Thursday, August 11, 2016

Better Than This Summer: Summer 1990

by Patrick Bromley
It's the summer that's hotter than Georgia asphalt!

In the pages of Hollywood history, the summer of 1990 isn't particularly remarkable. It produced one massive sleeper hit (Ghost), one surefire success that still managed to disappoint despite a $100M+ gross and mostly a bunch of mid-range films that didn't do much either way. The movies that still define 1990 -- Home Alone, Dances With Wolves, Goodfellas, Pretty Woman -- were not summer releases. What's left in these "blockbuster" months are a bunch of movies that are just good and sometimes great, often times more in retrospect than they were considered to be at the time.

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (dir. John Harrison) Adam Riske and I talk pretty regularly about '90s horror and its reputation, which has been bad for a long time but is now finding a resurgence. This horror anthology (one of Adam Riske's favorites!) got the decade off to a decent start, with a script adapted from the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King and George Romero, among others. Like a lot of anthologies, the movie is uneven but carries over the good stuff about '80s horror: imagination, practical effects, cool monsters, occasional gore and a really strong cast that includes Christian Slater, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, William Hickey and James Remar. Studio horror is mostly nonexistent in the current summer marketplace, so it's nice to see that once upon a time mid-budget genre fare like this had a place in the blockbuster season.

Bird on a Wire (dir. John Badham) I will 100% cop to the fact that this is a completely personal choice. Sure, I could make the argument that this kind of mid-budget, competently-made, star-driven comedy/romance/thriller has all but gone extinct in today's bloated marketplace, but I'm really picking it because -- as I've stated a number of times on this site -- it's the first movie I was allowed to walk to the theater and see by myself, opening the floodgates to a whole lot of early theatrical experiences and movies I probably wouldn't have seen least on the big screen. It's also a favorite of my wife, a fact that bonded us to one another early on.
Total Recall (dir. Paul Verhoeven) Do I really need to explain the greatness of this one? What a weird, violent, twisted, smart and subversive summer blockbuster -- the kind that can only happen when a star as popular and beloved as Arnold Schwarzenegger was at his peak teams up with a filmmaker as brilliant and idiosyncratic as Paul Verhoeven. Total Recall is, in many ways, the culmination of 1980s cinema, which was imaginative and often outrageous and was totally willing to double down on the genre elements of fantasy and science fiction. If you want empirical proof of just how much better summer 1990 was than the current landscape, just check out the 2012 remake. It's a perfect example of so much of what's wrong with summer movies these days.

Dick Tracy (dir. Warren Beatty) I don't necessarily loooove Dick Tracy (you can listen to my podcast on it with Adam Riske on which I express outrage over what I feel is Madonna's hijacking of the film), but I can certainly appreciate its ambition and artistry. Disney clearly wanted it to be the next Batman, seeing as it came just one summer later, is based on an iconic comic character and has an Oscar-winning actor as the larger than life villain (plus a massive marketing campaign and -- what the hell -- a score from Danny Elfman). It was not. But director Warren Beatty's gorgeously realized production design -- all done in primary colors -- and enough stuff that works makes Dick Tracy unusually artful for a summer blockbuster.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (dir. Joe Dante) The original Gremlins was a huge summer blockbuster when it came out the same day as Ghostbusters (!!) in 1984. The follow-up was not so lucky, but not because it's not just as good or better. It is. And it's another example of the kind of movie that could be released in the summer of 1990 and never today: a big-budget studio film where a filmmaker is given carte blanche to make exactly the film he or she wants to make practically free of interference. Sure, Warner Bros. would live to regret the decision, as Dante made the craziest, most subversive sequel imaginable and the Joe Dante-iest movie ever made. But in an era (era) where blockbuster directors are micromanaged and recut by studios on a regular basis, Dante's achievement is even more of a miracle. Also, if you haven't watched Gremlins 2 lately, you should. It's more relevant than ever. #Trump2016

