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BOX-OFFICE FIREWORKS: SUMMER MOVIES OF SEASONS PAST

by Mark Burger

At this time last year I wrote a retrospective piece on pivotal summer movies over the years, and was both surprised and delighted by the response. Everyone’s a critic, they say – and certainly everyone had their own opinion about summer movies they remember, some with fondness and others with disdain.

Therefore, given the recent blockbuster success of Universal’s Jurassic World and Disney/ Pixar’s Inside Out, and in a grand and vainglorious Hollywood tradition, I have conceived the sequel – one that I hope will be more praised and more profitable than its predecessor. (Might a “three-peat” be in the offing next summer “¦?) The format is again confined to the 25-year period between 1975 (when Jaws was released) and 2000, by which time the summer movie season was firmly ensconced in the lexicon of popular entertainment. I’ve tried to avoid the more well-known blockbusters (Star Wars, ET, et al), concentrate exclusively on films released by major studios, and for the most part avoid sequels – although this time I’ve included one to a smash hit that not only preceded the advent of the summer movie season but was actually a December release.

The categories remain the same: Summer movies that hit, summer movies that missed (even if they were hits), and summer movies that got a second chance.

It’s common Hollywood thinking that fall means prestige and summer means commerce – so guess which the studios spend more time, effort and money promoting? Hey, awards are nice, but success resounds louder than acclaim.

WINNERS

The Fly (1986):

David Cronenberg’s startling remake of the 1958 sci-fi classic not only surpassed the original film but offered a terrifying take on the loss of humanity, the deterioration of the physical being. Given the era in which it was made, many observers detected an AIDS allegory. (They did likewise with John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing.)

Jeff Goldblum, in a deeply felt, gruelingly harrowing performance, plays a brilliant scientist whose revolutionary developments in teleportation go horrifyingly wrong when his DNA is accidentally combined with that of an ordinary housefly. Goldblum’s transformation is not for the faint of heart, and all the more remarkable because it preceded CGI. The Chris Walas/Stephen Dupuis makeup duo won an Oscar – most deservedly – and there was talk that Goldblum deserved a nomination of his own.

Yet it’s the tragic love story between Goldblum and journalist Geena Davis (the two were a real-life duo at the time) that reverberates throughout the story.

Audiences responded as much to that as the gruesome special effects, and the film became a surprise box-office hit, grossing over $60 million. (Never mind the 1989 sequel, by the way.)

RoboCop (1987):

Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven was an art-house darling (Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange, The Fourth Man), but his 1985 English-language debut Flesh + Blood was considered a failure at the time. With its simplistic title and two leads who weren’t exactly box-office draws (Peter Weller and Nancy Allen), RoboCop initially appeared a knock-off of James Cameron’s surprise 1984 hit The Terminator.

Verhoeven proved a lot of people wrong, and in dazzling fashion. Not only did RoboCop deliver blistering action – so much of it, in fact, that it had to be submitted numerous times to the MPAA to achieve an R rating – but also rich, savage corporate and media satire. Critical response was, at the time, divided between those appalled by the violence and those surprised by the story’s complexity. It is the perfect movie of its kind, and that it seemed to come out of nowhere makes it all the more memorable.

After a healthy theatrical run (grossing over $50 million) and three Oscar nominations (including a win for Best Sound Effects Editing), the film became a massive home-video success, which led – naturally – to a pair of sequels (inferior, of course), numerous TV series’, and a notbad 2014 remake. Yet none of them can really capture the eye-opening surprise of the original.

Field of Dreams (1989):

In one of the most packed summers ever – Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Star Trek V, Lethal Weapon 2 Dead Poets Society (noted in last year’s article) and this adaptation of W.P. Kinsella’s novella Shoeless Joe emerged as the summer’s sleeper hits.

For years, sibling producers Lawrence and Charles Gordon couldn’t get a studio interested, but in this case the wait was worth it. The presence of Kevin Costner, then rapidly ascending to super-stardom, didn’t hurt. Derided by some as overly sentimental – and sentiment truly is a major component here – screenwriter/director Phil Alden Robinson crafted a lovely ode to fatherhood, family and baseball that remains truly magical and remarkable.

The film also earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score (the latter by James Horner, who recently perished in a tragic plane crash) – but James Earl Jones’ omission as a nominee for Best Supporting Actor remains a mystery. Amy Madigan, Ray Liotta (as Shoeless Joe Jackson), Timothy Busfield and Frank Whaley are splendid in support, and the icing on the cake is legendary Burt Lancaster, in his last Hollywood feature. When Lancaster offers a soliloquy about the National Pastime, Costner is visibly awed – and it’s impossible not to detect one generation of Hollywood literally passing the baton to the next.

Unforgiven (1992):

It’s remarkable when you consider that Clint Eastwood, now considered a master filmmaker, didn’t even receive his first Oscar nomination until he was 62. In the ensuing years, however, he’s more than made up for it.

At the time of Unforgiven, Eastwood was at a peculiar career crossroads. He’d earned considerable acclaim for directing the 1988 Charlie Parker bio Bird, but his starring vehicles had stalled. Pink Cadillac (1989) and The Rookie (1990) were dreadful; Pink Cadillac crashed and burned at the box-office, The Rookie was critically roasted, and although White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) was more artistically ambitious it failed to find an audience.

Likewise, the Western genre seemed moribund. Dances With Wolves (1990) was an Oscar-winning smash, but could hardly be labeled a traditional Western. Unforgiven, which had originally been titled The William Munny Killings, had bounced around Hollywood for years (Francis Coppola once owned the property) before Eastwood picked it up – and promptly filed it away until the time was right.

As one of the last Western icons, thanks in no small part to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel (to whom Unforgiven is dedicated), Eastwood surrounded himself with a cast including Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris, all first-rate and respected actors if not box-office draws, and proceeded to make what many believe is the last great Western of the 20 th century – one that doesn’t revel in its violence as much as revile it.

The critical accolades were not unexpected, the financial success was. Unforgiven crossed the “magic” $100 million barrier – but not before becoming one of the few summer films to clean up at the Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing and – oh yes – Best Supporting Actor for Hackman. Yes, it’s true: Hackman initially turned down the role that would win him his second Oscar. It’s also reported that Harris didn’t even ask to see a script. When Eastwood contacted him about playing the dandified, self-aggrandizing gunslinger English Bob, the actor told him in astonishment: “I’m sitting here watching High Plains Drifter, it’s my favorite Western. I’ll do it.”

And they say deserve’s got nothing to do with it …

LOSERS

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977):

Director William Friedkin and writer/ producer William Peter Blatty wanted absolutely nothing to do with a sequel to the 1973 supernatural smash, but Warner Bros. had other ideas. Unfortunately, none of them were any good.

Even in the capable (?) hands of Deliverance director John Boorman, what was one of the most anticipated sequels ever wound up being among the most critically reviled major films of its time “¦ and, perhaps, all time. The joke at the time, not surprisingly: the devil made them do it.

Linda Blair, Kitty Winn and Max Von Sydow (whose Father Merrin died in the first film but turns up here in flashbacks) all returned, joined by Louise Fletcher, James Earl Jones, Paul Henreid (in his final film), Ned Beatty and Richard Burton, who reportedly took the role – and the $1 million salary – to pay Elizabeth Taylor for Divorce #2.

Audiences, who initially flocked to the film, were treated to a misguided meditation on good and evil inspired by the works of Teilhard de Chardin, which might have made for a good movie – but not in an Exorcist sequel. There are those I know who find the film fascinating if flawed, while I tend to find it fascinating because of its flaws. Nothing in the film works. It’s a disaster. The sight of James Earl Jones made up to look like a giant locust is an unforgettable, to be sure “¦ but not for any reason that could ever be considered right.

The fall-out was immediate and sustained: Blair and Winn never made another major studio film (Blair’s turn for United Artists in Roller Boogie could not be considered major), Boorman didn’t make another film until Excalibur (1981), and only when Blatty himself assumed the reins for The Exorcist III (1990) – which is undoubtedly flawed but at least faithful to the original – were the foul remnants of Exorcist II swept away.

Then, of course, Warner Bros. cranked out two 21st-century Exorcist prequels – one of which was released, the other of which had to be resurrected – but that’s a horror story for another time.

Howard the Duck (1986):

Now a profligate staple of the summer movie season, not so very long ago – in those prehistoric days before CGI, mostly – comic-book movies were a bit harder to come by. The acerbic, cigar-chomping duck immortalized (?) in Marvel Comics would become the first major Marvel screen extravaganza – with no less than executive producer George Lucas and his American Graffiti writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz on board.

What could go wrong? Everything. Overblown, underwhelming, unfunny and astonishingly charmless, the Duck was dead on arrival, earning some of the worst reviews for any movie that year (and even the entire ’80s). Huyck never directed another feature, and although Lucas could boast the Indiana Jones franchise, much of the credit for those film’s success was director Steven Spielberg.

Remarkably, the film – which both Lea Thompson and Tim Robbins have joked (?) ruined their screen careers before they really got started – has earned something of a cult following, and rumors of a remake have surfaced in recent years, especially in light of Marvel’s recent string of successes. Then again, compared to this Reagan-era monstrosity, anything would be an improvement.

Wouldn’t it “¦?

Hudson Hawk (1991):

Bruce Willis notched enough big-screen clout with Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1991) to launch this big-budget vanity project that remains one of the actor’s most catastrophic endeavors – and he’s made more than his fair share over the years. (Take a look at some of his credits, he’s survived more bombs than almost any actor in memory.)

Willis is at his smirky, smug, self-satisfied worst as a hip cat burglar enmeshed in international skullduggery – although that doesn’t prevent him from occasionally breaking into song or wooing – get ready for it — an undercover nun (Andie MacDowell) sent by the Vatican to keep tabs on him.

If that isn’t enough, there are also the unfortunate sights of MacDowell imitating a porpoise, David Caruso covered in gold paint, Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant wagging their tongues together as odiously obnoxious villains, and – perhaps if you listen hard enough – the sound of Willis’ audience deserting him in droves. (Never mind, they came back.)

Michael Lehmann, who had directed the well-received Heathers (1988), found himself at the mercy of Willis and megaproducer Joel Silver, who essentially ran roughshod over him. To date, Lehmann’s best film remains Heathers. His career never really recovered, and the same might be said of audiences who endured this complete and utter mess. Yet it too has something of a cult following “¦ go figure.

Congo (1995):

What better way to jump aboard Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park bandwagon than by adapting another Michael Crichton best-seller and having long-time Spielberg collaborators Kathleen Kennedy as producer and Frank Marshall as executive producer and director?

To be fair, the film was a big hit (grossing over $100 million) – due both to persuasive promotion and, perhaps, audiences in the mood for monkey business. The screenplay, by no less than Moonstruck Oscar winner John Patrick Shanley, was a compendium of hoary sci-fi cliches, with a hapless cast including Laura Linney (who went on to much better things), Tim Curry (chewing the scenery more effectively than the primate menaces), and erstwhile Ghostbusters veteran Ernie Hudson, who manages to retain his dignity.

Marshall, whose dalliances with direction yielded such equally soulless endeavors as Arachnophobia (1990) and Alive (1992), hasn’t directed a feature since the 2006 Paul Walker dog-sled movie Eight Below for Disney, preferring instead to (wisely) concentrate on producing and leave the directing to someone else.

LOOK AGAIN

Family Plot (1976):

Released in April 1976, which doesn’t quite qualify it as a summer release – although it played well through the season – the final film of Alfred Hitchcock has long been considered one of his worst films, the work of a filmmaker past his prime.

Yet for its admitted but easy-to-overlook missteps – a somewhat convoluted storyline, a tendency toward overlength and some obvious rear-projection work – Family Plot is still good fun for devotees. Besides, at this late stage in his career, what’s the harm in cutting Hitch a little slack?

An eclectic cast includes Barbara Harris as a phony (?) medium, Bruce Dern (charming and funny) as her cab-driver/ con-artist boyfriend, William Devane as a dapper but diabolical jeweler and Karen Black as his femme-fatale cohort. They’re a lot of fun and in good form as they end up on a collision course that involving kidnappings, mistaken identities, and a family fortune that’s up for grabs.

This certainly isn’t the Hitchcock of Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963) or his most recent film, Frenzy (1972), but the Hitchcock of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” an avuncular “presenter” giving Bicentennial cinemagoers – the majority of whom likely weren’t born when he began his career – a patented Hitchcock product. On the film’s poster, a winking Hitchcock smiles out from a crystal ball.

Family Plot was not a huge success, but it attracted the Hitchcock faithful. Some 35 years after his death, he remains irreplaceable. Even light, lesser Hitchcock is better than none. With Family Plot, the Master had had the last laugh after all.

Capricorn One (1978):

In his DVD commentary for this crackerjack conspiracy potboiler, writer/director Peter Hyams credits its success to the fact that the original release of Superman was delayed until Christmas, compelling distributor Warner Bros. to program this into that film’s summer slot instead.

The first manned spaceflight to Mars has captured the attention and imagination of the entire world, only there’s one problem “¦ It’s all an elaborate hoax – a theory, incidentally, that some still ascribe to NASA’s 1969 moon landing – a desperate ruse to save the space program from financial extinction. James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O.J. Simpson (yes indeed) play the astronauts who reluctantly acquiesce to the scheme, which is persuasively presented by mission supervisor Hal Holbrook. (The veteran actor’s subtle shift from avuncular conspirator to cold-blooded hatchet man is a textbook example of top-notch acting.)

Incredibly, the film received the full cooperation of NASA, which evidently had no problem with the hoax angle – or that government assassins hunt down the astronauts — but later denied cooperation and assistance to the makers of the factbased Apollo 13 (1995)!

A first-rate Elliott Gould plays a wiseass reporter who methodically uncovers the plot (thereby providing inspiration for yours truly’s early career ambitions), culminating in a wildly implausible but even more wildly entertaining chase between the helicoptering hit-men and a crop-dusting bi-plane piloted by scene stealer Telly Savalas, who matches Gould in the wise-ass stakes. Jerry Goldsmith’s unforgettable score provides the capper.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986):

Filmmaker John Carpenter’s The Thing – duly noted in last year’s retrospective – was a box-office bust that later became a cult classic. Four years later, history repeated itself with this colorful, splashy, action-packed send-up of martial-arts and mysticism that found its fervent following long after its disappointing theatrical release.

Having played it taciturn and tough for Carpenter in Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing , Kurt Russell here gets to display his lighter side as the swaggering, cocksure truck-driver hero Jack Burton, whose clumsiness is a running gag. (There’s an uproarious scene where he leads a group of warriors into battle, yelling and firing his machine gun upwards – only to be knocked silly by falling debris.)

Years ago I interviewed Kim Cattrall (nice) and asked about Big Trouble in Little China, in which she played the slightly screwball heroine, lawyer Gracie Law (get it?). She enjoyed making the film but related she had the distinct feeling that it was either ahead of the curve or behind the curve – she wasn’t sure which – but that it’s one of the films she’s most asked about to this day. Indeed, several friends consider this Carpenter’s masterpiece, surpassing even Halloween (1978) and The Thing. (I respectfully disagree.)

Nevertheless, there really is no other film quite like it. Like The Thing, its fanbase grows with each passing year “¦ which is why a remake is apparently now in the works, reportedly with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (not a bad choice) in mind.

The Monster Squad (1987):

Released shortly after The Lost Boys, which was more successful but inferior, writer/director Fred Dekker’s valentine to the classic movie monsters of Universal lore earned mixed reviews and did poor box-office (less than $5 million!), but was resurrected by its frequent cable broadcasts. Now it’s considered almost as much a classic as the films it pays tribute to.

Boasting Stan Winston’s customarily superior special effects, the film also boasts a knowing affection and respect for the classic characters; the monsters are in no way played for laughs. The humor comes from the lovable band of suburban kids, well versed in monster lore, who take it upon themselves to rid their town of such fiends as Dracula (Duncan Regehr), the Wolf Man (Jonathan Gries), the Mummy (Michael MacKay) and the Gill-Man (Tom Woodruff Jr.). Frankenstein’s monster (a superb Tom Noonan) is here too, but he turns out to be a nice guy after all “¦ and the climactic scene where he bids farewell to little Phoebe (Ashley Bank) is an unexpected tear-jerker.

Oh yeah, don’t forget – “Wolfman’s got nards!” And, oh yeah, they’re talking remake… !

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