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Danny DeVito blasts America, but look at his films

By Michael Vass | January 23, 2016

As stated on my Facebook account –

Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia

Danny DeVito believes America is racist. Because Black Actors/Actresses didn’t get nominated in the last 2 years. Consider this –

Mr. DeVito has been a producer (and director) of films for more than 14 years. In that time he has produced 23 films.

Of his films, 8 have had 1 Black actor/actress. Better than many in Hollywood, but not significant. And when I say 1 I mean EXACTLY that (with the exception of only 2 films).

More important than the number of people he has employed is what he employed them for. As a Producer he has massive power in who shows up on the screen. Only 2 films star Black actors/actresses – How High and Freedom Writers.

In 6 films, DeVito has employed POC actors as addicts and criminals. Only in 1 film was this seriously contrasted – an activist film. Oh, I’m sorry, I left out the bumbling inept drug using law enforcement in the ensemble Reno 911 film. My bad.

Of the 9 films he has directed in 40 years, not one has has a POC. That’s in any starring or support role.

I say this to put into context the words of Mr. DeVito. As a member of the Oscar’s Academy, as a producer and director, he has power in Hollywood. Considering his successes he has even more power than the majority of his peers. Yet the overwhelming majority of his work has only been to reinforce stereotypes and Hollywood tropes.

With this all in context, I am not saying that DeVito is insincere in his concern about Hollywood bias. I am saying he is inconsistent. I am saying that this is a Hollywood issue, advanced by the very industry he is in and not the American people. I am saying he has been part of the problem more than the solution for 2 generations thus far.

It rings hollow to me when multi-millionaires who make their living off of institutional bias, join a bandwagon. I find it insulting when these individuals adopt political positions suddenly based on the popularity of a secluded minority of elites. It is aggravating when these elites blame a nation for actions this handful of power-brokers make their living on.

Could Hollywood be better? Absolutely. But the snubs (which always occur – just look back at reviews of the Oscar nominations going back to the beginning) of today are not the snubs of say the 60’s or prior. The successes of Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Will Smith, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, Idris Elba, Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle, Spike Lee, Jaime Foxx, Samuel Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Forrest Whitaker, Laurence Fishburne, Djimon Hounsou, Anthony Mackie, Taye Diggs, Queen Latifa, Whoppi Goldberg, Ving Rhames, Tyler Perry, Morris Chestnut… I can go on, because the industry has changed and my point is made.

A portion of America is racist. A portion of the world is racist. Such is human nature. But Hollywood is not human nature. It has nurtured and promoted various stereotypes with little change. Not the fault of America, but a incredibly small group of very elite people that count Danny DeVito among them, working to promote their personal gains. If Mr. DeVito wants to see a change, it may be best if HE first makes a change and leads by example rather than thrusting blame on consumers of his extremely limited and decidedly stereotypical products that he now (after reaping rewards) seems to have misgivings about.

Topics: Black and White, Celebrity news, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Force Awakens: Spoiler review of an average film

By Michael Vass | December 27, 2015

By now just about everyone has see Star Wars: A Force Awakens, but if you have not don’t read this.

Star Wars: A Force Awakens
Let’s just jump into this. Force Awakens (FA) is just an average film. Maybe its a good film. But it’s not great nor deserving of the record-breaking returns it is generating. The fact is, because the prequels were so universally acknowledged as bad, FA being decent instantly makes it phenomenal. Which is sad because as a fan, old enough to have seen all the movies when they first came out, I really hoped for more.

As has been discussed in many places, JJ Abrams did what he always does, flash over substance. That’s all there is to this film. Nothing really original besides a few characters and scenery – but if you are honest, not even that really. Everything old is new, thank you JJ Abrams.

FA is A New Hope for a modern audience. Death Star, check. Darth Vader and Emperor, check. It goes on and on. We even get Tattooine, Alderaan and a touch of Hoth. All in sharper focus and brighter colors.

But I won’t focus on all that. Too many have already done that. What I have not heard is discussion with the real problem of the film.

Rey is the problem. She is the equivalent of Jar Jar Binks, minus the Looney Tunes aspect. The character of Rey is enormously flawed, but everyone is too giddy about what she does to stop and notice what she is doing in this film.

Let me clarify that I’m talking about the character, not the actress Daisey Ridley. Ridley did a great job in her performance. In fact all the actors did well, with the exception of Carrie Fishers’ Leia. That was just flat and useless. If we are honest, all the original characters are useless. Any character could have been inserted to replace them, all they were is fan service. Which I liked, but honestly wasn’t needed.

Back to Rey… she suffers massively from superwoman complex. It’s a familiar scenario in a Hollywood that is fixated on creating female characters that must be the dominate lead in the film. Think about it. Need to fly a ship? Non-pilot Rey can just jump into the Millennium Falcon and suddenly decipher every mechanical quirk of the ship instantly. She is as good a pilot as Han Solo, without any experience. Yeah, that took me out of the film.

