Today in Move History: July 24

The pole position today unquestionably goes to Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s ode to the Greatest Generation with a permanent spot on the short list of his absolute masterpieces. The bravura opening sequence remains one of the most harrowing depictions of combat ever put on film (emulated by fellow directors for decades), and the story that unfolds afterwards depicts the grunt’s eye view of World War II in a way that may never be topped. It earned Spielberg his second Best Director Oscar, and would have nabbed Best Picture too had Harvey Weinstein been less of an evil toad (and YES we’re taking that injustice to our graves). It opened 20 tears ago today in 1998 and made cinema a more vibrant art form in the process.

I’m not sure anyone would legitimately call Wolfen the best of the amazing bumper crop of werewolf movies from 1981, but it’s certainly earned a spot in elite company: positing a pack of supernatural wolves thriving in the steel canyons of Manhattan. What is lacks in elegance it makes up for in originality of concept, and with Albert Finney’s dogged cop as our guide, it’s still worth popping in and taking a look.


Today in Movie History: June 18

There aren’t a whole lot of great Part 3s out there — the third movie tends to be the point where the wheels come off the franchise in question — but of those that earn mention, Toy Story 3 has earned a place among them. Pixar’s banner property finds an entirely new dilemma for its cast of sentient playthings, as Andy prepares for college and the remaining toys in his collection have to grapple with the prospect of becoming owner-less. Smart, funny, touching and surprisingly scary at times, it remains one of the very best films in the studio’s absurdly impressive canon. It opened today in 2010.

Further back, we find Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild  Bunch, another story of characters grappling with their own mortality. William Holden leads an aging band of outlaws in the final days of the Old West, looking for one last robbery before retiring. Its violence was considered shocking at the time and still has the power to shake you, as does the nihilism creeping quietly beneath the protagonists’ dilemma. It opened today in 1969.

We’ll close with Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s second foray to Gotham City and one of the more fascinating entries in superhero adaptations. Most of it is a dreadful mess, with an incoherent plot, too many villains and Burton’s familiar bugaboo of out-of-control production design confounding it at every turn. But it does feature the delicious Michelle Pfeiffer as a most unique Catwoman, as well as Burton’s unique Gothic sensibilities shading her adversarial romance with the Caped Crusader. And it’s developed a cult following among those who appreciate the bizarre. Batman Returns opened today in 1992.




Today in Movie History: March 9

We’ll start with the bomb: one of the most undeserved financial disasters in recent years. Created by an indifferent marketing campaign that didn’t know what the hell to do with it and undone by a budget that needed the right kind of promotion to recoup, John Carter initially sank like a stone at the box office but has since undergone a bit of a renaissance and today enjoys at least a minor cult following from fans who get what it was trying to do. It opened today in 2012.

The other movies marking today were all big hits, starting with Splash, which opened today in 1984. Mermaid movies can be a tough sell (with a certain animated exception), but Ron Howard found the right romantic vibe to deliver an adult take on this literal fish out of water story, as well as making big stars out of Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah.

If stammering Englishmen are your thing, there’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, which opened ten years later and elevated Hugh Grant to the stratosphere… allowing us to all be appropriately appalled when he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute one year later. Among its many delights, the film also stands as a living example of the Groom Go Kaboom Rule: no wedding in movie history has ever gone off according to plan.

Finally, those in need of some proto-fascist comfort food in the face of our Orwellian nightmare to come can revisit Zack Snyder’s 300… which made a star out of Gerard Butler and engaged in some delightfully noisy green-screen fun right as the Bush administration started to come unraveled. I confess I love it despite its political subtext and if you don’t mind your pleasures of the supremely guilty variety, it’s up there with the original Death Wish. It opened today in 2007.


Today in Movie History: November 22

It’s another big day for the movies, starting with a trio of modern classics from the Disney/Pixar brain trust. It’s tough to single out one from that field, but I’m going with Beauty and the Beast: hands-down one of the greatest animated features of all time. It opened today in 1991.

Four years later, the boys at Pixar quietly started a revolution with the release of their first fully CG animated feature: Toy Story, the tale of a boy’s beloved cowboy doll (voiced by Tom Hanks), and what happens when he is replaced in his affections with an earnest-yet-terminally clueless spaceman (voiced by Tim Allen). You’ve seen it, you love it, and chances are if someone asked you to watch it again tomorrow, you’d be happy to jump right in. It opened today in 1995.

The third leg in this stool is Frozen, Disney’s attempt to shake up the princess formula and rake in a staggering pile of cash in the process. Its popularity is unquestioned, and it looks set for the long haul… though I do sympathize with those out there who would like a little break from “Let It Go” for a while. (I’m still including the clip. Sorry not sorry.) Frozen opened four years ago in 2013.

Those inclined towards slightly darker holiday fun have The Addams Family, Barry Sonnenfeld’s handsome trifle that has the benefit of holding up extremely well over repeat viewings. With inspiration drawn from Charles Addams’ original New Yorker cartoons, as well as brilliant turns from the likes of Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston and Christina Ricci, it makes a ghoulishly delightful tonic to the often-oppressive cheer of the season. It opened today in 1991.

