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Review: “Back to the Future” (1985)

Ah, the future. Weight has nothing to do with it in "Back to the Future."

People who chance upon the wonder of time travel all tend to want the same thing: second chances. For what is time travel if not the ultimate cosmic do-over, a chance to make a different choice in the past and hope that alteration will improve the future? Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a little different. With youth on his side, he has few real regrets, so his accidental time-travel mission involves changing the lives of others. It just so happens those “other lives” belong to his teen-age parents (Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson) circa 1955.

Director Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote “Back to the Future” with Bob Gale, merges these two unlikely concepts to create a film brimming with wit, intelligence, sidesplitting sight gags, more than a little heart and a most creative (if monumentally disturbing) reinvention of the Oedipus complex. “Back to the Future,” then, is a rare movie indeed, one where there’s sturdy balance of science fiction and humor. Factor in the very human and subtly poignant backstory that involves the redemption of a painfully timid character, and the first installment of this trilogy becomes even more rare: a film that does, in the simplest sense of the word, offer something for everyone.*

The story Zemeckis and Gale creates begins in 1985 in Hill Valley, Calif., where Marty lives what he believes is an unenviable life. His father George (Crispin Glover) lacks a spine and spends his days at work being bullied by his boss (Thomas F. Wilson), while his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) glugs vodka at dinner. But there are two things that make Marty happy: his girlfriend (Claudia Wells) and his friendship with scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), a kook who sports a ‘do that puts Albert Einstein’s to shame. He’s the kind of chap, we expect, whose inventions never amount to much … until the day they do. Doc Brown’s constant tinkering moves from strange to astounding when he accidentally creates a time machine out of a souped-up DeLorean. Why a DeLorean? “If you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” Oh, that Christopher Lloyd. Always with the bug-eyed witticisms.

A chase (also accidental) finds Marty rocketing down the Twin Pines Mall parking lot in the time machine and landing somehow in 1955. And Hill Valley in 1955 is as unprepared to experience Marty as he is to experience Hill Valley. The ’80s-centric teen can’t quite believe what’s happened to him until he finds himself sharing counter space at the local malt shop with his father, a hopelessly shy nerd. That meeting leads to a mishap that changes Marty’s parents’ initial meeting (turns out his mother finds her future son most attractive) and threatens to alter his own life permanently.

The clash between 1950s-era ideals and Marty’s futuristic notions — pay attention to the smallest details; they matter — provides some of the funniest moments. Hill Valley’s townspeople see his puffy vest and keep asking him why he’s wearing a life jacket. A much-younger Doc Brown scoffs at the idea that Ronald “the actor?” Reagan could win the presidency. “I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady,” he retorts, and later imagines plutonium is sold like Tylenol in drugstores in 1980s America. At the school dance, Marty rips into a guitar solo that leaves the students speechless. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” he observes, but assures them “your kids are gonna love it.”

What’s amazing about “Back to the Future” is the timeless feel of these sight gags. Over the years, every last one of them has refused to age, to seem dated or grow stale. Instead, they feel as fresh and funny today as they did in 1985. That timelessness is a powerful testament to the strength of the actors’ performances (here we see glimpses of the exquisite comic timing that would make Fox a name) and Gale and Zemeckis’ visionary script. Perhaps that’s because “Back to the Future” reminds us that while we can’t predict our future, our choices give us the power to navigate it how we choose.

Grade: A

*Avoid cliches like the plague.

Review: “Beowulf” (2007)

BeowulfViewers, leave your preconceived notions at the door: This isn’t your eighth-grade English lit teacher’s “Beowulf.” No, this “Beowulf,” a CGI-coated, action-packed visual spectacle of a film directed by Robert Zemeckis, has a wicked, sly sense of humor that surprises you. In fact, the double entendre-laden dialogue, the expertly-choreographed battle scenes and the over-the-top characters all feel like something straight out of a Monty Python film. Think of “Beowulf” as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for the CGI generation.

The film, of course, is based upon the Old English epic poem “Beowulf,” a distant, unpleasant memory for some (excluding yours truly, former English major). Set about 700 A.D., the film, like the poem, opens on the eighth-century Danish kingdom of aged King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), who has called his warriors to the mead hall for a celebration. All the mead-soaked merrymaking comes to an abrupt halt when hideous, shrieking monster Grendel (the ever-creepy Crispin Glover) starts snacking on the king’s guests. Hrothgar then issues a call for heroes to kill Grendel.Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone, whose booming voice could — and probably has — incited on-the-spot battle cries), a valiant, boastful warrior from Geatland (part of Sweden), and what can accurately be described as his traveling “entourage” of coarse, mannerless warriors. The famed Geat accepts Hrothgar’s challenge as much for the reward as a chance to bed his lovely queen (Robin Wright Penn) and sets off a chain reaction of events that does not, at various turns, follow the legend.

But enough about the plot. The fun of “Beowulf” hides in the unexpected ways the plot unfolds. For starters, there’s the director’s decision to use “photorealistic animation,” which means the characters resemble real-life actors. It’s certainly a bold choice, since that animation style can look downright freaky and sometimes downright soulless and scary (“Polar Express,” anyone?). Here it’s been tweaked and improved to the point where the characters’ appearances are almost spot-on. Their expressions and eyes still aren’t quite there, still lack the spark of life that suggests humanity, but it’s close enough. (It’s even possible to see the faintest traces of Glover’s unusual features behind his Grendel getup, and Angelina Jolie is clearly recognizable as Grendel’s seductive mother.) And the animation, no doubt, injects “Beowulf” with the same kind of enchanting surrealism that’s made the film’s literary inspiration a perennial favorite on high school and college reading lists.

There’s another surprise in “Beowulf”: The film or, more accurately, the director has a biting sense of humor. (And this reviewer chooses to believe the laughs are intentional, not accidental.) Entire scenes are played for comic, satirical effect, and there are too many allusions to the Python troupe to be accidental. Consider the fight scene between Grendel and Beowulf, which should win some sort of award for Best Choreography or Best Use of Props to Conceal Exposed Private Parts. The reason? Beowulf is entirely naked, but every move, every prop is designed to prevent the audience from seeing what can’t be shown. Half the fun is figuring out what “cover” will be used next. The whole thing would be right at home in a Python sketch.

The characters’ speeches, too, are unexpectedly comical. Observe the scene where Beowulf and his right-hand warrior Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) debate who will enter Grendel’s cave first. When Beowulf loses his arm in battle, his response recalls that of the Black Knight in “Holy Grail” (remember the “your arm’s off” exchange?). The humor makes “Beowulf” a rather surprising film, one that will make Old English lit scholars no doubt howl with displeasure. But see it with an open mind and it’s a thrilling, visually stunning experience you won’t soon forget.

Grade: B-