Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Why The New Star Wars Will Be Good

The new Star Wars movie is going to be good - like, really good. Maybe even great. At least, that is my hope and belief. My feelings are based on more than a just a fan's optimism, however. Here's why I think it will succeed where the prequel trilogy failed so miserably.

Reason One: female characters. Out of six Star Wars films to date, not one of them passed the Bechdel Test.* I don't think any of the movies save Return of the Jedi even had two named female characters with speaking parts. Along comes the latest trailer for The Force Awakens, and by itself, the opening voiceover passes this classic litmus. A small fact, to be sure, but this alone sets the new film apart from anything that's come before. I think that this is a very good sign, and I'm a big fan of stories with interesting and engaging female characters.

Reason Two: visual style. In some ways, the first Star Wars movie is the best: George Lucas was just out of film school, where he had studied luminaries like Akira Kurosawa and spent time with people who would become some of the great American directors of our time. That first film reflects an almost silent-movie ethic, in which the visuals and the editing are the central storytelling mechanisms. The subsequent films, however, moved away from that style of cinematic expression.

Now consider this short sequence from the trailer that gives a vignette of exploration - it is remarkably similar to Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

It's a simple setup, but it suggests a command of visual storytelling that was sorely lacking in the prequel trilogy. And its clear parallels to an artist like Miyazaki is cause for hope and celebration.

Reason Three: real sets. As Red Letter Media so devastatingly pointed out, you simply cannot make an exciting movie with nothing but a green screen (seriously, watch four minutes of this clip). From interviews and production stills, we know that the new film will not suffer from this defect.

Reason Four: genuine loss and emotion. George Lucas has never had a gift for dialog, nor has he ever been known as an "actor's director." The best-written Star Wars film to date is Empire Strikes Back, written by Lawrence Kasdan based upon Lucas' story. In that film, Kasdan and director Irvin Kershner conjured real humanity and feeling out of the light-hearted space opera.

So having Lucas out of the picture gives an immediate boost to the prospects of the film having a good story with well-written characters. More deeply, the latest trailer has some tight, expressive dialog and voice acting that give me chills. Finally, the themes of the three The Force Awakens trailers seem to be fear and menace, family and home, and the search for a history and an identity. These are powerful and timeless themes that fit well within Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces. If the filmmakers can deliver on the promise, the movie could surpass all expectations.

Reason Five: insiders, and especially the actors in the film, are already fans of this movie. Of course actors are professionals who are under contract to pitch the movies in which they star. But they don't do things like this or this when they aren't excited about the results of their work.

Of course, it still could end up being terrible. But if it sucks, I'll come back here and eat crow and complain. I always do.

*UPDATE: several smart people have pointed out that A New Hope does have two named female characters (Leia and poor Aunt Beru, who I had forgotten), and that Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones actually do pass the Bechdel test (though only just barely). I will simply point out that apart from Princess Leia, none of the female characters in the first six movies had much to do or much screen time. And with the exception of Leia, none had any character development whatsoever. So, however we score the previous films on the Bechdel test, from the trailers, The Force Awakens looks to be a big departure from the glaring lack of developed female characters in the Star Wars film franchise. Thanks to my old friend the Dutchman and to Manny Kant over at LGM for pointing out my omissions.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Few Thoughts About Mass Shootings And Gun Violence

1. I am not 'scared' of a mass shooting any more than I'm 'scared' of being struck by lightning or 'scared' of being hit by a car. I want to do something about mass shootings (and other gun deaths) because they are preventable and tragic and unnecessary.

 2. Jeb Bush made a good point when he said, "stuff happens, there's always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something, and it's not necessarily the right thing to do." That's a fair quote, but he's being attacked for the first part and not the second, which is unfortunate. The problem with what he said is that in fact, we know that good, effect policies exist that can and have effectively addressed the problem of mass shootings and other gun violence. Doing nothing is only a tenable position if there is nothing more that can be done. That's not the case with gun laws to address gun violence.

3. I have a difficult time understanding people like NRA president Wayne LaPierre, neurosurgeon-cum-presidential candidate Ben Carson, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, and Douglas County, Oregon Sheriff John Hanlin, who call for more guns in the wake of a gun-slaughter. It strikes me as an extreme form of fear-mongering. "Better get a weapon or next time, they'll get you."

4. But more basically, haven't any of the above heard of friendly-fire? Have they not seen the myriad stories about accidental shootings? My only answer to these questions is "yes, they absolutely have." Which means that they are disregarding their own answers to these questions because a) they are pandering to gun-culture, b) they believe that the blood of innocents is a price that must be paid, or c) both. All of which are personally appalling.

5. Blocking funding to study the problem of gun violence is a particularly grotesque form of cowardice.

6. My last thought: the conversation about guns always seems to drift into the need for personal security. To me, genuine security looks like this:

And not like this:


And definitely not this:

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Rest in Peace, Part II

My brother generously added me as a co-author on his blog about six months ago. I haven't been able to work up the gumption to write anything for it since, though. I never imagined that my first post would be the eulogy that I wrote for my mother's memorial service. But here it is.

In my mom’s obituary, my brother described her as a “conspiratorial grandmother.” It’s funny that he used that word, because, in reflecting on my mom, it’s the very same word that came to my mind.

In my mom, the grandchildren in our family had a natural ally and coconspirator in the long struggle against a common enemy: parents.  Cookies for lunch; waffles for dinner; staying up past bedtime; binge-watching inappropriate shows on Netflix: At Grandma’s house, all things were possible.

And it wasn’t just her grandchildren, either. My mom had a special affinity for all kids. She relished their humor—the more scatological, the better. She adored being goofy with them. And she treasured sharing her love of books and reading with them.

Many of you know that my mom was a garage sale and thrift store aficionado. She put these skills to use in tracking down anything we could possibly need, and many things we didn’t—tiaras, parasols, all manner of dress up clothes; entire wardrobes of regular clothes; art supplies; toys; and so many beautiful children’s books.

I swear I never bought a single Barbie, but somehow it seemed like we had thousands. And when the girls decided that they needed a Ken—apparently a fairly rare commodity at garage sales—grandma tried to help them create one out of one of the many superfluous Barbies we had lying around. I won’t say much about that other than that it’s my understanding that it involved the use of fire and it wasn’t very successful.

It didn’t matter, though. The girls were delighted to see grandma strike yet another blow against the tyranny of parental correctness. More importantly, they absorbed the underlying message: grandma would do anything for them.

The truth is, even as I publicly deplored these shenanigans, I was secretly delighted too. The incredible relationship between my daughters and my mom has been one of the principal joys of my life.  She entered into my daughters’ feelings and daily concerns as fully as I could myself. She was their strongest advocate.  It comforted me to know that she was always in their corner, even—or especially—when I was not. I knew that even if there were things they wouldn’t talk to me about, they could always talk to their grandma. It breaks my heart that they lost her now, when I feel that they need her the most.

And she was an integral part of our daily lives. We talked all the time, got together all the time. She was an indispensable part of so many family outings and road trips. After she discovered an aptitude for texting, we could count on witty one-liners and random asides throughout the day.

What I’m trying to say is that losing her has blasted a gigantic hole in our lives. We are standing in the middle of a crater, still dazed and blinded by the events of the last month, and we can’t even comprehend the edges of it. All we can do is try to fill it with love for each other.

I’m not a particularly religious person. But one religious sentiment has always resonated with me: “God has no hands but these hands.” Over the past month, I have been so humbled by my mom’s friends, neighbors, and extended family coming forward to help care for my mom and for us.  In your ministry to us, I saw each of you come cloaked in the mantle of the divine. And I am so very grateful for everything you’ve done. Without you, we could not have brought my mom home to spend the last few days of her life surrounded and cared for by her family.  And thanks to the stories and memories you’ve shared, I have also come to know my mom better even as I ached to hear her voice. As I try to make sense of a world without my mom, I will always remember how much she was loved by all of you. Thank you for that gift.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Rest In Peace, Mom

Note: I gave this eulogy at my mom's memorial service earlier today. 
I am your child
Wherever you go
you take me too.
Whatever I know
I learn from you.
Whatever I do
you taught me to do.
I am your child.
And I am your chance.
Whatever will come
will come from me.
Tomorrow is won
by winning me.
Whatever I am
you taught me to be.
I am your hope.
I am your chance.
I am your child.
Mom heard the petition of this children's poem, and she heeded its call. She parented as if everything was at stake. And everything was: she was a single woman with four children. She had a son with cancer. She faced the loss of her own mother. She had no money, no job, no direction. But she overcame all of this adversity: she graduated from nursing school… and built a full and happy life for herself and for all of her children. She poured everything she had into providing for us and our futures. But what did we know about that.

In 2008, after I got divorced, I lived with my mom for a time, while I got back on my feet. She was the ideal roommate: quiet (-- hard to believe, I know --), clean… she kept to herself when I didn't want company, but she was right there when I needed someone to talk to. I learned a lot about mom as a person that year.

So one evening, I came home and asked her about her day. She flashed me her knowing smile and replied: "today while I was seeing an amputee, and tending to his infected stump, the dog was sniffing my crotch. I look over at other side of the bed and I see a mouse crawling up the bedspread, and the cat isn't doing anything about it. So I say to the woman, 'there's a mouse, how come the cat isn't doing anything about it?' and the woman picks up the cat and throws it at the mouse. In the meantime the amputee has shit the bed."

Such is the life of a nurse. In that last year before she retired -- the year I lived with her -- mom, a twenty-seven year veteran who was turning 65, worked Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day, all without incentive pay. She was actually scheduled to work the entire Christmas weekend, but had to call in sick -- which she never did -- because she couldn't get out of bed.

And it occurred to me that this was her *every day* while I was growing up. When you are a child, you cannot conceive how hard your mother works. All of that noise, all of that chaos, all of that hard, hard work - she shielded us from it. We lived inside of her protective armor. All of our pedestrian worries about homework, sleep-overs, clean uniforms… these seemed like the biggest problems in the world to us. Meanwhile, outside of the bubble in which we lived, mom fought real demons: financial hardship, cancer, unsafe neighborhoods, unfair labor practices. And she did it always with a wry and confident smile on her face.

The poem reads, "tomorrow is won by winning me." You did it, mom. I am your child -- and I am very proud to say so.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

What He Said

I've been reading a lot of LGM lately because those guys (and gals!) are smart and funny and have a lot to say about stuff and things. Today I read this piece which pretty much deflates any pretense that there's a good-faith effort going on right now in Indiana to preserve religious liberty:
The assumption on the right is that liberals... don't support religious freedom like we did back in the 90's. They're not entirely wrong about that, but it's an incomplete view about what has changed. Insofar as liberals changed their minds about the proper scope of religious exemptions, they didn't do so in a vacuum, they changed their mind about it because the context we're now in -- facing an utterly shameless political movement that treats any conceivable political tool as fair game to achieve its political ends -- is just simply not the kind of environment that fits well with an expansive approach to religious exemptions.
As the cool kids say, go read the whole thing.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Knight of Nothing Is About To Break The Internet

After eight years as a solo project, I am pleased and proud to announce that Knight of Nothing has added a second contributor!

Greatness, it shall ensue. Welcome, Lizzie!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Islamophobia Creeps Into LinkedIn

I'm pretty disappointed with LinkedIn right now.

Every few days, I get an electronic newsletter from LinkedIn. This email contains links to a variety of professional development articles and other business-related news tailored to my career interests. I know email is pretty passe, but I review these messages regularly; I almost always find something relevant to my job or that I think might help solve issues I face in the workplace. It is one of my chief methods of staying current with my industry, and one of the features of LinkedIn that I use and like.

A few days ago, however, was a different story. I was quite frankly shocked by one of the articles that was included in the message.

Surprised by this provocative and suspicious title, I clicked through to investigate the story. It was worse than I expected: the article ominously claimed that "some areas" in the U.S. were governed (or close to being governed) by "Sharia Law." It contained no useful or thoughtful opinions; no sources were used to corroborate any of its claims, no names were given, and no specifics of any kind were provided. It simply asserted that this was so. To describe this piece as written is to refute it. In short, it was simply prejudicial fear-mongering at its worst.

Okay, so what? Lots of people believe this kind of nonsense. But this isn't some back-water basement blogger who sent me this tripe - this is LinkedIn, ostensibly a clearinghouse for professionalism, and the third largest social media site in the world. I expect more from a site like LinkedIn, and I would guess that from a bottom line perspective, it might not be such a good idea to alienate a quarter of your potential customers.

What is even more troubling is that the content of the article violates their own community guidelines: "Do not use LinkedIn's services... for hate speech acts like attacking people because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, political or religious affiliations, or medical or physical condition." [emphasis added]

Needless to say, I contacted customer support to try to answer the question, "how did this come to be in my version of LinkedIn's official newsletter?" I am almost more gobsmacked that they have not yet seen fit to answer my question.

LinkedIn, I await your reply.

UPDATE: searching on, I was able to find what appears to be the source of the link, but seeing it here does not explain how the link got into my copy of LinkedIn's newsletter. I hope that a thorough explanation is forthcoming.

UPDATE II: I changed the title of this post to be less snarky, because LinkedIn finally did contact me, escalated the issue, and seem to be genuinely concerned about it. I hope that something positive comes out of this. 

UPDATE III: Fox has apologized for promoting this story as news. But LinkedIn is still standing by this story under the cover of "free expression." What gives? 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

We Are Made Of Star-Stuff

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.
- Carl Sagan
In the last two-day period, here in the comfortable Western world, we have collectively witnessed a couple of barbaric attacks. It's hard to make sense of it. But I find some measure of comfort in Carl's quote.

May the perpetrators be brought to justice, and may the victims and their families and friends of these attacks find some peace.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Road Goes Ever Ever On

In case you haven't seen the movie yet - spoiler alert! Also, you can see my reviews of the first two films here and here.

The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies marks the end of an era that began thirteen years ago with The Fellowship of the Ring. It makes seeing this movie and talking about it a little sad - it's all over! As a fan, in spite of my reservations about (and outright objections to) Peter Jackson's interpretations of J. R. R. Tolkien's stories, it is hard to approach this film with anything resembling objectivity. Knowing that it is the last one* makes it all the more difficult.

