Michael J. Fox

Greedy (1994, Jonathan Lynn)

Greedy would be a mess if it weren’t so thoughtfully arranged. It’s not good, but it’s definitely intentional. The film opens with Ed Begley Jr. and his family–with Mary Ellen Trainor as his wife–going to his rich uncle’s house for a family gathering. There, the film introduces second-billed Kirk Douglas as the rich uncle and a bunch of people as the other greedy inheritors-to-be.

It also introduces Olivia d’Abo as the young minx living with Douglas. Now, Douglas and d’Abo give the best performances in the film–d’Abo edging out for the best–while everyone else is a caricature. Even Michael J. Fox, who is first-billed but doesn’t come in until fare at least ten or fifteen minutes, is playing a caricature. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel’s arc for Fox is atrocious. And poor Nancy Travis is stuck in the caricature of his supporting girlfriend.

Some of the caricatures are funny. Phil Hartman’s hilarious. Jere Burns is not. Begley doesn’t do badly, neither does Joyce Hyser as Burns’s estranged wife. Except the supporting cast doesn’t really matter. There are a lot of them to just be around and be awful when the scene requires it.

Greedy is a funny idea for a movie, but not a funny movie. Director Lynn–wait, I forgot him–he acts in the movie and is better than much of his cast–isn’t enthusiastic about anything in the picture.

It’s not exactly a painful viewing experience, just stunningly trite.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Lynn; written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Tony Lombardo; music by Randy Edelman; production designer, Victoria Paul; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Daniel), Kirk Douglas (Uncle Joe), Nancy Travis (Robin), Olivia d’Abo (Molly Richardson), Phil Hartman (Frank), Ed Begley Jr. (Carl), Jere Burns (Glen), Colleen Camp (Patti), Bob Balaban (Ed), Joyce Hyser (Muriel), Mary Ellen Trainor (Nora), Siobhan Fallon (Tina), Kevin McCarthy (Bartlett), Khandi Alexander (Laura) and Jonathan Lynn (Douglas).


The Hard Way (1991, John Badham)

From the opening titles, it’s clear The Hard Way is going to have a lot of technical personality. The opening is set to the sounds of a street festival, the New York streets wet with rain and the neon lights vibrant.

Director Badham’s composition is excellent, Frank Morriss and Tony Lombardo’s editing is tight and the photography (either from Donald McAlpine or Robert Primes–it’s impossible to know who, Badham replaced Primes mid-shoot) is outstanding.

Only, it’s Taxi Driver. They’re ripping off Taxi Driver. It’s sort of appropriate, I guess, since the film goes on to rip off Dirty Harry for its villain.

But the film’s hook is Michael J. Fox, as an obnoxious movie star, tagging along with James Woods’s hard-boiled detective. Both Fox and Woods are perfect for the roles, able to transition when the film requires their characters to develop. Their chemistry is outstanding, which gets the film in trouble when it keeps them apart.

The filmmakers foolishly try to make the storyline plausible, inserting some pointless subplots. The most superfluous is the one with Fox bonding with Woods’s erstwhile girlfriend (an amiable, if underused, Annabella Sciorra). They pad a lot… and then feel the need to give the movie around four false endings.

But it’s pleasant and endearing throughout. The great supporting cast–Luis Guzmán and Delroy Lindo in particular–help. Stephen Lang chews the scenery as the villain; he’s never scary (or realistic) but always amusing.

And Arthur B. Rubinstein’s score is swell.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Badham; screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Lem Dobbs, based on a story by Dobbs and Michael Kozoll; directors of photography, Donald McAlpine and Robert Primes; edited by Tony Lombardo and Frank Morriss; music by Arthur B. Rubinstein; production designer, Philip Harrison; produced by Rob Cohen and William Sackheim; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Nick Lang), James Woods (Detective Lt. John Moss), Stephen Lang (The Party Crasher), Annabella Sciorra (Susan), Christina Ricci (Bonnie), John Capodice (Detective Grainy), Luis Guzmán (Detective Benny Pooley), LL Cool J (Detective Billy), Mary Mara (Detective China), Delroy Lindo (Captain Brix), Conrad Roberts (Witherspoon) and Penny Marshall (Angie).


Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

Back to the Future gives the impression of being very economical in terms of its narrative… but it really isn’t. Zemeckis just does such a great job immediately establishing the fifties setting, even though there’s less than fifty minutes before the third act, the film feels more immediate.

It takes a half hour to get to the past (until that point, of course, the title doesn’t make much sense) and Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale establish the characters. Well, not the characters, but the cast. No one in Future has much of a character, just a distinct, likable persona. Even Thomas F. Wilson’s menacing thug.

