Tag Archives: Summer Films

The Summer of ’84: Red Dawn

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer moviegoing with a look back at the films of the Summer of 1984.

Red Dawn

Red Dawn Movie Poster

Release Date: August 10, 1984

Starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Powers Booth, Harry Dean Stanton, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage, Doug Toby

Directed by John Milius; Screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius

John Milius’ 1984 action/war drama Red Dawn is a movie that I’ve enjoyed on many occasions since I first saw it on cable TV back in the mid-80’s.  I was too young to see it during its theatrical release, and I was probably more interested in the non-action films like Gremlins, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that wonderful summer.  Despite missing it in theaters back in 1984, Red Dawn is one of those films that I stop and watch every time I come across it on TV regardless of how far into the movie it is.  Each screening leads to a new discovery for me, whether it’s the impact from a line of dialogue, a nuance of a performance or a hidden gag by director John Milius.  Many scenes in Red Dawn still stand out for me as some of my cinematic favorites, and the film ranks very high on my personal list of favorite war films.

It’s an peaceful small town morning in Calumet, Colorado.  Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) drops off his brother Matt (Charlie Sheen in his first film role) and friend Arturo (Doug Toby) at the local high school before heading off to his job at the town gas station.  History teacher Mr. Teasdale (Frank MacRae) gives a lecture on Genghis Khan (complete with a drawing of the Mongol overlord that is actually a caricature of director John Milius – a nod to his passion project to produce and direct a film on Genghis Khan), but his lesson is interrupted when paratroopers mysteriously drop in behind the school.  No sooner than he steps out of the building to find out what is going on, he is shot by a Russian soldier and it’s clear to everyone that Calumet is under attack.  Bullets rain on the school and RPGs blow up a school bus as the students try to escape.  Jed’s truck roars into the school parking lot and grabs Matt, Arturo and three other students Robert (C. Thomas Howell), Danny (Brad Savage) and Daryl (Darren Dalton) as the Soviet and Cuban armies take over the town.  They drive to Robert’s father’s sporting goods store and stock up on food, guns and supplies before hiding out in the mountains.

Their plan is to hold out in the mountains until it’s safe to return to Calumet.  After a month, the boys are low on food and have to take the risk of going back into town.  They walk through the aftermath of an American defeat and realize how desperate the situation has become.  Soviet tanks roam the streets, martial law has been imposed, books are burned, and Alexander Nevsky plays in the local cinema (with free admission).  They learn that Jed’s father and many other men of Calumet have been deemed too dangerous and have been sent to a re-education camp located at the town drive in where they are beaten and bombarded with Soviet propaganda.

On their way back to the mountains they stop at the home of Mr. Mason (played by Ben Johnson) and learn that Calumet is now part of Occupied Territory and that Robert’s father was killed for aiding them.  He gives them a radio and asks Jed to take his granddaughters Erika (Lea Thompson) and Toni (Jennifer Grey) with them.  But their mountain hideout is soon exposed when they kill three soldiers that found them by accident.  Cuban Colonel Bella (Ron O’Neal) steps up activity in the mountains and orders retaliation.  The sight of their fathers death by firing squad forces the teenagers to take the offensive and use the invaders own weapons against them.  They start a guerrilla war against the Soviet and Cuban occupiers, and with each small victory they let their enemy know who they are: the Wolverines.  Downed Air Forced Lieutenant Colonel Tanner (in a great performance by Powers Booth) joins them and gets them up to speed on the state of the war:

Red Dawn shouldn’t be categorized as simply an action film.  I’ve always seen it as a war drama with a solid script and carried by a strong cast.  The action scenes are just as hard hitting today as they were 30 years ago, and the dramatic scenes are more emotionally powerful than I remembered from previous screenings, with Patrick Swayze’s performance standing out the most.  Milius and Reynolds crafted a story that stresses the importance of family bonds, members of a community sticking together in challenging times, and fighting to persevere.  Ric Waite’s cinematography captures the beauty of the heartland and the home the Wolverines are fighting for, and Basil Poledouris’ strong, emotionally uplifting score sets the tone throughout the film.

