The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Washington, 1971. Just as the owner of a major newspaper is attempting to float the parent company on the stock exchange, its editor wants to publish hugely controversial material…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tom Hanks (here playing legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee) is very watchable as always. But it’s difficult to look past Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham. Graham was the publisher of the Washington Post, an unusual position for a woman in the early 1970s; her father had built up the company’s legacy and she’d inherited her job after the suicide of her husband. So in The Post she’s a woman with a weight on her shoulders. The way Streep plays Graham’s development from someone who nervously fumbles a board meeting to someone who takes brave and bold decisions is wonderful.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The movie is encroaching onto some sacred cinematic ground. In several ways, The Post could be considered a prequel to Alan J Pakula’s masterful thriller All the President’s Men (1976). It’s set soon before the Watergate scandal dramatised in All the President’s Men, features some of the same characters – Ben Bradlee is a big presence in both films – and the two newsroom sets are uncannily similar. The connection is made obvious in the final scene of The Post, which Rogue Onestyle leads directly into the opening of the earlier film. And as in All the President’s Men, the sequences in The Post that feature journalists working on their stories are thrilling. Whether they can – whether they should – publish the expose is the central question of the film and, even if you know the real history, it never loses its jeopardy.

Review: A mid-range Spielberg film is still a thing to behold. It’s doubtful that, in years to come, The Post will top any polls or be remembered as one of the director’s best. But it’s still an immaculate, impressive and incredibly engaging piece of filmmaking. Rushed into cinemas to capitalise on our current obsession with ‘fake news’, the movie concerns the Pentagon Papers. In 1967, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a study of America’s role in the Vietnam War. He intended it for academic posterity rather than political analysis but it contained some incendiary conclusions, not least that successive Presidents had continued the carnage even though they knew an American victory would never come. The Post tells the story of how the report was leaked and published. The movie ticks all the usual boxes for a film about journalists cracking a massive story, but it ticks them with such a rich, stylish flourish that you don’t mind that things are often predictable and occasionally a bit schmaltzy. The well-cast ensemble is led by Hanks and Streep but contains numerous good performances. The attention to period detail is fantastic. And the script never assumes the audience needs hand-holding. Actually, it’s not just the presence of Bradley Whitford and Sarah Paulson in secondary roles that makes this film remind you of Aaron Sorkin. His TV shows, such as The West Wing and The Newsroom, lived and breathed by scenes of clever and principled people arguing about important issues, and that’s what The Post is all about too.

Nine linotype machines out of 10

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The BFG (2016, Steven Spielberg)

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An orphan called Sophie is kidnapped by a benign giant who takes her to a strange land. He won’t let her go home because he can’t risk people finding out about giants, so she comes up with a plan…

Seen before? No. But Roald Dahl’s 1982 novel was probably my favourite book when I was a child.

Best performance: Penelope Wilton is fun as the Queen. It’s never actually specified that she’s Elizabeth II, but that’s certainly who she looks like.

Best scene/moment/sequence: Being a Steven Spielberg movie, there are plenty of great images and visual gags – especially when the BFG is creeping around London in the middle of the night. He has to hide in plain sight to avoid passers-by.

Review: Spielberg has made children’s films before, of course. The best of them – ET, The Adventures of Tintin – are for kids of all ages. But The BFG is more like 1991’s Hook: aimed squarely at a very young audience. There’s whimsy and fart gags, but the film misses the ‘real life’, wit, and sense of danger that make ET so effective. We start in an arch, fantasy-land London of cobbled streets, bumbling drunks and an orphanage that doesn’t notice when one of its girls goes missing. It’s possibly the 1980s (there’s a gag about ‘Ronnie and Nancy’). The action then moves to a magical realm and huge stretches of the film are two-handed scenes. Aside from brief appearances by some other giants, Sophie and the BFG are the only characters in the first 74 minutes… The film seriously drags. Not a huge amount happens, and given the difference in their sizes you soon get very bored of shots of Sophie actress Ruby Barnhill looking up and shouting her dialogue. It’s a huge relief when the action returns to London. Sophie’s plan for helping her new friend is to give the Queen a dream that will make her predisposed to giants, so we then get a childish but lively sequence at Buckingham Palace. As well as Penelope Wilton, this section also features Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall, two good actors gamely playing cardboard characters in return for a chance to work with Steven Spielberg. The BFG himself is a marvellous creation, played charmingly by Mark Rylance via motion-caption technology. But overall this was a chore to sit through.

Four snozzcumbers out of 10

My top 10 Spielberg movies

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Today is the 70th birthday of one of my favourite film directors, Steven Spielberg. His movies have been in my life for as long as I can remember – ET was the first film I ever saw at the cinema – so to celebrate here’s my rundown of his 10 best. Click the links for full reviews…

10. Catch Me If You Can (2002) – a vibrant, dynamic, fun and likeable caper movie.

9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – a terrifically enjoyable adventure movie.

8. Schindler’s List (1993) – a tough watch, but a necessary one.

7. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) – a glorious, glorious triumph.

6. Jurassic Park (1993) – a sensationally entertaining blockbuster of a B-movie.

5. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) – probably Spielberg’s strangest film; certainly his most underrated.

4. Jaws (1975) – there’s plenty of humanity, as well as terror and excitement; a masterpiece.

3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – a riot from start to finish.

