Today in Movie History: September 20

We’re starting today with The Battle of Algiers, a searing semi-documentary — commissioned by the Algerian government — about their fight for independence from the French. It weighs both sides of the conflict in surprisingly even-handed terms, as well as providing stunning insight into the nature and fallout of insurgent violence to enact political change. It opened in the U.S. 50 years ago today in 1967, and God help us, but it remains just as pertinent today is it did when it was first released.

Terry Gilliam is a unique filmmaker whose best movies are treasures. When they don’t work, of course, they go straight off the rails, but few people would deny that The Fisher King ranks among the high points. It works in part because the story stays grounded in reality without diminishing the fantastical elements that Gilliam excels at. Robin Williams earned an Oscar nomination for his turned as a homeless lunatic (he lost to Anthony Hopkins) while Mercedes Ruehl nabbed the statue for her supporting turn. The best of them may have been Jeff Bridges, however: anchoring the madness as a shock jock paying the piper for his misdeeds. The Fisher King opened today in 1991.

Gilliam, of course, merely marches to a different drummer. When it comes to Oliver Stone, we edge delicately into the realm of “barking mad.” He won an Oscar for writing the screenplay to Midnight Express, the tender, heartfelt story of an American drug smuggler caught and imprisoned in Turkey. I won’t go too deeply into the details except to say that you should never ever ever get caught smuggling drugs in Turkey. Midnight Express opened today in 1978.

I wouldn’t call Stanley Tucci a filmmaking eccentric, but a passion project like Big Night doesn’t come along every day. He co-wrote, co-directed (with fellow thespian Campbell Scott) and co-starred in the film, about a failing restaurant run by two brothers whose devotion to great food can’t drum up the customers they need.  If you’re looking for culinary porn, this is the movie for you. It opened today in 1996.

We’ll close with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the ubiquitous Tennessee Williams play sbrought to the screen by director Richard Brooks. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor play a feuding couple who arrive in Mississippi to celebrate the birthday of her father “Big Daddy” (Burl Ives). The usual cocktail of psychological torment and overheated Southern Gothic ensues. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened today in 1958.

 

Today in Movie History: June 22

It’s a close call for the top spot today — there’s some big ones — but we’re going to go with Kermit and the gang making their feature film debut with  The Muppet Movie. The irreplaceable Jim Henson turned directing duties over to James Frawley, but the former’s fingerprints are all over it, bolstered by brilliant songs from Paul Williams and backed by his unbelievable troupe of puppeteers, it remains every inch the sweet, magical, iconoclastic statement the Muppets deserve. Time hasn’t dimmed it one iota, and when people talk about the greatest family movies ever made, this one invariably creeps into the conversation. if you need a break from the bumper crop of real world horrors this summer, the little green frog dude has got your back. It opened today in 1979.

Disney has a few family classics of its own, not the least of which is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Robert Zemeckis’s gloriously clever take on a Hollywood where animated characters live and work among flesh-and-blood humans. It works brilliantly not only as a unique summer blockbuster, but as a wondrous parody of film noir, a gentle poke at the filmmaking industry, and even a quiet statement about the nature of prejudice, all topped by one of the best performances of Bob Hoskins’ career. It opened today in 1988.

For more classic Disney, we find Lady and The Tramp: landing right in the middle of the company’s 1950s heyday and scoring a huge hit for the Mouse in the process. It’s not quite as beloved as the likes of Snow White or Pinocchio, but the gorgeously animated tale of love between a pampered spaniel and a back-alley mutt still brings honored to the vaunted studio. It opened today in 1955.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton movies remain guilty pleasures for this column, especially when their nuclear chemistry turns into a meltdown. Case in point: Mike Nichol’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, charting the disintegration of a middle-aged couple over a long booze-filled evening. Considered shocking at the time, it’s lost little of that power thanks in no small part to the two leads whose love-hate relationship have become the stuff of legend. It opened today in 1966.

Oh, okay, we’ll include The Fast and the Furious too. Good? No. Not even close. But it clearly grabbed a hold of something — spawning a franchise that shows now signs of slowing down decades later — and the risible hyper-masculinity takes itself WAY too seriously in this initial effort (something the sequels eventually figured out), there’s no denying that the stunt and chase scenes are worthy of attention. It opened today in 2001. Vroom-vroom!

 

 

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 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.