Today in Movie History: August 3

Jason Bourne has been through his ups and downs at the moves. Yet it’s important to note just how improbably successful this series has been overall: turning a turgid series of bestselling airport paperbacks into the most muscular and credible spy franchise since James Bond. Director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon deserve the lion’s share of the credit for that. This time of the year seems to be a good fit for it, as evinced by Bourne’s third onscreen adventure, The Bourne Ultimatum — perhaps the best of the lot — which opened today in 2007.

Tom Clancy’s ubiquitous hero Jack Ryan has been played by four different actors and counting, but I think most would agree that Harrison Ford’s turn remains the most compelling. (The Angry Finger is tough to counter.) After taking over the reins with Patriot Games, he scored a second winner with Clear and Present Danger, a story about the failure of the drug war and the limits of power that holds as much pertinence today as it did when it was first released. It opened today in 1994.


Today in Movie History: January 15

Riddle me this, Caped Crusader: how do you produce the greatest Shakespeare adaptation of all time without using a single line of Shakespeare? You give it to Akira Kurosawa, that’s how. Throne of Blood his magnificent, peerless, stunningly powerful samurai version of Macbeth — opened in Japan this day in 1957. The great Toshiro Mifune turned in one of numerous brilliant performances as a noble lord driven to murder and madness, with Isuzu Yamada as his scheming wife. Kurosawa used the principles of Noh theater to enhance the drama, and created a story both uniquely Japanese and undeniably Shakespearean. For lovers of the Bard — or anyone who appreciates great filmmaking — this is one you just can’t miss.

Continuing our tradition of sort-of cheating by listing a film’s wide release date as opposed to its limited release date — to cover for the usual appalling crop of January films — Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam opened wide today in 1988. Ostensibly based on a true story, it worked largely because someone finally figured out how to make Robin Williams’ manic stand-up routine work in a movie, and could combine it with a quietly powerful anti-war treatise. Williams received an Oscar nomination for his performance (he lost to Michael Douglas in Wall Street), and the film currently ranks among his most beloved.

On the “less good, but still fun” side of things, The Book of Eli hit theaters today in 2010, featuring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and Mila Kunis in a better-than-average post-apocalyptic actioner that hinges a bit too much on the final twist.

Hey, remember when Basic Instinct came out and someone decided that the best way to capitalize on that trend would be to put Madonna in a burgeoning erotic thriller with Willem Dafoe ? And then it turned out that the whole thing was creepy and gross, and it bombed like the Enola Gay, and supporting performers like Frank Langella and Julianne Moore had to quietly pretend it never happened? Body of Evidence came out on this day in 1993. Now if you’ll excuse us, we need to obsessively scrub our hands for a little while…





Today in Movie History: December 19

It’s another big day for notable movies: December gets very crowded with event films in an effort to either rake in the box office while the kids are on break or make a play for an Oscar nod or two. One notable movie managed to do both. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was Peter Jackson’s opening foray into what became an indisputable cinematic masterpiece. It’s easy to forget how unprecedented his efforts to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s celebrated fantasy novels to life, and how much was riding on its success. The prospect had a lot of old-school fantasy fans breathing into a paper bag before it opened. Turns out, we needn’t have worried. Jackson had the right touch, the film became a phenomenon, and along with the Harry Potter franchise, it finally gave the fantasy genre some long-overdue respect. The Fellowship of the Ring opened today in 2001.

Speaking of Oscar winners, Oliver Stone had already scored an Academy Award for penning Midnight Express when he helmed Platoon, a fictionalized account of his experiences in Vietnam. Not only did it walk away with four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director for Stone), but it became the final cinematic word on Vietnam, and represented a national catharsis on that war after years of denial and evasion. It opened today in 1986.

I’m still not sure what I think of James Cameron’s Titanic, which became the biggest moneymaker in the world for a time and an absolute Oscar behemoth, with 11 wins under its belt (including Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron). It looks a lot creakier 20 years on, with the beloved romance between Kate Winslet’s rich girl and Leonardo DiCaprio’s poor boy feeling far more threadbare than it did at the time and Cameron’s turgid script bogging the film down at every turn. That said, it still finds moments of real magic to appreciate, and if nothing else, the film presents a chillingly plausible sense of what it might have felt like on the deck of that ship that fateful night. Titanic opened two decades ago today in 1997.

