We’re choosing the ultimate summer movie. This week, it’s ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ vs. everything else
Welcome to the third week of the L.A. Times Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown, our 16-week contest to program the greatest summer movie season ever. Or at least since 1975, the year that “Jaws” forever changed the landscape of moviemaking, gross tallying and beach bumming forever.
To recap the rules: Each week, I will present you with a list of 16 movies from 1975 to 2019, all of which were released during a particular summer time frame. You may vote for your favorites on my Twitter account, @JustinCChang; each week’s polls are posted at 5 p.m. PT Tuesday.
Our Week 1 winner was the Disney/Marvel superhero blockbuster “The Avengers.” In Week 2, the contenders included such popular May 8-14 releases as “Star Trek” (2009), “Twister” (1996) and “Blue Thunder” (1983). The winner, narrowly besting “The Fifth Element” with just 50.4% of the vote, was “Bridesmaids,” the hit 2011 comedy starring and co-written by Kristen Wiig.
And now we look to Week 3, which covers movies that opened in U.S. theaters between May 15 and 21, 1975-2019. It’s a powerhouse week in which many contenders come in pairs: We’ve got two “Star Wars” movies, two “Mad Max” movies, two Maverick movies, two Paris movies, two Mel Gibson movies, two Val Kilmer movies and two Keanu Reeves movies. Here they are, in chronological order:
A tepid PG-rated 2009 remake couldn’t touch the scrappy-slick charms of Alan Parker’s musical about a group of aspiring young performers trying to make it big in New York City.
“Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
By consensus the greatest of all “Star Wars” movies, Irvin Kershner’s dark, glittering jewel of a space opera is the bookies’ favorite this week. But we’ll see how the strong the Force is with this one soon enough.
Like “Fame,” John Huston’s adaptation of the Broadway musical was recently and lousily remade. The original is no classic, though its charms — Albert Finney’s benignly belligerent Daddy Warbucks, Carol Burnett’s splendidly ratty Miss Hannigan, a stirring round of “Tomorrow” with the Roosevelts — are considerable.
“The Road Warrior” (1982)
George Miller’s desert dystopia is by now such a fixture of our cinematic landscape that we run the risk of taking its imagination, and its eerie plausibility, for granted. “The Road Warrior,” a superior sequel to the original “Mad Max,” remains one of the most virtuosic action movies ever made.
“Top Gun” (1986)
A decades-later sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” was supposed to open in July before getting postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll have to wait a bit longer to see if it lives up to the swoony, kinetic grandeur of the Tony Scott/Tom Cruise original, which, ludicrous as it often is, can still take your breath away.
It’s quite the George Lucas-heavy week; he produced this muddled but oddly memorable fantasy adventure from director Ron Howard. The special effects drew much “ooh” and ahh,” but it was the actors who made it work: Warwick Davis as the eponymous hero, Val Kilmer as the insouciant warrior Madmartigan and, most of all, Jean Marsh as the unforgettably chilling Queen Bavmorda.
“What About Bob?” (1991)
There are two types of people in this world: those who like “What About Bob?” and those who don’t.
The lead pairing of Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster is among the chief pleasures of Richard Donner’s quick-witted, genre-melding western, but it’s James Garner, TV’s original Bret Maverick, who gives the picture its enduring soul.
“Die Hard With a Vengeance” (1995)
A generic but effective enough retread, this one pairing Bruce Willis with Samuel L. Jackson, that acquired a patina of topical resonance by arriving just a month after the Oklahoma City bombing. It grimly foreshadowed a phenomenon — the ill-timed Hollywood blockbuster — that would become more pronounced after 9/11.
“Moulin Rouge” (2001)
Fairly polarizing on its release, despite its Oscars and its box office millions, Baz Luhrmann’s shimmering paean to punch-drunk excess is now as fervently beloved as any movie on this list. It’s that rare thing, a synthesis of pop-cultural touchstones that has become a meaningful touchstone in its own right.
With its crude wink-wink sensibility and Smash Mouth overload, this DreamWorks Animation adaptation of William Steig’s fantasy story has never really been my goblet of elixir. Millions of fans clearly disagree. (Not included or considered: “Shrek 2,” “Shrek the Third” and “Shrek Forever After,” which were also released during this May 15-21 time frame.)
“The Matrix Reloaded” (2003)
Inferior to “The Matrix” but far better than “The Matrix Revolutions,” the middle chapter of the Wachowski siblings’ increasingly turgid trilogy remains a weirdly compelling object — a self-serious morass of images and ideas animated by passages of occasional brilliance.
“Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” (2005)
Both “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” were also released this week. We dropped them from contention in favor of “Revenge of the Sith,” the only one of George Lucas’ prequels that comes close — intermittently — to recapturing the pop grandeur of the original trilogy.
“Midnight in Paris” (2011)
I don’t much like this movie. I find the literary in-jokes leaden and self-congratulatory, the “live in your own time” messaging thin and facile. I hate that the luminous Rachel McAdams is trapped playing a two-dimensional shrew. I’m in the minority: “Midnight in Paris” won Woody Allen a screenwriting Oscar, it was his biggest hit in God knows how long, and its golden-reverie vibe is summer personified. It makes the list.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
George Miller’s multi-Oscar-winning triumph is staggering as a piece of action-movie craftsmanship and underappreciated as an actors’ showcase: Charlize Theron’s ferocious performance as Imperator Furiosa might be her finest work on screen, which is certainly saying something.
“John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” (2019)
Neither of the two “John Wick” sequels have quite recaptured the sleek, purposeful elegance of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s 2014 original, but that’s by design: They’re not just first-rate action thrillers but exercises in extended world building. “Parabellum,” anchored by a typically superb Keanu Reeves, will stand in for the whole series — at least, until “John Wick: Chapter 4” arrives.
How to vote: If you have a Twitter account (and if you don’t, you can sign up for one for free), you may vote in the polls that I will post this week. Here’s the schedule:
Tuesday, May 12
5 p.m.: Polls open for knockout round; voting ends at 1 a.m. Wednesday.
Wednesday, May 13
8 a.m.: Polls open for quarterfinals; voting ends at 4 p.m.
5 p.m.: Polls open for semifinals; voting ends at 1 a.m. Thursday.
Thursday, May 14
8 a.m.: Polls open for final vote.
4 p.m.: Final polls close; winner announced.
Happy voting — and keep an eye out for Week 4.
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