Friday, 29 May 2020

Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Marty and Doc head to the Future at least - alas - in the weak middle chapter Back to the Future II

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Michael J Fox (Marty McFly/Marty McFly Jnr/Marlene McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Emmett Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine McFly), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen/Griff Tannen), Elisabeth Shue (Jennifer Parker), James Tolkan (Strickland), Jeffrey Weissman (George McFly), Flea (Needles)

After the smash hit of Back to the Future a sequel was inevitable – particularly with that hook ending with our heroes zooming off into the future to fix Marty and Jennifer’s kids. Back to the Future Part II is often fondly remembered for its journey into 2015, a typically 1980s view of what the future might be like, but this is journey is mostly a slightly embarrassing mess that the film has to spend quite a bit of time getting over before the plot can start in full.

The journey into the future is largely a narrative cul-de-sac, which is mostly there to introduce a Sports Almanac covering 1950-2000 which Marty (Michael J Fox) picks up in an antiques store with an eye on placing some bets in the future. He’s firmly told by Doc (Christopher Lloyd) not to mess with the timeline, but that’s never here nor there to Old Biff (Thomas F. Wilson), who pinches both Almanac and DeLorean to head back in time to 1955 and handover the Almanac to his younger self. Which means when Marty and Doc return to 1985 from 2015, having not noticed the theft and return of the time machine, they find 1985 has been transformed into a nightmare dystopian world where Los Angeles is ruled by multi-billionaire Griff. So it’s back to 1955 to repair the timeline again – and this time dodge round their younger selves who are still going through the events of the first film. 

Zemeckis and Gale, it’s pretty clear, actually wrote themselves into a bit of a corner with their visit to the future. Firstly, the problem with the kids turns out to be fairly quick and easy to solve. Secondly, they are stuck with Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue replacing the unavailable Claudia Wells) who is instantly unceremoniously knocked out not once but twice in order for her not to be a third wheel on the boys adventures. Thirdly, the real interest and delight of these time travel films is seeing the past through the perspective of the present, and we lose that completely in a silly painfully of its time vision of the future. Gale himself had ruled out visiting the future in the first film, because all visions of the future date quickly on film – so it’s a shame he didn’t listen to himself.

The future sequence of the film is honestly pretty awful, in the midst of a film that takes a long time to get going and then relies very, very heavily on recreating the first film either spiritually (several set pieces in the future echo the first film, from feuds in a diner to the skateboard chase here done with a hoverboard) or literally (the third act of the film is a point-by-point recreation of the first film from different angles). The future sequence lacks any real point or drive, other than to establish two plot points: the sporting almanac and how Marty’s character flaw of pride leads him to take stupid, self-destructive risks. 

Other than that it’s an increasingly embarrassing look at what a 1980s person thinks the future might be like – flying cars, hovering skateboards, strange futuristic clothes, cybernetic implants, loud, bright colours – it’s all there. Sure there are some things correctly predicted – principally the idea of something approaching the internet and video calls – but the attempts at presenting a humourous view of the 2010s falls flat. This isn’t helped by the desperate mugging of several of the actors – none worse than Fox sadly, who plays his whiny Grandson, a latex covered middle aged version of Marty and (worst of all) his granddaughter – straining for laughs, but missing completely. It’s a cheesy, awkward sequence that says more about the hang-ups of the 1980s than anything else.

The film only starts to pick-up when we head back to the hellish Mad Max version of 1985 caused by Biff’s meddling. Sure it’s also an excuse for retreading some other elements of the previous film – and conveniently means that George McFly can be killed off, resolving the problem of working around a second recasting after the difficult to work with Crispin Glover turned down the film – but at least it kicks a bit of a plot going, away from the more feeble moments and overacting in the future section.

Which it brings us to the final act as the film reworks, reimagines and represents the events of the first film once again. I’m split on this between it being a fun, fresh idea of looking again at a beloved film (as well as opening up some comedy opportunities to play on the viewer’s expectations) or a sign of the well running dry. Either way it works a lot better than the future sections of the film, even if again the narrative structure is an almost exact re-tread of the first film, once again showing Marty trying to juggle events to get the outcome he needs and a race against time ending that culminates in a bolt of lightning and a cliffhanger.

