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The spiritual message hidden in ‘Star Wars’



(CNN)“Star Wars” has always kept its fingers close to America’s spiritual pulse.

At the turn of the millennium, “Star Wars” caught the McMindfulness craze. “The Phantom Menace” opens with two Jedis talking about the benefits of meditation. Riveting, it was not.
But the latest film in the saga, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” touches on trends in American religious life in some surprising ways, especially for a franchise that’s so nakedly commercial. (“The Last Jedi” was the highest-grossing movie in the United States last year and raked in nearly $1.3 billion worldwide.)
“It is very much a movie of this time,” said the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, a Buddhist teacher, social justice activist and “Star Wars” aficionado who lives Berkeley, California. “It draws on ancient teachings, as well as what is happening in this country right now.”
But there’s some debate about what “The Last Jedi” intends to say about modern religious life: Is it warning about the end of organized religion, or a parable about spiritual renewal?

‘Do, or do not. There is no try.’

“Star Wars” is, at heart, a story about the rise and fall of an ancient religion.
When we meet the Jedis, in Episode I, they’re mindfulness-meditating, axiom-spouting space monks who keep order in the galaxy and swing a swift lightsaber.
By Episode VIII — “The Last Jedi” — the once-great order is reduced to a lone soul, Luke Skywalker, serving a self-imposed penance on a remote island.
When Rey, the young heroine, shows up seeking spiritual training, Luke refuses.
The Jedi religion is over, he says, a victim of its own hypocrisy and hubris. Luke even prepares to burn the ancient Jedi texts.
(In a bit of historical irony, the island on which the scene is filmed, Skellig Michael, was home to medieval Irish monks who “saved civilization” by rescuing ancient Christian books.)
But the film hints that Luke might not be the “last Jedi,” after all. Even without his help, Rey is remarkably skilled at connecting with the Force, the mysterious energy that pervades the galaxy.
This is where some cultural commentators see an argument against organized religion. In previous “Star Wars” films, using the Force required joining the Jedis and spending years learning the “old ways” from established masters.
Luke seems to say that none of that matters anymore.
“He is making a very modern case for spirituality over organized religion,” argues Hannah Long in The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. “If all roads lead to the Force, then the dusty tradition and doctrine doesn’t really matter.”
In The Atlantic, Chaim Saiman makes a similar argument. “The Last Jedi” seems to reflect many millennials’ ideas about religion, namely their waning interest in “structured religion” in favor of “unbounded spirituality,” he writes.
But is that the whole story?

‘Always two there are: A master and apprentice’

