The Karate Kid (1984, John G Avildsen)

tumblr_m3967lXJU41qlyq6uo1_1280

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A teenage boy moves to LA but is persecuted by some local bullies. So with the help of a mentor figure, he learns karate to defend himself…

Cast and story:
* The lead character is high-school student Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). At the beginning of the story he moves with his mother (Randee Heller) from New Jersey to California.
* Mother and son have a relaxed, easy-going relationship – she’s upbeat and can-do and they feel like pals as much as a family. The longer the film goes on, however, the more Lucille fades into the background. Daniel’s new parental figure becomes local handyman Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita).
* He’s an elderly bloke from Okinawa who has a dry sense of humour and a strong sense of honour, but also a tragic past. Forty years earlier, his wife and son died while he was away fighting in the war. So he’s lost a son and Daniel’s dad isn’t even mentioned – the two characters soon develop a bond, especially after Mr M saves Daniel from a beating…
* On his second day in LA, Daniel hung out with some new friends. He flirted with cute rich girl Ali Mills (an adorable Elisabeth Shue) but also angered her ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka).
* The sneering, aggressive Johnny and his gang of sycophantic mates arrive on the scene like the villains from a biker movie. They take against Daniel and bully him using their karate skills, so Mr M goes to see their sensei: Vietnam vet John Kreese (Martin Kove), a man so damaged by the war that he now finds pleasure in schooling teenage boys in how to beat up other teenage boys. Mr Miyagi strikes a deal: the gang will leave Daniel alone until he competes in an upcoming karate tournament.
* However, this gives Daniel just six weeks to train. (He’s also still trying to woo Ali, so it’s a busy time for the lad.) At first, Mr Miyagi’s techniques do not go down well. He forces Daniel to do some boring chores (cleaning his cars, painting his house), but then Dan realises that he’s been subliminally learning basic karate moves as he works.
* Full of this muscle memory, he then takes part in the tournament. Ali, who he’s now dating, and his mum are there for support. Despite some underhand tactics from an opponent he reaches the final, where – wouldn’t you know it? – he faces Johnny…
* Accompanied by rousing incidental music, Daniel wins the bout by using an unconventional ‘crane kick’ – an up-and-down kick to the face delivered while in mid-air – which he’d seen Mr Miyagi practise earlier in the film.

Review: As many people have pointed out, in some ways this movie is a redo of 1976’s Rocky (which was also directed by John G Avildsen). It’s a predictable, underdog story of a hero having to fight more powerful opponents with the help of a seen-it-all-before, older mentor. There’s even a stirring score from Bill Conti (Rocky, For Your Eyes Only). But that doesn’t mean it’s not a very enjoyable experience. Weaved in amongst the by-the-numbers, don’t-look-at-it-too-closely plotline are many details and delights – not least some strong performances. Macchio is very fine indeed and appropriately full of attitude and defiance despite looking about 12 years old. Shue and Heller are likeable presences, while Kove uses his three scenes to create one of the most memorable bad guys in 80s genre cinema. But the star of the show is Pat Morita. To some viewers in 1984 he would have been Arnold from the sitcom Happy Days; to others he was a stand-up comedian. Ever after, he was Mr Miyagi. Despite being just 51 during filming, he gives the character an ancient-feeling soul and a huge gravitas – as well as mixing in plenty of twinkle-eyed humour. The character is a superhero, rather than someone who comes from the real world. He can beat up a gang of teenagers and he can magically heal Daniel’s wounds. Away from Mr Miyagi, the movie feels part of the Brat Pack/John Hughes/teen movie cycle that was just getting underway in 1984. It’s set in and around an American high school (even featuring a dance held in the gymnasium); the soundtrack is filled with contemporary pop music (Bananarama!); and there’s a recurring theme of social class (Daniel is disliked because he’s poor; a person’s worth is dictated by the cost of his or her car). But there’s also something Spielbergian about it, especially in the scenes set at night which have wafts of smoke creating a spooky atmosphere and a young boy riding a BMX. Directed by Avildsen with a confident yet unfussy style – dialogue scenes often play out in uninterrupted two-shots – this is a very effective and amiable movie.

Nine Under-18 All-Valley Karate Championships out of 10

Sixteen Candles (1984, John Hughes)

wgorbxondakwcciwjtep

Spoiler warning: These reviews reveal plot twists.

When Samantha Baker turns 16, her family forget her birthday because they’re distracted by her sister’s upcoming wedding. Meanwhile, Sam’s also trying to get noticed by the school hunk *and* avoid the attentions of an über-geek…

Kids:

* Samantha Baker is played by John Hughes’s muse, Molly Ringwald. She’s a smart, likeable but shy teenager with red hair and a frustrating life. The first 67 minutes of the film take place on the character’s 16th birthday, but her entire family (including all four grandparents) have forgotten. She fancies a fellow pupil called Jake Ryan, but doesn’t think he’d be interested because he’s popular and has an attractive girlfriend. After making friends with a geek at a school dance, she freezes when she gets the chance to talk to Jake. So she goes home unhappy, where – in a very sweet scene – her father apologies for forgetting her birthday. Things also look up the next day: after Sam is bridesmaid at her sister’s chaotic wedding, Jake arrives to woo her… The initial favourite to play Sam was Ally Sheedy, but then John Hughes discovered Ringwald. The actress was only 16 herself, but had real star quality around this time. She’s so watchable.