There are some fun moments in the film, but Back to the Future II generally falls between two stools, trying to tell a new story while also setting up Part III. I appreciated more watching it again the way it carefully sets up themes and ideas for Part III – from Eastwood avoiding death in a shootout on a TV screen (the same way as Marty will) to establishing Marty’s character flaws that the third film shows him struggling to overcome. But it’s a slightly cheesy, slapdash film – short as well, as the opening 5 minutes are a reshoot of the first film and the last five are a trailer for Part III and the credits. It feels like Gale and Zemeckis felt forced to deliver the future against their will, and then spend the rest of the film course correcting to bring us back to the Past.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

The Last Hurrah (1958)

Spencer Tracy runs for office in John Ford's toothless satire The Last Hurrah

Director: John Ford
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Major Frank Skeffington), Jeffrey Hunter (Adam Caulfield), Dianne Foster (Maeve Caulfield), Pat O’Brien (John Gorman), Basil Rathbone (Norman Cass), Donald Crisp (Cardinal Martin Burke), James Gleason (“Cuke” Gillen), Edward Brophy (“Ditto” Boland), John Carradine (Amos Force), Willis Bouchey (Roger Sugrue), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Weinberg), Wallace Ford (Charles J Hennessey), Basil Ruysdael (Bishop Gardner)

Mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) is running for a fifth term of a “New England city”. Skeffington’s roots lie in the town sprawling Irish population, and has successfully played the game of machine politics all his life. He’s alienated the members of the towns traditional elite – who can trace their ancestors all the way back to the Mayflower – but he’s loved by the regular people of the city. But is Skeffington going to find himself out of touch with a political world starting to embrace populism and the power of television.

John Ford’s adaptation of a hit novel by Edwin O’Connor, is one of his rare “present day” pictures. But it’s a bit of a busted flush. What should have been an exploration of a tipping point in American politics, totally fails to successfully land any of the points it could make. It’s a film that doesn’t understand the Kennedy-esque world America was moments away from embracing, and looks with such ridiculously excessive sentimentality at old-school politics it manages to tell us nothing about the corruption and dirty deals of this sort of machine politics. Effectively it’s a film that takes two long hours to tell us almost nothing at all. 

The film adores two things – and it’s not a surprise in a Ford film – the past and the Irish. Anything from yesteryear is covered in a halo, with the parade of old-school Hollywood character actors from the Ford rep company taking it in turns to denounce and condemn anything and anyone less than 40 years old. Every young person in the film is either a feckless idiot – Skeffington and Cass’ sons are a playboy and an embarrassing moron – or, like Jeffrey Hunter’s Adam Caulfield (Skeffington’s nephew covering the election for the local paper) is there merely to provide doe-eyed adoration. 

As for the Irish, the film loves the grace and charm of this old immigrant community. Skeffington’s Irish political machine is sanitised beyond belief. In the real world these sort of organisations operated on a system of back room deals, intimidation and careful arrangements to deliver set quotas of votes on polling day. Sure many of these politicians also delivered a number of social reforms – as Skeffington does – but any suggestion that any of Skeffington’s dealings could ever be described as dirty are roundly dismissed. Here it’s all about what Skeffington could do for other people, and no mention of the endemic corruption in many politicians like this. Instead Skeffington is presented with nothing but rose-tinted sentimentalism, a respectful widower, a kind man, whose actions are often more about other people than politics.

Former Boston mayor James Michael Curley – who Skeffington was clearly based on – was imprisoned for corruption. No chance of that happening to Skeffington who only uses intimidation and back-street savvy to fight the causes of orphans and widows (literally) and takes nothing at all from the public purse (although he still lives in a lovely big home). By contrast his elite opponents are the sort of scowling, greedy, penny-counters you might find in a Frank Capra film, shameless bankers and newspaper types who care nothing for truth and justice and only their own selfish needs.

