The Daily Ed

‘The Last Jedi’ controversy

I finally got around to watching The Last Jedi (2017) tonight. This is the Star Wars film that created so much of a stir three years ago for its perceived nods to identity politics. Google “The Last Jedi SJW” and you’ll get some idea of what I’m talking about.

I’m coming very late to this controversy. I’ll therefore be brief, but I will have my say. The Last Jedi is well…rather ho-hum. But the controversy about it is much overblown.

I am the sort of viewer who is supposed to be offended by The Last Jedi. The original Star Wars is part of my youth. I was nine years old in the summer of 1977, when I watched the first film in a cinema in Cincinnati with my dad. The last installment in the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi (1983), came out when I was fourteen, and a freshman in high school. Back in the day, I loved Star Wars.

I’m also politically conservative. Guess who I voted for last week! Poke around this blog, and you’ll find that I don’t care much for divisive identity politics. This blog is full of microaggressions and triggers!

I also recognize that the cast of The Last Jedi is perfectly—and improbably—racially diverse and gender-balanced. And yes, I caught the not-so-subtle feminist messaging in the film, too. Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) reminds me of an officious manager I had to endure for three years in the corporate world.

And finally, all the bad guys in The Last Jedi are white dudes.

Yes, all that’s true. But…so what? I didn’t think it was racist to make Lando Calrissian a shady (and Black) character in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I never complained about the predominance of white males in the original Star Trek. I could have cared less! I still don’t care.

In 2013, there was a loud and unnecessary brouhaha over actress Alice Eve appearing in her underwear in a scene in Star Trek Into Darkness. I was like, “Big deal; Alice Eve looks damn fine in her skivvies.” Because she does.

Alice Eve in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Therefore, I’m not going to get worked up over a little self-conscious diversity in The Last Jedi. Furthermore, I rather like the characters Rey (portrayed by Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega).

This isn’t 1978; and yes, I understand that filmmakers, novelists, and television show runners take diversity into account. Partly this is politics, but partly it is just good marketing.

For example: It would be self-defeating to create a story/film/TV series with no interesting female characters. Women are one half of the viewing/reading audience, don’t forget!

I frankly roll my eyes at the outrage over The Last Jedi. But then, I rolled my eyes at the outrage over Alice Eve’s underwear scene in Star Trek Into Darkness.

I have a message for everyone: Lighten up! Life is too short to get worked up over freakin’ science fiction movies.

That said, all of the Star Wars films to come out after the original trilogy (1977 – 1983), have been lesser films for me. I remember watching The Phantom Menace in 1999, and thinking: This isn’t as good as any of the first three films.

Part of that is nostalgia, perhaps. I’m open to that possibility. Also, my youth at the time. I was nine years old when I watched Star Wars (1977) for the first time. I was in my early thirties when I saw The Phantom Menace

I rather think, though, that Star Wars should have ended in 1983. All of the films since then have failed to capture the dramatic feel of the original trilogy. At the same time, they haven’t been equally compelling in their own right. To me, they feel like movie versions of fan fiction.

Speaking of Daisy Ridley: She was born in 1992, fifteen years after the first Star Wars hit the cinemas. The Star Wars franchise is now more than 40 years old. It was great! But it’s time to move on to other stories.

Allow me to reiterate: I don’t like divisive, bean-counting identity politics. I don’t like contrived outrage over innocuous cheesecake scenes like the Alice Eve scene in Star Trek Into Darkness. (Everyone really, really needs to lighten up.)

But I’m good with diverse characters and strong female characters. I would just like to see them in something other than yet another Star Wars sequel/prequel/standalone. That universe has already been milked for all it’s worth.

‘The Howling’ (*very* quick review)

I watched The Howling (1981) tonight. This is one of a handful of enduring werewolf films that came out in the early 1980s.

Here’s the setup: After a television newswoman (Dee Wallace) has a harrowing experience with a serial killer, she goes to a mountain resort to recover. The problem? The locals are all werewolves. Predictable hijinks ensue. 

This movie is almost 40 years old, and well…it shows. The soundtrack sounds like elevator music. The choreography is dated. When blood splatters (as it often does in werewolf movies), it looks like something from a can marked Sherwin-Williams. 

Nevertheless, there are some genuinely creepy scenes in this movie. One of the strengths of The Howling (noted even at the time) was the makeup artistry of Rob Bottin. The werewolves in this movie do look real, even if the blood doesn’t.

