A Look Back: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

If someone who has never seen “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” asks just what exactly happens to the hapless pair, Steve Martin and John Candy, as they attempt to make it home to family by Thanksgiving, the answer “everything” is only a slight exaggeration.  From the moment, his flight is cancelled, and Steve’s stuck making conversation with a genial (or obnoxious depending on your take) shower curtain ring salesman John, who keeps appearing just when he’s hoped he’s seen the last of him, the two men are in for a rocky ride.  (Literally and figuratively.)

The 1987 comedy relies on one of several reliable John Hughes’ plots: an odd couple overcoming obstacles on a road trip to make it home for the holidays.  (This is also the plot of the less funny “Dutch.”)  No one escapes to the Big City in order to romp around like it’s their own personal playground for learning life lessons; rather, Steve and John endure endless misery until a happy ending arrives a couple hours later.  By then, they’ve encountered fire, freezing weather, vehicle destruction, private grabbing, theft, a sing-along to “The Flintstones,” and more, as they take two steps back for every baby step toward their destination.  Some highlights of their trip:

John manages to almost wreck the rental when he’s gesturing to a good song on the radio (while Steve dozes in the passenger seat), and then manages to total it for real, driving, as two horrified, wildly gesturing motorists put it, “THE WRONG WAY!”

Steve delivers a profanity-heavy speech to the car rental agent, played amusingly by Edie McClurg, about why he needs a new car, and after learning that he does not have the rental agreement, gets a nice big f-you, in the same sweet voice she employed as Ed Rooney’s secretary so well in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Steve and John wind up sharing a double bed in a ratty motel and wake up in a compromising position, which they deal with by loudly discussing sports after leaping up horrified.

But the two men do learn something about tolerance and friendship, particularly Steve’s uptight executive.  John, despite or perhaps because of the traits that drive Steve crazy, is an excellent salesman (in one scene he convinces a group of girls that the shower curtain rings would make cool earrings), and he manages to grow on Steve to the point that they wind up not only making Thanksgiving home but sharing it together.  With Steve’s wife, too, of course.


Movie Review: Black or White

I haven’t seen Kevin Costner in a movie since the nineties when he was dancing with wolves and saving Whitney Houston from a crazed stalker, but he’s still got it. In “Black or White,” which he financed himself in order to bring it to fruition, he plays a white-collar alcoholic whose wife recently passed, and which suddenly raises the question of whether or not he should retain custody of his young, bi-racial granddaughter (Jillian Estell). Although Kevin gets along with the girl’s other grandmother (Octavia Spencer), he has a strained relationship with the father, a convicted felon and drug user, (Andre Holland), who he holds responsible for his daughter’s death. Since the daughter passed, Kevin and his wife have taken care of Jillian her entire life. They live in a gorgeous mansion-like home in a district with the best schools, etc., while the grandmother lives in a far more modest neighborhood. Nevertheless, she has some valid points about her granddaughter needing to be in touch with her culture.  Spencer also does a terrific job with her role, managing to give it more dimensions than just the stereotypical sassy black woman.

To prepare for what he suspects is going to be a tough battle, Kevin, who is a lawyer, hires a colleague who he’s mentored, and Octavia hires her nephew (Anthony Mackie), who is disgusted (and says so) with Andre’s lifestyle, but nevertheless agrees to represent him.  Both sides decide after some debate that it’s okay to get ugly if that’s what needs to be done to win the case. His friend will focus on the dad’s criminal history and general absence from his daughter’s life, and the opposing side will emphasize Kevin’s drinking and the fact that he’s a single dad who must eventually return to work full time.

Kevin’s character’s alcoholism is an open secret among his colleagues and his relations, but unsurprisingly, he’s defensive enough to thwart any attempts at genuine intervention. After his wife passes, he decides to take time off from work, in order to devote himself to caring for his granddaughter. Because she needs help in math, and Kevin is also an indifferent math student, he hires a tutor (Mpho Koaho), who understands something about grief, and who eventually begins to accompany Kevin places, when he is too inebriated to drive himself.  Kevin’s son-in-law shows up, hinting that he’ll make the case easy for Kevin to win, if he’ll give him money – which eventually, as the viewer suspects, backfires. Another complication develops when Kevin uses the n-word and has, in an Oscar-clip type moment, to explain his choice of terms in the courtroom.

