“The Force Awakens”: A Great Public Event, but an Uneven Film with Traces of Inspiration

By Dan Stout

 An episodic blockbuster implores critique at two levels: the celebration that includes boundless audience, public rituals (e.g., costumes, merchandise, enduring memes such as “May the Force be with you,”), and the film itself, which must be considered within a context of a global event. Moviegoers, then, experience Star Wars as both story and spectacle, and a review inevitably analyzes points where the two converge and disconnect. Speaking of the former, the magic of the first film is not recaptured despite sporadic flashes of brilliance and a creative synthesis of digital image and the warmth of 35m film to create worlds yet unseen.

Neither event nor story can be assessed without attention to Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures’ investment of $300 billion in the Star Wars franchise beginning with this seventh episode directed by J. J. Abrams. With a trilogy in the making, plus sequels, prequels, spin-offs, merchandise galore and even a possible dramatic TV series, The Force Awakens is the leap from original storyline to whatever the future brings. That bridge was competently accomplished with old and new characters as well as touch points to previous films, thus extending that ever-expanding fabric of the world’s most satisfying sci-fi tale to a global following.

As media event, Star Wars accedes to the level of civil religion. Like holy and patriotic holidays, the movie’s opening day is a global celebration of the Force, the lightside-darkside clash, and hope in the future. A Star Wars Catholic mass was held in Berlin; parishioners donned costumes and priests waved lightsabers to illustrate Biblical tenets. A film clip was played during the service.

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A baby born opening day was named “Ryker Jedi” in Texas. Perhaps Star Wars screenings will stand alongside the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving in terms of collective reminders and expressions of core values. When we sit in the theater, we stand together, I mean sit together in support of redemption, parenthood, and commitment to follow the light. “The Force” is deity, and how could LDS audience members resist a salute to truth, justice, and the moral way?

Link: Why Mormons Love Star Wars (Washington Post) 

Star Wars turns out to be the strongest civil religion event emanating from a movie series. Schindler’s List, perhaps the most moral movie ever made, and To Kill A Mockingbird a plea for civil rights, are historically influential, but do not have the enduring top-of-mind awareness that a movie franchise like Star Wars is set to deliver for decades to come.

***Spoiler Alert***

As for the film itself, The Force Awakens is uneven, with a conventional plot and flat characters. The dialogue has a dated feel. Finn (John Boyega), Storm trooper for the First Order, defects to help Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) pilot for the Resistance seeking eventual elimination of the Dark Side. Poe conceals a map inside a droid revealing the location of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last remaining Jedi that villainous First Order leader seeks to destroy. Quirky is the contrast of pending doom with the cute dome-headed droid that rolls on a ball stopping to get adoring pats on the head. Antagonist and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) relentlessly pursues Skywalker despite Hans Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) return to the story. The surprise ending will a stunner for some — and a yawner for others.

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The movie is best enjoyed as a stroll through a futuristic world with oddities at every turn. Put on your anthropologist hat and survey the terrain. The rusting space ships as the dessert slowly absorbs them back into nature is a magnificent piece of film work in copious shades of browns and yellows evoking the deterioration photography of Julian Kilker that comments on the ultimate demise of technology. Continuing our walk, we see plenty of droids, but none advanced from the early films. Abrams nor Lucas have done their homework on artificial intelligence. Today’s robots are more advanced.

Abrams reprises several scenes such as the Mod Eisley Cantina full of kooky creatures and Maz Kanata who reads the eyes of several characters. “You have eyes that want to run,” she tells Finn disclosing his vacillating commitment, and in terms of the Force, she proclaims, “Truth can only be found looking forward, not behind.” The markets depict ancient economies and currency exchange is inconsistent with other technological advances, especially weaponry and aircraft. Speaking of weaponry, The Force Awakens could easily be an infomercial for the NRA. And, the TIE fighter jets are back zooming everywhere. Zooming too much in fact. Zoom. Zoom.

