Tag Archives: Road Movies

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

Midnight Run (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Chased by the mob.

Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) is a bounty hunter that is looking to get into a less stressful profession. He is offered 100,000 to find bail jumper Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) who worked as an accountant for the mob and skimmed 15 million from them. Jack thinks he can use the money to open up a coffee shop, but finds that the FBI is in hot pursuit of Mardukas as well. There is also rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton) who wants his hands on Mardukas and the money. Jack even finds himself chased by the mob looking to silence Mardukas before he can turn states evidence.

The catalyst of the film is the relationship between Jack and Jonathan and how it slowly turns into an unusual friendship during their long adventure. Both Grodin and De Niro have diametrically opposite personalities and acting styles, which is why this thing really works. The relationship ebbs and flows on the antagonistic level most of the time and the friendship really doesn’t build until the very end and even then it is tenuous, which is nice.  Too many times in ‘buddy’ movies such as this the sentiment becomes forced, but fortunately here it is very balanced and their interactions believable throughout.

Grodin was an inspired choice. I have always thought the guy to be a very talented, underappreciated, and unique comic performer. However, he was not a big name star and the studio heads originally wanted Robin Williams for the role and then even considered changing the sex of the Mardukas character to female and having Cher play the part, but director Martin Brest liked Grodin’s style during his audition and held out until he got him even though it meant losing the backing of Paramount and forcing them to go with Universal.

Grodin adds a lot that the other two stars, as very talented as they are, just wouldn’t be able to do.  One is a completely improvised conversation that he has with the De Niro character while they are stuck inside a train car, which is the one scene from this film that I remember most clearly from having first seen it over twenty years ago. There is another improvised scene involving Mardukas and Jack pretending to be FBI agents and going into a local bar looking for counterfeit bills that makes great use of Grodin’s sardonic humor and deadpan delivery.

John Ashton is a riot as Marvin the rival and slightly dim-witted bounty hunter. He is so over-the-top obnoxious and crude that you can’t help but laugh at it. He takes the caricature of the tough, brash, gruff, blue collar Chicagoan to a hilarious extreme. He is like legendary football coach Mike Ditka on speed. Denis Farina, as the mob boss, is also good as is Joe Pantiliano as the frantic bail bondsmen.

Another thing that makes this movie so successful is that it is able to work on three different levels in a very cerebral way. Not only is it a very good comedy and character study, but it’s not half bad with the action either. The best sequence here is when the two men get swept away by a strong river current, which has the actual actors doing most of the stunts.

Of course the script, by George Gallo, does have a few holes and implausibility’s that can’t avoid being mentioned since some of them are integral to the main plot. The biggest one is when Marvin, in an attempt to impede Jack and find his whereabouts, gets on the phone with Jack’s credit card company and identifies himself as Jack and is able to easily find out where the card was last used and have it cut off. However, with every credit card company I have worked with I am forced to give some more identification before I am given any information including my social security number, a secret word or phrase, or a PIN and yet here Marvin isn’t required to give any of that. There is also that fact that when Jack finds out that his credit card is being rejected he doesn’t just get on the phone with his credit card company and get it straightened out, which is what anyone else would do.

There is also a segment where Jack is somehow able to fleece the FBI badge from agent Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), which Jack then uses to impersonate him with during his trip with Mardukas. However, this just would not have been possible as the two men met only briefly inside a car with Alonzo sitting in front and Jack in back scrunched between two other agents who keep a close eye on him. The FBI has also been searching for Mardukas for six years and yet Jack is able to find him easily, which to me seemed too convenient.

The excessive swearing is another issue. Yes, sometimes cursing can help build the grittiness of the characters, but here it goes overboard. Officially the word ‘Fuck’, or a variation of it, gets said a total of 119 times, but I was convinced it was more than that. Its overuse is so redundant that it almost becomes a distraction.

            All things considered this is still a winner. This is one of my favorite De Niro roles and in my opinion his best foray into comedy as I feel his work in the Meet the Parents series is generally wasted. There is also an emotionally strong scene when Jack goes back briefly to visit with his ex-wife and fourteen year old daughter. Normally these types of scenes end up being clichéd, but here it really hits the mark, especially Jack’s interactions with his daughter.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: July 20, 1988

Runtime: 2Hours 6Minutes

Studio: Universal

Rated R (Language)

Director: Martin Brest

Available: DVD, HDDVD, VHS, Amazon Instant Video 

Harry and Tonto (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Old man and cat.

Harry Combes (Art Carney) is a 72 year old retiree living in a small New York apartment with his pet cat Tonto and finds out that the complex is about to be torn down and he must leave. At first he moves in with his son (Phil Bruns) and his family, but it does not work out. He decides to take a cross-country odyssey with his cat where he meets a variety of interesting people in this senior citizen variation of Easy Rider.

