Today in Movie History: August 17

Everything’s turning up Jesus today… though not quite in the way you might expect. We’ll start with Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, the legendary comedy troupe’s follow-up to Holy Grail that ignited the expected firestorm of controversy among those least able to appreciate what it was trying to say. It remains brilliant, of course, and while time has blunted the criticism against it, its message about the foolishness of fanaticism is as pertinent as ever… to say nothing of the general Python absurdity it all comes wrapped in. The Life of Brian opened today in 1979.

Those less accustomed to the heat of religious arguments can look to Jesus Christ Superstar, another one of those Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that really has no business working, and yet somehow does. Director Norman Jewison finds the right post-hippie vibe for the entire affair, setting modern performers to actual Israeli locations for the — yes — toe-tappingly good reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion. It opened today in 1973.

The field of non-Jesus movies opening today starts with The Time Machine, George Pal’s excellent adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells novel that remains an indelible classic of science fiction cinema. Rod Taylor makes an eminently sympathetic lead and the top-notch effects still retain their sense of wonder. The Time Machine opened today in 1960.

Amid the current bumper crop of animated films, the comparatively modest ParaNorman got left behind a little bit. It’s one of the better ones out there, however, with a great outsider’s vibe and a terrific way of reminding us not to judge a book by its cover. If you missed it, it’s well worth a look, especially with Halloween slowly creeping up on us. It opened today in 2012.

 

 

Today in Movie History: August 2

We have two movies about the night, and what happens in them on this date. We’ll start with In the Heat of the Night Hollywood’s always-late-to-the-party attempt to discuss the changing face of race relations in America. Though straightforward and by-the-numbers in many ways, Norman Jewison’s murder mystery plot — in which a black Philadelphia detective (Sidney Poitier) is tasked to solve a murder in a small Mississippi town where (as you may have guessed) folks don’t much like his kind — remains darkly compelling, and the long hard road to respect between Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger’s local police chief is a treat to watch. In the Heat of the Night opened today in 1967.

18 years later, an entirely different kind of evening befell audiences. There weren’t a whole lot of vampire movies on the landscape in 1985, and those that were generally sucked in ways that had nothing to do with blood. Director Tom Holland came up with a nifty variation on Rear Window in which a teen snoop (William Ragsdale) comes to believe that his new next-door neighbor is a vampire. It had a refreshing vibe that set it apart from other fangers — including a subtle nod to the grievances of the LGBTQ community that helped earn it a slew of fans there — but the real juice came with Chris Sarandon’s menacing-yet-tragic monster and the late, great Roddy McDowell as the host of the local TV creature feature reluctantly tasked with taking him down. Fright Night opened today in 1985, and spawned a quiet renaissance in vampire movies in the ensuing years.

 

Today in Movie History: November 3

Stephen King understands bullies as few others before him, which is one of the reasons why his terror tales hold so much power. His first novel, Carrie — inspired by experiences in high school — taps into the fear, alienation and rage of being the constant target of abuse, and in the hands of director Brian De Palma, it became one of the greatest horror films of all time. Sissy Spacek is perfect as the terrified young woman whose burgeoning telekinesis gives her the perfect instrument of revenge, and made the character an icon for anyone who ever got stuffed into a locker or wedgied behind the bleachers. It opened today in 1976.

The original Pete’s Dragon came along at a low point for Walt Disney Pictures, with their founder ten years gone and the company searching for a creative direction. But it holds a great deal of charm in the story of another picked-on child, this time with someone much more positive in his corner. It rambles a bit, and packs a few plot threads too many into its frame, but it also finds some measure of the magic that made the House of Mouse so beloved. It opened 40 years ago today in 1977.

Guys and Dolls decided to make a musical out of the magical subject of compulsive gambling and — let’s face it — preserved some of the less savory aspects of 50s culture. But watching Marlon Brando sing “Luck Be a Lady” is all kinds of awesome, and who if not Frank Sinatra should play the definitive Nathan Detroit? The film opened 60 years ago today in 1957.

Finally, there’s Fiddler on the Roof, an ambitious and uniformly admirable adaptation of the famous stage play. Director Norman Jewison stuck to the basics — letting the marvelous songs and fine performances speak for themselves — and while it was a crime to keep Zero Mostel from the part he was born to play, Topol makes a perfectly serviceable fill-in as the Jewish dairy farmer dealing with life in a changing world. The film also won three Oscars, including the first of many for composer John Williams. It opened today in 1971.