Today in Movie History: August 8

Rob Reiner was still known as a comedic filmmaker when he tackled Stand by Me, based on a nostalgic Stephen King story that ran dead-set against the author’s own reputation as a scare master. It turned out to be one of the best King adaptations to date, with strong performances from a very young Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman and the late River Phoenix as a quartet of young boys who set out into the woods near their town to find a purported body. (The real scene-stealer, though, is Kiefer Sutherland as their slightly older nemesis… signaling a very interesting career to follow.) The movie was released today in 1986.

Over in the Land Down Under, we have Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which a group of turn-of-the-century schoolgirls and their teacher mysteriously vanish on an outing to an Australian national park. It not only cemented director Peter Weir’s status as a filmmaker of note, but heralded the emergence of Australian cinema as a major international force: paving the way for a bevvy of notable films to follow. It opened in its native Australia today in 1975.

 

Today in Movie History: July 31

It’s big day for the 80s. We’ll start with The Lost Boys, Joel Schumacher’s teen vampire romp that became an indispensable shared experience for Generation X. I’ll be honest: it’s not great, especially when compared to Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant Near Dark which came out the same year. But Schumacher did find a dangerous vibe to a movie aimed squarely at adolescents… and he had a serious ace in the hole with Kiefer Sutherland. The sight of him striding down the Santa Carla boardwalk sizing up potential victims like fresh steak captures everything the film wants to say in a single youthful swagger. He and Jason Patric (as his heroic/romantic nemesis) give far more of a reason to tune in than the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman) who were then approaching the peak of their fame. (Haim’s tragic death takes a lot of the fun out of this flick.) Nevertheless, its shabbiness hide some flashes of brilliance, and for Gen-Xers, it remains an affectionate ode to our youth. It opened  today in 1987.

Also opening on the same day is The Living Daylights, Timothy Dalton’s initial outing as 007 after Roger Moore finally hung up the PPK. I maintain that it’s one of the very best Bonds out there, returning the character to his grittier roots after Moore’s superspy romps had run their course. (The opening chase in Gibraltar remains a franchise highlight.) Dalton’s Bond probably comes the closest to the original Ian Fleming novels as any actor yet, and while his reign was brief, it remains an honorable chapter in the storied character’s life. The Living Daylights opened in 1987.

Closer to the present, it’s a little early to start canonizing the original Guardians of the Galaxy, and I confess that — while I like it a great deal so PLEASEFORTHELOVEOFGODSTOPHITTINGME — I don’t quite love it the way so many people do. But it does show how flexible and varied the MCU is becoming, and its snarky space opera vibe remains uniquely its own in a genre dominated by Star Wars clones. It opened today in 2014.

We’ll close with a mild bit of controversy. Before the TV show made him an icon, Joss Whedon wrote the script for a movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He subsequently disowned it, and by any account, the TV show is the superior version of the concept. But there’s still a reasonable amount of fun to be had in the movie: not only from Kristy Swanson as a plucky Buffy 1.0, but from Paul Reubens at his scene-stealing best as one of the villain’s undead minions. (And seriously, if nothing else, this movie gave Reubens work when he was an absolute pariah, and in the process delivered one of the most bizarrely hysterical deaths in movie history). Buffy the Vampire Slayer opened today in 1992.

Free Pee-Wee!

 

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 25 years ago 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: February 27

Alex Proyas followed up his hit The Crow with Dark City, a similar piece of supernatural noir that sadly got buried in the wake of Titanic. Time has resurrected its charms, lending it cult classic status and allowing us to see just what an amazing accomplishment it is. Roger Ebert declared it the best film of the year, and I’m not inclined to disagree. It opened 20 years ago today in 1998.

Today in Movie History: August 12

Lots of films to cover today, but I’ll start with the most haunting: Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, a documentrary about a troubled young man who spent every summer in the Alaskan wilderness as a self-proclaimed “protector” of wild grizzly bears… one of whom eventually killed him. It’s vintage Herzog and its dark musings about our self-importance in the face of an utterly indifferent universe will hit you right in the gut. It opened today in 2005.

Religious pictures tend to either be so harmless as to escape all notice or engender a firestorm of controversy from those who want their beliefs tested or challenged. So it was for The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese’s heartfelt attempt to explore the story of Jesus in a different context that sent the religious right into apoplectic fits. (All before they’d actually had a chance to watch the film, of course.) Its thoughtful, and at times strange approach to Jesus as a man first and the conduit for God second can be baffling, but also inspiring in ways that traditional Sunday School movies aren’t. As Gene Siskel noted, it comforts us by saying that Jesus knows what we go through and challenges us to live up to his example. What more do you want in a Christian picture ? Last Temptation opened today in 1988.

Next, how about something less controversial… like The Commitments, Alan Parkers glorious celebration of an Irish soul band that almost made it and the beautiful music they produced in the meantime. Funny, heartfelt and with a keen eye on how tough it is to thrive in a creative field, it reminds us that there’s merit in every effort… and if the songs don’t get your toes tapping, there’s just no help for you. The Commitments opened today in 1991.

Fellow Gen-Xers will eagerly note the arrival of Young Guns, an effort to capitalize on the talent of several then-young stars on the rise to revitalize the moribund Western genre. It panders to the youth demographic and never quite finds its footing in its retelling of the legend of Billy the Kid. But I’d be lying if Emilio Estevez’s lead performance wasn’t captivating, and it may have made a few new fans for a genre in dire need of them at the time. Young Guns opened today in 1988.

It’s been a while since we ventured into the silent era — charting the exact date a film opened is much harder for early films — but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Wings, a World War I drama notable mainly for being the first movie ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. In and of itself, it’s not a bad film, though it sets an early precedent demonstrating just how little the Oscars matter when it comes to a film’s quality and enduring appeal. It opened today in 1927…. the same year as non-Best Picture winners Metropolis, Sunrise, The Jazz Singer, Napoleon and London After Midnight. Just sayin’.

We’ll close with a minor notation from Ray Harryhausen. Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the last and weakest of his Sinbad movies, still retains the wondrous stop-motion creations that made him a legend in his own time. It also features the very, very white Jane Seymour as an Arabian princess and the even whiter Patrick Wayne as Sinbad. On behalf of the patriarchy, we again apologize. Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger opened today in 1977.