Today in Movie History: May 25

Once upon a time, 20th Century Fox had what they thought was a stinker of a science-fiction film on their hands.  They opened it in a tiny handful of theaters today in 1977, in hopes that it would vanish without causing too much embarassment. The movie was called Star Wars, and I’m pretty sure you can guess what happened next. The game-changing nature of George Lucas’s space opera cannot be underestimated, and if the reaction to The Force Awakens is any indication, it may never release the hold it has on our imagination.

Not surprisingly, the third film in the Star Wars franchise also opened today in 1983. Return of the Jedi was saddled with having to wrap up the storyline created by Star Wars and Empire, but while it’s usually regarded as the weakest of the three, that still places it in very good company. Happy 35th anniversary, ROTJ!

Nor is that the only Fox science fiction that launched on this time. Emboldened by the success of Lucas’s little flick, the studio tasked a young director named Ridley Scott to fashion something very different. The result was Alien, which not only launched a franchise of its own (with far more mixed results), but which today stands one of the greatest masterpieces the genre has ever produced (and, in terms of pure filmmaking, superior to Star Wars). It opened today in 1979.

If blockbusters aren’t your thing, then you can look to Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman to help you out. Midnight Cowboy, to date the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture, took full advantage of Hollywood’s reinvigorated creativity during the late 1960s, and produced a painful, but achingly sympathetic portrayal of society’s outcasts and the dignity they often fight for in vain. It opened today in 1969.

Finally, we’ll finish with The Thin Man, a light-hearted mystery establishing the husband and wife crime-solving duo of Nick and Nora Charles, opened today in 1934. It spawned five sequels of varying quality, and if you need a little throwback to enjoy a few martinis with, it will set you up right.


Movies for the Resistance: Star Wars Episode VIII — The Last Jedi

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran, Benicio Del Toro, Andy Serkis and Anthony Daniels
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Running time: 152 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 2017


This column exists in large part because of Star Wars and my renewed belief that the saga can provide hope and spiritual sustenance in an increasingly bleak reality. It was true with Rogue One and doubly true with The Last Jedi, now being hailed as one of the best in the entire series. It arrives at a very dark moment indeed, and yet like the movies that preceded it, it speaks very powerfully to where we’re at right now. The fact that it does so in a universal way – feeling absolutely pertinent without being bound to the political truths of late 2017 – affirms the hypothesis that these movies get at some very primal components of the human condition.

(I’m not going to get into the specifics of the film’s plot, and rest assured that the discussion here will be spoiler free. If you’re worried on that front, go see the film and come back when you’re ready. We’ll wait.)

Most of the basics have already been inferred both by the title The Last Jedi and by things we know from previous Star Wars movies. It starts with one of the bigger head-scratchers from The Force Awakens. Having vanquished the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi, how did the Republic suddenly end up on the skids again? Beyond a bit of hand-waving in the opening crawl – and the strangely muted impact of the like-a-Death-Star-only-bigger Macguffin in the middle of it – it’s basically back to business as usual, with the First Order picking up where the Empire left off and the victorious heroes returning to their role of renegade underdogs. In The Last Jedi, things get even bleaker, with the Resistance pushed to the breaking point and Team Evil coming dangerously close to snuffing them out forever.

What gives? Why the sudden reversal in fortune beyond the fact that Evil Empires never go out of style as intergalactic villains? The Force Awakens presented the quiet beginnings of an answer, which The Last Jedi makes more explicit, and in so doing matches what a lot of us have been grappling with in the real world for some time. (More on that in a moment.)

To be clear, “more explicit” is still inferential rather than direct. It connects to the status of the Jedi themselves, whose status Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) contemplates heavily in this latest film. “It’s time for the Jedi to end,” he intones ominously in the trailer, which naturally set off an Internet firestorm over his exact meaning. Luke’s dilemma here lies in the realization of what the rest of us learned in the prequels. The Jedi are hubristic, hidebound and inflexible, which kept them blind to the danger in their midst and helped facilitate the rise of the Emperor.

In The Force Awakens, we learned that Luke hosted a Mini-Me version of the same event, as his nephew Ben (Adam Driver), turned to the Dark Side and destroyed the new Jedi Order just as it was beginning to bloom. When that film opened in 2015, that seemed like a bit of hand-waving to reset the stakes: knock the heroes back on their heels, reboot the Empire and do the whole thing again with different players in the starring roles.

One of the truly brilliant things about The Last Jedi is how it refuses to just sit on that equation, despite the fact that most of us were more or less okay with it. It chooses to unpack the notion, explore it in depth, and ask some very probing questions about the nature of good and evil. Luke serves as the fulcrum, and I won’t say more than that, but the issue is clear: how does one find the essence of a thing without getting lost in the surface trappings? The Jedi, the Sith, the Empire, the Republic, the First Order, the Resistance… they’re all just masks hiding this constant balance. The light side doesn’t vanish just because its mask does. Neither does the dark. The battle raging across that galaxy far, far away is a constant because we’re always struggling with the same issues: how to stop injustice from spreading, keep good people from being hurt, and allow the better angels of our nature to flourish.

And again, those fundamental questions haunt us as we deal with the implications of a man like Donald Trump in the White House. His petit-fascist leanings have become transparently clear in his assault on minorities, women, a free press, the basic foundations of our government, and often reality itself. In the process, his flying monkeys continue to multiply. As I write this, Alabama is deciding whether to elect a credibly accused child molester (and objectively reprehensible human being) to the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, rumblings in the right-wing media suggest that Trump will attempt to fire Robert Mueller… and that a supine Republican Congress might just let him get away with it, effectively placing him above the rule of law.

That comes on top of the catastrophic shocks to the system arising from wave after wave of sexual harassment allegations, mass shootings, racial profiling, partisan gerrymandering, net neutrality at the edge of a cliff, and a tax plan that even the GOP can barely pretend is anything other than a naked cash grab. We’ve seen it before, time and again, no matter what the nation or era. It often feels like we haven’t learned a thing from the lessons of history.

In the face of all this, I hear Luke’s words echoing from numerous fellow resisters. “It’s not just Trump. It’s the system that brought home to power. Burn it all down, and build something beautiful in the ashes.”

It may come to that, one way or another. Even if it doesn’t, the hard work necessary to heal the damage and make this a nation worth belonging to may take a lifetime. And as we sit here, contemplating just how much darker it might get, The Last Jedi reflects the mood perfectly. Once again, seemingly embattled survivors fight a nearly hopeless battle: struggling to keep the flame of something better from being snuffed out.

And in that message comes hope: not in the surface trappings of a system that may be collapsing even as we speak, but in the belief that justice – real justice – is worth fighting for. Millions upon millions of people agree, and continue to do everything they can to keep it alive. Trappings don’t matter. People do, as do the ideals that most of us used to take for granted but are currently defending with every breath we can muster.

Those ideals haven’t gone anywhere. And as long as we keep them alive, the spark can light a fire. The surface can die, the deadwood can be swept away, but new life is always waiting beneath it. The balance is unchanged.

The Last Jedi addresses that partly in Luke’s Lear-like battle with his own demons, but also in his sister Leia, played by the late Carrie Fisher. It’s a beautiful curtain call for the actress, allowing her most beloved creation to take center stage and remind us why we adore her so much. She’s there as the darkness falls, calm, collected and readying her next move. She stares down annihilation with unblinking certainty, knowing that her cause is right. And when others falter or fail to see the big picture, hers is the voice that rallies them again and again. “Don’t doubt the sunrise just because you can’t see it,” she tells us: a voice long gone, but far from silenced.

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, when candles are lit as a sign of hope. That hope shines on, and no amount of shadow can dissipate it. If you need a reminder, there’s a movie opening Friday that has exactly, precisely what you need. I’m guessing you won’t need much prompting to give it a look.


Movies for the Resistance: Star Wars Double Feature

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness
Directed by: George Lucas
Running time: 121 minutes
Rating: PG
Year of release: 1977


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn and Forest Whitaker
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Running time: 133 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 2016


Several days after the November election, my wife and I watched A New Hope. We’d seen it hundreds of times, of course, and knew it like the back of our hands. But previous screenings had been far more casual in recent years. We played Star Wars in the background while cooking or vacuuming, rattling off quotes in perfect time and coasting on its familiarity. Then as the shock and disbelief of Trump’s election sunk in, we turned to cinematic comfort food for a little respite: turning off the lights, popping some popcorn, and really looking at the movie for the first time in a long while.

When it was over, my wife turned to me and said, “You know what? I think we can fight this.”

Star Wars has been criticized more than once for its seeming simplicity and fairy-tale ethos. Skeptics hit it hard on those fronts when it first opened, and its flaws remain in effect 40 years later. (I’m always puzzled by people’s anger at the bad dialogue in the prequels when groaners like “flying through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy!” passed without comment back in the day.) The story’s straightforward nature, however, was always a feature not a bug.

