Elstree 1976 (2015)

2017 #18
Jon Spira | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 12

Elstree 1976

In a studio near London in the summer of 1976, filming took place for a movie that the crew regarded as a children’s flick and several cast members assumed would be a flop. They couldn’t’ve been more wrong, because that film was Star Wars, probably the most influential movie of the last 40 years. You know the names of many of the people who were there: George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness… But there was also an army of supporting actors and extras. This is their story.

Here’s where the point of Elstree 1976 runs aground for some viewers. It is not The Making of Star Wars; nor is it The Secret Making of Star Wars, where the “little people” dish the dirt on what really happened. There is a bit of that in here — a section where the interviewees tell their tales from the set — but it’s not what the film is about. Rather, it’s a study of what it’s like to be tangentially attached to something great; to be a bit player in a cultural phenomenon. Most of the contributors here just took any old job to earn some cash, but by happening to be in the right place at the right time they found themselves attached to something huge for the entire rest of their lives. How does that change the course of someone’s life? How does it change the very fabric of who they are as a person?

What it's actually like being on a film set

There are reviews of Elstree 1976 that espouse a “why should we care” perspective. “These people aren’t the leads, they were just little people, why should we give a hoot about their lives?” Well, isn’t that the point? They’re people, like you and I — people who have lives. They were involved with one of the largest, most enduring pop culture events of our time, and yet they were so on the periphery that it’s a tiny part of their lives… or it should have been. Star Wars may be this huge, defining thing for its lead actors and high-profile crew members, but there were also dozens (probably hundreds) of people who “just happened to work on it”, and who otherwise have led ordinary lives. Or haven’t, because of the effect the film has had.

You see, here’s the thing: some of these people were only on screen for a frame or two, or they were hidden under a prosthetic that means you never even saw their face… and yet they still attend conventions where people want to meet them, get their autograph, all that jazz. For all the people who don’t understand the appeal of a movie telling these performers’ life stories, there are fans who are so much more interested in them for so much less. I don’t know how much the documentary actually explores the psychology of that, but it does touch on some aspects — the behind-the-scenes hierarchy of conventions, for instance, and how some actors don’t think others are worthy of putting in an appearance.

Extras, extras, read all about it!

Providing you approach it with the right expectations, Elstree 1976 is interesting in its way. As a portrait of ordinary lives that were touched by something extraordinary it’s got an interesting thematic point to make, but the lives covered are still ordinary, and we therefore hear a lot about that ordinariness. Well, maybe that’s harsh — some of these people certainly have stories to tell. Still, it’s probably a bit too long, and a greater focus on the behind-the-scenes stories and conventions, plus a trim to the general life stuff, might’ve been beneficial. Nonetheless, it offers a unique perspective on a much-discussed movie and the culture that surrounds it.

3 out of 5

Elstree 1976 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Value-for-Money Monthly Update for February 2016

It’s only words, and words are all I have to introduce this post.

So let’s get on with it.


The Martian#21 Predestination (2014)
#22 Prisoners (2013)
#23 Macbeth (2015)
#24 Daybreakers (2009)
#25 The Martian (2015)
#26 Ex Machina (2015)
#27 Quigley Down Under (1990)
#28 Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)Ex Machina
#29 SuperBob (2015)
#30 The East (2013)
#31 Pillow Talk (1959)
#32 Home on the Range (2004)
#33 Crimson Peak (2015)
#34 Grand Piano (2013)
#35 Home (2015)
Crimson Peak#36 Noah (2014)
#37 The Equalizer (2014)
#38 The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)
#39 Big Eyes (2014)
#40 The Hangover (2009)
#41 Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
#42 Evangelion: 3.33 You Can (Not) Redo. (2012/2013)
#43 Cinderella (2015)
#44 Lucy (2014)


  • Value For Money Assessment, Part 1: before I cancelled Netflix last month, I watched 10 films on there. That’s £0.79 per film.
  • Value For Money Assessment, Part 2: after joining Now TV this month, I snuffled out 230+ films that interested me. Of those, I watched 10, plus the Oscars. That’s £0.91 per film/awards ceremony. (That subscription’s not over, so I’ll get more value out of it next month.)
  • Value For Money Assessment, Part 3: I bought and instantly watched four new-release Blu-rays this month. That was £11.87 per film. Picture quality and special features were lovely, though.
  • No WDYMYHS film this month, for reasons I’ll come to in a minute. I did watch two last month, though, so it’s OK.


This month, I watched 24 new films. Yeah, that whole “watch fewer films so I can do other stuff” thing isn’t going so well. (“Moan when you’re not watching enough films, moan when you are watching plenty of films — what’s wrong with you?!” Yes, I do feel a bit Shinji-ish.)

