Today in Movie History: November 1

Paul Newman is cool. Really, really cool. How cool? Cool enough to have a movie with the word “cool” in the title… a movie that’s been the go-to choice for anyone looking for movies with “cool” in the title for almost 50 years. The film was Cool Hand Luke, of course, and Newman’s portrayal of a workhouse inmate determined to stick it to The Man no matter what the cost is justly celebrated as a high point in his legendary career. It opened 50 years ago today in 1967.

Those in need of a Romeo and Juliet fix usually turn to Franco Zeffirelli’s exquisite adaptation from the 1960s. 25 years ago, however, Baz Luhrmann thought the whole thing needed an update. His unapologetically modern take caused a sensation, and while it’s aged about as badly as you’d expect, it still deserves points for genuinely trying to place the play in a contemporary pop-culture context. Romeo + Juliet, as it is officially known, opened today in 1996.

 

Today in Movie History: October 6

We’ve got a couple of Oscar winners today. We’ll start with the one that nabbed the big prize: The Departed, a solid gangster epic about loyalty and betrayal based on an equally good Asian film called Infernal Affairs. In any other year, it would have been notable, but not Best Picture material. However, since it was directed by Martin Scorsese, and since the Academy finally got its head out of its ass and realized that they had NEVER given him a Best Director Oscar, they decided that The Time Had Come. It’s not one of his greats, but it certainly qualifies as one of his Pretty Goods, and since it corrected one of the Academy’s most monstrous oversights, we’re not inclined to complain. It opened today in 2006.

Helen Mirren. If you don’t love her with all your heart, something is clearly wrong with you. And nowhere is there reason to love her more than The Queen, a recounting of the Britsh monarchy struggling to handle the public fallout of Princess Diana’s untimely death. As a movie, it’s decent enough, with some interesting thoughts on the balance between tradition and change. But it exists mainly to let Mirren show us kust what she’s capable of, and the woman never disappoints. It also opened today in 2006.

Nicole Kidman was a successful actress for many years, but in the early 1990s, she was still better known for being Tom Cruise’s wife than for being a star in her own right. That changed with To Die For, Gus Van Sant’s media satire about a small-town girl so desperate to get on television that she convinces a pair of local schlubs to commit murder. In one fell stroke, it turned its star into an actress of note, and paved the way for her eventual Oscar triumph a few years later. Today, its view of the media looks positively prophetic, and Kidman’s turn is just as irresistible as it was twenty years ago. It opened today in 1995.

Finally, we’re going to mention The Jazz Singer not because it’s a good movie — it’s awful — but because it’s widely heralded as the first sound motion picture ever. Considering that the climactic scene involves star Al Jolson in blackface, I’d say take it with a grain of salt. It opened 90 years ago today in 1927.

Today in Movie History: February 10

Our big movie today is Das Boot, Wolfgang Petersen’s incredible WW II epic that not only has us rooting for the Germans, but delivers what is unquestionably the greatest submarine movie of all time.  It opened in the U.S. today in 1982, and if you haven’t seen it yet, get thee to the nearest convenient distribution platform posthaste!

Sam Raimi was still working to shed his image as a horror filmmaker when he delivered The Quick and the Dead, a fabulously ridiculous ode to spaghetti westerns that opened today in 1995. Besides the director’s inspired over-the-top visual style, it features a full ammo belt of great actors having the time of their lives. Sharon Stone, fresh off of Basic Instinct, justifies all the attention she was getting for perhaps the only time in her career, while her nemesis Gene Hackman just revels in the sheer nastiness of his sinister gunfighter. He’s joined by the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio and Russell Crowe — both relative unknowns on their way up at the time — as well as veteran character actors Keith David, Lance Henriksen and Gary Sinese. We’re even willing to forgive it its ruthless cribbing of Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s simply having too much fun to care…. and it even manages to slip a little girl power into the equation too.

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 the 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 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 log-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 when he finds a carnivorous plant from outer space. It attains the properly camp tone quite well, aided by some fantastic songs for 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 today in 1997.