#2KJWT

One of the baseball card tweeps who I talk with a lot is @junkwaxtwins. He’s a Minnesota fan living in Texas who’s especially interested in miscuts and printing errors. I sent him a small package of miscuts and Minnesota oddballs a while ago and I just received a small package from him as part of his celebration about hitting the 2000 followers mark on Twitter.

This package consisted of two parts. Part one was for me.

Highlights here are the wonderful combination of a Donruss Elite card with a Sportflics card. And also Bo Jackson as an Angel. My brain can’t grok that at all.

Donruss Elite was one of the first major chase cards in the hobby. Yes we had things like the Griffey Jr Upper Deck Rookie or the Billy Ripken error, but the idea of inserting a special, super-hard-to-find card was somewhat novel. We’d had the 1990 Upper Deck Reggie Jackson signatures the previous year but that was in packs that most of us kids couldn’t really afford. 1991 Donruss though? Totally affordable.

Still, I’ve never seen an Elite card before. Given what the hobby would turn into this is a wonderfully plain and simple card. No fancy card stock, just foil stamping and number out of 10,000.* It’s a very fun reminder of a simpler time.

*With the focus on 1:1 to 1:250 on chase cards to day this is a laughably huge run.

The Giants cards are all fun too. Always enjoyable to get a Lincecum. The Brandon Crawford rookie is great. The Jonathan Sanchez confuses me immensely since it’s so thick. As someone who puts cards into binders I still don’t know what to do with these thick cards.

Part two however was for my sons.

They were excited to see the pack and couldn’t wait for me to open it. I dutifully explained to them that it was a wax pack made of paper that had been stuck together and opened it slowly so they could see how it all worked.

The first thing we had to do was carefully unstick the gum from one of the cards. No damage. They were intrigued by the gum but did not try. I did. It turns to dust and never becomes chewable. I had to rinse my mouth out.

The cards though are pretty cool. Both boys love the Christopher Reeve Superman films and while they prefer the first one, they appreciate that I prefer the second. Of the twelve in the pack I like the one of the villains escaping the Phantom Zone and the one of Clark Kent getting his revenge on the asshole in the diner.

In a bit of a minor miracle the boys managed to split these into two piles of six without fighting. More predictably they promptly badgered me for binder pages so they could properly sort them.

It’s funny. Once I started collecting baseball cards I never considered any other sports—let alone non-sport cards like these. I never saw the point. I get it more now although I daresay that it only works when the movie cards are of something from pop culture which has achieved staying power. In the same way that it’s been fun to introduce my kids to Superman the Motion Picture, seeing and having these cards is another aspect of pop culture we can bond over.

Now I need to figure out what to do with the blank card the I’m supposed to “decorate” and sign and return. It’s a little small for my kids to draw on* but we’ll figure something out.

*My eldest did make a special 1:1 custom for Peter as a result of being on the receiving end of a large mailing of Giants cards.

Pixar

Because I’ve sort of had to provide a ranked list of Pixar films in the past. In the style of the Star Wars list now that I’m caught up on all but The Good Dinosaur.

Edited in December 2016 to reflect having watched Finding Dory and Good Dinosaur as well as rewatching and reevaluating Finding Nemo in the wake of Finding Dory.

Edited in November 2017 to reflect having watched Cars 3 and Coco.

Edited in February 2018 to reflect having watched Coco en español.

Edited in June 2018 to reflect having watched Incredibles 2.

LM_Applause
Wall·E
Ratatouille
Coco (en español)
The Incredibles
Finding Dory
Incredibles 2

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Toy Story 2
Finding Nemo
Cars 3
Up
Inside Out
Toy Story 3
Toy Story
Cars

LM_Alert
Brave
Monsters Inc.
A Bugs Life

LM_Sleep
Monsters University
Good Dinosaur

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Cars 2

Yeah, I suspect that I rank Cars way higher than most people do. But I do have a special relationship with that movie.

Star Wars Rankings

Just a quick follow up to yesterday’s huge post. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to list my rankings/ratings for the six Star Wars films both before and after my recent rewatch.

Note: these are using the San Francisco Chronicle’s Little Man rating system. While this is sadly no longer in use, it’s what I grew up with and find still makes the most sense. Ebert’s writeup on it is wonderful.

