Today in Movie History: August 9

Stories of the infamous shoot for James Cameron’s The Abyss are almost as harrowing as the movie itself. The director’s penchant for perfectionism led him to engineer an unprecedented underwater shooting schedule, pushing cast and crew to the limits, and endangering people’s safety more than once. One particularly grueling evening triggered a furious emotional meltdown from actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, still spoken of in hushed whispers among the scions of Tinseltown. Despite that, and despite the psychological scars some members of the shoot still carry to this day, it resulted in an impressively groundbreaking movie that has aged remarkably well. For better or worse, The Abyss opened today in 1989.

 

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: December 19

It’s another big day for notable movies: December gets very crowded with event films in an effort to either rake in the box office while the kids are on break or make a play for an Oscar nod or two. One notable movie managed to do both. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was Peter Jackson’s opening foray into what became an indisputable cinematic masterpiece. It’s easy to forget how unprecedented his efforts to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s celebrated fantasy novels to life, and how much was riding on its success. The prospect had a lot of old-school fantasy fans breathing into a paper bag before it opened. Turns out, we needn’t have worried. Jackson had the right touch, the film became a phenomenon, and along with the Harry Potter franchise, it finally gave the fantasy genre some long-overdue respect. The Fellowship of the Ring opened today in 2001.

Speaking of Oscar winners, Oliver Stone had already scored an Academy Award for penning Midnight Express when he helmed Platoon, a fictionalized account of his experiences in Vietnam. Not only did it walk away with four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director for Stone), but it became the final cinematic word on Vietnam, and represented a national catharsis on that war after years of denial and evasion. It opened today in 1986.

I’m still not sure what I think of James Cameron’s Titanic, which became the biggest moneymaker in the world for a time and an absolute Oscar behemoth, with 11 wins under its belt (including Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron). It looks a lot creakier 20 years on, with the beloved romance between Kate Winslet’s rich girl and Leonardo DiCaprio’s poor boy feeling far more threadbare than it did at the time and Cameron’s turgid script bogging the film down at every turn. That said, it still finds moments of real magic to appreciate, and if nothing else, the film presents a chillingly plausible sense of what it might have felt like on the deck of that ship that fateful night. Titanic opened two decades ago today in 1997.

Peter Sellers was best known for his role as Inspector Clouseau, and his best performance (or performances) likely came from Strangelove, but his late-inning turn in Hal Ashby’s Being There deserves a prominent spot among them both. It tells the story of a simple-minded gardener mistaken for a genius when he leaves his long-time employer’s home, a sort of reverse Forrest Gump that finds the wisdom and dark insight into human nature that Zemeckis’s movie lacked. It opened today in 1979.

Moving away from Oscar contenders, we find Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, based on the off-Broadway musical about a schlubby flower shop employee (Rick Moranis) who seems to find the answer to all his problems in a carnivorous plant from outer space. It attains the properly camp tone quite well, aided by some fantastic songs from the legendary Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and puppet-work from one of the masters of the medium. It opened in 1986, and is as much fun today as it was 30 years ago.

Oh, hey, a Bond film opened today too! Okay, it was Tomorrow Never Dies, a badly dated relic from the less-than-immortal Pierce Brosnan era of 007, but still features a few highlights. Chief among them is Michelle Yeoh knocking it out of the park as a Chinese agent who joins forces with Bond, and Judi Dench’s always agreeable presence as M. The film opened 20 years ago today in 1997.

Today in Movie History: December 18

Let’s cut to the chase: The Two Towers hit theaters fifteen years ago today in 2002. Among its copious assets is a sterling performance from Andy Serkis as Gollum, which ushered in an entirely new way of portraying fantasy figures onscreen. It also constituted an impressive piece of filmmaking in and of itself, and while it really is simply the middle third of a single, much larger movie, it helps cement The Lord of the Rings as one of the singular cinematic achievements of our time.

Speaking of blockbusters… mumble, mumble… something, something…  highest grossing movie of all time that somehow turned into a pop culture afterthought… Avatar… freaking Avatar opened today in 2009.

A far less well-known (and as underrated as Avatar is overrated) movie shares the same release date: Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Long viewed as a runt in the master’s litter, it remains something of a forgotten masterpiece today, and for those in a meditative mind, it proves quite a handsome treat. It opened today in 1975.

Other notable releases today include George Lazenby’s sole outing as James Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969; Steven Spielberg’s first ballyhooed effort at “serious” filmmaking The Color Purple in 1985 (and happy birthday Mr. Spielberg, BTW); and Bernardo Bertolucci’s sumptuous Best Picture winner The Last Emperor in 1987.

 

Today in Movie History: October 26

Mighty oaks often grow from little acorns, and when the slick little sci-fi thriller The Terminator opened one quiet October Friday, no one thought much of it. Its director had helmed only one project before — the less-than-immortal Piranha 2: the Spawning — and the star was that jumped-up Austrian from Conan the Barbarian who looked like his 15 minutes was just about up. The film was made on a shoestring budget and did okay during its initial release. But like so many movies of the era, it found its audience on VHS, and today is… well, it’s The Terminator. Director and star both went on to bestride the Earth like colossi, and while their influence may have diminished, the film that launched them into the stratosphere looks better than ever. It opened today in 1984.

Audrey Hepburn was already a big star when she appeared as the world’s champion blind lady in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark. The film bears the hallmarks of canned theater, but in the director’s hands it becomes an exquisite thriller, helped not only by Hepburn, but by Alan Arkin as the sinister hitman stalking her. It opened today in 1967

Robert Duvall notched another winner to his belt with The Great Santini, the story of a fighter pilot whose no-nonsense approach to life runs into a brick wall when it comes to the disposition of his children. The film itself exists mainly as a showcase for the actor, but few are more deserving of such attention. The Great Santini opened today in 1979.