PORTRAITS: Scott Straka- Artist of Heroes

Scott Straka’s portraits are incredibly life-like. Even his famous subjects think so, with many asking Scott for their own sketches. Straka has used his skills to travel to conventions and meet the celebrities he draws.

You can buy Scott’s work at scottstrakaart.storenvy.com.

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Nostalgia, allegory, and the Star Wars prequels

A friend of mine once stated that if he had a DeLorean, he would travel back to 1997 to stop George Lucas from creating the Star Wars prequels. Conversely, when people ask me about my favorite movie, I always declare Star Wars, as a whole, as the greatest cinematic tale ever told. All six episodes (so far) of the space opera combine to be my favorite movie. My friend and I have a lot of shared interests and are only a few years apart in age. So why is it that we have such different opinions about the prequel trilogy?

The answer was offered, though indirectly, in an episode of How I Met Your Mother. In the episode, Barney Stinson explains the “Ewok line” — the line which determines whether you liked or hated the Ewoks. The Ewoks were the most controversial part of the original Star Wars trilogy, appearing in Return of the Jedi to help bring down the Empire, despite their complete lack of technology and laughably small numbers. As Barney explained, people born after 1973 love the Ewoks — they were under 10 years old at Jedi’s release — while those born before then find the Endorians infuriating. This line, though created to explain disillusionment with Return of the Jedi, works perfectly as an explanation for the problems some fans have with the Star Wars prequels.

I was nine years old when The Phantom Menace was released; my friend was 12. Every single person I’ve ever argued with about the prequels was older than me by at least a year, placing them on the opposite side of this updated “Ewok line.” Most fans of the prequels I’ve met are my age or younger — or didn’t see the originals before The Phantom Menace. The phenomenon is uncanny.

So what is it about turning 10 that changes our perspective about the movies?

To begin with, Star Wars movies are made for the entire family. Each episode can be seen through entirely different lenses, depending on your age when watching. To a child, the Ewoks are adorable and relatable. They’re the biggest underdogs imaginable in a fight with a Galactic Empire, yet they survive. They exist to show us that there is always hope, and even the weakest among us have strength.

The Phantom Menace’s largest controversy was over Jar Jar Binks. To this day, I cannot understand the visceral hatred of the Gungan. Of course, I also watched him when I was a child. To me, Jar Jar was hilarious. There was nothing infuriating about his antics. Sure, Jar Jar was a bumbling fool, but so were the Three Stooges, and everybody loved them.

If you’re older, yes, Jar Jar can be annoying, but then you aren’t the target audience for the character. Jar Jar, even with his diminished role, matures in the films, as does his audience: the fans who were under 10 when The Phantom Menace was released. As one of those fans, I remember finding Jar Jar’s growth into the role of leader to be inspiring. Though there is certainly a case to be made that he had no business being a leader and he caused the downfall of the Republic… Anyway, the older audience just can’t get over the problems they had with Jar Jar when first watching Episode I.

A much larger roadblock to enjoying the prequels, however, is simple nostalgia. Fans who were over the age of 10 when The Phantom Menace was released already had fond memories of the original Star Wars trilogy. Those who saw the movies during the 70s and 80s were especially prejudiced by this fact, as the original movies were part of their childhoods. To them, the original movies were perfect, and the announcement of Episode I was akin to hearing that your dead father was returning from the grave to toss the ball around in the yard once more. It was a chance for these fans to return to a simpler time of life that they’d all grown to miss. To true Star Wars fans, the idea of returning to a galaxy far, far away, was overwhelming.

That kind of nostalgia creates unrealistic expectations. Fans of the original trilogy anticipated a film that would recreate the magic of their youth. That is an impossible standard. Whereas I watched the pod race scene and was left in awe and wonder, older fans saw a long scene about an annoying child. When I watched Darth Maul and Obi-Wan Kenobi duel to the death, it was a struggle between good and evil masters of a mystic martial art, whereas older fans saw an overly choreographed dance with a villain who could never be Darth Vader.

Nostalgia made sure The Phantom Menace didn’t stand a chance, and that resentment carried over to the following movies. Perhaps nostalgia has had the same effect on me, causing me to argue unapologetically for a movie from my own youth. This idea was present in my mind when Episode I was rereleased in 3D a few years ago, causing me to watch the film with a skeptical eye. I re-viewed The Phantom Menace and its two sequels, looking out for those parts of the movie that received the most audible criticism, and I found those arguments to be strongly lacking. In fact, I found even more about the movies to love.

Possibly the biggest criticism of The Phantom Menace is the introduction of midi-chlorians. OK, the idea that the Force was relegated to microscopic bacteria is infuriating — but it’s also not what happened. Midi-chlorians are microscopic lifeforms that exist within all living beings, allowing them to hear the will of the Force. They are not, themselves, the Force but a bridge from more complex forms of life to the simple. They exist more prominently in Force wielders and allow the host to more easily connect with the energy field. They are used only to measure Force-sensitive potential, not actual power. Anakin Skywalker was said to have a higher midi-chlorian count than even Master Yoda, yet at no time in the entire series is Darth Vader shown to be stronger in the Force than the Jedi legend.

Another bogus criticism is that The Phantom Menace lacks a lead character. So does The Avengers, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. Star Wars movies always have featured ensemble casts. While it’s easy to point at Luke Skywalker as the protagonist of the original trilogy, the movies were just as much about Han Solo and Leia Organa — and the droids probably get more screen time than even Luke. Episode I, like Episode IV, has four primary characters: Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Padme Amidala.

Jinn is the mentor of the movie, taking the role Kenobi filled in A New Hope, guiding the other three characters toward their goals. He helps to teach Amidala to listen to others when making decisions, teaches Anakin about the Force and its potential within him, and pushes Kenobi toward critical thinking, even when dealing with the revered Jedi Order. At the end of the movie, all three young characters fulfill their potential. When Master Qui-Gon meets his untimely demise, Kenobi must quickly rise to the occasion, just as Luke must in Episode IV. Meanwhile, Anakin and Amidala also mirror the actions of their future children, using their wits and luck to bring down the Trade Federation.

Another complaint about the Star Wars prequels is also linked to expectation. Old Star Wars fans remembered a story about a ragtag group of rebels fighting impossible odds and expected to see the same thing in the newer trilogy. However, the prequels were never going to be able to recreate that atmosphere. Instead, these movies are about the downfall of an advanced society and the spiral of a democracy toward tyranny. The entire point of these movies was that evil isn’t always as easy to spot as Darth Vader or the Emperor. Sometimes, the most evil men hide in plain sight.

The brilliance of the prequels is in the rise to power of Emperor Palpatine. Every scene with Palpatine shows his conniving and manipulating on full display, his every move perfectly planned out to push him closer to his goals of domination. When viewed in this light, the prequels become stronger tragic tales about how tenuous our own republic is. They tell the story of how even the mightiest governments can fall when the leaders succumb to the influence of outside power and promises of grandeur.

Anakin’s fall is a great story to tell, even if Hayden Christensen was not the greatest actor to tell it. I will concede that Christensen’s performance in Attack of the Clones took me out of the movie at times, but I can’t say that he didn’t nail the whiny teenager bit. Still, Ewan McGregor’s performance on Kamino is brilliant. The eerie questions surrounding the cloners further pushed the brilliant plan of Palpatine and his minions while leading to the beginning of a war, completely manufactured by a Chancellor striving for power.

The Clone Wars, as shown in the eponymous series as well as Revenge of the Sith, completely change the mentality of the Jedi Order, pushing them into the position of war generals. Palpatine’s genius is shown here as the war acts to distract the Jedi while creating a generation of young adults, like Anakin, who are sick of fighting and are more beholden to the concept of an authoritarian government willing to punish enemies of peace.

Anakin’s behavior and seemingly abrupt shift to the Dark Side makes sense in this context, as we remember that Anakin expressed a belief that even strong-arm tactics are justifiable as long as they lead to a greater good. He sees during the Clone Wars that the Jedi’s pacifistic tactics have only led to continuing battles and death. The Separatists are like petulant children in Anakin’s eyes. They are the minority who must be repressed to make the majority of the galaxy better. And when Anakin is put into the position to choose between the Jedi, who kept the war going, and the Chancellor, who mentored him and helped him to bring an abrupt end to the fighting, he chooses the Chancellor.

Palpatine acts as the snake in the Garden of Eden. He offers Anakin a Faustian bargain, promising to save Anakin’s wife in exchange for his apprenticeship. The Jedi, in Anakin’s view, are limited by their dogma from doing what is right. In this sense, Anakin is a bit of a utilitarian, willing to make questionable decisions for a greater good. He also acts as a reflection on post-9/11 America and its use of questionable tactics in the name of security.

If you are a fan of science fiction, you should watch the Star Wars prequels fairly, without the prejudice in your mind of what a Star Wars movie should be. Lucas created a universe. He gave us a sandbox in which stories old and new could be expressed in a unique way. There is no singular formula to create a Star Wars movie. Therefore, Lucas can make a movie about space pirates and rebels, or he can write an allegory about how easily democracy can crumble.

The Force Awakens, in fact, faced its largest criticism from fans who found the movie to be too similar to the Original Trilogy. Hopefully with The Last Jedi, the franchise will return to its creative storytelling roots, and craft a brand new story for fans to get behind.

Luke did NOT turn to the Dark Side

Reason number one: I refuse to believe it.

Since the release of the trailer for The Last Jedi, speculation has run rampant about what Luke means when he says, “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” As was the case with the lack of Luke in the Force trailer, fans seized on the line as proof that Luke has followed his father’s footsteps. Not only do I refuse to accept this theory on strictly emotional grounds, but I can offer alternative meanings for Luke’s declaration, which still allow for a compelling character arc.

 

Why not the Dark Side?

Luke joining the Dark Side has been explored in expanded universe stories in the past, and after having read them, I can report that the stories weren’t very compelling. The authors never truly commit to the idea and it fizzles out pretty quickly, leaving a character’s innocence sullied for no real payoff.

The story of Luke’s fall would also be too much of a rehash of his father’s story. It’s possible that Luke needs to be redeemed for some of his actions, but Luke being revealed as Snoke would be a bit too close to a big reveal you may know from Empire Strikes Back. While the movies may be poetic, that would be viewed as less of a rhyme and more of a repeated word.

More importantly, Luke’s fall would harm the legacy of the Original (read, Holy) Trilogy. Return of the Jedi, despite its faults, ends with a compelling story of Luke overcoming the power of the Emperor and paving his own path, distinct from his father’s. If Luke’s fall is treated as an inevitability, the power of RotJ is greatly lessened.

Luke is needed as the moral rock of the franchise. He’s made mistakes, but he’s always looking to do good. If he falls, the magical, fairy tale qualities of the space opera are diminished, and Star Wars becomes just another sad movie about human failure, something of which George Lucas would never have approved.

 

What Luke Probably Means

Luke is probably just disillusioned. As Daisy Ridley said at the Star Wars Celebration, sometimes it’s better not to meet your heroes.

Luke Skywalker was never the Jedi Master that Yoda was. Luke is human, prone to all the failings that come with the title, and is thus deeply flawed. Unprepared even, for the tasks he was asked to endure. The burden of the Jedi legacy is too much for one man to handle. Under immense pressure, Luke failed.

It’s natural for him to find fault in the system and the burdens, and not himself. Grief over his failures has turned to guilt, has turned to anger, has turned to hate and suffering, but has not led to the path of the Dark Side.

Luke simply needs Rey to remind him why the Jedi are needed to bring balance to the galaxy. Without them, there can be only darkness.

 

What Luke’s Words Should Mean

The Jedi do need to end.

It may be an unpopular opinion, but the Jedi are morally bankrupt, power hungry, corrupt, and anachronistic in a technologically advanced galactic society.

