[Father’s Day] Vacation (1983)

Director: Harold Ramis
Cast: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Imogene Coca, Randy Quaid, John Candy, Christie Brinkley
Screenplay: John Hughes
98 mins. Rated R.

Happy Father’s Day! I was wracking my brain about great cinematic fathers, ones that deserved to be recognized on such a special day as this, and while there were a number of contenders, there’s really no way I can avoid talking about the best of the best in terms of film daddies: Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase, Caddyshack, Panda vs. Aliens). There’s no one that exemplifies the American vacation ideal, complete with its many faults, like Clark Griswold, and considering Vacation is one of my all-time favorite comedies, it felt perfect.

Clark Griswold is a fairly simple American family man. He just wants one thing: to give his family the ultimate road trip experience. Their destination: Wally World, home of Marty Moose. It’s clear that fate is not on their side, though, as problems arise before they even leave town. The car Clark ordered for the trip is not in, they consistently lose luggage at every turn, and Clark’s mid-life crisis shows up in the form of an attractive woman in a Ferrari that seems to be going the same way. Through it all, Clark tries to maintain a level of sanity for the sake of his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo, American History X, Frat Pack) and kids, Rusty and Audrey, but Clark is about to learn that getting to Wally World is only part of the journey.

John Hughes (Uncle Buck, Weird Science) seems to have had a hand in just about every major comedy of the 80s (okay, not really, but you know what I mean), and he based his screenplay off the short story “Vacation 58” that he wrote for the National Lampoon, based on elements of his own childhood. The script is clever, biting, and feels like something that you can jump right into at any point. In fact, when he presented the script to Jeffrey Katzenberg at Paramount, he criticized the plot for being “too episodic.” I would agree with him, though I see it as a strength. Everyone in America has gone through the best and worst kinds of vacation, and by writing it episodic, it doesn’t rely on the audience connecting with every single sequence. There’s a progression to the characters, most notably Clark, but the plot is presented in practically a vignette format, something that makes it easily digestible. Hughes was also clearly not above steering into uncomfortable territory. I’ve said it many times before, but this film is incredibly dark at times. No writer would even dream of doing the Bumper scene where Clark gets pulled over in today’s film landscape, and the scene is funny for how outrageous awful it is.

The script is not without its faults, though, and it’s perhaps the one area that loses the film its perfect status. The scene where the Griswold’s end up in a bad neighborhood does not work, and I’m not sure it ever did. It’s more that it has just aged very poorly. The idea that all black neighborhoods are filled with criminals just waiting for unsuspecting white families to drive through is just really bad taste, and I’ll applaud director Harold Ramis (Year One, The Ice Harvest) for admitting as much in his commentary for the film, calling it the most regrettable scene of his career. You can’t and shouldn’t delete this scene from the film, but it just stops the film dead now. The script also contained a really bad original ending involving a darker level of kidnapping, hostages, and plane hijackings that thankfully were replaced with the better ending that the film now has, and let’s be clear: I’m not even sure who put some of these scenes in the script originally (it is generally believed that Ramis and Chase did uncredited rewrites on the film switching the focus from the kids to the adults, and some of these poorer choices could’ve come from them.

When I go on vacations with my own family, I’m not embarrassed to admit that I am the Clark of the group. I’m the planner who tries to squeeze in every bit of tourism, all the while clashing with those that just want to relax or skip some of the lesser destinations. I think that’s the most relatable element of these films and the character of Clark. He exists in every family, and either you know someone like him, or that someone is you. He also embodies the idea of meaning well. He loves his kids, he loves his wife, and he’s just in a perpetual state of screwup. That makes him someone to root for, even through all the other horrible things he has done in this franchise. Unlike other famous film characters, I cannot see anyone outside of the legendary Chevy Chase in the character. Chase, as an actor, brings a spark to Griswold that makes him a larger-than-life everyman, a charismatic meshing of the kind of the parent that we all have in our memories. My dad had elements of him, as do I. This is perhaps Chase’s most famous character, and that’s for good reason. It’s the best and funniest that the actor has ever been.

The supporting cast is all terrific here as well, and most everyone will talk about Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen or Randy Quaid (Independence Day, Brokeback Mountain) as Cousin Eddie, and both are terrific, but I also think they are better serviced in other films in this series. In particular, I want to single out the work of Imogene Coca (Hollywood: The Movie, Buy & Cell) as Aunt Edna. She’s a unique character to the franchise in that she only appears in this first film, and she’s excellent, mostly because she plays antagonistically with the entire Griswold family the entirety of her screen time. Coca originally turned down the role of Edna, fearing she couldn’t play mean enough for what the film needed, but she becomes wholly memorable for what she brings to the film’s dynamic. This is what makes Vacation, and so much of Hughes’s filmography, work so well. We all know an Aunt Edna, not just form our families, but in life. There is someone you know in your past who is an Aunt Edna, and that realistic character work amid the zanier aspects of a Hughes story make for a unique experience. Edna is one of those perfect realistically over-the-top characters that Hughes did so well, and originally, her story had a much different ending which potentially would have led her to more appearances, so one only wonders what would’ve happened.

Another actor who only appeared in one of these is Hughes staple Anthony Michael Hall, who puts forth the best interpretation of Rusty Griswold of the entire franchise. Hall has great onscreen chemistry with Chase as a father/son dynamic, and it’s obvious from the very first scene where he and Clark arrive at the car lot to get their new family car for the trip. In fact, Hall may have inadvertently begun the tradition of the ever-swapping ages of Rusty and Audrey. During reshoots to fix the film’s chaotic and uneven ending, Hall showed up to film new scenes but had been through a growth spurt so they had to fix dialogue so that Rusty was the older child where this wasn’t initially the case, and I believe it had a hand in the drastically inconsistent ages of the kids as the series progressed, something that would further cement the Griswolds as the every-family archetype.

The only other character that isn’t praised enough in this film is the “character” of the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, the iconic metallic pea-painted car that enters the Griswold’s possession at the start of the film. It’s a unique and memorable prop that is featured across the entire film and is just as notably funny as the rest of the cast. The way this prop is utilized as the most frustrating element of the film is a wonder and every time another piece of luggage is hurled from the top, every time its rear bumper commits a crime, every time it is juxtaposed with the Ferrari, it’s a damn funny piece of film because of the strangeness of this Family Truckster. It’s one of the greatest cars in film history.

Vacation is one of the best comedies of all time. The film is endlessly rewatchable, Chevy Chase is hilarious, and the supporting cast all play to their strengths. The film has aged poorly in a few areas, and I still don’t think it’s as strong as its Christmas counterpart, the film is a blueprint for the modern road trip film. Often imitated, this is a movie with a great cinema father, and here’s hoping 2021 will be full of memorable vacations to make up for last year.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Jeremiah S. Chechik’s Christmas Vacation, click here.
For my review of Harold Ramis’s Bedazzled, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 19 – Christine (1983)

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton
Screenplay: Bill Phillips
110 mins. Rated R.

I’m not sure how many times I can say it, but here I go again. I love John Carpenter (The Thing, Halloween). He’s my favorite horror director. Also, I love Stephen King. He’s my favorite writer. Naturally, when I realized at a young age that John Carpenter had directed an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, I lost my fragile little mind. Then, I rode my bike to the video store to rent a copy. Let’s talk about this incredibly strange movie about a killer car and its love of a human.

Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon, All That Jazz, Dressed to Kill) is a loser. It’s his senior year, and his best friend, jock Dennis (John Stockwell, Top Gun, Eddie and the Cruisers) is doing his best to protect him from bullies like Buddy Repperton. Arnie needs something to give his life meaning, and when he comes across a 1958 Plymouth Fury that seems to call out to him. Arnie buys the beat-up bucket of bolts and begins fixing it up, seeing it as the first thing in his life that is uglier than he us, but at least he can do something about the car, which he names Christine. With Christine, Arnie finds a newfound confidence, but something isn’t right with the Plymouth, or Arnie. Dennis begins to see his friend change before him, and Arnie’s enemies are being picked off one-by-one. Christine loves her owner, perhaps a little too much.

The film adaptation was being prepped before the book was officially published. Producers had given a copy of the novel to Bill Phillips (Physical Evidence, Fire With Fire), who found himself taken by the “killer car” story and began working on the script. Carpenter had been working on a possible adaptation of another King novel, Firestarter, and when that didn’t work out, he took on Christine. Later in his career, Carpenter admitted that he didn’t really want to make Christine at the time, but it was good for his career, and I think that showcases how great of a filmmaker Carpenter is. If he doesn’t love the idea of making this movie but still churns out a top quality product like Christine, it’s a testament to his abilities.

Christine is amazing. I identified with Arnie’s struggles (I was never really as unpopular as he was, but I think a lot of us deal with confidence issues in high school). He’s obviously suffering with his place in the world. He doesn’t have a particularly strong relationship with his parents, he’s lonely, he needs direction, and Christine offers him some. His transformation is very much like possession or drug addiction in that the power he gains from his interactions with the car make him vengeful against all those that have wronged him in life. In fact, you can see that Arnie’s clothing choices regress to an older time period as his entanglement with Christine intensifies. It’s a great transformative performance that doesn’t get the love it deserves.

Without the chemistry between Gordon’s Arnie and Stockwell’s Dennis, though, the film wouldn’t work. These are two characters who have been lifelong friends now getting to a place where they are going in different directions in life, one a geek and the other a jock. Their commonalities are dwindling, and it’s a tough thing to accurately portray. These two do a tremendous job of reaching across that divide. Stockwell doesn’t get a ton to do early on in the film but watch and take note of Arnie’s changes, but he’s effective when he needs to be, and elements of his strain with Arnie broke my damn heart.

The other important character in the film is, of course, Christine herself. Now, the car doesn’t talk, and it doesn’t send out evil brain waves or mind control or anything that silly, but it’s still a killer car movie, so care needs to be given to make the car seem frightening. I think the screenplay in the very capable hands of an auteur like Carpenter works very well here. Through the use of older music and a very physically restrained performance where the Fury is given screen time to actually exist without just being a mindless murder device is why Christine is probably the best killer car movie, even compared to other King adaptations like Maximum Overdrive or Trucks. The car is convincing and scary. There, I said it.

Lastly, when you get a Carpenter direction, you almost always get a Carpenter score. Now, this time around the director worked with Alan Howarth on crafting the haunting bells of Christine, but I still vividly remember the score staying with me after each viewing (I’ve also seen this score performed live and it is breathtaking). The music has moments of sadness and longing on the part of Arnie, and a haunting synth predatory flavor when Christine is on the prowl. It’s a terrific score, one of Carpenter’s best.

Christine gets overlooked a lot in the oeuvre of Carpenter’s best films, and it’s too bad. It’s an effective horror movie that translates King’s lengthy novel quite well, saving the meat and cutting the fat where needed. Christine is aided by two standout leading performances and a creepy car prop that pops onscreen (seriously, who is Christine’s agent?). It’s tough to pick favorites for Carpenter when he’s done so many single films that many go to Halloween, The Thing, or Escape from New York, but Christine deserves to be in the conversation, if only for the tremendous feat of making a murder car work so damn well, and conveying that murder car’s emotion. Bravo.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of John Carpenter’s Halloween, click here.
  • For my review of John Carpenter’s The Fog, click here.
  • For my review of John Carpenter’s The Thing, click here.
  • For my review of John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper’s Body Bags, click here.
  • For my review of John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, click here.
  • For my review of John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned, click here.

[Star Wars Days] May the Fourth Be With You…Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

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Director: Richard Marquand

Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Sebastian Shaw, Ian McDiarmid, Frank Oz, James Earl Jones, David Prowse, Alec Guinness

Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas

131 mins. Rated PG for sci-fi action violence.

  • Academy Award Winner: Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Art Direction
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Sound
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Music, Original Score

IMDb Top 250: #72 (as of 4/21/2016)

 

Another year, another excuse to celebrate Star Wars. Hey everyone. Today we are taking a look back on the only Star Wars film we haven’t talked about yet, Return of the Jedi.

Han Solo (Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Age of Adaline) is still in the clutches of the vile Jabba the Hutt. As Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, TV’s Regular Show, Scooby-Doo! Moon Monster Madness) and company hatch their plan to rescue him, the Empire is slowly working on the creation of a weapon more powerful than the original Death Star. Darth Vader (James Earl Jones, The Lion King, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn) and his master, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, Sleepy Hollow, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) oversee the final touches on the weapon and a final confrontation is set into motion uniting father and son in an epic battle as the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance in this final film of the original Star Wars trilogy from director Richard Marquand (Jagged Edge, Eye of the Needle).

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Originally titled Revenge of the Jedi (but then later renamed as Jedi do not take revenge), Return of the Jedi is solid conclusion to the original trilogy. By tying up the remaining plot threads very expertly set up in the previous two films, Return of the Jedi makes an argument for being one of the best installments of the series. The performances from our main three stars are great, the confrontation with Palpatine is filled with excitement and dread, and the redemption of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, Batman, The Lego Movie) doesn’t feel overtly forced. The creature effects ranging from Yoda to Jabba the Hutt and Salacious Crumb (yeah, look it up) are pretty amazing for the time period.

That being said, a true Star Wars fan knows his faults, and I have few…

The use of cutsie-ing the series with Ewoks seemed like an odd choice. Not really bad, but definitely odd.

The film spends a bit too much time on Endor. Just saying.

And it contains the one frustration I truly have with the Special Editions (the removal of Yub Nub, I didn’t mind the added scene in its place, but could we not get one freakin’ Yub Nub???)

Now, back to the positives. The entirety of the opening act on Tattooine? Amazing! Perhaps the best piece of storytelling in the film!

The sound, effects, and score? Cannot say enough greatness, especially about John Williams and his ability to craft new pieces with every film that add to the mythology and create a richer musical vocabulary. Just incredible.

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So, all in all, as I continue on my Star Wars Marathon, I was happy to take a pit stop on Return of the Jedi. The film is often thought of as the weakest of the original trilogy, but I think that is more of a testament to how terrific this series is. Were we not destined to have more films, I would have been more than content at this final chapter (I’m not against more, though, so please continue to deliver, Lucasfilm).

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

For my review of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, click here.

For my review of Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, click here.

For my review of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, click here.

31 Days of Horror Part II: Day 4 – The Dead Zone (1983)

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Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Dewhurst, Martin Sheen

Screenplay: Jeffrey Boam

103 mins. Rated R.

 

Hey folks, just popping on tonight to talk about David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel The Dead Zone. Sorry, this is coming in pretty late, but I’ve been packed away in preproduction meetings for most of the evening.

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Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken, Catch Me If You Can, Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser) is an everyman, an English teacher with aspirations of the perfect life. All that is stolen from him when a fateful car accident puts him in a coma for five long years, during which time the love of his life Sarah (Brooke Adams, Days of Heaven, The Accidental Husband) has moved on, a killer stalks the streets of Castle Rock, and a man named Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen, TV’s Grace and Frankie, Apocalypse Now) has risen up in the state government. As Johnny awakens and deals with his unevolved state in an evolved world, he has discovered a gift to see into other people’s pasts, presents, and futures and pull out their deepest fear and most horrifying secrets. Johnny must learn that with this new power comes more loneliness and fear than he has ever known, and he must make the hard decisions on how to deal with the information he uncovers about everyone around him.

Christopher Walken plays a unique and powerful Johnny Smith, effectively putting a haunting edge to the character that director David Cronenberg (The Fly, Maps to the Stars) once believed to be too general. He commands the screen with his presence and pain through most scenes, except the ones with Brooke Adams. I like Brooke Adams, but I do not like her in this film. Here, she plays a removed Sarah Bracknell, in which she has no connection to Walken’s character and therefore loses footing on every encounter.

We get some great supporting turns from Tom Skerritt (Alien, Ted) as Castle Rock Sherriff Bannerman running cold on the trail of the Castle Rock Killer who turns to Johnny for guidance, Anthony Zerbe (American Hustle, The Matrix Reloaded) as Roger Stuart, a man removed from the relationship with his son who Johnny finds comfort in helping without the use of his abilities, and Martin Sheen as the shady Greg Stillson, who just might have more demons in his closet than anyone Johnny has encountered. The three absolutely knock it out of the park without playing too high to camp.

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Now the finished film is missing some key scenes from the novel that would have elevated the storytelling much more, creating a more unique tale, but Cronenberg shows a beautiful sense of the New England landscape and character-driven story to the piece that remain from King’s source material. There isn’t a whole lot that doesn’t feel aged here, but that isn’t always  a bad thing.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For more 31 Days of Horror, click here.

For my review of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, click here.

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