Movies of My Yesterdays: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

I recall this movie coming into the house through a joint garage sale with my aunt’s family. Or rather, I remember seeing the tape at one of the garage sales, and then I remember finding it in our collection months or years later. I don’t know why it didn’t interest me for a long time, but I think I didn’t get to it until I was in my 20s or late teens. I can’t recall now if the portion I saw on TV (I mainly remember hearing “Mele Kalikimaka” for the first time) got me interested, or if I was just going through the video collection and connected it with the Christmas movie everybody liked and decided to watch it for that reason. I’m a little surprised I didn’t seek it out when I was in my significant “all the traditions” phase, but I think I would’ve been scandalized at the time if I had.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Hughes Entertainment 1989.

Clark Griswold and his family is hosting Christmas for the extended family for the first time, and Clark is determined to make it perfect. He marches his wife Ellen and their children deep into the forest to find The Perfect Tree, he blankets the house in 25,000 lights that he can’t get working, and packs every room with family members, including the son and daughter of his wife’s uninvited cousin Eddie, who drove the rusty trailer they live in to join the family. Clark is also starting to wonder where his Christmas bonus check is, which he badly needs to cover the deposit he already laid out to install a swimming pool.

I seem to recall that before I first saw the movie,I didn’t think the poster was very much help in understanding what it’s about, but the problem is that it’s an extremely episodic movie that doesn’t have a more significant overarching plot than “Clark tries to make a perfect Christmas for his extended family”, which is hard to convey on a poster. Just about every scene is a vignette of a crazy family Christmas, but the lights and the bonus check are the most consistent throughlines. So a lighting accident it is.

While it’s a Chevy Chase vehicle with many scenes stolen by Randy Quaid, this is the first time I noticed that Clark’s son Rusty is played by a young Johnny Galecki, best known for The Big Bang Theory. Even at the young age, there were moments where I recognized his acting style. My wife also pointed out that Beverly D’Angelo has a strong resemblance to Amy Pohler. I don’t know if any of the elderly uncles and grandparents are notable actors, but many of them are also doing very memorable character work.

This movie is somehow pitched to the point of absurdity yet relatable to the point it at times feels almost like a set of generic scenes of the Christmas experience. John Hughes may have hit a bigger classic with Home Alone, but I think this is better at creating the adult experience of Christmas. I suspect that there are people for whom it’s so relatable, it’s too stressful, like my experience watching The Long, Long Trailer so soon after driving a trailer across the country. It may not be a Christmas staple to me, but it’s always welcome. Because while we have plenty of opportunities to remember warmth and generosity at Christmas, it’s also just a real catharsis to have a laugh at the hassle we impose on ourselves too.

Weekend at Bernie’s

Weekend at Bernie’s.
Gladden Entertainment 1989.

Before watching the movie:

I never considered before that this is one of those movies that everyone references and nobody really goes beyond the log line. I couldn’t say much more about this movie than the poster does. Two hapless guys puppet their dead boss through a weekend to avoid getting blamed for his death. I don’t think I even knew it had to do with a mafia hit until I tried to read up on it a little. I think there’s a scene where they use him to withdraw money from a bank. That’s all I know.

I’m surprised I haven’t heard of any of these actors. I would’ve thought somebody involved was a household name in comedy, even if just the corpse.

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Movies of My Yesterdays: UHF

As I grew up, I eventually discovered my parents’ music collection, and among it, my father’s Weird Al CDs (and eventually the Doctor Demento cassettes and tape recordings of Weird Al vinyl albums). I considered myself a fan of Al Yankovic, but eventually I learned that there was a lot more than just the self-titled album, Even Worse, and Alapalooza. But I think I was in high school before I found UHF.

UHF. Cinecorp 1989.

While I usually came to these kinds of things through library catalog raids, I distinctly remember my favorite high school teacher showing this movie on a slack day, and a lot of the most iconic parts of the movie were definitely new to me at the time, so except for possibly passing some of the more random elements while channel surfing and not knowing what it was, I’m confident in saying that my teacher playing it in class was the first time I saw this movie, although I don’t think we finished it then (a common theme among movies played at school, considering a class period is a little less than an hour and a movie is at least 75 minutes). I eventually saw it on DVD, the menus of which are how I first encountered Al’s updated (hair down, no mustache, no glasses) look that was probably old, old news by then.

As recall, the plot is probably the most forgettable part of the movie, though it’s clearly constructed as a means to let Al’s comedic ideas and abilities (and those of his writing partner) play. Al’s character George comes into control of a tiny local TV station and builds it into the area’s most must-watch TV through just having weird ideas nobody in the TV industry would have, a sure threat to the big network that wants him out of competition for their ratings.

There’s more story and fewer sketches than I remember. Stanley is shown at the beginning to be a daydreamer, but that’s not carried through most of the movie. The cutaways are almost entirely station ads once the story gets going until the big Rambo parody daydream at the end. The Beverly Hillbillies music video could be argued to be continuing his flights of fantasy, but it’s framed as a dream instead of a daydream, and it’s so different from the imagination sequences that it just seems awkwardly shoved in.

I’m not sure if RJ Reynolds seems like a parody of someone specific in broadcasting or if Kevin McCarthy is just that much of a presence in his own right. He feels like the most noteworthy actor in a movie with Weird Al, Kramer, and The Nanny despite the fact that I had to look up his name. He seems like a Leslie Nielson type whose serious appearance is usually played for comedy.

