Friday, January 31, 2020

Thinking About It

As Jean Peal-Sartre learns when he encounters two modern dudes at Existential Comics, there is no high-minded school of philosophy, nor deep commentary on the meaning of life, that cannot be made meaningless by someone who's been gifted with a 21st century education.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Font of Unwisdom

If I told you that someone had written an academic paper about whether or not people perceive typefaces as "conservative" or "liberal," and I explained to you I used those terms ideologically, rather than to describe a style, you would probably say something along the lines of "you're kidding."

I wish you were right.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Opportunity Knockin'!

A sheriff's deputy in Waukesha County in Wisconsin received the chance of a lifetime today when he saw a vehicle disobey Wisconsin's law about yielding to emergency vehicles. The law, like those adopted in many states, requires drivers to move over and leave the entire lane free next to a stopped police car, fire engine or ambulance.

Sometimes drivers forget to do that and sometimes they may not believe they need to move over because the stopped cars are well away from the road and the danger of hitting someone standing beside them is slight. So law enforcement officers may not always stop a car that has not pulled over. But in this case the deputy realized that he literally had to pull over this offending driver and at least issue a warning (which, by the way, is what he did.) Why?

Because below is the offending vehicle in questions, shown stopped at roadside:

If you are a law enforcement officer and the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile commits even a mild traffic infraction right in front of you, the chances that your fellow officers will ever let you forget not stopping it are just about zero. As they should be.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Supplementary Reading Suggested

Among the bells and whistles of the online game Words With Friends is an opportunity to complete against different computer "Word Masters" of various abilities. Beating them earns credits within the game and allows for new status, new levels, new looks for ones game pieces and so on.

Each solo challenger has a different skill level, which I think means that each of them is set to allow its algorithm -- which fully unchained could probably whup your meat-headed behind -- more and more freedom with which to work. The lowest-rated and first encountered is labeled "Very Easy," and the opponents get more and more challenging as you work your way through them. Each week or so a new set of Word Masters, either representing historical figures or fictional characters grouped by theme, are chosen. The current theme as I write this is military leaders from several different countries and periods of history.

The first opponent is King Leonidas I of Sparta, who is labeled "Very Easy" to beat; Xerxes I would probably disagree. Somebody at Zynga needs to take a history class or at least watch 300.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

From the Rental Vault: 14 Blades (2010)

All too often, conspirators who lack their own senses of honor rely on others who retain theirs, knowing that they can plot and plan taking advantage of a range of options not available to their opponents -- or, in some cases, their pawns.

That's the situation faced by Ming Dynasty secret warrior Qinglong (Donnie Yen) in the 2010 tale of palace intrigue, 14 Blades. Qinglong is the commander of the emperor's super-secret corps of bodyguard/assassins called the Jinyiwei. Selected as orphans and trained since childhood for brutal combat, the Jinyiwei also guard the artifact known as the "14 Blades," a box of special bladed weapons they can call on in combat. The Jinyiwei, or "Embroidered Uniform Guard," actually existed and were used as both guards and fighters. Their real power came not from an arcane artifact, though, but from their imperial authority to overrule any legal proceedings in favor of their own arrests, investigations, trials and punshments.

During Qinglong's tenure as commander, the Emperor himself is weak and incompetent. A royal eunuch, Jia Jingzhong, plots with his exiled uncle Prince Qing (Sammo Hung, in what amounts to a cameo role) to overthrow the throne. A key feature of the plot is the theft of the Imperial Seal, supposed to be carried out by Qinglong, but Qinglong uncovers the treachery at the heart of his mission and swears to stop the conspirators and avenge the deaths of his comrades. Against him are the renegade Jianyiwei commander Xuanwei (Qi Yuwu) and Prince Qing's adoptive daughter Tuo Tuo (Kate Tsui), a deadly assassin herself. But he gains unlikely allies in a bandit known as the Judge of the Desert (Wu Chun) and the daughter of a band of bodyguards for hire, Qiao Hua (Zhao Wei).

