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Summer Of 89 (#110 of 17)

Summer of ‘89: The Abyss

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Summer of ’89: The Abyss
Summer of ’89: The Abyss

James Cameron was on Charlie Rose recently to talk about his journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Rose asked him about The Abyss, and about the short story he wrote in high school that would later become the basis for the movie. Cameron described it:

It was about scientists who are leaving a submerged base, kind of similar to what I eventually made into the movie. And they’re going down a wall on a dive, deeper and deeper into blackness, and they don’t come back. And the ones that are left behind wonder what happened and go after them. And one after another they keep going into the darkness, and they don’t return. And the last man goes, the last diver goes down to find out what happened to his buddies. And he gets to the point of no return, and his curiosity overwhelms his caution and he keeps going. And that’s how the story ends.

If only the movie could’ve been that simple. Instead, The Abyss is a big-budget, 1980s blockbuster, the plot of which was contorted in order to allow for elaborate set pieces and expensive, state-of-the-art special effects. The story goes: Amid Cold War tensions, an American nuclear submarine crosses paths with a mysterious, underwater, alien spacecraft (which looks a lot like the aboveground alien spacecrafts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Its radar system deactivated due to the UFO’s aura, the sub strikes a reef and crashes to the bottom of the sea, at precisely the same time that a hurricane begins swirling overhead.

Summer of ‘89: Surely, You Can’t Be Serious! Young Einstein

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Summer of ‘89: Surely, You Can’t Be Serious! <em>Young Einstein</em>
Summer of ‘89: Surely, You Can’t Be Serious! <em>Young Einstein</em>

Its trailer trumpets that Young Einstein is a film “Warner Bros. is proud to present.” While the studios say that about all their films, Warner Bros. went out of its way to prove it, as the company spent $8 million to advertise a film written, directed by, and starring someone completely unknown to American audiences. They hoped for a replay of Crocodile Dundee which, like Young Einstein, did big business in its native Australia before being imported to the States. But as the Bible tells us, pride goeth before destruction: While Crocodile Dundee yielded a $174 million take at the 1986 American box office, an Oscar nomination, and two sequels, Young Einstein settled for a paltry $11 million in receipts and a one-way ticket to obscurity.

Technically speaking, the film did make a profit. Warner Bros.’s marketing machine got audiences to come out to see the unforgettably named Yahoo Serious reimagine German-born Princeton, NJ native Albert Einstein as the son of Tasmanian farmers. In addition to playing the Aussie-fied Einstein, Serious also wrote and directed the film, and the opening credit announcing his auteur status is Young Einstein’s biggest laugh: It reads “A Serious Film.”

A serious film this is not. Young Einstein begins in a Tasmanian village complete with its own Tasmanian devil. It’s an appropriate opening as this is one big Looney Tunes cartoon, where people get hit with heavy items, go flying through the air, and emerge from explosions and electrocutions covered in smoke and disturbingly appearing as if they’re wearing blackface. A true-life figure’s history is retold with little regard for the truth, and the main character is a funny-looking wiseass who’s smarter than everyone around him.

Summer of ‘89: Lock Up

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Summer of ‘89: <em>Lock Up</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>Lock Up</em>

Lambasted by critics and shunned by moviegoers, Lock Up got swallowed up at the box office during its brief, four-week run during August of 1989, and seeing the film 25 years later, not much beyond potential camp value beckons for reconsideration. However, even the desire to revel in director John Flynn’s ridiculous blending of sentimentality and prison-yard brutality is short-circuited by a script that dulls the proceedings into a male melodrama of the most grating variety. The premise is sheer absurdity: With only a brief period remaining on his prison sentence, Frank Leone (Sylvester Stallone) is transferred to a maximum-security prison overseen by Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland), who seeks vengeance since Frank bad-mouthed Drumgoole’s reckless treatment of prisoners during an early part of his sentence, resulting in Drumgoole’s transfer to Gateway Prison. Pissed and determined not to let Frank off easy, Drumgoole assures Frank: “This is hell and I’m going to give you the guided tour.”