2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – an astonishing achievement, a timeless gem.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – it’s difficult to think of a more thrilling, more captivating, more downright enjoyable adventure ride of a film.

 

Two years of reviews…

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Over the last two years, I’ve written 268 reviews for this blog. Most (204) have been about films, while 33 have been about TV and 31 on music. (A full index can be found here.)

A year ago I did a post rounding up the first 12 months, which you can read here. So I thought it’d be fun to do another.

Series-by-series, the reviews break down like this:

* James Bond: 26 reviews
* Steven Spielberg: 31
* Police Academy: 7
* The Coen Brothers: 16
* The Beatles: 17 (covering 21 albums)
* Star Trek: 13, including Galaxy Quest
* Superman/Batman: 20 – eight Superman films, nine Batman films, Supergirl, Catwoman and The Lego Movie
* ABBA: 8
* Carry On: 36
* Dracula: 29
* Star Wars: 13, including Spaceballs
* The Smiths: 6 (covering seven albums)
* Fawlty Towers: 12
* Back to the Future: 3
* John Hughes: 6
* Blackadder: 6
* Blade Runner: 3
* The Omen: 5
* Alien/Predator: 11 – six Alien films, three Predator films and two crossovers

For every review except the Police Academys, I’ve given a score out of 10. The 49 reviews that have gained 10 out of 10 are:

Abbey Road
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Alien
Aliens
Aliens: Special Edition
Back to the Future
Back to the Future Part II
Back to the Future Part III
Blackadder Goes Forth
Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut
Blade Runner: The Final Cut
Batman (1989)
The Big Lebowski
The Breakfast Club
Casino Royale (2006)
The Dark Knight
The Empire Strikes Back (actually, because it’s so good I gave it 11 out of 10)
The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Fargo
Fawlty Towers: The Anniversary
Fawlty Towers: Basil the Rat
Fawlty Towers: The Builders
Fawlty Towers: Communication Problems
Fawlty Towers: Gourmet Night
Fawlty Towers: The Hotel Inspectors
Fawlty Towers: The Kipper and the Corpse
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
GoldenEye
Hatful of Hollow
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Jaws
Jurassic Park
The Lego Movie
Licence to Kill
Love
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
The Queen is Dead
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Return of the Jedi
Revolver
Rubber Soul
Schindler’s List
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (actually, I gave it 4,000 out of 10, but that’s the same thing)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Star Wars

The other scores break down like this:

9.5/10: 1 review (Blade Runner)
9/10: 39 reviews
8/10: 45 reviews
7/10: 38 reviews
6/10: 29 reviews
5/10: 24 reviews
4/10: 12 reviews
3/10: 11 reviews
2/10: Five reviews
1/10: Eight reviews (Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, Batman & Robin, Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest, Carry On Emmannuelle, Carry On Laughing, Dracula Reborn, The Ladykillers, The Star Wars Holiday Special)

That’s an average of 7.16. (It was 7.45 when I did a round-up of my first 128 reviews this time last year.) The most popular years, meanwhile, has been 1979 and 1987 with 11 reviews each.

Thank you to everyone who’s ever read, liked, commented on, discussed, asked me about, or generally engaged with all this nonsense. It means the world to me.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

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When a Soviet agent is arrested in New York City, lawyer James B Donovan is employed to defend him. Then the opportunity arises to swap the spy for an imprisoned American airman…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Mark Rylance won both a Bafta and an Oscar for his quiet, measured, charming performance as Rudolf Able, the Russian charged with espionage. But Tom Hanks probably has the harder job playing insurance lawyer James Donovan. He has much more screentime and a wider variety of scenes to play. It’s an extremely Tom Hanksian character, in fact: a gentle but determined and moral man with a dry sense of humour. He also gets a likeable running gag about having a cold.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The opening is superb: an almost wordless, gripping sequence where Able lives his life, picks up a dead-drop, and is followed by federal agents.

Review: Bridge of Spies is, for its first half, a courtroom drama. Then it evolves into a Cold War spy film, and throughout there’s a spine of JFK-style paranoia and politics. It’s fantastic stuff. Being critical, perhaps the plot calls for people to be reactionary a bit too often, but it is set in the time of Joseph McCarthy. You could also argue that the story lacks any real nastiness. But some lovely detailing in the writing, acting and production design mean that the two hours pass every enjoyably. And the Coen brothers co-wrote the script, which guarantees it never approaches being too earnest. On a technical level, this is immaculate filmmaking. It always is with Spielberg. Right from minute one you know you’re in safe hands. Having watched and reviewed a variable mix lately, this was like sitting through a karaoke and then putting on an ABBA album. It’s just on a more solid, more professional, more accomplished level than most films. For example, there are numerous techniques to make a film buff’s heart soar – motivated camera moves, cute scene transitions, long takes that let the actors breathe, the same imagery repeated in different contexts, handheld camerawork when there’s actually a reason for it… All things that are strangely rare in modern Hollywood movies. But the direction is never showing off or drawing attention to itself. The story is king. Spielberg’s best live-action film since at least Catch Me If You Can.

Nine U2 spy planes out of 10

Ten Things I Love About… Back to the Future Part III (1990, Robert Zemeckis)

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Plot spoilers ahead. In fact, I’m assuming you know the film’s basic story.

This is not a review. (Want a review? ‘Perfect – 10 Shonash Ravines out of 10’.) Instead, here’s a list of 10 areas in which I think Back to the Future Part III especially excels. I’ll avoid covering things discussed in the previous two blogs.

