western viewers) and large portions of its romances hinge on forms of stalking. It’s certainly not the first drama to treat stalking as romantic, but it feels like a giant rift to justify crossing, even if the other parts of the series are superb.

I’d still recommend it with this caveat. It’s OK to watch problematic things as long as we don’t cover over the problem or lie to ourselves about its presence. It is a remarkably filmed and acted series, but one that includes a necessary “Yes, but…”

Like I said, there was no shortage of beautifully filmed and designed series this year. The others at the top include:

“Pachinko” tells an elegant epic of Korean diaspora that survives genocide and war. (Read the review.)

“Cracow Monsters” is a sumptuously dark and dreary Polish modern fantasy with a silky sense of color and shadow. (Read the review.)

“Andor” is a moving embrace of 70s social sci-fi that may be the height of Star Wars storytelling. (Read the review.)

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to my Patreon! It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

The Scariest Series of the Year — “Evil”

Horror on TV doesn’t have a great history of success. Most of it is watered down for general audiences, and the demand of so many episodes a year can leave many series with uneven plots and unfocused characterization. “Evil” struggled with this in its first season on CBS. It was good, but clearly strained against the format. Then it switched to Paramount+ last year, and it started knocking its plots out of the park.

“Evil” follows an assessment team sent by the Catholic Church to decide whether exorcisms, miracles, sainthoods, and other mysteries are real. It’s run by a priest named David, played by “Luke Cage” himself, Mike Colter. He favors having skeptics on board, so he’s recruited Kristen, a lapsed Catholic psychologist played by Katja Herbers, and an atheist debunker who was raised Muslim, played by Aasif Mandvi.

Each episode’s plot focuses on different aspects and subgenres of horror, getting as nitty gritty as road trip and meme horror. Outside of the episodic plots, the running subplots center on demons ruining the world with clickbait and cryptocurrency, or a priest wondering why his visions of a protective saint switch race as he learns she was really Black. There’s an edge of irony and satire that might be more recognizable in something like “Good Omens”, but as funny as “Evil” can be, it uses its ridiculous moments to hone the horrific.

The comparisons to “The X-Files” it’s gotten aren’t that far off. Some of it’s the mystery of the week and how character development feeds into the big, longer-term arcs. Some is the balance between the scientifically trained Kristen and true believer David, though “Evil” couldn’t be called a lift – much of Kristen’s story deals with her four daughters, and David is a former journalist with a reporter’s mind for research. On top of this, Mandvi’s extremely skeptical Ben often shifts Kristen less into the skeptic position and more into the swing voter role on how to go forward. In a way, this provides her agency within the plot that was denied “The X-Files” Scully when Mulder steamrolled a decision.

I think the comparison is most apt when it comes to the balance of dark humor and true horror. There’s a strange way they can be twinned and start to become the same thing. It’s a very fine line to walk, and I would say this is what makes “Evil” both similar to and different from “The X-Files”.

Michael Emerson’s performance as the villain Leland, possibly a demon, basks in that intersection between the ridiculous and the awful. My favorite moment in the show still comes from the second season, when we pick up the premiere with a breathtaking vision David has of Kristen being threatened. We wait to see the outcome from the prior year’s finale, only for Leland to pop up in the middle of the vision doing a meme dance. Leland and the show often veer so close to nonsense it’s laughable, but the show always pulls it sideways into something threatening. “Evil” isn’t just frightening, it also expertly disarms us of our defenses so that we’re accepting of that fright. That’s the core approach to “X-Files” through and through, but “Evil” then builds on that foundation by taking it steps further.

Often, Leland uses social tools in a common but nonsensical way, allowing the show to point out areas of privilege and systemic abuse that operate the same way: nonsense that we justify as everyday reason. “Evil” doesn’t just disarm us so that we’re willing to experience fear, it then uses that fear to ask why we’re willing to be afraid of these things in a TV show, but act like they’re normal in the real world. Much of the show’s sharpest critical elements center on the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church itself.

The other biggest difference is Kristen. Sure, she’s a scientific skeptic who starts out with a healthy work-life balance. What makes her so different from the Scully archetype is that she can readily exist in the same space as Leland. Whereas David is doing his best to fulfill an idealized role of a priest, and Ben is an ethical skeptic who’s haunted by misuse of his past work, Kristen is fully capable of stepping into the ridiculous and the dark with a smile, of existing in it and speaking its language, of using it, fighting it on its own terms. She’ll look at someone cutting corners and cut the very same ones if it holds them accountable. Out of her team, which includes a gigantic, muscled dude and a hard-line skeptic with no fucks to give, it’s the tiny mom of four who will step in, get the dirty work done, give demons anxiety, and somehow go home with enough energy left to ably (and often single-handedly) take care of her family. It’s one of the most dynamic roles going right now.

