STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE Is Still A Miss 20 Years Later

This piece is two years old; I wrote it in February 2017 and posted it on Facebook. Today is the 20th anniversary of the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and I wanted to commemorate it but didn’t have the forethought to sit down and watch the movie again. But this piece, which represents my latest revisit of the film, feels pretty spot-on to me still two years later. I’ve gone back to the Prequels again and again, hoping each time the changes in me have changed the way I see the movies. This has not been the case. In fact, this post came after I bought the Prequels on Blu as an attempt to revisit them in full in a spiritual/Buddhist light. I never made it past Attack of the Clones.

Note: I have made minor edits to this for clarity and grammar, but not for content. This piece is maybe more jargon-y than I would write today, but maybe that’s a problem with me today. I reference a thing I wrote about Yoda’s fear/anger/hate/suffering bit that I have not published on this site; maybe I will at some point. Finally, this was written before The Last Jedi, which I think has a top tier John Williams score.

I just finished the book The Dharma of Star Wars, which finds parallels and examples of Buddhist teachings in the Force and the Jedi, and it really impressed me. Much of the book’s content related to events from the Prequel Trilogy, and it made me wonder if these films – which I had maligned for so long – were actually brilliant Trojan horses smuggling dharma into the minds of impressionable Western children. The book’s pretty good in general – out of all the Buddhist stuff I’ve read/listened to in the last few months it’s the work that moved my understanding of ‘no self’ furthest. So I decided to give the Prequels another shot, with a Buddhist perspective. 

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Your Worst Day Is Your Best Day: The Wisdom Of James Gunn

James Gunn is a good writer. You can tell from his movies, and his novel, but you can really tell from the interview he did with Deadline this week, the first interview he has given since being fired from and then re-hired for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3. The interview seems to be an email one (there are too many well-placed semi-colons for this to have actually been transcribed by someone at the site, imo), and in that medium Gunn gets to really write his responses in a way that lets them sing. If he’s not writing these I’m even more impressed – this is some great speaking, and I say that as someone who has met James Gunn a bunch and know he’s a great off-the-cuff speaker.

Anyway, there’s a section in the interview where he talks about the day that he got fired. He leads in saying that, like many of us, he got into the arts because he wanted to be loved, to be adored, to be seen.

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This Has Always Been What GAME OF THRONES Is

This has always been what Game of Thrones is. Last night’s episode has torn the internet asunder, but I feel like it was only fulfilling the premise of the entire series; if anything last night’s episode is proof that the show has strayed too far from George RR Martin’s cynical worldview in the past season or two, lulling us into a fantasy football version of ‘who will take the throne?’ But the story has always been suspicious of anyone who wants the throne, and has always shown that those who vie for it, even for the best of reasons, are eventually monsters. 

What you have to keep in mind is that A Song Of Ice And Fire, the book series from which Game of Thrones is adapted, is George RR Martin’s answer to Lord of the Rings. Martin is a huge fan of Tolkien, but he started this series as a critique of the Manichaean good vs evil concepts that LOTR baked into pretty much all high fantasy afterwards. More than that, he took issue with the idea of ‘Happily ever after.’ Don’t just believe me on this, here is Martin himself, talking to Rolling Stone:

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The Unexpected Spiritual and Emotional Wisdom of… SNL?!

There’s this thing in recovery we call ‘pulling a geographic,’ which is when you decide all of your problems are actually caused by the city/town in which you live and so you move, often drastically. The problem with pulling a geographic is that actually all of your problems are caused by you and how you respond to bad things happening around you, and bad thing will always be happening around you. It’s the nature of the world!

At first this SNL sketch from last night seems like it’ll be a parody of ubiquitous package tour commercials I grew up watching on NYC local television, but then it morphs into something way wiser, which is crazy. I’m not going to do that thing people do today with SNL, which is to dissect this butterfly, but I will tell you my own experience with this exact phenomenon.

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How AVENGERS ENDGAME Changes The MCU Forever

This contains spoilers for Avengers Endgame.

There is a delicate, unspoken balance that must exist in a superhero universe. For a superhero story to work, the world in which the superheroes live must resemble our own – with the exception that it has superheroes. The impacts of superheroes can be explored… to a point, after which the whole house of cards tumbles down.

The balance is precarious. Go too far in one direction and you find the audience asking why Tony Stark doesn’t solve the energy crisis or global warming, or why Shuri and the Wakandans don’t cure cancer. Yes, characters can go into space, but we can’t have a colony on the Moon. Go too far and the science fictional world of superheroes – a world one day in the future – becomes a world that is gradually unrecognizable, that is fully futuristic science fiction.

Avengers Endgame creates just such a world, and beyond simply ignoring it I don’t know how future films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will deal with it.

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GAME OF THRONES And The Perils Of Self-Betterment

This week’s Game of Thrones was one of the best of the whole series (I’d put it up there with the best of TV in the 21st century, tbh), and it was only possible because the show has lasted eight seasons. On paper the episode is a slow one, a bit of a stall before the big battle next week – billed as the biggest battle scene ever filmed for television – but in reality it was the beautiful payoff of eight seasons worth of story and character. What we got this week was an episode where almost all of our main characters showed us just how far they’ve come since the first episode (or their first appearance). 

