Movies: Mockingjay 2, Sanjay’s Super Team, & The Good Dinosaur

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Durga from Sanjay’s Super Team

A bit of a binge on media this weekend, but what can you do with a four-day weekend, a Pixar film, and Mockingjay, Part 2?

Mockingjay, Part 2

I felt a bit disappointed. The book, for all of its struggle to balance the conflict between Katniss the Hero vs. a stark dystopian vision of colonialism, spectacle, and war had some things to say. Parts of the novel reminded me of All Quiet on the Western Front. Screenwriters felt the need to spell out everything about the conclusion, and some of the wartime horrors in the film feel rushed to get to the epilogue. There’s no obvious problems with the movie, but it doesn’t quite live up to the original Hunger Games.

Sanjay’s Super Team

This short is a departure for Pixar in multiple ways. To my knowledge, it’s the first semi-autobiographical short and the first short to deal explicitly with religion (Hinduism). I suspect it’s a bit of a ballsy move on Disney’s part to make it a Thanksgiving release. Unfortunately, I was tapped on the shoulder by someone who didn’t get that Disney runs animated shorts before the main feature. I’ll also admit a bit of bias having seen and loved director Sanjay Patel’s still art.

Stylistically, it’s beautiful, colorful, and luminous, a welcome departure from what’s become the Pixar/Disney/Dreamworks character style. Vishnu, Durga, and Hanuman are drawn in vivid color. The outer story of father/son conflict of religion vs. popular culture is perfectly structured and expressed. The inner story of Sanjay and the gods vs. a shapeshifting antagonist is a bit more difficult to parse. Still, it’s a superlative short for Pixar.

A clip with the director with spoilers:

The Good Dinosaur

The main feature, in contrast, left me a bit disappointed. I don’t think Pixar has ever produced a bad movie, and if the audience reaction is any indication Good Dinosaur was a hit with the kids. To me, the script and character animation didn’t quite live up to the meticulously designed scenery. Overall it’s not bad but I don’t think it’s going to be one of my favorites.

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Six-Gun Tarot

Book cover of a young but weathered man holding a jade eye to his face.
The Six-Gun Tarot

A pirate-ninja-witch, a son of Coyote, an unkillable sheriff, and a gay Mormon walk into the apocalypse.

I think two things make this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink fantasy work. First, it’s weird wild west and not Seattle, Chicago, New York, or London. The Western genre has been over-the-top since Sergio Leone sent us on a surreal trip across the civil war. It doesn’t go quite as far as King’s The Gunslinger, Jarmusch’s vision quest Dead Man, or the wire-fu Warrior’s Way.

The second saving grace of this book is that it embraces its weirdness rather than trying a charade of a “masquerade” or “Secret World.” Golgotha is the town where weird stuff happens. “Hey, John, remember that time with the rat people?” (paraphrased from memory.) It’s the kind of place where the mayor can organize an evacuation or the sheriff can hand out silver bullets without anyone blinking an eye.

A fair bit, perhaps a bit too much, is left to be explained by sequels, but I think I’m ok with that.

Captain America: Civil War

So I’ve been a bit skeptical of this whole premise. The original was based on a case example of why time travel creates a big storytelling problem. Days of Future Past was a brilliant story but created a bleeding wound of an apocalyptic prophesy that everyone and their uncle had to stick their fingers into. Super-powered mutants will inspire a super-powered security state to exterminate them. Since multiple characters experienced this reality, scripts needed to explain how this terrible term of events came about.

In the comics, the events of Civil War unfolded because the super-intelligent Reed Richards went stupid over Isaac Asimov, and saw mandatory registration as the equivalent to Foundation. I suppose a kinder interpretation is that mutants were Reed Richards’s climate change. And actually having superheros address the apocalypse staring us in the face would be an interesting story for once guys.

But anyway… Things quickly spun out of control culminating in the assassination of Captain America, (really, honestly, we really do mean it this time, no takebacks, he’s really dead, trust us.) The whole affair soured me on reading Marvel (again), and I’ve only dipped my toes with Ms. Marvel in the last year.

Rights to X-Angst ended up at Fox, along with Fantastic Four and the inexplicably dumb Reed Richards. No mutants means no time-travel apocalypse (or Apocalypse.) No apocalypse means no Read Richards demanding massive social change because of higher math and Asimov. No massive social change means that the Marvel Cinema Universe can focus on what’s really important:

Cap/Bucky/Falcon slash!

