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Summer Of 88 (#110 of 33)

Summer of ‘88: The Big Blue

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Summer of ‘88: <em>The Big Blue</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>The Big Blue</em>

The most enduring critique leveled against the cinema du look is its fixation on surface, an obsession that reaches its apotheosis in Luc Besson’s The Big Blue. Soup to nuts, Besson’s deep-diving melodrama stresses its own depth—emotional, artistic, oceanic—while ping-ponging between its two lead frenemies: the gooey-eyed dolphin-whisperer Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr) and the brash, obnoxious, and charismatic Enzo (Jean Reno). With the screenplay torn between these broadly drawn extremes, no longtime Besson watcher should be surprised that the filmmaker is in top form as ringmaster, less so when he’s trying to be a poet.

Enzo and Jacques grow up in the same tiny Greek fishing village, showing off for neighborhood kids by diving for coins. Their relationship is established as adversarial, but in such a way that Enzo comes across as equally willing to help and challenge Jacques—a funny character contradiction that seems molded around Reno. Jacques is a nonstarter of a character and Besson seems to have known it, because when the narrative jumps from 1965 to the present (1988), the director first reintroduces Enzo, who’s continuing his bombastic shenanigans. By now Enzo has become a world-champion diver, and he’s inevitably bored to tears with his glory: free booze, hotels, and loose women.

Summer of ‘88: Crossing Delancey—High Maintenance Women and Men with Big Pickles

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Crossing Delancey</em>—High Maintenance Women and Men with Big Pickles
Summer of ‘88: <em>Crossing Delancey</em>—High Maintenance Women and Men with Big Pickles

In the closing minutes of Crossing Delancey, Sam Posner (Peter Riegert) asks the one question I would pose to him: “Schmuck, what are you still doing here?” Sam asks this as if he were reading the mind of Isabelle “Izzy” Grossman (Amy Irving), the film’s heroine. In the latest of her transgressions against the man who carries a torch for her, she has shown up hours late for their dinner date. Izzy is stunned to find Sam waiting for her after all this time. She’s late because she was trying to screw another man. Sam’s question is a stroke of screenwriting genius, because I’ve always wondered why the men in female-oriented fare put up with the lead character’s bullshit. Female viewers think the whole “hard to get” thing endearingly leads to a happily ever after. Male viewers—the ones dragged to these movies—look at the screen and assume the guy’s patience will wear out as soon as he gets some ass from the heroine.

I happen to like Crossing Delancey quite a bit, but I’m approaching it as a male viewer. To me, Izzy is a damn fool, and a snob to boot. I wanted Sam to look elsewhere. Throughout the film, Izzy is rather dismissive and mean to Sam, whom she believes is both beneath her station and a plant by an old Jewish matchmaker (Sylvia Miles). Izzy works at a bookstore, dealing with writers and having no time for the marriage her Bubbie (Reizl Bozyk) so desperately wants her to pursue. Since no woman needs a man to define her, Izzy’s rebellion against this traditional notion is commendable. What isn’t commendable is how snooty she is toward a man who works with his hands for a living. The class distinctions are one of the things that make the film fascinating, but its budding romance sticks in my craw.

Summer of ‘88: Vibes

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Vibes</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Vibes</em>

This past June, 59-year-old Cyndi Lauper—an enduring and consistently surprising presence on the American pop-music scene—won a Tony award for her score to the Broadway musical Kinky Boots. The accolade was a remarkable achievement for the Queens, N.Y. native, particularly given that it was for her debut in the medium. But let us flash back 26 years to 1987 when Lauper, then known primarily as a peppy, kooky pop singer with a string of hits behind her, was gearing up for a debut of a different sort. She’d been cast in her first acting role, in Vibes, a high-concept comedy about a pair of hapless psychics who travel to Ecuador in order to help a shady figure obtain a mystical golden relic. Unfortunately, unlike Kinky Boots, the outcome wasn’t particularly rewarding.

The portents were ominous from the beginning. Dan Aykroyd was cast as the male lead, but bailed because he felt uneasy about Lauper’s intuitive acting style. As Lauper recalls in her 2012 memoir: “We did a reading together…I was totally green, and nobody told me how to do it. And when Dan saw what I did, I guess he felt my approach was just wrong and he kept saying, ’How are you going to talk to your spirit guide?’” Aykroyd was replaced by Jeff Goldblum, but another setback followed when original director Ron Howard, who’d recently hit big with Splash and Cocoon, suddenly dropped out, leaving relative rookie Ken Kwapis (Follow That Bird) to take over.

