Star Wars VII: How Not to Sequel

Here’s my review and late-night rant about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  [Solid Spoiler Alert!]  There’s some profanity involved, and I believe it’s appropriate.

Star Wars: Episode VII, exploiting the audience…
Here is my review of Star Wars Episode VII, The Force Awakens.

Other links:
The original episode 7-9 stories are told (much better) in Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire series: This is how it SHOULD have gone, and how it DID go before Disney needed to betray the audience to get more cash, and hate families. (Original story for Episode 7) (Original story for Episode 8) (Original story for Episode 9)



Falcon Rising

If you missed the limited theatrical release of Falcon Rising starring Michael Jai White, it’s streaming on Netflix and available for purchase elsewhere.

Fans of martial arts action, with the departure of the golden B-Movie days of Chuck Norris, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan, relatively few martial artists have held onto the big screen long enough to make a lasting impression.  (Donnie Yuen being perhaps the exception that proves the rule, but he has one foot forever planted in the wire-fu Kung Fu cinema that hasn’t held as much sway in America at large as the more realistic, unaugmented presentations mentioned above.  Tony Jaa is skilled but doesn’t produce much.)  American martial artist Michael Jai White has stepped up with a promising B-movie franchise called Falcon.

Mr. White is a lifelong martial artist turned actor.  As an artist he stands in that 30-45 age range that combines the peak combination of training and physical ability.  Younger kids may be flashier, and older fighters may be wilier, but there is something about a mature and strong artist with efficient technique that the energy-wasting kids and the age-limited elders can’t present.  Michael White got into Karate as a kid instead of getting into gangs, drugs, crime, or apathy, and now he has turned the art that helped shape his life into an art-form that pleases many.

Falcon Rising will please many fans of the retired Mr. Norris, as the plot lines and action sequences follow similar paths.  A loner bad-ass is prompted to act, and act he does, let random drug dealers, street thugs, and crime syndicates beware.

Unlike other martial arts stars in the past 15 years who have presented two or three films before life experience or tragedy struck, Mr. White has worked hard to present a series of action films.  He’s worked his way up in the industry since the early 1990’s, and he has starred in some excellent eye-pleasing martial arts flicks as Black Dynamite  and Blood and Bone.

If you are a true fan of martial arts, you will be pleased to see stunt-man and Capoeira practitioner Lateef Crowder in his supporting role as the muscle in the local cop duo.  Mr. Crowder has never failed to impress with his technique and presentation, and this film is no exception.  A tireless stuntman whose credits show more behind-the-scenes work than starring roles, Lateef Crowder, like Mr. White, is The Real Deal and that is always a pleasure to see on screen.

NOT appearing in Falcon Rising: gratuitous sex scenes, endless swearing, mounds of artificial cleavage, and splashy gore.  This film hits where Walker: Texas Ranger and several other beloved action franchises eventually reached.

I enjoyed Falcon Rising‘s refusal to dig into race poltics or the self-loathing Western flagellation over colonialism/post-colonialism/American Exceptionalism/other political -isms.  People are people, and that allows the film to achieve the sort of unconscious acceptance that Social Justice Warriors will never successfully legislate, or buy into the America-is-perfect-always idolatry on the other side of the political spectrum.

Professional critics are never going to go in for this sort of action movie, not the least reason being that Mr. White refuses to grab a political flag to wear in place of his undies, but fans of good old fashioned action should enjoy this straight forward Kung Fu opera offering!


Conflicted Camouflage

A friend and I sat down and watched the indie gay/bullying film Camouflage written, directed, and starring Kyle T. Cowan.

Mr. Cowan has made his film available to watch online or download free of charge.  He does ask in exchange that people watching the film give money to one of the causes the film supports: Gay and lesbian youth, anti-bullying, or gun control.  Then he asks us to do an act of kindness and make a video about the good we’ve done to “raise awareness” and “change the world”.


