Tag Archives: Farce

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Thanksgiving on the road.

This movie’s plot, which is threadbare , deals with a middle-aged businessman named Neal Page (Steve Martin) who is trying desperately to get home to Chicago to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with his family. During his trip he inadvertently meets Del Griffith (John Candy) an overweight, slightly obnoxious shower curtain hanger salesman. Neal initially cannot stand the man, but is forced to sit with him through his plane flight when he is not able to get the first class seat that he had reserved. Unfortunately due to a snowstorm their flight is rerouted to Wichita, Kansas and the two men find themselves paired together again as they try any means of transportation possible to get themselves to the Windy City. Along the way they begrudgingly start up a friendship.

Martin is okay as the exasperated businessman. This film marked a transition for him as he was now moving away from roles where he played clownish, vapid, but lovable idiots and more into crusty and curmudgeon middle-aged men. He is basically used for his annoyed reactions at all of Candy’s crazy antics and for that part he is fine, but there are a wide assortment of other actors that could have played the part just as well if not better. Martin at times still goes back to some of his old shtick like the dopey way he puts on a clenched teeth grin when he is trying to run real fast, which I never found to be particularly funny when he was doing it way back with skits on Saturday Night Live and still don’t find it funny when he continues to do it now.

Candy is by far the best thing about the film and ends up saving the movie from being an uninspired, goofy mess. The character does at times border on being a caricature, but fortunately writer-director John Hughes pulls back just enough to let you see him as a real person. He does indeed have some laugh-out-loud moments. I chuckled at the way he tries to clear his throat when the two men are stuck in a motel room together. The part where he manages to get both his coat sleeves stuck on some car seat levers and he is forced to drive the car with his two legs is hilarious. I also liked the way he gyrates to a Ray Charles song that he listens to while driving and the conversation that he has with a policeman (Michael Mckean) when their burned out shell of a car gets pulled over is a classic.  I thought the idea of having him be a salesman for shower curtain hangers hit just the right note of absurdity and the fact that he carries around a little box displaying all the different types of hangers he has was novel. The only thing I didn’t like about the character is that at the end we find out that he is somehow rendered homeless simply because his wife died 8 years before. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, for one thing he seemed to have a lot of success selling his merchandise, so I’m sure he had money and for another thing there are many men and women whose spouses end up dying, but that doesn’t mean they no longer have a home to go to. To me it just ends up being a cheap excuse for a sloppy sentiment and it should have been avoided.

The late John Hughes’s writing and directing leaves a lot to be desired especially for the sophisticated viewer. The humor that is used is extremely broad and many times downright cartoonish. He seems to be either not confident in himself as a filmmaker, or in the intelligence of his audience to ever be subtle and subdued, but it would have been nice if a little bit of that had been thrown in. He also uses way too many poor plot devices that are simply used to propel the paper-thin story along and would be considered hack writing at most and something that a third grader could come up with. For instance why does the engine of train that the two men are riding in suddenly break down? No logical explanation is given and what are the odds of that happening as well as having Neal’s rental car missing when all the rest of the cars are there. There is also the cab driver named Wolf who decorates his cab with all sorts of pornographic pictures and other provocative ornaments, which is at first funny until you realize that he supposedly works in Wichita, which is a small conservative city and no one would be riding his cab for long and he would be out of business. If there is no truth to the joke then the joke will fail, which it does here. The same goes for the crude, gross, and very hick pick-up truck driver that relies way too heavily on stereotypes and seems to be put in solely as filler.

I did like the fact that it was filmed on-location as the stark wintry like landscapes does indeed put the viewer in the holiday frame of mind. I also liked the fact that for the most part real snow is used. I was born and raised in Minnesota and I can spot the fake stuff right away and I always find it annoying. I liked that many performers from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off appear in brief cameos including: Ben Stein and Edie McClurg although it would have been nice if they were given a little more to do. Kevin Bacon also appears as does William Windom who is amusing as a one of Neal’s clients who can’t decide on what photo layout to use. I was disappointed that he wasn’t given any lines of dialogue, but the fact that he does reappear at the very end after the credits  makes up for it a bit. I also must mention the burned-out skeleton car that the two men drive in, which is the damnedest looking thing since the bus filled with bullet holes in The Gauntlet.

The music score is awful. It has too much of that tinny, synthesized 80’s sound that is unoriginal and does not fit the mood, or tone of the picture in any way. It also gets overplayed in certain scenes and hurts the film’s overall enjoyment.

I would say this movie would be great for the whole family as it does rely a lot on the broad, fast paced humor that most kids love. However, there is one scene where Martin goes into a long, F-word laden rant with McClurg when he can’t find his rental car. The rant in itself is funny, but some might say it is not appropriate for children. Of course these days I have heard kids as young as six, or seven using the word and I have also heard it used just in casual conversation by people I pass by while walking the streets of Indianapolis, so trying to shield the child from it may be futile and they will all sooner or later hear it in abundance anyways.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 25, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated PG: (Adult Language, Crude Humor)

Director: John Hughes

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lover in the attic.