Die Hard 2: Die Harder (dir. Renny Harlin) The first of TWO consecutive Renny Harlin movies on this list is still my favorite Die Hard after Die Hard. Yes, it has the usual sequel problem of mostly being a retread of the first, but it's done with skill and efficiency and enough small tweaks to give the film its own personality. No sequel could ever rival the greatness of Die Hard, so the fact that this is even a pretty good action movie in the shadow of its predecessor makes it a win for the summer.
The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (dir. Renny Harlin) Yes, 1990 was the summer of Renny Harlin, with one blockbuster success (Die Hard 2) and this movie, an expensive flop that had its release delayed by a year and then had its marketing and prints pulled about a week after it hit theaters because of bad reviews and the controversy surrounding then-megastar Andrew Dice Clay. While the film remains firmly entrenched in 1990 -- the music, the clothes, the hairstyles and the whole Joel Silver aesthetic, not to mention the presence of Dice at the peak of his powers -- it has always been ahead of its time thanks to Daniel Waters' script, which is meta and clever in the way that it functions as a traditional detective noir and a skewering of the conventions of traditional detective noir. I have been a defender of this movie since first seeing it in 1990 and continue to defend it today.

Ghost (dir. Jerry Zucker) No one expected Ghost to become the breakout hit of 1990, least of all me (I flat out did not want to see it until I did and then I loved it, returning to the theater many times that summer to see it again and again because I was young and my tastes weren't fully formed). But it clearly struck a chord with mainstream audiences, offering tearjearking drama, romance, comedy and even thriller elements in one package that, if not necessarily consistent or tonally even, offered an entertaining night out at the movies and something for everyone. Try to imagine a movie like Ghost even getting made in 2016, much less being as massively popular as it wound up being.

Quick Change (dir. Howard Franlin, Bill Murray) One of the great sleeper comedies of the 1990s snuck its way into summer to middling box office and decent reviews, but has stood the test of time to become one of Bill Murray's best movies -- as well as his only time behind the camera as director (or co-director, anyway). The story of a bank robber and his cohorts trying to escape New York is a poison love letter to the city and a terrific character piece, filled with brilliant gags and endlessly quotable dialogue. But this summer we get Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, so I guess every generation gets its classic comedy.

Arachnophobia (dir. Frank Marshall) I know that I keep beating this drum, but I miss the days of mid-budget genre films that could once find a home in the summer months. That kind of thing was commonplace in the '80s and had evolved somewhat by 1990 -- the budgets were a little larger, the exposure greater -- but even on a slightly larger scale this kind of movie was still a fixture in the summer. This Steven Spielberg production might still be the best killer spider movie ever made and one of the best PG or PG-13 (in this case) horror films of the last 50 years. It's scary in a way that's incredibly fun and a summer thriller that actually thrills.

Presumed Innocent (dir. Alan J. Pakula) While it's greatest cultural legacy may be as a punchline to a Kids in the Hall sketch, Presumed Innocent demonstrates that back in 1990, there were movies made for all kinds of different audiences -- even thinking adults. There's nothing flashy about the movie; it's just a good drama, well-told and acted. We now have to wait for September or October for anything that remotely resembles this.
Young Guns II (dir. Geoff Murphy) Released in the western draught between Silverado in 1985 and Unforgiven in 1992, this sequel to Young Guns is, in most ways, a better film than the original that got overlooked because it was a sequel to a movie that was also overlooked as a Brat Pack western. We still get westerns these days -- really good ones, actually, like Bone Tomahawk and Outlaws and Angels and In a Valley of Violence -- but they mostly go to VOD and maybe get a very limited theatrical release. Beautiful, sprawling westerns like Young Guns II (yes, even Young Guns II) deserve to be seen on the big screen, and the summer of 1990 actually made such a thing possible.

Metropolitan (dir. Whit Stillman) I won't pretend that summer 1990 is automatically better just because an indie movie like this came out. Plenty of indie movies -- good ones, too -- have come out in 2016. One of them is even directed by Whit Stillman! But seeing as this is the movie that launched the career of such an original, interesting voice, it deserves a mention on this list.