1. “10.04pm next Saturday night!”
The scene of the lightning bolt striking the Hill Valley clock tower in 1955 and sending Marty back to his own time is seen again – therefore, uniquely, it appears in all three movies.

2. “It’s Howdy Doody time!”
The 1950s sequence at the start of the film is wonderful. Set at Doc’s house, an abandoned mine, a graveyard, a library and a gaudy drive-in cinema, it has dark, solemn feel about it. It’s raining as the action begins, because it’s still the same night as the thunderstorm from film one. In the scene in Doc’s house, Christopher Lloyd and Michael J Fox are on fire – their rat-a-tat-tat delivery of the lines is a joy. It’s also so refreshing to see a movie scene between two actors played out in long takes – one shot is 49 seconds, another is 54, another 46. The camera moves discreetly so the point of the drama is always in focus; the editing speeds up if needed, but mostly lets Lloyd and Fox do their thing. There are lots of fun details in the scene too. The fact Marty still has the hoverboard is smuggled in via a bit of slapstick, and the events of the last film are neatly recapped in dialogue. Because it’s the same week of the events of the first movie, Doc’s scale model of Hill Valley is still in place, and Marty fiddles with the Doc’s mind-reading helmet. After the action moves to the mines, Jules Verne is casually mentioned (seeding information for later in the story) while the Doc idly wonders if his life in 1885 will be in the town archives (minutes later, he has to go and have a look).

3. “Clint Eastwood never wore anything like this.”
When he prepares to time-travel to the nineteenth century, Marty dresses in a ridiculous, garish cowboy costume. When he gets to 1885, he needs a pseudonym so picks Western icon Clint Eastwood (who he’d seen briefly on a TV in Part II). This is all part of the movie’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach to the Wild West. It wants to use the real history as a setting, but is more interested in clichés and conventions. The list of stereotypes being plundered for drama and comedy is seemingly endless: Indians and the US Cavalry; cowboys and campfires; duels and dung; horses and hangings; saloons, stagecoaches, shindigs, sheriffs, six-shooters, sipping whiskeys, standoffs and steam trains.

4. “How could you forget a thing like your hat?!”
Soon after arriving in 1885, Marty meets his immigrant ancestors – great-great-grandfather Seamus, great-great-grandmother Maggie and baby William. There are plenty of *very* impressive split-screens to allow Michael J Fox to play both Marty and Seamus in the same shot. Meanwhile, having Lea Thompson play Maggie is a strange decision – partly because of the incestuous implications now inherent in Marty’s family tree, but also because her Irish accent is not the greatest. But it’s a welcome move, because otherwise she wouldn’t be in the film very much.

5. “As mayor of Hill Valley, it gives me great pleasure to dedicate this clock to the people of Hill County!”
The Hill Valley set is another sublime bit of production design, though ‘bit’ is a laughably inadequate word for such an endeavour. Unlike in films one or two where the basic set could be refitted for four different time zones, the Wild West needed a whole new town built. It has the recognisable skeleton of the square we know so well, and the saloon is deliberately in the same location as the 1955 and 2015 cafés. A sign hanging over the street announces that the townsfolk are raising money for their new clocktower – which we then see under construction. Doc and Marty actually attend the clock’s unveiling ceremony. As the Doc says, it’s apt: they were there at the end of its working life too.

6. “It’s a science experiment!”
Doc Brown’s existence in 1885 – he’s been there several months by the time Marty shows up – has a delightful steampunk vibe about it. His workshop has a steam-powered contraption to create ice cubes; he’s built a long-range rifle; and the connection he makes with schoolteacher Clara (Mary Steenburgen) is based on their mutual love of science. I think it’s residual goodwill from this film that makes me so predisposed to enjoy sci-fi Westerns or ones with some kind of modern twist – both the good ones (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2010’s True Grit, 2013’s The Lone Ranger) and the clearly awful ones (Wild Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens, Jonah Hex).

7. “Hey, Frisbee! Far out!”
As ever with a Back to the Future film, each viewing brings new details to light. This time, one example was in the scene where Doc and Marty question the train driver about how fast his engine can go. In the background, you can see the town clock being unloaded from a carriage – another instance of the series’s thematic connection to that timepiece. In terms of a whopping great big plot hole, something I didn’t spot for years and years is that Doc and Marty need to steal a train in order to get the DeLorean up to 88mph because they don’t have any petrol… and yet, they never once consider using the fuel from the DeLorean the Doc has recently stashed in a nearby mine.

8. “I adore Jules Verne!”
The third film gives us a simple yet highly effective love story, and also allows the Doc time to shine. The sweet subplot is very well played by Lloyd and Steenburgen, and it gives the middle of the film a reasonably leisurely feel (certainly in comparison to the sugar-rush storytelling of Part II). It’s a nice change of pace. And Clara isn’t a bolted-on complication; she plays a vital role in the plot. In the second half, thinking the Doc has lied to her, she gets on a train to leave Hill Valley. However, she then changes her mind and stops the train – which is handy as it’s the very train that Marty, who’s running late, needs to get back home.

9. “It erased…”
The stuff back in 1985 is fantastic – especially the Doc’s surprise appearance in a flying steam-train time-machine. (Everyone’s spotted how his son Verne points at his cock in the background of a shot, right?)