Peter Sellers was best known for his role as Inspector Clouseau, and his best performance (or performances) likely came from Strangelove, but his late-inning turn in Hal Ashby’s Being There deserves a prominent spot among them both. It tells the story of a simple-minded gardener mistaken for a genius when he leaves his long-time employer’s home, a sort of reverse Forrest Gump that finds the wisdom and dark insight into human nature that Zemeckis’s movie lacked. It opened today in 1979.

Moving away from Oscar contenders, we find Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, based on the off-Broadway musical about a schlubby flower shop employee (Rick Moranis) who seems to find the answer to all his problems in a carnivorous plant from outer space. It attains the properly camp tone quite well, aided by some fantastic songs from the legendary Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and puppet-work from one of the masters of the medium. It opened in 1986, and is as much fun today as it was 30 years ago.

Oh, hey, a Bond film opened today too! Okay, it was Tomorrow Never Dies, a badly dated relic from the less-than-immortal Pierce Brosnan era of 007, but still features a few highlights. Chief among them is Michelle Yeoh knocking it out of the park as a Chinese agent who joins forces with Bond, and Judi Dench’s always agreeable presence as M. The film opened 20 years ago today in 1997.

Today in Movie History: August 12

Lots of films to cover today, but I’ll start with the most haunting: Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, a documentrary about a troubled young man who spent every summer in the Alaskan wilderness as a self-proclaimed “protector” of wild grizzly bears… one of whom eventually killed him. It’s vintage Herzog and its dark musings about our self-importance in the face of an utterly indifferent universe will hit you right in the gut. It opened today in 2005.

Religious pictures tend to either be so harmless as to escape all notice or engender a firestorm of controversy from those who want their beliefs tested or challenged. So it was for The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese’s heartfelt attempt to explore the story of Jesus in a different context that sent the religious right into apoplectic fits. (All before they’d actually had a chance to watch the film, of course.) Its thoughtful, and at times strange approach to Jesus as a man first and the conduit for God second can be baffling, but also inspiring in ways that traditional Sunday School movies aren’t. As Gene Siskel noted, it comforts us by saying that Jesus knows what we go through and challenges us to live up to his example. What more do you want in a Christian picture ? Last Temptation opened today in 1988.

Next, how about something less controversial… like The Commitments, Alan Parkers glorious celebration of an Irish soul band that almost made it and the beautiful music they produced in the meantime. Funny, heartfelt and with a keen eye on how tough it is to thrive in a creative field, it reminds us that there’s merit in every effort… and if the songs don’t get your toes tapping, there’s just no help for you. The Commitments opened today in 1991.

Fellow Gen-Xers will eagerly note the arrival of Young Guns, an effort to capitalize on the talent of several then-young stars on the rise to revitalize the moribund Western genre. It panders to the youth demographic and never quite finds its footing in its retelling of the legend of Billy the Kid. But I’d be lying if Emilio Estevez’s lead performance wasn’t captivating, and it may have made a few new fans for a genre in dire need of them at the time. Young Guns opened today in 1988.

It’s been a while since we ventured into the silent era — charting the exact date a film opened is much harder for early films — but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Wings, a World War I drama notable mainly for being the first movie ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. In and of itself, it’s not a bad film, though it sets an early precedent demonstrating just how little the Oscars matter when it comes to a film’s quality and enduring appeal. It opened today in 1927…. the same year as non-Best Picture winners Metropolis, Sunrise, The Jazz Singer, Napoleon and London After Midnight. Just sayin’.

We’ll close with a minor notation from Ray Harryhausen. Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the last and weakest of his Sinbad movies, still retains the wondrous stop-motion creations that made him a legend in his own time. It also features the very, very white Jane Seymour as an Arabian princess and the even whiter Patrick Wayne as Sinbad. On behalf of the patriarchy, we again apologize. Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger opened today in 1977.


Today in Movie History: December 24

Just two films of note opened on Christmas Eve, for obvious reasons. Walt Disney’s The Aristocats hit theaters in 1970, just in time to catch families on holiday break, while — in a world about as far away from Disney as the dark side of the moon — Oliver Stone’s Platoon opened to thunderous accolades on the way to a huge stack of Oscars. (And with all due respect to the marvelous Michael Caine, we felt that Willem Dafoe should have walked off with one of them that night. He didn’t spend it making Jaws the Revenge, after all…)

Best wishes for a safe and happy Christmas!