By this time in his career Donnie Yen was a master at playing the stoic "Man With No Name"-style lead. He's not necessarily a hero -- he commands the secret police, after all -- but when confronted with plots that go against his honor he remembers a little of what kind of man he once wanted to be. Setting himself squarely against the treachery surrounding him, he resolves to be that man now, even if it will only be service in a losing cause. The rest of the cast hit their own marks with more or less success. Qi Yuwu conveys a little of his own ruefulness at fighting his former comrade and killing many others. Wu Chun's Judge of the Desert brings the chaos to his "chaotic good"-styled character, unwilling to set aside his own prickly sense of honor because of Qinglong's rank and position. Zhao Wei properly mixes steely and spunky as the only daughter of the bodyguard agency, but Qiao Hua is not much different from several other characters she's played and her arc rises above average only in the movie's epilogue. Kate Tsui plays Tuo Tuo as a deadly cipher, present mainly to hack and occasionally slash.

Wuxia movies like 14 Blades rise and fall on their action sequences, and here director Daniel Lee proves unable to fully carry its load across the finish line. Some fight scenes early on hang together and flow well, but the longer the movie moves the more disconnected and perfunctory they become. The wire-fighting and CGI don't mix smoothly and the protagonists switch around enough that just who's fighting who gets a little fuzzy. In the end 14 Blades feels like one of the lesser Clint Eastwood Man With No Namers -- centered on a well-matched actor and character type he's used to playing, but surrounded by a story and supporting cast more flung than stitched together.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Time Travel

Over at Bored Panda, a lady named Becca Saladin takes some portraits or sculptures of famous people of the past and transposes them into modern settings, clothing and hairstyles.

Some are more interesting that others, as not everyone from history who had a pristine and realistic portrait painted is all that well-known. Although it is kind of fascinating how a 21st-century Ben Franklin looks a little like Anthony Hopkins and a little like Ian McShane.

Most of the responses were positive, although there was a bit of wondering why Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, needed one of these kinds of updates considering that she was a modern figure already.

(PS -- As expected, Calvin's master plan to use his duplicates to trim his academic load has not gone well. Will his mother discover what he has done? Will he be punished five times over, for things he didn't even do?)

Friday, January 24, 2020

Two Dudes' Duds

Sebastian Maniscalco is pretty clear when he begins his latest special, Stay Hungry, that he doesn't have much use for more modern understandings of limits on comedy's subject matter or style. He doesn't leave very much off-limits as he questions what seem to him at best silly and at worst bizarre features of life at the end of the second decade of the 21st century.

The mode is middle-aged grump, and you could be forgiven your thought that this material would be right up my alley and aimed directly at me. Perhaps it is, but most of the stories are predictable and lack much punch. Why should an exercise bicycle class would have an impossibly energetic and cheery leader/trainer, he wonders? It's weird. It is weird, but mostly everyone knows that already and Maniscalco's take adds very little texture to either that weird situation or others he explores.

This kind of "Get off my lawn" schtick can be funny even when its familiar, but it comes best in a package that matches the material. Brad Upton's receding hairline, off-the rack suit and bug eyes make him a good teller of "What's wrong with the world these days?" stories, and Jeff Allen's gruff voice and hangdog look back up his riffs on the same subject, but Maniscalco's hipster outfit jars his attempts to make fun of the people who look a lot like he's trying to look even when he's talking about them. Stay Hungry probably feeds his fan base, but not many others.
Given that Ken Jeong's breakout role was in a Jud Apatow movie, low expectations are built into any viewing of his first Netflix special, You Complete Me, Ho. He easily exceeds them with a brutally unfunny set that would be better categorized as a public appearance than a prepared show. The title comes from a quick riff on his wife's last name, "Ho," one of the few amusing pieces of the show.  The others stem from his interactions with the audience, who are obviously fans and glad to see him. Jeong does have a good rapport with the crowd at the Ice House Comedy Club, but no one who's not already a fan will be convinced by the string of barely amusing anecdotes from his experiences on movie sets and from his first career as a physician.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Feeleth the Burn!

At Ask the Past, we find advice from 1560 about exercising, passed along from Domenico Romoli. His advice includes working all muscles equally, reading aloud at various volumes, walking the dog and quitting as soon as one begins to sweat.

There's nothing from Romoli about abandoning your new exercise resolution sometime in mid-February, but since people are pretty much the same now as then we can presume it's a part of the package.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020


In honor of Squirrel Day, the good folk at Mental Floss have assembled 16 interesting facts about the arboreal little rodents.

