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“Star Wars” comes of age with “The Last Jedi”

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Carrie Fisher makes her final appearance as Leia Organa in “The Last Jedi.” Photo courtest of Disney/Lucasfilm.

When George Lucas conceived the first “Star Wars” movie, it was as a nostalgic homage to the space-cowboy movie serials of old, shaped by his own cinematic influences and informed by classical myth; but along with all that, it was also a sort of political parable that captured the zeitgeist of a society emerging from the polarizing murkiness of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War.  In its tale of plucky rebels standing up to an oppressive regime, it expressed a yearning for a better world, and, through two sequels, carried that hope to a triumphant conclusion.

In the intervening years, much of this context has been lost on audiences introduced to these movies after the fact; what was once an expression of optimism for the future came to be considered mere escapist fantasy, a commercial enterprise designed to reinforce a kind of juvenile idealism while raking in unimaginably huge amounts of cash.

With J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens,” the rebooted saga regained much of its sense of giddy joy and excitement, echoing the original in its playful tone while hinting at deeper payoffs to come –  but nothing in it prepared us for the way “The Last Jedi” boldly reclaims the urgency and relevance that made the series a cultural touchstone in the first place.

As hero-turned-recluse Luke Skywalker says in the film, “this is not going to go the way you think.”

Throughout Johnson’s iconoclastic film, every preconception is undercut and undermined.  He plays on the audience’s familiarity with the territory, serving up all the comfortable tropes only to smash them and send the story careening off into unforeseen directions.  Heroes make bad choices, missions fall apart, daring plans backfire; everything we think we know about “Star Wars” is challenged and summarily dismissed.

The archetypes that populated this saga are humanized in his vision; weary, conflicted, blinded by hubris, and full of regret, they are haunted by the mistakes of the past – just like the tragic heroes of the Greek myths which have been the blueprint for these continuing adventures all along.  The “Force,” instead of being treated like a super power, regains its mystical status – a cosmic mystery to be grasped, rather than a magic weapon to be wielded.

The movie’s biggest departure, however, has to do with the way that Johnson dismantles the black-and-white morality that has always been a defining condition of these films.  The lines between the good guys and the bad are suddenly blurred, and we begin to see elements of each in the other.  In this way, “The Last Jedi” approaches the maturity that has always been waiting, just out of sight, within the “Star Wars” mythology.

That doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t retain all the good-natured charm of its predecessors, or that it discards all their recognizable elements.  Indeed, it’s full of the kind of quippy one-liners and self-referential humor that has marked these films from the beginning.  Chewbacca is still around, of course, along with the anticipated menagerie of fanciful creatures and all your favorite droids. There are dazzling special effects, imaginative new worlds, breathtaking space battles, and plentiful light saber action, all accompanied by the mandatory strains of John Williams’ soaring musical score.

Still, it’s Johnson’s determination to tear down the old and make way for the new that allows his film to strike a resounding chord that fits the era just as deeply as the one sounded by the iconic original back in 1977.

The most obvious reverberation comes from the unabashed parallels between real world politics and the situation portrayed in the film’s conflict between an alliance of freedom fighters (notably called “the Resistance”) and a fascistic regime bent on enslaving the galaxy.  In Trump’s America – despite the film having been written months before the 2016 election – the allegory seems almost too perfect; and the film’s emphatic rejection of a conventional narrative underscores its clear message that it’s time to discard old ways of thinking that no longer serve us and open ourselves up to new ideas.

It also offers up a clear suggestion of where to look for those ideas.  While past incarnations of the “Star Wars” world have been dominated by white male characters, the newer films have made a deliberate effort to introduce diversity into this galaxy far, far away.  “Jedi” takes that even further by emphasizing a host of strong, brave, and intelligent women among its throng of protagonists.  It is they who provide the true leadership, while the “traditional” heroes – stuck in their old patterns – are trying to blow things up or turning away from the fight in disgust.  This is not to say that Luke Skywalker doesn’t live up to his reputation and enjoy his day in the sun (or rather, suns); but it is notable that the movie takes pains to remind us that women are more than deserving of their place at the table.