George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” says he wanted to do more than entertain the masses. He wanted to introduce young Americans to spiritual teachings though “new myths” for our globalized, pluralistic millennium.
“I see ‘Star Wars’ as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and accessible construct,” Lucas has said. “I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.”
In this, Lucas sounds a lot like his mentor, Joseph Campbell, a scholar who studied world myths. Campbell argued that all cultures impart their values to the next generation through archetypal stories. He believed the same about organized religion, but said it must “catch up” to the “moral necessities of the here and now.”
Lucas himself has been called a “Buddhist/Methodist,” though it’s not clear that he identifies with either religious tradition. “Let’s say I’m spiritual,” he told Time magazine in 1999.
Irvin Kirshner, the director of the “The Empire Strikes Back,” says Yoda — the small but spiritually powerful Jedi master — was created in part to evangelize for Buddhism.
“I want to introduce some Zen here,” he said, “because I don’t want the kids to walk away just thinking that everything is a shoot-’em-up.”
Mushim Patricia Ikeda, a Buddhist teacher and social justice activist, said Yoda reminds her of the monks she studied with in Korea: wise, cryptic and a little impish.
“I watched those movies and I thought, check, check, double-check,” said Ikeda, the community coordinator at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California.
There’s been a lot written about Buddhism in “Star Wars,” from scholarly papers to popular books, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say, “Star Wars” borrows quite a bit from Buddhist symbols, teachings and practices. One writer calls it “Zen with lightsabers.”
The name of the Jedi Order itself could be borrowed from Asian culture, said religion scholar Christian Feichtinger. The “jidaigeki,” a genre of popular movies in Japan, depict samurai learning to combine swordsmanship with spiritual training, and slowly discovering that the mind is mightier than the sword. (Sound familiar?)
Throughout “Star Wars,” the Jedi talk often about mindfulness and concentration, attachment and interdependence, all key Buddhist ideas. Two — mindfulness and concentration — are steps on the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s guide to spiritual liberation.
You could argue that “The Last Jedi,” telegraphs its spiritual debts to Buddhism. When Rey is meditating, she touches the ground, mirroring an iconic image of the “earth-touching” Buddha.
And, as an astute colleague noticed, a mosaic pool a Jedi temple shows an icon that looks a lot like Kannon Boddhisattva, a large-eared Buddhist being who hears the cries of the world.
But there’s more to spirituality in “Star Wars” than Buddhism. Like Zen itself, the saga blends aspects of Taoism and other religious traditions. “The Force,” for example, sounds a lot like the Taoist idea of “chi,” the subtle stream of energy that animates the world.
And there’s plenty about “Star Wars” that doesn’t jibe with Buddhism, not least the fact that Darth Vader — the supreme personification of evil — is an avid meditator.
Even the storylines that borrow from other religions teach Buddhist lessons.
Take Darth Vader’s narrative. He was born of a virgin, and was supposed to save the galaxy before he succumbed to temptation, all ideas with clear Christian resonances.
But the reason for Vader’s fall from grace — the lessons viewers are supposed to take away — seems distinctly Buddhish.
Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi who will become Darth Vader, had been “attached” to the idea of saving his family, Yoda says.
“Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.”

‘Clear, your mind must be’

Earlier this month, the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California, hosted a workshop called “Jedi Insights: A Force For Justice.” About 40 people turned out, including several teenagers and new meditators.
Ikeda, who co-led the workshop, said many teens are like Rey, the inexperienced but enthusiastic Jedi: looking for mentors to help unravel the mystery of self-knowledge.
“They’re like, please, please, please, give me that spiritual training,” Ikeda said.
During the workshop, Ikeda and her co-teacher, John Ellis, discussed “Star Wars” scenes and led guided meditations. Inevitably, a few lively lightsaber battles broke out. Almost as inevitably, because this is America in 2018, the discussion got political.
“There’s so much going on, from the environment to taxes to education, that it’s easy to be overwhelmed,” Ellis said. “‘Star Wars’ help us think about how meditation teaches us to focus on the task at hand, and bring our best self to it.”

‘A pile of old books’

So what is the spiritual message in “The Last Jedi,” and what — if anything — can it tell us about religion in real life?
It’s true that millennials may be eager for spiritual training, but they are are increasingly unlikely to identify with a specific religion. Nearly one in three says they have no religious affiliation.
But let’s take a closer look at why millennials are leaving, or forsaking, the fold.
A new study of young former Catholics, conducted by St. Mary’s Press Catholic Research Group and Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, found that more blamed their family for the decision to leave the church than the church institution itself. Only 11% said they quit Catholicism because they oppose the church or religious institutions in general.
The study also found that nearly half had joined other religious communities, including other Christian ones. So is organized religion really the issue here?
It’s no secret that we’re living during a time of seismic shifts, from technology to politics to spirituality. It’s not so much an “era of changes,” Pope Francis has said, as a “change of eras.”
So what’s the leader of a 2,000-year-old church to do?
The answer is not resurrecting “obsolete practices and forms,” Francis says. Some Catholic customs, while beautiful, “no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel.”
But the Pope is no iconoclast, eager to discard sacred traditions. In fact, he wants Catholics to go back to the roots of their religion, the Gospel.
Francis has repeatedly implored Christians, particularly priests, to put Jesus’ words into action by caring for the sick, the lame and the poor. He wants shepherds who smell like their sheep, not bookkeepers who smell like sheepskin.
Which brings us back to the spiritual message encoded in “The Last Jedi.”
As Luke prepares to torch the tree containing the sacred Jedi texts, Yoda appears out of nowhere and does the deed himself, cackling all the while.
“Time it is,” Yoda says, “for you to look past a pile of old books.”
Some fans were aghast that Yoda would feign sacrilege against the Jedi tradition.
But when you look at the scene from a Buddhist lens, the meaning shifts.
Zen is full of stories about ancient masters trying to jolt their apprentices from mental ruts. In one ancient monastery, the students paid too much attention to Buddhist images, so the head monk torched them. (“If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha,” says a famous koan.)
These lessons and koans are not meant to be permanent prescriptions for all Buddhists for all time. They’re highly particular, transmitted from master to apprentice, one mind to another.
In that light, maybe Yoda’s apparent willingness to burn the “old pile of books” isn’t really about texts, which he already knows are safely in Rey’s possession. Maybe it isn’t even about religion. It’s just about Luke.
Yoda is trying to shock him out of his guilt and shame about the past, and make him focus on “the need in front of (his) nose,” the Resistance that could sorely use a little saving.
So perhaps the real spiritual message of “Star Wars” isn’t about the end or beginning of organized religion. Maybe, like a good Zen teacher, it’s a mirror showing us our own minds. Are we preoccupied with the past, concerned about the future, or paying attention to the needs in front of our noses?