The Exorcist III (dir. William Peter Blatty) Back when it was released in 1990, The Exorcist III was dismissed as yet another horror sequel to a film that probably shouldn't have gotten any sequels in the first place. Time has been good to it, though (like the majority of horror), and it has since been reassessed as the only strong sequel to a legit horror classic. In 2016, this might get a VOD release, but probably not even that. It would wind up being turned into television. Also, The Exorcist TV series is coming this fall.

Wild at Heart (dir. David Lynch) August has always been a weird month in the annual movie calendar; like January, it often serves as a kind of dumping ground for films that couldn't find a slot anywhere else. That's changed somewhat in recent years as more and more movies have found huge success in August, but once upon a time the month played host to some of the most interesting summer movies. Case in point: the anomaly of David Lynch's Palme d'Or-winning Wild at Heart getting released as a summer movie. Nicolas Cage is Elvis, Laura Dern is Marilyn Monroe and the whole thing is a weird take on The Wizard of Oz filtered through Lynch's usual surrealism, a heavy metal soundtrack, graphic sex and brutal violence. There are four David Lynch movies that, as I watch them, I convince myself are my favorite. This is one of them.

Pump Up the Volume (dir. Allan Moyle) Way back when New Line was serving niche audiences and making teen films, horror films and films for black audiences when other studios weren't, they put out this Christian Slater high school drama about teen angst and suicide cloaked in the story of a rebel with his own pirate radio station. It's all a bit overwrought by 2016 standards, but one has to admire a studio targeting a specific audience and a cast and crew that takes this material seriously.
Darkman (dir. Sam Raimi) One reason summer 1990 is special is because of this movie. Whereas nowadays there's a superhero movie coming out every few months -- sometimes more than one a month -- that's based on an existing comic book and designed to launch a franchise or a shared universe or some shit, there once was a time when filmmakers just made up their own superheroes. For some reason, Sam Raimi wasn't trusted to tackle an existing property back in 1990 so he just created his own hero with Darkman, part Universal monster movie, part comic book. It has more invention, imagination and creativity than most of the big-budget product that passes for superhero movies these days. Sam Raimi knows how to make a movie like this. No surprise that he would basically launch the current comic book movie craze with his Spider-Man.

Better Than This Summer: Summer 1982
Better Than This Summer: Summer 1999
Better Than This Summer: Summer 2002


  1. That Dern pic basically set my computer on fire.

    1. DernButt still makes me chuckle!

      I just ordered Tales from the darkside, not seen it for years, I was more a Twilight Zone kid, I bought a Exorcist boxset a while back because I want to revisit part 3, but being a Ocd man I need to watch part 1 and 2 first again, how can I just jump to 3, you can't do that shit

    2. You say you have to watch the Exorcist films chronologically to be able to revisit 3. But doesn't 3 negate the events of Exorcist II: The Heretic?

    3. I can't remember Michael? but I know you know your stuff so I'm guessing that's the case, its been a while, I want to see 3 but I always need to watch them in order, I know 2 is gonna be rough, I remember really not enjoying it years ago, my memory is me scratching my head a lot wondering what the hell I was watching?

    4. Saw Exorcist 2 and 3 for the first time fairly recently. Two is indeed awful, but you don't need to suffer through it to watch Three (which is amaaaazzzzzziiinng, but the way).

    5. My Ocd won't let me jump to 3, but knowing it is great makes 2 easier to get through, its like when I was young "If you don't eat those sproats you don't get ice cream"

    6. I guess Exorcist II has its charms in an ironic way. (It's also an Eli Roth favorite, if I'm not mistaken.) One good thing came out of it, though. Well, technically two. A great Ennio Morricone score, which found its way into The Hateful Eight!

  2. Hmmm..Four Lynch films you watch that you are convinced are your favorites? Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and...I'm gonna guess, Blue Velvet?

  3. I would also like to bring out some other films that came out that summer such as:

    Cadillac Man
    Back to the Future Part III
    Another 48 Hours
    Robocop 2
    Days of Thunder
    Ghost Dad
    The Freshman
    Navy SEALS
    Problem Child
    Air America
    My Blue Heaven

  4. Completely forgot about quick change. Thanks for the reminder Patrick. Love that film. Randy quaid really was great pre Canadian meltdown