Sunday, December 31, 2017
Story by Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay Written by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
**** (four stars)
What a blissfully weird and undeniably wonderful film this is!!
The movie year of 2017 has proven itself to be a year of re-invention, that is, the re-inventing of genres and film styles that have, at their worst, been run into the ground. For me, filmmakers like Jordan Peele ("Get Out"), Christopher Nolan ("Dunkirk"), Edgar Wright ("Baby Driver"), Patty Jenkins ("Wonder Woman"), actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani ("The Big Sick") and for my money, the truly gifted Rian Johnson ("Star Wars: The Last Jedi") have all released films throughout the year that expertly rejuvenated the horror genre, the war film, the car chase action thriller, the superhero epic, the romantic comedy and even "Star Wars" itself with superlative amounts of invention, introspection and inspiration, as they all honored the standards of their respective genres while also discovering ways to become personal, and even fully idiosyncratic artistic statements in their own respective rights.
With Writer/Director Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape Of Water," we arrive with the classic monster movie, which in this case, is propelled by a "Beauty and the Beast" narrative which is as old as the hills, and to be honest with you, the framework did keep me a bit at arms length during the film's exquisitely presented yet familiar first half. Yet, deceptively familiar.
What del Toro's film achieved for me was how brilliantly it snuck up on me right at the point when I felt that I had seen it all before and could devise its every next move. But, as with all of the aforementioned filmmakers listed above, del Tor blindsided me over and again with an open-hearted creativity and flat out storytelling audacity that made the downright bizarre some of the most deliriously romantic and fluidly poetic visions I have seen in a move this year. Easily his finest, most richly presented film since the outstanding "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006), Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape Of Water" is a marvelous and surprisingly malleable experience, much like the element depicted within the film's title.
Set during the Cold War of the early 1960's, "The Shape Of Water stars the astounding Sally Hawkins, in an undeniably Oscar caliber performance as Elisa Esposito, a mute, who lives in an apartment above a movie theater and works the night shift as a cleaning lady for a secret government laboratory in Baltimore.
Elisa's lonely life is the epitome of the mundane as her daily routine, from her work, to her eating habits starring an ever present hard-boiled egg to even her extremely private morning bath-time ritual are forever unchanged, her solace seemingly only arriving with her two trusted friends: her co-worker and sign language interpreter Zelda (an excellent Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (the brilliant Richard Jenkins), an artist and closeted homosexual.
Elisa's world begins to open wider with the arrival of a captured amphibious humanoid creature (played by Doug Jones), referred to as the "Asset" and housed within a tank under the command of the wrathful Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon at his most vicious). Soon, Elisa and the creature begin to communicate and formulate a bond through her surreptitious visits to his tank, where he is imprisoned as she feeds him her eggs, plays music for him and speaks through sign language.
As the creature's life is threatened, under the pretense of scientific experiments and exploration, Elisa, with Zelda and Giles in tow, hatches a plot to free the monster.
In essence, this plot description is what is delivered within the film's trailer and truth be told, when I first saw the trailers, I was not terribly inspired to see this film despite Guillermo del Toro's pedigree. As previously stated, the film was not quite reaching me for its first half as the familiarity of the plot was not feeling to transcend its genre trappings, regardless of the facts that every single performance within the film to that point had been uniformly excellent, the screenplay was beautifully written, and del Toro's visual presentation, as aided by Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, made "The Shape Of Water" flow as lusciously as a Technicolor fantasy of old.
Even so, I felt that I was seeing something that I had already seen in films like Steven Spielberg's timeless "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" (1982) or even Ron Howard's "Splash" (1984). Clearly, del Toro designed his film to work in tandem with the classic films and monsters that he loves as well as inspired him, most notably in this case "The Creature From The Black Lagoon" (1954), but what would exist beside an expertly rendered homage?
Yet, and as I also previously stated, the film truly snuck up on me.
Dear readers, it was definitely more than foolish of me to underestimate a filmmaker and storyteller on the level as Guillermo del Toro but I did. That being said, you can only imagine how happy was I to witness precisely how del Toro developed and deepened his story in ways that allowed him to utilize his personal aesthetic, from the fantastic to the grotesque, transforming what was familiar into something that truly felt as if it was a dream magically plucked from del Toro's brain and miraculously displayed upon the silver screen.
I wish that I felt comfortable enough divulging more specifically about the sights (some of which are absolutely dazzling) and therefore, the fully earned emotions unearthed throughout "The Shape Of Water," But that would be unfair to all of you for I wish you to be as transported as I was. So curiously and courageously transported by a vision that proved itself to be as bizarre as it is challenging and poignant.
First of all, Guillermo del Toro has again provided us with a narrative that forces us to question precisely what is a monster: the being that looks disturbing and strange upon the surface or the one that appears to be "normal." That very dichotomy is further explored into areas of individualized dualities contained within public and hidden private personas and even further still, when delving into elements of interpersonal intimacies.
Secondly, I also admired how del Toro's film used the creature as a catalyst to explore the social politics of the era (and therefore our turbulent 21st century present) by presenting a tale where marginalized individuals are all attempting to not only stake their individual claims but to also survive within a violently intolerant world.
Again, I remain somewhat cagey as to not produce spoilers, but the magic of "The Shape Of Water," as I evidenced in the film's second half, allowed me to understand how del Toro had crafted his film to reveal itself through certain plot points and character details which fully informed everything I had seen in the film's first half bringing everything full circle rapturously by the film's aching conclusion.
Sally Hawkins is absolutely wondrous as she beautifully delivers a full, three dimensional performance that allows us to witness not solely the arc of Elisa but the depth of her inner world from her timidness to her determination as well as her strength, her moxie, her dreams, her sexuality, her bravery and the enormity of her empathy. The soul of the film rests within her every look, expression, motion and emotion as her every discovery as Elisa becomes our own, and in doing so, we are euphorically swept away. Simply stated, Sally Hawkins' performance is so complete that it truly feels like we are hearing her throughout the entire film even though she never utters one word.
What is water? It has the ability to exist within three distinct forms of liquid, gas, or as a solid. Water can be a tranquil substance or unforgiving with its power. It can exist as a drip, as something shallow or with vast, endless depth. Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape Of Water" unfolds just like its titular element as it is a film that triumphantly grows, subsides, deepens, swallows, drowns, envelops, and cleanses. And isn't that what all of the very best stories do to us when they are told as grandly and as personally as this one?
Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape Of Water" is one of my favorite films of 2017.
Saturday, December 30, 2017
Truth be told, I never think of all of the time that has passed when I go through the year, writing one posting after the next, but now, when I look backwards, I am so very humbled. In fact, I guess I grow more humbled with each year, partially because of the sense of personal achievement because I never, ever thought of myself as being someone who would put himself "out there" with writing so personally and therefore, sharing it, because honestly, when writing about film, I am always writing about myself, sharing myself, and offering views for you into myself.
I also feel so tremendously humble as I muse over the passage of time because reaching this finish line of eight years seems to odd, so strange, so inexplicable because it does feel as if I just got myself started--despite the fact that I have all eight years right at my fingertips...and they are happily sitting at yours as well.
I feel humbled most of all because you have been with me for all of this time. For regular visitors, to occasional readers, to those who have looked for even just one posting, it is entirely because of you that I continue to have the impetus to keep pushing forwards. Yes, I would be going to the movies anyway. But I know myself very well. If not one soul even cared about this endeavor of mine, believe me, I would have ceased it long ago, keeping all of my words and thoughts to myself. I am more than aware that the world does not need one more person chiming in about the movies...least of all, me.
But, you have encouraged me. You have supported me. You have seen everything that I have wished for this blogsite to become: a place for me to share my passion about the movies and writing as best as I am able to perform. To show that not every location upon the internet needs to be a haven for snark, vitriol and reckless negativity. To know that there is always a way to say something, even when being critical. And mostly, to hopefully encourage conversation, between me and you and all of us between the movies we all experience. I hope that my wishes have proven themselves evident to you and I pledge to continue this journey over this next, ninth year.
It is so, so bizarre as I look back to that day when I was sitting in my parent's basement while visiting them for the holidays and the idea and subsequent birth of this blogsite began. I was so very scared. In fact, I was beyond scared. I was terrified. Because, really, who cares what I thought?
I knew I would never be the late, great Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert rolled into one package but at least, I wanted to hopefully demonstrate that whatever I knew about the movies, I owed it all to them for they were my first and best teachers regarding the art and artistry of what the movies could actually be. I just wanted to try.
THANK YOU everyone for allowing me to try and accepting my attempts so warmly, with such kind words and enthusiasm for my exploits. It can never be stated enough how much your kindness serves as rocket fuel for me as I approach the next review. It is never enough for me to write for myself--my reviews are always sitting in my brain for me to access whenever I need them. I am writing to express myself, to reach out, to keep taking chances and having you there to reach back means the world.
And so, here we are at the precipice of entering year nine of Savage Cinema. Are you ready to go with me?
Friday, December 15, 2017
Based on characters and situations created by George Lucas
Written and Directed by Rian Johnson
**** (four stars)
RATED PG 13
It feels so supremely fitting that this film has arrived in the very year that "Star Wars" reached its 40th anniversary.
Dear readers, never did I ever think to myself that a full 40 years after seeing George Lucas' "Star Wars," his iconic, revolutionary motion picture game changer for the very first time on May 25, 1977 at the age of 8 years old, that the stories and overall mythology of Luke Skywalker, his friends, enemies and family would still capture my imagination and so fervently at that. All I knew when I was 8 was that my life was irrevocably changed, as if it was indeed struck by that proverbial lightning bolt. Simply stated, and I am certain, just as for so many of you, my life seemed to have a certain line drawn in the sand: my life before "Star Wars" and my life after "Star Wars," for it has permeated my existence so deeply that it is difficult for me to think of a time when "Star Wars" was not in the world.
Over these 40 years, I have remained ever enthralled with George Lucas's vision set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away as I have greeted and re-visited every film (including the prequel trilogy which I still firmly believe are unfairly maligned) with a joyful abandon as the elements of space opera, 1930's science fiction serials and the classic to primal tales of good and evil remain untouchable to me. For me, "Star Wars" has felt like a classic tome that I can always lose myself within over and over again.
Ever since George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney, effectively stepping away from his own creation, I have remained skeptical of whatever subsequent films would be made without his influence because for better or for worse, it cannot be denied that with the first six films, you could see Lucas' fingerprints on the entire proceedings and I would have hated to see something so personal just become another shiny, flashy, money grabbing greed machine.
So far, the results have been wonderful, from Director J.J. Abrams' sequel trilogy opener "Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens" (2015) and Director Gareth Edwards' riveting stand alone war film "Rogue One" (2016), both of which fully honoring the universe George Lucas built while gradually pushing forwards with new characters, storylines, a more complicated and complex emotional and moral palate as well as some daring cinematic risks within this particular film universe (the climax of "Rogue One" for certain).
Yet, the past and potential future of this series as well as the respective pasts and futures concerning the characters of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa-Solo and all of our intergalactic heroes and villains has not ever been confronted so explicitly, boldly, poignantly and as brilliantly as achieved in Writer/Director Rian Johnson's sequel trilogy middle installment "Star Wars; Episode VIII-The Last Jedi."
What Johnson has accomplished with his time at bat was beyond superlative. If Abrams' "The Force Awakens" was a home run, then Johnson's film is a beautifully and passionately delivered grand slam!!! So much so, and so triumphantly and most importantly, completely, I really have no idea of how Abrams is even going to attempt to follow it up with "Episode IX" in two years. Simply stated, Rian Johnson has delivered the very best "Star Wars" film I have seen since that very first film 40 years ago. This film is outstanding, astonishing work and easily one of 2017's highest honors!
Now in the interest of not producing spoilers or giving away too much plot information, I will stick to the basics. Picking up immediately from the events of "The Force Awakens," "The Last Jedi" finds the increasingly decimated Resistance, led by General Leia Organa-Solo (the eternal Carrie Fisher), on the run from the legions of The First Order, under the command of Supreme Leader Snoke (the riveting Andy Serkis), his sniveling commanding officer General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and of course, his conflicted Dark Side of the Force apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Meanwhile, defected Stormtrooper Finn (a muscular John Boyega), recovered from his injuries in his duel with Kylo Ren, teams up with hotshot/hotheaded X-Wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), his trusty droid BB-8 and Resistance mechanic Rose Tico (a wonderful Kelly Marie Tran) for a top secret special mission which lands them on the wealthy casino driven landscape of Canto Bight.
And as for Rey (Daisy Ridley), when we last saw her, she had successfully found the thought-to-be-missing Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who actually resides within a self-imposed exile upon the planet of Ahch-To. Despite Rey's impassioned pleas for his return to the fight to save the galaxy, Luke Skywalker, now grizzled, angry and broken, possesses not only no interest in rising to the challenge once more, he surprisingly is wishing for the final breaths of the entire Jedi religion.
It is within the entirety of "The Last Jedi" where all of our characters wrestle furiously with the ghosts of the past, and legends and myths both real and created as the desperate future approaches rapidly and with an unapologetic roar.
Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" is magnificent, marvelous and majestic storytelling and filmmaking that honors George Lucas' creation with innocence and reverence. To that end, I applaud Johnson tremendously for not allowing any sense of reverence to stifle his own creative voice and inventiveness. True to form, Johnson more than delivers the goods with the required spectacle as the film opens with a spectacular space battle dogfight and I have to say that the film's final hour provides so much breathless excitement, white knuckle adventurousness, as well as honest levels of surprise, pathos and even humor that he ensures that his entry into the "Star Wars" cannon is equal part Wagner and "Flash Gordon," while also generating more than enough honest emotion to produce very real and very earned tears.
