In Case You Missed It - The Summer of '89
Last year at this time, I took time to relive my cinematic youth circa 1988. First, I took a deeper look at the brilliance that is Die Hard. Then, I followed that up with a brief look at the rest of the films that made that summer so memorable from Big to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This year, I can’t help but a take another three-decade sojourn this time to 1989 which arguably may have been the best summer of all-time, not just in terms of box office success but in terms of pure cinematic joy and enduring relevance. 1989 was a great time to be a film lover, and here are the key reasons why:
The Abyss – Although blockbuster success came to James Cameron in the form of Titanic and Avatar, for my money his most successful fusion of romance and big money special effects was this box office disappointment. Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (in perhaps their most emotionally strenuous roles) play an estranged couple reunited when a US Navy submarine is downed, and their underwater oil rig is the nearest viable option for rescue. Their investigation uncovers an entire underwater world of creatures looking to make contact with the surface. The special effects are ahead of their time for 1989 and Michael Biehn as an emotionally unstable Navy SEAL provides plenty of tension. If available, I do recommend the 3-hour directors cut that fills in the few plot holes and gives this sci-fi adventure its true breadth.
Batman – Many scoffed when Tim Burton, fresh off Beetlejuice, was given the “keys to kingdom” to bring DC’s Caped Crusader to the big screen. Many more had conniptions when Burton cast Michael Keaton as the titular crimefighting billionaire. Based on the box receipts, many were subsequently proven wrong. Nowadays, most discerning filmgoers prefer Christopher Nolan’s trilogy (myself included), but it’s hard to not still admire Burton’s take with all its grotesquely exaggerated art design and gothic Gotham skyline, as well as a surprisingly effective Michael Keaton as The Dark Knight. Throw in an over-the-top turn from Jack Nicholson as the Joker and a franchise was born.
Do The Right Thing – In just his third film, filmmaker Spike Lee captivated critics with his non-saccharine take on modern day race relations. Set on the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Spike’s pizza delivery man Mookie navigates this Brooklyn locale as tensions rise along with the thermometer between the local blacks, who live there, and the Italians, who own the neighborhood pizzeria. The stellar cast includes Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Although robbed of significant Academy Award recognition, Do The Right Thing’s legacy lives on today with an entire generation of filmmakers that were inspired by it.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – What was meant to be our storied archaeologist’s last ride (don’t get me started on The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) was still a very satisfying and action-packed conclusion to Steven Speilberg’s definitive adventure trilogy. After an astounding opening sequence that cast the late River Phoenix as teenage Indy learning the ropes of his future trade, Harrison Ford returns with trademark fedora and bullwhip in pursuit of the Holy Grail as well as trying to save his kidnapped father, played to comic perfection by Sean Connery. The set pieces and stunt work are first rate and the screenplay by Jeffrey Boam (who also penned Lethal Weapon 2) has dialogue worth its weight in gold which includes:
Henry Jones: Well, I’m as human as the next man.
Indiana Jones: Dad, I WAS the next man.
Lethal Weapon 2 – Although the original action film, with screenplay by Shane Black, was a modest box office hit at $70 million, there were many naysayers who thought director Richard Donner was in over in his head with this follow-up. But with an energized script from Jeffrey Boam, Donner found plenty of ways to thrill fans of the original and garner a whole new fanbase with this $150 million hit. Danny Glover and Mel Gibson returned as cops/bickering spouses in this action-packed sequel that was strangely timely as our heroes faced off against South African diplomats/drug dealers. Although very violent, there is much joy and levity thanks to entry of Joe Pesci’s fast-talking Leo Getz into the franchise.
License to Kill – Hard to believe that a summer full of big budget blockbusters and sequels wouldn’t have room for the latest escapades of Britain’s most famous secret agent but audiences took a hard pass. What they missed was the film that should have cemented Timothy Dalton’s status as James Bond as he embarked on a personal vendetta against Robert Davi’s suave drug czar. Thankfully the film has gotten much deserved recognition over the years thanks to John Glen’s sleek direction and a climatic chase involving four tanker trucks that should be studied by stunt people for years and years.
Parenthood – Only a year after thrilling summer audiences with Willow, director Ron Howard switched gears with a more personal story about family and the never-ending rollercoaster ride of life. Working from a hilarious script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, Howard captured the modern-day landscape of parenting and all of its delicate intricacies and unintended messiness. The star-studded cast includes Steve Martin (in his finest performance), Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Rick Moranis, Dianne Wiest, Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves and a super young Joaquin Phoenix who gives us an almost shocking display of “troubled adolescence.” The film’s legacy includes not just one, but two TV shows based on it.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape – Although Do The Right Thing was robbed of the Palm D’or, I was glad the committee recognized this debut from auteur in the making, Steven Soderbergh. In a film that teems of eroticism with very little actual sex, Soderbergh weaves a tale of repression, betrayal, and raw emotion as James Spader’s Graham interrupts the delicate bubble of Andie MacDowell’s Ann, Peter Gallagher’s John, and Laura San Giacomo’s Cynthia. The film made San Giacomo a star with her portrayal of carefree lust and lack of inhibition, especially since she is sleeping with her sister’s husband. But the film was also an exhibition for MacDowell’s burgeoning talent bringing many layers of vulnerability and curiosity to the fold.
Turner & Hooch – Just a few years before he achieved acting greatness with back-to-back Oscars, Tom Hanks showed more than enough range acting opposite the most intimidating of performers: man’s best friend. In a take on The Odd Couple, Tom Hanks’s neat freak Turner partners with a lovably gruff Dogue de Bordeaux named Hooch to solve a murder in their sleepy little town. There are hijinks, pratfalls and maybe just a tad too much violence towards the end but it’s worth it to get to the last shot of film. Another plus is the charming presence of Mare Winningham as the local vet and Turner’s love interest.
When Harry Met Sally… - In a summer full of great movies, it’s only fitting that it features the greatest romantic comedy of my lifetime. Working from a brilliant script by Nora Ephron, director Rob Reiner tries to answer the age-old question: can men and women be friends? The film showcases easily the best work from Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as friends too blind to see that they are perfect for each other, stellar supporting work from Bruno Ganz and Carrie Fisher, catchy modernized standards by a 22-year old Harry Connick, Jr, and one-liners that we still quote today. What more could you ask for?
The summer of 1989 was all that and more. Seriously, when were we more entertained by a summer slate? Nothing comes to mind. And now, all I want to do is to watch all of these films again, right now!
Something tells me I will not be as passionate in 2049 looking back on Fast and the Furious: Hobbs and Shaw. But maybe that is just me. I was blessed to be raised at the right time with the right movies.