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Sunday
Apr042010

The Blind Side (2009)

Black and White and Dead All Oher

The Blind Side is about two things I can’t stand: Southern Conservatives and football.

You may wonder, then, why I’d even bother watching the movie. There are three reasons: It was wildly successful in theatres last year (not every heartwarming sports movie is a box office smash); it garnered star Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar; finally, I love a challenge. Could a film about which I have zero interest (and, honestly, some latent animosity) win me over? Could it be that—much like my experience with Precious—the awful trailers actually represented a smart, honest and moving film?

I’m happy to report that, sometimes, my instincts are tack-sharp. I’d suspected that Bullock, playing real-life Memphis spitfire Leigh Anne Tuohy, might come off as an obnoxious, caustic cartoon character; during the film’s two-plus-hours run-time, she plays the worst kind of good-old-girl, feelings-are-for-pussies stereotype you’d ever hope to meet; and she’s the hero!

And make no doubt about it: The Blind Side is not the story of a poor, abused black kid who overcomes adversity when given a leg up by a wealthy white family; it’s the story of the wealthy white family and their Christian school learning that all the diamond-studded crosses in the world aren’t worth a lick if there is even one undiscovered pro-athlete struggling in the projects across town. Director John Lee Hancock would have you believe that this is an autobiography of both Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) and Leigh Anne Tuohy, but the Oher character is such an inconsistent, mumble-mouthed cypher that I frequently forgot that I was not watching E.T.

The movie begins with Tuohy talking about Lawrence Taylor’s career. The only thing that relates this really boring story to the rest of the film is that Taylor played football and the monologue contains the phrase “the blind side”. We then meet Michael Oher, a hulking seventeen-year-old boy who sleeps on the couch of a local auto mechanic. One day, the mechanic visits a private school in the rich part of town and convinces football coach Burt Cotton (Ray McKinnon) to have a look at his son and at Oher as possible athletic prospects.

After meeting some resistance from the school council, the coach reminds everyone that the school is a Christian institution, and that they were obligated to overlook their prejudices and help out a kid in need. In a real movie, this would have led to either A) the coach being fired on the spot, or B) a fascinating examination of race relations, as the school opened its doors to everyone in the community, regardless of color, circumstance, or financial means and providing them a top-of-the-line education—you know, what Jesus would have done. But since this is The Blind Side, Oher simply gets in—and the mechanic’s other kid is only ever seen again in the audience at Oher’s graduation.

Oher walks the halls in the same clothes every day; he doesn’t speak to the other kids, who all look at him like a freak or a menace. His teachers all give up on him very easily, save for one, who discovers that he has a gift for writing poetry. A real movie would have explored Oher’s secrets in a way that reveals whether or not he’s stupid, autistic, or brilliant and paralyzed by social awkwardness.

Instead, we get brief glimpses of him being taken from his drug-addicted mother ten years earlier and inconsistent scenes where he is apparently too dumb to understand a poem unless it’s broken down into a football metaphor, while also doing pretty well in Biology. In one scene, he’s confidently driving Leigh Anne’s young son, S.J. through town in the brand new truck they gave him for getting his driver’s license; a few scenes later, he’s struggling to understand why an NCAA rep finds it suspicious that he’s been accepted to the very college that the Tuohy family graduated from, and to which they donate a considerable amount of money. In brief, the Michael Oher presented here is alternately, conveniently, empty-headed and insightful, usually depending on whatever point the Tuohy family is trying to prove to either themselves or their stuffy, ill-informed community.

I might have been okay with The Blind Side’s focus on the Tuohy’s if it was clear that their adoption of Michael was somehow a disruptive force in their lives. Hell, I’d settle for any kind of force. One night, Leigh Anne and her brood are driving home (home, by the way, being a ridiculous McMansion paid for by husband Sean’s hundreds of Taco Bell franchises and Leigh Anne’s interior decorating hobby [sorry, I mean “legitimate business”]; rhetorical musing here: what’s the Taco Bell equivalent of a McMansion? Taquito Terrace? Burrito Bungalow? Guacamole Getaway, maybe?) when they see Oher walking in the rain. They offer him a place to stay for the night, and eventually take him in as a member of the family. The Oher’s have two kids already, S.J., and a teenage daughter named Collins (yes, Collins). One might think that introducing a wholly unknown element into the daily family routine would involve long serious discussions, possibly some fights, definitely some tears or uncertainty; but, no, the Tuohy’s are the sparkling definition of the perfect, Christian family, and Michael’s arrival and transition are as fluid as water off a duck’s back. Jesus, I don’t recall anyone so much as raising their voice in that household (except for adorable little freckle-faced S.J., when he would yell something really sweet and precocious).