Without the establishing front matter, Michael J. Fox’s trip to the past wouldn’t work, at least not with his parents, Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson. Actually, it might work with Glover, since he’s fantastic. Thompson is not; Zemeckis has problems with female actors–both Thompson and Claudia Wells are weak. Wendie Jo Sperber is good in her cameo though.

While Fox holds the film together, his performance concentrates more on likability than actual dramatic heft. Christopher Lloyd is much stronger; he gives a physical comedy performance some of the time, but also acts as the viewer’s entry into the extraordinary situation. He does quite well.

Of particular note are Dean Cundey’s photography and Alan Silvestri’s score. Silvestri’s score isn’t subtle, but it’s effective. And Cundey does great work, even though Zemeckis’s composition is pedestrian.

Though sometimes painfully shallow, Future is a lot of fun.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Gale and Neil Canton; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines McFly), Crispin Glover (George McFly), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen), Claudia Wells (Jennifer Parker), Marc McClure (Dave McFly), Wendie Jo Sperber (Linda McFly), George DiCenzo (Sam Baines), Frances Lee McCain (Stella Baines) and James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland).


Back to the Future Part II (1989, Robert Zemeckis)

Back to the Future Part II, while front heavy with special effects, ends up being a small picture. The first half or so deals with the sequel setup from the first movie’s finale but then Part II tells a side story set during the first film. Time travel franchises can be, it turns out, rather economical.

Unfortunately, these economies mostly just show off how Bob Gale’s creatively bankrupt script. The film is reductive, not expansive, with most of the cast wasted. Christopher Lloyd, for example, disappears for large sections, occasionally popping up for a comical line reading. Michael J. Fox and Thomas F. Wilson are the whole show and neither do well. Neither are bad, but both have all new character quirks to incorporate. These incorporations are a tad difficult… since the original film looms over this one. And not just because whole sections of the first film’s footage is reused or because the second half involves Fox acting “alongside” himself.

Gale and Zemeckis continue to waste female talent. Elisabeth Shue actually has some decent screen time in the first half, being the viewer’s entry into the future of she and Fox, but then she literally gets knocked out for the rest of the movie. Lea Thompson shows up for a few scenes, does a lot better than Shue (who mugs constantly), before evaporating.

Gone are the first film’s likable characterizations. Part II is an ugly film; nastiness is apparently easier to write. The abject lack of story is shocking.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; screenplay by Bob Gale, based on a story by Zemeckis and Gale; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Harry Keramidas and Arthur Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Neil Canton and Gale; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly / Marty McFly Jr / Marlene McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen / Griff Tannen), Elisabeth Shue (Jennifer Parker), James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland), Jeffrey Weissman (George McFly) and Charles Fleischer (Terry).


Back to the Future Part III (1990, Robert Zemeckis)

Apparently, all Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale needed for a Back to the Future sequel was a story. Part III, unlike the second installment, has a lot going on and it’s not all tied into the original’s storyline. Instead, Michael J. Fox finds himself in the Old West, trying to save Christopher Lloyd.

Zemeckis and Gale finally reward Lloyd for his time with a good part in this one. Fox’s story is boring–he’s up against Thomas F. Wilson again (Wilson is utterly fantastic)–but Lloyd’s romancing Mary Steenburgen while playing cowboy. There’s also a nice bit for Lloyd set after the first movie. This entry really makes it clear Zemeckis and Gale don’t know what works in these movies.

They include some more nonsense details, with Fox playing his ancestor. Lea Thompson shows up for a scene or two as Fox’s great-great-grandmother or something… it’s unclear if the filmmakers mean to imply the family tree has crossed branches. Probably not; Part III, until the awkward ending (it’s an ending to Part II, not this one), is rather genial.

The Dean Cundey photography is great and editors Harry Keramidas and Arthur Schmidt do excellent work, especially on the unbelievably tense finale. Unfortunately, Alan Silvestri’s score is either repetitive or weak. It’s a small quibble in an otherwise excellent production.

There are nice minor performances from Matt Clark and James Tolkan.

While it finishes the series, Part III does show what works in Future sequels–tight writing, inventive setting.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; screenplay by Bob Gale, based on a story by Zemeckis and Gale; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Harry Keramidas and Arthur Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Gale and Neil Canton; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly / Seamus McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Mary Steenburgen (Clara Clayton), Thomas F. Wilson (Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen / Biff Tannen), Lea Thompson (Maggie McFly / Lorraine McFly), Elisabeth Shue (Jennifer Parker), Matt Clark (Chester the Bartender), Richard Dysart (Barbwire Salesman), Pat Buttram (Saloon Old Timer), Harry Carey Jr. (Saloon Old Timer), Dub Taylor (Saloon Old Timer), James Tolkan (Marshal James Strickland), Marc McClure (Dave McFly), Wendie Jo Sperber (Linda McFly) and Jeffrey Weissman (George McFly).


