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: June 16

We’ll give Grease the nod for the pole position. It is the word after all, and while the film’s subtext remains troubling — basically saying that in order to get the man of your dreams, you have to change everything you are — it’s hard to stop the toes from tapping once those songs get going. And say what you will about John Travolta: the man knows how to dance. Grease opened today in 1978.

If that’s not your thing, there’s always Them! a better-than-average giant bug movie in which a colony of giant ants invades Los Angeles. The genre is, um, rather shabby, but if you’re in the mood, this one can be a lot of fun. It opened today in 1954.

Then there’s Batman Forever, a film regarded at the time as an effortless leap from Tim Burton’s vision to Joel Schumacher’s, but which stands today in only slightly higher regard than the maligned Batman and Robin. Overstuffed with too many characters, full of headache-inducing neon colors and eliciting the worst performance in Tommy Lee Jones’s career, it remains an embarrassing footnote in the long history of the character. It opened today — for better or worse — in 1995.

Finally, we’d be remiss is we did’t mention Finding Dory, Pixar’s delightful sequel to one of the most delightful movies they’ve ever made. It opened one year ago today, but we’re pretty high on its ability to stand the test of time…. provide its protagonist can remember.

 

 

Today in Movie History: July 22

And behold, the worst shall be first, and all the base and discarded of the cinematic universe will draw sustenance from its example. We’re talking about Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, justly celebrated as the worst movie ever made. Creaky sets, terrible acting, a plot that has to be seen to be believed, and the final onscreen appearance of Bela Lugosi (who died and was replaced by chiropractor Tom Mason holding a cape over his head)… all of which made this the stuff of cinematic legend for all the right/wrong reasons. Plan 9 from Outer Space opened today in 1959.

On a much, much, much higher level, we find Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the seminal 1950s musical about a nice young lady (Jane Powell) who marries a strapping young Oregonian (Howard Keel), only to find out he has a whole passel of sibling mountain men in dire need of caring for. The subtext is appalling, but the songs, performances and terrific choreography can’t be denied. It opened today in 1954.

In celebration of Comic Con this week, we’ll close with a pair of four-color superheroes… though only one of them actually shows up in a superhero film. The other one is Mr. Mom, the 1983 comedy that attempted to address the then-novel notion that women could actually be the breadwinners and men could be the homemakers. The now-quaint notion is bolstered by a funny, sympathetic script, and a winning performance from future Batman Michael Keaton, who scored a huge career boost with the film’s success. It opened today in 1983.

Finally, we have Captain America: The First Avenger, part of the calculated risk undertaken by Marvel Studios that ended up transforming comic book movies as we know them. It’s far from a perfect film: the center section sags a great deal, and at times it feels like it’s too busy setting up The Avengers to generate its own energy. But it cracks the code on how to deliver an interesting hero who’s also morally unimpeachable, thanks in no small part to the terrific turn from Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. Bolstered by a strong supporting cast — particularly Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull and Tommy Lee Jones’ Tommy Lee Jones clone — and the fine period sensibilities of director Joe Johnson, it makes for a winning entry in Marvel’s increasingly impressive movie franchise. (And Alan Menken and David Zippel’s USO theme song is pure bliss.) It opened today in 2011.