Before

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Empire Strikes Back

LM_Clap
Return of the Jedi
Revenge of the Sith

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A New Hope
The Phantom Menace

LM_Sleep
Attack of the Clones

After

LM_Applause
Empire Strikes Back
Revenge of the Sith
Return of the Jedi

LM_Clap
A New Hope
Attack of the Clones

LM_Alert
The Phantom Menace

It’s worth noting that nothing bumped down the ratings after the rewatch. While I harp on Phantom Menace a lot it has enough good stuff going on in it to be watchable.

Star Wars

My son just finished watching the Star Wars films for the first time. He’s 6, which seemed a bit young except that I remember playing with and being saturated in Star Wars stuff when I was in Kindergarten in the early 80s. I actually didn’t see the movies until later—I fell into the generation which was too young to see them in the theater but too old to have them always there on VHS—but the books and merchandise and plot spoilers were all over. Anyway, since he’s already been spoilered on some of the key plot developments anyway* he may as well watch everything so he knows the whole story.

*Between Toy Story 2, Sesame Street, and his classmates, the “Luke, I am your father” twist is a foregone conclusion.

For my part, it’s been a while since I last watched these. While I saw the A New Hope Special Edition in the theater, because it made me swear off the rest of the special editions, my last viewings of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were in the mid-90s. Watching The Phantom Menace in theaters meanwhile made me swear off the prequels—though I did eventually watch Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith on DVD for completionist reasons.

I still counted myself a Star Wars fan but I had ended up in a place where I didn’t like two of the movies at all (Menace and Clones), had serious issues with a third (Hope), and was generally skeptical of the entire franchise because of the way the fans behave. Star Wars fandom has turned into this weird thing where the discourse has been more about what sucks than what’s good.* Most of the fans came to Star Wars as kids—obviously with different entry points depending on their ages—and are heavily biased toward the movies they fell for as kids. Which is fine except that in discussing what they like they revert to arguing like kids on the playground were it’s not enough to like something, they have to also tear down what the other guy likes too.

*Geek tribalism which is more about what you consume than actually enjoying something.

So I was looking forward to a rewatch not only to revisit and rethink my opinions of the movies, but also with the hope that my son’s reactions—especially given how many of the things which turned me off were defended as being “for the kids”—would counteract some of my more-cynical opinions. That said, our rewatch included the theatrical releases of the original trilogy because I’m still heavily against the special editions. Yes, I know that the changes to Empire are generally good, but I wanted to keep Jabba a mystery and preserve Han’s more Tuco-like origin…plus avoid the awful new song at Jabba’s palace.

I also wanted to try machete order (but including Phantom Menace) to confirm that it indeed makes as much sense as it does on paper.

It works.

A New Hope

One big reason is that A New Hope is probably the best entry point into the story for a kid. While it has still has problems in pacing*—besides taking forever to get to Luke and from there, into the main story, the final battle is a complete mess—those problems are only apparent to older viewers.** For a kid who isn’t comparing it to the rest of the movies, it looks great*** and the plot is super simple and easy to follow. There’s nothing complicated to explain or figure out what’s going on under the surface, everything is clearly laid out and understandable. It even has an unambiguously nice resolution at the end.

*I’m not going to talk about the acting since it’s all intentionally hammy anyway.

**Pretty much the entire plot is advanced by the Empire being less destructive than we’re told that it is. It could have destroyed Leia’s ship at the beginning, shot down the escape pod, or even just destroyed the planet of Yavin rather than waiting to orbit it to get to a moon.

***Another reason to start with A New Hope is that it looks the worst but that’s only apparent after you’ve watched the rest of the movies.

I still like it. A lot. Despite its problems. It’s fantastic at sketching out the world and main characters and letting me imagine all kinds of possibilities for them. Heck, most of the subsequent critiques of various parts of the franchise come back to people being disappointed in it not going the way they’d imagined it going after watching A New Hope. It’s also the only movie of the 6 that my son wants to rewatch—and that’s saying a lot too.

Empire Strikes Back

There’s not a lot to say about Empire. It’s deservedly known as the best of the series and represents a massive step up in terms of both quality and complexity. Even though the plot is still super-straightforward, there are more issues going on in terms of character motivation and choice—specifically following directions vs helping friends—that really resonate with a kid.

