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.
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, the notion of freezing people in carbonite, a fantastic city in the clouds, fabulous beasts called Tauntauns and Wampas, the diminutive and wise 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 the forefront. It’s still basically a comic book storyboard come to life, but it’s epic as hell.
Richard Lester’s Superman II (A) plunges viewers right into the action with a spectacular Eiffel Tower stunt showdown evocative of a James Bond prologue leading up to a showdown with the three villains from Krypton, led by a deliciously diabolical Terence Stamp. Christopher Reeve’s Superman decides that romancing Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is worth spilling his secret identity secret and possibly foregoing his superpowers in this film that balances the weight of the world versus the limits of love. Lester adds a tinge of additional tongue-in-cheek anarchy to the proceedings, which make the showdowns in the streets of Metropolis and in Middle America a whole lot more fun. This sequel flies high.
Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (A-) perfectly captures the zeitgeist of comic strip wonder as the natural charmer Christopher Reeve suits up to play the American hero opposite a marvelously modern Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. Following an appropriately somber special effects laden origin story with Marlon Brando playing Superman’s father and a lovely pastoral wheat field coming of age passage in Smallville, the movie plunges into Metropolis and a megalomaniacal plan by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) to sink California and jack up coastal real estate prices. Donner paces the film precisely for the right tone and tenor to showcase a blossoming romance with Lois and Clark (and his more suave alter ego) and flights of fancy. Except for a misstep in the final reel that too easily resolves some of the plot lines, this is the template for what a great superhero movie can be.
George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (A) is a swashbuckling outer space adventure inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Reluctant hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) teams up with a surly smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and a mysterious wizard (Sir Alec Guinness) to help rescue the strong-willed Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the clutches of the Evil Empire, lead by villainous Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones). Exotic desert spaceports filled with amazing creatures, just-in-time escapes in battleships and military-precision missions all factor in to the plot as our heroes venture forward to save the “Rebellion.” This film is amazing fun for all ages and is the one movie from this series that stands alone or can be viewed as the first part of the “classic trilogy.” Borrowing from fantasy serials such as Flash Gordon, the film creates its own good-versus-evil mythology and consistently entertains with cliffhangers and close calls. John Williams’ superb score and many of the film’s classic lines have simply become iconic.