The Best, the Beautiful, the Only…Ghostbusters

It’s been just over three months since Sony Pictures Entertainment released the first North American trailer of Ghostbusters (2016) on YouTube. Since then the preview has garnered more than 33.6 million views, 250,608 “likes,” and 872, 947 “dislikes.”*

To put this in perspective, 20th Century Fox’s teaser trailer for the 2015 reboot of the Fantastic Four received 17.5 million views, 71,285 “likes,” and 20,239″dislikes.” That means roughly 78 percent of viewers responded favorably to Fantastic Four while the same percentage responded negatively to the new Ghostbusters trailer.

The reason I bring this up is because Fantastic Four is considered by several prominent critics and aggregate review websites as one of, if not the, worst movies of 2015.

Now at the end of the day these are just previews, and one could argue that perhaps 20th Century Fox was just better at making a good trailer that ultimately failed audience’s expectations. Or it could mean that Sony’s new Ghostbusters movie is going to be an unequivocal ammonia-wrenched bowl of donkey piss so reviled that it will go down in history as a film that failed before it even got off the ground all the while puking on the grave of one of the great comedy screenwriters of all time.

Ghostbusters_cover

Original artwork from 1984

It could be that. And in fact, it will almost certainly be that. Based on the 4 minutes and 51 seconds of official North American preview of Ghostbusters (2016) there can be no doubt Hollywood has finally gone too far. Sony Pictures, and Paul Feig and Katie Dippold, and everyone involved in this dumpster fire have begun plucking at the last of a handful of unsoiled cinematic masterpieces all in the name of profit. What’s most disheartening about this entry is it doesn’t even bother to honor the original; it rides on the coattails of what came before and aggrandizes itself for getting a pig in a dress and calling it the prom queen.

Now before anyone goes off, I am going to state it for the record: my negative attitude for this film has nothing to do with the all-female reprisal. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t get it. Is it supposed to be a political statement? If you’re going for a philosophical point, wouldn’t it make more sense to have a gender-mixed team? Maybe a homosexual Ghostbuster? The LGBT-community is woefully lacking in prominent film roles; wouldn’t that be more reflective of the makeup of our society?

But I digress, they’re all women. Who cares?

Well, apparently a lot of people. As it turns out I’m not the only one who is sick of seeing Hollywood bilk every last cultural milestone of my generation into a bloodless shell of itself. Take it from a guy who is an even bigger Ghostbusters fan than I am.

For those of you who don’t know who James Rolfe is, he is a filmmaker and critic better known as The Angry Video Game Nerd of the popular eponymous web series. If his rhetoric seems a little similar to the writing on Retrobacktive, it’s not coincidence. Rolfe was a huge influence on the tone and direction of this blog; the idea being to create a literary version of his website, Cinemassacre. Rolfe is a wunderkind when it comes to interpreting allegory and was an early practitioner of celebrating films indelible to Gen X’ers.

Recently, however, he was skewered online by opponents who called his “non-review” of Ghostbusters (2016) as “sexist.”

Watch the video again if you need to, but at no point does Rolfe make any reference to the female cast of Ghostbusters (2016) other than to say it’s the only way to differentiate this version from the 1984 original. There isn’t a shred of sexism in that review, but there is plenty of defiance and somehow this has been interpreted as misogyny.

And this is what’s sinking Ghostbusters (2016) into an even deeper level of cinematic excrement. Based on the “polarized” reactions (i.e. wanton hatred) from online reviewers, Sony is aware they are sitting on a potential time bomb. So the filmmakers and cast have sunk to the lowest denominator and conjured up a preemptive excuse for the movie’s likely failure: blame it all on misogyny.

That’s right, if you don’t like Ghostbusters (2016) then you must hate women. That’s the only reason to dislike this film. Well, I’ll admit any picture starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones is a strong reason to dislike it. Wiig and McCarthy have made careers out of one-dimensional characters who lost any semblance of charisma years ago. And Jones is in the process of dismantling Saturday Night Live one awkwardly unfunny sketch at a time. So yes, I’ll will stand out on a limb and say the cast has something to do with it. But being a women doesn’t mean you get a pass from criticism. Funnier women could have been cast; it wouldn’t have saved the film because a Ghostbusters remake is already a bad idea, but it couldn’t make it any worse.