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Stephen Hawking made his mark on pop culture, as well as science

Charmaine Blake



Stephen Hawking in ‘The Simpsons.’

Image: fox

Stephen Hawking got plenty right about the universe, and that even extended to his thoughts on pop culture.

The Simpsons is the best thing on American television,” the late astrophysicist said on BBC’s The Culture Show, reflecting on his appearance on the hit animated series back in 1999.

The cameo was so prolific that it led to people thinking he was merely a character on the TV show, rather than recognising him for his work in science.

In 1999, Hawking appeared at the end of Season 10, in the episode “They Saved Lisa’s Brain,” saving the day when Springfield’s utopian meritocracy crumbled.

“I was depicted as a somewhat surreal character with enormous powers,” Hawking said, noting the show’s writers definitely used a bit of artistic license.

“Among the equipment they used for my cartoon image, I don’t like pizza, and I hope I wouldn’t use a boxing glove. Though sometimes I’m sorely tempted,” he added.

Hawking would go on to make three more appearances in The Simpsons, including an cameo where he MCs with the Flight of the Conchords. He also appeared several times as himself in Futurama.

Hawking wasn’t just an animated character. He appeared several times in The Big Bang Theory, the idea he spent much of his life working on.

“You made an arithmetic mistake on page two. It was quite a boner,” Hawking tells Sheldon after reviewing a paper on the Higgs boson in a 2012 episode.

Hawking also played himself in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing a poker game with the greatest minds in physics, including Einstein, Isaac Newton and Data.

“The uncertainty principle will not help you now Stephen,” Einstein tells Hawking. “All the quantum fluctuations in the world will not change the cards in your hand.”

There were also appearances on late night talk shows, like the time he kept making phone calls to Jim Carrey on the set of Late Night with Conan O’Brien back in 2007, and his recent bit with John Oliver on Last Week Tonight‘s “People Who Think Good” series.

“You’ve stated there could be an infinite number of parallel universes. Does that mean that there is a universe out there where I am smarter than you?” Oliver asked.

“Yes,” Hawking replied. “And also a universe where you’re funny.”

While Hawking kept busy making cameos on a host of television shows, he was played by other actors including Benedict Cumberbatch in 2004’s Hawking, and by Eddie Redmayne in 2014’s Theory of Everything. 

Redmayne, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance, dedicated the win to people with ALS, and the Hawking family. Hawking allowed the use of his speech synthesiser in the film.

Hawking’s influence also extended to music, where he voiced part of Pink Floyd’s 1994 track “Keep Talking” and 2014’s “Talkin’ Hawkin’,” both sampled from a BT commercial.

Although theories on relativity and black holes established him as a genius, his prevalence in pop culture made him a modern star, the likes science hadn’t seen before.

