Director Robert Zemeckis returns to his time-hopping characters to make it a trilogy with an overly complex Back to the Future Part II (B-). Doubling down on the conventions of time travel itself, rather than exploring the emotional undertones which made the original film so special, this movie blasts both into the past and into a dystopian future to further complicate the life of its paradox-challenged protagonist, played again with relish by Michael J. Fox. While it’s neat to see the film’s iconic town besieged by futuristic conventions, the effects often look clunky and unrealistic. Jettisoning into events from the first film is more fun, mainly from the good will of seeing the familiar. This time around, the adventure excels without the resonance of the journey being all that personal. Christopher Lloyd is again a delight as the hero’s boon companion who misses most cross-generational references. The film gets points for ambition, but ultimately the art eclipses the heart.
Sometimes comic timing can save the day. A ragtag romp about a duo of Valley guys who embark on time travels through history to help bring order to a world gone mad, Stephen Herek’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (B+) shouldn’t be as charming as it is. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are gleefully goofy as the likable leads whose superficial encounters via a phone booth travel vessel with the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Socrates (their pronunciation of his name rhymes with “no gates”) provide funny fish out of water vignettes. George Carlin is amusing as the buddies’ temporal concierge. The effects are cheap and some of the laughs really obvious, but it’s mainly gleeful fun, like a feature-length crowd surf. There are many more triumphant films in this genre, but the movie’s distinctively dense leads help it coast into cult status.
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.
Coming to America (B), directed by John Landis, is a classic fish out of water comedy with a contemporary twist. Eddie Murphy plays the naïf Prince Akeem of the fictional African country Zamunda who travels with his best friend (Arsenio Hall) to New York undercover in order to find his bride. Murphy is committed to the role as basically the straight man of the comedy but gets to unleash his inner stand-up by playing a bunch of supporting characters under clever prosthetics including the eccentric denizens of a Queens barber shop. Although there’s a through-line of a plot, it’s really a film of episodes representing varying levels of amusement. Landis does some effective world building with the exotic locations on multiple continents. Kudos to Murphy for lots of funny notions and for delivering some wry commentary amidst the madcap adventure. Ultimately there’s more lark than bite, but it’s mostly pleasant fun.
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.
Tony Scott’s Top Gun (B) is style over substance, but ah, what great style! This iconic ’80s drama action hybrid features a charismatic Tom Cruise as a talented Navy aviator whose brashness gets him into trouble with the ladies, including love interest Kelly McGillis, and puts him at odds with friends (Anthony Edwards) and rivals (Val Kilmer) alike. The “Danger Zone” of one of its pop songs refers to the tempestuousness of the romance, the braggadocio of the fly-boys and the dread of a real wartime menace. Anyone who was ever hot for teacher, wanted a kept moment to take their breath away or simply sought some effective action stunts flocked to this favorite of its heyday. The story is lots of montage and flashy imagery but packs a patriotic punch. You either like the lovey-dovey stuff or the sky-high high-jinks; the Venn diagram of people who find all of this works equally for them may be minimal. But see it for the stars in the making, the cocky catchphrases and a Harold Faltermeyer score that basically says “you’re kicking ass in America during the ’80s.”
Back to the Future (A+), directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a triumph of imaginative storytelling as it creates its own universe of time travel and a most unusual intersection of one man’s destiny with his family. Michael J. Fox is the charismatic lead teenager who journeys from 1985 to 1955 with the help of an obsessed scientist (played with salty delight by Christopher Lloyd) and must manipulate events so his parents (Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover) fall in love. The complication is that our hero’s mom falls for him instead, and this potentially treacly Oedipal impasse yields more incredible comedy. Everything works here: the complex theories behind the science, the nostalgic fish out of water comedy, the tender and empowering moments, the Huey Lewis music. Zemeckis is a master of raising the stakes, providing an increasingly exhilarating tale. This is a good time from start to finish.
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.