* Sam has three siblings. Self-obsessed older sister Ginny (Blanche Baker) is preparing for her wedding but has been struck by her period. She takes four painkillers, which just make her delirious. Younger brother Mike (Justin Henry) is a chipper smartarse, while there’s also a young sister, Sara (Cinnamon Idles), who doesn’t get much to do.

* Sam’s best pal, Randy (Liane Curtis), is in some early scenes then kinda drops out of the story.

* Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) is the high-school hunk that Sam fancies. He’s a senior; she’s a sophomore – though oddly they share a class at one point (is that an American thing?). Unknown to Sam, he actually likes her too and is bored by his shallow girlfriend, Caroline. So he decides to pursue Sam and asks head geek Ted for help. Jake finally tracks Sam down at the wedding. He waits outside the church with his red sports car. Show-off. (Viggo Mortensen also auditioned for the part. Surely he’d have been better than the lethargic Schoeffling.)

* Caroline Mulford (Haviland Morris) is introduced via a close-up of her pert breasts while Sam and Randy look on with envy in the showers. She’s so perfect – popular, gorgeous, dotes on her deaf brother – that Sam hates her. Caroline later gets plastered at the big party and traps her hair in a door, so a helpful friend (played by Jami Gertz) cuts a chunk of her ’do off. She’s then taken home by an overexcited Ted. When they wake up in a car the following morning, Caroline thinks they may have slept together (neither can fully remember) and has a weird feeling that she enjoyed it.

* The Geek – as he’s credited, though he calls himself Farmer Ted – is played by Anthony Michael Hall, the Robert De Niro to John Hughes’s Martin Scorsese. We first see him inelegantly hitting on Samantha, who couldn’t be less interested. He then tries again at that evening’s school dance: Sam is initially disgusted by his attention, but after he admits that he’s never ‘bagged a babe’ and that he’s pally with Jake, she starts to tolerate him. She even gives him her underwear so he can claim he slept with her. (He charges fellow nerds to see the pants.) Ted later blags his way into Jake’s party, and gives Jake advice on how to seduce Sam. He’s then tasked with getting a paralytic Caroline home in Jake’s dad’s Rolls-Royce. A hopelessly drunk Caroline flirts with him (“This is getting good,” he says to camera after she passes out in his lap) and he gets his pals to take a photograph of them together. The next day, they share a kiss. A prom queen and a geek? There may be some wish-fulfilment going on here. In many ways, Hall is the star of the movie. By playing the character with commitment and belief, rather than as a cartoon dweeb, he makes him likeable and interesting.

* Geek Girl #1 (Joan Cusack) is a nervous schoolgirl who wears a restrictive neck brace. At one point she has trouble using a water fountain; later, drinking from a can is a big problem.

* Long Duc Dong (Gedde Watanabe) is a Chinese exchange student who’s staying with the Baker grandparents, so they bring him to the wedding. Mentions of his name are accompanied by a gong-crash sound effect – this is just one example of the racist humour that clings to the character. Sam is forced to take Dong to the school dance, where he meets and becomes besotted with a large-chested woman (Deborah Pollack). The two of them spend the evening together, get drunk and attend the party at Jake’s house. The next day, Dong’s found lying in the street. He’s still drunk and has lost grandad Fred’s car, which he – Dong – finds hilarious.

* Ted has two nerdy sidekicks – Bryce (John Cusack) and Cliff (Darren Harris). They enjoy using surveillance goggles and radio communicators (even when standing next to each other), and betting with floppy discs.

* Ginny’s fiancé, Rudy (John Kapelos), is an Italian-American dunderhead. After they’ve married, she’s so loopy on painkillers that he has to manhandle her through the congregation and into the car.

Adults:

* Sam’s parents – Jim (Paul Dooley) and Brenda (Carlin Glynn) – are likeable, and are gutted when they realise they forget her birthday.

* Both sets of Sam’s grandparents are staying for the wedding. One pair (Edward Andrews and Police Academy’s Billie Bird) moan about their health then think Jake is making a dirty phone call when he tries ringing for Sam. The others (Max Showater and Carole Cook) are more earthy and embarrass Sam by pointing out that she’s ‘got her boobies’.

* Ginny’s parents-in-law-to-be are Italian-Americans. The very subtle joke is that they might be gangsters. A section of music from The Godfather scores the scene, just in case you miss the satire.

* There’s a short, squeaky-voiced woman working at the church. We hear the sound of clinking bottles in her handbag as she walks.

Close-ups: With his director’s hat on, John Hughes was a great fan of montages of close-ups. It’s a cute way of telling story – or selling gags – through details. This film’s showpiece example is the title sequence, in which Sam’s school is introduced and explored through a series of shots of students’ faces, legs, hands and bums, lockers, jackets, bus doors… Here it is, though this clip has the wrong music:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvcGp91KgR4

Music: God, John Hughes knew how to use music. This film is *full* of it. As well as Ira Newborn’s incidental score, snatches of old film and TV themes are used for comic effect. The Twilight Zone, Peter Gunn and Dragnet are all deployed with real wit. There are also loads of great pre-existing songs to create atmosphere and mood – Paul Young’s Love of the Common People, Altered Images’ Happy Birthday, Spandau Ballet’s True, the Specials’ Little Bitch, Hang up the Phone by Annie Golden, Frank Sinatra’s Theme From New York, New York and many more.

Beatles references: To try to impress a sullen Sam, Ted sings snatches of two Beatles tracks: Happy Birthday and Hey Jude (both 1968).

Review: “I can’t believe it. They fucking forgot my birthday.” This fun film has a slightly odd structure. As the title suggests, it starts and ends as birthday girl Samantha’s story. However, she doesn’t feature very much in the middle and the focus shifts to Farmer Ted. It’s like the movie has been distracted by a more overtly funny subplot. But there’s plenty to enjoy, not least the relentless 1980s-ness of the music, the fashions, the notion that all 16-year-olds can drive, Sam’s bedroom posters (Culture Club, Squeeze, et al), the kind of high-school dance that Grosse Point Blank would later reference, and wild parties held in enormous houses of parents who are away for the weekend… It can be a bit crude at times – lines about race and rape have dated badly – while the ending is incredibly pat. Everyone gets a happy ending whether it’s believable or not and the climactic wedding never really takes flight. But it’s mostly entertaining stuff, full of comic moments and plenty of heart.

Eight muscle relaxants out of 10

Hatful of Hollow (1984)

Hatful

Title: It means empty-headed, which is far from appropriate for this smart compilation of singles, B-sides and tracks recorded for BBC radio sessions.

Cover: A black-and-white photo of a Google-defying dude called Fabrice Collette, taken from a 1983 issue of French newspaper Libération. For some reason, reissues on CD have zoomed in on Collette’s head and made the image full-bleed, whereas the LP had a blue border for the text.

Best song: How Soon Is Now? is not so much a song as a head trip. Initially released as the B-side to the 12” of William, It Was Really Nothing, it was then put on Hatful of Hollow before being added to overseas versions of the band’s second studio album *and* getting a 7” release of its own in January 1985. It’s a stunning seven minutes of sound – a relentless shimmer, distorted guitars, searing tremolo lines, skeletal guitar phrases, reverby 80s drum sounds and even some whistling. It’s a masterpiece of production, sounding fresh and vibrant and new as well as familiar and comforting. Morrissey’s insightful lyrics are about loneliness and inadequacy, surely things that most of us have felt. They fit the metre of the song perfectly – soaring above it at times, but mostly letting the music breathe. The song doesn’t really sound like The Smiths – it has more in common with dance music. But it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Honourable mentions:

* William, It Was Really Nothing had been a recent single. It has a lovely sparkling guitar sound, an easy melody and lyrics about a friend’s boring marriage.

* What Difference Does It Make? is from a session recorded for John Peel’s Radio 1 show. It’s slightly beefier than the version on the debut album. The prominent, incessant drumming is ace.

* These Things Take Time is a good driving pop song with more vague-enough-to-mean-different-things lyrics. This version was recorded for David Jenson’s Radio 1 show

* This Charming Man gets an overhaul – this version is from a John Peel session (it predates the version released as a single, actually), and it’s softer and more laid-back than the 7”. It’s inferior, yet still intensely likeable.

* Handsome Devil is another track from a John Peel session. (A live version from a very early gig had been a B-side in 1983.) It’s a tremendously violent bit of music. Johnny Marr’s guitar riff cuts and slices; Mike Joyce’s drumming pounds away – it’s like the song is beating you up. The lyrics are witty and kinky, but they’re losing the fight with the onslaught of the instruments.

* Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now had been an A-side earlier in 1984, and is one of the band’s most famous songs. That fame is presumably because its words form one of Morrissey’s most overtly ‘depressed’ lyric. But putting aside people who misunderstand melancholy, this is a terrific song. It has quite joyful music – with a nice melodic bassline – while the lyrics are smart and funny. The song’s title is punning on a Sandy Shaw track called Heaven Knows I’m Missing You Now.

* This Night Has Opened My Eyes was only ever recorded for a John Peel show. Its lyrics are as grim as they come.

* Girl Afraid is a super bundle of energy, and was first released as the B-side to Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. Now’s as good a place as any to mention something, though this comment applies to pretty much every Smiths song: Morrissey really is a terrific singer. His ‘phrasing’ sounds superbly inventive.

* Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want sends shivers down the spine each and every time you hear it. Originally a B-side to William, It Was Really Nothing, this beautiful, poignant song is surprisingly short (1.52) but says all it needs to say and more in that time – then ends the album on a tantalising cliffhanger of a suspended note… An equally gorgeous yet instrumental cover by The Dream Academy was used to great effect in one of the best movies ever made, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, while the Smiths original was also in another John Hughes classic, Pretty in Pink.

Worst song: There isn’t one. There just isn’t one.

Review: Frankly, every song could have been listed in the Honourable Mentions section, but I had to draw the line somewhere. From start to finish, this album is packed to bursting with excellent, dynamic, interesting, exciting, life-affirming music. Blissfully brilliant.

Ten mammary glands out of 10.

The Smiths (1984)

the_smiths_the_smiths_1993_retail_cd-front

Title: Dully eponymous. The band chose their everyday name as a reaction against contemporary groups with elaborate monikers such as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

Cover: A still of actor Joe Dallesandro taken from Andy Warhol’s Flesh, a 1968 art-house movie. It’s been cropped to highlight his torso.

