The Force is Back!

The Force is Back!

18-star-wars-poster.w529.h529Unless you’ve been frozen in a block of carbonite for the past year, you know that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars franchise, opened last weekend to the largest box office in film history, pulling in nearly $250 million in North America alone, and over half a billion dollars worldwide. Stormtroopers trooped into selected theaters on opening night for pre-screening festivities and fans dressed in costume to celebrate the return of the “real” Star Wars. (Many fans refuse to acknowledge the disappointing prequels.) Actors, director, and film pundits were interviewed on television and in print for weeks leading up to the release. Hour-long specials chronicled the history of the franchise and the making of this film. Jimmy Fallon watched, aghast, as guest Harrison Ford tore apart a collectible 1977 Han Solo doll (er, action figure) on the Tonight Show. It has been a spectacle worthy of the Roman Colosseum — or Boba Fett’s next dinner party.

So let’s start by addressing the first question reviewers are asked whenever an overhyped movie comes to town: is it any good?

Fox Business host Neil Cavuto spent an entire show last week proclaiming the film to be “stupid” and “nonsense.” To be fair, I think Cavuto was just being contrarian and having a good time in a spontaneous interchange with Bobby Jindal. Nevertheless, my advice to Cavuto is, stick with your day job and leave the night job to film lovers. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is spectacular.

Star Wars was a once upon a time, a Saturday matinee cliffhanger, an old-fashioned romance, and a cowboy western all rolled into one, dressed up in spacesuits and alien life forms.

Cavuto — and fans — had reason to be skeptical about this latest offering. The original trilogy was a masterpiece of mythic storytelling combined with groundbreaking special effects that changed the direction of action films. Who can forget the first sight of that gigantic spaceship scrolling across the screen, looming ever larger and bringing with it an ever-increasing sense of wonder and foreboding? Before we could even think, “How did they do that?” we were drawn into the story that took place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” It was a once upon a time, a Saturday matinee cliffhanger, an old-fashioned romance, and a cowboy western all rolled into one, dressed up in spacesuits and alien life forms. When the ending credits for Return of the Jedi rolled six years later, we were satisfied, but immediately hungry for more. We wanted to know: how did Chewbacca and Han meet? Why were Luke and Leia separated at birth? What happened to change the shining Jedi, Anakin Skywalker, into the Dark Knight, Darth Vader? Fans wrote their own stories, made their own movies, and longed for the official prequel.

So George Lucas complied. When he decided to create a trilogy of prequels that would “explain it all,” audiences salivated with anticipation. As the master filmmaker who could do no wrong, especially when he followed Star Wars by teaming up with Steven Spielberg for the Indiana Jones trilogy, Lucas was given carte blanche over the script and the filming. And the trilogy bombed. Instead of showing us the backstories of the characters we loved, Lucas introduced a whole new cast of characters, tinged with heavy-handed politicking and a nonsensical romance that was simply unbelievable — in the non-hyperbolic sense of the word. (See my review in Liberty.)

What was missing? In my opinion it was Marcia Lucas, who was no longer married to George and thus was no longer guiding the story from behind the scenes. Marcia edited the original Star Wars films and won an Oscar for it in 1977. By contrast, George has yet to earn a competitive Oscar. Lucas deserves all the credit for his creative vision and his skybreaking technology of Star Wars, and is responsible for the way every action film is made today. Kudos to him for all he has accomplished. But he needed someone who would nurture the characters. He found that someone in director J.J. Abrams.

Nurtured himself by Steven Spielberg, Abrams knows how to make an action film exciting. He also knows how to create an homage that can stand on its own. Super 8 (2011), in which a group of young teens saves the world while making a home movie, is probably the best example. It is made in the style of Abrams’ mentor, Steven Spielberg, and contains a plethora of “Easter egg” references to Spielberg’s trademark moments, yet it stands entirely on its own as an exciting, well-made film. (See my review.) Similarly, in The Force Awakens Abrams provides audiences with ample nods to the original trilogy, including some sets and scenes that are nearly identical. Yet the homage never becomes distracting or overbearing. We simply enjoy the sense of nostalgia as we are carried along by the story. My grandson was so enthralled that he forgot to eat his popcorn until the movie was over!

The story is a simple, classic quest: the rebel forces must find Luke Skywalker before the Empire, now called the First Order, can reach him. Within this overarching plotline we also find a story that focuses on friendship and family, and a theme that resonates with loyalty, redemption, and the freedom to choose one’s path. The characters care about each other, and because of that, we care about them too. There’s nothing stupid or nonsensical about that, Mr. Cavuto.

