Review: The Artist
The Pitch: They don’t make ’em like they used to…
The Review: Sat here, trying to find words for The Artist, feels like the world’s biggest irony. I write this review a couple of days after much has been made in the news of people walking out in a screening in Liverpool after not realising what they’d let themselves in for. Cinema has been evoking strong reactions in people ever since the Lumière brothers first charged people to sit and watch pictures moving on a wall over 115 years ago, and competition ever since from upstarts such as radio, television and the internet have caused cinema to attempt to innovate. Sound, colour, wide screens and even 3D have come and stayed over the years, so the idea of watching a film that abandons all of those concepts seems to be deliberately obtuse, clinging sentimentally to past glories without being willing to innovate. But the techniques of cinema worked successfully through all of those early years, and it wasn’t that cinema was evolving as it had exhausted all of its possible uses for the latest fads; it was evolving to survive.
So if you’re going to make a film in black and white, without dialogue, in the Academy ratio (1.37:1, closer to an old cathode ray tube TV than the widescreen LCDs of today), then what better subject to take than that loss of innocence and the passing of one of the first great eras of the medium? George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a star of the silver screen, but when talkies come round, he’s reluctant to embrace them, either unwilling or unable to make the transition. By that point, though, he’s already had his first brush with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a girl he literally bumps into outside a premiere; suddenly she’s an overnight sensation but he risks being left behind. Despite that, there’s an undeniable chemistry between George and Peppy, even though George is thoroughly domesticated, with both a wife and a dog at home.
The distinction to be made with The Artist is that it’s not a film made exactly to mirror the silent films of the Twenties, not least because the advent of sound happens fairly early on in the narrative. While it’s black and white, largely (though not completely) silent and filmed in narrowscreen, it has the unmistakeable gloss and sheen of a film made with 21st century techniques. The cinematography is crisp, the soundtrack is much more in the style of a modern orchestral soundtrack and it’s a film filled with characters in close-up; widescreen was designed to capture epic vistas and sweeping scenery, and The Artist is an intimate story of people and relationships, ideally suited to the smaller screen width. (See it on a big enough screen, of course, and it’ll make little difference). The tricks and the effects are to pay homage to the films of the time, not to slavishly copy them, and there’s a number of very clever sequences which subvert expectations and use the throwback effects, especially the sound, to wonderful comic and dramatic effect.
It helps that the quality of the performances across the board is also impeccable. Carrying most of the meat of the film between them are a central trio formed of Dujardin, Bejo and a canine co-star who steals practically every scene he’s in. Dujardin has the perfect matinee idol look and is as comfortable with his anger as he is his charm; you could imagine Clark Gable having taken on the role if the film had been made eighty years or so earlier. Bejo is full of charm and charisma and it’s easy to see why George is so easily smitten, and the pair make a timeless couple. If there’s one thing that the casual viewer will end up remembering long after the viewing, though, it’s Uggie the dog, who’s even been on a promotional tour for the film, and his tricks and his faithfulness should melt the hardest of hearts. The cast is filled out by a cast of familiar American faces, notably John Goodman and James Cromwell, but none of them would look out of place in a film from an earlier era.
What has always been hard to conjure in cinema, regardless of the tools and techniques used to make it, is a quality almost indescribable; it’s a magical tone when performances, script and direction work in such harmony as to transport the viewer completely into the world of the film. Many films have endured even though their techniques have long since passed out of regular use, mostly because they have captured that quality. If you look at the Internet Movie Database’s top 250 films, nine of them are silent films, but eighty-nine have some black and white element; it’s actually more of a wonder that anyone made such a fuss. If only those Scousers who walked out had given the film more of a chance, because one of the films that already falls into both categories in the Top 250 is this one. It has that magic, and what Michel Hazanavicius and his cast have conjured up is spellbinding, enchanting and thoroughly deserving of that place on the list. The Artist takes techniques almost as old as cinema itself, and with a sprinkling of post-modern playfulness produces a film which will hopefully be entrancing audiences long after the current innovations have also passed into history.
Why see it at the cinema: This is a film that this blog was made for. Find the best cinema you can, see this at the busiest time possible, and get lost in the magic of cinema.
The Score: 10/10
Always Read The Fine Print
I’ve always been a fan of action movies, but as I’ve gotten older my tastes have broadened out. I can’t imagine the 14 year old me being interested in Mike Leigh or Michael Haneke, but the 14 year old me didn’t like broccoli or chicken either, and thankfully I’m now able to watch more mature movies and eat Nando’s. But the action movies of my teen years were missing one thing that today’s explosionfests have, and that’s proper actors.
The likes of Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Stallone might have all become icons to a generation, but (possibly Stallone excepted) they’ve never been renowned for their thespian skills. So the idea that we can live in an enlightened 21st century where people renowned for their talent as well as their ability to look good rolling around on the floor while firing two guns fills me with joy. The idea of a film where Tom Hardy and Chris Pine, the soon-to-be-Bane and the hopefully-will-be-again-Captain-Kirk in an action film, even an action comedy, makes me feel like we’re living in a more enlightened time, where films can be the best of both worlds. Eat your heart out, The Renaissance.
But while it sounded great in concept, the trailer that was released this week seemed to be lacking something. Actually, the poster on iTunes that accompanied the trailer wasn’t great – Pine and Hardy look like they’re auditioning for a Twilight remake and Hardy not only looks like he’s sporting a failed comb-over but has the dead-eyed look normally associated with bad motion capture, possibly because the photo was taken after he signed his contract. Things were looking up in the trailer – for at least the first thirty seconds or so, which looks to have all the requisite explosions, moody looks and men and cars diving off high places. But then…
Two minutes of mirth-free, cringe-enducing mugging follow. Jokes fall so flat you imagine that the CGI budget’s been spent on removing the tumbleweeds and the kind of embarrassing set-ups that make even Jennifer Lopez rom-coms look the height of sophistication. Yes, at one point, the dastardly Tom Hardy shoots Chris Pine with a tranquilliser to cause him to fall asleep mid-date. Oh, the hilarity. If you’ve recently had any kind of surgery in which you had to have your side split in order to reach internal organs, rest assured that nothing in this trailer will leave you in any danger of your wounds re-opening or those stitches coming out.
So what could possibly have gone so wrong? I watched the trailer again, in the forlorn hope that actually I was in a bad mood, and that this was a quality action comedy which I had just misjudged, but no, it unfortunately looks so toe-curlingly desperate that it could set the careers of both its stars back five years. But on re-watching the trailer, I noticed one very small name in the end credits.
If you still don’t believe me, watch here, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Review: Source Code
The Review: Two years ago, Duncan Jones announced his arrival as a film-maker of note with his debut feature, Moon. If you’ve not seen it, then (a) shame on you, and (b) it was a wonderful marriage of some hard sci-fi concepts with a very old school feel and story telling method, even eschewing masses of CGI for honest-to-goodness model making for the spaceship shots, for example. When crafting something so distinctive, there’s a risk that expectations increase unfairly for the follow-up, and that the audience is either expecting more of the same or a complete departure. What Jones has produced is a half-way house, still grounded in some chunky sci-fi concepts, but with a slightly bigger budget and a change in both tone and pacing. That change is just different, but it shows already that Jones is comfortable working in more than one style.
Two years ago, Duncan Jones announced his arrival as a film-maker of note… no, hang on, I seem to have gone back to the beginning. What did we learn first time? Duncan Jones has made a sci-fi mystery thriller, instead of a sci-fi mystery drama. Actually, that may be all you need to know going in, as part of the joy is discovering Source Code for yourself; half of the action is set in or around a train bound for Chicago, and while Moon was relatively fixed in its position, Source Code moves, quite literally, at a hundred miles an hour from the word go. Which is shortly followed by the words “my train just exploded.” You can almost feel the inevitable comparison with Inception, and this is another example of British guided invention with some big concepts on the big screen, but here instead of one world with many layers, all of which are built on self-defining principles, we have two worlds presented to us, and through the eyes of Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhall), we have to try to understand not only what’s actually taking place, but also how the train and the Source Code are connected.
Two years ago, Duncan Jones… right, film-maker of note. Change in style. Will get unfairly compared to Inception. Simultaneous mysteries. Comparisons have also been made to Groundhog Day, and those might be slightly fairer, but only in the sense of what that film did so well and what Source Code also achieves, in that repeating the same actions over and over sounds like it could be horribly repetitive, but actually it’s only the framework that repeats, and the central character takes a different route through it each time, while the plot continues to advance at a significant rate. No doubt helping that transition are Gyllenhall and Michelle Monaghan, neither a stranger to having to insert depth of character into the action movie or thriller, and both do excellent work here, Gyllenhall especially managing to invest both realities with sufficient variations to keep it interesting. Vera Farmiga is also noteworthy as the voice of authority, and brings emotion to a role that could have been clogged up with exposition. It’s just a shame that the film is set at breakfast time, as Jeffrey Wright appears to be tucking into his first meal of the day; sadly chewed scenery gets eaten each time we go through another scene with him. Thankfully it’s not enough to unbalance the film too much.
Two years ago, Duncan Jones was the son of David Bowie. Now he’s a film maker in his own right, and he has two movies of equally high quality to show for it. There are obvious connections between the two, not least a few of the director’s trademarks, including the odd inclusion of Chesney Hawkes’ “The One And Only” and Jones’ excellent choices in voice casting, here the supremely self-referential voice of Stevens’ father, but otherwise there’s a complete difference in tone; yet in the same way that Rear Window and North By Northwest happily spring from the same hand, so Source Code is a worthy companion piece to Moon. While comparisons to the work of Nolan and Harold Ramis are the obvious ones on the surface, look deeper and you’ll see themes picked up by everyone from Paul Verhoeven to David Cronenberg, yet it still feels fresh. The plot isn’t by any means predictable, taking plenty of satisfying twists and turns but moving fast enough that you’ll have to consider the moral ramifications once you’ve left your seat and headed for the exit. That’s no bad thing, though, and Source Code is superior entertainment, working both as good sci-fi, top notch thriller and believable romantic drama, marshalling its resources expertly and leaving you keen to see what Duncan Jones has to offer next. Let’s just hope it’s another original – he’s one man who’s shown he doesn’t need to keep repeating himself to have success.
Why see it at the cinema: Duncan Jones has a fantastic sense of the visual, there’s plenty of audience-reaction-inducing good lines along the way and with this kind of mystery, half the fun is attempting to work out if you have sussed what’s going on before your neighbour.
The Score: 9/10
Review: Barney’s Version
The Pitch: Love and marriage. Oh, and money and marriage. And responsibility and marriage. And murder…
The Review: If you were making a list of people who could make unsympathetic and unlovable characters still appealing, then Paul Giamatti would surely be near the top of that list. His standout turn in Sideways from a few years back may have helped in that cause; his neurotic and uptight Miles still managed to be captivating. So it’s maybe no surprise that, when looking to put on screen Mordecai Richler’s novel about a man and his many marriages, that the makers turned to Giamatti. Barney Panofsky is a man who distrusts and despises the world around him, and generally goes out of his way to tell friends and colleagues what he thinks of them, in no uncertain terms; yet he’s managed to snare (or be snared by) three wives along the way. Having Paul Giamatti in the role makes that prospect instantly more believable.
