Weekend Reads: "Star Wars"'s Fatal Flaw, 007, Big Vegetable Twitter, Japanese Kit Kats, Translating the Bible
Recommended weekend reading material for December 26, 2020.
I’m sure this Christmas season probably looked pretty different for you and your family, but even so, I hope that it’s been a time of peace and rest. This will be the final “Weekend Reads” newsletter of 2020. Thanks so much for subscribing to Opus, and I hope you’ve had as much fun and enjoyment reading these newsletters as I’ve had writing them.
You’ve probably seen (or at least heard about) the big reveal in The Mandalorian’s season finale by now. My boys loved it, as have most people from what I’ve seen. But I honestly felt a little underwhelmed, even disappointed, and this Matt Zoller Seitz essay does a great job of capturing why that’s the case.
It’s hard to capture in words the galaxy-collapsing shortsightedness of requiring that every new Star Wars tale ultimately connect, however tangentially, with the same handful of genetically linked characters. Star Wars’ bizarre obsession with Force-amplifying, midi-chlorian-rich blood, and the proximity of “regular” characters to those with special blood, makes Lucas’s galaxy far, far away — a place so vast that you need hyperspace to cross it — feel as rinky-dink as a backwater American town, the kind of place where everybody is required to kiss the same local family’s butt for survival’s sake. Every time a Star Wars story genuflects to the Skywalker saga yet again, Lucas’s mythos shrinks further in the collective imagination. Sometimes it’s so small-minded that you’d think Disney’s mandate was to reimagine Mayberry with starships and laser swords.
Related: I’ve been playing Jedi: Fallen Order lately, and while the game has some glaring flaws, the experience of exploring unknown worlds in search of ancient Jedi lore makes me smile ear-to-ear. Star Wars is at its best when it makes the galaxy seem like a vast place full of unknown stories just waiting to be discovered, and so far, Jedi: Fallen Order is doing just that for me.
Alissa Wilkinson is one of my favorite movie critics, so not surprisingly, I always look forward to her year-end list of favorite movies.
There was a silver lining, of a sort, for people who write about movies. Without flashy, slick Hollywood fare flooding the zone, the more risky, daring, and original films — with smaller budgets and no nostalgia to rely on as a built-in, audience-grabbing crutch — were the films we got to focus on, and they were often a joy. Even if we tired of watching movies from our couches instead of in a movie theater, it felt like every week brought fresh, interesting new faces and voices to our screens.
2006’s Casino Royale is one of the best modern James Bond films, and one of the reasons for its greatness is a 30-minute poker game that’s as thrilling as any stunt or action sequence.
The roughly 30-minute casino sequence plays as a masterful microcosm of the movie — it has its own narrative arc, interspersed with punctuations of combat and death-defying shocks, and shows off Bond’s mental prowess and mortality. More importantly, it proved Craig capable of daredevil thrills and martini-sipping refinement, and leveraged his skills into one of the best depictions of poker in movie history.
The Pitchfork staff lists the ways that music persisted during the year that was 2020, and in the process, helped us persist, too.
At the peak of the pandemic, musicians and fans on the precipice of boredom adapted to a new normal in the most natural way they could: by organizing and creating. Individually and collectively, they hosted virtual dance parties, produced intricate TikTok edits, and launched initiatives destined to alter the way the music industry works. Whether it was artists constantly vetoing Trump or the communal force of Verzuz battles, here’s how the music world took the sour parts of the year and made a sweet batch of lemonade.
I rewatched 2010’s Tron: Legacy a few months ago, just to see if the ensuing decade had improved the film at all. Sadly, it hadn’t. While the visuals and aesthetics were still amazing (a de-aged Jeff Bridges aside), the storyline was as ultimately underwhelming as I remembered.
Another thing about the movie that was still amazing, though, was the Daft Punk soundtrack — and the “Complete Edition” of their Tron: Legacy soundtrack, which brings together some additional, hard-to-find songs, was recently released.
Twitter can be a real dumpster fire these days, what with all of the snark, sniping, and conspiracy theories flying around, but one man is helping to redeem it with the aid of his really big vegetables.