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The Shape of Water’s Oscars win is the triumph of a real artist and immersive cinema | Peter Bradshaw



Guillermo del Toro has created a richly sensual and dreamlike film that, in the end, seduced the Academy without being too threatening

At the end of a somewhat predictable evening, we were all longing for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway to work their anarchic magic, and start handing out the awards to the films that werent in the envelope. Perhaps for the sheer devilment, they could have given something to, say, Kathryn Bigelows powerful race drama Detroit, a highly plausible Oscar-worthy film, which the Academy hive mind mysteriously decided was worth precisely zilch and became utterly forgotten about. In the end, many deserving films got what they deserved, others didnt, the internal economy of awards season dictating, as it so often does, that the rich become richer. And it was hardly obvious that this was the year of radical change in Hollywoods sexual politics. As my colleague Benjamin Lee notes in his blog this years Academy Awards in fact garnered the fewest female winners for six years.

Guillermo del Toros escapist fantasy-romance The Shape of Water was the biggest winner, the story of a young womans love for a captured sea creature with best picture and best director, setting the official seal of approval on what is, by any measure, a beautifully made movie to which audiences have responded with distinctively sensual delight. It is a lovely piece of work, with a terrific performance from Sally Hawkins: you can get to the end of it, not quite believing that she doesnt say a word in the entire film, so commanding and eloquent is her presence. And yet in the end I couldnt quite swoon as much as everyone else and though this is a film which pays tribute to people who are different, it does so in the reassuring rhetoric of fabular unreality. There is something a little bit frictionless and unscary about The Shape of Water; though in progress, it has the eerie force of a dream. The Academy has gratefully submitted to its current and swirl.

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From the acting awards, for me, easily the most satisfying is Allison Janneys barnstorming turn as LaVona Golden in I, Tonya: the dragon matriarch or icerink showbiz mom in I, Tonya, whose daughter Tonya Harding became an skating star and was then disgraced because of her ex-husbands assault on her rival Nancy Kerrigan. Like Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Janney plays an angry and unrepentant mother, and maybe the prevalence of mothers has been an under-recognised part of this years awards seasons, especially as Sam Rockwells racist cop in Three Billboards actually lives with his mother. (There is also Darren Aronofskys brilliant black comic provocation, Mother! overlooked, I am sorry to say, by the middlebrows and the sensible-shoe wearers of awards season, except of course to be mocked.) Janneys LaVona is a brilliantly nasty, funny creation, who is spared any spurious redemptive journey.

Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell got the best actress and best supporting actor Oscars for Martin McDonaghs jagged, angular, tonally unpredictable and for some objectionable black comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The success of this film and the specific successes of these two stars in these two roles perhaps raises the thorny issue of intersectionality. McDormand radiated star quality in the part of the woman looking for justice for her raped and murdered daughter. What also radiated was her characters radioactive loathing of the police and of the men who didnt and dont care about women. She is a resoundingly satisfying and powerful winner in the era of #TimesUp. But Sam Rockwells racist cop is permitted a disputed moral comeback, and it sometimes looked as if his racism was allowed into the film as set-dressing, to offset a drama of forgiveness to which race was essentially irrelevant.

The movies admirers have been in a kind of Mexican standoff with this objection ever since it has been aired on social media, although I accept the good faith in which McDonagh created this character. Perhaps the least successful part of the film is that which is most easily forgotten: the sad, slightly whimsically uxorious tale of Woody Harrelson and his wife, played by Abbie Cornish. I personally would have preferred the best actress award to go to Saoirse Ronan for that excellent film Lady Bird, which came away from Oscar night empty-handed. And best supporting actor should really have gone to Willem Dafoe for his outstanding performance in The Florida Project: a performance which had a subtlety, resonance and genuine depth.

Of these three aforegoing adjectives, I think I can only really assign resonance to Gary Oldmans impersonation of Winston Churchill in Joe Wrights watchable wartime drama Darkest Hour, which won him his widely predicted best actor Oscar. He was roisteringly entertaining and charismatic, and the latex mask within which he was working interestingly different from the real, lived-in faces of other Churchill performances over the years gave his face precisely that babyish, cherubic expression that reportedly made him a seductive figure in real life. It was a highly watchable entertainment: comfort-food wartime entertainment, perhaps, but with a terrific storytelling zing. What actually made it different was not Oldman, in fact, but the emphasis on Halifax, an excellent performance from Stephen Dillane.