The three wives in question, who we meet over the course of the film’s extended narrative, are Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike. Barney is drawn to each one for different reasons, and in that the narrative almost becomes a compare and contrast process, as we see the different reasons that people make a life commitment and their effect on Barney each time. Lefevre has the slightest of the three roles in the production, and Pike the meatiest, but each has a sizeable impact on Barney’s character and help to paint the picture of how he becomes the man he is at the end. Pike’s is undoubtedly the strongest performance of the three, although the movie has to work hard in each case to make the set-ups believable, mainly thanks to Barney’s personality.
Apart from Barney and his wives, the supporting cast is packed with familiar names and faces, Dustin Hoffman being the most prominent. When the narrative isn’t entirely focussed on the three wives’ tales, there’s a preoccupation with family and the legacy that others have had on Barney and in turn his effect on them. The film is at least enjoyable for all of these parts of its running time, but generally the scenes involving a wife are the most compelling. There’s a real depth of feeling and there are strong themes of behaviour, love and loyalty, each running through each tale and inviting the viewer to compare and contrast, but taken on their own these strands are as good a romantic comedy drama as you’ll have seen in many a year.
Which is why it’s all the more disappointing that, at regular intervals, one of the smaller subplots actually ends up overshadowing the whole film. The structure of the book plays on the unreliable narrator idea, but the film has a more conventionally flashback structure and so a potential murder mystery is used to cause Barney to review his life from the point of view his older self. But the whole whodunnit is so completely at odds both tonally and structurally with everything else and so unbelievable in its execution that it unbalances everything, and the fact that the resolution feels like it’s been casually lifted from the opening of a Paul Thomas Anderson film means the whole strand is distracting from beginning to end. A shame, as the rest of the film is so likeable and Giamatti deserves to be centre stage in a hit, but sadly this will only be remembered as a partial success.
Why see it at the cinema: For me, Rosamund Pike almost naked on a bed justified the price of admission, but I’m sadly turning into my own version of a dirty old man with the passing of time. Enough of that. For regular audiences, Giamatti is great, and if you can overlook the murder subplot there’s enough laughs and tears here to thoroughly enjoy the collective experience.
The Score: 7/10
Review: Blue Valentine
The Pitch: Breaking up is hard to do. And to watch, for that matter…
The Review: Love stories have been rich fodder for cinema over its entire history, with many of the most highly regarded films ever made boiling down to the simple story of how two people find love. Trying to pin down love is a little more elusive, however, and the nature and representation of romantic love is somewhat different to what it might have been in previous generations. Consequently, fewer films have trodden the path of what causes love or relationships to break down; Blue Valentine tackles both ends of the relationship spectrum, looking at a couple’s initial coming together and the beginning of the end for their relationship.
The non-linear structure is initially only given away by the visual cues; different film (one digital, the other more old fashioned) used for the different times, but also the appearance of the two leads. Not only do Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) sport different clothes and hair to show up the difference, but their very mannerisms and demeanour serve to contrast the exuberance of their first exchanges and the world-weariness of their marriage after six years together, seemingly going through the motions. It’s almost trivial to say that both are excellent, scattering their respective characters with little details which make them completely believable, albeit more than a little unsympathetic.
Now more than a third of marriages end in divorce, where once that statistic would have been much lower; the film juxtaposes the older characters and their relationships with the failing marriage, although it’s hard to escape the underlying cynicism about both love and marriage, almost as if those couples that stay together do simply because they can’t be honest with themselves, and that there is no such thing as love at all, only circumstance and a set of choices that present themselves over time. There’s certainly mutual attraction at the beginning of this relationship, and the kind of flirting that often happens in indie and low budget films, but the cuts between the beginning and the end are done in such a way as to make the end inevitable and the film becomes almost a modern day tragedy, a parable of our times and a social commentary on generational differences but one still only reflective of the minority. The rampant symbolism in the settings, from doomed love songs to tacky motel rooms, all support the fatalistic attitude that Blue Valentine has towards Dean and Cindy.
Director Derek Gianfrance wants to make us hurt as much as the characters, so pushes us in close with the camera, even when the going gets tough, through both physical pain and the emotional endurance of the characters. There was much controversy over the sex scenes, but they’re all an extension of the mood at that point in the narrative and there’s nothing hugely gratuitous, serving only to ground the whole film firmly in the real world. The direction itself gives full weight to the acting, and there’s a suitably doleful score that flits in and out of proceedings, but what you’re left with is a very one sided argument about the nature of relationships, and the only thing that rewards are the beautifully nuanced performances. The almost complete lack of sympathetic characters means you may appreciate the quality of Blue Valentine while in its presence, and that quality does make it worth your time initially, but if you’re anything but a hardened cynic you may not wish to make a long term commitment to it.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s beautifully shot, extraordinarily well performed and the close in camera means the cinema will give you an absolute intimacy with the characters. If that’s what you want, of course.
The Score: 8/10
The Friday Encourager: 88 Reasons Why I Love Back To The Future
Every Friday, I try to encourage you, my reader, to actually get out and watch something at the cinema, hopefully with some consideration as to what’s worth watching. This week, there’s a movie that’s 25 years old that I’d like to bring to your attention which has returned to cinemas in the UK for a limited time, and which you ought to go out of your way to see. In case the title wasn’t enough of a clue, it’s…
I have recently upgraded Back To The Future to the status of one of my all time favourite movies, and it’s the only one on that list I’ve never seen at the cinema. I can guess what you’re thinking – I’ve seen this before, why should I go and hand over my hard earned cash to see something where I know what happens? (This is now known as the Titanic argument, of course.) Especially when it’s due out on Blu-ray in just a couple of weeks. Or indeed, why should you go and see something that’s 25 years old? Possibly because it’s one of the few movies which succeeds in so many genres simultaneously, but also because it’s packed full of iconic imagery, concepts and phraseology.
