Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Last Jedi: Character Arcs, Part 1

This post contains spoilers for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.

It's great that The Last Jedi continues to make the franchise more inclusive, but I am not ready to sing its praises. The fact is, Episode VIII is primarily about two white men: Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker. Yes, there are a handful of strong women and people of color, but their development in the film leaves a lot to be desired.

At the beginning of the film, Poe Dameron is a headstrong, independent and overly optimistic pilot who doesn't like to follow orders. He wants to lead the Resistance in its fight against the First Order, but his dramatic conflict in the film is not with anyone in the First Order. It is with Leia, who censures and demotes him when his insubordination results in an extreme loss of life, and who even shoots him when he attempts a mutiny that almost kills the entire Resistance. He needs to learn restraint and humility, though there is little evidence that he overcomes his limitations. Yet, at the end of the film, he commands the remaining members of the Resistance to follow him. They hesitate and turn to Leia for guidance. Leia quips, "What are you looking at me for?", as if Poe has earned their unquestioning loyalty.  In this light-hearted moment, Leia hands the baton of leadership over to Poe, signaling the completion of his character arc.

There is some evidence that Poe has changed, though not necessarily for the better: He may be less willing to sacrifice soldiers, and less confident in his ability to succeed against enormous odds. He suggests this when he calls off the mission to charge the First Order at the last minute, seeing his comrades being too easily picked off. However, this decision doesn't make Poe out to be a more competent or trustworthy leader, since he doesn't have a better plan for the Resistance's survival. What did he think was going to happen when he started the mission? Did he think they would be able to charge the First Order without significant casualties? It was a last ditch effort--of course there were going to be significant casualties--so why give up at the last minute? His actions make little sense and don't suggest an improved approach to leadership, so why does Leia now expect everyone to follow him? Is it just because she likes him?  For whatever reason, Leia is satisfied with Poe, so we are supposed to be, too.

Leia's role in the film is particularly disappointing, as she has no arc to speak of at all. Her desire is to keep as many members of the Resistance alive as possible, but her actions are only in relation to Poe. She has nothing else to do but be an obstacle for him, until she decides he doesn't need her anymore. Admiral Holdo serves a similar role: She is a stand-in for Leia, and she sacrifices herself when Leia returns. Consider how much more powerful it would have been if Leia stayed behind to "pilot" the ship at the end. Why did Holdo do it? There's no sense of character here. They're both just props, there for Poe to resist and then to tell us that Poe is entirely likable and worthy despite his devastating choices.

On a more positive--if tragic--note, Luke has a lot going for him in this installment. Luke was never an impressive Jedi. While he did manage to learn many tricks without much training, he was never as powerful as Darth Vader, let alone the Emperor. He was always tempted by the Dark Side, too. So it is perhaps believable that his devastating failure with Ben Solo would turn him away from the Force completely. Still, it is hard to imagine how Luke's backstory could have played out. Luke Skywalker once walked into the belly of the beast to confront his father and turn him away from the Emperor. How did he become so overcome by fear that he would consider killing Ben Solo in cold blood, just because Ben was gradually turning towards the Dark Side? What had Ben done? What had Snoke done? While I like the Rashomon-style of storytelling--giving us three different versions of the past, and leaving the audience with uncertainty--none of the stories tell us what led Luke to that pivotal moment in the first place. It's a significant gap that would probably take a whole separate film to fill.

Still, there is a clear redemption narrative here. Luke's goal is to find a way to live with his guilt and anger, but he cannot let go of the Jedi in him. For most of the film, he just wants to be left alone, thinking that he cannot be helped. He tries to destroy Rey's hope, though it's not clear if he has any compassion for her, or if he is just bitter. But he is not willing to destroy the ancient Jedi texts. Perhaps he hates the Jedi for still wielding power over him. He hates himself and the entire Jedi Order for all of their failures. He has shut himself off from the Force, even though he knows it is the greatest power in the universe. He's basically in hell. Then, Yoda frees him from bondage by tricking him into thinking he has destroyed the ancient texts. Yoda knows the texts aren't in the tree: Rey has taken them already. Yoda wants Luke to find his way back to the Force on his own. Freed from the burden of the past, Luke reconnects with the Force and finds hope again. It is perhaps ironic that Luke becomes a Jedi legend through an act of trickery. While Luke may be a fool, he is redeemed with his triumph over Kylo Ren--an act which sends waves of hope throughout the galaxy.

Luke's character arc in The Last Jedi is more or less compelling . . . until he dies. It's not so much how poorly motivated it is: It's a little frustrating that we don't see much reason for him to die at that moment at all--he did not seem weak at all--but the biggest disappointment is how quickly his death is passed over, as if it is not the most devastating moment in the entire Star Wars saga. It doesn't seem to have a profound effect on any of the other characters, even though many lives had been lost in the effort to find him and bring him back to the Resistance. We don't even get a reaction to his death from R2D2? The shallow treatment of this crucial moment takes away some of the power of Luke's arc, and the film as a whole.

While Luke's development has its good and bad points, Finn's is overall just bad. He changes from a person who is only out to protect himself and the people he loves (that would be Rey, at least at the beginning of the film) to a person who believes in compassion and is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. This comes about due to his connection to the compassionate and inspirational Rose, though his transformation (and their relationship) is rushed and mostly buried under a cartoonish escape and rescue sequence. Finn suddenly shifts from potential runaway to hero when he realizes he and Rose can help the Resistance escape. Within moments of meeting Rose, he eagerly goes on a "mission impossible" without the slightest hesitation. There could have been a compelling, even endearing, narrative here about compassion and self-sacrifice: Rose could have forced Finn to go along with the plan, threatening to expose his attempt to run away; he could have abandoned her at the casino, only to decide at the last minute to help Rose save the animals and return to help the Resistance. But no, we just get a magical shift in attitude early in the film.*

Kylo Ren's arc is a bit muddier, and his conflicts are not entirely resolved. For one thing, Kylo's interests and desires are always in question. Does he want Snoke's approval, or is he just using Snoke so he can become stronger? Is his goal to start a new world order? He asks Rey to join him: Is this a tactical decision or does he want her companionship, or both? Does he just want to be loved? Does he want revenge on Luke Skywalker for not believing in him? What about his mother? He didn't want to kill her, but he seems fine when he thinks she is dead. Does he ever discover that she is still alive? With so much in doubt, we cannot say for sure if he changes at all over the course of the film.

Early in the film, Snoke ridicules him for wearing a mask, knowing--as we all did--that the mask was keeping Kylo from reaching his true potential. Humiliated, Kylo immediately destroys the mask, but it doesn't have the effect Snoke had expected. The newly confident Kylo won't kill Leia, and when given the chance, he seems to explore his compassionate side with Rey. But was he really opening up to compassion? If so, wouldn't Snoke have noticed? Didn't he sense Kylo's inability to kill his own mother? How could Snoke let Kylo trick him like that? It's hard to make sense of it. In any case, when faced with the choice between killing Rey and killing Snoke, Kylo chooses to kill his master. He is free from Snoke's influence, free from the past, and ready to create a future of his own making--but has he only done it so he can be with Rey? He is still an incompetent leader prone to temper tantrums. He has not gained compassion or self-control. And while he may be leading the fight against the Resistance, he's going to have to sleep with one eye open, since nobody in the First Order wants to follow him.

That leaves Rey, whose arc I will analyze in Part 2.

* Is Rose supposed to teach Finn something at the end about saving those you love? Because that's what Finn was trying to do at the beginning of the movie: Save himself and Rey. And at the end, wasn't Finn also trying to save people? That was the purpose of his attempted self-sacrifice. Is Rose saying self-sacrifice is never a good idea? Or was this just a moment of weakness for Rose: Was she being selfish, trying to keep Finn alive at the expense of the Resistance? As I noted above, Poe was wrong to call off that mission. Finn was right to keep going. Rose risked her life and Finn's by colliding right in front of the First Order. She had no reasonable hope for saving anyone's life, and good reason to think that she was destroying any hope for the Resistance. Rose was even wronger than Poe. And as with Leia and Holdo, Rose has no dramatic arc of her own. She is only there to aid Finn's development.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Coco, The Book of Life: What's the Difference?

If you've seen Coco and The Book of Life, you've surely noticed some of the similarities. At the very least, they are both animated musicals set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos). And you surely noticed that they both feature a guitar-wielding male protagonist who enters and returns from the Land of the Dead. But how many other similarities did you notice?


In both films:
  • Authenticity is a defining characteristic of the protagonist (Miguel in Coco; Manolo in The Book of Life).
  • The protagonist learns the guitar in secret, and against the wishes of his family. This sets up a conflict between the desire to be true to yourself and devotion to your family.
  • The conflict is resolved in a touching moment when the protagonist picks up his guitar and sings a plaintive song in front of his family. Authenticity and family both prevail in the end.
  • Main characters (Juaquin and Xibalba in The Book of Life and Ernesto in Coco) achieve fame and/or power through deception.
  • The deceptions are eventually exposed.
  • The protagonist meets an ancestor in the Land of the Dead who is also musical (Jorge Sanchez in The Book of Life and Hector in Coco).
  • The protagonist meets several other relatives in the Land of the Dead, who fight for him.
  • Among those relatives are twins who fight as a team.
There are significant differences, of course.
  • The Book of Life is a love story, whereas the plot of Coco focuses on the protagonist's desire to connect to his roots and uncover a family secret.
  • In The Book of Life, the human characters are manipulated by a god (Xibalba) whom Manolo must defeat.
  • In The Book of Life, the main story is presented as a myth, a story-within-a-story. In contrast, Coco is presented as a straightforward story taking place in the real world.
  • The Book of Life has a subplot about redemption: Juaquin proves to be compassionate and ultimately redeems himself through an act of selflessness.
  • The Book of Life is also about compassion, including compassion for animals. Manolo is defined by his compassion as much as his authenticity.
  • The Book of Life deals heavily with the tradition of bullfighting, which is not mentioned at all in Coco.
  • The Book of Life has deeper Mexican roots. It is produced by a Mexican filmmaker (Guillermo del Toro), and directed and co-written by another (Jorge R. Gutiérrez). (They discuss their personal feelings about the film here.) In contrast, Coco is produced, directed and written entirely by Americans. (Adrian Molina, one of Coco's co-writers and co-directers, is Mexican-American. He discusses his background and personal feelings about the film here.)
  • Coco features an all-Latino cast, though the vast majority of voice actors in The Book of Life are also Latino.
  • Spirit animals play a significant role in Coco.
Maybe all the similarities are a coincidence, though it's hard to believe it. The Book of Life was not only released first--its whole production process started first. It seems likely that Coco was heavily influenced by The Book of Life. Hopefully Coco's enormous success will draw more attention to the earlier, and in my mind superior, film.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Cory Booker And That Big Pharma/Canadian Drug Issue

Cory Booker has been getting a lot of heat for being one of thirteen Democrats to vote against a budget amendment supporting the importation of prescription drugs from Canada. (Overall, 72 percent of Senate Democrats and 23 percent of Senate Republicans supported the amendment.) Since Bernie Sanders cosponsored the amendment, it carries an aura of progressive, anti-establishment virtue, despite the fact that it was also supported by Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and numerous other Republican Senators. It is just obvious to many people that the only possible explanation for Booker's 'nay' vote is that he is in Big Pharma's pocket. They say this for two reasons: first, because of the financial support he has received from the pharmaceutical industry (though it is only two percent of the total financial support he has received, and almost half of that two percent comes from individual supporters who live in his state and work in the pharmaceutical and health care industries); and second, because they don't see any truth in his own explanation, which is that we need to respect the role of the FDA in regulating our drugs.

You may believe that Cory Booker is corrupt because two percent of his financial support comes from people in the pharmaceutical industry. I think that's unfair, especially since many of his constituents work in that industry, but I'm not going to argue the point. Instead of defending the person, I'm going to defend Booker's argument and position.

The main line of attack against Booker's argument is this: What's wrong with Canada's drug regulations? Why can't we trust them? The presumption is that if there was some great danger associated with Canada's drug policies, we would know about it.

There are a number of curious assumptions lurking here. For one thing, since when do Americans get to assume they are so well-informed about what goes on in other countries?  How many of Booker's critics follow the Canadian press? Furthermore, does the American populace hold such a high opinion of Canada that they cannot entertain the possibility that it has drug issues which have failed to gain widespread attention? Would it be absurd to think that Canada might have an under-reported health crisis?

I spent only a few minutes with Google and found some important facts.

Eight years ago, Canada's Parliament failed to adopt an amendment to their thirty-year-old Food and Drugs Act, which is enforced by Health Canada. Among many other crucial measures, the amendment would have made it illegal to sell or import products that have knowingly been adulterated, or to sell counterfeit products. (As we will see, counterfeiting is one of the FDA's greatest concerns.)

