Friday, November 19, 2010

1989: A Lifechanging Year in Cinema For I Heart Sequels

Every so often there will be a year's worth of movies that leave an indelible mark on Cinema. From the last twenty years, think 1994, 1999, 2007. These are the years where even the lesser movies feel exhilirating and the event and prestige movies walk down the aisle hand in hand. My first experience with a year like that came in 1989, at the age of 10. Just take a look at these two posters and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.



1989 was a banner year for films, both heady and action-packed. As a kid who was stuck in the middle of a rather odd custody battle, bouncing back and forth between family, friends, and being a ward of the courts, I was constantly searching for an escape. I knew at a very early age that I wanted to be involved with films in some fashion. It was what I loved, no two ways around it. In the midst of all the familial turmoil, I was encouraged to spend as much time at the movie theaters as possible. This was the perfect time for me to experience first-hand what would be a breakthough year and on the big screen.

The summer of 1989 is a good start for a discussion about my formative years as a movie geek. It was frontloaded with sequels to some of my favorite movies, as well as an ambitious big-budget spectacle taking its cues from a legendary comic book. As much as I have grown less and less fond of its charms, there's no denying that Tim Burton really swung for the fences with Batman. Big, bold and iconic was what was strived for and Burton and company achieved just that. While I prefer the even more overtly Burton-esque Batman Returns, I saw the original in the theater at least 4 times and could quote it offhand with the best of them. There's no surprise as to why it was the biggest money maker of the year.

As for those aforementioned sequels, God, could you ask for a better year when it came to the sheer volume of films released at that time. We will get into some of these in greater detail in the future (duh, look at the blog name), but check out some of the sequels we were offered to indulge in that summer and throughout the rest of the year. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters 2, Back to the Future Part II, Licence to Kill, The Karate Kid III, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (best teaser poster ever!), A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, The Fly II, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, Fletch Lives, Police Academy 6: City in Siege. Sure there are some serious diminishing returns showing up here, but still, tell me that almost every one of those didn't guarantee an ass in the seat for its opening. Well, maybe not for Police Academy 6. I think I was the only person in the theater when I saw that one!

Some of these films deserve better than the reputation they've earned throughout the years. Ghostbusters 2 may not be the equal of the original, but it isn't the unmitigated disaster everyone makes it out to be. Come on. "He is Vigo! You are like the buzzing of flys to him!" Back to the Future Part II is classic, Lethal Weapon 2 is the last good film in that series, Licence to Kill really gave Timothy Dalton a chance to kick serious ass as James Bond, and everyone but me agrees that Last Crusade is a classic (Hey, I'm a Temple of Doom guy). Even the so-called worst movie of the year isn't as bad as all that; Star Trek V is at least ambitious enough and feels much more in line with the lcassic TV show than the films that preceded it. I don't how it took the Razzie for worst movie when The Karate Kid III came out that year. Yeesh!

And while most of 1989's entries in my favorite horror series just stink on ice, I will always stand up for The Fly II as an example of a great horror sequel. It takes what it needs to as far as inspiration from the first film and then goes hog wild with its action-horror take on the characters. It's no Aliens, but it's a fun flick. All in all, it was an amazing year for big budget spectacle and for kids like me who wanted to go back for seconds, thirds, and more from the heroes of the 1908s. No wonder it was the first year in cinema history where all of the top 10 films cracked over $100 Million at the box office.

Beyond that though, 1989 was the year where I had a chance to experience the coming out of the American independent scene as it exploded onto the big screen. Again, I was encouraged to see whatever I wanted, with or without parental supervision. The fact that all of these new films were assured wide theatrical releases meant that I got to see them at a time when most of my peers still clamored for Satruday morning cartoons and not much else. Four films that year were responsible for my interest in digging as deep as I could to find the weirdest, most off-the-cuff films out there.

