Today in Movie History: July 13

Today marks the release of The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the high points of the Roger Moore James Bond era that found him flashing his playboy spy routine to increasingly ridiculous ends. The villain’s a bit of a snoozer, and while Barbara Bach looks great in a slinky dress, she’s still too passive to make the strong impression required from the best Bond girls. On the other hand, Richard Kiel’s Jaws is a hoot and with Moore in fine form as 007’s most carefree incarnation, the film’s still a lot of fun. It opened today in 1977.

When it comes to pop-culture oddities, it’s hard to top The Dead Pool, the fifth and presumably the last of the Dirty Harry franchise. It actually ranks as one of the better ones, with a surprising sense of humor to go along with Clint Eastwood’s thundering political context. But that’s not why it tops the list. It tops the list because it contains one of those truly bizarre pop culture mash-ups that only makes sense in the rear-view mirror. A key scene involves a music video being filmed in a meat locker, whose doomed star pretty much kicks the whole plot off. The rock star was played by a then-unknown Jim Carrey, and the music video director by a then-unknown Liam Neeson. Carrey lip-syncs Axl Rose while Neeson looks on during an Exorcist homage in the middle of a Dirty Harry flick. It has to be seen to be believed. The Dead Pool opened 30 years ago today in 1988.

I’m not going to spend too much time on Ghost, a middling supernatural romance that somehow turned into a massive hit and won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar. It’s not bad, certainly, but it’s also aged poorly and retains at best a little throwback nostalgia to counteract the general sense that its success owed more to the zeitgeist of the time than the film itself. It opened today in 1990.

The same can’t be said of The Muppets Take Manhattan the last straight-up Muppet Movie to be overseen by Jim Henson before his untimely death. Henson’s longtime partner Frank Oz handled directing duties and the film — which sends the gang to New York in an effort to start up a Broadway play — carries the goofy iconoclastic charm that the Muppets have struggled to find in the wake of Henson’s passing. The Muppets Take Manhattan opened today in 1984.

Finally, I’ll briefly mention The Frisco Kid, a strange and wonderful western about a rabbi (Gene Wilder) travelling across the frontier to San Francisco and the amiable outlaw (Harrison Ford) who helps him on his way. The pairing of those two should be enough to pique your interest, and the film itself is different enough to let its surprisingly sweet tone come through. It opened today in 1979.

 

Today in Movie History: June 22

It’s a close call for the top spot today — there’s some big ones — but we’re going to go with Kermit and the gang making their feature film debut with  The Muppet Movie. The irreplaceable Jim Henson turned directing duties over to James Frawley, but the former’s fingerprints are all over it, bolstered by brilliant songs from Paul Williams and backed by his unbelievable troupe of puppeteers. It remains every inch the sweet, magical, iconoclastic statement the Muppets deserve. Time hasn’t dimmed it one iota, and when people talk about the greatest family movies ever made, this one invariably creeps into the conversation. if you need a break from the bumper crop of real world horrors this summer, the little green frog dude has got your back. It opened today in 1979.

Disney has a few family classics of its own, not the least of which is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Robert Zemeckis’s gloriously clever take on a Hollywood where animated characters live and work among flesh-and-blood humans. It works brilliantly not only as a unique summer blockbuster, but as a wondrous parody of film noir, a gentle poke at the filmmaking industry, and even a quiet statement about the nature of prejudice, all topped by one of the best performances of Bob Hoskins’ career. It opened 30 years ago today in 1988.

For more classic Disney, we find Lady and The Tramp: landing right in the middle of the company’s 1950s heyday and scoring a huge hit for the Mouse in the process. It’s not quite as beloved as the likes of Snow White or Pinocchio, but the gorgeously animated tale of love between a pampered spaniel and a back-alley mutt still brings honored to the vaunted studio. It opened today in 1955.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton movies remain guilty pleasures for this column, especially when their nuclear chemistry turns into a meltdown. Case in point: Mike Nichol’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, charting the disintegration of a middle-aged couple over a long booze-filled evening. Considered shocking at the time, it’s lost little of that power thanks in no small part to the two leads whose love-hate relationship have become the stuff of legend. It opened today in 1966.

Oh, okay, we’ll include The Fast and the Furious too. Good? No. Not even close. But it clearly grabbed a hold of something — spawning a franchise that shows now signs of slowing down decades later — and the risible hyper-masculinity takes itself WAY too seriously in this initial effort (something the sequels eventually figured out), there’s no denying that the stunt and chase scenes are worthy of attention. It opened today in 2001. Vroom-vroom!

