Moral Compass and the STAR WARS Fandom

MORAL COMPASS AND STAR WARS FANDOM

The more posts and articles that I read about the STAR WARS saga, the more I begin to wonder if a great deal of the franchise’s fandom would have preferred if Lucas had allowed the saga to maintain the black-and-white morality of “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”.

All of the STAR WARS films have their flaws. And although “A NEW HOPE” had its moments of moral ambiguity in the character of smuggler Han Solo, the moral compass presented in the 1977 film seemed more black-and-white than ambiguous. I can even recall one guy complaining on his blog that “A NEW HOPE” was the only film in the franchise that he liked, because the other films that followed had too much ambiguity. I also noticed that when discussing “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, many fans tend to ignore or make excuses for the questionable actions of the major characters in that film.

Fans made excuses for Chewbacca’s assault upon Lando Calrissian in the 1980 film, because the latter had sold them out to Darth Vader and the Empire in order to prevent the deaths of the Bespin colony’s citizens. They also made excuses for Princess Leia Organa’s support of Chewbacca’s assault. Yet, very few fans and critics have seemed willing to criticize Chewbacca and Leia’s actions . . . or the fact that neither of them ever considered the possibility that their arrival at Bespin had endangered Lando and the citizens. And when I had once questioned why Han never noticed bounty hunter Boba Fett shadowing the Millennium Falcon during its long journey from the Hoth system to Bespin (without an operating hyperdrive), many either dismissed my question or refused to even ponder on that situation. I had also discussed Luke Skywalker’s willingness stop his rage-fueled assault upon his father, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”, many saw this as an example of Luke’s moral superiority. No one ever pondered on the possibility that Emperor Palpatine’s verbal interruption may have stopped Luke from killing his father.

When it comes to the moral ambiguity of the characters in the Prequel Trilogy movies, a lot of fans tend to scream “bad writing”, instead of exploring the possibility that even the good guys are capable of bad or criminal actions. They reacted at least three ways in regard to the actions of the Jedi characters. One, they tend to accuse Lucas of bad writing when major Jedi characters like Yoda, Mace Windu or Obi-Wan Kenobi made bad decisions. Or they would make excuses for their questionable actions – especially Yoda and Obi-Wan. Or . . . the only Jedi characters they are willing to criticize are Mace Windu for his attempt to kill Palpatine in “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE JEDI” and Qui-Gon Jinn for insisting that Anakin Skywalker be trained as Jedi in “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Yet, hardly anyone seems willing to question Yoda for his own attempt to deliberately kill Palpatine or Obi-Wan’s willingness to leave a seriously wounded Anakin to slowly burn to death on one of Mustafar’s lava banks in the 2005 movie. Why? Is it because both Yoda and Obi-Wan are considered heroic favorites from the Original Trilogy? Who knows?

Speaking of Anakin, many fans seemed to be upset that Lucas had not portrayed him as some adolescent or twenty-something “bad boy”. Many fans have also expressed displeasure that the Prequel Trilogy had began with Anakin at the age of nine. Why, I do not know. Either this has something to do with the “cool factor”, or they cannot deal with the idea that a mega villain like Darth Vader began his life as an innocent and rather nice boy. Most of all, many fans and critics seem incapable of dealing with Anakin giving in to evil for the sake of his love for Naboo senator Padme Amidala . . . despite the fact that Original Trilogy characters like Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa and Chewbacca have either done or nearly done the same.

Once the Disney Studios had acquired LucasFilm from George Lucas, they seemed bent upon returning to the black-and-white moral compass of “A NEW HOPE” with their 2015 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The Finn character seems to be another version of Han Solo – starting out as an ambiguous character and emerging as a heroic figure. Aside from one moment near the end of the film, Kylo Ren seemed more like a one-dimensional villain. Perhaps director-writer Rian Johnson will allow the character to break out of this shell in the upcoming “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI”. As for the 2016 stand-alone film, “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY”, many critics and fans had complimented the film for its exploration of the main characters’ ambiguity. Yet, the Jyn Erso character is already being unfavorably compared by the media to the more ideal Rey character from “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. And by the last half hour of “ROGUE ONE”, the main. characters had ditched their ambiguity and embraced being heroes. Not even the current LucasFilm production company, Disney and director Gareth Edwards would allow the main characters to remain ambiguous.

Lucas had started the STAR WARS saga with an entertaining and well done tale with very little ambiguity in 1977 and developed it into a complex and ambiguous saga that I believe did a great job in reflecting the true ambiguous nature of humanity. And yet, it seems that a lot of people remain angry at him for daring to explore our ambiguity in the first place. Some have claimed that STAR WARS is the wrong movie franchise to explore moral ambiguity. Personally, I do not see why not.