Best song: This Charming Man, which had been a single in October 1983, was on the cassette version of the original album. At the time of its release, the NME’s Danny Kelly called hearing it “one of those moments when a vivid, electric awareness of the power of music is born or renewed” – and it’s hard to disagree. This is a pop song par excellence: dynamic, upbeat, fun and catchy. It was kick-started when Morrissey watched 1972 film Sleuth on TV and noted Laurence Olivier calling Michael Caine a ‘jumped-up pantry boy’. The resulting lyrics convey everything and nothing all at the same time. They’re evocative and full of detail and emotional resonance, but what the ‘story’ actually means is anyone’s guess. (The lyrics are also short: just 88 words.) Like the rest of this debut album, the track was recorded multiple times before everyone was happy. This version positively *sparkles* with energy. A dozen or more guitar lines – some acoustic – create a kinetic energy cloud of music, under which there’s a funky bass riff driving everything along. The gleaming 12-second instrumental intro is amongst the most precious passages of sound in popular culture.

Honourable mentions:

* Reel Around the Fountain is a sumptuous opener to the album. Its ornate lyric vaguely recounts a first sexual encounter. However, it was misunderstood by idiots at The Sun, who argumentatively claimed that one line (“…you took a child and you made him old…”) means the song is about a paedophile. Such dreary literal-mindedness created a mini-furore, the track was temporarily banned on BBC radio, and a planned single release was shelved. Morrissey’s vocal is lovely, especially on the radiant verse that begins “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice…” And the music is fantastic – Johnny Marr delicately picks the notes out on his guitar, there’s a good bassline, while Paul Carrack of Roxy Music and Squeeze was brought in to add some nice piano and Hammond parts.

* Pretty Girls Make Graves is one of Morrissey’s playfully ambiguous lyrics – is it about virginity? Celibacy? Being gay? – and has a pleasant buoyant rhythm. There’s also real drama in sections when the song flies off into another realm for a few seconds (at 0.37, 1.26 and 2.16). This re-listen has been the first time I’ve ever noticed that Morrissey is quoting Hand in Glove during the fadeout.

* The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is a very early Morrissey/Marr track, and another song that some claim is about child abuse. The lyrics sound more like an ode to parenthood – until, that is, a final verse that contains worrying phrases like “your mother she need never know…” (This verse is not included in the printed lyrics on the album’s packaging). Whatever the truth, there’s some nice alliteration and it fits the driving, hypnotic music really well.

* Still Ill was only written after a failed attempt to record this debut album had been written off. It starts and ends with a distinctive staccato passage and rattles along in-between, thanks in large part to Morrissey’s lyrics. By magpie-ing phrases from and references to a myriad sources he created something that sounds big and important and vital, even if it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. The album’s house style of production – it’s an oddly ‘small’, contained sound – is the only downside. You get the feeling the song could take flight a bit more.

* Hand in Glove – urgent, moody, a little bit punky – was one of the first songs the band ever recorded, and released as their debut single in May 1983. (This version is the same take as the 7”, though remixed by album producer John Porter.) Like the Beatles at the start of their recording career, the Smiths add some earthy harmonica to beef up the sound.

* What Difference Does it Make? is strident guitar rock with a powerful arpeggio intro, some big acoustic chord chops and an energetic, busy arrangement. Whether we need Morrissey’s high-pitched wailing is another matter. During its recording, the singer went AWOL and only returned after drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke agreed that he could have more money than them. What difference did *that* make? It led to a row years later in the High Court over royalties.

Worst song: Miserable Lie is unremarkable to begin with – but then a jarring descent into a thrash-punk beat at the 0.54 mark is irritating beyond belief. A bad mix, which sounds bass-light, doesn’t help.

Review: An entire version of this LP was produced by former Teardrop Explodes guitarist Troy Tate then junked before John Porter was brought in for another go. (The Troy Tate version is easy to find online. It’s rubbish.) Morrissey still wasn’t thrilled with the result, but having spent so much money it was felt they needed to release something. Despite all that kerfuffle, the album stands up well. The quality of the writing is certainly there, right from the start – but it does sound like a band working under restraints. The album sits shyly in the corner rather than dominating the room. Very good rather than great.

Eight sore lips out of 10.

Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984, John Korty)

Caravan of Courage

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Towani family crash their space cruiser on the forest moon of Endor, and the two children go missing…

WHICH VERSION? This TV-movie spin-off from Return of the Jedi was shown on ABC on 25 November 1984. Over here in the UK, it got a cinema release (in May 1985). I first saw it on VHS back in the day. For this review I watched it on a DVD released in 2004.

GOOD GUYS

* Narrator (Burl Ives). Yes, we get a narrator – a necessary evil, given that most of the characters can’t speak English.

* Jeremitt Towani (Guy Boyd) is the father of the human family who have crashed on Endor. We see him and his wife early on, searching for their kids, but then they’re menaced by a giant monster called the Gorax…

* Catarine Towani (Fionnula Flanagan) is Jeremitt’s wife.

* Deej (Daniel Frishman) is an Ewok whose has builds a skin-glider – a primitive hang glider made of, um, skin – so he can fly above the forest to look for two missing sons. While up there, he spots the crashed space ship.

* Wicket (Warwick Davis) is a character carried over from Return of the Jedi (although, this seems to be a prequel). He wants to help dad Deej on his search, but gets left behind. He later strikes up a friendship with the Towanis’ daughter, Cindel.

