Back to the Future (1985)

 

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Are you telling me you made a time machine out of a DeLorean?! Simply great storytelling here in a knotty, brilliantly constructed time travel-adventure-comedy that has a great big throbbing heart bursting with love at its centre. When you consider it came from the wickedly funny minds of Roberts Gale and Zemeckis – remember the amazing Used Cars?! – it seems an even bigger achievement. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an average teenager in Twin Pines, a small town with a nice square boasting a clock that hasn’t worked since 1955, a cinema running soft porn, and screwed up parents with an alkie mom (Lea Thompson), a meek dad (Crispin Glover), loser sister and a thirty year old brother in a MacJob. He has a cute girlfriend, a skateboard and an eccentric friend called Doc (Christopher Lloyd) a scientist who has wasted his family’s fortune making a ‘flux capacitor’ fuelled by plutonium. Just when the nutty professor manages to prove he can travel back in time with an Eighties sports car (to die for!) the Libyans come calling and when Doc is mown down in a hail of gunfire Marty guns the engines of the DeLorean and at 88mph is catapulted back to the week the town clock stopped working in a lightning storm. He’s initially mistaken for a spaceman and finds that his housing estate is only just being constructed.  He needs to ensure that his parents get together in high school or the future will look very different as he and his siblings’ images begin to disappear from the family photo back in 1985 and Marty’s mom begins to fall for him in one of the more brilliant takes on incest in film history!  Plus he has to get back to 1985 to save Doc’s life in what is literally a race against time! … Fast, sharp-witted and brilliantly inventive, this has the kind of gleaming detail (skateboards, digital watches, Diet Pepsi, puffa jackets for 1985;  Davy Crockett, sci-fi comics, a classic diner, a Barbara Stanwyck oater at the movie theatre for 1955) that makes it almost documentary-like in resonance and relatability. The organisation of the narrative is mind-boggling when you consider the complexity of the story elements. Add in hugely likeable stars, great one-liners, and a genuine sense of fun,  this is proof that you can rewrite history and even get some very subtle revenge on the school bully!  One of the cinema’s evergreen classics, this is tonally perfect:  it just sings with joy. Brilliant.

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The Queen (2006)

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31 August 1997. We all know where we were when we heard the news. It was our generation’s JFK. Or John Lennon. In London the scent of the flowers left for Diana at the gates of Buckingham Palace was overpowering, stretching out to the west, as far as Heathrow Airport. Peter Morgan’s screenplay grasps the nettle of this story’s symbolism – Diana the huntress, hounded to her death. The Queen, a hunter, hiding out in Balmoral. And he extends the symbolism to the hunting of a stag whom she finally feels is a kindred spirit and who is wounded by an investment banker on a neighbouring estate and fatally shot in order to be relieved of his agonies by the proprietor’s men. The knotty issue of Queen Elizabeth II’s controversial response to her former daughter in law’s death in Paris is teased out both on this dramatic cord and that between her and her new Prime Minister, freshly elected Tony Blair (and boy was that a moment). “She hated her guts,” declares Cherie Blair while her husband wrestles with a public announcement which will culminate in his famous speech written by Alastair Campbell, with the line ‘the People’s Princess.’ “”They screwed up her life, let’s hope they don’t screw up her death,” Tony says to Cherie. Prince Charles wants a private jet to take Diana home. The family objects. Ironically he fears being shot, such is the growing public anger to which the Queen and Prince Philip appear oblivious on their 40,000 acre Scottish hunting estate. It’s a private family matter as far as they’re concerned. Roger Allam as Robin Janvrin the Queen’s secretary, plays go-between as the staff at Number 10 try to deal with the mounting crisis, with daily newspaper headlines and TV vox pops expressing public distress at the Queen’s failure to appear in London or even to raise a flag at half mast. “One in four,” muses the Queen when she hears how many people want the monarchy to end. “I’ve never been hated like that before.” How the compromise is reached between this model of royal restraint and the arriviste smiling moderniser is masterfully accomplished with a brisk, clean style effectively delivered by Stephen Frears. And, as Cherie Blair whoops, “At the end of the day, all Labour Prime Ministers go gaga for the Queen.” Witty, sharp, smart as anything and goodness what a time it was, as the extremely well chosen archive clips remind us. Helen Mirren won the Academy Award for a particularly well observed performance. Peter Morgan continues to write about the Royals, to some acclaim! And Mirren continues to play the Queen now and then. But the elephant in the room of course is the absent woman at the drama’s centre – and what a shadow the People’s Princess has left. A considerable achievement in all respects.