Perhaps that’s why Skeffington’s opponent McCluskey (an early Kennedy substitute with his perfect family life, war record and lack of actual accomplishments) is portrayed as such an empty suit, a mindless, grinning yes-man who has nothing to say and no goals to meet. Ford’s contempt for him – and for the new word of television – drips off the screen. The TV shot we see McCluskey shooting is a farcical mess, poorly shot, edited and delivered with stilted artificiality by McCluskey and his tongue-tied wife. Not only is it not particularly funny, the presentation of this just shows how out of touch Ford was with modern America. Two years after this, Kennedy would win an election largely off the back of his ability to present a dynamic image on TV. Skeffington even crumbles in the election due to his traditional, press-the-flesh campaign not competing effectively with TV slots. How can that look even remotely convincing when Ford shows his rival has no mastery of the new media at all? That in fact he’s worse at making TV than Skeffington proves to be?

What exactly was Ford going for? By failing to criticise anything at all about the old-school politics and pouring loathing on the new politics, he ends up saying very little at all. Skeffington is a twinkly angel, but we never understand why so many in the church and the city oppose him – other than the fact I guess that he is Irish. Donald Crisp’s cardinal promises at one point near the end to reveal why he always opposed Skeffington – only to be hushed. If anything bad ever happened, Ford ain’t telling us making this one of the most dishonest of his tributes to Old America.

None of this is to criticise much of the acting, which is great. Spencer Tracy dominates the film with his accustomed skill and charisma, his Skeffington both a twinkly charmer and a practised flesh-presser who manages to subtly pitch and adjust his character depending on his audience and whose physicality helps to assert his dominance in every scene. Pat O’Brien does fine work as his fixer and Basil Rathbone is suitably sinister as a his principle financial opponent. Ford also puts together some memorable shots – especially a long walk Skeffington takes past a victory parade – and scenes, but the film is an empty mess. And, with its extended final twenty minute coda, goes on way too long.

The Queen (2006)

Helen Mirren reigns supreme as her Majesty in The Queen

Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth II), Michael Sheen (Tony Blair), James Cromwell (Prince Philip), Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), Roger Allam (Robin Janvin), Sylvia Syms (Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother), Tim McMullan (Stephen Lamport), Mark Bazeley (Alistair Campbell), Julian Firth (Jonathan Powell)

It’s easy to assume The Queen is a cozy piece of film-making, not least because writer Peter Morgan’s exploration of the Royal Family has become every one’s favourite costume drama viewing thanks to his series The Crown on Netflix. But that’s to forget the acute sense of the personal and the public Morgan has, and his ability to write himself into the minds of his participants. And he’s perfectly matched here with the wry eye of Stephen Frears. Together they create a film that uses a single moment of history to explore the nature of our institutions and the particular characters of the people that fill them.

The film follows the death and aftermath of Princess Diana, and especially the dramatic public reaction to the death that expressed itself both in unparalleled scenes of national public mourning and hostility to the Royal family. Both are things a lifetime of duty and service have failed to prepare Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) for – but are also things intrinsically understood by her new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). As the public clamour for the Royals to join the public in an exhibition of public grief rises, it’s mixed with a furious demand for a royal ‘mea culpa’ for ruining the life of the “People’s Princess”. Could the Royal Family be finished?

Well of course it wasn’t, and perhaps it’s hard to understand for those who didn’t live through those crazy days of 1997. But there was never anything like it before – people wept in the streets as if they had lost a family member of their own. Princess Diana – a tireless campaigner for charities, who did a great deal to change public perceptions on AIDS among many other issues – was also a brilliant master of public opinion, far more attuned to the countries drift away from stiff-upper-lip reticence towards celebrity-worship sentimentality than the family she married into. As skilful a manipulator of the press, as she was a victim of their hounding, she’d made herself into someone larger than life. It’s the sort of modern cult of celebrity, that few others mastered – and certainly not in the Royal Family.

