Today in Movie History: December 17

It’s hard to underestimate the influence of Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. It was clear form the two films that preceded it that something extraordinary was afoot. But its staggering critical and box office success helped cement our current franchise-heavy cinematic culture (along with the Harry Potter films), as well as finally validating the fantasy genre as an art form. It’s a brilliant film in its own right, and as the years go by it’s increasingly clear just how indelible a part of the canon it (and the previous two films in the trilogy) have become. It opened 15 years ago today in 2003.

This is actually an auspicious date for fantasy movies: Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal came out on the same day in 1982. Henson always believe that puppets could be used for more than just family entertainment, and this ambitious feature is proof of concept: a stunning tale of an alien world on the brink of a shattering change. Redolent with the Hero’s Journey and demonstrating just how much magic puppets could be in the hands of the master, it became a strange and beautiful high point to Henson’s legendary career.

The other major cinematic milestone that share this release date is  Michael Cacoyannis’s exuberant Zorba the Greek, the tale of an anxiety-laden Englishman (Alan Bates), who learns a few things about life from the exuberant title character (Anthony Quinn). It’s the role of Quinn’s life (he lost the Oscar that year to Rex Harrison in yet another what-the-actual-fuck Academy moment) and it remains a grand bit of filmmaking about finding yourself in the eyes of someone different. The film opened today in 1964.

After George Lazenby took a crack at the part, Sean Connery returned to James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. It’s a uniformly dismal entry. Connery was clearly too old for the part, the villains struggle to find their zing, and the production treats the Las Vegas setting like an extended tourism ad: a complete reversal from the Ian Fleming novel, which likened the city to a wild and dangerous gangster’s paradise. But Bond is Bond, and it remains an integral part of 007’s legacy. it opened today in 1971.

Dino De Laurentiis’s promised the moon when he attempted to remake King Kong in the mid 70s. Cheesy effects and a ramshackle plot doomed it from the beginning, though it holds a certain cheesy charm even in its worst moment. (Charles Grodin is off the chain.) It also features the film debut of Jessica Lange in the role that Fay Wray made famous, and there if nowhere else, the film finds something special. It opened today in 1976

And we’re going to save a little bit at the end here for TRON Legacy, the long-delayed sequel to the cult classic original. It underperformed and is not widely loved, but I maintain that it’s a severely underrated bit of popcorn well worth a second look. It opened today in 2010.

 

 

Today in Movie History: December 11

“You can’t handle the truth!” Okay, maybe you can. Rob Reiner’s rip-roaring military courtroom drama A Few Good Men hit theaters today in 1992. The same day, the Muppets delivered their version of A Christmas Carol, with Michael Caine playing Scrooge. Besides the film itself (which is good holiday fun), it marked the first movie appearance of Kermit the Frog since his creator Jim Henson passed away. (Kermit’s duties were taken over by Steve Whitmire, who’s played The Green One ever since.) The film was dedicated to Henson and Richard Hunt, who had played Scooter, Beaker and Janice, among others. (Hunt died of complications due to AIDS about a year before The Muppet Christmas Carol was released.)

Six years later, in 1998, Sam Raimi made a huge splash with the release of A Simple Plan: proving to the world that he could do a whole lot more than Evil Dead sequels. And one year previous, in 1991, Steven Spielberg released Hook: perhaps the worst film in his storied and often brilliant career. (Midlife crisis? You’re soaking in it!)

 

Today in Movie History: July 13

Today marks the release of The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the high points of the Roger Moore James Bond era that found him flashing his playboy spy routine to increasingly ridiculous ends. The villain’s a bit of a snoozer, and while Barbara Bach looks great in a slinky dress, she’s still too passive to make the strong impression required from the best Bond girls. On the other hand, Richard Kiel’s Jaws is a hoot and with Moore in fine form as 007’s most carefree incarnation, the film’s still a lot of fun. It opened today in 1977.

When it comes to pop-culture oddities, it’s hard to top The Dead Pool, the fifth and presumably the last of the Dirty Harry franchise. It actually ranks as one of the better ones, with a surprising sense of humor to go along with Clint Eastwood’s thundering political context. But that’s not why it tops the list. It tops the list because it contains one of those truly bizarre pop culture mash-ups that only makes sense in the rear-view mirror. A key scene involves a music video being filmed in a meat locker, whose doomed star pretty much kicks the whole plot off. The rock star was played by a then-unknown Jim Carrey, and the music video director by a then-unknown Liam Neeson. Carrey lip-syncs Axl Rose while Neeson looks on during an Exorcist homage in the middle of a Dirty Harry flick. It has to be seen to be believed. The Dead Pool opened 30 years ago today in 1988.

I’m not going to spend too much time on Ghost, a middling supernatural romance that somehow turned into a massive hit and won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar. It’s not bad, certainly, but it’s also aged poorly and retains at best a little throwback nostalgia to counteract the general sense that its success owed more to the zeitgeist of the time than the film itself. It opened today in 1990.