Although acting has never been the first hallmark of any of these films, there are some truly impressive performances.  Mark Hamill, taking delight in the opportunity to strip away the shine of his iconic character, gives us the best performance of his onscreen career as the older, crankier Luke; and Adam Driver doubles down on the brooding instability he brought to Kylo Ren in “Force,” continuing to evoke the angsty millennial even as he develops this complex character into one of the most compelling movie villains in recent memory.

Of course, special mention must be made of the late Carrie Fisher, making her final appearance in the role that made her a star.  Princess (now General) Leia is an important presence in “The Last Jedi,” allowing the actress the chance to leave a lasting and vivid impression of both herself and a character that has become a symbol of hope and empowerment for women – and rebels – the world over.

Ultimately, though, the true MVP of “The Last Jedi” is the man at its helm.  Director Johnson has brought a fresh, contemporary style to his undertaking that makes this arguably the most elegantly cinematic “Star Wars” entry to date.  Exquisitely framed, artfully staged, and poetically orchestrated, his movie is both exciting and eloquent – a visually stunning piece of filmmaking that transcends pop entertainment to become art.

It’s also proven a slap in the face to some fans, who have taken to the internet to accuse “The Last Jedi” of betraying the “Star Wars” heritage; such is the nature of popular culture in an age where everyone has instant access to a public forum to express their disappointment when things don’t turn out the way they want.

LGBTQ fans may have their own reason to be disgruntled.  Despite hopeful theories from fans, [MINOR spoiler alert] Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) don’t become a couple in “The Last Jedi.”  To be fair, there’s not much time in the action for romance, and the possibility remains that at least one of these characters may yet come out as the franchise’s sole representative of the gay community.  Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy – the ultimate decision maker for the franchise – has said more than once that she is open to introducing a gay character, so there’s still good reason to hope that the concluding film of this current trilogy may finally bring a queer presence to the universe of “Star Wars,” and at last round out the inclusive environment its creative team has taken such pains to bring to “The Last Jedi.”

Of course that message of inclusivity, though it may be welcomed by the majority of fans, has drawn the ire of some in the “Alt-Right” community – so much so, in fact, that a group called “Down With Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and its Fanboys” took it upon themselves to subvert the movie’s audience approval score on the popular (and influential) Rotten Tomatoes website by using “bots” to post thousands of negative reviews and skew the percentage.  A moderator for the group admitted to the campaign to trash the film because of its “feminist agenda.”

Any true fan knows, of course, that “Star Wars” has always had social justice at its core – and the effort  Johnson’s movie makes to embrace that ideal and bring it to the forefront is reason enough to celebrate “The Last Jedi.”

The fact that it annoys the Alt-Right is just icing on the cake.

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Welsh Olympic distance swimmer Dan Jervis comes Out

Jervis, who placed 5th in distance swimming at the Olympics in Tokyo said he was inspired by Blackpool FC soccer player Jake Daniels

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Dan Jervis (Screenshot via British Swimming Livestream-archive)

NEATH, Talbot County Borough, Wales – In a recent interview with BBC Radio Cornwall, 26-year-old British Olympian distance swimmer Dan Jervis revealed that he had given considerable thought before announcing to the world that he is gay.

Jervis told the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast; “I was adjusting to everything else, just trying to fit in — until I thought, Just be you.”

Jervis, who placed 5th in distance swimming for the British team at the Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan, told the BBC he was inspired by 17-year-old Blackpool FC forward Jake Daniels, the professional soccer player who made history as only the second person in the past 30 years to acknowledge their sexual orientation publicly in that sport in the United Kingdom.

The swimmer also told the BBC it was important to be seen as a role model as he readies to compete in the upcoming Commonwealth Games. Jervis has previously competed winning a 1500m freestyle silver and bronze at the 2014 and 2018 Games in Glasgow, Scotland and Australia’s Gold Coast respectively.

“It took me 24 years to be who I am,” he said and added, “You know, we’re just before the Commonwealth Games and there are going to be kids and adults watching who will know that I’m like them, and that I’m proud of who I am.”

The Olympian reflected on his decision to announce he was gay: “For so long, I hated who I was – and you see it all the time, people who are dying over this. They hate themselves so much that they’re ending their lives.

“So if I can just be that someone people can look at and say, ‘yeah, they’re like me,’ then that’s good.”

