Today in Movie History: November 24

We’ve got a brief bevy of minor films of note for Black Friday, starting with King Solomon’s Mines, a fine adventure saga based on the 19th century novel of the same name. The film is notable for shooting in authentic African locations, and also for its surprisingly sensitive portrayal of the local Masai tribes, including renditions of their traditional dances and songs. It opened today in 1950.

Elvis has been on the menu a lot this week, and there’s no reason to stop now. Harum Scarum definitely belongs in the WTF File, sending the King to 1960s-era Baghdad to have some fun with a fistful of horrifying Arabian stereotypes. It’s offensive in so many, many ways… and yet in so bizarrely over-the-top that you can’t help but stare at it in wide-eyed fascination. As the trailer says, “in your wildest nightmares, you’ve never imagined such goings-on.” They’re not kidding. Harum Scarum opened today in 1965.

We’ll close with Murder on the Orient Express a rather stodgy adaptation of the Agatha Christa classic that does a solid-though-unexceptional job with a very well-known story. (The recent Kenneth Branagh version is an improvement.) The all-star cast is a genuine plus, though Albert Finney is quite hammy as Hercule Poirot. The film also netted Ingrid Bergman her third and final Oscar. It opened today in 1974.


Today in Movie History: November 23

It was a quiet day in movie history, but we still had a few notable releases. Elvis Presley serenaded Juliet Prowse in one of his better offerings, G.I. Blues, opening this day in 1960. More recently, we learned WAY more about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lady parts than we ever wanted to know (as well as being reminded yet again how awesome Frank Langella is) in Ivan Reitman’s Junior in 1994. And James L. Brooks scored a major-league Oscar winner with Terms of Endearment — with trophies for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress Shirley MacLaine and Best Supporting Actor Jack Nicholson. Had Nicholson run in the lead actor category, it would have had the Big Five, a feat only three other movies thus far have accomplished.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!



Today in Movie History: November 22

It’s another big day for the movies, starting with a trio of modern classics from the Disney/Pixar brain trust. It’s tough to single out one from that field, but I’m going with Beauty and the Beast: hands-down one of the greatest animated features of all time. It opened today in 1991.

Four years later, the boys at Pixar quietly started a revolution with the release of their first fully CG animated feature: Toy Story, the tale of a boy’s beloved cowboy doll (voiced by Tom Hanks), and what happens when he is replaced in his affections with an earnest-yet-terminally clueless spaceman (voiced by Tim Allen). You’ve seen it, you love it, and chances are if someone asked you to watch it again tomorrow, you’d be happy to jump right in. It opened today in 1995.

The third leg in this stool is Frozen, Disney’s attempt to shake up the princess formula and rake in a staggering pile of cash in the process. Its popularity is unquestioned, and it looks set for the long haul… though I do sympathize with those out there who would like a little break from “Let It Go” for a while. (I’m still including the clip. Sorry not sorry.) Frozen opened four years ago in 2013.

Those inclined towards slightly darker holiday fun have The Addams Family, Barry Sonnenfeld’s handsome trifle that has the benefit of holding up extremely well over repeat viewings. With inspiration drawn from Charles Addams’ original New Yorker cartoons, as well as brilliant turns from the likes of Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston and Christina Ricci, it makes a ghoulishly delightful tonic to the often-oppressive cheer of the season. It opened today in 1991.

I mentioned Branagh’s Henry V a couple of weeks ago. Today it’s Olivier’s turn. His fairy-tale style take on Shakespeare’s beloved play was intended to comfort and rally a nation at war, presenting a bloodless conflict and a king anointed by God to restore justice to the land. It was so beloved that no one dared touch the play before Branagh — cheeky bastard that he is — outdid him in 1989. This version of Henry V opened in its native England today in 1944.

The film forays of Star Trek: The Next Generation were a pretty miserable lot, by and large, with the glorious exception of First Contact. It brought one of the saga’s greatest villains, The Borg, out to play, and with Alice Krieg as the sensually sinister Borg Queen, gave the TNG crew a cinematic enemy worth fighting. It opened today in 1996.

