Batman versus the Predator? It happened. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” remade by kids? It happened. For years, people have been making home movies, sometimes even using properties that they may not own, but love… and creating new fans of their own, as well as more than their share of headaches for filmmakers and studios alike.
From John Hudgens, the award-winning director of “American Scary”, “Backyard Blockbusters” covers the history and influence of the fanfilm genre (going back to the 1920s!) as well as the copyright and fair use problems these films create. And now, if you’ve got Amazon Prime, you can view Backyard Blockusters for free as of today!
I think The Last Jedi is my favorite Star Wars film. It’s hard to say, these movies need so much time and will be seen over and over again. I’m unwittingly comparing it in my head to my more recent viewings of the original trilogy and not the dazzling first ones but I have to trust it will hold up. The Last Jedi is ambitious, and thought-provoking and fun in a way that none of the “core” Star Wars filmsever have been. This is the kind of movie someone would make if they spent their childhood loving the material but realized as an adult that it depicted a world that would never function. Rian Johnson makes a more functional galaxy with more authentic characters and he’s made the best big-budget science fiction movie in some time.
It’s tough to write this review after having seen the battle lines being drawn across the Internet over the movie. People are polarized and it’s pushing opinions to the far reaches. I believe Kylo Ren is the most interesting character in all eight Star Wars movies but that might be an overreaction. I know that his internal struggle and strife is the only time the dark side has seemed like a real thing people would be interested in. This is a movie that took the laughably bad Anakin Skywalker arc from the prequel trilogy and made those feeling feel real. Here I can find the nuance and conflict that we had to paste on to the prequels with speculation and supplemental material but all here in one go. I would say that this is probably how people thought about Darth Vader after watching Empire Strikes Back but I’ve seen that movie, there are only a handful of meaningful head tilts signaling anything at all. For the first time I feel like I’m not being asked to fill in big gaps of narrative or run to read some tangential novel released years later.
I’ve heard people say that none of the characters changed or grew in this movie and I simply can’t agree with that at all. If after the events of this movie Poe isn’t doing some big time soul searching, this whole trilogy is a massive failure. Granted we don’t see him become less of a reckless hotshot but it’s certainly what I expect to happen. You can grow and change and not have it be immediately visible. Finn, the person who lived to be a soldier, starts to see the galaxy that isn’t in a state of constant war and starts to see the context. His relationship with Rose is engaging and exciting. I enjoy the look at military heroism and idealism as Rose moves from idolizing Finn for his supposed deeds in the first film and then seeing that he’s a flawed person and kind of lapping him by the end of the film. I need more of those characters pushing and pulling on each other. Maybe even smooching but I do not want to wade in to the intricacy of Star Wars shipping politics.
If we want to accept the premise that the entire Star Wars series is the story of the Skywalker family (and I’m not sure I do want that, but here we are) this was another smashing success for me. Mark Hamill has spent most of his career at this point as a voice actor, and it was so apparent in his performance here. There are lines and readings where you can still here the kid annoyed at his uncle because he wanted to go get power converters. But there’s also the person who has had to live the last thirty years in a galaxy that he didn’t change nearly as much as he thought he would. I wish we got a little more Leia but they didn’t know they weren’t going to get another chance with her. It’s a sad thing but it is what it is.
The Last Jedi has the inside track to become my favorite Star Wars movie because it is challenging. It takes a universe that, for all the turmoil depicted around the margins, has been a place of very safe storytelling and shakes it all the way up. It shows us not just the corrupt slug gangsters but the people in glittering casinos making money off of selling fighter ships. It’s willing to show us heroes getting old and instead of being cagey or clever like Obi-Wan or Yoda, becoming kind of hopeless and despondent. It gives us villains that are complicated and conflicted at moments before their sudden but inevitable betrayal. I’ve never felt this excited, this alive, after walking out of a Star Wars film in my lifetime as I did after The Last Jedi.