It would be so easy for Rian Johnson to have just delivered the lightshow of blaster shoot outs and lightsaber duels and nothing more but reveled within the nostalgia, something the new films do run the risk of with new stand alone features like the troubled young Han Solo film which will be released next year plus a proposed Obi-Wan solo film as well. While I do wish those films the best and I hope they turn out sparklingly well, there is this part of me that seriously wonder just how much longer can the powers that be at Disney and Lucasfilm mine the original three films for new material. I mean--we can blow up variations of the Death Star only so many times, right?
That is why I am amazed with how directly Rian Johnson seemed to use "The Last Jedi" to confront that very quandary. With all due respect to J.J. Abrams, whom I have already stated performed a hero's job with "The Force Awakens," he was indeed paying while creating within Lucas' universe. However, with "The Last Jedi," we can easily see how Rian Johnson is not solely playing and creating within Lucas' universe, he is building from it, making the most familiar elements including the powers of The Force itself, refreshingly new thus inventing his own world with his own voice as completely and as intricately as Lucas. Even the film's new creatures feel to have the same inventiveness and suggested history as the ones Lucas created only adding to the fullness of this universe.
I do realize that some viewers may feel that some sections and sequences of "The Last Jedi" may feel to be a bit meandering to even transgressive, but trust me, every location and side story are all working to the creation of an experience that feels as complete as a stand-alone film although this is a middle chapter. Johnson truly left no stone unturned with his storyline as he essentially tied up some loose threads and answered questions from "The Force Awakens" while continuing to strengthen, broaden and deepen and by the film's conclusion, I wanted for absolutely nothing...that is, other than to just see it all over again.
Thematically, I do not think that I have seen a "Star Wars" installment where all of the film's major characters are undergoing some sort of inner turmoil, transformation and catharsis. Certainly for Rey, she is continuing upon her journey with The Force and how it ties to her past, lineage and her new precarious relationship with Luke Skywalker. But, Johnson delves even deeper as he weaves her struggle directly with that of Kylo Ren's, whose own inner conflict is particularly wrenching, making him one of the most compelling, multi-faceted and multi-layered villains we've yet seen in the "Star Wars" universe.
For Poe and Finn, each are confronted with what it precisely means to be a hero and a leader, as Poe's impetuousness denies him the ability to view the long game, let alone the sacrifices. As for Finn, he gradually extends his thinking beyond his own desires to leave the war behind by slowly beginning to realize precisely where he does stand within this specific space conflict, a realization spirited on by the sincere admiration of Rose who finds herself inspired by Finn's past heroism which has already begun to take on its own mythic status.
Yet, the conflicts of myths, legends, and heroism all fall within the characters who began this entire cinematic odyssey 40 years ago and Johnson also wisely plays into that very stretch of time and what it means to witness such beloved individuals as they are now in old age, facing down their pasts as well as mortality and most poignantly, for us in the audience with the full knowledge that we are witnessing Carrie Fisher's final screen performance, a fact that only adds to the feelings of sorrow within the film. For Leia, whom Fisher portrays with expert gravitas and moxie, we can easily feel the palpable weight of a woman's lifetime fight against tyranny and the painful burden of all of the lives lost for seemingly very little gain, if at all.
If "The Last Jedi" belongs to anyone it is indeed Mark Hamill, who possesses copious screen time as compared to his mere moments in "The Force Awakens" and he owns them all, again with gravitas and painful burdens of lives lost, past failures, the ghosts of his past coming to claim him in the present and feelings of intense resignation where there once was unbridled hope.
Mark Hamill is absolutely sensational, as he also brings his history of playing the character while matching it with our history of watching this character. Under the storytelling strengths of Rian Johnson, Mark Hamill graced us with the opportunity to see Luke's tale continue with several surprising details, emotions as well as a prickly sense of humor. Hamill's performance is richly elegiac and will contain moments that will just shatter you in their poignancy.
For a more aesthetic level, Rian Johnson, working with Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, has established an especially striking visual palate from the blood red elegance of Snoke's lair to the downright gorgeous climax upon the planet Crait, with its grounds of white sand that reveal brick red colorings underneath and red clouds rising upwards. But that is not the only area where the color schemes are vibrant in their presentation.
I have to make special mention of the levels of representation contained within "The Last Jedi." It needs to be said once again but it is indeed true: REPRESENTATION MATTERS!!!!! For all of the viewers of "Star Wars" for these 40 years, and for how deeply generations and all manner of races have latched themselves onto these characters, stories and universe, it was beyond incredible to witness various people of color, both male and female, taking up the reins portraying major characters in the film and all having significant screen time to shine as brightly as the sun.
For me, John Boyega again strikes a powerful image as Finn, a Black man in outer space who possesses a full story arc of his own and is given a brief yet fight with his nemesis Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). I can only imagine what it must feel like for girls and women to see Daisy Ridley as Rey and believe me, you will easily fall in love with Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, whose adventures with Finn contains a moment that combines emotions where you will stand up in your theater seat and cheer while also wiping away tears.
I have absolutely not one criticism to deliver towards "The Last Jedi" as it was far beyond anything that I could have wished for. Never did I expect that the series would find itself in cinematic hands this confident and creative. No wonder he has been entrusted with the creation of a brand new, non Skywalker related "Star Wars" trilogy in the near future because with this film, he has more than proven that The Force is exceedingly strong with him.
Even moreso, Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" fulfills the promises made by George Lucas 40 years ago and for me, everything was contained in the new film's final image--of course, I will not reveal here. "The Last Jedi" masterfully and magically renews that spirit of hope and vision in a very real world that seems to be losing every thread of it. For every child and for every child within, we still need to take that look up to the stars and somehow, someway find that spark of inspiration, that reason to dream, the need to retain hope.
Rian Johnson's "Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi" is one of my most favorite films of 2017.
Monday, December 11, 2017
Based upon the book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Film Ever Made by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
Screenplay Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Directed by James Franco
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
Sometimes, there is absolutely nothing better than a spectacularly yet completely unintentional bad film.
Dear readers, I firmly believe that it is basically a miracle than any movie finds itself made at all. To have something that once emerged from the ether, formulated itself onto paper and then, through the hands of a myriad of individuals, found itself fully realized and presented upon the silver screen is unfathomable if we really take the time to think about the entire filmmaking process. To that end, when the film turns out well, the miracle of the film even having been made is exceeded by the success of the quality, and ultimately the response from viewers. It's amazing that more films don't turn out worse than they do.
