Today in Movie History: November 7

Small confession: I was not fond of Jon Favreau’s Elf when it was first released, and while time has warmed me to its charms, my feelings remain mixed. But I’m definitely in the minority on this one, and in the last decade it has become a reliable holiday classic that makes lots of folks happy during the Christmas season. It opened today in 2003.

On a completely different note, there’s Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox’s ode to the First Couple of punk rock and their horrifically intense devotion to each other. Cox understands punk sensibilities as few before him, and his sympathetic examination of this train wreck of a romance makes us feel for Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and the love of his life Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb)… whom he eventually murdered. As a snapshot of an era, it’s amazing, and that’s not even counting Oldman’s is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex performance that may still be the best in his storied career. Sid and Nancy opened today in 1986.

We’ll close with something much gentler: The Little Prince, a lovely and slightly surreal adaptation of the beloved Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novella. The recent animated feature managed to fall flat on its face. This live-action one hits all the right notes, thanks in part to the pitch perfect casting involving the likes of Bob Fosse and Gene Wilder, who presumably understood exactly what the story was all about. The Little Prince opened today in 1974.

Today in Movie History: November 5

We’re starting today with a pair of very different superhero movies. The obvious candidate for the pole position is The Incredibles, Brad Bird’s marvelous riff on the Fantastic Four that posits a super-powered family trying to blend into suburban life after costumed heroes are declared illegal. It’s typically brilliant work from Bird and helped Pixar set the standard for animation in the 21st Century. It opened today in 2004.

Dreamworks’ Megamind isn’t quite in the same league as The Incredibles. But it offers its own subversive take on the comic book genre, and the results are delightful in and of themselves. It involves a hapless supervillain (voiced by Will Ferrell) who suddenly gets everything he wants and finds it makes him miserable. It’s a sly bit of fun, and its iconoclastic tone allows it to take more chances than The Incredibles did. It opened today in 2010.

Today also saw a the release of a pair of significant Oscar contenders that have stood the test of time to become classics in and of themselves. I consider The Remains of the Day to be the best of the Merchant-Ivory collaborations, despite the fact that it went 0-for-8 on Oscar night. (Five of those losses went to Schindler’s List, so it was more a matter of tough luck than theft.) But its tale of a butler (Anthony Hopkins) so devoted to duty that he ignores his master’s active embrace of fascism holds terrifyingly pertinent lessons for today, while avoiding the stodgy self-importance that dogs many of Merchant-Ivory’s other efforts. It opened today in 1993.

We’ll close with The Insider: Michael Mann’s searing portrayal of Big Tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) who got hung out to dry by 60 Minutes. With typical stylish mastery from Mann and top-notch performances form both Crowe and Al Pacino as 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, it’s a powerful reminder not only of the difficulty of doing the right thing, but the corrosion of journalism by corporate interests. It opened today in 1999.

 

Today in Movie History: September 28

The 1950s were a Golden Age for science fiction, and few films in that era attained the resonance — both as entertainment and as a movie with something to say — that The Day The Earth Stood Still did. Robert Wise’s pitch-perfect fable of a man from outer space with a message we’re just not capable of hearing is definitely a product of its time, but the dated qualities actually add to its assets… and the lessons haven’t been lost to the ages just yet. The Day the Earth Stood Still opened today in 1951.

On a more modern front, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Looper, Rian Johnson’s futuristic mind-bender that may stand as one of the best time-travel movies yet made. It was largely ignored at the box office, but if you’re looking for an elegant puzzle to occupy your brain, few science fiction films stand taller. Looper opened today in 2012.

Finally, there’s Ben Stiller’s Zoolander, a film that initially suffered from exquisitely bad timing (it opened a few weeks after 9/11 and inadvertently touched some very raw wounds) but has since rebounded to become a comedy classic. It opened today in 2001 and forever gave us the gift of Blue Steel.

 

Today in Movie History: July 9

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise became a victim of its own success, making it easy to forget what a revelation Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow was when he first capered onto movie screens. Combined with Gore Verbinski’s acrobatic direction, what started out as a decidedly dodgy prospect somehow became the go-to movie for modern swashbuckling. (And if we’re totally honest, a great deal of credit also belongs to Geoffrey Rush, whose delicious Captain Barbossa never wore out his welcome.)  Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl opened 15 years ago today in 2003.

The glorious summer of 1982 produced its share of unique films, few more so than the original TRON. The story is a bit of a mess, but the visuals were stunning — something never seen before — and the fascinating way it grappled with the growing reality of the computer age made it strangely prescient in many ways. Like it or not, we’re all on the Gird these days… and TRON saw it coming. It opened today in 1982.

Finally, there’s Anchorman, a film that didn’t look like much more than a goof when it first opened. It has aged like fine wine since then, and not only stands at the apex of Will Ferrell’s career, but had some things to say about gender status that remain all-too pertinent today. Ron Burgundy first told San Diego to stay classy today in  2004.