Is The Force Awakens a sequel or a remake? It takes place 30 or so years after Return of the Jedi, and Han, Luke, and Leia are senior members of the ongoing resistance. Sequel, right? Yet in many ways the story is a remake of the original: as stormtroopers attack, a droid is entrusted with an urgent message. A trio of rebels — one woman, two men — travels through the galaxy in the ”piece of junk” Millennium Falcon on a quest to save the world. Once again we are treated to wide vistas of strange, majestic landscapes through which our heroes trudge with tireless resolve on their way to new adventures. We see sets and scenes that seem familiar, and some that are identical to those that appear in previous films. Abrams even casts rebel pilots who look almost exactly like the pilots in the original film 40 years ago. Some reviewers have called this repetition “derivative,” but I consider it thematically essential. The message is subtle but clear: history repeats itself. We must be constantly on guard and ready to fight against the tyrannical forces that would enslave or destroy us. Each victory is but a respite before the next onslaught against our freedom.

Characters in film are often defined by the costumes they wear, and the costuming is outstanding. As before, officers in the First Order wear caps and epaulets reminiscent of the Third Reich, reminding us of the tyranny of empire-building. Their textures are heavy, dark, and oppressive. By contrast, members of the resistance wear natural fabrics and leathers. Rey (Daisy Ridley) wears a tunic with soft, feminine ruching held in place (and out of the way) by rustic leather straps. Her costume reminds us that she is a woman, but she is girded to fight. She carries the weight of the resistance in her careworn eyes and doesn’t have time to worry about holding her own against “male privilege.” I suspect her name (which means “king” in Spanish) will be revealed as significant in a future episode. Ridley is simply perfect in the role.


Finn (John Boyega) is another character defined by his costume; when he puts on the leather jacket of the rebel Poe (Oscar Isaac), he also puts on Poe’s mission. tfa_poster_wide_header-1536x864-959818851016Unfortunately, Boyega doesn’t put on Poe’s personality. I was disappointed by his bland acting — no charisma. I also wanted Carrie Fisher to open her mouth a little bit more when she spoke, but I had the same problem with her in the original Star Wars In fact, I had to watch it a third time before I could decipher all the dialogue. But these are niggling complaints. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a triumphant return of the Jedi. I can’t want for the next installment.

Editor’s Note: Review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” directed by J.J. Abrams. Disney, 2015. 135 minutes.

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A Face in the Crowd Boards the Trump Express

A Face in the Crowd Boards the Trump Express

220px-AfaceinthecrowdposterWhen you’re a libertarian living in New York and working in academia, you learn to keep your politics to yourself most of the time. But something strange is happening in New York, and indeed across the nation. Over and over again, I’m hearing dyed-in-the-wool, knee-jerk social Democrats say, “You know, I’m kind of leaning toward Trump.” It happened again this morning on my way to the airport. My Italian-American New York cab driver asked what I thought about the political race. I talked about the merits of Rand Paul’s philosophy. And he said, “I’m leaning toward Trump.”

What does this blowhard, demagogy, crony capitalist have that I’m missing? When he isn’t being blatantly and outrageously offensive, he’s demonstrating a naiveté that makes Sarah Palin look like a Rhodes scholar. His answer to every challenge is a version of, “Trust me. I know how to fix that. Everybody likes me. I like everybody.” Sheesh! What do people see in Donald Trump, besides the fact that he’s not a career politician?

It makes me think of Elia Kazan’s 1957 masterpiece, A Face in the Crowd. It’s nearly 60 years old, yet it’s so timely that it could have been used as a storyboard for Trump’s triumphant rise as a political candidate — and his potential fall. Of course, Trump’s early life was quite different from that of the title character in the movie, but they are prophetically similar in the way they use the media to sway and control their audiences.In the film, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is the host of a popular radio series called “A Face in the Crowd,” for which she interviews ordinary people and asks them about their lives — kind of a combination of the modern “man in the street” interviews and the old “This Is Your Life” series. She thinks it would be interesting to interview someone in the drunk tank at an Arkansas jail, and that’s where she meets Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a loud, obnoxious, uncouth drifter and country singer who agrees to do the interview because the sheriff has promised to let him out of jail a few days early if he will. Rhodes ad libs some off-the-cuff good humor and sings a song that becomes a running theme, “Free Man in the Morning.” Marcia, charmed by his untrained openness and the blues in his voice, promptly nicknames him “Lonesome” Rhodes. A radio-television star is born.

Lonesome has neither social graces nor emotional filters. He speaks his mind, mocks his sponsors, coddles his listeners, and rejects the idea of being “dignified” or respectful. He’s a brand new kind of star, just as Trump is a brand new kind of candidate, and the public loves his folksy, off-script style. He develops a following of avid — some might say rabid — followers, who riot in the streets when a mocked sponsor understandably fires him for his rude, outrageous comments. He is indeed a “free man in the morning,” owing nothing to anyone, and the public loves him for it.

