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 15

It’s a big day today, and we’ll start with the most recent. Amid all the hubbub over 2008’s The Dark Knight, it’s easy to forget just what an amazing job its predecessor, Batman Begins, did after Tim Burton’s singular-but-flawed vision and the depressing crassness of the Joel Schumacher Batman films. Bat-fans were hungry for the kind of lean, grounded tale that Christopher Nolan unleashed with deceptive ease, and the stellar cast combined with a keen understanding of the character to create one of the best incarnations of the Dark Knight in any medium. Oh yeah, and it set up a sequel of some note too… Batman Begins opened today in 2005.

15 years earlier, another comic book adaptation stuck closer to the Tim Burton model, and is still regarded as an ambitious failure. But the sheer joy of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy has helped it age exceptionally well, and today stands as a breath of fresh air amid the gloom and doom of modern superhero sagas. The Stephen Sondheim songs are a knockout, and Al Pacino’s spot-on Al Pacino impersonation may be the greatest of all time. It opened today in 1990.

In far earlier era, but belonging to the same Boys’ Own tradition of those later films, there’s The Dirty Dozen: Robert Aldrich’s gleeful excuse to righteously kick some Nazi behind. It exists as pure popcorn entertainment and nothing more, but who doesn’t love watching Lee Marvin and his squad of misfits stick it to der Fuhrer good? It opened today in 1967.

Want more? We’ve got it. I thought about starting with Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, a good film that I never quite cottoned to and which thus took a step down in my estimation. Nonetheless, the story of a man (Jack Lemmon) who lends his apartment to his employers so they can canoodle with women who are not their wives holds some subversive charm, and its five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director for Wilder) speak to its reputation as a classic. It opened today in 1960.

Baseball movies come and go, but none are quite so wonderfully, perfectly accurate as Bull Durham. Its tale of a veteran minor league catcher (Kevin Costner), a hotshot pitcher on his way up (Tim Robbins) and the hardcore booster (Susan Sarandon) engaging in a romantic tryst with them both provide tons of romantic heat. As for the baseball, this is one of the few films that understands the sport isn’t about winning the pennant. It’s about what happens while you’re trying to win the pennant. Bull Durham opened today in 1988.

I’m not a huge fan of Abbott and Costello, but I am a huge fan of the Universal monsters, and their farce Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein uses the ghoulish old gang to nearly perfect effect. The secret is taking the monsters seriously: letting Bud and Lou run around like idiots and keeping the source of their fear as pure. The high point is Bela Lugosi — 20 years from the original Dracula and showing every mile of it — putting the moves on a hapless young lady and causing all those years to vanish in an instant. The role still belongs to him. The movie belongs to Bud and Lou, and they’ve never been better. It opened 70 years ago today in 1948.

Finally, there’s The Lion King: the single most inexplicable classic in Disney’s canon. Its widely regarded status as an animation masterpiece covers up for the fact that:

1) It liberally cribbed from a Japanese cartoon called Kimba the White Lion.

2) Its story embraces the ethically dodgy principle that everything will be fine as long as you shut up and know your place.

3) Its animation is mind-bogglingly shoddy for an A-list picture at the heart of the Disney Renaissance.

Nevertheless, it is almost universally beloved…. and if you push me under duress, I admit that the Elton John songs are pretty boss. The Lion King opened today in 1994.

 

 

Today in Movie History: April 10

1981 was a banner year for science fiction, fantasy and horror movies… perhaps more than 1982, which is usually cited as the high water mark for genre cinema. Two of that year’s bumper crop were released today. First up, Excalibur: John Boorman’s ambitious attempt to cover the entire Arthur legend from conception to death. Its reach exceeds its grasp more than once, but it succeeds in capturing the core of the legend in a way no other film before or since could quite manage. And egad, that armor…

Occupying equal status on the pop culture ladder is Joe Dante’s The Howling, part of a trio of notable werewolf movies that came out that year. While it can’t quite match An American Werewolf in London (which is duking it out with 1941’s The Wolfman for best ever), it makes a surprising game run at it, with Dante’s signature wit and iconoclasm punctuating a wild story about a colony of werewolves disguised as a nature retreat in Northern California. Watch for column favorite Robert Picardo — Dante’s perennial good-luck charm — as a grinning serial killer.

 

 

Today in Movie History: January 30

Charlie Chaplin has been on our minds a lot of late, and today saw the release of one of his masterpiece: City Lights, the story of Chaplin’s ubiquitous Little Tramp and the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who falls in love with him. It’s vintage Chaplin at its finest, and if you don’t get a little misty-eyed at the finale, you might not actually possess a soul. City Lights opened today in 1931.

Way, way WAY down the totem pole, we find a couple of decidedly scruffier movies that nonetheless hold plenty of guilty pleasures. We’ll start with Taken, Pierre Morel’s reactionary revenge piece that benefits immeasurably from Liam Neeson’s steely hero. (It gave the actor a signature catch phrase in the bargain.) It opened today in 2009.

The other movie was Deep Rising, Stephen Sommer’s glorious monster mash in which a Lovecraftian horror attacks a luxury cruise liner. It doesn’t trade in the uglier stereotypes of Taken and — while goofy in the extreme — makes for a much more enjoyable experience overall. It opened today in 1998.

(Incidentally, both of the above movies featured Famke Janssen… just one of the reasons why we love her.)

 

Today in Movie History: December 15

Man, there are some big movies  released today. We’re going to start with the grim one: one of the most important movies of all time, a chilling testament to the Holocaust, and demonstrative artistic validation for one of the greatest directors ever. Schindler’s List opened today in 1993. Above and beyond its merits as cinema, its success led to the founding of the Shoah Foundation, dedicated to preserving the testament of Holocaust survivors.

On a much lighter front: we love comic book movies here, and the last few years have seen some great ones from the MCU to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies to the resurgent X-Men. At the end of the day, however, they’re still chasing the original. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie opened today in 1978: a gold standard for superhero movies that may never be passed.

A big lug of an entirely different kind also arrived today in 1974: Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein delivered the final word on horror parodies and may be the greatest movie in Mr. Brooks’ formidable canon. For safety’s sake, don’t humiliate him!

Other notable releases on this day include the rousing Jimmy Stewart adventure film Flight of the Phoenix  in 1965; The Pink Panther Strikes Again in 1976 (which remains our favorite of the Pink Panther films); and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s surreal fantasy masterpiece The City of Lost Children in 1995.

The City of Lost Children shares a release date with Michael Mann’s Heat, the story of a career bank robber (Robert De Niro) after one last score and the dedicated cop (Al Pacino) trying to hunt him down. Much has been made — rightfully so — of the coffee shop scene between the two actors, but the entire ensemble is incredible (including Val Kilmer, Danny Terjo, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman and Wes Studi), and the film itself is one of the greatest police thrillers ever made. it opened today in 1995.

Oh yeah, and one other little film opened today in 1939. Southern epic, most popular movie of all time, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” something, something… Oh yeah, and overtly racist. Like a lot.