The reason? The Oscars. Not watching the nominated films, but paying £9.99 for a month of Now TV so I can watch them. Are the Oscars worth £9.99? No, of course they’re not — hence catching up on lots of other films while I have it. That’ll continue until the middle of next month… when I’ll get Netflix so I can watch Daredevil season two, and also attempt to extract maximum value for money by watching a load more films. So in the middle of April I may finally stop watching so many movies…

Of course, watching so many films brings with it a number of personal ‘achievements’: it easily surpasses the February average (9.63) and crushes the February record (13, jointly held by four previous Februarys); it’s the 21st month in a row where I’ve watched over 10 films; it’s only the fifth month ever with over 20 films; oh, and it’s a new third best month ever. (“Best” in this sense just meaning “most prolific”, of course. Volume does not equal quality. Unless you’re Mad Max: Fury Road, in which case winning the most Oscars means you are the Academy’s best film of the year. Yes it does. Yes it does.)

Quick inaccurate future predictions: following the relatively-huge January and February, and as I intend to maintain my ten-per-month minimum, this year’s looking at a final tally of at least 144 films. That would make it easily my second most prolific year ever. Which is nice. If by some failure of purpose I continued to achieve my current 2016 average of 22 films per month, I’d be looking at ending around #264. Sounds utterly ridiculous, but in January 2015 I laughed at the statistics suggesting I might make it to #192, and I ended up reaching #200.


This month, I’ve all but finished posting my 2015 reviews. Just The Story of Film remains, joining Veronica Mars in the eternally-unreviewed club. Maybe I’ll fix them both next month. Plus, the debut of my monthly TV review.


Superheroes, Disney, history, and noir — both classic and futuristic. Alphabetisation leaves the structure of this series to the whims of fate, but I think it’s a nicely varied month.



The 9th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Any month with 24 films is likely to have more than its fair share of highs and lows, and so it was with February. Shortlisting contenders for both this and the next award showed more of the former than the latter (nine vs. three), thankfully, but I think this one boils down to a three-way five-star sci-fi stand-off. Of those, I think the best marriage of idea and execution may have come from Predestination.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Two animations with “home” in the title are the frontrunners (rear-runners?) here. However, I expected Home on the Range to be terrible (and only watched it in aid of seeing all the Disney Animated Classics), whereas I only watched Home because I thought the trailer looked entertaining, so was thoroughly disappointed.

Best Apocalypse of the Month
Plenty of movies have shown us the end of the world now, but very few have done it in a story set millennia ago. For doing it so convincingly (if not plausibly), congratulations to Noah.

Most Disappointing Shakespeare Cut of the Month
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” Why did they excise one of the best lines from Macbeth?!

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Maybe it was the broad range of series covered, maybe it was just because it was something new and different, but my most-viewed new post in February was The Past Month on TV #1. (For the sake of keeping things on topic, I’ll add that the most-viewed film-related review was my Oscars-centric take on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.)


Halfway.

Ex Machina (2015)

2016 #26
Alex Garland | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2016
5 nominations

Nominated: Best British Film; Best Supporting Actress (Alicia Vikander); Best Original Screenplay; Best Special Visual Effects; Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.

A British sci-fi movie from a first-time director will tomorrow take a place at the table (well, in the auditorium) alongside 2015’s biggest awards contenders, as it vies for multiple gongs at this year’s BAFTAs — and it stands a very plausible chance of walking away with several of them, too. I hope it does, because, after a year that brought us awards-quality sci-fi bombast (Mad Max, Star Wars), it’s fantastic that a small film about three people sat in rooms talking can stand toe-to-toe with them as one of the year’s best.

The increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer at search engine giant Google Bluebook who wins a staff lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive founder, Nathan, played by the increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Oscar Isaac. However, on his arrival he learns he’s not just there to hang out: Nathan wants him to perform a Turing test on an AI he’s built. The point of the Turing test (as I’m sure you know) is for a human to interact with an AI but not realise it’s an AI, so Caleb’s surprised when said AI — Ava, played by the increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Alicia Vikander — comes in the form of a robot that’s obviously a robot. The real test is whether Caleb can know he’s talking to something non-human and still come to be convinced it’s human. As Caleb begins his interviews with Ava, it becomes apparent that there’s something else going on at this remote facility, where regular power cuts mean they’re all locked in…

As is probably clear, Ex Machina is a sci-fi movie of the thoughtful variety. It’s a film that considers ideas of artificial life, how we test it and what it means to create it, and only gradually builds in thriller elements that pay off in its final twenty-or-so minutes. In truth, it’s not the most thorough deconstruction of what it means to be human and whether artificial intelligence can have that right, but it does touch on these issues and, in so doing, leaves them open for the viewer to mull over for themselves, or debate with friends, or however else one likes to consider their movies post-viewing (like, I dunno, writing about them on the internet or something).

There are thematic similarities to Blade Runner, which (in case you’ve not seen it) also deals with the humanity or otherwise of man-made intelligence. Mulling on that comparison, I’m tempted to say Ex Machina is almost the inverse of Blade Runner, in this regard: Ridley Scott’s classic is ostensibly an SF-noir thriller (Harrison Ford is a cop hunting down some rogue robots), but by its end has revealed a considered exploration of what it means to be human, and whether these artificial creatures can lay claim to that. Conversely, Alex Garland’s film seems like it’s sitting us down to consider those same issues, but is actually laying the groundwork for revelations and twists that build to an edge-of-your-seat climax. I’m not saying one’s better than the other in this respect, just that they’re approaching the same topics almost from opposite ends.

Also like Blade Runner, Ex Machina is an exceptionally well made and performed film. Not in the same way as Blade Runner — it’s bright and clean and modern, in a Google-y, Apple-y kind of way — but to a similar level of internal consistency and accomplishment. Gleeson’s Caleb may seem a little plain, a blank page for the other characters to write on, but as his insecurities begin to come to the fore you realise that’s almost the point. Isaac is suitably overbearing as the alcohol-dependent genius behind Bluebook and Ava, an initially affable but quickly disquieting presence — he may be a threat, or may just be a bit odd. And his dance scene is surely one of 2015’s highlights (there’s an extended version hidden on the US Blu-ray, which is a treat). Garnering the most praise (and awards) is Alicia Vikander’s take on an AI. It’s a tricky role to tackle, because she’s not just a robot — that would defeat the point of Nathan’s exercise — but nor is she fully human. It’s a tightrope of a role, a fine line to walk, and Vikander negotiates it with aplomb. To say too much more would be to spoil it.

Aside from the acting, the film’s most striking element is surely the design of Ava. Her face and hands appear to be human, but everything else is robotic, and much of it transparent. This isn’t a case of slipping an actor into a suit painted with circuitboards — you can see the metal limbs and motors in her arms and legs, the metal spine in her back, the various computers or power sources or whatever glowing and spinning inside her. Occasionally she dresses in clothes and her workings are covered, but she spends most of the film with them on display. The CGI is literally flawless, which for a relatively-low-budget little British sci-fi-drama is all the more remarkable. I guess the visual effects awards are going to go to the big films, Star Wars or Mad Max or The Revenant (the bear seems to be very popular), but I do wonder if the work here is more deserving. You know how it must’ve been done — mo-cap suits and CGI — but there’s still a feeling of “how did they do that?”, because it’s so faultless. In fact, you don’t even wonder how they did it, because you just accept it; it’s only if you actively stop to consider it that you realise it’s physically impossible and must be CGI.

Those after a dissertation-like hard-science deconstruction of the meaning and possibilities of AI will likely find Ex Machina slightly lacking, as will anyone after the crash-bang thrills most mainstream sci-fi provides. Viewers prepared for a decently thought-provoking dramatic thriller about near-future tech, however, should be both engrossed, and grateful that movies like this are (for the time being) still getting made.

5 out of 5

The British Academy Film Awards are tomorrow night, televised on BBC One from 9pm.

Ex Machina placed 20th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The Martian (2015)

2016 #25
Ridley Scott | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
7 nominations

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design.



Ridley Scott’s latest arrives on Blu-ray in the UK today, with a disappointing dearth of special features (disliked Exodus gets a 2½-hour making-of, four hours of additional features, plus a commentary; award-winning The Martian gets 24 minutes plus a few in-universe documentaries — what?!) Never mind that, though: how good is the film deemed the best comedy or musical of 2015? (If you somehow missed that news, you’ll appreciate the addition of a “seriously” here.)

In the relatively near future, mankind is on its third manned mission to Mars. When a colossal storm rolls in, the decision to made to evacuate the Mars base. During the escape, biologist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and apparently killed, and his crew mates are forced to leave him for dead. He isn’t dead, though, but he is injured and alone on a planet 140 million miles from home, with no way to communicate with Earth, and not enough energy, oxygen, or food to see him through the four years until the next Mars mission is scheduled to arrive. Refusing to give in to inevitable death, Watney only has one choice: science the shit out of this.

That sounds like a laugh-a-minute premise, right? And there’s a major subplot about disco music, so it’s practically a musical too!

No, the HFPA are just idiots — The Martian is neither a comedy nor a musical. It is the latest in a growing subgenre of serious-minded near-future sci-fi adventures, though, following in the footsteps of 2013 Oscar winner Gravity and 2014 Oscar washout Interstellar. Where The Martian differs is in the element that tricked Golden Globes voters into thinking they could get away with giving it a comedy nomination (and win): rather than being stuffed to bursting with po-faced peril, it has a lightness of touch and regular doses of humour, making it probably the most feel-good serious sci-fi movie since ever.

Whether that’s appropriate or not is another matter. A well-argued review by the ghost of 82 assesses that the film has none of the darkness or loneliness you should expect of a man stranded alone on an alien world with a slim chance of survival or rescue. I don’t disagree that the film doesn’t contain much of that feeling, nor would I argue that such a tone isn’t a viable way to frame this narrative, but I don’t think that’s what Scott was aiming to convey. This telling of the story (I haven’t read the original novel, so can’t say how it compares tonally) is an adventure; a feel-good tale of hope and survival against the odds. The film doesn’t offer us despair because Watney doesn’t despair — he just gets on with trying to fix it. On the couple of occasions when his fixes go wrong, his chirpiness breaks down, his frustration comes out, and in some respects it’s all the more effective for being limited to those handful of occasions — we’re suddenly reminded that, in spite of his optimism and his success and all the fun we’re having watching it, he’s stranded 140 million miles away and even the slightest mistake can spell total disaster.

Matt Damon is a talented enough actor to lead us through all of this. Best remembered in recent years for serious fare like the Bourne films (“serious” in the sense of “not comedic” as opposed to “realistic”), Damon has done his fair share of comedies before now, and skits for TV shows and the like too. This is perhaps his first film to bring those two sides together as equally necessary parts of the whole — serious when he’s struggling with science problems or facing the reality of his situation, funny when he’s taking it all as light-heartedly as he can. Sometimes, such as in emotional conversations with friends or colleagues stuck millions of miles away, he even has to do both at once.

While Damon is stuck on Mars by himself, a starry supporting cast actually get to interact with each other. This is a quality ensemble and, short of writing an epic essay of a review where I just praise them all one by one, there’s little to do but list their names. That said, Jessica Chastain gets the most brazenly emotional beats as the commander who chose to leave Watney behind and has to face the consequences of her decision; Jeff Daniels treads a line between being an evil bureaucrat and just a regular bureaucrat (apparently consideration was given to turning him into a full-blown villain; thank goodness they swerved that bullet); Chiwetel Ejiofor brings easy gravitas to NASA’s director of Mars missions; Michael Peña provides some additional comic relief, if not as strikingly as he did in Ant-Man then at least as effectively; and Sean Bean doesn’t die. No offence to Sean Bean, but let’s be honest, at this point in his career that is the most notable facet of his appearance here. That and the Lord of the Rings reference.

It would be too damning to describe Ridley Scott’s direction as unremarkable, but at the same time it feels lacking in distinctiveness. Apparently there was some interview where he commented on how easy he found directing The Martian, I think with intended reference to the use of digital photography, but I think you get a sense of that from the film as a whole. That stops it from being over-directed, at least, and it’s certainly not poorly made, but if you didn’t know then you wouldn’t be nodding along going, “oh yes, this is definitely a Ridley Scott movie.” I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Considering his fiddling is what scuppered the promising screenplays that initiated both Robin Hood and Prometheus, and his other works this decade (The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings) haven’t exactly met with great acclaim, maybe his dropping in almost as a director-for-hire (screenwriter Drew Goddard was attached to direct, but got sidetracked into the now-cancelled Sinister Six Amazing Spider-Man spin-off), and helming the film in a kind of directorial autopilot, is part of what saved it from a similar fate.

I’ve read at least one review that described The Martian as “an instant sci-fi classic”, and at least one other that described it as “no sci-fi classic”. I’m going to sit on the fence of that debate for the time being. What I will say is that it is undoubtedly an accomplished piece of entertainment. For a film that primarily concerns itself with a man applying scientific principles to tasks like “growing potatoes”, that’s surely some kind of achievement. In our current climate (both in society in general and in the “more explosions less talking, please” state of blockbuster cinema), to make space travel — and science in general — seem fun and appealing to the masses is no bad thing whatsoever.

5 out of 5

As mentioned, The Martian is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 17th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Predestination (2014)

2016 #21
The Spierig Brothers | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

A man walks into a bar in ’70s New York. The bartender strikes up a conversation, which leads to a wager: if the man’s story is the most incredible the bartender has ever heard, he’ll give him a free bottle of whiskey. It had better be pretty good, because what we know that the man doesn’t is that the bartender, played by Ethan Hawke, is an agent for the Temporal Agency, travelling through time to stop crime before it happens; and he’s just had his face burnt off and completely rebuilt while failing to stop a notorious terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber. Beat that.

That said, the man’s story is pretty incredible too — but as the telling of it makes up over half the movie, and it’s full of its own twists, I shan’t get into spoiler territory. Predestination is a film that rewards knowing as little as possible, especially as the seasoned sci-fi viewer/reader has a fair chance of guessing a good number of its twists (possibly all of them) long before they’re revealed by the film. Fortunately that doesn’t really matter, because the tale remains an engaging and thought-provoking one, with many thematic points to consider, and not just of a science-fictional nature — there are human and historical issues in play here too, which is undoubtedly a rarity in modern screen SF.

We’re guided through this by a laid-back performance from Hawke, which turns intense when needed, but even more so by an affecting, transformative, award-winning turn from Australian actress Sarah Snook. She really should be much in demand after this. Chunks of the film are just a two-hander between Hawke and Snook, yet it effortlessly captivates throughout these stretches. That’s in part thanks to the fascinating nature of the narrative, adapted faithfully from Robert A. Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies (it has nothing to do with zombies — the story’s from the ’50s, before our modern conception of a zombie was formulated), as well as the direction of the Spierig brothers.

I don’t know how many people will remember, but the pair got a bit of attention back in the early ’00s with their debut feature Undead, because they not only wrote and directed it, but also edited it and created the CG effects at home on their laptops. That’s more commonplace nowadays (well, Gareth Edwards did it for Monsters, anyway), but was A Big Thing in certain circles back then. (I bought Undead on DVD at the time but have never got round to watching it. Plus ça change.) I thought they’d disappeared after that, but they were responsible for vampire thriller (and Channel 5 staple) Daybreakers in 2009. This is their third feature. Working from a low budget once again, they take us to alternate-history versions of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, from bars to orphanages to universities to training for the space programme to the headquarters of a time travelling police organisation and more. To my eyes, it never looked cheap. Sure, it’s not overloaded with CGI, but it doesn’t need to be. I never got the sense anyone was having to hold back because of the low budget. Others may disagree, because I have seen people express the opposite opinion, but I think they’re wrong, so there.

Predestination is the latest reminder that “sci-fi” is not a byword for “action-adventure”. It certainly won’t satisfy the needs of the action-hungry fan (it’s not devoid of the odd punch-up or explosion, but they’re far from the point). For anyone interested in something a bit more intellectual, a bit more thought-provoking, particularly if you like the (potential) complications of time travel, or issues of gender and identity, then Predestination has a lot to offer, even if you guess the twists.

5 out of 5

Predestination placed 5th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

It is available on Sky Movies on demand and Now TV from today. It debuts on Sky Movies Premiere next Friday, February 12th, at 11:30am and 10:20pm.

Purists be aware: existing British releases completely muffed up the aspect ratio (reportedly it’s both open matte and cropped), so there’s every chance Sky’s copy will be similarly afflicted.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #7

They’ve saved the best trip for last…
But this time they may
have gone too far.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 118 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 25th May 1990 (USA)
UK Release: 11th July 1990
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Michael J. Fox (Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, The American President)
Christopher Lloyd (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead)
Mary Steenburgen (Parenthood, Step Brothers)
Thomas F. Wilson (Back to the Future, Born to Be Wild)
Lea Thompson (SpaceCamp, Some Kind of Wonderful)

Director
Robert Zemeckis (Death Becomes Her, The Polar Express)

Screenwriter
Bob Gale (Used Cars, Back to the Future)

The Story
With Doc stuck in 1885, Marty McFly must travel back to save him before he’s killed by Biff Tannen’s ancestor, Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen. With the DeLorean damaged during his arrival in the past, they also have to come up with a plan to get back to their correct time…

Our Heroes
Marty McFly finally grows as a human being as he learns some stuff this time, while Michael J. Fox also gets to ham it up a little as his Irish ancestor, Seamus. Christopher Lloyd, meanwhile, is still the one and only Doc.

Our Villain
It’s Thomas F. Wilson again, this time as Biff’s trigger-happy Wild West ancestor, Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen. Who also gets covered in excrement.

Best Supporting Character
Mary Steenburgen is one of the few wholly original characters in either sequel, the love of Doc’s life, Clara Clayton. She’s also a confident, competent, and capable female character — a character type that’s only now ceasing to be a rarity in effects-y blockbusters, 25 years after this was made.

Memorable Quote
“Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.” — Doc

Memorable Scene
Marty and Doc hijack a train in the hope of using it to get the DeLorean up to the required 88mph. As the looted locomotive heads towards a mighty fall off an unfinished bridge, it turns out Clara is on board too. Tension! Action! Excitement! What more do you want from a climax?

Truly Special Effect
With the DeLorean destroyed, the film ends with a reveal of Doc’s new time machine, and it’s awesome.

Making of
There are tonnes of lines, jokes, characters, locations, and even background details referenced back and forth across the whole trilogy, but only one actual scene appears in all three: the moment Marty travels from 1955 to 1985. It’s the climax to the first film, then appears at the end of Part II, and consequently is in the ‘recap’ at the start of Part III.

Previously on…
Part III indeed: this picks up exactly where the second film left off, and they were shot back-to-back. It’s fundamentally standalone other than that, mind.

Next time…
As mentioned on the first film, Back to the Future has continued in an animated series, theme park ride, video game, and a comic book that started last year. Plus Doc Brown turned up in A Million Ways to Die in the West, so… there’s that…

Awards
2 Saturn Awards (Supporting Actor (Thomas F. Wilson), Music)
4 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Director, Supporting Actress (Mary Steenburgen), Costumes)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
Back To The Future Part II teed off a lot of critics by not being a remake of the first film, and for daring to be a) complicated, b) very fast and c) heartless. Part III, which is slightly less fleet of foot, restores heart interest of the first film and has a satisfying complete storyline.” — Kim Newman, Empire

Score: 74%

What the Public Say
“One of the clearest indications of an excellent series is an ending is so satisfying you can’t even be mad the adventure is over. Part III delivers a happy ending so well-rounded […] there is no yearning for more story. I remember feeling quite content after seeing that movie for the first time; actually more like thrilled that the trilogy ended on such a great note.” — Avril Brown, Comics Waiting Room

Verdict

The consensus used to be that Part III was unquestionably the weakest part of the trilogy, a slightly bizarre Old West-set addendum to the first two. These days, I feel like an increasing number of people say it’s definitely better than Part II. Personally, I’ve always had a particular fondness for it. I’m not entirely sure why. Much like the second film, it can’t attain the perfection of the first movie, but it can be the next best thing — a fun and funny adventure with these great characters. And even as I say “they’re not as good as the first one”, I don’t wholly believe it: to me, Back to the Future never has and never will be just one film, or one film and its two sequels — it’s a trilogy; a three-parter. (So there.)

#8 will be… an alliterative origin.