 

 

Movies for the Resistance: Anchorman — The Legend of Ron Burgundy

(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: Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner and Fred Willard
Directed by: Adam McKay
Running time: 94 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 2004

 

They say the movies never change, but we’re different every time we see them. Anyone who loves the movies can testify to that truth. 13 years ago, Anchorman looked… well certainly not far-fetched, but with an air of measured ludicrousness to sharpen its comic bite. Its primary target was workplace man-babies: Lost Boys in positions of authority who thought they’d never have to share their clubhouse with a girl (or indeed anyone not-white). San Diego news anchorman Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and his cronies go ballistic when they have to deal with a smart capable woman in their ranks, and the movie became a modern comedy classic from the results. (Seriously. It’s even on TCM.)

Now here we sit watching real men in real positions of authority make these onscreen cartoon figures look like the height of maturity. It isn’t that workplace sexism was nonexistent in 2004 – far from it – but after decades of ferocious effort, everyone seemed to agree that yes, it was a problem, no it wasn’t okay and maybe losing the chauvinist douchebag routine really was in everyone’s best interests. We are no longer living under that agreeable delusion, and the real-life Ron Burgundys have intensified their tantrums to the point where they could quite literally destroy the world.

Our pussy grabber in chief is the most egregious example, and his vile tweet about hitting Hillary Clinton with a golf ball this week is just one stone in a never-ending mountain of hateful chest beating. The fact that he retweeted it from some wag going by the handle “Fuctupmind” demonstrates a level of petty hate that should have sent the man packing in the GOP primaries. Instead, it became a selling point for millions of voters with broken moral compasses, as did his pre-presidential fortress life where he ruled all that he surveyed and his every little whim was catered to. Trumpkins bought the fantasy that they too could be that powerful, and turned the whole world into his gold-plated sandbox.

Ferrell made his career deflating such figures (including one former President): self-styled masters of their own universe whose word was law and who ignored the rules to suit their whims. The humor in his films arrives when that bubble bursts and his toddler-emperors face a universe that doesn’t jump when they say “frog.” Ron Burgundy constitutes perhaps the purest example: king of San Diego’s local TV news scene despite the fact that he can do almost nothing beyond read a teleprompter convincingly. Yet that makes him the big dog – against all logic and reason – and even his ostensible boss (Fred Willard, never better) has to bend to accommodate him.

The party ends with the arrival of Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), who has waded through an ocean of shit just to get into the same room as Burgundy. She’s put up with the crude remarks, the gropes, the idiotic assignments about cat beauty pageants instead of actual news, and having finally wedged her foot in the door, she’s not about to surrender to some mustachioed imbecile. When Ron drops the ball, she’s there to pick it up, and suddenly his testosterone-laden Neverland goes boom.

The comedy revolves around Ron’s implosion, as it does with most Ferrell joints, and he has yet to find funnier and more potent results. Watching the President do the same thing – along with a host of angry white men using him as an excuse to attack any non-white non-male who dares to act like anything but a doormat – makes it far less funny. I’m told people who have actually worked in broadcast news find Ron Burgundy too close to reality to laugh, as the unraveling ball of misogyny at Fox News demonstrates.

And yet far from trivializing such issues, Anchorman actually becomes more potent in the face of a reality that has eclipsed it. Putting a man so breathtakingly sexist as Trump in the most powerful office in the land – an office he is monumentally unqualified for, and over an infinitely more competent woman to boot – simply adds more darkness to the humor. But the message remains unchanged. Corningstone is never the butt of the joke, nor are her fellow sisters trudging their way through Burgundy’s thoughtlessly oppressive playground. The true idiots belong to the other gender: the ones terrified of bears overrunning the newsroom and who crumble at the first sign of adversity in spectacular, hysterical fashion.

That too holds a lesson, well-worth remembering when Trump and his odious deplorables run into obstacles. Like any bullies, they revel in tough-guy rhetoric when they hold the cards, but the minute things don’t go their way, they start shrieking about how unfair it all is. Watching that come from any adult is bad enough. Watching it come from the President of the United States is a special brand of horrifying. (When people say “this is not normal,” that’s exactly, precisely what we’re talking about.)

And the deplorables fail to understand the tenacity of the people they hope to silence: the Corningstones of the world, forced to endure constant humiliation, ridicule and setback for the temerity of asking for a seat at the table. The adversity Trump and his supporters believe they have suffered amounts to less than a drop in their opponents’ bucket. Corningstone endures because she has no other choice, and as the macho rhetoric on the other side gives way to whining that wouldn’t hold water in a third-grade classroom, questions of who’s tougher and more qualified become that much easier to answer. It isn’t “should Corningstone do the news?” but “why the hell was everyone so opposed to her doing the news in the first place?” It’s not like she didn’t pay for every bloody yard she traveled.

And that’s what it all comes back to. The right gleefully evokes images of freeloaders and “takers” to silence opponents who have fought through shit the likes of which most of them can barely fathom. And yet they can do nothing else, lest acknowledging reality bring down their entire house of cards (a possibility so awful to them they’d rather destroy the world).

That’s where Burgundy rises above his real-life doppelgangers. He, at least, can admit that he’s wrong and do better. They can’t even manage that… and we’re all paying the price for it.