It’s unfortunate that this movie didn’t do well enough to let Al continue to make movies in the 90s. He’s only in the last few years been able to take the time to pursue comic acting alongside his music career as he reached the end of his album contract. This is at least as good as a classic National Lampoon or Airplane!-type movie, and he seems like he could’ve done more. I should probably look up AlTV, which sounds somewhere between talk show parody and actual talk show, but more in this vein would have been on another level.

The Final Days

The Final Days.
Multicom Entertainment Group 1989

Before watching the movie:

Long ago, in another time, a corruption scandal went all the way to the top and there were consequences. This is the story of what was happening in the White House as Nixon’s power and psyche crumbled.

As interesting as the intrepid reporting profiled in All The President’s Men was, it’s a story told from the outside. It’s a mystery, but one where every reader will know who did it, just not the path the sleuths took to figuring it out. As I watched that movie, and more so as I read the book, I was more interested in the legal and political processes that, as the story went on, seemed increasingly out of focus as Woodstein followed the money. So I was glad to find that their followup book was a reconstruction of what was happening in the Nixon White House as everything fell apart, put together from interviews with basically everyone involved except Nixon himself. The Happily Never After of the political fairy tale.

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Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams. Gordon Company 1989.

Before watching the movie:

I’m not sure how this is an inspiring movie about following your dreams and not an inspiring movie about how listening to the voices in your head can work out sometimes, but when I try to anticipate what this movie will be, I think of The Astronaut Farmer with baseball instead of spaceflight. But anyway, family man tears his family apart doing crazy things and then there’s a happy ending. Apparently this time James Earl Jones is involved.

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Heathers

Heathers. Cinemarque Entertainment 1989.

Before watching the movie:

There are three kinds of movies that become modern classics. The ones that are constantly referenced to the point that very little remains a surprise on the first watch, the ones that have one specific scene that is synonymous with the movie, and the ones that are classics even though nobody seems to talk about them at all, apparently assuming that there’s nothing left to say. The last group is the hardest to discuss preconceptions of, since I have nothing to base them on.

I know this is about bloody revenge on a clique of popular girls who are bullies, and that’s it. Some blurbs have more words, but little more content. I didn’t even know it starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater until I sourced the poster.

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Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society. Touchstone Pictures 1989.

Before watching the movie:

Robin Williams has done a lot of feel-good movies, but none seem to have the reputation for soaring inspiration that this one does. Sure, it’s all about a teacher trying to inspire his students, but I can think of other movies about Williams’s character inspiring others. Maybe it’s that this is the most quotable, but the main quote I know is a cliche.

One thing that’s becoming apparent to me is how little of his work I was actually familiar with when I was in the height of my appreciation for Robin Williams as an actor.

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Family Business

Family Business. Gordon Company 1989.

Before watching the movie:

I remember this came up very recently, but I don’t recall what it was in connection to. I think it was a related movie on IMDB, but I’m not even sure of that. Maybe it had sufficient keywords in common with The Sting, but I can’t recall for sure and it wasn’t there when I checked. What I am sure of is that the idea of Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick playing a criminal family running a caper was something I needed immediately.

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Teen Witch

Teen Witch. Trans World Entertainment 1989.
Teen Witch. Trans World Entertainment 1989.

Before watching the movie:

I was entirely unaware of this movie until it came up in algorithmic recommendations. Surprisingly, it has no relation to the Archie Comics series “Sabrina the Teeenage Witch”, which I know as the 90s sitcom of the same name. It really looks like the same setup, with the dreamy, unattainable boy and everything. I guess that’s just the story writers want to tell about teenaged girls. According to the summary on Wikipedia, it started life as a female twist on Teen Wolf, which… okay. Not exactly as weird and desperate as Teen Wolf 2 telling the same story again with the first werewolf’s cousin in college.

This is probably the best place to comment on how bad the theatrical posters are. I always try to use a poster from the original theatrical release, and sometimes that results in using things like this one, where who cares about the title character, there is a cute boy who is the most important part of the movie probably. More recent box art, as seen on IMDB, has just the girl on a broom, which at least gets the priorities straight. Also the German poster is very nice, but not in English and the only pictures I can find are folded.

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Penn and Teller Get Killed

Penn and Teller Get Killed. Lorimar Film Entertainment 1989.
Penn and Teller Get Killed. Lorimar Film Entertainment 1989.

Before watching the movie:

I’m not entirely sure when I first encountered Penn and Teller. I clearly remember that my seventh grade science teacher, who was a magician himself, showed us some tapes of televised magic acts, and there was at least one Penn and Teller illusion in the bunch. They appeared on an episode of Home Improvement, though I don’t know if I recognized them when I was regularly watching that show. I knew them well enough when they released “Off The Deep End” in 2005 I made an effort to tape it myself. So I would conservatively say I knew of them by the early 2000s and had seen their work from as early as the mid-90s.

But when I discovered “Fool Us!”, I went looking for a list of their old specials and series, and discovered one that was pretty different from the others. Magic isn’t exactly unscripted, and it may tell a story, but here, among all these magic shows, was, nearly at the beginning of their career, a theatrical, scripted/narrative film where they play themselves. It’s perfect for them, but how did this even happen?

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