By now, everyone has heard (or should have heard) about the sexual depredations of film producer Harvey Weinstein (and James Toback, Kevin Spacey and others of their ilk). This follows revelations of the sexual depredations of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly (seriously, what can you do that commands a $32 million settlement?). And everyone in all the other walks of life who have been playing predator.
The constant refrain that has been heard is that this kind of stuff has been going on out in Hollywood since there has been a Hollywood. Among the reasons that there have been so few direct accusations is that all the predators have been powerful men who could really exact retribution. And the fact that the women speaking out would be shamed, discounted, and not believed. And they would literally never work in that town again.
That’s changed. Women are coming out in droves, speaking up, making themselves heard. Makes no mistake – Weinstein, Ailes, and O’Reilly were extremely powerful individuals. The women have spoken up anyway and it’s the men who have, justifiably, suffered.
Why now? What makes this era different than eras in the past?
There are a lot of different reasons and possibilities but I would like to offer one that, at least in part, contributes. That is our own “pop culture.”
We have seen recently the rise of the strong woman hero or lead. Witness two Star Wars movies, both Episode 7 and the stand alone, Rogue One. Episode 7 not only centered around Rey but Princess Leia is now General Leia, a full and equal commander of the Resistance. And, behind the scenes, you have Kathleen Kennedy, who is head honcho of the whole Lucasfilm legacy.
Rogue One centers on Jyn Erso, the daughter of one of the principal designers of the Death Star and the main person responsible for obtaining the plans to the battle station that will enable the good guys to destroy it and save the galaxy.
And we have also had this year an amazing Wonder Woman, not only played to perfection by Gal Gadot but directed by Patty Jenkins. lt’s unheard that a woman would get the opportunity to helm such a big ticket film and Ms. Jenkins really delivered. Thank Hera both are returning for the sequel!
It extends these days to TV as well with Supergirl who not only gives us a Maid of Steel who may be stronger than her cousin, the Man of Steel, but shows women in so many different roles, including a very strong and positive lesbian couple.
I’m not forgetting Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games movies or Ripley in the Alien movies, or Hermione in the Harry Potter films or Buffy, the redoubtable Vampire Slayer and many others.
My point is this: seeing positive and strong heroes who look like you is important and they need to be seen on a regular basis. Will and Grace had gay characters in it and, because of the show’s popularity, they are invited into peoples’ living rooms every week. It normalizes meeting LGBTQ folk for straight people who may never have knowingly met one.
In the same way, movies and shows such as Wonder Woman or Star Wars or Supergirl gives us the image of women heroes who are strong, brave, resourceful and are examples to other women and to men as well. You need to see what you want to be, something the black community knows very well.
I’m not claiming that the pop culture examples I’ve given are the main reason that women now are speaking up against the Weinsteins of this world. However, I think they are a contributing factor. No single film or TV show alone but all taken together they contribute to the change. Make no mistake; “pop culture” is a potent force in our society. It entertains and bypasses our brain to reach the heart – and that’s where real change comes from.
Life is about balance. After last week’s screed on my personal health journey, it’s only fair I balance things out with a very gluttonous listing of my most favorite meals whilst being an indie creator. You see, a life in comics — part time, at least — find folks assembled around a table to break bread more often than you’d think. When logging in considerable hours at a convention, creators often will nibble here and there, and then run out of the expo hall in a mad dash for food when the con floor closes. Great minds have met over bowls of pasta and pizzas, whilst inking deals on Batman or the X-Men. Here are, in no particular order, five meals that remain stuck in between my teeth:
Miller’s Pub with Mike Gold
The first time ComicMix honcho Mike Gold asked Unshaven Comics to meet him for a meal, he chose Miller’s Pub in downtown Chicago. Prior to the lunch we shared, Mr. Gold was a fleeting presence at the Wizard World Chicago where we made our debut. The lovely late Linda Gold had stumbled across we Unshaven Lads, dying a slow and panicked death in Artist Alley. She listened to our pitch and promised to bring Mike by. After briefly meeting us, Mike and I exchanged e-mails post-show. When the opportunity arose to find Mr. Gold back in the Chicagoland area, he proposed a meeting of the minds. Over hot sandwiches and the first round of name-dropping stories we would succumb to hear on a yearly basis, Mike looked us in the eyes (as we demanded Unshaven Comics pick up the check) and said the kindest thing we’d ever hear in our careers: “Boys, I will do whatever I can to see you doing well in this business.” And let me tell you, nothing has ever tasted sweeter.