* Weechee (Debbie Lee Carrington) and Widdle (Tony Cox) are Deej’s other sons. The trio investigate the crashed ship on the way back to the village. It seems deserted at first, but then they discover…

* Cindel Towani (Aubree Miller) is the five-year-old daughter of the human family. When taken in by the Ewoks, she collapses – so everyone heads off to a special healing tree to find medicine. She and Wicket become friends.

* Mace Towani (Eric Walker) is Cindel’s hotheaded brother. He’s a kind of Luke Skywalker figure who’s initially hostile towards the Ewoks, but calms down when they overpower him and tie him up. Essentially a decent lad, he cares about his sister’s wellbeing more than his own. Despite the Ewoks’ hospitality, though, he and Cindel do a runner in the middle of the night and go and search for their parents. They get chased by a stop-motion monster, but the Ewoks show up and save them. Together, they all form a caravan that crosses a desert and a mountain range, then reaches the Gorax’s fortress. Mace uses a magical stone to zero in on his parents’ whereabouts, then after some Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade-style obstacles, they find Jeremitt and Catarine locked up in a cage.

* Logray (Bobby Bell) is an Ewok leader who uses a zoetrope-type device to show Mace and Cindel where their parents are being held. The Ewoks then choose to help on the rescue mission – but not before Logray bestows on them some totems of ancient legendary Ewok warriors. (The character was also in Return of the Jedi.)

* Chukha-Trok (Kevin Thompson) is an Ewok who lives in the woods and joins the team but doesn’t survive the mission.

* Kaink (Margarita Fernández) is an Ewok princess the caravan meets along the way.

BAD GUYS

* The Gorax is a behemoth of Endor, who captures the Towani parents and keeps them in a cage.

* There are various other monsters, including a rubber giant spider that Wicket kills.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The skin-glider sequence.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: There isn’t any.

MUSIC: The score is by Peter Bernstein, who’s doing a sugary take on the Star Wars house style. It quotes Return of the Jedi at times.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I saw this on video in the 1980s, when I think I assumed it was a fully-fledged Star Wars films. (Forgive me: I was about six.) This was my first viewing of it in nearly 30 years.

REVIEW: Much more of a kids’ film than the parent series, this even has a narrator who sounds like he’s telling a bedtime story. It’s simplistic and earnest, while the middle section has a huge amount of padding. Aubrey Miller, the girl who plays Cindel, is especially tiresome: all her close-ups feel like take 73 of an insert that’s had to be shot piecemeal for performance reasons.

Three life-monitors out of 10

Supergirl (1984, Jeannot Szwarc)

Supergirl

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a powerful orb ends up on Earth, a Kryptonian girl called Kara – who’s Superman’s cousin – gives chase and finds that she now has special powers…

Good guys: Helen Slater plays Kara with wide-eyed likeability. The character survived the destruction of Krypton because she and her family live in Argo City, which is in a pocket of trans-dimensional reality (or something). When a MacGuffin called the Omegahedron is blown out into space, she follows it to Earth. Finding she can crush rocks and fly, she becomes Supergirl. But in order to search for the Omegahedron, she poses as a schoolgirl called Linda Lee – her alter ego has brunette hair, which acts as her equivalent of Clark Kent’s true-identity-obscuring glasses. At the school, she shares a room with friendly Lucy, who just happens to be Lois Lane’s little sister. Linda later has her first kiss, battles a witch, and ends up in the Phantom Zone (the prison world where Zod and her allies were kept in the first two Superman films).

Bad guys: Faye Dunaway – who gets close-ups filmed in soft focus with a splash of light on her eyes – is the villain: a would-be witch called Selena. Dolly Parton was initially offered the role and would have been more fun. We meet Selena as she’s having a riverside picnic while daydreaming about world domination. The Omegahedron falls out of the sky and lands in her food – she (somehow) instantly sees its potential for (somehow) casting spells. Her lair is in an old funfair and she has two hangers-on: Nigel and Bianca. The former is a teacher at the school Linda ends up in and is Selena’s boyfriend. A lacklustre Peter Cook seems less than thrilled with the role. Meanwhile, Bianca is played by Brenda Vaccaro – aka Joey Tribbiani’s mum. She’s the best thing about the whole film – sarcastic and full of energy, she feels like a real person.

Other guys: Peter O’Toole hams it up very entertainingly as Zaltar, an iconoclastic Kryptonian who accidentally causes the crisis at the start of the story. He willingly goes to the Phantom Zone as punishment, where conveniently Kara later bumps into him. Also in the Argo City scene are Mia Farrow and Simon Ward in phenomenally perfunctory roles as Kara’s parents. Hart Bochner – later sleazy executive Harry in Die Hard – plays the gardener, Ethan, who Selena takes a shine to. She gives him a potion so he’ll fall in love with the next person he sees… Of course, he wanders off and, after an elaborate action scene, claps eyes on Supergirl. The fun Lucy Lane is played by Maureen Teefy (Demi Moore was originally cast but quit when she got a better job), while Marc McClure has an inconsequential cameo, reprising Jimmy Olsen from the Superman films. An appearance from Christopher Reeve was planned, but he decided against it. We do see a poster of him, though, in Lucy and Linda’s bedroom.

Best bits:

* The terrific use of models, optical effects and theatrical set design as we’re introduced to the world of Argo City.

* “Nigel, how long have we been together?” “Ooh, months, darling.” “Then why does it feel like years?”

* Kara arrives on Earth in her new Supergirl costume. (Just allow me this one descent into perviness: phwoar.)

* Bianca suggesting Selena starts a coven so they can use the subs fees to pay the bills.

* Oh, look: it’s Max Headroom as a creepy trucker who tries it on with Supergirl.

* Oh, look: it’s Sandra Dickinson as a guest at the party Selena throws in her haunted house. (Howard Jones’s What is Love? plays as people mingle.)

* The scene with the tetchy school principle at Midvale High – Linda, as she now calls herself, waits until he’s left his office then at lightening speed forges a letter of recommendation from Clark Kent and puts it in the filing cabinet.

* When we first meet Lucy Lane, she’s reading an Incredible Hulk comic. A Marvel title! Sacrilege!

* Nigel: “I want to make a very serious proposal.” Selena: “In that outfit?”

* A fun trick shot as Supergirl flies into a large pipe on a building site – and Linda walks out of the other end.

* The past is a strange place, isn’t it? It only been 31 years, yet I doubt you’d make a film these days with scenes of schoolgirls showering, undressing and being flirted with by grown men.

* The photography is often very lovely. It’s by Alan Hume (many Carry Ons, three 1980s Bonds, Return of the Jedi, Runaway Train, A Fish Called Wanda). He uses smoke, long lenses and warm lighting to give the film a certain cinematic sheen.

* A mountain appears in the middle of Midvale town centre.

* Banished to the Phantom Zone, Supergirl tries flying… and falls flat on her face.

Review: This direct spin-off from the Superman series was directed by Jeannot Szwarc, who was also responsible for such masterpieces as Jaws 2 and Santa Claus: The Movie. His style is often quite flat and he’s not helped by a script littered with that’ll-do plotting and contrivances. After an opening that’s like something from a 1960s Doctor Who – an alien culture crudely conveyed in “As you know…” dialogue – we get a story stuck in second gear. Kara’s search for the MacGuffin is about as leisurely as they come, while it’s difficult to take anything Selena says seriously. Sadly, there’s also no real attempt to distinguish Kara from Linda. Christopher Reeve understood that his character had two very different personas, but Slater just lets the costume do the work in this regard. Having said all that, it was quite diverting seeing this again. It’s gloriously bonkers at times. And it’s a superhero film driven by female characters – if nothing else, that’s worth celebrating.

Five hockey sticks out of 10.

Next time: Gene Hackman returns to the Superman series. What could possibly go wrong?

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984, Leonard Nimoy)

SearchForSpock

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After the events of the previous film, the Enterprise crew head home and the ship is decommissioned. But then Kirk learns that Spock’s corpse may be the key to bringing him back to life…

We get the “Space, the final frontier…” narration at the beginning of the movie this time – again voiced by Leonard Nimoy, it has the same wording as the version in The Wrath of Khan.

Regulars: At the start of the film, Kirk is grieving for his old friend then loses his beloved ship. When he’s told there’s a way to resurrect Spock – and cure McCoy of his apparent madness – he mutinies and returns to the Genesis planet. Spock, of course, died at the end of the last film. But because his body was laid to rest on a planet being artificially created from scratch, he’s being regenerated. An accelerated aging process means that the character is played by four young actors before Nimoy takes over. (This plot conveniently allowed Nimoy the time to direct the film.) Dr McCoy is acting very strangely to begin with – he’s found dazed and rambling in Spock’s old quarters, and increasingly speaks like his old sparring partner (a result of the mind-meld seen at the end of film two). Scotty says that repairs to the Enterprise will take eight weeks, but in order to maintain his “reputation as a miracle worker” he’ll do them in two. Sulu gets a fun moment in the limelight, helping Kirk break McCoy out of a holding cell. “Don’t call me Tiny,” he says to a huge guard he’s just beaten up. When a young twatty officer suggests Uhura is over the hill, she gives him the dead-eye then forces him to hide in a cupboard. She doesn’t go on the main mission, instead meeting the others on Vulcan at the end. Chekov is less featured than the others, having had a subplot in The Wrath of Khan, though he does take part in initiating the Enterprise’s self-destruct sequence. Saavik, meanwhile, has been recast. Apparently, Kirstie Alley didn’t have an option for sequels in her contract so was free to ask for more money. I’d have paid up, but Nimoy and the producers instead replaced her with Robin Curtis, who lacks Alley’s bravado and plays Saavik much more straight. Grace Lee Whitney (Yeoman Rand in the original series) has a mute cameo, but it’s not clear if if’s meant to be Rand or not.

Guest stars: Mark Lenard reprises Sarek, Spock’s ambassador father, who he’d played in the TV show. Merritt Butrick is back from the previous film as Kirk’s son, David. Dame Judith Anderson (credited as such) rotes out some hokum during the Vulcan ritual at the end. Christopher Lloyd (“Marty!”) is the story’s chief villain, an entertaining Klingon called Kruge, though it’s actually the B-plot rather than the movie’s main thrust.

Best bits:

* The Klingon Bird-of-Prey uncloaking right in top of the ship it’s meeting.

* The vast interior of the Starfleet space station.

* Kirk hearing Spock’s voice in his quarters, but finding McCoy sitting there.

* Kirk, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov toasting “Absent friends” – then Sarek showing up unexpectedly.

* Kirk asks for permission to go to the Genesis planet to retrieve Spock. “The word is no,” he later reports to Sulu. “I am therefore going anyway.” (You can clock the moment he decides to disobey orders: it’s highlighted by a slow push-in close-up of Shatner.)

