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Movies of 1989

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look back at the movies of 1989 with special guests Andy and Ben Wardinski. Here is a recap of some of the titles discussed on the show.

The biggest box office hit of 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman was the film that began the contemporary comic book film. With the exception of the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films, most comic book pictures made to this point were campy, low budget affairs that appealed to a niche audience. Batman is also distinct in the way it is at once an 80s film and yet feels timeless in part because of the 1940s-esqe production design.

Field of Dreams
Field of Dreams was the second title in Kevin Costner’s triptych of baseball movies (the other two being Bull Durham and For the Love of the Game). Of those three, Field of Dreams has had the most enduring impact. The actual field continues to draw tourists and the phrase “If you build it, they will come” continues to be a pop culture reference. But Field of Dreams isn’t so much about baseball as it is about healing the generational divisions between Baby Boomers and their parents.

Major League
Another baseball movie of 1989, Major League is a crass comedy starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Rene Russo, and Wesley Snipes. The movie is especially memorable to Milwaukee Brewers fans of the 1980s because portions of the film were shot at the now demolished County Stadium.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child
Horror of the 1980s was dominated by slasher movies and the biggest of these were A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th. Although they have kept going in other forms, these franchises hit the end of the line in 1989. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Halloween 5, and Friday the 13th: Part VIII all failed at the box office. The Dream Child is easily the best of these three. It’s an uneven film that inserts too many silly moments but it has unique production design, an interesting premise, and a strong cast.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The third Indy movie is generally considered the best sequel in the series (although Andy and Ben made a strong case for Temple of Doom which is admittedly a better action picture). The strongest element of Last Crusade is its characters led by Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Sean Connery as his father. Alison Doody is also notably in the role of villainous archeologist Elsa Schneider, the most complex love interest in the series. The good humor and nuanced characterizations give Last Crusade the most emotional gravitas of the series.

Weird Al Yankovic made a movie in 1989 about an aimless dreamer who turns around a failing independent television station with a variety of wacky programs. The movie was a box office disappointment in 1989 but it has accrued a dedicated cult audience. Despite the fact that the movie is nestled in the pop culture of 1989 (the meaning of the title is probably lost on viewers born after 1995) UHF still plays because of its zany and good hearted sense of humor.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was the most financially successful entry in the series’ original run of films. It was followed by 1989’s The Final Frontier, a project that began with an ambitious premise but was handicapped by budget woes and script re-writes. It is (arguably) not the worst Star Trek film but The Final Frontier has dramatic highs and lows and a whiplash of different tones.

The Abyss
James Cameron’s first aquatic adventure (if we ignore Piranha II: The Spawning) has its fans and the movie has some groundbreaking special effects but the story is a mess. The Abyss suffers from an excess of plot. It begins with a submarine crashing in the deep sea and then the rescue team becomes stranded themselves. And then the narrative forks off into a bunch of tangents with nuclear weapons, nervous breakdowns, and aliens; Thomas Pope named The Abyss one of the worst scripts in film history in his book Good Scripts, Bad Scripts. There are a couple of versions of The Abyss. The 145 minute theatrical cut is faster paced but it doesn’t make any sense. The 171 minute director’s cut makes sense but it meanders.

Back to the Future Part II
One of the bolder sequels in the sci-fi genre, Back the Future Part II travels into the future and then back into the events of the first movie. The film is impressive in the way it layers the new film on top of the original and it makes bold choices.

Dead Poet’s Society
Robin Williams’ acting career can be bifurcated between his comic and dramatic performances although he is best known for comedy, Williams’ dramatic outings were much more consistent and he gives one of his best performances in Dead Poets Society. A favorite of high school English teachers everywhere, Dead Poets Society is interesting to look at thirty years later as humanities departments find themselves undergoing some of the same pressures dramatized in this film.

Driving Miss Daisy
Driving Miss Daisy won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1989. The movie concerns an elderly Jewish woman who befriends her African American chauffer. This film is especially interesting to consider in 2019 since the year’s Best Picture winner was a Green Book, film whose scenario plays as a race flipped retread of Driving Miss Daisy. What’s more, Driving Miss Daisy was favored by the Academy over Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and in 2019 Green Book competed alongside movies like Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, BlacKkKlansman, and The Hate U Give. The implicit lesson is that Hollywood, or at least the Academy, hasn’t moved forward in regard to racial representation in the last thirty years.

Ghostbusters II
Ghostbusters II is an unfairly maligned sequel. The 1989 follow up is not as tight as its predecessor and it has some hokey moments. Between the release of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, the franchise was adapted into a cartoon, pivoting the audience toward children complete with tie-in merchandise. For the second film, the edge of the first film was removed so that it would appeal to the family audience. Nevertheless, Ghostbusters II plays as an entertaining film in its own right.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
The third and probably the most popular title of the Vacation series, Christmas Vacation was written by John Hughes and it captured what Hughes did best – satirizing the absurdity of suburban life. Christmas Vacation is endlessly quotable. Everyone is at their best here, namely Chevy Chase as the patriarch of the Griswold family and Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie, but unlike the other Vacation films the rest of the cast are also given things to do.

One of the early directorial efforts by Ron Howard, Parenthood is not neatly pegged into a single genre. The movie mixes comedy and drama in a story of suburban life. The movie has a terrific cast including Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Jason Robards, Martha Plimpton, and Rick Moranis as well as very young Keanu Reeves, and Joaquin Phoenix (credited here as Leaf Phoenix). Parenthood was adapted into a television series in 1990 and again in 2010.

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