Back in Time


Marty McFly can't understand what all the fuss is about.

Marty McFly can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Claudia Wells, Bob Gale, Don Fullilove, James Tolkan, Huey Lewis, Alan Silvestri, Andrew Probert, Dean Cundey, Dan Harmon, Adam F. Goldberg, Bill Shea, Frank Price, Rob Klein, Ed Dennis, Tyler McDonald, Martin Sanchez, Adam Kotras, Joe Wolser, Jill Henderson. Directed by Jason Aron

When it opened in 1985, Back to the Future was an immediate sensation and a runaway hit. Some have proclaimed it the perfect movie; nearly everyone in the industry praises the script as one of the best ever written, making a time travel story work (much harder than you’d think) but supplying it with memorable characters, plenty of thrills, great eye candy (for its time) and thought-provoking situations. After all – if you traveled back in time when you were high school age and met your parents while they were in high school, would you have hung out with them?

That’s at the heart of what Back to the Future is. Thirty years after the original, we have finally surpassed the date that Marty McFly came to the future – from this point forward the entire trilogy takes place in our past.

In many ways a cultural touchstone, we mostly all grew up or have been fascinated by as adults with the concepts of hoverboards, self-lacing Nikes, jackets that blow-dry themselves, lawyers being abolished and of course flying cars. This was a bright future – not necessarily pristine as there were bad neighborhoods, drug abuse, poverty, crime and Griff who was a little bit of everything with a bionic twist.

Now we’ve reached that era and while it isn’t exactly the future that Zemeckis and Gale envisioned, they did get a few things right – including 80s nostalgia, thousands of cable channels and Mr. Fusion. Just kidding about the last one.

This documentary looks not only at the movies and in particularly the sequence set in 2015, but also at the BTTF fandom, including the Flux Capacitors rock band (who will be playing in a road show along with screenings of the movie in select cities starting next month) and Delorean enthusiasts who have had their cars customized to look like the time machine. Some of these are even street legal.

While I have to admit that the interviews with Michael J. Fox were a little bit hard to watch – yes, all the cast members are 30 years older but Fox’s Parkinson’s reminds us that he has been through a lot more than most of us have been through over that same time – it is clear that everyone involved with the movie has fond memories not only of the shoot but of the public’s reaction to it and the continued enthusiasms displayed by the fans.

Some folks might not realize that when the movie first started shooting, Fox wasn’t available because of his Family Ties commitments; actor Eric Stoltz was cast as Marty instead. However, six weeks into shooting it became clear that Stoltz, who is a very fine actor, just wasn’t right for the part. They managed to then get Fox, who would film his television show on weekdays and on weeknights and weekends would do the movie. It was exhausting but was clearly worth the effort because we, the viewing public, not only got a classic TV show from the deal but also a classic movie trilogy.

I have to admit that I appreciated the fan stories much more than the professional talking head interviews, much of the material for which has been covered in interviews on DVD and Blu-Ray editions that are easily available, much of it on the new 30th anniversary Blu-Ray collection. In some ways, this documentary is a bit of a disappointment; the editing appears a little haphazard, the flow of the film is a little choppy and as I said, the reliance on talking heads is too much.

Still, the movie is so good, so iconic, so central to Western culture that it is hard to watch this movie and not feel the warm fuzzies inside. We all connect to the trilogy whether we saw it as children or as adults. Even if the insights here aren’t especially new or revealing, it is still fun to revisit the movies as well as the fans who have been so devoted to them. Zemeckis has said that there will be no Back to the Future 4 (although I’m a big believer in “never say never”) so we will have to make do with this and what transpires in comic books and videogames that are inspired by the film. With the recent milestone in our review, it is a very good time to go back in time.

REASONS TO GO: Clearly a labor of love. Fan stories are quite interesting. The background of Zemeckis’ previous films gives good context.
REASONS TO STAY: Talking head overload. A bit disjointed. Doesn’t feel fully formed.
FAMILY VALUES: Some references to the sexuality of the trilogy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original Back to the Future had its initial surprise premiere at the Century 21 theater in San Jose, California.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix, Vimeo, Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trekkers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness commences!

Advertisements

The Frighteners


Michael J. Fox doesn't like getting pushed around.

