Holiday Rewind: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Yesterday’s Movies has been going on for long enough that even though I’ve been more likely to avoid seasonal movies than write a holiday post, there are enough holiday movies in the back catalog that I can take a month to review my reviews.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the only movie I ever think of as a “Thanksgiving movie”. Well, excluding A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving because it’s only a half-hour special. And it could really work just as well as a Christmas movie, but that just makes it slightly more interesting that it’s different like that.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Paramount Pictures 1987.

Neal Page’s family lives in Chicago, but he’s working in New York, which is a little unclear whether this is a regular thing or an increasingly frequent business meeting trip, but his plan is to dash out of his last meeting before the break and catch the 6:00 flight home. Even though some oaf with a huge trunk ineptly foils his attempts to get a cab twice, he manages to make it to the airport just in time to see his flight get delayed, and while waiting, he meets that oaf, the obliviously talkative Del Griffith, itinerant shower curtain ring salesman. Who is also his seatmate for the flight when they do get to board. When O’Hare gets shut down due to a snowstorm, Neal and Del’s flight gets diverted to Witchita, where Del suggests they share a cab to a motel he knows. On a complete disaster of a trip home, Del seems to have all the answers, but also provide all the problems, and Neal is seemingly shackled to this bad luck charm of a man by fate.

I’m always a little surprised to see this is a John Hughes movie. Hughes is cemented in my mind as being associated with teen (and preteen) coming of age movies, but I know he’s made plenty of adult-focused movies as well. Especially having that in mind this time, I kept thinking that Neal’s house looks like the Home Alone house, but it turns out they aren’t even the same style. Apparently Neal’s is a colonial and Kevin’s is a Georgian, and even bigger than Neal’s.

I think I know what I was going for when I called it “comedy that piles misery on top of misery”, but that’s more about secondhand embarrassment. When a protagonist is making a fool of themselves, it makes me squirm, but the humiliation Neal is going through isn’t embarrassment, it’s indignity. Neal suffering through this trip teaches him the humility to care for even someone as annoying as Del who’s reaching out for some human companionship.

There’s a couple of places where the editing is a bit confusing because something nondiegetic isn’t immediately recognizable as not being part of the scene, but that’s my main quibble. The no-homo type jokes in the shared hotel scene haven’t even aged all that terribly, as the main object of humor is the men’s own insecurities.

In a landscape replete with Christmas movies of all genres, this holiday travel movie doesn’t even have to be nominally set at Thanksgiving to have staying power. John Hughes seems to have had some kind of sense of how to make an evergreen classic through very human storytelling. Cookie cutter Hallmark movies may pull at the heartstrings, but I feel like movies like this give a nudge to the soul.

Clifford

Clifford. Orion Pictures 1994.

(no, not that one)

Before watching the movie:

This is another random find I don’t have much background on. It looks very much like something nobody cares about beyond squeezing some extra residuals out, and it appears that it was considered a disaster. Which I can kind of see. What caught my attention was “Martin Short plays a ten year old menace”. What makes me wonder who came up with it and thought it was worth filming is “Martin Short plays a ten year old menace”. I suspect the concept grew out of a bit that Short was already trying to find a home for.

Also Charles Grodin and Mary Steenburgen are probably good choices for the types they seem to be playing, but even for the early 90s (this got shelved for a few years because Orion couldn’t afford to distribute it) I’m not really sure “Martin Short, Charles Grodin, and Mary Steenburgen” are the extremely marketable combination you want to attract audiences with.

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Movies of My Yesterdays: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

This might be the first entry in this series from my time in college. It’s not quite from after the inception of this blog, but getting very close to it. It wasn’t long after when I saw this movie when I got my first opportunity to go back and catch up on movies I’d missed. But that wasn’t the way I saw this one.

I first saw Talladega Nights because it belonged to my my freshman roommate, who set up his TV, small movie collection, and mini fridge, told me I was welcome to use all of them, and then found friends outside the dorm to spend all his days and nights with, leaving me alone with the whole room pretty much all the time. I can’t recall whether this movie got played in one of the rare times he was there or if I put it on myself in a bolder move in using his stuff, as using somebody else’s movies without their direct permission still seems like a breach to me even if blanket permission has been given (it occurs to me that I don’t feel this way about the massive movie and game collection of another roommate I had in the early days of the blog, which was probably represented multiple times on here). I’m pretty sure that was the only time I saw it until now.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Mosaic Media Group 2006.

Born in the back of a speeding Chevelle, Ricky Bobby grew up not knowing his father, who left to race cars and do more shady things, which may have imparted his obsession with speed to him. Ricky only saw his father once in his childhood, making an unexpected and ignominious appearance at his class’s Career Day, but he left him with the dictum that “if you’re not first, you’re last”, a phrase Ricky went on to model his life on. Without many career prospects, Ricky found his way into the pit crew for Dennit Racing, finally getting his opportunity to enter a NASCAR race as a replacement for the driver who walked out in the middle of a race while in last place, and Ricky proves himself by finishing third, becoming a racing star. Backed up by his best friend Cal driving Dennit’s second car, who always gives him the assist to get to first, Ricky quickly achieves a life of fame and fortune, living in a mansion with Carley, the smoking hot fangirl he married, their two disgracefully disrespectful sons, and Carley’s father who impotently disapproves of how his grandkids are being raised. Ricky’s maverick driving style makes him a fan favorite, but costs him with the sponsors and the tournament judges, and therefore does him no favors with the new head of Dennit racing, Larry Jr., who hires openly gay Frenchman Jean Girard from the Formula One circuit to be his new, dependable lead driver with European precision. Ricky’s jealousy overwhelms him, causing him to crash and have a psychological breakdown that endangers his ability to ever be able to get behind the wheel of a car again.

This felt really raunchy at the time, but while it’s still kind of raunchy, it doesn’t feel like that’s an exceptional thing. I think the raunchiness largely comes from how it’s both a parody of the contemporary machismo but also kind of an earnest celebration of it. It feels entirely a product of its time, but no moreso than in the jokes about Girard being gay. This is tempered by Girard being revealed to be an honorable guy looking for an equal on the track and definitely a much more rational person than Ricky, but the jokes still significantly Other him. It occurs to me now that by being gay and European, Girard is specifically designed to be the antithesis of the NASCAR stereotype and the American nationalist cultural moment that NASCAR was a significant component of at the time. His being French is probably targeted at the specific distaste for the French after the country refused to support the US in doing some post-9/11 lashing out.

While the extreme farce style can easily get out of hand in a bad way, there were still plenty of laugh out loud moments. Its extremely contemporary nature probably keeps it from being as timeless as Anchorman, but it’s still a lot of fun. It’s not something I would come back to a lot, but I can see occasionally revisiting it to get my expectations exceeded again.

Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger. Carolco Pictures 1993.

Before watching the movie:

There’s really only one thing I can say about what I know about this movie. It’s pretty clearly meant to be a “Die Hard on an X” type adventure. There’s a single guy accidentally in the wrong place at the right time thwarting bad guys. Like Under Siege. Like Air Force One. Probably like other movies I’ve blogged and can’t remember.

However, it’s also Sylvester Stallone fighting the bad guys single-handedly, so it’s probably also meant to be like Stallone movies like First Blood, or rather, like the Rambo sequels that dropped the main thematic point of the original.

All of that is to say that I don’t know what this movie is, but I’m pretty sure I know exactly what other movies they wanted me to think of by making it.

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Halloween (1978)

Halloween. Compass International Pictures 1978.

Before watching the movie:

For such an iconic movie, foundational to the modern horror genre, I find myself realizing how little I know about this movie. I know a lot around it, like how it was meant to be an anthology franchise, but continuing the Michael Myers story in the second movie locked in audiences to expect the series to be about him, the mask is a modified Captain Kirk mask, Jamie Lee Curtis began her film career here and is amazingly making direct sequels to it almost 45 years later. But what goes on within the movie? Well, there’s a slasher, and he kills people. Maybe that’s all that was necessary back when the slasher genre was being invented.

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Big Business

Big Business. Touchstone Pictures 1988.

Before watching the movie:

I had never heard of this until it came up in a streaming library, and it sounds like the reason why is that nobody was very impressed by it. The concept looks like separated at birth by way of city mouse/country mouse. It’s probably wholly unlike Twins, but it seems like kind of a mirror reflection of it on the surface.

I’m definitely interested to see what they do with Midler and Tomlin both playing double roles. I don’t know if the city/country aspect of it will play all that well. I hope they get some good thematic mileage out of the way that the two sets of twins get to see what they could’ve been like if they grew up in different circumstances.

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Mystery Men

Mystery Men. Dark Horse Entertainment 1999.

Before watching the movie:

I have hardly any idea what this movie is like, and it kind of occupies the same headspace with Mystery Team, another cult movie that I think is ensemble-based that I need to get around to, but it looks like of the large ensemble there are a lot of big names, but only one I’d expect to be involved in something like this. My early impression is something like Watchmen by way of Kick-Ass. A deconstruction of superhero narratives, but as a farcical parody.

The timing of the movie should make an interesting tone. The late 90s were a time where superhero movies weren’t very popular, and sometimes not very well made. After Superman and Batman fell apart, the superhero genre struggled in movies, but the technology was starting to provide the ability make more convincing effects than the stunning work of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, but the cynicism and assembly line pop culture of the post-Dark Knight/cinematic universe era hadn’t yet come in. Without global tentpole scrutiny from the studio, maybe a superhero movie could even Say Something. That’s probably a lot to ask of a failed spoof, but the possibilities are there.

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Movies of my Yesterdays: The Secret of My Success

I’m not sure how this evaded my first pass through the filmography of Michael J. Fox in middle school/high school when I discovered Back to the Future. Maybe it was because the library didn’t have it. This one, I found in a rummage sale. I feel like the idea of seeing his character get rich successful quick was an element that attracted me, but mostly it was just that I was a fan of his work.

The Secret of My Success. Rastar 1987.

