Today in Movie History: June 18

There aren’t a whole lot of great Part 3s out there — the third movie tends to be the point where the wheels come off the franchise in question — but of those that earn mention, Toy Story 3 has earned a place among them. Pixar’s banner property finds an entirely new dilemma for its cast of sentient playthings, as Andy prepares for college and the remaining toys in his collection have to grapple with the prospect of becoming owner-less. Smart, funny, touching and surprisingly scary at times, it remains one of the very best films in the studio’s absurdly impressive canon. It opened today in 2010.

Further back, we find Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild  Bunch, another story of characters grappling with their own mortality. William Holden leads an aging band of outlaws in the final days of the Old West, looking for one last robbery before retiring. Its violence was considered shocking at the time and still has the power to shake you, as does the nihilism creeping quietly beneath the protagonists’ dilemma. It opened today in 1969.

We’ll close with Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s second foray to Gotham City and one of the more fascinating entries in superhero adaptations. Most of it is a dreadful mess, with an incoherent plot, too many villains and Burton’s familiar bugaboo of out-of-control production design confounding it at every turn. But it does feature the delicious Michelle Pfeiffer as a most unique Catwoman, as well as Burton’s unique Gothic sensibilities shading her adversarial romance with the Caped Crusader. And it’s developed a cult following among those who appreciate the bizarre. Batman Returns opened today in 1992.




Today in Movie History: May 24

It’s blockbuster season, so I’ll start with the biggest. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — widely regarded as the best of the series after the original — benefited from the genius pairing of Harrison Ford’s redoubtable archaeologist with Sean Connery as his fussy, disapproving father. It opened today in 1989.

Slightly further down the sequel list, we find Back to the Future III, which opened exactly one year after The Last Crusade and — unlike Indy — had the good sense to bring its story to an elegant conclusion. Though overly plotted and breathlessly paced, it maintained the charming relationship between Michel J. Fox’s twitchy teen and Christopher Lloyd’s eccentric inventor, and plopping them down in the Old West provided plenty of gags to throw at them.

And since we’re being thorough today, we should mention A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s ignominious final outing as James Bond. Embarrassingly old for the part, he sleepwalked through a movie that features one or two interesting moments (topped by a base jump off of the Eiffel Tower), but otherwise wastes countless how-could-they-blow-it assets like Christopher Walken as the villain and Grace Jones as his sinister right arm. At least there’s the Duran Duran song. A View to a Kill opened today in 1985.

Straying away from blockbusters, we find Belle du Jour, Luis Buunel’s surreal masterpiece about a sexually distant housewife (Catherine Deneuve) who begins moonlighting as a prostitute. In anyone else’s hands, it might have been sleazy and degrading. In Bunuel’s, it’s haunting, surreal and surprisingly pro-woman. It opened in France today in 1967.

Speaking of pro-women, we’ll close today with Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise, hailed as a groundbreaker for its depiction of a pair of good friends (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) who go on the lam to escape… well… everything to do with men. It opened today in 1991, and we’ve never looked at the Grand Canyon the same way again.

And I will note for the record that those last two pro-women movies were actually directed by men. Might be nice to let a few more women take a shot at directing movies like that…


Movies for the Resistance: The Dead Zone

(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: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Dewhurst and Martin Sheen
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Running time: 103 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1983


(SPOILER ALERT: This piece discusses some of the third-act twists in the film. If you haven’t seen it and want to preserve the surprises, best wait to watch it before reading. Fairly warned thee be, says I.)

People have cited The West Wing as primo comfort food for the Current Situation, specifically Martin Sheen’s vaunted portrayed of President Jed Bartlet. This is the guy we want in the Oval Office all the time every day: thoughtful, principled, astute, wise, and weighing the consequences of every move before acting firmly and decisively for the good of all.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the character, and I confess that – in the face of it – I take a certain misanthropic thrill at pointing out Sheen’s other presidential performance: one far more in keeping with the current occupant of the White House.

Greg Stillson represents one of Stephen King’s more memorable villains. King always understood the power of bullies, and in Stillson, he found a terrifyingly plausible embodiment. A jumped-up con artist turned populist politician, he brutalizes and blackmails his way to the halls of power: speaking about the troubles of the common man while surrounding himself with thugs and criminals. People treat him like a clown and don’t take him seriously… until it’s far too late to stop him. In the movie, he’s running for Senate, but in the book, he’s just a third-party candidate in a piddling campaign for Congress: a nobody joker who couldn’t possibly be elected President.

The parallels are eerie, in part because King drew upon well-established demagogues to create the character. The world holds plenty of real-life Greg Stillsons, and we’ve now seen with terrifying clarity how much damage they can cause. In the movie, salvation arises only when the villain shakes hands with reluctant clairvoyant Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) at a political rally, showing him the dark future that awaits.

