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Monday, December 09, 2019

‘Back To The Future’ Is Back! How Much Did It Get Right?

By Rich Heldenfels, Akron Beacon Journal (TNS)

It’s not quite the future imagined.

When Back to the Future Part II hit theaters in 1989, it included what the world might look like in 2015.

Among the things it got wrong:

We don’t navigate aerial highways in flying cars.

There’s no Jaws 19. That series of movies sputtered to an end after four films.

We still have lawyers.

Princess Diana never became queen. The record in the mile run is not 3 minutes. We don’t have a woman president yet.

The movie did anticipate some things – including an easily used digital camera and Vietnam as a surfing attraction – and inspired real-life hoverboards. And the Cubs are still in the hunt for the World Series.

But regardless of its visions, the trilogy of films from 1985, 1989 and 1990 as a whole still appeals to many fans across generations. And not only because we have reached the 30th anniversary of the first film.

While that anniversary was in July, greater celebrations have been set for Wednesday – among them theatrical replays of the movies and other events, new home-viewing offerings and the release of limited-edition Pepsi modeled after the second movie’s drink. There has also been constant speculation that Nike will release a replica of its futuristic shoe in the second film. All that is happening because when the second film leaps into the future, it hits Oct. 21, 2015.

But what is this all about?


The series began with young Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) going from 1985 to 1955 in a time-traveling DeLorean developed by inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Marty inadvertently stalled the relationship between his future parents and had to fix it to ensure his own existence.

Well, that and give Chuck Berry a musical inspiration.

Marty actually improved his 1985 life by his 1955 deeds. But in the second film, Marty and Doc had to go to the future, 2015, to deal with another family crisis – and Marty again causes havoc, this time for 1985. The third movie – shot back-to-back with the second – sent Marty and Doc to the Old West, and to a resolution of the entire story.

The first film was the biggest hit of 1985. Fox, who had become a TV star thanks to “Family Ties,” showed he could carry a theatrical movie. Director Robert Zemeckis had the first of what would prove to be a string of blockbusters such as “Forrest Gump.”

The first film “was popular because it combined the best of old-school and new-school storytelling,” said film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “The old-school part was the clockwork plot – literally clockwork, in the end – and the strong, simple characterizations.

“The movie had a sense of craft that was often lacking in 1980s Hollywood films, which could sometimes feel rather slapped-together,” said Seitz, the editor-in-chief of, via email. “The new-school part was the special effects, which were innovative both technically and in terms of images – stuff like the flaming tire tracks were as iconic as the way the stars in Star Wars turned into streaks when the Millennium Falcon jumped into hyperspace.”

Seitz saw it for the first time when in high school, and then kept going back that summer.

“I probably saw it six times,” he said. “I didn’t realize who Robert Zemeckis was, even though I had seen some of his other movies. This was the one that made me pay attention to him.”


And it still can have that effect.

“It holds up really well,” said Seitz. “The most fascinating thing about its durability to me is that now, 30 years later, we are as far away from Marty’s time as Marty was from his parents’ time. Back in the ’80s, we watched this movie and laughed at how primitive the past seemed. Now we laugh at how primitive the ’80s seem. It’s a double time-capsule now, because it shows us how 1980s Americans viewed the 1950s.”

But what about the second and third film? Neither did as well as the first at the box office, and the second one can feel overcomplicated as it moves around in time and characters overlap with themselves along the timeline.

“The second film doesn’t have the emotional pull of the first one, but as a conceptual feat it’s dazzling, especially when Marty sees Marty in that replay of the finale,” said Seitz. “The third one is quite sweet and has some marvelous Western parody elements, and the final chase is great.”

Some theaters will show all three together on Wednesday, and “it’s kind of fun to watch all three of them close together and see how they comment on each other, and also how they create this sense of history repeating itself, almost as a preemptive joke against complaints that the sequels repeat themselves,” said Seitz. “The same actors play themselves at different ages, or they play their own ancestors or descendants.”

And the moviemakers may have gotten another prediction very right.

“The thing I find most interesting about (the second movie) is the vision of capitalism,” Seitz said. “The mentality of a guy like Biff, who’s in control in the nightmare future, is basically that of Donald Trump or some other belligerent rich man with no conscience, a guy who only cares about power and being told how great he is.

“Without meaning to, the filmmakers really predicted the way rich people’s attitudes about this country would change, or maybe I should say change back, to something like what we had before regulation.”

Appreciation: Sid Caesar Was A Comic Genius

By Rich Heldenfels, Akron Beacon Journal

In 2001, a 78-year-old Sid Caesar walked onto the stage in a Pasadena, Calif., hotel to accept an award from the Television Critics Association for his career achievements.