The custody battle has a rather odd conclusion, involving a scene where someone falls into a pool and sees the light. All the good points that one side has made are no longer alluded to, and Kevin winds up with the granddaughter, though in an ending scene, it’s clear he’s going away to get help with his addiction. The granddaughter ends up happy, though, which of course, was the goal of both Kevin and Octavia all along, despite them having different ideas on how to go about securing it.

Movie review: “The DUFF”

There’s a scene in “Not Another Teen Movie,” where the protagonist’s friend bets him that he can’t turn an ugly girl into a prom queen, and looks around their high school campus for candidates. After considering and rejecting an albino folk singer, a hunchback, and conjoined twins, he picks the girl who has – get ready – glasses, a ponytail and paint-stained overalls. In a later scene, another girl instructs her to remove her glasses and unloosen her ponytail and says, “I’m a miracle worker!” Because in a Hollywood teen movie, that’s all it ever takes. Of course, if these characters ever attended your high school, they’d probably be mobbed, but in movies, they tend to be targets of outright derision – at least until they learn to stand up for their values and Believe In Themselves.

Which is to say that if you’ve seen a movie before, you don’t really need me to give you the extended plot of “The DUFF,” in which Mae Whitman plays the less-than-pretty sidekick to her two model friends, until she realizes her role is that of the “gatekeeper,” in which guys only approach her in order to get details on whether her friends would be receptive to going out with them. Of course, two of the “designated ugly fat friend,” letters are inaccurate, but this is a Hollywood high school in which even the non-Queen Bees are model tall with perfect hair and skin that has never encountered a zit. One character informs her boyfriend that she can, if she wishes, date thirty-year-olds which is believable because the actress appears to be well into her twenties. In any event, stung into action, Mae agrees to tutor her next door neighbor (Robbie Amell), a popular jock who she used to be friends with as kids, in science if he will help her overcome her DUFF status. Let the life lessons begin.

The DUFF role, as Mae’s teacher (Ken Jeung) points out has been around for decades, it just gets a different label every now and then. With a few exceptions, the film follows the standard makeover movie plot, in which the following commandments are evoked, so that the viewer will have comforting flashbacks to films like “She’s All That,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Drive Me Crazy,” and (near the end) a nod to “Pretty in Pink.” So even if you’re not in high school anymore, it will still feel familiar, as each trope pops up. Here are six that will make you nod knowingly.

1. Thou shalt begin the movie totally clueless.

2. Thou shalt undergo a healthy dose of humiliation.

3. Thou shalt discover that one’s unattainable crush is actually a jerk.

4. Thou shalt be given an assignment by an adult which will put everything into perspective.

5. Thou shalt tell off one’s rival in amazingly eloquent terms near the end.

6. Thou shalt realize that True Love has been right under one’s nose all along.

Of course, by the end, Mae is triumphant – telling off the Queen Bee, snagging the guy and getting acclaim for her article about Homecoming in the school. She’s still dressing like a refugee from the nineties, but she now has healthy self-esteem. And the guy, which isn’t supposed to be the point, but of course, is.

The audience I saw the movie with also enjoyed it, laughing hysterically throughout. But to be fair, the trailer for the “Mall Cop” sequel in which Kevin James is relentlessly pummeled in the nuts and elsewhere, which was shown beforehand also received this reaction. It was also a school vacation week. So you decide.

A Look Back: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Teen movie titles in the eighties were not known for their nuances, and of course, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” is basically one day in the life of the titular hero, played by Matthew Broderick, who faces off against a hopelessly dweeby school principal (Jeffrey Jones), determined to catch him ditching school and make an example.  Coincidentally, years later, Matthew would play the Ed Rooney character in the movie “Election,” in which Reese Witherspoon plays overachiever Tracy Flick, who faces off against a hopelessly dweeby teacher, determined to reveal that this girl is really a devious cheater.

In the end, both authority figures fail miserably.

Anyway, the machinations that Matthew goes through in order to have a day off with his best friend (Alan Ruck) and best girl (Mia Sara) are so convoluted that the viewer may be forgiven thinking that it might just have been easier to go to school.  But it soon becomes clear, after Matthew’s parents depart for work, leaving their “sick” son in bed, and he gets up and breaks the fourth wall, that his character thrives on this kind of brain power.  Setting the stage is half the fun.

The possibility that Matthew’s parents might call or drop by unexpectedly to check on him is the least of his concerns.  And if the principal phones them insisting that their son is ditching, they won’t believe a word.   The fact that they dote on him, however, makes his sister (Jennifer Grey) absolutely livid with jealousy, and she decides to ditch school as well, in order to expose her brother as faking the whole thing.

Undaunted by all of this, Matthew “persuades” his anal-retentive friend Cameron to borrow Daddy’s Ferrari, which the dad loves so much he won’t even take it out on the road.  After faking the death of Mia’s grandmother, they pick her up from school where the rest of the students are vegetating in Ben Stein’s class, and they head off to the Big City.

What do they do there?  All sorts of wacky things, including narrowly missing getting seen by Matthew’s dad several times.  Meanwhile, back in the suburbs, Jeffrey prowls around trying to tail Matthew and getting utterly humiliated in the process.  Even before he starts his hopeless quest, we can see right away that even his secretary (Edie McClurg) thinks he’s a loser.

Matthew does have a few close calls, but by the end of the movie, is triumphantly the same free spirit he was at the start of the movie.  If anyone has undergone a character change, it’s Alan, who eventually chooses to stand up to his father after the car gets trashed beyond repair, and also Jennifer, who hooks up with Charlie Sheen at the police station and finally begins to realize that she should worry more about her own life than her brother’s.  After all, he got a computer, and she got a car.


A Look Back: Pretty in Pink

When I first saw “Pretty In Pink,” as a teen, I’m afraid the uppermost thought in my mind while watching the first 20 minutes was not, “Wow, what a spunky nonconformist heroine,” but “if Molly’s character, Andie Walsh, is supposed to be so poor, why does she have her own bedroom phone and car?”  I also did not (I suspected) have quite the reaction to Molly’s self-designed prom outfit and ultimate choice of guys.  At first, I thought she should have gone with Jon Cryer’s Duckie, but on second thought, I didn’t think any of the three was good enough for her.  However, I was probably in the minority there.

The movie opens with Molly getting ready for school and then showing off her outfit to her rather disheveled, seedy looking, but still loving single father (Harry Dean Stanton).  She designs and sews all of her outfits, which makes her the target of mockery with her upper crust peers but will probably one day win her a scholarship to an art institute.  She reminds Dad it’s time he should start thinking about getting a job, and then it’s off, across the railroad tracks (figuratively, though the tracks are literal in “Some Kind of Wonderful”) to her school.

She then arrives, and we meet her best friend, Duckie, who has a crush on her that even I, at a young age, thought was awfully disturbing.  But Molly goes with it, so I did, too.  We also get introduced to James Spader’s Stef, who is clearly supposed to be the bad guy because in eighties movie tradition he is blond, heavily moussed and rich, but also for some bizarre reason, interested in Molly, who turns his invitation down flat.  Fortunately, Molly’s choices are not limited to her stalker-in-training best friend and Evil Rich Guy because when she’s studying, she gets a computer message from Andrew McCarthy, who is also rich, but actually, gasp, kind of nice.  So she agrees to go on a date with him, but makes him pick her up at the record store where she works because she is too ashamed to let him see where she lives.

There is tension, of course, when they are each introduced to their date’s social circle, but the two manage to keep seeing each other, even as shock waves ripple through the entire high school because no one can conceive of a Poor Girl going out with a Rich Guy.  There’s also a subplot about Molly’s dad not having a job and not being able to accept that his wife has left for good, but fortunately, Molly possess a preternatural wisdom and does set him straight, as she does the school principal in another scene.  She’s even so principled that she tells off Andrew for being so wishy-washy when it comes to asking her to the prom (he’s starting to cave in from familial pressure, though we never meet his evil parents).  She decides to go the prom alone, “just to show them they didn’t break me.”