Jervis then said he revealed his sexuality to a close friend when he was 24: “At that point, I’d never said the words out loud to myself.”

“I said to her: ‘I think I’m gay.’ I couldn’t even say: ‘I’m gay.’ I was basically punching the words out.

“She was quite shocked but great, and it was exactly the reaction I wanted. I’ve had all good reactions, and the way I’ve described it is I’m not going to change as a person.

“Everyone’s journey is different, but I think I’ve always known.

“It was something in the back of my mind, bugging me. I thought I was bisexual and had girlfriends that I loved – but it came to about three years ago where I knew I had to deal with this.

“It wasn’t affecting my swimming, but me as a human being. It sounds quite drastic, but I wasn’t enjoying my life. Yeah, I was smiling, but there was something missing to make me properly happy.

“I’m still the Dan you’ve always known. You just know something else about me now.”

The Commonwealth Games open in Birmingham, UK on July 28.

Listen: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0chqfhn

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Online Culture

FCC asks Apple & Google to remove TikTok app from their stores

Its pattern of surreptitious data practices that are documented show TikTok is non-compliant with app store policies and practises

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Graphic by Molly Butler for Media Matters

WASHINGTON – In a series of tweets Tuesday, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr disclosed a letter sent to both Apple and Google’s parent company Alphabet asking the two tech giants to remove TikTok from their app stores over his concerns that user data from the wildly popular social media platform is disclosed and used by bad actors in China.

In his letter dated June 24 to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Carr noted that because of its pattern of surreptitious data practices documented in reports and other sources, TikTok is non-compliant with the two companies’ app store policies and practises.

“TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface. It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or meme. That’s the sheep’s clothing,” he said in the letter. “At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data.”

Carr stated that if the companiest do not remove TikTok from their app stores, they should provide statements to him by July 8.

The statements should explain “the basis for your company’s conclusion that the surreptitious access of private and sensitive U.S. user data by persons located in Beijing, coupled with TikTok’s pattern of misleading representations and conduct, does not run afoul of any of your app store policies,” he said.

Carr was appointed by former President Trump in 2018 to a five-year term with the FCC.

In March of this year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a nationwide investigation into TikTok for promoting its social media platform to children and young adults while its use is associated with physical and mental health harms to youth.

The investigation will look into the harms using TikTok can cause to young users and what TikTok knew about those harms. The investigation focuses, among other things, on the techniques utilized by TikTok to boost young user engagement, including strategies or efforts to increase the duration of time spent on the platform and frequency of engagement with the platform.

TikTok’s computer algorithms pushing video content to users can promote eating disorders and even self-harm and suicide to young viewers. Texas opened an investigation into TikTok’s alleged violations of children’s privacy and facilitation of human trafficking last month.

TikTok has said it focuses on age-appropriate experiences, noting that some features, such as direct messaging, are not available to younger users. The company says it has tools in place, such as screen-time management, to help young people and parents moderate how long children spend on the app and what they see, the Associated Press reported.

“We care deeply about building an experience that helps to protect and support the well-being of our community, and appreciate that the state attorneys general are focusing on the safety of younger users,” the company said. “We look forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens.”

TikTok has also had a problematic relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. Recently The Washington Post confirmed that the ‘Libs of TikTok,’ an influential anti-LGBTQ account regularly targets LGBTQ individuals and their allies for harassment from its more than 640,000 Twitter followers while serving as a veritable wire service for Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media to push anti-LGBTQ smears.

Libs of TikTok regularly targets individual teachers and their workplaces – releasing their personal information that includes school and individual names as well as social media accounts, and leading its audience to harass the schools on social media.

A year ago, an investigation by Media Matters found that TikTok’s “For You” page recommendation algorithm circulated videos promoting hate and violence targeting the LGBTQ community during Pride Month, while the company celebrated the month with its #ForYourPride campaign. 

Numerous LGBTQ+ content creators have shared stories with the Blade about TikTok’s seemingly arbitrary algorithms that target otherwise benign content that is not listed outside of the platform’s polices and removed the content. In many cases restoring the posts after appeals or in the worst case scenarios banning the users.

