Okay…so I know it’s only August, but today you get two holiday films, with both Christmas and Thanksgiving being represented. It is also another tribute to the genius of John Hughes, as three of his movies show up. I want to take this opportunity to thank my loyal readers who have stuck with this series in the year since it began. When I originally envisioned it I had no idea it would take over a year. I suppose I did not realize I would have so many other things to write about, but I believe that to be a good thing. Enjoy.
15 Office Space
I have to give a shout out to a former co-worker of mine, Brad, who brought Office Space into my consciousness somewhere around 2002-ish. Somehow I had missed it when it was originally in theaters in 1999 but I wasn’t alone. Office Space has become a cult classic thanks to home video and television, not because anyone went to their local cineplex and paid $7 to see it. They didn’t. Anyhow, for me the timing of my introduction to this movie was perfect. Brad and I were both supervisors at a despicable telemarketing company at the time, and the plight of Peter, Samir, Milton, Michael Bolton, and the rest of the gang resonated on a myriad of levels. I had never…and still haven’t…read the Milton cartoons, but I was intrigued by the fact that the film’s director is Mike Judge, the creator of Beavis & Butt-head. I was a huge fan of Beavis & Butt-head in college. Needless to say, Office Space does not resemble Beavis & Butt-head in the least, but it is somewhat surprising that Judge has not had wider success on the big screen. Office Space is a look at the day-to-day grind at a software engineering company and focuses on Peter, a miserable white-collar worker bee who realizes that “Ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.” Now tell me…who among us hasn’t had a similar thought pattern at one time or another?? I would feel safe in betting that the vast majority of the working population aren’t spending 9-5 at their dream job and that in many ways a lot of people are somewhere along the scale of unfulfilled, unhappy, or downright miserable. And that’s just in their professional life. But this is a movie, so unlike real folks Peter stumbles onto an escape. During some sort of wacky couples therapy he is hypnotized to basically quit giving a damn, but the therapist keels over dead before Peter is completely brought out of his trance. The next day Peter feels happy and relaxed, without a care in the world. Hilarity ensues. The ensemble cast is superb. Peter’s best work buds are Samir, a man of Indian descent who is frustrated by people who cannot pronounce his name, and Michael Bolton, a guy who liked his name until he was 12 when “that no-talent assclown became famous and started winning Grammys.” They work with an eclectic group of oddballs, including muttering milquetoast Milton, who has an odd attachment to his stapler and who was actually laid off years ago but no one ever told him and a glitch in accounting keeps the paychecks coming, Tom, who invents a Jump to Conclusions board game that he hopes will be the next Pet Rock, and Lumbergh, the annoying, clueless, oblivious, hilarious boss that we all have had in one form or another. Along the way Peter gets a new gal pal, a waitress at a chain restaurant who hates her job as much as Peter hates his, interacts with a nosy neighbor whose biggest desire is to have a threesome, gets promoted by The Bobs, efficiency experts who love his frank directness & blunt honesty, and hatches a plan to slowly embezzle money from the company in a way that won’t be noticed. It’s all very absurd yet vaguely familiar, and if you’ve ever had a job you’ll appreciate Office Space as I do.
14 Planes, Trains, & Automobiles
The world’s best Thanksgiving movie, hands down. I suppose there isn’t much competition, but nevertheless Planes, Trains, & Automobiles is a great film. With the combined talents of Steve Martin and John Candy, not to mention uber writer/director/producer John Hughes, how could it not be?? Martin is Neal Page, an uptight advertising executive trying to get from NY City to Chicago in time to have turkey with the family. Candy is Del Griffith, an unkempt salesman who’s a wee bit too extroverted. He is also making the trek from The Big Apple to The Windy City. Unfortunately for both men the journey is far from smooth, with snowstorms, flight cancellations, train derailments, and a plethora of other humorous mishaps turning a short 3 hour trip into a 3 day adventure from Hell, atleast for Neal who just wants to be left alone but can’t seem to shake gregarious Del. As with most Hughes films, the fun is underlined with a slight hint of pathos, but not so much that it becomes mawkish, atleast until the last 5 minutes. But I am willing to overlook the last 5 minutes because of all the goodness that precedes them. Edie McClurg, known to audiences as the secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and an ever present nosy neighbor in the short lived 80’s sitcom The Hogan Family, has a very memorable cameo role in this movie that singlehandedly takes the rating from PG to R. I am not advocating foul language, but this scene is undeniably funny and belongs in the pantheon of great moments in film. Other than that the supporting cast is inconsequential because the two stars carry the well written story all by themselves. What might have been a typical, formulaic, clichéd “buddy flick” or “road trip movie” is taken to a whole new level in the capable hands of Hughes, Martin, and Candy. It is a shame that the two actors never did anything else together because they make a great duo. In his review of Planes, Trains, & Automobiles critic Roger Ebert said “The movies that last, the ones we return to, don’t always have lofty themes or Byzantine complexities. Sometimes they last because they are arrows straight to the heart”. This is so true, as we are able to see much of ourselves in the foibles of both Del and Neal, as well as the predicaments they share. But above all else we laugh, and as anyone who has read this list thus far knows that is what I like to do and what I prefer in the movies I watch. Planes, Trains, & Automobiles has become as much a part of my Thanksgiving tradition as turkey, football, and the Macy’s Parade, and I would happily counsel anyone to follow suit.