So I present the eighty-eight reasons why I love Back To The Future, and why it’s taken such a cherished place in my movie life. (Eighty-eight reasons? If that doesn’t make sense to you, then I frankly demand that you stop reading RIGHT NOW, find out the time of the nearest showing to you, and sit idly and do nothing until it’s time to go out to watch it. You have my permission to stop at the concessions stall, but that’s it.)
1. First off, it’s a fantastic comedy, packed from end to end with laughs, which would put most modern comedies to shame.
2. But it’s also a compelling thriller, with a number of tense, well constructed action sequences, culminating in a set piece perfect in its intricate construction but also set over a wide scope.
3. Then again, it’s a love story, which truly requires its protagonists to be in love, and to work for that love.
4. And it’s also a sci-fi classic that takes a concept so high it’ll give you nosebleeds (what if you could travel back in time and meet your parents?) and runs with it at exactly the right pace.
5. It has my favourite poster of all time, a static image that screams action and excitement, and the various versions have some of the best taglines of all time; not just the one above, but “He wasn’t in time for his classes… Then one day, he wasn’t in his time at all.” They genuinely don’t write them like that any more. Thanks to Drew Struzan for the poster design, as well as the rest of his work.
6. The opening sequence is a work of genius, a pan around Doc Brown’s lab that almost wordlessly sets up what’s to come. There’s a literary concept called Chekhov’s Gun, whereby objects are introduced that will later become relevant. This is the equivalent of Chekhov’s gun cabinet.
7. Our introduction to Marty McFly is also iconic, and also effortlessly explains why a school kid would be hanging around with a white-haired, eccentric inventor.
8. The transition around, showing us Hill Valley in all its run down glory, has two other things going for it – Huey Lewis and The News is one of them. So many Eighties soundtrack moments come over as cheesy now, but this still sums up the Eighties, and Marty’s band even get to play a rocking instrumental version later at the band auditions.
9. Skateboarding is the other. Even at 36, I would still like to attempt to skateboard behind a moving jeep at least once before I die, and skateboarding is such a popular youth activity now that it’s almost as if the filmmakers travelled forward in time themselves to find enduring aspects of popular culture. (I have just realised how old the last sentence made me sound.)
10. Despite being set largely in and around a school, we never see any actual teaching going on, but Mr. Strickland is surely one of the most memorable teachers in any movie. Especially given that he appears to be some sort of ageless immortal…
11. Marty is the perfect avatar for the audience, to use today’s parlance. He’s a middle-America lad with aspirations of his own truck and allowing his band to be successful – aspirations that pretty much every other Eighties movie teen, from Ferris Bueller to Bill and Ted, could empathise with.
12. He had managed to already snag Jennifer Parker (Claudia Wells) as his girlfriend, though, lucky sod. So it’s OK to be slightly jealous. But after all, Marty needs a reason to try to come back, doesn’t he?
13. On the other hand, he’d have every reason to want to stay exactly where he was. His family are a construct designed to show quite why he’d want to better himself and to encourage others to do so, and Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson especially excelled in both eras.
14. It’s packed full of detail to show the differences between the eras, and to also link them together. Some of that detail you may not even spot on first viewing.
15. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd make the perfect odd couple. When they’re together on screen, Fox becomes the straight man – literally, since the height difference (5′ 4.5″ vs 6′ 1″) means that whenever you see them together, Christopher Lloyd is hunched over so he can hear what’s going on.
16. “You built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?” Undisputably the coolest time machine ever committed to celluloid, and every single detail just makes it cooler – for an eleven year old boy, it was the only other car that looked like K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider on the inside, and it had the perfectly judged three colour time readout. Not to mention the flame trails when it time travelled, the fact it could be remote controlled, and just the design of the car itself, which lends itself superbly to some of the Fifties-era gags.
17. “Eighty-eight miles an hour!” For legal reasons, of course, I must point out that if driving your car at such speeds, you should be on a private road or in Germany, but if you are, when the needle hits that mark, you are allowed to profess your extreme disappointment that you are not now travelling in time. (Also related to this: if being overtaken by a particularly aggressive driver, uttering the phrase, “Let’s see if you bastards can do ninety!”)
18. Libyans. Given the tensions between the US and Libya around this time, why didn’t more movies use Libyans as terrorists? (Please note, I’m sure that now, all Libyans are lovely, and unlikely to commit any terrorist acts at all. Thank you.)
19. Back To The Future also had the common sense to know when things were not working, and to put them right. Not only did it take them a few drafts to replace the original time machine (a fridge in a nuclear blast – sound horribly familiar, Indy fans?) with the DeLorean, but Eric Stoltz was not only originally cast as Marty, but actually filmed for a while. There’s even the odd glimpse of him still in the movie.
20. Robert Zemeckis is also a talented director, and one of the few people who could have pulled off all of the different types of movie that this becomes. He had form in this area, of course (Romancing The Stone), but without his talent for action, many of the scenes here wouldn’t carry the tension or excitement that they do, the whole “being chased by the Libyans” sequence being a prime example. (Michael Bay, take note. We prefer our action to look like this, not the way you do it.)
21. The period details are, of course, as high quality as everything else, even down to the authentic looking comic books. Where can I get one of those “Spacemen From Pluto” comics again?
22. Back To The Future also gave me a strong history lesson when I was younger. I also had a “life-preserver” jacket when I was younger, but little did I know that they had only just come into fashion. (Unlike the rest of my wardrobe, which is still waiting patiently for that day.)
23. It’s also taken us 25 years, until this year’s Inception and “Je ne regrette rien”, until we had a song so able to be linked to a dreamlike state as when Marty wanders round 1955 Hill Valley, unsure if he’s still awake or not, and “Mr Sandman” is playing in his head.
24. Of course, like much of the best science fiction, it can act as allegory, and it’s hard not to feel that Zemeckis, Spielberg et al felt that there was a loss of America’s innocence in the Eighties, totally embodied in their picture-perfect rendition of Fifties Hill Valley.
25. The movie makers also did their research. As an astonishing pedant myself, I’m happy to be able to confirm that both November 5, 1955 and October 26, 1985 were indeed Saturdays. A small detail, but it’s getting things like this right which keeps nutters like myself happy.
26. Since Marty is cool, everything he owns is cool as well, including a calculator watch. I would still be wearing one today if my wife wasn’t embarrassed to see me in public wearing it.
27. Back To The Future also gave the world Billy Zane, although it had the common sense to keep him in the background.
28. A lot of modern films on romance have achieved their success or their cult following because they managed to be honest about the failings of human relationships as well as the strengths. How many of those creative people had George McFly up a tree, perving his soon-to-be girlfriend, in mind when they did that? Surely the classic honest movie about relationships from the Eighties.
29. It never lets logic get in the way of a good story. We can only speculate on time travel, of course, because it isn’t actually possible, but only the craziest mind would think that changing the course of your parents’ relationship would take a week to erase you from existence. That’s my kind of crazy mind.
30. So few movies these days manage to get the physical side of comedy down well, but Michael J. Fox is an excellent physical comedian and has great timing, from hitting his head on a gull wing door to falling off a bed to avoid the amorous advances of his mother.
31. Also, if you’re going to do product placement, do it without even having to show your product on screen, and use it for classy name / underpants confusion. If only Quantum of Solace could have gone down the same route…
32. Back To The Future also has a handy guide to see if you are significantly older than the person you’re watching with. If, like me, you hear the line about having two TVs and think “yes, when I was younger”, then you’re about my age. Anyone from the Eighties or younger is probably carrying two on them, never mind at home.
33. The production design is wonderful, and possibly the best example of this is Doc Brown’s Fifties’ house. Outside wonderfully styled, and a complete contrast to the dive he’s ended up in having spent his family fortune in the Eighties, and on the inside the same chaotic mess, filled with the selection of great pictures of the Brown family that give Doc a strange air of authority.
34. I have to confess at this point that I have never been to a fancy dress party in movie fancy dress, but if I did, then Marty’s Eighties look might be a strong contender, but some of Doc’s Fifties outfits, especially the one he’s wearing when Marty first arrives, I could see myself wearing to do the shopping in.
35. So many sci-fi movies get bogged down into complex technical explanations (not to mention the sci-fi TV series of the last thirty years), so how refreshing in that context is the concept of the flux capacitor? To all intents and purposes, a flashing light in the shape of a Y in a box, but we cheerfully buy into the concept that it “makes… time… travel… possible.”
36. Of course, as well as being a love letter to the Fifties, it’s turned out to be a wonderful time capsule of the Eighties. My iPhone now does pretty much everything that the JVC video camera and the Walkman do, but somehow there’s still a part of me that would have loved to have owned one of those giant video cameras that only takes tiny video tapes.
37. I also love the fact that, even though he’s a mad inventor, Doc Brown still has time to have a dart board in his garage.
38. Proof, if proof be needed, that Doc Brown is a mad scientist, in that every other scientist would call it one-point-two-one-giga-whats, not one-point-twenty-one-jigger-whats. (A jigger-what is a billion whats. Thank you for asking.)
39. Question: what’s the only thing cooler than a nuclear powered, time travelling car? A lightning powered, time travelling car, that’s what. An absolutely genius concept.
40. In this day and age, I am absolutely, resolutely glad that the makers didn’t go for a re-release in 3D, but if they had, Doc Brown running towards you to scream “Back… To The Future” would have been worth a dozen Avatars for my money.
41. As a ginger myself, the fact that George McFly gets bullied by not only Biff’s gang, but a secondary group, one of whom is as ginger as ginger beer with added ginger in an orange glass, that a life at the bottom of life’s pecking order wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. (I did indeed pluck up the courage to work my way to two or three rungs from the bottom of the pecking order having seen this.)
42. It should not be forgotten that this is basically an incest comedy. I can only imagine the pitch sessions, where Zemeckis and writer Gale had to convince studios that this Oedpial love story would actually be a comedy, and I don’t envy them that job.
43. Michael J. Fox’s height came in advantageous not only for his odd-couple pairing with Christopher Lloyd, but had nearly a foot disadvantage on Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff, who manages to flick between sleazy and menacing and was the perfect school bully.
44. Of course, George is a closet sci-fi writer. Not only does this set up his predicament well, but also perfectly validates the creative aspirations of all involved. Who wouldn’t want to be the next Ray Bradbury (as long as you could be as cool as Marty)? Whoever you’d like to be, there’s the opportunity for a role model among this family.
45. And the movie also manages to use Marty’s cool to confirm that it was possible to like both Star Wars and Star Trek, thanks to the Darth Vader / Vulcan references. (And indeed, Eddie Van Halen.)
46. The physical comedy isn’t confined to Michael J. Fox, of course. Crispin Glover’s George gets a chance to shine when entering the diner to approach Lorraine, and the density / destiny line manages to convey a believability to the relationships and the situation in a single line of dialogue. (Plus reactions, of course.) Most movies today would give their right arms to be so effortless.
47. Of course, while Doc had inspiration and took thirty years to act on it, the movie shows us how effective such role models can be, even in terms of subtle inspiration. But Marty manages to invent the skateboard on the run – who knew Calvin Klein was so talented?
48. Speaking of inspiration, whenever I’ve had a new TV set-up over the years, I keep reminding myself that if the Doc and Marty could connect an Eighties video camera to a Fifties TV, I should have no trouble, since all my wires are supposed to fit into the sockets I’ve got.