Diana hangs over the family in the film like a ghost, an embodiment of their sense that the country is drifting away from them. It’s a film where pace and speed are vital, Frears and Morgan brilliantly contrasting the rushing onslaught of events from the car crash to distraught, increasingly angry, crowds gathering outside Buckingham Palace with the relatively sedate official response, which was effectively a private retreat to Scotland and say and do very little. The film has a brilliant sense of the momentum of those crazy days, and of the clash between an institution straitjacketed by tradition and a world where the public exhibition of emotion is de rigour.

What the film finds however is the value in both, and in doing so perhaps becomes one of the greatest adverts for the monarchy – or at the very least for Elizabeth II – you will ever see. A lot of this comes from Helen Mirren superb performance as the Queen. It’s a role Mirren performs with a combination of Sphinx-like genius and a genuine fragility under a veneer of exactitude. Mirren’s Elizabeth is a woman whose sense of duty has led to a lifetime of living as a symbol, a profession that has demanded the avoidance of any sort of personal opinion what-so-ever (something Morgan leans on with his Alan Bennettish early scene, where the Queen chats with a maid about the recent General Election and regrets she never had the chance to tick a box for something). She’s a woman certain that she has performed her duty in the finest tradition of her family.

Her tragedy in the film is the bewildered sense of suddenly finding the country she thought she knew being completely different. Put simply, the destructive Diana, a difficult person privately but loved publically, is a woman she can’t understand – and a country that embraces her is one she struggles to understand as well. Mirren’s Queen has a sharply defined sense of her place and person, but finds herself questioning all that. While sharply refusing to be treated as fool, she has a distressed sense of suddenly being adrift in the world.

Morgan captures all this in a series of engaging “behind the scenes” moments, but his real trick is his sure touch with symbology. A magnificent stag on the grounds, being hunted by all and sundry, could easily have been a clumsy parallel with the Queen, but it’s delivered with real grace and serves as a true emotional catalyst for the Queen (twice!) as she finally begins to understand both her own situation, and the necessity for her to bend her own firm principles and tradition to meet the requirements of this new age.

It’s the main theme of the film, this conflict between tradition and modernism, but the film sees merit in both. Many of the formalities of court life are humoursly spoofed in their intricate pomposity, but the overblown sentimentalism and knee-jerk judgamentalism of the modern world are hardly much better. As Blair himself, the arch modernist, observes there will always be a place for a head of state who gives us a symbol to aspire to. Not least, because the burden of standing for things and being driven to play to the masses will eventually lead to the destruction of most political careers (the film mines a fair bit of material between the implicit comparison of Blair’s saint-like popularity in 1997 to the wreckage of his “Bliar” reputation in 2006).

Frear’s film is a gentle critique but also a sharp defence of the institution of the monarchy, as practiced by the Queen. It may pain her, but she will get on with it. Morgan’s script also suggests her quiet wisdom – the film’s coda has her suggesting that Diana, like all things popular today, will pass. 

The film is less sure footed elsewhere. It’s portrayal of New Labour at times leans a bit too heavily into public perception – Campbell (played by a bullying Mark Bazaely) as a brash blow-hard, Labour as being obsessed with spin and image, Cherie Blair as a judgemental Shrew. Other members of the Royal family sometimes bend into parody – by the time of the Crown, Peter Morgan was to find Prince Philip as a far more fascinating and richer character than he is here. But the performances are strong across the board, as if following their head of state in Mirren. Sheen’s re-creation of Blair is pitch perfect, and he also aptly understands the difficult balance in Blair between genuine decency and ambition. Roger Allam also provides a wonderfully dry cameo as the Queen’s old fashioned secretary, while Alex Jennings does a neat impersonation of a Charles desperate to be seen to be doing the right thing.

The Queen’s main interest though is showing that tradition and modernism can sit side-by-side – and that a leaning too far in either direction is harmful for all involved. It sprinkles in intriguing levels of criticism for Diana, but matches that with a respect for the Queen, that makes her real while keeping her a symbol. Helen Mirren’s performance deserved every price going, and the film itself rewards with each new viewing.