Now, say we have the type of film that has its pure intentions but somehow, the stars just are not aligned. It can happen to the very best of filmmakers. But how about when the failure is just so sublime that the failure somehow brings success? There have been many films in my life where the sheer awfulness is absolutely brilliant. From big budget nonsense like the preposterous and downright hysterical "Taken 3" (2014) to obscure cult films like the astonishing "The Thing With Two Heads" (1972) starring Rosey Grier (!) as one of the two titular heads, the enjoyment of an unintentionally bad film is at times preferable to viewing films of a higher artistic quality.
With regards to the infamously terrible "The Room" (2003), written, produced, directed by and starring the bizarrely idiosyncratic Tommy Wiseau, I have never seen the film but I have heard about it enthusiastically from many younger friends over the years. Even so, I have never really been that inspired to seek out the film myself, partially because I was curious if perhaps this experience is of a particularly generational quality and also partially because sometimes, it is best to discover these sorts of things on one's own.
That being said, it seems to be more than fitting to have James Franco, actor-writer-director-author-NYU professor and whatever else he gets his restlessly creative hands upon, to gravitate to the story of Tommy Wiseau and "The Room" for his terrific biographical, behind-the-scenes, comedy/drama "The Disaster Artist." Franco, in taking what could have easily been mean-spirited continuous fodder for ruthless ridicule, has instead and smartly fashioned a most affectionate tribute to not only one of the worst films ever made but to its uniquely oddball creator, who, despite his clear lack of talent, just may be a more passionate filmmaker than so many of our established and long jaded successful ones.
Beginning in San Francisco during the late 1990's, James Franco's "The Disaster Artist" stars Dave Franco as Greg Sestero, a 19-year-old aspiring actor who by chance happens to meet the oddly mysterious and bizarrely intense Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) during an acting class. While Tommy's rendition of a scene from "A Streetcar Named Desire" is ravaged by his instructor (played by Melanie Griffith--just one of a series of clever cameo appearances), the shy, reserved Greg is enthralled by what he feels is Tommy's fearlessness.
Upon meeting, the two become fast friends and abruptly decide to leave San Francisco to pursue their acting dreams in Los Angeles. As Greg quickly signs up with an agent, the clearly strange Tommy, with the unplaceable accent, unknown age and seemingly bottomless back account is not nearly as fortunate as absolutely, positively no one wishes to professionally associate themselves with him, a series of rejections that culminates with a brutal take-down by Judd Apatow at a Hollywood restaurant. Making matters even worse for Tommy is Greg's slowly budding relationship with a lovely nightclub bartender named Amber (Alison Brie), which fills him with jealousy, mounting insecurities and intense feelings of betrayal and hopelessness.
Despite some of Greg's minor good fortunes, acting roles are in increasingly short supply and soon dry up altogether. While standing upon their rooftop, Greg off-handedly floats the suggestion that he and Tommy should just make their own movie and that way, they would each receive acting projects. For Tommy, within this moment, the lightning of inspiration has struck.
Over the following three years, Tommy crafts his "masterpiece," a screenplay entitle "The Room," which despite is incoherence, Greg fully encourages Tommy's hard work and the duo begins the process of obtaining the equipment, the cast and the crew to make "The Room" a reality. Yet, the filmmaking process becomes increasingly chaotic and often finds Tommy flying off into extreme and abusive forms of narcissism towards his cast and crew, while telling a cinematic story that no one remotely understands and potentially, fully alienating his relationship with Greg, his best friend.
James Franco's "The Disaster Artist" revels in its playfulness, whether riffing on the "The Room" itself (featuring a strong Seth Rogen as Wiseau's exasperated script supervisor and eventually, the film's de facto director), the plethora of Hollywood cameos that pepper the proceedings to the sly in-jokes that permeate the film. (I especially found it to be a nice touch that Greg and Tommy bond over the work of James Dean, who James Franco portrayed in his award winning television film performance in 2001.)
But Franco is accomplished enough as a filmmaker to ensure that his film is not a misguided effort or exists as just one endless self-congratulatory romp. Quite the contrary, James Franco presents himself as being fully committed as director and actor from end to end. First of all, the re-creations of scenes and sequences from "The Room" are absolutely meticulous to behold, from the choice of actors who resemble the actors from the original film to the set design to even the lighting and cinematography. If the real world Tommy Wiseau ever needed to feel remotely vindicated for his universally maligned efforts, this element of "The Disaster Artist" alone would achieve that feat.
But beyond mere cinematic aesthetics, what James Franco has also achieved through his performance is a fully lived in character (i.e. not caricature) complete with a tremendous amount of faults wrapped inside of a confoudingly compelling package that is as endearing as it is often maddening in its naivete towards filmmaking certainly, but most importantly, in maintaining inter-personal relationships.
As awful as Tommy becomes during the filming of "The Room," I appreciated greatly how Franco allowed us to see the cracks in Tommy Wiseau's veneer. To be able to show us his fears that perhaps the vision he has dreamed up really is that terrible and if so, what would a failure of this magnitude mean for himself as a human being, for he did indeed place every piece of himself into his efforts as ridiculous as they are. But even so, are the efforts he placed into "The Room" really that ridiculous after all?
I mean--let's take a look at some of the most successful films ever made and ponder what it may have been like for the filmmakers if the stories and movies they dreamed up did not connect with audiences. What if "The Wizard Of Oz" (1939) utterly failed? What if "Star Wars" (1977) never captured anyone's imagination and died a swift box office death? In so many ways, making a great film is just a roll of the dice and James Franco's"The Disaster Artist" give palpable credence to the dreamers who may not have the talent at all but they still dream anyway and their abilities with dreaming away should be celebrated and not at all mocked or discouraged.
For all of Tommy Wiseau's ineptitude, we are indeed presented with a filmmaker who is feverishly passionate about his perceived art and who is willing to live and die by his creation, whether good or just plain God-awful. And in doing so, I can only think of long established and monetarily successful filmmakers who are clearly so jaded with a career that I believe that many others would just die to have the opportunity (at one time, myself included--or you know...maybe I still do).
I really believe that you can see any movie and just know when the filmmakers are not even trying. If Franco's account is to be fully trusted, then it cannot be said that Tommy Wiseau was not, at the very least, trying to achieve greatness with his ultimately terrible film. In James Franco's full bodied performance, crazy accent and all, he allows us to see the frightened, tender-hearted would be artist that sits at the heart of the failed auteur and by film's end, I think that on some level Franco is arguing that the longevity of "The Room" is something that is not often accomplished and therefore, it is to be applauded.
Beyond filmmaking and the limits of inspiration when confronted with non-existent skill, the heart of the film rests quite lovingly with the friendship between Tommy and Greg, another area where we witness not only Tommy's painfully disastrous insecurities but Greg's equally touching and painful loyalties, which showcase just how far one is able to try and achieve their dreams when just one person believes in them. And for Greg, he often believes in Tommy to his own detriment. Dave Franco gives a fully ingratiating performance as what is essentially the straight man to Franco's full on crazy, thus creating a warm, weird and wonderful balance that is brave enough to delve beneath the superficial and provide some emotional bruises that provides "The Disaster Artist" with a crucial sense of gravity and even pathos.