When a new sponsor, “Vitajex,” designs an ad campaign based on scientific analysis of its energy supplement’s ingredients, Lonesome rejects the facts and ad libs his own campaign for Vitajex based on emotional appeal and unsubstantiated claims. Sales soar, and so does Lonesome’s popularity. His face ends up on the covers of every national magazine, while his name is attached to ships, roses, and even a local mountain. You can’t buy that kind of publicity — and you don’t have to, when the press is fawning all over you. (Donald Trump knows that secret, too.) Lonesome watches his ratings the way Trump watches his polls. He has no formal background in marketing, but he knows instinctively just what to do to keep his ratings moving upward.

Eventually Lonesome becomes the campaign advisor to presidential candidate Worthington Fuller, a ”worthy” candidate who is smart, wise, respectable — and boring. Lonesome markets him as a product rather than a statesman. “Do you know anyone who bought a product because they respect it?” he bellows. “You gotta be loved — loved!” Lonesome makes Fuller a folksy man of the people, and Fuller promises to create a cabinet position for Lonesome: Secretary for National Morale. In short order Lonesome has moved from drunk-tank denizen to cracker-barrel entertainer to national celebrity to influential politico. “This whole county is just like my flock of sheep!” he brags. “They’re mine. I own ’em! I’m gonna be the power behind the president!”

Marcia is charmed, fascinated and repelled by Lonesome, and Neal is masterly in the way she portrays these conflicted emotions. Director Elia Kazan colors the black and white film with an artist’s palate, manipulating the shadows with skillful lighting that enhances character and mood, especially Marcia’s growing horror at the monster she has created. Griffith, too, excels as an actor; in fact, he portrayed Lonesome’s despicable, manipulative persona so believably that, according to Hollywood insider Marc Eliot, he virtually ended his own movie career. This was the era of typecasting, and audiences had trouble accepting Griffith in any other way than as the loathsome Lonesome Rhodes. But the brilliant actor went on to success in playing country bumpkins (No Time for Sergeants), a folksy southern sheriff (The Andy Griffith Show), and a folksy southern attorney (Matlock). He was immensely successful in those shows, and he became one of Hollywood’s most respected and beloved actors. Yet in A Face in the Crowd, his debut film, audiences can see the depth of his talent and consider what might have been if audiences had been able to separate the actor from the character.

The connections between Lonesome Rhodes and Donald Trump are eerily apparent. In a recent front-page article for the New York Times, reporters Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman analyzed the results of a linguistic study they commissioned that examined all of Trump’s public words uttered in speeches and interviews for an entire week (“95,000 Words, Many of Them Ominous, from Trump’s Tongue,” December 6, 2015, A1, 27). Their findings confirm my thesis. Trump isn’t folksy as Lonesome is (leave it to Hillary to fall into an artificial cornpone drawl when she campaigns in the South), but Healy and Haberman point to Trump’s “breezy stage presence” as crucial to his connection with the American public. Like Lonesome, Trump is “an energetic and charismatic speaker who can be entertaining and ingratiating . . . There is a looseness to his language that sounds almost like water-cooler banter” and is almost as meaningless. In one particularly meaningless attempt to be ingratiating, Trump is quoted as saying of his fellow candidates: “All of ’em are weak, they’re just weak. . . . I think they’re weak, generally, you want to know the truth. But I won’t say that, because I don’t want to get myself, I don’t want to have any controversies. So I refuse to say that they’re weak generally, O.K.? Some of them are fine people. But they are weak.” Yet the public is buying into it.

Granted, Trump is as different from Rhodes in the content of his speech as he is in social origins. He has successfully tapped into the fears of the nation by creating an Orwellian “precarious us” vs. “dangerous them” scenario. Healy and Haberman point to his constant repetition of “divisive words, harsh words and violent imagery” to stir up hostilities and prejudices that most Americans have been afraid or ashamed to voice. He has made bigotry fashionable again. By contrast, Rhodes lulls his audiences with good ol’ boy platitudes. But Trump is very much like Rhodes in his maverick approach to marketing, and his stubborn insistence that he is right and everyone else is wrong. Again referring to the study of Trump’s stumping, he “forgoes the usual campaign trappings — policy, endorsements, commercials, donations — and instead relies on potent language to connect with, and often stoke, the fears and grievances of Americans.”