From a storytelling standpoint, the first half of the movie is pretty awful; but that’s nothing compared to the second half. Michael gets his grades up to the minimum required to join the football team. After that, we have an hour of his deciding which fucking college to attend. An hour. As if there were any dramatic tension for the audience.

Sure, we also have little vignettes where Michael has to get a tutor to boost his grades some more (that tutor being the lovely and criminally mis-used Kathy Bates, who admits to the Tuohy’s that she’s a Democrat; this is the kind of movie where that actually matters to the characters—and, I suspect, to the majority of people who made the picture a hit); we also see Michael return to his old neighborhood and get in a fight with a gang of thugs. Even though he has several guns drawn on him, he pummels everyone and walks away unscathed; it is during this scene that The Blind Side makes a Donnie Darko-esque transition into science fiction—the switch is confirmed when, the next day, Leigh Anne Tuohy happens upon the same thugs while driving her rich-ass car through the ghetto (a ghetto named, I shit you not, Hurt Village). She, too, leaves unharmed, after threatening to kill the gang’s leader. Hey, this movie’s based on a true story, so that had to have actually happened, right? Right?

There’s not one true note in this movie, and I’m astonished that so many people fell for its alleged charms. I would rather have watched a by-the-numbers biopic than John Lee Hancock’s tortured attempt to build something profound and different. He’s obviously not up to the task, and neither is his cast. As Oher, Quinton Aaron has the thankless job of being the big black elephant in the room. Like Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, he’s the Magic Negro who helps the rest of the cast figure out how great they are; but at least Smith had presence. Aaron, who’s twenty-six playing seventeen, skulks around like a puppy-dog Frankenstein monster; when he opens his mouth, it sounds as if he’s auditioning, not embodying a troubled character.

But my true disgust is reserved for Miss Sandy. How in the world she landed an Oscar for this gig is beyond me. Granted, the screenplay didn’t help flesh out her version of Leigh Anne Tuohy’s dimensions, but, damn, is she unpleasant; and I’m talking start to finish. Maybe the strong, Southern, no-nonsense woman is meant to appeal to someone, but where I come from, she’d simply be dismissed as a bitch. I would love to hear the real Tuohy—if, indeed, this is how she carries herself on a daily basis—reconcile her alleged Christian beliefs with the way she talks to people.

Yes, it’s nice that she opened up her home to Oher, but I might consider the street preferable to living under her mouthy, bossy roof. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was even supposed to like this character, acting as she does the way a movie villain might; but when she meets Oher for the first time, a piano begins to play on the soundtrack, and I was heartbroken to realize I was supposed to find this person to be acceptable the way she was. Bullock is one-note here, and it’s a shrill one. If she spent a lot of time preparing for this role, then I take back every lousy thing I’ve said about her soon-to-be-ex-husband Jesse James in recent weeks.

Maybe I’m wrong for expecting more out of movies like this. Maybe I’m wrong for thinking that the Tuohy family, had they truly been moved by Oher’s plight, started some community outreach for the poverty-stricken, crime-ridden neighborhood he came from. If they did this in real life, the movie doesn’t think it’s important for us to know. It only cares about football and the warm, fuzzy feelings engendered by helping one kid (and only one kid) make lots of money playing sports.

Wednesday
Mar312010

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

Pink and Cusack's Bogus Journey

I laughed and smiled through the first ten minutes of Hot Tub Time Machine. As the story cut between four down-on-their-luck friends coping with breakups, crappy jobs, social awkwardness, and depression-induced alcoholism—in very funny ways—I thought I was in for a great, raunchy comedy about their second chance to straighten out their lives. Sadly, once our heroes discover the titular whirlpool of fate, the movie fizzled and died; at which point my interest in time travel shifted from the movie to my watch, and my desire for its hands to magically speed up.