Still not convinced this isn’t misogyny talking? Let’s look at another Internet icon’s take on the trailer:

Danika Massey, better known as Comic Book Girl 19, preceded Rolfe’s video by a couple of months, but to much quieter fanfare. Is that because she’s a woman? Sort of, in so much as there’s nothing for anyone to attack. She made an apt video that summarized what most Ghostbusters fans were thinking. She even goes so far as to tell us not to go see the new movie. All Rolfe said was he wasn’t going to see the new movie. Well, take from that what you want, but both reviews share the sentiment most moviegoers are feeling: Ghostbusters (2016) is going to suck. And if you want to know who I most directly blame for this upcoming pile of bear shit, I’ll tell you. It’s Bill Murray.

Okay, so not really Bill Murray. It’s impossible to be angry at Bill Murray. But in a way Murray, and the rest of the original Ghostbusters creative team, converged to create a media vacuum that brought Paul Feig’s imminent disaster to life. In order to grasp its origins we need to go back almost 30 years.

The success of the original Ghostbusters film led to the creation of a spinoff animated series for ABC called The Real Ghostbusters. The Real Ghostbusters aired for seven seasons beginning in 1986, and was an instant hit. Based on continued interest in the franchise, Columbia Pictures pressured Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis to come up with a script for a second movie. Aykroyd and Ramis had gone on record stating that the intention was to create a conclusive film with the first Ghostbusters, and that a second shouldn’t be made. Murray, likewise, was against a follow-up as he has been plainly dismissive of sequels throughout his career, stating in a 1988 New York Times story, “The reason most people do sequels is greed. But if you do it for business reasons, you should be put to death.”

In a rare act of concession, Murray, as well as Ramis, Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Rick Moranis, Sigourney Weaver, and director/producer Ivan Reitman, returned to make Ghostbusters II.

Released 27 years ago today, the film was a commercial success, but fell short among critics. Even the actors involved seemed to be aware that the original spark had fizzled. Murray noted in a 2012 interview with David Letterman, “It’s hard. Even the second ‘Ghostbusters‘ wasn’t as much fun for me as the first one. It’s hard to make a sequel.”

It was clear to everyone that the original Ghostbusters was lightning in a bottle. They tried again; it didn’t work. All was forgiven. Best to leave well enough alone, and move on.

Somewhere around 1995 Aykroyd gets this idea for a new Ghostbusters movie. It’s called Ghostbusters: Hellbent and it centers around the team entering a parallel New York that resembles a hellish version of their own. There’s no telling what inspired Aykroyd to come up with this new Ghostbusters story after the critical disappointment of Ghostbusters II, but the plot seems to share some elements with the very first Ghostbusters script Aykroyd wrote in the early 80s.

By this point Murray was a well established comedic star. Harold Ramis moved behind the camera and became a successful director. Aykroyd, however, had hit a slump. Failed big budget vehicles like Nothing but Trouble and Coneheads virtually sidelined Aykroyd into smaller, character roles. Some were commendable (My Girl; Feeling Minnesota), but his bankability was depleted. It’s all speculation, but in this case it may have been Aykroyd chasing down Hollywood.

One laudable story arc in Ghostbusters: Hellbent was a proverbial passing of the torch. The script called for an older, haggled Ghostbuster team (Aykroyd, Murray, Ramis, and Hudson) to train and hand down the mantle to a group of young cadets. Ramis stated in a 1999 Entertainment Weekly article, “dream plan is that Danny and I would produce it, I would direct it, and we would recruit some newer, younger, popular Ghostbusters to star.”Alas, the studios weren’t buying it (literally) as production costs for such an elaborate film were seen as too high.

Despite the transitional plot point in Ghostbusters 3, Murray remained disinterested, and by 2004 rumors of a third film petered out. Ramis revived interest a year later when he suggest in an InFocus magazine interview that he would like to cast Ben Stiller in Ghostbusters 3, but little came of his comment. Four more years passed before an interview in the Guardian Guide found Aykroyd speaking emphatically about the new Ghostbusters film.

By this time the big joke had become that Murray would only reprise his role as Peter Venkman if the writers “kill me off in the first reel.” Well evidently this only drove Aykroyd’s, Ramis’, the studio’s, whomever’s fervency because Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, writers and producers for The Office brought in to work on a GB3 treatment, actually came up with a story line where Murray’s character is killed off and comes back as a ghost. Even Murray remarked “well, that’s clever anyway” in a ComingSoon.net interview.

