Today in Movie History: August 22

Having found himself a western superstar, Clint Eastwood didn’t have any compunctions taking the gloves off when he felt he had something to say. Case in point: High Plains Drifter, a searing indictment of the basket case our country had become at the time (unlike now, when we’re all doing just fine, thanks). It’s raw and searing and quite crude at times, but the power of Eastwood’s vision cannot be denied, and it eventually opened up a long and fruitful career for the man as a director. Also, John Wayne hated it. HATED it. High Plains Drifter opened today in 1973.

As Gen-X icons go, Pump Up the Volume doesn’t have quite the cache of, say, Heathers or The Goonies. But it’s a fine film in and of itself, featuring Christian Slater as a lonely high school student who finds his voice — and a surprisingly discontented audience — when he starts broadcasting a pirate radio show out of his basement. Credit it for taking its concept to its logical conclusion without once losing sight of its core message. Don’t trust The Man, kids. The Man lies. Pump Up the Volume opened today in 1990.

 

Today in Movie History: August 7

The Western, as a genre, has supposedly been on death’s door since Heaven’s Gate, though it has continued in fits and starts, and still sees its share of memorable films crop up. None rose higher than Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s farewell to the genre that made him famous, and easily one of the greatest films on his impressive resume. It explores notions of violence and mythology by deconstructing the most cherished legends of the old West. The result is dark and uncompromising, yet strangely poetic in its vision of men who can’t escape their own brutal nature. It snagged four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood and Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and opened today in 1992.

On an exponentially lighter note, there’s Real Genius, ostensibly one of a seemingly never-ending array of gross-out college comedies from the 80s that turned out to be something much, much more. It eschewed the boob-groping and bad-boy pranks of its ilk in favor of a very sweet story about smart kids still trying to figure out the world, topped by Val Kilmer at his most charming as an engineering genius who decides to stop playing by the rules midway through the game. It opened today in 1985 and remains as fresh and funny as it did back then.

Anytime a piece of animation breaks from the Disney mold, it’s usually worth a look. So it is with Heavy Metal, a decidedly adult anthology produced by Ivan Reitman and inspired by the classic sci-fi fantasy magazine that shares its name. It’s a mixed bag, as many anthology films can be, but the animation itself is a joy to behold and its unapologetic R-rated nature makes it a standout in a genre dominated by kid-friendly pastels. It opened today in 1981.

 

 

Today in Movie History: July 13

Today marks the release of The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the high points of the Roger Moore James Bond era that found him flashing his playboy spy routine to increasingly ridiculous ends. The villain’s a bit of a snoozer, and while Barbara Bach looks great in a slinky dress, she’s still too passive to make the strong impression required from the best Bond girls. On the other hand, Richard Kiel’s Jaws is a hoot and with Moore in fine form as 007’s most carefree incarnation, the film’s still a lot of fun. It opened today in 1977.

When it comes to pop-culture oddities, it’s hard to top The Dead Pool, the fifth and presumably the last of the Dirty Harry franchise. It actually ranks as one of the better ones, with a surprising sense of humor to go along with Clint Eastwood’s thundering political context. But that’s not why it tops the list. It tops the list because it contains one of those truly bizarre pop culture mash-ups that only makes sense in the rear-view mirror. A key scene involves a music video being filmed in a meat locker, whose doomed star pretty much kicks the whole plot off. The rock star was played by a then-unknown Jim Carrey, and the music video director by a then-unknown Liam Neeson. Carrey lip-syncs Axl Rose while Neeson looks on during an Exorcist homage in the middle of a Dirty Harry flick. It has to be seen to be believed. The Dead Pool opened 30 years ago today in 1988.

I’m not going to spend too much time on Ghost, a middling supernatural romance that somehow turned into a massive hit and won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar. It’s not bad, certainly, but it’s also aged poorly and retains at best a little throwback nostalgia to counteract the general sense that its success owed more to the zeitgeist of the time than the film itself. It opened today in 1990.

The same can’t be said of The Muppets Take Manhattan the last straight-up Muppet Movie to be overseen by Jim Henson before his untimely death. Henson’s longtime partner Frank Oz handled directing duties and the film — which sends the gang to New York in an effort to start up a Broadway play — carries the goofy iconoclastic charm that the Muppets have struggled to find in the wake of Henson’s passing. The Muppets Take Manhattan opened today in 1984.

Finally, I’ll briefly mention The Frisco Kid, a strange and wonderful western about a rabbi (Gene Wilder) travelling across the frontier to San Francisco and the amiable outlaw (Harrison Ford) who helps him on his way. The pairing of those two should be enough to pique your interest, and the film itself is different enough to let its surprisingly sweet tone come through. It opened today in 1979.

 

Today in Movie History: June 28

We’ll start today with Heaven Can Wait, proof that Warren Beatty’s directing career was more than just hubris, and one of several movies that defy the normal face-clawing awfulness of body switching comedies.  It opened 40 years ago today in 1978.

Then there’s Pale Rider, Clint Eastwood’s effort to revive the moribund Western genre years after Heaven’s Gate upposedly killed it for good. It didn’t quite accomplish that, even with yeoman aid from Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado released the same summer. But it remains a terrific entry in Eastwood’s canon: a fine, gritty update of Shane with gorgeous cinematography from Bruce Surtees and great work from a very strong cast. It opened today in 1985.

 

Today in Movie History: May 10

Two brilliant comedic troupes hit high points today. We’ll start with the boys in Britain who, with a successful TV show behind them and absolutely zero money to back them up, put together a comic take on the Knights of the Round Table that we’re pretty sure you’re familiar with. Monty Python and the Holy Grail opened today in 1975.

The Marx Brothers didn’t need any funding in 1946 when they produced their classic A Night in Casablanca. The brothers play managers of a hotel where an escaped Nazi war criminal has murdered the managers who came before them. The film supposedly earned controversy when Warner Bros tried to sue them for copyright infringement of their film Casablanca. Groucho always claimed that he countersued, arguing that the Marxes used the term “brothers” before Warners did. It’s likely balderdash, but the controversy didn’t stop the film from joining the ranks of Marx Brothers classics.

Finally, we have the middle entry in Sergio Leone’s famous Dollars trilogy, For a Few Dollars More. Though not quite as compulsively watchable as the two films surrounding it, it retains its spaghetti western charm thanks to the pairing of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name with Lee Van Cleef’s revenge-driven Colonel Mortimer. It opened today in 1967.