Thursday, November 30, 2017
Friday, November 24, 2017
Film In Focus
By Jonathon Saia
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (WB, 1989) – Director: Jeremiah S. Chechik. Writer: John Hughes. Stars: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Brian Doyle-Murray, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ellen Latzen, William Hickey, Mae Questel & Sam McMurray. Color, Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.
Every family has their holiday traditions.
Reading "Twas the Night Before Christmas" around the fire. Finding the pickle on the Christmas tree. Singing carols around the piano. Getting drunk to survive the foolishness. The holidays bring out the best and the worst of what it means to be a family.
One of the Saia Family traditions (in addition to all of the above) was watching the Griswolds. I've probably seen this movie a dozen times and always thought of it as a lightweight, feel good reflection of the stress the holidays bring to us all. The Christmas my grandfather died, in desperate need of a laugh, we still gathered around the TV as usual and I began to realize just how great – not just emotionally rewarding – of a film it actually is.
Notice when Clark (Chase) gives his boss a Christmas gift; all of the gifts from all of his workers are shaped exactly the same, symbolizing the cookie-cutter expectation of white collar America. Clark and his boss (played by the indefatigably cantankerous Brian Doyle-Murray, Bill's brother) are separated by a giant table, speaking volumes about the company's relationship to its workers. Notice the way Audrey's (Lewis) eyes are frozen over when shopping for the tree. Or Russ' (Galecki) frustration being given the task of unraveling the ball of lights, illustrating the way children suffer for their parents' mistakes. Or the scene in bed when Clark's fingers get sticky with the glue from the magazine. Or the great montage when the grandparents arrive yelling at one another and then unloading their grievances and their outpourings of emotion on their hosts not even two minutes in the door. The way Eddie (Quaid) piles bag upon bag of dog food into Clark's cart. The way Ellen (D'Angelo) and Audrey bond over the inescapable wounds of family pressure. And every single moment featuring Uncle Lewis (Hickey) and Aunt Bethany (Questel). This film is filled with moments of tacit specificity that create an elaborate tapestry of Mid-American provincial life.
Christmas Vacation has it all: It's a road movie as they travel into the woods to chop down their own tree. It's an action movie as they struggle to get out from under the truck and the SWAT team busts through their windows. It's a sex comedy as Clark flirts with the clerk at the mall and later dreams of her doing a private striptease just for him. It's a gross out comedy as Eddie dumps his full shitter into their sewage drain. It's slapstick as the Griswolds' neighbors fall down the stairs and get attacked by dogs. It's a Man Against the Machine film as Clark finds himself an anonymous cog in the corporate wheel and shoppers fall over themselves for the last-minute deals. It's a socio-economic treatise seeing what poverty does to the family unit. It's a four-hankie weeper as Clark watches his old home movies and has a heart to heart with his dad after everything goes down hill. The screenplay by John Hughes, the master of smart comedies with heart, combines all of these seemingly mismatched elements to give us a frighteningly real life portrait of the Willie Loman in all of us.
And standing in as our Everyman is the under-appreciated Chevy Chase, always overshadowed by other titans of his generation like Bill Murray or John Belushi. But in every Chase performance there is a suave mastery of the art of physical comedy. And his most famous character, Clark Griswold, reminds me of something Buster Keaton would have played. Pantomimed to perfection, filled with passion and heart and bravery. There is a reason why he is Chevy Chase and we are not.
Christmas Vacation is also filled to the brim with wonderful character actors. Doris Roberts. Diane Ladd. E.G. Marshall. John Randolph. Miriam Lynn. A pre-Roseanne Galecki. A pre-Cape Fear Lewis. A pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus. A post-Oscar nominated Hickey and Quaid. The great Mae Questel who was the voice of "Betty Boop" and "Olive Oyl." And the neglected D'Angelo. Seriously. Where has she gone?
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation taps into the joys and heartbreaks of trying to bring your family the perfect gathering, no matter which holiday you celebrate. And most poignantly, it makes you look at your own insane, obnoxious, pull-your-hair-out-frustrating family and somehow love them. To see through all the muck and mire and just love them.
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
TCM TiVo ALERT
November 23–November 30
DAVID’S BEST BETS:
NETWORK (November 24, 1:15 am): This brilliant film is not only the best satire of television ever made, but it is decades ahead of its time showing how reality TV could and did capture the attention of the viewing audience. As the years pass, this 1976 film becomes more relevant as society's interest in the obsession of pseudo celebrities and our insatiable appetite for around-the-clock garbage news increase. At times, you can see yourself in the film watching some of the crap that litters the airwaves today. You know it's awful and/or outrageous, but you can't help but watch. The film shows the mental breakdown of anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and how it captures the attention of viewers whose voyeur tendencies only grow. Finch, Faye Dunaway (as an overly ambitious and sexy network executive), and Beatrice Straight (in a bit but important role as the wife of a TV executive played by William Holden) won Oscars in three of the four acting categories. Like Finch, Holden was nominated for Best Actor, but obviously didn't win. Finch's "Mad as Hell" speech is one of cinema's finest and one of its top five most iconic moments. It's drop-dead serious while also being outrageously funny.