Jessica Jones: Episodes 1 – 3

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Marvel’s Jessica Jones

So this dropped on Friday. I’m going to put my thoughts behind a cut, because it’s still new and spoilers, but also because Jessica Jones deals with some pretty heavy issues around abuse and violence.

The premise that the superhero can be more than just men in tights fighting each other has been frequently promised but rarely delivered on. The Marvel movie franchise in particular has largely been stuck in the Big Dumb Comic Book Movie which waves a hand at ideas like the Singularity and the Surveillance State in order to give its fight scenes a little more gravitas. Rise of Ultron and Winter Soldier were movies that read the cliff notes for Neuromancer and 1984 respectively. But that’s just a setup for the various characters to have Bad Ass MomentsĀ®.

Jessica Jones is a story about abuse and PTSD. This is different from Tony Stark telling us in Iron Man 3, “oh heck, I have PTSD.” In Iron Man 3, it’s nothing more than a minor complication that gets talked about in route to the Bad Ass MomentsĀ®. How can we make this hostage situation more fraught? Give Tony PTSD.

In Jessica Jones, the PTSD is the plot, and series villain Killgrave doesn’t make an appearance until the third episode. Killgrave’s super power is mind control, and Jones is a survivor of his manipulation. Each episode introduces us to more victims of his power. Killgrave’s actions by proxy embody multiple aspects of emotional abuse: gaslighting, guilt, and complicity with the abuser. Rather than handwave them away, the series tackles them head-on. And unlike many post-modern superhero movies, the series has yet to introduce any ambiguity regarding Killgrave’s villainy.

If there is any ambiguity, it’s in the way in which survivors and the culture around them attempts to make sense of what happened. In Marvel Movie continuity, the world has barely started to accept the existence of The Hulk. Killgrave’s victims suffer from doubt regarding his power. The rest of the world demonstrates a range of attitudes from skepticism to active victim-blaming.

What impresses me about this is that Jessica Jones is quite possibly the first Marvel tv/movie product to actually take its premise seriously. Part of that includes keeping the tights and capes off-stage.

There are other bright spots and weak spots for me. On the plus side, we have the lesbian Hogarths who are presented multiple times as a married couple. For me, this is science fiction becoming the new reality. (Although I admit, it’s been the reality in New York for a while now.) I’m a bit ambivalent about the sex scenes between Jessica and hero-but-not-a-hero Luke Cage, which feel more titillating than developmental.

The “Everyone is Gay or Straight” Study

So the latest study to make the rounds is Norris, Marcus, and Green “Homosexuality as a Discrete Class” which most people can’t read without $35, so I’ll go off the press release instead. The press release is quite careful to use “non-heterosexuals” as the term of choice, and “non-heterosexuals” are described as diverse:

Rather, the taxometric results establish a group of people that are, in effect, bona fide heterosexuals. Then there’s another group that is not a continuum but an assemblage, a variety of people united in their same-sex sexual orientation but who may reflect diverse sexual identities.

This hasn’t stopped a fair amount of the mass media to run clickbait on “Kinsey was Wrong” or “You’re Gay or Straight.” The former seems to be explicitly stated by Marcus, the later Marcus seems to be quick to avoid. Marcus says:

“People at some point are crossing a threshold between one group and another group,” said Marcus. “Why they do it, we can’t answer in this study. But that they do it tells researchers they should be looking at that question, not as much at the continuum question.”

And I don’t know. That discrimination and prejudice constructs categories of difference should be obvious. You don’t say that we’re criminal, mentally ill, our relationships inferior, bad role models, and spiritually unclean for the better part of a century without creating difference. We know this about a large number of culturally segregated communities.

It’s not as bad as blood-pressure studies, but I’m skeptical that a methodology used for analyzing taxonomic categories vs. continuum really means that much. This methodology has set off a big debate in talking about depression for example, and it’s not clear how these different lenses apply (or should apply) to discussing the sexualities of individuals.

On Encryption Backdoors

The central problem with mandating backdoors is that the same math that can be used to launch a secret plot is the math that protects our medical and academic records. It’s the same math that keeps credit fraud and identity theft at manageable levels. Every demand that services keep plaintext is an opportunity for criminal organizations to steal valuable information. Every algorithmic weakness can be exploited by an organization with botnets or willing to invest in cluster.

Then there’s the whole spectre of cyberterrorism.