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Saturday, December 30, 2017 03:21 PM
On the Viewer - Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
 by Fëanor

I don't know if you guys heard, but a new Star Wars movie came out recently. Rian Johnson is the director this time. I was excited to hear he'd be in charge, as I've enjoyed his work on Brick and Looper. There's some controversy over his film, however - critics love it, but many fans are angry about what he's done to their beloved Star Wars.

The odd thing is, in a way, the film itself addresses these criticisms. It's a Star Wars film that's at least in part about Star Wars - about legends and stories, and the difficulty of telling them well: of knowing what to keep of what's come before, and what to change. It's about how we deal with the past, how we lead, how we fight our battles. It's about finding the balance we need to make our way through life. It's also got space battles, silly jokes, lightsaber fights, blue milk, rock lifting, and cute little bird-things called porgs. It's long, and perhaps it doesn't quite succeed at striking the balance it seeks between the new and the old, but it's still a pretty great Star Wars movie.

Be wary! From here on out, there be spoilers.

We open with one of those big Star Wars space battles - and a very familiar one, too. The Resistance, the location of its base having been revealed to the First Order at the end of the last movie, is evacuating, and the First Order is trying to blow its ships to pieces before they can escape. It's the start of a chase that will last basically throughout the whole rest of the movie.

In a tone-setting scene with some goofy comedy of a type we're not entirely used to seeing in Star Wars, hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) essentially prank calls General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) before singlehandedly wiping out the main cannons of a First Order dreadnought cruiser (the first appearance, I believe, of such a ship in a Star Wars movie, though it's not terribly different from the ridiculously massive, heavily armed, triangular spaceships we're used to seeing Star Wars bad guys tool around in). General Leia (the irreplaceable Carrie Fisher) is satisfied that this stunt will buy the fleet the time it needs to escape, but Poe wants more: he sees a chance to destroy the dreadnought completely, and he refuses to give up that chance. In an act of defiance that will setup his character arc for the film, as well as establish the continuing tension between him and the Resistance leadership, he demands, despite orders from Leia to the contrary, that his fellow pilots make a bombing run against the dreadnought.

We're used to seeing anonymous pilots explode in fireballs left and right in Star Wars space battles, but in this film, those deaths feel more real and more traumatic than usual. In part this is due to great performances, especially from Fisher. It's also due to the extraordinary number of heroic self-sacrifices in this movie, and the drama inherent in such acts. The gunner who sacrifices herself to make the bombing run a success is Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo), and her act will have a strong effect on her sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), whom we'll meet later and learn a lot more about.

Though the bombing run is a success, the cost is high, and when Poe gets back, Leia rewards him with a slap in the face and a demotion from Commander to Captain. He protests that there were many heroes on that bombing run, and Leia replies, "Dead heroes. No leaders." As the story goes on, we realize she is grooming Poe for leadership, and is disappointed that he can't, as she says, "get your head out of your cockpit." The rest of Dameron's arc is him learning, slowly and painfully, the balance needed to be a true leader: knowing when it's time to retreat from the battlefield today so you can fight again tomorrow. Knowing when not to go in with all guns blazing. Knowing when to trust that your own superiors know what they're doing. Poe is rather annoying in this film actually, not least because he is a man constantly explaining to women in authority what it is he thinks they should do, with the implied assumption that they aren't capable of figuring it out on their own. It's never been a good look, but is particularly grating in 2017. In one scene Poe even tells the pilots of an escape craft to fly as fast as they can away from the people shooting at them, as if they weren't already obviously doing that. Thanks for your input, Captain Mansplainer! Eventually he gets so annoying Leia has to wake herself up out of a coma, drag herself off her sick bed, track him down, and stun him with a pistol to get him to stop. It's actually kind of a satisfying moment.

Before Poe gets that slap in the face, he's reunited with his bromantic partner Finn (John Boyega). Finn was, you'll remember, unconscious at the end of the last film, recovering from injuries sustained in his duel with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In a deliberately silly scene, he awakens suddenly in the middle of the space battle and goes wandering through the halls of the cruiser, naked except for a bag that's leaking (presumably healing) fluids. When Poe finds him, Finn's first question is, "Where's Rey?" so naturally we then cut to Rey (Daisy Ridley) right where we left her, handing that lightsaber to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). This time the scene continues, with that same unexpected lack of solemnity the film often has for its subject matter, with Luke taking the saber, tossing it casually over his shoulder, and stalking off wordlessly.

Thus begins a sequence familiar to any fan of martial arts films: the eager and irrepressible student pleading with the reluctant old master again and again to teach her, and enduring any and all hardships in her quest for knowledge, while the master steadfastly refuses her, until finally he's worn down by her persistence and agrees to teach her. It doesn't go exactly the way it usually goes in martial arts movies, but that's to be expected.

Luke, we learn, has come to this island - home to the first Jedi temple - to die. After his failure with Ben Solo and the destruction of his school, Luke has sentenced himself - and the Jedi order itself - to a slow and lingering execution. He has closed himself off from the Force and - as Rey discovers after following him about the island for a day or so - now spends his time fishing with a ridiculously long spear, milking a weird alien creature (in a scene that's funny in a really uncomfortable way), and brooding, not only on his own personal failures, but also on the failures of the Jedi as a whole. All of Luke's visitors try to convince him to return and help them defeat the First Order: first Rey, then Chewie, and finally even R2, who, in a deeply nostalgic and emotionally powerful scene, replays the original holographic message from Leia that first pulled Luke out of the desert backwater of Tatooine and out into the larger world. But Luke only refuses over and over, insisting that he cannot and will not help. He does finally agree to give Rey three lessons in the ways of the Jedi, but only so he can also explain why the Jedi must end.

