Back to the Future Part II


Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd can't believe what's in the script.

Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd can’t believe what’s in the script.

(1989) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Elisabeth Shue, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, James Tolkan, Jeffrey Weissman, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, J.J. Cohen, Charles Fleischer, Ricky Dean Logan, Darlene Vogel, Jason Scott Lee, Elijah Wood, John Thornton, Flea, Buck Flower, Joe Flaherty, Tracy D’Aldia. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Back to the Future was one of the biggest successes of the 1980s for Hollywood, and has stood to this day as a cultural linchpin. Could Robert Zemeckis capture lightning in a bottle yet again?

Marty McFly (Fox) has just returned home from his trip to 1955 when Doc Brown (Lloyd) returns, having gone to see what 2015 was like. It turns out that the future’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Something has to be done about his kids.

It turns out Marty Jr. (Fox again), a nebbish nothing like his dad, is about to take part in a robbery gone bad which will get him sent to jail. His sister Marlene (also Fox) will attempt to break him out of jail and get caught and jailed herself. The plan is for the 1985 Marty to meet up with Griff Tannen (Wilson) and tell him that he won’t take part in the robbery. Griff, who’s got bionic implants that are a bit fried, blows a fuse and with his gang of thugs chases Marty on hoverboards until Griff loses control and crashes into City Hall, going to jail himself and returning the future into something more palatable.

Doc catches Marty purchasing a sports almanac that would give Marty all the results of every sporting event for decades. Marty is thinking he can make some cash off of the deal but Doc refuses to allow it and throws the almanac out. They then go to find Jennifer, who after being knocked out by Doc (who doesn’t want her to see too much of her future) had been picked up by the cops and taken to her future home, not knowing that Griff’s grandpa Biff (also Wilson) overheard them and quickly figured out a plan.

That plan was to steal the Delorean, return to 1955 and give himself the book. He manages to do so and narrowly returns back to 2015 before anyone’s the wiser. When Marty and Doc return back to 1985, they find it a very different place than where they left it – a place in which Biff has amassed an incredible fortune, turning Hill Valley into a rat hole and marrying Marty’s mom Lorraine (Thompson) after her husband and Marty’s father George (Weissman) was murdered.

Doc realizes what has happened and the two must return to 1955 and prevent Biff from getting the almanac so that the timeline can be returned to normal. However, they’ll need to avoid the original Marty so that he can take care of business or risk further contaminating the timeline.

Sequels rarely live up to the originals and this one doesn’t at the end of the day when it comes to heart but it does make up for it in innovation and imagination. The 2015 sequences are visually striking while the alternate 1985 sequences are wrenching. The real payoff here however is the 1955 sequences which preserve the integrity of the original movie while telling its own story – which isn’t easy when time travel and the consequences thereof play such an important role.

Fox by this time was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, in no small part thanks to the first movie. Despite a nearly five year gap between films he steps back into the Marty McFly role without missing a beat (although he had to learn how to skateboard all over again). One of Fox’s strengths as an actor is his ability to interact seamlessly with other cast members and create chemistry with everyone, no matter how small the role. He is always in the moment which is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

Zemeckis who had filmed Who Framed Roger Rabbit in between the Back to the Future films (the third one was filmed back to back with this one) made it easy for Fox to step back in so perfectly – you know this because every other actor did the same thing which we don’t always see in sequels. Watching the three movies in order you never get a sense that there was any kind of gap between them, the characters are so perfectly matched between films. That’s a tribute to both director and cast.

However for all the technical excellence and the fine performances all around, the movie lacks some of the elements that made the first movie great – the portrayal of parents as people who have been through many of the same issues as their kids, the 50s nostalgia, the feeling of coming home at the end. The latter element can’t really be helped – the movie is meant to lead directly in to the third film in the franchise and so the film ends on a cliffhanger note which is understandable but one leaves the theater feeling like they haven’t seen a complete movie. Of course, these days you just pop in your disc for the third film into the Blu-Ray player and continue on but even so the movie feels more like a transition and less than a stand-alone story which of course it isn’t.

The middle film of the Back to the Future trilogy isn’t as good as the film that preceded it nor as good as the film that succeeded it but even so it is solid entertainment and an innovative piece of cinema that stands the test of time.

WHY RENT THIS: Fox delivers a star turn. Innovative and imaginative. 1955 sequence is right on the money.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: 2015 sequence doesn’t work as well. Lacks some of the elements that made the first film great.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of violence and some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While most of the cast of the first movie returns for the sequel, two notable cast members did not; Claudia Wells, who played Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (played by Elisabeth Shue here) was caring for her mother who had cancer and had given up acting for the time being, and Crispin Glover who played Marty’s father George made exorbitant salary and script control demands and was essentially written out of the script; his future self was played by Jeffrey Weissman and was mostly see from the back, at odd angles, upside down or with dark sunglasses.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are outtakes and a Q&A session with film students at the University of Southern California and producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis. There’s also a music video of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love” from the first film. The movie is available on Blu-Ray currently only as part of a boxed set including the entire trilogy which IMHO is worth owning as a complete set.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $332.0M on a $40M production budget; once again this was a big blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Butterfly Effect

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT; The East

Rango


Rango

Rango and posse mount some roadrunners in search of Wile E. Coyote.

(2011) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Ray Winstone, Ian Abercrombie, Charles Fleischer, Claudia Black. Directed by Gore Verbinski

We all want to find ourselves. Our entire life journey is all about that – discovering who we are and what we’re meant to be. The journey isn’t always an easy one and the answers are rarely obvious – at first. But the truer we stay to ourselves, the easier the path becomes.

Rango (Depp) is a lizard. No, that’s not quite right – he’s a chameleon, but he’s lived in a terrarium all his life. He wants to be a thespian; not the kind that can get him shot in Arizona. No, the kind that recites Shakespeare and waits tables while they go on auditions. However, his audience is kind of limited, especially with a company that includes a plastic palm tree, a wind-up fish toy and a dead cockroach. Someone really needs to clean out the terrarium.

However, things are about to change. A bump in the road literally finds Rango stranded in the desert. A somewhat squashed armadillo (Molina) steers Rango to a small town named Dirt. A young farmer’s daughter (no cracks!) named Beans (Fisher) rescues Rango and gives him a ride into town. There his tales of heroic acts he never actually did win the admiration of the townies, including a doe-eyed badger named Priscilla (Breslin).

The mayor (Beatty), an aging turtle who might remind older viewers of John Huston’s character in Chinatown and younger ones of Mr. Waternoose in Monsters, Inc. deputizes…um, sheriffizes…oh Hell, anoints Rango Sheriff. He is charged with protecting the town’s most precious asset – water. The town’s supply is dwindling and their longtime source seems to be drying up. When Balthazar (Stanton), a grizzled mole steals the town’s remaining supply, things get ugly in a hurry.

This is one of the most offbeat movies you’re ever likely to see, a wild mash-up of Carlos Castaneda, Hunter S. Thompson, Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone, with a very heavy nod to the desert of the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons from Warner Brothers. I’m pretty certain mescaline was involved with the writing of this movie. Then again, Verbinski – auteur of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that also starred Depp, is behind the camera so that explains a lot.

It’s a great looking movie. The desert is bleak and beautiful, stark and hostile. The town is a hodgepodge of found items (a discarded mailbox is the Post Office) that looks familiar and rundown at once. It doesn’t look so much lived in as it does inhabited. The animals are rendered beautifully, anthropomorphic but never cartoonish. Ironically, Rango is the most cartoon-like of all the characters; the rest look like something out of a Salvador Dali painting if Dali had embraced photorealism.

Depp is terrific as the titular character, but then it really isn’t much of a stretch. I thought it brilliant they made him a chameleon who wants to be an actor – how much more ironic can you get than that? Rango is all bluster and bravado but he isn’t really a bad sort; he’s just trying to survive without any real survival skills.

There are some very interesting supporting roles here. Nighy plays Rattlesnake Jake, a mean little sidewinder who carries a Gatling gun on his rattle and may be the most villainous gunslinger ever. There is a late cameo for someone playing the Spirit of the West that’s perfectly done; the person depicted isn’t the actor you actually hear speaking but you’d never know it, but it is so right you instantly smile and nod.

Some parents may be thinking of bringing their kids to see this just because it’s animated and I would urge them strongly to think hard about it. There are some pretty scary moments here, some choice words and it is not as kid-friendly as other animated features are. If your kids are five or six, I’d probably send you over to Mars Needs Moms first; some of the images might give ‘em nightmares. Then again, Mars Needs Moms might give you nightmares.

The story is a bit on the adult side as well, and while some of the characters might well generate some kid-attraction, they are far from cute and cuddly here. In fact, I suspect this movie was geared to adults first and kids second. Too much of the weirdness may go sailing over the heads of the Nickelodeon generation, like the Greek chorus of Mexican mariachis who keep promising that Rango is going to die. If you can’t trust a mariachi, who can you trust?

With animated movies so generally mediocre last year, the first two I’ve seen this year (this one and Gnomeo and Juliet) have been surprisingly good. Both took some chances with their stories and wound up hitting if not home runs, solid ground rule doubles. Rango gets a slight nod because the animation is so much better than the other, but hopefully this is a sign that we might see better overall quality in the animation genre this year.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is simply amazing. The story is a bit more adult than the average animated feature. Anything that has the potential for resurrecting the Western is fine by me.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the imagery, particularly those centering around Rattlesnake Jack, may be too intense for the little ones.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, some images of smoking, a little bit of action and some crude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was done by noted effects company Industrial Light and Magic – their first animated feature.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly worth seeing in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: A Map of the World

The Polar Express


THe Polar Express

All aboard the Polar Express!

(Columbia) Tom Hanks, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Michael Jeter, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleischer, Steven Tyler, Phil Fondacaro, Daryl Sabara. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

There comes a time in all our lives, it is said, that we must put aside childish things. That is the first step in becoming an adult. There are those who say that it is the first step in losing something irreplacable and vital, something that makes us better people.

Hero Boy (Hanks, voiced by Sabara) is at that time. He has begun to question his childhood faith in the existence of Santa Claus as fact after overwhelming fact begins to dispute that such a person ever existed. It is bedtime on Christmas Eve and he is listening intently for the bells of Santa’s sleigh, certain that he will never hear them.

Suddenly the room begins to rumble and shake then is filled with a great light. Startled, Hero Boy runs outside in his bathrobe to see a mighty train waiting there for him. A conductor (Hanks) cries “Alllllll aboooooooard” and after some hesitation, Hero Boy takes him up on it. This is, after all, the Polar Express, headed straight to the North Pole where one of the lucky children on board will be the recipient of the first present of Christmas, given to them by Santa himself.

On board is a Know It All (Deezen) and a quiet young Girl (Gaye), as well as a Lonely Boy (Scolari) who comes on board last and sits by himself in the last car. While a group of Dancing Waiters serve up piping hot chocolate to the kids in the passenger car, the Girl sets a cup aside for the Lonely Boy. As she and the Conductor take the steaming beverage back to the Lonely Boy, the Hero Boy notices that the Girl has left her unpunched ticket on her seat. As he steps outside to cross to the back car to give her the ticket, it flies out of his hand, apparently lost. The stern conductor orders the Girl to come with him.

The Hero Boy finds the ticket, which wasn’t lost after all, and runs to the back car to take it to her, fearful that she will be thrown off the train, but neither the conductor nor the Girl are there. The Lonely Boy tells him that they are on the top of the train headed toward the front. The Hero Boy decides to follow them and climbs to the top of the train. There, he meets the Hobo (Hanks) who questions the Hero Boy on his stance vis-à-vis the existence of Santa but nonetheless helps him reach the Engine car where he finds, to his surprise, the Girl driving the train while the engineers, Smoker and Steamer (both played by the late Michael Jeter, for whom this was his last movie before his death) changing a light bulb on the front of the train.

They brake just in time to avoid running into a gigantic herd of caribou, which brings the Conductor forward to scold them. The caribou are at length moved out of the way so the Express can continue on its way to the North Pole, but the train runs into some iced over tracks, barely able to navigate back onto the tracks while the ice cracks beneath them.

Eventually they reach the North Pole and the three friends manage to get lost in the vast city of Santa’s workshop, but they nevertheless make it to the town square just in time for the festivities to begin. But is there a Santa? What will it take for the Hero Boy to believe?

This was the first movie to be filmed entirely in motion capture technology (Zemeckis’ own Beowulf and Disney’s A Christmas Carol were also filmed in this way) and looks dazzling. While it is essentially an animated feature, the use of live actors to perform give the human and elf characters more life than a simple CGI feature can generate. It looks realistic, despite the fantasy setting.

Hanks gives a marvelous performance in multiple roles, including that of Santa and the Hero Boy’s father. Each character sounds, looks and acts differently as Hanks gives each its own unique look and facial expressions. It is compelling work.

The heart of the movie, however, is the story about the role of belief in our lives. Author Chris Van Allsburg has written a classic Christmas tale, perhaps the best since The Night Before Christmas or even since Dickens, and the story makes excellent cinema. I was completely entranced by the movie, even down to the songs (Josh Groban’s Believe is one of the best new Christmas songs of the last decade) which is unusual for me.

This is in every sense of the word a Christmas classic, one which I have no trouble watching every year at Christmas time. If you haven’t seen it yet, you definitely should. If you have, I hope you see it again – I discover something new about it every time I see it. That’s my definition of a classic.

WHY RENT THIS: This is the best Christmas movie to come along in 50 years. Believe is one of the better Christmas songs to come along the pike in ages. Hanks gives some terrific performances in multiple roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some find the story a bit treacly. The technology may soon become outdated as Avatar sets the bar higher but it was still ahead of its time when released.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The address called out by the Conductor near the end of the film of “11344 Edbrooke” is the address of director Zemeckis’ childhood home.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some games and a clip of Josh Groban performing at the Greek Theater in the kid-centric DVD edition. The best feature is the one on author Chris Van Allsburg, who penned the children’s story this is based on. There is also a 3D edition (that comes with glasses) and a Blu-Ray edition that has more extra features than the DVD.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill concludes