Today in Movie History: June 12

It’s a big day for movie releases today, but there’s no doubt which one leads the list. Action and adventure have been a part of the movies since the Lumiere brothers sent audiences diving for cover with the approach of a moving train. We’ve seen some amazing entries in the genre over the ensuing 120 years, but none of them — not a single one — can touch the magic that Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford created with one battered fedora. There may be more “important” movies, there may be more profound movies, there may be movies that challenge our perceptions more handily or stretch the medium in more creative ways. But if you can’t love this one, you have no business loving movies at all. The one and only Raiders of the Lost Ark opened today in 1981.

Of the other five entries today, the one that comes closest to Raiders in terms of stature is Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s celebrated horror movie about a nice young lady and the Satanists living next door to her. Frankly, I find the movie ridiculous and I suspect Polanski does too, but there’s no arguing with the skill on display, or the film’s status as one of the pillars of the genre. And Polanski’s eternal notion of innocence betrayed certainly finds fertile ground in the overheated material. Rosemary’s Baby opened 50 years ago today in 1968.

Five years earlier, 20th Century Fox embarked upon a boondoggle that almost sank the studio. Cleopatra, originally budgeted at $2 million, ended up costing over $30 million. In modern terms, that means the budget basically went from Get Out to Pirates of the Caribbean in one fell swoop. The elaborate sets and costumes were a part of it (Elizabeth Taylor changed costumes a record 65 times in the film), but so too was the relocation from London to Rome mid-shoot; the departure of original director Robert Mamoulian in favor of Joseph Mankiewicz (who himself was almost fired in the editing); and the legendary affair between Taylor and co-star Richard Burton (both married to other people at the time). The film is an enormous white elephant, though it retains a compulsive watchability, mainly because of the nuclear chemistry (in both good ways and bad) of its two stars. It opened today in 1963.

Zipping back to the 80s, we find a pair of notables that both opened on the exact same day. George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick became a bellwether for mainstream pro-feminist filmmaking as a trio of outsiders (Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer) in a small New England town draw the attention of the Devil… played to mischievous perfection by Jack Nicholson. A riotous social satire, a quietly brilliant horror film and an elegant statement about the mistreatment of women all rolled into one, its charms haven’t aged a day.

Then there’s Predator, a movie originally viewed as a quickie knock-off of Alien intended to capitalize on the rising star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Over the years, it’s morphed into a genre classic all on its own: partially because of the magnificent monster itself (created by Stan Winston and his crew), but also because of the quiet way it upended the era’s prevailing trends. Action heroes were largely unstoppable killing machines at the time, led by Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone whose good guys simply waded through the villains until no one was left. Predator set a whole squad of them up again a monster that treated them all like teenagers in a slasher movie. Director John McTiernan accelerated the trend with Die Hard a year later, but the first seeds were planted right here.

Predator and The Witches of Eastwick both opened today in 1987.

We’ll close with Inside Out, from the redoubtable Pixar studios, about the personified emotions that live inside a little girl’s head and what happens when they learn you can’t be happy all of the time. Pixar’s quality had slipped a bit with the previous few movies — though admittedly, the initial bar they set couldn’t be higher — and Inside Out represented a welcome return to their stellar best. It opened just two years ago in 2015, but it looks set for the long haul.

Today in Movie History: June 1

Though it didn’t foster a full-bore revival of the Hollywood musical, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! succeeded in updating the baggy old genre for an entirely new generation. Luhrmann’s trademark attention span deficit and the expert addition of modern pop songs into the mix turned an exercise in empty style into a beloved modern classic, and while I struggle with the film’s abrupt shifts in emotional tone (it’s all a joke or it isn’t guys), it’s hard to dispute the sheer joy of moviemaking that bursts from every shot. It opened today in 2001.

Remakes are common in Hollywood, but far more rare are remakes from the same director. Having already given us a version of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934, Alfred Hitchcock decided to take it on again twenty years later: making use of technical advances like widescreen and Technicolor, as well as an American family in the lead instead of a British one. Both versions have their charms, but with big stars like Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day headlining this one, it’s by far the most prominent. It opened today in 1956.

