Today in Movie History: June 27

Here’s the weird thing about greatness: sometimes, it sneaks up on you even when you know it’s coming. We all knew that Pixar’s WALL*E was going to be brilliant, but THIS brilliant? Like the-best-thing-Pixar-ever-did brillaint? Pixar. PIXAR. And yeah, this scrappy little guy is willing to put up a fight for the #1 spot on that august list. How good was it? You love him as much as you love R2-D2, don’t you? Yes. Yes you do. WALL*E landed 10 years ago today in 2008, and we’re all just a little bit happier as a result.

Labyrinth began life as just another box office bomb that found its audience on video, and which today is counted among the very best things any of its creators (Jim Henson, George Lucas, the late David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly CRUSHING IT with an army of Muppets on one side and a bona fide rock god on the other) ever did. It opened today in 1986.

On the dark side of things, most people tend to agree that the best zombie movies ever made have to end their credits with the phrase “directed by George A Romero.” Once you get below that, however, the debate gets interesting. (Call it the Zombie Bronze, after Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead,) There are a number of contenders, but 28 Days Later makes a strong case. Danny Boyle’s vision of a Great Britain engulfed by a “rage virus” feels as timeless as Romero’s efforts, and with great performances from notables like Cillian Murphy, Christopher Eccleston and Brendan Gleeson, it’s an absolute can’t-miss for any serious zombie fan. It opened in the U.S. 15 years ago today in 2003.

We’ll close with Live and Let Die, one of the most problematic of the Bond films for a number of reasons. Purely on its own terms, it’s a delightful first outing for 007’s most jovial incarnation, with Roger Moore slipping effortlessly into the role that defined his career. Great chase scenes, a fine pair of villains, a better-than-average Bond girl in Jane Seymour, and the immortal Paul McCartney song (still the only Bond song ever that sees regular radio play) make it all a hoot in many ways.

Balancing that out? Oh, just the RACISM. The UNBELIEVABLE HORRIFICALLY POTENT racism, as the Bond franchise — ever eager to cash in on a trend — started lifting blaxploitation trends for its own skeezy use. Considering the virulent colonialism of the source novel, it’s an unbelievably cynical move. Plus, racism. So much racism.

Live and Let Die opened 45 years ago today in 1973.


Today in Movie History: June 15

It’s a big day today, and we’ll start with the most recent. Amid all the hubbub over 2008’s The Dark Knight, it’s easy to forget just what an amazing job its predecessor, Batman Begins, did after Tim Burton’s singular-but-flawed vision and the depressing crassness of the Joel Schumacher Batman films. Bat-fans were hungry for the kind of lean, grounded tale that Christopher Nolan unleashed with deceptive ease, and the stellar cast combined with a keen understanding of the character to create one of the best incarnations of the Dark Knight in any medium. Oh yeah, and it set up a sequel of some note too… Batman Begins opened today in 2005.

15 years earlier, another comic book adaptation stuck closer to the Tim Burton model, and is still regarded as an ambitious failure. But the sheer joy of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy has helped it age exceptionally well, and today stands as a breath of fresh air amid the gloom and doom of modern superhero sagas. The Stephen Sondheim songs are a knockout, and Al Pacino’s spot-on Al Pacino impersonation may be the greatest of all time. It opened today in 1990.

In far earlier era, but belonging to the same Boys’ Own tradition of those later films, there’s The Dirty Dozen: Robert Aldrich’s gleeful excuse to righteously kick some Nazi behind. It exists as pure popcorn entertainment and nothing more, but who doesn’t love watching Lee Marvin and his squad of misfits stick it to der Fuhrer good? It opened today in 1967.

Want more? We’ve got it. I thought about starting with Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, a good film that I never quite cottoned to and which thus took a step down in my estimation. Nonetheless, the story of a man (Jack Lemmon) who lends his apartment to his employers so they can canoodle with women who are not their wives holds some subversive charm, and its five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director for Wilder) speak to its reputation as a classic. It opened today in 1960.

Baseball movies come and go, but none are quite so wonderfully, perfectly accurate as Bull Durham. Its tale of a veteran minor league catcher (Kevin Costner), a hotshot pitcher on his way up (Tim Robbins) and the hardcore booster (Susan Sarandon) engaging in a romantic tryst with them both provide tons of romantic heat. As for the baseball, this is one of the few films that understands the sport isn’t about winning the pennant. It’s about what happens while you’re trying to win the pennant. Bull Durham opened today in 1988.

I’m not a huge fan of Abbott and Costello, but I am a huge fan of the Universal monsters, and their farce Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein uses the ghoulish old gang to nearly perfect effect. The secret is taking the monsters seriously: letting Bud and Lou run around like idiots and keeping the source of their fear as pure. The high point is Bela Lugosi — 20 years from the original Dracula and showing every mile of it — putting the moves on a hapless young lady and causing all those years to vanish in an instant. The role still belongs to him. The movie belongs to Bud and Lou, and they’ve never been better. It opened 70 years ago today in 1948.

Finally, there’s The Lion King: the single most inexplicable classic in Disney’s canon. Its widely regarded status as an animation masterpiece covers up for the fact that:

1) It liberally cribbed from a Japanese cartoon called Kimba the White Lion.

2) Its story embraces the ethically dodgy principle that everything will be fine as long as you shut up and know your place.

3) Its animation is mind-bogglingly shoddy for an A-list picture at the heart of the Disney Renaissance.

Nevertheless, it is almost universally beloved…. and if you push me under duress, I admit that the Elton John songs are pretty boss. The Lion King opened today in 1994.



Movies for the Resistance: Dunkirk

(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: Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Running time: 107 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 2017


History’s a lot less scary when you’re reading about it in retrospective. The outcome is certain, the perils part of the distant past, and the real-life heroes who stood up and were counted have received appropriate lionization (either individually or as a collective). Actually living through such events takes the fun out of them because we don’t know how they’re going to turn out, and when you’re talking about damage to the fundamental institutions of your nation, it makes for a lot of sleepless nights. Will Trump’s presidency end with a validation of the Founding Fathers’ checks and balances, or will it crush the American experiment in every way that matters? All of the options seem to fall under one outcome or the other, though with someone this erratic in the White House, the specifics are anybody’s guess. Trump’s supporters continue to sneer, but the rest of us have no illusions about the stakes involved… and frankly, they’re terrifying.

The arrival of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk at this particular moment makes for a bracingly pertinent history lesson, though the similarities to our current situation are subtle. It covers a war against an external foe rather than fellow countrymen gone mad, and entails a strategic military retreat instead of a righteous victory. But the stakes were as big as they come, and the outcome remained perilously in doubt to those who lived through it. Nolan’s film reminds us that others once felt as we do… and found a way to prevail when the world literally hung in the balance.

Dunkirk is actually more interested in individual experiences than a history lesson, keeping the big-picture elements brief and to the point. In the spring of 1940, with Nazi Germany about to complete its stunning conquest of France, the bulk of the Allied forces found themselves stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. The Germans, afraid of a breakout, called a halt to their ground advance, instead relying on the Luftwaffe to slaughter the cornered troops. That gave the British time to organize an extraordinary evacuation: requisitioning anything that would float and sending it across the English Channel to pull the men to safety. Thanks to their efforts – combined with Nazi second-guessing and general cowardice – over 330,000 Allied troops retreated safely to England to fight another day.

Nolan divides the story into three sections – land, sea and air – each with a single protagonist or group of protagonists for us to follow. A young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) searches for escape from the beach. An older man (Mark Rylance) and a pair of young mates take their weekend sailing skills to the Channel in an effort to lend a hand. A Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) patrols the air with his squadron for signs of the enemy. Each section entails a set amount of time (one week, one day and one hour), presenting the same events from different points of view, and shuttling back and forth in time to reflect the shifting perspectives of the same incidents.

As a technical exercise, it’s peerless, but Nolan’s choice of figures to follow – and their particular dilemmas – lends the film its pertinence to our current situation. He throws the notion of traditional wartime heroics out the window. Soldier and civilian alike are left powerless in the face of a seemingly hidden enemy who can come from anywhere at any time. We see very little of the Nazis beyond the periodic appearance of a few aircraft launching terrifying bombing runs against the sitting ducks on the beach. But we feel them inching closer with every scene: just over that dune, just under those waves, just around the bend. With nothing to fight back against, the British troops can do little but look desperately for escape.

Hardy’s pilot comes the closest to the wartime protagonist we expect: cool as a cucumber in the face of long odds, and resolutely destroying every German plane in his crosshairs. But even he faces the harsh realities of the situation, and his valiant efforts arise more as pro-forma resistance than some kind of noble stand.

In the place of expected flag waving, Nolan provides a workshop on the ease with which men can die in such circumstances. Drowning is the most common, but there’s plenty of room for bombs, fires and plain old-fashioned human stupidity. Vulnerability becomes the inescapable watchword, as men trained to fight and kill in defense of their country peer furtively at the horizon and wondering where the hammer is going to fall next… knowing there’s nothing they can do about it.

And yet they struggle on: looking for seaworthy vessels, holding out a hand to their fellows, or just fighting like hell to stay alive. Life equals resistance on the beaches, and while their commanders look for a miracle, the men below them ask themselves, “what can I do?” Get across the Channel somehow. Grab a buddy and pull him to safety. Plug that leaking hole in the hull of the boat. Just keep putting one foot forward… and when the call comes, step up to the plate and let the consequences to yourself be damned.

The film’s conscience arises during those moments, when a character chooses the better angels of his nature instead of deciding he’s done enough. “There’s no hiding from this son,” Rylance’s preternaturally calm old man tells the shellshocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) he’s pulled from the sea. Heroism arises from bleak necessity, and collective accomplishments never seem that powerful when they happen. Only when you step back and look at the whole picture does their extraordinary nature become clear.

And there’s no doubt that the world changed during that messy retreat from a collapsing nation. Not because the British waited for someone higher up the food chain to do the work, but because all of those little gestures started to add up. The “Little Ships of Dunkirk” numbered about 700, supplementing some 200-odd vessels from the Royal Navy. (Nolan used a number of them in the production.) Lifeboats, yachts and fishing trawlers – some measuring less than 15 feet long – simply did what they could. A dozen men here, a dozen men there, some poor bastard pulled from a sinking wreck… and all of a sudden, Britain had 300,000 fighting men home safe and sound. Men whose numbers gave their opponents pause, who kept Hitler delaying a land invasion of Britain, and who stood as living testament to the line in the sand that the Allies ultimately held. All of that came from thousand little steps, most by anonymous people who simply saw what was in front of them and decided to act.

Our current crisis is a long way from Dunkirk, but the lessons aren’t. The rolling disaster of Donald Trump in the White House means that attacks on our national institutions, ethical standards, and disturbing large groups of individuals can come from anywhere. That lack of predictability – that uncertainly – lends itself in part to people’s perceived helplessness at a situation that’s bigger than all of us. And yet we’re not as helpless as we seem, and while we’re not facing dive-bombing Stukas, the little steps we take to stop what’s happening can add up in a surprisingly fast time.

Trump would likely brand the men onscreen as losers for retreating; he’s certainly not shy about vilifying military personnel when it suits him. His Republican enablers in Congress have shown their willingness to let him run wild, even when he finds targets in their own ranks. He’s an ignorant man. Ignorant and cowardly. Dunkirk reminds us that we’ve seen that kind of enemy before. It doesn’t take a big gesture to stop them. Just a lot of little ones pointed in the right direction.