Link: Utahns are the biggest Star Wars fans (Washington Post)

Perhaps the most compelling scene depicts “terrorism,” when storm troopers massacre a group of the Resistance at Snoke’s order, “Kill all of them,” he commands. Will terrorism endure this far into the future? Abrams seems to suggest so, although this question is barely teased out, and if more fully developed, the idea could have added relevancy to the conflicts depicted.

Audience members love the droids and wax nostalgic for C-3PO and R2-D2 who make cameo appearances. Mild applause ensued where I watched the film, with comments like “Look, there’s C-3PO!” heard throughout the theater. Lastly, John Williams music score displays an uncanny ability to sync action and emotion, deserving highest accolades.

In sum, Star Wars reminds me of my trips to Jersey Shore amusement parks as a kid. The events themselves engaged all my senses, and in a holistic way were unforgettable. The individual attractions, though, have fallen from memory. Was there a roller coaster? The Force Awakens is much the same. It’s the holiday and what it represents that has staying power, not the film itself.

Your thoughts?

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Star Wars Quiz No. 2

Our first not-so-trivial Star Wars quiz was so popular, we decided to create another one as the release of the new movie was upon us.

“In the Heart of the Sea:” A Messy Moral Tale on the Briny Deep

by Daniel Stout

“In the Heart of the Sea,” directed by Ron Howard, we witness the enduring effect of the classic novel Moby-Dick by the elusively misunderstood novelist Herman Melville. Because Melville wasn’t recognized by literary experts nor citizens until 40 years after his death, the author’s mindset and motives have been hard to pin down. Howard, then, displays a mature moral outlook on a story that Melville scholars have yet to reach consensus on. Not the precise story of Moby Dick (it’s missing Captain Ahab that dies trying to kill the great white whale), it’s actually based on a non-fiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick, a maritime history of the Essex, a ship capsized by the great white whale inspiring Melville’s haunting story. Hollywood accolades may elude Howard for this film, but critical praise is well earned: he captures Melville as moral philosopher, probing the depth of several human dilemmas.

First mate Owen Chase, passed over for captain by George Pollard, Jr, the son of the ship company owner, reluctantly obeys an elitist commander at odds with nature, and motivated solely by the profits from whale oil. Chase knows he is the better seaman and, more importantly, has a much greater affinity for the sea and the whales they hunt. In a heart-stopping scene, an eye of the great white fixes on Chase, and a deference for the mammal grows, unlike Pollard, he’s no longer convinced of the invincibility of man, but understands love can dissolve the culturally-based conflict with nature. The climactic scene comes late in the film. Will Pollard break a taboo of maritime business, by admitting to the company investors that a shipwreck and thus colossal financial loss is attributed to a fish? Furthermore, does the whale deserve freedom or eventual extermination? Foundational questions broaden into larger issues, some economic, some religious, regarding how much dominion humans should have over the earth.

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LDS viewers will appreciate the film on this level given Genesis 1:28 : “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Some have interpreted this as license to control the environment for mostly human use, while Doctrine and Covenants 77 refers to the spirit in all living things. Of beasts there “is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal; and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual…” LDS interpretation about responsibility to the environment varies widely, and Heart is a fulcrum of reflection on the subject.

For Howard, nature is the domain of pursuers of the perilous despite ambiguous motives. As film auteur, he revisits this theme in Cocoon, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Backdraft where risk-taking is lauded for its own sake, suggesting value in laying one’s life on the line because the act itself is unequaled in human experience in creating a level of human development few attain, much less pursue. Like Moby Dick, it’s about challenging the unbeatable, and Howard explores the deep depths of the psyche to understand the whalers’ motivations, thus it deserves a place in the psychological action genre as well as the adventure category, although the latter provides plenty of entertainment, as the ship is tossed to and fro, sails, are frantically cut loose, and deckhands fly overboard as the great whale bashes relentlessly into the port side and the starboard the next. As an education in whaling alone, the movie is fascinatingly instructive.