I mentioned Branagh’s Henry V a couple of weeks ago. Today it’s Olivier’s turn. His fairy-tale style take on Shakespeare’s beloved play was intended to comfort and rally a nation at war, presenting a bloodless conflict and a king anointed by God to restore justice to the land. It was so beloved that no one dared touch the play before Branagh — cheeky bastard that he is — outdid him in 1989. This version of Henry V opened in its native England today in 1944.

The film forays of Star Trek: The Next Generation were a pretty miserable lot, by and large, with the glorious exception of First Contact. It brought one of the saga’s greatest villains, The Borg, out to play, and with Alice Krieg as the sensually sinister Borg Queen, gave the TNG crew a cinematic enemy worth fighting. It opened today in 1996.

We’ll close, as we’re doing a lot of late, with an Elvis picture. Blue Hawaii is far from the King’s best work — and even his best is a relative term in some ways — but there’s something comforting about pairing him with the Aloha State, and its bright, cheery contours are always worth celebrating. It opened today in 1961.


Interview: Tom Hanks

After starting his career – and achieving a high level of success – as a comedic actor, Tom Hanks famously reinvented himself as a dramatic performer with 1993’s Philadelphia, and scored back-to-back Oscars as a result. In the intervening years, he has worked several times with another multiple Oscar winner, Steven Spielberg, with whom he joins forces again for this fall’s Bridge of Spies. He spoke to the press about the role as a recent junket for the film. A copy of his comments follows.


Question: Do you see your character here as maybe a bookend or another chapter in men you’ve played before who are similarly heroic?

Tom Hanks: I don’t view this as a bookend to anything because every movie starts fresh and has to exist on its own in its auspices. The interesting thing that happens when you play somebody real is you have to have meetings with them if they’re alive and you have to say, “Look, I’m going to say things you never said and I’m going to do things you never did and I’m going to be in places you never were. Despite that, how do we do this as authentically as possible?” Much like the boss [Steven Spielberg], I was fueled by no pre-conceived notion of James Donovan. I knew nothing about the man. When you’re coming across the guy who is an awfully good insurance lawyer that then ends up being part of such a momentous six days in history… I’m a selfish actor. I’ll lunge at that opportunity, regardless of anything else I’ve done prior.


Q: was the heart of this character for you?

TH: The key to the guy for me, he wrote an awful lot about his own life. He wrote a book about his experience with Rudolf Abel that goes so in depth into the trial I felt like I was a court stenographer. It just goes on and on and on, this motion and that motion. I ended up not reading it all but look, you look for some degree of superstructure of how it is and outside the fact that he’s got a smokin’ hot wife, you look for something in the past. That he was a prosecutor of the Nuremberg war crimes – that means he wasn’t the type of soldier that went off and wanted to kill as many Nazis as possible. He was the guy who wanted to nail as many Nazis as possible using the letter of the law. That’s a different kind of man. When you take that into account, it pays off in the screenplay, for example I thought at one point his arguments to the Supreme Court about Rudolf, I thought “oh, come on, let’s not gild the lily here, let’s not turn this into more of an operatic moment than necessary” but it turns out that it’s exactly what he said to the Supreme Court. It’s a factor that emboldens itself to the process of making the movie. And it’s never wrong playing a guy who’s got a smokin’ hot wife.


Q: You have Spielberg here, but you also have a script by the Coen Brothers. How was it working with their words and Spieberg’s direction?

TH: This is the second time I’d been in anything that the Coens had done—I call them Joe and Nathan. Their dialogue scans if you know what that means. It ends up devolving into almost a percussive give and take that’s different than other motion picture dialogue, in which it is mostly text as opposed to subtext. There’s a number of great examples of it throughout, but that first scene, which is essentially an insurance negotiation, I think that’s them to a T. There is a – I don’t want to put too many roses on what they do – but there is a cadence that is individual to each character that the dialogue scans in a way. A lot of times you read screenplays in which one very specific thing is happening in the scene and both characters sound the same after a while, they lock into the antagonist/protagonist thing and that just never happens with this. It seems as though somebody is either rocking back in their heels in a Coen brothers scene while another person is making arguments you can’t even begin to imagine. It’s pretty cool when you get to wrap your heads around that.


Q: The right to counsel plays a huge role for this man. Did you do any research into that legal precedent? Maybe consulted with people who defend, say, men and women at Guantanamo Bay?

TH: It ends up getting quite fascinating because, and I mean this, immediately after I read the screenplay, I did what everybody does: you just Google the guy you’re going to play. I Googled James Donovan and there was an awful lot, and a lot of it was repetitious, but I came across a piece on YouTube in which the real Donovan, when he was defending Abel, was interviewed at the courthouse and he literally stated the reason why he took the case and the reason why he carried it all the way to the extremes of the Supreme Court. He said, “You can’t accuse this guy of treason. He’s not a traitor. He’s actually a patriot to his cause. Only an American can be a traitor. Only an American can commit treason against their own country. He’s just a man doing his job in the same way we have men doing their jobs over here.” As soon as you start assassinating and, let’s extrapolate, as soon as you start torturing the people that we have, well then you give the other side permission and cause to do the same exact thing and that’s not what America stands for, at least not what America [stood] for at the time when I took ethics in school and I read my Weekly Reader and I learned the lessons of our forefathers. As soon as you start executing anybody you think has gone against your country, well, you’re not that far removed from the KGB and the Stasi. That’s not what America was about. This is what Donovan took with him from the get go. You can’t deny it.