Today in Movie History: June 15

It’s a big day today, and we’ll start with the most recent. Amid all the hubbub over 2008’s The Dark Knight, it’s easy to forget just what an amazing job its predecessor, Batman Begins, did after Tim Burton’s singular-but-flawed vision and the depressing crassness of the Joel Schumacher Batman films. Bat-fans were hungry for the kind of lean, grounded tale that Christopher Nolan unleashed with deceptive ease, and the stellar cast combined with a keen understanding of the character to create one of the best incarnations of the Dark Knight in any medium. Oh yeah, and it set up a sequel of some note too… Batman Begins opened today in 2005.

15 years earlier, another comic book adaptation stuck closer to the Tim Burton model, and is still regarded as an ambitious failure. But the sheer joy of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy has helped it age exceptionally well, and today stands as a breath of fresh air amid the gloom and doom of modern superhero sagas. The Stephen Sondheim songs are a knockout, and Al Pacino’s spot-on Al Pacino impersonation may be the greatest of all time. It opened today in 1990.

In far earlier era, but belonging to the same Boys’ Own tradition of those later films, there’s The Dirty Dozen: Robert Aldrich’s gleeful excuse to righteously kick some Nazi behind. It exists as pure popcorn entertainment and nothing more, but who doesn’t love watching Lee Marvin and his squad of misfits stick it to der Fuhrer good? It opened today in 1967.

Want more? We’ve got it. I thought about starting with Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, a good film that I never quite cottoned to and which thus took a step down in my estimation. Nonetheless, the story of a man (Jack Lemmon) who lends his apartment to his employers so they can canoodle with women who are not their wives holds some subversive charm, and its five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director for Wilder) speak to its reputation as a classic. It opened today in 1960.

Baseball movies come and go, but none are quite so wonderfully, perfectly accurate as Bull Durham. Its tale of a veteran minor league catcher (Kevin Costner), a hotshot pitcher on his way up (Tim Robbins) and the hardcore booster (Susan Sarandon) engaging in a romantic tryst with them both provide tons of romantic heat. As for the baseball, this is one of the few films that understands the sport isn’t about winning the pennant. It’s about what happens while you’re trying to win the pennant. Bull Durham opened today in 1988.

I’m not a huge fan of Abbott and Costello, but I am a huge fan of the Universal monsters, and their farce Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein uses the ghoulish old gang to nearly perfect effect. The secret is taking the monsters seriously: letting Bud and Lou run around like idiots and keeping the source of their fear as pure. The high point is Bela Lugosi — 20 years from the original Dracula and showing every mile of it — putting the moves on a hapless young lady and causing all those years to vanish in an instant. The role still belongs to him. The movie belongs to Bud and Lou, and they’ve never been better. It opened 70 years ago today in 1948.

Finally, there’s The Lion King: the single most inexplicable classic in Disney’s canon. Its widely regarded status as an animation masterpiece covers up for the fact that:

1) It liberally cribbed from a Japanese cartoon called Kimba the White Lion.

2) Its story embraces the ethically dodgy principle that everything will be fine as long as you shut up and know your place.

3) Its animation is mind-bogglingly shoddy for an A-list picture at the heart of the Disney Renaissance.

Nevertheless, it is almost universally beloved…. and if you push me under duress, I admit that the Elton John songs are pretty boss. The Lion King opened today in 1994.

 

 

Today in Movie History: February 28

Throughout the ages, one question continues to haunt moviegoers everywhere… dogging their waking hours, haunting their sleep and likely staying with them to their graves:

“BLANE instead of Duckie?!”

Pretty in Pink opened today in 1985.

Elsewhere, those of us — and there are quite a few — who have grown tired of Johnny Depp’s shtick over the years can look back fondly to Donnie Brasco, a terrific gangster film based on true events in which Mr. Depp was still flexing his creative muscles. Al Pacino delivers a fine performance as well as a low-end goomba befriended by Depp’s undercover fed. It’s a great twist away from Michael Corleone and the film does wonders just by letting the two of them take the stage and do their thing. It opened today in 1997.

 

Today in Movie History: December 15

Man, there are some big movies  released today. We’re going to start with the grim one: one of the most important movies of all time, a chilling testament to the Holocaust, and demonstrative artistic validation for one of the greatest directors ever. Schindler’s List opened today in 1993. Above and beyond its merits as cinema, its success led to the founding of the Shoah Foundation, dedicated to preserving the testament of Holocaust survivors.

On a much lighter front: we love comic book movies here, and the last few years have seen some great ones from the MCU to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies to the resurgent X-Men. At the end of the day, however, they’re still chasing the original. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie opened today in 1978: a gold standard for superhero movies that may never be passed.

A big lug of an entirely different kind also arrived today in 1974: Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein delivered the final word on horror parodies and may be the greatest movie in Mr. Brooks’ formidable canon. For safety’s sake, don’t humiliate him!

Other notable releases on this day include the rousing Jimmy Stewart adventure film Flight of the Phoenix  in 1965; The Pink Panther Strikes Again in 1976 (which remains our favorite of the Pink Panther films); and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s surreal fantasy masterpiece The City of Lost Children in 1995.

The City of Lost Children shares a release date with Michael Mann’s Heat, the story of a career bank robber (Robert De Niro) after one last score and the dedicated cop (Al Pacino) trying to hunt him down. Much has been made — rightfully so — of the coffee shop scene between the two actors, but the entire ensemble is incredible (including Val Kilmer, Danny Terjo, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman and Wes Studi), and the film itself is one of the greatest police thrillers ever made. it opened today in 1995.

Oh yeah, and one other little film opened today in 1939. Southern epic, most popular movie of all time, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” something, something… Oh yeah, and overtly racist. Like a lot.

 

Today in Movie History: September 21

Based on a real-life botched bank robbery, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon now stands as a landmark of 70s cinema. Its anti-authoritarian tone shines through in every scene — thanks to Al Pacino’s iconic turn as an amateur criminal whose master plan goes straight out the window — and the overall sense of doom was much in keeping with the time. Special note goes to actor Chris Sarandon, however, who earned an Oscar nomination as Pacino’s trans lover, and whose sensitive, heartfelt performance lent humanity to a demographic largely relegated to cheap punchlines (when they were shown at all). Dog Day Afternoon opened today in 1975.

Carl Reiner’s All of Me doesn’t have nearly the same heft, but as old-fashioned pratfall comedies go, it has few comparative peers. Steve Martin stars as a lawyer forced to surrender half of his body to a dying heiress (Lily Tomlin) trying to buy her way into reincarnation, and besides the brilliant comic chemistry between the two stars, it stands as a terrific showcase for Martin’s physical comedy. Oh, and the orgasm gag in When Harry Met Sally? You saw it here first. All of Me opened today in 1984.

 

 

Today in Movie History: September 15

Cameron Crowe has had his ups and downs as a filmmaker, but Almost Famous remains his most personal and heartfelt. Based loosely on his experiences as a (very young) rock journalist in the 70s, it follows a precocious teenager (Patrick Fugit) who finds himself in the inner circle of a successful band on the road. It’s sweet, funny and very wise — the epitome of the director at his best — as well as featuring great supporting performances from the likes of Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. It opened today in 2000.

When American Beauty first came out, it was hailed as a masterpiece of suburban angst and the hollow pursuits of consumer society. Time hasn’t been kind to it — it’s not the classic we thought at the time — but it still contains powerful moments, and Kevin Spacey’s performance as a father who gleefully embarks upon his own undoing is still breathtaking to behold. It opened today in 1999.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Al Pacino was seriously on the skids in the late 80s. A string of flops had dissipated his reputation as one of the best actors in the industry, and one wondered how much longer we’d see him onscreen. then he made Sea of Love, a slick little thriller that pitted his cop against a potential murderess (Ellen Barkin) who of course he’s dangerously attracted to. The movie was a hit with the critics and the public, and Big Al was back in the catbird seat. the movie opened today in 1989.