Today in Movie History: August 10

I was tempted to start with Red Dawn here, because when you’re talking batshit crazy movies it should be at the top of the list. But I’m going to follow my heart and go with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension, one of the most absurdly marvelous things the 80s ever produced. It jump-starts its own comic-book universe and presents it to us the way most of us discovered comics back when there weren’t any movies not starring Christopher Reeve to give you a cheat sheet. You’d pick up issue #48 of whatever the line was, and had to figure out the characters and story thread midway through. It was baffling, fascinating and kind of wonderful… the same vibe that Buckaroo Banzai picks up without pause and carries to the finish line. It opened today in 1984, and there will always be a little joy in my heart because of it.

Yes, yes we’re getting to Red Dawn. Not the instantly forgotten reboot from a few years ago, but the gloriously deranged original, in which the dirty commies invade America’s heartland, forcing a gaggle of corn-fed teens to go all insurgent on their Lenin-quoting butts. The scenario requires a little hand-waving to fly, but director John Milius does find an interesting way of revealing how Americans might mount a guerilla war against a hypothetical invader, and the pervading sense of doom that creeps into the narrative sets it apart from other bits of flag-waving  jingoism from the era. Red Dawn also opened today in 1984.

We’ll close with something completely different: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a sweet, snarky and completely fabulous dramedy about a trio of drag queens (Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce) on a journey across the Outback. Its pleasures are many, but I enjoy showing it to people just to watch them freak out at Agent Smith dressed up like a showgirl. It opened in the United States today in 1994.


Today in Movie History: July 3

The first few days of July are traditionally set for big blockbusters hoping to cash in on the long holiday weekend. Blockbusters rarely stand the test of time, of course, but there are always exceptions. The biggest for this day is Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis’s iconic time-travel movie that has since become a classic of 80s popcorn cinema. It’s a tad too tightly plotted for comfort, and Thomas F. Wilson’s admirably odious villain eventually becomes a real monster in a script that calls for a garden-variety creep. But the buddy-buddy chemistry between stars Michael J. Fox and Christpher Lloyd is infectious, and that tricked-out DeLorean always elicits a smile no matter how close it gets to 88 MPH. Back to the Future opened today in 1985.

Two other minor relics of 80s cinema opened today a couple of years later. The better of the two is Innerspace, Joe Dante’s glorious romp in which a hotshot pilot (Dennis Quaid) gets shrunk to microscopic size and accidentally injected into the rump of a neurotic supermarket manager (Martin Short). Shrinky-dink movies aren’t exactly legion, but this one surely ranks as the best. (Yes, including Fantastic Voyage.)

The other one is Adventures in Babysitting, an early effort from Chris Columbus that sends Elizabeth Shue’s put-upon high school senior through the mean streets of Chicago with a couple of pint-sized charges. It’s definitely boilerplate, but has a fun teenybopper energy to it (Shue makes a great straight man). It’s also notable for its evocation of Marvel’s Thor long before anyone outside of comic book circles knew who he was… with a little help from future MCU alum Vincent D’Onofrio to boot.

Both Innerspace and Adventures in Babysitting opened today in 1987.



Today in Movie History: May 24

It’s blockbuster season, so I’ll start with the biggest. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — widely regarded as the best of the series after the original — benefited from the genius pairing of Harrison Ford’s redoubtable archaeologist with Sean Connery as his fussy, disapproving father. It opened today in 1989.

Slightly further down the sequel list, we find Back to the Future III, which opened exactly one year after The Last Crusade and — unlike Indy — had the good sense to bring its story to an elegant conclusion. Though overly plotted and breathlessly paced, it maintained the charming relationship between Michel J. Fox’s twitchy teen and Christopher Lloyd’s eccentric inventor, and plopping them down in the Old West provided plenty of gags to throw at them.

And since we’re being thorough today, we should mention A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s ignominious final outing as James Bond. Embarrassingly old for the part, he sleepwalked through a movie that features one or two interesting moments (topped by a base jump off of the Eiffel Tower), but otherwise wastes countless how-could-they-blow-it assets like Christopher Walken as the villain and Grace Jones as his sinister right arm. At least there’s the Duran Duran song. A View to a Kill opened today in 1985.

Straying away from blockbusters, we find Belle du Jour, Luis Buunel’s surreal masterpiece about a sexually distant housewife (Catherine Deneuve) who begins moonlighting as a prostitute. In anyone else’s hands, it might have been sleazy and degrading. In Bunuel’s, it’s haunting, surreal and surprisingly pro-woman. It opened in France today in 1967.

Speaking of pro-women, we’ll close today with Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise, hailed as a groundbreaker for its depiction of a pair of good friends (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) who go on the lam to escape… well… everything to do with men. It opened today in 1991, and we’ve never looked at the Grand Canyon the same way again.

And I will note for the record that those last two pro-women movies were actually directed by men. Might be nice to let a few more women take a shot at directing movies like that…


Today in Movie History: December 13

In the spirit of the season, we’re going to start with a light one: Clue, one of those comedies that nobody understood when it was first released, but has since gone on to become a classic. Based on the evergreen board game, it initially baffled critics and audiences with its vaudeville-style script and a gimmick that allowed for different endings depending on which theater you watched it in. The last bit may have been ill-conceived, but the inclusion of all three endings on the VHS release cut the Gordian Knot nicely. And with seven of the funniest people on the planet front and center, the film sparkles on the sheer power of good comic timing. It opened today in 1985.

Barry Levinson’s Bugsy got shoved aside a little bit in the stampede to honor The Silence of the Lambs, and with the shadow of Goodfellas breathing down its neck. But it’s a terrific gangster film, and Warren Beatty’s hypnotic portrayal of infamous gangster Bugsy Siegel ranks as one of the best performances he’s given. The film also introduced him to his eventual wife Annette Bening, and the chemistry between the two is scorching. Bugsy opened today in 1991.

Then there’s Jerry Maguire, Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy about a sports agent (Tom Cruise) who loses everything and finds his soul. It’s funny and charming in equal measures, featuring a star-making turn from Renee Zellweger as yet another of Cameron’s winsome blonde muses. The real scene-stealer, however, was Cuba Gooding, Jr. who won an Oscar as the only one of Cruise’s clients who sticks with him. William H. Macy was robbed — at gunpoint — but it’s hard to deny Gooding’s onscreen charm. The film opened today in 1996.

Finally, we have The Poseidon Adventure, Irwin Allen’s typically ridiculous disaster saga about a cruise ship hit by a tidal wave and the brave passengers who have to fight their way clear of the sinking wreck. It’s awful, but an interesting sort of awful, and at the time, its particular kind of awfulness was all the rage. It opened 45 years ago today today in 1972.



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.