He tells Rey that the Force is all about balance - the balance between extremes of life and death, of light and darkness. But he himself has become utterly unbalanced, wallowing in the past and dwelling on his failures, shutting himself off from all his friends and loved ones. He claims he wants the Jedi dead, but he's chosen their first temple as his place of banishment, and he reverently protects the resting place of the original Jedi texts. In a fit of pique, he threatens to destroy those texts, but cannot bring himself to actually do it. Luckily, an old friend appears and does the job for him. It's great to see Yoda again, taking on the guise of the silly, wise, prankish oldster we remember from our first meeting with him on Dagobah. He returns now to teach Luke yet another important lesson: that although there are things in the past worth keeping, dwelling on the past to the expense of the present and the future is foolish and destructive. And when we teach, we must pass on not only our strengths, but also - and in fact most importantly - our failures, so our students may learn not to make the same ones, and may eventually surpass us. We must find a balance, in other words, between the new and the old, between weakness and strength.

The thematic opposite of Luke in the film is Kylo Ren, or Ben Solo. When we see him first in this movie, his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (professional motion-capture-suit-wearer Andy Serkis), is supremely unimpressed with his student's performance in the previous film, and calls him "a child in a mask." Shamed, and still twisted and torn by his recent patricide, Ren destroys his mask and jumps into his starfighter with his face uncovered, to take his anger out on the Resistance fleet. But when he senses his mother in his crosshairs - and she in turn senses him - he finds he cannot pull the trigger. Unfortunately, the TIE pilots to either side of him have no such compunctions. They obliterate the bridge of the main Resistance cruiser, killing most of the leadership of the Resistance (including Admiral Ackbar, alas), and sending Leia spiraling out into space. Apparently this threat to her life triggers some innate, heretofore unknown Force ability that allows her to fly herself to safety. It's kind of a goofy visual, but also pretty neat, and makes me wish we could have seen more of Leia as a Jedi.

Although Leia survives, she's left in a coma, so the command of the Resistance falls to Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, in a rather disappointingly small role - although she does have great hair). Poe seems disappointed he's been passed over, and less than impressed with Holdo as a person, so it's not surprising that the two of them get off on the wrong foot from the very start. Poe pulls his old mansplaining act, giving Holdo plenty of unsolicited advice, demanding to know her plan, and even pretending to a higher rank than he actually has. Holdo's reaction is understandably negative, and my sympathy is almost entirely with her, although it is frustrating that she keeps secret from him her plan for saving the Resistance fleet. Why not tell Poe and the other pilots what she's doing, instead of making it appear that she's sitting idly by and allowing the fleet to be slowly destroyed? It seems to be a secret kept merely to create drama later on; a fed-up Poe even goes so far as to lead a mutiny - for which, I'd like to point out, he is never punished. Leia even seems to promote him before the end, ceding command to him during the final escape.

But we were talking about Kylo Ren. Internally, he's clearly still in turmoil, but outwardly he is determined to gain back Snoke's regard and to become the monster Rey accuses him of being. Rey and Ren seem to develop a mysterious connection that allows them to see and speak to each other even across the vast distances that separate them. So while Luke teaches Rey about the Light and pleads with her to reject the Darkness, Ren is there, too, to tempt her to the other side. Beneath the hatred there's definitely an attraction of some sort between Rey and Ren (as many shippers have noticed). At one point Rey psychically intrudes on Ren while he's shirtless and, in another unexpectedly funny moment, asks him if he could find anything to put on.

Ren is Luke's opposite in more ways than one. While Luke is trapped in the past, Ren wants only to charge forward into the future, forgetting the past entirely, killing and leaving behind all parents and teachers and leaders, to take the reins of control for himself and forge his own destiny. And he wants to take Rey with him.

And so Rey finds herself caught between Luke and Ren, desperately seeking balance and a place for herself in the world. She is still obsessed with her own past, so desperate to know the identity of her parents she will even dive into the domain of the Dark Side when it teases her with the possibility of that revelation. But she finds its promise empty and hollow. And she looks also to the future, just as desperate to find help to save the Resistance and destroy the First Order. Who will be the one to guide and help her - Luke Skywalker or Ben Solo? And which one of them is telling the truth about the night Luke's school was destroyed? Luke says Ben turned on him, and Ben says the opposite. But as with all other things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

As if this wasn't enough story, the movie follows yet another set of characters on their own adventure of discovery. Finn, after waking up to find Rey gone and the fleet in a desperate and seemingly hopeless retreat from the First Order, falls back on his old habit of running away from his problems, and tries to sneak off in an escape pod. He's caught in the act by maintenance worker Rose Tico, who feels doubly betrayed by his cowardice and treachery, given her sister's recent sacrifice, and that she looked up to Finn as a hero of the Resistance. In his attempt to convince her of the uselessness of remaining with the fleet, he reveals that the First Order has somehow found a way to track ships through hyperspace. But then the two of them, with their combined technical knowledge, manage to work up a theory, not only of how the tracking works, but of how it might be defeated and the fleet successfully escape. They come to Poe with their plan and Poe, still convinced he knows better than any of the women actually in charge, decides to secretly move forward with the idea without telling anybody. The problem is, they need a hacker to do the job right. He asks Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) for help, but she's busy with a "labor dispute" which involves a lot of shooting and flying around, so she recommends somebody else, an expert that Finn and Rose (with the help of Poe's droid, BB-8) will have to seek out in the casinos of Canto Bight.

Finn is at first dazzled by the riches and charm of Canto Bight, but Rose tells him to look closer. The splendor and beauty of the planet are built on the backs of a poorly treated, slave-like underclass, and the upperclass who enjoy the casinos make their money through arms dealing and war profiteering - selling death and destruction. It's a side of the Star Wars universe we rarely see.