This isn’t to say she doesn’t struggle with some of her decisions – this is most of what season 2 was about, after all. But in season 3 we see a Kristen who’s come out the other side and has learned better what is necessary, how to forgive herself for it, and how to trust herself in impossible circumstances. In fact, after early days of Leland going directly after Kristen, it’s clear he’s understood he needs to chip away at her support structure to have any chance of shaking her – and he’s regularly hampered by his own misunderstanding of Kristen as overly emotional and David as overly logical, the complete reverse of who they actually are.

There are so many other wonderful things that have developed on this series: Christine Lahti’s descent into corporate evil, Andrea Martin’s fantastic no-B.S. nun Sister Andrea, and how great it’s been to witness Mandvi seriously grow as an actor from the first season to this one.

Freed from the constraints of network TV, “Evil” has become the scariest series going, and it uses both its humor and fear to highlight the hypocrisies we willingly live with every day.

You can watch “Evil” on Paramount+.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Halotosis — The Year in Me Wondering Why I Watched “Halo”

“Halo” was first discovered hanging from the corner of a four post bed by Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath. He detailed his findings to the scientific community in 1999 with the seminal tome “Every Morning”. If you want to dive deep into the massive franchise’s lore, start with the Sugar Ray song that sounds most similar; I’m sure you know the one.

You might think “Halo” has come a long way since then, but not if you watched the series adaptation. One of the great defeats and joys and defeats again of this past year was writing my six-piece staring contest with the abyss that is the “Halo” streaming series.

The Paramount+ show constantly doubled back on previous plots in ways that made them meaningless, it copied extensively from other sci-fi properties like “The Mandalorian” and “Dune”, and it forced three chosen ones into a plot based on a franchise that had zero of them. The showrunners who adapted the renowned video game franchise explained their engagement with the source material this way: “We didn’t look at the game. We didn’t talk about the game”.

Rarely has a creative philosophy shone so apparent in the final product. I thought my morbid fascination with it might never be fully understood, until I saw the opening scene of Netflix’s “Wednesday” where she releases piranhas into the pool of an abusive water polo team. Yes, I thought, Tim Burton clearly watched “Halo” as well.

As I reflected on this past year, I was reminded of “Halo” despite my best efforts to block it out. The second season started filming in Iceland in September. I don’t know what Iceland did wrong, but please know me and Tim Burton and probably some other people stand with you during this trying time.

If you want to know more of what I’m talking about, it’s not too late to turn back! Other shows are available. If you share a morbid fascination with disasters that seem to keep on going, like that underground coal fire in Pennsylvania that’s been burning for more than 60 years, then add “Halo” to your list. It’s like watching a multipart crossover special between “Engineering Disasters”, “Air Disasters”, and “Fatal Vows”, except the re-enactments aren’t as convincing.

Please enjoy the startling descent of a man who should’ve known better:

Part 1: I Time Traveled to 90’s Sci-fi and All I Got was this “Halo” Premiere

Part 2: That Time I Reincarnated as Master Chief in a Puppet Universe Natascha McElhone Uses to Feed on Her Zombified Castmates

Part 3: Cortana Bad Romance

Part 4: Halo: Episode 4: The Commemorative Song: The Sermon

Part 5: Natascha McElhone’s Space Witch 2552

Part 6: The Fashion Faux Pas of “Halo”

Wanna back this nonsense? Pay for my therapy? Subscribe!

The Saddest Series of the Year — “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners”

Studio Trigger’s anime is based on the video game “Cyberpunk 2077”, which was adapted from Mike Pondsmith’s genre-defining tabletop role-playing game. With that many layers of adaptation, it’s a deep surprise how resonant the show is. The cybernetic dystopia of Night City is overrun with both corporate and street-level crime. After disaffected student David tries to do things the right way and loses the few anchors he has in life, he turns to the mercenary life known as edgerunning.

Despite his youth, can David fit in with an experienced, successful crew? In a world where replacing pieces of yourself with hardware blurs the lines of reality, and David wants to run away from his reality, can he keep his sanity? Can he achieve any of the dreams others have for him? Can he protect the people around him?

That’s all pretty familiar territory, but “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” is one of the most damning visions of terminal capitalism I’ve seen. The natural comparison might be the classic “Ghost in the Shell” and its series continuation “Stand Alone Complex”, but “Edgerunners” lands much more closely to a different classic. In 1988, “Akira” warned us of and argued for the rejection of what’s come to be known as disaster capitalist futurism.

