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Star Wars, Episode VII success not a surprise

What is with Entertainment Weekly?:

So now what? Just as it was hard to predict The Force Awakens’ opening weekend, it’s also hard to predict what it’ll do from here. Because of the holidays, movies opening in December usually see a smaller debut but much, much bigger multiples. A December opening like this is unheard of (the previous December record was held by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which debuted to $84.6 million). But movies like Avatar, which only opened to $77 million in 2009, went on to make almost $750 million domestically, making it the biggest movie of all time. We’ll have to see what happens over the next few weeks and whether The Force Awakens can not only score a big opening, but a big final total, too. [ Emphasis added ]

Are they kidding? It's not hard to predict. The pre-sale tickets sold out immediately. Everyone I knew who was a Star Wars fan (and even those who don't identify that way) was itching to see the film. Right now—during opening weekend—I have a lot of friends who have seen the film multiple times and have plans to see it more times still.

After three horrible prequels (yes, they were horrible!), people are looking for just at least a passably average sequel now, and they got something half-way decent (some people are saying amazing, but I'll respectfully disagree), so they're going to town. The Force Awakens will continue to break records. We don't have to see if it will "score... a big final total." We just have to wait to see how big the big final total is.

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Django doesn’t make light of slavery (and random other thoughts)

I've been reading a lot of news stories (and, unfortunately, comments as well) about Tarantino's newest film, Django, and here are some of my random thoughts.

Race

First of all, I'm a big admirer of Spike Lee, but he admittedly has not seen (and refuses to see) Django, so his opinion on the film shouldn't be a huge news story. There are also seem to be a number of news outlets misreporting Lee as mainly objecting to the use of a certain six-letter racial slur in the movie instead of objecting to the movie being a spaghetti Western, and thus disrespectful to his ancestors. In the past, Lee has objected to Tarantino's overuse/misuse of that racial slur, but the tweet in question refers mainly to Django possibly making light of slavery.

Unlike Spike Lee, I have seen the movie, and I can assure you that it takes slavery very seriously. There exist funny moments in the movie, but no one in the theater laughed at slaves being whipped, branded, or torn apart by dogs. No one laughed at Django and Broomhilda being auctioned off separately. Those moments were sobering and deadly silent ones among the audience members I watched the film with (racially mixed and predominantly white).

Are there silly moments in the film? Sure. But it isn't a silly movie. The movie is a weird hodgepodge (as most Tarantino films are) of intense drama, light comedy, silly action, and graphic violence. Does Reservoir Dogs make light of ear dismemberment because there's also a funny moment when Mr. Pink explains why he doesn't tip at restaurants? No.

What I would contend is that this film is probably one of the least racist films I've ever seen a white man direct (The Negotiator is also not that racist, but a black man directed it). How many films have you seen from Hollywood in which the black guy is the main character, the white guy the sacrificial sidekick, and most of the other white people in the film villains? Where are all the people complaining about Amistad or The Blind Side? How many movies have we seen get virtually no press for being racist that are actually racist? If you see another movie in which the black actor's sole purpose in the film is to help the white protagonist find himself or win the battle, are you also going to say it's racist and disrespectful? I hope so. If you see another movie that's supposedly about black people but is really about how some nice white person lifted the black person up from poverty and ignorance, are you also going to say it's racist and disrespectful? I hope so. Who, apart from the Asian American community, spoke up about the yellowface in Cloud Atlas? How many times have we been told "it's just a movie" or "it's just entertainment" when Hollywood movies depict non-whites negatively?

I'm actually quite proud of Tarantino. I remember watching Inglorious Basterds and thinking to myself "Yeah, people seem cool with Jews killing Hitler, but when will there be a movie about black slaves killing white slave owners?" Little did I know that was Tarantino's next project.

