Today in Movie History: December 15

Man, there are some big movies  released today. We’re going to start with the grim one: one of the most important movies of all time, a chilling testament to the Holocaust, and demonstrative artistic validation for one of the greatest directors ever. Schindler’s List opened today in 1993. Above and beyond its merits as cinema, its success led to the founding of the Shoah Foundation, dedicated to preserving the testament of Holocaust survivors.

On a much lighter front: we love comic book movies here, and the last few years have seen some great ones from the MCU to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies to the resurgent X-Men. At the end of the day, however, they’re still chasing the original. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie opened today in 1978: a gold standard for superhero movies that may never be passed.

A big lug of an entirely different kind also arrived today in 1974: Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein delivered the final word on horror parodies and may be the greatest movie in Mr. Brooks’ formidable canon. For safety’s sake, don’t humiliate him!

Other notable releases on this day include the rousing Jimmy Stewart adventure film Flight of the Phoenix  in 1965; The Pink Panther Strikes Again in 1976 (which remains our favorite of the Pink Panther films); and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s surreal fantasy masterpiece The City of Lost Children in 1995.

The City of Lost Children shares a release date with Michael Mann’s Heat, the story of a career bank robber (Robert De Niro) after one last score and the dedicated cop (Al Pacino) trying to hunt him down. Much has been made — rightfully so — of the coffee shop scene between the two actors, but the entire ensemble is incredible (including Val Kilmer, Danny Terjo, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman and Wes Studi), and the film itself is one of the greatest police thrillers ever made. it opened today in 1995.

Oh yeah, and one other little film opened today in 1939. Southern epic, most popular movie of all time, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” something, something… Oh yeah, and overtly racist. Like a lot.

 

Today in Movie History: December 13

In the spirit of the season, we’re going to start with a light one: Clue, one of those comedies that nobody understood when it was first released, but has since gone on to become a classic. Based on the evergreen board game, it initially baffled critics and audiences with its vaudeville-style script and a gimmick that allowed for different endings depending on which theater you watched it in. The last bit may have been ill-conceived, but the inclusion of all three endings on the VHS release cut the Gordian Knot nicely. And with seven of the funniest people on the planet front and center, the film sparkles on the sheer power of good comic timing. It opened today in 1985.

Barry Levinson’s Bugsy got shoved aside a little bit in the stampede to honor The Silence of the Lambs, and with the shadow of Goodfellas breathing down its neck. But it’s a terrific gangster film, and Warren Beatty’s hypnotic portrayal of infamous gangster Bugsy Siegel ranks as one of the best performances he’s given. The film also introduced him to his eventual wife Annette Bening, and the chemistry between the two is scorching. Bugsy opened today in 1991.

Then there’s Jerry Maguire, Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy about a sports agent (Tom Cruise) who loses everything and finds his soul. It’s funny and charming in equal measures, featuring a star-making turn from Renee Zellweger as yet another of Cameron’s winsome blonde muses. The real scene-stealer, however, was Cuba Gooding, Jr. who won an Oscar as the only one of Cruise’s clients who sticks with him. William H. Macy was robbed — at gunpoint — but it’s hard to deny Gooding’s onscreen charm. The film opened today in 1996.

Finally, we have The Poseidon Adventure, Irwin Allen’s typically ridiculous disaster saga about a cruise ship hit by a tidal wave and the brave passengers who have to fight their way clear of the sinking wreck. It’s awful, but an interesting sort of awful, and at the time, its particular kind of awfulness was all the rage. It opened 45 years ago today today in 1972.

 

 

Today in Movie History: July 7

You know that moment when you look at the column and seriously consider opening it with Species? We’re at that moment now… and we’re resisting. Instead, we’ll start with A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater’s rotoscoping animation exercise in pure paranoia that may finally have nailed what Philip K. Dick was talking about in all those stories Hollywood insists on adapting. It opened today in 2006.

The very same day in the very same year saw a much bigger film hit theaters: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest brought Johnny Depp’s beloved Jack Sparrow back to the screen for the first time since the iconic original. The film itself suffered from a lot of the problems endemic of the series — overstuffed and too busy by far — but Depp’s performance remains as charming as ever and there’s something gleefully subversive about watching a Disney film take a turn for the Lovecraftian. It also opened today in 2006.

And while I can’t quite bring myself to give it the pole position, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Species, guilty pleasure of guilty pleasures, in which Natasha Henstridge’s fetchingly naked alien goes mano-a-hot-Gieger-chick-o with a bunch of slumming Oscar winners who should really know better. It opened today in 1995.

