Today in Movie History: October 29

Few films are as original, audacious or flat-out odd as Being John Malkovich Spike Jonez’s surreal exploration of celebrity, narcissism and how to literally get into someone’s head. Age has mellowed people’s responses to it — it might not quite be the instant classic we all thought it was — but it’s a singular vision and for heady discussions after a screening, it can’t be beat. It opened today in 1999.

I’m still not sure whether it’s a good movie or just an elaborate stunt, but there’s no denying how eerily on-the-nose Jamie Foxx is in Ray, a solid but otherwise unexceptional biopic. Foxx won the Oscar for his turn, which gave the actor bona fide credentials as someone other than a comedian. The film opened today in 2004.

The same day witnessed the release of one of our three horror films of note. Saw remains one of those inexplicably popular franchises that never merited the hype surrounding it. The first film gained a huge amount of buzz and became a monster hit, despite its wafer-thin premise stretched well beyond its limits by a series of increasingly shoddy sequels. I never bought into it, but the film has plenty of passionate adherents and remains one of the most notable horror movies of the early 2000s.

It’s not as revered as Saw, but I maintain that the remake of House on Haunted Hill is a much more enjoyable film. Geoffrey Rush slums it up gloriously as a madcap amusement park tycoon who hosts a gala party in a haunted asylum, with millions of dollars going to those who survive the night. It’s a gleeful update of the William Castle original, with the perfect balance of camp humor and gory thrills. (Uniformly great turns from the cast help too, topped by Famke Janssen in full-bore bitch-queen mode.) House on Haunted Hill opened today in 1999.

We’ll close with another personal favorite: It Came from Hollywood, an anthology “clips” film depicting various schlocky B-movies from the 50s and 60s. In and of itself, they’re mildly engaging, but what really makes the film special is the running commentary and connecting skits from the “hosts”: Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Gilda Radner and Cheech and Chong. They turn the entire affair into a proto-MST3K riff, and if you’re looking for Halloween viewing that’s off the beaten track, it’s well worth a look. It Came from Hollywood  opened today in 1982.

 

Today in Movie History: April 11

There’s good musicals, there’s great musicals… and then there’s Singin’ in the Rain. Stanley Donan’s ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood and the hilarity that ensues when a silent movie studio makes the transition to sound stands as a testament to everything the genre should be. Gene Kelly received co-director credit for choreographing the dance scenes — topped by the title number which he famously performed with a raging fever — and co-stars Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor both hit career highs. It opened today in 1952.

Generation X never had a better spokesperson than John Cusack, and Cusack’s essential Gen-X-ness was never on better display than in Grosse Pointe Blank a romantic comedy about a successful hitman (yes, really) who returns home for his high school reunion in hopes of finding his soul again. The disparate elements come together beautifully (Dan Aykroyd gives his best performance in years), and for those of us of a certain age, the goggle-eyed disbelief with which Cusack approaches the world here looks painfully familiar. It opened today in 1997.

Today in Movie History: April 14

We’re noting the opposite ends of the romantic spectrum today, starting with Say Anything... , Cameron Crowe’s near-perfect ode to high school love and the need to be yourself. John Cusack and Ione Skye make a couple for the ages and — stalker snickering notwithstanding — the sight of Cusack holding that boombox over his head is an iconic part of movie history. It opened today in 1989.

And then there’s Hard Candy, David Slade’s brutal thriller about a seemingly innocent babe in the woods (Ellen Page, never better) seduced by a frighteningly charming pederast (Patrick Wilson), only to turn the tables in a big, bad, literally castrating way. It opened today in 2006, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a look.

For another film utterly lacking in romantic vibes, check out American Psycho, Mary Harron’s adaptation of the controversial Brett Easton Ellis novel. By removing Ellis’s crude shock tactics and rampant misogyny, Harron rescues a great deal of the satire, which was the supposed point of the whole exercise. While it becomes a trifle one-note (the 80s were shallow? I’m shocked!), the film holds an ace in the hole with Christian Bale’s unbelievable central performance. The film opened today in 2000.