Tag Archives: Oscar Isaac

The First Sin of Adapting “Dune”

The following article contains spoilers for “Dune”.

Duke Leto. Ultradad. Father Knows Best in Space. Every adaptation of “Dune” lionizes the man so that we know just how much his son Paul loses when House Harkonnen massacres his family. Yet the point of Duke Leto is the opposite. We understand Paul loses a loved one, but we also must understand how Duke Leto sets the themes of “Dune”. By transforming Leto into an enlightened ruler cut short, “Dune” immediately sets fire to the foundation of the themes Frank Herbert’s novel sought to develop.

Duke Leto in the novel is a man obsessed with aristocratic convention, hierarchy, and ancestry. He’s disdainful to servants, strict with Paul and his consort Jessica, he plots just as willfully and consciously as the Harkonnens. He’s not a good man caught in the trap of taking over Arrakis because others like him too much. He’s a man who’s shrewdly gathered power, spearheaded new military technology, and developed an army meant to rival the Emperor’s.

Leto is altruistic, though often with a goal, hoping the stories of his magnanimity reach others. He’s kind in many moments, but he can be cruel in others. At times his kindness is honest, at times it’s a leverage or exchange. It’s crucial in every adaptation that Duke Leto envisions himself as being a righteous, enlightened man. It’s a foundational mistake that every adaptation sees him this way as well.

The most accurate portrayal in director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of “Dune” is Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica. I understand the idea that she’s portrayed in an overly emotional way, but Villeneuve’s mistake isn’t doing this – she’s emotional in the book, too. This guides many of her decisions, and even ways in which Leto and Jessica use each other. Ferguson maintains Jessica as both intimidating and empathetic. Villeneuve’s mistake is not making Leto and Paul just as emotional. No, they’re supermen. Even if Paul is inconsistent, unsure, and often afraid of his visions, he’s still only a scene away from calmly piloting through a storm or going full John Wick.

This directly points to the thematic failure of Villeneuve’s “Dune”. In the novel, Duke Leto envisions his actions on Arrakis as righteous no matter how colonial his presence is. Paul is torn between the keen awareness of his mother even as she tries to subvert and accelerate prophecy, and the aristocratic determinism of his father.

It’s very appropriate that House Atreides views itself as noble, enlightened, and righteous – it envisions its leadership can bring peace to Arrakis, rather than recognizing that by definition its presence is yet one more act of violence. Simply because it’s not as brutal or wholesale a violence as House Harkonnen doesn’t mean it isn’t still violent. Of course Duke Leto views himself as righteous, but it’s a major, foundational problem that the film does, too. “Dune” misses an opportunity for this to be an object of discussion between Leto and Paul. They talk about who Paul wants to be when he’s older, but the pressing matter on Paul’s mind throughout the movie is one that he never directly voices to his father.

Every adaptation of “Dune” has treated House Atreides as noble and tragic when they participated in a cycle of direct occupation. In the novel, Leto sees Arrakis as an opportunity. He might even be described as foolhardy in his willingness to engage the danger. He jumps at the chance. Yes, everyone knows the Emperor has set a trap, but Leto also views this as the culmination of his own efforts to challenge the emperor. He certainly views it as the result of generations of his ancestors building power. It’s not just a situation he falls into cause he’s just such a gosh darn good space dad. It’s one his family’s been aiming for over generations.

In the novel, Arrakis isn’t a solemn duty Leto’s willing to martyr himself for as he tries to nobly empower the indigenous Fremen. To Leto, Arrakis is his family’s manifest destiny, and the Fremen are a tool that can be useful against both House Harkonnen and the Emperor. This sets the entire thematic foundation for Jessica and Paul’s later manipulation of the Fremen.

It also sets a comparison for author Frank Herbert’s criticism of “charismatic leadership”, wherein he offers an example of its danger in antiquity and monarchic history through Leto before engaging its modern populist version through Paul. Leto illustrates that this type of marketing of a hero or messiah isn’t something new that only inhabits a strict definition that’s easy to recognize. Through Leto and Paul, Herbert argues that it will always exist, hide in new forms, and define itself through whatever evangelizes a population into believing it uniquely embodies a manifest destiny.

Paul’s struggle isn’t between the goodness and idealism of his father and the awareness and shrewdness of his mother, as in the film. His struggle is whether he lies to himself and justifies it like his father, or he holds the awareness of exactly what he does and the damages he causes like his mother. Does he justify his manipulation of the Fremen to himself as enlightened fate, or does he recognize the violence he impels are his own decisions? This is why it’s important that his visions offer multiple paths; they’re about how much he chooses to lie to himself out of his own emotional shortcomings.

Leto and Paul are both emotional, unreliable, and narcissistic. It’s crucial to both that before they market their righteousness to anyone else, they’ve sold themselves on it. As a Bene Gesserit with a broader view, Jessica has no need for this. She doesn’t need to convince herself of her own righteousness like Leto and Paul; she has awareness they lack. She sees their occupation of Arrakis is itself an act of violence. She is comfortable committing that act. The problem in the film isn’t that Jessica is emotional, it’s that Leto and Paul aren’t even moreso.

Perhaps Villeneuve fails to show Leto or Paul in this light because of a male gaze that wants them to be more stolid and stoic. Perhaps he only sees the anti-colonial and anti-populist thread in Lady Jessica, and fails to in Leto and – to this point – Paul. Those reasons are worth discussing. What they arrive at is a lionization of Leto that directly undermines and sabotages the foundation of the novel’s themes. Villeneuve could go either direction with Paul – a hero’s journey that every adaptation of “Dune” has thus far embraced, or the criticism of the hero’s journey that Herbert actually wrote. With Villeneuve’s Part Two on the horizon, I’m willing to treat the jury as still out on Paul.

