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: March 8

It was easy to overlook The Birdcage when it was released. Based on the French film La Cage aux Folles, it did well at the box office, but felt at the time like more Robin Williams slapstick: soaking up Hollywood’s newfound tolerance for homosexuals and repeating trite observations about tolerance and understanding. In retrospect, however, it looks like a comedic masterpiece. The jokes hold water across multiple viewings and the skewering of right-wing homophobia feels more timely now than ever. More importantly, Williams and Nathan Lane play their characters — a Miami nightclub owner and his flamboyant main attraction — as more than just swishy stereotypes. They genuinely care about each other and — devoid of the preachiness of Philadelphia and its ilk — come across as authentic in ways its contemporaries couldn’t. Williams, in particular, delivers one of the better performances of his career: surprisingly disciplined and with a keen eye on the big picture. It opened today in 1996.

For those of you, like me, who were absolutely crushed by the wretched Will Smith version of I Am Legend, look to Vincent Price to save the day. He starred in an earlier version of the story, The Last Man on Earth, which suffered from a low budget but still managed to capture the core of the Richard Matheson source novel far better than Hollywood’s crass and noisy butchery. It opened today in 1964.


Today in Movie History: June 17

Today starts with Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s swan song about a young brother and sister who have to deal with their monstrous stepfather and in the process blur the distinction between fantasy and reality. It’s as powerful as any of the master’s films and netted Bergman his third and final Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It opened in the U.S.  today in 1983.

Sound a little sedate? Well, you might try Zulu, Cy Endfield’s gripping rendition of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in which 150 British soldiers fought off an assault by 4,000 Zulu warriors during the war of 1879. You need to get around a fair helping of colonialist horseshit to enjoy it. On the other hand, it represents the breakout role of a little-known television actor named Michael Caine…. someone we suspect you may have heard of. And the Alamo-style assault has influenced a number of movies that followed. (Peter Jackson cited it as a major inspiration for the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers and Monty Python delivered their own uniquely Python take on it in The Meaning of Life.) It opened in the U.S. today in 1964.

Finally, we have Wolf, a lycanthrope movie starring Jack Nicholson and James Spader as publishing industry rivals who revert to a more primal means of resolving their conflict when Nicholson is bitten by a wolf. It sounds like a hot mess — and from Mike Nichols of all people — but the screenplay devotes itself quite seriously to the concept, and it understands how to make its standard-issue point (i.e., beneath the veneer or civilization, we’re all still beasts) with subtlety and grace. Add Michelle Pfeiffer to the mix and you’ve got a werewolf movie worth talking about. It opened today in 1994.

For Zulu, here’s a little compare and contrast: the initial assault from the 1964 film, next to Peter Jackson’s Helm’s Deep and Python’s nefarious leg theft.


The Graduate: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Review by: Robert Trate
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross
Directed by: Mike Nichols
Written by: Buck Henry (screenplay), Charles Webb (novel)
Original Year of Release: 1967
Run Time: 106 minutes
Rated: PG
Spine #800
Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) is a film we all discover at some point in our lives. You don’t necessarily have to have seen it in the theatre or when it came out, just seeing it is enough. With that being said, Criterion’s release of The Graduate (Spine #800) sparked something in me that I hadn’t felt before, dislike for the film.

Before we get too far, let me explain myself. I love The Graduate. I was fortunate enough to experience the film for its first widescreen home release. This was a big thing in the nineties, as now you could see more of the scenes and moments that really matter. It preserved the cinematography of the film. Ironically enough, must people hated these presentations, as they felt it cut off the top and the bottom. Now our TVs are present in this ratio. I saw the film just when I started college. It was sort of a wake up call as to what may lay waiting for me after graduation. I visited the film from time to time in college and grew to sympathize more and more with Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman). When you could place music on your cell phone, I made it a point to have Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” on me so I could enact the scene at the airport. I figured I hummed it already, now I could just hear for it real. In college, my roommate and I even recreated a scene for his film project. Yes, I was fan.

Here I am now, closer to the age of Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) and critiquing the film that has literally been with me all my adult life. To top it all off, I am going to review the Criterion Blu-ray. The first thing that pops out at me is how in shadow all our major characters are. Literally, they talk in almost every scene with shadows covering their faces. Perhaps it was years of watching it on VHS that I never noticed that aspect of the film. When you watch a new “4K digital restoration” you expect to see more. Instead, I noticed several things. Our cast of characters is shrouded in darkness. This could be because the world in which they inhabit is not a happy place. I’ll keep believing that because I love the film. In learning that Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Robinson) and Dustin Hoffman (Ben) are, in real life, only 6 years apart, I think the director was trying to hide their ages. In looking closely at their faces, I also notice how right off the bat, Ben is uber tan. Sure, twenty minutes into the film when it has been weeks of him laying around the pool, I expected it, but right off the plane? Having gone to an East Coast school, I was never tan, ever.

What I mentioned above may be technicalities, but I also notice a huge plot hole. Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) and Ben go out on one date and instantly hit it off, enough that Ben has his sights on marrying her. We can believe the Romeo and Juliet scenario in most films, but in this film, Ben’s sticky situation is just too much of a nightmare. I believe Ben being in love with Elaine, finally finding that one person he connects with, but all out love and marriage? Perhaps if there was more to their own story. We are given a crappy all night date that turns into a great one. Elaine learns the truth and runs back to college. Ben then becomes her stalker and it turns out she went off and got engaged to someone else. My sympathy is more with Elaine, but the story reveals that her fiancé is a heel as well.

Films can change over time, yet can remain classics, Watch Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983, Spine #720) in your twenties and watch it again in your thirties. The film has a very different meaning. I still sympathize with Ben Braddock. I am still trying to figure it all out. Today, however, I think I need a bit more realism and character development for a story about a graduate who sleeps with his dad’s partner’s wife and tries to woo their daughter. If anything, I think I need a greater real life age separation between my two lead characters.

Special Features:

New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray

Optional 5.1 surround remix, approved by director Mike Nichols, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray

Audio commentary from 2007 featuring Nichols in conversation with filmmaker Steven Soderbergh

Audio commentary from 1987 featuring film scholar Howard Suber

New interview with actor Dustin Hoffman

New conversation between producer Lawrence Turman and screenwriter Buck Henry

New interview with film writer and historian Bobbie O’Steen about editor Sam O’Steen’s work on The Graduate

Students of “The Graduate,” a short documentary from 2007 on the film’s influence

“The Graduate” at 25, a 1992 featurette on the making of the film

Interview with Nichols by Barbara Walters, from a 1966 episode of NBC’s Today show

Excerpt from a 1970 appearance by singer-songwriter Paul Simon on The Dick Cavett Show

Screen tests


PLUS: An essay by journalist and critic Frank Rich