According to my parents' dog Hud, the sole interesting fact about squirrels is that they sometimes have the audacity to be on the ground in his yard. And yes, it is his yard, since he has urinated on it and everything.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Should Have Seen That Coming

In today's reprint, Calvin agrees with his new duplicates that they divide up school so that each of them only has to go one day. Given his ability to cooperate with others, stay focused on a task and take one for the team, this plan will of course work out just perfectly.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Big Big Bang

Bored Panda collects several photos of the recent eruption of the Taal Volcano on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines. The eruption has forced widespread evacuations and caused immense damage, and may not be over; volcanologists and seismologists say it's shown signs that more is to come.

We're really not in charge of this place despite what we think we've done and what we can do. We just live here and should probably be grateful for every day we get through without something like this happening where we live.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Let's Let These People Run More Things

The beginning of the year is a sort of unofficial mandatory contest among state legislators to introduce the stupidest bill that even the most out-of-touch among them know will never be law. It's unofficial because there's no announced contest, categories or specific criteria, but it's also mandatory because they can't help themselves.

An early contender for the top spot is H.B. 2994 from House District 17 Representative Jim Grego of Wilburton. It would prevent anything from being called "milk" unless it came from a "hooved mammal." Rep. Grego focused on cows and goats, although presumably bison and other hooved animals would be included in case anyone happened to begin to run dairy operations with them. The bill apparently does specify mammal, although there are presently no known hooved birds, insects or reptiles. Although they are mammals, nursing mothers are not hooved. They would probably be exempt since they do not actually sell their milk to their children. Nor is the packaging very often labeled with the word "milk," except perhaps in the case of unfortunately ironic tattoos.

The targets of Rep. Grego's ire are products with labels like "soy milk" or "almond milk." These are often milk-like in texture but consumed by people who have trouble digesting animal dairy material. Rep. Grego magnanimously allows them to continue to be marketed, but under names such as "soy extract." Exactly how he thinks he's going to get food companies not based in Oklahoma to produce special labels just for sale here is not clear. His stated rationale, "It's just to help our dairy farmers," is also unclear, and by unclear I mean one hundred percent bat-effin-guano crazy.

Some folks have made predictable comments on the bill, given Rep. Grego's party affiliation and claimed "rural strong" conservatism. They aren't displaying much more awareness than he does; there is literally nothing about trying to turn one's own personal dim-bulb idea into legislation that could be considered "conservative." He's attempting to use the power of the state to force people to agree to something he either can't convince them to do by argument or is too lazy to try to convince them to do. There are plenty of people who claim to be conservatives who try that same trick all the time, but it is not a conservative idea or action. True, progressive folks usually rely on the courts instead of legislation, but that does not make personal snit-fit legislation conservative by default.

I read another couple of comments on this item when it was shared that this kind of stunt is the reason we need to vote for smarter people for public office. The smarter people don't run for public office -- they stay in the private sector where they can actually fix things without having to explain them to someone who wants to remove the words "almond milk" from a paper carton at the point of a gun. What we need to do is to remove important things from the control of Rep. Grego and people like him, both in elective and non-elective government positions.

We should do this not because we want those things to stop or to go away. We should do it so we get them away from people who think that a billion-dollar agricultural co-op like, say, Blue Diamond Growers is going to print new labels for one state that barely cracks the top 30 in population.

As to that, Grego says that he hopes enough other states follow our lead on this to make federal officials pay closer attention to milk branding. I know you're thinking that no other state would be so dumb as to adopt this legislation -- in fact, this state won't be dumb enough to adopt this legislation. But I speak out against your pessimism. There are plenty of elected and non-elected officials at every level of government who are easily dumb enough to make this happen. After all, if you remember, a dairy in Florida had to go to court for the right to call skim milk by the name skim milk, something the state of Florida opposed so emphatically it paid almost half a million dollars in attorneys' fees for the privilege.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Son of the Rings

Once it was finished in 1955, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings became well-beloved by people who liked fantasy fiction. Tolkien's literary mindset and deep appreciation for language helped elevate the tone of his tale of the heroism of Frodo Baggins and the defeat of the evil Sauron, and his academic credentials helped as well. But in spite of them, LOTR was thought of as a particularly elegant example of genre fiction and little more.

Yet over time opinions began to shift as appreciation for the literary merit of popular novels and genre fiction took hold. Novels did not have to be dreary or impenetrable in order to Say Something, and more and more readers began to do more than just read The Lord of the Rings. They began to think about it. So as Tolkien himself continued to work on his mythology of the world of Middle-Earth, which was to be called The Silmarillion, he developed it with at least part of an ear to the discussions and reflections on the earlier work.

But this much more complex work -- which would have a significantly steeper entrance curve than did The Hobbit or LOTR -- was not finished by the time Tolkien died in 1973. It was left to his son Christopher, whom the elder Tolkien had named the literary executor of his estate, to compile what had been finished, to polish what hadn't, and now and again to weave the sections together with threads of his own. The completed Silmarillion was published in 1977, but the new interest in exploring the texts Tolkien actually published as well as their development would soon prompt a new project, the History of Middle-Earth. The title is almost a pun, as it refers not just to the historic tales of the world Tolkien created but also to how they came to be.

Christopher Tolkien published the 12 volumes of this series from 1983 to 2002, and added six more versions of stories his father had begun and abandoned or simply never published. Four of them connected to Middle-Earth and two of them were more directly related to Tolkien's "day job" as a lecturer and researcher of English literature at Oxford.

Christopher Tolkien died Wednesday at the age of 95. He had been, like his father, an instructor at Oxford, but published very little of his own creation outside of professional work. Without him, J.R.R. Tolkien might have been remembered as the creator of one of the 20th century's most elegant and cerebral fantasy stories, and The Lord of the Rings itself thought of as a very good piece of work, although the modern take would sniff it was a bit behind the times and distinctly sanitized of the blood, guts and mud that was a part of the real worlds of knights and kings. But with Christopher, LOTR can be explored as commentary on the human condition, the relationship of humanity to the creation around it, the place of humanity in the cosmos, and much more. And J.R.R. Tolkien himself can be seen for what he was -- a serious writer and thinker who thought as he wrote, thought about what he wrote, and thought about those who would read it later. Namárië indeed.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


"OK, so we're going to use these large, multi-unit properties to give the homeless people in our community a place to live. We just have to buy the properties."

"Sounds great. So they're empty, they'll need a little fixing up?"

"No, there are tenants in them now."

"So you'll move the homeless people into the vacant units."

"No, we'll move them into all the units."

"So you'll buy out the people who are living there now."

"No, we'll evict them."

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Slow and Steady Saves the Race

Diego, a male Chelonoidis hoodensi who's probably more than 100 years old, will get to go back to his native island in March.

The giant Galapagos tortoise has been living in a breeding center on an island called Santa Cruz in the Galapagos chain. He was found at the San Diego Zoo and brought there in 1976 because only two males and 12 females of his kind remained in the wild, and biologists and animal preservation scientists wanted to try to save the species. No one knows exactly when he was brought to the zoo, but it was sometime in the first half of the 20th century.

Since then, Diego has fathered more than 800 of his kind, who are raised for a short time at the center and then turned loose back on their native island of Espanola. Six years ago, a genetic study of the giant Galapagos population on Espanola showed that he was the father of more than 40% of the turtles on the island.

When Diego was shown footage of The Girls Next Door, the reality show in which the late Hugh Hefner, then in his 80s, displayed his machismo by appearing with his three girlfriends, he reportedly became the first turtle to laugh so hard he rolled onto his back.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Wishful Thinking

Recently Prince Harry of England and his wife Meghan Markle said they would like to step away from the bulk of their official roles in the royal family and make their own way. This has caused some upset in Ye Merrie Olde, since they made the announcement before actually speaking with family members about the decision and what it might entail. Unlike the abdication of King Edward VIII, Harry's backing off would do little to ruffle the succession, since he stands behind his father, his older brother and his brother's three children in line for the throne.

Is it wrong of me to wish that part of this "summit" meeting between Queen Elizabeth, her son Prince Charles and his sons Princes William and Harry included Her Majesty addressing her grandson thusly: "Listen to me, you gangly ginger punk. I am 93 years old. I repaired and drove jeeps in World War II, I survived the Battle of Britain and was evacuated from my home so I wouldn't get killed by bombs. At 18 I was named one of the Counsellors of State who could serve in case my father was out of the country. I've listened to Winston Churchill in person with my own ears and watched the Berlin Wall go up and be knocked down. You want to leave, go ahead. You and your goofball Hollywood wife skedaddle to Vancouver and hug all the trees and recycle all the banana peels you want. But you do not do it without running it by me first. And don't forget to put in pictures of the kids when you write."