Molly’s best girl friend gives her an old dress, and her dad brings home one, too.  She rips up both to make a single one, and the end result is hardly flattering, but everyone from her dad to Jon, who shows up at the prom to give her moral support, loves it.  Unsurprisingly, Andrew is there, and he finally develops the cojones to tell off James and follow his heart.  Even Jon gets a girl to dance with.  At least, Molly wound up with someone whose budding computer skills will probably help him find a good job in the nineties.  Although she really should have held out until after graduation where she could find a much bigger selection of guys in college.

A Look Back: Rain Man

“Ray? I know you can hear me. I know you’re in there somewhere.” – Tom Cruise in Rain Man

Bad things started to happen to movie yuppies in the late eighties and continued for a period after that. Suddenly, greed was no longer quite as “good” as it originally was, and there appeared multiple mainstream films in which white, upwardly mobile American men wound up getting struck by cancer (“The Doctor”), brain injured in a freak accident (“Regarding Henry”) or on a more whimsical note, returning to Never Neverland (“Hook”) in order to realize that missing their child’s ball game/dance recital/whatever because they’re workaholics was not okay. Maybe since “Rain Man,” (deservedly) won a lot of Oscars, other directors started thinking the next golden formula was evil yuppie plus a healthy dose of humility equals Academy Award.

The older Tom Cruise in “Rain Man,” shares some similarities to his character in “Risky Business,” including a penchant for grinning and wearing sunglasses, and an insensitive, distant dad, but fortunately, he isn’t married, has no children and perhaps as result, gets off with a much lighter “sentence.” At the beginning of the movie, he is busy doing sports car dealer deals, when he gets the news that his father has passed away. The dad and Tom are estranged, so it isn’t a tragedy or anything – except when Tom discovers that dad has left him his own cherished sports car and some rosebushes, while a brother he never knew he had gets the remainder (millions). Of course, this is too unfair to ignore, so Tom goes and tracks down the brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), who is autistic, lives in an institution and doesn’t seem able to acknowledge Tom’s presence or respond to the news that their father is dead.

Dustin does, however, seem to remember Tom’s car, which he remembers driving, “slow on the driveway, but not on Monday. Definitely not on Monday.” and since he knows the father’s full name, address, etc., this is convincing.  So despite his brother’s obvious handicap, Tom, amazingly easily, manages to coerce his brother into the car and drives off unimpeded (hoping to hold him hostage, but the particulars of this remain vague). Tom also takes along his girlfriend (Valeria Golino) so that she can serve as proxy for the audience and constantly remind him that taking an autistic man on an impromptu cross-country trip is a little dumb, not to mention callous. After all, you can’t get much more of an unstructured activity than that.  (At one point, she leaves him but then reappears in time for some hijinks in Vegas.)

Unlike some Hollywood movie characters who wind up in a mental institution because they are a Free Spirit clashing with a repressive society, Dustin is there (we eventually learn) because of very specific circumstances revolves around Young Tom’s safety.  Which makes the father more interesting. What was it like for him as a single father raising two sons, one of whom with special needs that were probably poorly understood at the time?  Has he actually engineered the will in order to encourage Tom to finally get in touch with the brother?  How did the dad manage to erase all traces of his older son anyway, so that the younger has been convinced for a long time that “Rain Man” was an imaginary childhood friend?

But this a buddy movie of sorts with two major actors, and so the focus is instead on the brothers and how their relationship is shaped by the road trip.  Tom tries in his own way to be accommodating, but his brother constantly seems to be thwarting his efforts, no less on purpose!  Fish sticks for dinner?  Sure, no problem – except they arrive in the wrong amount.  Things also get tricky when Tom wants to fly, but Dustin refuses to set foot on any plane whose airline has a record of crashes – which is all, except for Qantas, which only flies to Australia.  (Surprisingly, this scene was edited when “Rain Man” was shown on airplanes.)  So it’s time to hit the road again.

As he spends more time with his brother, it becomes obvious that Dustin has some remarkable savant-like skills with numbers and also has a photogenic memory when it comes to reading the phone book.  So Tom decides to make a pit stop in Vegas in order to gamble.  However, when they finally reach their destination, and Tom finally begins to acknowledge that he can’t provide round the clock supervision for his brother, things come to a more sober end.  But it’s clear that the two have bonded in their own way and will still be in touch, no doubt for the rest of their lives.