Director John Glen, who has made a career out of taking the final gasps of life out of creaky James Bond film entries in the late ’80’s, originally cast Timothy Dalton but found an even more bland leading man named George Correface to play the title character of Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (D+). Like the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria, this vessel is undeniably wooden. Even Marlon Brando can’t muster a glimmer of interest as a high inquisitor. This “Columbus for Beginners” wouldn’t even make a good mini-series if you split it up into episodes. This won’t be playing soon in a classroom near you.
Jon Avnet’s Fried Green Tomatoes (A) offers a whistlestop whirlwind into the universal truths of friendship, sisterhood and possibly a whole lot more under the surface of women in the South. Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy are appealing in the framing modern-day empowerment story, but it’s the flashbacks centering on rascally restaurateurs played by Mary-Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson that really take hold of the imagination. Several subplots that aren’t fully sketched are eclipsed by the overall emotional impact of a journey that showcases the power of secrets and sacrifice.
Fresh off their excellent adventure, the dimmest duo in time travel along with their respective robot doppelgängers return for more harmless fun in Pete Hewitt’s Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (B-). Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter reprise roles as vaguely stoner wannabe rock stars who must literally go through hell this time around to align time and space. The new conceit is far out, especially with an arty Ingmar Bergman homage of grim reaper sidekick Death played with droll abandon by William Sadler. Most of the jokes land, and it almost feels like there’s something at stake as the cheesy highjinks ensue. This series shouldn’t work but does.
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.
This time intrepid travelers Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd go way back in time as Robert Zemeckis concludes his trilogy in the Western milieu. Back to the Future Part III (B) restores charm and personality to the franchise by introducing a new love story between Lloyd and a feisty townswoman played by Mary Steenbergen. Many of the time travel tropes are still a hoot, and the director stages some delightful action sequences especially involving the series’ famed vehicle and a locomotive of the past. The film is a fun and fitting conclusion to a series that sets the standard for time travel adventures.
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.