Howard takes us down thorny paths cluttered by moral dilemmas. Five sit in a dingy, drawing straws each day to see which one is shot in order to preserve water to keep at least one man alive until help arrives. Nephi says it is better for one man to perish than for a nation to dwell in disbelief, but if our ship went down, would we embrace this utilitarian ethic, or maintain the law never to kill? Still another conundrum arises when cannibalism becomes an option for survival. And then there is loyalty to authority. The captain makes bad decisions: how long are they tolerated? Heart is a synthesis of science and morality; a primer on nineteenth century whaling and the mythology of the conquering man.

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Unfortunately, the film has not fared well in its first weekend at the box office. Cynically, I assume audience members were scared away by terms such as Moby Dick and Melville. Too literary perhaps for moviegoers seeking pure action. I’m not sure that Ron Howard cares because for those taking a close look, he he clearly captures a multidimensional piece of literature. The whale is the main character, a metaphor for the earth and our relationship to it. With the Essex in a shambles, Captain Pollard remarks, “Nature is subject to man’s waving hand of faith,” to which Chase responds, “Are you so sure after what you’ve seen today?”

 

 

Oscar Nominee, “Brooklyn:” Rethinking the Dilemma of Transition

By Dan Stout

My ancestors came through Ellis Island– like the Irish protagonist Ellis Lacey (Soirise Ronan) in the new movie “Brooklyn.” (Which has a 99% at Rotten Tomatoes.) A child, my Italian grandmother, Salvatrice Anzalone, accepted the name “Sadie,” from the immigration man; he couldn’t pronounce her given chiamo. A cousin’s back was marked with a chalk “X,” the story goes, designating him infirm and to return to Palermo. Relatives secretly dusted off the mark, allowing him into the land of dreams. Unlike my jubilant posterity, Ellis glimpses the Statue of Liberty with skepticism, even panic.

Enhanced by the crafty work of cinematographer Yves Belanger, Brooklyn captures luminous rays of a bright new world contrasted with the muffled tones of Irish grey skies. Unlike Anchor Baby, Which Way Home, and The Golden Door, this film doesn’t begin with emphatic hopes for a better life or the American Dream. The lit motif is ambivalent exodus. The mood of Brooklyn vacillates between optimism and despair. What is lost is forever weighed against the uncertainty of future gain. Given the role of immigration in LDS history, the film’s illumination of the joys and sorrows of relocation will be of interest to church members.

The narrative is less important than the dilemma of departure, so the movie is easily abstracted: Ellis’s sister sends her to America for a better life. So severe is the homesickness, she cries at her sales job, startling customers; the novelty of Brooklyn eases the pain, however, and inquisitiveness about the city’s disregard of the “old ways” begins to allure. She falls in love with a handsome unsophisticated Italian plumber (Emory Cohen) with a heart of gold; what he lacks in intellect is made up by seeming innocence. They marry, but news of Ellis’s sister’s death summons her home.

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What was intended to be a visit, becomes an extended stay; a reentry into Irish life. She’s offered her sister’s job, and a suitor falls for her. Unlike the poor Brooklyn plumber (that no one in Ireland knows about), the Irish beau offers her a large estate in the pastoral country meadows. Two lovers, two homes, and two potential futures. Thus, the film’s center of gravity: a formidable conflict with vast consequences. Disclosing more requires a spoiler alert, but enough said. Similar to Lehi’s journey across the sea, the tensions along the way are more compelling than the route itself.

The movie, and preceding book, should have been called The Atlantic, given that Ellis is rarely on solid turf, at least emotionally. On her voyage, she becomes violently ill, a symbol of the severity of abrupt cultural displacement. So much for anthropologist Victor Turner’s joy of the liminal, or glorious right of passage. Mormon pioneer stories rightfully emphasize frigid winters and pushing handcarts across the plains, but the mental stress of having two senses of place, one immediate, one in memory, has not been sufficiently addressed in contemporary media. An exception might be the popular biography of Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson that elucidates the early American’s affinity for two homes. Despite being an American “founding father,” he spent nine of his adult years in France, making seven trips to that land. He agreed with Thomas Jefferson that, “”Every man has two countries – his own and France.” Like Ellis in Brooklyn, Franklin spent a lifetime figuring out what home was.

Religion, according to the film, helps people like Ellis adjust to a new “home” or deal with the painful longing for two places. In her deepest despair, a Catholic priest (Matt Glynn) offers comfort and advice. They role up their sleeves and serve Thanksgiving dinner to the elderly in one of the movie’s most poignant scenes. Churches provided ready-made communities for those stepping off the ships in New York. Brooklyn is a testament to the multi-dimensional nature of religion, with community being the key element. It is doubtful that Ellis would have fared well without it. Early residents of Nauvoo depended on community to weather hardship and persecution. Similar to Ellis, it eased the pain of leaving so much behind.

Brooklyn is about geographic migration, and while its message will resonate with those of pioneer heritage, there is much here for recent LDS converts. Unlike Ellis, these members don’t have to cross oceans in most cases, nor like pioneers do they have to trek across the Rocky Mountains. Nevertheless, they share her dissonance of leaving one culture for another, a situation multi-generational members do not face in the same way. Conversion is an immigrant experience, replacing old traditions with Mormon traditions. The latter is the inspired choice; the one leading to truth and our divine inheritance. It’s like coming to a new land, and we must assist each other in making that transition while preserving ties with extended family outside the Church.

Brooklyn doesn’t provide all the answers, yet compels us to rethink the age-old dilemma of transition with greater love and support from those around us. When Emory Cohen tells Ellis, “Home is home,” I recalled the scene when she and the priest dish out food to the poor. Noting her facial expression, she seems closest to home than in any other time in the film.

The MPAA rates Brooklyn PG-13 for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language.

“Married at First Sight” — The end of Western civilization?

By Quint Randle
It’s back. The third season of A&E networks’ “Married At First Sight.” If you’re unaware of the premise, the reality show is where four relationship/life experts review and match six applicants — 2,500 this season — to be married sight unseen. With cameras rolling, viewers watch the three couples go through the wedding, the honeymoon, moving in together, etc., — a six week “experiment.” (BTW: The vast majority of couples wait a while before consummating their marriage.)

At the end of the show, the couples decide whether to stay married or divorce. From what I can tell, while some couples from season one remain married all of the couples from last season are now divorced.

With the institution of marriage in such rough shape lately, I don’t know whether to strangle the participants and producers because they are treating a sacred institution so casually, or whether to cheer them on a bit for helping these poor singles who are so clueless they can’t figure out how to find a decent mate – because the dating scene is so bad.

In a New York Post article, Season 3 participant Vanessa Nelson said, “It’s difficult to find a guy who’s somewhere in your age range who’s really ready for a serious relationship.”

Is that an excuse for a show like this? Do we enjoy watching a train wreck that much?

And yes, it is outrageous, but even today, arranged marriage – where the bride and groom are matched by a third party — are common in countries such as Pakistan, Japan, and Israel. Some have even mentioned this as a reason for not being put off by the concept of the show in the first place. One of the participants comes from Indian grandparents who were in an arranged marriage – 53 years. So for him, he was kind of “So what’s the big deal?”

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The four experts who make the matches, including Harvard University Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, lower left.

And maybe there’s some truth to that. Maybe it’s all about the commitment and not about the magic and romance of it all. And these couples are saying all the dating and romance is an illusion. Maybe they are accepting the fact that it’s about the work?

In an Ensign article, LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball said, “’Soul mates’” are fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price.”

Any good man. Any good woman. And I guess in the end that’s the question. Where religiosity is sort of an afterthought, (the show’s religious counselor is a Humanist Chaplain/Rabbi, whatever the heck that is) do these couples have the “goodness,” maturity and attention span to “pay the price.” I think not. Or at least it can’t be done in six weeks.

What do you think? Is a show like this the end of Western civilization, as we know it, or should it be applauded a bit for taking a different approach when dating and romance in the secular world are in such a shambles in the first place?

Naughty or nice this year? “Krampus” is coming to find out.