Breakfast Buffet with John Ostrander
A few years back, John asked us to pick him up at his house and drive him down to the Detroit Fanfare comic convention. We were more than happy to oblige. The next morning, he asked us to join him for breakfast. Amidst pans of bacon, lukewarm pancakes, and runny scrambled eggs, John waxed poetic about all sorts of things. Star Wars, the Suicide Squad, playwriting in Chicago, and even the secret origin of Wasteland all came tumbling out from John’s timid timbre. Matt, Kyle, and I sat in awe of an industry legend as he treated us as friends… not the drooling fanboys we were. And not to be undone by Mike Gold, John heaped a bit of praise on us (as we picked up the check): “Seriously, I don’t know how you guys do it. You have everything planned out to the nines. I’m in awe of you.” Not bad for the cost of a few plates of breakfast meat.
The CowFish with The Samurnauts
Unshaven Comics got greedy in 2013. Figuring we could sell tons of books by splitting up and covering more ground, we sent Unshaven Salesman 2000 (Kyle Gnepper) off to a show in Cincinnati whilst Unshaven Matt and I covered the HeroesCon in North Carolina. Knowing that sans-Kyle we’d be without our real power, our blue and yellow Samurnauts (Cherise and Erik) joined our menagerie to bolster our abilities. While we learned that four of us couldn’t match a single Gnepper, we did find something redeeming about the lackluster show. Unshackled from Kyle’s more predictable palette, the Samurnauts, Matt and I found a burger/sushi restaurant in a neighboring town. I could spend literally an entire article simply remarking about what all we ordered… or I could simply say we loved the place so much, the manager gave us coupons if we’d consider coming back the next night. And we very much did.
Brandy Hauman’s Homecooking
When Unshaven Comics makes the 14-hour trek from Chicago to New York (or, in fact, Homewood to Weehawken), ComicMix’s Glenn Hauman is always the most gracious of hosts — opening his home to us for the price of a few bottles of hooch. As the New York Comic Con sits on the single piece of New York real estate devoid of decent food, we often wind up at la Casa del Hauman for some real New Jersey takeout. But last year, Glenn’s amazing (talented, beautiful, funny, and charming) wife demanded she make us a home-cooked meal. A nice roasted chicken and some sides — but it was served over a table filled with laughter, embarrassing stories, and friendship. With this past NYCC our fourth journey to the city that never sleeps, this single meal stands out as a testament to the best part of the tri-state area: the people who you make friends.
Some BBQ joint in Stamford, CT
I’ll end here on the most sincere memory I have in regards to comics and food. As mentioned above with the meal at Miller’s Pub, with this meal Mike Gold quickly morphed from a coveted mentor to both a mentor and a mensch. When my wife and I got married in November of 2009, we’d invited all of the ComicMixers we knew — knowing that the gesture was largely symbolic given the distance any of them would have had to travel just to see a then super-fat Marc stomp on a glass and yell L’chaim. As it would turn out, the newly minted Mrs. Fishman and I would take our honeymoon out along the East Coast (we didn’t quite google that Cape Cod is really a summer town). Mike was quick to demand that on our way home, we move our route to swing down his way. There, not far from the WWE headquarters, Kathy and I would be greeted by Glenn, Mike, Linda, and a smattering of other ComicMix friends for a BBQ lunch. As with much of this list: I don’t remember the food as much as the feeling that I’d made friends I’ve held on to ever since. That these oddballs would welcome me and mine into their family has cemented that my life in comics has been filled with some of the finest meals a man could dine on.
