Today in Movie History: February 18

One of the greatest screwball comedies of all time hit theaters today in 1938: Bringing Up Baby, the tender story of an heiress, a paleontologist and a pet leopard that shows what kind of magic Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant could bring to the screen. Though viewed as a flop at the time, it actually did decently at the box office, and today is viewed as one of the final words on funny movies of the era. Plus, a leopard.

Elsewhere, it’s kind of hard to believe that a little sci-fi thriller like Pitch Black could not only have made a bona fide star out of Vin Diesel, but remain a viable franchise 16 years later. On the other hand, David Twohy’s lean, gritty little riff on the Alien formula holds up quite well, and no one can deny the appeal of Diesel in what remains his favorite role. (On a personal note, it’s also the first movie I reviewed in a professional capacity, so I have a soft spot in my heart for it.) It opened today in 2000.

Trumbo Blu-Ray Review

Review by Robert T. Trate

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Michael Stuhlbarg, David James Elliott, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Elle Fanning, Stephen Root

Directed by: Jay Roach

Running time: 124 minutes

Year of release: 2015

Rating: R

For this critic, there is nothing better than a movie about the making of movies. I am not talking about documentaries. Too often, these are just marketing tools that today are split up on YouTube and then sold to the audience on an overpriced Blu-ray. What I am talking about are movies that tell the story of how actors, directors, and writers came to be a part of the business. In loving movies the way I do, I enjoy learning about what went on behind the scenes. If you study cinema or even just read a book about the history of Hollywood, you cannot miss the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) trials. HUAC trials were basically a witch hunt in Hollywood that went after prominent figures with the intention of making sure that Communists were not rooting themselves in our culture. Artists, directors, writers, and the like were asked to name names of people who were either communists or sympathetic to the communist party. Many who were questioned did not answer or refused to give up anyone other than themselves. They were then blacklisted by Hollywood, because they were seen as a threat to what basically came down to earning more money. This is where the film Trumbo takes place.

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was a prominent Hollywood screenwriter. He refuses to answer any questions about himself or anyone else, because he believes, as an American, he has that right. Trumbo is held in contempt of congress, which is the only crime he ever commits, despite not actually committing any crime. Jay Roach, the director of both the Austin Powers Trilogy and Meet the Parents, crafts an incredible film here that highlights not only what the blacklisted writers did to survive, but what Trumbo’s family had to endure.

For film enthusiasts both new and old, you receive an incredible look into Hollywood of that era. In most respects, you wonder how and why the United States government could round up people and starting asking them their political beliefs. The reason why you ask that question is because of what Dalton Trumbo and many others who fought for our rights did. You will wonder how people could mistreat so many big name actors of the day, when today our Hollywood stars are basically gods that walk the Earth. Imagine the likes of Tom Hanks or Johnny Depp on trial for their political beliefs. It wouldn’t happen today. Why? Because there is money to be made, just as there was back then, and Trumbo uses that angle to keep working, keep his family fed, all the while keeping his name out of the credits. The kicker to this tale is what happens when one of his movies wins Hollywood’s highest honor. Oh, and then what happens when he wins it again?

Trumbo is an incredible picture that I am sure will populate film classes for decades to come. Not only does it highlight a dark time in Hollywood, but it also reveals those individuals that did all they could to survive it. Does the film make us think less of the likes of John Wayne (played here by David James Elliott) and Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg)? It does, a little, but it was a different time and people had different ideals and means to survive. It does, however, create new heroes and idols such as Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter (played by Alan Tudyk), and The King Brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root).

In closing, I would like to highlight a few other films and one book that you will want to check out after seeing Trumbo. As for the films, I recommend The Front (1976) starring Woody Allen who fronts for blacklisted writers so that he and they came make money. The next is Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971). The film is based on his novel and is possibly the greatest anti-war story ever told. As for the book, which ties directly to the film Trumbo, I suggest “I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist”. The book is written by Kirk Douglass and is his side of how he got Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus.

 

BLU-RAY and DVD BONUS FEATURES:

Who is Trumbo?

Bryan Cranston Becomes Trumbo

 

Today in Movie History: February 12

Frank Langella — who played a pretty mean Dracula himself — summed the character up best. “It’s Bela’s cape. The rest of us are just keeping it warm for him.” Horror legend Bela Lugosi starred in the role that defined his career (and to a large extent defined the character) in Tod Browning’s Dracula, which premiered today in 1931.

In other news… it came ten days late, but considering it’s one of the best comedies ever made, we’re gonna let that slide. Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day opened today in 1993, putting Bill Murray’s smarmy weatherman in an endless time loop that forces him to become a better human being.

On a much darker note, the original (and superior) adaptation of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives opened today in 1974. Though overtly satirical in many ways, director Bryan Forbes understood the inherent creepiness of the scenario, in which Katharine Ross’s liberated woman arrives with her family in a small town where the women seem permanently stuck in Donna Reed mode.  As social commentary, it works just fine, but its real power comes as a pro-feminist horror movie.

 

Today in Movie History: February 5

Let’s cut to the chase: the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers opened today in 1956, bringing Cold War paranoia straight into small-town America. Its alien invaders — who duplicate our human forms while removing the pesky humanity from our souls — served as the inspiration for the zombie apocalypse genre to follow, and while it remains a product of the 1950s, it’s still powerful enough to scare the peewuttons out of you if you let it. (You can check out our Halloween review of it here.)

Thirty years later, a much different horror movie opened, and while it can’t quite match Body Snatchers, it serves as pretty potent nightmare fuel on its own. The Serpent and the Rainbow, dealing with the darkest corners of voodoo during the last days of Baby Doc Duvalier’s reign in Haiti, marks a high point in the career of horror maestro Wes Craven, and its loose basis in fact gives it a punch that many of his other films lack. It opened today in 1988.

Over in Uncle Walt’s corner of the pond, Disney enjoyed a massive commercial successes with Peter Pan, opening today in 1953 and forming a cultural touchstone for Boomers growing up at the time. Personally, I find the film problematic — and not just because it includes a song called “What Made the Red Man Red?” — but it’s hard to argue with the benchmark it set for the House of Mouse.

Today in Movie History: February 4

I can’t say I’m fond of it, but a number of people are, and it did launch the film career of one of the most successful comic actors of all time. (And okay, I admit it, there are scenes that make me laugh. Hard.) Ace Ventura: Pet Detective first hit theaters today in 1994.

On a gentler note, Walt Disney pictures gave us its first outing with that silly old bear in 1966, when their short Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day hit theaters in 1966. It later became part of the compilation film, The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh in 1977. The Sherman Brothers — the same guys behind the songs in Mary Poppins — penned the ditties for this one, including the famous opening theme.

And because we’re all about polar opposites here, we also need to mention that the most not-Winnie-the-Pooh song of all time opened today: David Cronenberg’s Videodrome hit theaters in 1983. Long live the new flesh!