Today in Movie History: December 29

It was a good day for bad men at the movies, starting with Sergio’s Leone’s legendary The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, released in the U.S. on December 29, 1967. Leone wrapped a strange anti-war message into her farewell to The Man with No Name, as well as providing the great Eli Wallach with his finest role.

Sam Peckinpah had his own thoughts about humanity’s capacity for violence — some good some bad, but always compelling — and perhaps found his most troubling expression of it in Straw Dogs: a story of the limits of pacifism and the sad fact that self-defense remains a necessary right. It opened today in 1971.

If those boys weren’t bad enough, then there’s always the greatest monster in literary history. 1995 saw a fresh new take on William Shakespeare’s Richard III hit theaters today, with England remade as a fascist dictatorship and Ian McKellen delivering perhaps the finest performance of his career as the titular ruler. Annette Bening, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne and Robert Downey, Jr. also lent their talents to the production.

Finally, there’s Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking, an examination of the death penalty that won Susan Sarandon an Oscar and came damn close to scoring one for Sean Penn as well. People who shy away from the film because of the shrill politics of the principals will be surprised to see how even-handed it is: respecting both sides equally and presenting a take on it that ferments fruitful discussion instead of preaching at us until we scream. It opened the same days as Richard III, in 1995.

Today in Movie History: September 23

Though well-received critically, The Shawshank Redemption failed to generate much heat at the box office, and was swamped at the Oscars by the competing behemoths of Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump. Hourly screenings on TNT changed all of that and today, it’s considered one of the greatest movies of the 1990s… as well as cementing director Frank Darabont’s reputation as the go-to adaptor of high-end Stephen King novels. The Shawshank Redemption opened today in 1994.

It’s a big day for David Cronenberg too, featuring two movies of his that supposedly demonstrated his ability to move beyond the horror genre that made him famous. The first, Dead Ringers, charts the slow descent of a pair of identical twin gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons) into drug addiction and madness. The second, A History of Violence, entails the hidden past of a seemingly normal coffee-shop owner (Viggo Mortensen) which comes knocking on the door of his idyllic life. Both are exceptional examples of a director at the top of his game. (And to date, he doesn’t have a single Oscar nomination. NOT EVEN A NOMINATION.) Dead Ringers opened today in 1988. A History of Violence opened today in 2005.

Finally, we’ll close with a favorite: Arsenic and Old Lace, Frank Capra’s adaptation of the darkly funny Joseph Kesselring play. It concerns an aristocratic writer (Cary Grant) who fears that he may succumb to his family’s hereditary insanity… as evinced most prominently by his two batty aunts, who periodically off their gentleman callers. It’s a bit stagey, but otherwise a hoot. It opened today in 1944.

 

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 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.