Planes, Trains and Automobiles

December 22, 2021

John Hughes has absorbed some criticism for repeatedly tapping the teen-movie market, with such hits as Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Never mind that these are easily among the better teen films of recent years: When was Hughes going to make a movie with, and for, grown-ups?

The prolific Hughes answers the call with Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Actually, he made a movie called She’s Having a Baby before Planes, but that film won’t be out until February, for some reason.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles will do nicely in the meantime. It’s a frequently uproarious comedy, with a deceptively simple comic spine: Harried, buttoned-down ad man Neal Page (Steve Martin) just wants to get home from New York to Chicago. Thanksgiving is two days away.

When his plane is rerouted to Wichita and he can’t find another flight before the holiday, it’s not the end of the world. However, the end of the world may well be present in the form of Del Griffith (John Candy), a self-proclaimed “annoying blabbermouth,” who sells shower-curtain rings for a living and can’t seem to get enough of Neal’s company.

Actually, both men simply find themselves in the same boat. Or, more appropriately, in the same bus, train, rental car, truck, and motel room. As behaviorally disparate as they are, it behooves them to stick together as they struggle toward the Windy City, even as one disaster follows another.

Hughes has constructed the ultimate travel nightmare, in which absolutely everything goes wrong. Even when they do find a motel room in sold-out Wichita, Del and Neal must share the same bed. But then Del uses all the towels. And turns on the bed’s Magic Fingers. Which shakes up the beer and gets the bed wet. Then Del must go through a series of nerve-shredding sinus-clearing and finger-cracking exercises.

That’s just the first stop. Hughes has more torture in store, and almost all of it is funny. Throughout the film, Martin is the straight man, reacting to Candy’s outrageousness, and both actors fulfill their functions superbly. They’re seasoned pros, adept at physical humor, timing, inflection. They’re bouncing off each other for virtually every moment of screen time, but Candy always finds new ways of oozing unctuous jolliness, and Martin always finds new ways to burn.

Hughes has a good eye for the paraphernalia of traveling, such as those mysterious Magic Fingers, the little airplane bottles of booze, and the unendurable sing-alongs on buses. The movie falters only when it gets soft; every time Hughes seems set to soar off into manic nastiness, he’ll have a scene where Neal starts to feel bad about berating poor Del. The sentimental ending, however, works rather better.

There’s enough good stuff here to carry the film well past Thanksgiving, into our other imminent holiday. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a smooth entertainment, and as far as John Hughes’ entry into grown-up filmmaking is concerned, it’s just the ticket.

First published in The Herald, November 1987

I think it is safe to say the movie became a classic. Apparently there was a much longer version, which got cut back down to 93 minutes. The last time I saw it, the schmaltzy stuff seemed as sentimental as ever, including the ending. You could see the Hughes mojo dissolving in all that.

Year of the Jellyfish

December 21, 2021

For a while, especially in the late 1950s-early 1960s, when the regulations on nudity in films began to go lax, you could count on the French to release movies that wrapped some socially redeeming storyline around a series of teasing nude scenes.

Often these were vehicles for the reigning sex kitten of the day, such as Brigitte Bardot or Romy Schneider. The filmmakers might very well claim that these movies had important things to say. Well, maybe. Not many audiences cared about that.

The French are still up to it. Of course, we’re all jaded now and there are few barriers that have not been crossed in some movie, somewhere. Which makes the appearance of a movie like Year of the Jellyfish almost a nostalgic event. Probably its writer-director, Christopher Frank, would say that he has some high-minded ambitions. Fine. But frankly, the main attraction and raison d’etre here is the abundance of naked female flesh.

This year’s sex kitten is Valerie Kaprisky (though she may get healthy competition from Beatrice Dalle, of Betty Blue). Kaprisky was similarly sexy and kittenish in the unfairly overlooked Richard Gere version of Breathless a few years ago. This story just happens to be set on the French Riviera, where it seems very few of the sunbathers bother to wear much fabric, if any at all. This means there are many opportunities, all utterly essential to the story, of course, for Kaprisky to doff her duds and slither across the beach.

This exposure occurs during a vacation that Kaprisky is enjoying with her mother (Caroline Cellier). They meet a mysteriously moral pimp (Bernard Giraudeau), who turns out to be the one man who doesn’t fall under Kaprisky’s charms; we watch her ruin the lives of some other hapless saps with her minxlike ways.

