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In Defense of “Back to the Future Part II”

In Defense of “Back to the Future Part II”  (photo)

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“Back to the Future Part II” is one of the best sequels ever made about sequels. The movie has a poor reputation amongst those who see it as a pale imitation of the original film. What those critics fail to realize is that the film itself acknowledges that inferiority, and the inherent inferiority of all sequels, within its rather brilliant construction. It’s a movie about overcompensating as much as it is a movie about time travel.

Though released four years after the first “Back to the Future,” “Part II” picks up exactly where the first film left off. Time travel inventor and DeLorean enthusiast Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travel to the year 2015 with Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) to prevent Marty’s son from participating in a bank robbery. While there, Marty finds an almanac that lists every sports score from the second half of the twentieth century and plans to bring it back to the past to make money gambling on the winners. Though Doc changes Marty’s mind, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) steals Doc’s time machine and gives the almanac to himself as a teenager, creating an alternate 1985 where he is the richest and most powerful man in America. To correct this nightmarish alternate reality Doc and Marty next travel to 1955, to the exact time and place of the events of the first “Back to the Future,” to steal the almanac back from Biff and ensure he can’t use it to rewrite history.

All sequels face the same creative challenge: balancing the audience’s desire to see what they liked from the original film again with their desire to see things that are novel and original. That final 1955 sequence provides both a satisfying way to do that and an ingenious metatextual commentary on that idea. In it, director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis and producer/co-writer Bob Gale, bring us back to the events of the first film from a different perspective: Marty’s, as he struggles to retrieve the almanac from Biff and happens to be present for the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance a second time. It’s almost as if Marty’s watching “Back to the Future” and inviting us to watch it with him. He even gets caught up in things he sees, rooting on his dad as punches out Biff, nodding approvingly at his performance of “Johnny B. Goode.” As Marty puts it, “talk about déjà vu.”

With “Back to the Future Part II,” Zemeckis and Gale managed a rare and difficult feat: they made an extremely faithful followup while simultaneously making fun of the idea of extremely faithful followups. What’s more, many of the tasks they place before Marty in 1955 put the character into the position they as creators were in as they conceived the sequel. At a crucial moment in “Part II,” Marty needs to stop a bunch of goons who are planning to jump the Marty from the first film after he finishes “Johnny B. Goode.” “Part II” Marty must sneak into the dance, defeat the goons, and save “Part I” Marty, all without being seen or interrupting the important events that are going on around him. Marty, in other words, becomes Zemeckis and Gale: he has to show us the things we loved about “Back to the Future” without disturbing anything he finds or ruining the legacy of what he’d built the first time around.

Most of the common complaints about “Back to the Future Part II” are irrelevant. While it’s true that its future world of 2015 looks a bit silly in the year 2010 — Flying cars! Holographic movies! People reading newspapers! — the alternate 1985 sequence, where corporate interests control the government and our education system lies in ruins, was always the film’s most prescient. And it doesn’t matter that Marty is suddenly obsessed with people calling him chicken even though that was never an issue in the first film. This is “Back to the Future.” Rewriting history is what this series is about.

This particular third of that series is about the dangers of meddling with history, and again, that all works as a meta commentary on the process of sequel-making as well. Marty’s “chicken” obsession, while certainly an unmotivated addition to his character, also becomes a place for Zemeckis and Gale to put their fears of inadequacy as filmmakers. Think we’re afraid of making a sequel to one of the most beloved movies of the decade? Nobody calls us chicken! Look, we’ve got hoverboards and rehydrated pizzas and video phones and stuff!

“Back to the Future Part II” is not as good as the first film. Sequels rarely are. That’s the point: the best you can do lead people back through their memories of the first film and hope you don’t taint them with the things you add to them.

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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…