If you watch all Star Wars movies, both cartoons, and read much of the expanded universe, take a step back, and analyze the stories without emotional attachment, you too will see the very scary truth: the Jedi aren’t the answer.

The desire for a messianic hero to come and save the day is a natural one, especially in a Galaxy full of problems. When the government appears corrupt, the corporations profit on war, and wars themselves are manufactured for personal aggrandizement, it’s easy to cling to the belief that one strong man can come and fix everything. It’s why Turkey was willing to vote away much of its democracy, in a moment that could have been pulled from an Episode III script.

But one man can’t do everything. It’s the truth Rogue One acknowledges. Palpatine can’t restore order alone, Trump can’t fix the US economy, and a Jedi Chosen One can’t restore balance to anything. Even institutions can’t save us in a vacuum. Police, military, and the Jedi Order need to be kept in check by an informed citizenry, lest they fall into the same problems of corruption and incompetence.

The Galaxy’s need for hero worship leads to its downfall in the prequels. Raised from birth to believe the magical Jedi are capable of anything, disillusionment must set in when things fall apart. But still, the galactic citizenry has seen that individuals with great power can do great things. It’s not a difficult leap then to believe that a strong politician with great power can do even greater things. It’s much easier to accept dictators that way.

The Jedi Chosen One theory comes from a prophecy, “which misread may be.” The prophecy led the Jedi to blindly ignore their own judgments and work against what makes sense to them, in order to follow some ancient text. Their religiosity directly resulted in the fall of the Republic and the rise of Darth Vader. If you’re a citizen of the Galaxy, do you really want to leave your trust with these monks again, after their last mistake plunged everything into darkness?

Beyond their arrogance, the Jedi have lied several times throughout the movies, tried to overthrow the government without allowing the Chancellor an opportunity for a proper trial, dragged an entire military into battle without Republic approval, and in the shows, used their mind trick capabilities to essentially torture a man, expelled a padawan without giving her a chance to prove her innocence, and frequently found themselves on the wrong side of a complicated conflict that had no clearcut heroes and villains.

The follies of fallible men wouldn’t be that consequential if not for the reverence given to the Jedi Order and the fact that they, you know, have extreme magical powers.

The ability to manipulate the weak-minded is not something that should be used lightly, and brings up way too many ethical questions to count. And by the way, the Sith never exercise that power in any of the canonical movies. The Jedi also apparently have a license to kill, and never express moral regret after utilizing it.

All of it adds up to a regrettable truth: the Jedi aren’t the heroes the galaxy needs. The stakes are too high, their power too great, the risk of another Kylo Ren almost inevitable. It’s time for the Galaxy to move on. It’s time for the Jedi to end.

PORTRAITS: Adam Soltys- On the Record

Adam Soltys always looks for ways to be unique in his art. Starting as a programmer in Second Life, Adam sought new creative outlets. With zombie Amiibos, paintings on records, and other artwork, Adam travels to comic conventions to purvey his work and meet some of his childhood heroes.

REVIEW: Tribeca Film- One Percent More Humid is About Women, and For Everyone

One has to wonder when watching a movie with such a strange title which came first: the title or the awkward line of dialogue pigeonholing the title into the movie. Either way, whenever I hear the film’s title being uttered inside the movie, I react like Peter Griffin.

family-guy-he-said-it-o

HE SAID IT!

One Percent More Humid is a title that, like Aardvark, has no bearing on anything in the story proper. In a way, it works, as the title gives nothing away and forces you to pay more attention.

The film tells the story of two best friends recovering mentally from a tragic accident months prior. Juno Temple’s character, Iris, deals with her trauma with outward cries for help, going after an older man, and letting that fact known without much hesitancy. Her friend, Catherine, portrayed by young Julie Garner, however, reacts inwardly, causing physical harm to herself like the albino in The Da Vinci Code.

While at first, that comparison seems like a cheap throwaway reference, it’s actually quite applicable here. Catherine blames herself for the accident and harms herself as a form of penance.

