Tag Archives: Star Wars

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.

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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.

Mila Kunis vs. Space Vampires or: Bad Movie, Great Art — “Jupiter Ascending”

Jupiter Ascending antigrav boots chase

by Gabriel Valdez

Action movies are often criticized as being “color by numbers” and following the same, basic plot we’ve seen dozens of times before. What happens if you take all the color by numbers pages you have, crumple them together, and glue like a madman? Some parts might be recognizable, but the seams where the pages meet won’t make any sense.

It’ll be a surreal mess, but it might still be fun to look at. This is the approach Jupiter Ascending takes. It follows Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a young girl with a tragic past who works as a house cleaner, but is really the reincarnation of one of the universe’s most powerful CEOs. Before we get the chance to know her, she’s targeted by bounty hunters and saved by a hunky space wolf played by Channing Tatum. We take it on faith he’s a space wolf despite the only evidence being pointy ears and the occasional growl, but everyone in the movie keeps telling us he is, so why not? Oh, and he has anti-gravity boots that let him speed skate through the air at jet speed.

Have you seen Underworld, Stargate, Dune, The Fifth Element, or Star Wars? Read any Douglas Adams? Seen any Disney princess animation ever? Good, because they’re all smashed in here. Do you want a movie that makes a lot of sense? This isn’t the place. Do you want one that crazily shoves every sci-fi cliché into a blender and holds on for dear life? Welcome to Jupiter Ascending.

You can’t take the movie’s surface seriously. It’s thoroughly B-grade. There’s a sequence where Tatum fights aliens on earth, hops onto their frigate, rides a wormhole through space, and then raids an intergalactic thunder palace – all without putting on a shirt. The number of costume changes Kunis undergoes, from hospital gown to space jumpsuit to ever more extravagant and revealing evening gowns, becomes a running joke.

Jupiter Ascending space vampires

Jupiter Ascending is trolling science-fiction and our expectations of it, trying to get a rise by being like everything and nothing all at once. It’s more along the lines of directors The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer than The Matrix. Does that make it as good as either? That’s complicated. It’s constantly skirting the line between clever and disastrous. It’s a worse movie. It’s better art.

Kunis anchors the film by playing straight man to the film’s zany antics, and she’s better than expected. Tatum is too glum for the kind of chances the film is taking and Sean Bean nods and winks his way through a paper-thin mentor role. The biggest shortcoming is Eddie Redmayne, currently up for an Oscar for The Theory of Everything. It’s difficult to overact without being campy, but he finds a way, mumbling half his lines away.

The movie’s biggest problem is a lack of signifiers in the action scenes. We need to know where everyone is so we can marvel at the amazing visual effects and feats of heroism taking place. When our heroes hijack an alien fighter over Chicago, for instance, we’re treated to a few minutes of high-speed chase. The only problem is that all the fighters look exactly the same and have extra moving parts that distract the eye. This is Grade-A Transformers disease: which fighter are we rooting for in the mess of fantastic visual effects? Who knows? We’re rooting for the effects, I guess.

The solution is as simple as painting a red streak on the side of our heroes’ fighter, or lighting the cockpit a different color. Audiences thrive on context, and lacking it is a mistake Jupiter Ascending makes repeatedly. The movie gets a pass on being zany; it doesn’t get a pass on bad fundamentals.

Jupiter Ascending makeup

Characters, realizations, and scenes don’t emerge; they crash into the rest of the plot. The film’s latter half revolves around the intergalactic espionage surrounding who owns Earth: it’s Jupiter and her space wolf versus the infighting dynasty of space vampires. Think the shenanigans of Twilight meeting the corporate metaphors of Dune, if you can do so without your brain breaking. The movie starts becoming more solid as it becomes clearer just how big of a riff it all is.

Jupiter Ascending is a one star movie with a four star ability to keep your attention. I want to like it more than I actually do. In this case, that makes the difference. Maybe it’s Kunis’s charm, or the Wachowskis’ kitchen sink approach. It could be the costume drama antics or the blue collar message it trumpets throughout. The movie’s multi-layered anti-oligarchy conceit is brilliant, it’s just not as brilliantly fused together into a cogent whole. Right now, it’s a lot of really good ideas sprinkled around.

It’s just insane enough to make me applaud its ambition. It stands out not because it achieves what it sets out to accomplish, but because it wants to accomplish so much. Falling on its face makes me admire the movie a lot more than if it didn’t try at all. Is it a good film? Absolutely not, but it is relentlessly interesting. You have to know what happens next. It’s a fine line to walk, as if the Wachowskis took the “There is no spoon” line from The Matrix and applied it to a movie instead of silverware.

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 Jupiter Ascending have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Mila Kunis plays Jupiter. Tuppence Middleton plays space vampire extraordinaire Kalique Abrasax. Nikki Amuka-Bird plays Diomika Tsing, a capable captain in what amounts to the space police. Doona Bae plays bounty hunter Razo. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Famulus, Lieutenant to one of the space vampire sons. Jupiter’s own immigrant family may be patriarchal, but is dominated by women – her mother and aunt, especially.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yep.

3. About something other than a man?

They rarely talk about men. The film’s biggest accomplishment is that Jupiter is the same person whether she’s cleaning toilets and getting yelled at by her family, or deciding the fate of Earth. This is a strong female character who always seeks to sacrifice for the greater good, even at the expense of herself or her family. It doesn’t matter if she’s discussing financial woes or intergalactic economics.

On the whole, I oppose character development the way we use it now. We’ve taken an element of storytelling that is a tool and, in Western narratives, we’ve turned it into all but a requirement. It’s like asking we build our houses out of hammers and screwdrivers instead of wood and brick. Character development is a great tool when used in the correct circumstance. It is not the essence of narrative.

The few times when we are gifted with characters who don’t develop, it’s because they’re thrown into a world where their personal strengths are turned from uselessness into dominance: Mel Gibson’s Max in Mad Max, Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy, and the progenitor of all these steadfast characters in American film – Clint Eastwood in any Western or Dirty Harry movie.

These are stories where unhealthy traits are suddenly turned into heroic qualities because the nature of their world demands it. It’s no mistake that the unhealthy traits that are presented as heroic almost always belong to male characters.

Rarely, do we see a normal person on film whose world is turned upside down, yet who is healthy enough to end up the same on the other side regardless. Almost never is this character a woman.

When this happens in Jupiter Ascending, it’s not stressing the need for dominance or vengeance or violence as strengths. It’s stressing empathy and confidence, the courage to understand something wholly separate from your own experience and meet it on its own terms rather than trying to conquer it on yours.

Jupiter Ascending Mila Kunis

The ideas inside of Jupiter Ascending, especially as they pertain to gender dynamics, are some of the most exquisite and complex you’ll find on film. Does the film live up to those ideas? Enough to communicate them successfully if you’re willing to watch with an open mind, yes.

Our hunky space wolf does rescue Jupiter on more than one occasion. Sometimes it’s needed, but at least once he bursts in and impressively kills dozens for a rescue that’s completely useless. Jupiter’s perfectly fine. Whoops.

Later, he’ll burst in and rescue Jupiter when she’s already won the day. This isn’t to say she can claim what we think of as a classical movie victory – she’s made the decision to sacrifice herself and others in order to save billions of lives. She makes the right decision in a no-win scenario, and more to the point, she’s made the kind of decision people who clean toilets for a living already make every day, and not the one her aristocratic corporate space vampire opponents can even grasp as a viable option. So yeah, she does win, and in case you don’t get it, she’s given the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the villain later on anyway.

So the hunky Channing Tatum space wolf (who she’s hitting on from first meeting rather than the other way around) does get to rescue her in classical movie form, often as she’s falling out of buildings, but it’s usually after she’s claimed the kind of victories we rarely get to see in movies, the kind that are far more impressive than all the speed skating anti-gravity boots in the galaxy.

Chris Braak writes more on this in an article that considers the feminism in Jupiter Ascending and how the film’s messages may reflect on co-director Lana Wachowski’s gender transition.

IN CONCLUSION

This is one of those films that the more I write about it, the more I think about it, the more I find in it. I can tell I’m not done writing about it by a long shot. Roger Ebert once said that you have to rate a film based on its own terms. Not is it good or is it bad. Does it succeed at what it’s trying to be?

It’s very difficult to tell what Jupiter Ascending wants to be. Earlier, I said it’s a one star movie with a four star ability to keep your attention. It’s five star performance art. It’s a six star discussion topic. It’s seven star feminism. It’s an eight star science-fiction conceit. It’s just very hard to get at those other things because it is a one star movie on the surface.

Where does that leave it?

As a box office flop (at least in the U.S.) that mainstream criticism will reject. And you can’t really blame them because their jobs are to rate movies as movies, not as discussion topics or meta commentary or performance art. That’s the critical industry dragging its heels on responding to the way movies are changing, and I’m not about to blame individual critics for rating movies as movies first.

As an inevitable cult classic a few critics will be championing for years, to either be remembered for how ambitious it was in reaching so far beyond the theater, or to be forgotten for how it failed to sell itself well enough inside the theater.

Where does that leave me?

See it. Be prepared to dislike it. Be prepared to love it. Go in with no expectations. Be prepared to not understand how a friend can feel the exact opposite of you after you watch it. Either way, you’ll be discussing it long afterwards. Be prepared to dislike it and love it in the same breath. Be prepared to see it and think I’m an idiot. Be prepared to see it and want to write 2,000 words on it. Be prepared to think it’s genius. Be prepared to think it’s trash.

In the end, do not try and rate the movie. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.

What truth?

There is no movie.

There is no movie?

Then you’ll see, that it is not the movie that’s awesome, it is only yourself.

Or something like that.