Summer of ‘88: Clean and Sober

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Clean and Sober</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Clean and Sober</em>

Michael Keaton was probably put on this Earth to deliver dialogue like “Put it in park, you little pecker”—a line simultaneously irritating and freakishly clever, epitomizing the actor’s brand of bogus machismo. Keaton’s range—which veers so far into comedy that it subverts any expectation of real dramatic weight, only to swing back around to potentially devastating effect—is the key reason Clean and Sober works as well as it does. By today’s standards, this is an uncommonly intelligent, meticulously written adult drama about addiction as a pathology, so graceful and procedural that it’s too square to ever leap off the rental shelf. Keaton appears as an abandoned prototype for a leading man, somewhere between Jack Nicholson’s ’70s self-hatred and Tom Cruise’s you-gotta-be-kidding-me ’90s moxie. For fans, Clean and Sober is just as essential as the similarly rooted in the real world Mr. Mom, Tim Burton’s Batman films, or Johnny Dangerously.

Keaton’s Daryl isn’t a good guy stricken with he usual Jekyll-and-Hyde treatment one finds in movies about alcoholism dramas, but an overall bad guy trying to pass himself off as good, a process of continual deception of both self and others. After a pretty blonde has a coke-fuelled heart attack in Daryl’s bed, the cops tell him not to leave town; he squeaks to a colleague, “They’re gonna say I did a John Belushi on her!” But since he’s also embezzled $92,000 from his real-estate firm and lost every penny in the stock market, Daryl checks himself into a rehab facility. He sobers up, eventually, but that’s no spoiler: The second half of the film concerns his relationship to Charlie (Kathy Baker), a fellow patient who helps Daryl to steady himself in making moves (albeit preliminary) toward a better life.

Summer of ‘88 Fathers and Sons: The Last Temptation of Christ

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Summer of ‘88: Fathers and Sons—The Last Temptation of Christ
Summer of ‘88: Fathers and Sons—The Last Temptation of Christ

I. Spreading the Word

I say this with love: My father is a master of rhetoric. He is a master of rhetoric without, by his own admission, ever having mastered anything to do with rhetoric. I think he’s too hard on himself. His style of argumentation is blunt, yet nimble, as straightforward as a battering ram, yet maddeningly hard to pin down (as another subversive, Ernst Lubitsch, was summed up by the Production Code, “We know what he’s saying, but we can’t figure out how he’s saying it”). He’ll keep hammering the same point over and over again, until you think you’ve got him, whereby he’ll swerve with surprising dexterity. Approaching 80, my father is typically right-of-center on most political and social issues, except when it comes to religion. Stephanie Zacharek’s description of Pauline Kael suits him on one point only: He has no truck with God. Even the renowned theologians of history would have had their hands full with his Columbo-like oratory (“Oh, yeah, just one more question…”). Augustine would have retaken to drink. Pascal would have lost his wager. Erasmus would have turned agnostic.

Summer of ‘88: The Blob

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Summer of ‘88: <em>The Blob</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>The Blob</em>

“Don’t worry. There’s no sex or anything bad,” a kid tells his mother in the 1988 remake of The Blob before heading out to a midnight showing of the horror film-within-a-horror film Garden Tool Massacre. Mom settles down and the kid and his friend go happily on their way. Eat your heart out, Kirby Dick. Just don’t let the MPAA catch you dry humping it.

The sex-death gag is meta only on a very general level, but it bears mentioning that people sure were afraid of the color pink in the late 1980s. Whether or not you think the lion’s share of credit for that deserves to go to ACT-UP, it’s seems unlikely that it’s coincidence that both Chuck Russell’s tongue-in-cheek remake of the classic 1958 monster movie (and, in this case, “classic” clearly meant “not scary anymore”) as well as the calculated but occasionally charming Ghostbusters II prominently feature giant, spoogy masses of hot-pink goo as their primary sources of menace. In the for-the-masses kiddie sequel, the slime represents the collective negative energy of an entire city’s worth of malcontents, but the good news is that it can be rehabilitated through positive reinforcement and used as a force for good. In The Blob, it’s fast, it’s angry, and it will not negotiate with traditional family values. This is one of the few horror movies that dares to kill a young child. And not just kill the kid, but show him grasping for help as his tiny body dissolves in a morass of pink.

Summer of ‘88: The New Adventures of Pipi Longstocking

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Summer of ‘88: <em>The New Adventures of Pipi Longstocking</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>The New Adventures of Pipi Longstocking</em>

I was reminded at work this week when a colleague was assigned to file a story about Austin Mahone’s recent appearance in front of throngs of screaming preteen girls at the Mall of America that sometimes children’s conception of superstardom is markedly different from the parameters defined by adults. Austin who? But I was a kid once too, and I still remember at one time reckoning that there were few names bigger in show business than Punky Brewster’s Soleil Moon Frye or Tiffany Brissette, the girl who played the girl robot in the retroactively creepy syndicated schlockfest Small Wonder.

Another performer who, at least in the skewed eyes of one particular nine-year-old, was clearly leaving the likes of Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, and Bill Cosby in the dust was Tami Erin, who earned the plum title role in The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, an only implicitly Americanized rehash of the kids’ books by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. Having grown up in the heart of the States’ Scandinavian settlements, I was already familiar with the books, so I presumed that the casting call that eventually landed Erin the part was surely of such magnificent scope that David O. Selznick’s search for Scarlett O’Hara was dwarfed in comparison.