One of the great things that sets this film apart from others that deal with aging is that there is no death, dying, illness, or senility here. Instead of learning to adjust to the ending of one’s life, our character instead realizes that old-age is just another stage in a person’s existence and full of new experiences and possibilities. I thought it was cool and interesting how he meets a 15 year old teen girl runaway (Melanie Mayron in her film debut) named Ginger and the two set out to try and find themselves as well as search for life’s answers. They share a lot more in common than one might expect and only prove that life is a continual exploration no matter what stage you are in.

The Harry character is refreshingly laid-back and easy going unlike most elderly characters who tend to be betrayed as stuck in a bygone era. Although he does reminisce about the ‘old days’ with his friends, he does not expound on boring stories of yesteryear with young people, nor act like he has all the answers simply because he is older. He approaches everyone in a non-judgmental way that allows each person he meets to be themselves. He proves to be a lot more flexible and open-minded than the other, younger adults in the film including his own children.

There were only a few scenes involving the Harry character that I didn’t like. One is when he refuses to leave his apartment even as the wrecking ball crew stands outside. The police end up having to be carry him out while he still seats in his favorite chair, which seemed forced and unrealistic. There is another scene where he is at the airport ready to board a plane, but he refuses to allow, for no particular reason, the security to search the cage that has his cat in it even though it is accepted procedure.  This may have been writer-director Paul Mazursky’s way of showing that Harry could at times be set in his ways, but to me it went beyond being simply stubborn and more into the irrational and was not consistent with his behavior in the rest of the film.

The script has a lot of amusing and even touching slice-of-life vignettes as well as characters that are quirky, but not absurd.  The scene with Harry meeting an old Indian medicine man named Sam Two Feathers that is played by elderly Indian actor Chief Dan George is well handled. George had no formal acting training, but his raw delivery is an inviting change of pace.  I also enjoyed at the very end when he meets a woman with a bounty of pet cats that his played by comedian Lenny Bruce’s mother. Again, she had no acting training, but the scene captures her natural out-going personality and it is fun.

I felt Phil Bruns gave an outstanding and overlooked performance as Harry’s older son Burt.  The constant nervous and stressed-out expression on his face seemed to be a perfect composite of the middle-aged suburban male that is overrun with job demands and family responsibilities.  Larry Hagman is good as well in a brief, but memorable appearance as Harry’s other son Eddie. He spends the first part of his visit with Harry trying to impress him with how ‘good’ things are going only to end up breaking down when it becomes painfully obvious that he is desperate and broke.  Even director Mazursky gives himself a cameo as a gay prostitute who makes a pass at Harry.

If the film has any faults it is the fact that it is too amiable. I would have liked to have seen a little bit more action and comic misadventure. I thought it could have been funny and intriguing to see Harry inside a hippie commune, which is where he takes his two teen passengers. Instead he lets them off without going himself, which seemed like a missed opportunity.  There is another part where he inadvertently hitches a ride with a high-priced hooker (Barbra Rhoades) who immediately starts to get ‘horny’ when he Harry gets in. She drives the car off the road and parks it in the middle of the dessert and then the film cuts away. I think this could have been hilarious had this scene been extended. I was also disappointed that the very talented Ellen Burstyn is seen only briefly playing Harry’s daughter Shirley. This was even more of a shame because Burstyn gets cast against type here playing a character that is rather edgy and opinionated and there was strong potential for some good drama.

There are a few extended conversations where Harry discusses with some of his old friends their inability to perform sexually and how they hadn’t had sex for well over twenty years.  With the advent of Viagra, a product that was invented and manufactured right here in good old Indianapolis, these types of topics are no longer as relevant and make the film seem dated.

Of course the one thing that holds it all together and propels the movie from beginning to end is the outstanding Oscar winning performance of Carney, who until then was best known as the comic side-kick Ed Norton from the classic series The Honeymooners. Although he seemed perfect for the part he was not the Producers first choice and had to lobby hard to the get the role.  He was actually only 55 years old when the film was made and to help compensate he openly wore his hearing aid, which gets shown a lot, as well as dying his hair gray.

His win on Oscar night in 1974 became an historic upset. He was going up against very stiff competition that night including Dustin Hoffman for Lenny, Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, and Al Pacino for The Godfather Part 2. When Carney’s name gets called the look of shock on his face is very apparent as even he was not expecting it.  The moment is worth a look and can be seen on YouTube for those who are interested.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 12, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 55Minutes

Rated R

Director: Paul Mazursky

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD