Today in Movie History: September 25

Like a surprising number of classics, The Princess Bride didn’t do particularly well when first released in theaters. Audiences weren’t sure what to expect from the combination of gentle satire and straight-faced romance, and largely stayed away… only to discover it on video like so many other films of the era. Today, of course, it’s an indispensable part of the canon: one of those compulsively quotable joys that just gets better every time you see it.  It opened today in 1987.

Jostling with The Princess Bride for the pole position today is The Hustler, Robert Rossen’s ode to low-down pool sharking and the men who live and die for it. Paul Newman was already a star when he appeared as “Fast Eddie” Felson, and the role earned him his second Oscar nomination. (He finally won a quarter century later, playing the same character in The Color of Money.) The film opened today in 1961.

Chariots of Fire is one of those head-scratching Best Picture winners that never quite lived up to its hype, and today is known more for its stirring Vangelis score than for the drama itself. But separated from its Oscar triumph and without the pressure of noting the various better films it beat, it’s actually a solid little period drama, depicting the religious convictions of two British runners in the 1924 Olympics, and the ways they weighed their faith against the challenges of running for their country. it opened today in 1981.

Director Michael Mann remains a singular voice in the canon, and while his films have had their ups and downs, the best of them can stand with anything ever put on film. That includes The Last of the Mohicans, a lush and irresistible adaptation of one of the stuffier novels in American literature. Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe make a stirring pair of romantic leads, but it’s Cherokee actor Wes Studi who steals the show as their hate-filled nemesis. Add gorgeous cinematography from Dante Spinotti and a stunning soundtrack from Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, and the film itself becomes an evergreen. It opened today in 1992.

We’ll close with Paranormal Activity, a throwaway horror quickie based on pure stimulus response that morphed into a monster hit. The series it spawned was no one’s idea of horror immortality, but they worked as cinematic haunted houses, and the original retains a reliably spooky atmosphere thanks to solid direction from Oren Peli. It opened today in 2009.

 

Today in Movie History: August 15

Disaster or masterpiece? That distinction can hinge on the razor’s edge sometimes, especially when an ambitious, talented and possibly crazy filmmaker is involved. Case in point: Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s effort to encapsulate the war in Vietnam as seen through a variation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The shoot was infamous for its delays, debacles and outright danger, including a heart attack from star Martin Sheen, a hurricane that destroyed the set and Marlon Brando in full-bore Marlon Brando mode. Despite that, and despite a shoot that apparently brought Coppola himself to the brink of madness, the film remains one of the definitive statements on Vietnam and the insanity of war in general. It opened today in 1979.

If you asked me which David Cronenberg film I would hold above all others, I’d probably end up choosing his most commercial: The Fly, a reimagined version of the 1950s classic (itself based on a chilling short story by George Langelaan). It focuses on Cronenberg’s obsessive infusion on flesh and technology, wrapped in — of all things — a surprisingly good romantic comedy that absolutely disarms us just in time for the horror show to begin. The Fly opened today in 1986 and hasn’t lost a single ounce of its power.

While Silence of the Lambs made Hannibal Lecter a household name, he actually first appeared five years earlier in Michael Mann’s superb thriller Manhunter. Drenched in the director’s Miami Vice style, it nonetheless found the same intense connections between hunter and prey that Silence did, and Bryan Cox’s turn as Lecter, while distinct from Anthony Hopkins (to whom the character will always belong), is enough to cause some sleepless nights. Manhunter opened today in 1986.

Finally, there’s Event Horizon. Okay, yeah, forget I mentioned it. Except… Event Horizon… the most awesomely awful movie ever! It opened today in 1997, making it the second-best Laurence Fishburne movie to be released today.

 

 

Today in Movie History: August 6

Today marked a trio of notable films — well, okay, two notable films and one amusing outlier — all released the same year. The one everyone was talking about at the time was The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan’s calling card about a terrified little boy (Haley Joel Osmond) who can see ghosts and a troubled therapist (Bruce Willis) who resolves to help him. Shyalaman’s subsequent descent into self-indulgence tarnished its standing, but its twist remains the stuff of cinematic legend, and while its artistry is more technical than dramatic, it still contains moments that can devastate you. the Sixth Sense opened today in 1999.

The other two notable films kind of got lost in the Shyamalan tsunami, but one of them, at least, weathered the storm to become a modern classic. The Iron Giant, Brad Bird’s wonderful homage to 50s sci-fi, arrived in time to remind us that Disney did not hold a monoploy on great animation, and the story of a gentle gigantic robot and the boy he befriends carries  humor, heart, poignancy and sad wisdom on human nature in equal measure.

The last film to open that day was Mystery Men, a superhero parody loosely adapted from an obscure Dark Horse comic. It’s not a perfect film, but it wins points on sheer novelty value… and frankly, it was rather ahead of its time. Superhero films were on the outs when it was released — Batman and Robin had poisoned the well and the first X-Men film was a year off — but had it opened today, it might have enjoyed a huge success. As it stands, it makes for a welcome tonic for anyone who might be superhero’d out (and I confess it’s a personal favorite).

Five years later, Michael Mann scored one of the best films of his career with Collateral, the story of a hapless cabbie (Jamie Foxx) forced to drive an icy hitman (Tom Cruise) through Los Angeles in pursuit of his victims. Taut, tense and utterly unnerving, it demonstrated Foxx’s potential as a straight actor, while affirming that Cruise is at his best on the dark side of the street. It opened today in 2004.

Then there’s The Fugitive, Andrew Davis’s cinematic version of the old 60s TV show about a doctor (Harrison Ford), wrongfully accused of the murder of his wife, who escapes from custody in pursuit of the real killer. It’s a fine thriller, and one of the better entries in Ford’s canon. But the scene stealer is Tommy Lee Jones, who won the Oscar as the Federal agent doggedly pursuing Ford to ground. It opened today in 1993.

 

Today in Movie History: March 27

If gritty crime dramas are your game, Michael Mann is your director. And while I’d cite the likes of Heat, Manhunter and Collateral as unabashed masterpieces, they are preceded by Thief which set the pace for those triumphs to follow. James Caan plays a brilliant jewel thief trying to go straight, enticed into one last score that goes dreadfully wrong. Mann succeeds by upending those cliches as much as honoring them, and considering that it was his first feature production, his technical command of the medium is breathtaking. Thief opened today in 1981.

Dreamworks’ Monsters vs. Aliens has faded a bit in the public’s mind since it opened — we’re not exactly hurting for quality animated features these days — but I maintain it sits near the very top of their canon. Its fresh, funny and loving homage/parody of 50s monster movies hearkens back to Joe Dante at his best, and there’s even a little feminist twist in there to keep us on our toes. It opened today in 2009.

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.