Certainly, comparisons are bound to be made between this film and Tim Burton's outstanding "Ed Wood" (1994), another film about a disastrously untalented filmmaker and truthfully, we are not quite in that same league. Even so, whatever James Franco is bound to receive at this time and during awards season is indeed more than deserved as he delivered the goods and then some as "The Disaster Artist" is a highly entertaining confection, that in its own sly fashion, challenges us to consider and even re-consider what necessarily devises good and bad art and the idea that if something brings you pleasure, why should any of us ever feel guilty...even, and most importantly, when the art in question is undeniably awful.
Perhaps I should seek out "The Room"!
Monday, December 4, 2017
Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig
*** 1/2 (three and a half stars)
The wonder of Greta Gerwig is fully lost upon me.
As I may have stated within the past entries upon this site, I have nothing personal against Ms. Gerwig and I certainly do not know her whatsoever within the real world. But there is just something about her, something that I can't quite place my finger upon that just positively irks me, regardless sf her status as a veritable darling of independent cinema and definitely, film critics who have seemed to have fallen for her en masse.
When I first saw her in her breakthrough performance in Writer/Director Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg" (2010), I was underwhelmed, a strange feeling as the critical response to the film and exceedingly to her was quite strong. For me, however, I found her performance to be mannered and mumbled and frankly, wholly let down by Baumbach's screenplay which saddled her with a character that I thought to be underwritten.
My severe distaste for Gerwig arrived in two subsequent Baumbach features, the odiously plastic "Frances Ha" (2013) and the even worse "Mistress America" (2015), works that not only received continued critical praise and even higher for Gerwig. For me, both films were precisely the sorts of independent films that people who HATE independent films could conceivably point towards as to reason why they HATE independent films.
Both "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America" each contained an arrogant self-congratulatory tone filled from end-to-end with a self-conscious quirkiness that made every solitary moment feel as if there were quotation marks surrounding them, therefore making every solitary moment completely inauthentic. Everything felt emotionally false and cloaked with the very sort of dreaded hipster irony that sends a negative knee jerk reaction through me. And in the center, sat Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote as well as starred in both films and for me, projected the insufferable persona of a precocious young woman who believed every great thing that was ever said about her and the result was purely oft-putting.
So, you can imagine my feeling when the words "Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig" entered my consciousness. It was just six words that actually spoke to me and said plainly: Stay away.
And yet, here we are together as I share my review of Greta Gerwig's directorial debut "Lady Bird," the very film I felt that I would never see but once again, the euphoric critical praise pushed my through the theater doors. But, this time, dear readers, I will add my praise along with everyone else's as I will always give credit when credit is due. While I am not as over the moon as other reviewers, I am more than happy to announce that Great Gerwig's "Lady Bird" is strong, perceptive, artful, empathetic, richly observed and executed cinema that often feels to even critique Gerwig's past screen persona while essentially delving into the simultaneous boredom, disappointment and existential angst of late adolescence. Has the tide fully turned with my estimation of the talents of Ms. Greta Gerwig? Not so fast. But for now, with "Lady Bird," she has more than earned my high praise.
Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" stars the superb Saoirse Ronan as 17-year-old Christine McPherson who re-christens herself with the self-consciously serous, mysterious and artistic moniker of "Lady Bird," the only name she will answer to, much to the chagrin of her Mother, Marion (an excellent Laurie Metcalf), with whom our heroine shares a most contentious relationship in the family they share with her affable Father (an achingly warm Tracy Letts), her older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott).
Lady Bird, belligerently enduring her senior year at a Catholic high school and desiring nothing more than to leave her hometown of Sacramento for college in the the more urban, exciting utopia of New York City's art and culture scene despite her lack of academic success, spends her crucial year attempting a process of complete re-invention. In addition to plotting her escape from Sacramento for college, Lady Bird joins the school theater department and enjoys minor acts of school rebellion like sneaking communion wafers with her best friend Julie Steffans (Beanie Feldstein). Yet, her year is filled with several rites of passage from first boyfriends and sexual experiences, and dropping old friends for newer, shinier ones as she continues on her path of precarious self-discovery where she is forced to face the best and worst parts of herself all the while fearing that her current station in life may be her final destination.
"Lady Bird" is the precise slice of life motion picture that speaks volumes to me spirit simply because it is a film that depicts life as it is truly and honestly lived, without hyperbole or falsely manufactured situations and characters. With Lady Bird herself at the film's core, we are given a leading character who is distinctly imperfect and therefore, realistic.
In relation to my past emotions concerning Greta Gerwig, "Lady Bird" is blissfully the anti-thesis of her past work as there is not one moment within the film that felt to be contrived, dishonest and most importantly, inauthentic. It is not a film that feels the need to hide behind self-congratulatory hipster irony whatsoever and in fact, it felt at times that Gerwig, through her conception of her titular character, was critiquing that very approach as Lady Bird is often insufferable with her superior attitude towards her family, friends and home town, a superiority complex that Gerwig smartly showcases as being fully housed in a painful insecurity that she will never be able to live up to her own dreams or more crucially, win the approval of her forever disapproving Mother.
I appreciated deeply how Gerwig allowed Lady Bird to often become unlikable, fully serving the idea that we, in the audience, are not necessarily required to like Lady Bird. We are being invited to understand her. To that end, Gerwig has crafted a sharp presentation of the emotional and social juxtapositions that occur during the teen years as we are all desperately trying to fit in and stand out as complete individuals, an emotional tightrope that is compounded for Lady Bird due to the time period of the story's setting.
With an equal sharpness, Gerwig has set "Lady Bird" in the year 2002, with the national wounds of 9/11 so powerfully fresh and the subsequent economic uncertainties increasingly paramount. With this serving as a crucial backdrop, Gerwig is also able to simultaneously remain honest about the realities of being a teenager while also being critical of Lady Bird's narcissism and naivete as she is indeed formulating her socio-political and even spiritual worldview. Lady Bird's aforementioned superior attitude and intense desires for monetary success runs concurrently with her sense of shame with her family's lack of finances as her Mother, a nurse who perpetually works double shifts, becomes the family provider after her Father is downsized and unable to find work.
It is here, and over the course of the film as we are witness to Lady Bird's arrogance, embittered attitude and at times, brutal facades that fly in the face of her family and friends, Gerwig also subtly displays her determination, her resourcefulness, her building work ethic and by film's end, a certain humility, all of which further upends the dynamic between herself and her Mother.
Of course, in this very specific Mother/daughter dynamic, all of the success and blame cannot be laid squarely at Lady Bird's awkward feet. Marion McPherson is a formidable and deeply flawed character, whose seemingly tireless efforts within her community have earned her a most favorable yet hard earned reputation. Even so, Marion is exhausted. Exhausted from work and now being placed in the position of family breadwinner, in addition to being the "responsible" one and family disciplinarian as opposed to her husband Larry's gentler touch with Lady Bird, Marion is growing increasingly exhausted with life.
Yet, we see precisely how Marion and Lady Bird are indeed cut from the same cloth as Marion also wishes for the finer things just as Lady Bird, as evidenced by her Sunday afternoon ritual of visiting homes with the illusion of house hunting, homes that she could never afford. As much as she wishes to elevate her station in life, Marion is pragmatic and realistic to a detrimental fault regarding her relationship with Lady Bird. Where the film's opening sequence deftly showcases how their relationship can switch from communal to fury via hair trigger (and culminating with a surprising blast of slapstick comedy), one especially devastating moment in the film occurs when Lady Bird, after yet another argument, asks her Mother, "Do you like me?' "Of course, I love you," Marion responds. To which Lady Bird corrects her by re-stating her question, which Marion tentatively answers and the effect is stinging.
Faced with such a painful reality, could anyone blame this girl for wishing to cultivate an outsized persona to outshine her feelings of insignificance, to harbor an attitude of such absoluteness over a complete world that she does not fully understand? How much of their respective failings do Marion and Lady Bird see within each other and how much will those failing either help or hinder their continual developments? Will their respective levels of resentment and pride derail their relationship overall?
Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are flawless together, formulating two distinctive characters and their combined history from the inside out, again making every moment feel as bristling and any real world Mother/daughter or even Mother/child relationship anywhere. Yes, I even saw striking elements of my own relationship with my Mother, one that does often feel as if I am still asserting myself as an adult man while my Mother is ready to forever pull rank, have the last word and ensure that I remain a 12 year old. We fight in the same ways. We are equally stubborn and at times, unforgiving yet filled with a primal love.
But I do wish to make a special point to spotlight Tracy Letts as Lady Bird's gracious, patient, supportive and yet unspeakably sad Father, Larry. I loved how Gerwig always kept a very wise, tender-hearted eye upon Larry as he is indeed the glue that holds the emotional bonds of the family together, as he is the one who is seemingly able to tame both Lady Bird and Marion when they each spiral off the rails in anger and recrimination.
Here is where Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" succeeds at its finest, a film that leaves us with more questions than answers...such is life itself, especially during periods of transformation. Now, as I previously stated, and despite my high praise for the film, my feelings are not nearly as rapturous as a number of the reviews that I have seen. To me, this was not anything revolutionary so to speak, especially as I have watched and loved coming of age films for nearly 40 years, some of them being some of my favorite films, and by comparison and personal tastes, "Lady Bird" does not quite hit those peaks for me. In fact, more recent films like Director Jason Reitman's blistering "Young Adult" (2011) and Writer/Director Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" (2016) cut closer and even deeper to the bone for me.
And even as compelling Lady Bird is, I did, however, find myself wondering even more about the life and times of her best friend Julie, the affable, chubby, sharp Math student as well as theater student Danny (Lucas Hedges) who is dealing with his own striking personal issues. Certainly Lady Bird is a more flamboyant character than either Julie or Danny but that does not mean that they are any less deserving of some ample screen time. Yet, both of these characters flat out disappeared from the film for long stretches, mostly due to the turns of the narrative, but at times, the means of their absences did feel a tad choppy to me.
But those are minor quibbles for a film that did indeed surprise, entertain and move me considerably more than I ever thought it could. Who knew? Certainly not me. But I'm telling you, if Greta Gerwig leans more heavily towards the authentic than the plastic, as she accomplished so vibrantly with "Lady Bird," she will be a filmmaker I would happily follow anywhere.
Friday, December 1, 2017
There is no other film arriving in December that has me more excited and anxious to see it than the 8th episode in the on-going Skywalker saga, "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," from Writer/Director Rian Johnson, a filmmaker the powers that be at Lucasfilm must have thoroughly been thrilled with as they have entrusted the creation of a brand new trilogy to his creative hands. But before getting too far ahead of myself, just get me to this latest chapter, which I hope that I will be as enthralled as I have been with every "Star Wars" feature to date.
Aside from "The Last Jedi," we have now reached the time of year for the BIG GUNS of cinema, the ones that are designed for awards season attention and acclaim as well as our hefty box office dollars. Now, some of these films may not even arrive in wide release until January 2018 but even so, I am curious about the following...
Can someone possibly tell me precisely when does James Franco actually sleep as he has his hands in all areas from the stage, to the screen (television and film) and the literary seemingly all at the same time. Now, he arrives as Director and star of "The Disaster Artist," his examination of the infamous Tommy Wiseau and his equally infamous cult film "The Room." Acclaimed on the festival circuit, I am indeed intrigued.
-Woody Allen's latest starring Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake? I have to check it out for certain as his work still entertains and enlivens me.
-It has been over 10 years since I have seen any new film by Writer/Director Guillermo del Toro but it is looking like the already high acclaimed fantasy "The Shape Of Water" will be the one to get me back into his cinematic universe.
-The reunion of Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis? 'Nuff said!
That is MORE than enough to try and get myself to, especially with the whirlwind of the Christmas season and other highly pressing real world responsibilities. Please wish me luck and good health and plenty of rest so I can keep up with it all.
And as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
REMEMBERING JOHN HUGHES EIGHT YEARS LATER: HAPPY 30TH ANNIVERSARY "PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES" (1987)
Written, Produced and Directed by John Hughes
"I hate to say I'm moving beyond anything because I don't want to denigrate that work or that audience...But most of my stories are going in other directions now. It got to a point where I was starting to repeat myself. How many ways can I shoot a high school hallway? I'm sure there are millions that I haven't thought of yet, but I felt I should get away and explore what's next."
"John Hughes: Director Graduates To The Adult World" by Bob Strauss, Chicago Sun Times, published November 1987
It will never cease to amaze me with how much of a road map John Hughes created for me.
Beginning with "Sixteen Candles" (1984), my relationship with the work of Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes has served a wide variety of functions. Certainly, with comedy, John Hughes existed as much of an instructor as all of the comedians, performers and writers that I had already adored. Unquestionably, Hughes was a leader with music, as there are so many artists that I never woud have heard of, let alone listened to and embraced if not for him. Undeniably, Hughes was a teacher regarding writing as the existence of this blogsite is as much a testament to him and his massive influence upon my life as much as it is to the medium of film itself.
But then, there is something much more ephemeral with the work of John Hughes and how it has affected me throughout my life, especially during my adolescence and my college years as the finest of his work was being first released to the world and I ended up watching and re-watching endlessly. Admittedly, these days, I do not watch Hughes' films very much at all. Not because my love for them has lessened (not in the least) but maybe because I have watched them enough to fill five lifetimes.