THE PETRIFIED FOREST (November 26, 1:30 pm): In one of his first major roles, Humphrey Bogart plays Duke Mantee, a notorious gangster on the run. Bogart was so great in this 1936 film as the heavy – bringing depth, emotion and character to the role – that Warner Brothers spent nearly five years casting Bogart in other movies as the bad guy. But very few were of this quality. Duke and his gang end up in a diner near the Petrified Forest in Arizona with the police chasing them. The gang takes everyone inside hostage, including Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), a once great writer who is now an alcoholic. Not fearing death because of what life has become for him, Squier engages Duke in conversation, pushing his buttons. The interaction between the two is outstanding. Also at the dinner is Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), who owns it with her father and grandfather. Davis is excellent and even subdued as a secondary character.
ED’S BEST BETS:
GRAND ILLUSION (Nov. 24, 3:30 am): This is a “Must See” in every sense of the word. Jean Renoir directed this classic about three French prisoners in a German POW camp and their relationship with the Commandant. Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, and Marcel Dalio (Remember him as the croupier in Casablanca?) are the prisoners and Erich Von Stroheim is the Commandant. It was the first foreign film to be nominated for an Oscar, but more importantly, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels banned any showings during World War II. That alone should ensure it immortal status.
I, VITTELLONI (Nov. 26, 4:00 am): Originally released in the U.S. as The Young and the Passionate, it’s usually translated as “The Young Bulls.” However, a more idiomatic translation would be “Adolescent Slobs.” An early effort from Fellini about five frustrated small town boys with big plans. The five are sons of indulgent, middle-class families who live off their parents while loafing and dreaming of riches, glory and especially, women. While their ideals are lofty, their execution is often pointless. They waste their time and energies on dubious pursuits and whatever dreams or ideas they have are childish. The brilliance of the film lies in Fellini’s observation of them without any hint of disdain; while his tone is satirical, he balances it with warmth and a certain amount of nostalgia. The film influenced a host of directors both in Europe and America. We can see its influence in such films as Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Lucas’ American Graffiti, and Levinson’s Diner. The film is autobiographical, and Fellini’s character, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), is the only one to escape from the futility of life in the small town. The film launched the career of Alberto Sordi and was awarded The Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion (best director) in 1953.
WE DISAGREE ON ... LIFE WITH FATHER (November 23, 11:45 pm)
ED: A. Right off the bat I have to tell you this is not on the level of a Citizen Kane or The Thin Man, but it does have Powell and Dunne and you can’t go wrong with them. The movie is a faithful and charming adaptation of Day’s affectionate memoir with Powell giving the film’s strongest and funniest performance as a strict father of four boys in 1883 New York City. All he wants is to enjoy a simple family life. However, his wife, played by Dunne, and his children have other plans. Time and time again his quest for peace is upset by visiting relatives, a new love, money matters and the repeated attempts by his wife to get him baptized. Powell and Dunne. They make a very believable married couple and are the best part of the movie. Day, in filling his storyline with plenty of anecdotal humor and nostalgia, makes it clear that one of his main goals is to reveal the inanity (and futility) of his father’s dated patriarchal beliefs. That he manages to preserve his father’s character while simultaneously skewering much of his nonsensical drivel is the secret to the film. And keep an eye out for Elizabeth Taylor as a teenager. She plays the role witty and what can only be called earnest loveliness. And Michael Curtiz’s direction helps move the proceedings smoothly along. Life With Father will probably hold minimal interest for modern film buffs, but if you're in the mood for light, harmless family fun than this film will probably suit you fine.
DAVID: C+. I absolutely adore William Powell. No matter the role, he was charming, witty and entertaining. That's why I'm so disappointed with Life With Father. While Powell gave his typical wonderful performance, there's nothing he or the talented Irene Dunne can do to breathe life into this film. Their performances are fine, but the plot, based on the actual life of a stockbroker, is a real snoozer. The main storyline is finding a way to get Powell's character, Clarence Day Sr., baptized. Among the subplots is Day believes he controls his house when he doesn't, and the wooing of a teenage Elizabeth Taylor by Day's oldest son. It's a comedy with few laughs. It's far too sweet and sentimental for me, but worse than that, it's largely boring.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.