The screenplay Oscars (and the foreign language Oscar) made sure that the really great movies were not overlooked. James Ivory was a thoroughly deserving winner of the best adapted screenplay Oscar for his excellent work on Luca Guadagninos masterly love story Call Me By Your Name. It is highly satisfying to see Ivory, a veteran of cinema, get an Academy award which is not a lifetime achievement gong (though he surely deserves one of those as well) but something to recognise his continuingly vivid, urgently passionate work right now.

Get Out was the film that I had been hoping against hope might actually win best picture. Well, it won Jordan Peele the Oscar for best original screenplay, which is excellent news. Get Out is a brilliant satire on race and the gruesome twist ending of post-Obama America which functions also as a scary movie, black comedy and an acting masterclass from its four leads.

Very often, the foreign language Oscar is an embarrassing misstep for the Academy. Not last night it wasnt. I was tipping Ildik Enyedis strange love story On Body and Soul for this, while saying that Andrei Zvyagintsevs searing Russian drama Loveless would have been the worthy winner. In the end, I was wrong both ways but fair enough. The Oscar went to Sebastian Lelios glorious A Fantastic Woman, the story of a trans woman whose grief at the death of her partner is compounded by the cruelty and indifference of society. It is a wonderful film.

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Elsewhere, there were other solid choices: Coco was the only possible choice as best animation, and this arguably could and should have been a best picture contender although it is hardly in the league of Pixar movies like The Incredibles or the Toy Stories. Roger Deakins rightly won best cinematographer for his superb work on Denis Villeneuves Blade Runner 2049, although this award, justified as it is, perhaps doesnt reflect quite how extraordinary a big-screen experience this film is.

Mark Bridges was also justly rewarded for his costume design on Phantom Thread but for me this is another point of niggling exasperation with this years awards. Paul Thomas Anderson created another brilliant film here: a really masterly piece of work with a performance by Daniel Day-Lewis which was a jewel of this years awards season. And yet it has been overlooked in favour of less interesting work.

Well, there we are. To return to The Shape of Water: however conflicted I feel about its triumph, it is certainly the work of a real artist, and someone who believes in immersive cinema, total cinema, cinema that enfolds you in a complete created world.

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Science friction: can Netflix figure out its blockbuster problem?

Charmaine Blake



Costly sci-fi films have received poor reviews but the streaming giant still has an eager audience in its vast subscriber base

The future hasnt been kind to Netflix. In the last two months, its launched three science fiction blockbusters Will Smiths orc cop adventure Bright, the shock assault The Cloverfield Paradox, and the bizarre Berlin-set Blade Runner-riff Mute each of which critics reacted to as though a cockroach crawled out of their TV (not one film managed to score over 27% on Rotten Tomatoes). A fourth attempt, Alex Garlands Annihilation, about five female explorers in a technicolor hellscape, received better reviews but Netflix still couldnt win. It scooped up theinternational distribution rights from Paramount, who lost confidence in the Natalie Portman cerebral chiller and decided to release it theatrically only in the United States, Canada and China. Netflix rescued the film for foreign audiences … who grumbled that theyd be forced to squint at Garlands giant, surrealist visuals at home on Netflix.

If Netflix could see into its own future, would it green-light each film again? Probably. Its already given the go-ahead to Bright 2, and just awarded a first look deal to the heavyweight producer of Transformers and World War Z and snatched another major studio film from the trash bin when Universal dumped the planet invasion thriller Extinction. Plus, last Friday as Mute tested wary audiences already primed to ridicule Paul Rudds handlebar mustache, Netflix announced it had won an expensive nine-way bidding war to produce another costly sci-fi flick, Life Sentence, in which convicts have their brains wiped to prevent them from repeating their crimes. Directed by War for the Planet of the Apes Matt Reeves, Life Sentence repeats the same high-concept, name-brand fantasia thats made Netflix duck tomatoes. And yet, the timing of the news feels pointed: Netflix knows exactly what its doing.