Over the last three decades, every screening of this film was always met with enthusiasm among me and my friends.  But  a recent screening of the fantastic documentary Milius opened my eyes to some of the harsh criticisms of  Red Dawn upon its release, and the effect it subsequently had on director John Milius’ career.  If anything, I have an even greater appreciation of Red Dawn and John Milius for bringing it to the screen.  Sure some of his messages might be a little less than subtle and the viewer needs a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that a group of teenagers can take on the Soviet and Cuban armies.  But at the end of the day, Red Dawn is a fun ride and a great “What If?” story of a dystopian America at the dawn of World War III.

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The Summer of ’84: Star Trek III The Search for Spock

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie going with a look back at the films of the Summer of 1984.

Star Trek III The Search for Spock Poster

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Release Date: June 1, 1984

Directed by Leonard Nimoy, Screenplay by Harve Bennett

Starring William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Leonard Nimoy, Christopher Lloyd, Robin Curtis, Merritt Butrick

One of the absolute pleasures of my retrospective on the Summer of ’82 was revisiting the classic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The film is pretty close to perfect, and watching it again at age forty allowed me to enjoy it on the same level as my younger self and also pick up on elements of the film that had eluded me in my younger years.  Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was high on my list when it was first released in June of 1984, and I went into this review with the same enthusiasm.  As a fan of the original TV series and first two films I was looking forward to the continuing cinematic voyage of Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise, but my main reason for wanting to see Star Trek III during the Summer of ’84 was the title’s promise of the return of my favorite Star Trek character.

Back during the Summer of ’84 I screened Star Trek III: The Search for Spock at the (now closed) Mamaroneck Playhouse as the school year wound down and a carefree summer vacation began.  I remember enjoying the film in the theater and on cable TV back in the 80’s, and I still enjoy it today, but watching it again 30 years later reminded me as to why Wrath of Khan is still revered as the best of the Star Trek films.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock begins where Wrath of Khan left off.  The crew of the Enterprise, still recovering from their epic battle with Khan and the death of Captain Spock, departs planet Genesis and returns home for repairs.  No sooner than they set course for Earth, an alarm signals a security breach in Spock’s sealed quarters.  A rattled Kirk, reeling from the loss of his best friend, personally investigates and finds a frenzied Dr. McCoy speaking incoherently about returning to Vulcan.  Upon the Enterprise’s return to Earth the crew has earned extended leave, but are given two pieces of bad news: they are ordered to maintain secrecy of the Genesis Project, and the starship Enterprise will be decommissioned.

The crew meets at Kirk’s home, but they are interrupted by Spock’s father Sarek, who is disturbed by Kirk’s decision to leave Spock’s body on Genesis when it should have been returned to Vulcan along with his katra (spirit).  Sarek assumed Spock would have implanted his katra in Kirk, but when his mind meld of Kirk finds no trace of it, he accepts that it is lost forever.  Kirk reviews the security footage of Spock’s last moments before his death which shows him transferring his katra to McCoy, leading to McCoy’s descent into madness.  Sarek tells Kirk they must bring Spock’s body and katra (via McCoy) back to Vulcan.  McCoy is one step ahead of them when he tries to book illegal passage to Genesis and is arrested.  Kirk and the crew break McCoy out of his detention, steal the Enterprise and set course for Genesis.

A crew of Klingons led by commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) obtain the Genesis code and set course for the planet.  Meanwhile the Federation ship Grissom, with scientists David Marcus (Merrit Butrick) and Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis), orbit Genesis to record the planet’s climate and progress.  They detect a life form, which should not have been possible under the Genesis project.  Marcus and Saavik beam to the surface of Genesis to investigate and find Spock’s tomb empty and a Vulcan child, presumably Spock.  Marcus admits the development of the Genesis project included unstable protomatter, which caused Spock to be “reborn” and age at a rapid pace but also made the entire planet unstable and on the verge of destroying itself.  Kruge destroys the Grissom, beams to the surface of Genesis, and holds Marcus, Saavik and Spock hostage.

