Tag Archives: Star Wars

Offer Cara Dune on “The Mandalorian” to Her Stunt Performer: Amy Sturdivant

Words have consequences. That’s what happened when Gina Carano was fired from “The Mandalorian” in 2021. She had compared “hating someone for their political views” to the treatment of Jewish people that preceded the Holocaust. It’s part and parcel to the narrative that disagreeing with a Republican victimizes them so much that their suffering can only be compared to a genocide.

Before this, Carano had pushed election conspiracy theories and supported voter suppression efforts. Needless to say, Disney got tired of its hit series shouldering the criticism of a supporting actress who had appeared in fewer than half its episodes. Why cover for her and risk a serious hit to the reputation of a cornerstone franchise? Carano was fired in February 2021 and Disney stated that she wouldn’t appear in any future “Star Wars” projects.

Since then, Carano has been associated with film projects by The Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s media company, and “My Son Hunter”, a film based on Rudy Giuliani’s 2020 election conspiracy propaganda that centers on President Joe Biden’s son Hunter. It’s by the makers of “The ObamaGate Movie” starring Dean Cain. What, they couldn’t get Kevin Sorbo?

Carano more recently argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is nothing but a conspiracy to distract from the U.S. government “losing control of the covid narrative”. She’s also said that the COVID-19 vaccines are most similar to the AIDS epidemic. Not that the COVID-19 pandemic is similar to the AIDS epidemic, but that the vaccines are. She lamented being “stripped of everything” due to the firing. You know, aside from her $4 million net worth and contracts that came pouring in from Republican outlets.

Point is – and I meant to make it more briefly than this, but the examples really keep on coming – that Carano is exceptionally toxic and can’t return to the franchise. Yet why let her take a character with her? Marshall Cara Dune of “The Mandalorian” is a character others wrote, directed, choreographed, and even performed in certain moments. A character is always the creation of many, not just one person.

Recasting should always be a well-considered conversation. It can be easily abused to minimize actors’ creative input, or to keep them from revealing a toxic set. Here, however, it was Carano who was the toxic and hateful one. She was the one creating the problem. Franchises constantly update characters to toss out the elements that don’t work. If Carano’s the element that doesn’t work, problem solved.

Would recasting Cara Dune ruin our immersion? Did it ruin our immersion when War Machine was recast from Terrence Howard in “Iron Man” to Don Cheadle in “Iron Man 2”? Those two actors look nothing alike and act nothing alike – their portrayals of the character were completely different. We embraced Cheadle anyway.

Was our immersion ruined when “Batman Begins” recast love interest Rachel Dawes from a solid Katie Holmes performance over to an even better Maggie Gyllenhaal? No, it was the right move.

We’ve got a couple of Spider-Men and Batfolk and Commissioners Gordon bouncing around, no one’s making the argument that shifting back and forth between their actors ruins immersion.

“The Mandalorian” purposefully doesn’t cast dynamic supporting actors. It casts supporting roles with actors who play directly into type so that Pedro Pascal can stand out as exceptional even when he’s unable to show his face 95% of the time. If the supporting actors were our best character actors, Pascal would become lost. This isn’t a criticism of the show’s actors – type actors aren’t lesser than character actors, they just perform a different storytelling role. It’s how you can make the faceless role the most dynamic one among actors who all get to show their faces. You cast the ensemble for earnest portrayals, not complex ones, and it works beautifully.

I say this as someone who used to be a fan of Carano’s. When she was competing in MMA, she was my favorite fighter. She was a stand-up fighter who tried to win fights with a minimum of going to the ground. That reflected what I was taught in taekwondo and kickboxing growing up, and I appreciated that there was a fighter who made that philosophy work in a sport that tends to prioritize grappling. I tracked down a lot of her early films before streaming was as widespread because I wanted to see the fight choreography. Even then, I knew she wasn’t a good actress. Maybe she’d become one, but I watched her the way I watch some early Schwarzenegger movies – because I appreciated what they were doing on-screen even if the acting was questionable.

Carano is eminently replaceable as an actor. Even if she weren’t, she says a lot of harmful, dangerous shit. Anyone who’s pushing hatred and conspiracies shouldn’t be given a platform, and pushing hatred doesn’t give someone a magical right to someone else’s platform. I’m glad Carano’s fired, and I hope the conservative rumor mill that regularly insists she’ll be rehired remains nothing more than clickbait gossip.

Of course, the easiest way to not rehire her is to recast the role and move on. It also enables all those other people who helped create the character to keep on doing so.

If you keep Cara Dune, though, who plays her? Fan recasting efforts centered around Lucy Lawless, but I don’t know that she’d communicate the same character. She also has a habit of outshining her costars, which works in her projects – but is the exact opposite of what “The Mandalorian” needs from its supporting actors. Lawless is also an order of magnitude more expensive than what they were paying Carano. Even hit series have to keep to budget.

Why not just cast the woman who’s already played Cara Dune? No, not Carano. Amy Sturdivant has been Cara Dune’s stunt performer on the show. She was also Taskmaster’s stunt performer in “Black Widow”, and appeared as a stunt actor in “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and “Captain Marvel”. Here’s a short fight film of hers:

Despite how much they contribute to creating characters, down to how they move through a scene, stunt actors rarely have paths into acting in Western film. The film industries of many Asian countries regularly look for talent among stunt performers to promote into acting – Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Tony Jaa are some of the most famous.

As the American film industry has embraced more martial arts fight choreography, though, it’s lagged behind in creating this stunt-to-acting pipeline. This is one reason why American fight scenes still lack the complexity, scope, and length of Chinese, Hong Kong, Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, and Thai fight scenes.

The mold needs to be broken. We’ll stick singers, dancers, streamers, Instagram stars, and celebrities-of-the-moment all into our movies and series with no acting experience, and give them every resource to succeed, but stunt performers who have eaten and breathed their lives on set for their entire career still don’t have that pipeline. Stunt performers who’ve taken physical risks and suffered injuries portraying characters with barely any credit still don’t have that pipeline. Hell, Carano had no acting training before she shifted from MMA to Hollywood. Why should it stop a stunt performer who’s already been on sets for 10 years?

Amy Sturdivant has already performed Cara Dune in some of her most harrowing moments. I’m not making the argument she’s a great actor. She could be, who knows? I’ve watched some of her short films and choreography sessions in researching this article. She seems solid, and has enough charisma to deliver Cara Dune. More to the point, she’s already done the hardest, most taxing parts of portraying that character capably. I’m just saying let her do it 100% of the time. What do you have to lose? A side character in a few episodes who’s otherwise written out of the series?

But angry Republican fans will…do what? They’re already angry at you, they’ve already said the things they’re going to say, the few who’d stop watching have already done so.

The fans who are sticking with the series, the ones who wanted Carano to go, would be happy to see her recast with someone less toxic and hateful. A lot of people would be pleased to find out it’s someone who’s been involved with the character from the start.

What you have to gain is keeping intact a character who’s already established. What you have to gain is testing a stunt-to-actor pipeline that could give you returns for years in franchises that need actors who boast these kinds of skillsets. What you have to gain is a new source of potential actors, and a new actor in particular who could succeed in a popular role.

It’s the easiest recasting in the world in terms of finding your replacement – Sturdivant doesn’t just already work on the series, she already works on that character’s performance. Given the nature of “The Mandalorian”, Sturdivant’s already helped shape the Cara Dune we’ve seen. Why not let her keep on doing it in a way that’s more visible?

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

New Shows + Movies by Women — May 27, 2022

We had a few weeks a month back where we were seeing 10-15 entries a week. Things have cooled off in late May, but it’s not as if major series like “Obi-Wan Kenobi” or “Stranger Things” are afraid to debut new seasons.

Anecdotally, I’d suggest that international, non-English series and films have eased off the last few weeks in the U.S. I’ve also seen a drop-off in straight-to-VOD releases. I know the theatrical approach is for these to find room at the beginning and end of the year. Some of this has to do with grouping around the awards season, when international and indie-styled films get their best chance at a marketing push.

Beyond this, summer tends to be occupied by tentpole franchises. If streaming follows the same logic as theatrical releasing for these, that could explain why major franchises are still debuting new content while there are fewer non-English and indie-styled releases. Summer break has a lot to do with this, as families find series and movies to watch together and, for whatever reason, things like Finnish noir tend not to make that list.

And look, I don’t know a good segue for this, but we’ve seen this week that not all families make it to the summer. In the wake of the Robb Elementary School gun massacre in Uvalde, Texas, attention’s been called to the fact that the leading cause of death among children is now due to guns – surpassing motor vehicles for the first time since the data’s been recorded.

I don’t mean to always make the intro here or commentary in my other articles touch on issues like these, but the U.S. never really left suffering a slow-motion coup. We may have gotten Biden elected and the January 6, 2021 insurrection may have passed, but the Republican party has become one of increasing terrorism. Even in the wake of the Robb Elementary School gun massacre, Senate Republicans voted against the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022 just yesterday. They don’t want to see gun sales decreased or the white nationalism that feeds their coup impacted. Put plainly: they’d rather that domestic terrorists buy guns than lose a consumer for the gun industry. To see why, you only need look at the list of senators who receive funding from the NRA, starting with everyone’s favorite excuse for a moderate Mitt Romney at $13.6 million.

The right to an abortion, gun regulation, voting rights, single-payer healthcare, combating climate change…we could have these, but it takes an Uvalde to get engagement on our side back up to the levels it consistently hit under Trump. It shouldn’t take disasters like these to get us to fill up congressional voicemails. I’ve coordinated activism, and worked as a legislative aide and campaign manager. If we could manage the level of engagement we’re at now, or during the vote on the ACA a few years ago, we could steamroll Republicans. We could manage unprecedented turnout. It’s difficult and uncomfortable, and requires sacrifice in all of our lives, but better to sacrifice time and effort in our lives than the actual lives of elementary school children and their teachers.

This goes double for men. In every facet of activism, men have a tendency to show up to lead and not to work. Most activist calls to Congress are made by women. As men, we’re conditioned to armchair quarterback how someone else does activist work rather than to do it ourselves, as if we all haven’t complained about that exact same kind of useless manager at some point in our lives. It’s not women’s job to save children, it’s all our job. It’s not women’s job to fight for women’s rights, it’s all our job. It’s not women’s job to stave off a slow-motion coup, it’s all our job. As men, we need to show up, and listen to the voices that are leading activism in order to know what work needs doing. Then we need to actually do it, and we need to get other men to join us in this mentality.

Let’s awkward segue to the new show and film this week:

NEW SERIES

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Disney+)
showrunner Deborah Chow

Obi-Wan Kenobi lives in hiding as the Empire employs special hunters to run the rest of the Jedi down. Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen return from the prequels as Obi-Wan and Darth Vader.

Deborah Chow has directed on “The Mandalorian”, “American Gods, and “Better Call Saul”. She showruns and directs all six episodes of “Obi-Wan Kenobi”.

You can watch “Obi-Wan Kenobi” on Disney+. Two episodes premiere today, with a new one premiering every Friday.

NEW MOVIES

A Banquet (Shudder, AMC+)
directed by Ruth Paxton

Sienna Guillory plays Holly, a widowed mother who tries to cope with her daughter Betsey declaring her body now belongs to a higher power. Betsey refuses to eat, but doesn’t suffer or lose weight, and Holly is forced to contend with who or what this higher power may be.

Ruth Paxton started as a production designer and art director, and has written and directed several shorts that interpret painting and dance. This is her feature-length debut.

You can watch “A Banquet” on Shudder or AMC+, or see where to rent it.

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

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — May 7, 2021

It’s a good week if you’re a fan of British things, with a new mystery series in Acorn and Sundance’s “The Drowning”, an immigration drama on Netflix in “Sitting in Limbo”, and a romantic comedy in “Love Sarah” on Hulu.

The biggest news is “Star Wars: The Bad Batch”, though. It continues the story of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”, a hit among diehard fans with storylines that matured as the animated series built up its own lore. Star Wars fandom is always dicey to navigate, but early reviews on “The Bad Batch” are very favorable.

There’s also a new Tina Fey-produced comedy in “Girls5eva”. It boasts a pretty strong cast, though many might miss it because Peacock hasn’t exactly broken through as a streaming service.

For me, the most exciting entries are “Shadow in the Cloud”, because who doesn’t want to see Chloe Grace Moretz shoot down Nazis to synthwave backbeats, and “Rosa’s Wedding” from Iciar Bollain, one of Spain’s best filmmakers.

NEW SERIES

Star Wars: The Bad Batch (Disney+)
co-showrunner Jennifer Corbett

As the Empire pumps out its clone soldiers, it occasionally experiments with new ideas. As one does. They develop a “bad batch” of experimental clones, whose loyalties are torn during the prequel trilogy’s infamous Order 66. The show follows what happens after, as they fight on both sides of a growing war.

Jennifer Corbett was a writer on “Star Wars Resistance” and “NCIS”. She showruns with Dave Filoni, who was lead director on “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”.

Season one of “Star Wars: The Bad Batch” will run 16 episodes, with the first two available this week and a new one premiering each Friday. I believe most will be a 20-30 minute format, but the first is a special 70-minute episode.

You can watch “Star Wars: The Bad Batch” on Disney+.

Girls5eva (Peacock)
showrunner Meredith Scardino
mostly directed by women

A 90s girl group has faded into obscurity after being a one-hit wonder. That is, until that one hit is sampled by a rapper. This could be their comeback.

The series has a strong musical cast headed up by singer Sara Bareilles and Renee Elise Goldsberry, who won a Tony for her featured role in “Hamilton”. This is balanced out by experienced comedy actors Busy Phillips and Paula Pell.

Showrunner Meredith Scardino has written for “The Colbert Report”, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, and “At Home with Amy Sedaris”,

Five of the eight episodes are directed by women: “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “The Mick” director Kat Coiro directs the first ep. She’s also directing half of Marvel’s upcoming “She-Hulk” series. LP and “GLOW” actress Kimmy Gatewood direct two episodes apiece.

You can watch “Girls5eva” on Peacock. The streaming platform comes included in many cable and satellite packages, so you may already have access to it.

The Drowning (Acorn TV, Sundance Now)
directed by Carolina Giammetta

A woman has slowly recovered and rebuilt her life since losing her son, Daniel. Eight years have passed, when she thinks she catches sight of him again.

The four episode British mini-series is directed by Carolina Giammetta. She’s directed on “Vera” and “Shakespeare & Hathaway”.

You can watch “The Drowning” on either Acorn TV or Sundance Now. It’s premiering on both jointly.

NEW MOVIES

Sitting in Limbo (Netflix)
directed by Stella Corradi

“Sitting in Limbo” recounts the struggle of Anthony Bryan to remain a British citizen during the Windrush scandal. The 2018 scandal involved the illegal detention of Caribbean immigrants to the UK, many of whom were subsequently illegally deported. Many had lived their entire lives there, but lost their jobs, homes, passports, and medical care, and were denied re-entry. Many had been born British subjects due to centuries-long colonial occupations by the U.K., and had direct legal rights to live in the U.K. as citizens.

Stella Corradi was a director on BBC series “Trigonometry”.

You can watch “Sitting in Limbo” on Netflix.

Shadow in the Cloud (Hulu)
directed by Roseanne Liang

Chloe Grace Moretz stars as an agent transporting intelligence during World War II. Her ride is a B-17 Flying Fortress, a bomber so large it required a crew of 10. The big problem is that something’s hitched a ride along with them, and it’s killing the crew one by one.

This is Roseanne Liang’s second narrative feature as writer and director. She got her start in the industry as an editor.

You can watch “Shadow in the Cloud” on Hulu.

Rosa’s Wedding (HBO Max)
directed by Iciar Bollain

At 45, Rosa decides she’s done catering to everyone else’s needs. A costume designer by trade, she visits the tailor shop where her mother once worked. Then it strikes her – she’ll start her own business.

Iciar Bollain was an actress in the 1980s-00s, but her last role was in 2012. She’s shifted to directing and writing over the course of her career. Her “Take My Eyes” is known as one of Spain’s best films. The film that centered on a blunt portrayal of domestic violence won seven Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent of our Oscars), including Best Picture and Best Director.

“Rosa’s Wedding” saw Bollain nominated as Best Director and for Best Original Screenplay alongside her “Take My Eyes” co-writer Alicia Luna.

You can watch “Rosa’s Wedding” on HBO Max.

Love Sarah (Hulu)
directed by Eliza Schroeder

A woman pursues her mother’s dream: opening a bakery in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London. She enlists friends and family to help her accomplish this.

Director Eliza Schroeder also co-wrote the story for the screenplay. This is her first feature film.

You can watch “Love Sarah” on Hulu.

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

If you like what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

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.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

The Work That’s Never Witnessed — “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

by Gabriel Valdez

“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

James 2:17

“Now, we are feeling what not having hope feels like.”

– Michelle Obama

After Donald Trump was elected, several people sought me out because of the work I’ve done in politics. They told me, “I’m willing to die opposing him.” I told them that attitude made them useless.

Show up to a march with the idea that you’re willing to die, and you’ll see everything that happens in that light. You’re so focused on the idea of a noble, meaningful, romantic act of sacrifice…that you won’t even think about protecting the person next to you. You become so obsessed with fighting something that you forget that you’re there to save something.

Who do you think builds something? The one there to nobly sacrifice themselves, or the one there who doles out water, who helps the elderly who grow tired, who communicates from the front of the march to the back what to look out for, or who is ready with first aid supplies in case of violence.

I don’t want someone willing to die. I want someone willing to make sure the person next to them lives.

Do you think the people who have died in marches wanted to? They wanted to live. They were scared for their lives. That’s what makes their sacrifices meaningful. They were there for a purpose. They were there to do work. They were there to hold each other up in an effort that would have been impossible on their own.

Resistance is not a romantic thing. It’s not built on some great act of sacrifice unique to you. It’s not an identity. In fact, it’s not about you. Resistance, and faith, and hope are all built from the same single thing: you show up day after day and you do the work of it.

That work is sometimes grueling and heartbreaking. It wears you down. It tests your spirit. It tests your boundaries. It can break you. There is often no witness for it, especially when the work is performed by women or people of color (or LGBTQ, or the disabled). There is often no reward.

You do the work and it joins with the work of all those around you, and maybe something terrible happens anyway. Was the work useless? Or did you prevent something even more terrible from happening? How do you measure it? How do you assess the amount of work every person did? Often, the only thing you know is that there’s more work to do.

You often feel penned into a corner. How does the universe keep going like this? What use are you? Are you even denting the things you seek to stop? Doesn’t matter. There’s more work, and that work helps people.

“The Last Jedi” is built around being worn thin. It’s built around desperation. It’s built on the back of a Rebellion that has dwindled, but keeps on doing the work.

Many of the heroes willing to sacrifice themselves keep trading on everyone else’s credit. They may come close to death, but as they escape it, it’s others who pay the consequences for their heroism.

“Star Wars” has always relied on building myths, and it’s built some good ones. “The Last Jedi” cares deeply about those myths. It also doesn’t feel beholden to them. It doesn’t feel as if those myths are sacred. In fact, it considers many of those myths downright dangerous.

Myths make us believe that our single heroic action can save the day. And our heroes? Well they’re our saviors. What’s the point of doing all that grueling work day after day if we can just tag a savior in? Hamilton electors, Jill Stein’s recount, Obama’s press conference, the Steele dossier, Mueller, impeachment, Susan Collins for a minute, Jeff Flake for two seconds, Bob Corker for half a breath, all of them saviors at some point since the election.

And yet…somehow we go unsaved.

It’s almost as if the work is up to us.

Some of these things have produced useful results, and some might yet, but only if we do the work that gives them the space to make a change. This is what “The Last Jedi” is about. It’s about persisting, about not putting all our hope in saviors, and not putting faith in our noble ideas of romantic sacrifice. It’s about enduring. There’s sacrifice here, but the only meaningful sacrifice is that which saves someone else. Otherwise, it’s not really a sacrifice, is it?

We find ourselves in the face of a moment that threatens to overwhelm us. As we grow tired, we grow separate, we lose our ability to trust – not just in each other, but that what we’re doing makes a difference. We rebel not just against them, but against each other. We do the work of breaking ourselves for them. And that’s the strategy of how they win, how they erase democracy. They do so by tiring us, by making us grow lonely and hopeless because each of us begins thinking we’re willing to die for something, instead of thinking we’re willing to keep on doing the work day after day.

If you came here for a review, “The Last Jedi” is superb. Writer-director Rian Johnson takes the style and filmic grammar of all the other “Star Wars” entries, even the prequels, and folds them into what feels like an entire trilogy’s worth of story. There are beautiful moments here that feel like still pieces of art, planets that feel built from impressions of emotion. There is a deep melancholy to the film, and a resilient hope.

Yet it acknowledges from the first seconds that “Star Wars” is silly, and that maybe by not adhering to the strict orthodoxy expected of it, it can still be a flexible, meaningful place to tell stories. It’s rare that a film can achieve bleak despair and steady silliness, a tragic reality and a determined irreverence.

It’s not a perfect film, but I think the perfect “Star Wars” film that it could be would be something far lesser.

“The Last Jedi” is a film that can feed a certain soul, one that’s doing the work and growing weary, and feeling more distant from all the other souls doing the work and growing weary.

More than anything else, “The Last Jedi” establishes what it feels like not to feel hope yet to create it, to have your expectations of saviors undermined and realize the power you loaned them is your own. It makes you feel vulnerable and uncomfortable and at risk because you always were, but now you’re doing something about it. It also reminds us that faith in saviors, if it does not have the works or the work behind it, is meaningless.

Go see this thing. Go persist and be resilient.

And remember you’re not alone. The work you do is a spark that carries, that we’re all trying to feed, and our little corner of the universe is in the mood for light.

The feature image of Daisy Ridley as Rey is from Cosmic Book News here.

The Best Fight Choreography of 2015

FuriosaArm_PIC4

by Gabriel Valdez

Fight choreography is often overlooked for its ability to tell stories in ways that differ from the usual visuals of filmmaking. In many countries, martial arts themselves are infused with deeper and more mythological meanings, so why shouldn’t fight choreography on film be able to communicate these same things?

Some films this year really have gone an incredible distance in terms of the emotional storytelling they choose to convey with fight choreography.

Let’s get one thing out of the way and start with what’s not on here, however. Why isn’t “Kingsman: The Secret Service” here? That church sequence alone should get it near the top of the list, right? And while I didn’t like the film, I did think many of its choreographic concepts were technically brilliant. The problem lies in the execution.

If there’s an award that should go to someone on “Kingsman,” it should go to the editors and compositors. Watch the church scene again, if you’ve got the stomach for it (I actually recommend not doing so, but suit yourself). Count how many times a body or object crosses the screen in the extreme foreground. How many times does the camera swing away to other characters?

While the sequence may present itself as a series of unbroken takes, it’s actually composed of dozens of far quicker takes. While the conceptualization of the choreography is brilliant, if brutal, the execution is more simple. It’s what works for what the film wants, but it’s not anything special in terms of the actual fight choreography or by artistic merit. It’s not anything that belongs on a list like the one below.

Be warned, unlike most other awards, the nature of fight scenes often means seeing a spoiler in the form of a big reveal or a character’s death:

THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW.

5. The Dead Lands

Clint Elvy, fight coordinator
Andrew Stehlin, fight coordinator

The first feature film shot entirely in the Maori language, “The Dead Lands” is also the first to choreograph battles using Mau Rakau. This is the indigenous martial art of New Zealand. You may recognize the movements and unique expressions from the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, which performs a traditional Maori war dance before every match.

If the “demon” in the clip above looks familiar, that’s Lawrence Makoare. He played a number of evil creatures in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, including the orc who goes one-on-one with Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn at the end of “Fellowship.” Makoare brings a controlled abandon to the fight choreography, and gave an overlooked dramatic turn in “The Dead Lands” as well.

4. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Wolfgang Stegemann, fight team & fight trainer

It’s hard to place a choreography like that of “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” Its presentation is remarkably theatrical for an American action movie. The fight choreography deliberately plays with what you expect, constantly changing expression and mood. The production and set design often become a silent third player in how each fight develops. This consideration lends both a groundedness and a surprising puzzle-solving quality to each fight. The sets aren’t breakaway, made for the viewer to appreciate their destruction. The sets are instead made to feel real, made for the characters to interact with.

This lends a solidity to the fights most films lack. It also allows the director to play with that solidity when he wants to really turn the screws on a character. This is the sort of thing that theatrical plays do with advanced set design. It’s typically not what you expect in a Tom Cruise film. When we talk about how technical elements are used in film, we shouldn’t just talk about the independent qualities they possess. We should talk about how those elements are folded into the film to better create a world and its visual language. In that, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” is remarkable.

3. Kung Fu Killer

Hua Yan, martial arts director
Bun Yuen, martial arts director

“Kung Fu Killer” (aka “Kung Fu Jungle”) isn’t a great film on its story merits. Those trucks in the clip above were driving through the plot holes. Yet on the balance, the film’s fight choreography is varied and wonderfully complex.

The fight scenes make use of the full range of wide-screen presentation, and the language of each fight, the ebb and flow, is communicated through editing on precise movements. This precision helps earlier in the film, when our heroes investigate the murder of martial arts masters. There are particular edits we don’t see in the initial fight. Instead, these are bookmarked in our heads. When Donnie Yen’s Hahou Mo looks at the crime scene, these bookmarked edits are filled in. As he recognizes what happened, so do we. It’s clever, and requires viewers to remember specific movements later on without making us realize that’s what we’re doing.

“Kung Fu Killer” easily boasts the most technically impressive choreography of the year. So why’s it #3? Because there’s more that choreography can do than being technically incredible.

2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Fight Choreography Kylo Ren Rey Finn

Stephen Oyoung, sword trainer
Chloe Bruce, Adam J. Bernard, Gyula Toth, choreography

You’re going to have to take my word for it, since any unlicensed clips of the film online (including the most spoiler-iffic) are erased by Disney as fast as they’re put up. What “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” does right is present the control with which a fighter does (or doesn’t) fight. We see Finn get beaten multiple times, so his choreography is elementary, but full of recoveries. Constantly losing yet also narrowly surviving in believable ways walks a very fine line. That means his fighting style is too tight, too closed, the scope of his engagement too narrow.

For Kylo Ren’s choreography, we need to see someone thoroughly trained yet who lacks the discipline to adhere to that training. His choreography is built from powerful attacks that close distance quickly. Sometimes he’s controlled and sometimes he lashes out. In sword work, the more relentless you are, the more vulnerabilities you risk. It’s a choreography that defines Ren’s character as well as any other aspect of the film does.

Enter Rey’s choreography, which is built for defense and counter-attack. It’s built from stances and positions that close and then open again, attacks that rise and then fall. This gives her choreography the feel of breathing. It’s a naturalistic choreography. The body closes to focus and present less of a window for an opponent. When switching from defense to counter, the body opens back up again in its full breadth, offering a more complete window to attack your opponent.

Combined with Kylo Ren’s tendency to lash out, their choreography turns into something of a meditation. The assault of anger, of lashing out, the breathing in to contain, the breathing out to release. Overly complex choreography (see: the prequels) is ditched in favor of choreography that communicates. It’s why that last fight is so utterly beautiful. Light sabers in a dark wood as the snow falls doesn’t need help being beautiful, yes. And yet that choreography speaks to what we feel in the theater as we hold our breath, what we feel in our lives when panic strikes. It feels like the assault of fear, and the response of calm, the loss of control against the acknowledgment there is no control. It echoes some of your worst days and some of your best. It feels like the world closing in on you, and then letting yourself be a part of that world anyway.

It feels like breathing, and it lets us know we’ve been in this fight ourselves. We know what it’s like, what its emotional steps are, how it takes place in the mind, and how it feels when the fear and anger and breathing and calm all course through our bodies in a complicated mixture. The fight we see on-screen is beautiful. That we can all recognize its meaning in ourselves makes it meaningful. That’s what choreography can accomplish.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Richard Norton, fight coordinator
Greg van Borssum, principal fight choreographer / weapons advisor

It would take something truly and uniquely special to beat that out. And yet, there really is nothing else this year that compares to “Mad Max: Fury Road.” When I talk about fight choreography, I talk about the visual language it creates as part of a film. Fight scenes are often treated like set pieces, and they can be visual delights in this way. Yet a truly good fight scene is like a truly good dialogue scene. From when it starts to when it ends, something has changed for every character involved.

In no film is that more true this year than “Mad Max: Fury Road.” What makes the film so incredibly unique is that its dialogue scenes don’t really evolve the characters’ relationships to each other. They let us get to know them better, and give us better windows into their internal worlds, but it’s through the action that “Mad Max: Fury Road” tells its story. The relationships of these characters evolve through fist fights and gun fights and car chases, and it takes a rare marriage of all parts of choreography to make this happen. What are all the parts? That’s conception, that’s the base choreography, that’s how it interacts with the set around it, how costume informs what’s happening, how the stuntpeople and the actors work in concert for consistent performances, and how the editing and music can communicate a remarkable number of emotional beats inside of it all.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” develops such a complete choreographic language that there are moments toward the end of the film that become less about action in a story, and more about the physical embodiment of myth. In that rare a feat, it makes it feel like the choreography itself is some demonstration in our minds, something that we imagine as we’re told a story and then arises from us as interpreters of that story. No film in a long time has better used fight choreography simply to tell the story.

Read the rest of our 2016 Awards:

Best Diversity

Most Thankless Role

Where did we get our awesome images? Both “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” images are from Forbes’ “No, Rey…Is Not A Mary Sure” article, and the “Mad Max: Fury Road” image is from Nerdist’s “The Subtle Triumph of Furiosa’s Prosthetic Arm.” Both are highly recommended.

The Best Diversity of 2015

Diversity Poe from Star Wars The Force Awakens

by S.L. Fevre, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez

Rarely has the “Star Wars” universe felt so big. Where before, white men saved a white princess (the only woman in the story) from being trapped in prison and being chained up as a sex slave by Donald Trump a giant space slug, today women and people of color are saving the galaxy with help from white allies.

And yet, criticisms persist that fans of the new diversity in “Star Wars” are simply falling for a market-tested Disney trick. But that overlooks the point.

Feminist critics been saying for years that films led by women and people of color will make money. If Disney finally decided films led by women and people of color will make money, good. Our argument wasn’t somehow free of market forces; it was based on them.

That’s not “falling for it.” It’s like telling us we fell for hitting the bullseye with the arrow we just shot. Thanks; that’s what we were aiming for.

Regardless, “Star Wars” has the same effect on children no matter why the decision was made. Girls and boys now see a woman named Rey saving the universe. She is a skilled mechanic and pilot. She can fight and men recognize they should follow and assist her when in her areas of expertise.

A princess named Leia, once told to lose weight for the franchise and stuffed into a metal bikini, is now a general who’s aged realistically. She has a broken family, and yet she hasn’t shirked the mantle of leadership in order to mourn that fracture. She’s got a galaxy that needs protecting.

Children now see a Black hero in Finn who rejects what he’s been told he needs to be. He removes a mask of aggression that’s been placed upon him according to the role society wants him to fill. That society sends him for re-education so that he’ll better remember to leave the mask on. He is a man whose unique problem is empathy in a structure that tells him this sensitivity is weakness. He decides upon his own path, and in so doing faces down the fear of being visible for once in his life.

Children now see that the best starfighter in the galaxy is Hispanic. No, Poe doesn’t get quite as much screen time, but damn, he can fly an X-wing. He’s not lazy. He’s not wearing a space poncho or speaking in a stereotypical accent. He’s not stealing anyone’s job. He’s saving the day, and gifting jackets to boot.

And finally, the villain. He has been taught to view himself as weak so that he can hate himself. He has been taught to draw strength from the rage of hating this weakness. He echoes Elliot Rodger, uploading a video of his faults to YouTube and blaming women and minorities for his perceived oppression. Or a hundred other shooters, stabbers, stranglers. Or “legalize rape” rallies. He is the young man crafted to hate, and blames anyone different or accepting of others for that hate.

Who better to fight against that voice, a voice too prevalent in our society, than women, a Black man, a Hispanic man, and white allies?

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is of a time and it is of a struggle. It may happen a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but it teaches us how to be heroic here and now: together, by lifting each other up.

More than anything else, its ending reminds us that after the grave sacrifices and heartbreaking tragedies we see in the world around us, in the aftermath of the most violent and unexpected acts, the most valuable thing we can do is seek to learn more, to better ourselves, to fight the fight with that much more collaboration and determination tomorrow.

Diversity Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Other films that were considered for this award were “Mad Max: Fury Road” for its bold feminist themes, “Blackhat” for its truly diverse group of professionals, “Tangerine” for its transgender protagonists and racial diversity, and “Furious 7” for its diverse cast of action stars.

Where did we get our awesome images? All come from Screen Rant’s spoilers article. Just beware of, you know, spoilers.

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.

Go Watch This: Auralnauts Redubs

by Gabriel Valdez

What if Star Wars: Episode I had featured an epic dance battle, hard-partying Jedi, and a deranged C3PO obsessed with wearing the skin of Jar Jar Binks?

These are just a few of the important questions that Auralnauts asks and, I have to admit, I’m late to the party on this one. Let me back up a bit:

It’s funny how you come across new tastes. I was having a Facebook debate one day about Michelle Rodriguez’s insistence that minority actors “stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes.” While Rodriguez would later contextualize the statement in a way that was more reasonable (although still not realistic to me), it was obviously worth talking about.

My view? In superhero movies: Tony Stark’s adversaries were changed from Vietnamese to Afghans in Iron Man. Superman, arguably, should be Jewish. While 1930s comics publishing wouldn’t allow a superhero to be Jewish, his creators did everything that era allowed to hint he was an analogue for the Jewish immigrant experience. He’s never been portrayed that way on film. I heard not a peep when Latino character Bane was cast with Australian actor Tom Hardy, or when the Arabic Ra’s al Ghul was cast with an Irish actor in the Dark Knight series.

If you read here often, you know that I’m in favor of recasting regardless of race across the board. We may not be a post-racial society, but if movies treat it as normal, we may one day pick up the cue.

Regardless, the same voices that express moral outrage over white comic characters being recast fail to speak up when nonwhite comic characters are recast. While I don’t agree with that outrage, it would be nice if it were at least a consistent outrage.

So I insisted that Kevin Costner should appear to Superman in a dream Obi-Wan style and tell him, “Actually, we’re Jewish.” Have the Afghans appear in the next Avengers film and reveal themselves as Vietnamese secret agents. Have Tom Hardy’s lines in The Dark Knight Rises re-dubbed by Selena Gomez. Use CGI to replace Liam Neeson with Omar Sharif.

Once that’s all done, anyone who wants can complain about white superheroes being stolen or adapted, but not a moment before.

Needless to say, we haven’t fixed the world just yet, and I learned a valuable lesson: once you suggest Selena Gomez play Bane, any serious conversation goes out the window.

The number of Bane redub videos I’ve been sent since is…catastrophic. I really need to re-evaluate my life. Most of them were horrible. The only good one, to tell the truth, was by Auralnauts, and it featured the wonderful Bane rap at the top of this video.

So I checked out their channel, and it’s what I never knew I always wanted from redubs, and I never even knew I wanted redubs. Take a look at their reinterpretation of the Star Wars prequels, where the entire plot centers around Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon skipping the bill at a Space Hooters and regional manager Darth Maul becoming obsessed with beating them in a dance-off. I’ll start you at a good bit in the middle of the first one, so you can get a taste of what’s in store.

I haven’t looked at all their work – there’s a lot of it – but I intend on following them for a long time to come.

10 Things I Thought While (Re)Watching “Tron: Legacy”

Tron Legacy Lightcycles

by Gabriel Valdez

1. I have a synesthetic reaction to Tron: Legacy. There are scenes that are filmed in an almost black-and-white fashion, except the tones are blue-and-orange. The whole design is built out of LED-influenced grids, neon angles, and laser lights. I have the same reaction to director Joseph Kosinski’s second film, Oblivion, although that is designed as differently as you could imagine. The thing with Kosinski is that he doesn’t just design his films well, he designs them unconventionally. Rather than the more-more-more philosophy of many modern fantasy and science-fiction films, Kosinski is unafraid to let his designers create boldly spare architectures and sets.

2. Rather than overly rely on green-screen, Kosinski has entire sets built. This allows his actors to more fully inhabit their scenes. Good actors know how to use the space around them, how to use the walls and the dirt. You need to act big in front of a green-screen, to shout so the back row of the theater believes you (like Gerard Butler in 300). When there’s a real set involved, you can still communicate quiet moments. Make no mistake, Tron: Legacy absolutely abuses green screens, but for the key moments – the quiet moments – it relies on sets.

Tron Legacy Olivia Wilde 2

3. You know who would’ve made a GREAT Anakin Skywalker? Olivia Wilde. Sure, that’d throw some mythology off, but…gender, whatever. Garret Hedlund makes a fine protagonist in Tron: Legacy and Jeff Bridges is having a lot of fun playing dual mentor and villain roles, but Wilde is the one who steals the show as the older Flynn’s protege. It would be easy to say a film like this lacks good performances, but the truth is it’s not built to have them – it favors big stylistic moments and experienced scenery chewers like Michael Sheen (who plays a nightclub owner drinking from the Tim Curry well). Hedlund doesn’t hold our attention as a protagonist. Wilde pretty immediately overtakes him.

This also brings up another note. Given Wilde’s history and popularity, I can’t help but wonder if she were a man, would she be a leading action star by now? She’s hardly unemployed, but when she’s finding her best roles in direct-to-DVD indies like Better Living Through Chemistry, and she’s awkwardly relegated to “leading girlfriend” in big budget films like Rush, something’s very wrong.

4. Relying on restrictions in CGI makes your visual effects last longer. Tron: Legacy doesn’t aim for graphical fidelity. Instead, it limits the scope of its style. Ridley Scott used to practice a form of this, choosing moments in Alien and Blade Runner to hint – rather than show – the viewer toward worlds full of astonishing sights. (Since then, Scott occasionally jumps the shark on CGI.) Kosinski doesn’t follow quite the same path – times have changed – but in adhering to design philosophies instead of a pursuit of overall visual fidelity, the visual effects in his films take on a similar quality of aging very slowly. The CGI in other 2010 films doesn’t hold up as well as this.

One reason for this is that the visual effects artists for Tron: Legacy are often only making something look real using a few colors, not thousands. This is far easier, and allows the artists to re-prioritize how they spend their time (and your budget).

Tron Legacy Bridges Hedlund knocking on the sky

5. There’s a scene between Hedlund and Bridges, soaring across the sky on a freighter, where they catch up on all the advancements the elder Flynn has missed while stuck inside his computer program. It involves a neon-highlighted walkway, fog, and just a hint of stars. Never forget that, in the middle of your effects-heavy movie, it is the simplest scenes – Luke sharing a last moment with a dying Yoda, for instance – that anchor the emotions that make the crazy setpieces worth a damn.

6. The score. It’s the best thing Daft Punk’s ever done. Kosinski doesn’t sign up classic-styled composers. Instead, he chooses an electronica band whose tone he believes he can fit to the film, and enlists them to compose the score. Daft Punk created film music that uses orchestral components in a hard-edged, electronica manner. It creates a full orchestra out of aggressive violins, walking feedback lines, gentle harps, violent brass highlights, and voobing synth tones. There are moments where they harken to the deeply emotive, early experimental electronic music of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, moments where they push the envelope of modern electronica, and moments when it sounds more like a Hans Zimmer-like triumphal film score. I’ll make no arguments that Tron: Legacy is a great film – it’s not – but this score is one of the best in the last decade. It was my score of the year for 2010, with apologies to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network) and Zimmer himself (Inception).

Deus Ex Human Revolution apartment

7. Should the powers that be ever get around to making a movie out of the Deus Ex video game franchise, there would be no better choice than Kosinski, especially now that the franchise’s most recent entry has gone so New Renaissance in its design philosophy. I’d push him for the long-gestating Mass Effect movie, too, since Oblivion showed off how well-versed in multiple eras of science-fiction Kosinski is.

8. Personally, I think Disney’s missing a huge chance to get Kosinski in the director’s seat of a Star Wars movie. I’ve written why I do like J.J. Abrams for the job, and Rian Johnson is an inspired choice to direct a more character-driven Star Wars. Gareth Edwards, however, has yet to prove he’s suitable for the job – Godzilla (read the review) had some moments, but it was a narrative and emotional disaster.

9. Hedlund is fully capable of battling out the action scenes himself, but I keep counts in films that have both a male and female action star. There are hints toward romance between them, and there’s the problem of her being his “reward” for his adventure…I don’t think that’s what the film’s initially trying to say, but it soon follows the beats of that trope and implies it in the ending.

Anyway, I keep counts of how often the man saves the woman and how often the woman saves the man. Wilde saves Hedlund several times. He saves her once. There’s even a later scene where she literally swoops to his defense, and she stands guard in multiple scenes between Hedlund and various villains. That’s usually the male role in science-fiction and fantasy films.

Furthermore, Hedlund isn’t exactly the special one who can save the world here, she is. Tron: Legacy isn’t a great film or a complete film when it comes to women – it doesn’t even pass the second or third rule of the Bechdel Test – but it does do some very nice things that aren’t often seen in big budget films.

Tron Legacy visuals

10. Tron: Legacy isn’t great but it is fantastic. When I decide to sit and watch a favorite scene, that favorite scene ends up lasting until the end credits. I never feel frustrated or like I wasted my time for having watched more than I intended because I’m always so incredibly engaged with it. Again, this goes back to the synesthesia. I don’t just admire the visuals and music, I feel them. I’m not someone you could describe as a synesthete. I don’t feel that effect often. That’s why I value Tron: Legacy so much – it can trigger a euphoric multisensory response that’s foreign to me, like a visual drug.

Not everyone’s going to feel that watching Tron: Legacy – some people will feel it for other films that I might not. I’ve read about the synesthetic reactions some people have to 300 and, while I enjoy its visuals, I’m hardly experiencing referred sensory responses from them. I recognize Tron: Legacy isn’t a great film, but it does (along with the much better Oblivion) represent something unique and special in my own personal viewing experience, something that I really can’t get from anything else.