Today in Movie History: November 8

It’s a big day in more ways than one, so let’s get to it. For 45 years, Shakespeare’s Henry V belonged firmly to Laurence Olivier, whose 1944 version was considered definitive. Intended to rally the British nation during World War II, it offered a fairy-tale atmosphere of inevitable victory and proved so potent that no one dared make another version of it…. until a cheeky bastard named Kenneth Branagh stepped up to the plate. Branagh adapted, directed and starred in a gritty new “post-Falklands” take on the story, which not only made him an international star, but today is widely considered the better of the two versions. It opened today in 1989.

Henry V is good for bracing courage in light of our current political woes. Far darker is All the King’s Men, a fictionalized account of the rise of populist politician Huey Long. The Sean Penn remake was nearly unwatchable, but this one reveals the cunning and sinister depths that some “men of the people” can evince — and with a Best Picture Oscar under its belt, as well as a terrific performance from Broderick Crawford, there’s worse ways to hide from the polls. It opened today in 1949.

Speaking of bad behavior, anyone interested in watching Charles Laughton act like a swine should check out Mutiny on the Bounty, the definitive version of the grand sea tale of a ship’s crew laboring under a despotic captain until they’ve had all they can stands and they can’t stands no more. Clark Gable leads the revolt as Fletcher Christian, and anyone interested in sticking it to The Man — which I can’t imagine happening today — can find something to cheer for here. It opened today in 1935.

Okay, time for something more cheerful. How about The Mark of Zorro, featuring Tyrone Power as the rich man who dons a mask and fights evil in the early days of California? It’s great swashbuckling fun, and — trivia time — is officially the movie that Bruce Wayne went to see with his parents the night they were killed. Apparently, the kid took some inspiration from the flick. It opened today in 1940.

Then there’s Jailhouse Rock, the best of the Elvis films which features the King as an ex-con singing his way to a post-clink stardom. It’s bubbly and exuberant and everything you need from Mr. Presley. It opened 70 years ago today in 1957.

Need more? We got Disney too. The 1970s were not a great decade for the House of Mouse, which struggled to find a path forward after the death of their legendary founder. And yet their animated features continued to perform at the box office… including their adaptation of Robin Hood featuring an anthropomorphic fox in the lead. It’s still considered mid-level Disney at best, but it’s held up well enough and retains some measure of the company’s spirit. The creators of this year’s marvelous Zootopia cited it as a significant influence. It opened today in 1973.

And speaking of second-tier, we’ll close with Thor: The Dark World, largely regarded as an also-ran in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but still indicative of the high level of quality that franchise has engendered. Even the also-rans are pretty good in the MCU, and for a series that sometimes struggles to find compelling villains, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki makes this one worth watching almost on his own. (He delivered a pretty solid version of Henry V too.) It opened today in 2013.

 

Today in Movie History: October 30

We’re pounding down the home stretch to Halloween, but the big opener today isn’t a horror movie. It’s The Lion in Winter, Anthony Harvey’s adaptation of the James Goldman play about Henry II’s (Peter O’Toole) vacillating choice for an heir. Katherine Hepburn won the third of her four Oscars as his scheming queen, and the sight of the two of them joyfully tearing into each other makes the film a treat all on its own. It opened today in 1968.

The other big opener today is Thor: The Dark World, a minor entry in the MCU by anyone’s standards, though buoyed (and saved in my opinion) by another fine turn by Tim Hiddleston as the titular thunder god’s treacherous brother Loki. The film opened today just four years ago in 2013.

Beyond that, we have a trio of small but notable genre films for Halloween. House of the Devil eschews the torture porn of the early 2000s in favor of a slow burn that actually plays much better. It put director Ti West on the horror map and opened today in 2009. John Carpenter’s Vampires fails to rank among his greats, but still carries threads of the iconoclastic energy that made the director a legend. It opened today in 1998. But the best of the lot is The Hidden, the story of a body-swapping alien on a wild crime spree in LA, hunted down by Kyle MacLachlan’s pre-Agent Cooper weirdo fed. It opened 30 years ago today in 1987.

Today in Movie History: July 31

It’s big day for the 80s, topped by 30th anniversary parties for a pair of era staples. We’ll start with The Lost Boys, Joel Schumacher’s teen vampire romp that became an indispensable shared experience for Generation X. I’ll be honest: it’s not great, especially when compared to Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant Near Dark which came out the same year. But Schumacher did find a dangerous vibe to a movie aimed squarely at adolescents… and he had a serious ace in the hole with Kiefer Sutherland. The sight of him striding down the Santa Carla boardwalk sizing up potential victims like fresh steak captures everything the film wants to say in a single youthful swagger. He and Jason Patric (as his heroic/romantic nemesis) give far more of a reason to tune in than the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman) who were then approaching the peak of their fame. (Haim’s tragic death takes a lot of the fun out of this flick.) Nevertheless, its shabbiness hide some flashes of brilliance, and for Gen-Xers, it remains an affectionate ode to our youth. It opened 30 years ago today in 1987.

Also celebrating its 30th is The Living Daylights, Timothy Dalton’s initial outing as 007 after Roger Moore finally hung up the PPK. I maintain that it’s one of the very best Bonds out there, returning the character to his grittier roots after Moore’s superspy romps had run their course. (The opening chase in Gibraltar remains a franchise highlight.) Dalton’s Bond probably comes the closest to the original Ian Fleming novels as any actor yet, and while his reign was brief, it remains an honorable chapter in the storied character’s life. The Living Daylights opened in 1987.

Closer to the present, it’s a little early to start canonizing the original Guardians of the Galaxy, and I confess that — while I like it a great deal so PLEASEFORTHELOVEOFGODSTOPHITTINGME — I don’t quite love it the way so many people do. But it does show how flexible and varied the MCU is becoming, and its snarky space opera vibe remains uniquely its own in a genre dominated by Star Wars clones. It opened today in 2014.

We’ll close with a mild bit of controversy. Before the TV show made him an icon, Joss Whedon wrote the script for a movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He subsequently disowned it, and by any account, the TV show is the superior version of the concept. But there’s still a reasonable amount of fun to be had in the movie: not only from Kristy Swanson as a plucky Buffy 1.0, but from Paul Reubens at his scene-stealing best as one of the villain’s undead minions. (And seriously, if nothing else, this movie gave Reubens work when he was an absolute pariah, and in the process delivered one of the most bizarrely hysterical deaths in movie history). Buffy the Vampire Slayer opened 25 years ago today in 1992.

Free Pee-Wee!

 

Movies for the Resistance: Captain America — The Winter Soldier

(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: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Frank Grillo, Cobie Smulders and Robert Redford
Directed by: Joe and Anthony Russo
Running time: 136 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 2014

 

There’s a horrifying fascination at watching the craven paralysis of the GOP in the face of various (and constant) monstrosities from their president. I originally intended to cite Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords as the catalyst for this entry, but true to our current reality, that’s so last week. Now we have his bungling response to Saturday’s terrorist attack in London, topped by the indefensible condemnation of “pathetic excuse of a mayor” Sadiq Khan for urging calm in the midst of heightened police presence in the city. It merely marks the latest in what one pundit called “the omnishambles”: total, staggering catastrophic failure from one end of the administration to the other.

And yet for every blunder, for every infantile tweet, for every ally shoved under the bus or self-inflicted wound tainting our nation’s legacy, Republicans close ranks around him. Some resort to mealy-mouthed non-condemnations of the “that’s inappropriate” variety, but in general, the president – and what we laughingly refer to as his agenda – takes clear precedent in their minds over anything resembling the best interests of the country.

Trump didn’t arise in a vacuum, of course, and the current rolling train wreck he commands benefits from decades of of propagandistic hate, where political power for its own sake took on newer and more cowardly forms every few months. The cancer spread, the poison festered, and by the time Trump set up his circus tent in the crater, the political institution he co-opted couldn’t muster any meaningful resistance. Thus have we been treated to the sight of Senators and Congressmen trying (and sometimes not even bothering) to justify the kinds of grotesqueries that used to result in public floggings.

The strength of mythic figures like Captain America becomes all the clearer in circumstances like these: the way they can highlight all-too-normal human behavior beneath their colorful trappings. Sinister Nazi conspiracies and evil scientists lurking on computer hard drives just serve to draw attention to a far more mundane truth: bucking the system takes guts. Strip away the snazzy outfits and the message is clear.

Cap’s creators felt quite strongly that dissent was patriotic, and in the wake of Watergate he actually renounced his connection to the U.S. government. Why? Because he embodies the ideals of America, not the wishes of those in charge, which gave him the ability to criticize his own government when it crossed the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

It made for a powerful statement, and as the MCU really got rolling, the notion proved far too tempting for Kevin Feige & Co. to let pass. Hence, The Winter Soldier, still regarded as the high point of the franchise so far and certainly the one with the most telling lessons for those still waffling over the crisis created by Donald J. Trump.

Cap’s real superpowers have nothing to do with the shield or the super-soldier serum. They come from his moral compass. The MCU has thrived in part because Chris Evans conveys that so beautifully and because the filmmakers ensure that absolute moral clarity doesn’t interfere with making him an interesting character. The Winter Soldier pits him against his old pal Bucky Barnes (Sepastian Stan), now a brainwashed assassin working at the behest of HYDRA. The Red Skull’s former organization has wrapped their tendrils around SHIELD as well – infiltrating it over the course of decades until it now secretly serves their interested – and intend to use it as the leverage to finally take control of the world.

The comic book trappings remain in place more for show than anything else. Cap’s real dilemma comes from turning on an organization he thought he could trust: one that provided him with a home and a purpose after he came out of the ice, and who he worked for – and even forgave them a certain amount of sneaky weasel behavior – with the belief that they were ultimately doing right.

But he never lets that blind him to the purpose they served. He never lets loyalty to their mission compromise his ethics. He sees wrong for what it is. He smells a rat when voices admonish him to just let it pass. And even before HYDRA’s sleepers bum rush him in that elevator (still one of the best fight scenes in the whole of the MCU), he knows the path he has to take.

It seems so easy: a principled man drawing a line for what’s right and facing down the consequences without blinking. And yet we’ve seen, to our national disgrace, how hard it can be to translate a fictitious force of conscience into real action. The excuses bubble up, allowing people who should know better to quietly look away and write themselves a free pass. “It’ll be worth it to get that Supreme Court justice.” “At least he makes those libtards cry.” “Who needs Europe anyway?”

When that doesn’t work, they result to moral equivalency arguments of the “everyone’s corrupt so who cares?” variety, or else hide behind the institutions themselves. “He’s our president.” “He won fair and square” “Just give him a chance.” The longer that continues, the easier it gets to just accept it. The ephemeral myth of a greater good becomes wallpaper to cover every horrible act until nothing beneath it really matters. The amazing part about The Winter Soldier is how much of the villainous behavior onscreen – supposedly the stuff of funnybook fiction – translates to real life (and in only marginally less dire circumstances to boot).

In the movie, we’re faced with Alexander Pence, played by Robert Redford with quiet dignity and a voice that infers moral clarity and due deliberation. Turns out, he’s pure evil on a stick, something that Rogers and Rogers alone notices for what it is. In the meantime, however, he fools a lot of people, including Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) with his supposed down-to-earth realism. “To build a better world sometimes means having to tear the old one down,” he tells the Captain in tones that sound perfectly reasonable and understandable. Circumstances are never ideal, you go to war with the army you have, we all make compromises, etc.

It makes for a quick and easy path, one that allows too many people to ignore all manner of unacceptable behavior provided they just stop thinking about it. The film’s heroes – Fury, the Widow and a couple of others – eventually wake up to that fact, but even they need someone to take a stand first. That’s Rogers’ job, and certainly, we expect Captain America to smell a rat no matter where he is. But those around him don’t – indeed most of them want him to get with the program, at least initially – and when he makes the call, he makes it alone.

That’s in keeping with the way the MCU has developed Rogers’ character. Captain America is, in essence, no different as the paragon of superheroic patriotism than he was as that asthmatic little runt who got beat up by a noisy theater patron. He spoke up then, knowing he would likely get pounded, and didn’t hesitate. He placed principle in front of convenience. He doesn’t change just because he can knock people through walls or carry a snazzy shield. He still knows wrong when he sees it, and acts accordingly.

The journey in the film comes less from him than from figures like Fury, who finally start to understand that when Cap says “not on your life,” it involves more than just Boy Scout posturing. There’s a cost to looking the other way, and Rogers knows that in some ways, it will never be the same if you do. Fury and Romanoff need to set their cynicism aside and actively oppose an organization that now serves itself to the detriment of anything else.

They can’t do that until he reminds them what they’re supposed to be fighting for.

They can’t see the truth until one of their own steps up and says “everybody out of the pool.”

We’re still waiting for that figure to emerge in the GOP. We’re waiting for someone in a position of clout and authority to say “enough.” As of this writing, that hasn’t happened and it may never happen… which is all the more reason to condemn the cowardice they evince every day.

Chances are, nothing those of us on the outside will say can change their minds. The GOP has performed its political calculus, and won’t budge until the prescribed “proper moment.” Every time they do, the damage spreads a little further. Every time they stand silent or issue their cowardly third-way bullshit, the corruption grows a little deeper. Sometimes, it only takes one person in the right position to take a stand. That can start an avalanche… and turn a nobody into a hero in the blink of an eye. History is watching and waiting for someone to see the truth, and for others to follow when they do.

That hasn’t happened yet on the GOP side: neither the politicians bound to Trump nor their supporters who stubbornly tell us he’s doing a swell job. Again, that’s their choice, and at the end of the day, only they can make it.

But Captain Rogers is very disappointed in them. And one day — long after they can do anything about it — they’re going to realize just what a mistake that is.

Meet the Hero

In The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell posited two poles of human perception. At one end sits waking, conscious life, which is mainly taken up by the necessities of existence: jobs, bills, children, family, chores. At the other sits deep sleep – sleep without dreams – in which we commune with whatever cosmic forces lie beyond this level of existence. We do not know what we are shown in that state – we don’t get to look behind the curtain when we’re awake – but we lie blissfully and at absolute peace while we do so.

In between those two extremes sit our dreams, our fantasies and our expressions of creativity. Dreams are our way of interpreting what we perceive in deep sleep. They come from the source of all stories, all music, all paintings, all art. They’re messages from that cosmic wellspring, whether you want to call it God, Allah, the Force or whatever term feels right for you. The exaggeration brought by our imagination – the distortion and extremities that define creative expression – are attempts to raise those messages above the mundane trivialities of living. It lets us identify them more readily when the light fails and the path becomes unclear. That’s why we learn them first as children – via fairy tales, comic books, and stories of monsters and magic – when we’re more open to their truths.

The messages are never hateful. They are never cruel. They speak to a moral life: to making this world a better place for everyone. And they never diminish. They’ve been with us since we told stories by firelight in caves and they’ll be with us as long as our species continues its struggle.

That’s why tyrants try to stifle free expression. That’s why creativity and the arts are the first to be attacked when oppressors seek power for its own sake. They want those lessons to be silenced… and because they cannot challenge the forces that send them to us, they tell us to forget them or relegate them to unimportance. They want you to feel ashamed of them. They want you to think you’re an infant for believing in them. That you’re deluded. That you’re not worth listening to.

We sometimes help them with that vile task without even thinking about it. As we grow up, we lose sight of the lessons or worse: dismiss them as childish. We focus on the surface details of the stories we loved and use that to obfuscate the wisdom we should be striving to embody in our world. Silly costumes. Super powers. Spaceships, aliens, monsters, kung fu.

It’s not about any of those things. Those are just trappings to draw our eye. The philosophies beneath them are as real as the headlines, and apply to us every time we walk out our front doors. Strip away the superhero capes and the lightsabers and the licenses to kill, and the struggle is no different. The stakes are no less important. And our strengths are no less amazing when we channel them to defend the things worth protecting.

People sometimes ask why I love the movies so much. There are a lot of reasons, but it boils down to this: they are dreams brought to life. They are lightning in a bottle. They capture the messages from our subconscious and display them for all the world to see. They let us share those messages with others, to experience those profound and vital signals as a community instead of isolated individuals.

We are the heroes of our own lives. The demons we face are no less frightening than the monsters who terrorized us from the pages of a book or the screen of a movie theater. But our ability to stand against them is no less powerful. We know how to perceive right and wrong in the starkest possible terms and to defend what matters with power that can astonish.

Our heroes live in us. In you. In me. In everyone. Every day. All we have to do is listen to what they’re saying.

I believe you are capable of wonders.

Now more than ever.

When times are dark.

When too many of our fellows choose the quick and easy path.

When tyrants order us to deny what the universe tells us every night as we sleep.

And if you ever struggle to remember that – if you ever question your own eyes, or labor under the burdens of resistance, or forget those hidden lessons that make life worth fighting for – help is just a “once upon a time” away.

(Thanks to CLS Videos for the inspiring montage.)