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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December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part I

In 2005 I wrote a piece for the University Observer titled ‘Huh Huh, Cool’ criticising the reception of Sin City. I find myself in 2011 writing much the same piece again criticising the reception of Drive. But this time I want to get deeper into the question of cinematic violence by trying to categorise the various types and their meaning.

Sin City’s poster campaign displayed with great pride a quote from a review: “The coolest film of the year”. Sin City probably was the coolest film of the year, in the sense that it was definitely the most violent film of the year. It was also grotesque witless garbage but that wasn’t said as much. I decided to position the piece as a pre-empting of the three strident defences usually offered to smack down anyone like me who had the reactionary audacity to object to something like Sin City. The first defence, endlessly aired especially by Taranteenies, holds that the violence is stylised. Stylised violence, the argument goes, isn’t real violence and therefore can’t be condemned. This argument stems from defences of A Clockwork Orange. The problem with citing that film though is that it actually undermines the whole argument about stylised violence being acceptable violence. The violence in the novel was veiled by Anthony Burgess’s parodic and inventive use of language which brought us inside the mind of Alex to whom this kind of activity is fun: “And then I stomped real hard on his yarblockas and the good vino came running out horrorshow good O my brothers”.  “And then I kicked him in the guts till his blood came gushing out” doesn’t entice us into Alex’s world of ultra-violence quite so much. Sadly this literary effect is impossible to replicate onscreen using “stylised violence” because film is a visual medium. You see the blood. Veil the visuals and you can still hear the screams. Perhaps if you were to depict a silent shadow puppet play you might succeed.

“But Frank Miller wrote graphic novels! It’s just comic book violence, not to be taken seriously at all, just like a cartoon” goes the second defence, perhaps invoked after attempts at inserting shadow puppets have failed. Sadly Frank Miller isn’t exactly typical of what comic books actually were, and are, like. This argument presupposes that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is what cartoons were really like rather than Tom and Jerry. The ‘acceptable’ level of violence has vastly increased in the last few decades. Please remember that The A-Team got in trouble in the mid-1980s for violence. That’s right, all those shootouts where no one ever dies, and all the spectacular cars-spinning-in-the-air crashes that end with everyone crawling out unharmed were considered excessively violent. Jack Bauer would laugh at what The Equaliser considered extreme actions, while blockbusters, which are films largely aimed at children, have become ever more violent. I didn’t envy parents explaining to 6 years olds exactly what Obi-Wan did to Anakin at the end of Star Wars III. But the comic-book defence overlooks a huge contradiction. Supervillains are classic villains because they live on. Superman can’t just kill Lex Luthor after struggling with him for a few issues, and the Fantastic Four were never able to simply take out Dr Doom. Buffy is a paradigm in recent years of the patience that it takes to build a classic villain: the Big Bad confronts fights Buffy multiple times, each encounter raising the stakes until a final confrontation in the season finale sees a duel to the death. But film is an idiot medium. It uses violence as a short cut to neatly resolve implacable conflicts, inserting a finality comic-books proudly abjure. Hollywood still operates under the code of the Wild West. The villain nearly always has to die.

The third defence abandoned ideas of irony or context and settled for raising a hue and cry against censorship. “But violence is part of American life, why shouldn’t it be in films?” I judged Hollywood’s beloved defence for prolonging the ethics of Dodge City a fair point, but noted that lack of health insurance and illiteracy problems were also part of American life and with the exception of John Q there weren’t too many films being made about them. Even John Q resorted to the good old familiar violence of a hostage situation in order to slip a film about healthcare under the radar. If filmmakers were sincere in using this defence then they would make films about all facets of American life. I suggested that readers should hold their breath waiting for Tarantino to make a film where a crucial plot point hinged on an illiterate character not being able to read a note left for him and just trying to stumble along according to what he thinks is written down. Then I instructed them to breathe out. It’s been 6 years and Tarantino’s remarkable propensity for violence has still yet to be leavened with any other facet of American life. Tarantino just likes violence, as does Robert Rodriguez, as does Nicolas Winding Refn, and the utter conformity of what gets to be “cool” is astounding. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, A Clockwork Orange, all of them featuring ultra-violence if not Beethoven, are cool films and have popular posters sold to college students. Wasn’t coolness based on individuality once? If it achieved nothing else, I argued, Sin City would have done some good if it left people asking just why extreme violence, borderline pornography and drug use seemed to be the only denominations in the currency of cool.

Nobody asked those questions, and sure enough Drive’s poster featured a quote from a reviewer dubbing it the coolest movie of the year. Even more disturbing was that critics in Cannes gave an ovation to the infamous elevator scene in which a man’s head is kicked in until bone-dust rises up into the camera. The three defences I trashed in 2005 aren’t the only dams keeping violence at the heart of cinema, but my objections to Drive can’t be articulated merely by dismantling those defences again. I now want to examine cinematic violence – its uses, its varieties, and its meanings.

September 3, 2010

7 Reasons to love Scott Pilgrim

1. Whip-pan
Director Edgar Wright has progressed from a channel 4 sitcom to a low-budget British film, then a big-budget British film, and finally a big-budget American film without ever changing his style. All those delirious whip-pans between various locations for the sake of a character delivering one line in a continuing conversation are present and correct in Scott Pilgrim.

2. Bizarro
Brandon Routh dyes his hair blond and stomps all over his heroic Superman image (“I’m not afraid to punch a girl, I’m a rock-star!”) by hovering through the air with glowing laser-white eyes and psychic powers gained from his vegan diet. His incredibly dumb bassist is a nicely revelatory and oddly Bizarro turn by Routh as nonsensical comedian.

3. Metric
I’m not suggesting it’s actually Metric but it’s pleasing that Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich in composing the music for the film gave some variety to the styles of the different bands we hear and noticeably varied their quality even down to having the only song played by Scott’s ex-girlfriend and her successful band be actually kind of awesome…

4. Igby Goes Forth
Kieran Culkin must get work, and an awful lot of it, after his turn as Scott’s room-mate Wallace which is a joy from start to finish; whether it’s him texting Scott’s sister while he’s asleep, stealing her boyfriends when he’s awake, or helpfully, drunkenly, informing Scott after he’s already been ambushed what’s happening: “Scott! Ex! Fight!”

5. Chris Evans
Chris Evans, who actually did a better Face in The Losers than Bradley Cooper in The A-Team, drops his voice to a farcical rumbling growl to deliver nonsensically macho action-film one-liners, enters a scene by walking from his trailer in time to the Universal Fanfare, and generally Fassbenders his way through his supporting role as an A-lister.

6. No Sugar
This reprises one of my favourite elements of (500) Days of Summer. Characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re bored, shallow or unfaithful. There is no sugar-coating of the cruelty and selfishness of the leads when it comes to their relationships, from Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her to Ramona’s endless fickleness with men.

7. It’s C.R.A.Z.Y.
Major studios don’t like risk, they like sure things, films that will make a healthy profit, hence re-makes, sequels, franchise re-boots, and adaptations of beloved TV shows. This is as crazy and original a big studio film as you’re likely to see this year, and unless you go see it Universal won’t be so daftly risk-taking again…

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