How does one mess up a movie like this? The easy, snarky answer is, “Very easily”; but that’s if one knows only the title and the premise, and nothing of the people who put it together. Director Steve Pink and star/producer John Cusack have worked on two solid films together: Pink wrote the screenplays for the Cusack vehicles Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity—both smart, funny, successful movies. Pink also directed 2006’s Accepted, a surprisingly good, kind of touching college comedy. So it’s really disappointing that Hot Tub Time Machine shows no evidence that its creators understand comedic timing, character arcs, editing fundamentals, or even time travel (at least as it applies to time travel movies).

The film has two main problems. First, it’s sloppy. Maybe I’m too much of a stickler for coherence, but when four friends are playing Quarters in a Colorado ski resort, and suddenly their patio door swings open to reveal a golden light radiating from their hot tub, am I crazy for wondering why they casually walk outside and take a dip?

Is it too much to expect from a film that I’ll eventually receive an explanation as to why a Rastafarian bear mascot and several half-naked girls show up in the hot tub before our heroes have fully traveled back in time?

Another thing that bugged me is that the movie’s trailer showed the nerdy protagonist, Jacob, (Clark Duke) talking to a girl on a dance floor; right away, I figured his journey would involve overcoming a fear of rejection and meeting someone who liked him. Alas, the film drops us into the middle of this scene, where a girl we’ve never seen before is encouraging this loser to come find her. Weirder still, prior to this scene, Jacob was on a serious mission to find his friends and tell them something about their predicament of being stuck in 1986; yet a few minutes later, he’s hitting up some random chick for her digits.

Also, and keep in mind I know very little about psychedelic drugs, is it possible for someone to wash down half a bag of mushrooms with Jagermeister and recover from the resulting mumbly, tripped-out episode in a half-hour? Cusack’s character, Adam, certainly did, and was with it enough to woo a hot, young reporter from Spin Magazine (who, by the way, delivers the movies most hand-holding, groan-inducing line, “Maybe the universe will bring us back together again.”).

This leads into Hot Tub Time Machine’s second big problem: it’s full of wacky ideas—some of them funny—but the three (!) screenwriters have no idea how to pull them off.

For example, 80s icon and professional weirdo Crispin Glover shows up as a one-armed bellhop at the lodge; we know that the movie will eventually show us how he lost that arm, but instead of one clever scene, we’re subjected to about four painfully unfunny ones where he almost gets his arm cut off; by the time it really happens, I just didn’t care (that’s not true: I stopped caring after the first time he didn’t lose it, because I knew then what I was in for).

Chevy Chase also has a failed cameo, as the wise, cryptic handyman who knows all about the powers of the time machine. He’s supposed to be a parody of this type of character in other, better movies, but his scenes are so awkward and poorly written that I honestly couldn’t figure out what he was supposed to be doing—and not in a way that suggests this was done on purpose.

There’s a potentially interesting sub-plot about a gang of asshole frat types who get hold of one of the time travelers’ energy drinks and assume it’s an advanced Russian weapon. In better hands, this might have led to a greater story about the feds and the time machine, but here it’s just an excuse for Craig Robinson (who, for the record, is only funny in his role on The Office) to hold a room full of people hostage while shouting in “Russian”—you know, “Da! Martina Navratilova! Borscht!”

The most egregious botched gag, though, centers on one of the friends having to give a public blowjob to the other, after having lost a bet. I won’t go into the particulars, but I will say that the scene was not only terribly executed and not funny, but there’s also a perfect capper to it that happens a couple scenes later that’s totally wasted. Sitting there, my mouth hanging wide in disbelief, I wondered how three (!) screenwriters could possibly have stepped right over what could have been a truly memorable gross-out moment (for those of you unfortunate enough to have seen this movie, I’ll give you a hint: hand soap).

Watching Hot Tub Time Machine is like listening to two hours of stand-up comedy by someone who can’t construct a joke.

If the comedy and plot weren’t muddy enough, the movie outdoes itself with the climax. Three of the four friends travel back to the future, while one stays behind in order to re-live his life and not end up a loser. Now, according to the film’s logic, when the four men were transported initially, they showed up in 1986 in the bodies of their 19-year-old selves. However, in order to return to the present, they jump in the hot tub and disappear, re-emerging in the present day. So, doesn’t that mean that the teenage versions of themselves were erased from history? We never see them come out of the tub in ’86 to get their lives back on track, using the valuable lessons they learned during their adventure. Instead, Cusack and company just show up in the present, and are all wildly successful, happy people. How the hell did this happen?