Caesar, who died Wednesday at 91, looked frail even then. He needed a cane to walk. As he went up onstage, no one would have been surprised if he gave a terse “thank you” and went on.

But it did not turn out that way. Maybe it was the crowd: TV critics, sure, but ones who had come to appreciate his remarkable work in comedic sketches on “Your Show of Shows” (1950-54) and “Caesar’s Hour” (1954-57) — even if they were no more than toddlers when those shows aired. Maybe it was just having the lights on him. But a light went on in Caesar, too.

He began his acceptance speech in the double-talk French that was part of his comedy repertoire. Laughs. After an expert pause, when the audience thought he would be serious, he switched to double-talk German. Then the same kind of ersatz talk but in Italian, delivered with such authority that you thought, maybe this really does make sense. Only we in the crowd at this point were laughing too much to think that hard.

Caesar then accepted his award, shared a story, thanked his wife — and made it almost impossible for any funny business to follow him. David Chase, the mastermind of “The Sopranos,” claimed he was throwing away his “allegedly funny remarks” because “After Mr. Caesar, no way.” Addressing Caesar directly, Chase said, “Everybody in this room who has ever written anything (for TV) has learned from you. You have given me some of the biggest laughs in my life.”

Chase is not the only one to feel that way. To be sure, some younger audiences may know Caesar only from late-in-life interviews or his appearances in such movies as “Grease.” Or they are aware of him in a vaguely secondhand way: TV-show host King Kaiser in “My Favorite Year” is modeled on Caesar. Neil Simon, who worked for Caesar, wrote the play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” (later adapted for television) based on the experiences of Caesar’s formidable crew of writers.

But Caesar’s own work on his TV shows is worth revisiting because it is still funny, it was done under trying circumstances (“Your Show of Shows” was not only live, and blending comedic with music, but it was 90 minutes long) and Caesar was operating with a group of actors as fine as his writers.

We’re talking Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris. You could build an entire show around any one of them — indeed, “Your Show of Shows” ended when Coca got her own NBC series, and Reiner played a character based on Caesar in “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

In the middle of them towers Caesar, gifted not only in seemingly off-the-cuff chatter but blessed with a mobilely expressive face capable of going from serene smile to sweat-popping anxiety without a misstep. By the time he came to “Your Show of Shows,” he had worked onstage — and on television, where he had appeared with Milton Berle (one of TV’s earliest comedy stars) and with Coca on “Admiral Broadway Revue,” a variety show in 1949.

People like Berle had made their mark on TV with big humor that could be picked up easily on the small TV screens of the day — “broad slapstick and snappy one-liners,” as the New York Times put it.

Caesar, the Times added, “introduced a different kind of humor to the small screen, at once more intimate and more absurd, based less on jokes or pratfalls than on characters and situations.” Indeed, when I think of Caesar, I often come back to that face, working in a tiny-TV closeup to bring us close to what his character was feeling.

And how good was Caesar? The “Admiral” show, noted the Los Angeles Times, was dropped by its TV-manufacturing sponsor because the company needed its sponsorship money “to build a new factory to keep up with the skyrocketing number of orders for its TV sets generated by the show.” But when that show ended, Caesar, Coca and producer Max Liebman took their talents as a package to NBC, and “Your Show of Shows” was born.

The show was not the biggest hit of its time — Berle, for one, was more popular — but in a time of few networks, even modest successes could command huge audiences and generate conversation, as Caesar’s shows often did among an audience that appreciated its to-the-absurdist-limit takes on “Pagliacci” or “From Here to Eternity” or “This Is Your Life.” The smart viewers spotted the art being presented through Caesar by Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart and others. And, as Chase said, the future TV writers in the audience were taking notes.

Unfortunately, it’s both fair and painful to say that he hit his peak more than 50 years ago. Part of this had to do with his struggles with alcohol and pills, struggles that would later lead him into projects that were not up to his talents, or got less than half of what he could do. (He plaintively titled his 1982 autobiography “Where Have I Been?”)

At the same time, his skills as we know them seemed best suited to the television sketch — the relatively brief bit which, in his heyday, could still last minutes longer than 21st-century TV comedy allows. He could form a character, make you laugh and then go on to a new character or sketch. Like many of his spiritual heirs on “Saturday Night Live,” longer-form comedy was not his best showcase.

Yet when the old material was repackaged for the movie “Ten From Your Show of Shows” in 1973, there were hosannas from spectators new and old. VHS and later DVD collections of his classic sketches did still more to remind people of Caesar at his best.

He sure did not forget his marvelous way with a laugh — as he reminded folks on that night in Pasadena.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons