Today in Movie History: December 27

Releases during the last week of the year tend to have Oscar on their mind: a limited run in a theater or two to qualify, followed by a bigger roll-out in January. That’s borne out by the three films on our list today, all of which scored Oscar nominations or wins. The first (and best) is easily the strangest: 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s dystopian head trip about a convicted future criminal (Bruce Willis) sent back in time to the present to gather data about a coming apocalypse. It still ranks as a high point in Gilliam’s career and Brad Pitt — bursting on the scene just a few years earlier and supernova hot when this bad boy hit — scored a Best Supporting Actor nod as an asylum inmate who may hold the key to preventing Armageddon. The film opened today in 1995.

There’s been a lot of movies made about drug addiction (the line starts behind Requiem for a Dream), but few examining the scope and futility of America’s quixotic war on drugs. The biggest exception may be Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s look at every corner of the drug trade and why our efforts to stem it have failed so completely. It remains no less relevant today than it did when first released, and along with Requiem (released just a few months earlier), makes for an indispensable cinematic comment on the issue. (It also won four well-deserved Oscars, including Best Director for Soderbergh and Best Supporting Actor for Benicio del Toro.) It opened today in 2000.

Finally, there’s Chicago, a film I loathe with every fiber of my being, but which nonetheless emerged as the big winner at the Oscars the year it was released (six statues, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones’s). Rob Marshall’s feckless direction does nothing for the material; the editing (which inexplicably won one of those six Oscars) hacks the Bob Fosse choreography to bits; and tone-deaf performances from Renee Zellwger and Richard Gere turn the supposed satirical commentary into an ugly exercise in bad people getting away with it. (I confess, however, that Zeta-Jones’ performance is an absolute knock-out.) It opened today in 2002.


Movies for the Resistance: 12 Monkeys

(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: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer and John Seda
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Running time: 130 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1995


(Spoiler Alert: a number of the film’s twists are revealed here.)

I’ve tried to shy away from dystopian science fiction as a general rule with these columns, simply because they tend to be so on-the-nose that to do more than dabble in them represents the worst sort of overkill. (I’ve been eyeing They Live since Trump’s Inauguration, but have refrained thus far because there’s not much to say beyond “yup, we’re here…”)

But Terry Gilliam always had a unique spin on dystopian fantasy, and in the case of 12 Monkeys, it makes for an interesting variation on the basic “we’re all fucked” theme. In this case, it’s a Cassandra story, and as a template for those of us who have watched the last 18 months with horror and disgust, it makes as strong a statement on our current situation as we’re likely to find.

Gilliam (and screenwriters David and Janet Peoples) based the movie on an experimental French short called La Jetee, which consists almost entirely of still images. It tells the tale of a man who goes back in time and witnesses his own death, which Gilliam translates into one of his more inspired flights of fanciful despair. In his world, a virus has wiped out most of the human population, forcing the survivors to live underground. What little of it we see comes from the POV of James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner who “volunteers” for a series of scientific experiments in exchange for a reduced sentence.

That sends him back in time to before the virus took hold, in an attempt to pinpoint its source and thus devise a cure. Our present (or the film’s present of the mid-1990s) becomes his past – a past he cannot alter or undo – and in his journey, he comes to realize with horror that he himself may have contributed to this catastrophic turn of events.

What makes the film especially relevant in the age of Trump (and for dystopian sci-fi in particular) is less the time-travel element, but in Cole’s purpose and understanding of reality. When he arrives in the present, no one believes him, of course. His ravings about a doomed world and a contagion that returns the Earth to a state of nature feel like the stuff of fiction. Naturally, he ends up in a mental ward.

In many ways, that differs little from his life in the future: helpless, brutalized, caged like an animal and literally dragged from place to place at times. No one listens or cares or even addresses him as a human being sometimes. Cameras ogle him from every angle. Bars block his path. Even in those moments of freedom, he feels persecuted and hunted. The only difference between his present and ours is an emphasis on Gilliam’s patently absurd landscapes in the future. No matter what the time, our capacity to dehumanize each other remains unchanged.

His helplessness further feeds into his status as a Cassandra figure. He sees what’s coming, he knows we’re doomed, and yet every protestation brings not just dismissal but active violence sometimes. The few who listen to him either join him as a fugitive (such as Madeleine Stowe’s sympathetic psychiatrist) or use him for their own sinister ends (such as Brad Pitt’s crazy-like-a-fox fellow inmate). His helplessness remains enforced. He’s a pawn from beginning to end, and the knowledge he holds acts only to torment him.

