Today in Movie History: March 2

You want big movies? They don’t get any bigger than the original King Kong which set a giant stop-motion monkey loose in the jungles of our imagination and hasn’t left since. A pair of “meh” remakes — one helmed by Peter Jackson, no less — aptly demonstrates that some things just can’t be duplicated. It opened at Radio City Music Hall 85 years ago today in 1933.

If giant monsters aren’t your thing, you can always take a trip down Salzburg way for a little sing-along with the von Trapps. The Sound of Music opened today in 1965, on its way to shattering box office records (it was the highest grossing film of all time for five years), winning the Best Picture Oscar and securing a spot in the hearts of anyone who needs some Do-Re-Mi every now and again. Admit it: you’re singing that song in your head right now, aren’t you?

Need more? We got it! How about Norma Rae, Martin Ritts’ ode to the power of organized labor that won Sally Field her first Oscar and opened today in 1979? Or Eyes Without a Face, Georges Franju’s supremely unsettling horror movie about a young woman scarred in an accident and her plastic surgeon father desperately hunting beautiful young women for a replacement face? (It opened in the director’s native France today in 1960). Or The Hunt for Red October, John McTiernan’s crackerjack adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel about a Soviet submarine commander who goes AWOL, featuring grand turns by Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Sam Neill and Scott Glenn among others? (It opened today in 1990.) If you can’t find something to love in a list like that, you need to consider another hobby.


Today in Movie History: December 6

It was a reasonably good day for science fiction today, starting with Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, a strange, surreal and quite wonderful foray into pure imagination. It depicts a distant world where humans are hunted or kept as pets by a race of advanced giants, and what happens when one little guy decides to disrupt the status quo. It remains a classic not only for its amazing visuals, but for the simple fact that nothing like it has ever been seen before or since. It opened in the U.S. today in 1973.

The Star Trek phenomenon has had its share of ups and downs, and not all of the good moments come solely for the quality of the film or show in question. Ask any Trekkie where Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country sits, and they’ll likely say somewhere in the higher middle portion of the pack: behind such stalwarts as First Contact and The Wrath of Khan, but well ahead of, say, the reviled Star Trek V or some of the later TNG movies.

It’s real value, however, lies less in its storyline (a serviceable but unexceptional yarn about finally making peace with the Klingons) than in the simple fact that is was the final outing featuring the entire crew from the original series. Self-indulgent and even corny at times, it still gives the gang that started it all a proper curtain call, thanks in part to director Nicholas Meyer, who also helmed the beloved Wrath of Khan. (Also, Iman is in it, and she’s kind of awesome.) Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country opened today in 1991.

We’ll close with Gimme Shelter, the documentary covering the Rolling Stones’ ill-fated Altamont concert in which a man was stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels assigned to guard the band. The cameras caught that horrifying moment, as well as everything else in the lead-up to it: acting as a testament to why grown-ups need to be involved in any endeavor like this. It opened today in 1970.


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: March 24

There’s no question which film rules the roost today. The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic tale of the rise and fall of the Corleone crime family, remains the final word on gangster movies, family dramas and the corrosive power of the American dream. However you approach it, its power cannot be denied, and though the medium continues to produce its masterpieces, nothing quite measures up to this one: quite possibly the greatest movie of any kind ever made. It opened today in 1972.

You don’t hear much about Dolores Claiborne when people talk about Stephen King adaptations, but in fact it’s one of the very best, with Kathy Bates taking on a very different role than the one that won her an Oscar for Misery. She plays a hard-as-nails New England housekeeper accused of murdering her longtime employer. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays her estranged daughter who returns home to help her mother, only to confront the truth about the death of her father… which may have been Mom’s doing as well. It opened today in 1995.

If you’re looking for something off the beaten path, check out Quicksand, a brilliant little piece of noir starring Mickey Rooney of all people in one of the better performances of his career. He plays a mechanic who takes $20 out of his boss’s till to take his girl out. It’s not even theft because he fully intends to return the money once payday hits. From that little acorn grows a hideous oak, and one of the film’s evil little joys is watching how much one small moral mistake can go so wrong. It opened today in 1950.