Mars Attacks! (1996, Tim Burton)

I remember seeing Mars Attacks! in the theater–in those days, the pre-Sleepy Hollow days, I was quite the Tim Burton aficionado. That affection has changed (changed is the polite word) in the last fourteen years, but Mars Attacks! has just gotten better and better on each viewing. At present, it’s my vote for Burton’s most accomplished film (Ed Wood being the other contender).

In fact, it’s almost unbelievable Burton made the film–during the war room sequences, one could feel Strangelove, something I don’t think of with Burton, and his handling of the cast is magnificent. In a lot of ways, Burton does here what Soderbergh tries to do with his populist films and can’t achieve fully–Burton makes a great time, but for himself. The film’s completely indifferent to its potential audience (something I sort of remember from the response when it came out) and just… enraptured with itself.

The Martians don’t show up for at least a half hour–it might be forty minutes–so the cast is instead given the opportunity to create these fantastic characters who may or may not matter later on. I think only Danny DeVito really gets to define himself after the invasion begins.

Everyone in the film is fantastic (I always forget Natalie Portman used to be good), but standouts are Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening… oh, wait, I’m just listing the cast.

Jim Brown’s really good.

Burton’s direction–his first Panavision, I think–is singular.

Simply put, it’s awesome.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Jonathan Gems, based on his story and the trading cards by Len Brown, Woody Gelman, Wally Wood, Bob Powell and Norman Saunders; director of photography, Peter Suschitzky; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Wynn Thomas; produced by Burton and Larry J. Franco; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jack Nicholson (President James Dale / Art Land), Glenn Close (First Lady Marsha Dale), Annette Bening (Barbara Land), Pierce Brosnan (Professor Donald Kessler), Danny DeVito (Rude Gambler), Martin Short (Press Secretary Jerry Ross), Sarah Jessica Parker (Nathalie Lake), Michael J. Fox (Jason Stone), Rod Steiger (General Decker), Tom Jones (Himself), Jim Brown (Byron Williams), Lukas Haas (Richie Norris), Natalie Portman (Taffy Dale), Pam Grier (Louise Williams), Lisa Marie (Martian Girl), Brian Haley (Mitch, Secret Service Agent), Sylvia Sidney (Grandma Florence Norris), Jack Black (Billy Glenn Norris) and Paul Winfield (General Casey).


Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

Back to the Future has become a detached experience. It isn’t really dated, it’s just hard to interact with the film in the same way one could when its content was more contemporary (in seven years, it’ll be like watching Michael J. Fox as the parent and Crispin Glover as the grandparent). The scenes set in the 1950s, which defined–in modern cinema–the portrayal of the period, feel a lot more “real” than the scenes set in 1985. It’s an odd relationship, one possibly even worthy of some consideration (especially given the film’s–somewhat forgotten–importance in popular culture and Hollywood cinema).

On its own, the film’s still a competent, well-meaning diversion. It doesn’t bear too much examination or consideration–the ending is incredibly problematic–but it’s a fine time. The humor–from Fox’s observations to Glover’s entire performance to Christopher Lloyd’s mugging for the camera–holds up, but feels a lot more comfortable than it should. It might be because the film’s become so engrained in the filmic consciousness–it’s familiar to a point similar to television programs (its stars being primarily television actors notwithstanding). It’s a passive viewing experience… there’s little new for it to offer.

This condition has nothing to do with its age or popularity, there just isn’t much to the story. There are a lot of little details, but the characters are rather shallow. Fox is engaging because he’s Fox, not because his character has any depth. Glover is just the same–I mean, the film never explores Glover’s home life, which is quite telling (Gale and Zemeckis knew they didn’t have room). Lea Thompson, who probably gives the worst performance–she’s okay and effective in parts, but compared to her co-stars, she’s the pits–is only interesting because of what she does, not who she is. Gale and Zemeckis set the tone for future blockbusters here–the actors aren’t playing people, rather personifying caricatures who do amusing things. These aren’t people who live off-screen.