The “STAR WARS” Prequel Movies . . . and Mace Windu

THE “STAR WARS” PREQUEL MOVIES . . . AND MACE WINDU

I came across this article on the RETRO ZAP website about the “STAR WARS” Prequel movies called “Beyond Good & Evil in the Prequels”, written by Michael O’Connor. And while I had no problems with most of the article, I had a problem when he centered his focus on Mace Windu.

In a passage from the article, Mr. O’Connor wrote:

“Mace Windu, in particular, is a scowling character who seems fond of putting fools in their place, whether it’s a fellow Jedi like Qui-Gon Jinn or Anakin Skywalker or an adversary like Count Dooku or Chancellor Palpatine.

But the most telling moment for the character may come in Revenge of the Sith, when he insists to Anakin that Palpatine is ‘too powerful to be left alive!’ It can’t be a coincidence that Lucas has him parroting a line Palpatine said to Anakin earlier in the film after Skywalker insists that killing an unarmed Dooku is not the Jedi Way. ‘He was too dangerous to be kept alive’, Palpatine casually notes in that moment.”

Mace seemed “fond of putting fools in their place” . . . including Anakin Skywalker and Qui-Gon Jinn? What exactly was Mr. O’Connor trying to say? That Master Windu, one of the senior members of the Jedi Council, had no right to put others in their place when they stepped out of line? Why? Was it because the character was not featured in the Original Trlogy? Or was it because Master Windu was portrayed by an African-American actor? Had Mr. O’Connor really forgotten that other Jedi characters like Qui-Gon, Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ki Adi Mundi had done the same?

And why did Mr. O’Connor point out Mace’s attempt to kill Palpatine in “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”, yet failed to point out Yoda’s murder attempt on the same character? In the same movie? Was Mr. O’Connor trying to say that as a character portrayed by a black actor, Mace did not have the right to step out of line in such a manner? Only Yoda was allowed? He pointed out that Yoda had not only accepted the Clone Army on behalf of the Republic, he also led them into battle on Geonosis in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. He also pointed out Yoda’s lies to Luke Skywalker or withholding of the truth about Anakin/Vader’s true identity. But he failed to point out Yoda’s attempt to murder Palpatine. Why?

Mr. O’Connor also pointed out Obi-Wan Kenobi’s condescending attitude toward beings he considered as lesser being – like Jar-Jar Binks and nine year-old Anakin Skywalker. Yet, he failed to point out Obi-Wan’s capitulation to rage after Darth Maul had struck down his Jedi master, Qui-Gon Jinn in “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Mr. O’Connor failed to point out Obi-Wan’s attempt to convince the older Anakin to spy on Chancellor Palpatine (whom the Jedi believed had a Sith Lord within his circle), even when the younger man felt uncomfortable about the suggestion. And he failed to point out that Obi-Wan had left a disabled Anakin to slowly burn to death on a lava bank, following their duel on Mustafar. Many claim that Obi-Wan could not bring himself to quickly kill his former apprentice . . . as if his lack of action was something merciful. As far as I am concerned, it was not. Leaving someone to slowly die in agony does not strike me as merciful.

I admire Mr. O’Connor’s attempt to point out that the “STAR WARS” saga was not one painted in a black-and-white morality. Well, most of it. And I admire his willingness to appreciate the moral ambiguity in George Lucas’ tale – especially in the Prequel Trilogy. What I did not appreciate was his willingness to use Mace Windu as the main scapegoat for the mistakes of the Jedi Order. Or paint the character as the worst offender within that organization. If he was so willing to point out the worst that Master Windu had done, he could have done the same for not only the other Jedi characters, but other characters within the Prequel Trilogy as well.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

During the fall of 2012, the media and many film fans were stunned by news of filmmaker George Lucas’ sale of his production company, Lucasfilm, to the Walt Disney Company. I was flabbergasted. However, this sale led to Disney’s plans to continue Lucas’ “STAR WARS” movie saga with future releases, television shows, novels and comic stories.

One result of this sale proved to be Disney’s new film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The first of three movies for the franchise’ “Sequel Trilogy”, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is set some thirty years after the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Some time after the Galactic Empire’s major defeat at the Battle of Endor, remnants of this political force formed a new galactic power known as the First Order under the mysterious leadership of Snoke, a Force user. Within less than thirty years, the First Order has managed to take possession of new worlds and become a powerful force within the galaxy. Although appalled by the First Order’s development, the New Republic government decided to do nothing.