Michael J. Fox doesn’t like getting pushed around.

(1996) Horror Comedy (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey, Dee Wallace-Stone, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, R. Lee Ermey, Julianna McCarthy, Troy Evans, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Angela Bloomfield, Desmond Kelly, Jonathan Blick, Todd Rippon, John Sumner, Jim McLarty, Anthony Ray Parker, Melanie Lynskey. Directed by Peter Jackson

Six Days of Darkness 2014

Special gifts generally turn out to be curses more than gifts. People who are different are regarded with suspicion and sometimes out-and-out hostility. On top of that, those who can see dead people are being hounded by the dead to take care of unfinished business with the living. It’s enough to make a would-be ghostbuster  pound his head against a tombstone.

Frank Bannister (Fox) hangs out at cemeteries. Not because he’s fond of graveyards but it’s a good way to drum up business; to discover who has had someone dearly departed and then allow their loved ones to communicate or avoid said lately deceased. The Sheriff (Evans) tolerates Frank to a certain degree although he doesn’t approve. That’s because he knows that Frank has been through a lot; namely, a car accident in which his wife Debbie (Bloomfield) was killed. There were whispers that if may not have been an accident and Frank’s career as an architect came to an end, as did construction on the house he had designed and was building for his wife.

Some see Frank as a charlatan who manufactures “hauntings” and then charges exorbitant rates to “cleanse” them but nobody can prove it. In fact, Frank is a con man who manufactures the hauntings – through the use of three ghosts. You see, ever since the car wreck, Frank can see dead people. His friends Cyrus (McBride), a disco apparition from the ’70s complete with magnificent ‘fro, nerdish Stuart (Fyfe) and The Judge (Astin), a decomposing gunslinger from the Old West lift things around and make people (who can’t see them) think there’s a poltergeist about. Frank steps in with fake instruments and a squirt gun full of “holy” water and cleanses the house. It’s not an honest living, but it’s a living nonetheless. He manages to meet Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Alvarado) when her oafish husband (Dobson) dies of a heart attack.

In fact the people of Fairwater have been dropping like flies lately, all with massive heart attacks. Frank witnesses one and realizes that a supernatural entity in a grim reaper cloak has latched itself to the town and he’s the only one who can stop it. Can he protect the comely widow whom he has begun to get sweet on, avoid the manic obsessive FBI Agent Milton Dammers (Combs) and save the town?

This was one of Jackson’s last movies before embarking on the massive Lord of the Rings project; prior to this he had made movies for the New Zealand market including the Oscar-nominated Heavenly Creatures and the over-the-top Bad Taste. It was not a box office success, mainly because it was something of a compromise of sorts and not quite as anarchic and gore-drenched as earlier horror projects. It was also criticized for being a bit of a mish mash of other movies kind of lumped together.

Nevertheless, it’s still a romp. Fox shows why he was such a terrific leading man, completely charismatic and likable even as he was a bit of a cynic. He also showed some real vulnerability, something he didn’t necessarily do often in previous roles. It remains in my mind one of his best performances ever on big screen or small. There’s also an eclectic supporting cast, every one of whom does decent work here at worst.

There is a bit of a Ghostbusters vibe as well as a kind of tongue-in-cheek Beetlejuice feel (the movie shares composer Danny Elfman with the Tim Burton classic). There are also bits of The Shining and Poltergeist woven in with a bit of Scooby Doo and Re-Animator in there for good measure.

The ghost effects are definitely a bit dated but still effective. There are some other creature and practical effects that are definitely retro but work well even now, nearly 20 years after the fact. In fact, this is one of my favorite horror comedies of all time, right up there with the ‘busters and Beetlejuice as far as I’m concerned. The villains are very villainous (Busey as a serial killer is a natural), the heroes are not-quite-competent but always plucky, the romantic interest beautiful in an Andie MacDowell kind of way and the scares are masterful occasionally, although Jackson has a tendency to go for the laugh as much as the scare. This may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread but it’s a great pop up some microwave popcorn, gather the family round the couch and put this on the TV at Halloween kind of movie. And isn’t that worth something?

WHY RENT THIS: Fun as all get out. Fox is a hoot. Definitely an irreverent vibe. A few genuine scares.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Leans more to the comedy side.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, lots of horrific images and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox repeatedly blew his lines by referring to Astin’s character as “Doc,” his Back to the Future partner-in-crime. He broke his foot during filming, delaying production for about a week. This would be his last leading role in a film as the long shoot in New Zealand caused him a good deal of homesickness and he resolved to stay on the small screen, accepting a role in Spin City shortly thereafter.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Generally most major releases come with a making-of documentary which generally run in the 20-30 minute range. The one here is over three hours long and gets into details rarely gone into in home videos, including a read-through of the script at Jackson’s home.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $29.4M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (stream/rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2014 concludes!

Back to the Future Part III


Christopher Lloyd shows Michael J. Fox how he did the Judge Doom pop-eyes effect.

Christopher Lloyd shows Michael J. Fox how he did the Judge Doom pop-eyes effect.

(1990) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson, Mary Steenburgen, Elisabeth Shue, Lea Thompson, Richard Dysart, Matt Clark, James Tolkan, Pat Buttram, Harry Carey Jr., Dub Taylor, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, Jeffrey Weissman, Flea, J.J. Cohen, ZZ Top, Donovan Scott. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

If you’re going to end a trilogy, there should be a definite ending, one which brings the franchise to a close in case no further films are made, but leaves the possibility for further films if they are warranted. That, in Hollywood terms, is the definition of success of a final entry in a film franchise.

Following the events of Back to the Future Part II (NOTE: If you haven’t seen the first two films there are spoilers in the synopsis of the third. Skip ahead or don’t read if you’d rather not know what happened) Marty McFly (Fox) is stranded back in 1955 and the Doc Brown (Lloyd) of his time has been stranded back in 1885. Marty has to enlist the aid of the 1955 Doc Brown to get Marty home – except they discover that Doc will be murdered in 1885 not long after he arrives.

Marty instead returns back to 1885 a few days before the date on Doc’s tombstone but in the process the gas tank of the Delorean is punctured and all of the gas leaks out, leaving the car essentially an inert hunk of metal. However Doc and Marty figure out a way to get the car moving to 88 MPH and return to the future using a souped-up steam train.

But as always there are complications. Doc and Marty have angered an outlaw named Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Wilson) and Doc has fallen in love with pretty schoolteacher Clara Clayton (Steenburgen). Doc is torn between his love for Clara and the need to get Marty home; will Marty be able to make it back to the future?

My main complaint about the second film was that it didn’t possess the heart of the original. This one more than makes up for it, particularly in the relationship between Doc and Clara. Marty in some ways takes a back seat to Doc in this movie, which is a bit of a refreshing change.

The movie was the least successful at the box office of the three having as much to do with its Western setting as anything else. Westerns were very much out of favor at the time this was made (and continue to be fairly low on the cinematic totem pole, no pun intended, even today) and might have kept away a segment of the audience who preferred the more sci-fi elements of the first two films.

The train scene that is the film’s climax is one of the most impressive of the trilogy and will keep even the most jaded movie buff on the edge of their seats. The camaraderie between Doc and Marty is as always the heart of the film and never is it more in evidence here. In many ways we watch Marty grow from a teenager into a man during the course of the film and for no small reason because Fox went through so much during the back-to-back filming of the last two films in the trilogy; his father passed away while this film was being shot (and filming was suspended for two weeks so he could grieve) and his first child was born as well. Those are the kind of life events that can make even the most immature of men grow up quickly (and no, I’m not trying to imply that Fox was immature back then – hater!) and Fox certainly did that.

This is a fitting end of the trilogy, with a believable romance, great action sequences and is just plain fun to watch. I would put up the Back to the Future trilogy with any film series in Hollywood in terms of sheer entertainment value. Even though I’ve seen all three of the films a dozen times apiece, they still never fail to bring a warm feeling into my heart every time I see them. What more can you ask from a movie?

WHY RENT THIS: Big on thrills. Steenburgen makes an excellent addition to the cast. Reclaims the heart of the first film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Deviates a bit from formula.

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

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only actors who appear in all three films are Fox, Lloyd, Thompson, Wilson, Tolkan and Cohen (McClure appeared in a single scene in Part II but the scene was cut).

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 ZZ Top’s “Doubleback.”. A Back to the Future FAQ text feature illustrates the obstacles of time travel and is an entertaining read if you’re so inclined. There are also animated factoid pop-ups which can be set to appear periodically throughout the 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: $244.5M on a $40M production budget; while it still is considered a blockbuster it was strangely the least financially successful of the three films.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cowboys and Aliens

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Turbo

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

Back to the Future


Michael J. Fox is going back in time.

Michael J. Fox is going back in time.

(1985) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, George diCenzo, Frances Lee McCain, James Tolkan, Jeffrey Jay Cohen, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, Harry Waters Jr., Donald Fulilove, Lisa Freeman, Courtney Gains, Jason Hervey, Maia Brewton. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Most people my age and slightly younger have a real soft spot for Back to the Future. One of the biggest box office successes of 1985, the movie has become a treasured icon of its age, a movie very much associated with the decade despite its time-travelling motif. Younger generations are well-versed with the film mostly from frequent cable and broadcast TV appearances as well as from their parents VHS and DVD collections. Either way, there are few movies of the last 30 years that have resonated the way this one did.

Marty McFly (Fox) is a frustrated high school senior. He lives in a kind of middle class hell, his mom Lorraine (Thompson) a somewhat prudish, somewhat bitter woman who knows the best days of her life are behind her. His father George (Glover) is a picked-on milquetoast who allows his boss, Biff Tannen (Wilson) to abuse him mercilessly, taking credit for work that George does. Marty yearns for something better, whether it be through rock and roll or through his girlfriend Jennifer (Wells). Even the town he lives in, Hill Valley, is in a state of decrepitude; its clock tower that was once the crown jewel of the town square hasn’t worked for decades since a chance lightning strike left it inoperable.

He is also friends with Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Lloyd), considered to be a crackpot by most (and it’s kind of understandable) but he’s been doing some research into time travel and thinks he’s found a way to make it work. Through a series of accidents, Marty gets into the time machine (which is in, appropriately enough, a Delorean) and is sent back to the year 1955. Through a further series of mishaps, Marty manages to prevent his parents from meeting and instead takes his father’s place convalescing in the home of his mom, who instead of falling in love with his dad falls in love with Marty himself.

Without plutonium for the reaction, Marty is stuck in 1955 but he may not be for long – if he can’t get his parents to meet and kiss on the dance floor of the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, he’ll never have been born. And even if he does get them together, how is he going to get back home to 1985?

Zemeckis and Gale were at the top of their game here and for Fox it is the role that he is most associated with, maybe even more so than Alex Keaton from Family Ties. The movie was kind of a perfect storm of elements coming together in just the right way. It was a movie that fit the time, but it was also much more than just a sci-fi adventure flick with lots of thrills and great characters, although it is that as well. The movie was supposedly inspired by writer/producer Bob Gale finding one of his father’s high school yearbooks and wondering if he had known his dad back then would they have hung out together, an intriguing concept.

We rarely think of our parents as people, but they were all young once; they all had the bloom of youth in their cheeks, all had hopes and dreams, all loved and lost, all got into trouble with their own parents and all did exactly the same kinds of things you did yourself. We can’t really put them in that perspective however; we need our parents to be parents. It’s hard to see them as young kids who didn’t have all the answers and weren’t always right. We can’t see them as ourselves.

This movie kind of forces you to look at them that way and realize what a crap shoot it is that you even exist; one missed connection and you’d never have been born. But at the same time, it’s a fun ride (so fun that it became a ride at Universal Studios theme parks although they have since replaced it with Simpsons -themed rides) that never lets up and is huge fun from minute one to closing credits. Movies like that are few and far between. From the Huey Lewis and the News songs to the eccentricities of Doc Brown to the awkward humor of having Marty being hit on by his mom (which offended some critics at the time), the movie remains an icon of the 80s and if it is a bit anachronistic with its Delorean time machine, Walkman cassette player and Libyan terrorists, it is no more so than most movies which are all without exception a product of their times. This is a classic that should be an essential part of any collection.

WHY RENT THIS: An absolute classic, one of the best movies to come out of the 80s. One of the most beloved films of all time.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find this a little dated.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sensuality and mild violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox was still starring in Family Ties when he signed to do this film. Because of his television commitment, he filmed most of his scenes from 6pm until 3am, getting about five hours of sleep a night. Scenes set in daylight were filmed on weekends. He managed to film the entire movie without missing a single shot of his television show.

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 an extended conversation with Fox. The 2-Disc Collector’s Edition also includes a TV special, Back to the Future Night made to promote the sequel hosted by the late Leslie Nielsen, the footage from both the lobby and the ride of Back to the Future: The Ride which once was a big attraction at Universal Studios but no longer exists. There is also an independent retrospective, Looking Back to the Future which was originally feature-length and has been considerably cut here. 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: $381.1M on a $19M production budget; this was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 80s.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blast From the Past

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: In My Sleep

Top 5 Starfests


One of the big draws of The Expendables (see review) is the star power; many of the biggest stars in the action genre of the last 20 years make an appearance in the movie. Loading up a movie with as many stars as you can fit in is nearly as old as Hollywood is itself; having multiple stars draws across various fanbases and give the movie a wider potential audience to draw from. Some movies exist for little reason beyond just getting those self-same stars into the same movie; how many people would have seen Heat for example had it not had both Pacino and De Niro in it? At their best, Starfests can be a romp allowing big stars to shine in small little-more-than-cameo roles. These are my favorites.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are several movies that didn’t make the top five but were worthy of mentioning here. Robin and the Seven Hoods (1962) was ostensibly a Rat Pack movie with Sinatra, Deano and Sammy, it also boasted Bing Crosby, Peter Falk, Barbara Rush, Victor Buono, Tony Randall and Edward G. Robinson, along with a number of Borscht Belt comics of the day. The Towering Inferno (1974) followed the tried and true disaster film formula of throwing a bunch of stars into a disaster situation and then have the audience watch to see who survives. Not only did it pair up Steve McQueen and Paul Newman for the first time, the stellar cast included William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn and OJ. Yes, that OJ. Clue (1985) was based on the popular board game and had the gimmick of shooting three different endings which varied depending on which theater you saw the movie in. The cast of characters included Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Lesley Ann Warren. Finally, Mars Attacks! (1996) was director Tim Burton’s homage to a series of collectable cards issued in the 1950s that depicted all sorts of gruesome killings perpetrated by rampaging Martians. Here, he set up a spectacular cast only to kill them off in some horrible way, including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Danny De Vito, Annette Bening, Rod Steiger, Jim Brown, Glenn Close, Sylvia Sidney, Pam Grier, Joe Don Baker, Paul Winfield and Martin Short. Also cast in early roles were Jack Black and Natalie Portman before they were famous. 

5. THE GREAT RACE (1965)

 The Great Race

This Blake Edwards-directed ode to the daredevil motorists of the early1900s relied heavily on silent cinema conventions and star power to motor it along. The race from New York to Paris featured Jack Lemmon as the Dastardly Professor Fate, whose car contained among other inventions, a smoke machine, a cannon and a scissor lift. Tony Randall  Curtis was the Great Leslie, whose eyes and teeth twinkled and gleamed like the Northern Star, sure to set all sorts of female hearts a-flutter at the time. Along for the ride was an impressive cast including Natalie Wood, Dorothy Provine, Ross Martin, Keenan Wynn, Peter Falk, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Vivian Vance and Denver Pyle. It can be seen regularly on broadcast television and is usually not that hard to find at your local video retailer.

4. THE LONGEST DAY (1962)

 The Longest Day

The story of D-Day is an epic canvas in and of itself, and Hollywood just about outdid itself when it rolled out the red carpet for the stars who played both front line soldiers and officers behind the scenes where the invasion of Normandy was planned. John Wayne headlined the she-bang, but among those who were also involved including (deep breath now) Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Curt Jurgens, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Edmund O’Brien, Sal Mineo, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Robert Wagner, Stuart Whitman, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert and Gert Frobe. It may not have been the longest day but it might have been the longest cast. It periodically shows up on broadcast television or basic cable; it can be difficult to find at video retailers, but as a classic is most certainly worth seeking out.

3. OCEANS 11 (2001)

Oceans Eleven 

George Clooney got together with his buddy Steven Soderbergh and decided to remake the Rat Pack classic of the same name, albeit much modernized but with the same jazzy sense of style. The two of them called a bunch of A-list friends to make a new Rat Pack for the 21st century and an impressive list of talent it is; Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. You got the feeling that robbing the casino was not so much the point as was having a three-month long party in Vegas. Fortunately, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas – it was a smash hit and inspired two sequels and there might have been more but for the untimely passing of Bernie Mac. Currently, it plays cable TV regularly and occasionally shows up on TBS and it’s ilk. If you don’t want to wait for it to show up on TV, you can easily find it at most rental outlets or retail stores if you want to add it to your own library.

2. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express

A classic Agatha Christie mystery became a box office smash and Oscar winner in the capable hands of director Sidney Lumet. Albert Finney starred as the natty Belgian detective Hercule Poirot faced with a vicious murder on a train that as he investigates, he determines it has something to do with an infamous kidnapping that was obviously based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In this gorgeous period piece, everyone’s a suspect and when you have a cast like Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, Ingmar Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Wendy Hiller, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts and Jean-Pierre Cassel, it doesn’t really matter who done it. This is one train ride I don’t mind taking over and over again and you certainly can; it makes regular appearances both on premium cable and basic cable. It is also fairly easy to find at video rental places, although generally you’re much more apt to be able to buy it online than you are in brick and mortar retailers.

1. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days

Producer Michael Todd’s epic version of the Jules Verne novel was beyond scale or scope. One of the most honored films of all time with five Oscars (including Best Picture), the movie starred the urbane David Niven as Phineas Fogg, with the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as the loyal manservant Passepartout, the cast included most of the biggest stars of the day, with Shirley MacLaine as the lovely Princess Aouda, but also in varying roles from cameos to featured roles, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Ronald Coleman, Robert Newton, Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Hermione Gingold, Edward R. Murrow and Trevor Howard. This remains one of the most entertaining movies ever made. It used to be a broadcast staple, but rarely shows up on cable these days; you’re probably better off renting it or buying it from your favorite retailer.

Top 5 “I Can See Dead People” Movies


Charlie St. Cloud (see review) playing catch with his deceased brother is only the latest in a long line of Hollywood films in which the living interact with the dead. There is a certain appeal in knowing that death is not The End, either of consciousness or box office receipts as well. The theme continues to be while not a certain box office draw, at least extremely marketable even now – perhaps especially so given the use of digital effects to make the dearly departed even more spectacular than ever.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are several movies that didn’t make the top five but were worthy of mentioning here. Beetle Juice (1988) was one of Tim Burton’s most bizarre and delightful films, and the delightfully kitschy afterlife still resonates with hipsters everywhere – I would love to do the calypso to Harry Belafonte in the next life. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) explored the love between the dead and the living much more believably than the over-earnest (and in the case of Demi Moore, overacted) Ghost. A Christmas Carol (1938) is my all-time favorite holiday film but doesn’t make this list because it is the Spirits that are the central supernatural characters, not Jacob Marley’s ghost. Finally, 13 Ghosts (2001) had some truly terrifying images but just missed because the means of seeing the dead people came with wearing special glasses, and this list is organic if nothing else.

5. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

 

Saturday Night Live veterans Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd were at the top of their games when this supernatural comedy became an icon of 80s movies. “Who ya gonna call” remains a catchphrase we still use today, a quarter of a century later. Second City TV alum Harold Ramis (who would become a fine filmmaker in his own right) and character actor Ernie Hudson would make up the rest of the Ghost Buster team, while Sigourney Weaver made for one hot femme fatale, getting possessed by a demon in her refrigerator. Usually the demon in my refrigerator looks a lot more like cheesecake (although come to think of it, she had a couple of scenes where she looked an awful lot like cheesecake). Rick Moranis, he of SCTV and Honey I Shrunk the Kids fame was designated comedy relief. New York was threatened by a supernatural event of biblical proportions, not to mention a gigantic Sta-Puft marshmallow man, and only Egon, Stantz, Venkman and Winston stand in the way. Together with their proton packs and containment devices, they take the horror elements, temper it with a little science fiction and make it dang funny. The movie did spawn a sequel as well as a couple of animated kiddie shows centered around Slimer, the ghost that, ummm, slimes Venkman in the original. Fans of the movie will be gratified to note that the long-rumored much-delayed third movie is finally greenlit and will be filming this fall for a Christmas 2012 release.