Unable to connect with the hacker Maz recommended, Rose and Finn find themselves forced to accept the help of the shady thief DJ (Benicio del Toro). DJ has an interesting perspective on things. He points out to Finn that those arms dealers don't just sell to the "bad guys" - they sell to both the First Order and the Resistance. It's all a machine, he says, and his advice is not to pick one side or the other, but to simply not join at all - to be only on your own side. Finn and Rose will learn to their cost that DJ follows his own advice. He's found a middle way that works for him, but is devoid of morality, honor, and compassion. I find DJ's character pretty fascinating (despite his slightly irritating speech impediment), and I've always loved Benicio del Toro's acting, so I'm hopeful he will return in the next film in some capacity.

Before escaping back to the Resistance with Rose and BB-8, Finn gets to have it out finally with his old tormentor Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie, who we will, to my disappointment, apparently never get to actually see act outside of her armor in the movies, although we do get a glimpse of one of her eyes in this film - before she plummets into a fireball). Cornered in an old Rebel base and faced once again with the prospect of destruction at the hands of a pseudo-Death Star (this time a battering ram cannon), the Resistance looks at last defeated. But Finn refuses to run or to give up anymore, and tells the others it's time for a last ditch attack. So the few Resistance fighters that are left jump in some crummy old speeders (which are in such bad shape Poe literally puts his foot through the bottom of his) and charge a very intimidating First Order army.

It feels like one battle too many in a very long movie full of battles, and, what with the walkers and all, it also looks a little too much like the Battle of Hoth (even if one rather odd Resistance fighter helpfully points out, after tasting it, that the white stuff on the ground is not snow, but salt), but here we go again!

At this point, Poe has finally learned his lesson, and when he sees the tide turning against him and his fellow pilots, he orders a retreat, rather than pushing forward with another desperate suicidal attack. But Finn has not learned that lesson yet. He's not only found the courage not to run away, he's swung to the other extreme. He ignores all orders to retreat and aims himself right down the cannon's throat, determined not to let the bad guys win. But Rose has lost too much and flies in from the side at the last minute, knocking him out of the way of certain death. She tells him they'll win, not by destroying what they hate, but by protecting what they love. Then, just to make clear what it is she means, she kisses him.

So not only has Finn's love life just gotten a lot more complicated, he's also learned the same lesson our other heroes have: that life is about balance.

Rey, unable to convince Luke to come back with her, decides her last hope lies in turning Ben to the Light, and in the hopes of doing that, leaves Luke behind and surrenders herself to Ben Solo. He in turn gives her over to Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke rips the secret of Luke's location out of Rey and is confident he and his student will now at last see an end to the Resistance and the Jedi, beginning with Rey. He sets a last test for Ren: kill the girl.

Of course, Snoke has also just revealed that he manipulated both Ren and Rey to get to this moment, and the tormented Ren is thoroughly done with treacherous teachers. In a spectacular battle scene, he and Rey make an end of Snoke and all of his laser-weapon-wielding personal guard. It seems for a moment then that Ren will in fact turn and join Rey, but instead he asks her to join him in destroying everything - Resistance, First Order, Jedi - and taking over the galaxy together, just the two of them. But that's not a path she can walk. After a satisfyingly symbolic fight over Luke and Vader's old lightsaber, which ends with them splitting the weapon in half, Rey leaves Ren to rush back to Finn and the Resistance.

During this sequence, Ren answers a question that has been tormenting Rey - and many a Star Wars fan - for a long time: who are Rey's parents? He reveals what she's always secretly known: that they were actually nobody at all - just junk traders - and that they're never coming back for her. It's devastating, but also freeing. She can leave that part of her past behind. And I for one am deeply relieved. I like this revelation very much, especially insofar as it is not at all like the parenting revelations in previous Star Wars movies. Thank God Rey is not a Skywalker! We've had enough of the stories of Skywalkers and their surprise progeny. It's time to move on.

It's a little surprising and even disappointing (despite the thrilling nature of the death scene) to see the big bad, Emperor-type guy go down in the middle film of the trilogy, especially when his character and backstory still remain such a mystery. But perhaps this is setting up Ren to be the big villain in the final movie, and/or we'll learn more about Snoke in flashbacks.

I already enjoyed the bitchy, contentious relationship between General Hux and Kylo Ren in Force Awakens, and in this movie it gets even more entertaining. They've never agreed which one of them is really in charge, and when Hux finds Ren unconscious on the floor of Snoke's throne room, with Snoke's dismembered corpse lying nearby, he reaches for his pistol, hoping to decide things once and for all. When Ren wakes up, Hux puts the gun away again. Then Ren starts shouting orders. Hux objects, but a Force choke from Ren quickly changes his mind. I look forward to more of their squabbling in the next movie. Long live the Supreme Leader!

As Rey returns to her Resistance friends, she shows that she's learned enough about Ren to know how to push his buttons. Rey and Chewie fly the Millenium Falcon down into the middle of the final battle and draw off most of the First Order fighters, giving the Resistance a chance to attack (even if ultimately that attack fails). Ren just cannot resist sending his fighters after his father's old home. He needs to kill all the history embodied by that ship.

Of course, Luke also knows how to push Ren's buttons. In the final sequence of the film, Skywalker finally does come back into the world to save the Resistance - in a way. We're given a number of clues that he's not entirely what he seems. His face is younger than we've seen it recently - it looks more like the way it did the last time Ren saw him, the fateful night the school was destroyed. And the lightsaber Luke carries and duels Ren with is, impossibly, the blue-bladed one Ren and Rey have just destroyed, and not the green-bladed one Luke himself constructed and has wielded for years.

What Luke has decided to do is to give the world back the legend of Luke Skywalker, because he has realized it has its uses after all. It can give hope to the downtrodden, and maybe it can even "light the spark that will burn down the First Order." It can also give the Resistance time to escape out the backdoor of that old Rebel base - as well as royally piss off Kylo Ren. So not Luke himself, but a Force projection of Luke steps out and faces down not just Kylo Ren, but the entire First Order. When the enraged Kylo orders all guns to fire at his old master, the untouchable Luke steps out of the smoke and brushes dust off his shoulder in one of the more mythically bad-ass Star Wars moments.

Luke has found his balance, his middle way. When Ren insists that soon the Resistance and the Jedi will all be dead, Luke can confidently state that no, he's wrong. The Resistance will go on, and Luke will not be the last Jedi. Rey carries with her both Luke's strengths, and the knowledge of his failures, and armed with those, she and the Resistance have hope. Plus she can lift rocks like a bad-ass.

The Force-projected duel against Ren costs Luke more than he has to give, and he vanishes shortly after, becoming one with the Force. In the final scene, the little stable boys on Canto Bight are telling Luke Skywalker's story, reenacting, with their own homemade action figures, his mythical standoff with the First Order. Interrupted in this play by his master and tormentor, one of the boys steps out into the night and picks up a broom (or does the broom jump toward his hand, as if called there by some force?) and stares up into the starry sky, full of hope and wonder.

It's a beautiful scene, and I see it as Rian Johnson's love letter to the story of Star Wars itself - the legend of a farm boy who flies out into the stars and discovers he's much stronger than he ever knew; that maybe his actions can help save the galaxy from evil. It's a story that can give hope to people even during the worst of times.

The new trilogy so far has indeed been making some small progress in killing the past. We lost Han in Force Awakens, and now Luke (and Admiral Ackbar) in Last Jedi. And with Carrie Fisher gone, we will have to lose Leia, as well - a loss that will presumably have to be explained in the next movie, as Johnson decided to let her performance stand as it was in this film. That's all three of the classic trilogy's main heroes gone. The baton must now be passed to the new heroes - Rey and Finn and Poe and Rose and maybe even Ben/Kylo - and I feel confident they will carry it well.

Before his final duel with Ren, Luke has a quick scene with Leia, where he gets to apologize for failing her and her son (it's about time!), and to give her a little hope. In the film, Luke is referring to Han when he says, "No one's ever really gone," but the fact that it's also Mark Hamill talking to Carrie Fisher gives the scene even more power than it would otherwise have had. Our Princess and our General, she will indeed never really be gone. She lives on in these great films, for one.

Johnson sought balance in the way he told his Star Wars story - taking what was best from the old films, but setting aside their mistakes and learning from them - focusing the story more on POC and women, for one thing. There were maybe a few more story elements taken from the old films than was totally necessary, but all in all, I think he struck a pretty fine balance, and told a great story - a Star Wars story. It will not be the last story told about Jedi - not by a long shot. And thank God for that.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Tuesday, January 10, 2017 08:14 PM
(Last updated on Tuesday, January 10, 2017 08:17 PM)
Letter to Trump
 by Fëanor

This is a letter I wrote and mailed to Donald Trump last week. I... probably shouldn't have done it. I certainly hesitated before dropping it in the mailbox. I was probably already on a watchlist somewhere, and I definitely am now. But I figure, as a white man, I should use my privilege, make myself a target, stand in front of the more vulnerable, and yell, "Come get me!" And that's basically what this letter does. Hoo boy.



January 6th, 2017


President-Elect Donald J. Trump
C/O The Trump Organization
725 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10022

Dear Mr. Trump,

Greetings. My name is Jim Genzano. I'm a liberal, a husband, and a father. I also voted for Hillary Clinton for President – as did a majority of my fellow Americans, I'm happy to remind you. I'm writing today what I believe will be the first of many letters, to you and to my other elected representatives.

Although I've paid attention to politics on and off for many years, and have voted in the major elections since I've had that right, I've recently become far more politically active than I've ever been before – calling my representatives, joining online action groups, and donating money to various candidates and causes. Perhaps you can guess the reason: your election to the office of President of the United States.

I was horrified and disgusted by your campaign, and certain you could not win. How could someone so obviously inexperienced and unprepared for the job; so blustering and unprofessional; so xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, regressive, and racist – a con-man, a bully, a fascist, and a serial sexual harasser – possibly be chosen to follow the first African-American President, who has been such a beacon of hope and progress?

But, thanks to the racists, the short-sighted, the uneducated, Vladimir Putin, and James Comey, you were elected. And here we are. And I'm not quite over my horror and disappointment yet. But I am determined to fight.

Let's talk about your cabinet picks. Each one has been more horrific than the last.

Rex Tillerson lacks any of the necessary experience to be Secretary of State. He has suspiciously close ties with Vladimir Putin, the man our intelligence agencies tell us was directly involved with hacking the DNC and helping elect you. As CEO of a fossil fuel company, he can hardly be expected to be a champion in the fight against climate change and fossil fuel use, which is a cause that's very important to me, and to all reasonable humans. We will fight to keep him from becoming Secretary of State.

Jeff Sessions is an infamous xenophobe and racist, fighting amnesty and immigration at every turn. He's pro-war and anti-environment. He voted against banning torture of prisoners. Many civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, and more than 1100 law school professors, have protested his nomination. We will fight to keep him from becoming Attorney General.

Tom Price is anti-choice and pro-gun. He believes insurers should not be required to cover pre-existing conditions, or provide access to birth control. He also wants to cut Medicare, and is a member of the fraudulent group the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. He's a terrible choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services. We will fight his appointment.

Betsy DeVos wants to destroy public education. She has already made a disaster of it in Michigan. And you want to put her in charge of it at the federal level. We will fight to keep that from happening.

Ben Carson has no experience in federal government and shouldn't hold any position in it – as he himself has admitted. We will fight his appointment.

Do you plan to install a reactionary Justice on the Supreme Court? We will fight you.

Will you seek to take away women's rights, including the right to choose? We will fight you. We cannot and will not allow the overturn of Row v. Wade.

Your Republican friends have already begun their latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Such an act would leave millions of Americans without healthcare, and condemn many to death. There's no question that the American healthcare system needs repair, but dismantling the ACA with no backup plan in place is obviously not the answer. We will fight to protect the ACA.

Your friend Paul Ryan plans to dismantle Medicare, but it should be protected and expanded. We will fight him.

The GOP seeks to defund the United Nations, while you sit on Twitter fomenting war and supporting nuclear proliferation. But the world needs empathy, calm and organized discussion, and peace – not more posturing, antagonism, and weaponry. We will fight for disarmament and peace.

You have said that you plan to take away the rights of American citizens based on their race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. This is unethical, immoral, and un-American. We cannot deport millions of Americans, or tell them their love is illegal, or that they cannot use the bathroom they feel comfortable in. We will fight for an America for all.

Black Lives Matter. Police corruption, militarization, and abuse of power must end. We will fight any attempt to install white supremacy in the American government.

The NRA and gun lobbies do not need to gain even more power than they already have. Gun violence is an epidemic and only reasonable gun control legislation can rein it in. More guns will never lead to fewer shootings. We will not allow this.

Do you plan to give tax cuts to your cadre of billionaires and leave poor Americans footing the bill? This is unacceptable. It's the rich who must begin to pay their fair share. Poverty and income inequality must end. We will fight for that end.

You have expressed skepticism about climate change. But it is a scientific fact, and humans are responsible. We are also responsible for fighting it. We must protect our environment, end fracking, stop the building of pipelines through protected land, bolster environmental regulation, invest in renewable energy, and move away from fossil fuels. You will not be allowed to undo the progress we have made on this front. This is not about money or politics – this is about the future of humanity on this planet.

I thank you for taking the time to read this. And know that I have asked my representatives to fight your agenda every step of the way, and that I will be doing the same in my own small way. I know that you may succeed in much of what you plan to do. But we will not make it easy for you. We will obstruct you every way we can. Assuming you are not impeached and removed from office before your term is over, I suppose we must resign ourselves to four years of you as President. But don't expect to hold the title a single instant longer than that. Given a second chance, I am convinced that the American people will reject you, as they should have in the first place.

And meanwhile, we will fight you; I will fight you. That's my promise.

Sincerely,


Jim Genzano
Tagged (?): Politics (Not)
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Friday, December 16, 2016 07:12 PM
(Last updated on Tuesday, December 20, 2016 10:24 AM)
On the Viewer - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
 by Fëanor

TL;DR - Despite some weird choices and missing details, this is a great movie.

The first of the standalone, spin-off, non-"Episode" Star Wars movies has been released! Rogue One sits in a territory of the timeline that is already being effectively mined by the animated series Star Wars Rebels: the period between Episode III and Episode IV, when the Empire is spreading and gaining power, and the Rebellion is still a scrappy little thing seeking its first big success. It focuses specifically on the small team of misfits that pull together against all odds to steal the plans to the first Death Star. In fact, (spoiler?) the movie takes us right up to the opening second of A New Hope, and features various cameos from that film's cast of characters - sometimes even going so far as to include creepy computer-generated recreations of the actors, or actual footage from the movie.

One of the more interesting things about Rogue One is that it gives us a different perspective on the Rebellion than we're used to. The original trilogy of Star Wars films is fairly black and white: the Rebels and the Jedi are the Good Guys, and the Imperials and the Sith are the Bad Guys. Sure, there are Han and Lando, who do questionable things, but they're the exceptions that prove the rule - a couple of rough and tumble dudes who are ultimately transformed and choose to join the Rebellion when they see it's the right thing to do. The Alliance itself is presented as a kind of monolith - a group of good people united to do good.

Things get a bit more complex in the prequels, as these films are the story of good things going bad - a Republic rotting from the inside and becoming an Empire (sounds familiar!), and a great Jedi falling and becoming twisted into a Sith Lord. But still, there's not a lot of gray area; Anakin and the Republic are good, and then a switch is flipped and they are bad.

What Rogue One gives us is an Alliance that isn't as allied, or as good and pure, as what we've seen in the past. These Rebels are fractious, with their own internal politics, intrigues, and warring factions. One of the first Rebels we meet, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) does very questionable things in service of the Alliance. So questionable that he himself cannot look back at them, and must always move forward, trusting that the end will justify the means (which is a pretty morally and ethically shaky stance for a Star Wars hero). Later, at a Rebel council, we see how at odds the various heads of the movement are, and how easily the whole resistance could have fallen apart in despair and hopelessness right at its beginnings. But hope is what the film is all about: hope that we can see our loved ones again, hope that we can redeem ourselves, hope that we can make a difference, hope that we can somehow stop the darkness, no matter the cost. The "New Hope" from the title of Episode IV starts here - is born here, with the selfless and desperate actions of a group of people thrown together by fate (or the Force?) who seek only to stop the rise of the horrible, destructive, all-encompassing power of the Empire and its terrible new weapon, the Death Star.

Another interesting new perspective that Rogue One gives us is a view of the Star Wars universe through the lens of the ordinary people in it, instead of through the lens of a heroic prophesied Jedi. In fact, for the first time, this is a Star Wars story that has no Jedi in it at all. Donnie Yen's blind mystic warrior, Chirrut Îmwe, appears to be at least Force-sensitive, but as his close friend and partner, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), points out, he is no Jedi - because there are no Jedi anymore. Despite that, a faith in the Force flourishes among the Rebels, and it is much more like a religion here than it has ever been in the other films, where it was more a super power than anything else.

(Time for a plot summary! Mild spoilers follow.)

The central character of the film is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a girl orphaned by the Empire, raised by a rebel even among the Rebels - the warrior Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) - and then cast off into the world to fend for herself. Jyn believes in little except her own survival, and is resigned to the world the way it is - under Imperial control - until she has hope kindled in her again by a message carried by defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). The message is from her long-lost father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), and it reveals that he is still alive, still loves her, and is not truly the traitor he appears to be. In fact, he has hidden a fatal flaw in the heart of the Imperial superweapon he's helped build, if only the Rebels can acquire the plans, and find an opportunity to exploit it. (It's a pleasing revelation that the design flaw in the Death Star was actually put there on purpose by the Rebel sympathizer who was forced to help build the thing.)

Even speaking as a die hard Star Wars fan, I have to admit that the series has never been big on complex characters or deep characterization. Anakin/Vader, as examined over the course of six (now seven!) films, probably ends up being the most complex and deeply realized character in this universe, despite the fact that he starts out in A New Hope as little more than a mysterious black-clad uber villain (albeit the daddy of them all). That being said, The Force Awakens made a successful attempt at deeper characterization, especially with Finn and Rey. Rogue One makes that attempt again, but it goes less well. Part of the reason is simply that there are so many characters, and so much story to tell, that there's little screen time available to devote to backstory and development for them all. By the end of the movie, I didn't feel like I'd really gotten to know any of our main cast. We only get the barest glimpses at their pasts and motivations. Jyn is the person we learn the most about, and I still felt like I was missing important information about her. The good side of this is, we want to know more about these people. They are intriguing, and clearly have fascinating pasts. I'd particularly like to know Captain Andor's story. He clearly has done some horrific things for the Alliance, and they haunt him.

Another good thing about this big cast: it's quite diverse. We've got a woman as the main character, accompanied by a Hispanic man, a black man, a couple of Asian men, and a Pakistani man. The people in charge at the Empire are white, but it seems clear that there's a point being made there - they're Nazis, after all. The Alliance has a lot of white guys, too, but they also have women, aliens, and black and brown people on their ruling council, as well as black and brown people among their ground soldiers.

Probably the greatest character in the film, however, is not any of the humans or aliens. It is instead Captain Andor's sidekick, the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). The droid is a sarcastic, pessimistic, wise-cracking misanthrope, and it's hilarious and fantastic.

More mild spoilers: one of the things I found most disconcerting and odd about the movie was the decision to use computer technology to resurrect Peter Cushing so that he could reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin. Similarly weird was the inclusion of Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia in the final shot, made young again through computer technology. This was very distracting and totally unnecessary. The filmmakers could easily have found actors who looked and sounded like Cushing and a young Fisher and put them in the roles. We're smart people, used to different actors playing the same part; we would have been able to figure it out.

Rogue One is a Star Wars movie that takes a hard look at the filthy reality and the hard costs of war. It is a dark and a brutal story, but it offers us the promise that with these peoples' many sacrifices, a terrible evil will be destroyed, and future people will live in freedom and peace. And sometimes that's the best we can hope for.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Monday, December 12, 2016 11:33 AM
Making the Rounds Again
 by Fëanor

I called my reps again today, and below is what I said this time. I'm trying to keep it short and sweet, for the benefit of myself, and that of the poor interns that I talk to.

Hi, I'm Jim Genzano. I'm a constituent of Mr. _________ and I'm calling to ask him to support the call from members of the Electoral College that the Electors be fully briefed by U.S. Intelligence Officials on Russian influence on the election, before they cast their votes on December 19th. Thank you.
Tagged (?): Politics (Not)
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Tuesday, December 6, 2016 04:16 PM
Still Calling
 by Fëanor

I called my representatives again this afternoon with a new wishlist! Thought I'd share it with y'all. (I considered also adding a bit about encouraging Electors to refuse to vote for Trump, but decided not to.)

Hi, I'm Jim Genzano. I'm a constituent and I'm calling to ask _____ to continue to block President-elect Trump and his agenda in every way s/he can. Specifically, I'm hoping s/he will:
  1. Support calls to investigate irregularities in the presidential election.

  2. Support efforts to recount votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada.

  3. Support calls to investigate Trump's financials and conflicts of interest.

  4. Block all Trump's cabinet appointments in any way possible, especially Steve Bannon.

  5. (Senators only) Filibuster the waiver that retired Gen. James Mattis would need in order to serve as secretary of defense.

  6. Support calls to impeach Donald Trump.
Tagged (?): Politics (Not)
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Monday, November 21, 2016 10:45 AM
Call and Call Again
 by Fëanor

I just called my representatives back and gave them a list of specific things I'd like them to do. Here it is, if you're interested:

  • Demand that President-elect Trump denounce the hate crimes being performed around the country in his name.

  • Oppose any attempt to create a registry of Muslim citizens.

  • Demand an investigation into Russian interference in the election.

  • Support the call for a bipartisan review of Trump's financials and apparent conflicts of interest.

  • Oppose the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor.

  • Oppose the appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.

  • Oppose the appointment of General Mike Flynn as national security adviser.

  • Oppose the appointment of Representative Mike Pompeo as CIA director.
Tagged (?): Politics (Not)
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Thursday, November 17, 2016 09:45 AM
(Last updated on Thursday, November 17, 2016 12:33 PM)
Fighting Back
 by Fëanor

I've been trying to work out how best I can fight back against Trump, and according to what I'm reading, actually picking up the phone and calling your Representatives is the best way to be heard. My Representatives here in New Jersey are all Democrats and most of them have already spoken out and taken stands against Trump, so I'm not sure how much me calling them really means, but I want to feel like I'm doing something, so that's what I'm doing.

I spoke to a human at Donald Norcross' office, and left a message for Cory Booker. Interestingly enough, Robert Menendez's line was busy, and his mailbox was full! So I'll have to try him again later. (ETA: I did call back, and this time I got through to a staffer and gave him my spiel.) I'm not sure if it's worthwhile to call my more local Representatives, like the state senator and state assembly members, as I'm not sure how much they can really do, but maybe I will give it a shot.

If you're interested, below is a generic version of the script I'm using; I alter it slightly for each person to make it more specific to them and what they've done so far. Also, if you need to figure out who your representatives are (I did!), you can use this tool or this site.

Hi, I'm [Your Name], a constituent of [Representative's Name]. I'm calling to ask [Representative's Name] to use all means at his disposal to fight back against President-elect Trump and his policies of hate. In particular, I'm hoping [Representative's Name] will speak out strongly against President-elect Donald Trump's naming of Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist and senior counselor. Mr. Bannon built and runs a powerful platform for promoting racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. The election of Trump and appointment of Bannon made the KKK and other white nationalist groups rejoice. For me personally, Trump's election and his actions so far have been terrifying. I fear for the safety of my friends and loved ones, and for the future of our country and our world. We cannot sit idly by and allow white supremacists to take over our government. We cannot allow Mr. Trump to take away womens' right to choose; to take away the rights of citizens based on their sexual orientation, race, or religion; to dismantle the Affordable Care Act or Medicare; and we cannot allow Mr. Trump to obstruct the fight against climate change, which is essential to the survival of humanity. All Americans of good conscience must join in opposing Mr. Trump, and I hope [Representative's Name] will be part of that fight. Thank you.
Tagged (?): Politics (Not)
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Friday, October 28, 2016 03:06 PM
Please Please Please Vote Hillary. Please.
 by Fëanor

Really, the title of the post kind of says it all. But I've got this blog here, and this election is important to me, so I feel like I ought to state my case in a little more detail before the big day is here. I'll try to make it quick.

I'm pretty radically liberal, so there's almost no chance I'd have ever supported a Republican nominee for President, regardless of who that was. That being said, I don't think I've ever been confronted with a presidential candidate of any party more frightening than Donald Trump. As poppy and I have said to each other many times over the last year or so, although we certainly didn't want a President Mitt Romney, we weren't actually terrified of the possibility. He didn't seem clinically insane, completely unreasonable, dangerously unqualified, or at all likely to cause World War III. Then there's Donald Trump.

I'm sure you've heard or read about the various horrific things Donald Trump has said during his campaign; he's got a fresh zinger in the news nearly every day. He is unapologetically racist, anti-immigrant, and misogynist. He is supported by various racist groups. When he said "no one respects women more than me" at the final debate, the audience actually laughed at him and had to be quieted by the moderator. He has little or no qualifications for the job. He is a petulant, belligerent egoist; a repugnant bully.

Poppy and I are actually frightened at the prospect of what this man would do if he were given the powers of the President of the United States. Just watch him for a while, read about him, listen to him speak. Do you really want this man sitting in the Oval Office? Do you really want him to be your representative to the world? Because that's what will happen if we don't all vote for Hillary Clinton.

Some people say both candidates are awful, and complain about having to choose the lesser of two evils, but for me, the differences between the candidates have never been more stark, and the choice has never been more clear. We can choose to follow up the first African-American President in history with an unqualified racist misogynist who denies the reality of climate change, or we can choose to follow him up with the first woman President in history, who is more than qualified for the job and who, thanks to Bernie Sanders pushing her in that direction, is supporting some surprisingly liberal policies.

Years from now, when it's all over, would you rather be able to say, "I helped put the first woman in the Oval Office," or, "I helped put that guy from that reality show who made fun of disabled people in the Oval Office?"

Do you want to keep on the way we're going, moving with the current of history, embracing hope, inclusion, and empathy? Or do you want to turn around and march backwards into the arms of hate and fear and bigotry? Because that second thing is what Trump is talking about when says he wants to "make America great again." That may all sound a bit melodramatic, but I really feel that's the choice that's facing us with this election.

And if you're anti-Trump, but you don't want to vote for Hillary... Okay, I understand that. Clinton wasn't my first choice. I voted for Bernie in the primary. But the sad fact is, any vote that doesn't go to Hillary might as well be a vote for Trump. And I just don't think we can afford a President Trump.

The polls and forecasts are definitely pointing toward a victory for Hillary Clinton. But polls and forecasts don't mean anything in the long run. It's the actual votes that count. So please. Please, please, please. For my sake, for your sake, for the sake of our families, for the sake of our country, for the sake of our world, please vote for Hillary Clinton for President of the United States.

Thank you!
Tagged (?): Politics (Not)
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Friday, July 8, 2016 08:47 AM
(Last updated on Friday, July 8, 2016 09:05 AM)
Black Lives Matter
 by Fëanor

I've written the below and plan to send it to my local representatives. Feel free to copy and share if you'd like.

I am sick and tired of reading about the executions of black people in America by the people entrusted with their protection and defense. These are not random incidents. They are not tragic coincidences. This is a pattern of violence. This is a symptom of a systemic problem in our society that has existed since the beginning of our nation, and that problem is white supremacy. White supremacy must be dismantled. Our society must change.