We’ll close, as we’re doing a lot of late, with an Elvis picture. Blue Hawaii is far from the King’s best work — and even his best is a relative term in some ways — but there’s something comforting about pairing him with the Aloha State, and its bright, cheery contours are always worth celebrating. It opened today in 1961.


Movies for the Resistance: Monty Python’s The Life of Brian

(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: Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Sue Jones-Davies
Directed by: Terry Jones
Running time: 94 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1979


So yeah. Roy Moore.

For most of the rational parts of the country, the recent eruption of sexual scandals has provoked a combination of horror and soul-searching. In Alabama, however, the defiant campaign of gibbering troglodyte Roy Moore stands out not only for its sheer ugliness, but for the way his evangelical constituents have cheerfully excused his monstrosity because reasons. We’re all accustomed to the casual hypocrisy of the religious right – going back to the televangelist scandals of the 1980s at the very least – but their lack of contrition or self-reflection in the light of objective, established human evil is shocking even for them.

The movies – and indeed art of any kind – always made an easy target for the religious right. Fundamentalism thrives on blind acceptance, and creativity of any sort involves questions, challenging conventions, and looking at the world in new ways. Hollywood’s decadence and moral failings provide an easy straw man to distract from their own horrific failings, and every few years some new movie draws their ire for increasingly ridiculous reasons. (Disney’s recent live-action Beauty and the Beast, with its not-so-subtle homosexual subtext, is only the most recent example.)

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian is an archetypical example of their misplaced piety and refusal to acknowledge objective facts. The film produced an uproar when it was first released in 1979 – with the now-familiar pattern of boycotts and pious finger-pointing – and more than any other target of fundamentalist ire, it lays bare the self-serving double standard of Moore and his ilk.

Most cinematic targets of the Christian right either evince some kind of “amoral” subject matter such as sex or violence, or else treat religious topics in a manner that they disapprove of (The Last Temptation of Christ comes immediately to mind). The Life of Brian dabbles in that – in the typically irreverent Python style – but its target largely lies elsewhere. It very clearly and carefully separates Jesus Christ from the equation. The film opens with Christ preaching on the Mount and our hapless hero Brian (Graham Chapman) asking his mother to attend. They make it exceedingly clear that they are NOT attacking or mocking Christ, and that their narrative has nothing to do with his teachings. As Eric Idle said at the time, you can’t mock Christ’s philosophy. It’s good moral philosophy.

Their targets are his followers, or more strictly, the ones who let their fanaticism get in the way of adhering to that philosophy. Funny how that ticks off actual fanatics something fierce.

The movie really kicks into high gear when Brian finds himself the most reluctant of messiahs: thrust more or less against his will into a position of moral authority and haltingly attempting to guide his creepily eager followers in some kind of positive direction. He fails, miserably, but his efforts form the core of the movie’s humor and some of its funniest sequences.

Brian draws inspiration from Jesus, but he’s not especially good at implementing it, less because of his own good intentions than because those listening aren’t really interested. They have their own agenda, and are wrapped up in their own needs, which comes into conflict with the message being delivered.

That, the film assures us, is an all-too-human failing. Fanaticism certainly predates Christ, and the savagery that accompanies it remains a core part of our condition. The notion of moral wrongdoing – of perceived transgression against The Good – ironically becomes a means of committing great evil. Here, too, the Pythons’ instincts strike home, not only in Brian’s miserable failure to imbue his followers with some basic decency, but in the self-apparent savagery that he’s fighting against. (Witness the execution scene, in which a bloodthirsty crowd really really REALLY wants to stone a man to death, but needs some flimsy excuse in order to make it acceptable.)

Religion isn’t the only sacred cow the Pythons skewer here, of course. Political power – always an easy target – receives a thorough savaging, from Michael Palin’s hysterically inept Pontius Pilate to the People’s Front of Judea (seemingly evoked every time the left starts squabbling amongst themselves).

During these sequences, the film moves to more traditional comedy, pointing out how inept the people in charge are and why we really can’t depend on them when we need them. But they’d targeted such figures before without engendering much controversy (well, no more than normal).

