Back to the Future

May 15, 2020

backtofutureBack to the Future takes a traditional movie form – the time-travel movie – and throws in a completely off-the-wall element: namely, a comedic variation on the Oedipus legend. If you think that’s hard to do, you underestimate the imagination of the film’s writers.

The idea is this: A normal high-school kid (Michael J. Fox, of TV’s Family Ties) is a friend to an eccentric scientist (Christopher Lloyd) who claims to have created a time-travel car out of a rebuilt DeLorean. One night, in a deserted parking lot, Fox finds out the scientist is right. The plutonium­ powered vehicle sends Fox screeching back to 1955.

That’s the very year his parents were his own age. When Fox wanders through town, he is startled to run into his own father (a funny performance by Crispin Glover), and to see that the old man as a young man is the same clumsy wimp he is (was?) in 1985. But when Fox encounters his mother (Lea Thompson) as a lovely young girl, a disturbing realization sets in: His mother is beginning to fall for him.

Calling Dr. Freud . . . . You can see that Back to the Future has some irreverent spunk to it. So amusing is the premise that it’s easy to overlook the movie’s problems, and there are a few. Some of the chronology of Fox’s time in the past could’ve been neater; we’re left with long stretches in which we don’t really know just how he spends his time. And some of the culture-shock jokes are well-worn.

There’s also some goofyfooted exposition. A batch of elements need to be established early so they will pay off later; that’s smart screenplay structure, but the writers here don’t know how to get that across gracefully or naturally – some of the exposition practically has quotation marks around it. And  it’s not particularly well-acted; Lloyd, for instance, can play this sort of wild man role in his sleep, and he doesn’t seem to be roused to the occasion.

Fox has a tendency toward superficiality, although he is bouncy and energetic. He was a sudden replacement for Eric Stoltz (Mask), who was released from the production with a few weeks of shooting already in the can – no one outside the production knows exactly why.

That was the decision of director Robert Zemeckis. He and his screenwriting partner Bob Gale are former film students and protegés of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg produced their I Wanna Hold Your Hand and shot his own 1941 from their screenplay.

With Back to the Future, Zemeckis and Gale have paid Spielberg back for his patience. In its modest way, it’s a cute, zippy little movie that figures to do pretty well in this lackluster summer movie season. Spielberg, as “presenter” of the film, stands to gain something back from the critical drubbing that accompanied The Goonies, another Spielberg presentation.

First published in The Herald, July 4, 1985

So, finally got to this one. I think I hesitated because my Xerox of the review has lost a couple of lines from the bottoms of columns, which I tried to paper over here (without adding anything that will make me look clairvoyant). The ending feels abrupt, too; looks like I lost my last paragraph there. They screened this at the homely old Northwest Preview Room near the Seattle Times building, a baffling location for big films (they did a couple of James Bond pictures and Aliens there, too, and countless others – lousy way to see a huge movie). I think BTTF even screened with some effects still uncompleted. It was obviously going to go through the roof. There’s something basic about the movie I never truly liked, as entertaining as it is; it has something to do with the DeLorean (ooh, how cool, a fucking DeLorean) and Fox’s character – I guess I couldn’t be bothered to use the name Marty McFly for this review – craving a 4×4 as a car. What kind of a jerk kid dreams of owning a 4×4? (Not that I’d ever heard of one before this movie.)


Track 29

March 29, 2012

After Track 29, the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” may never sound the same again. The song gives the movie its title (you know—”Track 29/Boy you can give me a shine”), and it’s prominently featured in a sequence in which a doctor gives a rousing revival speech before an audience of railroad enthusiasts, at the same time a truck is crashing through his house, where his wife’s fantasy child is trashing the doctor’s elaborate computer-operated train set.

This thumbnail description doesn’t being to convey the madness of the sequence, so you can imagine what watching it is like. The perpetrators of Track 29 are two of Britain’s most provocative talents: director Nicolas Roeg, the creator of Performance and The Man Who Fell to Earth, and screenwriter Dennis Potter, who previously wrote Pennies from Heaven and Dreamchild.

Roeg and Potter seem to have egged each other on, into the far reaches of the bizarre. Track 29 tells the tale of a bored housewife (Theresa Russell, who is also Roeg’s wife) in a small town in the American South.

Stultified by her marriage to a doctor (Christopher Lloyd) who prefers the company of his train set, she becomes intrigued by the presence of a young Englishman (Gary Oldman, who played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy).

The drifter says he is her long-lost son who was taken away from her when she was 15 years old and unmarried. She believes him, despite the fact that he appears to be her own age. But then again, it becomes increasingly apparent that the young man exists only in her mind—that he is born out of her frustration and her desire to have a child.

Her husband considers her “totally loco” (no train pun intended); he’s busy spending time with a nurse (Sandra Bernhard) who spanks him while they listen to tape-recorded railroad sounds.

The whole thing plays like something Tennessee Williams might have written after a really, really lost weekend. There is some tired satire of American society, but most of the film examines the peculiar psychosexual unhappiness of the Theresa Russell character. Russell, the star of Black Widow, is a good, daring actress, but there’s never much more than sheer kinkiness at play here, and she has little opportunity to create a performance.

Roeg’s films are getting stranger. They were always odd, but they used to be weird-brilliant, or at least weird-interesting. Now they’re just weird-weird. We have a right to expect more.

First published in the Herald, October 7, 1988

This movie must have some defenders, but I’ve never heard of it crawling up to the level of cult film or anything like that. I stand by everything but the last line of the review; we don’t really have a right to expect anything, and a filmmaker like Roeg can do what he wants. I wish this movie had worked, though.


September 8, 2011
Suspects and waitstaff, in Clue

The strangest thing about Clue is that it took this long to film it. Parker Brothers’ board game, featuring colorful characters and a whodunit set-up, has been a favorite for decades.

You know the rules: Someone killed Mr. Boddy in the big mansion (12 rooms). You must determine the murderer, the weapon, and the room in which Mr. Boddy was killed. Was it Miss Scarlett with the lead pipe in the ballroom? Or Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the conservatory?

The film provides a “Ten Little Indians” framework for these memorable characters. Suspects are called to a mansion by a mysterious letter, and arrive not knowing the purpose of the visit. This murderer’s row consists of: Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn), Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull), Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), and Miss Scarlett (Lesley Ann Warren).

A few new characters have been added for the film. Most important are a butler (Tim Curry) and a French maid (Colleen Camp).

Everybody sits down to a civilized dinner, and slowly, clues begin to emerge—but no no, that’s about all, in fairness, I can tell you. Except that there is a murder—well, of course there’s a murder, or there wouldn’t be any picture. The suspects spends the rest of their time trying to figure out whodunit.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, be it known that Clue is very much a comedy, and very much in the spirit of the board game. And good thing it is a comedy, too, otherwise it would be all too obvious how flimsily the whodunit has been constructed—some of the blind alleys and red herrings are cheats.

But that was almost necessary because of the film’s gimmick: Clue has three different endings, attached to different prints of the film, and an alternate two-minute conclusion is offered in each. So, as the ads put it, whodunit depends on where you see it.

This means that a certain amount of fudging has to go on, so these differing possibilities could be left open.

All these endings were screened for the press, and I can tell you only that one ending is notably superior to the others; all three are explained so hurriedly that I’m not exactly sure who did what to whom, or why. That seems like an inexcusable failing in a murder mystery.

And yet, Clue provides enough sleight-of-hand along the way to distract you from this shakiness. It’s full of exchanges such as, “But who would’ve wanted to kill the cook?”—”Yeah, the dinner wasn’t that bad.”

Most of these goofy lines, which are largely sprung from linguistic misunderstanding, are delivered with sparkle by the funny cast. Everyone has good moments; Madeline Kahn has a few demented speeches (the best of which takes place during one of the endings, so you might not see it) that remind you of how underused she is in movies today.

It’s the first film directed by Jonathan Lynn, who also wrote the screenplay. Lynn has a nice macabre sense of humor, and a penchant for handling slapstick. The only section he misjudges is the early portion of the denouement, which goes on forever as the butler takes the cast on a repeat performance of the evening’s events.

All in all, a painless holiday entertainment—who could resist the chance to hole up for 90 minutes with these familiar characters? My only question is this: When they release the film on videotape, which ending will it have? All three? Or will you have to take your chances, sight unseen? Ah, Clue requires deduction on so many levels….

First published in the Herald, December 13, 1985

I hear the Clue remake, courtesy Gore Verbinski, has just been canceled. This means Battleship and Candyland are going to have to stand as next year’s big board game tentpole blockbusters, unless Ridley Scott gets his Monopoly picture in gear. (That’s all real info, by the way.) I had a good time with this movie, in part because Colleen Camp, Lesley Ann Warren, and Madeline Kahn are very appealing in it. The multiple endings were somehow connected to the very brief craze for interactive movies, which thankfully didn’t last long; surely the gimmick hurt Clue‘s box office, because audiences get uneasy if they feel they’re not seeing the whole movie, somehow.