Strong performances in this film by Dee Wallace, as well as the late Christopher Stone and the late Elisabeth Brooks. 

This movie does, nevertheless, contain a few clichés that would be best avoided by a savvy filmmaker approaching this subject in the modern era. For example: two metamorphosing werewolves having explicit sex. This would be hard to do convincingly even with today’s CGI technology. It was really hard in 1981, and should not have been attempted, in this viewer’s opinion. 

This is not a bad movie, but it isn’t a particularly memorable one, either. Among werewolf films of that era, I much prefer An American Werewolf in London, which was released the same year.

‘The Good Lord Bird’: much better than I expected

John Brown (1800 – 1859) is remembered today mostly for his attack on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The attack ended with Brown’s arrest, conviction, and hanging.

Before Harper’s Ferry, though, John Brown was also involved in the troubles in Kansas. During the 1850s, pro-slavery southerners clashed with anti-slavery free soilers. The results were often bloody—hence the term, “Bleeding Kansas”. The violence in Kansas never really extinguished itself; it spilled into the larger violence of the U.S. Civil War.

While in Kansas, Brown carried out operations with his own small militia group. Brown was fueled by a mixture of abolitionist fervor, religious zeal, and (probably) mental illness. Stark egotism was also a factor. Brown occasionally freed slaves. But mostly he killed whites whom he deemed guilty of association with slavery—sometimes rightly, and sometimes wrongly.

John Brown was—-in some ways—not unlike the violent white progressives of modern times, who foist themselves on Black-dominated groups like Black Lives Matter, often for purposes of their own agendas and their own self-aggrandizement. For this reason alone, I was extremely skeptical of The Good Lord Bird, a historical miniseries about the latter days of John Brown. This is an election year, and I figured that The Good Lord Bird would be some kind of leftwing Hollywood agitprop.

Having watched the first two episodes, I am happily surprised. The series is actually quite good, and not overtly political.

The Good Lord Bird is told from the perspective of Henry Shackleford, a fictional escaped slave who joins Brown’s militia operations with mixed emotions. We get the sense that Shackleford just wants to get on with his life, but Brown is determined to draft him into a higher spiritual/political cause.

Ethan Hawke is cast as John Brown. Having read several biographies of the real John Brown, I don’t find Hawke completely convincing. I don’t fault Hawke for falling short here. John Brown would be an extremely difficult role for any actor.

John Brown, moreover, isn’t really the star of The Good Lord Bird. Despite the weightiness of this historical period, the miniseries is best described as a coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of American history. Henry Shackleford (played by the young actor Joshua Caleb Johnson) is the real star of The Good Lord Bird.

In the second episode of the miniseries, Shackleford disguises himself as a young woman in order to make his way through pro-slavery territory with another escaped slave. The two are diverted to a town that is a staunch pro-slavery enclave. While there, Shackleford takes refuge in a brothel, where he teaches a worldly prostitute how to read, even as he develops an adolescent boy’s crush on her.

The Good Lord Bird is set in the 1850s. At this time, slavery was legal in much of the United States. Racial inequalities were taken for granted. What we now refer to as racial epithets and hate speech were then just common speech.

Where appropriate, The Good Lord Bird deals frankly with these shameful aspects of our history. What The Good Lord Bird does not do (so far, at least) is descend into racial guilt porn. The writers and producers of the miniseries assume that you already have a negative view of slavery.

Nor is this a hagiography of John Brown. The Good Lord Bird depicts Brown as the very conflicted moral figure that history reveals him to be. For example, one scene shows Brown executing an innocent Southern sympathizer and family man in cold blood. In another scene, Brown is shown blithely risking the lives of escaped slaves and white accomplices alike in an ill-conceived militia operation.

The Good Lord Bird also has a sense of humor about its subject matter. This is not needlessly edgy, inappropriate humor of the Quentin Tarantino variety, but rather the kind of humor that one would expect in a well-written coming-of-age adventure story.

If you like good storytelling set against a historical backdrop, you can’t go wrong with The Good Lord Bird. The miniseries is available on Showtime.

Happy birthday, Weird Al

Today is the birthday of Weird Al Yankovic.

This is one of the acts from the 1980s that I very much enjoyed. Weird Al got his start in the MTV era (early 1980s) with parodies of mega-hits by Madonna and Michael Jackson. (This song, “Fat” is a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”.)

