Today in Movie History: October 26

Mighty oaks often grow from little acorns, and when the slick little sci-fi thriller The Terminator opened one quiet October Friday, no one thought much of it. Its director had helmed only one project before — the less-than-immortal Piranha 2: the Spawning — and the star was that jumped-up Austrian from Conan the Barbarian who looked like his 15 minutes was just about up. The film was made on a shoestring budget and did okay during its initial release. But like so many movies of the era, it found its audience on VHS, and today is… well, it’s The Terminator. Director and star both went on to bestride the Earth like colossi, and while their influence may have diminished, the film that launched them into the stratosphere looks better than ever. It opened today in 1984.

Audrey Hepburn was already a big star when she appeared as the world’s champion blind lady in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark. The film bears the hallmarks of canned theater, but in the director’s hands it becomes an exquisite thriller, helped not only by Hepburn, but by Alan Arkin as the sinister hitman stalking her. It opened today in 1967

Robert Duvall notched another winner to his belt with The Great Santini, the story of a fighter pilot whose no-nonsense approach to life runs into a brick wall when it comes to the disposition of his children. The film itself exists mainly as a showcase for the actor, but few are more deserving of such attention. The Great Santini opened today in 1979.

Today in Movie History: August 15

Disaster or masterpiece? That distinction can hinge on the razor’s edge sometimes, especially when an ambitious, talented and possibly crazy filmmaker is involved. Case in point: Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s effort to encapsulate the war in Vietnam as seen through a variation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The shoot was infamous for its delays, debacles and outright danger, including a heart attack from star Martin Sheen, a hurricane that destroyed the set and Marlon Brando in full-bore Marlon Brando mode. Despite that, and despite a shoot that apparently brought Coppola himself to the brink of madness, the film remains one of the definitive statements on Vietnam and the insanity of war in general. It opened today in 1979.

If you asked me which David Cronenberg film I would hold above all others, I’d probably end up choosing his most commercial: The Fly, a reimagined version of the 1950s classic (itself based on a chilling short story by George Langelaan). It focuses on Cronenberg’s obsessive infusion on flesh and technology, wrapped in — of all things — a surprisingly good romantic comedy that absolutely disarms us just in time for the horror show to begin. The Fly opened today in 1986 and hasn’t lost a single ounce of its power.

While Silence of the Lambs made Hannibal Lecter a household name, he actually first appeared five years earlier in Michael Mann’s superb thriller Manhunter. Drenched in the director’s Miami Vice style, it nonetheless found the same intense connections between hunter and prey that Silence did, and Bryan Cox’s turn as Lecter, while distinct from Anthony Hopkins (to whom the character will always belong), is enough to cause some sleepless nights. Manhunter opened today in 1986.

Finally, there’s Event Horizon. Okay, yeah, forget I mentioned it. Except… Event Horizon… the most awesomely awful movie ever! It opened today in 1997, making it the second-best Laurence Fishburne movie to be released today.

 

 

Today in Movie History: January 25

We’re looking at quite a few notable films with release dates today. We’ll start with a triumph from the Silver Age of Walt Disney pictures. 101 Dalmatians remains one of the Mouse’s biggest hits (#2 behind Snow White if you adjust for inflation) and — amid the studio’s bevvy of memorable villains — delivering one Cruella de Vil, who just might take the cake. It opened today in 1961.

Nine years later, Hollywood was attempting to sort out the cultural hash of Vietnam with heavy hitters like Catch-22 and Patton making obliquely comments (both fer and agin) on the conflict. But the one that’s best stood the test of time is Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, an anti-war comedy for the ages and the inspiration for one of the most successful TV shows in history. If your only exposure to it comes from Alan Alda, you owe it to yourself to hunt this one down. It opened today in 1970.

The other releases of the day are given over to horror movies. B-movie maestro Roger Corman found a winning combination by casting Vincent Price in a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. His first four were as serious as a heart attack, but for his fifth, he decided to have a little fun. The result was The Raven, starring Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff as rival sorcerers in a comic tale based loosely on Poe’s most famous poem. (The film also features an early performance from a very hammy Jack Nicholson.) It opened today in 1963.