During the way too classy opening credits–they suggest a technical craft Zemeckis simply isn’t capable of applying to narrative scenes–when I saw Dean Cundey was the cinematographer, I got ready for some beautiful shots. There aren’t any. All of the shots are nice and well-lighted and so on, but nothing really grabs. Zemeckis isn’t interesting in that factor (the wonderment factor… there’s never a moment where Fox reflects on the weight of his situation). Cundey does have some beautiful outdoor shots though, even if they’re incidental.

The film’s special effects are solid–the best special effect is the 1950s setting, which feels perfect throughout. The editing is problematic, occasionally revealing the stunt or skate-boarding doubles. Alan Silvestri’s score, which is basically the same as all his other scores, is occasionally annoying, but usually all right. The make-up is first-rate–Crispin Glover practically looks more realistic as a forty-seven-year-old than he does a teenager.

Besides Glover, the best performance has to be Thomas F. Wilson. His villain is evil, but also produces a lot of laughter, mostly because of Wilson’s physical performance. It’s the film’s most difficult role. To be a somewhat lovable bully.

At the end–the much remembered teaser, the one I found so compelling as an eight-year-old–Back to the Future loses its way. It’s already on a shaky path (the narrative takes way too many short-cuts, a forerunner to blockbuster trailer moments instead of actual scenes) but the end just makes it too much. There’s too much to consider, from Lloyd’s future clothes to the quick gag about the garbage. It’s a great set-up for a sequel, but it’s a poor conclusion for a movie.

Worse, it reveals there isn’t any possible conclusion to Back to the Future. Fox doesn’t have an arc (he doesn’t learn anything, he doesn’t change) and no one else really exists….

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Gale and Neil Canton; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines McFly), Crispin Glover (George McFly), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen), Claudia Wells (Jennifer Parker), Marc McClure (Dave McFly), Wendie Jo Sperber (Linda McFly), George DiCenzo (Sam Baines), Frances Lee McCain (Stella Baines) and James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland).


The Frighteners (1996, Peter Jackson), the director’s cut

The Frighteners came right after (well, two years) Heavenly Creatures, so I assume–and sort of remember from 1996–it was supposed to be Jackson’s big break. Instead, it bombed. So, obviously, it’s his best work. The Frighteners is a Universal Pictures Michael J. Fox star vehicle (following Greedy and For Love or Money and The Hard Way) and it’s Fox at his best, when he finally shrugged off the trying-too-hard attitude that ruined his 1980s work. The film plays to Fox’s comedic, self-referencing traits, but without forcing references to earlier work. The scenes where he’s not being funny, fail. It’s not all Fox’s fault, the script fails there too. The Frighteners is best when it’s being silly. (However, as “Boston Legal” further confirms, Fox does well as a romantic leading man).

I wasn’t expecting much from The Frighteners. I haven’t seen it since the late 1990s, probably when the laserdisc came out. I missed the much-eBayed director’s cut laserdisc and waited to watch the film again until it became available in whatever format. I remember Jackson once referred to the version as “The Director’s Fun Cut,” as opposed to anything else, and it is quite a bit of fun. The Frighteners is so well-cast, has so many good jokes and performances (Dee Wallace-Stone is particularly good), it’s rather disappointing when it falls apart. The added footage does the film no harm, it just has a bad third act….

Throughout the entire film, Jeffrey Combs irritates as a wacko FBI agent, but he once disappears only to reappear, it becomes obvious how little he brought to the film. When he returns, the heart sinks and the eyes roll… He’s actually doing a Jim Carrey impression in the role, stealing mannerisms and expressions from Carrey’s early work–most visibly Ace Ventura and Dumb & Dumber. I kept wondering if they’d wanted Carrey (he and Combs share a resemblance), but couldn’t afford him or something. Even the initials are the same. It’s not just Combs who ruins the third act, it’s just heavy-handed and poorly written… but not so much it spoils the film.

Oh, lastly, the awful CG special effects. They don’t really affect the film’s quality, but many of these shots could have been achieved without CG, just with a minuscule amount of imagination and they would have actually looked good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Fran Walsh and Jackson; directors of photography, Alun Bollinger and John Blick; edited by Jamie Selkirk; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Grant Major; produced by Selkirk and Jackson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Frank Bannister), Trini Alvarado (Lucy Lynskey), Peter Dobson (Ray Lynskey), John Astin (the Judge), Jeffrey Combs (Milton Dammers), Dee Wallace-Stone (Patricia Ann Bradley), Jake Busey (Bartlett), Chi McBride (Cyrus), Jim Fyfe (Stuart), Troy Evans (Sheriff Perry), Julianna McCarthy (Old Lady Bradley) and R. Lee Ermey (Sgt. Hiles).


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