Catherine struggles silently, but seeks forgiveness likes everyone else. We all know the struggles of guilt and the pressure under which we sometimes cave. In that way, the movie relates to everyone, which was important to the director.

Director Liz Garcia stated after the movie’s premiere that she felt proud to make a movie about women and by women. As a viewer of her work, however, I can say that it’s not just a movie about women and by women, but also, for everyone.

While many of the specific struggles the leads face are uniquely feminine, the broad feelings of loneliness, guilt, and reliability on friends apply to everyone, and make the movie relatable to anyone.

Garcia stated her preference to not load a movie with messages, but OPMH isn’t devoid of them. Friendship takes priority, and she takes great pride in telling a story about the friendship between two young females.

The movie’s male lead is ultimately inconsequential, acting only as a living embodiment of Iris’s damaged feelings. He does offer a more complicated presentation of infidelity, as he’s dealing with loneliness and seems to genuinely care about both his wife and his mistress. True to life, however, he doesn’t appear to be wracked with guilt, but has instead rationalized his actions without ever pretending he’s in the right.

Ultimately, the movie is enjoyable, and a strong representation of women in film. It’s her hope that the doors continue to open further for stories of women, by women, and for everyone, and with a ten year passion project producing results like these, everyone watching One Percent More Humid should be inclined to agree.

REVIEW: Tribeca Film- Aardvark Lacks a Real Message

It’s named Aardvark so that it can be on the top of alphabetical lists. So says the director, Brian Shoaf.

I begin this review with this information so that readers don’t spend the entire movie wondering about the significance of the title. There really isn’t any. In fact, the aardvark that’s shoehorned into the movie really has nothing to do with anything.

Oh, sorry. *Spoilers.*

It’s important to get this out of the way because Aardvark deserves your undivided attention, even if you were like me and sitting in the crowd with Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate, and Malia Obama. (Dropping names like T-Swift drops sick beats.)

The film has a lot to say, and does so in a short amount of time, building from scene to scene with no filler. It tackles mental illness, brotherly love, therapy, and complicated sexual relationships, but does so without ever getting preachy, or really relaying a message at all.

Much of the movie is very matter-of-fact. Quinto’s character, Josh Norman, has started seeing a therapist, and even states he’s sought help due to the impending return of his brother, Craig, played by Jon Hamm. But there’s never a reason given as to why he chose to see this particular therapist, Emily, portrayed by an impressive Jenny Slate. Emily apparently has a complicated sexual history, but it’s not clear how it affects her or the plot in any real way. Lip service is paid to her not having much experience and needing the job to deal with her own issues, but the topic is never really explored.

Craig is an actor, gone from Josh’s life for nearly 15 years, who returns to sell their childhood home years after their parents’ deaths. The potential visit from Craig has Josh shaken up, and notably confused.

The movie occasionally flashes back to a childhood visit to the zoo, and acknowledges some difficult times in their history, but doesn’t do much in the way of building that backstory. The movie instead thrives on making the audience question the validity of every interaction it witnesses. Due to Josh’s mental illness, he sees things that aren’t there, and often ends up confused about reality. These issues lead to the viewer questioning if Quinto’s brother even exists.

The roles are portrayed with love, and the issues surrounding mental illness are treated with care, despite no explicit message about homes, drugs, or familial responsibility.

In short, Aardvark tackles real issues, but unlike movies that are typically cited as Oscar bait, it doesn’t offer a unique perspective or answer difficult questions. At its best, this film allows audiences to see the world from a different perspective. At its worst, Aardark is still a fun, interesting movie, that’s worth watching even if the ex President’s daughter isn’t watching it with you.

PORTRAITS: Richard Horvitz- I Am Alpha, I Am Zim

Angry Beavers, Invader Zim, Billy and Mandy, and the Power Rangers. In each show, Richard Horvitz voiced an iconic character. But to choose his favorite would be like choosing his favorite child. Horvitz is just proud he could have a strong impact on kids.

He also riffs on the Power Rangers.