Yesterday, Frank Coniff, a.k.a. TV’s Frank, revealed a little-known event: the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema folks who are having those women-only screenings of Wonder Woman that’s upsetting the snowflake boys so much, also held another such event. They did a screening of Baywatch – but just for those people who wanted to actually see Baywatch. I don’t think it did very well.
Nor did the snowflake boys. They are really pissed about these women-only screenings of Wonder Woman. They say it’s discrimination. They say it’s sexist. They say that if there were men-only screenings of, say, the next James Bond movie those very same women would be picketing the theater. Yeah, that high-heeled shoe sure is uncomfortable on the other foot, isn’t it?
Well, they’re right. It is discrimination. How does it feel, snowflakes? As a man who these gerbils respect and some worship said before many of them were born… Get a life!
To give lip service to sympathy, these guys have had a rough couple of years. They had to deal with the fact that the new heroic lead in the Star Wars series is a woman. In Doctor Strange, the Ancient One was morphed into a woman, and a white woman at that. The new Star Trek teevee series, if it actually ever gets on the air, stars two women in the leading roles. One is black, the other is Asian, for those of you who are still pissed that Idris Elba played the part of Heimdall in the Thor movies.
You know why this act of discrimination doesn’t bother me? Well, men have been routinely excluding women for several millennia. Private clubs, public bars, juries, the polls, combat… you know, we guys can live with a couple of women-only screenings of Wonder Woman. It ain’t gonna hurt nobody, and, quite frankly, if it brings more women into the world of superhero movies, that inures to the benefit of Geek Culture overall. More, better movies for everybody.
Hollywood has been saying women do not go to heroic fantasy movies, and they point to the box office failures of such films as Catwoman, Elektra and Supergirl. Personally, I think the fact that all of those movies really sucked had something to do with the revenue deficit. I’m looking to Wonder Woman to change that. Talk about your superhero feats.
I think these screenings sound like a lot of fun. If not for the snowflakes pissing in the fountain and my own political sensibilities, I’d be jealous. I wish the snowflakes were jealous as well. That’s far more adult than their current behavior.
Damn near the entire ComicMix staff already has their tickets for Wonder Woman, with the arguable exception of Glenn Hauman, who is in Ireland right now teaching falcons how to write code. Did I mention our staff is more than 50% women? Seriously. How many of the snowflakes wanted to read Emily’s piece about Wonder Woman fashions yesterday? Only those with girlfriends. Both of them. Buh-dump-bump.
Some snowflakes say they are going to boycott Wonder Woman. They’re too late. If they wanted to do some good, they should have boycotted Batman v. Superman. But for those few who do give Wonder Woman a pass, hey, there’s always seating available for Baywatch.
The most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly featured an article about and interview with Emma Watson, playing Belle in the upcoming live-action Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. She may be best known for playing Hermione in the Harry Potter films. In addition to being very talented, Ms. Watson is also very smart and very articulate. As the article notes, she has also been a leader in feminist causes.
In the article, she’s asked why it is hard for some male fans to enjoy a female hero. (Witness the fanboy furor at the all-female remake of Ghostbusters and the female leads in the last two Star Wars films.) She replied: “It’s something they [some male fans] are not used to and they don’t like that. I think if you’ve been used to watching characters that look like, sound like, think like you and then you see someone [unexpected] up on the screen, you go ‘Well, that’s a girl; she doesn’t look like me. I want it to look like me so that I can project myself onto the character.’. . .for some reason there’s some kind of barrier there where [men] are like: ‘I don’t want to relate to a girl.’”
That sounds right to me. We’ve seen that attitude prevalent not only in movie fans but comic fans as well. There’s a wish fulfillment, a fantasy fulfillment, in comics and comics-related TV and movies, in fantasy as well and we want to be able to easily project ourselves into that. For some male fans, a woman doesn’t cut it. The bias also can extend to seeing someone of a different race as the hero. I think it’s certainly true about sexual identity as well. To appeal to a certain demographic, the hero, the lead, cannot be female, or black, or gay. And heaven forbid they should be all three; tiny minds might explode.