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Religion Culture

Sometime with the last couple of decades the people who lived in an interesting and unique environment or neighborhood called out for resistance to the kinds of homogenizing they saw in other places with strip malls, fast food restaurants and the like. According to some the slogan summing up this desire came first from Austin, Texas and according to others from some other part of the country, but it ran like this: "Keep (insert area here) Weird."

Wherever it started, it soon spread out to other locales with the same desire and eventually to ideas that also claimed to offer something unique to the world. Author Michael Frost may not have been the first to use the phrase "Keep Christianity Weird" -- he's certainly not the first person to say that Christianity offers the world something that no other religion or school of thought does -- but he's the first one to put it on a cover in his 2018 book by that name.

Frost suggests that Christianity is "off-centered" from the rest of the world, because instead of placing the self at the center of existence it gives that role to God. Thus "eccentric" by definition, Christians as they live out their faith in the world are called to eccentricity in its terms in many areas. Drawing on a heritage that begins with Paul telling Roman Christians they are not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, he offers several ways in which faithful Christian witness will go against the tide of worldly opinion and practice. Loving enemies, giving sacrificially, concern for the needs of others, demanding justice in the face of power -- it's not really a new list. He does do a nice job of distinguishing between what some Christians claim is weirdness but which actually matches the thinking of the world -- this "fake weirdness" often does more damage to the work of the church than any declared opponent could.

For a vision of Christianity that is supposed to embrace a literal eccentricity from the world, Frost's ideas show a remarkable congruence with modern progressive politics. He also shows signs of shallow research into some of his material -- while abolitionist John Brown was certainly opposed to the structures that allowed slavery to continue, his bloody raid on Harper's Ferry was intended to start an armed uprising. That's not a model Christians can faithfully follow.

Keep Christianity Weird offers several interesting ideas on how Christians should conceive of their place in the world. But Frost's confusion of his political vision with the teachings of Christianity -- a mistake he's hardly the first to make -- and an overall sloppiness in thinking and construction of his argument keep it from being more than a good start on this theme.
The increase in American society of people who profess no religious beliefs would, we might think, decrease the amount of "religiosity" in our nation. By that we usually mean a kind of pharasaical devotion to the laws of some particular belief system and self-superiority on the part of those who master those laws when relating to those who have not.

But even casual examination of our culture shows that attitude persists long after the religion that's supposed to fuel it has been laid aside, Mockingbird Ministries director David Zahl says. To describe this new religion he coins the term "seculosity" and in his 2019 book of that name he describes how these different seculosities affect not only society as a whole but the church as well.

Zahl's seculosities will probably be familiar to people who read or think about our national culture and the way we live here in the 21st century. At one time or another, each of us has probably elevated busyness, romance, parenting, technology, politics or one of the others on his list to the place we'd ordinarily expect to find a deity. Essays, sermons and other presentations have rightly warned us against the idolatry that these "seculosities" represent. But Zahl's contribution is to combine several of them between two covers and give them a name and shared characteristics that can be helpful in identifying where seculosities have taken hold in our lives, whether we profess a religious faith or not.

Zahl points out that he doesn't offer an exhaustive list of the idols that the 21st century puts forth, and the weakness of Seculosity connects to that. Some of those he has chosen are quite well-known and have been covered pretty thoroughly -- the "Seculosity of Politics," for example, has been a concern of believers and non-believers alike for many years and Zahl's chapter of that name adds very little new to the discussion. Such well-traveled themes make Seculosity drag in its latter third and may make a reader wish Zahl had dropped them altogether or replaced them with one or another of the potential chapters he decided not to use. But overall this self-effacing and humorous caution against modern idolatry hits enough of its mark to make it worth the read and thought it might provoke.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Take a Pass

The first episode of the new Star Trek: Discovery show was not enough to make me buy CBS's streaming service and continue watching it. Nothing I've read about the ensuing seasons has made me think I got that wrong.

But recent trailers and publicity for another Trek-verse show on the streaming network, Star Trek: Picard, interested me. Patrick Stewart is a top actor and he made the character of Enterprise-D Captain Jean-Luc Picard far more interesting than the dated and often repetitive show he inhabited. Stewart played the role in four big-screen movies, the final one of which did enough damage to the franchise that it stayed off the big screen for seven years until J.J. Adams' rebooted Star Trek in 2009.

