Today in Movie History: October 15

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have emerged as two of the premiere satirists of the 21st Century, with a legacy that goes well beyond South Park. One of their greatest creations was Team America: World Police, perhaps the final word on the George W. Bush administration as interpreted through a cast of Thunderbirds-Are-Go-style marionettes. It neatly skewers everything that wanders into its sights — from self-important celebrities to Kim Jong-Il — and whatever magic they put into it was built to last. It opened today in 2004, and it might have been released yesterday.

Billy Wilder’s Sabrina never quite reached the level of his elite masterpieces, and its problem-free tale of rich people in love makes it a trifle out-of-touch. But it makes for fine viewing nonetheless, with Audrey Hepburn at her most adorable as a chauffeur’s daughter and Humphrey Bogart in a rare comedic turn as the fuddy-duddy rich man who isn’t quite sure he’s falling in love with her.  Sabrina opened today in  1954.

Today in Movie History: July 6

 

Film noir may be American cinema’s greatest contribution to the canon, and they don’t come any noir-ier than Double Indemnity: Billy Wilder’s masterpeice of greed, deceit and murder. Wilder fled the rise of the Nazis to come to Hollywood, and the darkness seeping out of Europe can be felt in the story of an insurance agent (Fred MacMurray) scheming with an ambitious housewife (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband. It opened today in 1944, and remains a must-see for anyone serious about the movies.

 

Today in Movie History: June 29

In these charged times, an ethical media is more important than ever. The key word there being “ethical,” which is where the problems arise. Billy Wilder knew the score long before Fox News and supermarket tabloids. Ace in the Hole, the caustic story of just what one newspaper man will do to sell some papers, hit theaters today in 1951, and in most ways that count, it hasn’t aged a day.

Then there’s The King and I, one of the greatest musicals ever made and the object of eternal gratitude from us bald men for whom Yul Brynner is just the gift that keeps on giving. It opened today in 1956.

Those two are pretty hard to top, but Pixar certainly tried with Ratatouille, Brad Bird’s Oscar-wining masterpiece about a French rat who becomes a chef at a five-star Parisian restaurant. It ranks as one of the studio’s very best, and that’s saying something. It also contains perhaps the most astute observation of criticism in film history, courtesy of Peter O’Toole’s chastened restaurant snob. It opened today in 2007

We’ll close with a couple of interesting if not quite perfect entries. Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence certainly ranks among his most ambitious works and at times it’s as powerful as anything he’s ever done. But without Stanley Kubrick, who helped develop the project and might have directed it were it not for his untimely death, it lacks the clinical cynicism that it really needed to succeed. It opened today in 2001.

Finally there’s Moonraker. Um, yeah. Moonraker. As James Bond films, it’s indisputably one of the worst, bowdlerizing Ian Fleming’s terrific source novel in favor of a quickie cash-in on the Star Wars craze. That said, it’s also an undeniable guilty pleasure, with 007’s 70s-era ridiculousness taken to glorious extremes and Roger Moore’s “what, me worry?” routine at its most disarming. Moonraker opened today in 1979.

 

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: June 3

As Billy Wilder comedies go, The Seven Year Itch never packed the punch of, say, Some Like It Hot or The Apartment. It’s amusing enough, but the Hays Code pulled the teeth from the Broadway play on which it was based, about a married man tempted by… well shit, by Marilyn Freaking Monroe. That leaves it minor Wilder at best, save for that iconic moment when Monroe stands above the subway grate. The Seven Year Itch opened today in 1955.

Back in 1983, the whole “personal computer” thing was at best weird and at worst actively frightening. Naturally, Hollywood happily exploited our fears with a series of “the computer is trying to kill you” movies that today seem almost quaint. One of the best of them was John Badham’s WarGames, in which a dippy high school hacker almost starts World War III by tapping into NORAD’s defense system when all he was looking for was a few video games. It doesn’t hold up as a thriller, but as a nostalgic throwback, it’s well made and surprisingly fun. It opened today in 1983.

Four years later, Brian De Palma made a huge mark on 80s cinema with The Untouchables: a sleek, handsome and heavily fictionalized variation on the fall of Al Capone. David Mamet’s script lent the story some hard-boiled grit, and with the likes of Sean Connery and Robert De Niro sinking their teeth into it, it’s no wonder the film was such a success. Among its other accolades, it made stars out of both Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia, as well as scoring Connery a well-deserved Academy Award. The Untouchables opened today in 1987.

Finally, I hold a soft spot in my heart for X-Men: First Class, which was responsible for revitalizing the X-Men franchise and may still be the best of the lot. I grew up reading the X-Men, and it still seems like a minor miracle that these figures actually made it to the big screen. Director Matthew Vaughn cuts to the heart of the story, what it’s supposed to be about and the amazing characters used to convey it. First Class opened today in 2011.