[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 19 – Parents (1989)

Director: Bob Balaban
Cast: Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Sandy Dennis
Screenplay: Christopher Hawthorne
81 mins. Rated R.

Can any of us really trust our parents? Especially if Randy Quaid (Brokeback Mountain, All You Can Eat?) is one of them?

Set in the 1950s, this satire looks at the Laemle family. On the outside, they look like the picture perfect family, with father Nick (Quaid) in line for a new promotion housewife Lilly (Mary Beth Hurt, Lady in the Water, Change in the Air) the perfect little cook. The Laemle parents have a secret that even son Michael is unaware of, though, and he is soon to discover that his family’s taste is a little more bloodthirsty than most.

I really wanted to love Parents. I remember seeing the poster and thinking that this was right down my alley, but unfortunately, even with the gifted talents of director Bob Balaban (Fishkill, Georgia O’Keefe) is a bit of a dud. Don’t get me wrong, the film has its strong points, but it wrestles over tone and intention throughout.

First off, I really enjoyed the unhinged performances by both parents, particularly Quaid. It seems like this film, Vacation, and Independence Day all perfectly captured the complicated actor’s skills. He’s unusual, funny, and unnerving throughout. Mary Beth Hurt has more of a switch to her performance, where she is able to shift from loving and caring to psychotic and calculating.

I also really enjoyed the dreamlike quality to the film, as if Balaban watched a few David Lynch films and said, “I can do that.” Some of the film evokes Lynch’s Blue Velvet with the shine of Americana covering up a dark and seedy underbelly, and that’s where the film’s strength is.

But sadly, Parents just doesn’t work because it can’t figure out what kind of movie it wants to be, and this struggle with identity caused confusion for this audience member. At first, I thought it would be satire, but it’s not that. It’s not really a horror movie either, and I can’t in good conscience call it a comedy, because it just isn’t funny. Without the horror and without the comedy, the satire has nothing to feed off, and it ends up starving the film of any real entertainment.

Ugh, I really wanted to like Parents. The concept and logline are both fitting, it has a strong poster presence and it starts out relatively strong, but it becomes apparent all too quickly that this is movie simply does not work. The script isn’t very strong (rough draft, anyone?) and it doesn’t have a unified vision. Those two failures stop the movie dead in its tracks, and it never recovers.

2/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[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.

Independence Day (1996)

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Director: Roland Emmerich

Cast: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Maragert Colin, Randy Quaid, Robert Loggia, James Rebhorn, Harvey Fierstein

Screenplay: Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich

145 mins. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi destruction and violence.

  • Academy Award Winner: Best Effects, Visual Effects
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Sound

In the annals of film history, it would be a tough time attempting to find a movie that depicts the destruction of all mankind better than Independence Day from director Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, White House Down).

On July 2nd, the world discovers that we are not alone in the universe as massive spaceships make their way to every major city. Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith, Men in Black, Focus) has to cancel his 4th of July plans and head back to base. President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman, Lost Highway, The Equalizer) has to deal with the floods of looting and scared citizens while also trying to reunite with the First Lady (Mary McDonnell, TV’s Major Crimes, Donnie Darko). David (Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park, Mortdecai) has figured out a pattern in the signals of the alien ships, and thinks he is seeing a countdown to something big. As the world is cripple in fear of the alien menace, mankind is about to re-earn their independence.

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Independence Day is one of those movies that seems perfect when at first glance, but after multiple viewings, the plot-holes become more apparent. There are severe issues with this plot, but the film is still a culty pleasure (see what I did there?).

The performances from our stars (Smith, Pullman, Goldblum) are all serviceable to keep the hype up throughout the action set pieces. The only issue with the characters portrayed is that they aren’t written to experience catharsis. Their “catharsis” is only due to the impending death of the human race. Goldblum’s David is my personal favorite as the man who has tremendous potential but chooses to waste it. His character represents an interesting dilemma: should a man use his full potential even if he likes things the way they are? Hmmm. James Rebhorn (Scent of a Woman, The Game) also turns in some fine work as Albert Nimzki, who has specific thoughts and secrets which make President Whitmore’s decisions all the more difficult.

The cinematography focuses a lot on spectacle. It is meant to show us just how screwed we are, and it works well enough.

The score is another important piece of this puzzle, something haunting and rhythmic while empowering the American ideals of freedom and military superiority.

There are some great uses of miniature work in Independence Day. Some of the explosions do seem extremely dated, but the grandiose visual effects were well worth the Oscar win.

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Independence Day is returning to the big screens soon with a sequel (perhaps two). As far as the first film goes, Independence Day is a lot of fun. Not a particularly great film, but a classic nonetheless.

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Roland Emmerich’s 2012, click here.

[12 Days of Christmas] On the Eleventh Day… Christmas Vacation (1989)

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Director: Jeremiah Chechik

Cast: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid

Screenplay: John Hughes

97 mins. Rated PG-13.

 

So when people ask me what the ultimate Halloween movie is, I tell them it is Halloween. When they ask me what the ultimate Christmas movie, I tell them it is Christmas Vacation, the third film in the Vacation franchise from twenty-five years back.

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It stars Chevy Chase (TV’s Community, Caddyshack) as Clark Griswold, the bumbling no-brained father of two and husband to gorgeous Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo, TV’s Entourage, American History X). Clark just wants one thing: to host the ultimate Christmas weekend for his extended family. He wants the hap-hap-happiest Christmas. Too bad he keeps running into problems, from a tree too big to an unwanted guest in the form of cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid, Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Harvest), from an overcooked turkey to a good ol’ fashioned kidnapping, Clark is in for one long holiday.

It all starts with a proven formula from comedy genius John Hughes (Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Hughes has been behind some of the best comedies of the 1980s. He spearheaded the original short story that started the film series. Hughes has a powerhouse screenplay here that differs in tone drastically from the previous installments. Toss in Chevy Chase, who just knows his character so well, and there is nothing that can stop this film. From the moment Clark appears onscreen, he makes the assertion that it doesn’t matter whether the tree he has picked is too big for his backyard as son Rusty claims, because it isn’t going in the backyard, it’s going in the living room, immediately addressing his inability to see things realistically.

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Christmas Vacation is what the holidays are about, whether we like them or not. It is sendup to what we do for those we love and what we have to go through to survive. I love this film and I suggest it to anyone looking to close out the holiday the right way.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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