Yet by failing to recognize or engage this at all with Leto, Villeneuve has already shown a lack of recognition for, or a willingness to ignore, the thematic foundation on which the rest of “Dune” is built. Paul’s entire journey is one of balancing Jessica’s awareness and long view with enough of Leto’s narcissism and self-justification to overcome his doubt. He gets the worst of both of his parents, weaknesses we often dangerously mistake for strengths. Without showing what those weaknesses and dangers are in Leto, Villeneuve fails not just Leto’s character, but Paul’s as well.

Here, Leto is just a Golly Gee Awesome Space Dad in a Bind (if Chuck Tingle uses that title, I want royalties). Oscar Isaac is very good in that role; that role just isn’t useful in “Dune” unless you’re making a hero’s journey for a Chosen One – exactly what “Dune” was written to criticize.

Changing Leto for the film adds some drama to the premise for House Atreides, but it does so at the cost of meaning in relation to the Fremen, the novel’s themes, and the very characters of Leto and Paul. Instead of viewing the Fremen as enduring one more viceroy, no matter how “soft” his colonialism acts, we now view Leto as a tragic victim.

Villeneuve’s “Dune” wants to have later conversations about colonialism, but it misses the most important opportunity to build a foundation for these. Every adaptation of “Dune” has been too preoccupied and worshipful of the classically tragic nobility of House Atreides, and that’s excused any of these adaptations from giving its leaders the more complex presentation they need.

Because the Duke is sold as enlightened, we avoid engaging him with the same critical eye “Dune” turns toward everything else. That means the very first thing Villeneuve’s “Dune” does is ignore the same ideals the rest of the film seeks to criticize. Simply because every adaptation likes the Duke too much, we fail to engage this first act of harm. Our first lesson in every “Dune” adaptation is to ignore the very conversation “Dune” wants to have. Because it’s a “softer” act of harm, or one we feel Duke Leto has no choice but to commit, we begin an anti-colonial narrative by first excusing an act of colonialism. We’re taught to treat a viceroy who sees Arrakis as an opportunity for his own advancement as the real victim of colonialism. Then those adaptations want to talk to you about colonialism as if they haven’t already started by excusing it.

“Dune” somehow manages to trick its storytellers into undermining themselves despite Herbert expressly detailing who Duke Leto is. No adaptation has actually managed this first hurdle because none of them are willing to sacrifice the hero’s journey and the justifying incident that it requires.

Every adaptation of “Dune” commits a first sin of failing world, theme, and character. We only even see half the Duke’s tragedy. By wanting to love his character so, we overlook that his fall is also the result of his self-serving nature. To be a classically tragic leader, the Duke must be capable, kind, and admirable. So we get a classically tragic Duke – but he’s also meant to be tragic in a much more modern sense. He might understand the politics of the universe beautifully, and he’s educated himself on Arrakis well. Yet in lying to himself about his role in relation to the planet and its people as an enlightened ruler who can save it – instead of as an imperial viceroy whose participation in saving it is simply a continuance of a violent colonial act – the idealism that makes us view him as noble and enlightened is itself a lie. The whole point of his character is that the narrative he holds of himself is a lie. As a novel, “Dune” is clear on this. What he sacrifices himself for lacks meaning, and first requires the sacrifice of those who follow him. That is the tragedy. The point of the Duke is that populism of any sort kills itself when it buys into its own marketing, and in doing so it will sacrifice everyone else first.

In the classical sense, the Duke is tragic because he thinks he can succeed at making things better – and this contributes to his death. In the modern sense, the Duke is tragic because his self-marketing makes him believe he is playing a role far more righteous than it is, one he can manifest, one that his aristocratic history and adherence has led him to. His surprise with the quickness that he loses is because he thought his ascension was determined, trap or no trap. He’s not an idiot; he knows the danger. He just thinks it can’t touch him. This is specifically observed by other characters in the franchise, such as Princess Irulan (who you’ll meet later).

Adaptations of the novel choose the righteous half of that description – they believe what Leto believes about himself. They forget the self-righteous half – the role Leto plays, and that his belief does not define fact. The noble act he dies for is itself a lie he believes. Missing this in “Dune” means we once more have an adaptation that fails to fully grasp the conversation on which it wants to spend hours more philosophizing.

To understand how Jessica and Paul move forward as they do, especially as manipulators of the Fremen and not just a Chosen One and his mom, we need a more complex understanding of Duke Leto. Because we don’t have it, “Dune” in adaptation after adaptation trips into becoming a heroic Chosen One narrative regardless of its intentions. Like Leto, adaptations of “Dune” have made the mistake of thinking they’re more noble than they are. Their stories employ violence as episodic set piece without a deeper grasp of “Dune” as a story about cultural acts of violence. They mistake their protagonists as heroes in these set pieces, rather than as characters who see the violence of these set pieces as markers to exceed when they get their chance.

Like the 1984 film and the 2000 miniseries, the 2021 Part One of “Dune” is an exquisite adaptation of a hero’s journey, which means it fails the very first test of whether it’s a good adaptation of the novel. “Dune” as a novel understands the hero’s journey is marketing, that in the real world it covers over atrocities and builds populist consensus for war. Perhaps the newly greenlit Part Two of “Dune” will course correct this. Perhaps “Part One” is just a set up for how it all comes crashing down.