Perhaps, the distance is a great thing because even as I know the films backwards and forwards, the existing lapse from not having seen them does create for a certain disconnect as well, so when the inevitable reunion occurs, it is like seeing them anew or at least, with fresher eyes.
At this time, I turn my attention towards "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," John Hughes' holiday classic now reaching its 30th anniversary! In addition to this milestone, it exists as one of his films that achieved the rare status of becoming a box office and critical hit, an accomplishment that often eluded him, at least from the standpoint of critic approval. And why should it not as the film represented Hughes operating at the very peak of his powers during an enormously fruitful and furiously paced period during which he wrote, produced and directed "Planes Trains and Automobiles," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986) and the delayed (more on this later) "She's Having A Baby" (1988) back-to-back-to-back, while also miraculously finding time and opportunity writing and producing the Howard Deutch directed "Pretty In Pink" (1986) and "Some Kind Of Wonderful" (1987). I remain flabbergasted to this day that Hughes was able to accomplish this exceedingly prolific feat.
As with essentially all of his films at that time and more specifically, at this point in my life, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" was another pivotal episode in Hughes' then on-going filmography. I reflected that his films provided me with a sense of a road map. "Sixteen Candles" was released when I was 15 years old and "Some Kind Of Wonderful" arrived when I was 18. His six film ode to high school and the teenage years followed me perfectly through the entirety of my high school years, all the while offering counsel, encouragement, compassion, understanding, guidance, and of course, copious amounts of beautifully observed and realized humor, as if Hughes himself was my prized and most beloved teacher for he aided me tremendously in my journey of self-discovery and a growing world view.
John Hughes was the finest creative figure during that specific stage of my life and even as I look backwards in time, I still feel so committed to this feeling of reverence and respect for this man, whom I never, ever met or knew personally, who indeed was an indispensable influence and source of inspiration. For those six films, Hughes was catching me right where I was in my growth and development. With "She's Having A Baby," (the film which was designed to follow "Some Kind Of Wonderful" in June 1987 as the thematic bridge from high school characters to adult characters but whose release was delayed due to a Director's strike) and then "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," John Hughes was in the position of showing me what came after high school, and I was anxious to become immersed in his perspective.
Yet, this day's newspaper was more than prized for me be cause it would indeed contain the late, great Gene Siskel's review of John Hughes' latest film, a review I was more than anxious to read even though Siskel had been harshly critical of Hughes work aside from both "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club" (1985), whereas his colleague/competitor, the late, great Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times was typically more consistent with actual praise for Hughes' output. To my surprise, Siskel's assessment of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" was highly positive as were Ebert's, and one from USA Today that I quickly read at the newspaper stand inside of the Stare Street Walgreen's between classes. I was excited enough to see the film, Hughes first foray into adult territory as a director and with no less then comedy giants Steve Martin and John Candy in the leading roles of this R rated movie.
It was practically all I could think about during my entire bus ride home on that snowy day, and certainly, I was also devising of ways to respectfully ask my very strict parents if I may see the film that evening. Thankfully, they granted me my wish, drove me to the Ford City movie theater--the location where I had seen "The Breakfast Club,""Weird Science" (1985), "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and "Some Kind Of Wonderful" over the past two years--and there I sat, on opening night, Thanksgiving eve, with hardly anyone else in the theater with me. In a way, it almost felt like a private screening and I was about to be let in upon a terrific secret.
After enduring one minor mishap after another in his attempts to simply hail a cab to make it to the airport on time--from losing one taxi in a foot race with another businessman (Kevin Bacon in a clever cameo), being relinquished of $75 to a merciless attorney for purchase of another taxi to falling over a large trunk into the street and having said taxi inadvertently taken away by the owner of the trunk--Neal finally arrives at the airport to discover a building snowstorm has caused a flight delay, making his return to Chicago longer than expected.
While waiting to board upon the next scheduled flight, Neal meets the owner of the trunk, Del Griffith (John Candy), a travelling salesman who specializes in shower curtain rings. Del, while gracious to a fault, is precisely the type of figure the fastidious Neal wishes to remain as far away from as possible. Obnoxious, overly talkative, and filled with a barrage of personal space invading bad habits that drive Neal to his breaking points, Del Griffith is that veritable bad penny that Neal Page just cannot rid himself of during an odyssey that takes the pair to a re-routed flight to Wichita, Kansas, derailed train trips, a bus ride to St. Louis, hysterically catastrophic rental car escapades, all manner of seedy motels and more.
Yet, the arduous journey leads both Neal and Del to a greater understanding of each other, themselves and most importantly, within the film's final, crucial and surprisingly devastating revelations and supremely warm hearted conclusion, the true meaning of Thanksgiving.
As previously stated, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" found John Hughes operating in peak creative form and to that end, both Steve Martin and especially, an undeniably heartbreaking John Candy, elicited performances that neither of them had previously achieved at that time. Their chemistry was as ingenious as Hughes' writing and directing, making the trio an unstoppable creative force that I wished could have found another opportunity to work together again.
For you see, John Hughes delivered the creative goods to his stars with a full, complete story with two richly devised characters speaking Hughes' priceless, endlessly quotable dialogue that was grounded within a certain, approachable reality that allowed the comedy to strike to an often screamingly funny degree. Hughes was decidedly not the kind of comedy filmmaker who felt that if he just turned the cameras on, a script was unnecessary and Martin and Candy would just inherently "be funny." Hughes gave Martin and Candy an entire cinematic universe to immerse themselves with, wich allowed them to play to their strengths as they unearthed talents previously unseen.
For Steve Martin, the once "Wild and Crazy Guy," we were given the opportunity to witness him not just playing the "straight man," but the upper middle class Midwestern family man (i.e. the audience stand-in), whose devotion to his wife and family plus his determination to arrive home for Thanksgiving as promised provided the character of Neal Page with a specific, serious core from which his escalating frustration and often explosive reactions would fuel both the comedy and the drama of the film as a whole.
But, what made his performance so remarkable was how deeply he mined the depths of Del Griffith's existential anguish. Now, even though we are dealing with a film that is 30 years old, I will not produce any spoilers here. But that being said, from his private monologue while seated in frigid weather inside of a burned out rental car to the film's final scenes, John Candy gave us a character that punched our hearts so hard and honestly, that we ached...and all the while never sacrificing the comedy. It is a performance that, to this day, I felt deserved an Oscar nomination.
There was no question that I loved "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" on that very first viewing but it was indeed John Candy's performance and those final moments that truly stuck with me as I left the theater and ruminated over it while at home afterwards and over Thanksgiving dinner as well.
I saw the film for a second time on that Friday evening, along with a treasured friend from high school, at Chicago's Water Tower and this time, the theater was packed full and filled not with teenagers but people who were mostly middle aged to varying degrees. By the time, the film reached its conclusion, there was not a dry eye in the house...except for me and my friend, who were possibly the youngest people at this particular showing. It was a moment that has firmly etched itself into my memory of seeing John Hughes movies as they were first released in theaters and this reaction was definitely a powerfully potent one.