By Daniel Stout

Krampus is a Christmas story, but not for children. It is a comedy, but doesn’t elicit knee-slappers, a horror story without real goose bumps. In a Chicago suburb, a family and relatives celebrate Christmas Eve: Egg nog, decorations, and wrapped presents. Yet something’s not right. Husband Tom (Adam Scott) and spouse (Toni Collette) dread the whole thing, struggling to get into the spirit, but feeling guilty for their joyless demeanors. The son clings desperately to a crumbling belief in Santa while his sister and cousins mercilessly torment him. The German grandmother is crestfallen about the dearth of yuletide delight; the aunt (Conchata Ferrell) could care less downing bottle after bottle of Schnapps. What could be worse? A blizzard has knocked out the power, and something’s on the roof. Is Santa here to save the day? No, it’s Krampus, from Austro-Bavarian folklore, and this family, devoid of kindliness, is on the verge of deadly retribution.

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To say the least, Krampus is atypical holiday film fare. Few Toyota Odyssey vans of LDS kids will run red lights for this one. Even niche fans of realist or Christmas horror such as Bad Santa, Silent Night-Deadly Night, or Black Christmas will confront a cinematic conundrum. Krampus is a compressed cornucopia of sophomoric jokes, dry wit, M. Night Shyamalan “Village” ogres, little gremlin-like snarky creatures, uncouth relatives a la Christmas Vacation, dismally dark street scenes devoid of sound and people, and sumptuous shots of holiday culinary delights that make it difficult to discern what, precisely, we have here. Postmodern director Michael Dougherty breaks down cultural categories so we don’t label it as merely dark comedy or horror. After ten minutes, the genre-grouping exercise is futile, so we focus on the German folklore, the most compelling element, and the link to the moral comment, which if you clear away the clichés and overused shock tactics, enlightenment is imminent. Krampus’s creepy approach is the movie within the movie, symbolizing impending doom for blasphemers of December’s sacred day. Equally compelling is why Krampus lore is reemerging in Europe and the U.S.

In Germanic legend, the humanoid ogre visits children with St. Nicholas, the former bearing coal and bundles of sticks for the misbehaved, and the latter treats for the obedient and eager-to-please. St. Nick’s garb evolved from Catholic regalia to the present Santa suit with stocking cap. Krampus on the other hand, has horns, one human foot and one hoof, and in ancient versions, a sack to carry aberrant kids off to his lair. In the movie, the howls chill the bones, and behemoth stomping on the roof rattle the windows of the once sedate dwelling below. It’s too late to plead, “I’ll be good, I promise,” or at the very least, “Next year I’ll be merrier.”

Krampus is less menacing in its encore performance in popular culture, featured on Christmas cards and at holiday Krampus parties. In the show American Dad, a Krampus celebration disses disingenuous materialist foolery in Monday night’s episode, “Minstrel Krampus.” Discerning the revival’s meaning is tenuous in this early stage; it seems like a backlash to the monotonous commercially-injected rituals of shoppers’ Christmas. Even the eighties band, “Twisted Sister” has a Christmas album. Can we endure another year of “Clap-on, clap-off: The Clapper!”? A jaw-dropping department store scene, set to Andy Williams singing, “The most wonderful time of the year,” features kids fist-fighting in the line to see Santa, and people punching each other for the last big-screen TV.

The real Krampus, then, isn’t a hairy beast, but a monster nonetheless: the monster of putrid vestiges of something wonderful allowed to fade, namely the holy day of Christ’s birth. Some parents will take offense at a Christmas horror movie (this one is PG-13), but this reaction overlooks the filmmaker’s true intent: to reintroduce an ancient story that will, hopefully, aid our movement toward more serene and reflective holiday worship. As Black Friday approaches next year, perhaps the phrase, “Oh no, here comes Krampus,” will help thwart distractors from the spirit of peace we long for so voraciously.

Hats off to director Michael Dougherty for presenting the Krampus figure with nuance, accurately capturing the finer points of the legend. Folklorists will notice these details, but if overlooked by the lay viewer, the essence of the folktale will get through. Stories are powerful, and this is one we sorely need, shock and all.

The “Not So Trivial” Star Wars Quiz

With the next episode just weeks away, Star Wars is on the brain. So we thought it as time for our “Not-So-Trivial” Star Wars Quiz. See how you do…