Today in Movie History: June 5

Peter Weir’s career constitutes one of the more fascinating in modern films, and he was never better than with The Truman Show, a eerily prescient look at life in the digital era. it features Jim Carrey as a man who has unknowingly lived his entire life as the subject of his television show, complete with parents, friends, co-workers and romantic interests all actually actors cast to provide a totally convincing environment. We’re all living with cameras these days, and Weir found a unique way to let us all know what was coming. The Truman Show opened 20 years ago today in 1998.

Harrison Ford has a number of iconic roles on his resume, and while Jack Ryan doesn’t quite rank up there with Han and Indy, there’s no denying the strength he brought to Tom Clancy’s righteous spook. His initial outing, Patriot Games, set him against Sean Bean’s hateful IRA extremist with outstanding results. Anne Archer, James Earl Jones, Richard Harris and a pre-star Samuel L. Jackson get in on the action, but it’s Ford and his righteous anger that make this one work. (On an entirely different note, Ford got his footprints put in cement in front of the famous Chinese Theater as part of the promotion for this film.) Patriot Games opened today in 1992.

Today in Movie History: May 25

Once upon a time, 20th Century Fox had what they thought was a stinker of a science-fiction film on their hands.  They opened it in a tiny handful of theaters today in 1977, in hopes that it would vanish without causing too much embarassment. The movie was called Star Wars, and I’m pretty sure you can guess what happened next. The game-changing nature of George Lucas’s space opera cannot be underestimated, and if the reaction to The Force Awakens is any indication, it may never release the hold it has on our imagination.

Not surprisingly, the third film in the Star Wars franchise also opened today in 1983. Return of the Jedi was saddled with having to wrap up the storyline created by Star Wars and Empire, but while it’s usually regarded as the weakest of the three, that still places it in very good company. Happy 35th anniversary, ROTJ!

Nor is that the only Fox science fiction that launched on this time. Emboldened by the success of Lucas’s little flick, the studio tasked a young director named Ridley Scott to fashion something very different. The result was Alien, which not only launched a franchise of its own (with far more mixed results), but which today stands one of the greatest masterpieces the genre has ever produced (and, in terms of pure filmmaking, superior to Star Wars). It opened today in 1979.

If blockbusters aren’t your thing, then you can look to Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman to help you out. Midnight Cowboy, to date the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture, took full advantage of Hollywood’s reinvigorated creativity during the late 1960s, and produced a painful, but achingly sympathetic portrayal of society’s outcasts and the dignity they often fight for in vain. It opened today in 1969.

Finally, we’ll finish with The Thin Man, a light-hearted mystery establishing the husband and wife crime-solving duo of Nick and Nora Charles, opened today in 1934. It spawned five sequels of varying quality, and if you need a little throwback to enjoy a few martinis with, it will set you up right.

 

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: May 23

Given its status as one of the most beloved horror movies of all time, it’s hard to believe that critics were none too fond of The Shining when it was originally released. Indeed, Stephen King himself always expressed dissatisfaction with it — adapted from one of his most personal works — and even responded with a newer made-for-television version that was much more faithful to the book… and much less frightening. I wrestle with the merits and flaws of the Kubrick film on a regular basis, but the power it holds cannot be denied. It opened today in 1980.

If’ it’s horror you like, you could swing by Pankot Palace for a dinner of monkey’s brains before having your heart ripped out of your chest. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was generally considered the runt of the Indy litter (at least before the reviled Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out… and seriously people, it’s not that bad), but what it lacks in pedigree it makes up for in pure batshit insanity. Granted, it plays better as a series of Indiana Jones vignettes than a completed film and you have to put up with more than perhaps you should (*cough-cough* Kate Capshaw), but Amrish Puri’s infernal villain still ranks as a series favorite, and Harrison Ford’s Indy remains as charming as ever. It opened today in 1984.

 

Today in Movie History: May 22

The summer season traditionally kicked off on Memorial Day weekend, with the pre-planned 600-lb. gorilla du jour grabbing the pole position every year. Unfortunately, that meant a lot of high-end sequels of dubious quality landing in late May: notable more  for failing to meet expectations than advancing whatever the franchise in question was. Yet all of them remain interesting… as cinematic curiosity if nothing else.

At the top of the list sits Rambo: First Blood Part II which, for better or worse, helped define flag-waving jingoism for an entire generation. As a button-pushing action movie, it’s not bad — setting Sylvester Stallone’s sociopathic ex-Green Beret against various flavors of sinister Commie in the jungles of Vietnam — and as long as it sticks to script, it provides a bevvy of guilty pleasures. (Charles Napier makes a great bad guy too.)But every now and then, it wades in way out of its depth: attempt serious commentary on our involvement in Vietnam that its cartoonish tone simply can’t support. Such missteps become much harder to forgive, and relegate it to dated cinematic curiosity status at best. Rambo: First Blood Part II opened today in 1985.

Standing slightly higher in fandom estimation comes Alien 3, David Fincher’s hotly anticipated contribution to the beloved Alien franchise. It was greeted as a huge letdown from the first two films, and it’s never shaken that impression. (Killing Hicks and Newt was a major mistake, and the nihilistic tone eventually becomes contrived and cynical.) But the film has earned cult status from certain defenders, and Fincher recovered nicely to become a director of significant note in the ensuing years. And of course, none of the problems extend to Sigourney Weaver, knocking it out of the park once again as the indomitable Ellen Ripley. The movie opened today in 1992.

Not even so vaunted a summer movie icon as Steven Spielberg could resist the siren call of sub-par sequels. He helmed a pair that opened today: 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park and 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The former reads like a collection of cut scenes from the infinitely superior Jurassic Park. It’s amusing enough, but even Spielberg seems to be phoning it in, and once the novelty value of the dinosaurs wears off, it has nowhere to go.

Fans reserve much more ire for Crystal Skull, widely perceived as a betrayal of the Indiana Jones saga for a number of reasons. I’m better disposed towards it than most. Though the flaws are inexcusable, it finds more of that old energy than its critics pretend… and Harrison Ford’s glee at dusting off the old fedora is positively infectious. It opened 10 years ago today in 2008.

We’ll close with a minor original film that manages to outpace the lot of them. Outland billed itself as a revamp of High Noon set in outer space, but it delivers a suitable amount of tension and grit, thanks in no small part of Sean Connery’s welcome status in the lead. The film opened today in 1981.