Today in Movie History: March 16

Before Christopher Nolan reinvented Batman and joined the ranks of cinema’s elite filmmakers, he stunned us all with Memento, a unique and confident effort that set the stage for things to come. Guy Pearce gave one of the best performances of his career, and the film’s deceptively assured “reverse narrative” has never quite been matched. Memento opened today in 2001.

The Absent Minded Professor didn’t make quite as deep a mark as Memento did, but it still stands as a high point of Disney’s live-action family comedies of the 60s and 70s. Fred MacMurray stars as the titular wacky scientist who invented the wonderful flying “flubber,” letting his school’s loser basketball team float their way to victory and similar mayhem. It opened today in 1961, and as the unfortunate Robin Williams remake proved, lightning of this sort rarely strikes twice.

Of course both of those efforts pale before the big cinematic event on this date: the Lambada Wars of 1990. Having experienced a fundamental falling out, cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — the brain trust of Cannon Pictures — each resolved to top the other by capitalizing on the semi-raging lambada dance craze. After months of hand-to-hand fighting and thousands of lives lost, the films — Lambada and The Forbidden Dance — both opened today in 1990. Critics were, um, unkind, but who cares how crappy the movies were if they let us close our eyes and remember a time when dueling lambada movies tried to woo a skeptical public solely to prove which producer-cousin had the biggest stones? Don’t go changing, you crazy bastards!

Movies for the Resistance: The Matrix

(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: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano and Gloria Foster
Directed by: The Wachowskis
Running time: 136 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 1999

 

Nazi punchers stepped up their game this past weekend, with counter-protests in Boston, Laguna Beach and elsewhere shutting down any repeat of the white supremacy march in Charlottesville (at least for now). Our Nazi in Chief continues to backpedal half-heartedly on the matter, but there’s no erasing his initial response or the “he said WHAT-?!” press conference last Tuesday where he doubled down on the “very fine people” who spend their weekends menacing synagogues and running people over in cars.

With the president’s tacit approval in place – and more on the way in Phoenix tonight – other alt-right demonstrations are inevitable. Hopefully the pushback this weekend was a sign of things to come: with the Nazis outnumbered, demoralized and largely slinking back into their little holes lest the collective wrath of the rest of us come crashing down on their entitled little heads. Counter-protestors stood tall and let them know just what we thought of them, reminding everyone that the light still outshines the darkness. Before we plunge forward with whatever fresh hell the fates have in store for us this week, it behooves us to stop and revel in just how hard the Resistance can hit when it wants to.

So why The Matrix? Indiana Jones movies make better pure Nazi-punching exercises, as do similar World War II romps of the Dirty Dozen variety. We’ve done Star Wars too, with stormtroopers fitting the Nazi vibes more directly than the faceless automatons of the Wachowskis’ cyberpunk epic. But something about this one feels more pertinent to the moment: more in keeping with whatever it is we’re dealing with, and a more accurate cinematic expression of how it felt watching Team Good Guy notch up a couple of wins this weekend.

Certainly, the sheer quality of punching in The Matrix bears mentioning. If nothing else, it provides a master class on the joys of fight choreography, courtesy of the bullet-time camerawork, slow-mo freezes and the legendary Yuen Wo Ping opening up his bag of tricks. There are worse ways to spend an evening than watching Neo and Trinity roundhouse their way through faceless goons.

But there’s more to enjoy than stimulus response… and strangely not all of it is to the movie’s credit. The Matrix never suffered from a lack of pomposity, and invests its mildly clever post-apocalyptic material with a lot of soap-opera suds. All the prophecies and kung-fu messiahs and whatnot ultimately wade out way past the movie’s depth (engendering a cost the sequels ultimately had to pay), and its own self-seriousness becomes a bit of a joke. It doesn’t hold up quite the way we thought it might, in part because it simply can’t find the wherewithal to crack a smile.

But that feels strangely in keeping with the reality of 2017, as a narcissistic commander-in-chief inflates everything to cartoonish proportions, turns braggadocio into state policy and creates monstrous threats where none exist. The pathetic nature of our nation’s predicament contains a strange grandiosity to it: operatic thundering around a deflated whoopee cushion. Only The Matrix lets us fight fire with fire on that front. What other movie makes so comparatively little look so epically important, oblivious to its own hyperbole and somehow making us love it all the more for it? Where else but the era of fake news and alternative facts does such posturing feel so at home?

