Today in Movie History: January 15

Riddle me this, Caped Crusader: how do you produce the greatest Shakespeare adaptation of all time without using a single line of Shakespeare? You give it to Akira Kurosawa, that’s how. Throne of Blood his magnificent, peerless, stunningly powerful samurai version of Macbeth — opened in Japan this day in 1957. The great Toshiro Mifune turned in one of numerous brilliant performances as a noble lord driven to murder and madness, with Isuzu Yamada as his scheming wife. Kurosawa used the principles of Noh theater to enhance the drama, and created a story both uniquely Japanese and undeniably Shakespearean. For lovers of the Bard — or anyone who appreciates great filmmaking — this is one you just can’t miss.

Continuing our tradition of sort-of cheating by listing a film’s wide release date as opposed to its limited release date — to cover for the usual appalling crop of January films — Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam opened wide today in 1988. Ostensibly based on a true story, it worked largely because someone finally figured out how to make Robin Williams’ manic stand-up routine work in a movie, and could combine it with a quietly powerful anti-war treatise. Williams received an Oscar nomination for his performance (he lost to Michael Douglas in Wall Street), and the film currently ranks among his most beloved.

On the “less good, but still fun” side of things, The Book of Eli hit theaters today in 2010, featuring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and Mila Kunis in a better-than-average post-apocalyptic actioner that hinges a bit too much on the final twist.

 

 

 

 

Today in Movie History: November 7

Small confession: I was not fond of Jon Favreau’s Elf when it was first released, and while time has warmed me to its charms, my feelings remain mixed. But I’m definitely in the minority on this one, and in the last decade it has become a reliable holiday classic that makes lots of folks happy during the Christmas season. It opened today in 2003.

On a completely different note, there’s Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox’s ode to the First Couple of punk rock and their horrifically intense devotion to each other. Cox understands punk sensibilities as few before him, and his sympathetic examination of this train wreck of a romance makes us feel for Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and the love of his life Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb)… whom he eventually murdered. As a snapshot of an era, it’s amazing, and that’s not even counting Oldman’s is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex performance that may still be the best in his storied career. Sid and Nancy opened today in 1986.

We’ll close with something much gentler: The Little Prince, a lovely and slightly surreal adaptation of the beloved Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novella. The recent animated feature managed to fall flat on its face. This live-action one hits all the right notes, thanks in part to the pitch perfect casting involving the likes of Bob Fosse and Gene Wilder, who presumably understood exactly what the story was all about. The Little Prince opened today in 1974.

Today in Movie History: July 18

Mid-July is blockbuster time — usually when the last of the heavy hitters shows up to crush the box office before giving way to the earthier guilty pleasures of August. A pair of great sequels mark the day, notably The Dark Knight: Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to his already impressive Batman Begins. In then ensuing decade, it’s become the stuff of cinematic legend, with shockingly perfect renditions of figures like Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to support Christian Bale’s magnificent Batman. At the end of the day, however, the film belongs to the late Heath Ledger, initially a head-scratching choice to play the Joker, but who succeeded not only in making the character his own, but setting an almost impossibly high bar to follow. The Dark Knight opened 10 years ago today in 2008.

I wouldn’t normally include it, but it opened on the same day as The Dark Knight, and that bears brief mention. Mamma Mia! the frothy, bubble-headed adaptation of the delightfully cheesy Abba musical, isn’t what anyone would call great, but it can be a breath of fresh air if you need something light… and opening it opposite one of the most downbeat blockbusters ever proved to be a stellar example of counter-programming in action. It was also released in 2008.

Speaking of downbeat blockbusters, hi James Cameron! The once and former King of the World had already made a splash with his low-budget sci-fi thriller The Terminator when 20th Century Fox tasked him with a sequel to one of the jewels in their science fiction crown. The result was Aliens, an unexpectedly great follow-up to Ridley’s Scott’s immortal original. It took the franchise in a decidedly different direction, but also showed the versatility of the core concepts… to say nothing of the feminist watershed provided by Sigourney Weaver’s ass-kicking Ellen Ripley. (Marlee Matlin, you can give that Oscar back to its rightful owner any time now…)  Aliens opened today in 1986.

 

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: November 13

It was a busy day for movie openings.  Claude Rains terrorized the English countryside in The Invisible Man (1933); Robert Mitchum faced down Kirk Douglas in the noir classic Out of the Past (1947); Steven Spielberg launched his career with Duel (1971); Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated how to completely butcher a Stephen King novel in The Running Man; Martin Scorsese delivered a stunningly effective reboot of Mitchum’s Cape Fear (1991); Francis Ford Coppola updated Bram Stoker’s Dracula to flawed, hypnotic and undeniably powerful effect (1992); and Meet Joe Black (1998) got a huge boost in revenue thanks to the trailer for The Phantom Menace released in front of it (in those dark days of the early Internet, you still had to go to the movies to get your trailers). Whew! That’s a whole lotta Hollywood.