It’s also the first downer ending that my son has seen; he was incredulous when the credits started. I had to explain that the idea is to get him to want to watch the next movie—and that it had obviously worked.

This is where the machete order takes off. While my son was, correctly, concerned with Han’s fate, he was also very curious about learning about Darth Vader and how he got his scar.* So we moved on to Phantom Menace.

*One scene in Empire without Vader’s helmet and my son immediately lumped Vader, Zuko, and Two Face together as similarly-flawed antagonists.

Phantom Menace

My memories of Menace are not good. Between the hype and the disappointment and the pile-on, it never really stood a chance. I went to see it in the theater with a bunch of friends and we snarked all about about it on the ride home. We were in college. That’s what we did. With time, I softened a bit with the snark but was still apprehensive about rewatching.

While the rewatch helped a little, it also confirmed many of my initial reactions. First, all the “it’s for the kids” defenses don’t hold up for me. It’s not that there’s too much plot for a kids’ movie but rather that the plot is possibly too subtle for many kids to really understand. I actually really like the plot, but the idea that an ambitious senator would engineer a war on his own planet so that he could garner enough sympathy in the senate to be voted its leader isn’t the stuff of kids movies. And while there’s a simpler plot where two Jedi help a queen defend her home planet against invasion, that plot renders a lot of the action and talking—especially the talking—as being irrelevant. It didn’t surprise me at all that “Too much talking,” was indeed my son’s immediate review.

But Menace also manages to trigger way too many of my pet peeves. I can’t stand it when characters are willingly stupid.* The “this feels kind of racist” accents** pull me out of the flow of the movie. I get bored easily with extended action sequences that don’t advance the plot.*** Humor that is too obvious yet is also trying too hard to be funny**** makes me want to stand up and leave. And plot points which repeatedly rely on luck and coincidence rather than skill***** get me frustrated.

*JarJar’s repeated doing exactly what people tell him not to do.

**JarJar and the Trade Federation.

***Too many examples to count but Pod Racing, especially with its “just wait for the videogame” direction, does fall into this category. Note, this problem of mine means I not only have a problem with most action movies but also most musicals.

****All the fart jokes.

*****Pretty much everything Anakin does—from lucking out that his pod doesn’t break to hitting the correct button by mistake in the droid ship—is portrayed as dumb luck. But other characters like JarJar also repeatedly get bailed out by blundering into the exact right place at the right time.

I used to think that Menace was bad Star Wars but a decent movie. My opinion has flipped. I really dig it for Star Wars now; I can’t stand it as a movie. Which is too bad since it looks wonderful and the last Duel of the Fates sequence is indeed a ton of fun.

Attack of the Clones

Clones meanwhile is a movie that I initially hated—HATED—and now really like. On all fronts. I’m as surprised as anyone here. The Obi-Wan detective stuff is great. As much as people think Star Wars is a western,* it’s really Hammett→Kurosawa→Westerns, and this plot line is comes straight through that legacy.

*Among other things in its 1950s B-movie influences of course.

The Anakin-Padmé stuff meanwhile is still cringe-worthily bad* yet I no longer hate it. What used to feel like the worst attempts at romance writing ever are now something that cracks me up. Anakin’s like 16 years old in this movie. OF COURSE he’s hilariously horrible at this. That there’s also something creepy and manipulative in the way he persists despite Padmé telling him to stop perfectly sets up the emotional abuse—let alone the violence—that comes in Revenge of the Sith. And yeah, maybe that’s not the intent behind the direction in these sections, but that ended up being my reaction to it all this time.

*Note. It appears to be vastly better in the Spanish dub—to the point where I’m considering a second rewatch already. 

The plot in this one is much easier to follow for a kid. Find out who attacked the senator, uncover bigger plot that’s okay to not understand, save your ass once things get out of control. My son amusingly fell asleep during the droid factory sequence* but was super into the detective search, the Shmi storyline,** as well as the climactic battle.

*He was exhausted but this part is still a brainless videogame preview. Thankfully it was also shorter than I remembered.

**Especially the Shmi storyline. After watching Tarzan and How to Train Your Dragon 2 I thought he’d passed the parent death hangups. But this hit him hard and I had to explain not only how death is part of life but also that being unwilling to accept death as a concept is a trope that will come up again and again as a characteristic of “bad guys” who are so afraid of death that they don’t do anything good with their lives.

Revenge of the Sith

I really liked Sith when I first saw it. I liked it even more on the rewatch. In my initial viewing, the only thing that really bugged me was the speed of Anakin’s fall. Watching again, in the same way that realizing how young Anakin is in Clones made his romancing much more bearable, his youth—plus my being a decade more removed from that age than I was the first time—makes his fall to the dark side more credible. The only person who’s appeared to listen and talk with Anakin about his issues is Palpatine.

It’s also engrossing to watch how the Jedi end up basically destroying themselves through getting mired in power disputes and internal politics. As much as the prequels are supposed to be about Anakin turning into Darth Vader, they’re really about Palpatine creating the Empire and the Jedi losing their way through a combination of being ignorant of how politics works and a lack of flexibility in their conception of the force.

While this large-scale plot makes little sense to a kid, watching Anakin lose everything because of his concern for his family—especially with Shmi’s  death still fresh in my son’s mind—really sucked my son in. The idea that having a good motivation can still lead you to lose track of right and wrong is a very simple yet very heavy concept. As is the idea that trying so hard to get what you want can result in you losing everything you wanted. The scene where Anakin breaks Padme’s heart had my son in tears because of both her anguish and the fact that Anakin brought it all on himself.

The downer ending also comes with a genuine twist in that my son was shocked to find out that Luke and Leia are twins. Between that and the binary sunset reprise, we were both primed and ready to start Return of the Jedi.

Return of the Jedi

Jedi is fun. It’s also a mess in that it’s really just rescuing Han and then pretty much the big final battle. But we’re back to the super simple plotlines and my son sensed that the happy ending was coming. Yes he liked the Ewoks—but then I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t. The Ewoks are cute but deadly and are exactly the kind of creature that the Empire wouldn’t take seriously.

He was also a lot more introspective about death in terms of realizing that force ghosts and being at peace with yourself were a much more rational approach to death than what he’d just watched in Sith. It’s not the action or suspense that disturbed him but rather all the philosophy about life and death. We had many conversations at bedtime while we were watching the movies but the resolution of Jedi also put his mind at ease.

We also talked about The Force Awakens and how since the new movies were going to be about Luke and Leia and Han’s kids, that it was entirely possible—if not expected—for some of the characters he knows to die in the upcoming movies.

If the first unexpected result of my rewatching all six movies was that I’d place Attack of the Clones in the same middle tier as A New Hope in terms of ranking the films. The second was that instead of my son revealing the joy of all the “for the kids” stuff that drives me nuts, he dragged me into a serious discussion about death and how to live a fulfilling life.

I’m looking forward to a second rewatch once my younger son is old enough. By then, maybe my elder son will engage more with the seriousness of the prequel plots and can salvage Phantom Menace for me.

California State Railroad Museum

Andrew J. Russell. The "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, U.T., May 10, 1869.
Andrew J. Russell. The “Last Spike”

We’ve been going to the train museum for a couple years now. Now that the kids are finally old enough to leave alone in the train table area,* I’ve finally been able to take a proper look at the exhibits. I also finally caught the movie** they show there so I can comment on that too.

*As in they don’t care if one parent disappears for a while now.

**They can sit through movies now too! Though the youngest still cries out “TRAIN!” whenever he sees one on-screen.

Corky Lee. Restaging The "Last Spike."
Corky Lee. Restaging The “Last Spike”

The movie is different that I remember as a kid. Makes sense since it’s from 1990 even though it looks at least 5 years older than that.* It’s much more multicultural than the museum and film I remembered. When I was a kid my mom always pointed out how the famous “Last Spike” photo had none of the Chinese workers in it. Only this spring has it been officially acknowledged by Congress. And it’s been fun to see Corky Lee’s restaging of the photo in celebration. Now, the Chinese contribution to the construction of the railroad is emphasized almost immediately and the museum displays include artifacts from the labor camps.

*Seriously. This screams early/mid-80s, not 1990 to me—which confused me a lot this time since it LOOKS like something I should have been able to watch as a child.