Bewitched (2005)

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Way back when, a friend saw a movie before me and her review was succinct:  “The fireplaces were marvellous.” And, aside from a wonderful cat called Lucinda who greatly resembles my own lovely Frodo, for a while that’s pretty much how I felt about this Nora Ephron outing – exacerbated in no small way by the fact that at the screening I attended there was a soundtrack of contemporary music for the first 10 minutes – the projectionist’s personal choice. So much for postmodernism – for that’s exactly what this is, an interweaving of the old TV show with a modern interpretation of how a reboot is put together by egomaniac freshly divorced and failing film star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) who bumps into the best nose-twitcher in LA, Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman). She’s a newbie to the Valley in an effort to enter the mortal realm and be normal – so she becomes an actress. Only in LA. She falls hard for Jack but his weaselly agent Ritchie (Jason Schwartzmann) rubbishes the idea in her hearing. She wants to put a spell on him and it works, for a while. The scriptwriter (Heather Burns, who also acted for Ephron in You’ve Got Mail) gives her great lines and shows up Jack/Darrin. “Nobody likes Darrin!” he whines when the preview numbers are in and she’s a hit and he’s not. Nora and Delia Ephron wrote this with Adam McKay who’s long been house writer/director of that bromance crew led by Ferrell. Here, warlock dad (Michael Caine) isn’t too impressed with the real world translation of immortal shenanigans but co-star Iris playing Endora (Shirley Maclaine) literally puts a spell on him because she’s got a witchy secret of her own. Halfway through Isabel rewinds her spell on Jack and their story re-starts – right in the middle of his guest interview with James Lipton, which is absolutely appropriate. Steve Carell and Carole Shelley have nice bits as Uncle Arthur and Clara, Ferrell gets to go naked in front of Conan and Nicole has a ball in a light as air souffle, just as Ephron would have served up for one of her carefully constructed meals, with an I Love You scene that perfectly fuses the structural ambitions of this postmodern romcom. Are Isabel and Jack in love with each other? Their characters? The idea? Themselves? That is the question … “I’m about to be killed by a fictional character!” squeaks Jack at one point. Well, duh. And the kitchen is marvellous!

Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

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Why mess with perfection? It seems a lot of films get out without their makers’ approval – CE3K being but one example. So there goes your auteur theory, box office and schedules being of more concern to the studios. Twenty-two years after it originally escaped Francis Ford Coppola’s hands, he got back with Walter Murch (who’d already spent two years of his life on it…) and re-edited a masterpiece, adding 29 minutes and substantial extra story to this fabular excursion on the wild side of Vietnam. The story is effectively the same, with the brilliance of John Milius’ touch all over this Conrad adaptation and those incredible, quotable lines – I love the smell of napalm in the morning! Charlie don’t surf! – but with added French ex-pats living out the last of their gilded sweaty days on a plantation (Christian Marquand helps). There is also a new sequence meeting the Playboy Bunnies upriver and more with Colonel Kurtz. The original soundtrack is quite possibly the scariest in my collection (try listening to it on your own in the dark) but more music was added: although Carmine Coppola had died in 1991, a deleted Love Theme was found and re-recorded on synths. If you haven’t seen this, or the original, you’re missing out on one of the great cinematic experiences. Stunning.

Room 237 (2012)

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Peace pipes. Baking soda. The end of history. Impossible windows. The Holocaust. Subliminal sexual imagery. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining is bloody scary. And for some people who have a nitpicking obsessive completionist brain,rather like the 200 IQ Kubrick himself, there’s a world to be found in this film, frame by frame. Rodney Ascher’s documentary issues a disclaimer clarifying that nobody that ever had anything to do with the production of The Shining was involved in this in any way. Arranged in nine categories, the voice over theories are matched to (very) repetitive sequences from both The Shining and other Kubrick films (and referenced works). This is nutsville, on one level, and then you find yourself agreeing with … a lot. (Isn’t repetition and protein deprivation what the Moonies do? I digress).  Kubrick’s phenomenal intellectual breadth and depth leads you to conclude that maybe everyone here is right. And not to get too postmodern about it, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, regardless of the auteur’s intentions. He’s not around to confirm or deny, and in the words of Scatman Crothers, Room 237 is nothing. Maybe …

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

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Philip Kaufman has always made interesting films that have a unique premise and are executed in unexpected ways. His career was horribly damaged by the experience with Clint Eastwood on The Outlaw Josey Wales, which he should have directed, but his innate talent has always won out. He is basically a writer and he tends to make adaptations and this interpretation of the last, disastrous outing of the James and Younger brother is a case in point, made at the height of the revisionist era in the western genre. It is gritty and realistic and yet has a sort of hallucinatory tone which brings it back to the mind after viewing. Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall are excellent in the lead roles. I’ve never seen Kaufman’s first films, Goldstein and Fearless Frank but would be delighted to know how to get hold of them.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)

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This was hardly what a mainstream audience expected of a western released in the year of the Bicentennial, but then Robert Altman’s certain tendency towards revisionism was an altogether acknowledged thread throughout his work and this film co-written with Alan Rudolph (adapted from a play by Arthur Kopit) was no exception. Essentially a deconstruction of the myth of the making of the west, it declares itself in the title sequence, with Paul Newman credited as ‘The Star’ and Burt Lancaster as ‘Legend Maker.’ There are nice supporting performances from Altman regulars like Geraldine Chaplin (who would star in Rudolph’s own Remember My Name) as well as Kevin McCarthy and Harvey Keitel but sometimes you yearn for the clear(er) lines of Shane because this is, sometimes, fatally dull.

 

Broken Arrow (1950)

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Another screenplay by a blacklisted writer, this time Albert Maltz, ‘fronted’ by the name Michael Blankfort. This has James Stewart as the Army scout who befriends Cochise, the great Apache leader and is the first film that launched an unofficial cycle revising history and pleading for fairness in treatment of Indians (a bit late, after all their land was taken, and they were mostly massacred, but still.) Directed by Delmer Daves, this is a beautifully shot if cliched piece of work. Years later Maltz would write two fabulous films starring Clint Eastwood – Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Beguiled. Interesting too to note that the imposing Will Geer is in a supporting role. He would soon be blacklisted too. He had been a compadre of both Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives in the 1930s and retained a lifelong love of folk music. He formed the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon and would later achieve world fame as Grandpa Walton. Take that, HUAC!

Captain Apache (1971)

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One of the more surreal sights in the late 70s in Dublin was the unforgettable Lee Van Cleef walking up Grafton Street. One might have expected a shootout at the very least. In fact he was in town to make The Hard Way with Patrick McGoohan and Edna O’Brien, the author and sometime actress. Cult director Alexander Singer teamed up with veteran scripter and producer Philip Yordan for this western some years earlier – Yordan was responsible for, amongst others, The Man from Laramie, Broken Lance and Johnny Guitar, so had form in the genre. Van Cleef has certainly one of the most interesting post-spaghetti careers and here he’s a half-caste US army officer who finds out about a plot to kill the President.Fascinating from the perspective of representation – not merely of race, but of Carroll Baker’s extremely racy female. That is Van Cleef ‘singing’ both songs on the soundtrack. Watch out for the hallucination scene…