Why is that? A good story takes us out of ourselves, expands our notions of who we are and who we can be. Why the resistance to that with some of the white male audience? Why the insistence that the character be as they are?
It comes down to how we define ourselves. Just as an artist can use “negative space” to define objects, so we define ourselves often not only by who and what we are but by who and what we are not. It becomes very black-and-white thinking; that which is me or like me is right and that which is not me or not like me is wrong, is less, is inferior. This is becoming a crucial issue not only in the stories we tell but in what we laughingly call “real life.”
Are you Arab? Do you wear a turban? Are you black? Are you gay? Are you female? Then you are not like me, you are “Other.” And that is inherently dangerous. We cannot be equal. It comes down to “zero-sum thinking” which says that there is only so many rights, so much love, so much power to be had. If I have more of any of these than you, I must lose some for you to gain.
Some of the people feel they don’t have much. I remember a line from Giradoux’s one-act play The Apollo of Bellac: “I need so much and I have so little and I must protect myself.” Sharing is not gaining; sharing is losing what little you may have.
Except it’s not. If for you to keep your power intact, you must deny someone else the power to which they have a right, it’s not really your power. It’s theirs and it’s been stolen.
Pop culture has its part to play. Putting women, blacks, gays, Latinos, and others in the central role helps normalize the notion of equality. Mary Tyler Moore did it; Bill Cosby (gawd help me) did it, Rogue One does it. However, pop culture can – and has – also re-enforced negative stereotypes. So – how do we engage it for more positive results?
Denny O’Neil, many years ago, when he was editing a special project I was working on told me, “You can say anything you want but first you have to tell a story.” That’s your ticket in. “Tell me a story” appeals to the very roots of who we are as human beings. It’s how we explain and codify our world. If you want to open a closed mind, go through the heart. Don’t lecture; engage. Show, don’t tell. Showing women, blacks, LGBTQ, Latinos, Asians, and so on as heroes, as something positive, normalizes the notion. If I can be made to identify with them then The Other is no longer strange; they are me and, thus, not other.
So I’m looking forward to Belle in Beauty and the Beast. And after that?
Science Fiction is a term that means a lot of different things to a lot of different fans. When I was kid I thought it kind of meant Star Trek and Lost in Space, Bradbury books and the Twilight Zone episodes that included aliens. Of course, it’s so much bigger than that. There are subgenres and all kinds of slivers of fandoms that are populated with bazillions of fans. And Star Wars, of course, has just about transcended the entire genre and become its own thing.
So it’s was all the more interesting that a local art exhibit chose to focus on the earliest incarnation of science fiction. It’s called “Fun in Space: An Homage to Pulp Science Fiction.”
Pulp Science Fiction is cheesy and brilliant all at the same time. Pulps often sported lurid and garish covers aimed at adolescent males. On the other hand, so many authors, like Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Heinlein started telling their endearing and enduring tales in the pulps.
Lurid and garish are two of my favorite adjectives, so it’s natural that I just love old pulp covers. They’re silly, naïve and needlessly sexualized. They are also lovely and skillfully rendered, all with an intense sense of urgency and excitement.
The show’s curator is Steve Nyland. He’s enthusiastic and focused, able to make something like this art show happen and able to convince all the powers that be that it should happen. Nyland told me about how he developed a love for pulp science fiction stories as a kid and it’s never left him.
One of my favorites pulps has been an old issue of Fantastic Adventures that showcases the story “Invasion from the Deep” by Paul W. Fairman. The cover shows a submarine crew astonished as a giant – and I mean giant – undersea princess is bursting through the waves riding an equally giant seahorse.
At the heart of it all – this “Fun in Space” exhibit channeled that frenetic energy. My favorite piece is a recreation of an old issue of Fantastic Adventures featuring the unforgettable story, the Justice of Tor. (Well, OK, that story is actually completely forgettable, but the cover is gorgeous.)
