Today in Movie History: July 30

The big film today from an artistic perspective is Mister Roberts, John Ford’s tale of of lieutenant (Henry Fonda) on broken-down WWII cargo ship who longs for combat, but finds himself thwarted by the ship’s captain (James Cagney). Frankly speaking, it’s not among Ford’s best, but the cast is in fine form and the film picked up a slew of Academy Awards, including one for Jack Lemmon as Fonda’s bunkmate. It opened today in 1955.

On an entirely different level, we find Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, an amiable stoner comedy that proved surprisingly resilient. Intended as the simple story of two best buds (Kal Penn and John Cho) and their epic quest for a sackful of burgers from the titular fast-food chain, it spawned a loyal cult following as well as a pair of surprisingly good sequels. Its greatest gift, however, may be the stunning reboot of Neil Patrick Harris’s career: turning him from sitcom has-been to stunningly cool in-joke master within the space of a few short minutes. He — and we — will be forever grateful. The film opened today in 2004.

 

 

Today in Movie History: May 21

Of all the films on Mel Gibson’s resume, The Road Warrior is the one that causes me the most pain. It arrived in the much ballyhooed summer of 1982 like a thunderbolt: upping the ante on director George Miller’s post-apocalyptic Mad Max and delivering one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made in the process. Pity Gibson’s Antisemitism has made watching him so unpalatable. The Road Warrior opened in U.S. theaters today in 1982.

Going back much earlier, we find The Ox-Bow Incident, a solid western from William Wellman in which Henry Fonda’s amiable drifter learns some important lessons about angry mobs. It opened 75 years ago today in 1943.

 

Today in Movie History: April 13

Despite a career spanning decades and a list of films that any director would envy, Sidney Lumet never quite got the respect he deserved. His very first movie still ranks among his best: a near-perfect adaptation of the celebrated stage play 12 Angry Men. Henry Fonda stars as an unnamed juror standing alone against a seemingly guaranteed guilty verdict… and his slow, methodical deconstruction of the case serves as both a critique and an affirmation of our justice system. It opened today in 1957.

I’m not what you would call a huge Renee Zellweger fan, but it’s hard to hate her as the hapless heroine of Bridget Jones’s Diary, a perennial lonelyheart who may have finally discovered her (literal) Mr. Darcy. As romantic comedies go, it’s held up quite well, and with a lot of help from Colin Firth and Hugh Grant as her equally hapless suitors, it now stands as one of the better romantic comedies of recent years. It opened today in 2001.

Horror movies rarely attain the status of instant classic — their scares need time to matriculate before we embrace them into the canon. One of the few exceptions to the rule was The Cabin in the Woods, a gleeful mashup that both embodied and sent up the genre’s cliches with the kind of affection that only true horror fans could match. Other send-ups like Scream demonstrated a quiet contempt for their audience. This one celebrated their love in unique fashion, and may have found its way to horror immortality as a result. It opened today in 2012.

 

Today in Movie History: December 4

Grumble… grumble… On Golden Pond… snarky comment… turgid Oscar bait… accolades it didn’t earn… dated more badly than bell bottoms…  FINE, I’LL LEAD WITH IT. It opened today in 1981.

Frankly, I would have rather started with Young Sherlock Holmes, a handsome bit of 80s popcorn from Barry Levinson detailing the early adventures of the ubiquitous detective (well played by Nicholas Rowe) and his companions. It’s a terrific movie… that unfortunately never caught on the way it deserved to, Gen Xers tend to dig, and for those who haven’t caught it yet, it’s well worth a look. (Also, its stand-out effects sequence — involving a stained glass window — is one of the first uses of CG effects in the movies.) It opened today in 1985.

We’ll close with Psycho… no, not the immortal Alfred Hitchcock original, but the misbegotten Gus Van Sant remake. Van Sant set out to recreate the original film shot for shot, making it an interesting experiment. As a film, however, it’s a miserable failure: starting with the dreadful miscasting of Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche in the leads (though once you get past them, the casting is largely spot on) and continuing with their few points where Van Sant gilds the lily for unknown reasons (the sound of Norman masturbating as he watches Marion through the peephole is a prime example). As the late Roger Ebert said, it’s a textbook case of playing the notes without hearing the music: interesting as a study tool but all but useless in every other way. It opened today in 1998.

 

 

Today in Movie History: October 4

It didn’t land Sandra Bullock another Oscar, but it came darn close, and while watching it on your TV can’t quite match the white-knuckle terror of an IMAX screening, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity rarely disappoints when it comes to sheer movie-making prowess. And while it’s only been three years, it’s not too early to start weighing its potential status as a sci-fi film for the ages. It opened today in 2013

As an attempt to recreate the D-Day invasions, The Longest Day has since been eclipsed by Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. But with an all-star cast and advisors that included actual generals on both sides of the conflict, it still gives a comprehensive look at an event that literally and without hyperbole determined the future of the human race. It opened today in 1962.