Picard looked interesting in the trailers, which seemed to have set aside the 1980s atmosphere of Gene Roddenberry's dippy utopian vision for the more realistic aura of the Deep Space Nine television show and the First Contact movie. So I have to say I was considering a test-run of the CBS All Access streaming network to watch the show.

Then I read Stewart's Vanity Fair interview -- in which he says that one of the guiding understandings of the new show “was me responding to the world of Brexit and Trump and feeling, ‘Why hasn’t the Federation changed? Why hasn’t Starfleet changed?’ Maybe they’re not as reliable and trustworthy as we all thought.” And he further opines on which nation -- the U.S. or the U.K. -- is currently more "****ed." And with my earlier concerns now confirmed I said, "Nope."

It's not because I like or dislike the British vote to leave the European Union or the US election of Donald Trump. Yes, the current EU is a trainwreck and any smart nation would bow out until or unless it fixed its problems. But the president is a lousy human being with next to no sense of what he should be doing in office, even on the infrequent occasions he stumbles into the right thing to do. So I guess technically, Sir Patrick and I split on those things. But as a more conservative person politically I am well-used to the idea that actors, actresses, musicians, directors, writers and interns who get the director coffee think I am a knuckle-dragging troglodyte who should probably be kept indoors and away from sharp objects.

No, I've lost all interest in the show because I want five bleedin' minutes of entertainment that doesn't comment on or reference Donald Trump and what show executives think is so wrong with the world that people elected him. It doesn't matter that the creators of most popular forms of entertainment aren't really good at that sort of thing. Many of the various and sundry Important! Statements! creators made against former President Bush are horribly dated now, especially since they all told us he was the worst thing imaginable and now, surprise, he's not. Bereft of their Deep Political Meaning they have a shallow sameness and are mostly just boring.

What matters is that both the president and his haters agree that he needs to be at the center of everything, and anyone who thinks differently just gets steamrolled by them working together to make their shared vision a reality.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Weird Places

We need not journey to space to find some oddball places and geological phenomena. Our own planet boasts several, many of which are not understood well, if at all. The good folk at Mental Floss have some pictures of seven of those kinds of places here.

While the Pepto-Bismol pink of Lake Hillier in Australia may be the most striking, I kind of like the Eye of the Sahara in Mauritania -- especially since geologists have only guesses about how it formed and are not really sure.

Monday, January 6, 2020


The Rise of Skywalker purports to be an "end" to the 40-plus year saga of Star Wars. And if you accept the idea that creator George Lucas had a nine-movie sequence in mind that he began to unveil in 1977 with that original film then you could certainly see it that way. Of course, there's some good reasons to think that while three interconnected trilogies might have been one of the ideas Lucas had, the whole suggestion might also be bunk.

The entire sequel trilogy has labored under this burden: Why are they here? At the end of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader was redeemed as Anakin Skywalker. The Emperor was destroyed. Leia learned the truth about her own Jedi ancestry and her sibling relationship with Luke. She was with her "scoundrel," Han Solo. Luke himself had mastered the Force well enough to be a full Jedi Knight and begin their order anew. Everything was wrapped up. In order for a sequel trilogy to justify itself, audiences had to be sold on the idea that there was more story to tell. But none of the three movies that start in 2015 with The Force Awakens do that, with Rise of Skywalker missing out on the last chance to offer some reason for the story to continue -- aside from "pleasing Disney shareholders."

It's not entirely Rise director J.J. Abrams' fault. Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi, for all of its visual flair and interesting Rey-Kylo interaction, trashed Poe Dameron's character and wasted Finn on a pointless MacGuffin hunt. Which meant that Abrams, returning to the director's seat, had a lot of work to do. He had to rehabilitate Poe, remind us why we should care about Finn, replace Snoke with another villain and wind up the actual storyline that the movie was supposed to take care of in the first place: The battle against the First Order. Abrams is a talented storytelling director but that multitude of tasks was beyond him.

We learn with the story crawl at the beginning of the movie that the believed-dead Emperor Palpatine was behind the whole First Order as a plot to restore his Empire and regain the throne. The beleaguered Resistance faces overwhelming odds as Palpatine's years of preparation and scheming come to a head and he attacks. Can its remnants survive long enough for Rey to find and confront the Emperor? Will Kylo recover his true self -- Ben Solo, son of Leia and Han -- in time to help her or will he stop her?