BotFA is the only one of Jackson's six Tolkien films that I did not see on opening weekend. Partly because work has been so busy, partly because I have a toddler, and partly because this holiday season was a little more hectic than usual, I just did not have the time to see it right away. But there was another thing that held me back: I was simply reluctant to get out there and put a final end to all of the hopes that I had had for these six movies.

Before FotR was released in 2001, the anticipation of what these films might look like, how the stories would be adapted, and how these movies would be received thrilled me and my friends, and speculating about all of these things was an endless source of excitement. So when The Hobbit was announced as a two-movie treatment (later updated to three), my enthusiasm was rekindled. But after five films had come and gone, my own hopes and dreams for these movies had been thoroughly replaced by the reality of PJ & Company's imaginings. There is a colonization of sorts that takes place when you see someone else's interpretation of a beloved work, and part of me wanted to keep alive the visions I had for a film version of The Hobbit by holding off seeing BotFA for just a little longer.

Of the three Hobbit movies, I enjoyed BotFA most. The high notes of the film - the dragon's assault on Laketown, the dwarven phalanx facing off against superior numbers, the death of Thorin, Bilbo's return to the Shire - brought the story to a satisfying conclusion. But I can't sit here and say it was a good movie: once again, it neglected its own story, cluttered itself with way too much action, and depicted far too many physics-free CGI acrobatics performed by Legolas. And significantly, by appropriating Tolkien's supplementary material to address plot issues in the original tale, the filmmakers wound up introducing more problems than they solved (I'm thinking here of the Arkenstone, the Battle of Dol Guldur, Thorin's madness, and the Earth-Eaters aka Were-worms).

For me, the best scene in this film comes about halfway through: Bilbo, having realized that Thorin has succumbed to his madness and greed (the "dragon-sickness"), decides to slip away and meet with Bard and the Elven-king Thranduil in order to give them the Arkenstone - the jewel with which they might barter for a peaceful settlement. The writing was straightforward and Freeman's note-perfect performance restored a breath of fresh air into the overwrought action and stuffy haughtiness that fills too much of the movie. It needed more of this plain Hobbit sense.

I thought the opening action was great, but it wasn't really a movie opening: it was the end of the last film. In fact, BotFA is the only film of the six that doesn't have a true opening sequence. I guess that makes sense, given that the last movie didn't really have an ending. It speaks to the problems of writing two movies and then expanding the story into three.

There are plenty more nits I might pick, but as I said, overall, I enjoyed the experience of seeing this movie - as a fantasy-action film, it has a lot to recommend it. Looking at the series as a whole, my main gripes can be summed up very succinctly: (1) PJ & Company needed to answer more of the questions that their own script posed, and (2) they needed to dial back (and even remove some of) the extended CG sequences, especially those which ignore the Laws of Motion. As for my second point, given Jackson's work in the 21st century, I can say with tolerable certainty that he's just not going to make this change -- he's too enamored of those tricked-out antics. But as for the first, it needed to happen in order for the Hobbit Trilogy to really shine, and the biggest disappointment is that they didn't do more with such great source material.

ETA: apparently, Aragorn agrees with me:  "Mortensen thinks - rightly - that The Fellowship of the Ring turned out the best of the three, perhaps largely because it was shot in one go... "Anybody who says they knew it was going to be the success it was, I don’t think it's really true," he says. "They didn't have an inkling until they showed 20 minutes in Cannes, in May of 2001. They were in a lot of trouble, and Peter had spent a lot. Officially, he could say that he was finished in December 2000 - he'd shot all three films in the trilogy. The first script was better organised... really the second and third ones were a mess and needed massive reshoots... " he says. "Also, Peter was always a geek in terms of technology but, once he had the means to do it, and... the technology really took off, he never looked back. In the first movie, yes, there's Rivendell, and Mordor, but there's sort of an organic quality to it, actors acting with each other, and real landscapes; it's grittier. The second movie started ballooning... and then by the third one, there were a lot of special effects. It was grandiose, and all that, but whatever was subtle, in the first movie, gradually got lost in the second and third. Now with The Hobbit, one and two, it's like that to the power of 10."

Not all that is gold glitters, my friend. 

*Note: Some have speculated that there will be more films and/or a reboot. They are almost certainly right. But Peter Jackson has pretty much exhausted the Middle Earth materials that he has the legal right to depict on film. So unless and until the rights to The Hobbit and LotR are secured by someone else, PJ & Company's work will stand as the definitive films. And given how many artists and craftsmen were involved with the making of these movies, and their care and attention to a myriad of details, it's not difficult to imagine that the influence of these films will weigh heavily on any attempt at a new telling of the story in the medium.