Horror movies have always taken especial glee in the monstrous side of birth, but few directors could tap into that anxiety like David Cronenberg. He perfected the notion with efforts like Dead Ringers and The Fly, but first explored in depth with The Brood, which put him on the map… and made it extremely clear that cinema would never be the same again. Oliver Reed plays a scientist, likely of the mad variety, experimenting on an unhinged mother in an effort to cure her of her demons. As you may suspect, wacky mayhem ensures. The Brood opened today in 1979.

Speaking of remakes, most of us have already forgotten the woeful Total Recall double dip from a couple of years ago. Maybe that’s because the original is so gloriously batshit insane that the very notion of remaking it is an exercise in folly. It opened in 1990 and — for better or worse — helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger the biggest star in the world at that time.

Finally, there’s Star Trek III which broke the unspoken rule that odd-numbered Trek movies all had to stink. Faced with the unenviable task of following up The Wrath of Khan, they turned to Leonard Nimoy himself to deirect. He took the story in a wildly different direction, and though far from perfect, it made us accept and even embrace Mr. Spock’s resurrection as something more than a cheap gimmick. Star Trek III opened today in 1984.

 

Today in Movie History: November 23

It was a quiet day in movie history, but we still had a few notable releases. Elvis Presley serenaded Juliet Prowse in one of his better offerings, G.I. Blues, opening this day in 1960. More recently, we learned WAY more about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lady parts than we ever wanted to know (as well as being reminded yet again how awesome Frank Langella is) in Ivan Reitman’s Junior in 1994. And James L. Brooks scored a major-league Oscar winner with Terms of Endearment — with trophies for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress Shirley MacLaine and Best Supporting Actor Jack Nicholson. Had Nicholson run in the lead actor category, it would have had the Big Five, a feat only three other movies thus far have accomplished.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

 

 

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: July 15

With apologies to The Boy Who Lived, I think Officer McClane is taking the pole position on this one. The original Die Hard initially looked like a huge disaster. Star Bruce Willis was mainly known for light comedy and his attempt to segue into action hero mode smacked of the worst kind of hubris. As it turns out, it represented a sea change in action movies: breaking from the unstoppable ubermenschen of Schwarzenegger and Stallone flicks and presenting a very vulnerable hero in way over his head. (Indiana Jones had been performing the same trick for years, but it took Die Hard to prove that other movies could do it just as well.) His “yippie-kay-yay!” tag is justifiably celebrated, but the character’s most telling line is much more humble: “Oh God, please don’t let me die.” Add to that Alan Rickman’s star-making turn as a villain for the ages and you have a certified classic. Die Hard opened today in 1988.

As if that weren’t enough, we also get a double helping of Harry Potter today. The Deathly Hallows, Part II brought the eight-movie series to an immensely satisfying conclusion — thanks in no small part to another brilliant turn from Alan Rickman — while The Half-Blood Prince culminated in one of the saga’s more heart-breaking moments: the death of Harry’s mentor Albus Dumbledore. Both films were directed by David Yates, and both have done justice to the groundbreaking franchise to which they belong. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released today in 2009; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II opened today in 2011.

On a normal day, I’d have kicked this off with A Fish Called Wanda, one of the greatest comedies of all time and a resounding affirmation that the Monty Python crew didn’t need a Flying Circus to weave their magic. The wacky robbery subplot is good fun as it stands, though the film really earns its spurs as a send-up of the differences between American and British sensibilities. Jamie Lee Curtis knocks one out of the park as the sexy female lead, and John Cleese and Michael Palin are as amusing as always. At the end of the day, however, the movie belongs to Kevin Kline, whose turn as the ultimate ugly American scored his only Oscar to date (and one of the few acting Academy Awards given to a comedy). A Fish Called Wanda opened today in 1988.

All that, and still more? Sure, we’ll include a couple of other mentions to the list. There’s Something About Mary hasn’t aged hugely well, but it certainly made a splash when it first arrived and remains a high point of the Farrelly Brothers’ unique brand of comedy. It opened today in 1998.

Finally, there’s True Lies, one of the runts of the James Cameron litter about a superspy who hides his job from his wife with unexpectedly hilarious results. The film hits a sexist note that undoes the supposedly light tone and Cameron’s visual bombast eventually becomes more trouble than its worth, but the technical specs are second to none, and once again Bill Paxton demonstrates that he can steal the show out from under anyone’s nose. True Lies opened today in 1994.