 

 

Today in Movie History: December 19

It’s another big day for notable movies: December gets very crowded with event films in an effort to either rake in the box office while the kids are on break or make a play for an Oscar nod or two. One notable movie managed to do both. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was Peter Jackson’s opening foray into what became an indisputable cinematic masterpiece. It’s easy to forget how unprecedented his efforts to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s celebrated fantasy novels to life, and how much was riding on its success. The prospect had a lot of old-school fantasy fans breathing into a paper bag before it opened. Turns out, we needn’t have worried. Jackson had the right touch, the film became a phenomenon, and along with the Harry Potter franchise, it finally gave the fantasy genre some long-overdue respect. The Fellowship of the Ring opened today in 2001.

Speaking of Oscar winners, Oliver Stone had already scored an Academy Award for penning Midnight Express when he helmed Platoon, a fictionalized account of his experiences in Vietnam. Not only did it walk away with four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director for Stone), but it became the final cinematic word on Vietnam, and represented a national catharsis on that war after years of denial and evasion. It opened today in 1986.

I’m still not sure what I think of James Cameron’s Titanic, which became the biggest moneymaker in the world for a time and an absolute Oscar behemoth, with 11 wins under its belt (including Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron). It looks a lot creakier 20 years on, with the beloved romance between Kate Winslet’s rich girl and Leonardo DiCaprio’s poor boy feeling far more threadbare than it did at the time and Cameron’s turgid script bogging the film down at every turn. That said, it still finds moments of real magic to appreciate, and if nothing else, the film presents a chillingly plausible sense of what it might have felt like on the deck of that ship that fateful night. Titanic opened two decades ago today in 1997.

Peter Sellers was best known for his role as Inspector Clouseau, and his best performance (or performances) likely came from Strangelove, but his late-inning turn in Hal Ashby’s Being There deserves a prominent spot among them both. It tells the story of a simple-minded gardener mistaken for a genius when he leaves his long-time employer’s home, a sort of reverse Forrest Gump that finds the wisdom and dark insight into human nature that Zemeckis’s movie lacked. It opened today in 1979.

Moving away from Oscar contenders, we find Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, based on the off-Broadway musical about a schlubby flower shop employee (Rick Moranis) who seems to find the answer to all his problems in a carnivorous plant from outer space. It attains the properly camp tone quite well, aided by some fantastic songs from the legendary Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and puppet-work from one of the masters of the medium. It opened in 1986, and is as much fun today as it was 30 years ago.

Oh, hey, a Bond film opened today too! Okay, it was Tomorrow Never Dies, a badly dated relic from the less-than-immortal Pierce Brosnan era of 007, but still features a few highlights. Chief among them is Michelle Yeoh knocking it out of the park as a Chinese agent who joins forces with Bond, and Judi Dench’s always agreeable presence as M. The film opened 20 years ago today in 1997.

Today in Movie History: December 14

It was a good day for epics, starting with Edward Zwick’s classic Civil War tale Glory, which (among other things) gave Denzel Washington his first Oscar. You like your epics big, loud and featuring Charlton Heston? December 14 also saw the release of Anthony Mann’s minor classic El Cid back in 1961.

1984 saw three notable science fiction movies released today… well okay, two notable science fiction movies and Michael Crichton’s Runaway. David Lynch released is long-anticipated version of Dune, to the bafflement and dismay of many fans. The film has since developed a cult following, and while we acknowledge its flaws, we can’t help but admire its ambition. (Plus Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck; who doesn’t love that?) Far more successful — to the tune of an Oscar nomination for star Jeff Bridges — was Starman, John Carpenter’s marvelous move out of his horror movie comfort zone and into the realm of sci-fi romance.

But that’s not all! Carl Reiner’s The Jerk opened today in 1979: a film that really shouldn’t work but does thanks to its lead, Steve Martin. Martin scored another success nine years later with Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which remains one of his best films to date.

Finally, there’s Saturday Night Fever, John Badham’s ode to disco and working-class Brooklyn that made a star out of John Travolta. It turns 40 years old today — released in 1977 — and it’s a lot better than you might think.

Movies for the Resistance: Little Shop of Horrors

(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: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, John Candy and the voice of Levi Stubbs 
Directed by: Frank Oz
Running time: 94 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 1986

 

Little Shop of Horrors is pure camp first and foremost: re-envisioning a truly terrible Roger Corman quickie as a calculated act of ridiculousness. Outlandish costumes, exaggerated emotions, broad characters and some fantastic musical numbers (courtesy of the late Howard Ashman and his longtime partner Alan Menken) simultaneously upend and celebrate the conventions of 1950s monster movies… filtered through the lens of a truly ignominious example.

But Ashman and Menken had more on their mind than just a silly little horror-comedy, and the subtle, ingenious way they expressed it has helped give Little Shop of Horrors a surprising amount of longevity. The original stage musical has never fallen out of fashion (a UK tour took place just last year), and the movie direct by Frank Oz has become something of an evergreen… in part because of its pointed critique of the rat race and capitalism in general. Its outlandishness hides barbs that grow more potent with every screening.