Five year ago, Canada's Auditor General concluded that Health Canada "has not adequately fulfilled most . . . key responsibilities [involving timeliness, consistency, transparency, conflict of interest, and risk-based post-market activities] related to clinical trials, submission reviews, and post-market activities for pharmaceutical drugs."

Four years ago, there were reports of serious health concerns related to the lack of transparency in Health Canada's regulatory procedures. According to one of Canada's own specialists (quoted in the linked article), "“No one has any idea what’s happening behind the walls (at Health Canada), . . There are elements of the U.S. and European (drug regulatory) processes that are unclear but no one holds a candle to Health Canada when it comes to the lack of transparency and how byzantine the whole process is.”

Still think Americans should put their health in Canada's hands?

I've only just scratched the surface of relevant facts. Here are several more, based on a recent study of drug reimportation (the process of buying drugs from Canada which were originally exported to Canada):

  • "While international price comparisons of medications show the comparatively higher prices in US, economists argue that international comparisons must be viewed with skepticism" 
  • "Canadians oppose legalization of reimportation in the US as it could exacerbate the problem of medication shortage in Canada." 
  • "Many concerns restrict drug reimportation from being a legal practice in the US. These include safety, efficacy, and therapeutic equivalency of reimported drugs. While these drugs are manufactured in the US, the storage and packaging conditions in countries where drugs were exported cannot be monitored by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In addition, inappropriate storage conditions while reimporting medications back to the US may degrade the quality of drugs." 
  • "The most important issue is distinguishing between drugs that are manufactured in the US from those which were manufactured elsewhere. Although technically ‘reimportation’ involves importing back drugs manufactured in the US, there are no means to check the originality of drugs. Similarly, it is difficult to determine whether the drugs purchased from other countries have the same dosage form, potency, and amount of active ingredient as the prescribed medication. The FDA contends that legalizing reimportation would increase the entry of counterfeit medications in the US drug supply chain." 
  • "The FDA and the Customs and Border Protection carried out a series of “blitz” examinations of 1982 drug packages mailed or shipped to individual recipients from abroad. Approximately 90% of these products were found to be unapproved and to present potentially severe health risks. The examined imports included drugs that had been withdrawn from the US market as unsafe; drugs with restricted distribution programs; drugs requiring initial screening and periodic monitoring of patients to ensure safe use; controlled substances such as codeine; animal drugs sold for human use; and drugs that might cause dangerous drug–drug interactions. . . . The majority of the drugs had unknown quality and originated from Third World countries." 
  • "In another case, FDA officials examined drugs ordered from a supposed Canadian pharmacy. These drugs, (including insulin) arrived in the regular mail and at room temperature (Insulin loses effectiveness at higher temperatures and is supposed to be shipped overnight to ensure it remains chilled)" 
  • "The World Health Organization anticipated that in 2000 about 8% of bulk drugs imported to the US were counterfeit, unapproved, or substandard." 
  • "The FDA claims that the number of counterfeit drugs investigated per year have increased to 20 since 2000 after averaging 5 per year in late 90s."
In short, Canada is already struggling to regulate and supply pharmaceuticals to Canadians. If the door were opened for legal importation from Canadian pharmacies, the demand would skyrocket. On the one hand, we don't know how expensive the drugs would actually be for Americans. On the other, Canada is not prepared to handle the task. Either an enormous investment would have to be made to ensure that all of the drugs were safe and effective, or Americans would be at a much greater risk of harm. The only conscionable option would be to put a greater investment in Canada's regulatory process. And who would pay for that? Canadian tax payers?

I am sure there are even more facets of this issue that I have not considered. However, what seems clear enough is that progressives have been extremely unfair in their out-of-hand dismissal of Cory Booker's argument and position, not to mention their attacks on his character. This is a complicated issue. Bernie Sanders may present it in simple terms, but we would be wise not to follow that lead.

Update: Here's a defense of Booker (and others) at PolitiFact. It highlights the selective reporting that has allowed so many on the Left to smear Democrats who have voted against Bernie Sanders.  It turns out that on the same day Booker and a dozen other Dems voted against that bill that Bernie cosponsored, they also voted in favor of a bill demanding cheaper pharmaceuticals. There's no basis for claiming that Booker is doing Big Pharma's bidding, or that he has been bought by any Big Money interests.