Harve Bennett wrote the script (he was a writer on Wrath of Khan but was not credited), but Nicholas Meyer did not return to direct the third installment (he was in post-production on the 1983 TV movie The Day After), so Leonard Nimoy stepped in for his directorial debut.  Nimoy’s style of directing complements the film well, although the end of the third act drags with a longer than necessary passage of time sequence.  But as the sequel to the classic Wrath of Khan it’s hard not to make comparisons that can lead the viewer to judge Star Trek III for what it is not.  The tone of Search for Spock is noticeably different than The Wrath of Khan, which is a drama set in space with a story carried by themes of revenge, sacrifice and loss.  Search for Spock plays as more of a caper film, which in itself is especially fun with this cast of characters, with an overall tone that is more in line with the TV series.

William Shatner and DeForest Kelley as Kirk and McCoy carry the story, but James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei each have their scene stealing moments that move the plot forward in their attempt to steal the Enterprise.  In my opinion, the Klingons make the best villains, and Christopher Lloyd adds an element of psychotic joy to his performance as the Klingon captain Kruge.  But one major area of disappointment for me was the script’s lack of development of Kirk’s relationship with his son Dr. David Marcus.  That plot line in Wrath of Khan added an unexpected emotional weight to the film, but Search for Spock missed an opportunity to expand on it prior to (SPOILER ALERT) David’s death at the hands of the Klingons (though it would be revisited in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).

While Search for Spock doesn’t come together on the same grand cinematic scale as Wrath of Khan, it does have the story, special effects, action scenes and film score that make a summer blockbuster.  30 years later, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is still an enjoyable film and perfect for a lazy summer Saturday.

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The Films of the Summer of 1984

For the last two years my retrospectives on the films of the Summers of 1982 and 1983 allowed me to revisit some of the best fantasy and sci-fi films of the 80’s and enjoy them on a new level as a 40 something.  In some cases I would approach a film with a sense of trepidation, wondering if you truly can go back and enjoy an old favorite on the same level 30 years later.  At the end of each series, I learned that many of these films withstand the test of time and sometimes you really can go back.

I truly thought each “Summer Of” retrospective would be the last.  After The Summer of ’82 I didn’t think there could be another lineup of summer films that could compare to Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Road Warrior, Conan the Barbarian, Poltergeist, The Thing, TRON and E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial.  It was a magical summer for fans of fantasy and sci-fi films and there hasn’t been another like it.  But I had enjoyed writing that retrospective so much that I had gone through withdrawal and for the next year hoped for another opportunity to revisit a summer’s worth of films.  That void was filled with my retrospective on The Summer of ’83 which included a lineup of films that have been personal favorites of mine for over 30 years.  Even as I closed out that series, I didn’t think I would have an opportunity to write another “Summer Of.”

Then I saw the lineup for the films of the Summer of ’84 and realized another retrospective was possible.

The Summer of ’82 was about a lineup of the best fantasy and sci-fi films of the decade (Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian).  The Summer of ’83 was about a lineup of my personal favorites (WarGames, Fire and Ice).  The Summer of 1984 was still heavy on the adventure and sci-fi films, including some of the most crowd pleasing films of the decade as well as a few cult favorites:

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (5/23/84)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (6/1/84)
Ghostbusters (6/8/84)
Gremlins (6/8/84)
Conan the Destroyer (6/29/84)
The Last Starfighter (7/13/84)
Red Dawn (8/10/84)

Once I saw this list, I knew I had to revisit them again.

I’m taking these retrospectives year by year, but if the films of the Summer of ’85 etc. bring out the same sense of nostalgia for my original movie-going experiences, I’ll keep them coming.

 

 

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The Summer of ’83: National Lampoon’s Vacation

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of ’83.

National Lampoon’s Vacation

National Lampoons Vacation Movie Poster

Release Date: July 29, 1983

Directed by Harold Ramis; Screenplay by John Hughes based on his short story Vacation ’58

Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Imogene Coca, Randy Quaid, Jane Krakowski, John Candy, Christie Brinkley

