Today in Move History: July 24

The pole position today unquestionably goes to Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s ode to the Greatest Generation with a permanent spot on the short list of his absolute masterpieces. The bravura opening sequence remains one of the most harrowing depictions of combat ever put on film (emulated by fellow directors for decades), and the story that unfolds afterwards depicts the grunt’s eye view of World War II in a way that may never be topped. It earned Spielberg his second Best Director Oscar, and would have nabbed Best Picture too had Harvey Weinstein been less of an evil toad (and YES we’re taking that injustice to our graves). It opened 20 tears ago today in 1998 and made cinema a more vibrant art form in the process.

I’m not sure anyone would legitimately call Wolfen the best of the amazing bumper crop of werewolf movies from 1981, but it’s certainly earned a spot in elite company: positing a pack of supernatural wolves thriving in the steel canyons of Manhattan. What is lacks in elegance it makes up for in originality of concept, and with Albert Finney’s dogged cop as our guide, it’s still worth popping in and taking a look.

 

Today in Movie History: June 21

I tend to disapprove of nihilism in the movies, since it usually comes across as smug posturing from arrogant directors who have no real experience with true human darkness. That doesn’t apply to Roman Polanski, a man who has gazed into the abyss from both sides and knows its secrets the way few of us ever will. Nowhere is that better showcased than with Chinatown, his greatest film in which he captured the despairing heart of film noir perfectly. It opened today in 1974.

Speaking of auteurs, you don’t often hear Minority Report mentioned among the list of Steven Spielberg’s greatest films. But it really should: a surprisingly bleak look at a future where crime can be predicted and prevented, and what happens when the system turns on one of its own. In the wake of 9/11, its commentary on the loss of our rights seemed uncannily timely, and the ensuring years have only increased the power of its message. It opened today in 2002.

We’ll close with a couple of Disney flicks. There was a strong streak of Warners’ anarchy in Lilo and Stitch, helping it cut against the grain of Disney’s overly sweet formula and giving the misfits of the world a heroine who really knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. It opened today in 2002.

The other one is the original Parent Trap, in which Hayley Mills plays identical twins scheming to get their divorced parents back together. The remake pretty much just makes us all weep for Lindsay Lohan; this one has far fewer unpleasant pop-culture connotations. It opened today in 1961.

 

Today in Movie History: June 20

In 1974, Universal Pictures handed the adaptation of a dreadful little potboiler to an untested director with just a couple of films under his belt. The production was plagued by accidents, delays and cost overruns. The script was a mess, the cast cantankerous, and the main selling point depended on special effects that just didn’t work. It looked for all the world like a disaster from the get-go.

And then it hit theaters.

The movie was Jaws, the director was Steven Spielberg, and every summer blockbuster since then — every single one — owes its very existence to it. It opened today in 1975, and we’re betting that the merest mention of its name is enough to make you want to pop it in and watch it all over again. Like right now.

Moving only slightly down the classics scale, we find The Blues Brothers, a jumped-up Saturday Night Live sketch that somehow morphed into one of the funniest movies of all time. Its secret lies in a strange kind of sweetness, carefully hidden beneath smart-aleck snark and heightened by the singular chemistry between stars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. If you strip away the irreverence, the cynicism, the spectacular car wrecks and the Illinois Nazis, this is a movie about singing and dancing: giving people who hate musicals a musical they can truly love. All that and Ray Charles too? (And James Brown and Aretha Franklin and Cab Calloway and…) How can you not love this movie? The Blues Brothers opened today in 1980.

Oh and Batman and Robin opened today in 1997. We won’t speak of it further because OH MY GOD.

 

Today in Movie History: June 12

It’s a big day for movie releases today, but there’s no doubt which one leads the list. Action and adventure have been a part of the movies since the Lumiere brothers sent audiences diving for cover with the approach of a moving train. We’ve seen some amazing entries in the genre over the ensuing 120 years, but none of them — not a single one — can touch the magic that Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford created with one battered fedora. There may be more “important” movies, there may be more profound movies, there may be movies that challenge our perceptions more handily or stretch the medium in more creative ways. But if you can’t love this one, you have no business loving movies at all. The one and only Raiders of the Lost Ark opened today in 1981.