First, naturally, was Spike Lee's classic "Do The Right Thing". Talk about a swift kick to the cerebellum. I was already an angry little fuck, raging against what I saw as hypocrisy from my family, the church, schools, anything where an adult authority figure played a part. I was living in some of the poorest neighborhoods, watching as oddly mixed blocks seethed with racial tension and anxiety. Lee's film, and of course the accompanying Public Enemy song "Fight the Power", let me know that this was a universal feeling and that I wasn't alone in my frustrations.

Next was Gus Van Sant's "Drugstore Cowboy" and its funny and frightening tale of junkies and adicts stuck in a cycle, pulling off the occassional heist to live as high as they can until the eventual comedown and the need for one more grand larcent under their belts. A year before Martin Scorsese would use the same bait-and-switch technique in "Goodfellas", Van Sant initiated you into the lives of Matt Dillon and his crew in a way that really let you feel their desire to stay high, before that rug got pulled right out from under your feet.

After the one-two punch of Lee and Van sant's films, came a whole new shock to the system when I saw Steve soderbergh's debut "Sex, Lies and Videotapes". Now, I'm sure you're asking, "Okay, yeah, I could see this kid getting away with seeing Do the Right Thing and Drugstore Cowboy. But who in their right mind would let a 10 year-old see Sex, Lies and Videotape". Exactly. Nobody in my family was in their right mind. For them it didn't matter what I went to see as long as it meant not having to watch the real world unravel around me. Hence I got to watch a movie about James Spader as an impotent man who could only get off on taping women's sexual confessions, and how this guy interrupts the lives of his best friend, his wife and her sister, aka the husband's mistess. Besides being an incredibly sexy movie, its characters lives were the kind I had rarely seen portrayed on the big screen, with many of the dysfunctions working as stand-ins for a lot of the turmoil I saw in my own family.

Finally came the movie that not only expressed a kind of rage and disaffection with the world that I could identify with, but it did so by telling you the true story of one town's descent into poverty and ruin, through the camera of a man who grewup in the town during its heyday. Michael Moore may have turned into a charicature of his own populist, working-class hero in recent years, but this identity was earned and earnest at the time of "Roger and Me" and its release. Peeling back the layers of history that led Flint, Michigan from being one of America's biggest automotive boom towns into the impoverished landscape on display in "Roger", Moore was fearless in showing just what big corporations like General Motors were doing to the American worker and, therefore, America as a whole. You didn't have to be on the way out to identify with the shocking juxtaposition of Flint's last gasp of big money living it up and trying to put a happy face on, while a crazed auto worker is shot in the middle of a street and a starving woman is forced to sell rabbits as "Pets or Meat".

With all these astonishing exampeles of the future of American cinema sitting alongside some of the biggest blockbuster fodder of the 80s, it's hard to remember that 1989 was also just an all-around good year for movies. The iconography of some of these films is hard to deny. "If you build it he will come.", "Oh Captain, My Captain", "Yes, yes, yes yeeeessss!!!...I'll have what she's having", "Wish I could be part of your world" - all sound pretty familiar right? Field of Dreams, Dead Poets Society, When Harry Met Sally, The Little Mermaid, all came out in 1989.

Oliver Stone had Born on the Fourth of July, Brian de Palma had Casualties of War, Ridley Scott had Black Rain, James Cameron had The Abyss, Steven Spielberg had Always (his second movie that year); all of these so-called lesser films by huge directors are some of my favorite films in their catalogs. It was a great year for mainstream thrillers and horror. Sea of Love, Dead Calm, Pet Sematary. Come on! My favorite Woody Allen movie of the 80s, Crimes and Misdemeanors, came out in '89. The greatest guilty pleasure movie of all time, Road House, came out in '89. Cool, smart high school flicks like Say Anything and Heathers came out in '89. The Keanu Reeves character was established in Parenthood and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

All these and more were films I devoured that year. It was the year that I became a bonafide film nerd. My life outside the theater may have sucked, but once I got behind closed doors I could shut myself off and escape into a world unimagined. Every film, good or bad, has the ability to show you something you may have never seen before. These moments may not last for very long, but they still pack a formative power. Once you immerse yourself in them, you dont ever want to let go. It's something I've been searching for ever since.


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