Beamed Reeves, Netflix is at the forefront of a new age in how storytellers are reaching an audience. Frankly, Netflix knows more than anyone about how people watch movies. However, the industry still doesnt know much about it. Before Netflix, a films success or failure was gauged by three numbers: its budget, its opening weekend and its total global haul. But when Netflix launched its streaming service a decade ago, it began to horde more sophisticated information. Who exactly wants to watch a movie about an orc not just which broad demographic, but which specific people sitting on their couch on a Tuesday? What are the viewing patterns even subscribers dont recognize? The key words they search, the films that make them watch other films, the scenes that make them turn a movie off?

We know what people like to watch, said Netflixs chief communications officer Jonathan Friedland when the company began to produce its own original content in 2011. It wasnt an empty boast. Netflix knew that there was an audience for their first show, House of Cards, because it had studied the overlap between David Fincher fans who also liked British miniseries. Plus, it didnt have to spend a fortune blanketing the country with ads. It could directly reach specific viewers with ten different online promos tailored to whether the target was more likely to click play for a story about a powerful woman, or for Finchers camerawork.

Since that first triumph, Netflixs subscriptions have quadrupled. Today, more Americans pay for Netflix than for cable television, and after an intensive international push, over half of Netflixs users live abroad. Its rightly been called a disruptive force in entertainment, as though founder Reid Hastings legendary annoyance at being charged a $40 late rental fee for Apollo 13 had mutated into a vengeance to destroy not just video stores, but traditional Hollywood itself. Meanwhile, though we know that Apollo 13s opening weekend box office was $25.3m, Netflix rarely trumpets financial data about its releases. Doomsaying reports claim that only 5m viewers watched Cloverfield Paradox in its first week. But crunch the numbers, and thats actually about as many people who bought a ticket to Apollo 13.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in The Cloverfield Paradox. Photograph: Netflix/AP

Of course, the difference is that Netflix isnt trying to sell individual films. It wants to sell people on renewing their subscriptions or rather, not canceling them which is behind its strategy of taking risky swings. Sure, itd be great if the finished film was fantastic, and the companys investment in talented directors like Garland, Reeves and Mutes Duncan Jones means that it has good taste. Yet, what really matters is that people are talking about its orc cop flick, even if theyre just saying its a legendary disaster.

Traditional Hollywood studios struggle to sell full-price tickets to something iffy or complex like Annihilation or Extinction, an all-or-nothing push to inspire a trip to the theater, to make people make a choice. They have to scatter the film across 2,000 screens and spend major advertising money hoping the audience for it will hear, and care, that it exists. But Netflix embraces inertia. No ones going to cancel a subscription because one movie was bad. And hey, its fine if all people want is to sample 15 minutes of Will Smith grunting, Fairy lives dont matter, so they can join in the jokes. To Netflix, who needs less cash to reach a targeted audience and needs far less motivation from them its biggest danger in acquiring major studios cast-offs is the brand-tainting odor of being a dumpster diver.

Netflix has pledged to release 80 original films in 2018, a mix of small, quality films the company scooped up for cheap at film festivals and splashy, silly events guaranteed to get people tweeting, like the comedy Eggplant Emoji, about a teenager who loses his penis. Theres big money in giving people just enough excuses to maintain a low-risk subscription. Each month, Netflix makes nearly a half-billion in dues in America alone thats more than the entire domestic box office of Wonder Woman. For that money, they could make a high-profile disaster like Bright five times over, and still have enough pocket change for Oscar-nominated movies like Mudbound.

Perhaps to understand Netflix, we need to analyze their patterns just like theyve analyzed ours. The same key words keep coming up: strange, celebrity, curiosity, conversation. Whats more likely: that Netflix cant stop placing bad bets on costly science fiction films, or that these movies help them make money in ways the company isnt explaining? Maybe Netflix has the future figured out after all.

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