Structured like an underwater Broadway musical from the heroine’s bubbly “I want” song through kick-lines on conch shells, Disney’s The Little Mermaid (A), directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, is aquatic and sonic enchantment on every cell of hand-drawn animation. Viewers will be immediately taken by rebellious teen mermaid Ariel voiced by Jodi Benson, who is endlessly fascinated with visiting life on land, forbidden by threat of trident by her controlling royal father. Determined to further connect with a human prince she encounters on a secret jaunt, Ariel forges a dangerous deal with brassy sea witch Ursula (Pat Carroll) to become mortal for three days and must face sink or swim consequences to seal her star-crossed destiny. Catchy songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman such as “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” and “Kiss the Girl” become instant Disney canon, and supporting characters such as Sebastian the Caribbean Crab voiced by Samuel E. Wright charm throughout. The filmmakers create a vibrant animated water environment for an enchanting tale, and the buoyant and propulsive narrative makes for great family fun.
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 of villains who have 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 simply 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.
A wondrous creature from the cosmos befriends a lonely boy from a broken home in Steven Spielberg’s magnificent adventure E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (A+). Told to the tunes of soaring John Williams melodies, the story is both intimate and sprawling as gifted child actor Henry Thomas makes you absolutely believe in the bond of friendship he forges with a pint-sized alien. Dee Wallace is wonderful as the well-meaning mom whose workload eclipses some telltale signs that a close encounter of the suburban kind is being arranged in the recesses of her household. Robert MacNaughton and Drew Barrymore are also well cast as the other kids in the home who encounter Halloween highjinks, chases from foreboding scientists and magic around every corner. Spielberg shows everything from a child’s POV, which makes the wonder all the more resplendent. The effects and production design demonstrate the heights of creativity in the craft. Both the simple coming of age story and the deeper metaphor attached to the central relationship of this Spielberg masterwork make this movie endure as a modern classic.
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.