I think there’s a reason I get a bit of a similar feeling to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in parts of this movie aside from the fact that they both use “Oh Yeah” by Yello, which I’m sure is the main link between them. Perhaps it’s a general 80s yuppie aesthetic.

Brantley Foster, fresh out of college from Kansas, arrives in New York with the promise of a job in big business and high hopes of growing an impressive career from it, only to find that the job evaporated the day he arrived. Stymied everywhere by entry level jobs demanding experience he hasn’t got, he seeks an audience with Howard Prescott, the CEO of Pemrose Corporation, with whom he has the sketchiest of family ties. Impressed by his brief moment with his “nephew”, Prescott begrudgingly gives him a job in the mailroom. Eager to make the most of this opportunity, Brantley uses his position in the mailroom to learn everything about Pemrose’s operations, and after answering a phone in a vacated office and making good executive decisions for the harried manager on the other end, Brantley hatches a plan to create a fictional executive named “Carlton Whitfield” from his vantage point in the mailroom and commandeer that vacant office to prove his worth to everyone who won’t give “Brantley from Kansas” a chance. Not only do “Whitfield’s” ideas shake up the status quo so much that Prescott worries that he’s a spy from the corporate raider trying to make a hostile takeover of Pemrose, they get him close to the beautiful executive of his dreams Christy Wills. However, his time in the mailroom also got him the attention of an executive’s wife seeking revenge on her cheating husband by having an affair of her own, the executive in question turning out to be Howard Prescott himself.

While the first few times I watched this movie I learned a lot about how hostile takeovers work and vaguely got the idea that the trendy but panicked cuts to expenditures would cause a panic in the market while bold expansion could strengthen the company’s value, what struck me this time is just how much inefficiency is in the upper levels of Pemrose. Of course, Brantley notes in his studies that there are departments with overlap that don’t talk to each other or do their job well, but for all the talk of cutting the company’s expenses to the bone, no mention is made of options like reducing executive salaries, putting the space taken by the company gym to better use, or not using the limousines from the motor pool to chauffeur around non-employees (though Prescott’s wife is technically the company owner). The Suits really do live comfortably on the backs of the trench workers they’re ready to turn out in the streets to raise stock prices a few cents.

The directorial choices often feel like a dream. There are multiple mopey montages set to sad power ballads. Flashbacks aren’t accompanied by any visual language identifying them as flashbacks, leaving it to the intelligence of the audience to work out that this already happened. There’s also one or two dreamy imagine spots just intercut with the scene like they’re supposed to be diegetic. The climax also feels a bit underwhelming. After spending so long frantically keeping all these plates spinning with some big, madcap close calls, Brantley gets outed relatively quietly.

This movie is the main source of my interest in mailroom work. I’ve also since gotten experience that translates well to a corporate mailroom, but mostly I always thought what I saw Brantley, or rather his slacker partner, doing in the mailroom, was work I could handle pretty well. Even that looks better than anything I’ve done until my latest job. And there are plenty of “worked their way out of the mailroom” stories, even if most didn’t do it with the flash of Brantley Foster.

When I first saw this movie I was a bit entranced by not only the elegance of the executive lifestyle, but also the raw independence of Brantley’s meager life on his own in a new city. Having lived through my own “starting out alone in a new city” and gotten jaded by the excesses of the wealthy, a lot of the shine has worn off this movie, but there’s still a kind of melancholy splendor to it. It’s a more mature movie than I could really appreciate at first.

Beverly Hills Ninja

Beverly Hills Ninja. Tristar Pictures 1997.

Before watching the movie:

I think I only just realized how commonly “Beverly Hills” is used as an adjective meant to evoke something in the vicinity of “spoiled rich white people”. As someone who grew up only vaguely aware that Beverly Hills is a neighborhood in California, (Beverly Hills 90210 was popular in my childhood but I have seen zero seconds of it and didn’t even know what it was about) I never really picked up on a deeper meaning. I was most aware of The Beverly Hillbillies, and it took a long time to click with me that the town itself was supposed to connote the richest of the rich and the family wasn’t just in the richest neighborhood in your typical town.

I would really like to see this movie do a little more with Farley’s character than have us point and laugh at him for the whole run. However, I don’t have high hopes for him to have much dignity. Maybe at best, this can be something that Kung Fu Panda owes a lot to while improving upon it.

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Yellowbeard

Yellowbeard. Hemdale Film Corporation 1983.

Before watching the movie:

This looked like a bit of a mess when I first passed by it and taking a closer look now it seems like it’s even worse than it initially appeared. The huge cast of big names probably means that nobody except Graham Chapman’s Yellowbeard gets much time to be all that important to the plot. There’s a whole lot of Monty Python alums here, but it’s not a Monty Python or Terry Gilliam project. Though as Chapman is a writer, it’s easy to see how they were assembled.

At this point, it seems that the most marketable names in the movie are Cheech and Chong, and it’s not just weird that they’d be in a movie together and not at the center of it, but I don’t understand what they’re doing in such a Python-y movie.

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