Trump’s White House exists in part as a primal shriek of late-era capitalism: deregulating business, opening the environment for development and reducing every national part and untouched wetlands to an exploitable price tag. Anyone trying to earn a living these days can speak to the toxic payoff of that folly, and we’ll all have to live with the fallout a lot sooner than too many of us think. Yet we keep running on the gerbil wheel faster and faster, hoping vainly that the Protestant work ethic can lead us to that long-promised comfort and prosperity.

Little Shop of Horrors takes subversive delight in destroying every facet of that myth: starting with the notion of the little guy with the big idea who rockets to fame and fortune. Certainly, Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) makes a suitably hapless working stiff. Caught in a dead-end job, subject to an abusive boss, trapped on the wrong side of the tracks with no hope of advancement, he’s eager for anything to change the game. That hits us in the very first act with one of the film’s best songs, “Skid Row,” in which Seymour and his would-be paramour Audrey (Ellen Greene, reprising her role from the original off-Broadway production) bemoan their status along with their fellow discards.

Salvation appears in the form of Audrey II, a “strange and interesting new plant” that doesn’t do anything useful but engenders an endless fascination from anyone who catches sight of it. Also, it feeds on blood, which should be a big red flag. But Seymour’s desperate and the price doesn’t seem so high. A few drops here, a few drops there. No one gets hurt, right? After all, business starts looking up with Audrey II in the window, and doesn’t that beat the abject poverty he was living in before? He’s caught the tail of the fabled American Dream, and will happily ride it straight out of his scuzzy neighborhood into something better. (Audrey I best expresses those dreams: empty, materialistic suburban bliss defined by slick magazine ads and consisting largely of a house full of stuff.)

Of course, neither of them get a chance to enjoy any of that promised success, since their boss Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) sucks up the profits while constantly deferring any of the big rewards Seymour is entitled to. He works harder and harder, and the money keeps rolling in… but he’s always left empty-handed when the time comes to pass out the goodies.

Yet he keeps buying into the system in the hope of future rewards, even when the plant’s demands advance to the actively murderous. Seymour built a better mousetrap (or at least found one in the middle of an unexpected eclipse) only to give up mor4e and more to keep the gravy train rolling. The plant greases the skids nicely with promises of wealth and riches, of course, and even provides a perfectly nasty competitor (Steven Martin’s hysterically sadistic dentist) who richly deserves the be turned into mulch.

So it goes, deeper and deeper, as Seymour keeps obeying the plant’s dictates in return for increasingly empty promises. By the time he realizes that no reward is coming, it’s far too late. The monster he helped create is out of control and no longer willing to take “no” for an answer.

Audrey II’s hustle makes for a lesson in basic con artistry: get paid up front, pump the other guy full of empty promises, and cut him loose the instant you have the leverage. It’s the precise snow job that Trump practiced his entire life, which worked on the bare minimum of voters to put him in the White House. He and his cronies are reaping the rewards. The rest of us get the shaft: including (and especially) the voters who bought into his horseshit in the first place.

It may be Audrey II’s inherent ridiculousness that binds it most closely to Trump and his way of doing things. Certainly, few cinematic monsters feel as appropriate as this one. The threat is a joke: a silly little plant that no one quite takes seriously… until it literally grows big enough to swallow the nation whole. Even then, it seems too surreal for words. We keep looking for the punchline: the moment Monty Hall or Andy Kaufman come out from behind the curtain and tell us it’s all been some colossal gag. Meanwhile, the silly plant laughs and distracts and chews up another hapless cast member. (I confess that the plant is probably smarter, however.)

We could have stopped it before now, but we didn’t. Why? Because we still bought into the rigged game it played. We still assumed that the shiny baubles it offered had a reasonable chance of being delivered. That façade eventually shatters into a million pieces and yet people still cling to it rather than face the truth. (It hits our dignity as much as anything else: “THIS is how the world ends?!”)

Oz originally had to shoot a new ending for the film’s theatrical release: exchanging the sight of Audrey II’s spawn running amuck for a happily ever after in Seymour and Audrey I’s suburban Shangri La. The original ending was restored for the Blu-ray, which lets you watch either one as preferred. It makes for a strange variation on Schrodinger’s cat: existing simultaneously alongside each other, neither quite superior enough to discard the other.

The downbeat ending feels more in keeping with the film’s overall tone, as Seymour succumbs to his Faustian bargain and the world pays the price. And the sight of giant Venus flytraps rampaging through New York – while the Greek chorus sings “Don’t Feed the Plants” – feels right at home in our current political environment… where no sacred cow is above trampling for a fast buck and we’re seemingly helpless to bring the whole sick show to a halt. The visual effects are fantastic, the implications chilling, and the song equal to the rest of the fantastic soundtrack.

But truth be told, I prefer the happy ending. They’re in short supply these days, and need to be cherished. There’s a lot of Seymour Krelborns still out there, still searching for their shot. We can do better by them. A lot better.