10. “Everything concerns the law!”
I first saw this film illegally before its UK release. A family I was friends with had somehow got hold of a pirated VHS. To protect their anonymity, I won’t say who they were – let’s just call them the Cowing family of 169 Burscough Street, Ormskirk. So I saw Back to the Future Part III on video before it was available in the cinemas. It was a black-and-white copy, sadly, though that was kind of appropriate for a Western. (It was a special year for seeing films early. That summer, I was on holiday in Spain and one afternoon a local bar showed an illegal copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which hadn’t been released in the UK yet, for all the holidaying British kids.)

Ten Things I Love About… Back to the Future Part II (1989, Robert Zemeckis)

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Plot spoilers ahead. In fact, I’m assuming you know the film’s basic story.

This is not a review. (Want a review? ‘Perfect – 10 screen doors on a battleship out of 10’.) Instead, here’s a list of 10 areas in which I think Back to the Future Part II especially excels. I won’t mention the direction, the music, the production design, the dialogue and the main cast (Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Thomas F Wilson) because they were discussed in the previous blog post. But they’re all just as sensational in this film.

1. New Jennifer.
The opening scene is a reprise of the final few minutes from the original movie. However, the footage had to be reshot because Claudia Wells had dropped out of playing Jennifer for personal reasons. I was already a fan of the new actress, Elisabeth Shue, from The Karate Kid and Adventures in Babysitting. She’s a big improvement on Wells: she gets more to do, and is also a better comic actress. (I’ve only this week learnt that there was a *third* Jennifer. Originally cast in the role in 1984 was Melora Hardin, who was later in the US version of The Office. She filmed a few scenes with Eric Stoltz, the original Marty. However, when Stoltz was fired and replaced with Michael J Fox, Hardin was deemed too tall to play opposite Fox so was let go.)

2. “Whoa, this is heavy!”
This film’s plot is dizzyingly complex and all the better for it. The mechanics of who does what, when they do it, what that means, and what it leads to are very complicated but (almost entirely) make perfect sense. The writers even use something they considered a mistake – putting Jennifer in the car at the end of the first film – to their benefit. When the cops in the future find time-travelling Jennifer, they naturally deduce that she’s the Jennifer from 2015 so take her home. We then get a very entertaining sequence at Marty’s future house, which is full of fun gags and character details, *and* provides Biff with the opportunity to steal the DeLorean. The whole script has this kind of plotting panache.

3. “Please, Marty – no one should know too much about their own destiny.”
The DeLorean arrives in the future at 4.29pm on 21 October 2015. Doc even specifies that it’s a Wednesday. I first saw this film at a cinema in Southport in December 1989. It was my cousin’s birthday, so he, some of his pals and I went together. I was only 10, but crucially a year or so older than everyone else. So I felt enormously smug when, after the movie, they all complained that it made no sense and I was able to spell out what had happened. I also remember calculating that I’d be 36 years old in October 2015. That seemed a laughably long time away. It was, I suppose.

4. Future proof.
The twenty-first century on show here has flying cars, self-tying shoes, and Jaws 19 playing at the cinema (tagline: “This time, it’s really, really personal!”). The filmmakers knew they had no hope of accurately predicting 26 years into the future, so they chose to play it for laughs. The main dialogue scene, for example, takes place in the Café 80s – a horrid, pastel, plastic retro joint with AI waiters in the form of Ronald Reagan and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In presenting a future society, the film got a lot of things wide off the mark (Marty Jnr uses a payphone) but some things bang on the money. Check out how Marty Jnr watches six TV feeds all at once, and how he and Marty’s daughter are both obsessed by their Google Glasses while at the dinner table. Behaviourally speaking, they’re kids using social media. (The sight of Michael J Fox playing Marlene McFly, however, is just horrific.) When he arrives in the future, Marty buys a sports almanac from a vintage-goods shop. It’s said to list all major sporting results from 1950 to 2000, including American football, baseball, horse racing and boxing. In 1955, Biff verifies its accuracy by looking up the score of a routine college-football game. Even if we assume it’s only *American* sports, it still seems a very thin book for all that information! (By the way, I’ve looked it up: some if not all of the football scores we hear on Biff’s car radio are from genuine games that took place on 12 November 1955. And UCLA did really beat Washington with a last-minute field goal.)

5. “Manure! I hate manure!”
As with the first film, there are loads of gags only noticeable on repeated viewings. An electronic billboard in 2015 advertises Major Goldie Wilson III’s election campaign. An edition of USA Today we see in the future has jokey headlines such as ‘Washington prepares for Queen Diana’s visit!’ and ‘President says she’s tired’. Some subtle gags are, in effect, in the wrong order. We’ve already seen Lorraine married to a wealthy Biff in the alternative 1985 when, in 1955, she tells him that she wouldn’t marry him “even if [he] had a million dollars!” There are also quite a few forward references to the third film, which was shot back-to-back with this one. Marty plays a Western shoot-’em-up arcade machine in 2015 (a young Elijah Wood is one of the kids in the scene); the Doc laments that he’s never visited the Old West and says he wants to learn more about women; we find out that Biff’s great-grandfather was a Wild West outlaw; and Biff is seen watching A Fistful of Dollars. (One little detail I spotted on this viewing that I’ve never realised before: the old codger in 2015 who gives Marty the idea to go back in time and make money via betting is also in the 1955 stuff. He’s the mechanic charging Biff $300 for the repairs to his car.)