Of the other five entries today, the one that comes closest to Raiders in terms of stature is Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s celebrated horror movie about a nice young lady and the Satanists living next door to her. Frankly, I find the movie ridiculous and I suspect Polanski does too, but there’s no arguing with the skill on display, or the film’s status as one of the pillars of the genre. And Polanski’s eternal notion of innocence betrayed certainly finds fertile ground in the overheated material. Rosemary’s Baby opened 50 years ago today in 1968.

Five years earlier, 20th Century Fox embarked upon a boondoggle that almost sank the studio. Cleopatra, originally budgeted at $2 million, ended up costing over $30 million. In modern terms, that means the budget basically went from Get Out to Pirates of the Caribbean in one fell swoop. The elaborate sets and costumes were a part of it (Elizabeth Taylor changed costumes a record 65 times in the film), but so too was the relocation from London to Rome mid-shoot; the departure of original director Robert Mamoulian in favor of Joseph Mankiewicz (who himself was almost fired in the editing); and the legendary affair between Taylor and co-star Richard Burton (both married to other people at the time). The film is an enormous white elephant, though it retains a compulsive watchability, mainly because of the nuclear chemistry (in both good ways and bad) of its two stars. It opened today in 1963.

Zipping back to the 80s, we find a pair of notables that both opened on the exact same day. George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick became a bellwether for mainstream pro-feminist filmmaking as a trio of outsiders (Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer) in a small New England town draw the attention of the Devil… played to mischievous perfection by Jack Nicholson. A riotous social satire, a quietly brilliant horror film and an elegant statement about the mistreatment of women all rolled into one, its charms haven’t aged a day.

Then there’s Predator, a movie originally viewed as a quickie knock-off of Alien intended to capitalize on the rising star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Over the years, it’s morphed into a genre classic all on its own: partially because of the magnificent monster itself (created by Stan Winston and his crew), but also because of the quiet way it upended the era’s prevailing trends. Action heroes were largely unstoppable killing machines at the time, led by Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone whose good guys simply waded through the villains until no one was left. Predator set a whole squad of them up again a monster that treated them all like teenagers in a slasher movie. Director John McTiernan accelerated the trend with Die Hard a year later, but the first seeds were planted right here.

Predator and The Witches of Eastwick both opened today in 1987.

We’ll close with Inside Out, from the redoubtable Pixar studios, about the personified emotions that live inside a little girl’s head and what happens when they learn you can’t be happy all of the time. Pixar’s quality had slipped a bit with the previous few movies — though admittedly, the initial bar they set couldn’t be higher — and Inside Out represented a welcome return to their stellar best. It opened just two years ago in 2015, but it looks set for the long haul.

Today in Movie History: June 11

Today was a big day for Mr. Spielberg, with opening dates for two of his acknowledged classics. We’ll start with E.T., the story of a lonely little boy (Henry Thomas) who befriends a stranded alien in the woods behind his home. It touched a chord in audiences when it first opened and now stands as perhaps the most “Spielbergian” of the celebrated director’s films… to the point where it’s now part of the logo for his production company. It opened today in 1982.

11 years later, the director scored another massive hit, and if it’s not quite as beloved as E.T., it certainly left a mark of its own. Jurassic Park, based on the Michael Crichton novel about genetically engineered dinosaurs running wild on an island amusement park. Crichton recycled the notion from his earlier effort Westworld, but it took Spielberg’s populist genius to turn the concept into a household phrase. Jurassic Park opened today in 1993.

If indie movies are your thing, there’s Napoleon Dynamite, an ode to an awkward Idaho teenager (Jon Heder) so blissfully unaware of his awkwardness that he becomes cool almost by default. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, but its oddball characters are uniformly charming, and for those who spent high school on the outside looking in, the title character is a champion to rally behind. It opened today in 2004.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an entirely different kind of high school movie: really more of a fantasy than anything else. The titular character (Matthew Broderick) engineers an escape from high-school drudgery for his best friend (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend (Mia Sara), thanks to a vintage Ferrari and a scheming principal (Jeffrey Jones) who can’t get out of his own way. It’s become a Gen X touchstone, and a friendly reminder to “stop and look around once in a while.” It opened today in 1986.

We’ll close today with the original True Grit, the film that won John Wayne the Oscar and has achieved status as a minor classic in the Duke’s pantheon. I confess that I much prefer the remake from the Coen Brothers, but the original highlights Wayne’s indelible onscreen presence, and is worth a look solely for the star. It opened today in 1969.