Need a character to have force powers to counter Kylo Ren? Superwoman Rey can do that. Yes, Kylo Ren who has been trained under Luke Skywalker for an unknown number of years if not decades, is a Skywalker decendant which makes him strong in the force, and is being trained in the Dark Side by Supreme Leader Snoke. In mere seconds she is his equal, without a second of training or even any apparent knowledge of the forrce existing. Yeah, that’s believeable.

Why not throw in a Jedi Mind Trick. Superwoman Rey can do that, without knowing ANYTHING. Better yet, she can use a lightsaber as well as a years (if not decades) trained Jedi/Sith. Hell, is there anything that superwoman Rey can’t do? Seriously, she is the answer to everything in the film. It’s Hollywood (and lazy writing) ramming the fact that she must be the heroine and we must cheer for her down our throat.

Yes, Rey is a victory for feminism in Hollywood film. But she took me out of the film at every impossible and improbable superwoman act. Just like Jar Jar Binks. Once the hype dies down, and people look back on this film – by itself and without relation to any future film to come – this will be clear. The fact that fans are filling in the plotholes and making excuses is the same thing that happened at the end of Prequel I – Phantom Menace.

Separate of that, as a stand alone film, there really isn’t much there there. Captain Phasma is useless and unneeded – regardless of what she does in the future. Any random stormtrooper or First Order officer could have replaced her. Maz Kanata is also useless. Just a device to advance the story and generally unneeded. Max Von Syndow is wasted (again, it doesn’t matter if some future film will fill in the gaps). The whole scene of the rathtars was just so over the top and useless. What exactly was the point of that?

Plot holes? How about the fact that there is a tracker on the Falcon, but Han couldn’t use that tracker to find the ship parked on the planet? How about the First Order have engineers that went to the Hollywood school of remakes. How does the Star Killer base move, or get new sun’s for ammo? How did Captain Phasma, Kylo Ren, General Hux, or anyone else get off the Star Killer base?

In terms of the emotional content, again lazy writing killed the story. There was no real chemistry between Leia and Han Solo. As little as there was, even less existed between Kylo Ren and Han Solo. There could be no bigger telegraph between them other than seeing a bigger stronger Death Star with the same exact weakness taken out the same way. The only saving grace was Chewbacca reacting with rage – shot in the foot by Leia barely reacting. Come on, if you have ever seen the reaction of a spouse – separated for decades – on hearing of the loss of a former spouse the reaction of Leia underwhelms if I am kind. Or how about the 4 planets that were decimated by the Star Killer. Did anyone care about the unknown, momentarily seen, nameless and essentially useless whatever that lived on those planets. They might have as well been uninhabited for all the emotional content they provided.

These are just a few of the problems. There are a lot of great things about the film though. The practical effects were excellent. The look was fantastic. Thank god there was no lens flare for once (or if there was I did not notice it). But the look was immersive, lush and barren when appropriate.

So what does this leave us with?

Well not much. Rey is being telegraphed as the daughter of Luke Skywalker, and also the obvious choice to be the focus of a plot twist. But odds are, with the lazy writing so far apparent, superwoman Rey is Luke’s daughter. She will likely also be the ultimate Jedi, to become the equal of Yoda for future films.

Kylo Ren is irredeemable. He will be the transparent evil bad guy that is so common in films today. He will buy in to the Dark Side and never look back. Look for him to fight Rey, she won’t be able to kill him as they are family, and Finn will do it for her.

Supreme Leader Snoke is NOT the 30 ft tall creature he has been made out to be. He may not even look like he presented himself. Hell, given all the attention on Darth Jar Jar (which I believe is plausible) Snoke could be DJJ pulling a great wizrad of Oz. Or he could even be somewhere in the background. In a fan service dedicated film, massively popular fan theories have a way to get into the storyline (saving writers any real work).

At the end of the day, A Force Awakens is a decent film. Better than all the prequels, leading to obvious sequels that must be seen to understand any one story arc – sadly. Standing by itself, it’s flawed fan service that only gets half of what it is doing right. It’s the fourth best Star Wars film, which is what fans have been desperate for since Phantom Menace first hit theaters. Given time, I think most will come to agree this is just a 5.5 film, but if you add in hype and anticipation it’s an 8.

Topics: Movie Previews and Reviews | No Comments »

Darth Jar Jar rules Star Wars – Episode 8 reveal

By Michael Vass | December 11, 2015

DISCLAIMER – this is completely a fan theory. It has no basis in fact, and is completely a though exercise of my own. If by a miracle this happens like I describe, I just want a film credit (next to Lumpawarroo) and say $15,000 – or is that too much to ask for Mr. Abrams?

OK, this may take a bit but follow it to the end. You have heard of Darth Jar Jar? If not, look it up.

Darth Jar Jar
Now my theory picks up on that theme. Assuming that Darth Jar Jar is in fact the top Sith, where was he in episode 4/5/6? Why do I say he is the top Sith? Where is he in episode 7?

If Darth Jar Jar (DJJ) is a Sith, he has to be massively powerful. He has fooled Jedi to their face. He was on Coruscant and even Yoda could not notice him. He was able to cloud the force from the entire Jedi Council, at the Jedi Temple (hiding the nature of Anakin), and he was able to Jedi Mind Trick the entire Galactic Senate to get his apprentice Palpatine to be made Emperor.

Note that Emperor is Palpatine’s official title. It is not relevant to his position in the Dark Side. Nor does he ever say he is the top Sith. Yes, Darth Vader calls him master. But the apprentices and force sensitive’s of Vader call him master. All it means is that Vader serve Palpatine, not that Palpatine is the top in the food chain. In fact, the Emperor is Darth Sidious which could mean he is not the top as it does not denote if he is or is not the top dog.

Moving on. If Darth Sidious serves DJJ, he knows how powerful his master is. Sith move up by killing their master. If DJJ is so strong as to be able to cloud Yoda’s ability to see the future, and hide himself from the Jedi Council while on the same planet for YEARS, would you want to take him on directly? Not likely, or he could Mind Trick you into killing yourself. That’s assuming that he does not have massive skill with light sabers, which is possible as DJJ can doge blaster fire and take out opponents with a droid on his foot.

Why risk a direct confrontation. Instead, you need a way to take out DJJ from a distance. But also something that he cannot dodge. Since he can affect minds on a planetary level, there isn’t much that you could throw at him that he can’t dodge. But what if you take out the planet with him on it? He can’t survive space, and a planet blowing up.

That’s why the Death Star was created. It’s the weapon DJJ can’t block or dodge or control. It is too far away, too large, too many people, and too destructive. But it had to be secret.

That’s why so few knew about it. The Trade Federation knew, as they provided the metal. The Banking guild knew as they provided the funds. The Techno Union knew as they provided the parts and some labor (besides slaves, that could be killed without warning). These were the key people in the Separatist movement. They all answered to Darth Sidious, but never knew his identity. They NEVER were on Coruscant, and in fact were kept on the far side of the Galaxy, to limit the chance what they were building would be known.

The last we saw of the designers, they were in an all out war with the clones. They were being blown out of the sky and killed en masse, after the design was handed to Dooku. What if this was a plan of just Palpatine, and he killed them all (at least all the ones that would know and left the rest running into hiding).

Once General Grevious was killed, as was Dooku (who also would have known of the weapon), there was no need to continue the war. There was also no need to kill the Separatist leaders. They couldn’t reveal who Palpatine was, and even if they did the Jedi already knew by that time. But they knew about the Death Star, and that secret had to go to the grave. That’s why Darth Vader was sent to kill them immediately after the Jedi were killed – likely on the order of DJJ.

Still with me? So between episode 3 & 4, DJJ learns of the Death Star. He knew all the resistance leaders, from Padme and his time in the Senate. he could easily have been the one to pass on the plans of the Death Star, to teach his pupil a lesson. It would also take away the one threat to his life.

The reason we don’t see the Emperor in 3, and only briefly via hologram in 4, is because he is busy trying to find out where DJJ has gone, and/or answering to him. Possibly the Emperor is starting to have problems keeping the Empire in line without the covert support of the massive mental powers of his teacher – DJJ.

At the same time, the vision of the future where Luke is seen ruling the Galaxy with Darth Vader was not real. It was a vision implanted by DJJ to keep the Emperor busy. It would mean the Emperor would always have to watch what Vader is doing, fearing Vader would kill him in an attempt to become DJJ’s apprentice. Also, it would give Vader a distraction as he would focus on Luke, as he would believe that vision was his key to greater power. Both Palpatine and Vader would be distracted from keeping exact tabs on DJJ, and following a false path rather than focus solely on the Death Star or other inventions like it.

Vader is desperate for the Death Star plans as it was not supposed to be revealed to the public until after DJJ was dead – the planet he was on would be accused of hiding rebels. Gran Moff Tarkin jumped the gun with Alderaan. But by then it was already too late.

Because of the distraction and false visions of the future, both Vader and the Emperor were too clouded to create a different mass weapon. That’s why they built another Death Star. Plus, once the cat was out of the bag (in their minds) they were fearful that DJJ would retaliate – likely through the rebels who had no Jedi nor force sensitive’s that could protect them from the power of DJJ’s manipulations.

Palpatine may have leaked the Death Star II info in hopes of drawing out DJJ. Hoping he might be with the rebels as they attacked the DS II to make sure it was destroyed. This idea of drawing out DJJ may also have been just another plan in the long con of DJJ. Little pushes here and there, letting people think they are making the right choice when they are being manipulated towards a predetermined outcome.