But nothing came of it. Murray held out. And for years the back and forth went on. Aykroyd told reporters in almost every interview he did that the new movie would go into production…soon. And Murray consistently declared disapproval. Eventually Aykroyd and Ramis decided it would be best to move on without Murray. Said Aykroyd in a 2011 interview with Dennis Miller, “The concept is much larger than any individual role and the promise of Ghostbusters III is that we get to hand the equipment and the franchise down to new blood.”

Well it turns out a big draw to the concept is one individual. In a 2012 interview with IGN Aykroyd said Ghostbusters 3 was in “suspended animation,” production had stalled, and that they couldn’t recreate the Venkman character without Murray’s approval. It seemed without Murray’s star power, there was no interest in a third Ghostbusters movie.

This should have put it all to rest. But here’s where my frustration with Murray kicks in. Just two months later at a Cubs game, a reporter for a local news affiliate, WGN, asks Murray about involvement in a second Ghostbusters sequel. Murray’s response: “Well, it’s a possibility…”

Really? After years of lambasting Aykroyd and Ramis for pushing the project, steadfast in his objection to a third film, Murray tells the world “It’s a possibility.” It’s by no means committal, but it appears it was enough to reignite the flames. Aykroyd seemed spurred on in suggesting the door was always open for Murray to return to the role.

Shortly after his Cubs-game comment, Murray appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman. Pressed about his interest in GB3, Murray said, “Well, I think… we’ll try again. I always drag my feet on it.” I’m sorry, over 15 years of saying “no” is dragging your feet? I’d hate to see how long it takes Bill Murray to buy a car.

Perhaps Murray was just tired of answering the question: will he or won’t he? Maybe Aykroyd had finally warn him down. Or still yet it could he was in perennial jest with the world, ambivalent to his professional direction but happy to puppeteer his fans and colleagues emotions because they made it so easy for him.

By the end of 2013 only two things were certain about Ghostbusters 3: it involved a passing of the torch to a new generation, and Aykroyd really wanted to make this picture. Sadly it would not be Bill Murray who would have final say. On February 24, 2014, Harold Ramis died from complications with vaculitis at his home in Chicago. Any hope of a full Ghostbusters reunion was gone. And though Ramis’ involvement in any future Ghostbusters entry would have been downplayed in light of his illness, fans the world over realized the gravity of the situation. It was time to let it go.

Of course when there’s money to be made, who cares about things like desecration, exploitation, and greed? Certainly not Hollywood. Hence Ghostbusters (2016), a film that in four minutes and 51 seconds of preview pays no homage to the genius that came before it. Nope. We’re just gonna slap together some slick CGI, toss in a few caricatures, throw in a cheap cameo for blanket nostalgia (seriously, Murray, you came back for this?!), and bam, you have the definition of modern cinema: a gutless, vapid cesspool of timidity and impossibly low standards that intrigues audiences only by how low it can sink.

At the end of the day, I’m not really mad at Murray for stalling so long, or anyone else from the original production, even Aykoryd who championed the idea long after it should have crumbled. But I’m with James on this one. This movie is going to be a 35-foot-long, 600-pound pile of shit. I won’t see it. Instead of buying a ticket I’m going to use my money to buy a new copy of the original on Amazon, and encourage discerning fans – and from the looks of it there are many – to throw their own Ghostbusters (1984) viewing parties on July 15.

 

*As of this writing.

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Dearly Beloved, We R Gathered Here 2 Celebrate His Life

In the last four months this blog has come to feel more like an obituary than a cultural chronicle. We opened the year in memorial of David Bowie whose secret battle with cancer came to an end on January 10. Then the Eagle’s frontman Glenn Frey died eight days later. Alan Rickman, Merle Haggard, one by one the entertainment world mournfully reported the loss of yet another great artist.

Yesterday that trend continued with perhaps the most shocking loss since Michael Jackson’s death in 2009.

Prince Rogers Nelson, better know as Prince… or that weird symbol no one could pronounce…died in his home studio at Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minnesota. He was 57 years old.

While an autopsy investigation is set to take place on April 22, little indication has been give to the cause of death for the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter. The news of Prince’s sudden and unexpected demise has left fans the world over in disbelief.

