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Susan Granger at the Movies: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ ‘Youth,’ ‘Joy’

By Susan Granger

In “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” writer/director J.J. Abrams has successfully revived George Lucas’s original sci-fi concept, a space Western that captivated global audiences some 30-plus years ago, bringing back Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels).

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It opens with John Williams’ familiar musical fanfare, along with that rolling scroll, explaining that Luke Skywalker has disappeared and the evil First Order has taken power.

Enter Stormtroopers, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whose black mask and cape make him look just like Darth Vader. They’re searching for a map that can lead them to where Luke is hiding; it is hidden within spherical droid BB-8 that belongs to hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

When conscience-stricken Stormtrooper FN-3182, nicknamed Finn (John Boyega), defects, he joins up with Poe and Rey (Daisy Ridley), the feisty Jakku desert ‘scavenger’ who is protecting BB-8, as they steal an aged freighter, the Millennium Falcon, belonging to legendary smuggler Han Solo. 

“Are you really Han Solo?”

“I used to be,” he answers gruffly, obviously preferring the company of his Wookiee co-pilot, Chewbacca.

So they’re off to find the Resistance, led by now-General Leia – and more than that I don’t want to tell you.

As the narrative unfolds, new characters are seamlessly melded with old ones, particularly wizened, goggles-wearing, bar-owner Maz Kanata (motion-captured by Lupita Nyong’o), evoking memories of Jedi Yoda, and a hologram of the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (motion-captured by Andy Serkis).

Working with co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, J.J. Abrams continues Lucas’s thematic, Joseph Campbell-inspired mythology, adding fast-paced twists and tragic turns, along with startling character revelations, amplified by exciting battle sequences and visual effects.

FYI: George Lucas sold his franchise for $4 billion to the Walt Disney Company in 2012. And Carrie Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd (TV’s “Scream Queens”), does a cameo as Leia’s lieutenant.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a thrilling 10, marking a rebirth in exciting galactic entertainment!

Evoking memories of Federico Fellini’s “8½,” Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino, who won a Foreign Language Film Oscar for “The Great Beauty” (2013), uses imagery as an integral part of “Youth.”

Set in a sumptuous Alpine spa, the plot revolves around Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a retired British composer/conductor, and his longtime pal, American screenwriter/director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel).

Fred is accompanied by his neurotic daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), while Mick struggles with his next script, attended by several sycophants. Relationships get strained when Lena’s feckless husband (Ed Stoppard), who is Mick’s son, leaves her for sexy British pop star Paloma Faith (playing herself).

As Fred and Mick playfully ponder their prostates, along with their respective legacies, and ruminate about their womanizing pasts, they’re surrounded by attentive staff and other guests.

There’s a serious, self-absorbed actor (Paul Dano), an obese former soccer star (Roly Serrano), a lovelorn mountaineering instructor (Robert Seethaler), and voluptuous Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea).

When Fred is invited to conduct a Royal Concert of “Simple Songs,” it triggers melancholy memories. Then Mick endures a disquieting visit from his eccentric cinematic muse, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda).

FYI: the idyllic Swiss hotel is Berghotel Schatzalp, which inspired Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.”

Working with interacting characters and unpredictable ideas, Paolo Sorrentino and cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, relish the lush, rhythmic visuality, while post-Minimalist composer David Lang contributes an evocative score. Both Caine and Keitel deliver subtle, multi-layered performances, among the best of their careers.

On the Granger Gauge, “Youth” is an exquisite 8, an empathetic meditation on the human spirit.

Writer/director David O. Russell (“The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle”) has garnered three Best Director and Best Picture nominations within four years. But I suspect he won’t be an Oscar contender for “Joy.”

I really wanted to be enthusiastic about this story of female entrepreneurship that reunites Russell’s favorite ensemble players: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro.

Problem is: it’s a movie about a mop.

Joy Mangano (Lawrence) has always been an inventor. Living with her musician ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) and their two children, she’s a single mother trying to support her dysfunctional, extended family, which includes her soap-opera-obsessed mother (Virginia Madsen), cantankerous father (De Niro), resentful half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm) and beloved grandmother (Diane Ladd).

Frustrated while cleaning up spilled red wine, Joy has the idea for the self-wringing Miracle Mop: a simple device with a plastic handle and a head made from a continuous loop of 300 feet of cotton.

Determined to manufacture it, she convinces her father’s wealthy new lover (Isabella Rossellini) to be her financial backer and takes the prototype to QVC, where she must convince a dismissive corporate executive (Cooper) to take a chance on her product.

With four different film editors listed in the credits, the story is awkwardly told and unevenly paced, so the precarious turmoil feels contrived, never achieving emotional authenticity.

While Jennifer Lawrence ferociously inhabited fictional Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games,” she doesn’t seem to relate to real-life Joy Mangano, tenaciously grappling with one obstacle after another, determined to achieve her version of the American Dream.

FYI: In an amusing cameo, Melissa Rivers plays her late mother, delivering classically Joan wisecracks.

On the Granger Gauge, “Joy” is a scattered 7, resonating most clearly with women who relate to Joy’s repression and battle for basic equality.


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( Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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