ReelThoughts: August 12, 2009

"1989"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


If 1988 was lacking in earthshaking current events, 1989 more than made up for it. The first major international news story began percolating in late April; at that time, most of the news outlets either ignored it or relegated it to a back-page item. By early June, it was impossible to escape. Due in part to the way it played out with the whole world watching, the Tianamen Square Massacre would go down as one of the defining moments of government excess in the last 50 years, making what happened in Iran in 2009 seem tame by comparison. Perhaps what made Tianamen Square so newsworthy was that there was a sense of optimism that the protesters were making a difference until the Chinese government responded ruthlessly, giving no quarter.

On October 17, as ABC was preparing to broadcast the third game of the World Series from Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the ground began shaking. Before it was finished, the Lorma Prieta earthquake had killed more than 60 and injured nearly 4000. The tumbler, which measured at a magnitude 7.1 on the Richter Scale, shook the confidence of one of the most densely populated areas in western United States. Who can forget watching the news coverage and seeing images of the collapsed section of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge and the shots of the pancaking of the two decks of I-880? Al Michaels, the lead play-by-play man for the baseball game, effectively became an on-the-scene reporter, echoing the work done by Jim McKay for the same network during the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The biggest news story of the year was the beginning of the end for the Iron Curtain. The dominoes that would eventually lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War began tumbling in November. On November 9, East Germany opened the checkpoints in the wall, allowing citizens from the East to travel freely to the West (and vice versa). On the next day, the wall started to come down, answering Ronald Reagan's plea from two years earlier. The anti-Socialist wave struck Bulgaria on November 10 and moved onto Czechoslovakia later in the month, with the so-called "Velvet Revolution." One December 3, President Bush and Soviet leader Gorbachev released a joint statement that represented the equivalent of a "cease fire" in the Cold War. During the second half of the month, Nicolae Ceausescu's government in Romania began collapsing; by Christmas, he had been overthrown and executed, marking another Communist regime to fall. The anti-Socialist tide would continue to rise throughout 1990 and into 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

On a more personal level, 1989 was a year in which I adjusted to life without Tracie. From our first accidental meeting in December 1986 until her death in October 1988, we had been together for 22 months. Ultimately, it would take me a lot longer than that to recover, but I was in better shape by the summer of 1989 than I was in the waning days of 1988. Her death had a profound impact on how I viewed higher education, however. I lost interest in school and skated through my final semester. The lack of effort had a tangible impact, with my grade point average tumbling enough to reduce my graduation status from Summa Cum Laude to Plain Ole Cum Laude. An agreement I signed with Bellcore during the summer of 1988 obligated me to attend graduate school and obtain an MS-EE degree in one calendar year or less. The clock began ticking on that in September 1989. By then, however, I was burned out where college was concerned and didn't put in the effort necessary to achieve high grades. I was required to have a GPA of 3.0, so that's what I got.

Either because of Tracie's death or in spite of it, I saw a lot of movies during 1989. However, despite there being a large number of tantalizing titles, most of the biggest movies were disappointments. The summer of 1989 also represented a "dress rehearsal" of sorts for what the season would become during the 1990s: a time when would-be blockbusters targeted primarily at teenage males would dominate the box office. The two ubiquitous things in 1989 were Indiana Jones and Batman, with the latter beating the former for top honors. (Yes, the same thing happened in 2008 in a case of history repeating itself.)

I believe the first movie I saw in 1989 was Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, which I felt at the time was misnamed, as least insofar as the "excellent" was concerned. I might regard it more kindly today if I was to re-watch it, but I don't feel compelled to do so. During March, I sat through some disposable crap, most of which I can't remember (although I think Lean on Me might have been in there). In April, two high-profile baseball films arrived in theaters to celebrate Opening Day: Field of Dreams and Major League. I found both to be overrated. Field of Dreams failed to strike an emotional chord and I didn't laugh nearly as much at Major League as many others did.

The big Memorial Day release was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the second (and should have been final) sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although my stance on the movie has softened over the years, I was decidedly underwhelmed when I walked out of the Moorestown Duplex on Opening Day. A week later came Dead Poets Society as a stop-gap to tide me over before the expected highlight of the summer arrived. Ah, the curse of expectations not metů

I planned the early part of my summer around Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. In retrospect, I shouldn't have bothered, but I delayed the start of my job until the week after the movie opened so I could approach the latest Trek feature unencumbered by work-related issues. The early tag for the film advertised that it was "The reason they installed seat belts in theaters this summer." That sounded promising, although it became apparent that the idea behind the (non-existent) seat belts was to keep viewers from walking out in the middle. This was the first, but not last, Star Trek movie to leave me utterly, thoroughly depressed.

Star Trek V was quickly pushed aside to make way for the event of the summer: Tim Burton's Batman, which probably should have been called The Joker. I was a dissenting voice in the chorus of Batmania, but since I wasn't writing reviews at the time and the Internet was not quite ready for prime time, even fewer listened to me than might today. (For the record, although I didn't like Batman, I did like Batman Returns, more because of Michelle Pfeiffer than Michael Keaton or Danny DeVito.) Honey I Shrunk the Kids opened on the same day as Batman, and did respectable business. I didn't see it in theaters but endured it during an end-of-the-year plane trip. It took an act of will to avoid opening the plane door in mid-flight and jumping out.

After a depressing June, things got better in July, when I enjoyed four of the five movies I saw. The outlier was Weekend at Bernie's, which I saw while perfectly sober. It was subsequently explained to me that the movie should only be seen while stoned or intoxicated. Oh well. The good July movies were: License to Kill (the second Timothy Dalton Bond - its poor performance almost killed the series), Lethal Weapon 2 (which is almost as strong as the first - and there are those who argue it's better), When Harry Met Sally (which I adored and saw twice during its theatrical run), and a re-issue of Peter Pan (can't remember why I saw it).

The big movie on the first weekend of August was Parenthood, which I saw and liked, but the more intriguing story was that Miramax released sex, lies and videotape into four theaters. It caught fire and expanded quickly, and the indie era that would dominate the 1990s was born. It would peak at more than 500 theaters and made nearly $25M. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the indie pie. The Abyss, James Cameron's highly anticipated follow-up to Aliens, opened on August 11, and this disappointed me almost as much as Star Trek V. My opinion has changed greatly since that weekend, in part due to the availability of a vastly superior Extended Edition. I believe I may have seen the fifth Nightmare on Elm Street movie that summer, although it's possible I watched it the following year when it arrived on video. Either way, I can't recall a thing about it except for the obvious.

I kept attending movies in September, although it was a little weird going alone to the ramshackle theater where I had spent so many weekend evenings with Tracie. I saw Sea of Love there in mid-September, followed by Black Rain (the Michael Douglas one, not the documentary) and Erik the Viking later in the month. My October titles were Halloween 5, which I wish I hadn't bothered with, and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Thanksgiving (and the weekend before) brought out some of the year's heavy hitters. Disney used The Little Mermaid to revive its reputation as the undisputed King of Family Animation. It trounced its competitor, All Dogs Go to Heaven, despite being on only about half as many screens. Back to the Future II, the disappointing follow-up to the beloved 1985 action/comedy time-traveling tale, had the day before Thanksgiving all to itself.

December offered the usual spate of high-profile Oscar wannabes: Triumph of the Spirit, Glory, Driving Miss Daisy, Always, and Born on the Fourth of July. Of these, I saw only two at the time: Glory, which I loved, and Always, which I didn't. Two or three days before Christmas (after finals), I spent an afternoon at a multiplex watching a double-feature of Christmas Vacation and War of the Roses - a few hours well-spent on titles without Academy Award aspirations.

When the '80s came to a close, at 11:59 on December 31, I was in San Francisco, where the damage from the earthquake was still much in evidence in some places. As midnight approached, I can recall wandering around the Haight-Ashbury district with some friends. Unfortunately, when the witching hour struck, I was nearly asleep on my feet, since my body clock was still on Eastern Standard Time. It was, without a doubt, the most surreal New Year's Eve of my life. Then, suddenly, it was the '90s - a new decade with new challenges. Little did I know where the course of my early post-school life would take me, even though the seeds had been planted during my time with Tracie and were subsequently watered by her absence. They would germinate in 1991, when I consciously ramped up the number of films I saw. By the end of that year, I had generated a Top 10 list and written a review. Then came 1992, when everything would change.

Related reviews: The Abyss, Born on the Fourth of July, War of the Roses.


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