Also like Rhodes, Trump avoids the use of data, studies, or even common sense to support his claims; in fact, Trump stubbornly refuses to recant statements that are outrageously and patently false, such as his claim to have seen thousands of Muslims cheering in the streets of New Jersey after the 9/11 attacks. Instead, Trump taps into the public’s growing mistrust of government and the media “to erode people’s trust in facts, numbers, [and] nuance.” Facts are the enemy now, but we have the Donald to protect us. Just trust him.Trump and Rhodes are particularly connected in their narcissistic need for attention, power, and adoration. Lonesome Rhodes cries out plaintively, “I’m gonna make them love me!,” while for Trump it’s already a done deal: “I like everybody. Everybody likes me,” he reminds audiences matter-of-factly whenever he is challenged to provide specific details about how he will solve a problem. As my cab driver explained, “Trump surrounds himself with smart people. They’ll get things done. He doesn’t have to give details. He’s a smart guy.” How does my cabby know? Because Trump tells us so, multiple times in every speech. Trust him. He’s right.

Can Trump be stopped? Should he be stopped? I’m fascinated by the diverse support this offensive, bombastic demagogue is amassing. Even many Liberty readers have boarded the Trump Express. But where is that train headed? In one of the most ironic moments of A Face in the Crowd, Lonesome enters an elevator after what he thinks was a successful TV show attempting to sell Worthington Fuller to the public. He crows enthusiastically to the operator, “Going down. Going all the way down” on his way to a fancy dinner in another part of town. Lonesome doesn’t know it, but in the time it takes to go from the penthouse to the ground floor, public opinion will have turned against him because of something he said on the show. One can only hope that Trump makes a similar misstep that takes him down. So far, however, his intellectual and ideological blunders keep translating into higher polls. I don’t get it. But unlike my cab driver today, I’m leaning away from Trump. All the way away.

Editor’s Note: Review of “A Face in the Crowd,” directed by Elia Kazan. Warner Brothers, 1957. 126 minutes.

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A Creed to Live By

A Creed to Live By


Sylvester Stallone burst onto the cinematic scene 40 years ago as the writer and star of a tender little film about a small-time fighter with a big heart who finds love, honor and self-respect while being beaten to a pulp in the ring. He goes the distance, and in doing so, he fulfills his dream. The budget ($1 million) was so low that stars Carl Weathers and Burgess Meredith shared a cramped dressing room and producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler had to mortgage their houses to come up with an additional $100 grand to complete the film, but it too went the distance. Rocky was the feel-good film of the year and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Stallone, who had been earning $36 a week as an usher while trying to make it as an actor, became the star of multiple action-film franchises from Rambo to The Expendables, but he eventually became more caricature than character. Rocky spawned six sequels over four decades that also became increasingly hollow imitations of the original. Until now.

Creed, the latest entry in the franchise, manages to match the storytelling magic, cinematic quality, and emotional impact of Rocky by paying homage to the original without becoming a knockoff. In it, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the abandoned love child of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky’s nemesis-turned-friend in the earlier films. Raised in foster care and group homes after his mother’s death, Adonis is a troubled kid with something to prove. Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) finds him and brings him into her home where he receives a good education and entry into a good job. But he still has something to prove, and he needs to do it in the ring.

Here the roles begin to be reversed. Johnson-Creed is now the young man with heart who can’t seem to get a break or a trainer, while Rocky (Stallone) has become the curmudgeonly trainer who agrees to take him on. This is not the arrogant, cocky Stallone of recent films, but a subdued, introspective mentor who knows his time in the spotlight has ended, and is somehow relieved by that fact. Rocky is worn down by loneliness; Mickey (his trainer, Burgess Meredith), Paulie (his best friend and brother-in-law, Burt Young) and his beloved Adrian (Talia Shire) have all passed away. He takes a fatherly interest in Adonis, who calls him “Unc.”

Adonis connects with a love interest similar to Rocky’s Adrian. Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is a professional singer who faces broken dreams too: she has a degenerative ear condition that is stealing her hearing. Yet she faces the loss with courage, optimism, and determination. She will not let the fear of her future loss destroy her enjoyment of what she has today. Bianca is no blossoming wallflower as Adrian was, but provides a strong, modern counterpoint to Adonis.

Creed is what a movie ought to be, and what the original Rocky was: a strong story with believable characters facing believable conflicts; music that supports rather than controls the emotion; and cinematography that captures the grit and reality of the story without cheap (or not-so-cheap) manipulation. Watcespecially for the two rounds of the boxing match that are captured in a single shot—no editing, no slo-mo, no cgi, just perfect choreography from actors, director, and steadicam operator Ben Semanoff. The film builds inexorably to the big fight, and it’s a doozy. The punches feel real and unrehearsed. But Creed really isn’t about boxing. It’s a story about ambition, disappointment, determination, and going the distance—about having a creed, and living by it.

Creed, directed by Ryan Coogler. MGM, Warner Bros. New Line Cinema, 2015, 133 minutes.