 

 

 

Movies for the Resistance: Gandhi

(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: Ben Kingsley, John Gielgud, Martin Sheen, Edward Fox, Candice Bergen, John Mills and Trevor Howard
Directed by: Richard Attenborough
Running time: 191 minutes
Rating: PG
Year of release: 1982

During an interview for Iron Man 3 (and if you’ve seen that movie you can understand the context), Sir Ben Kingsley talked about how he studied Hitler and Stalin as much as Mahatma Gandhi in preparation for the high water mark of his amazing career. Dictators, he said, always claimed to be men of the people… but you never saw them down among the masses. They stood on podiums surrounded by microphones and yes-men, throwing up barriers and standing high above the crowds. Gandhi didn’t. He walked among his people, lived in their poverty, shared their pain, and felt their hardscrabble path with his own sandaled feet.

That insight proved at least part of why Kingsley’s performance held such power, and revisiting it in the era of Trump can be an overwhelming experience. The film itself easily serves as a whipping boy for the Oscars: stodgy and respectful in a year full of amazing movies that never had a shot at the Academy Awards. But watching it again for the first time in over a decade, I was struck by how little varnishing it needed. With a superb script from John Briley and a strong visual eye conveying the grandeur of India, director Richard Attenborough had all he needed to convey the singular leader’s extraordinary ethos with elegance and dignity.

Of course, the film mostly serves as a fulcrum for Kingsley, whose is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex turn is arguably the greatest ever put on film. It’s remarkable not only for its evocation of the real man, but for its understanding of his vision. He saw right and wrong with absolute distinction, armed with a lawyer’s understanding of how to codify it and insight into human nature that approached the messianic. His will – his sheer unbreakable desire to do right – found the perfect time and place to manifest, and in so doing showed us what one man of conviction could accomplish.

Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence is justly celebrated, but the movie goes beyond that to demonstrate how he induced an entire nation to embrace his approach. He didn’t suppress his anger at the injustice and suffering around him. He wasn’t blind to the savagery at humanity’s core. He simply channeled it all into a tool of breathtaking moral force, then used it to bring the greatest empire in history to its knees.

The fact that he did it without firing a shot was more than a garnish: it was his secret weapon that made the whole thing work. He demonstrated to his foes not only that they couldn’t beat him or his followers, but that he held the unquestionable moral high ground the entire time. The backbone it took to be hit over and over again and not hit back – the strength that neither broke nor yielded, but literally wore the enemy down through the patience of a mountain – still defies belief. And yet he did it. Not once or twice but again and again until his foes finally cried “uncle.”

The movie aims primarily to demonstrate how such a man could accomplish so much, but also how monumental his task was and how it ultimately claimed his life. For while he sent the British packing, he couldn’t bridge the gap between Hindu and Muslim, in a conflict that continues to this day. The violence that claimed him came in complete opposition to his ethos, but it remains a failing of the larger world, not his.

And through Kingsley’s singular portrayal, he reminds us that death is preferable to cowardice in the face of tangible wrongdoing. He knew there would be a cost and he was ready to pay it. When asked if non-violence could succeed against the likes of Hitler, he responded “Not without defeats, and great pain. But are there no defeats in war? No pain? What you cannot do is accept injustice. From Hitler or anyone. You must make the injustice visible, and be prepared to die like a soldier to do so.”

The film doesn’t shy from the price of that stance, both in personal terms and in the wounded nation he helped free from subjugation. But it also reminds us that inaction carries even more risks: enabling the very injustice that one seeks to avoid. Gandhi held his beliefs as the equal of his very life, and that in and of itself was extraordinary. But as the movie demonstrates, he knew where and when to deploy that strength, and in so doing drew a map for others to follow his example.

This column will feature a number of fictitious figures who display similar courage: whose moral stance is similarly rooted in clear views of right and wrong. But Gandhi was no fabrication, no mythical embodiment of the ideals we all strive for. He lived and died in the real world, and the miracles he worked continue to be felt today. Attenborough achieved so much with this film simply because he knew better than to gild the lily. He simply showed us the man at his best, and encouraged us to listen to the wisdom he embodied.

As a result, Gandhi may be the most heartening film you can watch right now: a beautiful guide to keeping your ethical bearings in the face of adversity and a source of inspiration for anyone feeling the weight of this burned we all carry. Take an evening in the new few weeks and give it another look. (You can rent it or buy it on Amazon.) It will do you a world of good.