This wacky film nicely exudes the mod, experimental wave of filmmaking that permeated the era of the late 60’s. The story takes place in London and is about a clothing manufacturer’s wife named Harriet Blossom (Shirley MacLaine) who one day calls her husband Robert (Richard Attenborough) while he is at work to tell him that her sewing machine has broken down. Robert sends his lowly assistant Ambrose Tuttle (James Booth) over to their house to help her fix it. Harriet is a bit bored with life and feels neglected by her husband, so she not so subtly seduces Ambrose and then hides him in the attic where he soon takes up residence.  He comes out only when Robert is away, but the unexplained strange noises that Robert hears and the many close calls make him think he is going insane and leads him to a nervous breakdown.

Director Joseph McGrath’s highly visual style is the real star. The lighting, editing, camera angles, set design, and costumes are creative and imaginative.  The home that was chosen for the setting has a nice architectural flair especially the attic and billiards room, which seems to be draped by a large stain glass window. Certain film professors show this movie to their classes as an example of how stylish direction can help accentuate a story as well as deftly define its era. I was disappointed to see that although McGrath is still alive he hasn’t done a film since 1984, which is a shame as it is obvious from this that he is quite gifted and I would have liked to see him doing more.

This is generally considered a vehicle for MacLaine, but to me her performance isn’t interesting. I think she is a first rate actress, but her character here is the only normal one in the film and she acts more like an anchor trying to corral the craziness around her. Booth, as her lover, goes to the other extreme, but doesn’t fare any better. He is too clownish and is always wearing various disguises and going through different personas, which makes the character unrealistic and cartoonish. If anything, out of the three main leads, it is actually Attenborough who does the best. His nervous and confused facial expressions are priceless. The scenes were he comes home from work and to ‘unwind’ pretends to be a conductor of a large orchestra while listening to a loud record, is amusing.

The colorful supporting cast though, full of legendary British Pros, is what steals the film. Some of them appear just briefly, but they still make a memorable and funny impression. Barry Humphries, playing a male character and not Dame Edna, is good as an art dealer. John Cleese, in one of his very first roles, is engaging as an argumentative postal clerk.  The best however is far and away Freddie Jones as the snippy, suspicious, relentless detective that will leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of Ambrose, who once he moves into Harriet’s attic proceeds to completely drop of society and disappear.

Although generally entertaining the plot doesn’t go anywhere and is simply a set-up for a lot of absurdity. What is worse is the fact that this based on a true story that in its own right was very intriguing.  In the real-life incident that took place in 1913 a 33 year old woman by the name of Dolly Oesterreich met a 17 year old named Otto Sanhuber. She, like the character in the movie, was a bored wife of a wealthy textile manufacturer, and took in the young man as her ‘sex slave’, which he readily accepted. To avoid possible suspicion she had him move into their attic, where he remained for five years and despite some close calls was never caught.  When the Oesterreich’s moved to Los Angeles in 1918 Dolly made sure that their new home had an attic as well and Otto then took up residence there and the deception continued until 1920 when Otto finally ended up killing the husband.

Of course none of that happens here. In fact Ambrose is fond of the husband and considers the three to be one big happy ‘family’, which is offbeat for sure, but not particularly satisfying. Again, this film does have some funny moments. I thought the scene where Robert invents the world’s first inflatable bra only to have the system go awry during an exhibition, which forces the model’s breasts to grow to unbelievable proportions before they go floating in the air, to be hilarious.  Still the end result of this production can best be described as cinematic soufflé.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: September 11, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rating: NR (Not Rated)

Director: Joseph McGrath

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS

Johnny Be Good (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: College recruiters are sleazy.

            Johnny Walker (Anthony Michael Hall) is a star high school quarterback who finds that during his senior year he is being bombarded by college recruiters who try any means, legal, or otherwise, to get him to come to their school. Johnny enjoys taking advantage of it, which consists of going to their campuses and being lavished with parties, women, money, and other gifts. His girlfriend Georgia (Uma Thurman) doesn’t approve as she is afraid he may be tempted to cheat on her.

In some ways this is an interesting idea as the topic of college recruiting and some of the corruption that goes along with it has not been presented in any detailed fashion in too many other films, so it seems fresh. The film starts out as very farcical and humorous showing all these middle-aged men dressed like Herb Tarlek from WKRP in Cincinnati  slobbering over Johnny wherever he goes and promising him just about anything. The film though switches gears awkwardly. The majority of it is crude and adolescent, but then turns into a serious and preachy morality tale at the end. This uneven approach doesn’t work as the goofy comedy is so over-the-top that any attempt at seriousness is lost. It would have worked better and been more riveting had it been presented as a drama.

The comedy isn’t all that hilarious either. There are some amusing bits here and there, but most of it falls flat. Even the film’s best comic moment gets botched. It entails Johnny being lead onto a platform on the field’s fifty yard line by a recruiter’s attractive, sexy wife who tries to get him to have sex with her.  Some of the other people at the party follow them and project their antics onto the stadium’s scoreboard. Unfortunately Johnny resists and ends up running away even though I thought it would have been a lot funnier seeing them actually having sex. I suppose the filmmakers feared that audiences would not want their hero cheating on his girlfriend, but if you spend time setting up a wild scenario then you need to go for the gusto.