But there’s a second tragedy to Cole’s miserable existence, one that does change as the movie goes on. He comes to doubt the information he holds, and actively wonder if he really comes from the future or not. 12 Monkeys muddies the water with an opening narrative card suggesting that he might actually be insane, and that his conviction stems not from certainty but from genuine dementia. Gilliam coyly teases the question by keeping us firmly in Cole’s shoes… wondering if what we see is reality or just the visions of his broken mind.

Ironically, as the notion sinks in, it becomes a kind of liberation. If he’s insane, the cataclysm that befalls humanity won’t actually happen. Billions won’t actually die. The world will go on spinning and the dire future he thinks is so certain won’t affect anyone beyond himself. He’s just a lunatic! It’s elegantly seductive, in part because it means he can stay in the 1990s with fresh air and blue sky, but also because he doesn’t have to grapple with the terrible certainty of an impending cataclysm.

We’re seeing that attempted seduction play out in real time, largely as a means of hiding the extent of the damage the President has inflicted. The far-right media often speaks of “Trump Derangement Syndrome”: a term used to dismiss the fears of the rest of us as hysterical overreaction to obvious and alarming development. The hope is to convince 45’s opponents to stand down. If he’s a master strategist playing 3D chess, or even just a harmless businessman with a flair for the dramatic, then things can’t really be so bad, can they?

Their insistence stems from the fact that they drank the Kool-Aid early in the process – years ago in more than a few cases – and it sadly isn’t limited to Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart. The mainstream media stubbornly clings to the concept of Trump “pivoting,” while praising any event that passes without incident as a sign of the long-awaited display of “maturity.” Staff members like John Kelly become the adults in the room ready to steer him back to normality. Twitter-based kerfuffles are reported with a “there he goes again” derision. And a significant portion of the country still supports him, despite the fresh horrors that emerge from his hateful coterie every day.

Beneath it all lies the siren song that seduced Cole: things aren’t so bad. It’s all in your head. There’s no disaster coming. And it lingers in our national consciousness despite the Himalayan mountain of evidence to the contrary, a mountain that gains new foothills with disturbing regularity.

Because to reject the notion is to acknowledge that we’re in the hands of a lunatic.

Because to reject the notion means that the disaster that the rest of us have been shouting about for almost two years now may just be getting started.

Because to reject the notion suggests that fascism and fascist ideals have been walking among us for quite some time.

Insanity becomes the preferable alternative in the face of that. Not theirs, of course – not Trump and his supporters – but ours, since we’re the ones doing all the shouting. And while many of us have clear facts to keep us grounded (and hopefully friends and colleagues who can remind us that yeah, we’re WAY past the red line on this one), not everyone is so fortunate. So for those out there who might read this and feel alone in the fight – those told by friends, family and community that there’s no way this man could possibly be as hateful, incompetent and dangerous as he seems – we’ll tell you what Cole learned too late. You’re not crazy. This isn’t normal. And while the future of 12 Monkeys was set in stone, ours remains unwritten.

If we hold fast and fight hard, we can still change it for the better.

Today in Movie History: September 28

The 1950s were a Golden Age for science fiction, and few films in that era attained the resonance — both as entertainment and as a movie with something to say — that The Day The Earth Stood Still did. Robert Wise’s pitch-perfect fable of a man from outer space with a message we’re just not capable of hearing is definitely a product of its time, but the dated qualities actually add to its assets… and the lessons haven’t been lost to the ages just yet. The Day the Earth Stood Still opened today in 1951.

On a more modern front, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Looper, Rian Johnson’s futuristic mind-bender that may stand as one of the best time-travel movies yet made. It was largely ignored at the box office, but if you’re looking for an elegant puzzle to occupy your brain, few science fiction films stand taller. Looper opened today in 2012.

Finally, there’s Ben Stiller’s Zoolander, a film that initially suffered from exquisitely bad timing (it opened a few weeks after 9/11 and inadvertently touched some very raw wounds) but has since rebounded to become a comedy classic. It opened today in 2001 and forever gave us the gift of Blue Steel.


Today in Movie History: October 14

The word “game changer” gets thrown around a lot with flavor-of-the-month movies that tend to fade with time. But the phrase has rarely applied more aptly than it has to Pulp Fiction, which cemented the rise of indie cinema in the 1990s, altered the face of crime drama forever, and permanently put Quentin Tarantino on the map. It’s perfection incarnate, and on top of everything else, it even featured one of the greatest trailers ever produced. It opened today in 1994.

Twenty years earlier, Martin Scorsese made a similar splash with Mean Streets, a far more serious look at crime and the underworld that (among other things) made stars out of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Both actors found fertile creative ground with the director in subsequent films, but their turn as small-time punks here never ceases to amaze. (Keitel went on to anchor Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs, and played a prominent role in Pulp Fiction as well. It’s safe to say the man knows talent when he sees it.) Mean Streets opened today in 1973.

After fleeing the Nazis for greener pastures in Hollywood, Fritz Lang struggled to recapture the creative power that made him such a force in the 1920s. He came very close with The Big Heat, an exquisite piece of film noir setting one tough cop (Glenn Ford) against the local underworld.  Lang doesn’t shy away from his protagonist’s uglier side (the man has a temper), and with Gloria Grahame stealing the show as a gun moll for the ages, he had the onscreen wattage to create something truly special. The Big Heat opened today in 1953.

As we’ve noted before, it may seem surprising to open a holiday movie like White Christmas in October, but back in the day, movies stuck around for a long time, and Michael Curtiz’s fluffy adaptation of the Irving Berlin songbook did just that. With Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney playing a trio of entertainers books in a Vermont Inn over the holidays, it eschews anything pressing or scary in favor lots of pretty music. It opened today in 1954.

We’ll close with another horror movie: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which marked the celebrated director’s return to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise that he started. Craven was never shy about his ambiguity towards Freddy Krueger, a character he created as the ultimate monster only to watch morph into some kind of demented theme-park mascot. New Nightmare was a surprising sophisticated effort to grapple with that legacy, as well as a more thoughtful take on horror movies than the smug Scream franchises which he launched just a few years later. New Nightmare opened today in 1994.



Today in Movie History: July 15

With apologies to The Boy Who Lived, I think Officer McClane is taking the pole position on this one. The original Die Hard initially looked like a huge disaster. Star Bruce Willis was mainly known for light comedy and his attempt to segue into action hero mode smacked of the worst kind of hubris. As it turns out, it represented a sea change in action movies: breaking from the unstoppable ubermenschen of Schwarzenegger and Stallone flicks and presenting a very vulnerable hero in way over his head. (Indiana Jones had been performing the same trick for years, but it took Die Hard to prove that other movies could do it just as well.) His “yippie-kay-yay!” tag is justifiably celebrated, but the character’s most telling line is much more humble: “Oh God, please don’t let me die.” Add to that Alan Rickman’s star-making turn as a villain for the ages and you have a certified classic. Die Hard opened today in 1988.

As if that weren’t enough, we also get a double helping of Harry Potter today. The Deathly Hallows, Part II brought the eight-movie series to an immensely satisfying conclusion — thanks in no small part to another brilliant turn from Alan Rickman — while The Half-Blood Prince culminated in one of the saga’s more heart-breaking moments: the death of Harry’s mentor Albus Dumbledore. Both films were directed by David Yates, and both have done justice to the groundbreaking franchise to which they belong. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released today in 2009; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II opened today in 2011.

On a normal day, I’d have kicked this off with A Fish Called Wanda, one of the greatest comedies of all time and a resounding affirmation that the Monty Python crew didn’t need a Flying Circus to weave their magic. The wacky robbery subplot is good fun as it stands, though the film really earns its spurs as a send-up of the differences between American and British sensibilities. Jamie Lee Curtis knocks one out of the park as the sexy female lead, and John Cleese and Michael Palin are as amusing as always. At the end of the day, however, the movie belongs to Kevin Kline, whose turn as the ultimate ugly American scored his only Oscar to date (and one of the few acting Academy Awards given to a comedy). A Fish Called Wanda opened today in 1988.

All that, and still more? Sure, we’ll include a couple of other mentions to the list. There’s Something About Mary hasn’t aged hugely well, but it certainly made a splash when it first arrived and remains a high point of the Farrelly Brothers’ unique brand of comedy. It opened today in 1998.

Finally, there’s True Lies, one of the runts of the James Cameron litter about a superspy who hides his job from his wife with unexpectedly hilarious results. The film hits a sexist note that undoes the supposedly light tone and Cameron’s visual bombast eventually becomes more trouble than its worth, but the technical specs are second to none, and once again Bill Paxton demonstrates that he can steal the show out from under anyone’s nose. True Lies opened today in 1994.