back-to-the-future-

It’s hard to believe that Back To The Future, the entertaining and much-loved time travel movie by Robert Zemeckis, will be 30 years old next year. Endlessly quotable, with a number of memorable scenes and characters, it’s a movie that retains its youthful charm today and seems fresh and enjoyable no matter how many times you watch it. The most financially-successful release of 1985, it spawned two very successful sequels and made an international star out of its lead actor, Michael J. Fox. It’s little wonder that many cinemagoers consider this energetic, smart and fun movie to be one of the best of the 1980s.

My most recent viewing of Back To The Future was a little different, but I’ll explain why later. For the uninitiated – and it’s hard to believe it but there will be some fans of cinema out there that have never watched it – the story takes place in the small town of Hill Valley, California (‘A nice place to live’, town council signs proudly proclaim), and follows the exploits of Marty McFly (Fox), a fairly typical mid-1980s teenager; he plays guitar, zips around the town on a skateboard, has fallen in love for the first time with fellow student Jennifer (Claudia Wells) and lives with his slobby family, including heavy-drinking mum Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and wimpy father George (Crispin Glover), who is bullied by his supervisor Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). Oh, and he’s also friends with the neighbourhood mad scientist Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown (Christopher Lloyd), an inventor who just happens to have turned a DeLorean car into a plutonium-powered time machine.

After Doc accidentally double crosses some Libyan terrorists during a plutonium deal, both he and Marty are attacked by angry gunmen, but Marty escapes with his life by using the car to head back in time to Hill Valley in 1955. Unable to return to 1985, he must seek out the younger Doc’s help while ensuring that the teenage versions of his mother and father get together at the local high school’s ‘Enchantment Under The Sea’ dance; if he fails the future will be re-written, and Marty and his two siblings will cease to exist. However things do not proceed smoothly: the teenage bully Biff and his gang are intent on making George and Marty’s lives hell, and harnessing enough power to send Marty and the car back to 1985 in time to save Doc Brown isn’t exactly easy. On top of that, and perhaps most worryingly of all, Marty’s mother takes an instant shine to her future son.

* There are plenty of videos like this one on YouTube, if you want to see examples.

This viewing of Back To The Future was my first time attending Secret Cinema, an organisation that has grown rapidly since its inception less than ten years ago and which now provides immersive outdoor and indoor cinema experiences on a huge scale in the UK. In its early years Secret Cinema patrons were given a message to meet at a certain time and place and would simply watch films in unusual environments. As the productions have grown larger, actors have been employed to fit in with the films shown and large sets and events have been built for screenings of movies like Ghostbusters, The Warriors, Bugsy Malone, Alien, Blade Runner, Lawrence Of Arabia and The Shawshank Redemption. The aim of Secret Cinema is to give attendees a movie experience unlike any other, where the venue and hired extras bring the chosen picture alive. It may not be for everyone but there’s little doubt that there’s a lot of creativity and work behind it*.

The production of Back To The Future – which ended on 31 August – was Secret Cinema’s biggest show to date; they sold over 80,000 tickets across several weekends, which is certainly impressive even though it renders the word ‘secret’ somewhat redundant. The show was plagued with bad press at the beginning of the run as the organisation had to cancel the first few nights and gave short notice, leaving angry ticket holders in the dark until just before the screenings were due to take place (and that’s not the first time this has happened: licensing issues forced the cancellation of a screening of Brazil last year, too). Some had travelled at great expense to London and many fans and journalists suggested that the team behind Secret Cinema had overstretched itself this time. Luckily my wife and I had tickets for a screening later in the summer, and everything ran smoothly on our allotted night. Secret Cinema built a huge mock-up of Hill Valley circa 1955 in London’s Olympic Park, with the town hall, clocktower, square and dozens of shops that feature in the movie, as well as a cinema, diner, houses, cars and the Hill Valley High School, venue for the Enchantment Under The Sea dance. There were hundreds of actors working on this giant set, all in 1950s costume (as was the crowd), and as the movie played (projected onto the exterior of the town hall) several key scenes – the attack by the Libyans, the skateboard chase around the square, the electrical storm, and so on – were acted out live in time with the on-screen action. It was a great experience and rumour has it the show will move to LA for a similar run in 2015.

The film itself is, of course, very highly regarded … and rightly so. The original idea for the story came from co-writer Bob Gale, who found his father’s high school yearbook at home in St. Louis, Missouri, and wondered whether the two would have been friends had they attended school at the same time. He told Zemeckis about the concept and the pair landed a development deal for a script in 1980 after talks with Columbia Pictures. The first draft was written in 1981, but Columbia and every other major studio rejected Back To The Future at one time or another during the next four years, with many suggesting that the script was too tame when compared to the popular and provocative Porky’s films, or the racier Fast Times At Ridgemont High. In order to get the film made Zemeckis though about bringing Steven Spielberg on board as executive producer, as he had already produced two of Zemeckis’s earlier movies (I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars). While both of these had received good reviews, they had made little money, and Spielberg at the time was wary that another flop as producer would harm his career considerably. Additionally, Zemeckis didn’t want the industry to think of him as someone who could only get work because of his friendship with Spielberg, and so he decided to make Romancing The Stone instead, which was a commercial success when released in 1984. With his reputation growing, the director eventually approached Spielberg about Back To The Future, and Universal subsequently set up the project.

* D’oh!

The movie endured a troublesome production, particularly in the early stages. Fox was the first choice to play Marty McFly, but unfortunately he had a commitment to the popular TV comedy Family Ties, and Eric Stoltz was cast in the role after Ralph Macchio turned it down*. After four weeks of filming, however, Zemeckis decided it wasn’t working out and that Stoltz’s performance was too serious, so with a touch of schedule-juggling Fox found himself playing McFly and Zemeckis re-shot the already-completed scenes, adding a further $3 million to the budget. On weekdays Fox would work on the Family Ties set all day before concentrating on Back To The Future between 6.30pm and 2am, surviving on five hours of sleep a night. The crew would also work throughout the night on Fridays to accommodate Fox before the actor filmed his daytime scenes during weekends. Considering the workload, and the lack of sleep, Fox’s effervescent, charismatic performance is extremely impressive.

* Interestingly, Jeff Goldblum was also considered for the role. All three actors had appeared together in The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, which shared a producer with Back To The Future, and also featured the ‘flux capacitor’ device that enables time travel in the DeLorean.

Christopher Lloyd was cast as Doc Brown after the first choice, John Lithgow, became unavailable*. Crispin Glover was given the role of George, although he improvised constantly throughout the shoot and had to be reined in by Zemeckis on a number of occasions; due to a contract dispute Glover didn’t appear in the sequels and the role was re-cast. Melora Hardin was cast as Jennifer but when Stoltz left the project she was deemed to be too tall to play opposite Fox, and Wells replaced her before she had even shot a scene. Lea Thompson had secured her part thanks to her chemistry with Stoltz in The Wild Life, but she had impressed enough to be kept on after the switch of lead actors. Eventually Wilson was cast as Biff – an excellent villain – narrowly beating Tim Robbins to the role because he was more physically imposing.

It is one of the most energetic ensemble performances of the 1980s. The diminutive, nimble Fox and the wired, manic Lloyd may be the focal points – and it is difficult to take your eyes off either of them – but they enjoy a great rapport with the supporting cast as well as each other. Though Lloyd, Glover and Wilson play exaggerated, outlandish characters, each does so with an infectious conviction, and not one of them wastes a single moment on screen. Even the characters with few lines – James Tolkan’s Principal Strickland, Donald Fullilove’s wannabe politican Goldie Wilson – make the most of their time in front of the cameras. Credit must go to Zemeckis for ensuring that this odd collection of performances fits together well.

After filming wrapped the studio decided to delay the release until the autumn of 1985, but a rapturous audience response at a test screening caused an about-turn, and the release date was brought forward to the middle of summer. Two editors were employed to get the picture ready, cutting around eight minutes of material, but Zemeckis restored the ‘Johnny B. Goode’ scene at the high school dance after making an early decision to remove it himself. Eventually the film opened in around 1,200 cinemas, and though many studio insiders feared Back To The Future would bomb (partly due to Fox’s inability to promote the film due to further Family Ties work), it was a critical and commercial success, spending close to three months at the top of the box office charts.

The movie is filled with great lines (‘Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads’) and playful jokes about the 1980s (‘Tell me, Future Boy, who’s president of the United States in 1985?’ the Doc asks Marty. ‘Ronald Reagan? The actor? [rolls his eyes] Ha! Then who’s vice-president, Jerry Lewis?’). There’s also an underlying daftness throughout that is utterly infectious, such as the fact the older and younger versions of Doc Brown and Mr Strickland are identical in appearance. It is one of the smarter comic films of the period, and wisely Gale and Zemeckis avoided getting bogged down in the logistics of time travel, instead focusing on the fish-out-of-water element of the story.

Back To The Future is superbly-paced, driven along by Fox’s charming, zippy performance, and his Marty is a hero you truly root for from the first scene to the last. The period detail may be a little obvious at times, but it probably made the movie more accessible to an international audience; the Hill Valley of 1955 was instantly recognizable and appealing to anyone that had seen the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life, and it was a smart move by Zemeckis to create a Capra-esque feel throughout. It also has a great soundtrack of 1950s hits, coupled with the hit Huey Lewis And The News title track The Power Of Love, and Alan Silvestri’s bombastic score, which suits the material perfectly. In fact it’s hard to identify many faults with the movie: even the special effects and stunts still look good today, and the cliffhanger at the end works well.

Despite its focus on 1955, Back To The Future sums up the cinema of the mid-1980s in the space of its 116 minutes: it is a riot of action, comedy, sci-fi, action and romance, as appealing to kids as it is to adults. As fun, entertaining cinematic experiences go, this is right up there with the very best, and its universal appeal is deserved.

The Basics:
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells
Certificate: PG
Running Time: 116 minutes
Year: 1985
Rating: 9.4

spring-breakers-trailer-1

This latest work by Harmony Korine – more a ‘cinquantaine excentrique’ these days than the enfant terrible of yore – is a hyper-lysergic and pulpy exploitation / study of American college kid ‘spring break’ hedonism and the way it fits in with the ongoing oversexualisation of women and glamourisation of drugs, guns and violence in pop culture. High saturation levels, gold-toothed gangsters, bikini-clad women and leery close-ups of their jiggling backsides make for an eye-popping experience that certainly demands one’s attention, although the statement the director is making is at times unclear: this is an examination of the American Dream as it currently stands that repeatedly invites the viewer to condemn its shallow characters for their lack of morality and lack of remorse, yet Korine seems to enjoy wallowing in the debauched, spoilt, gaudy world depicted – much like Sofia Coppola did with her recent study of disaffected, spoilt LA teens, The Bling Ring – and is ultimately lenient towards most his movie’s numerous antiheroes.

Fnarr-fnarring about wobbly bums aside, Spring Breakers really is a joy to look at, even when Korine whiles away the minutes lampooning the promo videos for asinine Britney Spears ballads and the tackier end of the hip hop spectrum. The director and his Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie use an intense colour palette that accentuates the Miami Vice and Scarface sunsets of Florida and the nighttime glow of the state’s neon-lit strip malls, which serve as the backdrop for masses of tanned flesh and bright clothing. The director has, bizarrely, looked to the 1990s devolution of MTV from straight-up music video channel to purveyor of dumb, tawdry TV shows like Cribs for inspiration, copying the network’s depressing coverage of spring break beach PAs and parties and coupling it with a straightforward plot about criminal behaviour that covers a beef over territory between two rival gangsters. By the end the film effectively channels the Grand Theft Auto series of videogames, with a shootout that could easily be lifted straight from the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City episode.

Spring Breakers relies to some extent on a degree of knowledge of typical spring break practices; for the uninitiated that means college students descending on towns in Arizona, Texas, Florida and Mexico en masse for a week of drink-and-drug-fuelled mayhem in the sun each March. For most students in real life that probably means a few keg parties, a spot of casual sex, an extreme hangover or five, a bit of weed and a few class As, but a robbery-fuelled trip to St. Petersburg for disillusioned, bored girlfriends Brittany (Ashley Benson), Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife) turns out to be far more eventful when they hook up with James Franco’s outlandish rapper Alien.

Initially the foursome are happy indulging in the dubious pleasures on offer in Florida, be it the company of drunken, date-rapey jocks or the endless supply of booze and drugs available at the beach or in hotel rooms. Faith – the aptly-named religious member of the group – is so taken with her holiday she tells her grandma on the phone that it’s the most spiritual place she’s ever been, while Korine wryly shows her friends and other college kids urinating at the side of a street. Colourful scenes of parties and PAs are edited in a stuttering fashion, the director cutting back and forth in time and looping in repeated, softly-spoken phrases to simultaneously suggest the sense of disorientation that comes with being drunk as well as the different hyper-sensitive states associated with ecstasy, weed and coke. All the while there’s a flow of the vaguely-titillating, suggestive and demeaning ‘flesh, flesh and more flesh’ imagery closely associated with post-millennial pop videos and certain cheapo reality shows; every now and again, just when the onslaught of bouncing breasts, bums and beer funnels is beginning to seem utterly ludicrous, Korine smartly cuts to seemingly real footage of spring breakers doing the exact same things to remind us that his film is, incredibly, rooted in reality.

Though directed with real style and verve by Korine, the movie is both relentless and exhausting up to the point that the four girls are busted for drug use. The reliance on repetition has begun to betray the story’s lack of direction when the friends spend a night in the cells, but they are bailed out by Alien, a man they don’t actually know and whose benevolence clearly isn’t unconditional. The appearance of Franco’s outlandish character gives the film a much-needed jolt; seduced by Alien’s ill-gotten gains – guns and money on the bed, grand piano by the pool – they girls are quickly drawn into his world and begin robbing other spring breakers, while the rapper-come-dealer’s turf war with former friend Big Arch (Gucci Mane) escalates.

* It is in this scene that Spring Breakers most closely resembles – and satirises – the tasteless bragathons of MTV’s Cribs. Alien’s actions actually echo those seen earlier in the film, though, when spring breakers are shown jumping up and down on mattresses during hotel parties like hyperactive children. Incidentally, it has been suggested that Franco’s performance is partly-based on the real life rapper Riff-Raff, who Korine initially approached to be in the film, although Franco has claimed that little-known Florida rapper Dangeruss was his inspiration.

Franco is very good here, and though a campaign pushing for his performance to be recognised by the Shiny Gong-bestowing Academy was ultimately fruitless, he gives the film a few welcome subtle moments. On the face of it the character is a ludicrously over-the-top rapper and gangster, prone to jumping up and down on his bed shouting ‘LOOK AT MY SHIT!’ as he shows off his possessions*, but he also displays a slightly-sensitive side at times, with the actor benefiting from the fact that Alien has the most developed back story in the film. (It’s disappointing to note that of the four main female roles only Faith is really developed in terms of her personality and history, although I suspect that is a deliberate ploy by Korine in order to accentuate the shallowness of the girls generally, but particularly with regard to Candy and Brit. Nevertheless, despite the lack of depth all four inject considerable energy into an already-energetic film, as does Franco, which I guess is the point.)

Korine’s casting of Gomez, Benson, Rachel Korine and Hudgens is interesting; all four of their characters seem to draw inspiration in a number of ways from the pop personas of Miley Cyrus, Christina Aguilera and – most obviously of all – Britney Spears (given away by an impromptu sing-along of ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ in a car park, which juxtaposes with the subsequent descriptions given by two of the characters of an armed robbery). The stars they look to have all progressed from backgrounds in children’s entertainment before being rapidly sexualized by stylists and record company bosses (to give the impression that they have suddenly transformed from innocent teenage girls to rampant, ultra-confident, ultra-daring sex kittens overnight), and you could argue that the way Brit, Candy, Cotty and Faith look and act is symptomatic of the pressure American girls are put under by popular culture to be just as alluring as the acts on MTV. There is an added layer to all of this in that Gomez (on / off girlfriend of Justin Bieber and star of several Disney-related films and TV shows) and Hudgens (ex-High School Musical) are, with their appearances in a film like this, effectively on a very similar career path, making the calculated leap from child star to sex bomb.

There is a flavour of the director as puppet master, or impresario, here, but I am not entirely sure whether he is exploiting these actors or whether he is using them necessarily to highlight the existing exploitation that is pushed by MTV and countless record companies. I strongly suspect the latter, though whether the cast and crew were fully aware of Korine’s motives is anyone’s guess. His choice is to expose the (generally-speaking) male-pleasing tendencies of music videos by using the very same methods they employ, but there’s an odd sense throughout the film and in the DVD extras that he also had the time of his life making Spring Breakers; indeed Korine has even commented wistfully that he never got to experience a real spring break holiday like this himself.

Ultimately while it seems like an arch, vaguely-pretentious skit about the decline of Western (or rather American) civilization, hidden beneath the thin veneer of a pulp crime / exploitation flick, it’s actually hard to discern much in the way of genuine, honest concern for the future. Instead Korine seems to me to be a filmmaker who thinks he should be making movies about such a subject. Does he truly want to, and does he have anything interesting to say? Looking past the film’s celebrated tackiness, and its stylish, impressively-throbbing colours, it’s hard to find much depth, although I guess that is the point (and yet, oddly, there are fleeting glimpses of an emotional core). That all said, though it’s as far away from being a conservative movie as you’re likely to see, religion and family life (particularly older relatives) appear in the script from time to time, distant from the action but serving as timely reminders about traditions and values that will soon be lost.

In a flashforward Candy and Brit are seen phoning home after the events of the story have taken place to nonchalantly tell their parents that they will work hard to become better people from now on, which makes for a spectacular turnaround to what has gone before. Is it an empty promise or is Korine suggesting that he is hopeful for the future of American youth after all? Fittingly, like much of this fascinating movie, it’s hard to tell from such an ambiguously-delivered statement.

The Basics:
Directed by: Harmony Korine
Written by: Harmony Korine
Starring: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, James Franco, Rachel Korine, Gucci Mane
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 90 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 7.1

Snowpiercer-Train-Car-Battle

Sometimes the distribution decisions made by studios are utterly baffling. Take Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s English language debut Snowpiercer for example, which has been available online for nefarious downloaders to watch for quite some time having been released in South Korea and selected other countries about a year ago. Since it first appeared, Snowpiercer has endured fragmented, stuttering distribution elsewhere (particularly with regard to the USA and the UK), meaning that impressive reviews have stacked up and word of mouth recommendations have spread but few people in those areas have actually been able to watch it, legally, on the big screen.

Despite this the movie has already made twice as much as it cost, breaking South Korean box office records last year, but it would surely have been one of the financial successes of 2013 or 2014 had it enjoyed a wider, less-disjointed release and a decent promotional campaign. As widely reported elsewhere, the Weinstein Company secured the North American distribution rights for Snowpiercer a couple of years ago, but Harvey Weinstein fell out with the director after Bong refused to cut his film by twenty minutes or add a prologue and epilogue. Though it was released in the US earlier this summer in its original, intended director’s cut, Weinstein responded by ensuring the movie received a limited art-house release. Thanks largely to those positive reviews it has since been upgraded and has appeared in around 150 American theatres, but that’s still a relatively low number, and it is a shame.

So is all the fuss justified? Well, there’s no denying that this is a taut slice of moody, post-apocalyptic sci-fi, offering a crowd-pleasing number of thrills n’ spills and containing an impressive production design. Set 17 years after a 2014 experiment to halt global warming goes horribly wrong and plunges Earth into a new ice age, a few hundred remaining human survivors reside in a temperature-controlled perpetual motion super-train that continuously circumnavigates the globe at high speed. At the back end of the vehicle are the oppressed have-nots, existing on a diet of protein bars and not much else, while at the front an upper class frolics in relative comfort with easy access to fine food, drugs and leisure amenities. All that separates the two groups is a couple of coaches of axe- and gun-wielding fascist military henchman, put in place to ensure the status quo through brute force, but that doesn’t deter Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) from leading a revolution in order to restore a sense of equality to this unbalanced, delicate society.

* An impressive international cast of characters portrayed by Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung and Ewen Bremner, among others. There are no standout performances as such from this bunch – all of them do well with straightforward ‘by the book’ supporting roles – but Hurt certainly lends considerable gravitas to proceedings.

Though deftly executed and at times beautifully-realised, Snowpiercer‘s plot is extremely simple (perhaps too simple), the framework recalling left-to-right side-scrolling video games of yore. As Curtis and his rag-tag team of helpers* battle their way through the train each carriage effectively acts as a ‘level’, often replete with an end-of-level ‘boss': Tilda Swinton’s self-serving Minister Mason, Vlad Ivanov’s seemingly-unkillable henchman Franco, Alison Pill as a gun-toting schoolteacher, etc. etc. Bong even goes as far as filming these superbly-choreographed fights side on at times, a move which recalls classic beat-em-ups like Double Dragon; it’s almost certainly a nod to fellow countryman Park Chan-wook, a producer here, who used the same technique in Oldboy.

* All of which beats my daily commuter train, which is the temporary home for around 400 accountants called Martin and not much else. Not once is Curtis subjected to a jumped-up ticket inspector, either, which seems like a bit of a cop-out to me, and the train doesn’t even get delayed when there are massive snowdrifts on the track. Completely unrealistic!

Naturally at the end of the train there’s a final ‘big’ boss lying in wait for Curtis once he has made it through the various aquarium, nightclub and sauna carriages*. Here it’s the vehicle’s designer and driver, a god-like overseer named Wilford (played by Ed Harris, who pretty much re-hashes his earlier turn from Peter Weir’s excellent The Truman Show). Curtis learns about the train’s ecosystem and Wilford explains his reasons for establishing a lower and upper class, but several more surprises lie in wait too that will alter the future of humanity.

While the concept – originally seen in Le Transpierceneige, a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette – is unusual, the themes addressed in the movie are all too familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in this genre. There’s a touch of Soylent Green here, a dash of Logan’s Run there, and you can easily detect basic ideas long-flogged to death by Mad MaxTotal Recall, District 9The Hunger Games, In Time, Gattaca and Elysium, among others. All of these movies have also concerned themselves with a separation between the haves and the have-nots, and nine times out of ten the main protagonist comes from the oppressed masses, but the biggest inspiration for Bong is clearly Terry Gilliam’s dark and manic Brazil (a fact that is surely confirmed by the naming of Hurt’s wizened father figure as ‘Gilliam’).

Despite the long history of class war in sci-fi, and some pretty distinctive envisioning of the future in those movies listed above, the Korean director manages to impose his own distinct visual style on proceedings here. Slow-mo is used well and the fights are choreographed splendidly, although Bong is a director that could surely have made something even weirder if his segment in Tokyo! is anything to go by. That said, and without wishing to spoil too much, there are some delightfully odd moments here, such as a bizarre scene that brings to mind the famous World War I Christmas truce. Additionally, the way that Bong contrasts light and dark areas of the train is impressive, as well as being necessary; in one memorable scene Curtis and his crew are dazzled when they see the outside world – covered in snow, of course – for the first time in 17 years, and in another vicious battle sequence the lights are switched off while the train goes through a long tunnel, with intermittent shafts of light illuminating the bloodshed. Snowpiercer is often a joy to look at, with more and more detail apparent when the action moves to the upper class carriages, and plenty of impressive realisations of the frosty exterior.

As always with science fiction some questions arise when the plot is examined for holes. Considerable suspension of disbelief is required, for example, as more and more of the train is revealed. Where is the accommodation, exactly? We see one or two sleeper carriages in the posh parts, but certainly not enough to house the number of passengers seen in these areas. Where is the food for the rich? Where do they bathe? And so on. Such carriages may of course exist despite not being shown on screen, but as the film wears on the internal logic does not stand up to close scrutiny, and begins to fall apart long before Curtis makes it to the locomotive. The flipside of this, though, is that this Beckettian movie closely resembles a nightmare, where certain unimportant details are ignored so that focus remains on those that are key.

Evans is fine as the stoic, principled, square-jawed hero: your typically-determined muscular leader on a seemingly-impossible quest. He anchors the film while a series of supporting performances threaten to steal the limelight away from him. Bremner’s tortured Andrew is a wild-eyed, raving madman in search of revenge after he is subjected to inhumane torturing, Song shines as the drug-addicted designer of the train who sees the futility of it all, while Pill chews on the scenery as a kind of 1950s Stepford Schoolmarm. Most memorable of all is Swinton’s incredible Mason, a despicably-cruel politician who patronizes the lower class at the back of the train and favours self-preservation above anything else. Swinton plays the character like a Lancastrian Margaret Thatcher, bluntly and arrogantly dismissing those she considers to be beneath her while simultaneously sounding like she has just stepped off the set of long-running British working class soap opera Coronation Street. It’s as admirable as it is bizarre, and she must have had fun with such a caricature.

Such performances – and some impressive special effects – help Snowpiercer to stand out from the crowd. There are a couple of issues with regard to the story that nag away at the viewer, but rare is the sci-fi that manages to pass by unquestioned, and I found it possible – just about – to enjoy this ambitious film despite a few misgivings. Snowpiercer‘s premise is an interesting one and the action is exciting for the best part of its first two acts before (arf) running out of steam in the final third, so it’s easy to overlook the problems in order to (double arf) go along for the ride. Bong provides the big-budget thrills in an assured, confident way, particularly via the strong fight sequences and the shots of crumbling, ice-ravaged cities, and he also manages to create a kind of hazy, dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality as the curtains are slowly drawn back to reveal the opulence of the powerful upper class. Not a masterpiece, by any means, but enjoyable and worth seeing when or if you finally get a chance to do so.

The Basics:
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Written by: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson, Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Jean-Marc Rochette
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Ewan Bremner, Alison Pill
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 126 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 7.3

the-adventures-of-buckaroo-banzai-across-the-8th-dimension

This review first appeared over on Tyson Carter’s highly enjoyable blog Head In A Vice as part of his ‘Recommended By’ blogathon, in which bloggers review films recommended to them by other bloggers. Got that Champ? OK …

For the ‘Recommended By’ blogathon I’ve plumped for (deep breath) The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, which was recommended to me a few months ago by Todd over at the Cinema Monolith, who – and I may be paraphrasing slightly here – assured me that it made Citizen Kane look like Battlefield Earth. Or was it the other way around? Anyway. if I remember rightly Todd wrote that he first saw Buckaroo Banzai on Betamax in the early 1980s, and though it tanked on its release at the cinema, he has long been part of the sizeable group of people that has subsequently elevated the movie’s status to that of stone cold quotable cult classic. It has been sitting in my Netflix watchlist for a while now, so this seemed like a good opportunity to finally give it a whirl.

First, though, a quick word about Todd’s site. If you don’t follow it already I highly recommend a visit, as you’re guaranteed to learn about all sorts of films you never knew existed (in fact I have my suspicions as to whether some of them actually do exist, and that the screenshots and posters are just elaborately-staged constructions, but that’s irrelevant right now). Among the occasional reviews of recent films or celebrated classics there are great write-ups of a variety of works from the margins of cinematic history: low budget 1950s and 1960s sci-fi and horror, film noir, terrible 1980s high school comedies and thrillers that have even been forgotten about by the people who made them. Despite the fact this means a steady stream of 1/10 ratings the Cinema Monolith is always a good read, and yes, I have been paid in unwanted Hammer Horror box sets to say that.

So, to Buckaroo Banzai. Famous fans include Kevin Smith, who has extolled the film’s virtues, and Wes Anderson, who incorporated quite a few nods to W.D. Richter’s oddball sci-fi fantasy into The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. If you care to look closely enough you’ll also see references in the Back To The Future trilogy, Star Trek, Men In Black and even David Fincher’s Fight Club.

Buckaroo Banzai didn’t play for very long in cinemas, as Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom were all released around the same time, and between them they snaffled up most of the available screens. It also appeared during the 1984 summer Olympic Games, when most right-thinking people around the world were transfixed by Daley Thompson’s performance in the decathlon, and there wasn’t much in the way of promotion, either. A bunch of mixed reviews didn’t help matters – although some were very positive by all accounts – but perhaps most importantly there was a lack of star power; against the wishes of studio 20th Century Fox, Richter and producer Neil Canton wanted an unknown actor to play intrepid traveller Banzai, and Peter Weller – who eventually secured the role – was not widely known at the time. Still, after bombing at the box office, Richter’s film found a more appreciative home on VHS and the aforementioned Betamax, allowing fans to pore over the detailed sets, in-jokes, spoofs and references to other movies, TV shows and adverts of the day (which, I must admit, largely went over my head unless glaringly obvious).

Perhaps the biggest obstacle between Buckaroo Banzai and the huge, wallowing mainstream mass of cinemagoers that apparently exists out there somewhere is that the movie requires an immediate leap of faith on the part of the viewer, and this probably accounts for the fact that it still attracts more than its fair share of ‘love it or hate it’ reactions from first-timers today. In the first minute you are dropped into the middle of a fairly odd (and slightly confusing) scenario, and any enjoyment thereafter depends on whether you’re the kind of person that is able to happily relax and go along for the ride or the kind of person that gets frustrated and gives up if you can’t make sense of a movie’s freewheeling logic. And this really does freewheel.

Weller’s Banzai is a straight-faced all-American (though supposedly half-Japanese) hero, and also a kind of celebrity polymath: his various jobs include rock star, comic book hero, particle physicist, neurosurgeon and racing car driver, and he seems to move from one occupation to another at whim. He is joined in this bizarre range of practices by The Hong Kong Cavaliers, a group of friends and co-workers who also make up his backing band, and support during the film’s events is also provided by a legion of fans, who are themselves split into a number of amusingly-titled factions (my personal favourite being a group of combat experts called ‘The Rug Suckers’). Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch never explain how any of this has come to be, or even simply how Banzai became well-known in the first place, and we only get the briefest of glimpses into the backstories of one or two characters, so it’s easy to see why many have been left confused by the movie.

Still, once you’ve made sense of this oddball world, the plot is fairly straightforward. Buckaroo enters another dimension during a jet car testing session, and his discovery of alien reptiles there – called the Red Lectroids – interests Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), who breaks out of a facility housing the criminally insane shortly afterwards in an attempt to take over the world. Lizardo is actually possessed by the leader of the Red Lectroids, John Whorfin, who hooks up with several fellow Lectroids already on earth (including in their number Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedeya and the memorably hangdog-faced actor Vincent Schiavelli). Amusingly, they all share the christian name ‘John’, although some have picked elaborate surnames so that they can hide in our midst (if you think the name ‘John Small Berries’ is odd, wait until you meet John Bigbooté, who gets incredibly angry if his name is mis-pronounced as ‘Bigbooty’).

As you would expect, a few human versus alien battles take place during the film, but they’re largely eclipsed by the sheer oddness of Buckaroo’s mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world. The critic Pauline Kael praised the movie’s sense of fun, and this and its kinetic energy are probably its two saving graces. There’s a commitment to the proceedings from most involved, which is impressive given how different it is to other sci-fi films of the era – even the spoofs – and it’s little wonder that so many cast members have established careers since that contain many similar irreverent roles: as well as Lloyd, Hedaya and Lithgow there’s an early appearance here for Jeff Goldblum as a surgeon / urban cowboy who is accepted into the Cavaliers.

For me, though, the big disappointment was Weller’s Buckaroo, a straight-faced, deadpan hero with very little in the way of charm; it’s like he’s playing Robocop three years before he actually had to, and it doesn’t quite fit with the anarchic, crazy tone. On occasion this approach does lead to some well-delivered laughs (‘wherever you go, there you are’ he philosophises at one point from the stage), but after a while he begins to seem a little flat and dreary, unfortunately, which is odd considering that he’s supposed to be the world’s foremost renaissance man. There’s very little in the way of chemistry with co-star Ellen Barkin, too, who plays the romantic interest Penny Priddy. Apparently Weller was a little unsure about the character, and confused about the tone of the film, during production … and I think it shows.

Still, Buckaroo Banzai contains plenty of energy and fun elsewhere, and I can see why so many have taken it to heart. It’s really unlike most other sci-fi films of the period. It feels like a spoof at first (the original Star Wars trilogy being an obvious early target), but it also has a confidence in its own world, characters and story that most spoofs lack. Additionally, at times it is so straightly-played you end up wondering whether it is a spoof at all. As such I found it hard to judge what exactly I was watching, but it certainly didn’t ruin the experience for me. I like its weirdness, even if I had little clue as to what the hell was going on at times.

The Basics:
Directed by: W. D. Richter
Written by: Earl Mac Rauch
Starring: Peter Weller, Ellen Barkin, John Lithgow, Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Goldblum
Certificate: 12
Running Time: 98 minutes
Year: 1984
Rating: 5.8

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I’ve watched and reviewed a number of bittersweet coming-of-age comedy-dramas during the past year, to the point where my interest in this much-loved sub-genre has started to wane a little, mostly as a result of the predictability of the stories. Admittedly every now and again a film like Boyhood or Mud comes along, movies that commendably have their sights set somewhat higher than a simple re-telling of the typical quiet-boy-at-school-comes-out-of-his-shell-and-enjoys-his-first-relationship-with-a-girl tale, but they are few and far between. Most of them follow a set template of sorts, yet for every ultra-smart, witty addition to the canon that forces you to look past the familiar (see Adventureland or Submarine, for example), there are a dozen films like Youth In Revolt or The Perks Of Being A Wallflower which – while not necessarily bad movies, per se, adopt those coming-of-age cliches a little too readily when little else distinguishes them from the pack. The main protagonist will usually be an introspective teenage boy with artistic leanings. His first ever love interest will develop where previously little hope of a connection with anyone of the opposite (or same) sex existed, and he will begin the film a boy and end it as a kind of mini-man, wise beyond his years and receiving genuflection from the peers and family members who previously looked down on him. His object of desire will usually be a girl with long blonde hair who, by way of contrast, already acts like a confident, fully-fledged adult, and there will be parental issues. There has to be parental issues. Some coming-of-age films may be set during the school year, but normally the film will concentrate on a specific summer. The protagonist will be helped along the way by an older man or teenager (or perhaps help will come from the English teacher at school), and this older person fulfills a kind of surrogate brother or father role. You’ve seen this film a number of times, right?

I haven’t yet watched last year’s award-winning Blue Is The Warmest Colour, which intrigues me partly because the main protagonist is – gasp! – a) French b) a young woman rather than a young man and c) gay, but I have seen 2013’s The Way, Way Back, a likeable Sundance-pleasing indie that fails to pull up any trees yet charms well enough with its sincerity, lack of cynicism and commendable performances. We are, however, in very familiar territory here: Duncan (Liam James) is a socially-awkward 14-year-old forced to endure a summer near Cape Cod with his dysfunctional family, consisting of divorced mum Pam (Toni Collette), her bullying and philandering new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s huffy daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Joining the foursome most evenings are hard-drinking neighbor Betty (a scene-stealing Allison Janney), her daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and son Peter (River Alexander), as well as Trent’s friends Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet).

Duncan’s holiday starts off badly; Trent belittles and undermines him at every available opportunity in an attempt to establish an unnecessary dominance over the boy. Their relationship is instantly fascinating thanks to a well-judged opening scene where we witness Trent (camera fixed on just his eyes in the rear-view mirror) pestering Duncan during the drive to their holiday home to rate himself with a mark out of 10. When the exasperated boy finally cracks and suggests he is “a 6″, Trent cruelly tells him he thinks he’s currently “a 3″. As the holiday continues Pam largely ignores Duncan in order to concentrate on fitting in with Trent and his close friends, but the boy eventually finds a girl’s bicycle and begins to explore the local area.

He soon meets Owen (Sam Rockwell, as Bill Murray-buzzy as ever), the irresponsible, quick-talking and well-meaning manager of the local Water Wizz theme park. Owen takes Duncan under his wing and offers him a job for the summer. Duncan accepts, and under the tutelage of Owen and the various other Water Wizz employees (including writer / director team Jim Rash and Nat Faxon as Lewis and Roddy, and Maya Rudolph as the exasperated Caitlyn) he puts his time at the park to good use, rapidly transforming (via a fairly cheesy montage, it must be said) from a bumbling, awkward teen into a semi-confident, semi-happy young man. The change is not lost on temporary neighbor Susanna, but as one fledgling romance begins the long-term outlook for Trent and Pam gets worse.

The film recalls at times the dysfunctional family of Little Miss Sunshine (and the presence of Carell and Collette certainly reinforces the looming shadow of that earlier indie success), as well as the aforementioned Adventureland, which was also set partly in an amusement park in the summer, though unfortunately it does not quite hit the standards reached by either of those films. If at times the family interplay also brings to mind George Clooney’s kin in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, there’s an easy explanation: Rash and Faxon co-wrote that Oscar-winning adaptation.

Although The Way, Way Back adheres to the coming-of-age formula to a tee, it is not tedious or boring, as it features a reasonably smart script and some good performances from the cast. James – a newcomer – is impressive considering his relative lack of experience, while the film receives sudden and welcome jolts from the effervescent support at precisely the right moments. Rockwell’s motormouth comic persona is familiar, but very watchable, and when he’s off-screen the directors rely on Janney to inject some vitality, which she provides in spades.

Like Rockwell, Collette has played her respective part – an exasperated, emotional middle-aged mother – a few times before, but she does it well and it’s easy to sympathise with her character’s plight. Carell is more surprising, playing against type as the mean – but by no means despicable – Trent, and his success with the role suggests that something darker lies behind the on-screen silliness (like a number of manic comic actors who have gone before him).

Perhaps it has much to do with the film’s 90-minute running time, but unfortunately one of the problems with The Way, Way Back is that not one of these adult characters is developed to a truly satisfying degree, aside perhaps from Trent, who at least exhibits a little lightness to balance his darker moments. Once their initial characteristics are established the rest don’t really change a great deal, and while they are admittedly not the main focus of the story it’s disappointing that they face predictable problems and deal with them in predictable ways. Owen, for example, is shown to be immature; a teenage man trapped in an adult’s body who is clearly struggling with the concept of responsibility and commitment, yet infuriatingly there’s nothing more beyond that. He is seen reflecting on his personality, acknowledges it to sometimes-girlfriend Caitlyn, and then deals with it by turning up to work early in order to set up the park’s deckchairs. This is typical of the way that the problems of the adult characters are all too neatly set up and subsequently dealt with. This isn’t really a surprise, though, as most films of this length tend to concentrate on the young male lead character to the detriment of everyone else; Boyhood is a notable recent exception, successfully developing several other characters of various ages satisfactorily, but then it has an extra 75 minutes in which to do so.

None of the faults are enough for me to dismiss The Way, Way Back out of hand as a bog-standard addition to the world of teenage self-discovery and innocent relationships; in fact it exudes a constant charm that makes it hard to dislike and easy to warm to. It’s partly down to the movie’s lack of cynicism, which in turn probably comes from the original intention to set the story in supposedly-simpler times: the early 1980s, as viewed through rose-tinted glasses. As it turns out – perhaps due to budget constraints – the story is apparently set in the modern era, but plenty of ‘80s references remain from earlier drafts of the script: REO Speedwagon, Pac-Man and the Soviet Union all make surprise appearances, for example.

It’s a little muddled, but somehow also works to the film’s advantage, suggesting as it does a period of innocence. I’m a sucker for wistful, retro mis-remembering like this, and if a writer or a director wants to wallow in a world where the Cape Cod summer seems to go on forever and life consists of getting worked up about plenty of things that will clearly work themselves out in the long-run, then I’m usually happy to wallow in that world with them for an hour and a half.

I feel like I should be lambasting The Way, Way Back for the predictability caused by its strict adherence to genre norms and its many other faults, such as that messy mixing of period detail and its schmaltzy third act. It also doesn’t feel particularly courageous, either, when dealing with the various situations it sets up: while Pam and Duncan both tackle Trent’s personality at different points, for example, the serious drama is quickly abandoned and before too long Rockwell is back on screen lightening the mood. Yet its predictability and its nostalgic tendencies also make it a comforting, warm movie to watch and enjoy. You don’t have to work too hard, as a viewer, but sometimes it feels a touch unfair to challenge a movie for such a reason. If everything was difficult and intellectually-demanding the movie industry simply wouldn’t be as fun a place to lose yourself in as it currently is. Ultimately while there isn’t anything new to see here – young, white American teenage boy gains confidence during summer with dysfunctional family and cops off with the girl next door – there are good performances all round and a witty (if not uproariously funny) screenplay bubbles away.

The Basics:
Directed by: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Written by: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring: Liam James, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph
Certificate: 12
Running Time: 104 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 6.6

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I’ve been deliberately avoiding Marvel-related films during 2014 (this was the last one I saw) due to a general fatigue of spandex, special powers and smart-arse wisecrackery (I get enough of that in my night job as Coward-Man, Gotham’s most statistically-unsuccessful superhero). As such, this year I’ve ignored Captain America: The Winter Soldier (a blockbuster which appears to be held in high regard by most people who have seen it), the second Andrew Garfield-era Spider-Man film (which is fair enough as I haven’t seen the first one) and the current box office smash Guardians Of The Galaxy, which has been lavished with more praise in two weeks than Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi received in a lifetime. However my resistance has finally cracked in the face of this year’s overwhelming onslaught, and a couple of nights ago I decided to ease myself back in by watching the seventh X-Men-related film to date. It probably wasn’t the right one to pick.

* The series has unfortunately missed an opportunity to fully explain how the two older versions of these characters have joined forces, even if the reasons for doing so are apparent. Incidentally, this opening battle – and indeed all of the story here that is set in the future – owes way too much to the two disappointing Matrix trilogy films as well as James Cameron’s first two Terminator movies.

Not that X-Men: Days Of Future Past is terrible, I hasten to add; it’s just that this particular attempt to tie-in Bryan Singer and Brett Ratner’s original superhero trilogy with Matthew Vaughn’s novel and enjoyable 2011 reboot X-Men: First Class is irritatingly confusing for the first fifteen minutes or so, plonking the viewer directly into a futuristic battle in which mutant leaders Erik Lenhsherr / Magneto (Ian McKellen) and kinda-sorta-back-from-the-dead Charles Xavier / Professor X (Patrick Stewart) – best buddies on and off screen these days – are figureheads in the fight against mutant-slaying robots called ‘sentinels’*. A few more familiar characters emerge from the frenetic scrapping, notably Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page, in an Inception-like supporting role), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry, who is presumably wondering today why she bothered to show up for this instalment).

Eventually a plan is set in motion to send Wolverine back in time to 1973, where he must thwart an attempted assassination by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) on Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a military scientist who initially developed the sentinels for deployment in the Vietnam War. Replete with brown leather jacket and with a Blaxploitation soundtrack predictably heralding his arrival on the streets of New York, Wolverine teams up with the younger versions of Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and Xavier (James McAvoy), among others, and the distinctly wobbly alliance of mutants takes on the sentinels across two periods in time.

Once it settles down, X-Men: Days Of Future Past isn’t confusing at all. In fact, as it wears on it actually becomes both overly simplistic and maddeningly predictable, as it follows the series template of flirting with the theme of intolerance and lightly grappling with the subject of genocide before ditching all that serious stuff in favour of typical and underwhelming set-pieces (breaking out of The Pentagon, fighting on the White House lawn, and so on). Attempts to increase the tension are usually made via the near-deaths of the main characters, but we all now know that the likes of Xavier and fan-favourite Wolverine will never die (permanently!) as they are integral to the franchise, so the supposedly dramatic moments are never quite as gripping as director Singer or writers Jane Goldman, Vaughn and Simon Kinberg presumably intended. The mutants who do actually perish during the course of the story are resurrected by the end, and even more annoyingly characters who were offed in previous X-Men films are also miraculously brought back to life in time for the next instalment, 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse. Why can’t we have a superhero film that ends on a massive downer, or one where dead characters stay dead? Marvel’s writers would benefit from looking at some of the most popular and critically-acclaimed TV shows of the past 15 years; people – even kids – love a surprise character death or two these days, but it definitely adds weight if the character remains six feet under afterwards.

* The name Marvel is rapidly becoming a misnomer of sorts, no? (Although as stated above I am yet to see Guardians Of The Galaxy, which seems to have re-ignited many people’s interest in the genre where previously it had waned.) The movie rights for the X-Men reside with Fox, as opposed to Marvel Studios (which is responsible for the Avengers-related shenanigans), but there’s a uniform feel across all these movies that now seems to be far too deeply embedded to keep the public’s interest in the long term.

Despite the generic, foreseeable Marvelness* on offer there is still much that can be enjoyed. The movie succeeds when it taps into the same energy and spark found within X-Men: First Class (which is unsurprising given the input Singer, Vaughn and Goldman had into that previous episode), and for quite a while the interplay between McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence and Jackman – all confident actors – makes for fine viewing; the first act, in fact, is the most enjoyable part of the movie and it relies heavily on this foursome. McAvoy and Fassbender are the standouts, the former even managing to inject some much needed edge into the film by playing a drugged-up, disillusioned and prickly version of the young Xavier, even though the character sadly dispenses with the ‘fuck offs’ and ‘piss offs’ when the action hots up. As for Jackman … well, he can probably play Wolverine in his sleep by now, but there’s still a degree of fun to be had watching his temper flare, and every superhero film needs its world-weary, hard-done-by cynic.

Many of the other mutants seem to exist on the periphery, merely adding to the sheer number of faces and special powers displayed on screen during the opening and closing battles. Nicholas Hoult as the young Hank McCoy / Beast and Evan Peters as Peter Maximoff / Quicksilver have the juicier supporting roles, and the latter benefits from being the central figure in Days Of Future Past‘s standout moment, but many other characters seem to be present for the sole reason of appeasing hardcore X-Men fans, although seven films in perhaps that’s no bad thing. The over-stuffing does mean that excellent actors such as the aforementioned Berry and McKellen are woefully underused, but even they fare better than some: poor old Anna Paquin (Rogue) – an Oscar winner at 11, lest we forget – seems to get less and less time on screen as the series wears on, and it has now got to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-her stage, with at least one big moment apparently left on the cutting room floor.

That all said, it could have been worse. Singer and co wisely dispensed with many of the mutants introduced in First Class, including the fairly forgettable likes of Angel, Emma Frost, Azazel, Banshee and Riptide, so perhaps we should just be glad that Days Of Future Past only tries to cram in a couple of dozen. There’s a nagging feeling, though, that by bringing back characters who had died or lost their powers in earlier films, any subsequent entries in the series will be even more packed, despite the fact such backtracking and re-writing of history is commonly depicted in the comics (although this kind of about-turn always conjures up two words in my mind: “Bobby” and “Ewing”).

Dinklage gets a fair amount of time on screen as the supposed villain of the piece, although when compared with that of the cunning and clever Tyrion Lannister, his character in HBO’s Game Of Thrones, the part doesn’t really make much use of his talents; neither a megalomaniac nor a crazed military man, Trask is more likely to be found looking understandably spooked when a variety of high-level army or government meetings and pow-wows are interrupted by the squabbling mutants, and his demeanour often resembles my old, genteel economics teacher at school, a man who coincidentally refused to let go of his 1970s wardrobe despite the fact we were in the early 1990s.

Ultimately, Days Of Future Past feels like a mis-step, though it had a tough job following in the footsteps of the surprisingly good, and refreshing, First Class. There is fun to be had here, with long fights and superpowers-a-go-go, as well as some arch revelations, such as the mutant Lehnsherr’s announcement that the assassinated President Kennedy was ‘one of us’. The main problem though is that the older cast members have been brought back but the writers do not seem to know what to do with them – Wolverine aside – for much of this movie; though their struggles against the sentinels in the future raises the stakes for the 1970s-set action, their inclusion leaves a nagging sense of overkill, and talent is wasted. The flipside is that greater focus is placed upon the younger versions of the characters, and the film has plenty of vim while they are front and centre. The melding of old and new cast members did admittedly intrigue me for the duration, even if it is clearly a gimmick, but I do wonder now whether the series has become too sprawling and convoluted for its own good. Thankfully this particular two hours didn’t end up a complete mess, as it could easily have been a spectacular botch job.

The Basics:
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Written by: Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 131 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 5.8

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I’m back after a two week holiday and thought I’d share this review, which was written for the Alfred Hitchcock blogathon currently being hosted by Zoë and Rob. As part of this blogathon all of Hitchcock’s films are being reviewed in chronological order and both hosts are doing a great job, so head over to their sites to check out more. I’ve got some catching up to do!

Shadow Of A Doubt was Alfred Hitchcock’s sixth film following his move to Hollywood in 1940. If you watch his first few American movies – most notably Rebecca, Suspicion and Foreign Correspondent – there’s a nagging sense that the director was not quite ready to leave England behind, but by the time this one was released in 1943 he was clearly growing more comfortable with America as a setting, and American characters as his subjects. Part of the reason for this is that wartime restrictions precluded Hitchcock from visiting London in 1941 and 1942, while his mother lay dying; apparently he received a warm welcome in Santa Rosa, California, where most of this film was shot, which set in motion a long-term love affair with the USA.

Shadow Of A Doubt – which was actually Hitchcock’s personal favourite out of all of the films he made and is often cited as his first ‘masterpiece’ –  begins on the east coast, with a fairly standard chase scene in New Jersey, before the action switches to the small town that made the English director feel at home. Santa Rosa is home to The Newtons, a normal, reasonably wealthy American family. Head of the clan Joseph Newton (Henry Travers) likes to read crime fiction in his spare time and spends much of the film debating the idea of a perfect murder with a neighbour. His wife Emma (Patricia Collinge) is a busy woman about town, and together they have raised two girls and one boy: a precocious little brat of a daughter named Ann (Edna May Wonacott), a boy named Roger (Charles Bates) and their older teenage sister Charlie (Teresa Wright). Charlie is bored with life in Santa Rosa, and spends her time listlessly lolling around her bedroom, but she perks up when her uncle – also called Charlie (Joseph Cotten, fresh from appearing in Citizen Kane) – sends a telegram to announce he will be paying the Newtons an impromptu visit. The only problem is Uncle Charlie also happens to be the mysterious stranger we saw being chased by the feds in the opening scene.

Why? Well, it turns out that Uncle Charlie could well be The Merry Widow Killer, wanted by the police in connection with the deaths of several wealthy old ladies, and thus begins a fairly straightforward thriller in which the suspense is fuelled by the simple question of whether this out-of-town visitor and much-loved member of the family really is leading a double life as a cold-hearted murderer. A couple of detectives investigating the case show up at the Newton house posing as surveyors, and in a barely-credible twist one of them, Jack (Macdonald Carey), becomes romantically involved with teenage Charlie (even proposing to her at one point). Meanwhile Uncle Charlie’s actions become shiftier and shiftier as the truth threatens to surface. Young Charlie’s attitude to her uncle changes as she pieces together several clues and receives information from the police. At first she idolizes her uncle, but this turns to suspicion and then to outright fear, all helped along by some significant recurring music and images. (These, cleverly, also build up the idea that some kind of psychic link exists between the two Charlies.) Hitchcock intensifies the threat posed by Uncle Charlie expertly, revealing to the audience a cold-hearted man who will do just about anything within his means to keep his secret hidden, including sabotaging staircases and poisoning family members with carbon monoxide. The cad!

For me this isn’t up there with the very best of Hitchcock’s work, but Shadow Of A Doubt is still an enjoyable thriller, and considering the relative lack of action it’s very tense at times. Much of this is due to the way the director and screenwriter Thornton Wilder allow the viewer access to certain key information about Uncle Charlie early on which pretty much spells out his guilt; subsequently the ignorance of the Newton family is milked for all it’s worth, with quite a few loaded lines spoken by the characters who remain largely oblivious to the fact a potential killer is in their midst. The threat hangs over them at all times, and Hitchcock makes the most of the premise of a psychopathic murderer showing up in an otherwise idyllic American small town; the train carrying Uncle Charlie to Santa Rosa, in one memorable and portentous shot, arrives under a thick cloud of black smoke.

It’s quite a dark film at times, not least in the way it presents a single malevolent force disrupting Rockwell-esque small town lives. There is little humour contained in the story and the main character is suitably unpleasant, especially when the net starts to close in around him. He refers to the importance of familial relationships but these are purely for self-serving reasons, and his true attitude to his sister and her family is subtly exposed by Hitchcock and Cotten during the second half of the movie. Playing the archetypal charming monster, Cotten’s performance is comparable with the very best in Hitchcock’s long list of films, and he captures the character’s duality well – saying all the right things round the dinner table one minute, eyes shifting nervously from side to side the next.

The main problem I have with Shadow Of A Doubt is the lack of an iconic (or even memorable) set piece. The very best of Hitchcock’s films (or, at least, my own personal favourites) have at least one of these: the crop duster and Mt. Rushmore scenes in North By Northwest, the gathering of the birds and their first attack on Bodega Bay in The Birds, the Royal Albert Hall climax in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the shower scene in Psycho, Vertigo‘s rooftop chase, and so on and so on. Yet there’s nothing truly special, or memorable, to lift Shadow Of A Doubt above and beyond the great number of well-acted thrillers of the war years, which is a shame; even the ending is a bit of a damp squib. I also think the pacing is way too slow at times, there are quite a few plot-holes and any mystery is pretty much non-existent after Uncle Charlie’s dark side is revealed to the viewer very early on. The explanation for his repeated acts of violence is disappointingly trite, too.

If you’re after a Hitchcock suspense thriller that’s a little more understated than others, this would be a good choice. It’s also relatively unknown, despite a number of critics and fans hailing it in recent years as a classic. Personally, I don’t think it is anywhere near that level, but it’s worth watching for Cotten’s performance alone and it certainly has its moments. Unfortunately those aren’t very often and – I can’t believe I’m about to type this in relation to a Hitchcock film – that means Shadow Of A Doubt is a little boring at times.

The Basics:
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, Alma Reville, Gordon McDonell
Starring: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten
Certificate: PG
Running Time: 105 minutes
Year: 1943
Rating: 5.4

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