On a more recent note… attempting to unravel the convoluted history of the Ju-On franchise can bring one to the brink of madness. Instead, we’re going to make the Japanese release date of the original film — January 25, 2003 — then go hide under the covers until that creepy little kid comes for us. Possibly wearing a coat made out of puppies. Sleep tight everyone!

 

 

Movies for the Resistance: Network

(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: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and Beatrice Straight
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Running time: 121 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1976

 

I’ve refrained, by and large, from criticizing the media too harshly on these columns. We won’t end this without their help, after all, and their pushback against the excesses of the Trump administration have helped us hold the line thus far. But in the midst of that, we also need to remember their hand in creating this mess, and in enabling it when they decide it’s convenient to do so. Their craven adherence to ratings above all, their constant horse-race mentality, their eagerness to excuse the worst excesses of Trump while playing up the smallest flaws of his opponents… we all became depressingly familiar with its effects on the 2016 campaign.

It translated into hundreds of hours of free publicity for a man whose sole defining characteristic seems to be drawing attention to himself. Fox’s fawning over him was predictable, but they weren’t alone; NBC, in particular, puffed their Apprentice star up with appearances on Jimmy Fallon and a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live… both during the campaign itself. Indeed, that symbiosis had been going on for decades, with Trump making cameos as himself in everything from Zoolander to Home Alone 2 to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He’s always been a creature of the media, and the media welcomed its prodigal son home during the campaign in ways it never would have with a more traditional politician.

No one expected him to win, of course – we all bear a share of that responsibility – and most outlets highlighted his vile performances for the same reason they cover freeway chases and celebrity meltdowns. It’s hard to look away from a shitshow, especially if you believe it won’t personally affect you. But the fact remains that they opened the door for his ascent to the highest office of the land, and while most of them now fight madly to contain his power, they helped put him there in the first place. Even now, they desperately return to the notion of a “pivot” and praise every minor act of basic adulthood as “presidential.” (The latest example took place this weekend, as Trump showboated over the response to Hurricane Harvey.) You can count on them dragging that narrative out every six weeks or so as a way of avoiding the elephant in the room: he’s mentally unhinged and unfit for office… but removing him would remove the ratings bonanza his ineptitude brings in.

A number of movies have brilliantly dealt with our corrosive relationship to the media, and the way we feed its worst instincts through the simple act of tuning into things we know we should switch off. Ironically, most of them have now been eclipsed by the reality we now find ourselves in – a reality too far-fetched to have ever passed muster as a fictional film. The likes of Wag the Dog and The Candidate do a good job of spelling out the political costs of media irresponsibility, but it falls to Network to really, truly understand what we’ve allowed ourselves to become.

It was the height of satire in 1976: dark as hell, but patently absurd and surely nowhere close to objective reality. Objective reality surpassed it somewhere in the Jerry Springer era, and 20 years later, it has conquered the world in most ways that matter. We sit in horrified thrall as a reality TV star threatens to start a nuclear war, sides with Nazis, publicly attacks any perceived sleight, and crushes the whole of the executive branch with each toddler-like Twitter tantrum unspooling before our eyes. He reportedly receives most of his information about the world from the television, forming a feedback loop that could really, truly destroy the world, and that won’t stop as long as he remains in office.

Network displays the seeds from whence that sprang, mostly in the madness emanating from disintegrating news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), who implodes in real time in front of 50 million viewers. But his madness holds righteous anger too: the understanding that insanity may be the only reasonable reaction to a world so fundamentally unjust, and that dropping the façade of civility may be the only way to fight back. His ferocious energy proves infectious, a cathartic release of pent-up frustrations so potent that no one stops to consider that the man channeling them may be off his rocker.

His audience, at least, comes by their fascination honestly, and from a need to make things better. No so the callous executives who view the spectacle as guaranteed ratings. The notion that they have a greater responsibility to the public never occurs to them, especially not Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway), who watches Beale’s meltdown like a kid on Christmas morning. “We’re gonna make so much money!” her look tells us, and the notion that it might not be okay simply never enters her head.

It makes for moments of grim humor – a late-inning discussion on murdering one of the network’s stars is disturbingly casual – but it leaves no doubt where the ultimate responsibility lies. Beale rants and raves about real problems affecting real people, but the vast challenges of solving those problems is more overwhelming than most of his audience can contemplate. So they rant and rave along with him, eating up the sheer spectacle of it and letting the cynics behind the scenes rake in the dough.