Weird Al in “Fat”

Weird Al is still around, but his heyday has passed. Satire is one of the many casualties of political correctness.

Consider “Fat”. If the song/video were released today, it would immediately draw fire for fat-shaming. And some of the song’s lines (“I’ve got more Chins than Chinatown”) would never pass muster among the Internet’s many self-appointed Committees of Public Safety. 

Also, there’s the fact that “Fat” involves a white guy parodying a black guy. What a microaggression! Systemic bigotry! (For the record: Weird Al always obtained the consent of the musical acts he parodied.)

“Fat” is still tolerated today as a relic of 1980s kitsch. Most of the social justice warriors are either too young to know of its existence, or they’ve since forgotten about it. 

There was a time when comedy, and other forms of artistic expression, could simply be fun, without everyone getting riled up about them, and contriving trivial pretexts for offense. Weird Al Yankovic is a champion of that better, vanished time. 

First frost

There was a distinct chill in the air this morning, as the temperature in the Cincinnati area dipped into the upper 30s. When I awoke, the heater had kicked on. (I set my furnace’s thermostat to 64 degrees before going to bed last night.)

When I walked outside, I noticed a light frost on my lawn. If you look closely at the above photo, you can see the thin coating of the white stuff.

The first frost means that the summer weather is really, truly over, and the real cold is not far ahead. The first frost means an end to grass mowing, insects, and walking outside in shirt sleeves.

Winter, as they were fond of saying in Game of Thrones, is coming. It happens every year, you know.

‘Night of the Lepus’: rabbits gone bad

In order to combat a crop-eating plague of ordinary rabbits in the American Southwest, a scientist experiments with hormone injections that will hopefully make the long-eared Leporids sterile.
 
But of course, something goes wrong, as it always does in horror movies. Instead of making the rabbits infertile, the hormones transform them into hyper-aggressive bunnies that are as large as Bengal tigers. They don’t eat people. (That might have been too much of a stretch, even for a movie like this.) But they sure like to kill and mutilate their human enemies.
 
That’s the setup for Night of the Lepus, a 1972 horror film.
 
Hokey? Sure. But this Nixon-era movie is actually not as bad as it sounds.
 
To begin with, some of the best acting talent of the day was involved. The cast includes Janet Leigh and DeForest Kelley, of Psycho and Star Trek fame, respectively. The screenplay, moreover, is written so as to make this outlandish premise as believable as it possible could be.
 
Not that there aren’t problems. The special effects are really, really bad—-even for fifty years ago. And then there’s the basic concept: Giant killer rabbits?
 
In one scene, a police officer grabs a bullhorn and announces to a crowd that killer rabbits are on the way, and everyone must take shelter. It must have been difficult for the actor to recite that line with a straight face.
 
Don’t cancel anything important to watch this movie. But if you like vintage horror films and you’re capable of suspending your disbelief for 88 minutes, you might enjoy Night of the Lepus. As bad horror movies go, this one is pretty good.

Early voting in Ohio

Early voting in Ohio began on October 6. I figured that if I gave it a week, the crowds would thin out, right?

Boy, was I wrong.

I showed up today to vote, and this was the line.

Overall, it wasn’t too bad. Mid-October is one of the few genuinely pleasant seasons in Ohio: cool crisp mornings, and balmy afternoons. If you have to spend some time standing on a sidewalk in the Buckeye State, this is an ideal season in which to do so. I was at the polling location for about an hour, from the time I took my place in line, until I left, my ballot entered.

I live in semi-rural Clermont County, east of Cincinnati near the Ohio River. My early voting location was in the county seat of Batavia, about twenty minutes from my house.

The poll workers were friendly and did their best to keep the line moving. But the volume of early voting this year clearly stretched the infrastructure. If you’ve been following the news, you’ll know that the situation is much the same throughout the country.

I don’t know who is going to win the election. But as I’ve previously stated, I do not believe that any poll, carried about by any organization, is capable of accurately predicting the outcome on November 3rd.

Not this year. There are simply too many variables. That’s why it’s important to vote.

I’m glad that I can now check this task off my to-do list.

Less than three weeks until Election Day. It will all be over soon.

Lovecraft Country: quick review (through episode 3)

When I first heard about Lovecraft Country, I was intrigued. The premise of the show is: a group of African Americans traveling across segregated America in the early 1950s, dodging white racists and Lovecraftian monsters. 

