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COLOSSAL OR FAILURE

 | marksburger@yahoo.com

Winter is art, summer is commerce.

That seems to be the Hollywood motto, and this year seems like any other.

But it wasn’t always like that. The summer movie season, which seems almost to run the middle six months of any given year, has been a big-screen staple for roughly 40 years. Of course, it was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) that raised the roof and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) that blew it off.

In the years since, studios have come to more resemble business conglomerates than purveyors of entertainment for the masses. (Hey, that’s how business is done these days – it’s a fact.)

These days, studios position their movies for maximum exposure, and maximum exposure is during the warm-weather months. It’s gotten to the point where studios will announce a film’s opening day before a single frame of film has been shot … and some will announce an opening day before the first word has been written!

And let’s not even get into rewrites, reshoots and other pre-, mid-, and post-production tinkering that has become all too common in Tinseltown.

Summer 2014 has already been hotly contested, with no film (to date) holding the box-office crown longer than the first week. Once upon a time, if a film sold out, audiences (however disappointed) would likely buy a ticket for another film. Nowadays, multiplexes screen films on their multiple screens, squeezing every cent of ticket sales they can while sometimes, unfortunately, squeezing out worthy (or even worthier) films.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Although uncommon, some summer releases have gone on to enjoy widespread critical acclaim and even won the Best Picture Oscar: Unforgiven (1992), Forrest Gump (1994), Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000) were all summer releases (August, July, May, and May, respectively) – but they’re genuine exceptions to the unwritten rule, and Gladiator was almost 15 years ago.

With this summer movie season in full swing (and at full volume), here are an even dozen of past summer films that beat the odds, were disappointments, or were rediscovered later.

UNEXPECTED WINDFALLS

The Omen (1976) While America was preparing to celebrate the Bicentennial but still smarting over Vietnam and Watergate, the time was ripe for one of the most popular horror films of its time and of the genre.

Unlike its Satanic-panic predecessors Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), The Omen was a bit more highconcept and audience-friendly, while offering an ingenious story slant taken right out of the Book of Revelation in the Bible, theorizing that the Antichrist would be born into our contemporary world. What’s more, his parents would be played by Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, two very established stars (although their box-office luster had waned).

The film’s trailer, narrated in the familiar tones of Percy Rodrigues (who performed similar chores for Jaws) promised “ … a film of psychological suspense about an occurrence of earth-shattering importance” – a nice way of avoiding the “horror” tag, although the film falls squarely into the genre, especially given the series of “accidental” fatalities that occur throughout (and, in retrospect, are remarkably bloodless).

Twentieth Century Fox went all-out to promote The Omen, and the effort paid off big-time. Peck, who hadn’t starred in a film in three years, was suddenly riding high atop the box-office charts – enough to get MacArthur made the next year. The actor also had a bank-end profit participation in the film (which reportedly cost $2.25 million!), a decision he surely never regretted. The film also copped legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith his only Oscar.

Suddenly, it became very attractive for major studios to start making horror movies. Demonology and the supernatural were hot topics. United Artists released the original Carrie the same year, Universal The Sentinel in ‘77, Fox The Fury in 1978 and also two more Omen sequels (1978 and 1981), a TV reboot on the fledgling Fox Network (in 1991), and a full-scale remake in 2006 that followed almost every word of David Seltzer’s original script … with less impressive results.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

As hard as it may be now to believe, Steven Spielberg wasn’t always the king of the summer movie. In fact, when he and George Lucas decided to make this grand-scale throwback to the Saturday-morning serials of yesteryear, Spielberg was coming off 1941 (1979), which now has a cult following but at the time was lumped in with Apocalypse Now (1979) and even Heaven’s Gate (1980) as examples of filmmaker profligacy.

With Raiders, Spielberg went back to simple, fun-filled, crowd-pleasing entertainment, of which he is now considered a pioneer and likely the master. Make no mistake, Jaws and Close Encounters (1977) notwithstanding, this is the true foundation of the Spielberg legend, which he solidified and surpassed the very next year with E.T. Had Raiders failed, there might not have been an E.T., or a Jurassic Park (1993), or even a Schindler’s List (1993).

And yes, it’s true: Tom Selleck was very nearly cast as Indiana Jones. Instead, he wound up with “Magnum, P.I.” and Harrison Ford donned the fedora. It’s fascinating to wonder what might have been, but I scarcely think either star has too many complaints about the end result.

Spielberg stuck with the Indiana Jones franchise and has directed every subsequent installment: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), which I personally like the best; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and the long-awaited Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Whether there’s still more Indiana Jones adventures to be told is uncertain, but rest assured it’s being considered. Just look at the message boards.

Die Hard (1988) Bruce Willis skyrocketed to fame on ABC’s “Moonlighting,” but his first two screen efforts were the middling Blind Date (1987) and the muddled Sunset (1988), both with director Blake Edwards.

The idea of the wisecracking Willis playing a New York cop-turnedone-man demolition squad didn’t exactly get pulses raising, although it raise eyebrows when he received $5 million to play John McClane, a role reportedly offered to – and rejected by – both Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Instead, Willis gained an instant screen career and Twentieth Century Fox gained an instant franchise. There was no guarantee that Die Hard would be a hit – Willis’ picture wasn’t even on the original posters – and although it fell short of the “magic” $100 million gross, it was a tremendous worth-of-mouth hit that translated into (very) big bucks in home video.

More than 25 years later, Willis is still being cast as men of action (albeit a bit older and balder), having played John McClane four times since (in lesser sequels each time) and is as much known for playing tough guys as funny guys. The actor has also survived any number of screen debacles (Hudson Hawk, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Striking Distance, Mercury Rising, Tears of the Sun, etc.) that would seemingly have crippled any other career. Not bad for a guy from Jersey, eh?

Dead Poets Society (1989)

In one of the most crowded movie summers up to that time, Peter Weir’s intimate, elegant drama became one of the most beloved sleeper hits of its time, although many industry observers wondered if the film even stood a chance. Disney’s decision to release it in June was viewed by some as a box-office bungee jump.

Instead, the film solidified Robin Williams’ standing as a leading man while also offering choice opportunities for a youthful ensemble that included Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles and Robert Sean Leonard. Director Weir was able to deftly avoid mawkish melodrama and create a genuinely moving film that earns every tear it jerks from the audience.

The story of an unorthodox but impassioned English teacher at a New England prep school resonated with audiences as much as Field of Dreams (released in the spring) the same year. Both films are among the most beloved of their time, both films went through years of development before being made, and both earned Oscar nominations as Best Picture. (Dead Poets screenwriter Tom Schulman won the film’s only statue.)

SUMMER BUMMERS

Midway (1976) The opening legend reads: “This is the way it was.”

At which point we’re looking at sepia-toned footage from 30 Seconds Over Tokyo (1949).

That’s one problem with this all-star flag-waver released just before July 4 th on this nation’s Bicentennial: Extensive use of stock footage (both real and from other movies), combined with unconvincing rear-projection work and miniatures.

So it’s really not the way it was, and this dramatization of one of World War II’s major turning points in the Pacific focuses mostly on Charlton Heston (strapping but wooden) as a Naval officer whose son (Edward Albert) has fallen in love with a Japanese girl (Christina Kokubo). Oh, the stodgy melodrama.

There’s an obligatory star-studded cast. Henry Fonda (as Admiral Nimitz), Hal Holbrook, Glenn Ford and Robert Webber are pretty good. Robert Wagner stands around a lot. Robert Mitchum’s in bed the entire time as incapacitated Admiral Halsey (a role he specifically requested because it required little physical exertion!). Cliff Robertson and James Coburn are wasted (but prominently billed, of course) in one-scene cameos. Representing the Japanese is – who else? – Toshiro Mifune as Admiral Yamamoto (although dubbed by Paul Frees).

There’s some fun to be had playing “spot the star,” given how many familiar faces turn up: Christopher George, Glenn Corbett, Pat Morita, James Shigeta, Tom Selleck, Dabney Coleman, Kevin Dobson, Ed Nelson, Mitch Ryan, Erik Estrada, Robert Ito (of “Quincy, M.E.”), Steve Kanaly, Monte Markham and Clyde Kusastsu. Original director John Guillermin dropped out to helm Dino De Laurentiis’ production of King Kong the same year (think about that), and was replaced by Jack Smight, whose Airport 1975 (1974) had been a big hit for the studio. So was this, actually. For network broadcast, additional scenes (!) were filmed to spread the film over two nights.

Although it depicts a major US triumph, Midway isn’t a filmmaking one. This despite being released in Universal’s Sensurround process (remember that?), which promised of Midway: “So real – you can almost feel it.”

Not quite.

The Swarm (1978) Irwin Allen had produced two of the top-20 grossing films of all time, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), so the “Master of Disaster” decided to take advantage of the “killer-bee craze” of the 1970s (and Arthur Herzog’s best-seller) to make what would surely be his masterwork. This time, the threat was only as far as your backyard.

As was his custom, Allen stacked the deck with stars:

Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Fred MacMurray, Bradford Dillman, Patty Duke (then Astin), Jose Ferrer, Slim Pickens and Cameron Mitchell. Allen even decided to direct the film himself … the first of many egregious mistakes.

Just the year before, Star Wars had revolutionized cinema, and Allen’s brand of grand-scale, star-studded showmanship was simply, quietly, immediately rendered old-hat. The Swarm isn’t scary. Despite a script by Oscar winner (and Poseidon/Inferno scribe) Stirling Silliphant, it’s barely even believable. It’s silly, to the point of almost being comical. The actors, including MacMurray in his final film, try their darnedest to be credible and convincing, but it’s all for naught. The Swarm crashed and burned, stung by critics and audiences alike, the beginning of the end of the Irwin Allen era.

It is, however, remarkable to watch Michael Caine, who has weathered his fair share of duds yet has never given a lazy performance. Bad movies roll off his back. He’s pure Teflon, even here. Both in his autobiography and when interviewed by yours truly, he freely admitted he took the film because Irwin Allen had a spectacular track record, he’d just moved to Los Angeles (so the studio paycheck was useful), and when he learned who he’d be acting with, that sealed the deal. Incidentally, he spoke very fondly of Irwin Allen. A class act, Michael Caine.

Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)

It’s almost hard to remember just how huge Eddie Murphy was. Both 48 HRS. (1982) and Trading Places (1983) were big hits … and let’s just forget about his “strategic guest star” role in 1984’s Best Defense, shall we? His first solo starring vehicle, Beverly Hills Cop (1984), became not only the highest-grossing comedy in history – supplanting Ghostbusters, released the same year – but also the highest-grossing R-rated film in history.

The reason? Eddie Murphy. Beverly Hills Cop is wellscripted and well-directed, but the movie simply is Eddie Murphy. His star burned so bright that his next film, the lackluster Golden Child (1986), still grossed over $100 million. Murphy’s appeal knew no racial boundaries. Audiences off all races wanted to see Eddie Murphy. In anything.

Therefore it was with considerable anticipation that he reprise the Axel Foley role, and mega-producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (heard of him?) tapped director Tony Scott, whose Top Gun had been the biggest hit of 1986, to direct Beverly Hills Cop II.

The end result was the biggest hit of 1987 and an unqualified disappointment on almost every level. Not only had Axel Foley gone Hollywood, but so too does this film. It’s sleek and stylish, and absolute unequivocal proof that Tony Scott was no comedy director (he never made another, unless you count 1993’s True Romance, which some people find funny). There’s a distinctively misogynistic, even nasty edge to the humor, and although Murphy is considered a master of improvisation, he seems to be riffing his way through the entire film and not in a good way. Everybody and everything in this film takes a backseat to Eddie.

Then and now, the consensus was clear: Not nearly as good as the original. So disappointing, actually, that the belated third installment (released in 1994) might be considered an improvement, even though it’s not very good either.

Independence Day (1996)

Aliens attack Earth and Earthlings fight back.

That’s pretty much the entire story in Roland Emmerich’s old-hat sci-fi opus, which road the crest of inescapable studio hype to become one of its year’s biggest hits – as well as cementing Will Smith’s leading-man status. Almost as a throwback to the Irwin Allen days, there’s an all-star cast on hand: Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid, Robert Loggia, Mary McDonnell, Margaret Colin, Harvey Fierstein, Brent Spiner, James Rebhorn (as a typically smarmy Presidential adviser) and Bill Pullman as the President. It’s nice having them around, even if some have nothing to do.

Camp appeal aside, however, ID-4 is much ado about very little. It’s overlong, overwrought, over-acted, and overblown. The special effects are fine (and won an Oscar), and by beating Tim Burton’s better, sharper and shorter Mars Attacks! into release undoubtedly helped ID-4 while hindering the box-office chances of Mars Attacks!.

Emmerich has continued to make bombastic, overhyped fare (the 1998 Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 and 10,000 B.C.) – most released smack in the middle of the summer movie season. Ironically, his most interesting film, the Shakespearean speculation Anonymous (2009), was all but dumped into release by Sony with almost no fanfare. (There was actually a sneak preview in Greensboro, which was packed, but mere days later Sony canceled its release here.)

By the way, I didn’t much care for either Deep Impact or Armageddon, the dueling meteor movies released in 1998, but they were hits too.

OVERLOOKED BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

The Shootist (1976) Once again, it being the Bicentennial, the thinking may have been that this was the perfect time to release a Western starring arguably the most beloved American actor and quintessential Western star of all time, John Wayne. Few actors symbolized the Stars and Stripes like the Duke.

This was to be his last film, and insofar as the story concerns a legendary gunman confronting his own mortality after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, the allegory to Wayne’s own life and long-term battle with “The Big C” was inescapable.

Westerns, however, were fast falling out of fashion – Wayne himself had recently made some contemporary cop films (McQ and Brannigan) – and most audiences, especially those looking for summer escapism, likely perceived The Shootist as just “another” John Wayne Western. Indeed, Wayne’s popularity tended to skew with older viewers in his later years.

Nevertheless, under the compassionate and efficient direction of Don Siegel, the film marks one of Wayne’s best performances and one of the best Westerns of the 1970s, a fitting elegy to both its larger-than-life star and larger-than-life genre, and likely would have been better received either as a spring or even a holiday release. At least it wasn’t a flop, although many seem to (mistakenly) remember it was.

The cast could hardly be bettered, including long-time Wayne friends Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Richard Boone, John Carradine and Harry Morgan (a little broad here), and Ron Howard in one of his best performances. He’s become so successful as a filmmaker that it’s easy to forget how good an actor Howard could be, and not just in “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days,” but in American Graffiti (1973) and here.

There is the obligatory climactic shoot-out, but not before Wayne shares some genuinely moving, tender scenes with Bacall, Stewart and Howard. As befits any good Western, the bad guys are important. There’s a good villainous turn by Bill McKinney, a better villainous turn by Hugh O’Brian, and a great villainous turn by Boone. Elmer Bernstein’s score and Robert Boyle’s (Oscar-nominated) production design offered perfect accompaniment.

Rollercoaster (1977)

Universal attempted to recapture the Jaws magic two summers later with this late entry in the studio’s disaster cycle (Airport, Earthquake, et al) – even adding Sensurround (see Midway, above) to the mix. After all, the odds are more likely that one is to encounter peril riding a rollercoaster than being attacked by a Great White shark … particularly if there’s an saboteur planting bombs on them. (Rollercoasters, that is, not sharks.)

That’s the crux of this pseudo-Hitchcockian thriller, given a snappy charge by screenwriters Richard Levinson and Richard Link (best known for such stellar TV work as “Columbo”). Rollercoaster was “high-concept” before the term was even coined.

It’s hardly surprising to cast reliable Richard Widmark as a hard-nosed FBI agent, but the real surprise is casting George Segal as the film’s hero, a wise-ass safety inspector who matches wits not only with Widmark but also Timothy Bottoms’ laid-back bomber/blackmailer (billed only as “Young Man”). The end result is one of Segal’s most appealing, enjoyable performances, as a quintessential everyman (he’s divorced and trying to quit smoking) who’s in over his head – but never down for the count.

Yes, there’s a star-studded cast: Harry Guardino (hard-boiled cop), Susan Strasberg (Segal’s girlfriend) and Henry Fonda (Segal’s disapproving boss) are merely marquee value here, but sharp-eyed viewers will spot Craig Wasson (in his second film) and Steve Guttenberg (in his screen debut). In her screen debut, young Helen Hunt shines as Segal’s wise-beyond-her-years (but not precocious) teenage daughter.

This being the summer of Star Wars, Rollercoaster could hardly be expected to rack up similar grosses, yet it was one of those Summer ‘77 releases (The Deep was another) that reaped financial benefit from Star Wars sell-outs. It also became a cable-TV fixture in the 1980s but seems unduly forgotten now.

Director James Goldstone began his career in television (it sometimes shows) and his feature career was spotty at best (The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, Swashbuckler and the Irwin Allen production When Time Ran Out … all disappoint in varying degrees), but Rollercoaster is his finest bigscreen hour, and mention must be made of Lalo Schifrin’s terrific score, which is almost on par with John Williams’ Jaws – no kidding. Rarely has a calliope sounded as threatening as it does here. And, indeed, you may think twice after watching it about taking that next ride on a rollercoaster!

The Thing (1982) With Halloween (1978),

The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981), John Carpenter got the opportunity to remake one of his favorite films by one of his favorite filmmakers: The Thing from Another World (1951), produced (and largely directed) by Howard Hawks. (Fans of Halloween will remember the original film is playing on TV.)

Carpenter’s The Thing became a watershed moment in his career – and not for the right reasons. Most mainstream critics savaged the film (repulsed by Rob Bottin’s ground-breaking, pre-CGI special effects) and audiences adoring E.T. the same summer had zero interest in an alien who wasn’t cute and friendly.

More faithful to the original story (John W. Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?”) than the original film yet still suffused with Cold War paranoia – the Reagan ‘80s not all that different from the ‘50s, when you think about it – some observers have also detected a AIDS metaphor in that it’s impossible to tell who’s infected and who isn’t, until it’s too late. (Carpenter would revisit that metaphor with Prince of Darkness in 1987.)

Without question, The Thing is a relentless, chilling experience. It also happens to be one of the very few remakes that unquestionably surpasses its predecessor. In the years since The Thing’s release, it has repeatedly and rightly been re-appraised as one of the great sci-fi films of all time and quite possibly the filmmaker’s masterpiece – so much so that a prequel to the remake was released in 2011, nearly 30 years after Carpenter’s version, which itself was made 30 years after the original.

Everyone I’ve interviewed about this film (Carpenter, cinematographer Dean Cundey, actor Keith David) considers it a career high-point – while also pointing out that, at the time, it wasn’t perceived as such. Carpenter took the film’s failure particularly hard, and a mere four years later, another of his studio films, Big Trouble in Little China, also missed with critics and audiences … yet it too has become a cult classic. In both cases, Carpenter was ahead of the curve.

Silverado (1985)

If the Western waned in the ‘70s, the death knell was sounded in the ‘80s, especially after such high-profile disasters as Heaven’s Gate (1980) and The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981), but filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan did his part to revive the genre with this affectionate shoot-’emup that puts a fresh, funny spin on the Western without ignoring the rudiments of the genre.

Although Kasdan is perhaps best remembered for his humanist dramas The Big Chill (1983), The Accidental Tourist (1988) and Grand Canyon (1991), this is also the man who penned The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark. With almost no competition during the entire decade, Silverado winds up (if by default) as the genre’s shining moment of the 1980s.

A terrific cast includes Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and Kevin Costner (whose role had been famously cut in The Big Chill) as the straightshooting good guys. Jeff Goldblum, John Cleese and Linda Hunt are remarkably comfortable in the Old West setting. Rosanna Arquette is, alas, wasted, but best of all, there’s Brian Dennehy as a genial but corrupt lawman. Dennehy truly came into his own in the ‘80s as a character star — adept as playing heroes, villains, leads and supporting roles.

Silverado is undoubtedly a career highlight, and a real turnaround from his role as a friendly alien in Cocoon the same summer.

Despite Costner’s parting line of “We’ll be back!” Silverado remained singular, and Kasdan’s later collaboration with Costner, the bloated and overlong Wyatt Earp (1994), helped put the brakes on the genre’s brief, post- Unforgiven resurgence in the early ‘90s.

Although by no means a flop, Silverado found its audience on home-video and cable-TV. There was also competition in the form of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider – a good movie, no question – that beat it to theaters that year. Evidently there wasn’t room for both of ‘em at the box-office in ‘85. !

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