If this description sounds a bit sterile it’s because I’m sick of writing about great artists from my childhood dying. It’s a somber experience. As a writer I want to use my skill set to capture the memory of the departed as eloquently as the English language can. But I would prefer to go back to writing about cartoons and movies; 2016 has been a rather morose year.

Nonetheless, we will celebrate the life of a musical icon who rose to prominence in the 80s with hits albums such as 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign “O” the Times. Now one thing we can’t do is post a bunch of cool videos from YouTube because Prince was vehement about copyright issues and fair trade. But to be honest posting even a fraction of the highlights from The Purple One’s illustrious career would probably crash the WordPress server, so here’s a quick list you can feel free to explore at your leisure:

1999 – Prince’s career began in the late 70s, but this 1982 album was his breakthrough which featured the hits “Little Red Corvette,” and the title track which probably earned Prince half-a-billion dollars in royalties on December 31, 1999 alone.

Purple Rain – his biggest selling album, certified platinum 22 times over. The soundtrack to the movie of the same name starring Prince as “The Kid,” the album held the number one spot on the Billboard charts for 24 weeks and spawned the hit songs, “When Doves Cry, “Let’s Go Crazy,” and the title track.

Parade – follow up to Purple Rain featuring the number one hit song, “Kiss.”

“Manic Monday,” “Stand Back,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” et al. – despite a prolific catalog, Prince still found time to pen and play on hit songs for other artists, often using writing pseudonyms so no one knew they were his.

TAFKAP – Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in 1993. Why? It was a giant middle finger to his record label, Warner Bros., who he felt was stifling his artistry. Ever the provocateur, Prince was also a coy adversary who leveraged his image to discourage his opponents. It was kind of a bad ass move.

Super Bowl XLI – Billboard.com has called it the greatest Super Bowl half-time performance ever. Appropriately a downpour ensued for “Purple Rain.” Can’t make this stuff up.

Doin’ it All – it’s also not widely known but important to note that as a multi-instrumentalist Prince played most, if not all, the instruments on his albums. His live performances were perennially lauded, and he was critical in the development of many well know musicians and entertainers such as Vanity, Apollonia Kotero, and Carmen Electra.

As a cultural figure, Prince was an icon. His absence leaves a bottomless chasm in the musical landscape, one further cratered by the losses of Bowie, Frey, and Haggard. Indeed, death is a natural circumstance of life. But if life is just a party, and parties aren’t meant to last, it sure seems 2016 has its number of the metaphorical curfew.

“The afterworld – a world of never ending happiness; U can always see the sun, day or night.”

                     – Prince Rogers Nelson

 

Somewhere in Time

Predator is a great movie. The writing is fluid and memorable. The acting is layered in machismo, but earnest during necessary poignancy. Even if you’re not a fan of sci-fi, it’s hard to argue the impact of the special effects. There’s catchphrases galore. “I ain’t got time to bleed.” “Get to the choppa!” Also, it’s rated R, so it’s accessible on an adult level. Yes, Predator is a fun-filled, rock-em-sock-em action bonanza.

Predator_Movie

(c) 20th Century Fox

Another noteworthy component: no one has attempted to re-boot it into an impotent, degraded Hollywood vehicle for consumer extortion. Yes, there are sequels and spin-offs, but that’s not really new in the film world. Still, given the major film studios are either unable or unwilling to do anything other than cull new movies from well-known source material, it’s surprising, if not refreshing, to see at least one gem escape tarnish.

About one month after Predator‘s release in theaters, audiences were treated to another sci-fi action treat. Orion Pictures released RoboCop to commercial success and widespread critical acclaim in the summer of 1987.

Content notwithstanding, there’s a big difference between these two films. That difference is any reference to RoboCop today has to be prefaced with “the original,” to discern it from the soulless bag of garbage MGM and Sony remade in 2014.

Now if you maintain a rather nihilistic view of the current Hollywood trend to “re-image” every story ever told then you will likely brush off the barrage of limp blockbusters churned out every summer. What’s unfortunate is that while the common moviegoer is force fed cinematic gentrification, “classics” like Predator and RoboCop – yes, the original – are gradually fading from the cultural radar screen.