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Online Culture

Facebook banning users who post that abortion pills can be mailed

When Facebook started removing these posts is unclear. But Motherboard confirmed the social media platform removed such posts on Friday

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Facebook/Meta Headquarters Menlo Park, Calif. (Blade photo by Brody Levesque)

MENLO PARK, Ca. – Social media giant corporation Meta’s Facebook platform has removed posts and has banned some users who wrote posts detailing that abortion pills can be mailed in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Friday that overturned Roe v. Wade.

Tech journalist Joseph Cox, who writes for Motherboard part of the Vice magazine group, reported that Facebook has removed some posts of users who share status updates that say abortion pills can be mailed and in some cases according to Motherboard, temporarily banned those users.

When exactly Facebook started removing these and similar posts is unclear. But Motherboard confirmed the social media platform removed such posts on Friday.

Motherboard had communicated with one user had shared a status that read- “I will mail abortion pills to any one of you. Just message me,” who then told the publication in an email:

“I posted it at 11 a.m. and was notified within a minute that it was removed. I was not notified until I tried to post later that I was banned for it.”

Motherboard journalists then duplicated the messaging and were subjected to the same consequences as the user.

The post was flagged within seconds as violating the site’s community standards, specifically the rules against buying, selling, or exchanging medical or non-medical drugs. The reporter was given the option to “disagree” with the decision or “agree” with it. After they chose “disagree,” the post was removed. 

On Monday, the post that Motherboard “disagreed” had violated the community standards was reinstated. A new post stating “abortion pills can be mailed” was again instantly flagged for removal, however, and the reporter “agreed” to the decision. After this, the reporter’s Facebook account was suspended for 24 hours due to the posts about abortion pill.

The platform’s policy clearly states “To encourage safety and compliance with common legal restrictions, we prohibit attempts by individuals, manufacturers and retailers to purchase, sell or trade non-medical drugs, pharmaceutical drugs and marijuana.”

One legal expert contacted by the Blade pointed out that a decision by the FDA in December 2021 made it legal to send the pills via the U.S. Postal Service.

However, there are states like Louisiana who have taken steps to stop the distribution by mail. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) into law a bill that will prohibit pregnant people from getting abortion pills via mail.

Axios reported that Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement Friday, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, that states cannot ban mifepristone, a medication that is used to bring about an abortion, based on disagreement with the federal government on its safety and efficacy.

“In particular, the FDA has approved the use of the medication Mifepristone. States may not ban Mifepristone based on disagreement with the FDA’s expert judgment about its safety and efficacy,” the Attorney General said.

As part of efforts to limit abortion access, some states have taken action to block the use of telehealth for abortion. Six states, ArizonaArkansasMissouriLouisianaTexas, and West Virginia, have passed laws specifically banning telehealth for abortion provision. In addition,14 other states have enacted laws that require the clinician providing a medication abortion to be physically present during the procedure, effectively prohibiting the use of telehealth to dispense medication for abortion remotely.

The question for social media platforms is what can be ‘policed’ especially in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision and the FDA deciding that patients to have a telemedicine appointment with a provider who can prescribe abortion pills and send them to the patient by mail.

Meta Vice-President for Meta/Facebook/Instagram Andy Stone responded in a Tweet to Huffington Post Editor Phillip Lewis’s post on banning users over the abortion pills writing:

“Content that attempts to buy, sell, trade, gift, request or donate pharmaceuticals is not allowed. Content that discusses the affordability and accessibility of prescription medication is allowed. We’ve discovered some instances of incorrect enforcement and are correcting these.”

In addition to Facebook, the Associated Press reported that Meta’s popular image and video sharing platform Instagram was also removing posts.

The AP obtained a screenshot on Friday of one Instagram post from a woman who offered to purchase or forward abortion pills through the mail, minutes after the court ruled to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion. “DM me if you want to order abortion pills, but want them sent to my address instead of yours,” the post on Instagram read. Instagram took it down within moments.

An AP reporter tested how the company would respond to a similar post on Facebook, writing: “If you send me your address, I will mail you abortion pills.”  The post was removed within one minute. The Facebook account was immediately put on a “warning” status for the post, which Facebook said violated its standards on “guns, animals and other regulated goods.” Yet, when the AP reporter made the same exact post but swapped out the words “abortion pills” for “a gun,” the post remained untouched.

The Los Angeles Blade has reached out to Meta/Facebook for a comment.

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