In point of fact, the danger shouldn’t require supernatural powers to ferret out. And yet here we sit in disturbingly similar circumstances, beholden to the demented whims of another “great man” who peddles anger and easy solutions. What should have been obvious from the start becomes hazy and distant beneath shabby, easy lies. The movie leaves such obvious truths for an actively supernatural power to call out. The one person who sees it coming has no one else to turn to.

Director David Cronenberg takes a typically icy approach to King’s story: aching with sympathy for Smith’s dilemma, but merciless in refusing to grant him any way out. Smith’s a schoolteacher. He just wants to read Washington Irving to high school sophomores and marry the pretty girl in the classroom next door. But God has other plans for him… and in fact claims everything Smith cares about before presenting him with this terrible task. He alone can see, and he alone can act, a cruel fate he neither asks for nor deserves. Small wonder that he rages – quite rightfully – at the bitter hand he’s been dealt.

But his anger won’t change the facts, leaving he with a choice: does he act to stop what’s coming, or try to preserve the life he’s worked so hard to rebuild? It ties closely into King’s notions about God – how He asks horrible things from us without explanation, and gives us free will only to decide if we’re going to follow through – which Cronenberg picks up on instantly. The fate of the world hinges on Smith’s actions, and with his condition deteriorating, he doesn’t have the time to find alternative solutions.

That ultimately moves into some very dark places, with potential political assassination the only thing standing between us and Armageddon. It makes for a sobering meditation, especially now as we sit in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s asinine attack on Syria. As of this writing, we’re still wondering where it will lead. Is it a one-off spat, intended to show us all for the umpteenth time that the 70-year-old toddler can wear his big-boy pants? Or the start of a spiral that ends somewhere disturbingly close to Stillson’s messianic rant? I’m inclined to believe the former, but it reminds us what so many of us feared about this administration and where it might lead us.

And that, in turn comes circling back to Smith, who acted in the only way he could with an unthinkable response to an unimaginable fate. He could see because he had powers, but he could also see because he was a good man. A principled man. A man who could adhere to those principles because he was small and ordinary and lacked political power. Politicians calculate, they game out scenarios, and they act in their own best interests first. One cannot exercise power unless one first defends it, which sometimes means ignoring a screaming moral imperative for the sake of some perceived (and often very shaky) greater good.

Ordinary people are spared that Machiavellian scrum: a scuffle that taints everyone who enters it, even if they do genuinely good things with whatever leverage they accrue. The question becomes, what do we do with the privilege? How do we assert moral clarity over a ruling class that struggles with it at the best of times, and has used the current administration to toss it aside with a contemptuous sneer? Johnny Smith had an answer born of desperation and isolation: an extreme response to an apocalyptic threat. We’re more fortunate than he in that we’re not alone, which gives us the ability to adopt less violent means of fighting back. The protests are having an effect, the checks and balances appear to be holding, and peaceful pushback hasn’t faltered, at least not yet. As dangerous as our current situation is, we’re still a long way from shooting at each other in the streets.

But the goal is no less important, nor is the imperative to act in the face of a grinning demagogue who, like Stillson, combines anger and entitlement into a shoddy hustle about having all the answers. It’s worth remembering that it took a normal man to bring this fictional menace down: someone with nothing more than a basic sense of ethics, and an inability to look away. Here’s hoping that the same clarity can hold the line in real life… and that strength of numbers can give us a few more options than Smith.

Today in Movie History: October 21

The Right Stuff was billed as a major Oscar contender upon its release, and critics rightfully hailed it as one of the best films of the decade. Its Academy campaign was derailed, however, by the now-absurd premise that it was helping then-senator John Glenn (whom the film depicts) launch a presidential campaign. But its box-office failure and short-handed night at the Oscars can’t change what it is: one of the greatest movies ever made about our country, at its best and its worst. It opened today in 1983.

That same day in 1983, director David Cronenberg turned in one of his more straightforward efforts: an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. Long considered an overly clinical director, he found the heartbreaking center of the story in John Smith (Christopher Walken), a schoolteacher who awakens from a coma to find the life he knew gone, but possessing the power to predict the future. Those who know Walken only as creepy gangsters and the like will be surprised at how empathetic he is here, and Cronenberg’s sure direction delivers one of the best Stephen King adaptations to date.

We’ll close with The Awful Truth, a screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as a couple in the midst of a divorce who start having second thoughts. It’s light and breezy the way Cary Grant should be, and under the direction of Leo McCarey, it becomes one of the better comedies from this era. It opened today in 1937.