49. There are many of the small details that I love about this movie, and many of those small details are in Doc Brown’s loving recreation of the town square from milk bottles and cardboard boxes.
50. I have also attempted to imitate Christopher Lloyd’s desperate horror face when the car goes off the table model and sets fire to the nearby rags, in the same way that Edmund Blackadder’s utterance of “Oh God” at times of ultimate despair has become a trademark catchphrase over the years.
51. Back To The Future also taught me that women will come after the right man if you have enough to offer, with Lorraine’s chasing down of Marty reassuring the adolescent me that I didn’t need to worry about asking women out. (And I’m happily married now, so of course it works perfectly. Thanks, ladies.)
52. Another source of inspiration, as someone who plans for a living, is both Marty’s sense of planning and his adaptability. At several points in the duration of the movie, he has a well worked out plan for getting George and Lorraine together, but thankfully he never lets failure get in the way of his ideas.
53. It’s also worth saying that, for any children watching, only Bart Simpson can stand as a role model in terms of encouraging mild swearing. Thankfully, having seen this as a child, Die Hard and Robocop two years later gave me the advanced course.
54. In terms of genuine life lessons, what this movie does give us is a lesson on the value of friendship, with Marty’s repeated attempts to save the life of his mentor, and indeed the refusal to allow a friend’s concerns to get in the way of genuine care. (So the moral of the story is, ignore your friends if you think they’re wrong. Wait…)
55. It would be remiss of me not to include at least one number that related to the movie itself, and 1955 is lovingly recreated right throughout the movie, to the extent where it’s hard not to want to travel back in time and grow up there yourself. And of course, you could get to go to the Enchantment Under The Sea dance as well.
56. Many modern comedies, such as the American Pie movies, have pondered on the difficulties of male / female interaction. How much would life have been easier for us young men if all girls were as easy as Lorraine? But this was also reassuring to me as a young lad about to approach the flushes of adolescence that not all of the obligation might not fall on my shoulders. Or indeed, other body parts.
57. The movie also gets the balance of comedy and genuine threat perfectly right. I’ve already mentioned Biff’s efficiency as the school bully, but when he comes to get retribution for the damage to his car, the threat moves up a level and takes on a much higher level of risk for Lorraine, but never feels like it’s going too far.
58. The music choices throughout the movie are also impeccable. In addition to the two Huey Lewis tracks, the music for Marvin Berry’s band is also great and fits the mood of the scenes it supports astonishingly well.
59. And I can’t go any further without mentioning Alan Silvestri’s score, which has a permanent residence on my iPod and for my money is the best orchestral score not written by John Williams in the Eighties. It was also, at the time, using the largest orchestra assembled for such a purpose.
60. As the movie moves into the final act, a number of things become apparent. The first is that there’s a number of deadlines or objectives that have been set, and having arrived at the dance it then begins to reel off these set-piece resolutions with breath-taking efficiency. Given the amount of ground the plot covers, it’s amazing that it both never feels rushed and also that it clocks in under two hours.
61. Many of these are about wish-fulfilment. First and foremost is the geek standing up to the bully, and surely anyone who’s ever been bullied would love to have the courage of George McFly to stand up to Biff. (Not that I’m condoning violence, of course.)
62. Marty’s wish in all this is probably the least demanding – he simply wants to get home, but as a sideline to that he’d love to be a rock star, and Johnny B. Goode is his opportunity, and a joy from powerful start to cringing finish. Your kids will indeed love it. As should you.
63. The ticking clock is a great literary device, and of course a very literal one in the latter stages, but all of the set-ups for the key outcomes are well planned, and Marty’s photo of his family, slowly fading away and about to take him, is also a masterpiece of understated effectiveness.
64. And it ties in gorgeously with the most perfect moment in the movie, when George, having been cut out by the ginger kid (again), pushes his way back in, takes Lorraine and kisses her for the first time. The match of events, editing, soundtrack and emotion is a real punch the air moment.
65. It is very difficult not to think of the daring genius of the sequel, which ends up taking place in the background of this scene, and adds jeopardy to both itself and extra risk to this original – Back To The Future is the movie that just keeps on giving.
66. Of course, Marty does over the course of the movies do most of the sensible things we’d do if travelling in time – the most prominent in this movie being to get himself out of trouble as an eight year old. It’s a credit to the movie that Marty can suggest to this pair the idea of children less than ten minutes after their first kiss, and that both we and they believe it possible.
67. Another of the lessons that Back To The Future is that it’s important to dress for the occasion. (Also, that men can get changed quickly if they put their minds to it. Less than an hour, Marty’s back in his proper clothes. Good man.)
68. One of the gimmicks of more recent years is the real time thriller, and as we approach the climax we get 8, as opposed to 24. The eight minutes of the future return play out pretty much in real time, and the tension gets ramped up very effectively through this stretch.
69. Robert Zemeckis also uses many of the surrounding concepts to ramp up both the tension and the humour, including the architecture of the clock tower and the mechanisms to shroud Doc’s challenge in a threatening darkness.
70. This eight minute stretch manages to throw in further twists on a regular basis, with both Doc and Marty facing obstacles, and should be a template for anyone looking to structure a dramatic climax to their movie.
71. And despite Doc’s plan requiring a number of contrivances and coincidences, it works perfectly (of course), and that final sequence actually appears in all three movies, giving a wonderful sense of connection between them.
72. You have to admire that, in what is essentially a family movie, we could get away with Marty’s first shot on returning home being of the “XXX American Orgy” playing at the local picture house, and the first person he encounters being the drunk tramp on the park bench.
73. There’s also some salient business lessons in the movie – not least why we’re not all driving round in DeLoreans these days. (Dodgy starter motors and clumsy gull wing doors for a start.) Athough you still would, wouldn’t you?
74. I can remember being thrilled by the way that Doc Brown fell over in stages when he was shot, and then disappointed that they hadn’t matched that move when Marty returns from the future. It was only after a few viewings that it hit me – of course, why would they?
75. You also have to admire Doc Brown’s willingness to take the gag the full length, playing dead even as Marty rolls him over. Marty, you’ve been punk’d!
76. But maybe, sowed by the seed thirty years previously of seeing the positive change in George McFly’s fortunes by changing events, Doc learns the best lesson – “what the hell.”
77. I grew up in the same house all my childhood – my mother still lives there, and it’s been in my family since 1931. It’s nothing to shout about, but it’s home. And it comforts me to see that the McFlys, despite their increased affluence thanks to Marty’s intervention, follow the same principles, having a much nicer house, but home is home and thankfully they didn’t decide to move.
78. I also love the fact that Marty sleeps, as I feel I do, in the same uncomfortable position every single night, nose pressed into the pillow and legs spread to give him support.
79. I also live in hope that my loved ones have such selective memories about the past – for not only does George remember the events well enough to put the radiation suit on the front of his book, and Lorraine still remembers the story of how they got together, they’ve both conveniently forgotten that their son is the spitting image of the boy who helped get them together, with of course the same name. Happy times.
80. Already at the end of the first movie, though, we’re getting hints of the future, and what we can expect in a mere five years time. Of course, the first sequel sets our expectations for hoverboards, automatic trainers and the like, but I will be disappointed if we don’t all have a Mr Fusion and silver wraparound sunglasses in five years.
81. Marty is also a lucky guy. Not only is Jennifer Parker a great looker and a huge groupie for Marty, she’s also remarkably calm when a man turns up wearing ridiculous clothes and tells her she’s going to have children with her boyfriend. If I wasn’t a happily married man…
82. In terms of last lines, the movie has one of the best, although opportunities for quoting it normally lead to trouble. “Roads… where we’re going, we don’t need… roads.” (Really, where are we going?!?)
83. And of course, what’s cooler than a nuclear powered, time travelling car and a lightning powered, time travelling car? A flying nuclear fusion powered time travelling car, of course.
84. “To be continued –>” Testament to the power of the movie that, for the first time in my life, I was keen to know more about the process. Was there really going to be more? (Turns out it was just a tease, of course, originally, but thankfully they decided to come back.)
85. The first sequel was one of the most unusual sequels, but it packed as much in, if not more, as the original, with the future, the moral debates on gambling, the dark version of the Eighties (with the hardcore Mr Strickland), and the mind-bending return to November 12th, 1955.
86. And while the second sequel may have been more conventional, being simply a time travelling movie, it still managed to work in a love story without undermining any of those to have gone before, more excellent cultural references and another sequence of escalating climaxes, right up to the touching and appropriate end.
87. What those principles underline, more than anything, is the ultimate joy of the Back To The Future movies – wish fulfilment. I started by quoting the different types of genre that these movies fall into, especially the first and last, but actually they may be closer to modern day fairy tales than anything else – the princes may not ride up on white chargers, but they do fight for the women they love, and everyone gets to live happily ever after. Aw shucks, I’m welling up here.
88. Well, I’d love to stay and talk more, as there’s so much I haven’t mentioned (Great scott! Heavy? The triple sonic boom), but I’m afraid you’ll just have to rediscover it for yourselves. I’m outatime…
Cambridge Film Festival Review: Monsters
The Pitch: Districto Nueve: Una Historia de Amor.
The Review: Since it came out last year and nabbed a Best Picture nomination, one of the commonest descriptions being attached to upcoming movies is that it will be ‘this year’s District 9’. Low budget but high on street cred and turning a good profit, the Neill Blomkamp sci-fi action thriller seemingly sets a good template for variations on the ‘War of the Worlds’-style alien invasion movie. So it’s my great relief to be able to tell you that the only similarities that Monsters has with it’s South African cousin are unknown actors and alien visitors in a realistic setting. If that sounds, in fact, very similar, let me reassure you that Monsters is a very different beast.
There’s a more traditional separation between man and alien here, the giant creatures kept at bay in an isolation zone, but it’s the fate of two humans that concerns us most. Whitney Able is the daughter of a publisher stuck on the wrong side of the Mexican border, and Scoot McNairy is the put-upon photographer tasked with getting her home safe. When things start to go wrong, he starts to take that mission personally, and becomes determined to get her home safely. Unlike District 9, there is a significant difference in scale between us and them, so the interactions and encounters are less frequent, but are no less effective for that.
It’s difficult to pigeonhole Monsters even as a particular genre. To call it a road movie feels a disservice, while the sense of the epic trek that our pair must undertake cannot capture the full nature of what’s within the narrative. There’s an air of creeping dread and the situation is expertly used to push the two leads together. But while there are some tense scenes, and a palpable sense of peril at times, there are also moments of real beauty and the characters and their back stories come over as wholly authentic. In particular, the final third of the movie manages to combine the nervousness and thrills to most satisfying effect, and the whole movie has a feeling of reality and believability, both in its settings and in its characterisations.
Then you discover how things were done – Able and McNairy are the only two actual actors, the rest being made up of locals as the small crew went on their own road trip across three countries. Edwards had an outline, but allowed his actors the freedom to improvise based on some brief guidance. Then the effects, which are never less than impeccable and put a lot of this summer’s blockbusters to shame, were all done by Edwards using off-the-shelf kit that you could buy yourself for the price of a small car. The first time director has heard this described as both a monster movie for girls and a love story for boys, and seems comfortable with both descriptions. There is no denying that anyone not put off by the concept or the marketing stands a good chance of falling into a demographic that will get something special from this; not only an absorbing and epic journey for our protagonists, but also one of the most technically accomplished debuts in living memory. The thought of what Edwards could do with a big budget is inspiring, but if he can do this much with so little, just maybe he doesn’t need it?