It’s unfortunate that assisting Hollywood in it’s dissolution of novel film making is a generation that seems to be inherently opposed to anything remotely antique. Its position on media seems to echo technology; if it’s not the latest and greatest then it must be outdated and unworthy of attention. This is a disservice to not only modern audiences but dedicated film fans who would love to see the next Predator or RoboCop, and not just some hollow copy of the original. But Hollywood’s priority is butts in seats, and if mediocrity is what people want…

On December 25, 2015, Quentin Tarantino’s highly anticipated The H8ful Eight came out in theaters, but only a select few retrofitted with 70mm film projectors. As arguably cinema’s purist advocate, Tarantino shot his latest movie in 70mm film. At this point virtually every studio the world over has switched to the cheaper, faster digital format. And if you feel the pictures have lost grandeur over the last ten years, you’re not crazy. That’s what digitizing everything does. Like the studios, most movie theaters have switched to digital projection, so even if you can’t see the movie as Tarantino intended it is still available as a worldwide release.

Regardless of the quality, The H8ful Eight embodies posterity if nothing else. People should appreciate that which came before, and understand that newer is not always better. In fact rarely is it better. The only instance that comes to mind is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. And even then these films only slightly edge out Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns.

And let’s be clear as to quell any notions of absent-mindedness: Mad Max: Fury Road is at best on par with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – it is not as good as Mad Max 2. And Star Wars: The Force Awakens just plain sucks.

What audiences (and to some degree artists themselves) seem to forget is that certain media milestones exist in a vacuum. No matter how hard you try it is impossible to recreate the circumstances that lead to brilliance. Franchises like Batman and Superman can be constantly updated as they have deeply ingrained themselves into our social fabric. We’re talking like 80- years-spread-over-multiple-media-outlets deep! Even if George Lucas himself returned to helm the latest Star Wars entry it still wouldn’t live up to expectations. He’s a different director than he was almost 40 years ago. Case in point: George Miller returning to the Mad Max series. And while Fury Road was not a bad movie, it lacked a certain recklessness the originals had – in all fairness, so did Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Despite this staunch stance, however, let it be stated for the record that the occasional remake isn’t a bad thing. Remakes are nothing new in the movie and T.V. world (how come musicians never try to remake albums? does anyone remember what an “album” is?). But there is a big difference in paying homage to something and blatantly ripping it off for money’s sake. David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly and John Carpenter’s The Thing are great examples of remakes that are superior to the originals. What did they do that was so different? For starters several years had passed since the originals were at the forefront of anyone’s mind. But most importantly these directors put new spins on the source material. The fact is these remakes would have been great even if no one had ever heard of the originals. No one was trying to cash in on a recognizable name.

Could someone remake Predator? Possibly. You’d need the right cast (who can replace Schwarzenegger in anything?), a solid R rating so it isn’t dumbed-down for mass appeal, and a director eager to put his or her own angle on what is a rather simple story. Then you might have something. But here’s a thought: why bother? Predator is easy enough to find on DVD or Amazon. It’s not that old. It holds up. There’s no need for an update.

And if it really is that you have run out of ideas, Hollywood, drop a line here at Retrobacktive because guess what? I don’t just write blogs.

 

Definitive Eighties: Michael J. Fox, Actor

In the decade that nurtured the birth of Reaganomics there was perhaps no greater right-wing evangelist, or icon of conservative ambition, than young Ohioan Alex P. Keaton. He rejected those notions of the previous counterculture generation – including those of his own parents – and openly held the ideals of Milton Friedman, William Buckley, Jr., and Richard Nixon in the highest regard. He worked tirelessly to not just put himself within position of economic benefit, but to participate in its very direction. He eventually broke free from the confinement of Columbus to engage first-hand in the financial world of Wall Street before following his idols’ footsteps into the political arena, ultimately serving as a United States Senator.

Alex Keaton was undeniably charming in his emphatic, if not buffoonish, devotion to conservatism. As he should have been given that Alex Keaton was never a real person, but the indelible protagonist played by Michael J. Fox on the hit NBC sitcom Family Ties.

Airing from 1982 to 1989, Family Ties chronicled the lives of the Keatons, a middle-class suburban family comprised of liberal parents at constant odds with their conservative children. Though mother Elyse (Meredith Baxter) and father Steven (Michael Gross) were to be the focal characters of the program, Fox quickly became the breakout star. He continually defined the tenor of the sociopolitical era with his earnest albeit self-absorbed portrayal, which would go on to earn the him three Emmy awards and the number 17 spot in TV Guide’s “50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time” list.