Summer of ‘88: Caddyshack II

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Caddyshack II</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Caddyshack II</em>

Given that the majority of this reviewer’s lifetime income has been earned hauling golf clubs in the suburbs of Chicago, my giving an opinion about Caddyshack II is like a fisherman talking about the sequels to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, or a boxer the sequels to the Oscar-winning Rocky.

All the nuance and affection for the profession of caddying that made the original’s one-liners so honest and funny (like “Hey! Lama! Hey! How ’bout a little something, you know, for the effort?”) is gone. What’s left is a floating Baby Ruth of a cinematic abomination that just about everybody from the first film was either ashamed of or absconded from (like Harold Ramis, who wanted his screenwriting credit removed, or Rodney Dangerfield, who backed out of the agreement he’d made to repeat his role as the loudmouthed real estate developer Al Czervik). Instead we have Jackie Mason doing an unfunny impression of Dangerfield, Dan Aykroyd whiffing mightily as he tries to recreate Bill Murray’s role from Caddyshack as a Vietnam vet turned golf-course groundskeeper, and Chevy Chase actually back in action as Ty Webb, this time sporting a diamond stud in his left ear.

Summer of ‘88: Midnight Run—Bob the Bounty Hunter

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Midnight Run</em>—Bob the Bounty Hunter
Summer of ‘88: <em>Midnight Run</em>—Bob the Bounty Hunter

My mother hates Charles Grodin, and not for something he did in real life. Mom has an affliction I affectionately call Actor-Role Association Syndrome (ARAS). Symptoms include an intense, unforgiving dislike for an actor based on a role he or she has played. The afflicted will see nothing that the actor is affiliated with. Folks on Mom’s shit list include Carroll O’Connor (because of his Archie Bunker), Lou Gossett Jr. (because of An Officer and a Gentleman), and Ben Vereen (because of that unfortunate Bert Williams tribute he did in blackface). In Grodin’s case, it was his obstetrician character from Rosemary’s Baby who turned Mia Farrow over to the devil worshippers. Because he did, Mom wouldn’t hose down Grodin if he burst into flames on her patio. She’d probably squirt lighter fluid on him.

I bring this up because the last movie I saw in theaters with my mother was the 1988 Robert De Niro-Charles Grodin action comedy Midnight Run. This movie choice was her idea, which surprised me until I realized she probably hoped De Niro would shoot Grodin. Said shooting seemed plausible at first, as there’s no love lost between bounty hunter Jack Walsh (De Niro) and his criminal prey, Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Grodin). Mardukas jumped bail to the tune of $450,000, a paltry sum for a man who stole $15 million. Walsh sees the Duke as the $100,000 payday promised him by bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano). The Duke sees Walsh as a roadblock to freedom, though considering who else is after him, he’d be wise to stay handcuffed to the bounty hunter.

Summer of ‘88: Die Hard

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Die Hard</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Die Hard</em>

The following Alan Rickman quote appears in the text commentary on one of the many DVD versions for John McTiernan’s Die Hard: “People get involved here, and that’s the thing. If people are patronized, if a film is geared toward a short attention span, then it’ll have a short shelf life. Films that involve that audience and embrace that ’once upon a time’ principle have a chance of lasting…We’re storytellers and we forget that at our peril.” When Die Hard exploded into theaters in the summer of 1988, I didn’t rush to see it. The reviews were mostly mixed to negative, and the action films of that era were low on my priority list (especially since, back then, I had to pay to see movies). When I finally ventured out to see it, it had moved to a dollar theater and a group of my bored friends and I decided to check it out for lack of better options. We arrived late, so it wasn’t until seeing the film again on video that I caught the foreshadowing of the airplane passenger advising John McClane (Bruce Willis), as they’re arriving in L.A., that the best way to readjust to Earth after a long flight involves removing your shoes and socks and making fists with your toes in carpeting. It takes more than one viewing of Die Hard to truly appreciate how much work and thought went into its construction and composition and to catch all the allusions (not just the obvious ones) to classic films.

Much of Die Hard’s criticism focused on how the film turns those who should be in a position to help McClane from the outside (the LAPD, the F.B.I., etc.), once they become aware that Hans Gruber (Rickman) and his gang have seized the building, into a hindrance for the New York cop trying to stop “the terrorists” from the inside. However, a great deal of the film’s appeal lies in watching an isolated McClane battle the bad guys, while the minor characters on the outside behave as imbeciles. In fact, their behavior makes the audience root for McClane, and part of the film’s subversive nature even makes the viewer unconsciously cheer for Hans when he succeeds in his quest to open the vault. While Gruber might be the villain of the piece, he also happens to be more charming and more fascinating than anyone on screen.