On its own, astounding as it may be in other ways, Villeneuve’s Part One fails to confront the questions that “Dune” as a novel is built around. It’s the third time in a row an adaptation screws up out of the gate. It fails to see that its thematic conversation starts with Leto at the very beginning, and not simply with Paul as a reaction. Leto isn’t just a premise or a sacrifice that evokes Paul’s vengeance and ambition; Leto is the prototype of it. Leto is a rough draft that ultimately fails, both literally and metaphorically poisoning itself. You can only engage so much of that conversation if you completely miss its foundation. You can only recognize a very limited amount of what “Dune” entails if you miss the bulk of where it starts and what it includes. Villeneuve’s “Dune” is a really solid “Game of Thrones” in space, but it’s not a good adaptation of the novel. I don’t care if the visual and technological details are painstakingly accurate when the theme isn’t. Science-fiction can only be so high-concept when it completely misses the concept.

This is the first sin of adapting “Dune”. No one who has adapted it so far is willing to treat its “soft” colonialism as violent, or its historical populism as a rough draft of Paul’s. Leto is treated as the first step of the hero’s journey: what is lost. He’s supposed to be the first step that argues against it: what justifies vengeance. That’s the foundation on which means are justified to achieve vengeance, on which violence is justified to realize those means, on which leadership is sold to make that violence achievable, on which a messiah is marketed to achieve that leadership.

Adaptations of “Dune” don’t just miss that first step; they directly reverse it. You can no longer argue, embody, or represent the themes of the novel when you’ve inverted the foundation to mean the opposite of those themes.

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“Dune” is Great, and a Fraction of What it Could Have Been

“Dune” is good. It’s great. It also stumbles at the first hurdle of adapting Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. No matter how artistically impressive they’ve been, no adaptation of “Dune” has managed to follow through on the convictions of its source.

At least “Dune” conveys the plot in a straightforward and compelling manner. That already sets it above the cut-to-shreds 1984 movie and the overly somber 2000 miniseries. The Emperor rules the known universe, but space travel is reliant on Spice. Spice is found on one planet: the desert world Arrakis. House Harkonnen has ruled Arrakis for centuries, abusing the indigenous Fremen while growing in wealth and power enough to challenge the Emperor. Meanwhile, House Atreides has grown in power through leadership and alliance. The solution is simple. House Atreides is put in charge of Arrakis, setting up a war between the two powerful houses that should weaken both.

We follow the royal family of House Atreides through this: the idealistic Duke Leto, his consort Lady Jessica, and their son Paul. Here, Rebecca Ferguson carries the film as Jessica. Oscar Isaac and Timothee Chalamet are solid as Leto and Paul, but for such important characters can feel too broadly defined.

“Dune” is very deliberately paced without ever feeling slow or boring. It’s constantly interesting, full of exciting ideas and imagery that conveys cultures we’re only getting to peek into for a brief time.

It often looks like what David Lean might have filmed had he ever directed a sci-fi movie. That’s appropriate, given how the writings of T.E. Lawrence – the historical subject of Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” – influenced the novel. The movie is visually brilliant, hearkening back to the mythic and philosophical scope of 70s science-fiction.

All that said, this is part one of “Dune”. It adapts the first half of the novel, with the second part just given the green light for production. It feels like it. It has the attitude of a prologue. Even though there’s plenty of meat to the story and many things change from beginning to end, it can still feel like the shortest 2 hour and 35 minute movie you’ve ever seen. It ends right as it gets going. It’s a very worthwhile experience. It’s also an inherently incomplete one.

I won’t spoil where it ends, but it concludes on a character moment, instead of the two more epic moments that precede or follow it. I like that idea, but director Denis Villeneuve maintains a certain amount of distance from his characters, and doesn’t fully enough weave the themes of “Dune” through them. This saps power from their portrayal. Ending on a character moment means less when Villeneuve has built his film around world-building and plot, with his characters sometimes coming across more like chess pieces.

I suspect that part one of “Dune” will feel like a more complete experience after the second movie comes out and concludes the adaptation. What we’re really watching is the first act and beginning of the second act of an epic. We have the first half of a five hour-plus movie, which makes the experience both astounding and incomplete.

Amidst its art-house foundation of visions, philosophy, quiet emoting, and the beginnings of a conversation about colonialism, “Dune” loses some of its strong visual fluidity to its action scenes. It feels surprising to write that “Dune” has too much action, since it really doesn’t have much at all.

The problem isn’t the quality of the action – it’s both captivating and unique. The problem is that the action elements force “Dune” toward an episodic quality. We spend plenty of time with our core cast, but we don’t get a fluid sense of their experiences in these biggest moments of “Dune”. This is when we’re most distant from them, and when they become the most inaccessible. These moments are reserved for the action set pieces rather than character experiences. We’re already at a distance from these characters, which is fine, but we’re then held back from them even more when we most want to be close to them. We want to have a better sense of how they’re living these upheavals.

I don’t need to see the fight scene happen on one side of the door if the point of it is the emotional experience of the people on the other side of that door who can’t see it. We get the set piece in detail when we should be alongside our main characters, who are fearful, sad, and angry because they don’t know what’s happening in that set piece, whether someone they care for will live or die.

A good fight scene is like a good dialogue scene – something about a character’s understanding should change from beginning to end. This is when Villeneuve leaves the characters whose understanding is changing. He brings the details of these scenes while forgetting the point of them is supposed to be their impact. These details are phenomenal, but that doesn’t change the fact that their impact is left on the cutting room floor.

