Today in Movie History: July 19

We’ll start with the junkies. Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s celebrated adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s equally celebrated novel, helped cement the careers not only of Boyle but of many of his cast, including Ewan McGregor (never better), Robert Carlyle and Kelly MacDonald. It also showed a side of Scotland rarely seen in the movies, and has become — along with Requiem for a Dream — the final cinematic word on drug addiction. It opened today in 1996.

And I’ll give a personal shout-out to one of my all-time guilty pleasures, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, which opened today in 1991. They totally melvined Death!

 

Today in Movie History: November 13

It was a busy day for movie openings.  Claude Rains terrorized the English countryside in The Invisible Man (1933); Robert Mitchum faced down Kirk Douglas in the noir classic Out of the Past (1947); Steven Spielberg launched his career with Duel (1971); Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated how to completely butcher a Stephen King novel in The Running Man; Martin Scorsese delivered a stunningly effective reboot of Mitchum’s Cape Fear (1991); Francis Ford Coppola updated Bram Stoker’s Dracula to flawed, hypnotic and undeniably powerful effect (1992); and Meet Joe Black (1998) got a huge boost in revenue thanks to the trailer for The Phantom Menace released in front of it (in those dark days of the early Internet, you still had to go to the movies to get your trailers). Whew! That’s a whole lotta Hollywood.

Today in Movie History: September 29

Though I prefer the 1937 version of A Star is Born, there’s a lot to recommend in the remake: featuring a comeback turn from Judy Garland as a singer on the rise and James Mason as her fading, alcoholic mentor. Both actors scored Oscar nominations and the film is regarded as one of the seminal musicals of the 1950s. It opened today in 1954.

When talking about films that cemented a movement, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s oddball retelling of Henry IV in the world of gay street hustlers. Besides accelerating the indie film trend that began with Sex, Lies and Video Tape, it brought critical acclaim for both the late River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, who demonstrated for the first time that he could be more than Ted Theodore Logan. My Own Private Idaho opened today in 1991.

We’ll close with Devil in a Blue Dress, Carl Franklin’s exquisite neo-noir that filters race relations in post-war Los Angeles through a shady election, a beautiful woman (Jennifer Beals), and a cynical burgeoning detective (Denzel Washington) seeking answers before it costs him everything. Washington is fantastic as always, but the real scene-stealer is Don Cheadle, in a star-making turn as Washington’s sociopathic wingman. Devil in a Blue Dress opened today in 1995.

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.

Movies for the Resistance: The Devil’s Advocate

(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, Al Pacino, Charlize Theron, Jeffrey Jones, Judith Ivey, Connie Nielsen and Craig T. Nelson
Directed by: Taylor Hackford
Running time: 144 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1997

 

The media’s been making more hay lately about the “Faustian bargain” the GOP cut with Donald Trump. Republican lawmakers ignore his excesses and make him feel like a big boy in exchange for him signing whatever they put across his desk. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, and in exchange for… well, nothing, they find themselves saddled with the grotesque ethical lapses, the misogyny and racism, the horrendous violation of every established standard of decency, and the sheer gross incompetence of it all. We’re finally seeing signs that GOP has read the fine print and grasped just how massively fucked they are. They signed a deal with a monster and became active enablers of his monstrosity.

(Before I get farther, I might add that we on the left aren’t immune from such deals either. We happily ignored Bill Clinton’s dalliances and threw a number of his victims under the bus in exchange for favorable political accomplishments. It pales before the nightmare of Trump, and we got a successful presidency out of it… but try telling that to the Paula Joneses and Monica Lewinskys left in his wake.)

The Devil’s Advocate makes a good template for this particular Faust story, in part because it, like Trump, focuses largely on vanity as the sin du jour. It’s a simple concept – a John Grisham novel with a literal instead of a figurative devil at the head of the firm – but it plays out in surprisingly potent ways. (With a few shadows of Macbeth thrown in here and there.) Critics called it out for its melodramatic tone, but the theatrics are far more feature than bug, and the participants seem just aware enough of the overheated material to wink without upending the whole apple cart. (Al Pacino made an art form out of it.)

And it does know the price you pay when you dance to that fiddle. Indeed, one of its most potent pleasures comes from watching slick Florida lawyer Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) slowly understand just how deeply he’s caught, and what’s expected of him when he is. That look, and those of others in the unbelievably corrupt firm he joins, can be seen in snippets of Trump’s various underlings and enablers. It tends to emerge in two forms: barely disguised hostility, and sudden pained expressions of realization. The former can be seen anytime one of the White House flying monkeys speaks to the press. The latter shows up mostly on Congressmen and GOP faithful who thought that could benefit from this unholy mess, as well as figures from the administration itself unceremoniously dumped to the curb.

There’s no way out of course. As Mark Shields wryly observed, Trump has a way of diminishing anyone and anything he comes into contact with, leaving them smaller and coarser when he’s done. And yet getting to that point proves remarkably easy. You keep an eye on the bigger picture, you make compromises to gain leverage, you allow your ego to be stoked, and then suddenly you’re kneeling before the black altar ready to fuck your sister and herald the end of the world.

The deliciously overheated nature of the movie paints every step in delightfully sudsy terms, as Lomax slowly uncover just what he’s become a part of. It starts early – and relatively intensely – when he a child molester off. It should be horrific, especially when he overtly acknowledges that his client did it. But he and his wife (Charlize Theron) are very good at looking the other way, and somewhere in there, there’s still a principle. Everyone has a right to a legal defense, after all; even the kiddie rapists.

Then he arrives in New York, and what at first seems like an unforgivable ethical lapse turns out to be just Step A. Each new case brings him accolades and rewards… and hides larger and larger evils beneath the surface.  He deftly avoids those questions by focusing on the rhetoric: deployed with unbelievable skill and covering up increasingly vast monstrosities beneath the tiniest of fig leaves. The act itself becomes its own reward, as he becomes convinced the courtroom belongs to him alone. It’s blindingly obvious how horrid it all is. The Devil merely provides some shiny distractions to make excusing it easier. So it goes, until he’s so far gone that the very notion of changing course seems absurd.

The film loves showing us how easy it is to step into that trap, and how juicy the supposed rewards look just before they vanish in front of your eyes. We get seduced along with him, both in terms of the operatic overkill and Pacino’s irresistible tempter on the top floor. It works because of his wonderful excess, but also because Reeves remains strangely sympathetic as a not-especially-good man learning how much further he has to fall.

The parallels are obvious and none-too-subtle. You could likely apply them to any similarly corrupt situation. And the surface details make it feel especially pertinent to Trump, starting with the grandiose tone that undergirds every dramatic development. We get the complicity of the religious right too, with Kevin’s devout mother (Judith Ivey) pointedly ignoring the warning signs because reasons. But The Devil’s Advocate really echoes our current embarrassment-in-chief with its New York chutzpah: the kind of brash, empty bravado that determines the pecking order among the wealthy and powerful in Manhattan. Pacino revels in it, and you can sense New York’s famous cynicism bleeding through his performance.

And that’s where the comparison gets really interesting, because it’s clear by now that Trump is no one’s idea of a master manipulator. He’s much closer to Eddie Barzoon (Jeffrey Jones), Pacino’s hapless right-hand man consumed by suspicious glares and jangled nerves. Barzoon gave himself quite eagerly to his master, and now seethes beneath the full weight of having to pay the piper. He’s dispatched almost incidentally, accompanied by one of Pacino’s bellowing monologues that seems to sum up 45 in a nutshell.

Who or what may be pulling Trump’s strings has yet to be seen, but it’s clear that not even the office of the presidency can make a better man out of him. He too signed a deal without reading the fine print, and as he’s hit with the full weight of a job almost comically beyond his abilities, he may be starting to understand the cost. It’s a very old story, of course, but we may never outgrow it. Not as long as “God’s favorite creatures” still insist on buying the snake oil sight unseen. We’re all living through an object lesson in why that’s a bad idea. The question is, how much longer before those who can do something about it finally realize whose hand they shook in the process.