* The scene in the bar – McCoy absentmindedly talking like a Vulcan, the sci-fi waitress, the alien with the big ears and the Yoda-like dialogue…

* “How many fingers am I holding up?” Kirk asks McCoy while making the Vulcan hand gesture.

* “Up your shaft!” Scotty sarcastically mumbles to an automatic voice in a lift.

* The cheesy but lovely moment when Kirk tells Scotty, Sulu and Chekov that they needn’t come on the mission – and they stand firm.

* Everyone being taken aback when McCoy (dubbed by Nimoy) talks like Spock on the bridge.

* That rubbing-each-other’s-fingers-together thing that Saavik and Spock do is just filthy, right?

* When the Enterprise goes to ‘red alert’, the only people on the entire ship are all together on the bridge. It did remind me of that joke in Red Dwarf VI about changing the bulb.

* Kirk collapsing when he learns that his son has been murdered.

* The scuttling of the Enterprise, and the regulars watching its destruction from a cliff top.

* Kirk and Kruge’s fight as the planet disintegrates around them.

* McCoy’s quiet admittance that he couldn’t stand to lose Spock again.

* Spock, now finally played by Nimoy after the ceremony, asks why Kirk went to so much trouble for him. “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many,” he says, wittily referencing the key dialogue of the previous movie.

TV tie-in: Sarek later cropped up in an eponymous episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He’s aboard the Enterprise and, due to a condition that affects 200-year-old Vulcans, everyone nearby is getting angry and tetchy. It takes the crew far too long to twig that something strange is going on.

Review: This is a direct sequel to The Wrath of Khan. We begin with a recap of that film’s climax and then find the characters in mourning. Therefore it’s refreshingly character-driven. Christopher Lloyd’s bad guy is a complication to the plot rather than the focus of it – the story is actually about Kirk’s passionate quest to resurrect Spock. Perhaps the film is directed a tad more orthodoxly than The Wrath of Khan, but it’s still slick and engaging. And it’s often a lot of fun, especially during the jailbreak sequence. This is also the first time that secondary crewmembers Scotty, Uhura and Sulu get proper opportunities to shine: if it weren’t for the TV series, you’d never guess from the first two films that these were meant to be regular characters. This time, everyone feels part of a defined ensemble (even if, obviously, Kirk, Spock and McCoy are more heavily featured). Entertaining stuff.

Eight Pon farrs out of 10.

Blood Simple (1984)

bloodsimple

Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

When his young wife has an affair, bar owner Julian Marty hires someone to kill her and her lover. Things don’t go to plan. For anyone.

Seen before? Yes, on BBC2 in the 1990s. I think Alex Cox introduced it on Moviedrome. The DVD I watched for this review was, it seems, a 1998 director’s cut.

Best performance: M. Emmet Walsh is great as the private-eye-cum-hitman, Visser. He’s a yahoo in a yellow suit who has a Texas drawl, a laconic style and a big hat.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): As well as Walsh (1), Frances McDormand (1) is in this playing Marty’s wife, Abby. Holly Hunter (1) has a small uncredited voice-only part.

Best bit: The scene of Visser breaking into Ray’s house is so creepy and tense, I realised I was holding my breath while watching it.

Review: I loved seeing this again. It’s a cracking film in its own right – deliciously neo-noir, with a dark sense of macabre humour – but also works really well to get you in the off-kilter mindset of the Coens. It’s slow, but tremendously moody. Music is used really well to create atmosphere – both Carter Burwell’s somber score and some smartly chosen source songs. The camerawork is incredibly inventive at times. There are some funny flashes of eccentricity, such as the Four Tops-loving barman. And in the middle of the film there’s a brilliant 19-minute period without any real dialogue – just some distant ‘voices off’ and radio babble – which is as tense and gripping as anything. It’s a deliberately old-school story (love, betrayal, murder – all that jazz) yet never feels like cliché because of the regular twists the plot gives us. On the downside, the de facto lead, played by John Getz, doesn’t really make much of an impression. I couldn’t help wondering what a Tim Robbins or George Clooney would have done in this role. Something more interesting, that’s for sure. Also, Abby’s motives are deliberately kept vague, which leaves a bit of a gap in her character – a noir-ish flourish maybe, but it felt unsatisfying. On the whole, though, this is terrific stuff.

Nine shovels out of 10.

Police Academy (1984, Hugh Wilson)

PA1

In this first movie, a bunch of misfits sign up for the local police force. Sketch-show-type hilarity ensues with a 15 certificate, mostly entertainingly. Here I begin my attempt to track the series’s running gags and clichés…

Mahoney flirts and pulls pranks! – He crashes a dickhead’s car because he doesn’t like him (“It fits!”); pretends to be an officer and tries to trick cadet Karen into revealing her thighs; enjoys a beer as he peers into the women’s shower room; cons Blanks and Copeland into going to gay bar The Blue Oyster; tricks Barbara into walking in on the commandant’s wife in the shower; and puts shoe polish on Harris’s loud-hailer.

Hightower uses his strength! – He looks at Blanks threateningly after he uses a racist term; pushes a wall over rather than climb over it; pulls a gym rope out of its socket; and tips a car onto its roof in anger.