Unfortunately, even this goofily violent promise is something Lock Up has little interest in actualizing, as the proceedings afford Frank relative freedom around the prison, even befriending a team of inmate mechanics, including Dallas (Tom Sizemore) and Eclipse (Frank McRae). Moreover, Flynn opts for gooey piano music as the compliment for Frank’s reveries of being reunited with his girlfriend, Melissa (Darlanne Fluegel), who blunders around the film screaming and repeating, “What have you done with Frank!?,” nearly every time she appears on screen. Naturally, any initial setbacks from a happy ending are steadily squelched within the film’s entirely canned proceedings, as Stallone swings his fists with the force those veiny biceps suggest, knocking Jordan Lund’s sadistic Officer Manly (!) permanently on his ass, while Drumgoole’s plot is finally discovered by the lawful Captain Meissner (John Amos). Cue the shitty music and a concluding freeze frame, and Melissa’s back in Frank’s arms, ready to ride off into the sunset.

Summer of ‘89: Shag

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Summer of ‘89: <em>Shag</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>Shag</em>

Having grown up in Bloomington, Indiana and graduated from high school in 1959, George Lucas’s American Graffiti, a nostalgic view of teenagers living in a small town, naturally struck a chord with me when it came out in 1973. Eight years later, so did Bob Clark’s 1954-set Porky’s, a more accurate depiction of the horniness of the American teenage male. Then came 1989’s Shag, and what with its story looking back to 1963 and focusing on the experience of a group of teenage girls, it felt like a delightful corrective, not least of which because these characters were allowed to be horny too. At one point the girls talk about boners and one of them, Pudge (Annabeth Gish), says this of her friend Mary Pat: “This cousin of hers dated a Clemson Tiger who sprained his in a game, and she had to massage it every night when it got hard because he was in so much pain.” Another girl, Melaina (Bridget Fonda), replies, “Mary Pat told you that?” Clearly we were at the beginning of the long, curvy road to Sex and the City and beyond.

I wasn’t the only person to see the connection to Porky’s. Robin Swicord, who wrote the final drafts of the script, was working from an earlier draft by the team of Lanier Laney and Terry Sweeney. Their script was about a group of girls on vacation at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Swicord—in an interview for the 1995 edition of the Film Writers Guide—described it as “a little bit more like Porky’s (1981), it was about finding moonshine liquor. That was the plot; ’Can we get drunk?’” Swicord said her “version of it was like a summer weekend that I spent with my girlfriends in a town very much like Myrtle Beach.” She felt she “accomplished making Southern girls who were not ridiculous and simpering. We knew that they were comic characters, but we also knew that they were real.” The characters aren’t deep, but they’re very sharply drawn and imminently playable. I liked them when I first met them in 1989, and liked them still when I encountered them again in preparation for this piece.

Summer of ‘89: Lethal Weapon 2

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Summer of ‘89: <em>Lethal Weapon 2</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>Lethal Weapon 2</em>

If there’s one constant in Mel Gibson’s film career, it’s vengeance. The actor has starred in at least half a dozen films as a “man on the edge” forced to transform into a ruthless killing machine to avenge the loss of an innocent loved one. This screen persona began with the Mad Max films and was further honed with Lethal Weapon 2, a film that curiously isn’t as readily placed in the Mel Gibson retribution-action category as some of the actor’s other work.

One of the reasons Richard Donner’s follow-up to the gritty buddy-cop film Lethal Weapon stands out from other revenge tales in Gibson’s career is that it possesses a decidedly comical tone, particularly more so than that of its predecessor. It boasts as many chases and explosions as any other film of its kind from the era, but what’s most impactful is the rapport between Gibson and co-star Danny Glover. Almost every scene in Lethal Weapon 2, from the opening car chase through L.A. to the toilet-bomb explosion, finds a rhythm by centering on officers Riggs (Gibson) and Murtaugh (Glover), specifically their verbal exchanges and expressions. A late twist turns the film into a vengeance parade for Riggs, but Donner doesn’t stop long enough for the film to become too dour. Rather, he uses these scenes to anchor the third-act conflict.

The story sees Riggs and Murtaugh take on a gang of South African drug dealers led by a consul-general (played with relish by Joss Ackland) with “diplomatic immunity,” who eventually declares war on the police. It’s fairly ordinary stuff, with some elements especially feeling like leftovers from Die Hard, which had come out only one year earlier. Most notably in both cases, the main villain is a sophisticated suit-wearing man with a foreign accent. Additionally, each villain has an intimidating sidekick that gets off on violence. Ackland and Derrick O’Connor may not look like Alan Rickman and Alexander Godunov, respectively, but they serve much the same capacity here.

Summer of ‘89: Weekend at Bernie’s

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Summer of ’89: Weekend at Bernie’s
Summer of ’89: Weekend at Bernie’s

Ted Kotcheff’s moth-bitten, notoriously macabre comedy Weekend at Bernie’s is best—and most rewardingly—revisited as an unintended rumination on the queasy moral crises of Reaganomics-era America. While traipsing the corpse of a mob-whacked insurance tycoon around his $2 million beachside Hamptons mansion for a weekend, getting laid is nevertheless priority one for dum-dum antiheroes Richard (Jonathan Silverman) and Larry (Andrew McCarthy). But as the issue of Bernie’s death begins to eclipse Richard’s accursed attempt to woo his hot co-worker love-interest, Gwen (Catherine Mary Stewart), the film plays like a live-action elaboration on the Pleasure Island sequence in Pinocchio, but for teenagers looking to catch a glimpse of their future awkward adult selves.

That the gags are terrible doesn’t dilute the casual, old-fashionedness of their execution: They build up and play out in a way that feels uncannily like satire, except all the characters can spit out is empty, nacho-cheesy boilerplate. There’s a scene where Richard—a gawky analyst in a salmon-colored dress shirt and glimmering suspenders—tells Gwen that his parents are dead in order to win some kernel of sympathy. Tim Matheson made this type of fuckery hilarious in Animal House with his knowingly supercilious performance-within-a-performance; Silverman simply comes across as a liar and a doof. Sure, it’s mean-spirited, but more to the point, it’s a blown opportunity to reveal anything about the characters other than (a) he’s a coward and (b) she’s gullible.

Summer of ‘89: Do the Right Thing

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Summer of ’89: Do the Right Thing
Summer of ’89: Do the Right Thing

It’s tempting to watch Do the Right Thing, 25 years after so much ink was spilled over fears that the film would incite black audiences to riots as massive as the one that climaxes the film itself, and, with the benefit of hindsight, ask what all the controversy was all about. Even now, Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece still pulses with incendiary passion, exuding the invigorating feel of a filmmaker trying to put all of his feelings on racism in American society into one film. But seeing Do the Right Thing now, one can’t help but notice all the contradictory ideas and characterizations floating around and wonder how people could miss the film’s clear-eyed thematic complexity.

Though Lee reserves his most potent explication of the film’s multifaceted perspective toward the end (with consecutive on-screen quotations from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X—more on that later), one can already grasp its contradictions in the music that adorns its opening credits: a solemn instrumental solo-saxophone rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—the song popularly known as the “Negro national anthem”—underscoring the appearance of the film’s title on screen before “Fight the Power” crashes onto the soundtrack, set to the sight of Rosie Perez dancing energetically to the Public Enemy song behind neon-colored backdrops of the Brooklyn block that will be the film’s main setting. From quiet restraint to pent-up anger—that’s the fundamental animating dichotomy of Do the Right Thing, thematically and stylistically, and while many of us may remember the film’s furies the most, that’s not to shortchange the moments of eloquence sprinkled throughout.

Summer of ‘89: Batman

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Summer of ‘89: <em>Batman</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>Batman</em>

Returning to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman in light of Christopher Nolan’s recent, remarkably successful Batman trilogy turns out to be quite a fascinating experience—though, surprisingly, as much for their convergences in vision as for their divergences. Certainly, the stylistic differences are almost blindingly obvious: Burton the playfully macabre merry prankster, Nolan the deeply serious philosopher. And yet, both visions unmistakably flow from the same unsettling bedrocks: a world drowning in moral rot, one in which a self-appointed hero who takes the form of a human bat is, at heart, as deeply disturbed as the more overtly screwed-up villains he takes it upon himself to defeat. It’s just that these two artists view these characters and this physical and emotional world through different lenses.

The contrast is immediately apparent in the music. In stark contrast to James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer’s loudly generic bombast for the Nolan films, Burton opens his Batman with the operatic strains of Danny Elfman’s full-orchestra heroism, slyly suggesting the unabashedly heroic way Batman sees himself. After its opening-credit sequence, during which Roger Pratt’s camera roams around what is eventually revealed to be a metal Bat-Signal, Burton establishes his vision of Gotham City: an unabashedly surreal environment that owes more to the dystopian sci-fi visions of Metropolis and Blade Runner than to any of the notions of noir-ish realism that underpins Nolan’s films. Then there are the differing acting styles, with Burton’s actors generally eschewing the internal brooding that Nolan’s performers exhibit in favor of archetypal broadness. This style doesn’t just extend to Jack Nicholson’s galvanizing hamminess as the Joker, but also trickles down to its supporting players (William Hootkins’s wearily deep-voiced Lt. Eckhardt, Robert Wuhl’s enthusiastically pushy journalist, and so on).

Summer of ‘89: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

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Summer of ‘89: <em>Star Trek V: The Final Frontier</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>Star Trek V: The Final Frontier</em>

A camera pans across a desert, its cracked ground rife with holes. A miner runs obsessively from one hole to the next. His reverie is broken by the distant sound of a horse galloping. Cut to a cloaked figure shimmering like some dark wraith as he rides toward the miner, slowly growing clearer and more substantial as he gets closer and closer.

This sequence, a visual quote of David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia, is the eerie opening to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the ambitious failure directed by the science-fiction franchise’s star, William Shatner. Though Shatner had already directed nearly a dozen episodes of his other notable TV series, T.J. Hooker, The Final Frontier was his feature directorial debut, a contractual obligation owed him because of a clause that gave him parity with co-star Leonard Nimoy, who had just directed a pair of Star Trek’s most successful films, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home.

Summer of ‘89: Vampire’s Kiss

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Summer of ‘89: <em>Vampire’s Kiss</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>Vampire’s Kiss</em>

Beginning with Nosferatu, the vampire has been depicted on film largely as a symbol of pestilence visited upon cities. Just as disease wreaks greatest havoc on places of densest population, the classic vampire sought out the most crowded hunting grounds—the better to find an abundance of prey and the security of anonymity. The traditional movie vampire terrorizes a chosen city, plunging it into despair and either mobilizing it into search-and-destroy retribution, as in most Dracula-based films, or annihilating it utterly, as in Werner Herzog’s fierce reimagining of Nosferatu from 1979, Nosferatu the Vampyre.

But in the summer of 1989, vampirism became instead a symbol of contemporary urban angst. Far from a city in terror, the New York of Robert Bierman’s Vampire’s Kiss is indifferent to, if not completely unaware of, the menace lurking in its midst. Face it: It takes a lot to faze a New Yorker, especially in the era of Gordon Gecko. In Vampire’s Kiss, no one is afraid of, or even especially impressed with, the vampire Peter Loew has become. Or thinks he’s become.

An upwardly mobile white-collar white male from a privileged background, replete with phony mid-Atlantic accent (listen to him pronounce his surname) and sick to death of being always an agent and never an author, Peter Loew was the perfect vessel for a still-young Nicolas Cage to cap his growing reputation for over-the-top characterizations. For both Cage and Loew, self-induced madness becomes the highest form of creativity.