Back to the Future Part II (1989)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #6

Getting back was only the beginning.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 108 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 22nd November 1989 (USA)
UK Release: 24th November 1989
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Michael J. Fox (Doc Hollywood, The Frighteners)
Christopher Lloyd (Clue, The Pagemaster)
Lea Thompson (Red Dawn, Casual Sex?)
Thomas F. Wilson (Back to the Future, High Strung)
Elisabeth Shue (Adventures in Babysitting, Leaving Las Vegas)

Director
Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Cast Away)

Screenwriter
Bob Gale (1941, Interstate 60: Episodes of the Road)

The Story
Marty and Doc travel forward to 2015 to save Marty’s son from imprisonment, but this allows future-Biff to steal the DeLorean, taking it back to 1955 to allows his younger self to profit from future knowledge. Faced with a nightmare version of 1985, Marty must travel back into the events of the first movie to fix things.

Our Heroes
Michael J. Fox is not only Marty McFly, but older Marty McFly, and his son, Marty McFly Jr., and also… his daughter, Marlene McFly. Just in case you’d forgotten these were comedy movies, I guess. Christopher Lloyd, meanwhile, is the one and only Doc.

Our Villain
It’s Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff again, but this time he’s not just a bully, but someone who — thanks to his meddling in time — represents a threat to Marty’s whole lifestyle. And he’s a right nasty piece of work in the dystopian variant of 1985, too. Still gets covered in excrement, mind.

Best Supporting Character
Spare a thought for Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer. The end of the first film has her getting in the DeLorean with Doc and Marty, because she was there and the ending was never intended to lead to anything (yes, kids, once upon a time movies weren’t made with the assumption there’d be sequels). Come the second film, Zemeckis and Gale were stuck having to integrate her into the story, which they did by… knocking her out early on and leaving her out of it.

Memorable Quote
“The time-traveling is just too dangerous. Better that I devote myself to study the other great mystery of the universe: women!” — Doc

Memorable Scene
30 years in the future, they’re still making crappy Jaws sequels. (The irony now is, in the real 2015 we were still getting often-crappy sequels to pretty much every major ’70s/’80s franchise except for Jaws.)

Technical Wizardry
You’ll believe a board can hover. Well, you probably won’t, but some people did. That’s just testament to how well made the sequence is.

Truly Special Effect
Quite apart from the hoverboard, the sequence where they first arrive in 2015 — a ‘road’ of flying cars in a rainy nighttime sky — is a triumph of model work.

Making of
For various reasons (possibly moral, possibly financial) Crispin Glover refused to return as Marty’s father, George McFly. Instead, the filmmakers used outtakes from the first film, as well as an actor wearing prosthetics made from casts of Glover taken for the first film. Glover objected to his likeness being used without permission, sued, and Universal settled out of court. More than that, it led to a change in contract rules at the Screen Actors Guild to stop the same thing happening again. (See also: The Four Musketeers.)

Previously on…
Not only does Part II pick up exactly where the first film ended, it goes back into its events and interacts with them.

Next time…
Part II ends with a huge cliffhanger, leading directly into the series’ final trilogy-forming instalment.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Visual Effects)
1 BAFTA (Special Effects)
1 Saturn Award (Special Effects)
3 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Costumes, Make-Up)

What the Critics Said
“Like its predecessor, Back to the Future Part II does not merely warp time; it twists it, shakes it and stands it on its ear. But as before, the film’s technical brilliance is the least of its appeals. Satirically acute, intricately structured and deftly paced, it is at heart stout, good and untainted by easy sentiment.” — Richard Schickel, TIME

Score: 63%

What the Public Say
“the biggest prediction the film nails is not any one piece of technology, but our reaction to it: indifference met with annoyance of its imperfections. The movie focuses not on what the technology can do, but on what it can’t. The skyway’s jammed. Marty’s hover board doesn’t work on water. The voice-activated home-entrance lights don’t turn on when Jennifer enters. […] What we get is “the future” as “the present.” None of the doom, destruction and dystopia of Blade Runner or The Time Machine. 2015 Hill Valley and 2015 Chicago are just like 1985 Hill Valley and 1985 Chicago, only with cooler stuff.” — Jack M Silverstein, ReadJack.com

Verdict

There are some who consider Back to the Future an all-time classic and think the two sequels are meritless wastes of space. There are others who see them as a complete trilogy of more-or-less equal quality. Considering that ever since I’ve seen them all three parts have existed, it isn’t much surprise I’m one of the latter. Part II may not have the elegant simplicity of the first film, but it still has plenty of original and exciting ideas, not least using the time travel conceit to go back into the first movie. It may not be as good, but it’s a fine adventure in its own right.

#7 will be… wicky wicky wild wild West.

Ender’s Game (2013)

2015 #146
Gavin Hood | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Adapted from the classic young adult sci-fi novel by Orson Scott “bigoted idiot” Card, Ender’s Game is the story of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), who displays uncommon aptitude in a military programme to train children to fight against an alien race that attacked Earth decades earlier. Sent to a training centre in space, Ender must battle his fellow candidates to prove their worth to their hardened commander, Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), ready for the real battle to come.

Ender’s Game endured a pretty mixed reception a couple of years ago (not helped by the media exposure given to Card’s less-than-savoury personal views), and it’s quite a mixed film: for every positive, a negative follows close behind. It’s not helped by its first act, where the film seems to struggle with its own setup. After that, however, it’s a fairly well structured story, in which you can actually believe Ender is learning to be a better leader. Normally when a movie features “an excellent military strategist” we’re told that and never shown it, but here we see how Ender’s skills as a strategist develop and are exhibited.

The rest of writer-director Gavin Hood’s screenplay is, again, a mixed bag. The dialogue is frequently clunky, particularly struggling with exposition — there are utterly dead scenes where characters just explain the plot to each other — but, while it is at no point strong, it’s often serviceable. There are strong themes, however, several of which have relevance to our modern world. Unfortunately, none feel fully developed or explored. It tips its hat to things like drone warfare, child soldiers, and understanding our enemy, but that’s all it does: acknowledge those parallels exist, then refuse to explore them. Conversely, the music is too heavy-handed, taking on the burden of providing emotion that’s lacking from the screenplay.

Most of the cast are very good. Asa Butterfield well conveys a moderately complex character, though I can believe others’ comments that Ender is more fully developed in the book. Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin offer able support; Harrison Ford proves he’s still awesome; Ben Kingsley battles what turns out to be a New Zealand accent (I’d assumed it was South African) in a cameo-sized turn; Viola Davis is ludicrously underused — she does basically nothing, then walks into Ford’s office and essentially declares, “I am no longer needed by the plot, I quit.”

At least there are solid action/sci-fi thrills on offer. The inter-student practice fights in the Danger Room (or whatever it was called) are really good — suitably exciting and fun, with impressive effects work. There are many good visuals in the film, but then strong CGI is par for the course these days. That’s why the space station stuff is best: the alien race and their planet are well-realised but also feel like nothing new; and the space station’s corridors, offices, and bunk room sets are well done, though as derived from familiar real-life and/or near-future styles as much as many other SF movies; but the station’s giant glass-walled zero-G training arena is stunning.

Sadly, after all that training fun, once the cadets jet off to the other side of the galaxy for a rushed third act, interest evaporates speedily. It even has to work hard to sell its own twist as a twist! (Spoilers follow in this paragraph.) In a simulation for a war, Ender does what he’d do to win that war. Then he’s told it wasn’t a simulation, it was the actual war… and he’s all cross. I mean, okay, the fella kinda has a point when he gets angry afterwards: they’ve lied to him, and maybe he would’ve behaved differently if he’d known. But the point of the training was to teach them what they needed to do to win, and it taught them that, and he did it. Maybe this twist works in the book, but in the film it felt somehow unearned.

Ender’s Game is not all it could be, but as a straightforward young-adult sci-fi action-adventure, I really rather enjoyed the majority of it.

4 out of 5

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

2015 #142
George Miller | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

After a decades-long diversion into children’s movies like Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet, director George Miller here returns to the post-apocalyptic action series that made his name, and in the process managed to create a blockbuster that was not only critically acclaimed and well-received by audiences, but looks set to be a major award season contender too.

The story sees future drifter and sometime-hero Max (now played by Tom Hardy) arrive in a town ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who keeps the populace in check by controlling the flow of water. He’s also created a heavily caste society, including suicidal warriors like Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and his Five Wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Courtney Eaton), who he keeps locked away for breeding purposes. During a routine run for oil, Joe’s best driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), veers off course, and it’s soon discovered it’s a bid for freedom with the wives. Joe and his amassed forces give chase. For the rest of the film.

You can certainly watch Fury Road as just a two-hour chase and (presuming you like action antics) get something out of it. The volume of action, the style with which it’s executed, and the impressive audacity of the stuntwork, all mean the film functions on a purely visceral level. That said, the action sequences are almost more incredible for how they were achieved than for how they’re presented in the finished film. The end product is perhaps a little too frenetic, the CG boosts a little too heavy-handed — all the talk of “doing it all for real” may be more or less true, but it feels like an awful lot of that ‘reality’ has been augmented with wire/rig removal and the compositing of multiple practically-performed stunts into single shots. The end result is unquestionably better than empty pure-CGI mayhem, but the awe-inspiring impressiveness of the stunt performers’ work is better conveyed in the special features than the film itself.

I say that, but the finished film is visually stunning on two levels: cinematography and editing. It was shot by John Seale, and Miller had him amp up the saturation. The point was to do the opposite of most post-apocalyptic blockbusters, which are normally desaturated to heck, and it indeed creates something strikingly different. Conversely, Miller has intimated the ideal version of the movie is in black and white with no dialogue, just the score — completely visually-focused storytelling. I have a feeling he’s right, or that it would at least work well. Some nuance would be lost, but all the major plot points and character arcs would be followable.

This is in part thanks to Margaret Sixel’s editing. Chosen precisely because she’d never edited action before, Sixel brings classical touches to the work — like eye trace and crosshair framing — that keep the film exceptionally followable even in the midst of some fast cutting. The one poor choice, in my opinion, is the occasional use of a ‘step’-y effect, which just makes it look like you’re streaming on a not-quite-fast-enough connection or watching a badly-encoded pirate downloaded. I thought it might’ve been a badly produced Blu-ray at first, but apparently it was like this in cinemas too.

For those after more than just action and visuals, the film does have something to offer — despite what you might’ve heard. I think some more dismissive viewers miss it because, a) you don’t expect it, and b) it’s achieved so economically. The characters, relationships, and situations are quickly sketched in, be it through well-placed snatches of dialogue or with purely visual storytelling, but all are deftly executed. That it doesn’t expound on these at length, or linger on their detail, means you have to pay attention to get the most out of that side of the film. I guess some would counter that with, “you have to look hard because you’re reading something that isn’t there,” but I refute that. That it doesn’t spell everything out at length, or hammer home its points and themes heavy-handedly, is a good thing.

Relatedly, the Mad Max series has always been concerned with legend and mythology, both its own and the classical ideas of such. The latter informs the general style and shape of the narratives: these are legends of heroism, perhaps passed down orally from one teller to the next, emphasising the scale of the derring-do. This endures even though Max is, in some respects, the supporting lead in his own film (it even uses the old Towering Inferno left-low/right-high billing at the start for Hardy and Theron). As for the series’ own mythology, that’s well continued here, with significant additions to Max’s storied array of characters and situations: Immortan Joe, Imperator Furiosa, the Five Wives, the War Boys…

With all that considered, that Fury Road is only the second best film in the Mad Max series is merely testament to the enduring excellence of the first sequel. However, there’s possibly an element of expectation in this opinion: I expected basically nothing of Mad Max 2, particularly after I had mixed feelings about the first film (even though the sequel’s fame and acclaim is greater). Fury Road, on the other hand, has been relentlessly hyped by critics and viewers alike ever since it came out — a very different starting perspective. How much effect did this have? Impossible to say. A true comparison would necessitate watching them back-to-back in a few months, or even years, divorced of that initial build-up. Even then I’d be carrying in my memories of my initial viewings. Point being: it’s impossible to be entirely objective; to divorce a film (or films) from some kind of personal context. (Ooh, that turned a bit philosophical, didn’t it?)

Whatever. There can be no doubt that Fury Road is an exceptional achievement in visuals-driven action-adventure moviemaking, which merits its inclusion in discussions of 2015’s finest works of cinema.

5 out of 5

For my review of the “Black & Chrome” version of Fury Road, look here.

Mad Max: Fury Road placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)

aka: just Tomorrowland

2015 #187
Brad Bird | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.20:1 | USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG

TomorrowlandAfter making his live-action directorial debut with the unlikely sidestep of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Pixar alumni Brad Bird heads back in a familiar family-friendly direction for this Disney sci-fi action-adventure. One of several movies lambasted by critics this past summer, I actually thought it was a lot of fun.

The story concerns a future city created by scientists and dreamers; a place of wonder and innovation not constrained by the short-term goals of politicians or moneymen. Boy inventor Frank is delighted to be invited along there by recruiter Athena (Raffey Cassidy); years later, teenager Casey (Britt Robertson) receives similar treatment… only it turns out something is wrong, and Casey and Athena must track down a grizzled and disillusioned Frank (George Clooney) so they can head back to Tomorrowland and convince its leader (Hugh Laurie) of the way to make things right.

Something along those lines, anyway, because Tomorrowland’s storytelling can get a little muddled. It doesn’t quite conform to your usual action-adventure narrative shape — we spend quite a long time with boy-Frank, before the story essentially restarts with Casey, and eventually those two threads join up. The thing this makes me wonder is, is the storytelling actually muddled (this is not an uncommon criticism of the film), or does it just take an atypical shape, with the consequent lack of comforting familiarity making us think it’s poorly done? A counterargument might be that it helps foster some of the film’s mysteries, which might be reveals without setup if you restructured. I think if you just go along with it, the only real bump is in that restart; otherwise, it’s a pretty smooth action-adventure.

And that’s why I don’t really understand the negative response to it. Sure, the plot may have the odd hole, but there are worse in better-regarded movies; Raffey Cassidy, a findand there’s a moral lesson that’s arguably a little heavy-handed, but as it’s a moral lesson some people aren’t bloody listening to, I can’t say I blame Bird for that. The characters and performances are likeable, with Raffey Cassidy standing out as a marvellous young find, though Laurie is a little undersold. There are some suitably entertaining action scenes, some moments of visual splendour thanks to the future city, and one long take that is exquisite. I know I’m a sucker for a long take, but this is a really exceptional one, that deserves to be mentioned alongside the year’s more-praised unbroken shot, the opening of Spectre.

It’s such a shame when original blockbusters like this get pissed all over by critics and an audience who are sometimes too keen to re-parrot critics’ opinions as if they’re their own (see also the Stateside response to Lone Ranger vs. how the rest of us received it). I’m not arguing movies should get a free pass just because they’re not adapted from something else, but really, when decent adventures like this get slated and consequently flop, what incentive do the studios have to try something new, when they know producing fifth Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean instalments will make shedloads whatever the reviews say?

For anyone who enjoys a good sci-fi action-adventure movie, I urge you to ignore the critics and give Tomorrowland a go. It’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s a fun time with more than a few points to commend it.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.