6. “I’m old!”/”I’m young!”
For 1989, the special effects are tremendous. There are numerous split-screen shots where the same actor plays two (or even three) roles at the same time. The characters interact believably and the camera often *moves*, which was just revolutionary for the time. The two Jennifers seeing each other and both fainting might be my favourite example, but there are plenty to choose from. There’s also some smart animation used for the flying cars in 2015. Stylistically it’s reminiscent of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the movie Robert Zemeckis made immediately before this.

7. History repeating itself.
The same type of events keep happening, but in interestingly different contexts. This kind of story rhyming is not unique to the Back to the Future films – The Godfather and Star Wars series both use the same technique. In the first film, Marty used a skateboard as he was chased round Hill Valley’s square by Biff; here, in 2015, it’s a hoverboard and Biff’s grandson. Marty’s asked for a donation to “save the clock tower” again, this time in the future. When Marty wakes up in the alternative 1985, a scene from the first film is being echoed – however, rather than a slim teenager, his mum is now a middle-aged woman with fake tits. Biff ends up crashing his car into a manure truck for a second film running. Of course, in the final act, events are literally repeating themselves…

8. “It’s like we’re in hell or something.”
The clues that 1985 has changed are evident before Marty learns what’s happened. We see ruined cars and lots of graffiti; Hill Valley Square has been taken over by bikers; and there’s a toxic-waste plant. In its middle section, the film is heading into It’s a Wonderful Life territory – ‘what if’ Biff were rich and successful? Like in It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s now a nightmarish world. There’s lots of violent crime. Everywhere’s rundown and tatty. It’s always night. Biff’s built a Vegas-style casino on top of the clock tower, seems to run the whole town, and is married to an unhappy Lorraine. George is dead (a subplot created because the original actor wouldn’t come back). Doc has been committed. And Marty’s been packed off to school in Switzerland.

9. Back to the Fifties.
The original script set the final third in the 1960s. Lorraine would have been a flower-power girl, George a peacenik. But then the writers made the inspired decision to go back to 1955. It’s a time-travel film, they argued, so we can do anything – including revisiting the events of the first movie. We therefore get the intoxicating, imaginative situation of having two Martys and two Docs running around Hill Valley. For 38 glorious minutes of cinema, the film stitches new scenes in and around footage shot in 1984 (as well as restaging some moments). There’s a joyful exuberance for this kind of tomfoolery – the Doc meets himself, we go back to the Enchantment Under The Sea dance, and we see classic moments from new points of view. It’s heady storytelling that would only work on film or television.

10. “Is your name Marty McFly?”
As two sequels were made back-to-back, we get a monster of a cliffhanger at the end of Part II. The plot concluded and the real 1985 put back on track, the DeLorean is struck by lightening. It vanishes in mid-air, stranding a bemused Marty in the 1950s. Then, out of the rain, comes a man with a letter. His company have had it in their possession for 70 years, with specific instructions to deliver it to Marty as this precise moment. The letter is from the Doc, telling Marty that he’s living in the Wild West. Writing to someone in the future: it’s a sensational concept. Cinema tricks us into accepting that the two times – 1885 and 1955 – are somehow concurrent, that Doc is speaking directly to his friend. (The 2007 Doctor Who episode Blink uses the same letter idea. I have no idea if it’s a coincidence or was deliberately half-inched. But the show has lately become more and more fascinated with Back to the Future-style time-travel trickery. A thought occurs: did Steven Moffat name Clara after Part III’s main guest character?) The movie then ends with an in-film trailer for the third chapter – that was a stunningly exciting move in 1989. But a frustrating one, as the next film was eight months away…

Ten Things I Love About… Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

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Warning: plot spoilers ahead. In fact, I’m assuming you know the film’s basic story.

This is not a review. (Want a review? “Perfect – 10 flux capacitors out of 10”.) Instead, it’s a love letter to one of the most important films in my life. Here’s a list of 10 areas in which I think Back to the Future especially excels.

1. It’s about time.
Unsurprisingly for a movie about time-travel, there’s a recurring theme of clocks and chronology. Time plays a huge role in the story, thematically as well as literally. The characters are often surrounded by reminders of it. The first thing we hear is ticking clocks; the first scene is a slow pan across dozens of timepieces. As the story begins, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is carrying out an experiment and has set all these clocks to the wrong time, meaning Marty (Michael J Fox) is late for school. The time machine, meanwhile, has digital readouts specifying the time and date of each travel. Later, Marty is pestered by a woman wanting a donation for her campaign to save the town’s decrepit clock tower. When Marty reaches the 1950s, that clock is in working order: its deafening clang is a vivid pointer that he is actually in the past. Later, the same bell prevents Doc hearing important information from Marty. The writers’ original idea was for the story’s climax to take place at an out-of-town nuclear plant. What a smart move it was to change that and keep Hill Valley’s town clock central to proceedings. Much more satisfying.