The bill comes due sooner or later, of course, and in our current timeline, Trump makes a fitting bit of karma for a culture that sold its soul to reality TV. We can rightfully decry how awful it is, but we could have tamed it ourselves simply by declining to tune in when the screen in the living room takes a turn for the puerile. Yes, the media saw no problem selling it to us, but we were all too happy to buy. The best any of us can do is cash out like William Holden’s Max does: helpless to prevent any of it, but at least no longer contributing to the problem.

Meanwhile, the situation devolves into the new normal, as public debate on important issues becomes a sideshow to the spectacle of a narcissist who thinks he’s the center of the universe placed at the actual center of the universe. Beneath Trump’s tenure lies the disturbing notion that he himself hates the job and would like to be rid of it, but can’t humble himself to resign. It leads him to lash out in random and disturbing ways, which is one of the reasons we need to get rid of him as quickly as possible.

Beale himself possesses more of a moral compass than Trump, but his sanity is just as much in doubt, and like Trump, he eventually becomes the helpless prisoner of the phenomenon he helped create: reduced to mental mush before literally being murdered by his employers because his ratings have topped. It’s farcical and absurd, and yet the reasons for it are spelled out in a chillingly calculated messianic rant from one of Beale’s senior enablers.

Therein lies Network’s terrible truth: Beale is a symptom of a much larger disease. This all comes back to commerce at the end of the day. Trump didn’t arise in a vacuum, and the hate and misogyny he evinces have flourished for years under the likes of Fox, Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones… who have weaponized it in the name of profit. They want people scared and angry to keep us tuning in, which means they can keep selling whatever garbage their sponsors are so desperate to unload. (Jones, in particular, possesses a seemingly bottomless array of dubious crap to hawk.) In Trump, they have the perfect fulcrum to keep their base ginned up… which, as Jensen intimated, is the only real point of this sick excuse for a presidency.

We’ve always been a nation of snake-oil salesmen, and that’s bad. But we often get high on our own supply and that’s much, much worse. It’s a fitting cherry to this hideous sundae – the fact that we might well and truly end the world in the name of selling more boner pills – but it’s one Howard Beale knows all about. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

Movies for the Resistance: Apocalypse Now

(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: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forest, Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall and Dennis Hopper
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Running time: 153 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1979

 

Let’s talk crazy for a bit.

The White House held a master class on the subject last week, revealing a level of chaos that I’m not sure we’ve ever seen in the federal government before. Two Trump speeches – the kind of events that your average 4th grader couldn’t fuck up – drew rebukes from both the Boy Scouts of America and the International Association of Chiefs of Police; walking self-parody Anthony Scaramucci arrived to oversee the ouster of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus amid an expletive laden series of interviews that need to be heard to be believed (before his own hasty demise just yesterday); human shame barometer Jeff Sessions refused to step down despite the constant passive-aggressive jabs from a president known for the phrase “you’re fired;” Trump banned transgenders from serving in the military without actually consulting, you know, the military; and Trumpcare endured yet another – perhaps final – humiliating defeat at a midnight Senate vote that saw one of Trump’s longtime sputtering doormats John McCain finally stick the knife in and twist.

In five days, all of this happened. Five. Days. And that before yesterday’s late inning bombshell that 45 had his tiny little fists deep in his son’s meeting with the Russia.

Regardless of the spin on either side, it’s clear that we’ve entered a “Hail Eris!” phase of the proceedings. The White House is officially eating its own, the GOP agenda is in tatters despite unified control of the government, and every day brings a new self-inflicted wound that makes you wonder how much blood remains in the body. Even hard-core Trumpkins seemed shaken by the level of insanity on display: the jaw-dropping shitstorm of cruel playground bullying consuming the highest office in the land.

No one knows what’s going to happen next, but you honestly wonder how much longer it can go on.