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(Michael J. Fox, second-from-right. Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Although it would be the role that would launch Fox into stardom, NBC hadn’t originally intended to cast the 21-year-old Canadian actor. Even after first-choice Matthew Broderick turned down the opportunity to play Keaton, producer Brandon Tartikoff lobbied to have Fox removed from the show, doubting the actor’s ability to connect with an audience. At its peak, Family Ties’ viewership represented one-third of American households. But even as Fox’s nimble charisma continued to put naysayers to silence, there were few who could have anticipated just how giant the actor’s future would be.

A 1.21 Gigawatt Role

By now, even the most novice cinephile knows that when principal shooting for Back to the Future began in 1984, Eric Stoltz was cast in the lead role of Marty McFly. Many, however, believe that Stoltz was director Robert Zemeckis‘ first choice for the part. But this is something of an inaccuracy. Though Zemeckis was impressed with Stoltz’ performance in Mask, Michael J. Fox was his first choice for the lead. Conflict, however, with filming for Family Ties initially kept Fox from accepting the role.

As Fox had become the centerpiece of the show, producer Gary David Goldberg feared with Meredith Baxter absent on maternity leave, losing their two biggest stars would be a ratings disaster for Family Ties. Production of Back to the Future moved forward with Stoltz, but five weeks into filming, Zemeckis came to an unsettling conclusion: Stoltz was miscast. Convinced Stoltz could not deliver the whimsical disbelief essential to the role, Zemeckis scrapped five weeks of filming to start anew. It was an expensive decision that cost production $3 million and pushed the release date back from May to July. But by now Baxter had returned to Family Ties, and the producers of Back to the Future were able to negotiate a deal with Goldberg that allowed Fox to work on the film after shooting dailies for his show.

The process was arduous but fruitful. Fox’s everyman charm and on-screen chemistry with co-star Christopher Lloyd made Back to the Future a runaway success. The film grossed over $380 million and became the most successful movie of 1985. It propelled Fox into Hollywood superstardom. The fervor of Back to the Future was followed up not two months later with the release of Teen Wolf. Along with a hit TV show, Michael J. Fox had almost overnight become a bonafide movie star.

Cover of "Back to the Future"

Cover of Back to the Future

Fox credited much of his acclaim as Marty McFly with how easily relatable he found the character. Like McFly, Fox was both an avid skateboarder and guitar player. It was a genuine kinship that translated with the audience. Back to the Future spawned a franchise the included two sequels, Back to the Future II (1989) and Back to the Future III (1990), an animated television series, and a theme-park ride at Universal Studios Theme Park.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive reception, Fox was briefly in a precarious position. He’d found success in playing off-beat yet engaging teenagers. The pitfalls of typecasting were abundant during the mid-80s as many of the child stars of the 70s attempted to reinvent themselves for a more adult audience.

Fox countered, however, with a string of movies that relayed his calculated wit in increasingly adult roles. He finished two films in 1987. In Light of Day he played, Joe Rasnick, the guitar playing brother of Joan Jett’s character, Patti Rasnick. While not a hit, the film received critical praise and was an unequivocal departure from Fox’s previous light-hearted fare.

The Secret of My Success brought Fox back to his comedic origins, but this time in the more sophisticated setting of the boardroom. Fox played financial wiz Brantley Foster, who moves to New York for a lofty job only to find himself living a double life in order to scale the walls of corporate success. It is arguably Fox’s bawdiest role, pitting him against corporate megalomania (in an ironic twist as Fox was still portraying Alex Keaton on Family Ties) while screwball sexual farce ensues.

It was not, however, until 1988 that Fox was given the opportunity to truly break out of the hapless-come-charming youth persona he’d set the bar for with his earlier work. In Bright Lights, Big City – a screen adaptation of Jay McInerney’s second-person examination of urban decadence – Fox starred as Jamie Conway, an aspiring writer who numbs his emotional turmoil with drugs, alcohol, and the endless solace of big city anonymity. The performance is uniquely Fox, filled with rattled wittiness faintly a hair above tragic isolation. While critics stood polarized on Fox’s selection as the lead, Bright Lights, Big City would be the door that would lead Fox through his ultimate acting arc.

