Today in Movie History: June 5

Peter Weir’s career constitutes one of the more fascinating in modern films, and he was never better than with The Truman Show, a eerily prescient look at life in the digital era. it features Jim Carrey as a man who has unknowingly lived his entire life as the subject of his television show, complete with parents, friends, co-workers and romantic interests all actually actors cast to provide a totally convincing environment. We’re all living with cameras these days, and Weir found a unique way to let us all know what was coming. The Truman Show opened 20 years ago today in 1998.

Harrison Ford has a number of iconic roles on his resume, and while Jack Ryan doesn’t quite rank up there with Han and Indy, there’s no denying the strength he brought to Tom Clancy’s righteous spook. His initial outing, Patriot Games, set him against Sean Bean’s hateful IRA extremist with outstanding results. Anne Archer, James Earl Jones, Richard Harris and a pre-star Samuel L. Jackson get in on the action, but it’s Ford and his righteous anger that make this one work. (On an entirely different note, Ford got his footprints put in cement in front of the famous Chinese Theater as part of the promotion for this film.) Patriot Games opened today in 1992.

Movies for the Resistance: Gladiator

(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: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Djimon Hounsou and Derek Jacobi
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Running time: 155 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 2000

 

I believe quite firmly that this nightmare will end and that better days lie ahead. The darkest possibilities suggest otherwise of course: starting with a tilt into full-bore fascism (likely with a giant helping of Handmaid’s Tale-style theocracy) and ending with the formation of a new asteroid belt between Venus and Mars. They keep a lot of us up at night, and I imagine the psychiatric profession is doing gangbuster business these days. But hope endures in even our bleakest moments. More importantly, it gives us the strength to keep fighting when all seems lost. Sooner or later, this will end. I believe it will be sooner, and I hold fast to the notion that we can repair the catastrophic damage inflicted and build something better.

That means reckoning with more than just the orange buffoon in the White House, of course. It means dealing with a substantial part of our country that has overlooked what he’s done to us, and a smaller but even more troubling percentage that understands exactly, precisely what he’s doing and actively cheers him on. It comes down to which vision of the nation proves stronger. Trumpism espouses white nationalism, patriarchal dominance and the active persecution of anyone who doesn’t look, act and follow a so-called “natural” (read: Chrsitian) order. The rest of us, no matter where we may lie on the political spectrum, think much more inclusively: a nation where all are accepted, where everyone’s story is embraced, and where opportunities are defined by vision and drive rather than skin color.

Of course, as a nation, we’ve never approached that ideal. We’ve never even come close. Ours is a history dominated by racism, slavery, genocide and oligarchy. Our foundations are stained with blood, our national vision hides nightmares behind it, and as the first year of this horrendous presidency draws to a close, the notion of a government of the people, by the people and for the people has rarely felt like so much wishful thinking.

But that does not erase the power of the ideal. It doesn’t eliminate the Herculean efforts of those who have fought and died for it, who stood up and demanded it in the face of heated opposition. And it doesn’t mean we abandon it now, when it seems so far away, and when the belief that we are a nation in active decline seems so utterly self-apparent. We fight for the ideal because it’s worth fighting for. Period. Full stop.

We fight for it because we become better people by doing so.

Which brings me to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, a movie initially intended as summer popcorn, but which somehow scored a Best Picture Oscar: the only one of Scott’s lengthy and impressive canon to have done so. The director embraces a staggering variety of themes and subjects in his films, such that narrowing his vision to a few easy themes becomes an exercise in futility. But a critic much wiser than I made an elegant stab at it: his films all entail good people working for corrupt institutions that are not worthy of their loyalty.

Such was his hero Maximus (Russell Crowe), a fictional Roman general who finds himself on the wrong side of a palace coup and winds up face down on the arena sand with the mob howling for his head. As a military commander, he fought at the behest of Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), hoping to bring about a lasting, prosperous peace. His loyalty, compassion and adherence to the highest ideals earns him the enmity of Marcus’s son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who disposes of his rival and seizes a throne intended for Maximus.

The tale is pure fabrication, but it highlights the popular notion of a Rome in active decline. Decadence and ennui rules its streets, brutality dictates its policies, and whatever remains of its better angels slowly drowns in duplicity and blood. Maximus, however, always fought for something better. “There was a dream that was Rome,” he tells those close to him, and he’s not referring to power or spectacle. He fights for that even though he never truly sees it himself. He fights for it despite the egregious flaws in the system he’s defending. He fights for it because its worth fighting for, and as long as he does so, the idealized Rome – the Rome that never existed – stays alive.

That colors his journey through the arena and holds him strong in the face of near certain death, Indeed, it becomes all the stronger when he’s practically helpless: reduced to battling thugs in the arena for entertainment as his rival watches from behind armed guards. He speaks truth to power, even when it means his own death. He demonstrates mercy to those he could (and probably should) cut down like wheat. He holds fast to his comrades and encourages them to stand together. And always, he points out the hypocrisy of the culture around him, most memorably in the line that defined the film.

He’s far from the capital when he speaks it, uttered at an indifferent crowd in a dusty backwater there to watch him casually cut people in half. But it strikes at the heart of the problem for him: not Commodus, whose policies are rapidly driving the Empire into a ditch, but the whole system that enabled such barbarity to flourish.