It works on a primal level – the same level triggered in an entirely different way by Trump’s vile triumph –  and as such becomes a perfect tonic whenever rage and despair creep in. The cues come largely from the emotional rather than the intellectual: led by John Williams’ music and couched in the evergreen resonance of “once upon a time.” Trump plays his odious games by engendering deep, often irrational reactions among followers and supporters alike. It’s only right, perhaps, that a more positive message delivered to the fight-or-flight parts of our brain could counter it so effectively.

Nostalgia plays a part, to be sure, but Star Wars is Star Wars for a reason, and at times like this, we’re reminded why we all fell in love with it in the first place. Gen Xers remember seeing it in the theaters, and millennials speak with fondness about discovering it on video, but adults at the time felt the pull as well. America was reeling when it arrived: struggling with the fallout of Watergate and Vietnam, mired in a feckless and impotent presidency, and experiencing an undeniable cinematic golden age… which nevertheless emphasized darkness over light time and time again.

75482179A New Hope changed all of that. Like its heroes, it seemingly came out of nowhere, a forgotten little science fiction film dumped unceremoniously into theaters and left to rot. Then, against all odds, it became The One You Had to See, and though preceded on that front by Jaws (and followed by more imitators than can readily be counted), nothing ever felt the same.

Some of that stems from its unique take on the Hero’s Journey, which gives its age-old lessons a sense of freshness. Cloaking it in high-tech pyrotechnics allowed Lucas to dust off the old mythic tropes and carve out a permanent place in our imagination. Its task was simple and yet profound: get its audience to believe in the impossible. Remind them that the good guys can win sometimes, that long odds sometimes pan out, and that fighting for what you believe holds merit regardless of the outcome. It stated that boldly and without hesitation during one of the most cynical periods in our history, and reaped cultural immortality as a reward.

Now, in the midst of another dark period in our history, its durability becomes a life boat for troubled times. Beneath the clunky dialogue, the creaky acting, and the obvious stereotypes, its magic shines brighter than ever: waiting for the moment when we needed it, and stepping in as if it had never left. I’ve referred to movies like this as a spiritual armory, and few hold so much potential to make people believe that good can prevail if we don’t give up.

16228720_389260931407783_7546611637650718720_nWhich brings us to Rogue One, released in the post-election scrum of 2016 and available on Blu-ray this week. It’s already earned a reputation as an ideal double feature with A New Hope… owing largely to the fact that it ends at almost the same moment A New Hope begins. Viewing them in one sitting doesn’t require the investment that tackling the entire saga does. More importantly, Rogue One also managed the extraordinary feat of placing A New Hope in a new and refreshing light.

Certainly, it enhances the desperation to the rebels’ efforts to stop the Empire’s ultimate weapon. For most of the running time, the Rebellion gravitates between disorganized rabbit punches and total collapse, as its leaders vainly attempt to organize and the rank-and-file soldiers slowly surrender to fanaticism or despair. It fits the mood of the time perfectly: darker, more brutal, and for the first time coming from a voice that was most definitively not Lucas’s (either directly or by inference).

And yet by doing so, it actually enhances and deepens what Lucas expressed in A New Hope: revealing how much worse things were before Luke and his friends arrived on the scene and how much more of a fantastic, impossible victory their destruction of the Death Star represented. Those long odds look even longer as Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her friends lay the groundwork that makes A New Hope possible, and though uncelebrated, their efforts are no less vital in pulling the galaxy back from the brink.

That doesn’t invalidate the heroics of A New Hope or render them less plausible. On the contrary, it certifies them by showing how much loss the rebels suffered before their hard-earned win. It emphasizes the necessity of sacrifice for victory, and celebrates the anonymous, forgotten fighters who put it all on the line before that Skywalker kid even got up to bat. As a prequel, it’s revelatory. As a means of connecting the zeitgeist of 2017 to that of 1977, it becomes a minor miracle.

In a curious wrinkle of fate, we lost Carrie Fisher just a few weeks after Rogue One opened. Initially, her death felt like a final kick in the teeth after a miserable year: the universe trying to snuff out some last bit of light that might have kept us going. But no one really dies in the Star Wars universe, and – uncanny valley aside – Leia’s strange, off-kilter appearance before the closing credits helped feed a quickly blossoming symbol of anti-Trump protests.

That’s the power that Star Wars holds, a power undimmed after 40 years and clearly digging in for the long haul. For all his flaws as a filmmaker, Lucas built his galaxy far, far away to last. We may not have fully appreciated that before now, but its presence is no less welcome for it: when the things worth fighting for come into sharp relief… and a little hope can help us put up our dukes when the Empire comes calling.