There is a lot about this show that I liked: To begin with, it is superbly cast. Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett have a good chemistry as the two leads. The main characters are also likable. The attention to period detail (in the sets, etc.) is meticulous. As the first episode opened, I really felt like I was transported back to the early 1950s. 

I enjoyed the first episode, too. But things started to fall apart midway through episode 2, and they collapsed in episode 3.

For one thing, after episode 1, the plot lines became not scary or suspenseful, but simply weird. By episode 3, the writers were moving the characters from one disjointed sex scene to another. (This is usually a sign that the writers have run out of ideas.) The plot went in random directions, without much structure at all.

Also, the Jim Crow/race angle. Racists of the Jim Crow era have long been stock villains of various movies, novels, and TV shows. The racial injustices in America during the 1950s were real and ever-present for African Americans. I get that; I’m not disputing it.

Good villains, however, should not be cartoon characters. Unfortunately, that’s what the human villains in Lovecraft Country became (very early on, I might add): the same old sputtering, dimwitted stock bigots that we’ve all seen in a hundred movies and television shows about the much-traversed topic of Race in America. It was as if the writers were afraid to give the villains any sophistication or wits at all (lest they appear sympathetic), and so they made them into caricatures. 

I really wanted to enjoy Lovecraft Country. This is a brilliant premise, but it is poorly executed. The show’s producers couldn’t seem to make up their minds whether Lovecraft Country should be straight horror series, a comedy-horror production, or yet another cinematic reminder that many white Americans were really, really racist in the 1950s. The final result is a show that isn’t scary, is often confusing, and is well…somewhat boring. 

I may give the series another try at a later date. But despite a few promising glimmers, the storyline and overall direction of Lovecraft Country are just too unfocused for my tastes. The writers owed Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett much better scripts. 

Remembering Eddie Van Halen and his music

I logged on to Facebook yesterday, and found that many of my friends were making posts about Edward “Eddie” Van Halen. The guitarist  succumbed to cancer yesterday at the age of 65.

My friends and I are all part of that generation that reached adolescence just as the rock band named for Eddie Van Halen was taking off. From my early teens through my early adult years, Van Halen’s music was indeed a fixture. I remember all the songs on Diver Down (1982), 1984 (1984), 5150 (1986) and OU812 (1988) when they were brand new, and no one had ever heard them before. I enjoyed most all of those songs, and I really liked a handful of them.

Eddie Van Halen did not try to change the world with his music. A few of of Van Halen’s songs contain vaguely mystic or generically motivational lyrics. (“Love Walks In” and “Right Now” come to mind here.) For the most part, though, Van Halen’s music was simply fun. It was music to listen to while you were working out in your high school’s weight room in 1983, or while you were driving around on a late summer afternoon in 1987. I still listen to Van Halen’s music on occasion, and I suspect that I always will.

But then there’s the man, Edward Lodewijk van Halen, who is being mourned today—especially by those of us old enough to remember his band’s heyday.

I have always been a bit ambivalent in regard to the effusive mourning of celebrities who did not know us, and who, therefore, would not have mourned us had we preceded them in death. I’m not sure that it really is possible to mourn someone we did not know personally. What we miss is their artistic output, and the era they were associated with in our lives. Eddie Van Halen’s music is certainly bound to an era in my life, as I’ve noted above.

Eddie Van Halen had a good run. He was wealthy and famous for most of his adult years, and he was able to spend those years doing something he loved. He did not live as long as he might have. But he lived long enough to become a senior citizen. That is something.

By all accounts, Eddie Van Halen had loving relations with family and friends, especially his surviving son, Wolf, who eulogized him on social media yesterday. He seems to have been a genuinely good-hearted and personable individual. In all the years he’s been in the public spotlight, I can’t recall a single negative news story or scandal involving him. That is something, too.

Yesterday marked the passing of a significant musical era, and also the passing of a life well-lived.  Edward Lodewijk van Halen, dead at 65. R.I.P.

Barry Farber: talk show host and author

Amid all of the loss and chaos of 2020, there was one death I missed: that of radio host and author Barry Farber. Barry Farber died on May 6, 2020.

I became a fan of Barry Farber’s radio talk show during the 1990s. I was in my twenties then, and my life circumstances necessitated a lot of driving. I don’t mind music; but a little bit of music goes a long way during a two-hour drive. For a really long drive, talk radio is a much better alternative. (Yes, audiobooks and podcasts are even better alternatives. But audiobooks in the 1990s were expensive, and mostly distributed in packages consisting of multiple cassettes. Podcasts were still twenty years in the future.)