Like “Akira”, “Edgerunners” captures traumatic repetition on both the personal and cultural scale. As Thomas Lamarre once wrote of “Akira”, it houses two types of mimetic repetition of trauma. In its constitutive mode, “Akira” translates the future of a Japan still coping with nuclear destruction. How does it develop economically and industrially? How does it change national identity? In its generative mode, how is this taken advantage of in an information society where populist political power is built on disaster capital?

Lamarre argued that “Akira” sees how the constitutive passes into the generative, or how repeating of a trauma during the development to cope with it creates the circumstances for that trauma to be taken advantage of, and creates a situation where the traumatized seeks to enact that trauma on others. In other words, if you live in a mentality of that trauma’s repetition, then survival is to be on the other side of it when it happens again.

“Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” poses a world shattered by the poisoning of the well, by a collapse of the world’s previous mode of information sharing – our modern internet. It envisions that poisoning as a condition that prompted mass violence, civil war, world war, and cultural immolation. Corporation-states survive because their territory is notional, intangible, a maintenance of perceived value. Territory can’t be bombed when it’s a data set, and you can’t run out of people in a world where people are the most fungible asset that exists.

David’s tale is that of a boy chasing trauma and repeating it ad nauseam because he thinks that’s the way through it. This reflects the story of its world – that of a society chasing trauma and repeating it ad nauseam because it thinks that’s the way through it. When shock doctrine is the rule of the world, survival is to be on the other side of it when it happens again.

Needless to say, the results aren’t happy. That’s not a spoiler. Whatever the saddest things you can think about this story are, you probably aren’t prepared. Neither are the story evolutions in “Edgerunners” cheap – they’re sudden, unsentimental, harsh, and they go unmourned. They are heavy in their lack of meaning, in their lack of consequence, in how the world travels on because you can’t run out of people in a world where people are the most fungible asset.

Genre and fan social media was overrun with viewers asking for help from each other in coping with how depressed the series made them, so when I say “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” is sad, I mean it spills over with grief. The show is a beautiful, repulsive howl, the voice of a world in disintegration envisioning a futurism of living in shock doctrine, to the point where everyone’s gaze has been turned to normalize that shock. We’re even introduced to David as he experiences a braindance – the sensory recordings of someone who dies violently – a snuff film that might seem like a sci-fi creation if there weren’t also image boards in our world dedicated to gore and people dying.

“Edgerunners” balances the 80s futurism of macro cybernetics – an aesthetic that feels less realistic in today’s digital world – as a metaphor for transforming our humanity into notional currency so we can trade it away for the newest, most powerful and influential technological elements to get ahead. Take Rebecca, who’s had her body replaced piece by piece to look like a child again – a clear advantage in drawing out and distracting men in a corporate world.

Like, I said, it’s repulsive. That doesn’t mean what it depicts isn’t true. “Edgerunners” can often feel like the nausea that comes on after getting punched in the gut. There’s devastation here, and a sense of profound desperation and loss I’ve rarely seen a show capture. It belongs among the best sci-fi series made, animation or otherwise.

“Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” may not be what our future ends up looking like, but it captures a horror of roads the world may travel down, of the populism, fascism, disaster futurism, and terminal capitalism that have already taken shape. It’s a masterful metaphor for how much of ourselves we trade to survive, that where once we sacrificed for the next generation’s dreams, now we sacrifice for the next generation’s sacrifice.

You can watch “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” on Netflix.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

That Same Haunted Place — My Album of the Year: “Glitch Princess” by Yeule

When I was a kid, I heard an album that sounded like it came from another universe. It had a trip-hop cyberpunk aesthetic, and its songs felt like eavesdropping the tinny lilt of conversation carried down through gutters. It felt like an epitaph from the future that served as a monument for a time no one was left to speak of, not left by a storyteller, but someone trudging day to day in a dying world. It signified a sense of reality that was slipping through the fingers of a world moving faster and faster, and then suddenly too fast to hold onto any reality at all. It ended with a forgotten echo of some final garden party a Ray Bradbury character might hold. It was Sneaker Pimps’ “Becoming X”, a sound and perspective even that band could only hang onto for a moment.

That came out in 1996, and as we descend into a world very much like the one they described, I still find that no musical artist has ever so successfully inhabited it. I’ve searched for anything else that feels like it visited from that particular universe of sensibility, that could communicate the way those 11 songs did. I’ve been chasing the musical feeling of Kelli Ali singing vocals into a cupboard, the strange sounds and repeating beats of her world making less and less sense save for this one trapped ghost of a voice. Maybe it was an isolated haunting. Maybe that universe only opened once. Then I heard yeule’s “Glitch Princess”.