2. A design for life.
Lawrence G Paull’s production design for this movie is just masterful. It does precisely what film design should do: the sets, costumes, props and locations create a fully believable setting, but they also *tell the story* just as cleverly as dialogue or acting. That’s really the key to this film, why it’s such a classic. Its story is explored via every tool in the cinematic workshop. For example, in the opening shot – a 126-second slow track through Doc’s house – we see newspapers hinting at the character’s back story. The camera then tilts down to his modest bed and cluttered belongings; then shows off his Heath Robinson gadgetry, including a device for feeding the dog. Before we ever clap eyes on him, some of Doc’s history, personality and situation are conveyed through visual means. The entire movie is crammed full of this kind of storytelling. Sometimes it’s big and obvious – for example, how bright and gleaming the 1950s are compared to the 1980s – but often it’s subtle. Doc’s house in the 1980s is a rundown shed; in the 1950s, that shed is just a workshop next to his enormous mansion. Without it being said, we infer that he’s on his uppers in later life.

3. Hiding in plain sight.
Again and again, the film plonks down huge clues and jokes and bits of information right in front of you, and dares you to spot the significance. Some examples… One of the clocks in the opening scene has a miniature Harold Lloyd hanging from its face… a situation Doc will later find himself in. We’re shown a seemingly random TV news report about some missing plutonium… which we soon learn the Doc has stolen. A poster in the town centre is asking people to re-elect the mayor… a man we’ll meet in 1955, when Marty gives him the idea to go into politics. Marty is handed a flyer about the clock tower’s history, which we think is important because his girlfriend has written her phone number on the back of it… but it’s actually the printed side that’ll prove vital. We see some boys in 1955 using proto-skateboards… one of which Marty later nabs for a getaway. All these things make repeat viewings an absolute blast. (If anyone mentions Twin Pines Mall, we all have to take a sip of our drink.)

4. “Marty!”
What a fantastic lead character Marty McFly is. He’s the audience’s point of view, and is in virtually every scene. He has energy, charm and wit. He wears sunglasses, a denim jacket and a body-warmer. He uses a skateboard and hangs Walkman headphones round his neck. He gives off an air of Ferris Bueller-like confidence, yet admits to being scared of rejection. And he has a cute girlfriend (who’ll get even cuter after a recast in the sequels). It’s amazing we don’t hate him – but we don’t. That’s down to Michael J Fox, who plays the role with fantastic comic energy. Equally important is the fact his performance has total sincerity. We believe in the situations because he does. It would have been so easy to play it detached or with a knowing irony, kind of like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. Maybe that’s what Eric Stoltz, who was originally cast in the role, was doing before he was fired.

5. “Well, looky what we have here.”
There are so many fantastic jokes in the background of scenes or details tossed off without comment, and they’re often bits of comedy. It took me many viewings to appreciate the gag of Marty methodically fine-tuning a humungous amplifier… only to then use a laughably *tiny* guitar. Later, when Marty reaches 1955, a Ronald Reagan movie is playing at the local cinema. It’s a joke that works on two levels. Not only was Reagan US President at the time of the film’s release, but the reminder that he used to be actor sets us up for a gag from an incredulous Doc Brown. Another great example is how Marty and his dad do the exact same hand gesture when unknowingly sitting next to each other in a cafe.

6. “Don’t need no credit card to ride this train!”
There’s loads of music in this film (well, it was the 1980s). Huey Lewis and the News get two tracks – The Power of Love and Back in Time. The latter’s lyrics relate directly to the story, though I didn’t spot that for a stupidly long time. In a bit of postmodern humour, when Marty auditions for a battle-of-the-bands competition, he and his pals play The Power of Love and Huey Lewis cameos as the judge who doesn’t like it. From the present, there are songs by Lindsey Buckingham, Eric Clapton and Van Halen on the soundtrack; in the past, period tracks such as The Four Aces’ Mr Sandman and Etta James’s The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry) set the scene. Meanwhile, Alan Silvestri’s incidental music is just magic. Big and dramatic, it makes what is a reasonably small-scale movie feel like fucking Die Hard.

7. “I’m gonna clean up this town!”
Has there ever been a better film set than Hill Valley? For the production, an entire town square was built from scratch – and we see it in two different states. In 1985, it’s grimy and rundown, there’s graffiti, and it has a porno cinema. In 1955, it’s clean and verdant and full of life. (The name of the town is an oxymoron, by the way – it took me a long time to twig that.) You could watch this film and solely concentrate on how the shop fronts and other details change between decades. One great example is how the central square is a car park in 1985 yet in 1955 has a war memorial. Presumably it got bulldozed at some point.

8. “I’m writing this down – this is good stuff.”
The dialogue pulls off an astonishing trick. Pretty much every line is doing three things all at once: it’s moving the plot forward, it’s speaking to character, and it’s entertaining us with style. We’re constantly – and I mean constantly – being given vital story information, yet it never feels like dull exposition because it’s smuggled in under the cover of characterisation or comedy (or often both). Check out the early 1985 scene between Marty and his family, where Lorraine (Lea Thompson) talks about meeting George (Crispin Glover). The *entire* conversation is information we need to know for what’s going to happen in the story. It’s pure plot primer. Yet the scene is alive and fresh and funny and charismatic. It doesn’t feel like an info-dump. It feels like people talking. (As a scene that’s an exposition lecture and you just don’t notice, the only comparable example I can think of is the newsreel at the start of Citizen Kane.)

9. The right direction.
Robert Zemeckis does a quietly magnificent job directing this film. Every moment is paced to perfection and the flow from scene to scene is seamless. The film is fit to bursting with energy, while the camerawork – the movement, the framing, the mise-en-scene – is superb.