That sort of thing is forbidden by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.  If I have done any good, or good has come from watching this film, I would be commanded to keep it to myself.  But I did promise a film review, and I will be as brief as I can and do it justice.  Practically every sentence in this review could constitute and entire post if I had the time and energy.

Camouflage is a solidly-crafted indie film that draws heavily on stage acting experience.  There are very few sets, a handful of cast, and scene structure goes a long way towards telling the story.  It’s a frame story about a college shooting, with an unreliable narrator whose past and position remain somewhat clouded as series’ of flashbacks are set apart by interviews with the most poorly-cast FBI agent I have ever seen.  Not only did I never believe for a second that the self-descriptive, soft, and sympathetic law officer was actually a cop, but she served too well as the useful idiot.  Fortunately, Adriana Leonard’s portrayal is the only sub-par bit of acting in the film.  Kyle T. Cowan plays the lead as well as directing and producing the film.  His outbursts verge on over-the-top from time to time, but otherwise stay solid.  Jimmy Bennett, Rodney Eastman, and a surprising performance by unknown Brandon Winner as teen-aged Austin (the shooter/protagonist) carry a lot of weight in roles that had their challenges.  The cinematography is of good quality for a low-budged film, sound and lighting are superbly well done (meaning at no time did they draw away from the story), and there is a nice touch to the shorting florescent light that always brings the semi-dissociated narrator’s brokenness to mind and keeps it there.

The story in a nutshell is that a bullied homosexual boy has to bury his ‘true self’ (meaning his homosexuality) in order to live a life accepted in society.  When he does act on his homosexual desires he is traumatized when younger, and as an adult snaps and goes full-on psycho in a completely unjustifiable way that is meant to look sympathetic.  The film’s producer lists three primary causes that the film is supposed to change in the world: bullying, gay teen issues, and gun control.  It’s a tragedy that the film is more activism than drama, because there was a good story idea in here, but the story is undermined frequently by the need to hit all the politically correct beats.

As a drama, Camouflage is more than worth the price of admission (and if you want to send $5 or the price of a movie rental to a cause of your choice, there’s nothing wrong with that.  As an activism piece, it largely fails.  People who already believe in all of the film’s messages will love it, but internal consistencies rob the film’s arguments of their staying power.

A Christian film reviewer, I deliberately look at gay cinema for a couple of reasons.  First, there cannot be a gag reflex if we are ever going to reach out to those we disagree with (which is the opposite of the LGBT community’s striving for hatred to condemn those who disagree with them and to silence them in the name of ‘tolerance’).  It is frankly impossible to say ‘you’re gross’ and ‘come to Jesus’ in the same lifetime.  Look at Jesus and the leper in Matthew.  First, Jesus had compassion on the leper.  Then Jesus touched the leper just as he was.  Finally, Jesus healed the leper and made him clean.  The church today shouts all the time to condemn gay marriage, and it wants nothing to do with the ex-gay movement or other undesirables unless they hide their wounds and struggles.

This is just plain wrong.  If you can avoid the raunchy sex-comedy stuff and watch a good drama (Prayers for Bobby, this film Camouflage, and a couple others are good places to start) there is a lot of honesty about the hurt and suffering that homosexuals go through in life.

That is one area where Camouflage shines.  Austin’s father rejects him socially and emotionally again and again.  Galvin (the father) finds young Austin playing house and kissing games with his dolls at an age far too young to be sexually engaged, and brings in his wife to publicly shame Austin.  Later, when teenage Austin is beaten for being gay, Galvin rejects Austin for not shooting quickly enough, calls him a pussy, and stalks off.  The message is clear, and it is the same message that most of the homosexual men I know have received all their lives from their fathers and older brothers: You don’t belong in the masculine world, you are inferior, unwanted, and rejected.  Galvin, played by Rodney Eastman, does a very fine job of a father who does love his son in his own troubled way, but has no effective means of communicating it, and that wound scars Austin in a life-long way.