I do enjoy “Dune”. It is routinely captivating, if episodic. Part of me wonders if there’s a three-and-a-half hour director’s cut that maintains a better rhythm and fluidity. I am looking forward to the second part. “Dune” is a great movie that adapts many details of the novel. I also think it’s missing the entire point of the novel. No adaptation of “Dune” has held to its convictions that the story is a subversion of the hero’s journey, showing the danger of a charismatic leader. Every adaptation has instead turned its back on that idea in favor of presenting the very hero’s journey the novel argued against and sought to dismantle.

No matter how much detail you incorporate into your adaptation, if it skips the entire point of the novel, it’s not a good adaptation. It can still be a good movie about other things, a staggeringly beautiful experience about other things, and “Dune” is both. Yet these choices inherently gut the film of the bulk of its power and meaning. What we’re left with is something that deserves to be talked about among the best films of the year, but also a movie that is only a fragment of what it could have been.

You can watch “Dune” on HBO Max.

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Dark Side or Just Radicalization — “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

“Not a coincidence it’s always men and boys committing mass shootings. The pattern is connected to ideas of toxic masculinity in our culture.”

– Anita Sarkeesian

“I was literally watching the chat room as the site posted my address and the conversation moved to places that threatened my personal safety. I made the decision to leave, and law enforcement said it was reasonable. I basically just left the house. I have no idea where I’ll be living this week or even next month.”

– Brianna Wu

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” does one thing much better than the capstones to the original and prequel trilogies. The dark side of the force typically lurks around the edges of the trilogies as a sort of bogey-man. It’s ill-defined within the movies. Some of the TV series and novels are very good, but the further you go into them, the more inconsistent that definition becomes.

Evil is evil and must be fought, the original trilogy argues. The prequel trilogy made a more profound argument about how evil transforms events and redefines systems to pose itself as good. Unfortunately, it’s also a chore to watch.

How exactly does “The Rise of Skywalker” succeed where so many other attempts have failed? Let’s start with the original trilogy’s capstone, “Return of the Jedi”.

Even as a kid, it struck me as self-important that Luke Skywalker felt Darth Vader could be saved. Luke had no intention of turning Vader good before he discovered that the villain was his father. Until then, it was important that Vader was beaten. The lives of others were on the line. Yet when Luke discovered the truth, it was suddenly crucial that Vader could be saved.

No, it wasn’t. It was crucial that Vader was stopped. There’s not even a good strategic reason for Luke to abandon the assault on the shield generator that his friends are risking their lives to attack. He doesn’t even distract the Emperor, who’s still issuing commands at leisure as Luke and Vader go toe to toe.

Over the years, authors like Timothy Zahn have added reasons to the non-canon extended universe, such as Luke interrupting a form of the Emperor’s battle meditation that coordinated the Imperial fleet. This is never actually mentioned in “Return of the Jedi”. All we’re told in the movie is that it’s super important for Luke to save his dad, the more important mission that he actually signed onto be damned.

That’s fine cause it’s Luke, we trust him, we want to see his hero’s journey resolved, and it gives us three battles at once to cut between – ratcheting up the tension on each. We’re rewarded at moviegoers, so we don’t mind that it’s an extremely emotional goal for someone who insists they’re not prioritizing their actions out of emotion.

“Revenge of the Sith” plays similarly as the capstone to the prequel trilogy – up to a point. At least Obi-Wan Kenobi has the good sense to cut his apprentice down once it becomes obvious Anakin Skywalker can’t be saved. Obi-Wan prioritizes protecting others over his own emotions. If only he’d then made sure that Anakin was really dead, or had brought the body with him when he left, he could’ve saved the galaxy a lot of grief.

Both finales to their respective trilogies deal with whether someone who’s become a murderer can be saved. In “Revenge of the Sith”, the answer is nope, but at least we can protect some of the people in his way. In “Return of the Jedi” the answer is supposedly, but it risks a lot of other people in the process and is quietly self-serving.

That brings us to “The Rise of Skywalker”. If there’s one thing the new trilogy has legitimized, it’s the importance of whether someone can be turned back. It’s hinged the central relationship of all three movies on the notion of whether a radicalized young man can be reclaimed. And you know what? This film simply makes a much better – and less emotional argument – about why it’s important.

Each of the trilogies has leaned its themes heavily upon a great performance that’s run through them – Harrison Ford’s Han Solo in the original helps communicate the unpredictability of the story and the maturation of people who become willing to sacrifice themselves for something greater. Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan gives us a steady and measured presence of someone trying to elicit truth in a story about a galaxy’s political turn toward fascism.

The sequel trilogy has a number of great performances – Daisy Ridley’s Rey is underappreciated, in part because she’s a woman leading “Star Wars” movies, and in part because we inaccurately view optimistic performances as less complex. Oscar Isaac’s Poe does a tremendous amount in quick bursts of action, but changes to be whatever that movie’s screenwriter needs him to be a bit too much. Carrie Fisher’s General Leia and Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo have also stood out in previous trilogy movies.

The great performance that the trilogy thematically leans on is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. The story of a radicalized man who rages at the world, embraces a hate-based ideology that worships dead fascists, and plays at emperor is especially relevant today. In the real world, we can see someone playing at emperor is just as dangerous as being one when they have the same tools. We see young men radicalized to rage at the world by harming others, from white supremacists to misogynists who pick up guns. Kylo Ren is introduced in the first scenes of “The Rise of Skywalker” as he causes a massacre. This is someone who’s lost.

I included this bell hooks quote in my review for “The Force Awakens”, because I discussed what it meant to see a Latino as a major character and hero in that film. I’d been trained by my peers and the culture around me to stuff the Latino side of myself down as a child, to suppress it and play at being only white. It was a violence I was trained to internalize, to gut myself of something valuable so that I could always yearn for a social approval that would never come. The quote’s one of her more famous ones because it resonates through so much of our culture:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

The effects of this in Kylo Ren’s entire worldview are obvious. To see an alternative, we need to see a community that rejects and functions without it.

The biggest part of what makes this film work so well is the relationship shared between heroes Rey, Finn, and Poe. This is extended to characters like Leia, a Carrie Fisher who’s (awkwardly at first) inserted posthumously into the film through outtakes from the prior two movies. It also extends to an underutilized Rose Tico and a number of very brief cameos (like suddenly Dominic Monaghan for some reason). More than the other sequel films, the droids are brought in for emotional moments here. C-3PO gets a surprisingly moving scene that actor Anthony Daniels pulls off beautifully.

Rey, Finn, Poe, and their community can lean on each other and rely on each other. That relationship was separated in “The Last Jedi”. It needed to be in order to make that film work, but the heart of the “The Rise of Skywalker” is seeing the three come back together. That relationship and healthy interdependence is a crucial and necessary contrast to the sense of isolation the film argues against.

As the film repeats, they win if you think you’re alone. I’ve worked extensively with people who have received online threats. The goal of their stalkers and harassers is always singular: isolate them. Make them think there’s no one to rely on. Hatred operates through isolation. It disempowers through isolation. It can’t be fought anymore when the people fighting it each think they’re alone in doing so.

What bell hooks refers to as “the first act of violence” seeks to instill this isolation in young men. As Vanessa Tottle wrote eloquently on this site after the Isla Vista gun massacre, someone who’s isolated can also be turned into a weapon. They can be made to blame others for that isolation and lash out at them as a way of imagining they’re fighting back against it. They can be turned against the people who do care about them, the community that could help them overcome that isolation. They repeat a violence internally against themselves as a way of legitimizing that they should one day enact that violence against others. Then they teach others to internalize that violence, to lash out as a result, and to propagate the cycle.

The new trilogy understands this, and it gives its consequences an immediacy and importance the original trilogy never had. The original trilogy served as a tremendous hero’s journey, perhaps the most iconic example of it in cinematic history. That’s important. They were just more successful films than allegories sometimes.

The prequel trilogy may have its failures, but it broadly laid out and warned us of the steps of a democracy’s erosion – its importance is often dismissed because its quality and focus were so wildly inconsistent. The prequel trilogy forms an underrated allegory; just not very successful films.

The sequel trilogy that ends with “The Rise of Skywalker” is more specific than either, and feels more immediate than both because of it. It finally shows us the danger of the dark side in one person, and it feels more real because of it. It makes it matter beyond a generalized sense of good vs. evil that’s fairly useless and inapplicable in the real world. It shows us radicalization. It shows us the difficulty of trying to undo it in a person. It balances the story not on the fate of the galaxy, but on the demons of a character. It succeeds in one of the few places “Return of the Jedi” failed.

Make no mistake. These are Rey’s movies. The focus on diversity and its importance is as broadly featured as it was in “The Force Awakens”, although the near-exclusion of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico is a glaring problem. The value of resistance is less specific but still frames the conversations and actions of the story in the way “The Last Jedi” does.

This is Rey’s story; it’s just that her story in this installment includes whether or not someone who’s violently radicalized can be recovered from it. It’s difficult to say whether this centers her story on a man, or whether this is being consistent in her approach to building a community. (There are one or two choices that play her into tropes I wish the film could have avoided.) She’s certainly willing to kill Kylo Ren, and she also sees other options available. This continues the tradition of two men who fronted previous trilogies: Obi-Wan and Luke. This trilogy simply gives us much better and more relevant reasons for why. It de-mythologizes the dark side. For all its power and magic, what it really boils down to is radicalization, and that can be fought.

A hero is defined by two things: the danger she fights, and how she enables a community to protect itself. In both ways, Rey’s the best hero the franchise has given us. Men could do with understanding the part about community much better than we do. While it’s not perfect, I’m thankful that this film and trilogy exists. The radicalization of young men isn’t a theme we see covered widely in film, especially in event movies. When it is covered, it’s often approached with sensationalism – in ways that make the character an anti-hero, or pretend toward a neutrality that aids, shields, and excuses violence.

I love the original “Star Wars” trilogy, but it doesn’t speak to the things that are important to me. It doesn’t address the things that have impacted my life, the things that I’ve fought against in others or faced in myself. The sequel trilogy does. Does that make it better? I don’t know, but I do feel very comfortable watching them side by side.

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“Ex Machina” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

I was protected in high school from the abuse of hazing because of my sister. Four years ahead of me, she went to the incoming seniors before she graduated. She said if they hazed me, she would be back for them, and they wouldn’t be happy about it. They never touched me.

I tried to extend that shield when I could, and a few times I was able to for certain friends. I discovered earlier this year that one of those friends went on to sexually assault a number of women, using his position as a publicist within the music industry to grope them and attempt to pressure them into having sex.

When I found out, I felt like I had done something wrong by protecting him at 14, that I somehow should have known better. I felt what he did in the future was some failing of mine by taking some momentary part in his life in the past. I described the feeling to one of the closest people in my life like this:

You work to make sure there isn’t a fire at your feet. You stamp out what you can, you keep the people that you can safe in the ways you know how, and you be there for them when you can’t. And you feel like maybe, you’ve made a change, that maybe the small effect you’ve had can make a difference. And then you look up from your patch of ground only to realize the whole city’s burning, and you feel lost and it feels overwhelming. You’ll return to making what change you can, but in that moment, you’re lost. The damage done in the world is irreversible.

As a society, we are hateful to women. There is no argument to be had that we are not.

“Ex Machina” felt like looking up and seeing the city on fire. It can be a problematic film to champion because of that. In order to make a horror film from the lessons we teach men about possessing women, it demonstrated that possession in no uncertain terms. It does so through creating an A.I. and then asking its protagonist – and its audience – whether she’s human. If she isn’t human, she’s a thing kept, a possession, an object. If she is human, the very act of keeping her entrapped, of possessing her, is an act of assault. “Ex Machina” uses the Turing Test as a code through which we judge our own social assumptions. While the most blatant of its transgressions are suggested rather than shown, the space in which “Ex Machina” suggests them is as claustrophobic as cinema gets.

After its opening weekend, I experienced something that rarely happens. Through the window of discussing the movie, I had dozens of conversations with men about the lessons we’re taught regarding women, the things society ingrains in us to endorse and ignore. These conversations are normally extremely difficult to start with other men. They’re easily dismissed. They don’t happen. When they do, they run the course of shallow agreement, declining the real work of self-analysis.

For a few weeks, “Ex Machina” changed something in the men who had seen it. We talked about these things. We shared stories of what we’d seen, of things that some people had done, of realizations, of opportunities to help that we missed, of friends and loved ones who were forever changed because of acts of male possession. Men need to look up and see the city is burning, and we need to do it together, and we need to believe and support the women who have been shouting “Fire!” all their lives to us.

And for a minute, because of a movie that made a horror out of the gender roles we’re taught when young, I felt as if many men looked up together and saw the fire and talked about it as we rarely do. I only wish that could be the norm. I wish it didn’t take a movie to make that happen. I wish it wasn’t a momentary effect. I wish we didn’t all lower our eyes to our patch of ground again and pretend the city’s not burning down around us.

Ex Machina poster

Images are from Hollywood Reporter and Tale of Two Dans.

“A Most Violent Year” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

“A Most Violent Year” is a unique accomplishment. It’s essentially a gangster film about the one virtuous man in the entire plot, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). What’s unique is that it is not a plot of suffering or loss. Abel’s dedication to doing things the right way is itself a power that stands toe-to-toe with those who rob him, beat his employees, steal his trucks, and kidnap his salespeople.

His biggest fault and his biggest advantage is Anna (Jessica Chastain). She’s the heir apparent to a mobster, but she’s given up that life in order to build a family and a business with Abel. Yet she’s clearly finagled the accounting. She’s clearly kept things from him. And she will take on the war he refuses to engage in if things get much worse.

Abel must outmaneuver both sides as they clamor for outright war, as well as a district attorney who wants to make an example of him. There are also shades of the immigrant experience. As a Hispanic immigrant who’s become a business owner, it’s important to Abel that he subscribes to doing things according to the American dream. If he’s been sold on the idea this is the land of opportunity, then he will treat it that way even if no one else does.

As he maneuvers, as he makes concessions, as he forgets about those who have sacrificed to get him where he is, does he remain connected with the virtue he champions? If cheating is part of the game, and you have no choice but to ally yourself with cheaters to survive, are you still playing by the rules yourself? And are these the rules of business that “make America great?”

“A Most Violent Year” keeps you in the dark about many of its truths, but it also keeps Abel in the dark, and we feel allied to him in his determination to shed light on what’s been happening to his business. It’s one of the least predictable movies of the year, but while it draws from 70s crime drama, it takes its own path. It’s a surprisingly unassuming film, and it will not do the work of reading into its layers of meaning for you. If anything, “A Most Violent Year” suffers for being quieter than the films we usually acknowledge as American masterpieces. It’s a shame, because “A Most Violent Year” deserves that consideration.

a-most-violent-year-poster

Images are from Way To Blue, The Guardian, and Collider.

The Power of Myth, The First Act of Violence — “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

by Gabriel Valdez

“The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”

– Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

– bell hooks

These are not mutually exclusive ideas. They share words like “power” and ideas like spiritual pain. Campbell would seem to say you should swallow your pain. Hooks would seem to say the pain itself is unneeded.

Yet reverse these concepts and consider them in steps.

I grew up learning to be a man. I psychically self-mutilated myself. I look upon that demon in me now. What is it? An enemy, or just an entity? Do I reject its very existence, or acknowledge the pieces of itself it buried deep inside my spirit? Do I refuse to acknowledge this part of me, or do I greet the demon when he looms and sit down with him?

It is not the only demon that I know.

My descent is half-Mexican, half-European white. I was born in 1983. My heroes in movies were white men like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise. If a Hispanic was in a film, he would be the villain. He would be evil, untrustworthy, and bested in the end. If there was a Hispanic woman, she would be a reward for the white hero.

When I stepped outside the door of my house, our media, our politicians, our world, and especially the children who were my classmates reinforced the pride I had in half of my ancestry. The other half? They reinforced the shame I should feel at being Mexican.

These demons are twins, and I wrestle with their shadows still. They each play off the other. Sometimes they win, sometimes I can sit down with them and be a friend. If I can calmly understand more of their nature, I can understand and change more of my own.

In this wrestling, I can open whole parts of myself to those I love, and yet I still protect so fiercely my innermost natures, my most closely-held beliefs. I once protected them from the self-mutilation that was asked of me, and that’s a difficult survival mechanism to break. I protected them from the criticism of half of who I am. It is hard to learn when to stop protecting, or even that I am, so I can sometimes exist too externally in my closest relationships. There’s a guarded cross-section of myself, right over my heart, where it’s difficult to allow vulnerability. I can resent this guarded nature in myself, but at the same time struggle with why the world can’t communicate better with it.

So: What the hell am I going on about?

General Leia has sent her best starfighter to search for Luke Skywalker. That’s what the opening scroll to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” informs us.

Note that Leia is recognized for the role she played most often in the original trilogy now – a general in a war room, not a princess in a metal bikini.

Her best starfighter is Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac. He’s not done up to look white, as he has been in some of his films. There’s no effort to mask his Guatemalan-Cuban ancestry.

You see, some viewers would sooner see giant slugs with sex slaves on-screen before they’d allow a Hispanic or Black or a woman hero to save the galaxy.

And that’s when we meet Finn, played by John Boyega. As a storm trooper, the First Order makes Finn kill indiscriminately. They demand his violence on behalf of the militarized dictatorship that’s succeeded the Empire. When he displays feelings like hesitance, regret, and empathy, he is sent for “re-programming.”

Finally, and most importantly, we meet Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. She’s a scavenger in a desert wasteland, a woman who stays put in a hopeless existence because she still has hope her family might one day return for her.

How these characters come together, I’ll leave for you to discover. The space battles are wonderful, the visual effects are grand and colorful, the droids and aliens full of life and personality. Yet “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is far more interested in its conversations and the sweeping vistas of its lonely planets. It feels the crucial emotions of the relationships its characters share. It builds a living archaeology of the original trilogy all around them. It makes the myths we saw as children seem as myth to them.

Director J.J. Abrams manages to translate these characters’ inner struggles onto screen while rarely speaking them aloud. A look, a glance, a quick juxtaposition: these are lived-in lives, powered by what spiritual sustenance characters can manage amid fear and loss. These are no longer archetypes bounding about a space western. These are no longer heroes and villains. These are people who stumble across their own story and exist with one foot gently in and one foot squarely out of wanting to take part in it.

As spoiler-free as possible: Later in the film, we are presented with the ultimate moment. One figure is possessed by anger and wrath. The film’s villain, Kylo Ren, is a man who’s carved emotional chunks of himself out so that he can embrace power. He is spiritually unfulfilled, and so rages at the universe around him. He has created a figure of himself, and strives to be closer to this figure, this icon. This draws him further from himself – he is nothing but the external image of who he believes he should be.

The other figure is possessed by loss and disappointment. Rey is a woman who has nothing left, yet is driven by hope, by self-chosen beliefs and convictions. The crushing realities that the universe has made her suffer are experiences that draw her closer to herself. Yet she erases the external. She remains herself. She chooses to be closer to her inner life, no image, no shield, no guarded nature.

Kylo Ren wears a mask, not because he is mutilated visibly like the original trilogy’s Darth Vader. No, he wears it because he is mutilated inside. His pursuit is spiritual self-mutilation. He rages at his demons, making more room in himself for them to reside, multiplying them, mistaking the rage of his own dissatisfaction for power he can turn against others.

Rey is bright-eyed and intelligent, savvy, confident without being cocky. She is introduced wearing a mask. She removes it, and we never see it again. She suffers alongside her demons, accepts them, embraces the calm that arrives from acceptance, the patience she’s practiced through hope, the faith she’s chosen in herself and the convictions she’s embraced – even after that hope’s been dashed.

No “Star Wars” film before this has so succinctly or successfully captured the notions of a dark and light side, of why these things matter as more than simple storytelling devices. “The Force Awakens” makes these things matter.

I’d set “The Force Awakens” as the second-best of the “Star Wars” films behind “The Empire Strikes Back,” if such things must be measured. As a sequel for the original trilogy, it not only succeeds in telling its own story, it also succeeds in having a reason to be told, and in giving the previous films added weight.

Yet “The Force Awakens” is the best “Star Wars” film in one regard. It is the best of these movies off-screen. It is the one that matters. This Christmas, children will take their action figures and Legos and video games or just go outside and grab some sticks. And Rey will save the galaxy by coping with loss. And Finn will save the galaxy by rejecting the spiritual self-mutilation that’s been asked of him. And Poe Dameron will save the galaxy by being friendly and trusting.

They will save the galaxy millions upon millions of times, in millions upon millions of hands. A woman, a black man, and a hispanic man will save it from a man who believes anger is power, while love and sympathy must be carved out of himself to achieve it. And his weaknesses in believing this will be exposed again and again and again.

If play is practice for adulthood, those children will have excellent training. “Star Wars” has always been culturally significant. “The Force Awakens” makes it culturally important.

Children will step out of their door and young women, young blacks, young hispanics all will feel like more than they were before, because now they have heroes in the world’s biggest franchise who represent them fully.

Young men and women of all races may learn that they have fewer demons to face, and better tools to face them. Here’s to children growing up with fewer demons, and being able to accept, face, and understand the ones they still must sustain.

The feature image of Daisy Ridley is from Collider here.

An Oscar Snub? “A Most Violent Year”

Jessica Chastain A Most Violent Year

by Gabriel Valdez

A Most Violent Year follows a virtuous man in a time of thieves and gangsters. Its style recalls 70s crime films like The Godfather and The French Connection.

Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, an immigrant in New York City who’s trying to expand his successful heating oil business. It’s 1981 and his fuel trucks are being hijacked at toll booths and on-ramps, his drivers beaten and left barely breathing in the middle of the road. His competitors, who are either gangsters or rely on gangsters, want to put him out of business.

What’s an honest businessman to do? Most modern Hollywood films would see him pick up a gun and start getting even. In the style of those 70s crime dramas, however, Abel chooses to respond to this as a businessman first. He knows arming his drivers will result in shoot-outs and all-out war. He knows staying the course will be more difficult and more painful, but he has a vision.

His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is the daughter of a gangster, the one from whom Abel bought the company. She constantly threatens Abel that if he won’t rise to his aggressors, then she will. You’re given the feeling that she could end all this in one vicious heartbeat: a street war or a bloodbath. That’s not what Abel wants. He’s dedicated to taking the high road and earning his victory by outmaneuvering his opponents. And yet he trusts Anna enough that when she hides the ledgers from investigating police, he sits hidden along with them.

A Most Violent Year Isaac Chastain

Avoiding the violence in which everyone else partakes doesn’t mean the film is void of action and tense sequences. A Most Violent Year features a shoot-out and the best chase scene of the year, involving cars, trains, and a plain old footrace. There are strong shades of Dustin Hoffman classic The Marathon Man in these moments.

All that’s not to say that A Most Violent Year quite lives up to these films, but being a half-step away from greatness still means you’re very, very good.

It also carries a deliciously mixed message. Abel’s shadow is a gang lawyer named Andrew, played perfectly by Albert Brooks. While Abel’s marriage to Anna is contentious at times, his business marriage to Andrew is all too perfect. These two figures, Anna cooking the books on one end, Andrew treating Abel on a need-to-know basis on the other, means that Abel can take the honest and virtuous path, but only so long as he enables and ignores the actions of partners who don’t.

It offers a theory on American business that may not be popular, but is in keeping with the gang and crime movies of the 70s: that cheating is part of the game, that being an honest success is very possible, but it may require you to ignore all the dishonest things that have allowed your success. It may require you to sacrifice some of the people who worked so hard to get you there.

A Most Violent Year contains tragedy, but it doesn’t treat this concept as tragic, just inevitable. It leaves the viewer to pick up the pieces and draw his or her own conclusions. In that way, it’s a chilling portrayal of American business politics. I wouldn’t call its treatment especially conservative or liberal either. It has a strong enough story that it doesn’t need to make political metaphors. In fact, it’s thankfully drained of these, relying on its ideas, tension, and superb acting to play out the concepts according to the rules of this 1981 New York City we’re given.

The ensemble also includes David Oyelowo (Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma) as a District Attorney investigating Abel. Elyes Gabel is emotionally resonant as a driver whose truck is hijacked.

A Most Violent Year is a film that got overlooked at the Oscar nominations, not as Best Film, but certainly for its acting and writing successes. All its tension comes from not knowing what’s going to happen next, how characters will respond to the larger story and to each other. So many movies follow the same structures these days that being this “in the dark” as a story progresses is a refreshing reminder of one of classic cinema’s strengths. A Most Violent Year is able to feel tense by slowing down and making you think and learn about its characters.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does A Most Violent Year have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Jessica Chastain is incredible as Anna Morales. The underappreciated Catalina Sandino Moreno appears in one scene. Annie Funke plays Lorraine Lefkowitz, the owner of a competing heating oil company.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Unfortunately not.

3. About something other than a man?

This question is dependent on question 2, which it doesn’t pass, but when women do speak, it’s about business or escalating conflict. It’s always directed to men, but it’s never about men.

The Bechdel Test is a tool, not a hard and fast guide to a film’s worth. They could have featured more women – I’m not about to excuse it for that. The women they do feature, however, are all capable professionals. The dynamic between Abel and Anna is fascinating. In some ways, he’s the “rock” of the family only because Anna has decided he’s better suited to that guise.

They are both willful characters, but you get the sense he has no real control over her. Oscar Isaac might dress the part of The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone, but it’s Chastain who’s the real threat. Anna contains herself not because Abel makes her, but rather because you get the sense the conclusion is never in doubt for her. She is patient with him and it’s revealed in clever ways that, no matter how capable Abel is, he is in many ways her Lieutenant and not the other way around. It’s an important difference that manages to avoid the old Lady Macbeth route.

The Lady Macbeth route means that he’s powerful and she knows how to manipulate that power. It can be done well, but it’s all too often abused on film. Not so here – Anna is the more powerful, but she restrains herself because Abel is the more legitimate face for the business. There are moments where she seizes that power from him in other parts of their lives, and when she gives it back it isn’t because she’s a wilting flower, it’s because she’s done with the moment. She’s patient, and you get the sense her Plan B is so violent and terrifying that she can afford that patience.

The tagline for the movie doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue: “The result is never in question, just the path you take to get there.”

The fork in the road is the very definition of Abel and Anna’s marriage and business partnership. His path speaks to the struggles of legitimacy in a world that devalues such things. Her path speaks to doing what needs to be done, no matter the price. And yet, that marriage works because she could win every battle between the two, but relents on enough of them to allow him his continued belief in legitimacy and honesty. And, in that way, she is one of the most powerful characters on film this year.

A Most Violent Year could have done better on the Bechdel Test without changing the course of the rest of the film, but it does give us one of the most interesting, confident, and dynamic women of any film from 2014.