It was the addition of religion that set the fundies off: the perception that Python was mocking something sacred and therefore deserved public lambasting. They missed the obvious truth that they were engaging in the same bloodlust as the film’s bearded women at the stoning, but were they capable of such insight, they never would have spoken up at all. In truth, it’s the Pythons themselves that they disapprove of, and possibly the very notion of comedy: the iconoclasm, the need to punch upward, the general mocking of authority figures, and our own human proclivity for foolishness. An overt religious satire simply gave them the barest precepts of moral justification to cling to, and from that oyster they simmered a stew that they continue to greedily devour.

They’ve long since abandoned any pretext that they need to do more. They simply aren’t capable of looking the Gorgon in the face. They require a fig leaf, any fig leaf, to prevent themselves from acknowledging their own monstrosity, and now even that flimsy justification has begun to fray. So the Roy Moores of the world become the REAL victims in their minds, and the targets of his monstrous appetites suffer as a result. Christ’s teachings are actively abandoned in the name of Christ, and thus do his most vocal followers actively embody the evil they claim to decry.

Somewhere, Brian Cohen is shaking his head and wondering how it got so far.

The Pythons are smart enough to realize that there’s no easy solution to such idiocy, of course. Pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious right convinces them of nothing, save perhaps to double down and insist that, oh say, a child molesting monster is actually a righteous follower of Christ. Their only real answer is a gentle admonishment to look at our own hypocrisies and try to do better.

The film closes with Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” conducted as Brian and a gaggle of fellows await death on the cross. It’s a lovely bit of absurdism, but also a reminder – quite serious – to take joy when and where you can. Especially if it means laughing at those who hate you, or who claim some flimsy moral superiority over you. “At least you’re not one of them,” it tells us. If that’s not a reason to keep punching, nothing is.

Today in Movie History: November 21

Hollywood loves its monsters and we’ve seen our share of great ones over the years. At the end of the day, however, they all fall in line behind one indisputable champion. The one and only Frankenstein opened today in 1931.

I doubt the Hunger Games will expand beyond the three books and four films that have already been made. The universe doesn’t seem right for development the way Star Wars and the Potterverse (among others) have. And yet that’s not a criticism, for the saga remained as strong and pertinent as either of those larger universes. The brilliant first half of the final chapter — Mockingjy, Part 1 — opened today in 2014.

Kevin Costner spent a lot of years wandering in the wilderness: he drank the Kool-Aid, and it was tough to watch that fall from grace. But his directorial triumph Dances with Wolves remains a powerful and affecting motion picture regardless of the ego behind it. I’d still give the Best Picture Oscar to Goodfellas that year,  but I’m not inclined to complain about this one walking off with the top prize. It opened today in 1990.

Speaking of Best Picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives stands as one of those efforts that felt quite profound at the time, but gradually lost its luster as the years rolled by. It was quite cathartic for its era, however: an examination of the cost of victory in World War II and a plea for understanding about the men and women who paid it. It opened today in 1946.

The recent Westworld TV show has been making waves. (My wife and I are riveted, and if you haven’t seen the first season yet, it’s well worth a few hours of your time.) One of the best things about it is its subtle, sly references to the original film — written and directed by Michael Crichton as a kind of protean variation on his later triumph Jurassic Park — which is worth a look if you’d like a little trip down memory lane. The scenario is overly familiar (kudos to the TV show for finding a number of other different ways to explore it), but loads of fun thanks largely to Yul Brynner’s implacable robot gunslinger (which itself predated another sci-fi masterpiece: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance in The Terminator). Westworld opened today in 1973.

We’ve going to close with Elvis, because we all need a little Elvis these days. Girls! Girls! Girls! is typical fluff, featuring the King as a Hawaiian fisherman trying to earn back his father’s boat, and a typical good girl/bad girl love triangle for him to resolve. It doesn’t rank with his best, but the Hawaiian setting is a natural fit and some of the songs — including the great  “Return to Sender” — are quite the toe-tappers. The film opened today in 1962.