Today in Movie History: August 15

Disaster or masterpiece? That distinction can hinge on the razor’s edge sometimes, especially when an ambitious, talented and possibly crazy filmmaker is involved. Case in point: Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s effort to encapsulate the war in Vietnam as seen through a variation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The shoot was infamous for its delays, debacles and outright danger, including a heart attack from star Martin Sheen, a hurricane that destroyed the set and Marlon Brando in full-bore Marlon Brando mode. Despite that, and despite a shoot that apparently brought Coppola himself to the brink of madness, the film remains one of the definitive statements on Vietnam and the insanity of war in general. It opened today in 1979.

If you asked me which David Cronenberg film I would hold above all others, I’d probably end up choosing his most commercial: The Fly, a reimagined version of the 1950s classic (itself based on a chilling short story by George Langelaan). It focuses on Cronenberg’s obsessive infusion on flesh and technology, wrapped in — of all things — a surprisingly good romantic comedy that absolutely disarms us just in time for the horror show to begin. The Fly opened today in 1986 and hasn’t lost a single ounce of its power.

While Silence of the Lambs made Hannibal Lecter a household name, he actually first appeared five years earlier in Michael Mann’s superb thriller Manhunter. Drenched in the director’s Miami Vice style, it nonetheless found the same intense connections between hunter and prey that Silence did, and Bryan Cox’s turn as Lecter, while distinct from Anthony Hopkins (to whom the character will always belong), is enough to cause some sleepless nights. Manhunter opened today in 1986.

Finally, there’s Event Horizon. Okay, yeah, forget I mentioned it. Except… Event Horizon… the most awesomely awful movie ever! It opened today in 1997, making it the second-best Laurence Fishburne movie to be released today.

 

 

Today in Movie History: August 10

I was tempted to start with Red Dawn here, because when you’re talking batshit crazy movies it should be at the top of the list. But I’m going to follow my heart and go with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension, one of the most absurdly marvelous things the 80s ever produced. It jump-starts its own comic-book universe and presents it to us the way most of us discovered comics back when there weren’t any movies not starring Christopher Reeve to give you a cheat sheet. You’d pick up issue #48 of whatever the line was, and had to figure out the characters and story thread midway through. It was baffling, fascinating and kind of wonderful… the same vibe that Buckaroo Banzai picks up without pause and carries to the finish line. It opened today in 1984, and there will always be a little joy in my heart because of it.

Yes, yes we’re getting to Red Dawn. Not the instantly forgotten reboot from a few years ago, but the gloriously deranged original, in which the dirty commies invade America’s heartland, forcing a gaggle of corn-fed teens to go all insurgent on their Lenin-quoting butts. The scenario requires a little hand-waving to fly, but director John Milius does find an interesting way of revealing how Americans might mount a guerilla war against a hypothetical invader, and the pervading sense of doom that creeps into the narrative sets it apart from other bits of flag-waving  jingoism from the era. Red Dawn also opened today in 1984.

We’ll close with something completely different: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a sweet, snarky and completely fabulous dramedy about a trio of drag queens (Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce) on a journey across the Outback. Its pleasures are many, but I enjoy showing it to people just to watch them freak out at Agent Smith dressed up like a showgirl. It opened in the United States today in 1994.

 

Today in Movie History: July 2

Summer is known for its bombast, and few are more bombastic than Independence Day, Roland Emmerich’s gloriously goofy update of old 50s alien invasion movies. It also owes a debt to Irwin Allen’s all-star disaster flicks from the 1970s, with a large cast running to and fro in the midst of all the mayhem. It’s utterly ridiculous from start to finish, though it benefits from some very charismatic performances (topped by Will Smith’s gung ho fighter pilot) and terrific effects.. notably the aliens’ iconic destruction of the White House. Independence Day opened today in 1996.

Emmerich has the benefit of being largely harmless in his idiocy. Michael Bay can’t even claim that much cover, with his tone-deaf emotional tone, rampant misogyny and general asshattery pounding any joy in his movies flat. Case in point, Transformers the first in his infamous adaptations of the ubiquitous toy line which offended purists and lovers of cinema alike in equal measure. Nonetheless, it made a lot of money… and… and nothing else. Seriously. Shia Le Beouf’s mom talks openly about masturbation. It’s that awful. It also opened today in 2007.

If it’s real summer movie magic you’re looking for, you need to go back to 1982 and Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH. It tells the surprisingly dark tale of a mother mouse (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman) hoping to save her sick child and seeking the aid of the superintelligent rats living in the local rose bush. It’s unquestionably the high point of Bluth’s canon and a reminder that Disney/Pixar are far from the last word on animation masterpieces.

We’ll close with Shaft, Gordon Parks’ seminal Blakploitation film, featuring Richard Roundtree as the cat who won’t cop out. In and of itself, it’s not an especially good movie — a run-of-the-mill police potboiler in many ways. But as a statement of inclusion and the emergence of real African-America filmmaking, it’s priceless. And of course, there’s the immortal Isaac Hayes’ theme song, no less awesome today than it was when the film opened in 1971. We can dig it!

 

 

Today in Movie History: June 11

Today was a big day for Mr. Spielberg, with opening dates for two of his acknowledged classics. We’ll start with E.T., the story of a lonely little boy (Henry Thomas) who befriends a stranded alien in the woods behind his home. It touched a chord in audiences when it first opened and now stands as perhaps the most “Spielbergian” of the celebrated director’s films… to the point where it’s now part of the logo for his production company. It opened today in 1982.

11 years later, the director scored another massive hit, and if it’s not quite as beloved as E.T., it certainly left a mark of its own. Jurassic Park, based on the Michael Crichton novel about genetically engineered dinosaurs running wild on an island amusement park. Crichton recycled the notion from his earlier effort Westworld, but it took Spielberg’s populist genius to turn the concept into a household phrase. Jurassic Park opened today in 1993.

If indie movies are your thing, there’s Napoleon Dynamite, an ode to an awkward Idaho teenager (Jon Heder) so blissfully unaware of his awkwardness that he becomes cool almost by default. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, but its oddball characters are uniformly charming, and for those who spent high school on the outside looking in, the title character is a champion to rally behind. It opened today in 2004.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an entirely different kind of high school movie: really more of a fantasy than anything else. The titular character (Matthew Broderick) engineers an escape from high-school drudgery for his best friend (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend (Mia Sara), thanks to a vintage Ferrari and a scheming principal (Jeffrey Jones) who can’t get out of his own way. It’s become a Gen X touchstone, and a friendly reminder to “stop and look around once in a while.” It opened today in 1986.

We’ll close today with the original True Grit, the film that won John Wayne the Oscar and has achieved status as a minor classic in the Duke’s pantheon. I confess that I much prefer the remake from the Coen Brothers, but the original highlights Wayne’s indelible onscreen presence, and is worth a look solely for the star. It opened today in 1969.

 

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.