There is so much great artwork here that channels the charm of old science fiction, especially one evoking an Al Feldstein EC Comics cover and another with mash-up of iconic sci fi characters. I was nice to see Spock dancing with Princess Leia.
And cosplay is everywhere! Even at opening night for a Science Fiction art exhibit in downtown Syracuse. On hand were clever cosplayers, celebrating the many aspects of the genre.
The contributing artists stretched a bit too – with some cool sculptures and painted sneakers and furniture.
The gallery is part of a business incubator in downtown Syracuse New York called the Tech Garden. It makes all the sense in the world that a business building that attracts dreamers and non-traditionalists would host an art show that attracts dreamers and non-traditionalists.
I wish I could refrain from corny puns and not write that the opening was “out of this world,” but it was a fun, upbeat celebration by a passionate bunch of talented artists for like-minded geeks.
More than once over the years I’ve been approached by someone who says that they have a great idea for a story and that I should write it and then we split any money evenly. The problem with this (aside from the fact that the work is not even) is that I have plenty of ideas of my own that, for one reason or another, never get written. Having ideas isn’t the problem; executing them is.
Here are a few ideas I’ve had in my journal that haven’t seen the light of day.
Spectre/Batman Alt Worlds
An alternate DC Universe idea set back in the Thirties, we start with the Waynes getting gunned down in an alley, but this time young Bruce is killed as well. This sets off such a furor that something has to be done. Commissioner Gordon decides on someone from the outside and so brings in a tough as nails New York plainclothes detective named Jim Corrigan to clean things up.
Corrigan tears things up pretty well but finds himself as hamstrung as Gordon does. Frustrated, he gets the idea of an alternate identity and becomes the Bat-Man; however, this one carries .45s and shoots to kill.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne’s spirit rages in the afterlife about the injustice of what happened to him and his family. A voice offers him a chance at retribution and he takes it. A 10-year old Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham as the Spectre.
Inevitably, the paths of Bat-Man and the Spectre collide and leads to the ultimate confrontation. Corrigan dies and Bruce is stripped of the Spectre powers but given a chance to live his life again. He becomes Gordon’s ward. In the meantime, Corrigan is given the mantle of the Spectre.
Why didn’t it go? This would have fallen under the “Elseworlds” banner and DC has stopped doing those.
Star Wars: Han Solo miniseries
This one is set between Episodes IV and V when the Rebel Alliance is hidden on the ice planet Hoth. Mon Mothma, trying to negotiate for another planet to join the Alliance, is grabbed by some space pirates and held for ransom. If the Alliance doesn’t want to pay up, the kidnappers will sell her to the Empire.
Leia and Luke are off on separate adventures but Han, Chewie and the Millennium Falcon are on hand. Han knows the kidnappers and tells the Alliance leaders he should bring the ransom and get Mon Mothma back. He figures that the Princess would like that and, who knows, he might be able to claim at least part of the ransom as a reward. The plan includes double crossing the pirates, including some old acquaintances.
It all gets more complicated when the Empire learns that the pirates have Mon Mothma and dispatch a Star Destroyer with Darth Vader to grab Mon Mothma and dispatch the kidnappers. Han gets a hold of Mon Mothma just as the Empire shows up and its all a mad scramble to escape the pirates and the Empire.
The tone was meant to be light and fun and focus on Han as a rogue.
Why didn’t it go? Right around the time that I came up with the idea, Dark Horse was losing the license to the franchise. Marvel, who got it, doesn’t appear to be interested in those who did Star Wars for DH. I don’t blame them; they want their take on it.
DC has/had been having trouble re-launching its venerable Legion of Super-Heroes (LSH). Is the concept – teen superheroes routinely saving the galaxy – outdated?
I like jumping stories down their own timeline; witness Star Wars: Legacy. I thought I’d jump this narrative down its timeline by 500-1000 years. The United Planets no longer exist; the LSH is nowhere to be found. The Khund Empire rules and Earth itself had been shattered and is an asteroid ring around the sun. Super-powered beings were barred or restricted to their own planets.