Former Rebel Alliance leader, Leia Organa, managed to form a military organization from the rank and file of the New Republic’s armed forces called the Resistance. Believing that the Resistance need more help, Leia recruited a pilot named Commander Poe Dameron to acquire find a segment of a star map that was in the possession of the legendary explorer Lor San Tekka on Jakku. This map would lead to the whereabouts of her brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who had disappeared into exile following the destruction of a new generation of Jedi under his tutelage. Unfortunately, the village where Tekka lived was captured by a force of First Order stormtroopers under the command of one of Supreme Leader Snoke’s enforcers, a Force user named Kylo Ren. Ren ordered his troops to kill Tekka and the other villagers, while he took Dameron captive. Fortunately, the Resistance pilot had hidden the map inside his astromech droid, BB-8, which managed to escape. Even more fortunately, Dameron was rescued by a stormtrooper designated FN-2187, who wanted to use Dameron to help him defect from the First Order.

Finn and Dameron stole a TIE fighter plane and returned to Jakku to find BB-8. However, the plane crashed. FN-2187 – renamed “Finn” – by the pilot, encountered a desert scavenger named Rey, who had already found BB-8. Realizing that the First Order was after the droid, the pair made their escape from Jakku aboard the old freighter, the Millenium Falcon, and set out to find the Resistance forces. Along the way, Finn and Rey attempted to evade the pursuing Kylo Ren and met the Falcon’s former owner, Han Solo and the latter’s companion Chewbacca; who ended up helping them with their goal.

Many critics and moviegoers hailed “THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to what the franchise used to be back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And not surprisingly, it became the top earning movie released in 2015. Lucasfilm, now headed by producer Kathleen Kennedy (who had worked with Lucas and Steven Spielberg for years), turned to producer-director J.J. Abrams to helm this first film. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was originally hired to write the movie’s script, following Lucas’ treatment. But Lucasfilm and Abrams decided to scrap both him and the treatment. Then Abrams and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan created their own screenplay . . . one that obviously pleased a lot of people. How do I feel about the movie? Well, like many films, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” has both good and bad qualities. I am going to start what I liked about it.

For me, the stars of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” are actors John Boyega, who portrayed Finn; and Harrison Ford, who reprised his role as Han Solo. Their performances gave this movie an energy that could not be matched by the rest of cast. In the case of Ford, this movie featured his best performance in the four “STAR WARS” he has appeared in. And of the new cast members for the Sequel Trilogy, I feel that Boyega has quickly emerged as the best of the bunch, thanks to his energetic and humorous portrayal of a very complex character. Actually, Finn reminded me of a younger Han Solo. Perhaps that is why he clicked so well with the veteran actor. Come to think of it, he also managed to click well with the other two new leads – Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac. My only problem with Finn is that his character sometimes came off as some doofus who seemed to stumble his way through life. Two other performances in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that really impressed me came from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who served as the voice and movements behind a new character called Maz Kanata. And Peter Mayhew, like Ford, was marvelous as always as the aging Wookie, Chewbacca. In a way, I found this miraculous for both Ford and Mayhew, considering that both suffered health issues during the movie’s production. What else did I like about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Well to my utter surprise, I enjoyed the new astromech droid, BB-8. When I had first saw it in some of the movie’s trailers, I had dismissed it as a second-rate version of R2-D2 and C3-P0. I was very surprised at how quickly I grew fond of the character.

There were other aspects of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that I enjoyed, as well. If I have to brutally frank, I did not find most of Dan Mindel’s photography that impressive. But there were a few scenes that did impress me. I found Britain’s Lake District, which served as Takodana, very beautiful, thanks to Mindel’s photography. I was also impressed by his photography of United Arab Emirates and New Mexico, which served as the planet of Jakku. Mandel even managed to include an iconic shot, as shown below:

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One last aspect of the movie that impressed me was Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing. I thought they did a pretty damn good job in the sequence that featured Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku aboard the stolen Millennium Falcon. But I found their work in the sequence in which the pair, Han Solo and Chewbacca get into conflict with pirates gangs who want to settle a score with Han, while three Rathtar creatures run rampant throughout the Falcon and Han’s other ship . . . to be very impressive. And it lacked the taint of confusion which has hampered many action scenes in the past.

