Talking Movies

October 22, 2015

Getting Back to Back to the Future

Watching the Back to the Future trilogy yesterday for ‘Back to the Future Day’ made me think again about the Films You’d Love Your Kids To See season in the Lighthouse cinema this past summer.

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Back to the Future of course featured in that season. Time travel has never, ever been as much fun as 1980s teenager Marty McFly’s jaunt back to 1950s Hill Valley where he must ensure his teenage parents meet and fall in love to ensure his own future existence. Watching all three films you realised anew what a great double-act Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd were as Marty and Doc Brown, how stirring Alan Silvestri’s score was, the incredible 1980s-ness of everything, and just how sharp a script Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote. Watching the waves of nostalgia washing over ITV 2 yesterday you also wondered if the 1980s really was a golden age for kid’s films or if it’s just the generation that grew up with them wallowing in nostalgia for their own childhood rather than the films.

Back in the summer I wrote about the paradox of the Lighthouse encouraging adults to take their children to see films they had enjoyed as children. Your children cannot have the same childhood you had because films are part of a cultural matrix. You can’t separate them from the culture surrounding them. Observe Huey Lewis, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Star Wars, Star Trek and Japanese corporations in the Back to the Future trilogy. These are films of the 1980s, with all that means for politics, music, fashion, television, and on and on and on… To remember originally experiencing Back to the Future involves comics and annuals that accompanied it, which tied it together with a whole complex of movies; Ghostbusters, Short Circuit, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Goonies, E.T., The Karate Kid, Roger Moore’s Bonds; and television; Doctor Who, The Real Ghostbusters, Thundercats, Transformers, Mask, ALF, Family Ties, MacGyver, The A-Team, Knightrider. That’s some fearsome nostalgia.

But in a smartphone age there is something retro not just about making children experience movies with hundreds of people who have all ditched their phones to unite as an audience and groan as one at Indy being served monkey brains but also in showing them movies shot in such an old-fashioned way as Back to the Future. Robert Zemeckis recently said vis a vis The Walk that spectacle doesn’t just mean CGI. A close-up is cinematic spectacle, because close-ups don’t happen in reality. Look at all the moments in Back to the Future when Silvestri’s score tells you how to read a scene while Zemeckis moves the camera as outrageously as Hitchcock to draw your attention to something, convey importance, or just dazzle you. When Zemeckis unleashes the train pushing a DeLorean finale of Back to the Future: Part III it shames today’s blockbusters. This summer saw many action sequences that were neither choreographed nor legible, but simply CGI edited in a frenzy to create an impression of thrilling action. Zemeckis’ train finale by contrast, is so perfectly constructed, shot by shot, that a 1910s audience would comprehend it and thrill to it as Guido Silvestri hammered his piano.

Twitter went crazy because Back to the Future: Part II’s future day had arrived, but watching that 2015 sequence yesterday it was striking just how much of its vista of hoverboards and flying cars was realised practically. To say nothing of how the earliest cinema pioneers would have smiled approvingly at the lo-fi trick Zemeckis employed in the sequels to have multiple versions of Fox and Lloyd interacting with each other onscreen. And watching Zemeckis’ inspired writing partner Bob Gale effortlessly handle the parallel timelines chaos of Back to the Future: Part II’s time-travel antics you couldn’t help but sigh, remembering just how insultingly nonsensical Terminator: Genisys was. Zemeckis and Gale are no doubt appreciative of how beloved their work is, but Zemeckis probably wishes people would go see the movie he released last month instead of hyping one he made thirty years ago. Perhaps the takeaway from ‘Back to the Future Day’ is we get the movies we deserve.

Zemeckis & Gale had a horrible time getting their script greenlighted in the 1980s. But the idea that anybody would touch it with a bargepole now is fantasy. It’s not a sequel, it’s not based on a comic book, or a toy, or a TV show, or a YA novel, it is simply an original idea that happens to be cinematic lightning in a bottle. If we want films now that will be as beloved in 2045 as Back to the Future is now then we need to put our foot down: we want sharp scripts and properly choreographed action.

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May 7, 2013

Mud

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returns with a Southern tale that owes much to Mark Twain as two teenage boys help Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive.

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The inseparable Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loftland) are our modern-day Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. They ride motorbikes, pilot motorboats, and enjoy the laidback lifestyle of the Mississippi river. Orphaned Neck lives with his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), a womaniser, oyster fisher, and collector of riverbed trash. Ellis endures the disintegrating marriage of his parents Senior (Ray McKinnon) and MaryLee (Sarah Paulson). Then, boating out to an island in the river to see a boat stranded in a tree by a flood, they encounter Mud (Matthew McConaughey); a superstitious fugitive waiting for his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to rendezvous with him, and hiding out from the law and Texan cowboys the while. Neck is wary of Mud but Ellis is drawn to his irrepressible romanticism and soon the boys find themselves conspiring with Mud, and inviting danger…

If you’ve read Huckleberry Finn you’ll grin at Mud’s entrance being announced by distinctive footprints because of nails forming a cross in his boot just like Pa Finn. You’ll also enjoy an absurd moment worthy of Twain’s warring clans the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons bringing their guns to church. That blood feud is echoed in the vendetta against Mud by implacable Texans led by the smooth Carver (Paul Sparks) and his gruff father King (Joe Don Baker). Nichols manages to make such touches not seem anachronistic by giving a timeless quality to proceedings. People ring landlines and ask for the person they want to talk to, Galen uses a 19th century diving helmet with a 21st century skin-suit, and the Beach Boys’ ‘Help Me Rhonda’ gets its most prominent use since 1980s show ALF. Nichols pulls this off largely by his insistence on shooting on remote, strikingly beautiful locations in Arkansas, which his regular cinematographer Adam Stone imbues with heavenly sheen.

Nichols’ Take Shelter was one of the finest films of 2011, and Mud shows startling range in being expansive and optimistic where that was intense and foreboding. Tree of Life star Sheridan gives a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacts to his parents’ separation and the loss of his riverside life by bonding with Mud because of his unquenchable belief in everlasting love. Ellis projects Mud’s love for Juniper onto his own putative girlfriend MayPearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) despite the warnings by his mysterious neighbour Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) that Mud is a fool for love, and that Ellis and Neck are making themselves as great fools by running messages for Mud and scrounging materials for his tree-stranded boat. Nichols draws uniformly flawless performances from his perfectly judged ensemble to make this a deeply felt tale of love and wisdom, played against the rolling Mississippi and endless local charms against bad luck, which builds to a climax suitable for a director whose debut was called Shotgun Stories. The ending makes you think of Huck’s closing peroration, but the final image then makes you think Frederick Jackson Turner got it wrong – the frontier spirit is well-nigh indestructible.

Nichols’ third film is his most ambitious and warmest. Rich and absorbing, it is lit by a deep affection for his characters. The best film I’ve seen this year.

5/5

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