In all this a young man emerges; the only name he gives is Legion. He has with him several LSH flight rings and he travels through the galaxy trying to find super-powered beings to join him in an attempt to overthrow the Khunds.
Since I like what I call narrative alloys, this was an attempt to cross the concept of LSH with Star Wars.
Why didn’t it go? DC had its own plan for the LSH and I guess they thought this would muddy the waters. Or they just didn’t like my take.
There’s lots of other ideas and concepts in my journal and/or my computer. Two of them will be up this year; Tom Mandrake and I (with Jan Duursema) are preparing Kros: Hallowed Ground for the printer right now and then Jan and I will be completing Hexer Dusk. Both are independent projects funded through Kickstarter. Both have taken a lot of thought, energy, and effort to realize.
So, as you see, the problem is not a lack of ideas. Everybody gets ideas. The problem is what do you do with them. Some just never come together and some never get an okay. So you file it and move on to the next. You work at what’s working but you don’t lose track of the ideas you’ve had. You just never know.
It was 1977. Lee Speller and I had just hopped (read: rode free) the subway to Manhattan. No easy feat at any subway station. You’re gambling an undercover cop won’t be among the passengers watching you break the law. You run the risk of getting an expensive ticket or getting arrested, but in Far Rockaway, Queens, you can add getting killed to that list.
The trains are elevated, so we had to climb the outside of a three-story stairwell, jump down onto the platform which was going the wrong way, and cross the tracks. Now being the geniuses we were, instead of simply going downstairs and crossing over to the right side of the platform, we crossed the tracks which included the 50,000-volt third rail. One slip, just one touch, and we were dead.
It never occurred to us that the tollbooth attendant would never have known if we just climbed onto the platform.
We thought little of the third rail on any of our trips to Manhattan. We were going to the movies and needed all our money for a ticket and snacks. Lee and I couldn’t wait to see the film we had been talking about since we saw the commercial on TV.
We saw the 8 pm show; and afterward, we hung out a bit on 42nd street so we could look at hookers. (Look, we were kids from the hood had no money and these women had on next to nothing. Hell, people, this was our cable TV.)
It wasn’t long before this beautiful Latino lady started talking to us. “You looking for a date?” she asked.
“Sure, but I only have a dollar,” I said.
“A DOLLAR?” she said, while motioning her fellow ladies of the evening to come over. This always happened. These girls would be bored so they would look for some young gawker to ridicule to bide away the time. Lee and I had been the tool more than once.
This time we were ready.
“He’s only got a dollar, girls!” she shouted this so everyone could hear and join in our verbal beat down.
I waited a few minutes allowing some in the crowd to join in with the usual remarks about being poor, small penis, etc.
Then it was my turn.
“Yeah, I only have a dollar— just wanna make sure you have change,” I said.
“Yeah. Lee joined in. Seventy-five cents way too big a tip.”
Lee and I cracked up— the ladies? Not so much. In fact, they were so unhappy they summoned this huge guy over to kick our ass. We took off running and this gorilla looking mofo did so also. Unfortunately, the ladies were posted in front of our subway station, and the baboon didn’t look like he was tiring.
After a few blocks, Lee and I saw a long line of people waiting to get into a movie theater. The guy most likely was just trying to scare us, OR he was going to bust a cap in our asses. Regardless, he wasn’t about to do anything in front of a group. The crowd started moving into the building. Lee and I smoothly joined the front of the line and with a few ‘hood looks’ dared someone to say something.
No one did, well no one but us. “THAT GUY JUMPED THE LINE!” We pointed out our pursuer who was quickly stopped by ushers. We had no idea what movie we were going to see and were fully prepared to jet (leave) if it was some On Golden Pond type of shit.
It was Star Wars.
The moment Princess Leia showed up on screen any thoughts of leaving vanished. “DAMN SHE FINE!” I said way too loud but couldn’t care less because she was. That woman that movie that night changed my life as I was young stupid and reckless way back when. I often think about risks I took— stepping over 50,000 volts and pissing off a pimp were just two in a long list of foolishness. Hindsight, they say, is 20/20, and I do regret most of the near life ending acts I participated in growing up.