Steve Pink would have been better off branding this as a sequel to Old School, rather than trying to inject science fiction into the story. The movie is obviously more focused on tit shots and bong hits than anything that would interest fans of sci-fi or smart comedy. And I’m not saying that sex-and-drug humor is stupid; when written by and for smart people, those jokes are often the funniest. It feels like everyone involved in the film figured the title, premise and the name “John Cusack” would put asses in seats, thus absolving them of having to actually live up to any kind of expectations. In this way, Hot Tub Time Machine is a lot like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, which I didn’t find funny either.

Monday
Mar222010

Precious (2009)

Ghetto Fabulous

I’ll admit it. Sometimes I’m an asshole.

Here’s a good example: The two times I saw the trailer for Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, I laughed out loud—really, really hard. Both instances were in a movie theatre, mind you, and even the death glares from my wife couldn’t make the giggle fits subside.

I honestly thought I was watching one of the fake trailers from the opening of Tropic Thunder, a brilliant parody of the kind of pandering, over-the-top Hollywood sludge meant to draw the sympathies of an easy audience. The first time I saw Gabourey Sidibe as Precious on-screen, I thought she looked like a black Peter Griffin from Family Guy—not just because of the puffy, exaggerated features, but also the kind of proudly ignorant expression on her face. And, my God, when Mo’nique came stampeding on the scene, her sloppy, un-wigged, chain-smoking buffalo body throwing frying pans, I figured this had to be an Airplane-level genius satire. It suffices to say, I found it hard to believe that Precious became a hit and even garnered Oscars nods in the Drama category.

Well, guess what? Lee Daniels has directed a damned fine film.

The story outline is a bit much to take, on paper, anyway. In 1987, a poor, black, fat, illiterate teenager named Precious must contend with a second pregnancy and her own abusive mother (Mo’nique). The premise is a springboard for a snowballing series of movie-of-the-week heartache that raises the main character’s stakes about every ten minutes: Precious’s first baby has Down Syndrome; the father of both children is her mom’s boyfriend—who has AIDS; Precious gets thrown out of school and must enroll in a special program for misfit Harlem girls—taught by a lesbian. Precious’s mother tries to kill her “ungrateful” daughter; this leads to a scene where we learn that the mom, who is also a sexual abuser, was herself molested and used by all the men in her life. It is Daniels’ deft touch and imagination that keeps Geoffrey Fletcher’s screenplay from becoming an In Living Color sketch.

Though the film wears the skin of similar hard-luck stories like Lean on Me or Stand and Deliver, it has a style and voice that puts it more in the realm of Requiem for a Dream. Both films relied on fantasy sequences that took the main characters out of their terrible lives and also allowed audiences a breather. As Precious is raped by her father—with mom standing in the doorway—she fantasizes that she’s walking the red carpet of a film premiere, greeting the paparazzi with air kisses and swirling around to give them the best glamour shots. When watching TV with her mother, she imagines the two of them in a telenovella lovingly communicating as a family instead of violently thrashing each other. Daniels has a keen eye for literal escapism that lets us know there’s more going on with Precious—the girl and the film—than first impressions might have us believe.

Sitting down to watch the movie, I knew it was loaded with random performers in the supporting cast. Lenny Kravitz, Sherri Shepherd, and Mariah Carey all pop up, and it’s tempting to think of them, cynically, as “star power” to help a little film get a bigger release. It’s true that Carey should stick to singing; her social worker character is written well, and plays a pivotal part in the story; but the diva gives her a ridiculous Brooklyn accent that sounds like Mike Myers in his SNL “Coffee Talk” sketch. Fortunately, both Shepherd and Kravitz really impress as a receptionist and male nurse, respectively. They aren’t at all showy, and their performances are natural to the point of being revelatory.

The real star of the movie, though, is Mo’nique. Sure, Gabourey Sidibe does a solid job, particularly in her scenes with Ms. Rain (Paula Patton, who elevates the Teacher Who Cares role to something just a bit better than the stereotype), but when Mo’nique is on screen, there’s no one else worth watching. Her character’s a monster, but one who was created over time by circumstance and bad choices. Watching this devastating creature flail about in blind rage and then turn on the charms when it’s time to beg for the dole is truly amazing. Mo’nique charges her character with schizophrenic uncertainty, so that the audience never knows what will set her off. By film’s end, when we discover her fate, it’s impossible to feel sorry for her, but it’s just as difficult to writer her off. She, more than anything else, gives Precious a documentary feel that makes the compounding of story points believable and tragic.

No doubt, there are people who will either not watch Precious because they think they know what it’s about (and, worse, don’t care). If you’re on the fence, I can assure you that this is a film worth seeing. It’s easy to write off people like Precious’s family as leeches off the public dime, but having watched this film I feel I have a better understanding of the cycles of abuse, neglect, and violence that make rising above those circumstances seemingly impossible for so many people. This isn’t the kind of movie that ends with a proud teacher high-fiving a class full of students with bright futures ahead of them. It’s a vehicle for promoting empathy and activism, a call to outreach—or at least introspection—and a reminder that there is too large a portion of the population living in the same kind of squalor and hopelessness to be ignored by a nation that calls itself civilized.

In short, Precious is a slap in the face for assholes like me.

Saturday
Mar202010

The Runaways, 2010

Bland Practice

I went in to The Runaways not knowing anything about the late-70s all-girl rock band. An hour-and-forty-five minutes later, I left with the same amount of knowledge. This is generally not considered a good thing when it comes to biopics.

Writer/director Floria Sigismondi has an obvious affection for the era and the troubled girls of her film, but it’s the same googly-eyed love that a twelve-year-old girl might have for Justin Bieber. The movie fawns over the vintage cars, clothes and music, and gets positively obsessed with making actors Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, and Scout Taylor-Compton become their real-life counterparts Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, and Lita Ford; but rambling praise for fashion and good looks are the stuff of liner notes, not great screenplays.

To believe the screenplay by Sigismondi and Currie (who wrote the book “Neon Angel”, on which the story is based), a group of five teenage girls were brought together by a famous, sleazy record producer. They were chosen as much for their looks and hard-luck stories as for their musical abilities; this doesn’t matter, though, because after a handful of practices and two gigs, they landed a record deal. Lead Singer Currie (Fanning) developed a massive drug problem and addiction to bi-sexual fucking, which combined with her massive ego to destroy the band on their wildly successful Japanese tour. The Runaways are best remembered for having had the most prolific week in rock history, during which they put out five albums.

If that sounds ridiculous, you should probably avoid this movie. It is, honestly, the most jumbled, context-free mess of a biographical movie I’ve ever seen. What’s frustrating is that there are a handful of really good scenes here, but as a whole, The Runaways plays like a sitcom clips show: full of key moments, sure, but lacking the character and story connections that made those moments key. From the beginning, I felt like every other scene was missing; toward the end, I swear that number had risen to five or six.

The main problem may be the movie’s focus on Cherie Currie. The Runaways is a great coming-out party for Dakota Fanning, who proves that she’s more than just a precocious child star. Her vulnerability and budding sexuality come through with full force, and it’s thrilling and disturbing to think that she’s this much of a powerhouse at the age of sixteen. But she doesn’t have a character to play; she’s stuck as a schizophrenic amalgam of every after-school-special protagonist—succumbing to peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, exploitation by creepy old men. One minute she’s painting Ziggy Stardust makeup on her face, innocently paying homage to her idol/crush David Bowie; the next she’s having sex up against a sink in a dressing room toilet with her road manager. By the time she has her coked-out diva blow-up with Lita Ford in Japan, we’ve officially given up on the lost-innocence angle and written Currie off as an imbalanced psychopath. The Runaways does everything it can to prove this assessment correct.

I have to give props to Kristen Stewart, who is gives the film’s best performance (depending on what you think of her as an actress, this should also be very telling). Her Joan Jett becomes convincing over the course of the movie, but she doesn’t hit her stride until it’s almost over. The early scenes—particularly when she sings—are downright embarrassing to watch. When she struts out of a store sporting her first leather jacket, I didn’t see a tough chick asserting her rebel power, I saw Pee-Wee Herman in Big Adventure, trying to act like a badass in the presence of Mickey the convict. This problem, I think, goes back to the fact that Currie is the center of the story (the equivalent of writing an Aerosmith movie in which the main character is Joey Kramer). We get glimpses of Jett, huffing chemicals or teaming up with producer Kim Fowler (Michael Shannon) to recruit Currie, but until the end of the film, we don’t see JOAN JETT, iconic, no-nonsense rock goddess. In these couple of scenes, Stewart sheds the tics and tropes that barely carry her through Twilight and brings energy to the screen in a way that, frankly, surprised me.

I would like to comment briefly on Michael Shannon’s performance. I don’t know anything about the real Kim Fowler—because, again, The Runaways wasn’t interested in helping me out—but the actor plays him as a cross between Andy Warhol and Heath Ledger’s Joker with ‘roid rage. I don’t get it: he’s a “famous” producer who has no money and the personality of a Rottweiler. At the same time, he’s got connections with record labels (except when he doesn’t) and is charismatic enough that Cherie Currie’s mother allows her—at fifteen years old—to go on a tour he’s put together with a car-load of misfit teens. I didn’t buy any of it, and Shannon’s twitchy, angry boss thing wore old really quickly, especially in the scenes where his abusive behavior was supposed to be funny/inspiring.

For as much of a failure as The Runaways is, I have to give it credit for doing part of its job correctly. When I got home from the theatre, I downloaded their greatest hits, along with that of Jett’s later band, The Blackhearts. The music is scrappy and cohesive, and it’s easy to understand the musicians’ enduring appeal. The movie is crappy and incoherent, and I can’t see anyone remembering it past, say, June.

Saturday
Mar202010

Back to the Future (1985)

Tougher than Diamonds, Stronger than Steel

Three weeks ago, I attended a special 25th anniversary screening of Back to the Future at Naperville’s Hollywood Palms Cinema. Not only would I get to see the movie on the big screen for the first time since I was eight years old, I would also get to meet stars Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, James Tolkan and Claudia Wells; they were on-hand for Q&A’s and autograph sessions during three days of sold-out shows.

As some of you may know, I’m a convention-goer. I attend several horror cons and some comic book shows throughout the year, so I came prepared to pay for each autograph I wanted (three, exactly, on my pristine original one-sheet for Back to the Future Part 2). While standing in line, talking with my dear friend, Brian, about pricing, a guy interrupted us. He didn’t realize that he would have to pay to get signatures on the DVDs he’d brought—even though the theatre’s Web site clearly stated that there would be a “nominal fee” for each celebrity. He raised a bit of a storm, and his incredulity rippled through the rest of the crowd, who apparently hadn’t done their research either. I shrugged him off, figuring that those unsatisfied with the situation would either suck it up or leave. To my knowledge, nobody stormed out.

I was a bit put off by the theatre’s charging $20 each for a photo with the guests, until I found out that the four actors were actually on a tour of the country, raising money for Parkinson’s research; all of the weekend’s proceeds—from the tickets to the autographs and photos to the dollars pitched into a big, bronze donation cauldron—would go to the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

The cast was all very nice—save for who was on the chillier side of pleasant—and gave each person in the very long line a couple of minutes each to chat.

Following the signing, we entered the auditorium, which was like no other screening room I’d seen. Our theatre had a Wizard of Oz theme painted and sculpted on the walls. The main area looked like a college lecture hall: long bar-height tables that stadium-stepped down to a small presentation area in front of a gigantic screen. Instead of traditional theatre seats, each person had a swiveling executive office chair. The Hollywood Palms, you see, serves a full dinner menu to the patrons while the movie plays. By the time we were seated, the only places left were in the second row; fortunately, we sat off to the side and—with the aid of our reclining seats—had a perfect, comfortable view of the screen.

The cast came out for a brief Q&A, and I was reminded once again of the difference between convention people and non-convention people. As a rule, it’s best not to waste your celebrity question—asked of a person whom you will likely never again meet—by posing something that could be easily answered by reading that celebrity’s Web page or Wikipedia entry. And if there are more than three hands raised in the room, for Christ’s sake, don’t bother with, “What’s your favorite movie?”

This detracts from someone else’s opportunity to ask a better question (though I’ll cop to letting out a “Woo-hoo!” when Lea Thompson answered, “Harold and Maude”). The worst example of this nimrod-ery happened at the BTTF screening, when someone—an adult, mind you, who sincerely wanted to know—asked, “What’s it like to live in California?”

When the movie started, I knew right away that I was watching an actual film print, and not a projected DVD. All the pops and scratches were there, along with that lovely, fine grain texture; I was amazed at the brightness and detail in the picture, which—especially since it was magnified—looked better than what I’ve seen on home video.

The movie itself is just wonderful. It’s one of the rare 80s sci-fi films that holds up perfectly today. For those of you who have not yet seen Back to the Future—and I know at least one—you owe it to yourself to seek this movie out.

Michael J. Fox stars as Marty McFly, a nice, kind of awkward teenager who lives in a completely average California suburb called Hill Valley. He aspires to be a rock musician, though his over-eagerness and penchant for deafening guitar solos prevent him from getting into his high school’s battle of the bands. Adding to his frustrations are a pair of unhappy parents: his bumbling, spineless father, George (Crispin Glover) can’t stand up to his pig of a boss, Biff (Thomas F. Wilson), and Marty’s mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson), is an alcoholic who wears a lifetime of mistakes on her face and in her hunched shoulders.

Enter Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), an old, eccentric inventor and Marty’s best friend. “Doc” has been teasing Marty with a series of hushed, cryptic phone messages lately, and finally asks him to meet him at the Twin Pines mall at one in morning. At the rendezvous, Marty learns that Doc Brown has developed a time machine in the form of a DeLorean—which is fueled by plutonium canisters that the mad scientist stole from a group of Libyan terrorists. Immediately following a quick test of the car’s abilities, the Libyans show up and execute Doc Brown. Marty jumps into the car and escapes, unwittingly rocketing himself and the DeLorean to the year 1955.

Because Doc Brown hadn’t loaded extra canisters into the car, Marty finds himself stuck in the past. He runs into his parents, who are now teenagers, and proceeds to alter the fate of the universe by attracting his mom’s attention. Marty looks up the 50s version of Doc Brown and asks for help in sending him home. The two devise a scheme to channel the energy from a bolt of lightning—which is scheduled to strike Hill Valley’s clock tower in a week—and use it to charge the DeLorean with enough juice to get Marty back to 1985. Of more pressing concern, however, is Marty’s mission to draw his mother away from himself and towards George, to ensure that he has a future to return to.

Writer Bob Gale teamed up with director Robert Zemeckis to create the story of Back to the Future as a really smart, really exciting adventure that could be enjoyed by everyone. Unlike most current films aimed at drawing in the audience of the television shows on which the main stars appear, Back to the Future is a real movie about science, destiny, love and friendship. The dialogue is sharp, and it’s easy to tell that Zemeckis and Gale took pains to really consider the culture shock of a teenager wandering around a world whose technology, mores, and points of reference are absolutely foreign to him.

Take, for example, the scene where Marty tries to order a sugar-free soda at a diner. He asks for a Tab. The manager says he can’t give him a tab unless he orders something. So, Marty asks for a Pepsi Free; the manager barks, “If you want a Pepsi, pal, you’re gonna pay for it!” Back to the Future is packed with these brain-ticklers that are sometimes funny and sometimes deadly serious (as when Marty laments having to return to a future where Doc Brown is dead).

Aside from the writing, the cast really sells this movie. Fox and Lloyd are so believable that their back-story—as fascinating as I’m sure it is—becomes irrelevant. We instantly buy their bond and want to see what weird things they’ll do together. Glover and Thompson as the parents are superb; both actors bring the surprises and arcs of the screenplay to life, alternating between being pathetic caricatures to fleshed-out human beings—even triumphant ones; so much so that their characters feel as though they truly have been altered by the events of history, rather than the manipulations of an A-to-B script. I should also give praise to Thomas F. Wilson, whose Biff is, for me, the definitive brutish, dumb bully; as written and performed, he starts off as just kind of a douche bag, but is shown to be more pathological than that.

I’ve seen Back to the Future, I think, five times in my life, and only three times all the way through. It hasn’t lost any of its wonder or excitement because there’s something new to discover every time. Perhaps it was designed to appeal not only to people of all ages, but to people at different stages in their lives. When I was eight, it was a cool time travel movie. At thirty-two, it’s as much about the importance of friends and family as it is the special effects. Who knows what I’ll think of Back to the Future thirty years from now? Whatever I see in it then, I’m fairly sure it’ll be just as magical as the first time.