10. “Don’t be so gullible, McFly!”
Biff Tannen is one of cinema’s great bad guys, superbly played by Thomas F Wilson, who has to give us three versions of the same man. We see him in the 1980s, where he’s overweight, domineering and slovenly; in the 1950s, where he’s the arrogant school bully with a gang of hangers-on; and then back in the 80s, where he’s a subservient car-cleaner. Wilson pulls off all incarnations brilliantly. Biff is not a subtle character. He has no hidden depths. Yet the actor makes him so watchable. He also has a gag – “Why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here?” – that won’t get its punchline until the sequel.

11. (Did you seriously think I could limit this to just 10 things?!) By George!
Marty’s nerdy dad is the real heart of the story. In some ways, it’s *his* story: he’s the protagonist who’s trying to achieve something. (Marty is actually a complication.) When we get to the 1950s, George is sat at a café – but neither Marty nor us notice him at first. It’s then quite a moment when the realisation sinks in. Later, it’s a totally believable moment when George punches Biff and wins Lorraine’s heart, thanks in big part to Crispin Glover. The actor was clearly a bit of a fruit-loop back in the day, but he’s terrific in this film. (And, I learnt recently, is the son of Bruce Glover, who played assassin Mr Wint in Diamonds Are Forever.)

12. We are family.
Marty’s siblings aren’t in the film much – just one scene in each version of 1985. But they’re fab. Brother Dave is played by Marc McClure, fresh from four movies as Jimmy Olsen. Sister Linda is played by Wendie Jo Sperber.

13. “It’s written all over your underwear!”
Marty’s mum, Lorraine, is an old soak in 1985. She’s chavvy, a bit overweight and very world-weary. She condemns modern behaviour such as sitting in parked cars with boys, then bores her family with a well-worn story about she met her husband. But when we meet her in 1955 at the age of 17, she’s a right hottie. The young Lorraine is sweet and adorable, but also feisty and a bit of a secret rebel. Lea Thompson is wonderful at playing the two versions of the character (as well as a happy and trim 47-year-old at the end of the film). Despite young Lorraine’s lust for Marty, she doesn’t dismiss nervous George when he makes a play for her, which helps sell their eventual union. She also does all the things her grown-up self condemns: park with a boy, smoke, drink and flirt.

14. “Great Scott!”
We first see Dr Emmett L Brown driving his time machine out from a van, down the ramp surrounded by smoke. It’s a theatrical entrance for both the car and the Doc – though how he got into the motor when it was inside such a narrow van is another issue. He’s the epitome of the wild-haired, wild-eyed mad scientist, but has a huge likeability. (He’s one of the great Doctor Whos we never got.) It’s never revealed how Doc and Marty met or became such good friends, because we don’t especially need to know – it’s still a massive moment when the Doc is seemingly murdered at the end of the first act. In 1955, the younger version is just as bonkers. When Marty tracks him down, the 50s Doc is conducting a mind-reading experiment, then later builds a scale model of Hill Valley so he can demonstrate to Marty – and us – how the film’s climax will work. (Soon after this show-and-tell, he meets Lorraine: the only time in the entire trilogy that the two characters interact.) When Marty gets back to 1985, the Doc evades death by changing history. “What the hell?” he quips. He then features in a cliffhanger ending when he collects Marty and Jennifer to take them 30 years into the future (ie, to now).

15. “You built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?!”
A sports-car shape with a harsh, metallic finish and gull-wing doors? Well, it just looks cool, doesn’t it? Making the time machine a car – rather than a stationary capsule – was a masterstroke, giving movement and dynamism to the act of time-travel. (Surely HG Wells would have made this improvement if he’d done just one more draft. Or, you know, been writing after the invention of the car.) After each time-travel, the vehicle is icy cold and covered in mist. That idea got dropped for the sequels!

16. “Do you really think I oughta swear?”
Marty exclaims, “Holy shit!” a few times. When Biff attacks Lorraine, his intentions are shockingly obvious. And the entire emotional storyline is predicated on a mother falling romantically for her son. (Disney turned down the chance to make the film because of its Oedipal overtones.) For a ‘family film’, Back to the Future has an edge. And that makes it more interesting.

17. “Looks like an airplane… without wings!”
When Marty arrives in 1955, his silver car and yellow radiation suit trick a family of farmers into thinking he’s an alien crashed on earth. And Marty later uses the suit (and a Sony Walkman) to con George into believing ‘Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan’ has come to visit him. This old-school sci-fi paranoia is just one thread in the wonderful 1950s-ness of the film’s middle chunk. Nostalgia for that decade is seen a lot in American pop culture from the 1970s and 80s: Grease, Happy Days, American Graffiti, Stand By Me… But it’s especially apt in this movie. It’s the story of a teenager meeting his parents when they were teenagers – and the 1950s saw the birth of teenage culture.

18. “You know, Marty, you look so familiar. Do I know your mother?”
In 1955, Marty meets his mum’s family – Lorraine’s pregnant mother, her TV-fixing dad, and her siblings (one of whom is Kevin Arnold’s brother from The Wonder Years). They get one scene and very nearly steal the film. There’s the joke about baby Joey enjoying being behind bars, Marty being uncomfortable with Lorraine’s flirting, Marty recognising the Jackie Gleason show on TV because he’s already seen it, and the dad not knowing who John F Kennedy is.