There are only two problems with any of this. The first is that Year of the Jellyfish would be a bad, confused movie with or without skin. The second is that Valerie Kaprisky (though she has nice skin) is a thoroughly uninspiring actress. She’s just not interesting enough to convince us that she has it in her to do these terrible things to men. Caroline Cellier easily outclasses and outacts her; she’s a lot sexier, for that matter.

None of which will keep Year of the Jellyfish from making money, since a show of flesh will generally guarantee box-office interest. This sun-soaked, shameless throwback just proves the durability of that truism.

First published in The Herald, July 12, 1987

Not exactly a hep review, but you can’t always be cutting-edge with the comedy. Director Frank died of a heart attack in 1993, age 50, according to IMDb. Kaprisky didn’t have a lot of high-profile pictures after this, but the U.S. Breathless is a memorable picture.

The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking

December 16, 2021

As the chorus sings under the opening credits and repeats throughout the film, “Pippi Longstocking is coming into your town.” This threat is fulfilled in The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, the latest cinematic spinoff of Astrid Lindgren’s popular children’s books.

Pippi, the freckle-faced, red-haired bundle of mischief, begins the movie by falling off her father’s boat into a typhoon. She and her horse and monkey drift to a seaside town, where they set up shop in her father’s abandoned house while waiting for the old man to show up.

The townspeople, including the next-door neighbors, take one look at this carrot-headed pixie and decide that she is having a subversive effect on the local children. Which, actually, she is; she’s fond of all-night pancake parties and civic disturbances that involve the willful destruction of gallons of ice cream.

The parents quickly see that their children are having too much fun, and predictably move to nip this tendency in the bud. In particular, the headmistress of the orphanage sees Pippi as an immediate enrollee.

It’s kind of a strange movie. Kids may enjoy the whole anti-establishment angle of Pippi’s various hijinks, such as her rebellious approach to the educational system: Pippi can’t understand why teachers would ask questions of students, when the teachers already know the answers.

And yet, the film, which is scripted and directed by Ken Annakin, is so bland in almost every way that it’s difficult to know what kids would find attractive in it. (I have no familiarity with the Pippi books – they were unequivocally a girl thing when I was a kid – and so can offer no point of comparison.)

Another problem is the casting of newcomer Tami Erin as Pippi. I’m sure she’s a nice girl, but she’s got “zero charisma,” as the kids in E.T. would say.

There’s an idea. Instead of spending 25 bucks to take a few little ones to see this moribund movie, save your money and buy a copy of E.T. when it comes out on video this fall. Then you’ll have something as a permanent part of the library, and it’ll be a truly enchanting fantasy, instead of a half-baked one.

First published in The Herald, August 2, 1988

Tami Erin’s subsequent movie career was not extensive, although IMDb duly notes that she released a sex tape in 2013. This was getting toward the end for Annakin, who has a number of interesting British films to his credit, and a boatload I haven’t seen.

Promised Land

December 15, 2021

When Robert Redford established his Sundance Institute for the development of small independent American movies, Promised Land is just the sort of film he must have had in mind.

This movie is absolutely uncompromising in its portrayal of the souring of an American Dream and a tragic aftermath. Only a gutsy producer would follow through on such a script.

Having said that, and full of applause for Redford’s high ideals, I have to admit I wish Promised Land were a better movie. It is serious, ambitious, and doggedly non-sensational; unfortunately, those elements don’t automatically produce interesting cinema.

Writer-director Michael Hoffman, teaming up again with his producer partner Rick Stevenson (their most recent film was Restless Natives), based the script on a true story that happened in the small town where Hoffman grew up, a story that ended with a boy shooting and killing another boy one winter night. The kids were former high school classmates.

In Hoffman’s fictionalized film, the two boys go off on different courses after high school. The misfit (Kiefer Sutherland) leaves the small Utah town to wander around the Southwest. When we pick him up two years later, he’s a scruffy drifter marrying an unstable girl (Meg Ryan) whom he’s known for three days. On a whim they decide to head back to Utah.

Meanwhile, the class basketball hero (Jason Gedrick) has found a bitter aftermath to his brilliant high school career: He wasn’t good enough in college and he lost his athletic scholarship. Now he’s a policeman, back in the small town, all too aware that he’s losing his old girlfriend (Tracy Pollan); she’s tasting the exotic newness of far-off college.

The movie cuts back and forth between the barren road travels of the misfit couple and the equally barren life in the small town. They come together in a terrible encounter in a convenience-store parking lot.

The on-location shooting in Utah provides a suitably bleak setting for this story, in the looming mountains, the snowy side streets, the eerie joyride that Sutherland and Ryan take through the salt flats. Hoffman gets these and other details right, but there’s something empty and stolid about the film’s relentless grimness. The despair of these lives simply isn’t all that illuminating, and the film’s forward motion feels arbitrary. Of course, Hoffman may argue that that’s part of the point, but it doesn’t make the story any more compelling.

The actors are a little lost in all of this, too. Meg Ryan (Innerspace) is a star a-borning, but she can’t suggest why her goofball character does what she does; and Sutherland has played the hesitant outsider one too many times. Only Gedrick, almost unrecognizable from his dopey role in Iron Eagle, scores strongly. He really captures the taut self-hatred of his disappointed character, and he’s got a jackal-like intensity that, in the aftermath of the meaningless tragedy, makes his hair-trigger explosion seem all to inevitable.

First published in The Herald, February 4, 1988

I have not re-visited the film. Around this time I got to know producer Rick Stevenson, a Seattle-area filmmaker who had met Hoffman at Oxford (where they launched Hugh Grant’s career with their film Privilege, also the first film of James Wilby and Imogen Stubbs and composer Rachel Portman, which is a pretty impressive batting average).

Patti Rocks

December 9, 2021

Even before it was released, Patti Rocks managed to brew up a bit of controversy.

That’s because the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board (an entity that almost no one likes, for different reasons) slapped an X rating on the film.

The X came despite the fact that Patti Rocks contains no explicit sex. It does have a lot of talk, however. Some fairly explicit talk.

The MPAA board decided that the talk was obscene enough to merit the X, a death warrant for a mainstream movie’s commercial life, particularly for a low-budget American independent film.

Luckily, and sensibly, the X rating was overturned in favor of an R, without any cuts in the film. But that wasn’t the end of the controversy. People have been walking out of the movie before it’s half over.

Serves ’em right. The first two-thirds of Patti Rocks follow a road trip between two old buddies who are driving along the Mississippi River to see Patti, the girlfriend of one of them. No question of their outrageousness: Billy and Eddie engage in a skyrocketing sexist dialogue that includes some riotously funny anatomical discussions.

What the early walk-outs don’t realize is that, rather than endorsing this frenzied misogyny, the film is setting these two up for an ironic payoff. The comeuppance arrives when they show up at Patti’s apartment; she’s pregnant by the more Neanderthal of the men, Billy.

Patti turns out to be more than a match for these two; when Billy gruntingly fantasizes about a world without women, she counters tartly, “Then who would you have to feel superior to?”

But the film is even better than its own schematic intentions. For Billy and Eddie aren’t sexists in black hats; actually, they’re both likable and funny.

Their furious male-bonding ritual during the drive down from Minneapolis includes such hilarious topics of conversation as the possibility of chucking everything and becoming professional water-skiers in Florida, or getting involved in a secret Mormon breeding camp in North Dakota.

The actors have low-budget roughness, yet they’re all exactly right: John Jenkins as the detached Eddie, Karen Landry as the with-it Patti, and especially Chris Mulkey as the thundering Billy. They all collaborated on the screenplay with director David Burton Morris.

Morris made Patti Rocks as something of a sequel to an even lower-budgeted movie he made in 1975, Loose Ends. That little-seen film featured the same lead actors as the same characters. That’s not a bad tradition; these people are so raucously entertaining, you wouldn’t mind checking in on them every few years.

First published in The Herald, January 1988

This was a pretty notable indie in its time. Most of the director’s subsequent credits were in TV, and as far as I know the third part of a potential trilogy never happened. Mulkey and Landry were married in real life.

The Principal

December 8, 2021

It’s revealing to compare the different approaches of the Belushi brothers to their acting careers. John Belushi, after a couple of supporting movie roles, used his Saturday Night Live success as a springboard into starring parts. His younger brother James has also appeared on SNL, but has been building a film career very slowly, with small roles in interesting films such as Thief, growing to major supporting roles in Salvador and About Last Night.

John, of course, burned out quickly and died; his screen presence never quite came together. He always looked like a sketch comedian, never quite like a movie actor – although his role in Neighbors suggested that he might find a convincing style in a lower key.

Jim Belushi is a better movie actor than his brother ever was, and, as he proved in Salvador, a much more daring one. The Principal is Jim’s first starring role, and it very comfortably crowns the upward course of his career thus far.

The part fits him like an old glove: He’s a schoolteacher whose unorthodox ways land him a new assignment. He’s the new principal in a high school deep in a city’s war zone, where kids roam the halls, felonies are committed hourly, and the true ruler of the school is a sleek punk who comes and goes as he pleases.

It will fall to Belushi, of course, to turn things around and clean the joint up. And, in perfectly predictable fashion, he does, with the help of the school security guard (Louis Gossett Jr.) and a sympathetic teacher (Rae Dawn Chong).

This movie has been made many times before – The Principal is something of a color reversal of To Sir, With Love – and there’s not too much new. But, under the swift, hard-nosed direction of Christopher Cain (The Stone Boy), this movie is reasonably effective.

Much of this is due to screenwriter Frank Deese’s shrewd use of humor to defuse the various brutal situations. And a lot of this comes from the fact that the principal (unlike Sidney Poitier in To Sir) is hardly saintly. When we first see him, he’s drunk, and bashing the windows of his ex-wife’s lawyer’s Porsche. His other sins, however, don’t get much worse than mixing powdered chocolate milk with Coca-Cola.

All of which suggests why Belushi is so well cast. The movie plays very nicely into his deadpan style of comedy, without once becoming jokey, or losing its serious thread. Belushi handles the whole range with an uncomplicated directness, and he never loses the audience’s loyalty. It looks suspiciously like a star performance.

First published in The Herald, September 1987

Belushi’s career puzzles me; there are enough interesting projects mixed in among the dreck to suggest an interesting person there – but oh, all the dreck.

A Prayer for the Dying

December 7, 2021

A couple of weeks ago film director Mike Hodges was in the news, complaining that his new film A Prayer for the Dying had been taken out of his hands and recut. Hodges considered the result a hodgepodge of his work, and he wanted his credit taken off the movie.

Well, his name is still on the film, and Hodges’ lack of enthusiasm for the finished product is understandable; A Prayer for the Dying is pretty much a mess. However, there’s some evidence here that the movie would have had some serious problems, no matter how you cut it.

There’s also some evidence that the source novel, by Jack Higgins (I haven’t read it), might have had a few interesting ideas floating around in it, though even these seem reminiscent of the works of Graham Greene. Fundamentally built as a thriller, the story is also a character study of an IRA revolutionary (Mickey Rourke) who has had too much of killing, is politically disillusioned, and wants out altogether.

As the story begins, Rourke is a hunted man. He can escape Britain via a passport held by a gangster (Alan Bates), but the gangster demands that Rourke rub out a fellow mobster in exchange. Rourke figures, well, one hood more or less won’t make much difference. So he kills the guy, but the hit is witnessed by a priest (Bob Hoskins).

Much to the priest’s surprise, Rourke doesn’t immediately kill him, too. Instead, Rourke goes to confession and tells the very same priest of the killing – thus preventing the father, bound by the secrecy of the confessional, from saying anything to the police.

It’s not a bad idea – Alfred Hitchcock examined some of the same moral questions in I Confess. But A Prayer for the Dying lays on the sobriety and symbolism, and even has the nerve to drag in the priest’s niece (Sammi Davis), a blind girl who plays the church organ. That part gets a bit thick.

Hodges has an interesting way of looking at things, but he can’t combine the Christian redemption allegory and the political thriller into a satisfying whole. The finale, when the roof quite literally falls in, is either deliriously bold image-making or wretched symbolic excess, depending on your taste.

Rourke negotiates his Irish accent with better success than you might guess. Bates doesn’t have a lot to do – it’s a cameo role, which he plays mostly with his expensive overcoat – but he slips a few sly glances in.

Hoskins, who has made his name with his explosiveness (The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa), seems to enjoy being cast against type here. He gives a measured performance, using his combustibility to prevent the priest from being at all saintly, which creates a priest more convincingly of the streets than anything Pat O’Brien ever conjured up.

First published in The Herald, September 10, 1987

Mickey Rourke also disowned the finished film, which along with the other re-edits had a new score by Bill Conti added. Other folks in this: Liam Neeson, Alison Doody, Anthony Head. Today, I’m not sure I would write this with confidence that the reader would know who the hell Pat O’Brien was.