Cover of "Bright Lights, Big City"

Cover of Bright Lights, Big City

By 1989, Family Ties had come to an end, but Fox’s movie career was in full swing. He’d followed up his smash success as Marty McFly with Back to the Future Part II, simultaneously filming the second sequel, Back to the Future Part III, and having them released only six months apart. But it was a lesser-known film by Brian De Palma that showcased Fox’s most reaching role. In Casualties of War, Fox plays Max Eriksson, a troubled Vietnam vet who recalls the horrific rape and murder of a young Vietnamese woman by his fellow squad members. The film is graphic in its recount of the Incident on Hill 192, with Fox playing the sole center of morality, defying orders and threats in an ultimately vain effort to save the teenage girl. The film is purely morose, absent even the smallest shred of Fox’s frenetic giddiness. Casualties of War failed to resonate with audiences, but it remains Fox’s most desperate characterization to date and cemented his breadth within cinema.

Despite demonstrating his ability to contend with “dramatic” actors such as Sean Penn and Keifer Sutherland, Fox returned to his comedic roots by wrapping up the Back to the Future series in 1990, and releasing Doc Hollywood in 1991. A string of lighthearted fare followed, including Life With Mikey and For Love or For Money in 1993, and Greedy in 1994, until Fox’s last major film role in 1996’s The Frighteners.

Rise of the Incurable Optimist

Unlike the seminal roles he’d created during the 80s, Fox’s 90s character canon – with the exception of Doc Hollywood – is mostly forgettable. Fox, however, remained indefatigable, reclaiming his infectious small-screen charisma as Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty in ABC’s Spin City (1996-2002). As the ringleader of a social misfit New York City municipal administration, Fox captured audiences virtually overnight by engaging over 15 years’ worth of practiced coyness, restrained disbelief, and righteous mockery, and amalgamating it into the relentlessly kinetic Mike Flaherty. It remains his most definitive character.

Sadly the kinesis that drove Fox’s performance was a symptom of the real-life disease he had been suffering from in private since 1991. It was on the set of Doc Hollywood that Fox began showing symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. He filmed three seasons of Spin City before revealing he had Parkinson’s and that the fourth season would be his last as the show’s star. He accumulated three Golden Globes, an Emmy and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award during his run as lead actor on the series, after which he continued in Emmy-winning guest appearances on television shows such as Rescue Me, Boston Legal, and Scrubs.

Since his diagnosis, Fox has most commonly been seen in the public eye as a crusader in the fight for stem cell and degenerative disease research. He has published three autobiographies, and will return to television on September 26, 2013 in The Michael J. Fox Show. Outside of his role as a public advocate for medical research, Fox has continuously delivered open, honest, and at times self-mocking candor in both acting and personal demonstration. The actor has received two honorary doctorates of law, one honorary doctorate of medicine, and was lauded by Time Magazine in 2007 “to be celebrated for his work, his kindness, his humor under duress, and for a noble heart.”

While his accomplishments as an actor can often be overlooked in relation to his highly publicized battle with Parkinson’s Disease, there is no denying that Fox’s versatility, timing, and natural aplomb make him the irrefutable cornerstone of the last 30 years of North American film and television. Thus, Michael J. Fox earns the title of Retrobacktive’s Definitive Eighties: Actor.

39th Emmy Awards - Sept. 1987- rehearsal - Per...

39th Emmy Awards – Sept. 1987- rehearsal – “photo by Alan Light” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Holy cow, look at that coat!

“To survive war, you have to become war.”

One of, if not the most remarkable aspects of Eighties culture is the decade’s rich and varied list of iconic movies and film characters. The blockbuster – a child of the Seventies – particularly came into its own in the Eighties thanks to hits like Back to the Future, Beverly Hills Cop, and Friday the 13th. The arrival of VHS, Betamax, and the video rental store added a significant boost to cinema consumption as movies became more accessible and subsequently more memorable.

Without a doubt, the breakout star of the era was the action film. Sure, the Seventies provided its fair share of nail-biters, but most of these were either western remnants or entries from the then-popular “disaster movie” sub-genre. But the Eighties gave moviegoers something new: the action hero. Typically a self-reliant loner with a calm defiance toward authority, the action hero – or more appropriately, the anti-hero – defined the prototypical masculine product of the Reagan Era. And it all began with one man: John Rambo.

Though his conception dates back to 1972, David Morrell’s distraught and equally destructive Vietnam veteran from the novel First Blood gained worldwide attention in 1982 thanks to Sylvester Stallone‘s iconic cinematic portrayal.

John Rambo in 1982, after returning to civilia...

John Rambo in 1982, after returning to civilian life. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First Blood became a milestone film in the action movie genre; it established the popular formula of the outnumbered protagonist successfully defending himself against an oppressive militant group in an isolated environment. Die Hard may have perfected this formula, but First Blood blazed the path. Yet despite the series’ collective reputation, First Blood is not exceptionally violent. There’s only one character death throughout the entire film. Unlike its three sequels, First Blood is an action film only on the surface; underneath it’s a sober examination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the lasting affects of war. And say what you will about Stallone’s historically one-dimensional film characters, this is his ultimate performance (sorry, Rocky fans). Preceding Schwarzenegger’s Terminator by two years, Stallone delivers a perfectly mechanical fighting machine, right up until his emotional explosion at the film’s climax. It’s a rare moment of vulnerability for Rambo, but one that touches upon an often marginalized symptom of military serviceman and women. Until recently, action films were regularly dismissed by film critics, and almost exclusively overlooked during award season, but in today’s diversified film market, it’s not hard to imagine Stallone earning an Oscar nod for his performance

Rambo’s enduring legacy, however, was eventually built around the Eighties definitive excess. Something of a victim in First Blood, Rambo became a juggernaut of destruction in 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II. Instructed by his perennial mentor, Col. Samuel Trautman, not to go for “the old blood and guts” routine, Rambo does just that, fearlessly taking on the combined forces of North Vietnam and Russia, and cementing himself as America’s favorite anti-communist symbol (although this becomes somewhat ironic by the third film in which we see Rambo working for free at a Buddhist monastery). R:FB Part II is a much hammier affair, but that may be due to James Cameron’s participation in writing the screenplay with Stallone. Cameron at that time was still fresh out of his tutelage at the hands of Roger Corman, who never veered shy of a little schlock.

While certainly inappropriate for younger audiences, Rambo: First Blood Part II found its way into the hearts and minds of boys across the world who longed for Rambo’s resourcefulness and physical superiority – and a girlfriend that looked like Co-Bao. R:FB Part II officially ignited Rambo-mania. A toy line followed, as did a cartoon series and video games, and the Rambo franchise secured its indelibility for generations to come.

By the time Rambo III was released in 1988, the Cold War was at its apex. Possibly looking to escape the simplistic brutality of its immediate predecessor, Rambo III reached for loftier intellect, relying on the United States and Soviet Union’s legitimate entanglement, and the U.S.S.R’s occupation of Afghanistan as pretense for the action. It was a common theme at the time, but here the film’s message is eerily prophetic. Attempting to confront the main antagonist’s misguided imperialistic efforts, Col. Trautman delivers a speech someone should have replayed for George W. Bush 13 years later. Guess Dubya’s more of Charles Bronson fan.

Rambo ends up turning everybody into chop suey by the end of the film, and so much of the political backdrop is lost, but Rambo III is undoubtedly the most cerebral of the Rambo sequels (and yes, I’m aware this is a movie that opens with a stick fight).

Sadly, this is Richard Crenna’s final appearance in a Rambo film. Crenna died in 2003, long before the latest Rambo installment went into production. An integral component to the series, Crenna’s sage Col. Trautman takes on a much more utilitarian role in Rambo III, literally fighting alongside his pupil and bringing the character full circle.

As staples of Eighties culture, the first three Rambo movies have entered the American lexicon and turned Rambo into as much institution as character, and arguably shaped the idea of U.S. militarism for any boy born between 1976 and 1989 – this includes fighting wars in red bandanas while almost exclusively shirtless.

If you are at all a fan of Eighties action movies, you’ve done yourself a grave disservice if you’ve missed out on the Rambo series. Entering the franchise now, there may be elements of the films that border on parody, but this is only because they have been referenced countless times in a plethora of mediums. Indeed, the first and second sequels can go over the top, but at the same time they’ll have you up at three a.m., ordering survival knives on Amazon.com. They’re good fun (the movies; not the knives), but the original is your best bet for a more emotionally connective experience. There is a third sequel titled just plain Rambo. Easily the darkest of the series, it’s worth checking out, but falls way outside the scope of this blog’s parameters (2008). Sorry, you’re own your own with that one.