In short, nothing is pure in this tweet-ravaged world. But as far as I can tell, Stratford hasn’t changed a thing about himself during his time in the spotlight. He doesn’t employ a social media strategy, his tweets are rife with typos, and he has no real interest in capitalizing on his viral fame. Stratford’s appeal lies in his gentle self-deprecation, as well as his passion for life’s little ambiguities — like the invisible alchemy that takes place when you plant a carrot and leave it for months until it’s time to harvest. “When you plant your seeds, eventually you see the little shoot coming through the ground,” Stratford tells me. “And you know eventually it’ll grow into into something big enough to put on your plate. Just to grow an ordinary vegetable is so rewarding.”
In case you didn’t know it, Japan is basically paradise for lovers of Kit Kat bars, and this latest concoction sounds right up my alley.
Their latest release fits right in on the shelves of the Chocolatory’s high-end shelf, as it’s titled “Whisky Barrel Aged” and contains cacao chocolate aged for 180 days in whisky barrels from Islay, Scotland.
The chocolate is produced using crumbled bits of dried cacao beans that stored and aged in whisky barrels on the Scottish island of Islay, which most whisky lovers will know as the hallowed ground and home of some of the finest smoky and peaty whiskies around.
Dr. Susan J. Napier’s Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation was one of the first Western books to approach anime from a scholarly perspective. The book (originally published back in 2001) recently came under fire from Ohio lawmakers who erroneously claim that it’s pornographic. In this Otaku USA interview, Napier talks about the controversy surrounding her book.
Do you have any idea what they’re offended by?
It’s one chapter. The chapter on pornography in Japanese animation. Some of the stuff is very unpleasant. It does show real violence against women. I thought it was actually important to bring up pornography. It was reasonably widely available and I knew people in the West were looking at it, so I thought some people should explore it. I thought if you wanted to understand anime as a total part of Japanese culture, you have to be aware of this. You don’t have to watch it. I never suggested that.
I read Napier’s book years ago when preparing for my lectures at the 2007 Flickerings Film Festival. It does discuss some very disturbing anime titles, and includes a few graphic stills from those titles, so it’s not for everyone who wants to learn more about anime — but I would never call it “pornographic.”
Bible translation is as much an art as it is a science — and it’s subject to tradition, dogma, market forces, inter-disciplinary tensions, and personal disagreements.
Even though we know the Bible comes to us in translation, it’s nicer to think that every aspect of the book we hold has descended directly from the heavens. It’s uncomfortable to remember that the scholars who compile, analyze, and translate that text are not infallible. It may be even more troubling to think of the market forces, bias, and reader response that play a role, even though we remember choosing and buying the book in our hands. Learning of the dissension and infighting is disheartening, even as we know that the best translations are often the result of iron sharpening iron.
From the Blog
I finally got around to seeing a “classic” movie that’s been on my “too watch” list for awhile now: Chandu the Magician. I enjoyed it, but as you might expect from a 1932 film about a white mystic trained by Indian yogis who battles Egyptian villains, it’s not without its problems.
Modern viewers will likely find themselves rolling their eyes whenever an obviously white dude in a turban calls Chandu “effendi,” or when Chandu’s yogi teacher speaks perfect King James English (e.g., “Go forth in thy youth and strength and conquer the evil that threatens Mankind”), or when Chandu’s virginal niece, clad only in a flimsy négligée, is put on the auction block and pawed at by lustful Egyptian men. (Don’t worry, though: Chandu’s arcane powers ensure that her virtue remains intact.)
That being said, it’s hard to find Chandu the Magician offensive per se. Part of that’s due to the film’s contrivances and inherent silliness — this was a pre-Code Hollywood “B” movie, after all. Whatever offensiveness it possesses is probably best left to the crew of the Satellite of Love and their sardonic wit.
Also, I posted my list of 25 movies that I hope to see in 2021. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even get to see some of them in a theatre.
Time will tell, of course. In the meantime, let’s look ahead to 2021 with some cautious optimism, as the year promises a true variety of cinematic delights, from a clash between cinema’s greatest titans to Arthurian legend, from ambitious sci-fi to Nicolas Cage at his Nicolas Cage-iest.
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