The same can’t be said of The Muppets Take Manhattan the last straight-up Muppet Movie to be overseen by Jim Henson before his untimely death. Henson’s longtime partner Frank Oz handled directing duties and the film — which sends the gang to New York in an effort to start up a Broadway play — carries the goofy iconoclastic charm that the Muppets have struggled to find in the wake of Henson’s passing. The Muppets Take Manhattan opened today in 1984.

Finally, I’ll briefly mention The Frisco Kid, a strange and wonderful western about a rabbi (Gene Wilder) travelling across the frontier to San Francisco and the amiable outlaw (Harrison Ford) who helps him on his way. The pairing of those two should be enough to pique your interest, and the film itself is different enough to let its surprisingly sweet tone come through. It opened today in 1979.

 

Today in Movie History: June 27

Here’s the weird thing about greatness: sometimes, it sneaks up on you even when you know it’s coming. We all knew that Pixar’s WALL*E was going to be brilliant, but THIS brilliant? Like the-best-thing-Pixar-ever-did brillaint? Pixar. PIXAR. And yeah, this scrappy little guy is willing to put up a fight for the #1 spot on that august list. How good was it? You love him as much as you love R2-D2, don’t you? Yes. Yes you do. WALL*E landed 10 years ago today in 2008, and we’re all just a little bit happier as a result.

Labyrinth began life as just another box office bomb that found its audience on video, and which today is counted among the very best things any of its creators (Jim Henson, George Lucas, the late David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly CRUSHING IT with an army of Muppets on one side and a bona fide rock god on the other) ever did. It opened today in 1986.

On the dark side of things, most people tend to agree that the best zombie movies ever made have to end their credits with the phrase “directed by George A Romero.” Once you get below that, however, the debate gets interesting. (Call it the Zombie Bronze, after Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead,) There are a number of contenders, but 28 Days Later makes a strong case. Danny Boyle’s vision of a Great Britain engulfed by a “rage virus” feels as timeless as Romero’s efforts, and with great performances from notables like Cillian Murphy, Christopher Eccleston and Brendan Gleeson, it’s an absolute can’t-miss for any serious zombie fan. It opened in the U.S. 15 years ago today in 2003.

We’ll close with Live and Let Die, one of the most problematic of the Bond films for a number of reasons. Purely on its own terms, it’s a delightful first outing for 007’s most jovial incarnation, with Roger Moore slipping effortlessly into the role that defined his career. Great chase scenes, a fine pair of villains, a better-than-average Bond girl in Jane Seymour, and the immortal Paul McCartney song (still the only Bond song ever that sees regular radio play) make it all a hoot in many ways.

Balancing that out? Oh, just the RACISM. The UNBELIEVABLE HORRIFICALLY POTENT racism, as the Bond franchise — ever eager to cash in on a trend — started lifting blaxploitation trends for its own skeezy use. Considering the virulent colonialism of the source novel, it’s an unbelievably cynical move. Plus, racism. So much racism.

Live and Let Die opened 45 years ago today in 1973.

 

Today in Movie History: June 22

It’s a close call for the top spot today — there’s some big ones — but we’re going to go with Kermit and the gang making their feature film debut with  The Muppet Movie. The irreplaceable Jim Henson turned directing duties over to James Frawley, but the former’s fingerprints are all over it, bolstered by brilliant songs from Paul Williams and backed by his unbelievable troupe of puppeteers. It remains every inch the sweet, magical, iconoclastic statement the Muppets deserve. Time hasn’t dimmed it one iota, and when people talk about the greatest family movies ever made, this one invariably creeps into the conversation. if you need a break from the bumper crop of real world horrors this summer, the little green frog dude has got your back. It opened today in 1979.

Disney has a few family classics of its own, not the least of which is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Robert Zemeckis’s gloriously clever take on a Hollywood where animated characters live and work among flesh-and-blood humans. It works brilliantly not only as a unique summer blockbuster, but as a wondrous parody of film noir, a gentle poke at the filmmaking industry, and even a quiet statement about the nature of prejudice, all topped by one of the best performances of Bob Hoskins’ career. It opened 30 years ago today in 1988.

For more classic Disney, we find Lady and The Tramp: landing right in the middle of the company’s 1950s heyday and scoring a huge hit for the Mouse in the process. It’s not quite as beloved as the likes of Snow White or Pinocchio, but the gorgeously animated tale of love between a pampered spaniel and a back-alley mutt still brings honored to the vaunted studio. It opened today in 1955.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton movies remain guilty pleasures for this column, especially when their nuclear chemistry turns into a meltdown. Case in point: Mike Nichol’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, charting the disintegration of a middle-aged couple over a long booze-filled evening. Considered shocking at the time, it’s lost little of that power thanks in no small part to the two leads whose love-hate relationship have become the stuff of legend. It opened today in 1966.

Oh, okay, we’ll include The Fast and the Furious too. Good? No. Not even close. But it clearly grabbed a hold of something — spawning a franchise that shows now signs of slowing down decades later — and the risible hyper-masculinity takes itself WAY too seriously in this initial effort (something the sequels eventually figured out), there’s no denying that the stunt and chase scenes are worthy of attention. It opened today in 2001. Vroom-vroom!