In the process, he shakes others out of their stupor, notably Oliver Reed’s cynical slave trader, but also Commodus’s sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) and her son (Spencer Treat Clarke), who see in him shades of nobility far too scarce in the world they inhabit. His battle is doomed from the start: the weight of Rome’s descent may be moving too fast for anyone to stop. But his example reaches others, and they carry on without him. And it spreads and it stays alive, and others eventually rise who share it.

The vision is old, but the message is timeless. This is not who we are supposed to be. We have never been what we thought we were, but we can fight for it. We can do better. We have to.

I believe our country holds the seeds of something better in its heart. I believe we can become something closer to what the Founding Fathers had in mind: maybe not in this form, but in another one that summons our higher instincts in a purer form. We’ve seen it in our history, in flickers of light through the dark, and the men and women who protected that light now look to us to keep it alive however we can. There was a dream that was Rome, and it’s still worth fighting for. Especially when it feels so far away.

Today in Movie History: November 16

Ask anyone what their favorite Steven Spielberg movie is, and few will say Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But ask them what their top five Spielberg films are, and most people would likely find room for it. It’s as strong a film as he’s ever made — an early sign that he could do far more than just scare people with Jaws — and while it occupies a curious nether region among his masterpieces, none would question its placement among them. It opened 40 years ago today in 1977.

There were two other films fighting for the pole position, and the one that just missed out is Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows: one of the brightest lights in the French New Wave and certainly one of the most heartfelt as well. The autobiographical tale covers the unhappy childhood of a young Parisian boy, ignored by his parents and tormented at school. It was shot on location and highlights the perceived authenticity championed by the New Wave without the attendant showiness. It opened in the United States today in 1959.

The third film vying for the podium never quite had a shot, but considering it kicked off one of the biggest franchises of all time, it certainly makes an effort. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was hobbled by the reality of having to establish an entire universe all by its lonesome. It takes care of the heavy lifting so the rest of the saga can get down to business. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opened today in 2001.

And on a much slighter, but definitely crowd-pleasing note, today was the day Macaulay Culkin sent those pesky burglars packing in the original Home Alone. I’m not a huge fan, but for slapstick fun, it’s hard to knock it, and it’s earned its status as a holiday staple. It opened today in 1990.

I’m going to close with a pair of personal favorites. The first, Heavenly Creatures, was a calling card from director Peter Jackson, previously best known for some truly weird genre films coming out of New Zealand. This one — about an infamous murder case in which a pair of girls bludgeoned one of their mothers to death with a brick — displayed a poise and maturity that caught the world’s eye and set the stage for the director’s eventual triumph with The Lord of the Rings. (It also marked the feature film debut of one Kate Winslet). It opened in the U.S. today in 1995.

The second, Night of the Comet, is an odd bit of post-apocalyptic zaniness from the Reagan era, in which a comet wipes out almost all life on earth… except for a couple of Valley girls, a nice Hispanic due, and a whole lot of zombies who chase the three of them through LA. It opened today in 1984.

 

 

 

 

 

Today in Movie History: November 15

The original silent version of The Phantom of the Opera is actually quite a flawed film in many ways. Poor scene direction, shoddy camera placement and the like put a damper on what should have been something incredible. Luckily, that’s not the purpose of the exercise and all those flaws fade to insignificance the moment Lon Cheney’s haunted, terrifying Phantom takes the screen. The film opened today in 1925.

It’s times like these when we need the Marx Brothers more than ever, and today saw the release of one of their very best: A Night at the Opera, which sets the boys loose on an ocean liner and similar fancy-schmancy locales and lets them do their thing. In a world as crazy as ours has become, the insanity on display here feels like a welcome tonic. It opened today in 1935.

The Harry Potter franchise was already off to a roaring start when Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets emerged to cement what eventually became one of the signature film franchises of the early 21st century. Chris Columbus returned for a second round behind the camera, but — with the basics of J.K. Rowling’s magical universe already laid out in the first film — he had more room to play here. It remains one of the better films in the saga, and showed some of us skeptics that this was more than just another fantasy series. It opened 15 years ago today in 2002.

I will never claim to be a fan of The English Patient — you give Fargo back its Best Picture Oscar right now! — but Anthony Minghella certainly found an interesting story to help counterbalance his usually turgid and self-important directorial style. It’s one of those films that ages well, but never feels quite as good as everyone keeps telling you. It opened today in 1996.

We’ll close with The Lord of the Rings… not Peter Jackson’s justly celebrated trilogy, but the ambitious animated feature from Ralph Bakshi. It’s hobbled by a shortened running time and the fact that it stops abruptly at the end of The Two Towers, but while it remains a failure, it’s a fascinating failure to be sure. And the late John Hurt’s voice work as Aragorn is well worth celebrating. It opened today in 1978.

 

 

Today in Movie History: October 25

Horror films come and horror films go, but there’s only one Halloween: a quickie exploitation grinder that became a masterpiece in the hands of the legendary John Carpenter. It relies on pure technique, as a trio of babysitters are slowly stalked by a masked killer, and though credited with the rise of the slasher genre in the 1980s, none of its followers ever matched its simple, devastating artistry. It opened today in 1978, and the holiday that shares its name has never been the same.

On an entirely different note, we find Camelot, based on the smash Broadway musical and arriving just as the genre began a real decline. Despite the poor timing, it’s a lovely bit of bittersweet nostalgia, and it proved a good-sized hit at the box office. It opened 50 years today in 1967.