19. New things.
I’ve seen this film dozens of times, yet I always spot something new every time I watch it. The two things that dropped into my mind this time are both pretty obvious, yet I’ve never considered them in 30 years. At the start of the film, Marty and his band audition for a panel of judges… on the *same stage* that Marty will play Johnny B. Goode at the end of the film. Never made that connection before. Also, the movie establishes that Twin Pine Malls is around two miles from the centre of Hill Valley. Yet at the film’s climax, Marty runs that distance in *under nine minutes*. No wonder he’s out of breath.

20. “Let’s do something that really cooks!”
I don’t have children, but I’m certain Sophie’s choice would be preferable to selecting just one favourite moment of Back to the Future. But for its sheer joyfulness, why don’t we focus on Marty’s stint as replacement guitarist with dance band Marvin Berry and the Starlighters? It’s maybe not the most vital scene in terms of the plot, though Marty’s erratic guitar playing is a neat illustration of the timeline being under threat. But it’s so, so fun. Once George and Lorraine have hooked up – to the swell of the band playing Earth Angel – the camera cranes up and back, signifying that the storyline is concluded. Then Marty is asked to play another song. He tells the band, “It’s a blues riff in B; watch me for the changes and try to keep up, okay?” then rips into Johnny B. Goode, wowing the crowd with a burst of nascent rock-n-roll. They’ve never heard the song before; no one has. Marty is seemingly inventing a genre on the spot. Lead singer Marvin Berry is so impressed that he telephones his cousin so he can hear the song. “Chuck? Chuck? It’s your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you looking for? Well, listen to this!” Hashtag bootstrap paradox. Marty then goes off-piste, throwing in impressions of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend, which just bemuses the entire room. “I guess you guy aren’t ready for that yet,” he says after finishing. “But your kids are gonna love it.”

21. Summing up?
This post is three thousand words and I’ve barely got started. The film has surgical attention to detail, but never loses sight of the big picture. It’s played at a lick, but never feels rushed. It’s funny, poignant, clever, exciting and witty. It has *huge* heart, but is never soppy. There’s dramatic irony, but it’s never smug. The camerawork and editing are aimed precisely at where the story is, never showing off. Plot, character, action and comedy are all intertwined all of the time – it’s the greatest ever example of this. I don’t remember the first time I saw Back to the Future. It was on a rental video, and must have been in around 1986. (I’ve since seen it on a big screen three times: at an independent cinema in 2000 and twice during a re-release in 2010.) In my mind, it’s just always been there, always been a part of my life. Always been a friend.

A year of reviews…

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A year ago today, on 2 April 2014, I posted a quick review of Dr No to Facebook. I’d watched it the previous evening, having decided on a whim to redo every James Bond film in order. The reviews I wrote of the series seemed to go down well, and I was thrilled by the feedback and interaction they generated. So I did the same with every Steven Spielberg movie – and then kept going with various other series.

In January 2015, after a few friends suggested it, I built this blog. I copied across all the stuff I’d already put on Facebook and now post new reviews here as well.

Over the last 12 months, I’ve written 128 reviews of 111 films and 17 albums (well, 21 albums actually: seven were condensed into three reviews). A full index can be found here. Series-by-series, they break down like this:

James Bond: 25, including the two non-official entries, Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again
Steven Spielberg: 30, including Poltergeist, which he’s rumoured to have directed
Police Academy: 7
The Coen Brothers: 16
The Beatles: 17
Star Trek: 13, including – for a laugh – Galaxy Quest
Superman/Batman: 20 – eight Superman films, nine Batman films, Supergirl, Catwoman and The Lego Movie

For every review except the Police Academys, I’ve given a score out of 10. Twenty-five things have received a maximum mark:

Abbey Road
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Batman (1989)
The Big Lebowski
Casino Royale (2006)
The Dark Knight
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Fargo
GoldenEye
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Jaws
Jurassic Park
The Lego Movie
Licence to Kill
Love
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Revolver
Rubber Soul
Schindler’s List
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

The other scores break down like this:

9/10: 22 reviews
8/10: 22 reviews
7/10: 15 reviews
6/10: 13 reviews
5/10: 12 reviews
4/10: 3 reviews
3/10: 6 reviews
2/10: 1 review
1/10: 2 reviews (Batman & Robin and The Ladykillers)

That’s an average score of 7.44628099. Or ‘7ish’, as I like to call it.

The most popular year, meanwhile, has been 1989. I’ve reviewed six films from those glorious 12 months – Always, Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Licence to Kill, Police Academy 6: City Under Siege and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. That’s apt: I was 10 years old in 1989 and the huge volume of genre movies released that year played a big role in turning me into a film geek. (In second place are 1984 and 1987, with five each.)

Thank you to everyone who’s ever read, liked, commented on, discussed, asked me about, or generally engaged with all this nonsense. It means the world to me.

My 30 favourite films

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So, a few years ago – in order to complete an Empire magazine readers’ poll – I set about compiling my top 10 films. Narrowing them down that far was too tough, and I ended up with a shortlist of 30. Since that time, I’ve made one change: GoodFellas was reluctantly dropped for the most recent movie on the list.

I’ve added links to any films I’ve blogged about elsewhere on this site, whilst clips indicate my favourite five…

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)

WarGames (John Badham, 1983)

Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

Clue (Jonathan Lynn, 1985)

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)

Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1986)

Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)

D.O.A. (Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, 1988)

A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)

Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989)

The Hunt For Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)

Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010)