When GOT started it seemed like it was a show that would be about deconstructing heroism and chivalry; Ned Stark’s death was the real battle cry for this, and the way that the bad guys won again and again hammered it home. The Stark children have either been killed – RIP Robb, and remember Rickon? – or become incredibly hardened to survive in this difficult world. Arya is a killer, Bran is a humorless mystic and Sansa is an iron lady who takes absolutely no shit. 

But there’s been another track happening – bad characters have, slowly but surely, been redeemed. In fact some of the show’s worst people – characters who, in the first season seemed absolutely like villains – have become some of the most honorable, decent and caring characters remaining. 

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Can GAME OF THRONES Give Us A Happy Ending?

This includes mild spoilers for the first episode of Game of Thrones season 8.

When Game of Thrones premiered – way back in the FIRST Obama term! – its season-ending refutation of heroic tropes was groundbreaking. Ned Stark being executed, despite being the hero and being noble and seemingly the only guy in Westeros who wasn’t a piece of shit, hit like a hammer. George RR Martin’s novels had eviscerated the hopefulness of heroic fantasy years earlier, but his cynicism coming to television was revolutionary, even post-Sopranos (there’s a difference between rooting for bad guys and rooting for heroes who get roundly defeated at every turn).

But the world of 2019, in which Game of Thrones is ending, is vastly different from the world of 2011. Everything has changed in the past eight years, from sexual norms to our very national character; we went from a hopeful and oblivious nation to one that has memorized the warning signs of fascist takeover. The thrills we got from seeing the good guys get kicked in the teeth are gone, and more than gone watching the good guys get kicked in the teeth feels too much like the real world outside our doors. So how can Game of Thrones end in a way that feels true to its story and themes while not leaving us in nihilistic despair?

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Last Week’s DISCO Gave Us An All-Time Great STAR TREK Moment

There are great moments of heroism and personal sacrifice in the history of Star Trek, moments that illustrate the best of humanity in the worst of situations. From Kirk allowing Edith Keeler to die in order to save history, Picard holding firm that there are four lights, or Spock quietly getting out of his chair and heading to engineering at the end of Wrath of Khan, these moments are some of the most beloved in the almost 700 hours of Trek canon.

Not every Trek gets a moment as good as these, but last week Star Trek Discovery got its own – and it was a moment that I think ranks high in the pantheon of great Trek. If you’ve been watching the show this season it might come as no surprise that the moment centers around Christopher Pike, new captain of the Disco, who has been such a wonderful and invigorating addition to the show that fans have taken to Change.org to start petitions demanding actor Anson Mount get his own spinoff series.

See, Pike would need a spinoff, he can’t stay on the show, since he’s a character deeply embedded in Star Trek lore, and his future is well-known to fans. It’s a dark one.

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SHAZAM! Earns The Exclamation Point

Being a hero is a choice, one that’s never too late to make and that never has to be made alone. That trinity of concepts is the beautiful and emotional throughline that holds together the light, breezy and fun Shazam!, taking this superheroic riff on Big and elevating it to a place that resonates on the same emotional and thematic frequency as Donner’s Superman, a movie as focused on the small humanity of heroism as the big superhumanity of it.

Based on one of the least cool DC characters, a character who was ingested into that universe in a business deal but who has never quite found his place in the pantheon (not for lack of trying or lack of quality comics), Shazam!opts to embrace everything that makes its source material so out of step. It’s a family movie, a funny movie, a loving movie, a hopeful movie, a movie whose hero earnestly says “Holy moly” a couple of times. Most of all it’s a kid’s movie, just as Shazam (or Captain Marvel as he seemingly cannot be legally called in this film) is a kid’s hero. And I don’t mean that in a dismissive or condescending way, but rather that the character represents the positive peak of the wish-fulfillment possibilities of the superhero genre.

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Now On Patreon: FIGHT CLUB Tried To Warn Us

This is a preview of a longer essay available to $10 and above Patrons at the CinemaSangha Patreon.

Fight Club was the “Bin Laden Determined To Strike In US” of this whole MAGA/Proud Boys/GamerGate/MRA/brocialist/dirtbag left moment, a warning cry from the last moments of the 20th century to the 21st, gone unheeded.

More than unheeded it went profoundly misunderstood; the very people it was warning us about took it to heart and saw it less a cautionary tale and more an instruction manual. Like the film’s Space Monkeys they flocked to the cult of Tyler Durden, unaware of his hollowness. It can be no coincidence that two of the most subversive movies of 1999 – Fight Club and The Matrix – spawned memes and trends that appeal to the most toxically masculine, despite neither film coming from the imagination of a cishet man. The Wachowskis, trans women, gave the alt-right and friends the idea of “Red Pilling,” and Chuck Pahlahniuk, gay man, gave the trolls Project Mayhem. We can never actually get to post-irony because we’re so fucking steeped in it.

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