Today in Movie History: January 30

Charlie Chaplin has been on our minds a lot of late, and today saw the release of one of his masterpiece: City Lights, the story of Chaplin’s ubiquitous Little Tramp and the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who falls in love with him. It’s vintage Chaplin at its finest, and if you don’t get a little misty-eyed at the finale, you might not actually possess a soul. City Lights opened today in 1931.

Way, way WAY down the totem pole, we find a couple of decidedly scruffier movies that nonetheless hold plenty of guilty pleasures. We’ll start with Taken, Pierre Morel’s reactionary revenge piece that benefits immeasurably from Liam Neeson’s steely hero. (It gave the actor a signature catch phrase in the bargain.) It opened today in 2009.

The other movie was Deep Rising, Stephen Sommer’s glorious monster mash in which a Lovecraftian horror attacks a luxury cruise liner. It doesn’t trade in the uglier stereotypes of Taken and — while goofy in the extreme — makes for a much more enjoyable experience overall. It opened today in 1998.

(Incidentally, both of the above movies featured Famke Janssen… just one of the reasons why we love her.)

 

Today in Movie History: August 25

There are movies that merit discussion, exposition, analysis and explanation. Then there are movies that are so tightly woven into our cultural DNA that no further word is necessary. And while it found its audience on those famed CBS broadcasts year in and year out, this was the day its magic officially began. The one and only Wizard of Oz opened today in 1939.

That bad boy isn’t sharing the podium with anyone, though I will leave a little room for a personal favorite: Lord of Illusions Clive Barker’s intriguing story about a magician who practices real magic disguised as phony illusions. It’s indisputably a Barker joint, and with the help of a strong cast (including Scott Bakula, Kevin J. O’Connor, and Famke Janssen) it remains a groovy little fright fest for anyone in the mood. It opened today in 1995.

 

Today in Movie History: July 14

I’m going to start with the X-Men, less because of what their debut onscreen adventure achieves in and of itself than what it heralded for the future of movies. Marvel Comics adaptations had been mired in direct-to-video mediocrity for decades, and while Wesley Snipes’ Blade was the first of their heroes to achieve mainstream movie success, he was more of an action-horror figure than a superhero. The X-Men, however, proved that spandex-clad do-gooders not named Batman or Superman could thrive in a cinematic environment. Their success paved the way for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series, and from there to the MCU currently dominating movie pop culture.

The first entry in the series isn’t a perfect movie, but under the care of director Bryan Singer, it treated these characters with respect and dared to examine the underlying message of prejudice and understanding from the comic book series instead of just focusing on mayhem and fight scenes. On a personal level, it proved supremely gratifying for those of us who grew up reading the comics and never imagined we’d see these characters properly delivered to the big screen. Last but not least, it launched the film career of one Hugh Michael Jackman, and though he’s had his share of missteps, the movies are a much better place for his presence. X-Men opened today in 2000.

Speaking of the MCU, today also saw the release of Ant-Man, which earned headlines when director Edgar Wright left the project over an apparent dispute with the Marvel brain trust. Kevin Feige used the incident to get the brain trust out of the process and the MCU has seen a subsequent improvement in quality. Regardless, Ant-Man itself emerged as a terrific little riff on the traditional superhero formula, with Paul Rudd at his charming best as a principled thief pulled into a tiny little world of controlled insects. Ant-Man was released in 2015.

I was heavily torn between Marvel’s various entries and When Harry Met Sally… indisputably one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time and a perennial favorite for anyone in need of a little true love. It succeeds for a number of reasons — Nora Ephron’s remarkable script, Ron Reiner’s sure-handed direction and the one-of-a-kind chemistry between stars Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal — but also because it deals with a more mature couple who have been kicked around a bit by love before finding each other (a far cry from the moony first-blush romances the genre usually depends on). The film opened today in 1989.

Going back a few decades, I can’t claim to be a fan of Easy Rider, which always felt heavy-handed and unduly frivolous with its notions of doomed freedom and the futility of sticking it to The Man. Nevertheless, it remains a cultural touchstone and helped catapult Jack Nicholson from Roger Corman’s go-to second banana to one of the biggest stars in the history of movies. Director co-star Dennis Hopper aned the always groovy Peter Fonda make fine impressions too. The film opened today in 1969.

Love them or hate them, the three movies above all attained a resonant cultural influence. For a while, it looked like The Blair Witch Project was going to do the same. But its star has fallen precipitously since its initial release, and what was once hailed as a game-changer in the horror field now looks like a reasonably successful one-note gimmick with nothing else to say. Besides starting the godawful found-footage trend — which continues to pop up in low-budget horror movies like a yapping little dog — its overall impact has been surprisingly minimal. It opened today in 1999.

Finally, there’s License to Kill, one of the low points in the James Bond franchise which perhaps came closest to killing off the 007 series for good. Blame for that was unfairly laid on star Timothy Dalton, in retrospect a fantastic Bond who was saddled with an ill-fitting drugs-and-corruption storyline that turns the character into just another cop. There’s little to recommend it besides the lead and an interesting supporting turn from a very young Benicio Del Toro. License to Kill opened today in 1989.