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Back to the Future
8 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Back to the Future (1985)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Talents: Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells

U.S. Release Date: 07/03/85

Verdict: Anyone who spent their years as a teenager in the eighties must have some terrific memories to share. After all, there were plenty of mishaps both political and cultural that Americans had to suffer through in the seventies (the unexpected demise of Elvis Presley, the hatching of the Cold War). At the beginning of the eighties, Hollywood decided to brush the dust off its wings and appeal to younger audiences with ?kiddie? sci-fi flicks, which served as eye candy for both children and adults. Seeing such dazzling science fiction treasures as Ghostbusters, Innerspace, and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial must have been a spectacular night at the theatre. Those films dazzled audiences with their pioneering special effects and hip cultural soundtracks (how could you not tap your feet to such eighties hits as ?Don?t You Forget About Me? by Simple Minds and ?Eye of the Tiger? by Survivor?), and it is my humble opinion that cinema was at its peak during that decade.

Robert Zemeckis, the ?whiz kid with special effects?, penned Back to the Future in the mid-eighties, but he would later dazzle audiences with a whole slate of masterworks. Zemeckis has a keen eye for special effects, and he knows how to use them at his disposal like firepower (you can almost reach out and shake hands with the wacky duo Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Schools and history books can only teach us so much, so one of my absurd boyhood fantasies was to travel back in time to see what made some of the great leaders of this country tick. Thus far in my life, this childhood fantasy has not yet become a reality, and now I realize that science will probably never allow it, but that?s where films like Back to the Future come in handy. By taking advantage of an unlikely notion like traveling back in time, Zemeckis crafted a hip, well-liked science fiction outing that opened the hearts of teenagers everywhere and proved that, with cinema, childhood fantasies can be made a reality.

I can picture no other actor to fill in gutsy guitar enthusiast/shrimpy teenager Marty McFly?s sneakers than Michael J. Fox. Although there were plenty of other nerdy teen performers that already had experience in hip high school flicks, Fox is the only actor I can think of who can be tough-as-nails while retaining a nerdy, twitchy persona. Marty McFly has the guts to stand up to a mammoth-like bully on his first day of school, but he just doesn?t have the heart to send in one of his recording sessions to a music dealer. His lame parents are no help, either. The scrawny, reclusive man of the house (Glover) is a spineless businessman bullied to do one of his fellow employee?s paperwork, and Marty?s overweight mother (Thompson) spends her evenings lecturing to the kids about how they should not see anyone until they know it?s true love. You question if these two even have any feelings for each other at all. She struts throughout the kitchen as if attempting to drink herself to her grave, and he snaps bitterly at the dinner table when she dreamily recalls the few precious years they spent as teenagers. It?s not that this couple is on the brink of collapse. They raise their children in a quiet, little suburban neighborhood with enough income to get them by, but the interior of their residence is more fitting for a retirement center, complete with dull wallpaper and murky light shading. They should give Home Improvement a try.

When he?s not squirming in the middle of his parents? disputes, Marty spends most of his time playing with the toys built by an eccentric inventor named Dr. Emmett Brown (Lloyd). Brown could form a Wacky Scientist social club with Dr. Frankenstein and, say, Billy Nye the Science Guy. During one late evening, Marty is summoned to the outside of a shopping mall where he will videotape the birth of Dr. Brown?s latest creation. He is stunned out of his mind to see the testing of a time machine built out of a Delorean, but after being chased by a group of nuclear-hungry terrorists, he literally rockets to the year 1955. This is where the film takes a slightly dramatic turn. While feasting his eyes on the glorious sights that the fifties had to offer young teens, such as the revolutionary jukebox and the astonishingly cheap music records, he runs into his parents. The dweeby teenage version of his father is nothing different than the adult version: a scrawny, spineless pushover, easily talked into any situation that might get him into trouble at school. The meeting with his mother is much more severe. During what is supposed to be the first meeting of his parents, Marty is run over by his future grandfather?s vehicle, and awakens in his mother?s bedroom, who falls head over heels for her own son at first glance. This is where he rushes to the aid of a younger Dr. Brown, who teaches the teenager that he must have his mother fall in love with his father before the whole space time continuum is disrupted! Oh, and he must help him get back to his own time as well.

There is also some gut busting comedy involved. In one of the later sequences, Marty comes to the conclusion that he must go to drastic measures to force his future dad to cross paths with his future mom. After dressing up in one of Doc Brown?s spare nuclear suits, he stealthily sneaks into his father?s bedroom, places a ?futuristic? set of headphones upon his ears, and cranks some Van Halen full blast. In a raspy, otherworldly hiss, he informs his father that he is Darth Vader, an extra terrestrial from the Planet Vulcan. Bear in mind that audiences had not yet been introduced to either Star Wars or Star Trek, so, as a result of this clever gag, tears were streaming down my cheeks the first time I saw the scene unfold.

I suspect there are those who believe that a science fiction comedy like Back to the Future, a film that appeals more to teens who get a kick out of flashy special effects, does not deserve to be on any critic?s top list. As fate would have it, I have already compiled a list of five of the finest films to be crafted during the eighties, and Back to the Future just happens to be one of them. Its comedy was, at times, sidesplitting. It also introduced the world to an actor who never really got his full ride, and it features a show-stopping music sequence in which Michael J. Fox bellows ?Johnny B. Goode? on stage. As a teenager, I must say that it?s almost a shock to see that adults really were just like myself at one time or another.