13 National Lampoon’s Vacation
Thus far there have been 4 Vacation flicks (and no…I’m not counting that God awful made-for-TV deal they did a few years ago). The second, European Vacation, was forgettable. The fourth, Vegas Vacation, was lazy, ill-conceived, and disappointing. The third, Christmas Vacation, will be discussed at a later time. But nearly 30 years after it first hit theaters the original Vacation is a bona fide classic that has aged surprisingly well. My family was never the vacationing type. The funds just weren’t there, so we took what my Dad calls “The Old Italian Vacation”…a week on the front porch and a week on the back porch. Those of you that have had the opportunity to take a lot of family trips may identify more closely with Vacation than I do, but that doesn’t mean us homebodies can’t appreciate the uproarious misadventures of the Griswold clan. Chevy Chase stars as patriarch Clark, a food additives manufacturer in suburban Chicago. Clark loves his family and wants to take the wife, Ellen, and his two young teenagers, Rusty and Audrey, on a summer vacation. The destination?? California’s Walley World, an obvious nod to Disneyland. But instead of hopping on an airplane Clark decides that he wants to “drive the tribe cross-country” because “getting there is half the fun”. Thankfully the viewers are the ones having all the fun, as the trip is one calamity after another. It begins before the family even makes it out of town, with a shady car salesman tricking the obtuse Clark into buying The Queen Family Truckster, a horrific pea green wagon with way too much imitation wood paneling, 8 headlights, and an air bag that looks like it came out of the kitchen trash can. The Truckster looks like The Exorcist threw up on The Brady Bunch, and the dealer hysterically says “You may think you hate it now, but wait ’til you drive it” . Along the trek westward the family gets lost in the ‘hood of St. Louis, getting their car spray painted and their hubcaps stolen…barely survives Clark falling asleep at the wheel…rouses the entire sleeping population of a small motel when Clark goes skinny dipping with a Ferrari driving babe played by model Christie Brinkley…and makes the mistake of visiting Ellen’s redneck cousin in Kansas. That cousin is married to an even bigger buffoon than Clark. Eddie is a great caricature of lowbrow Welfare culture, and his kids are a chip off the old block. One of them has a box full of pot under her bed and tells Audrey that she French kisses and that “Daddy says I’m the best at it”. The older son, in response to Rusty’s indignation that there are no video games or other modern forms of entertainment, shows his cousin a large porn collection and explains the joy of…self pleasure. Then there is Aunt Edna, who hates Clark for some unknown reason and is in need of a ride to Arizona to go live with her son. Throwing Aunt Edna…and her vicious dog…into the mix just adds to the merriment, and her ultimate fate may be the highlight of the film. Needless to say The Griswolds eventually make it to Walley World, but that too has a fantastic comedic twist. I would probably not be going too far out on a limb to assume that few who saw Vacation when it hit theaters realized what a gem they were seeing and that we’d still be watching all these years later. Part of the credit once again has to go to John Hughes, who wrote the screenplay based on his vacation adventures as a child. I am hearing rumors that a franchise rebirth is in the works, with a grown up Rusty taking his own family on a wacky vacation. One can only hope that it is a properly funny offspring of its predecessor and that we may be discussing it wistfully in three decades.