National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of the films that I looked forward to the most going into this retrospective.  Even though I tend to concentrate on fantasy, sci-fi and comic book films I have to include a classic comedy now and then.  There are movies that you enjoy, there are movies that you watch many times over, but every so often there’s that one movie that you just seem to empathize with.  National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of those movies, and 30 years later it still gets an audience to laugh at its classic scenes and cringe at the memories they bring back of our own summer family vacations.  I’m sure most folks over the age of 40 hear a few bars of Lindsay Buckingham’s Holiday Roads on a long distance drive.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) plans a cross country drive from Chicago to California with wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and teenage kids Rusty and Audrey (Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron).  He’s convinced himself (but not his family) that a road trip to Wally World (a theme park based on Disney World) will allow them to experience the bonding and quality time they wouldn’t experience by flying.  The trip starts on the wrong foot when the Antarctica Blue Sport Wagon they ordered from the car dealership hasn’t arrived and the only car available for them is the frumpy, olive green, wood paneled, eight headlighted Road Queen Family Truckster.  Along the way their car is vandalized in St. Louis, they’re stuck with Ellen’s annoying Aunt Edna in the back seat, money runs out and a wrong turn totals their car.  But, as the ever patient Ellen says, “With every day there’s new hope.”

The film has great cast led by Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, but it’s the supporting actors in their cameos that add the extra layers of humor that keep the laughs going: James Keach as the highway patrol officer that goes from threatening to crying in a scene that is both hilarious and just wrong at the same time, John Candy as the Wally World security guard dragged into Clark’s breakdown, and Randy Quaid as Ellen’s ne’er-do-well cousin Eddie that suckers them into driving Aunt Edna from Kansas to Phoenix.  It was a treat to see comedic icon Imogene Coca as Aunt Edna in Vacation, but her role provided only a fraction of the comedic gold she brought to TV viewers on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in the 1950’s and I wish there was a little more written for her.  But the scene stealer throughout the film is Clark’s muse of the road played by Christie Brinkley.  Is there anything more 80’s than Christie Brinkley and a red Ferrari?

In under two hours, director Harold Ramis is able to pack in urban plight, teenage drug use, underage drinking, animal cruelty, death and a midlife crisis on the Griswold family’s road trip to Wally World.  John Hughes’ screenplay was based on his short story Vacation ’58, and soon after his career as a director would explode with 80’s teen classics like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The running gag in the subsequent three Vacation films (European Vacation, Christmas Vacation and Vegas Vacation) was the casting of different actors to play Rusty and Audrey.  Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron will always be the Rusty and Audrey movie fans will remember, and it would have been fun to see them reprise their roles in European Vacation.  Barron was supposed to return as Audrey in the second film, but when Anthony Michael Hall had a conflict starring in Weird Science (also directed by John Hughes), the role of Audrey was re-cast as well.

I wasn’t able to see National Lampoon’s Vacation in the theater back in 1983 due to its R rating (although the film is very tame by today’s standards), but it’s a film I watched on many a Saturday night with my friends and cousins throughout the mid-80’s.  Back then we appreciated the humor at face value, but 30 years later we now approach the film with a sense of empathy.  Back then, the farthest my family ever drove on our vacations was Montreal, with most of our summer trips taking place in Lake George, NY.  Our version of the Road Queen Family Truckster was a midnight blue 1977 Ford Granada with burgundy pleather interior.  But as fun as those trips were, without fail, just before putting the car in gear for the drive back home, my father would end the trip with, “Next year, I’m taking a vacation by myself!”

This year, my faithful sidekick and I flew out to Colorado and spent a week and a half driving through Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska before flying back to New York.  It was my first time in that part of the country, and the most surreal part of the trip was the lack of cars on the road compared to the Northeast.  Highlights of our trip included Devils Tower, Custer National Park, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands with a few roadside attractions along the way like the giant Campbell’s Soup Can in Colorado, Dinosaur Park in South Dakota and a giant coffee pot in Wyoming.  This was our first real road trip together, and after 30 years of watching Clark Griswold experience everything short of locusts in National Lampoon’s Vacation I couldn’t help but wonder what lay ahead of us on the road.  But along the way, a miracle happened: nothing.  No broken down car, no bad weather, no short fuses (okay, there was that one time I missed a turn and went nuclear a la Clark in the classic “Can we go home” scene).  But it went as smooth as can be and it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.  Coincidentally, next up is a road trip in Europe…

Overall National Lampoon’s Vacation was as I remembered it, although the pace felt a little slower this time around.  And while each scene made me laugh and gain a greater appreciation for the Ramis and Hughes’ style of humor, my older self began to see Clark in a different light.  He was no longer just that nerdy dad who’s best intentions tend  to make everything worse.  At the end of the day, Clark goes through each of those great lengths, much to the chagrin of his family, just to bring them all closer together and have them experience a little bit of fun that they might remember when they’re older.  And watching National Lampoon’s Vacation again 30 years later, I simply smiled and looked forward to the day I’d be behind the wheel of my own version of the Family Truckster, family in tow, on a quest for fun.

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The Films of the Summer of ’83

I had such a great time revisiting the films of the Summer of ’82 last year that I actually experienced withdrawal when I completed the retrospective.  Each week I looked forward to screening an old classic from an amazing summer, allowing me to not only revisit each film with a fresh perspective, but also to relive the excitement of many a weekend spent in the local movie theater with a large coke and a pack of Twizzlers.

I wanted to write another summer movie retrospective but wasn’t sure I would be able to find another lineup of films that could compare to what is considered the greatest movie summer for fantasy and sci-fi fans (I can’t think of another summer that had anything close to the number of fantasy and sci-fi films we were blessed with that year).  I then decided not to approach a new retrospective in comparison to last year’s on the Summer of ’82, but rather as a nostalgic celebration of summer movie going as a whole.

A glance at the films of the summer of ’83 shows a mix of classics and cult favorites in equal parts sci-fi, thriller and comedy.  Unfortunately there were several clunkers in the mix that summer, but overall it’s a lineup of films that I enjoyed in 1983 and continue to enjoy today:

Return of the Jedi (5/22/83)
WarGames (6/3/83)
Trading Places (6/8/83)
Krull (7/29/83)
National Lampoon’s Vacation (7/29/83)
Risky Business (8/5/83)
Rock & Rule (8/12/83)
Strange Brew (8/26/83)
Fire & Ice (8/26/83)

My reviews will focus mainly on the scifi, fantasy and thriller genres.  First up will be the classic 80’s Cold War thriller WarGames!

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A look at this summer’s comic book films

Based on the strength of Iron Man 3’s performance last weekend, grossing $170 million domestic and $680 million worldwide, moviegoers and critics that predicted (and in some cases hoped for) the decline of the comic book movie will be disappointed.

For a guy that grew up in an era that didn’t have that many comic book movies released, and with many of those that were released not measuring up to their respective source material, it feels like we’re finally living in a Golden Age of comic book movies and I’m hoping there’s no end in sight.

Sometimes my comic book fandom interfered with my ability to enjoy a comic book film on its own merits.  I used to be a staunch believer that a comic book movie had to be as close to the printed source material as possible, but I’ve had a change of perspective over the last couple of years.  When the first wave of comic book movies was released, my complaints usually began with the changes made to the superhero costumes.  (Wolverine’s yellow costume wasn’t cinematic enough?  Then use the brown costume!)  But over a time, a personal caveat like Captain America’s costume deviating from the classic Joe Simon/Jack Kirby design was overshadowed by my pure enjoyment of a film.  Now I accept the need to balance respect for the source material (particularly the characters and their origins) with the new ideas filmmakers can bring to the franchise.  Rather than seeing the film version as a verbatim representation of the comic book, I now go into each film wanting to see it as a new adventure for the characters.

With the latest influx of comic book related films summer has now become my favorite time of year for moviegoing, and this summer’s lineup of releases has me planning my trips to the multiplex.

Here’s a look at the upcoming comic book films for Summer 2013:

Man of Steel

Man of Steel Movie Poster

Release Date: June 14

Directed by Zac Snyder; Screenplay by David Goyer

Starring Henry Cavill (Superman/Clark Kent), Michael Shannon (General Zod), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Russell Crowe (Jor-El), Kevin Costner (Jonathan Kent), Diane Lane (Martha Kent)

See the trailer here.

Man of Steel is the summer 2013 film I was looking forward to the most.  Back in ’06 the trailer for Superman Returns, complete with a voice over by Marlon Brando from 1978’s Superman: The Movie, made me think that Bryan Singer had taken the first step in reigniting the Superman franchise.  Unfortunately the trailer was better than the film, which was little more than a re-hashing of Lex Luthor’s scheme from Richard Donner’s Superman.  This time around, everything about the trailer for Man of Steel has me wanting to see this film.  While it is a reboot, it has elements from both Superman: The Movie (the origin story) and Superman II (General Zod).  The tone is a little darker than I expected but the cast, from Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent and Michael Shannon as General Zod, looks fantastic.  Christopher Reeve instinctively comes to mind when I think of the role of Clark Kent/Superman, but I’m looking forward to seeing Henry Cavill’s take on Superman/Clark Kent.

Red 2

Red 2 Movie Poster

Release Date: July 19

Directed by Dean Parisot; Written by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber; Based on the comic book by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner

Starring Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Mary Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones

See the trailer here.

I hadn’t read Warren Ellis’ and Cully Hamner’s comic book mini-series prior to seeing Red in 2010.  The film wasn’t on my radar at the time and I rented it because I thought it would be a fun movie.  It ended up as one of my favorite films that year, and Red 2 is one of the films I’m looking forward to the most this summer.  Willis, Malkovich and Helen Mirren played well against each other in the first action comedy, and from the looks of the trailer Red 2 is cranking up the firepower with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Byung-hun Lee.

The Wolverine

Wolverine Movie Poster

Release Date: July 26

Directed by James Mangold; Screenplay by Mark Bomback

Starring Hugh Jackman (Logan/Wolverine), Will Yun Lee (Silver Samurai), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Viper), Hiroyuki Sanada (Shingen Yashida), Tao Okamoto (Mariko Yashida)

See the trailer here.

Wolverine.  Japan.  Silver Samurai.  ‘Nuff said.  Watching the trailer for The Wolverine brought me back to the early 80’s and Marvel Comics’ four-part Wolverine mini-series by Chris Claremont, Frank Miller and Joe Rubinstein and Uncanny X-Men #172 and #173 by Claremont, Paul Smith and Bob Wiacek.  Silver Samurai is one of the more under-utilized villains of the Marvel Universe in my opinion and his appearance vs. Wolverine in Uncanny X-Men 173 (September 1983) is one of my favorite hero/villain match ups of the 80’s.

Kick-Ass 2

Kick-Ass 2 Movie Poster

Release Date: August 16

Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow; Starring Aaron Tayl0r-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jonathan Mintz-Plasse, and Jim Carrey

August’s Kick-Ass 2 brings back Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s teen heroes.  Like Red, the first Kick-Ass was another unexpected surprise for me when it was released in 2010.  Red Mist (Mintz-Plasse) is back for revenge as The MotherF***er, and Jim Carrey’s Col. Stars and Stripes joins Kick-Ass and Hit Girl in this adrenaline fueled sequel.

This looks like a good summer for comic book films with a good balance between superheroes and action comedy, but it’s only a primer for 2014 and the upcoming releases of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past.  Luckily the release of Thor: The Dark World on November 8th will hold us over until then.

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The Summer of ’82: Tron

Fante’s Inferno revisits the films of the Summer of 1982, considered the greatest movie summer for fantasy and sci-fi fans.

Tron

Release Date: July 9, 1982

Written and Directed by Steven Lisberger

Starring: Jeff Bridges, David Warner, Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan

See the trailer here.

During the summer of 1982 I  spent more than a few days at the local movie theater and comic shop, but my favorite hangout in my hometown was the local video arcade.  Prior to the video game boom, the game room at Cook’s restaurant was filled with the sounds of pinball machines, skee ball and air hockey, but by 1982 it was in full swing with video games ranging from the classic Pac Man, Space Invaders and Missile Command to Battle Zone, Punch Out and my game of choice: Galaga.  They were great games and still are.  I don’t even want to attempt to estimate how many quarters I plunked into those machines from 1979 to 1986.  On a recent trip to Cape Cod I was in a restaurant that had Galaga and I couldn’t resist playing a game or two, although nowadays when I see a pinball machine or video game with 50 cents or $1 per play my first reaction is “That is an outrage!”

Back in the Summer of ’82 I remember most of my friends going on and on about how cool Tron was.  The special effects made it look like the type of video game we were hoping to see in our arcade sooner rather than later.  You would think that a film like Tron would have had me camping out for the first screening, but looking back I don’t think I saw it in the theater.  I don’t think I saw it more than once on cable TV either.  How the heck did that happen?