That night Lee and I risked death twice but saw Princess Leia?
It’s very clear that barring some sort of production-related catastrophe, we will get a Star Wars movie every December until they stop being profitable. For the foreseeable future it seems that on the even years we will get “Star Wars Stories”— little asides not directly connected to the main movies but providing some backstory or context or simply fleshing out the edges of a galactic civil war. Rogue One is the week or two directly before the original Star Wars and showcases the work that had to happen to get Luke Skywalker in position to fire a torpedo into an exhaust port. It isn’t as flashy or grandiose as what we’ve seen before, but they’ve made a grisly little space war film here. Well, as little a movie as you can make for $200 million anyway.
What we’re getting in Rogue One that we haven’t gotten before in Star Wars is a grittier look at the Rebellion war effort fighting against the Empire. In the seven films we’ve gotten so far, all of the characters are larger than life heroes who are largely above the fray of the day-to-day war. Han, Luke, and Leia are so far above the fray for 90% of the original trilogy they only operate at the highest levels. Rogue One gives us characters who operate at the lower levels of the war. Our main character is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a fugitive/criminal sort of forcefully conscripted in to the Rebel Alliance to assist intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial assault droid (Alan Tudyk) on a rather convoluted mission (there are six steps and they probably could have gotten away with three) to get the plans to the Death Star. Along the way they pick up a defecting Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed), a wannabe Jedi (Donnie Yen), and his mercenary protector (Jiang Wen) to make up a ragtag band of resistance fighters. There are times when they feel a little bit like the assortment of Star Wars characters you would put together for a tabletop RPG, but the supporting characters absolutely work.
The main characters are a little rougher. Its hard to suss out what Cassian or Jyn really want out of the events of the movie besides a vague desire to do what the plot demands. Jyn wants to be reunited with her father but she doesn’t do very much to make it happen, nor does she react particularly emotionally when it doesn’t work out. Cassian is just a soldier who wants what a soldier wants and never has any time for deeper motivations. The most egregious example of poor character work comes in the form of Orson Krennic, the film’s primary antagonist. I believe that he’s evil and should be stopped based solely on the fact that he devoted his life to building the Death Star, but he doesn’t spend the movie doing anything particularly evil, rather he spends it trying to ensure he gets credit for his work from his superiors. That isn’t jump-off-the-screen evil, and it means he gets overshadowed by every other prominent Imperial in the film. These three principles just needed clearer goals and a bigger push.
There’s some stunning work being done in the visual effects department for this movie. The space battles seem more dynamic than anything I’ve seen on screen, better than The Force Awakens mostly because it’s trying to do something altogether different than anything I’ve seen in a Star Wars film before. The interplay between the war in orbit and the mission on the ground made everything feel a little more real, an odd thing too say about a movie about space battles and lasers that emulate atomic bombings. An effect that did not go over as well was the digital way they make actors look like actors from the older movies. They do it a few times and it never looked quite right— the attempt to recreate Peter Cushing failed completely for me. It was firmly in the uncanny valley, and I spent an entire scene featuring him just thinking about how oddly his upper lip was moving. George Lucas would have been endlessly trashed for a stunt like this, and it’s only that Disney hasn’t burned through all the good will yet that saves them from the same critique. Parts get recast all the time, they can do it here too.
I’m excited to see Star Wars “go wide” like this, to start exploring stories and ideas that would have been shuffled off in to the Expanded Universe a decade ago and putting them on the big screen. Rogue One feels a bit like a novel and there’s some good and bad with that (the main characters feel tailor-made to not ruffle any existing continuity) but it’s ambitious and different and that good far outweighs the occasional fit of mundanity. I want to see other kinds of movies in this setting; from this kind of war movie to perhaps more ambitious science fiction and quieter character pieces. We might never get any of that but right now it all seems possible— and Rogue One is lighting the way.