12 Home Alone
The final part of today’s John Hughes three-peat is also another Christmas movie. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I cannot believe it has been 20 years since little Kevin McCallister was ditched by his family and had to fend off bumbling burglars with hilarious cartoon violence. 1990 was the year I graduated high school and entered college, so it is a very special moment in my life. Viewers had gotten a small dose of MaCaulay Caulkin the year before in Uncle Buck, but in Home Alone he takes center stage as an 8 year old boy inadvertently left sleeping while his family jets off to Paris for Christmas vacation. Now I have to admit, the setup is a bit improbable if only because Kevin’s family includes parents, siblings, cousins, and an aunt & uncle. One can realistically conceive of one or two people forgetting a small child…but upwards of 8-10 people?? One has to suspend disbelief a lot to buy into it, but I will give due credit…the writing is just clever enough that we do buy it. Kevin is doing just fine taking care of himself despite being afraid of an old neighbor fella who, local legend has it, is a serial killer and also getting a little freaked out by the furnace in the basement. Meanwhile, Kevin’s Mom is frantically trying to get back to Chicago to save her poor little crumb cruncher, with little help from local law enforcement or the airline industry. While all this is happening the McCallister’s neighborhood is being cased by Harry & Marv, two inept thieves calling themselves The Wet Bandits. Kevin fools them for awhile, but soon enough they figure out that he is…yes…you guessed it…home alone. Kevin overhears them plotting their pillage of his homestead and decides to fight back. Of course in the real world would a little kid stand a chance against two grown men?? Obviously not. But this is a movie, and Kevin takes care of business quite nicely. There are Hughes’ trademark moments of poignancy and sentimentality, but for the most part the story is ever so slightly edgy. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern acquit themselves just fine as the clueless crooks, and the family does their part in driving the plot. But make no mistake…Home Alone is all about MacCaulay Culkin. I don’t know how or where John Hughes found him, but I’m glad he did. Hindsight tells us that Culkin was like a brand new car being driven off the lot and immediately beginning to lose value…his star would never quite shine so brightly again. But to millions of viewers every Christmas season, for a brief moment in time, he is and will continue to be that cute, innocent, funny 8 year old boy. Home Alone is required viewing in my household every November & December, and I would encourage anyone to make it part of their holiday tradition as well.
11 The Passion of the Christ
I really struggled in deciding where this movie would fall in the countdown. On the one hand, it is not entertainment and was never meant to be. One does not sit down with a cold beverage and a bowl of popcorn on a lonely Saturday night and decide to pop in The Passion of the Christ. However, I do feel like it is an important movie that everyone, especially those purporting themselves to be Christians, need to watch occasionally. The story should be familiar to almost everyone. It is the story of Jesus Christ, His earthly ministry in the company of 12 apostles, His pursuit, capture, crucifixion, and resurrection. The plot and most of the dialogue is taken directly out of the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Director Mel Gibson makes some interesting choices, especially having all the dialogue in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew. I am not usually a fan of films with subtitles, but using the original languages for this film was a brilliant decision and makes the story that much more beautiful. The movie generated a lot of controversy when it was released in 2004, but that is par for the course in modern day America. Everything Muslim is cool, along with wacky Hollywood “religions” like Kabbalah and Scientology, but we dare not promote anything positive about Christianity. People complained about possible anti-Semitism because of the inference that Jews killed Jesus. Well guess what?? They did. But folks forget that Jesus Himself was a Jew and the fact that He was put to death by other Jews does not mean that we are to hate the Jewish people or that The Bible teaches that. It was all much ado about nothing. As a matter of fact, as a Christian I know that Jesus died for all of our sins including mine, so when I watch The Passion I am haunted by the thought that I did that…I am responsible for the violent flogging and crucifixion of Christ, and it convicts me tremendously. Bleeding hearts also whined about the violent nature of the film, as if they believe that Jesus was lightly spanked with a feather. The violence is what makes the film work, and I give kudos to Gibson for not holding back. The Passion of the Christ is not easy to watch. The first time I saw it I sat in the theater for about 20 minutes after the credits rolled, unable to move. Nothing I have ever seen outside the death of my own mother has ever rocked my world so deeply. I have seen it a few more times in the ensuing years, but as I said, it isn’t light entertainment that one watches for fun. I do implore every single person who has never seen it to watch atleast once though. It is an experience you will never forget.