I was starting to think I had missed out on a rite of passage and had to make up for lost time.  My 42″ TV is pretty big for my apartment, but watching the first scenes that took place within the mainframe made me wish I had experienced watching Tron on the big screen at my local cinema back in 1982.  The production design is simple even by 1982’s standards, but it reminds me of the vector graphics of several video games I played back in the day, particularly Battle Zone  and the Star Wars arcade gameTron’s beauty is in this simplicity, and it’s accented perfectly by the colors and lighting effects of the costumes designed by none other than the great Jean Giraud (aka Moebius).

Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Iron Man) is always a pleasure to watch on film and David Warner (Time After Time, Time Bandits, Masada) is perfectly cast in Tron as his nemesis Sark.  Warner’s performance, along with his performances as Jack the Ripper in Time After Time, Evil in Time Bandits, and Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Countrymake him in my opinion the consummate movie villain.

I love the concept of Jeff Bridges’ character Kevin Flynn experiencing the world within the mainframe system, but when I watched Tron again this week my one caveat was that even my ten year old self would have felt the circumstances leading to Flynn’s transportation into the inner world of the mainframe might have been a bit too simplistic.  And like a few other films from the Summer of ’82 the pace was a little too slow for me.

Steven Lisberger created an amazing hybrid of fantasy and tech that was said to have been influenced by his first exposure to Pong in the mid-70’s.  It’s funny how Pong, the simplest video game that is now used as a punch line when discussing technological advances, led to one of the boldest cinematic visions of the 80’s.  The video games of the 80’s may not have had the graphics of Tron, but Tron gave video games something to aspire to.  While it was a modest critical and box office success (it only grossed $33 million against its $17 million dollar budget), Lisberger should be praised for pushing the envelope to achieve a look that moviegoers still vividly remember 30 years later.

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The Summer of ’82: The Secret of NIMH

Fante’s Inferno revisits the Summer of 1982, considered to be the greatest movie summer for fantasy and sci-fi fans.

The Secret of NIMH

Release Date: 7/2/82

Directed by Don Bluth; Written by Don Bluth, John Pomeroy, Gary Goldman and Will Finn; based on the novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Starring: Elizabeth Hartman, Derek Jacobi, Arthur Malet, Dom DeLuise, Peter Strauss, Paul Shenar, Aldo Ray, John Carradine

See the trailer here.

The Secret of NIMH is one of my favorite animated films of all time along with Watership Down, Fire and Ice, and Heavy Metal.  One thing that always concerns me when I revisit an animated feature from the 70’s or 80’s is the possibility of losing the excitement I had for the film when compared to present day animation.  Luckily this didn’t happen when I watched NIMH earlier this week.

As amazing as 3D animation looks, I still have more of an appreciation for the technique of 2D, hand drawn animation.  I still consider The Secret of NIMH to be one of the best examples of traditional animation in the last 50 years, and I say this knowing that many Disney fans will disagree with me.  One thing I forgot over the years was how striking the background paintings were.  Each of them stood on their own as more than just background, they were works of art that set the mood and tone of the film.

One game I like to play when I research a film on iMDb is a “where are they now” of the cast.  Of the films I’ve revisited so far in my Summer of ’82 series of posts, the cast of The Secret of NIMH surprised me the most.  I easily remembered Derek Jacobi as Nicodemus and Dom DeLuise as Jeremy the crow, but I was surprised to find the voice of Mrs. Brisby was Elizabeth Hartman, who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as Sidney Poitier’s blind love interest in the 1965 film A Patch of Blue.  Other surprises were Shannen Doherty and Wil Wheaton as Mrs. Brisby’s children Teresa and Martin, and Peter Strauss as Justin.  Aldo Ray was the voice of Sullivan.  And how about John Carradine as the Great Owl!  Don Bluth and Gary Goldman pulled out all the stops with this film (their first animated feature after they left Disney) and they definitely invested in a great cast.

I was surprised The Secret of NIMH was given a G rating considering many of the darker elements in the film.  I remembered the scene of the rats going through the tests at NIMH as being too much for a child to be able to handle at a young age, but even scenes such as Mrs. Brisby’s meeting with the Great Owl and her first encounter with the rat Brutus might scare the bejeezus out of out of a young child.