*The Five Finest Films to be Crafted During the Eighties:

1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
2. Raging Bull (1980)
3. Amadeus (1984)
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
5. Back to the Future (1985)

A Christmas Story
8 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

A Christmas Story (1983)
Directed by Bob Clark

Talents: Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, Zack Ward, Ian Patrella, Tedde Moore

U.S. Release Date: 11/18/83

Verdict: Tradition is one of the many jolly aspects that make the holidays so grand. No matter what part of America you live in, whether it?s the Deep South or the Midwest, you?ll find that tradition is a term countless families live for. I seem to recall a rather crude tradition that my elderly neighbor practiced every holiday season: the old coot would drop some sleeping pills in glasses of homemade eggnog, go door to door selling the drinks in a jolly manner, and burst into tears while watching his customers pass out. He must have mistaken the holidays for April Fool?s Day because he pulled off that same trick every year. Being only a sprouting toddler at the time, I didn?t think too much of the prank, but eventually my parents blew a fuse and phoned in on the local police squad. The men in uniform let the old man off with a warning, but I would never forget what he went through just to get a cheap laugh.

Whenever the holidays roll around, I roast some chestnuts on an open fire and settle in front of a small-screen TV to watch three films in particular: A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sims, It?s a Wonderful Life, which is the film I hold closest to my heart, and A Christmas Story Peter Billingsley. This is a line I?ve borrowed from a review I wrote for Frank Capra?s timeless classic It?s a Wonderful Life, and I say it again for A Christmas Story. Not only is it one of my all-time top Christmas films, but it?s also earned a spot in my All-Time Top 100 list as well. It?s the kind of nostalgic film that makes your heart glad.

Ralphie, the four-eyed ?hero? of the film, is a stick in the mud, the kind of kid you could meet in any corner of the world. Billingsley?s sincere and unannoying performance would sink Macauly Culkin in a millisecond. Growing up as a pre-teen in the forties, Ralphie favors late-night radio programs in lieu of TV cable, and instead of begging his parents to whip some cash out of their wallet, he would rather stare awe-struck at the department store?s window display of toys and goodies. His heart is set on one item in particular: a ?Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in stock and this thing that tells time?, and in one hysterical daydream sequence, he imagines himself a gunman ridding his parents of some dastardly bandits.

Here we meet the parents. Melinda Dillon is a stay-at-home housewife that jokes at her husband (a grouchy Darren McGavin) whenever he answers trivia question from the funnies section of his paper. McGavin is the kind of grumpy dad that works hard all day and comes home expecting his family to serve him comfort on a silver platter. He takes the love of his family for granted and even blows a fuse when Dillon intentionally destroys his prized ?leg lamp?, which is a silicone, two-foot tall leg laden in women?s fish-net lingerie. The ?major award?, as the old man so proudly calls it, is shipped in a crate labeled ?FRAGILE?. McGavin, with the enthusiasm of a child, stares puzzled at the crate and mutters, ?FRA-GEE-LEE. That must be Italian!? Ralphie also has to suffer a younger brother named Randy. As the narrator (voice of Jean Shepherd) so lovingly puts it, every family has a kid that won?t eat, and Randy is the kind of whiny, spoiled younger sibling that would drive you off the deep end. But, hey, what are brothers for, huh?

There are plenty of problems in store for Ralphie during the holiday season. Throughout the length of the film, he and his friends are pursued by a cackling, ?yellow-eyed? bully (Ward) with a chuckle-worthy name: Scut Farkus (he, of course, gets a taste of his own medicine once he pushes Ralphie a little too far). Does the fun stop there? Not by a long shot. The disaster list goes ON and ON: his elementary teacher is handing out C+ grades on the children?s essays, he unwillingly spits out his first four-lettered curse word in front of his father, a bar of soap is shoved in his mouth, and he is ripped-off once his decoder pin spells out a crummy commercial scam for Little Orphan Annie. This brings us to my personal favorite mishap of the entire film. Christmas morning is only a couple of days away, and Ralphie has a life-changing revelation in bed: if he can ask the department store Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun, his parents won?t be able to prevent him from receiving the ULTIMATE Christmas present. Sounds pretty reasonable to me. So, the next evening, Ralph drags the mister and missus to the mall to see the big man himself, but there?s a glitch: the line waiting to see him could stretch as far as the Great Wall of China and the store is only minutes away from shutting down! And Ralph is soon to find out that it just isn?t worth it. The tight-wearing elves snap at the children as if they?ve just suffered the most headache-inducing hangover in history, and the Santa imposter tells Ralph that if a Red Ryder were to fall into his stubby little fingers, he would shoot his eye out. St. Nick and his surly elves need to be reminded of the classic phrase: ?tis the season to be jolly.

All of this wackiness is based on the works written by humorist Jean Shepherd, who himself spent most of his childhood in the quiet, little suburbs of Indiana. According to Wikipedia, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash is a satirical collection of short stories set during the Great Depression, and several of them take place outside the Christmas season. Shepherd lent his voice for the narrator/grown-up Ralphie, and if you keep your eyes focused on the screen, you?ll notice the author waiting in line to see the department store Santa. He?s the grouch that directs Ralphie and his younger brother to the end of the line.

A Christmas Story will get a chuckle out of you every time; it is one of those gems that can be viewed every holiday season without ever growing stale. ?A Tribute to the Original, Traditional, One-Hundred-Percent, Red-Blooded, Two-Fisted, All-American Christmas??