Rise is a fun time at the movies, with some well-crafted action sequences and a couple of really good performances from Adam Driver as Kylo and Daisy Ridley as Rey. But it's also overstuffed, forced to do too many things at once and offering no real connective tissue from one set-piece to the next. It's to studio execs' credit that they realized something had to be done in the wake of Jedi, but the discontinuities were their own fault. Unlike either the original trilogy or even the ponderous prequels, there was no directed vision of what needed to happen before the final "The End" scrolled onto the screen. Even a trilogy given overarching vision by Johnson's ham-handed deconstruction would have hung together better than these three movies, which simply do not gel with any cohesion beyond character names and the faces of the people playing them.

A sequel trilogy could have worked -- even something as simple as a "hero's journey" type story focusing on Rey as she learned her heritage and found her role in stopping some villainous resurgence of the Empire's power could make a compelling case for continuing the "Skywalker saga." But none of those choices were made, and instead Star Wars purportedly concludes with a slapdash cut-and-paste job that has some familiar names and faces but nowhere to use them.

So as the lights came up and the credits finished, I felt no great sense of completion, as though I had finally finished a journey begun by the 12-year-old me in a long-demolished theater in 1977. Rise of Skywalker wrapped up a couple of pages of Disney Annual Report status. Star Wars finished in 1983.

Sunday, January 5, 2020


The eight-year-old Friar remembers that 2020 is the year that the Hanna-Barbera company promised him an underwater habitat capable of housing 250 people. It doesn't seem like anyone's in any hurry to live up to that bargain.

The 36-year-old Friar remembers that next year will be the year that a company called 70/30 Productions promised him lame retread entertainment parasitically fastened on old shows in a never-ending spiral of ironically hip ersatz humor. It doesn't seem like anyone's in any hurry to end that trend.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Language Barrier

In today's Peanuts reprint, we find Charlie Brown understanding Snoopy's version of something Woodstock would say -- even though Snoopy's words, as usual, are not out loud.

But alas, although Charlie Brown understands, it seems as though Snoopy believes Woodstock will not, and thus a friendship remains sundered.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

No Time Like the When?

This Christianity Today article by Sara Billups won't get the press coverage that Mark Galli's "out-the-door" editorial calling for President Trump's impeachment and removal did -- for one thing, the people who never pay attention to CT and who only did so because Galli's statement was anti-Trump have already gone back to not paying attention to CT.

But in the long run? If more if us Christian people paid attention to it, we might wind up doing more good than all of the temporary powers and principalities about which we might voice our opinions.

Billups talks about a year when she made a resolution to be more open about talking about her faith. Rather than gauging whether or not her conversation partners would be open to learning about it, she decided to just mention it if the occasion to do so presented itself. Some people had the expected reaction -- they quietly excised her from their lives upon learning she practiced a pretty basic and orthodox version of the Christian faith. But others, Billups said, were intrigued and wanted to know more. She said some were even more interested in talking with her once she was up-front about her faith, because they knew very few Christians in their ordinary circles and were curious about it.

Whether or not CT needed to take a position on impeachment is for them to decide. The magazine's editorial board felt that having done so when then-President Clinton perjured himself in 1998, they should do so now. Of course, they might have also come to the conclusion that they weren't justified in doing so then and might not be justified in doing so now, as well, but I don't own the magazine and they didn't solicit my input.

Interestingly, my Facebook feed was filled with people who quoted Galli's editorial and linked to it, large numbers of whom have never shared or cited a CT article in the history of their Facebook experience and might very likely never do so again. But if we people of faith were more interested in being open about our faith than in assuming that its mere existence would offend people, we might find ourselves surprised by the opportunities now and again we could have to talk about it. Of course there are people who treat every expression of Christianity as though it presages the resurrection of Tomás de Torquemada and his installation as Dictator of Everybody. They'll do that anyway.

But, as Billups notes, her resolution helped remind her that God, not she, was at the center of her story. And that is our goal and aim as Christians, to allow ourselves to be led by God at the center of our lives and answer his call on them. That's going to be a life worth a whole lot more talking about than the man of low character occupying the White House. Just because he thinks he's the only thing that ought to be on everyone's minds doesn't mean I have to agree with him.