Now, if you can follow this (and I admit it is not complete or absolutely thought out – I only came to this conclusion today as I introduced the whole DJJ idea to a friend who had not heard of it yet) we come to episode 7. We won’t see DJJ yet. At least not directly. Supreme Leader Snoke may well be the new underling of DJJ. As for the Force being felt throughout the Galaxy? That’s a recruitment call from the most powerful Sith in the Galaxy – the person responsible for the Galactic Senate Mind Trick and clouding the vision of the entire Jedi Council while on the same planet. Again, he likes to pull the strings from a distance – leaving the focus of fighting on everyone but him. What better way to find a worthy apprentice?

But we may get a hint in episode 7 that there is more than what the characters see going on. There is another figure in the background, with yellow eyes in the shadows. This would open up episode 8 for the big reveal. This is why Luke went into hiding – he was quietly trying to track down the Sith behind it all.

In fact, because there has been so much talk, suddenly, about DJJ I think that if JJ Abrams had not considered this before, he is working on it now. Star Wars fans are too caught up in the idea of DJJ. The super deep hidden message is too juicy to leave alone. The money that could be involved is far too enticing for Disney. And think of the spin-off films that could be played with this idea. It’s like the Marvel Phases on a platter. Fans want DJJ, and they will pay to see it realized. Plus it would be a great film idea, one upping Shamalan’s career, and locking Abrams into greatness in a way no filmmaker has done before. Seriously, a hidden plotline that spans 8 films?

So this is a bit long, and not completely though through. But I think you can see what I am talking about if you are a fan. Plus with the Expanded Universe gone, it is completely viable.

But what do you think?

Topics: Movie Previews and Reviews, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Review: Night of Fashion in Binghamton, NY

By Michael Vass | May 12, 2015

Credit: Royal Pearl Productions

It was billed as a night of entertainment, and those that were in attendance on May 9, 2015 got exactly that in spades. The Night of Fashion event, put on jointly by JusJamstar and SimplyMe Boutique, was an attempt to provide residents of Binghamton and the Southern Tier a taste of the spectacle that is Fashion Week in New York City. This came with a bonus of song, dance, and even dinner. For $20 a ticket for VIP admission (which included the dinner and an open bar) a movie just paled in comparison.

To be fair, the Night of Fashion event had mixed moments. There was more to be enjoyed as a sum total, but the review would be false if the problems of the event were overlooked just because the companies involved are relatively new and growing. Even so, there is no question that attendees got their money’s worth. It also must be mentioned that this review is based on just about half the event – more on why in a moment. First, let’s address the few short-comings of the event.

Fashion show, Binghamton NY

The event was billed to start, at the American Legion Post 80, at 6pm for VIP and general admission. At 6:30pm, when I arrived, guest were still arriving but the dinner had been delayed. Not an unusual situation as every event has some hiccup. Eventually attendees would be notified that dinner would be served at the intermission of the show. The problem was that there was never a formal announcement of this fact. In fact, the delay lasted 1 hour, with the event starting at 8pm. Once the show started, MC Riz did her best to engage the crowd. Throughout the night she segued and pantomimed, and generally kept the attention of the audience focused on her and not the fact that the event, which was scheduled to last 2 hours, was actually taking double the time.

The format of the event was MC Riz introducing 2 performances followed by a fashion line, and repeat. For the scheduled length of the event it would have seemed implied that this meant each performer might have 5 minutes before moving on. That was not the case here. Instead performers were on stage for multiple acts, some for an extended amount of time. In comparison, the fashion lines were displayed on a relatively consistent 10 minute timeframe. The disparity gave the event more of a talent show feel than that of fashion.

Once the intermission started, at 10pm – an hour later than the entire event was supposed to have lasted – I had to depart. I did return later that evening to check in on the festivities for a bit. The event ended after midnight, fully 6 hours after the first guests arrived. Which is fine as it was a full night of entertainment, but not what was promoted.

Given that each of the above had the potential to kill the night. But much to the credit of the performers and the team of people working behind the scenes, the audience never balked. The show, once started, never felt like it was dragging, or a performance overlong. For any negative that can be pointed out (and many an event I have attended in my life have had far more and worse) the one thing that I kept noticing was that the event was entertaining. The audience wasn’t just getting their money’s worth, they were getting more. If anything, ultimately the biggest problem for the event (if it could be called that) was that the production team was striving to give attendees a full-on gala at a budget price – and they succeeded in doing just that.

The singers were new and upcoming faces that mostly provided original material. They were excited and dedicated. Each performer sought to win over the audience. MC Riz did her best to rev up the audience before and after each entered or exited the stage. The comic was blue, but energizing. There was even a spoken word recital – something that is rare in any event with a mix of entertainment styles. Night of Fashion was a rich mixture of things that all in the audience could and did enjoy.

And then there was the fashion. The following videos are just 3 of the 6 fashion lines displayed during the show. Not shown are the lines of shoes, evening-wear and lingerie. The models were a mix of not just the classic model type, but also models with real world bodies. It’s a pleasure to see a fashion show that features clothing that your girlfriend, or wife, or friend might be able to wear. Clothing that look good not just on a mannequin but on a woman that you can see walking down the street. The reaction to each clothing line was met by enthusiasm and excitement by the audience.

Fashion Line 1

Fashion Line 2

Swimsuit fashion

Credit: Royal Pearl Productions

All in all the Night of Fashion event, by JusJamstar and SimplyMe Boutique was a rewarding experience. Considering that both companies are women-owned small businesses that were only recently created, the potential for growth is a much needed and empowering message to men and women throughout the Southern Tier. Adding to this is the fact that the performers and models are predominantly locally based, a key feature for JusJamstar president Jesula Saintus.

Ms. Saintus shared the following with me in an interview after the event,

“It’s awesome to know so many in Binghamton are working for their dream. The only way people can survive is to work together. That’s what JusJamstar does.”

JusJamstar can be contacted via Facebook at

SimplyMe Boutique, that provided all the clothing in the 6 fashion lines, can be contacted at . Their store is located at 192 Main St, Binghamton, NY 13905

** Photos are by Royal Pearl Productions – **

Credit: Royal Pearl Productions

Credit: Royal Pearl Productions

Credit: Royal Pearl Productions

Topics: Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

When Spike Lee came to town

By Michael Vass | February 19, 2015

On February 19, 2015, famed film director Spike Lee came to Binghamton University to speak for a scheduled 2 hours in an open to the public event. The event was free, held at the Binghamton University Events Center. It was billed as a talk which would then be followed by a question and answer period.


Image as found at

At the outset, cameras of any sort were not allowed at the event. Like most who attended cell phones were on hand and active when Mr. Lee took the stage. One of the first words after introducing himself to the audience of some 225+ in attendance, Mr. Lee requested that all cell phones to be turned off and the ringers shut off as well. It seemed like Mr. Lee had the intention to share his personal thoughts and insights with the audience, and I honestly considered not writing about the event at all. But then Mr. Lee stated that the audience shouldn’t worry as they would all be able to make it home to see Empire. Such a statement, at the beginning of an event tends to foreshadow what will happen next.

Mr. Lee then spent the better part of a half hour introducing himself to us. He spoke about growing up in Brooklyn. He spoke about how he was introduced to his first camera. He talked about how he spent the summer of 1977 filming the blackout and looting and the explosion of Disco throughout the city. He even touched upon how he was inspired to create his first film for his classmates and how that experience moved him, focused his attention and allowed him to be able to strive for a goal of a career that he loved, and not just jobs that paid well.

But for all of the sharing, the talk seemed just shy of breaking into a serious reveal of who Spike Lee is and what motivates him. Perhaps it was because of the fact that of the 3000 anticipated to attend the event by the Press & Sun newspaper, the turnout was maybe 1/10 that amount. Perhaps it was the cold winter weather, which could have sapped some of his vigor for the evening. Or it may have been that even though Mr. Lee started the night by explaining that he is likely most known for controversial and race related films yet he has done some 30 films to date – covering topics as diverse as heist films (Inside Man), to Crime Thriller (son of Sam), to a remake of the South Korean cult film Oldboy. Still, with that said Mr. Lee spent the better part of the night speaking about race, connecting it to almost ever part of what he had to say and most answers to questions he gave. There was a fair portion of Mr. Lee’s political views as well. Again, even with these topics, it seemed that nothing beyond the surface was really scratched.

I would love to tell you about the motivations Mr. Lee has had for various films he has made, but he never shared that. He did state that he felt that there needs to be more imagery on people of color and women, in movies and television, and that he felt part of his purpose was to tell truthful stories of and with these people. But how that feeling lead to She’s Gotta Have It, or School Daze, or even Malcolm X I don’t know.

I know that Mr. Lee believes that there are a host of talented directors, actors, and actresses of color out there. He believes that Hollywood and television need to broaden the chances for these actors to show the talent and skill they possess. Mr. Lee shared a litany of actors and actresses whose first film role was in one of his films – something he has tried to do in every film he has made.

I now also know that Mr. Lee believes in hard work as being critical for success. He explained how he sees, to an extent, that the youth of today are too used to instant gratification. That success must be striven for and earned if it is to occur at all – no matter the color of skin of the individual.

I wish I could say that I know far more about Mr. Lee, but I can’t. I wish I knew more about the television show Mr. Lee is trying to get launched but he didn’t explain anything about it. I wish I knew more about how he raised money for his first film, or how that was different than his experience funding a film with Kickstarter, but he never delved into that. I personally wanted to ask about if there was any film that he could make, on any topic, without question on getting funding, what would that film be about and why? But Mr. Lee seemed content in taking questions primarily from the reserved seats in the audience, skimming over answers to the questions given to him, and touching on his personal political views (which I certainly would have loved to hear far less about).