Farber was a political conservative. As those old enough to remember the 1990s will know, this was the age of the bombastic Rush Limbaugh, and the outspoken G. Gordon Liddy. Rush Limbaugh declared America during the Clinton era to be “America under siege”. G. Gordon Liddy once advised listeners to “go for a head shot” if their homes were invaded by federal law enforcement officers.

Barry Farber was different. He was a soft-spoken man who appealed to simple standards of common sense. He saw both sides of complicated issues. In the aftermath of the LAPD’s beating of African American suspect Rodney King in 1991, Farber condemned the LAPD’s excesses. But he also condemned the excesses of those who insist on running from and fighting the police. Extreme actions invite extreme overreactions, Farber pointed out. Continue reading “Barry Farber: talk show host and author”

The value of old friends

I have many things to be thankful for. Among these is the longevity of certain friendships. I am 52 years old, and I still have friends from literally the first grade. These are people whom I met for the first time in the now antediluvian year of 1974.

This past Thursday night, one of those old friends planned a get-together at a little restaurant/bar here in Clermont County, Ohio. We had a good time catching up.

As the photo implies, I had coffee rather than an alcoholic beverage. I’m a teetotaler, more or less; but that’s another story for another time.

R.I.P., T.S. Paul

I regularly listen to a handful of podcasts for indie authors. These shows  rely heavily on guest appearances. Usually the guests are indie authors who have found success, and are willing to share their secrets. 

About three years ago, T.S. Paul started appearing on these shows. I knew immediately that he and I were two different kinds of people, and different kinds of authors. I could also tell that he was a bright guy, and worth watching. I figured that I could learn from him. 

T.S. Paul rejected much of the standard advice for indie writers. He didn’t believe in review-begging, for one thing. (Several times I heard him say in interviews, “I don’t care about reviews.”) He didn’t believe in making any of his titles free for mass giveaways, either. (He also once said, “I don’t believe in free.”) Continue reading “R.I.P., T.S. Paul”

Irish on YouTube

Like a lot of Americans, I have Irish ancestry. My grandmother’s people came from County Cork around the turn of the 20th century.

I’m also fascinated by foreign languages. (I’m always reading at least one book in Japanese, and another in Spanish.) It is only natural, then, that I should be drawn to the Irish language.

One of my great-great grandmothers came to the US by herself as a young woman. (This was actually a common pattern with Irish immigration.) She died about ten years before I was born, so I never met her. I’ve been told, though, that she spoke English with a heavy brogue. But she spoke no Irish. Continue reading “Irish on YouTube”

Rereading Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’

Dr. Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, Lucy Westenra, Mina Harker…

I thought it was time to revisit the characters and world of the original Dracula.

I read this book once back in 1987, when I was nineteen. I enjoyed it then, and I liked it even better the second time around on audio. 

Here are a few random observations, in no particular order: Continue reading “Rereading Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’”

‘Ford v Ferrari’

It’s been a while since a movie has grabbed me from the opening scene, pulled me in, and not let me go for more than two hours. That’s exactly what happened, though, when I watched the sports drama Ford v Ferrari, which lasts for an enthralling 152 minutes.

Here’s the setup, based on a true story: In the early 1960s, Ford Motor Company is stuck in a sales and image slump. Henry Ford II, the grandson of the company’s founder, charges vice president Lee Iacocca (played by Jon Bernthal) with bringing home a victory for the Ford racing team in the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France.

Iacocca initially approaches Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari about a Ford-Ferrari partnership. (Ferrari was the reigning corporate champion of auto racing in Europe.) But after a humiliating refusal from the Italian CEO, Iacocca must build an American team that can bring Ford’s new GT40 race car up to the task. Oh, and he also needs the right driver for the Le Mans.

This leads him to California, where he enlists the talents of performance car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon). Shelby is a brilliant designer, but his company is struggling financially, so the contract with Ford is a godsend.

And Shelby knows just the right driver for the race: Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a decorated World War II British bomber pilot turned racer. Miles has an instinctive understanding of every nut and bolt in a race car. He’s difficult to work with, though. In an early scene, Miles hurls a wrench at Shelby. In another scene, he sucker-punches him. And Shelby is his chief benefactor. Continue reading “‘Ford v Ferrari’”