4. TOPPER (1937)

 

Made during the height of the screwball comedy era, this is the movie where Cary Grant perfected his screen persona of the debonair and charming rake. George and Marion Kerby, a pair of gadabouts, played by Grant and Constance Bennett, live the good life during the Depression but its cut short when they die in a car accident in their beloved speedster. The car is ultimately purchased by Cosmo Topper, played by Roland Young, who also has an accident but survives; however, the result is that he can see the Kerbys and they take it as their life’s ambition….um, make that afterlife’s ambition…to turn around the stuffy Topper’s prim and proper life and teach him the meaning of fun. The point was that life was too short not to live it to the fullest, a point that may have been lost on Depression-era audiences who were struggling just to keep their families fed. Still, Topper is and remains an iconic movie of the era, one that would inspire not only several sequels of its own (although none with Grant, who had become too big a star by that time) but also a TV series in the 50s, a TV movie and now, a remake starring Steve Martin that is reportedly going to begin filming soon.

3. FIELD OF DREAMS (1989)

This not only has the distinction of being one of the greatest “I See Dead People” movies of all time, it is also one of the greatest baseball movies of all time as well. Kevin Costner became a baseball legend for this movie as a farmer who hears voices in his cornfield, telling him to build a baseball stadium…well, actually it says “If you build it, he will come.” He turns out to be Shoeless Joe Jackson, who eventually brings the rest of the Black Sox, and then later other dead baseball players as well. The movie uses baseball as a metaphor for America, and addresses all sorts of issues but primarily the regaining of lost innocence. Not everyone could see the ghosts, but those that needed to did. With a cast that included Amy Madigan as Costner’s long-suffering wife, Timothy Busfield as his skeptical brother-in-law, James Earl Jones as a reclusive writer from the 1960s and the great Burt Lancaster as a doctor and ex-ballplayer, the movie touches a chord in every heart, American or not, who sees it. Certainly I still get misty every time I put it on. The cornfield ballpark that the production crew built in Iowa still stands as a tourist attraction, although it was listed as for sale as of July 2010.

2. THE FRIGHTENERS (1996)

A pre-Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson directed this cult favorite. It served as something of a bridge between his early horror films, with the black humor of movies like Bad Taste and the visionary effects sense of the LOTR trilogy. Michael J. Fox starred as Frank Bannister, a charlatan who offered to rid people of ghosts haunting their homes by using fake Ghostbuster-esque science. The kicker was that he really was psychic and could see ghosts, thanks to a near-fatal car accident (near-death experiences are a favorite way for Hollywood to explain why living characters can see and interact with the dead). He used a trio of ghostly accomplices to scare clients into believing they were being haunted. Yes, it was a bit of a scam, but one case would lead Frank to take on a malevolent ghost bent on killing the living. Jeffrey Combs had a memorable turn as a deeply disturbed FBI agent who was on Frank’s trail, and Chi McBride, John Astin and Jim Fyfe played Frank’s ectoplasmic sidekicks. The movie has a bit of a quirky side to it, but the combination of Fox’s likability, the terrific-for-their-time special effects and the mythology of the film’s reality make this a favorite that I like to revisit whenever it plays on cable, which it does frequently.

1. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

The movie that gave this Top Five it’s title and with one of the best twist endings ever is director M. Night Shyamalan’s magnum opus, a movie whose success he hasn’t been able to match either artistically or commercially since. Young Haley Joel Osment plays a disturbed boy who is able to see the dead; Bruce Willis plays a child psychiatrist whose life was destroyed by a patient of his (played in a brief but memorable turn by Donnie Wahlberg) who is trying to help young Cole (Osment’s character). Toni Collette plays Cole’s mom in a role that helped establish her as an important actress. The film served as a career resurrection for Willis, whose Die Hard-style action movies were falling out of vogue. It also established Willis as a more mature actor whose performances can be surprisingly nuanced given the right director. Some of the imagery is pretty terrifying, but the movie turns some pretty interesting corners before the final jaw-dropping scene which had audiences worldwide blindsided. Many believe it to be one of the best movies of the 90s and in many ways, it is as iconic to that decade as Ghostbusters was to the 80s.