Thirty years later, The Secret of NIMH doesn’t only hold up, it reminds me of why I love animation.  The story, characters and especially the animation drew me back in and brought me back to my local theater back in 1982.  All I needed was a large Coke and a 1/2 pound bag of strawberry Twizzlers.

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Thoughts On The Amazing Spider-Man Reboot

The Amazing Spider-Man
Sony Pictures Entertainment

The numbers are in and The Amazing Spider-Man has pulled in $65 million for the weekend, $141 million for the 4th of July week, and $341 million worldwide.

Here’s a film that one month ago I had very little interest in seeing.  Not because the previous three films directed by Sam Raimi were too fresh in my mind or because I felt that theaters are over saturated with comic book films (that thought is sacrilege in my mind!).  Since this reboot was first announced, my first and only thought was: Why?  The origin story was already covered in Spider-Man 1, which for the most part was pretty accurate to the original 1962 story in Amazing Fantasy #15.  By now people know how Peter Parker became Spider-Man even if they’ve never read the comic books.  Socially awkward bookworm Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider, can climb walls, develops web shooters, lets it get to his head, Uncle Ben gets…you know what I mean.

Then a month ago I watched the trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man.

Hmmmm.  Liked it.  OK, I’m curious now.

When my interest level reached that point, I couldn’t help thinking about the one major thing I didn’t like about the Sam Raimi films.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked Spider-Man 1 and I loved Spider-Man 2 (I prefer not to discuss Spider-Man 3, I’ll just leave it at that), but there was one element of those films that the comic fan in me couldn’t ignore: replacing Gwen Stacy in the first two films with Mary Jane Watson, which was absolutely unnecessary.  It goes beyond the dynamic of nerdy kid falls in love with and gets the pretty girl, which in my opinion was the only dynamic between Peter and Mary Jane in the Raimi films.  Having Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man brings a lot more to the story.  Peter’s relationship with Gwen in turn creates a relationship with her father, Captain Stacy, which existed in the comic books but didn’t exist in the first two Raimi films.  Seeing Emma Stone in the role of Gwen made me want to give The Amazing Spider-Man a chance.

I checked out The Amazing Spider-Man at a matinee on the 4th of July.  The theater was about 2/3 full for the 11:30 AM screening.  By the time the movie ended, I was satisfied and for the most part the rest of the audience enjoyed it as well.  While people will continue to debate the need for a reboot in 2012, whether it’s necessary/justified or not I think The Amazing Spider-Man stands on its own.  That’s not to say it’s perfect.  It’s not as visually dynamic as the Sam Raimi films.  Some of the CGI looked a bit cartoony, particularly the Lizard.  Most importantly, a couple of details from Spidey’s comic book origin were simplified, particularly Uncle Ben’s murder (for the record, I refuse to consider that tidbit a spoiler alert and prefer to give my readers the benefit of the doubt) and the events that led Peter to understand “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man is less action and more drama compared to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 1.  It changed several elements of the Spider-Man canon (e.g. Peter’s discovery of the extent of his powers, the circumstances of Uncle Ben’s death), a greater emphasis on Peter’s parents and their disappearance, and more drama to Peter’s relationship with Uncle Ben and Aunt May.  Personally I thought Martin Sheen was fantastic as Uncle Ben (this coming from a huge Cliff Robertson fan), and I think an actress of Sally Field’s caliber will bring a lot to Aunt May’s character in future films.  Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Peter Parker wasn’t as socially awkward as Tobey Maguire’s.  Garfield was a bit too confident as Peter at times, but was effective in bringing some of Spider-Man’s smart-aleckyness from the comic books to the screen.

Things I liked about this film:

Gwen Stacy
The web shooters are back
Peter’s relationship with Uncle Ben
The Lizard

Things I didn’t like as much (SPOILERS):

Gwen’s connection to Dr. Connors wasn’t very plausible.
Not including the famous line of dialogue regarding great power and great responsibility.
The circumstances leading to Uncle Ben’s murder.
Spider-Man was unmasked in a scene that should have made his identity public.

The one question I have difficulty answering is whether or not the reboot was necessary.   Most likely it wasn’t, but overall this film stands on its own even if the first three were not made.  Despite a few caveats, it was still very enjoyable and I’m looking forward to the next film.

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