The movie also mentions that the industry employed a ton of black labor on the service side and latino labor on the trainyard side. Very multicultural. Kind of nice to see this degree of awareness in something so dated. And kind of scary since it’s evidence that we’re into three decades now and so many people still don’t see, or refuse to see, this side of things.

There was also a special photography exhibit this time. In this case, it was about early railroad photography and how it sold the industry to the public. There was lots of stuff about early cameras and stereoscopic prints* which I kind of glossed over. I was more interested in how the museum displayed original photos with the engraved versions printed in newspapers, noting the differences in composition and scale and suggesting that these were intentional changes made on behalf of the people who owned both the railroads and the newspapers.

*Though if that’s your bag, they had a lot of Alfred A. Hart on display. The Getty has a decent sample of the kind of thing which was on display. The University of Nevada Reno has a ton of his work. And Stanford has a decent collection too.

The highlight though was being able to look through a full-size reproduction of Andrew J. Russell’s Great West Illustrated. As someone whose favorite photobook may be Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire, looking through, in many ways, an identical project documenting the landscape around a railroad’s construction, rather than its ruins, was great and pointed out a lot of details that were lost by the time Ruwedel did his project.

Andrew J. Russell. Carmichael's Cut, Granite Canon.
Andrew J. Russell. Carmichael’s Cut, Granite Canon

Much of the geography of railroading involves cutting through the landscape in order to keep a track graded correctly. These scars are prominent in Ruwedel as they’re the most-permanent landscape modification from railroading. I was unaware that they had names and seeing each cut given a special name in Russell’s album, gives a a more personal sense of things.

It’s not just a scar on the landscape. The cuts reflect a lot of manpower and effort and each one is unique. We no longer see the uniqueness since we’re looking at the absence of the railroad rather than marveling at its presence.

Andrew J. Russell. Coal beds of Bear River.
Andrew J. Russell. Coal beds of Bear River

Russell’s photos also include a number of references to coal beds and even a town called Coalville. This is something else that is easy to forget. Railroads are inherently tied to the natural resources they need to consume in order to run. Especially when building them in a place without any existing railroads for transport.

That the photos include a lot of the infrastructure required to support the railroads shows that it’s not just about the achievement of laying the track, this is about development and taming nature.

Andrew J. Russell. Snow and timber line, Laramie Mountains.
Andrew J. Russell. Snow and timber line, Laramie Mountains

It’s this intersection of development and nature which really puts Russell’s photos into the tradition of people like Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins who are credited with defining much of the way we view the American West. When Russell isn’t showing how the railroad infrastructure is conquering the landscape, he’s showing us photos of the incredible views and wide open spaces available for people to move into. This is a land of opportunity, a land of growth, a land of potential.

Andrew J. Russell. Hanging Rock, foot of Echo Canon.
Andrew J. Russell. Hanging Rock, foot of Echo Canon
Andrew J. Russell. Dial Rock, Red Buttes.
Andrew J. Russell. Dial Rock, Red Buttes

There’s also a completely different scale to the landscape in the West. Almost all of the photos include a human figure in the image. Some of this may be to hammer the “we’re here and can conquer this” point. But a lot of it is also just to provide scale. The landscape is huge.

Andrew J. Russell. Salt Lake City, from the top of the Tabernacle.
Andrew J. Russell. Salt Lake City, from the top of the Tabernacle

But it’s settleable. Russell ends his journey in Salt Lake City with images that show a legitimate city nestled in the mountains. There’s also some curiosity about the Mormons, but it’s very clear that we can live in the West. And the railroads can take us there.

Besides the history side of things, I like a lot of the photos as photos even though all I had available to look at was a laminated digital print from a copy of the albumen print in the book. It’s not enough for him to just photograph the distinct landscape elements, I like his compositions and the way he’s able to situate so many of them in the landscape. I especially like the Hanging Rock photo and the way he’s used it to frame the settlement below it. Makes me wonder how much it would cost to buy a real print from the Oakland Museum.

#ReplacePeterLorreWithR2D2

[tweet https://twitter.com/vossbrink/status/343965341589848065] [tweet https://twitter.com/vossbrink/status/343965390583525377] [tweet https://twitter.com/vossbrink/status/343965504601460736]

So I was a bit disappointed to realize that I’m conversant in very few Peter Lorre movies. I was tempted to include a reference to Arsenic and Old Lace except that I couldn’t make it work. Is just as well, these three are all movies I really really like and would recommend to anyone.