The movie’s self-regard also bolsters one of its legitimate strengths: the sense of surrealism running from beginning to end. The Matrix embedded itself in pop culture so thoroughly that it’s easy to forget how different it was when it first arrived. That arose in part from its sense of living in a waking dream, where things take place without logical cohesion and something very wrong lurks just out of sight.  Neo’s slow awakening to the nature of that world is accompanied by instances of déjà vu, computers talking back to him, mysterious saviors guiding him out of office windows, and at least one incredibly squicky cyber insect inserted into his navel. Philip K. Dick paranoia lurks in the shadows, and those incredibly polite Agents ooze unspoken menace out of any honeyed word. Small wonder he feels like the universe he inhabits really shouldn’t exist. (It’s one of the reasons why Reeves works so well as the hero: altering between utter bafflement and Zen serenity in that uniquely Keanu way of his.)

I don’t much care for the term “woke,” which has been used a lot since Trump’s election to describe the response from people previously willing to look the other way on matter of social justice.  But it’s hard to argue that perceptions have changed in the era of Trump, and it’s equally hard to argue that the battle, as Morpheus puts it, lies in changing hearts and minds rather than just beating up the bad guys.

That gives The Matrix a pertinence to our current dilemma that a lot of other dark future movies lack: a protagonist becoming aware of a problem that lay hidden in plain sight and readjusting his thinking to address it. The mystical pseudo-babble simply connects it to the Hero’s Journey more overtly – ridiculous, but hard to hate – while providing some context for anyone grappling with the sea change in our own reality.

Furthermore The Matrix embraces the notion that awakening itself is a form of empowerment. Neo learns the skills he needs instantly – literally programmed into his mind in the blink of an eye – which suggests that a change of perception is all one really requires to seize the chalice and take a stand. At the end of the day, it lends a sense of righteousness to the punching: not only beating up the villains but understanding why resistance is the proper means of facing them, and how a larger problem can be tackled one step at a time.

We didn’t know it when the film first came out, but the Wachowskis were uniquely suited to convey that sense of purpose. As TG siblings who eventually transitioned into womanhood, they continue to live life on their terms and no one else’s. Their canon after this movie has been, frankly, disastrous, but that doesn’t change the quiet dignity and courage they went about supporting each other… and presenting transgender individuals as important voices in our culture. The Matrix has endured in part because of their unique sensibilities, and the way they conveyed that in a new and different form within a genre that we all thought we knew by heart.

At the end of the day, it’s still just goofy fun, but its perspective reminds us that all voices need a seat at the table. The Kung Fu Awesome is just a way to connect to the bigger picture – ludicrous and over-the-top, but reveling in an all-too-rare fresh perspective. The game changed this weekend: a new reality asserted itself, improving on the one we’d seen just a week earlier. And if we can help it grow and continue to build on it, even the Matrix might be forced to give way to something better.

Today in Movie History: March 31

In a year that promised to be dominated by the hotly anticipated Star Wars prequel, a couple of siblings named Larry and Andy Wachowski slipped in and stole George Lucas’s thunder. Their subsequent career has been, um, less than impressive, but for one shining moment, we believed we were witnessing an amazing new chapter in science fiction filmmaking. The original Matrix opened today in 1999.

On a lighter note, the legendary Monty Python premiered what turned out to be their swan song as a complete troupe today in 1983. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life eschewed the slightly more organized plots of  The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian in favor of the absurdist sketch format that made them famous. The focus is the Seven Ages of Man, and though a bit uneven at times (frankly all their films are), it remains a shining example of why these six guys remain so beloved.

The other notation today is far smaller, but serves as a rallying cry for high school misfits everywhere and has aged not a day since their original release. Michael Lehmann’s Heathers first hit screens in 1989, giving the world a tonic to more uplifting high school drama and reminding us all that those years were a hell of a lot more brutal than some people choose to remember. “I love my dead gay son…”