That is good stuff, a message that is true, timely, and relevant.  Galvin points to high suicide rates, violence, and the troubles of active and openly homosexual teens experience.  He doesn’t want that for his son, which is a loving and good point, but his every attempt to deal with that problem just makes the problem worse.  (I have gone through some of these issues in a video here.)

The problem of teenage bullying is very well done, and no review of the film would be complete without citing Brandon Winner’s performance as the teenage Austin.  The boy had very few lines.  He had to carry off vulnerability, sacrificial love in a bullying scene, and many other subtle emotions with perhaps a handful of lines to go with, and the role was critical to build sympathy for his psychotic and violent adult self.

The film’s idea that it has an impact on gun control is laughable.  The FBI agent states already that Austin, the shooter, came by his guns illegally.  Once something is illegal it’s illegal.  There is no reason given or logic behind the idea that making firearms more illegal would have changed anything.  The standard responses to this argument hold fast: When school shooters are the only ones with guns, their rampage goes on unhindered.  When someone else has a gun, the shooter gets stopped.  This has been true every single school shooting I have ever researched, and the Camouflage film has nothing to convince someone who already disagrees with him.

The gay-teen bullying argument also starts to fall short very quickly.  At a party Austin’s secret boyfriend kisses him.  Called a ‘faggot’ and asked to leave, his response is to violently attack his host.  (His assault escalates and shockingly enough, he isn’t Bruce Lee and the collective party guests beat him up and throw him out after he started the violence in the first place.)  Folks, that isn’t standing up for LGBT issues, that’s felony assault.  The very tiny minority (the gay community) absolutely depends on the principle of a free society that they (LGBT crowd) may be offensive and disagreeable to many but completely physically safe from harm.  I completely agree with that, by the way.

But Camouflage joins The Perks of Being a Wallflower as having a scene where, called an anti-homosexual slur, the gay protagonist physically attacks his verbal accuser (and loses, and either has someone defend them or gets beaten up).  This message works very strongly against the principles of tolerance and acceptance that the LGBT community demands.  When your philosophical differences require the use of fists, you’re not talking tolerance but arguing over which viewpoint has a right to tyranny.  “Don’t publicly scorn a gay person or they have the right to assault you.” is deplorable and despicable just as, “Don’t be gay in public or they have a right to assault you.”  Both viewpoints are hateful, sinful, and wrong.  As long as the LGBT community refuses to condemn such violent reactions from its own spokespeople it isn’t going to gain a lot of traction among its detractors.

Moreover, the entire rationale for the shooting hinges on the innocence and victim status of Austin, who did not simply leave when asked (the legal and moral high ground, because did he really need to be partying with people who don’t want him there?) but attacked others, and stated repeatedly that they all deserved to die.  He fantasizes or actually does go kill every person in the frat because he attacked one of them (with provocation) lost, and was thrown out.

As a point of rhetoric, one thing I am not going to miss until my next bout reviewing an LGBT film is the total identification of personal identity with sexual desire.  Every character who addresses the issue accepts the following as truth: Austin, hiding his homosexual desires, is denying his true self.  People are not their sexual desires.  Did Austin not truly exist until his first orgasm?  If he becomes impotent in his later life, will he cease to be a full person?  What if the message was instead that Austin was much more than who he wanted to sleep with, that he was his skills, his education, his career, his non-sexual relationships, his religious beliefs… All of those things begin far before and last long after someone’s sexual life.  Austin is portrayed as a bisexual man, but only his homosexuality is called his ‘true self’.  Why?  It goes back to the same double-standard as the bullying.  The film rightly depicts bullying a teenage boy for having homosexual feelings as contemptible, but winks and nods at homosexuals being violent to anyone who disagrees or disapproves.  Austin’s secret lover in college tells him “bi is just a step on the path to gay” which would be horrifying to the LGBT community if Austin’s dad said, “this is just experimentation, it’s just a step on the path to straight.”

So, for an interesting drama, a quick and accurate look at the pain of bullied gay teens, and a smorgasbord of LGBT double-standards, Camouflage was an interesting film.  I would recommend it for any Christian who has a loved one in the LGBT community, or who wants engage in that debate.  The logic falls apart, but at the heart level the pathos, anger, and hurt of this movie are dead-on.

Humans and Households

Zombie Orpheus Productions has a hilarious webisode trilogy called “Humans and Households”, in which fantasy adventurers play modern humans.

This is a riotous send-up of gamer thinking.  Anyone who has DM’d a series of people who double-think their way for half an hour in front of an open door they never try to use, will enjoy the jokes as fantasy action heroes tackle the challenges of crossing the road, entering a house, and an unknown quest.

Packs of dire cars (Damage Reduction 100/AnotherCar)
The Domain of your Mutual Friend Steve

and more!

Chameleon Ponderings

I haven’t done a review of a gay film in a while (Jamie Marks is Dead does not count no matter what advertising click-baiters might say).  I find them a fascinating exercise, because they are usually an intricate weave of true and valid desires (fellowship, physical safety, compassion, and love) tangled up in some of the most deplorable propaganda (God-hating caricatures, sexually exploitative superficiality, the confusion between sexuality and intimacy, etc.) that parsing them can be a real treat.

Some of them are very well done, and some of them make me almost as nauseated as the American Pie films.  I am thinking of tackling an indie film called Chameleon whose trailer I came across.  It has elements of court drama, psychological drama, and biographical narrative.

The producer sees the film as about bullying (which I condemn but feel awareness is worse than useless about), gun control (seriously?!?!), and gay rights (which rights?).  I have a feeling we have strong concerns aimed in very different ways on these issues, but it looks more like a genuine film than a low-quality semi-porn film (which let’s be honest homosexual media has NO corner on in terms of drama, romance, or even comedy).

We shall see.

My weekend will be spent on the road as I have a double-appointment for Haidong Gumdo, and what time I am not driving or training needs to go to editing or writing my own stuff.

Other candidates for my next homosexual film review might be an older film, Payers for Bobby, or the recently released Brazilian The Way he Looks, as both seem non-porny and dramatically interesting for other reasons.  If anyone has strong feelings one way or the other, chime on in now.

Whichever film I review will get a good fisking.  We’ll look at the good, the bad, and the message.

Unbecoming Of Age: One for Sorrow

I caught a trailer for Jamie Marks is Dead and it intrigued me, and then I discovered that the ghost story was based upon a novel.  I went for the novel first and I am very glad I did.

The novel, One for Sorrow, is written by an author from Youngstown, Ohio, and is about the region I grew up in.  College writing professor Christopher Barzak spins a delightfully tense tale that slips between the boundaries of drama, romance, and ghost story like a cold knife slipping between my ribs.

The story idea of course is about a small-town Ohio athlete who sees the ghost of a murdered town loser.  I was drawn to the story because I have always cared about the idea of pariahs as it interacts with love, society, and the concept of belonging.  Here is a ghost who tries to belong after his life is over.  Here is the jock who never reached out who finds compassion too late, or is it?

I have often praised novels that have no distinctive stylistic merit.  That does not mean I am insensate to the truly deft.  Barzak’s narrator, Adam, has descriptive voice like autumn leaves in a chill wind: slightly dry, a little twisted from the standard, but ruggedly beautiful.  Barzak never loses sight of the emotion of a scene, never chooses a maladroit word, and comes up with some truly astounding metaphors for simple moments of family, adolescence, nature, and society.  There are three scenes of overt sexuality in the book and each one is so different in emphasis and detail that I might have thought a different author wrote each one.  The truth is that Adam was in a different place mentally, emotionally, and relationally so the sequences are completely different.

Just as I enjoy fun tales without distinctive prose, there are some genuinely horrible novels with excellent technical craft.  Barzak’s story is comfortably above average.  There are two things that strike me as worthy of special mention.