I try to be as pertinent as possible with the choices for this column, and given the rapid developments in this bewildering, terrifying era, that can often be a game-day decision. In light of what we’ve just seen, the only film that seems to match the current mood is Apocalypse Now: a study in the depths of madness and the seemingly straightforward path that rational men take to get there.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness had defied filmmakers’ attempts to adapt it for decades when Francis Ford Coppola tackled it as a metaphor for Vietnam. It almost broke him, and the shoot itself has become the stuff of horrified legend. (Check out Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse for an in-depth look.) But in the process, he created an indelible statement on the lunacy of war, in part because he stepped into the abyss himself.

Like Conrad’s novel, the movie charts that downward spiral step by agonizing step. It starts with basic dysfunction: intense, perhaps, but still something we think we have a handle on. A troubled soldier (Martin Sheen) is handed inexplicable orders to assassinate a Green Beret Colonel (Marlon Brando) gone rogue deep in the jungle. Add to that indulgence in base human appetites: Playboy bunnies clinging to choppers as sex-crazed servicemen storm the tarmac; an Air Cav unit so eager for distraction that they will assault a VC stronghold just to get a good surfing spot; outposts left devoid of leadership and firing madly at an enemy that may or may not exist; and Sheen’s Cpt. Willard watching his escort get shot out from under him while the survivors slowly exit our reality.

All of this takes place before we reach Willard’s destination. It’s the prep work: the slow acclimation to a void that might just kill us if we enter it cold. Things start out bad, but we think we’re on top of it. It gets worse and we hold on, hoping to see an uptick. The scramble becomes a slide and we rush just to stay in front of the storm. Then one day we wake up and someone’s explaining to us why all those heads are on pikes.

Along the way, Willard wonders how bad Kurtz could be to surpass what he has seen. He continues down the path in part because he must, but also because of perverse curiosity: the need to see how bad it can get and what a rational person might do in such circumstances. His instincts share similarities with Trump’s appeal: the reality show dumpster fire, hypnotic in its intensity, that demands we continue watching even though as know how much damage it’s causing.

It’s easy to paint Trump as Kurtz. Not the good-man-gone-bad stuff, because there was likely nothing in 45’s soul to salvage, but certainly the endgame: a fat corpulent spider squatting in his web and raving about the conspiracies of “weaker” foes while his followers commit atrocity after atrocity in his name.

He even has a gaggle of media court jesters like Dennis Hopper’s drug-addled “journalist.” Spicer, Conway, Scaramucci, Sanders… that clown car may never empty, and true to form, we can always count on their absurd rationales to cover up the unthinkable. They – and the media watchdogs they face – have long since been swallowed up by the story they’re trying to shape. They enable the sins of their subject, and lose their footing in the process. It’s a long way down.

Indeed, the media intrudes into Apocalypse Now in quietly disturbing ways, starting with Coppola’s cameo as a frantic journalist admonishing the soldiers to ignore him. Distractions abound as the trip continues, from the playmates who trigger a riot to the drugs coursing through the crew’s veins. The whole boat, it seems, feels like hapless observers rather than participants: watching the blood-soaked freak show pass them by and thinking they’re somehow immune from it. They aren’t, of course (as their dwindling numbers make clear), but the illusion is powerful and seductive until the very end.

And like the rest of Willard’s journey, it’s horrifyingly necessary. He couldn’t get there without those steps, without understanding just how bottomless our own irrationality can become. Yet to turn away would be unthinkable. Willard has a moral imperative to end this, even though his hands (and those of his masters) are bloody too. He needs to kill Kurtz, if for no other reason than to prove that a path leads out of it: that you can absorb the totality of it all, and come back to a place where reason and morality still hold sway.

That’s our mission as much is it is his, and to pretend it isn’t happening is to join the insanity. And yet we NEED to join it if we hope to escape it. “There is no way to tell his story without telling my own,” Willard’s voiceover explains. “And if his story is really a confession… then so is mine.”  Like it or not, Trump IS America. The worst parts of it – the smug, self-obsessed snake-oil salesmen who started believing their own bullshit – but America nonetheless. And regardless of how his presidency ends, we’ll need to grapple with that reality if we hope to avoid such ghastly mistakes in the future.

That’s the heart of darkness: the road we need to travel to understand what happened. And while I continue to believe that we’ll emerge a better nation when this is over, the scars of that journey are going to stay with us – all of us – until we die.