Did I have any problems with “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Unfortunately, yes. A lot of problems. I read somewhere that Lucasfilm/Disney had originally hired Michael Arndt to write the movie’s screenplay, but in the end, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams rejected it. Abrams recruited Lawrence Kasdan, an old Lucasfilm veteran to rewrite the script and the result is what ended on the movie screens. And honestly . . . I was not impressed. Not by a long shot. The main problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is that it shared too many plot points and characterizations with the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Hell, Abrams and Kasdan managed to borrow a bit from 1980’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the Prequel movies. It is one thing to lift certain aspects of from other works of art and even history – especially in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. It is another to literally borrow from another movie . . . within the same movie franchise. Just to verify my complaint, I had come across an Entertainment Weekly article that listed eighteen similarties between “THE FORCE AWAKENS”and “A NEW HOPE” that included:

*A droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet
*A Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed antagonist who arrives on the scene shortly after the information is handed off, looking for the droid
*A lonely, Force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more
*A cruel military officer who holds a comparable level of authority to his Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed colleague
*A massive spherical weapon that’s used to destroy a planet
*A coordinated aerial attack on the massive spherical weapon that’s monitored from a control room by Leia

Six similarities between the two movies strike me as disturbing. Eighteen similarities seem utterly ridiculous to me. Even worse, I managed to come up with four similarities between this movie and “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. The masked enforcer is revealed to be a member of the Skywalker family, the heroes end up on an ice planet, the roguish protagonist is left in dire straits by the end of the movie and the potential Force user meets an aging Jedi master for new lessons. J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios might as well stop protesting and admit that their new blockbuster reeks of unoriginality and plagiarism.

Another problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” proved to be characterization. I had no problem with the idea of characters from the saga’s previous trilogies making an appearance. I had a problem with the new characters being a rehash of other characters – like our desert future acolyte Rey being a remake of the young Luke Skywalker; the First One enforcer Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo being another Anakin Skywalker; Resistance pilot Poe Dameron being another Leia Organa (but without the caustic wit); former stormtrooper Finn being another Han Solo; Supreme Leader Snoke is another Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine; and General Hux is another Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (without the presence). Actually, this video clip from You Tube/Dorkly.com pretty much said it all. The similarities between the saga’s characters strikes me as another example of the lack of originality in this movie.

But some of the characters proved to be very problematic for the movie’s plot. One of the biggest problems proved to be the character of Rey. As a woman, I found it satisfying that a leading STAR WARS character is not only a Force user, but a young woman. Unfortunately, Abrams and Kasdan took this too far by nearly portraying Rey as a borderline Mary Sue. Well, Lucas nearly transformed Luke Skywalker into a Gary Stu (same thing, male version) – especially in the last half hour of “A NEW HOPE” and the first hour of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. But with Rey, Abrams and Kasdan took it too far. Using her strong connection to the Force as an excuse, they allowed Rey to become a talented pilot who could rival Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, easily learn how to utilize the Jedi Mind Trick and defeat an experienced Force user with a lightsaber without any training. Without real any experience or training whatsoever. By the way, that last achievement really rubbed me the wrong way. I mean . . . what the hell? What is she going to do in the franchise’s next movie? Walk on water? Now . . . Daisy Ridley gave a nice performance as Rey. But she failed to knock my socks off. Her performance was not enough for me to overlook the ridiculous level of skills that her character had accomplished.

Equally problematic for me proved to be the Kylo Ren character, who turned out to be Han and Leia’s only son, Ben Solo. According to the movie, he was one of Luke’s padawan learners, before he made the decision to embrace evil, kill of Luke’s other padawans and become an enforcer for the First Order. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. “THE FORCE AWAKENS” made it clear that he seemed to worship his grandfather’s role as a Sith Lord. I can only assume that either the next movie or “EPISODE IX” will reveal the reason behind young Ben’s embrace of evil. I hope so. Because the reasoning presented in this film really sucks. It sucks just as much as Ren’s man child behavior. You know, I could have stomach this behavior if he had been around the same age as his grandfather in the Prequel Trilogy’s second and third movies. But Kylo Ren is pushing thirty in this film. He strikes me as too old to be engaging in childish temper tantrums. I can only assume that contrary to Han’s “He has a bit of Vader in him” comment, Kylo Ren is more a chip off the old block – namely his dad, who had behaved like a man child in the 1977-83 films. And why did Han and Leia name their son after Obi-Wan Kenobi, who used the name “Ben” during his years of exile on Tatooine? Leia never knew him . . . not personally. And Han never really clicked with Obi-Wan on an emotional level. So, why did they name him after the long deceased Jedi Master? As for Adam Driver, he gave a decent performance, but honestly . . . it was not enough for me to be fascinated by his character. It was just . . . decent.

Leia Organa seemed to be a ghost of her former self, thanks to Carrie Fisher. God bless Fisher, she tried. She really did. Abrams and Kasdan even gave her a few witty lines. But . . . Fisher’s performance reminded me of the one she gave in“RETURN OF THE JEDI” . . . lacking in any real fire. And I was disturbed by one scene in which Leia rushed forward to hug Rey, following the latter’s return from the First One’s Starkiller Base. Why did Leia ignore Chewbacca, who must have been torn up over Han’s death? Why did Chewie ignore her? Poe Dameron proved to be a real problem. One, he was not an interesting character to me. Frankly, I found him rather bland. And considering that Oscar Isaac portrayed the character, I found myself feeling very disappointed. A talented actor like him deserved a better role than this. Also, why did Poe leave Jakku and returned to the Resistance’s base? His mission was to acquire information leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts . . . information that he had stored in his BB-8 droid before the First Force appeared at that Jakku village. After Finn had rescued him from Kylo Ren and the First Force warship, Poe insisted that they return to Jakku, so he could find BB-8. What did he do after his and Finn’s TIE fighter crashed on the planet? Poe walked away from the crash, found transport off the planet and returned to his Resistance base. Not once did he bother to finish his mission by searching for BB-8. What the fuck? He went through all that bother to drag Finn back to Jakku and failed to hang around long enough to find BB-8? SLOPPY!! As for Mark Hamill . . . why was he even in this movie? He appeared in the movie’s last scene without speaking one word of dialogue. What a waste of time!

There were other scenes that rubbed me the wrong way. Critics made a big deal over the Nazi-like speech that General Hux gave the First Order troops on the Starkiller Base, swooning over the idea of Nazi metaphors in a “STAR WARS” movie. Big deal. There have been Nazi metaphors in the franchise’s movies since the first movie in 1977. Only Lucas did not resort to a ham fisted speech, similar to the one given by actor Domhnall Gleeson. I also found Leia’s little military conference rather laughable. She did not confer with a handful of military leaders. Instead, she seemed to be conferring with anyone – commanders, pilots, etc. – who seemed to have made their way to her table. It was like watching a STAR WARS version of a town meeting. What the hell? And what was the big deal over the First Order’s search for Luke Skywalker? So what if he was the last Jedi? According to the Lor San Tekka character portrayed by Max von Sydow, there can be no balance in the Force without the Jedi. Really? Since when is the balance of the Force depended on the presence of a religious order that had not been in its prime for over half a century? With Tekka’s comment, Abrams and Kasdan regressed the saga back to the Sunday School morality of “A NEW HOPE”. And could someone please tell me how the lightsaber that Anakin had first constructed following the loss of his first on Geonosis and which Luke had lost during his duel against the former on Bespin, end up in the possession of Maz Kanata on Takodona? How? And why on earth did Abrams and Kasdan thought it necessary to re-introduce it into the saga? Why? It was nothing more than a lightsaber . . . a weapon. There was no need to transform it into some kind of mythologized artifact.

Aside from the colorful photography and editing, I was not that impressed by the movie’s other technical aspects. One, Lucasfilm and Disney allowed both the Resistance and the First Order to use military technology that was last scene in the 1977-83 trilogy. Why? Why did the Resistance and First Order characters wear the uniforms that members of the Rebel Alliance and the Imperial Fleet wore? How cheap is that? And why have the Resistance and the First Order use technology from the same groups? The only new technology I had spotted was the two-seater TIE fighter for the First Order and the lumbering desert vehicle that Rey used on Jakka. Were Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios too cheap to hire someone to create new designs for the military in this film? Or was this another over-the-top attempt to re-create the past of the first trilogy? As for John Williams’ score . . . uh . . . not really impressed. Mind you, I had nothing against it. The score served the movie’s plot rather well. But there was nothing memorable or iconic about it.

I can see why many critics and moviegoers praised “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to the “magic” of the Original Trilogy. The movie not only utilized many technical aspects of that first trilogy, but also characterization and plot. To be brutally honest, I believe that this new movie had more or less plagiarized the first trilogy – especially “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Many might regard this as something to celebrate. I do not. I regard this “celebration” of the first trilogy as an artistic travesty and a sign of the lack of originality that now seemed to plague Hollywood. From an artistic point of view, I do not believe the Force was with this movie.

 

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R.I.P. Kenny Baker (1934-2016)

 

The Meaning of Colors

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THE MEANING OF COLORS

Several years ago, I came across an old website about Wiccan practices and meanings. I was surprised to discover that even before the advent of Wicca in the early 20th century, Pagan worshipers associated colors with certain meanings. And those meanings turned out to be quite different than many people would today assume.

Unlike today’s societies – especially in the Western world – white or light did not automatically mean something good, pure or noble. In fact, even the white wedding dress has nothing to do with the lack of sexual experience or innocence of the bride. The white wedding dress started out as a fashion trend . . . and remains one to this day. This fashion trend was created by Britain’s Queen Victoria when she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840. The young queen wanted to show that she was just a “simple” woman getting married, so she wore a white dress. She also wanted to incorporate some lace into her dress. Queen Mary of Scots wore a white wedding gown when she married Francis, Dauphin of France. Why? Because white was her favorite color. Before Victoria, women usually wore their best outfit for their wedding.

But there are the exceptions in which white is used as a negative form of symbolism in Western culture. One of the major villains in C.S. Lewis’ “THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA” literary series is Jadis, the White Witch of Narnia. There is nothing dark about this character’s physical appearance and wardrobe. She is all white. Albinism is also associated with the color white and negative traits in various forms of popular culture – including movies like “COLD MOUNTAIN”, “THE DA VINCI CODE”, “THE MATRIX RELOADED”; and in novels like “The Invisible Man” and “Blood Meridian”. However, these are rare forms of white used as negative symbols and stereotypes.

So, what was the color white associated with . . . at least in Pagan circles? Simple. The color was associated with psychic pursuits, psychology, dreams, astral projection, imagination and reincarnation. Apparently moral goodness or purity has nothing to do with the color white. At least in old Pagan terms. Which leads me to this question . . . why do today’s Western societies insist that white has anything to do with moral compass of any form.

Finally, we come to the color black. As many people should know, modern Western societies tend to associate black or anything dark as something evil or negative. There are probably other societies that do the same. Fictional characters associated with evil in many science-fiction/fantasy stories are usually associated with black. Sorcery that has a negative effect upon someone is either called “black magic” or “the Dark Arts” (at least with the “HARRY POTTER” and Buffyverse franchises. And in the “POTTER” series, wizards and witches who have given in to evil are labeled as “dark”. The “STAR WARS” franchise usually refer to evil as “the Dark Side of the Force”.

In the “ONCE UPON A TIME” television series, the Rumpelstiltskin character was also called “the Dark One”. Why? As it turned out, some entity called “the Darkness” had entered his body after he had stabbed the former holder of “the Dark One” title. Apparently, show runners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz could not find a name for the entity and called it “The Darkness” – automatically associating its black coloring with evil. Now it seems that the series’ main character, Emma Swan, has been given the name, due to the entity entering her body. The ironic thing is that Emma’s physical appearance – her skin, her eyes and hair – have become pale or white. Yet, she dresses in black and is called “the Dark One” or “the Dark Swan”. I am still shaking my head over this contrast. As for magic, sorcery, or even psychic abilities in many of these movies and television shows, it is clear that their creators/show runners associate dark or black with evil and light or white with goodness.

Ironically, long time Pagans associated the color black with the following – binding, protection, neutralization, karma, death manifestation and will power. Someone might say – “A ha! Death manifestation! This is a term can be regarded as something negative or evil.” But can it? Why is death constantly regarded as something negative? Because people are incapable of truly facing the idea of death. It is a natural part of our life span and yet, many people cannot accept it. And because of this negative attitude toward death, society associates death with . . . you guess it . . . the color black. Apparently the Pagans believed differently and did not associate black with anything evil or negative. I was surprised to discover that Chinese culture regard black as a symbol of water, one of the five fundamental elements believed to compose all things. The Chinese also associated black with winter, cold, and the direction North, usually symbolized by a black tortoise. Black is also associated with disorder – including the positive disorder which leads to change and new life.

I have one last statement to make. I have noticed a growing trend on Internet message boards and forums for television shows and movies that deal with science-fiction and fantasy. This trend features a tendency by many of these fans to automatically associate white/light with goodness and black/dark with evil. The fans on these message boards no longer use the words “good” and “evil” anymore. Honestly. I am deadly serious. These fans either use the words light (lightness) or white; or . . . dark (darkness) or black. Why? And why do the creators of these television shows and movie franchises resort to the same behavior? I have to wonder. By associating anything black or dark with evil, are they associating anything or anyone with dark or black skin with evil? I suspect that many would say “of course not”. Considering the notorious reputation of science-fiction/fantasy fans (or geeks) of being racist, I have to wonder.

 

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The Celebration of Mediocrity and Unoriginality in “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

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“THE CELEBRATION OF MEDIOCRITY AND UNORIGINALITY IN “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

Look … I liked the new “STAR WARS” movie, “THE FORCE AWAKENS”.  I honestly do.  Heck, I feel it is better than J.J. Abrams’ two “STAR TREK” films.  But I am astounded that this film has garnered so much acclaim.  It has won the AFI Award for Best Picture.  It has been nominated by the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture.

“THE FORCE AWAKENS”???  Really?  It did not take long for certain fans to point out that the movie’s plot bore a strong resemblance to the first “STAR WARS” movie, “A NEW HOPE”.  In fact, I am beginning to suspect that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had more or less plagiarized the 1977 film, along with aspects from other movies in the franchise.  Worse, it has some plot holes that Abrams has managed to ineffectively explain to the media.  In other words, his explanations seemed like shit in the wind and the plot holes remained obvious.