In the end, Mr. Lee spent some 65 minutes out of an expected 120 minutes with the people and students of Binghamton. Mr. Lee noted that it was late and he had a long drive to make in the cold – something that may be true of any number of the members of the audience above the average age of a BU student. Then I remembered that Empire was on tonight, and Mr. Lee stated he was a fan of the show. Too bad I was a fan of many of his films, and not of his politics or most of his views on race in America.

I would like to say that anyone who missed the Spike Lee event at Binghamton University tonight missed something special, but I cannot. Maybe there was a personal or family issue that had him distracted. Maybe he expected a larger audience like those he has had at colleges he has spoken at since 1988. It could have just been an off night, we are all just human. But I can only comment on the brief time I shared with Spike Lee. Hopefully, one day I may get an answer to the questions that were left half answered or unsaid, but in Binghamton, NY tonight was not that day.

Topics: Celebrity news, Uncategorized | No Comments »

From a terrible waste to selfies, what are we saying to the youth?

By Michael Vass | February 17, 2015

President Obama recently released a series of “selfie” photos to promote his vision of health care (commonly known as Obamacare). These images, criticized by some for being a degradation of the office of the President, brought up a thought few have touched on over the years. What are we telling the minority youth of America?

As a child of the 1970’s, there were messages being delivered to my generation. Ads and television commercials that called for specific action from the youth. Many who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s may recall the “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” commercial and several similar ads.

These Public Service Announcements (PSA) were a direct and unsubtle call to action on public television. They were a direct response to the gains via the Civil Rights movement made in the 60’s, and the sacrifices of several generations. The understanding was that without education, the Black (and as an extension all minorities) community would falter. That without active participation, the social gains of the 60’s would fade away opening the door to history repeating itself.

The effect of the Civil Rights movement, and the highly effective PSA television commercials, was to spur education. In 1960 the percentage of high school graduates was 43.2% for Whites and 20.1% for Blacks (no Census data [table 263] was available for other minorities until 1970). In the 1970’s that percentage increased to 54.5% for Whites and 31.4% for Blacks – data for Hispanics was initiated at 32.1%. The increase for Blacks was an improvement by more than half in a single decade. By 1980 the figures resulted in graduation levels of 68.8% for Whites, 51.2% Black, and 44% for Hispanics. In 1990 there was growth in graduation from high schools of 79.1% Whites, 66.2% Black, and 50.8% Hispanic – it was also the first year where figures were reported for Asians – 80.4%. In the space of 3 decades, a generation of Americans, the emphasis on education, especially among minorities, had increased the number of graduates by more than 300% for Black Americans, and more than 50% for Hispanics.

As a society this was also seen in a growth in television shows and movies featuring minorities. Not just as background characters, or a single episode supporting character, but as leads. This was most notable with The Cosby Show. A family of successful, intelligent, and upper middle class Black Americans. The spin-off of A Different World further signaled the potential and need for minorities to become educated and excel.

But in the mid-90’s, there was a sea change in the nation. The advent of instantaneous communication via beepers and later cell phones, the emergence and growth of the internet, as well as the change in marketing and attitudes of rap music culminated in a new view towards education and minorities in society.

Movies, and television shows, emphasized the teen and 20-something hero. A character that was singly the smartest and most necessary figure in the universe of that small or silver screen world. Characters like Moesha, who was identified as the source of all knowledge and motivation for that show. Characters that were not highly educated, and lacked any visible determination to achieve the fruits that an education may provide.

At the same time, in rap music, acceptance finally arrived on the heels of gangsta rap. While rap music had evolved into multiple genres and mass appeal, it was still shunned as a fake style of music of its own. Only until rap focused on the negatives of society – drugs, money at any cost, a lack of education, and a glorification of incarceration and a lack of education, was it widely accepted and mass marketed.

In fact, gangsta rap was so heavily commercialized that it grew to dominate and essentially eliminate all other forms of rap music. With that came the media hype of the new rock stars of generations to come. Individuals who couldn’t speak well enough to get a job as the fry guy at a fast food store, with prison records and convictions for violence and drug dealing suddenly became famous instead of infamous. The blurring of the line between fame and infamy would eventually become so severe as to no longer exist anymore.

There is no societal rebuke for a rapper who sold (and in some cases still sells) drugs. Actually drug use has become a somewhat accepted social behavior. There is no penalty for abuse of women in music videos, or in fact in the real world as R. Kelly and Chris Brown have proven. Instead, the appeal of becoming just like one of these individuals has been intensified. Why suffer through long classes, years of study, and hard work in developing a career when effort can be put into just developing a talent (or devising a new marketing angle – i.e. 50 cent, Biz Markie, ect)? Kid Rock was showered with adulation for his crossover appeal, and virtually ignored for his inability to read.