Why see it at the cinema: The stunning landscapes, impeccable VFX work and even the intimate moments between the leads make this an essential cinema experience.
The Score: 9/10
Review: Certified Copy (Copie conforme)
The Pitch: It’s like looking in a mirror, only… not.
The Review: Juliette Binoche has had a career spanning nearly thirty years, and for much of that has jumped between roles in her natural language and English. You might think that, with the supposed paucity of good female roles in movies, that there’s not much left for Binoche to cover that she hasn’t before, but here she gets to explore some new territory to Cannes best actress award-winning effect. In the process, she gets to cover a range of languages, not only English and French but Italian, but in this case there is a specific purpose to the variances of the language.
The set-up is simple: William Shimell plays James Miller, an British author on a tour of Tuscany where his work on originality in art has been better received than in his homeland. Binoche is the woman who comes to hear his talk, and the two are then drawn together in a discussion of his work. Once the two meet again, the course of the movie charts their discussions over the course of an afternoon, taking in the Italian countryside and engaging with a number of characters along the way who cause them to reflect on their differing viewpoints on Miller’s work.
There’s a turning point as we approach the halfway mark where one of those characters seemingly mistakes the pair for a married couple. What starts as a role play, set off by the misunderstanding, takes on more and more aspects, and eventually both the pair and the audience are lost in the drama. The whole movie reveals itself to be an intricate construct on this concept, almost every aspect of the theme, the performances or the setting playing with the motif of originality versus imitation. Reflections in car windows sometimes obscure the actors themselves, POV shots ask us to engage directly in the drama almost as a participant and this even extends to the leading pair themselves – Shimell is a renowned baritone, not an actor, and there is a slight but noticeable difference between his performance and that of Binoche, which almost feels like a copy of acting rather than being fully immersed in the role.
While this reinforces the concept, it does prevent the audience from fully engaging, being kept slightly at arm’s length by the constant artifice. That’s not to say that there’s not a lot to enjoy here, with the confusions and the tensions making this verge on a romantic comedy at times. Despite the differences in acting ability, Shimell and Binoche make an engaging couple at times and as time wears on, you find yourself more keen to believe that the beginning was the illusion and that their relationship is real and not the copy. Much of the credit for this must be placed at Binoche’s door, using the language differences to vary mood effectively, but also adding colour and emotion in all of the languages she uses. The only one here who’s on familiar ground is director Kiarostami, who’s explored these themes before but never to such mainstream effect – worth checking out if you’d like to engage your mind and your heart.
Why see it at the cinema: There is a very literal aspect of the visuals which runs throughout the course of the movie, which the cinema screen will allow you to fully appreciate.
The Score: 7/10
Review: I Am Love (Io sono l’amore)
The Pitch: Aspects of Love. (Although thankfully without the maudlin Andrew Lloyd Webber songs.)
The Review: Love is a complex creature. As Ewan MacGregor put it in Moulin Rouge, “Love is a many splendoured thing! Love lifts us up where we belong! All you need is love!” This gentle and flowing movie takes us on a journey through many of the aspects of love, and what it means to a group of characters based around a wealthy Italian family.
A film to let wash over you for the most part, rather than one to reach out and grab you, the sumptuous cinematography and melodramatic score serve to create an atmosphere which genuinely feels like taking an Italian holiday to watch lovers in the first flush of courtship.
Tilda Swinton serves as the movie’s core, and had to learn both Italian and Russian for the part. Thankfully, neither proves to be a distraction, and the rest of the cast are generally solid, if only given moments to shine.
And most of those moments come in the final act. The one song Ewan missed out which is most relevant here would be “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and it’s the character’s passions which eventually inform their decisions and their destinies, adding a satisfying layer of drama to round out proceedings. (Just one note; the ending works better if you leave the moment the credits start, rather than the pointless coda that props up in the middle of them.)
Why see it at the cinema: For the lush Italian scenery, for the lush pomposity of the score, and because melodrama this big needs a big canvas.
The Score: 7/10
Review: I Love You Phillip Morris
The Pitch: Liar Liar – The Prison Based Gay Love Story Cut.
The Review: Jim Carrey is from the Robin Williams School of Acting – those who have a manic energy in mainstream roles, but tend to be more restrained in smaller, less showy films. So the first positive here is that this is a smaller, less showy film with an absolutely unrestrained performance that has a satisfying undercurrent of lunacy.
The film itself is a strange hybrid of road movie and caper movie, almost as restless as Carrey himself. It takes a little while to find something to anchor the movie, but that comes along in the shape of McGregor’s Phillip Morris, who has a normality and honesty in complete contrast to Carrey’s Steven Russell.
The unreliable narrator is a well-used device, especially in modern fiction, but is given a new slant here, in that it’s Steven’s character, rather than his actual narration, that is generally not to be trusted. This does give the fim most of its forward momentum, as Steven gets into one scrape after another.
There’s a slight fear at the beginning that the tone might just be on the wrong side of mocking, especially when dealing with the gay revelations, but when Phillip arrives, this gives way to a warmer, even tone, which still allows for some fantastic set pieces, such as a slow dance in a prison cell. By the end, there’s a real emotional honesty, but then the movie at the last manages to have its cake and eat it, and leaves you smiling at the cheek of it all.
Why see it at the cinema: Because Brennan Brown, as Mr Dresden the star of those annoying Orange “turn off your mobile” ads that run before every movie in the major cinema chains in the UK, has a major part in the movie. You will think the walls of reality are starting to break down.
The Score: 8/10