Tackleberry shoots! – He’s in the first scene, as a nightwatchman in an office building – he bursts into a room shooting wildly, then switches on the light to see it’s his surprise leaving party. Also: he enthusiastically asks the supply officer, “When do we get guns?”; uses a Dirty Harry Magnum on the firing range (“My mom gave it to me…”); gets Barbara to slap him to see if he can take it; revels in the gunfire exercises; shoots a cat out of a tree; and is distraught to have missed the gun fight at the end.

Jonesey’s sound effects! – Beat music when we first meet him; gunfire to scare a roomful of people; footsteps to wind up a policeman; electronic noises after banging his head; a computer game when bored late at night; a fake Tannoy announcement; an electric razor while shaving; horse neighs to annoy Harris; helicopter sounds while climbing some stairs; electronic visor on his helmet; and gunfire to disperse a crowd.

Hooks shouts ‘Dirtbag!’ – She’s meek and nervous when Harris shouts at her, then can’t answer him in class; she’s likewise rubbish in a robbery roleplay – all set up for the end when she screams, “Don’t move, dirtbag!” to a criminal.

Callahan’s chest! – She’s an instructor in this first film, rather than part of the gang. She takes a self-defence class and ends up pinning Barbara to the ground, her crotch in his face. “Who’s next?” she asks. Everyone puts their hand up. She later seduces cadet George Martin.

Harris shouts ‘Proctor!’ – He’s yet to have Proctor as his sidekick. He cleans his baton a lot; says, “Move it, move it, move!” on four separate occasions; is caught peeking into the female showers; and has a motorbike accident that ends up with his head stuck up a horse’s arse.

Lassard is a bit, um, vague! – He needs to be reminded how many weeks the training lasts, then gets it wrong each time he repeats it; feeds his beloved goldfish on his desk but claims they belong to a friend; and later sends the cadets to the wrong (more dangerous) part of a riot.

Homophobic!/Racist! – “When I went through this academy, every cadet was the right weight, the right height, the right colour – and they all had Johnsons!” decries the police chief. Copeland refers to ‘spades’ and later calls Hooks a ‘jigaboo’. Harris calls a horny dog ‘queer’, while Mahoney jokes “Sleeping’s for fags”, and Blanks calls him ‘Mahomo’. Also: the first appearance of The Blue Oyster, a gay bar full of butch, bearded men in leather jackets, caps and dog collars.

Bare breasts! – “So, tell me – you and your wife do it doggy style or what?” Martin asks an embarrassed Fackler. Martin dresses as a woman to sneak into the female dorm. We get a long shot from outside that dorm, showing us various windows: Callaghan working out in her underwear, Martin having a threesome, two roommates (one of whom is naked with her back to us) getting ready for bed, and the showers (lots of boobs here). Women also get topless at the beach party. Blanks and Copeland hire a hooker to embarrass Barbara – so Mahoney convinces her to hide in a lectern; when Lassard stands at it, she sucks him off (he afterwards thinks it was Mahoney). The prostitute is in another lectern at the end – Lassard’s revenge on Mahoney. Theses films weren’t PGs in the early days.

Famous totty! – Cadet Karen Thompson is played by a post-Porkies, pre-Star Trek, pre-Sex and the City Kim Cattrall.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

TempleofDoom

On the run from Shanghai mobsters, archaeologist Indiana Jones, young pal Short Round and nightclub singer Willie Scott end up in India, where a new maharaja has kidnapped the local children…

Seen before? Loads.

Best performance: Harrison Ford again.

Best scene/moment/sequence: After much consideration, I’m plumping for what was always my favourite bit as a kid – the sensational roller-coaster-style mine-cart sequence. The model work and back-projection may have dated perhaps, but it’s still thrilling stuff. And it’s helped tremendously by an absence of incidental music – as great as John Williams’s score is, it’s been continuous for a long time when we get to the mine chase, so when it drops out it raises the tension brilliantly. Other moments I considered for this category: the opening musical number in the club (with its surreal Busby Berkeley interlude); the madcap, full-of-gags fight that follows, with both Indy and Willie desperately trying to find things in the melee; Willie’s “No one’s flying the plane!”; Short Round’s “You call him Dr Jones, doll!”; Indy, Willie and Short Round jumping out of the plane in a dingy; Willie getting hysterical with fear in the jungle as Indy and Short Round nonchalantly play cards; the macabre dinner scene (“Snake surprise!”), which again has Willie freaking out hilariously while Indy takes it in his stride; the creepy-crawly-infested catacombs; the sacrifice scene (terrifying when I was a child, still scary now); Indy being turned by the bad guys, then winking to Short Round to let him know it’s an act; Indy, Willie and Short Round freeing the slaves; and of course the famous rope-bridge stunt.

Review: Another terrifically enjoyable adventure movie. The action scenes – and there are a lot of them – are constantly inventive and always character-specific. The interplay between the three leads is simply fantastic. And yet… As wonderful as it is, there’s something that means Temple of Doom is just a little bit less extraordinary than Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m not sure why this is. Is it the lack of a charismatic villain? Is it the weak, wet, irritatingly old-fashioned Willie Scott (who, to give her her due, is often very funny)? The fact there are no Nazis? No Marcus and Sallah? The way we stumble into the story rather than having a specific quest? Spielberg himself has said he thinks it was too dark – which might be true in part, but is balanced by lots and lots of comedy. I’m talking blemishes, though. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing this again. By any standard, it’s one of the highlights of the genre.

Nine chilled monkey brains out of 10.