While there are other socioeconomic factors involved, we cannot ignore the impact of what we as a society are showcasing to our children, and especially minority children, everyday. Gone since the 1980’s are the PSA of wasting a mind. In its place we have music videos and pitiful attempts to impart a message like 2008’s Read a Book [a particularly insulting packaging of a serious message].

Some will of course point to the same stats from the Census [table 229], to state that the message of education and self improvement has not been lost. They will point out that Black and Hispanic graduations from high school has continued to grow. By 2000 the percentage grew to 78.5% and 57% respectively. In 2010 the figures were 84.2% for Black Americans and 62.9% for Hispanics.

Still, the improvement over 30 years from 1990 – 2010 was just 18% for Blacks. Hispanics has a mere 12.1% improvement. College graduation over that same period of time grew a paltry 8.5% for Blacks, 4.7% for Hispanics. Since 2005 the graduation figures have all but stagnated.

Somewhere along the line since the mid-90’s, we have collectively given up on not just the American dream, but the concept of education as the key to future success. We have become complacent in accepting drug use and drug dealing as a part of our daily lives. We have abandoned the goal of hard work to attain better for ourselves and our children, and replaced it with a hope of instant stardom (American Idol, et al) and a glorification of poverty (ghettofabulous).

Perhaps worst of all, the shining example for many in the minority community was the election of a Black President. This was something that was impossible 30 years ago. It was widely expected not to occur in the lifetime of those born at the start of the Civil Rights movement. But in 2008, a figure that looked like he could fit the bill appeared and swept the nation with a hope for change.

Now in 2015, the reality that change was too much to hope for from this particular President has reached many. Even die-hard supporters have lost the bravado and luster they maintained as late as 2012. All the while a message is being sent to children and minorities, one that is hardly uplifting.

While serious threats to the nation abound, our President offers selfies. Where open debate and compromise are essential, our President offers Executive Orders and threats. Where support of our allies is required, we offer a 21st century version of singing kumbaya around a political campfire. In many ways, no matter the spin attached or offered after the fact, the message is after all the strife and effort, incompetence is the reward.

On a daily basis we are selling the wrong message to our children, especially if they are minorities. We are so busy trying to ensure how we look and are described is pleasant, that we have effectively ignored improving our surroundings and self. We are so busy defining what words can be used, and by whom, that we are wallowing in the circumstances that promote the use of negative stereotypical terms in the first place. We have not just stagnated, but begun (or debatably already began) to reverse all the gains provided by the Civil Rights movement of the past.

Any society that does not learn from its past is doomed to repeat past mistakes. In the active promotion of shunning education we only hasten the outcome. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and even more tragic is when that mind is unaware of the waste.

What is needed is not the pandering to the instant gratification of the internet. We do not need further indulgence in “selfies” or carefully politically calculated watered down messages during the glorification of bad (and in some cases criminal) behavior. What we need is to simply, and seriously, regain the pride and societal drive for improvement that education can fulfill. Not just as a means of low- to mid-level employment, but in gratifying life-long affirmation of self fulfillment.

But these are my thoughts. I am open to hear your own.

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Movie Review – Kingsman: The Secret Service

By Michael Vass | February 17, 2015

In this film all at once we are thrown into a modern day homage to the 60’s spy films, while keeping a keen eye on current contemporaries. The film is some of the best parts of James Bond’s classic stylish looks, the hyperkinetic action of Jason Borne, and the time sensitivity of Jack Bauer. At the same time, in a rather over the top fashion, the film is quite aware of the outlandish nature of the world that it takes place in. The combination of all these elements work seamlessly in a film that can please spy film fans of all ages. ** Note, the review may contain spoilers though it generally skips most details about the actions in the film **

Kingsman is immediately aware of the nature of the genre it is in. This is about spies, intrigue, and gadgets. But adding to this standard issue, Kingsman throws in a bit of the fish-out-of-water, a touch of class rivalry and bias, and multiple helpings of the outlandish. Of course the film can’t escape its essentially monochrome view of the world (i.e., Valentine and Gazelle are the only people of color really in the film, and all the people of color in the film are, amazingly, bad guys).

We start the film in 1997, establishing that the tech and gadgets, while improbable (get used to hearing this said about the situations in the film), will not be impossible. The back-story is short. Just enough to establish who our heroes are going to be, and why they are in the circumstances the film will find them in.

Jack Davenport features in this part of the story and the second part of the opening storyline. Once again he is used to effect, but like in Pirates of the Caribbean he is once again underuse and little more than a cameo in the film. Equally, Mark Hamill is a short-lived device used to take advantage of Star Wars fans (and any fan of the animated Batman series – you’ll know it when you hear it). Still both actors make good use of the screen time they are allotted and do well enough to have you wish you had seen more of them in the film. We are also introduced to Gazelle as the top villain henchman, and Valentine with a scheme that is at once insane but tinged with just enough fanatical purity to be improbable.