Then I found myself thinking about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series.  I will not deny that the movie had some flaws.  Just about every movie I have seen throughout my life had some flaws.  But instead of attempting a carbon copy of the television series, Ritchie put his own, original spin of the show for his movie.  And personally, I had left the movie theater feeling impressed.  And entertained.  It is not that Ritchie had created a perfect movie.  But he did managed to create an original one, based upon an old source.  Now that was impressive.

But instead of having his movie appreciated, a good deal of the public stayed away in droves.  Warner Brothers barely publicized the film.  Worse, the studio released in August, the summer movie season’s graveyard.  And for those who did see the movie, the complained that it was not like the television show.  Ritchie had made changes for his film.  In other words, Ritchie was criticized for being original with a movie based upon an old television series.

This is incredibly pathetic.  One director is criticized giving an original spin to his movie adaptation.  Another director is hailed as the savior of a movie franchise for committing outright plagiarism.  This is what Western culture has devolved into, ladies and gentlemen.  We now live in a world in which the only movies that are box office hits are those that form part of a franchise.  We live in a society in which glossy and mediocre shows like “DOWNTON ABBEY” are celebrated.  We live in a world in which a crowd pleasing, yet standard movie biopic like “THE KING’S SPEECH”can receive more acclaim than an original film like “INCEPTION”.

In regard to culture or even pop culture, this society is rushing toward conformity, familiarity and mediocrity.  God help us.

 

“BABYLON 5” RETROSPECT: (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”

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“BABYLON 5” RETROSPECT: (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”

About eighteen months ago, I had posted a list of my favorite Season Two episodes from the 1993-1998 syndicate series,“BABYLON 5”. And one of those episodes happened to be (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”. For the sake of sentiment, I recently re-watched the episode to see if my views on it had changed.

The series’ second season – titled “The Coming of Shadows” – introduced a new character to the “BABYLON 5” universe. Captain John J. Sheridan first appeared in the season’s premiere episode, (2.01) “Points of Departure” to replace Babylon 5’s first commanding officer, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair. Like the latter, Captain Sheridan was a veteran of Earth Alliance’s last major conflict, the Earth-Minbari War, which was fought over a decade before the series’ setting. Sheridan was the only Earth military commander who scored a major victory over the Minbari, who possessed superior forces and weapons. Sheridan was also a married man, who became a widower following the death of his wife, Anna Sheridan. Two years earlier, Anna was killed while serving as a member of a planetary expedition aboard a ship called the Icarus for a mission to explore an obscure planet called Z’ha’dum.

The episode (2.02) “Revelations” dealt with Sheridan allegedly coming to terms with Anna’s death. But the events of “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” proved otherwise. The story began with the arrival of a Human named Mr. Morden to Babylon 5. Following his first appearance in the Season One episode, (1.13) “Signs and Portents”, Mr. Morden managed to form an alliance with Ambassador Londo Mollari of Centauri Prime. Using his connections with an ancient and powerful race of aliens known as “the Shadows” – whose homeworld happened to be Z’ha’dum, Morden helped the Centauri deal with its main enemy, the Narns. During Morden’s latest visit to Babylon 5, Security Chief Michael Garibaldi unintentionally identifies him as a regular visitor to the station during a private conversation with Sheridan. When the captain realizes that Morden had been a member of the Icarus expedition that led to Anna’s death, he has the man arrested and placed in a holding cell. Sheridan becomes obsessed with learning about the details of Anna’s fate; and also the details behind Morden’s survival and failure to inform Earth Alliance. This obsession leads the good captain to break security rules, alienate members of command staff and attract the attention of the Centauri, Minbar and Vorlon ambassadors.

During my latest viewing of “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”, I tried to pinpoint what I did not like about it. I managed to find one aspect that struck me as unappealing. Sheridan’s manipulation of resident telepath Talia Winters’ only meeting with Morden struck me as rather forced. David J. Eagle’s direction and Christopher Franke’s score tried a little too hard in making this scene dramatic by amping up the suspense. The scene’s build up struck me as over-the-top that it almost overshadowed the pay-off of Talia and Morden’s actual meeting. It is a flaw I have spotted in other “BABYLON 5”episodes – even in some of its best.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” may not have be perfect, but I believe it might be one of the best episodes of Season Two . . . and in the entire season. The ironic thing is that hardly any action occurred in this episode, aside from a well deserved slap that Sheridan received from Talia. And yet, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum not only helped drive the series’ main narrative forward, it also foreshadowed two major story arcs in future episodes – Sheridan’s conflict with the Shadows and Garabaldi’s role as Babylon 5’s security chief. It also foreshadowed a minor plot – namely Morden’s future fate. These story lines are major examples of series creator J. Michael Straczynski’s use of foreshadow in his writing. And as far as I am concerned, no one else did it better other than George Lucas for his “STAR WARS” movie franchise.

However, I believe the best thing about “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” was the development of the John Sheridan character. Many fans had not been pleased when Bruce Boxleitner replaced the late Michael O’Hare, who portrayed Jeffrey Sinclair, as the series’ new leading man. They accused the Sheridan character of being lightweight and dubbed him with the nickname of “Captain Smiley”. Personally, I never had any problems with Sheridan before this episode. But this is the first time the series ever focused upon the negative aspects of Sheridan’s character. And I found it very interesting. “Revelations” had revealed that Sheridan had yet to recover from his wife’s death. “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” revealed that Sheridan’s inability to recover from his grief brought out the worst of him – his temper, his penchant for brooding, his stubborness, his talent for manipulation and most importantly, his ruthlessness. Sheridan’s reputation as “Captain Smiley” disappeared after this episode. For good.

The episode also featured a minor story line regarding the arrival of an Earth Alliance official named Pierce Macabee. The latter represented Earth Alliance’s Ministry of Peace, which served as a security and propaganda machine for President Morgan Clark’s administration. Macabee arrived at Babylon 5 to recruit the station’s crew into Earth Alliance’s new paramilitary organization, Nightwatch. These members were instructed to uncover and report on what they perceived to be “subversive” activities – namely open criticism and defiance of Clark’s Administration. This story line was introduced in such a subtle manner that it almost seemed like afterthought. Almost. It allowed audiences to hear Macabee’s speech about Nightwatch and watch him recruit some of the station’s crew – including Zack Allen, who served with Babylon 5’s security force under Garibaldi. Although Zack joined Nightwatch simply to earn extra credits, his decision will prove to have a major impact upon the series’ main narrative, early in Season Three. The Nightwatch story arc proved to be another example of Straczynski’s talent for using a minor story line as foreshadow. Very few writers and producers seemed capable of using this narrative device with any strong effect. Pity.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” also featured some first-rate performances. Regular cast members such as Claudia Christian, Mira Furlan, Jerry Doyle and Richard Biggs gave strong supportive performances. Although I was critical of the scene featuring Talia Winters’ encounter with Mr. Morden, I certainly had no problems with Andrea Thompson’s performance. The actress did an excellent job in conveying Talia’s horror and later, outrage over Sheridan’s actions. Jeff Conway really made the role of Zack Allen his own in this particular episode. I have always believed that one aspect that made a performer a first-rate screen actor or actress, is his or her ability to react to other characters. Conway was very effective in utilizing this acting tool in his scenes with Boxleitner and Doyle. And his performances in scenes with certain supporting characters struck me as effective and subtle at the same time. Especially in one scene in which Zack arrested Mr. Morden. I also have to commend Alex Hyde-White for his guest-starring turn as Nightwatch recruiter, Pierce Macabee. He did a superb job in projecting the Ministry of Peace’s menace with such subtle charm.

Ed Wasser, who made such an impression as the quiet, yet menacing agent for the Shadows – Mr. Morden – in previous episodes, continued his excellent work in this episode. However, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” also featured other dimensions to Morden’s personality – fear, surprise and impatience – that Wasser conveyed with great skill. I especially enjoyed his work with both Stephen Furst and leading man Bruce Boxleitner. I have always been a fan of Furst since I first saw him in the 1978 comedy, “ANIMAL HOUSE”. His time on NBC’s “ST. ELSEWHERE” and “BABYLON 5” revealed his talent for dramatic acting. Furst effectively combined his skills for both drama and comedy in one particular in which Centauri Ambassador Aide Vir openly expressed his dislike for Morden. It is one of my favorite moments from the series.

Although the “Captain Smiley” nickname for the John Sheridan character disappeared after “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”first aired on television, Bruce Boxleitner’s reputation as an actor suddenly gained momentum among the series’ fans. I do not understand why. I have seen Boxleitner portray the darker aspects in previous roles very effectively. But I must say that I believe his performance in this episode may end up being regarded as one of his best. Boxleitner was superb as a ruthless Sheridan, obsessed with not only learning the truth about his wife’s death, but also Morden’s survival and revenge. It is a pity that the Emmys rarely acknowledge excellent acting or writing in the Science-Fiction/Fantasy genre.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” may not be my favorite Season Two episode from “BABYLON 5”. But it is definitely my second favorite. And it is certainly one of my favorite episodes of the series. J. Michael Straczynski wrote an excellent episode about the consequences of grief for the series’ main character. Thanks to fine writing, first-rate direction and excellent performances from a talented cast – especially series lead Bruce Boxleitner.