Archive for May, 2012

Back To The Future part II (1989)

Back To The Future part II poster

Directed by Robert Zemekis

Sequels can be tricky things. It’s rare when a sequel is as good as the original, it’s extremely rare when it’s better. Most people regard The Godfather part II as being better than The Godfather and they’re right; some people regard Superman II as being better than Superman The Movie, but they’re wrong. The original Back To The Future is a great film, but for me Back To The Future part II just has the edge.

All sequels are a balancing act – they have to give you enough from the first film so as to be familiar, but not too much so as to be just a rehash. At the same time they have to take the characters somewhere new (literally or metaphorically), whilst still staying true to those characters. Back To The Future part II walks this tightrope with aplomb, and what’s more it does it at breakneck speed without missing a single beat. The term rollercoaster is used a lot to describe action/adventure movies, but this is the closest that I’ve come to a film actually being a rollercoaster ride, and I loved it.

Doc Brown Goes To The BlackboardSo what makes it so good? Well it’s witty, it’s smart and it’s funny. Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd give pitch perfect performances, the direction from Robert Zemekis is spot on and the (pre-digital) special effects are great without overpowering the human elements. But what really sets BTTFII (I can’t keep typing the title in full every time) apart is the script. Bob Gale’s script (based on his and Zemekis’s story) is fun and clever and incredibly densely plotted – at one point Doc Brown uses a blackboard to explain what’s going on, that’s how much plot is packed into this script – but it is so masterfully told that you always know what’s going on and – don’t underestimate this last point – it all makes perfect sense (within the confines of its own universe, of course). It whizzes forwards and backwards in time, from 1985 to 2015 and back again before heading back to 1955, and every move is logical and considered and internally consistent. There are no holes in the plot, no moments where you’re going ‘but hang on…’ that you might find in other, less brilliant fantasy films (you know who you are, The Lord of The Rings).

Marty in 2015

The stuff in the future is very well done – the hover boards and flying cars – but it’s the stuff in 1955 that really gives this film the edge. It’s the way that the 1955 story in the second half of this film is so effortlessly woven into the events from the first film that pushes this film into extra special territory. The BTTFII Marty has to negotiate the Enchantment Under The Sea dance to recover the sports almanac from 1955 Biff without bumping into BTTF Marty, whilst at the same ensuring that the critical moment from the first film – when his parents-to-be kiss for the first time – happens as planned. Even smaller moments are beautifully executed, such as when the older Doc helps his younger self set up his ‘science experiment’ in the town square (the working title for the film was Paradox, because of this scene and its pair o’ docs – see, even that’s witty and clever and they didn’t use it). Add to that all the references to the original film – Marty waking up in a darkened bedroom, not knowing where he is, with his mother watching over him; the ‘Biff’ character having a run in with a manure truck – and you have a clever and ambitious film that doesn’t insult the intelligence of its audience, and positively rewards fans of the first movie. On the downside you could say it’s just a big in-joke, and in lots of ways it is, but the thing about in-jokes is that if you’re in on them, they’re normally pretty damn funny.

As with all good things, it ends too soon. There are very few films that, after the first viewing, I just wanted to sit down and watch again straight away, but that’s what I wanted to do here. The breathless climax – the parents kiss, the chase between hoverboard and Buick, the almanac is snatched away from Biff’s clutches – is suddenly silenced when DeLorean is struck by lightning and Doc disappears. Zemekis, conducting the audience like a maestro, gives the audience a moment to breathe before bringing in the Western Union man with a mysterious delivery for Marty. It’s a letter, from the Doc, from 1885. Cue a sprint back to the town square to find the 1955 Doc and we’re ready to rush headlong into Back To The Future part III.

Back in 1989 we had to wait six months to find out what happened next and it was a killer; now you can find out straight away just by changing the DVD.

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If Sight & Sound Should Ask Me…

Back in 1952 someone at Sight & Sound, the British Film Institute’s high-brow magazine, had an interesting idea: they asked some of the world’s top film critics to name what they considered to be the ten best films ever made, and then the magazine compiled all of the votes from all of the critics and produced a list of the ten greatest films in the history of cinema.

In this day and age where you can’t open a magazine without stumbling across a top 10 (or 20, or 100) of something, and list related TV shows seem to be the backbone of music channels and late night Channel 4, the idea of producing a list of the ten greatest films doesn’t sound all that remarkable, but back in 1952 it was something of a novelty.

The 1952 poll was won by the classic Italian film Bicycle Thieves, and the poll proved so popular that Sight & Sound have run it at ten year intervals ever since. One film conspicuous by its absence in the 1952 top ten (at least when viewed from where we are now) is Citizen Kane, which topped the poll in 1962 and has gone on to top every Sight & Sound Greatest Film poll, as well as countless other best film surveys, since.

It being 2012, Sight & Sound are in the process of compiling the latest version of the Top 10 Greatest Films of All Time and the invitations to vote have gone out to the great and the good of the movie world. Some of the most influential film critics and highly respected directors in the world have been asked to cast their votes. They haven’t got round to asking me for my opinion just yet, but I thought I’d have a go at putting together a list of my top ten favourite films just in case they do.

I’m not sure how many films I’ve seen, but it’s going to be in the thousands. Between the ages of 16 & 30 I reckon I went to the cinema on average once a week (it helped that I worked in one for two and a half years). Combine that with three years of film clubs and societies at University and a propensity to devour anything that appeared on terrestrial TV, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that I’d seen more than 5,000 films (in case that doesn’t sound like a big number, if you watched one film a day it would take you over thirteen and a half years to reach 5,000). A couple of years ago someone bought me one of those “1,001 Films To See Before You Die” books (another example of our fascination with lists) and I counted that I’d seen around 300 of them, which doesn’t sound like many I admit, but that’s only the really good stuff. They didn’t mention the Police Academy films in that book, and I think I’ve seen all of those. Come to think of it they didn’t even mention the James Bond films, and I know I’ve seen every one of those. Either way, I’ve seen a lot of films, so trimming my list down to ten would be quite a task.

To start with I trawled through my DVD collection, the aforementioned 1,001 films book and IMDB to come up with a short list of around 50 films that I loved – my desert island films. I took the decision not to include anything that was less than five years old, since I think a measure of a truly great film is its longevity, and you don’t know whether something is going to stand the test of time until it’s, well, stood the test of time.

I then took the short-list and tried as best I could to weigh them up against each other to come up with my final ten. It was, to say the least, a very subjective process, not just comparing apples to oranges, but comparing apples to fine wine or designer T-shirts, and deciding whether I wanted to eat, drink or be trendy. The results are what you see below. It’s fair to say that this is the list as I see it now, and if I were to go through the process again in six months time, I might end up with a different list – not completely different, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were two or three changes.

So, after all that preamble, my ten favourite films off all time, in alphabetical order, are:

  • Back To The Future part II (1989)
  • Blade Runner (1982)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
  • The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • Jaws (1975)
  • The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
  • Superman The Movie (1978)
  • The Thin Blue Line (1988)
  • The Untouchables (1987)

So, now that the list is out there, a quick bit of analysis – half of the list come from the 1980s, which isn’t too surprising if you think that this was the time when I was really starting to love film and appreciate what great cinema actually meant; it was also the time that I was coming of age and finding my own identity, so it’s understandable that I love these films so much – they are, in a very real way, the films that made me.

There are some notable omissions – no Hitchcock (technically a genius, but a lot of his films leave me cold), no Coppola (I will freely admit that I don’t understand what all the fuss around Apocalypse Now is about) and no foreign films (I had a few on my short list, Les Diaboliques and Delicatessen spring to mind, but they didn’t make the final cut), but all in all I think this is a fair representation of what I truly believe are great films.

Over the next few weeks I plan to write a few words on each of these films to explain why I think they’re so wonderful and why I rate them above the other 5,000 odd films that I’ve seen, so even if you don’t agree with me, you might at least see where I’m coming from.

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