From this point on the film jumps directly into the plot promised by the popular trailers. We meet Taron Egerton as Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, and the unfortunate turn of events that have become his life. With a flair for the improbable, we learn of his potential and his dedication to family and friends. The movie also establishes that the exposition and character development will be short, with the payoff of a flashy well edited action sequence that is mostly grounded in reality. It’s a balance that the entire film manages to provide with consistency.

With all the players established at this point, the film moves on to the fish out of water phase. Eggsy is put to the test, along with several peers that are mostly predictable plot pieces. The true friend, the nameless bodies that will fall by the wayside, the prick you just want to hit, ect. While predictable the film does showcase our heroes growth and capabilities with some humor and wit.

At the same time, the film neatly wraps up the loose-end from the start of the film while providing a logical pause in the main story. As Eggsy nears the end of his training, we pick up on the actions of the bad guy – Samuel Jackson as Valentine. In a nod to the over the top villains of the Bond films, Valentine is equal parts crazy, logical in a completely fanatical way, and impossibly connected enough to have a bad guy master plan. Climate change fanatics will likely cycle from love to hate over the evil plot that will affect the world. It is obvious, at multiple points in the film, that the writer and director are not fans of the political far left – which may enhance the fun for some audience members but is brief enough and light enough to avoid offending most other viewers. Still, as evil bosses go in spy films, neither the acting nor the plot of Valentine’s rise above Saturday morning cartoon levels. Each scene of Valentine is a bit tired and thankfully brief.

Up to this point, I have said little about Colin Firth’s main character Harry Hart (also known as Galahad, a tribute to the legend of King Arthur that permeates the film). Essentially Harry is a plot device more than anything else. While his motivations are fleshed out, he is the thing to get the film from one point to another, allowing critical exposition on what is happening in the bad guy plot to be revealed to the audience. With that said, Firth does an excellent job of exuding class and professionalism, with bursts of action that feel smooth and genuine to the character. In fact, one of the best scenes in the film is a fight scene featuring Firth, that is one of the best fights in a movie in several years (up with the Borne Supremacy fight against Desh).

As we enter the 3rd act of the film, the competition of training concludes with a battle of will. Eggsy takes a path that makes perfect sense for a soldier, while Roxy makes the choice more in line with the necessity of a spy. I have not touched on Sophie Cookson’s Roxy until this point as it is really unnecessary. As much as she is shown to be a stronger than usual female character, Roxy is ultimately a background player with little to do. She is the counterbalance to the otherwise all male film, and a justification for the rather gratuitous scene at the end of the film (more on that in a moment). Scenes with Roxy are generally pretty good, she is upbeat and looks good without trying to be a classic sexy woman in a spy film. Even so, there is no real need to discuss her in the review as she really isn’t in the film.

The film thus takes us to the wrap-up of life in the Unwin household, until it doesn’t. But we are supplied with the final motivation our hero needs to make the leap into becoming what the film was obvious in building up to from the beginning. Even so, the predictability of the plot is done well and flows in the confines of the genre.

I have to add that there is one action sequence that is completely out of place with the tone of the film. In fact it is so over-the-top that it cannot help but cause the intended laughter in the audience. This deus ex machina is bald-faced absurd. The film takes it to the extreme both as a means to avoid a NC-17 rating for violence and as an escape from the violence being portrayed. As a bonus, those less left leaning will find a few extra moments of giddy laughter.

The final henchman battle is stylish and well choreographed. There is a bit of CGI that is obvious and unrealistic, even for this film. Given that, Sofia Boutella’s Gazelle plays the heavy quite well, even if her motivations are left to the imagining of the audience. With her defeat, Valentine is dispatched with far too much ease. This of course gives a chance to experience another throwback to the Bond-esque style that obviously inspired the film.

This is where the extremely gratuitous scene is thrown in. It’s a few seconds, but it is unnecessary and dare I say uncomfortable. It really can’t be defended for its inclusion, and the gag was already over so it amounts to nothing more than overkill and eye candy that either the director or the studio felt was essential to a modern spy film.

As the credits role, we are finally given the conclusion to the Unwin family situation in a direct copy to an earlier scene of the film. This final bit of story completes the journey for us and confirms the outcome we knew would happen. It also glances over the repercussions of the evil plot, which is again absurd but this is an action spy film so it really is par for the course.

If you are a fan of spy films, especially James Bond, you will like this film. It brings back a touch of the class and style that more current spy films have discarded in preference of a grittier more real world look. This is a film that I plan to add to my DVD collection when it becomes available. There is no doubt that it will spawn a sequel (fans of Roxy are sure to get to see her more involved in the action), and is structured in a manner that can more logically allow for another Galahad or Lancelot or other spy to focus a feature length film on.

I would give this an 8 out of 10.

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