The eager but naïve FBI agent played by Jodie Foster and the imprisoned cannibal played by Anthony Hopkins are the serial killer tracking duo for the ages in Jonathan Demme’s riveting thriller The Silence of the Lambs (A+). Exploring the deepest reaches of the human psyche with crackling dialogue, impeccable acting and edge-of-your-seat thrills, this is a master class of trying to figure out motivations before a killer or even a fellow hunter makes the next move. Demme intentionally shoots Foster’s character in a way that juxtaposes her as different in world of male-dominated law enforcement officials and female victims, allowing her to hold steady as an amazing protagonist even as vicious villains try to get in her head. Hopkins’ role as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is one of the great onscreen roles and fascinating in his every sequence.
Basic Instinct (C-) is a self-consciously shocking thriller from Robocop director Paul Verhoeven. Its highlight is a fresh, fierce performance from Sharon Stone as a cunning ice pick wielding femme fatale with a penchant for being panty-less and being oddly nonchalant about homicide. Both her creaky co-star Michael Douglas and Joe Eszterhas’s lumpy screenplay (“She’s evil…and brilliant!”) are no match for Stone’s one-woman show. Underdeveloped plot and characters leave the high-gloss affair oddly un-erotic and un-involving despite some undeniably guilty pleasure moments.
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s animated musical Beauty and the Beast (A) is an assured and timeless confection with a delightful heroine, a forbidden romance and more showstoppers than most modern Broadway musicals. The title song plus “Be Our Guest,” “Belle” and others all written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman have become iconic. The talking sidekicks – from candelabra Lumiere to clock Cogsworth – are charming as can be, and the French countryside is a splendid setting for a fairy tale. Your heart will melt like the beast’s does for this high point in the Disney canon.
Adding to the charm Harrison Ford brings to the heroic role, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (A) layers in a flashback sequence with River Phoenix as Young Indy and introduces an inspired casting companion: Sean Connery as Indy’s dad. The two Joneses go on a quest to find the Holy Grail (before the Nazis get it, of course!). The family dynamic helps make fresh what might otherwise feel like a retread. We get exotic locales from Italy to Jordan and a highly sentimental set of sequences as father-son bonding and bickering become a major part of the equation. Since Indiana Jones was always Spielberg’s James Bond type franchise, the pairing of Indy with the original 007 is a great casting excavation. It’s a triumphant send-off for a trilogy of outstanding action films; I’ll try to forget that one more misguided sequel happens many years later.
Related link: One of my jobs in the 1990’s was developing the in-store magazine and Website for a video rental chain called MOOVIES. Here’s one of the few remaining sidebars: A run-down of Sean Connery’s movies: Link here.
Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (A-) is a startling drama, all taking place in the confines of a swanky restaurant in which the colors of the characters’ costumes change in each room. This allegory features Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon as the central couple. She is an abused wife (the husband evidently is a symbol of Margaret Thatcher) who falls into the hands of the so-called “lover,” who represents intellectual dissidents. A secret love affair ensues right under the same roof where the brooding husband holds court each night over his feast. Greenaway films the movie in fleshy primary colors and uses Michael Nyman’s orchestral music to propel the story forward during the course of a series of days. All sorts of deceit and decadence are on the menu as the film swells to its stirring conclusion. It’s an obsessive and amazing film, not for the easily offended.
Sidney J. Furie’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (F) was the film that trashed a perfectly good franchise, and this was coming off a previous film in which Supes accidentally ate dog food and straightened the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This fourth installment has Christopher Reeve’s now sullen Superman promise a bratty kid he will rid the world of nuclear weapons; but when he does so he accidentally activates a super-villain named Nuclear Man who had been strategically placed in embryo form in outer space by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his Valley Girl nephew (Jon Cryer) for just such a fertilization. Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) is quite possibly the lamest supervillain in movie history. Some of the effects in this film look like two dimensional cardboard cut-outs. Hurriedly-dressed sets are hilarious in how much they don’t look like Manhattan/Metropolis. And the stunning lack of logic around topics such as breathing in space further mars this quickie sequel as it creaks to the screen.
Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (B+) is a marvelous confection about four exterminators of ghastly spirits (droll Bill Murray, goofy Dan Akroyd, uber-serious Harold Ramis and straight man Ernie Hudson) who must save New York from a Pandora’s box of supernatural creatures run amok. Sigourney Weaver is a treat as a possessed love interest, playing giddily opposite Bill Murray’s clowning. Despite the overindulgence in silly special effects, the acting ensemble makes this piece work by playing it super-serious. The biggest laughs are in the reaction shots: Of course that’s a skyscraper sized marshmallow man! And why wouldn’t there be demonic animals running in the street? Leading man Murray is a superb match for this material with his dry wit a ribald rapier to the funky fleet week of ghosts on the loose. Reitman corrals his grinning brigade into hilarious territory as the ‘busters take on haunted New York!
Steven Spielberg pulls out all the stops and emphasizes an “anything goes” theme with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (A-) as Harrison Ford’s titular protagonist helps a village in India try to recover sacred stones that have been stolen by a cult that has been kidnapping and sacrificing children. The sidekicks are a bit grating this time around (Kate Capshaw and Jonathan Ke Quan) and the supernatural mumbo jumbo a bit less grounded, but the stunts and pratfalls and mishaps and menace are just spectacular. It’s thrill-a-minute wall-to-wall action with even more crazy mischief than its predecessor, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (A-), directed by Richard Marquand, concludes a magnificent saga with an adventure to save Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, an excursion to a forest planet where Princess Leia confronts some family secrets and a battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader for control of the universe. Treading some familiar territory, we have to blow up another Death Star and endure a few other retreads of movies past. And we may have some Ewok teddy bears as a merchandising tie-in. But it’s still wall-to-wall action, amazing new creatures (Jabba the Hutt! The Rancor Monster! Admiral Ackbar!) and lots of great moments in the details. No matter which of Lucas’ special editions you may be watching, you’ll be humming a tune as you complete the saga – and that tune will include the unspoken lyric, “I just watched awesome.”
It’s like a producer asked what’s popular in the ‘80’s, and someone said computers and Richard Pryor; and then he said, thanks, I was really fishing for the villains for my new superhero film. So there you have it, in Richard Lester’s Superman III (C), Superman vs. a comedian and a microchip fortress. It’s a mess, but a guilty pleasure of a glorious mess as Clark Kent goes to his high school reunion and romances Lana Lang (a charming Annette O’Toole), as Superman is confronted with some bizarre Kryptonite that turns him into a meanie for a while and as Pryor and a gang of billionaire villains set a high-tech trap for Supes. Most of what worked in the past two films simply isn’t here, except Christopher Reeve, who continues to give it his all. In fact, this may be my favorite Reeve performance as Superman/Clark as he gets to go from earnest to boorish quite often depending on what bad super-weed Pryor is pushing. It’s all a bit goofy but still pretty watchable. It’s just a shame that there wasn’t just a slight lifting of standards.
Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (A+) is a rollercoaster ride through history as archeologist protagonist Indiana Jones races against time to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. It is said to have powers that will protect an army; in the wrong hands, it could help evil forces conquer the world. Spielberg gives his grizzled hero simple tools (a bullwhip, an occasional map), a spunky girlfriend (Karen Allen) and a globetrotting trip from Peru to Egypt and beyond as he chases antiquities. Harrison Ford is at his very best in this role; and the effects and stunts are epic. This is one of the great modern adventures, told with wide-eyed wit and wisdom.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (A), directed by Irvin Kershner, deepens the human emotions of the Star Wars characters, giving Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia a witty repartee and Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker a more self-assured step into his destiny to becoming a Jedi Knight. But the villains – Darth Vader and his boss The Emperor – are ready for some payback, and tragedy and disappointment may be on the menu. This is the movie that introduces us to AT-AT imperial walkers that move like giant beasts through frosty terrains, freezing people in carbonite, a fantastic city in the clouds, Tauntauns, Wampas, Yoda and so much deepening of the folklore. Billy Dee Williams joins the cast as Lando Calrisean, and he’s a refreshing addition; like many other elements in the film, it’s hard to know whose side he’s on! It’s lush and lyrical, passionate and poetic and all the while still adventurous. This is the epic “space opera” that comes from George Lucas’ story with someone else directing and Lawrence Kasdan writing. The stakes are higher, and the adult drama comes brilliantly to life. It’s still basically a comic book storyboard come to life, but it’s epic as hell.