The voice and aesthetic might be different, but the sensibility is the same choked sunset from the same window, that space between disconnection and yearning, that echo of a monument to what survival was a minute ago, before it changed and changed again and keeps on changing faster than most can manage. It was that same haunted place. It was the same prevailing feeling of isolation in a world that never leaves you alone.

Can you be a friend to me?
People leave so suddenly
Suffering, peace offering
Virtual life is altering
On a noose, cut me loose
Never-ending self abuse

I like to think I’m doing just fine
I like to search my symptoms online
I liked it when the voices were gone
I liked to be with you all alone

Around my neck, a friendly machine
Pretends to wipe my memory clean
Pretends to make it all go away
Pretends to make it feel quite okay

A Singaporean artist whose life has been nomadic, and who feels the virtual world has been their most consistent home, many of yeule’s songs are cycles of memories and experiences held together by what was, a fight to keep the thin tissue of memory intact against a barrage of insistence it dissolve. The origin of intrusive thoughts can’t even be determined – from our own minds, from a post we read, from a search we did, and if the first is learning to encompass the others, what’s the separation?

“Don’t Be So Hard on Your Own Beauty” is more indie-pop than anything else, save for a filtered backup chorus and autotuned portamentos sliding new phrases in with delicacy. It’s feel-good and reassuring, yet the lyrics suggest it comes at the expense of yeule’s own self. Like William Gibson’s “Fragments of a Hologram Rose”, the sweetness of a moment is fueled by the overuse of spent, repeated memories. How long can that keep going?

I am desperate in a nightmare
Where I’m trying to find you
In a maze, with no staircase
I’m stuck and breathless

In the backroom of a spinning hall
Dizzy, I crawl and trip down
Fall again, you pick up all my guts
Spilling out, bruised up, bloodied up

Oh I look into your eyes and
see a bright white light
and you turn this horrible place

Into orange light, sunset in sight
You tell me not to
Be so hard on my own beauty

You still
Hold me even though
I’m made of fire burning through
You hold me gently, but these
Thorny vines and piercing through
The only vein that’s still okay
You let me cry, and wipe my eyes
And make me feel something other than

Desolated nothing
I am desperate in a nightmare
Where I’m trying to find you
In a maze with no staircase
I’m stuck and breathless

And so it repeats. Even the music video plays backwards as yeule sings forwards (they memorized the lyrics in reverse for the filming). Reassurance itself arrives in the repeated playing of a memory, accessible only past a nightmare.

The difference in style between “Friendly Machine” and “Don’t Be So Hard on Your Own Beauty” highlights yeule’s avant-garde approach to pop production. The songs are what they need to be, style something that can be mutated into a whole rather than a specific genre being chased.

Take “Too Dead Inside”, which starts with the 80s lute-by-synth sensibility of a Ray Lynch piece, and alternates between yeule’s own style and those we might more closely associate with an Audrey Nuna solo and a Lana Del Rey chorus.

As if all that weren’t enough, the album released with an additional 4 hour, 44 minute ambient drone piece, “The Things They Did for Me Out of Love”. I’ve seen artists do that before, usually sticking on some half-completed piece that’s inconsistently produced and directionless – and why not? They’re not constrained by digital releases, so if you’ve got it and want to share it, release it. It just tends to be the kind of addition that subtracts.

Yet here, “The Things They Did for Me Out of Love” is no less intricately produced than the rest of “Glitch Princess”, and adds nearly five hours of evolving, atmospheric, and moving ambient drone onto the end of what’s already the best album of the year. It’s a towering achievement.

The power of “Glitch Princess” lingers in its recognition of a way of feeling the world that was once viewed as fearful fantasy, too dire to envision as a realistic warning. It isn’t one of hopelessness, or hope, but rather one of what it’s like to get through it as best we can, keeping ourselves close to whole while wondering if our definition of wholeness itself has been too far moved to recognize anymore.

That universe it comes from can sometimes feel like just having clear eyes in our own, or as a warning, or as a commiseration, an understanding, or just a breath in the midst of it all, a moment to realize, yeah, someone else is feeling the disintegration, too, someone else can speak in the language of having to resist it to survive while embracing it to survive. It speaks colors into that gray artery of the cyberpunk we live in, telling us that struggle, that flailing and gnashing and difficulty, that ability to still recognize the dissonance of it all, is the very thing that keeps us alive to ourselves inside of it.

You can listen to “Glitch Princess” on most music streaming services, or on YouTube freely, as yeule’s made it available without ads:

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon! It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Movies and how they change you.