This also brings up another problem with the movie, which is that all the nudity, at least in the theatrical 84 minute version I saw, is cut out. Apparently there is an R-rated version available with more nudity intact, but why cut it out to begin with? This film’s sophistication level is extremely low and typically when the script consists of nothing more than crude comedy the nudity at least helps.

The third problem with the film is that the adults are portrayed as being so stupid that they seem almost inhuman. I know it became trendy during the teen movies of the 80’s to show adults and other authority figures as being clueless, unhip, and basically just plain out-of-it, but this film goes too far with it. Georgia’s parents are particularly irritating. The casting of Marshall Bell as Georgia’s overly authoritative father was a mistake as he looks and behaves too much like Paul Gleason, who plays the coach.

Hall is okay in the lead, but the part where he is sitting in his room playing on his drums even though his drumsticks never makes contact with any of them while looking at football highlights on the TV is annoying. For one thing the look on his face makes it appear that he is in some sort of trance and the scene goes on too long and then gets shown again during the end credits.

Although the part is not very demanding it is still fun to see Thurman in an early role as the girlfriend. Robert Downey Jr. is also amusing in an early role as Johnny’s best friend although he looks pudgy and out-of-shape and not in condition for playing football. His father Robert Downey Sr. appears as an investigator.

By far and away the best part in the film is Paul Gleason as the high strung coach Hisler. He plays an extension of the part that he did in The Breakfast Club   and is even more hyped-up. He steals every scene he is in and is the most memorable thing about the film and helps save it from being a complete disaster.

Legendary sports announcer Howard Cosell appears as himself in a couple of amusing cameos, which is fun, but his hand shakes so much as it is holding the telephone receiver that he is talking into that it becomes distracting. Former Chicago Bears quarterback also appears as himself, but most young football fans today probably won’t even know who he is.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: March 25, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes (R version) 1Hour 24Minutes (PG-13 version)

Director: Bud S. Smith

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Netflix streaming

Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: They like The Ramones.

Vapid, schlocky nonsense about high school students rebelling from an oppressive new principal named Miss Togar (Mary Woronov) with the help of the punk rock band The Ramones.

The film was produced by Roger Corman, who was known to be quite stingy with his budget, and it shows. As a joke the crew put in birds in the background to chirp ‘cheap, cheap’ over the credits.

There really is no storyline here. It is just a rapid-fire parade of one corny, lame gag after another that gets progressively worse as it goes along. Despite being labeled a teen comedy the humor is embarrassingly kiddie with the expected sex jokes and innuendos at a minimum. Normally, even in the worst of comedies, I can usually find a few lines, or scenes, to be funny, but here I found nothing that was amusing, or even halfway clever.

What is worse is the fact that there is no nudity! What kind of self-respecting teen comedy doesn’t have nudity? Not that a few fleeting naked bodies would have saved it, but at least it would have helped.

P.J. Soles won a cult following for her rambunctious performance as the student leading the rebellion, but her acting is very hammy. Vincent Van Patten, son of actor Dick Van Patten, is cast against type as the good-looking blonde All-American, who seemingly can’t get laid. Unfortunately, he has always had a very blank, ‘deer-in-headlights’ stare and I find his acting follows in the same suit.

Woronov is ineffective as the heavy. She is just not mean, or repressive enough and stupidly falls for all the dumb tricks that the students play on her. Her character should have been played-up more and her evilness more accentuated, which would have, even on a minor level, allowed for more tension and made the film seem less one-dimensional.

If I liked anybody here it would be Dey Young, who is the younger sister of actress Leigh-Taylor Young and the two look a lot alike. She is real cute, but in a nice natural way that is not overdone. She seems to be having a good time throughout and I enjoyed her spontaneity. Male viewers may also like her revealing gym outfit.

The punk band The Ramones appear as themselves. Initially the producers had wanted singer Todd Rundgren, who would’ve been better, but he refused. They then tried to get Van Halen, but backed down when they heard they were wild and too hard to control. For a while they even considered bringing in a disco band and calling it ‘Disco High School’.  For what it was worth I was not into their music, or at least from what I heard here, as their songs sounded too much alike with no harmony, or melody, and a beat that was too repetitive. Also, their vocals sounded more like shouting than singing. They showed no screen presence and reportedly their acting was so bad that the majority of their lines were cut. For the record though their lead singer Joey looks almost exactly like radio personality Howard Stern.

Sometimes, if done right, teen comedies can be fun because they allow one to harken back to their own high school years and bring back fond memories like John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club do. However, those films at least had some shred of reality to them while here the characters and situations are too cartoonish and over-the-top. Nothing is relatable and even for satire it goes overboard. It’s a ‘bomb’ in every respect.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: August 24, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Allan Arkush

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray