Today in Movie History: May 2

We’ve got a big one today, and it’s hard to know where to start. In all honesty, though, there’s no getting around the pop culture gorilla in the room. Since The Mummy unofficially pushed the start of blockbuster season from Memorial Day to the start of May, this week on the calendar has been dominated by Marvel movies. In fact, the three biggest individual Marvel franchises all have entries that opened today.

We’ll start with the biggest: Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, which opened ten years ago today in 2008. It’s easy to forget how surprisingly good this movie was, turning Tony Stark from a second-tier superhero to one of the most recognized in the world. Robert Downey Jr.’s now-iconic turn as the character resurrected his career, and of course, the film’s success opened the gates of  the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Five years earlier to the day, Bryan Singer’s X2: X-Men United helped lay the groundwork for the MCU by proving that superheroes not named Superman or Batman could still support a successful franchise. In fact, it ranks as one of the best X-Men films to date, and us old-school fans got to weep with joy as Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler — who we never expected to even SEE in an A-list movie — took apart that White House security team as only he could.

The runt of the Marvel litter today was The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which open today in 2014. Though it underperformed at the box office and was justly criticized for its ham-handed effort to jump-start a new franchise, it earns props for Andrew Garfield’s fantastic Peter Parker, and Emma Stone’s spot-on performance as the doomed Gwen Stacey.

Another big anniversary today comes much earlier… and with a much different film. Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple was already a huge hit on Broadway when director Gene Saks successfully adapted it to the big screen. Walter Matthau reprised his Broadway turn as the slovenly Oscar Madison, with Jack Lemmon taking over from Art Carney as the fussy Felix Unger. the results were magical and turned the film into a massive hit. It opened 50 years ago today in 1968.

If you love franchises and superheroes aren’t your thing, there’s always The Curse of Frankenstein, which opened today in 1957. Peter Cushing’s truly diabolical doctor was strong enough to support another half-dozen sequels, and his lengthy partnership with Christopher Lee found one of many, many high notes here. (Lee plays a mute, murderous version of the monster.)

Want more? We got it! How about the noir classic The Postman Always Rings  Twice, which opened today in 1946? Or the original Miracle on 34th Street, which was released exactly one year later? (If it sounds weird to release a Christmas movie in May, keep in mind that national releases were all but unheard of in the 1940s. Instead, films would open slowly in different regions over time… helping to build word of mouth that would give the film a big boost over the holidays.)

We’ll even include the original Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery — released today in 1997 — because it’s freaking Austin Powers and leaving it off would just be wrong.

Whew!

 

Today in Movie History: April 7

We have a very diverse quartet to recognize today, starting with the earliest. Abel Gance’s passion project Napoleon, covering the early years of the French leader’s life, became one of the most innovative efforts of the silent era: pioneering numerous techniques such as multi-camera set-ups and multi-screen projection (making it one of the first truly widescreen movies) that influenced countless generations of filmmakers. It opened today in 1927.

Most people remember Francis Ford Coppola’s other movie released in 1974 — the one with Fredo in the boat — and end up overlooking The Conversation, his brilliant meditation of surveillance and paranoia that feels more pertinent than ever. Gene Hackman stars as a surveillance specialist who slowly becomes unhinged, and it marks one of that great actor’s highlights as well. (Also, look for a pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford in the mix.)

If you want to look at Hollywood’s problem in a nutshell, compare the original Bad News Bears — released today in 1976 — with the utterly gutless remake in 2005. The original version had real bite to its humor, including an overtly racist ten-year-old and a climax that involves a father physically striking his son. The remake tried to ease around all that without looking the Gorgon in the face. Big mistake. Sometimes funny movies have something important to say, and they can’t do that by backing off.

Finally, we’re going to end with Rob Roy, the 1995 movie about a Scottish legend that wasn’t directed by a raging anti-Semite. Besides the fetching sight of Liam Neeson in a kilt and John Hurt getting his villain on in a big way, there’s Tim Roth… who earned his only Oscar nomination to date for playing the scariest dandy in the whole wide world. (He lost to Kevin Spacey. It was a good year.)