The first is Balzak’s subtle weave of supernatural mythology.  He has ghosts for a reason, and a reason that they are driven.  In the film adaptation some hack eroticized Adam giving words to Jamie’s ghost.  On film you simply see an actor shudder in a suggestive manner.  In the books there are no shudders, but Jamie grows more real with each word he is given, and Jamie is trying to cling to reality that slips steadily away.  Ghosts are cold, and they must burn memories to stay real, to keep from fading away into a dead place.  Adam is giving meanings, thoughts, concepts, and the more Jamie burns them, the more they are lost to Adam who starts to feel more and more detatched from the world.  At first this seems to be a blessing as the stresses and trials of a hard teenage life grow slightly more distant… but the process doesn’t stop, and a looming sense of foreboding grows with quiet tension like a storm front rolling across the sun.  That is the real threat for both characters, an excellent metaphor for the encroaching burdens of adulthood that comes without trumpets or battlefields.

There was a lot to like about the mythology.  Even seemingly mundane items are rich with imagery in Adam’s narrative.  The ghosts alone would not be enough to keep me entertained, but there are concepts like dead spaces that link un-lived-in places together.  There are more mundane ghosts, a couple images out of straight up nightmares, the real power of young love between Adam and his girlfriend has an interesting moment of transformation or two.

I particularly enjoyed the Jungian reversal that characters have literal shadows that reveal their hidden thoughts or secrets.  Barzac takes the metaphorical and makes it literal, and then scatters hidden meaning across the physical.  I am sorry to come across all highbrow about this book, but it is English major nerd candy to be sure.

Some critics talk about homoeroticism in the book, and for the most part I think that’s crap.  There are a few moments that are awkward, but the growing connection only has overtly sexual connotations towards the very end, and that amounts to a kiss.  Contrasted with the heterosexual content of the book that is small fish indeed.  Barzak is quite open about sex when it is going on so I see no need to read a lot of sexual tension into subtle and quiet moments.  Most of the personal connection with Adam and Jamie hearkens back to a freezing person trying to keep warm.  Sure, that’s physically close but there isn’t really any sexual activity between the guys.  It’s much more about fraternization than romance between the two main characters.  Sympathy, compassion, love, and sacrifice do not need to be sexual.  There is much more philadelphia than eros portrayed here.

To be blunt, the questions asked about who we love, how much, and how far we will go to sacrifice for them, endure their pain, and give for their comfort is not a question of gay or straight, but it is a fundamental question of the human condition.  Beyond that, it is a question whose answer (though Barzak never overtly goes there) that finds its answer in the Cross.

I cannot determine Barzak’s take on Christianity here.  An empty church becomes a very important scene later on in the book, as well as a brief visit to a full one.  They seem to represent Adam’s growing choices between death (a quiet funereal church) and life in the bustling black Methodist worship.  God does not make an appearance.  There are neither devils nor angels hiding in the shadows.  Unless, and I am still not sure, they hide so very well…  Barzak’s symbolism can be deft enough that I cannot say for sure.  Enough detail work comes together that I could see Barzak pulling a Book of Esther, placing God obviously behind a curtain but hidden enough that an anti-Christian academic and literary world would not see it.  Particularly, the final choices that the characters face about surrender and sacrifice in love for the other have some worthwhile meanings.

Every critical review mentions the glaringly obvious fact that we never discover Jamie’s killer (though the film makes a ham-handed attempt to devalue the question), but they miss the point.  This is not a story about two boys trying to right a wrong, or expose the guilty.  It is a story of three or four lost souls who struggle to matter and persevere, and then find the courage to go forward.  It may be presented in understated tones, but it is nothing less than a story about Hamlet’s age-old question, to be or not to be.