Gender

There's been a lot of focus in the mainstream press about race in the movie, and very little about gender. The movie barely passes the Bechdel Test (I think Miss Candie asks Broomhilda to speak German). Regardless, the women in the movie are basically useless props. Broomhilda is a totally helpless maiden, as badly fleshed out a character as any Disney 1950s princess (Mulan and Belle have more depth). Miss Candie and her female slaves all have very little to no personality or depth. I understand in the deep South of the mid-19th century women didn't have a lot of power. That's fine. Does that mean they also have to be totally devoid of personality or feelings?

Guns

The other thing I thought about while watching the film was the whole gun control debate. There was a lot of shooting in the movie, lots of bloodshed. What's more interesting, though, are all the times the camera does a close-up on Django reaching for his gun when he gets upset, and then deciding not to use it. The gun, as the movie portrays it, is an easy way to kill lots of people without thinking about it. Without spoiling the movie with exact details, there's another character who compulsively shoots someone else, and it wasn't necessarily a good idea. At another point in the movie, a character rigs a building to blow up. The rigging took a lot of time and setup. It was deliberate and planned. A lot of the shooting comes from impulse.

This reminds me of a normally politically conservative former co-worker of mine, who surprised me by telling me he didn't think people should have guns. He used to own guns. But he said one time he got really angry at someone he was driving behind (ye olde road rage), and he was very glad to not have his gun with him, because he said he probably would have taken it out and shot the other driver. That compulsion frightened him.

I think that component of "the gun" is often missing from all the gun control debates. Yes, you can blow people up with fertilizer or crash a plan into a building using a box cutter. Those methods of destruction require a lot of planning and forethought. If you happen to be angry and have a gun nearby, you can go on a rampage without thinking the whole thing through.

I remember the debates a couple of years ago in San Francisco about the Golden Gate Bridge nets. Many people thought it was stupid to have nets. The logic went "If these people want to kill themselves, they'll kill themselves. If it's not jumping off a bridge, it'll be something else." I get that logic. In fact, that's what I thought, too, until I kept reading more letters to The San Francisco Chronicle and also watched the documentary The Bridge. Yes, someone who's completely determined to kill herself or himself will find a way to do so. But many people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge (or any bridge) just have a suicidal compulsion at that moment (they may be depressed in general but not determinedly suicidal). The bridge being closed or a net being in place may stop those people from making a stupid mistake.

Just some random thoughts I had that I didn't see in a lot of the mainstream media or even the blogosphere.

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Disappointed with the way Pixar’s storytelling is going

I’m a big Pixar fan. Have been for a long time. Basically every Pixar movie I’ve seen has either been good, great, or fantastic. They have no duds… so far, anyway. If you read or hear interviews with the creators at Pixar, you’ll often hear that the most important process in creating a movie is finding a good story. The animation (though stellar) comes second.

What makes Pixar movies compelling is that they have good stories, good characters, good animation, and good jokes. It all comes together. Lately, though, I’ve noticed their internal conflicts have been a bit dull.

For those of you unfamiliar with fiction terminology, there are two major kinds of conflict in a story—external conflict and internal conflict. An external conflict involves two external forces (usually separate characters or groups of characters) fighting against one another.

If your character is trying to escape from a psychotic killer, trying to get out of debt, or trying to find the perfect mate, your character is involved in an external conflict. While these external conflicts can be mildly entertaining or visually stimulating to watch, they are not very intellectually stimulating.

If your character isn’t sure whether someone is a psychotic killer or not or whether she wants to escape or not, if your character is thinking about whether she might embrace debt or try to get out of it, if your character is starting to doubt how satisfied she’ll be with the perfect mate, then your character is involved in an internal conflict. Should I stay or should I go? Who am I? Do I really love this person? What’s wrong with my life? These struggles are struggles we can relate to and involve a lot of introspection and tough choices, a lot of times with no easy right answer.

Without giving away the plots of any movies, I’ll just say the last two Pixar movies I saw had both internal and external conflicts, but the internal ones were dealt with quite quickly, and they actually weren’t even dealt with at all. Let’s just say if you’re wondering “Should I stay at this job or not?” and then you get fired, you didn’t really have to make a choice, did you? If your girlfriend may be a normal person or a serial killer, and that thought haunts you, her coming at you with a butcher knife pretty much puts the doubt out of your mind.

Pixar, your jokes are still funny. Your animation is always improving. And your characters are still interesting. Please keep them interesting by fully exploring those internal conflicts. Don’t just make the internal conflicts moot because the external conflicts involve chase scenes and characters who seemed nice at first but turned out to be totally evil.

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Misogyny hits the cinema

After not seeing a movie in the theater in what felt like forever (my wife and I are movie buffs), we finally saw two in one weekend—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Hot Tub Time Machine. Both movies surprised me. The former surprised me with how serious, disturbing, and graphic it was. I knew it was a murder mystery, but I was thinking more Jane Marple. I guess in this age of Saw and Hostel, that was a bad assumption on my part. The latter surprised me for just being a terrible movie. It had gotten a lot of good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

I also had no idea how much misogyny was in both films. Later, I learned the original Swedish title for the book Dragon Tattoo was based on literally translates to men who hate women. And, after watching the movie (which I hear is pretty accurate to the book, except for leaving out whole plotlines that wouldn’t fit in a 2 1/2–hour time frame), I think that’s a far more fitting title. I guess the big difference between Tattoo and Hot Tub (apart from one being good, the other bad; and one being serious and the other intended to be funny) is that Tattoo makes it clear that misogyny is a bad thing. Hot Tub, on the other hand, celebrates it. Even though Tattoo is a bit too graphic in its depiction of rape and violence, it sends a clear message of “Men who hate women are bad people and should be punished.”

Hot Tub also sends a clear message—women are there to satisfy men sexually and… pretty much nothing else. In one scene, two men make bets with each other involving both money and sexual flavors. If one man wins, he says the other man’s wife needs to give him a blowjob. If the other man wins, he says the other man needs to give the other man’s male friend a blowjob. The wife says nothing. All she does is lick her lollipop suggestively. The male friend, however, protests furiously that he doesn’t like having his dick gambled with. So her mouth is okay to gamble with without consulting her… his dick, not so much? And, worse yet, the Black friend (whom we initially think is one of three best buddies, but it later turns out only the two White friends are best friends with each other…?) gets constantly ridiculed for hyphenating his name, as if that emasculates him. The only way to set it “right” is for him to keep his name. I’d love to see one of these raunch comedies make fun of woman for taking her husband’s name and then having everything be “right” when she goes back to her maiden name or, better yet, he takes her surname.

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Cinema Rewriting History

Spoiler Warning: If you want to eventually see Avatar or Inglorious Bastards, I reveal plot details here.

There has been quite a bit written about James Cameron’s Avatar. Here are two examples:
Annalee Newitz’s “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?”
Ariel Boone’s “Avatar: Count the ‘isms'”

I get it. I understand all the racial, imperialistic, and gender issues with Avatar. I knew all that stuff going in. And, you know what? It didn’t bother me that much. I was actually able to enjoy the movie, despite the “White guilt” sign that practically flashed on the screen every other scene.

What I find interesting, though, is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards. In it, there’s quite a serious rewrite of history, in which a Jewish woman, whose family is killed by the Nazis, is able to destroy the leadership of the Nazi party, and a rebel American group gets to carve the Swastika symbol on the foreheads of other Nazis so that they can’t later pretend they had nothing to do with the Holocaust. A nice, quaint rewrite of history, just as James Cameron’s Avatar says “Oh, wouldn’t it have been nice if one of the White settlers in the Americas could have led the Native Americans in revolt against the other evil White people, and the noble savages could keep the land pure and untainted by technology and corporate interests?” Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards says “Oh, wouldn’t it have been nice if we got all those Nazis, and if the Jews themselves could have given the Nazis a taste of their own medicine?” The cinema itself becomes a kind of gas chamber for Nazi leadership.

No one in the theater I saw it in was horrified. People were cheering. Everyone seemed to enjoy the film. I enjoyed the film. But I wonder… if Quentin Tarantino had decided to make a movie in which Black slaves in the American South in the 18th or 19th century violently revolted against their masters and lynched those White slave owners, would (predominantly White) American audiences still cheer? After all, those White people aren’t you, right? For many White people in America, those slave owners aren’t even their ancestors. And for those White Americans who did have slave owning ancestors, do you think about how the descendants of Nazis feel watching Inglorious Bastards?

Maybe I’m guessing wrong. Maybe American audiences would give it the same kind of reception. Maybe it would, as Avatar seems to do, soothe some White liberal guilt. Maybe James Cameron’s next movie will feature John Brown leading a successful slave revolt at Harpers Ferry. I just haven’t seen anyone discuss this angle when talking about Inglorious Bastards. For those of you who’ve seen both films, what did you think? Is there a connection between the two? How did you think about them sociologically?

P.S. I don’t really dig White liberal guilt. I am a non-White liberal (very liberal when it comes to race, gender, politics, etc.). If White filmmakers want to make a real change, a great start would be making more films that feature Asian American, Latino, and Native American (both female and male) protagonists (no reason to have foreign-sounding accents, either). The White straight male protagonist with a supporting cast of women, geeky men, non-Whites, and possibly a gay person approach has been done… and overdone, way overdone in Hollywood movies.

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Christopher Nolan finally living up to the hype

I remember when Memento came out and everyone was telling me how amazing a film it was. I was sorely disappointed. I found it trite, and the whole film-in-reverse-chronology gimmick’s novelty wore off quickly.

Then Batman Begins came out. Same deal. Everyone said it was amazing. I thought it was a disgrace to the Batman legacy. The 1989 Batman kicked Begins‘ ass. Begins was just so hokey, in almost a 1960s camp way, except that it took itself too seriously.

The critics didn’t play up The Prestige too much, but it did still get overall positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. I found the film engaging, but the plot was silly.

And that was the problem. I always knew way back from Memento that Christopher Nolan had potential, but he never lived up to the hype. Yes, Memento was a stupid movie, but it was engaging. Same deal with The Prestige. Christopher Nolan knows how to create engaging scenes. He can juggle a lot of cinematic elements without dropping the visual ball. But the stories in his movies have always been weak.

Finally, with The Dark Knight, his writing chops are beginning to match up with his directorial flare. If you, like me, hated Batman Begins and thought it made a joke of Batman, you should give The Dark Knight a go. Yes, some parts of it are still cheesy, but those parts are overshadowed by the intensity of the movie’s suspense and chilling nigh-realism amongst insanity. And Heath Ledger’s joker is the best joker I’ve ever seen. If you, too, were a bit skeptical of this latest venture, based on Nolan’s previous work, you should give the guy just one more chance. I have to say I’m now a convert and am looking forward to the third Batman movie of this series. I’m really hoping they adapt Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but we may have to wait until Christian Bale’s 60 years old. Maybe by that time he’ll have figured out the raspy voice bit isn’t working.

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Christianity Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

For the Bible Tells Me So documentary is subversive

As you may know if you’ve read my post from four years ago “Subversive” Saved!? I get annoyed when people use the word subversive inappropriately.

Well, I just saw a movie called For the Bible Tells Me So, and I have to say it’s pretty subversive. Unlike Jesus Camp and Hell House, this film doesn’t have as its primary purpose the making fun of “those crazy Christians.” In fact, rather than seeking to appease anti-Christian non-Christians, For the Bible Tells Me So seeks mainly to educate Christians about Biblical interpretation and the theological dangers of selective literalism.

And where it doesn’t get you on an intellectual level, it also presents the real humanity of the situation: even if you do want to be anti-gay as a Christian, how can your heart not cry out for people with gay children having rocks being thrown in the windows of their houses? How can you not feel compassion for gay people being beaten to death?

But, apart from one badly written and juvenile animated segment, the film really is quite educational and should be a must-see for any Christian who is anti-gay. I can’t guarantee you’ll change your theological views on sexuality after seeing this movie. You should still see it, though. It’s great exercise for the mind and the heart.

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Wall-E doesn’t live up to Pixar’s usual standards

I know I’m in the minority opinion on this one, but I found Wall-E disappointing. It wasn’t a bad movie. I don’t think it’s possible for Pixar to make a bad movie. It was, however, disappointing.

See, what’s great about Pixar movies is the whole package. Pixar movies (Wall-E excluded) tend to have it all. They have a good story, engaging scenes, refreshing humor, appeal to all age groups, stunning animation, character development, and proper pacing. When I see a non-Pixar movie, I expect something to be sacrificed. If the special effects and pacing are good, maybe the dialogue is awful or the jokes unoriginal. If the character development is good, maybe the plot is disjointed or the pacing is off.

Whether it’s only great movies (Cars, Monsters, Inc.) or amazing movies (Toy Story 2, The Incredibles), Pixar never sacrificed anything… until now. Wall-E is engaging. It’s funny. It’s cute. The animation is the best I’ve seen yet. That’s about all I can say for it, though. It isn’t a typical Pixar movie. The character development, almost nonexistent. The plot is lopsided and resolved too quickly. The conflict is mainly an external one. There is too much suspension of disbelief required (yes, even within the framework of the story) of the viewer.

Well, will people care? No, they’ll still see it. I still saw it. I still enjoyed it. I just hope that it’s a blip on the otherwise clear radar of Pixar greatness. I’m hoping the next Pixar movie won’t sacrifice plot and character development for special effects and humor. They’ve shown us many times that you can have your cinematic pie and eat it, too.

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Life Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Raping 13-year-olds is now okay. Thanks, Roman!

The New York Daily News recently published this article: ‘Wanted’ man Roman Polanski dodges legal bullet. Let me translate some chunks for you.

Polanski was, and remains, a brilliant film director. But to many people, particularly in America, he is most famously remembered for fleeing the country after pleading guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13-year-old girl who was modeling for him.

In case you’re wondering, the pedophilic rapist in question only pled guilty to this “crime,” and it doesn’t matter anyway, since he’s good at his normal job.

The original judge, Laurence Rittenband, was a publicity hound and celebrity sniffer who cared more about how he looked in the press than what happened to either Polanski or the 13-year-old girl.

Both the lead prosecutor and the defense attorney explain in great detail how the case was about to be resolved, with a guilty plea and no hard jail time. But Rittenband thought that might make him look bad, so he ignored judicial protocol and went back on his own promises, declaring instead he wanted Polanski in prison.

Ordinarily society will let someone who’s good at his normal job off the hook for raping a 13-year-old, but one judge decided a rapist of young girls should get some kind of actual punishment. He must have ulterior motives for doing so.

The fact that this film focuses more on the court than the crime will understandably bother some viewers, since offering drugs to naked 13-year-olds and having sex with them is conduct the average American finds repugnant.

Perhaps to balance this, the film talks extensively with the victim.

Her biggest frustration, she says, is that no one believed her, or that people felt she or her mother, who set up the photo session, must have done something wrong.

Yet the case clearly didn’t break her. She’s frustrated with the system, but she settled a civil suit against Polanski and publicly forgave him. She’s a mother of three who’s been married for 18 years. She seems OK.

In case you’re tempted to have a normal reaction to this horrendous crime and don’t really care for Roman Polanski’s films, let me try to justify the crime. It’s not really a crime. After all, the supposed victim seems okay. Life went on. It’s not like she committed suicide or anything. Geez.

It does note, however, that many of his greatest films, like “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” suggest there sometimes is no justice. Which would be a curiously dispassionate coda to a case and a life marked by so much fire.

C’est la vie.

Poor, poor brilliant pedophile rapist filmmaker. No justice for him. People should just leave the poor guy alone.

If you’re a rapist, you’re a rapist. If you’re a pedophile rapist, you’re a pedophile rapist. Or that’s the way it should be. Perhaps we should go find all the sex offenders in prison and see which ones of them might be brilliant performing musicians or innovative entrepeneurs if we just let them out of prison. After all, their victims might seem okay. Their victims, after thirty years, might be married and have kids. Right? And the judges in their cases might have had ulterior motives for sending them to prison. After all, raping 13-year-olds isn’t an offense that warrants a prison term… at least not for people who are good at their jobs.

Let’s take a look at the girl Polanski raped thirty years ago. From a 2003 article:

“Everything was going fine; then he asked me to change, well, in front of him,” she says. “It didn’t feel right, and I didn’t want to go back to the second shoot. But I didn’t at that time have the self-confidence to tell my mother and everyone, ‘No, I’m not going to go.'”

During that second shoot, Polanski’s motives became apparent.

“We did photos with me drinking champagne,” Geimer says. “Toward the end it got a little scary, and I realized he had other intentions and I knew I was not where I should be. I just didn’t quite know how to get myself out of there.”

Polanski sexually assaulted her after giving her a combination of champagne and Quaaludes.

Let’s see. It didn’t feel right, but she lacked the self-confidence to refuse (maybe this is why statutory rape laws exist?), and then he gave her alcohol and drugs and sexually assaulted her. What’s not wrong about this? Seriously.

I’m a male who is more than a decade younger than Polanski was at the time of the rape. I’m not a brilliant film director, but I’m pretty good at my job. I work in an admission office at a high school. Can you imagine if I told a 13-year-old applicant to take off her clothes, gave her drugs and alcohol, and then raped her? That would be awful. Since I’m not an Academy Award-Winning director, I’ll tell you what would happen. I’d be fired immediately, or at least temporarily suspended pending further investigation; ostracized from my church, family, and friends; given divorce papers immediately by my wife; and probably sent to prison for over a decade if not several decades, during which time I’d be tormented and raped by other prisoners. Yes, that’s what happens to pedophile rapists. And I doubt anyone would believe my defense if I said, “Uh, she seems okay now.”

Much as I loved Death and the Maiden, I can’t believe that not only is Roman Polanski walking free, but the the media is defending him. Yes, of course, the woman he raped when she was only 13 has been unbelievably strong and managed after thirty years to move on with her life, but that doesn’t make what he did any less wrong.

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Persepolis is Personal

I always read film reviews. Sometimes I read them beforehand to try to gauge whether I want to see the film or not. Other times, I go into the film blindly and then read the reviews afterwards to see if they would have helped me to decide on whether to see it or not. In the case of Persepolis, I was glad to have gone in to the viewing “blindly.”

The user (not professional) reviews seemed to be a battle of variations of “I’m Iranian, and this makes America think worse of Iran” and “I’m Iranian, and this seems to be a pretty accurate picture of what it was like.” As always, with something that purports to be autobiographical, it was attacked as twisting history or being inaccurate in this or that way.

As someone who knows very little about Iran apart from 1980s US propaganda that generally portrayed all non-Israeli Middle-Eastern countries as windy deserts full of dark-skinned, angry, violent terrorist types (yes, I’m that American); I found it to portray (accurately or not) Iran and Iranians rather positively. More importantly, I don’t think the narrative of the film (I haven’t read the graphic novels yet, so I can’t comment on any difference there) in any way tries to put in a master narrative that says “This is what really happened.” The story is clearly told in its entirety from the point of view of the protagonist. When recounting her experiences in both Europe and Iran, she is honest about the limits of her perception. Either way, it portrays (accurately or inaccurately) Iran as a beautiful country that has gone through a lot of strife, with most people just trying to get by while governmental powers, both within and without, screw them over.

If I had any criticism of the film, it wouldn’t be of the film itself but of the protagonist—much as we sympathize with her because she is the main character, she is still a brat, in the end. She comes from privilege. Her parents and grandmother are a godly model of love to her, way beyond what she deserves. When she ends up destitute in Vienna, it appears to be fully her own fault, so it’s a little difficult to feel sorry for her… same with just about every “tragic” situation in the movie that doesn’t involve someone dying.

The brat can be cute and funny sometimes, though.