Anyway, motivation came from here.

[tweet https://twitter.com/earthtopus/status/343894979455893504]

Roger

[tweet https://twitter.com/Suntimes/statuses/319896006147854336] [tweet https://twitter.com/vossbrink/status/319898226658533376] [tweet https://twitter.com/runofplay/status/319923455455805441] [tweet https://twitter.com/runofplay/status/319943962511151104 hide_thread=true]

I’ve always been a movie watcher and movie lover. I grew up watching all kinds of films with my parents and was lucky enough to be able to see classics on the big screen as well. When I went to college, I became an avid movie watcher. Typically a couple movies a week. Often more. Once I graduated, my movie watching increased to the point where I was watching a half-dozen movies a week  via Netflix alone.

For the fourteen years between my entering college and becoming a father, Roger Ebert was my trusted guide. Not in the sense that I always agreed with him or thought that his reviews were the pinnacle of movie writing. But his love and passion for movies drove me to seek out what I liked and educate myself about cinema.

I read him every week. All his reviews. And all his columns. And eventually his tweets and his blogposts.

Today’s news hit me hard. Harder than I expected. I hadn’t realized how much he was a part of my intellectual routine. I see things better because of him. I think about things better because of him. I’ve discovered so many things I love because of him. And now he’s gone.

[tweet https://twitter.com/vossbrink/status/319900765181333504]

I didn’t discover The Third Man because of Ebert but it’s the first movie I thought of as being appropriate to watch in his memory. I didn’t have time to watch it tonight. I don’t have time to watch many non-kiddie movies anymore. Maybe this weekend. But I fired up the last scene on youtube. I needed that long, elegiac sigh today.

Thank you Roger. I’ll miss you.

#sixwordfilmplots

Even More Cars

Because I’m watching “Cars” over and over and over again. It looks like I may be posting over and over again too. This time it’s with the observation on how “Cars” is the most Miyazaki-like of all the Pixar movies I’ve seen.

Not that this should be a surprise given Lasseter’s long-established admiration of Miyazaki.* But Pixar movies have still tended to have more traditionally-western kids movie plots with heros and villains being told from the point of view of an adult hero. “Cars” meanwhile is told from the point of view of a youth having to learn how to do his own thing after being taken out of his comfort zone.

*I hate hate HATE his introductions on the Miyazaki DVDs.

There’s a whole bunch of nostalgia for a simpler, now-past, lifestyle. And there’s the implication that we’re losing touch with nature and the land. There’s even an extended wordless sequence of discovery/epiphany where the audience is encouraged to lean forward and just enjoy the magic of the animation.* All that’s needed is to make the protagonist female and switch driving with flying.

*My favorite Miyazaki movies all have one of these sequences: the trainride to Swamp Bottom in Spirited Away, the tree-growing dream in Totoro, Porco’s dream in Porco Rosso.

It’s not quite Miyazaki, but I can see the influence much more than I see it on other Pixar films.

More Cars

My post on Cars could have been much much longer. I tried to keep it on-topic, or as on-topic as possible, with my photo/art point of view. Other random directions it could have taken me.

Which would be an expansion on my asterisked aside about how women and minorities have not had the same liberty to travel throughout the country without issue that white men have had.

The Cars universe suggests that you’re born to be a specific kind of car and do a specific kind of job. Which is an interesting concept to build a kids movie upon.

The treatment of minority characters in Cars is interesting to me. Especially since they do exist within a specific white-centered world. I already mentioned the romance of white privilege and travel. Couple that with the NASCAR thing and yeah. Not a lot of minority characters.

It should be noted though that Ramón and Flo are well-chosen stereotypes. It’s impressive to pick stereotyped characters but then do them in a way which doesn’t give people hives. Not all stereotypes are necessarily bad. Ramón in particular fits in perfectly with the existing latino car culture and the way it’s embraced.

And if Cars passes the minority Bechdel test, it’s only because it hearks back to a time period when Italians were considered non-white.

These are just off the top of my head. I’m sure more will occur to me.