I am glad that I read the book before I saw the movie.  The film was slightly creepy, but it did not have the depth or wonder that I enjoyed in the novel.  Major characters and themes were stripped entirely away, and they were quite good ones.  Adam’s constant recollections of his somewhat crazy Catholic aunt were a drumbeat keeping time with the story, and the book title is drawn from one of her more creepy rhymes.  Adam’s conflicted relationship with his father, who is a failed laborer and yet whose sayings and mannerisms recur in Adam’s thoughts and unexpected moments, has no place in the story and is replaced by a single mom.

Both book and film capture the soul-destroying cruelty of humanity that lays so close to the surface among adolescents.  There are deep questions about what matters most in life, and how to love someone when you cannot change their suffering (I may or may not be talking about the ghost).  The book is highly recommended for the not-easily-offended, though it will probably never win a spot on Pat Robertson’s bookshelf.  The film would be worth renting once, but I would not buy popcorn or pay theater prices for it.

Barzak’s intriguing story is now available in a literary and film version.  I highly recommend the former over the later.

When the Game Stands Tall

Not a huge fan of American sports, I went to see When the Game Stands Tall as a favor to a friend.

I enjoyed it more than I expected.

I knew that Jim Caviezel and Michael Chiklis were going to provide a solid performance as the coaches of a football team.  I wasn’t disappointed there.  Caviezel’s portrayal of the real-life coach Bob Ladoucer (whom, not being a sports fan, I had never heard of before today) was a brilliant blend of humanity and powerful leadership.

I came ready for a cheezy serving of pseudo-Christian moralism and some on-field drama, and instead I got a hefty helping of depth and drama.  Well, I don’t expect anyone to win an Oscar for this film, but some of the issues touched on were surprising.  Tragedy and death came up, and mortality swung by more than one direction.  The film presents the twin realities of aging in a fallen world, first that we will all age and eventually pass on, and second that all of our glories and accomplishments will fade away like dust on the wind.

I enjoyed themes about young men who struggle to find their identities in the face of pressure, expectations, family, and friendships.  As a martial artist I have always found some value in stories that present the virtues of hard work, dedication, and perseverance.  Those values were present here in spades.

In terms of earthly values, there is very little lacking in this film.  Married men are dedicated and considerate of their wives.  Wives are supportive.  Young men are challenged to grow not just in strength of body but that of the heart as well.  The threats of pride and the value of compassion come through here.  This is a story about a football program that excels without losing track of the main purpose for High School athletics: the edification of the boys and girls as human beings first and as athletes second.  The two are not mutually exclusive, and this movie makes the most of that.

Other issues that come up are: Pressure and abusive parents, gang violence, sportsmanship and manners, dedication, perseverance, belonging for the unimportant, acceptance of the different (Coach Sports God’s youngest son is a slender/artsy type musician, and there is never the slightest hint that he is any less valued in this football-centered family because of it!), and finding strength in others in the face of loss.

There was a lot more story in this movie than I anticipated.  There were more games on screen than most sports films I can remember, and I am impressed that the film included all of it without making the real life scenes seem sufficient and the sports scenes feel unhurried.

I truly love the humility present in this story.  The team’s victories have earned it glory, that is clear from the opening scene, but glory is never, ever the goal for the story’s protagonists.  I cannot remember ever seeing a moment in a sports film where the coach sends his team members to take down signs advocating the team’s glory, because that’s how strongly he doesn’t believe in it.

There is a concept in this film: Perfect Effort.  The idea that success and duty is about giving a perfect effort to our loved ones, our teammates, and those around us.  It is the theme of the sport, and bleeds its way into the rest.

That is a great thought, but it is insufficient gospel.  This is a semi-Christian film, so I will point out the fact that our own strength, dedication, and effort are never going to be enough.  We falter.  We fail.  We, in other words, sin.  That is why there IS a Savior, and why we need his grace.  We can give our all only when we know that God is there to catch us when we fall.

But as far as earthly morality, sportsmanship, dedication, and all of its other attributes, as well as a solid score, decent cinematography, and some solid supporting acting on behalf of younger cast members, this film gets my full recommendation.