I am writing to ask you to please support legislation and policies that will start the necessary process of dismantling white supremacy. As a first step, we must end police violence. Campaign Zero has a great summary of what we can do:

http://www.joincampaignzero.org/

I've used this site to find some current legislation that I will ask you to support. But I ask you also to put forward more legislation in support of these things:

1. End broken windows policing
  • Decriminalize activities that do not threaten public safety

  • End profiling

  • Provide better resources for the mentally ill

2. Establish effective civilian oversight structures
  • Remove barriers to reporting police misconduct

3. Limit the use of force by police
  • Establish standards and reporting of police use of deadly force

  • Revise and strengthen local police department use of force policies

  • End traffic-related police killings

  • Monitor how police use force and proactively hold officers accountable for excessive force

4. Independent investigations and prosecutions
  • Lower the standard of proof for Department of Justice civil rights investigations of police officers

  • Use federal funds to encourage independent investigations and prosecutions

  • Establish a permanent Special Prosecutor's Office at the State level for cases of police violence

  • Require independent investigations of all cases where police kill or seriously injure civilians

5. Community representation
  • Diversity: Increase the number of police officers who reflect the communities they serve

  • Use community feedback to inform police department policies and practices

6. Film the police
  • Require that police wear and use body cameras

  • Protect the rights of citizens to film the police

7. Training
  • Invest in rigorous and sustained training around implicit bias, crisis intervention, mediation, conflict resolution, etc.

8. End for-profit policing
  • End police department quotas for tickets and arrest

  • Limit fines and fees for low-income people

  • Prevent police from taking the money or property of innocent people

9. Demilitarization
  • End the Federal Government's 1033 Program Providing Military Weaponry to Local Police Departments

  • Establish Local Restrictions to Prevent Police Departments from Purchasing or Using Military Weaponry

10. Fair police contracts
  • Keep officers' disciplinary history accessible to police departments and the public

  • Ensure officers do not get paid after they kill or seriously injure a civilian


A specific message for New Jersey Assemblyman Louis D Greenwald and Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt:

New Jersey Assembly Bill A 2114 requires that police obtain a warrant to seize cell phone data. Please vote for this bill.

A specific message for New Jersey legislator James Beach:

New Jersey Senate Bill S 1105 prohibits law enforcement agencies from considering the number of arrests made and citations issued when evaluating a police officer's professional performance. Please vote for this bill.
Tagged (?): Politics (Not)
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Wednesday, May 4, 2016 12:59 PM
Book Report - Lovecraft Country
 by Fëanor

This audio book I just listened to was so great I thought I'd swipe the mothballs off the old blog to write it up.

The popularity of weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft only seems to increase as the years go by. But so does scrutiny of his racist politics and beliefs, which were so often given such lurid life in his writing. One of the things Lovecraft found most horrifying, for instance, was miscegenation. For many years a bust of Lovecraft was presented to the winner of the World Fantasy Award, but just last year the bust was retired due to Lovecraft's history of racism.

I love Lovecraft's work, but had of course always been deeply uncomfortable with his racism. I hadn't heard of a modern interpretation of Lovecraft's horror universe that dealt in any meaningful way with this topic - until I read about Matt Ruff's novel Lovecraft Country. Lovecraft Country not only deals with the topic, but makes it its central theme. The book's purpose, in fact, is to wrest ownership of Lovecraft's universe away from its racist beginnings and place it firmly in the hands of people of color. (I'm a little disappointed, therefore, to have discovered after the fact that the author, Matt Ruff, is white. It seems like this story was for a person of color to tell. But there you are.)

The novel is set in America in 1954, and is told as a series of short stories, each an episode in a larger, over-arching story, each with a different narrator, with the final chapter bringing all the narrators and stories together in an exciting climax. All the narrators are members of, or close friends with, the Turner family. The novel opens with the story of Atticus Turner, a young black man still trying to find his place in American society after returning from serving in the Korean War. He receives an odd letter from his estranged father, Montrose, about a secret birthright that he's entitled to, and he decides to head home to Chicago to see what it's all about.

If you're expecting magic and monsters in the first few pages, you'll be disappointed. Ruff takes his time getting to that, first introducing you to the surreal insanity and horror that is the Jim Crow South. On his way home, Atticus is assaulted, harassed, and stolen from by a policeman for the crime of being black. As the story goes on, and incidents like this are repeated again and again, we come to realize that threats to your life and property from white men with power are just a part of everyday life for black people in America. And yes, sure, we should all already know that. But being a white guy, I need constant reminders, and Ruff forces you to really examine and internalize what it must be like to live like that: in constant fear, in constant danger of death, with little or no recourse to the law, the whole world against you, hating you and suspecting you on sight.

And that's just the baseline of horror in Atticus' world! As his story progresses, things get even more dangerous, and way more weird. A mysterious, untouchable, silver car with tinted windows seems to follow him everywhere as his search for his father takes him through a maze-like forest - where unseen things lurk in the shadows - to a tiny, insular town called Ardham. Ardham isn't Lovecraft's Arkham - not quite - but it is in "Lovecraft Country" (New England). And it is the home of a Manor House on a hill, where the Braithwhite family lives, leaders of a sect of a secret cult called The Order of the Ancient Dawn.

I won't tell you any more about the plot, because experiencing it for yourself will be fun as hell. But it includes intrigue, theft, espionage, double-dealing, murder, magic, devil dolls, ghosts, potions, curses, body-switching, and man-eating aliens. And still, even among all this weirdness and horror, we never lose sight of the novel's real focus: the real-life horror of being black in America. So not only is it a rollicking read - a brilliant, thrilling, enthralling, bone-chilling story - it's also a very important and powerful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Lovecraft (Not)
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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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