For his output during that period, the film seems to have been as personal as any of his teen films and most definitely, the essentially autobiographical "She's Having A Baby." Hughes' Father and Grandfather had each worked in sales and furthermore, the original idea for "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" surfaced from John Hughes' own experiences working in advertising at the Leo Burnett corporation combined with his moonlighting business trips between Chicago and New York writing for National Lampoon. One such experience had Hughes and a colleague stranded in Wichita due to a snowstorm making him unable to return to Chicago for five days but thankfully, his experiences were nothing like anything that Neal and Del were forced to endure.
It was the first film of Hughes' in which he indulged his love of holidays, something that essentially became a sub-genre with in his oeuvre. In features ALL written and produced by Hughes, he delivered "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (1989), as directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, the Chris Columbus directed box office behemoths' "Home Alone" (1990) and "Home Alone 2: Lost In New York" (1992) and Director Les Mayfield's melancholic yet classy remake of "Miracle On 34th Street" (1994), each film set at Christmastime. Furthermore, and like "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," the undervalued, palpably sad, angry and very effective "Dutch" (1991), as directed by Peter Faiman revolved around Thanksgiving.
Yet, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" felt to feature John Hughes at his most idiosyncratic, just as with his teen films, from its inventive visual aesthetics to his impeccable choice in left-of-center songs which ran the gamut from British synth pop, blues, country and alternative rock and all held together perfectly with frequent Hughes film composer Ira Newborn's wildly diverse score as the glue.
And most importantly, Hughes' gifts as a comedic writer were especially sharpened, not just with his gift for dialogue but in overall construction and set ups. For instance, one nearly throwaway moment featuring Neal Page and Del Griffith's credit cards at the Braidwood Inn in Wichita early in the film does not actually receive its full payoff until the conclusion of the extended rental car highway sequence late in the film. We never see it coming and with all of my subsequent viewings of the film, I am repeatedly amazed with how carefully Hughes set up every moment so everyt hing would reach its greatest effect.
Aesthetically, the film represented John Hughes in an especially playful mood yet a meticulously detailed one as no major travel companies, from airlines, bus companies and train lines would allow themselves to be represented in the film for fear of negative backlash in the real world. So, Hughes and his filmmaking team had to invent them all, augmenting the already (yet quietly) composed fictional Chicago suburb of Shermer, IL., thus creating a film universe that was as seamless and as detailed as anything we experience in the real world.
Bit players and supporting actors from previous Hughes films all popped up in various places during "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," most notably the terrific Edie McClurg as another one of Hughes' bubbly yet savvier than she appears support staff characters. And again, I have to mention Kevin Bacon's cameo, as I wondered if he was actually reprising his role of Jefferson "Jake" Briggs, his Hughes alter-ego character from "She's Having A Baby," in a most rascally state of mind as he races Neal Page for a prized taxi cab near the film's opening. To that end, what movie is Neal's wife watching on television as she sleeplessly waits up for Neal? Answer: "She's Having A Baby"!
For so much of his film career, Hughes' construction of the characters and locale of Shermer, IL was innovative to say the least, all the while inventing a larger film universe that jointly represented the world as it is alongside the world Hughes may have wished for it to be. With "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," John Hughes took the "snobs vs. slobs" aesthetic of so many film comedies of the 1980's and injected a healthy and hefty amount of palpable insight and soul into the proceedings, making the life lessons of the characters truly earned moments which audiences could be affected by.
Recalling my second viewing of the film at Water Tower and gauging my reactions towards the film 30 years later, at the age of 48 and after countless viewings, what truly amazes me even more after all of this time is how astute, precise, and even devastating the movie truly is as what we have is the story of two very sad men, in the middle years of their lives, thrown together and forced to help and understand each other. And I would gather even further that with John Hughes as the film's creator, perhaps "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is the story of three very sad men and perhaps, with the film's life lessons, we were witnessing were the figure of Hughes was delivering messages to himself as well.
Neal Page has certainly worked his way to his particular station in life but to that end, he is indeed a man of considerable privilege, as evidenced by his Shermer, IL home and more pointedly, the sleekness of his occupation, and his wardrobe, most likely purchased at Neiman Marcus (hence one of his credit cards), which includes his sharp fedora and the telling wrist watch, which perfectly suggests how much he is tethered to the constructs of time itself.
Like the character Tom Hanks portrayed in Robert Zemeckis' "Cast Away" (2000), time defines Neal Page, as much as his personal proclivities and his economic status yet the journey of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," forces him to confront some dark truths about himself and his life: that time is rapidly slipping away from him and the relationships he holds dearest and his self-absorbed nature will not do him any favors within navigating the larger world.
Certainly, we can gather some level of tension in the relationship between Neal and his wife Susan, who in addition to worrying about his travels back to Chicago, at one point even suggests a level of distrust with a pointed "Neal? What's going on?"--a tension that the highly intuitive Del Griffith could detect instantly with his equally pointed question, "Trouble on the homefront?"
During a restaurant conversation in a St. Louis diner, Neal, mentally kicking himself for missing his daughter's school Thanksgiving pageant, laments to Del that he has been spending too much time on the road, which indeed cuts to the core of the character. He has spent his adult life working diligently to provide for the very people he rarely sees, a quandary that not only explains his pain but also his impatience, intolerance and anger.
It is as if he, like so many of us, desperately wishes that he could control time itself so that he could have more than enough to be available to work as well as to have more than enough to spend with the people he treasures most. The film showcases what happens when Neal Page is reminded that he is completely unable to control time and through the collaboration of Hughes and Martin, we are witness to a beautifully simultaneous slow boiling meltdown that fumes with rightful and self-righteous frustration and is released with downright honest hilarity.
For a man who wishes to be in control, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" deftly illustrates just how out of control Neal Page actually is. Yes, in regards to his wrestlings with time. but, more pointedly, his relationships within the social class structures of those who operate above and below his own pay grade, because in the real world, his level of privilege gets him absolutely nowhere. Neal Page possesses no street smarts whatsoever as he is foiled over and again from that aforementioned attorney of a higher economic status who haggles $75 from him for a taxi to all manner of everyday working class characters who one-up him consistently and constantly. He ingratiates himself to no one, presents himself as if the world owes him favors he has not legitimately earned and he is routinely pummeled for it...sometimes literally!
Neal's extended rant against Del in the Braidwood Inn features all three primary creative forces of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" in especially striking form in a sequence that firmly presents the film as existing as much more than something designed to just make you laugh. In fact, it is one of my favorite scenes in any John Hughes film. Even more, seven years ago, I wrote these words about this very scene:
"This is the scene where Neal Page (Steve Martin) unleashes his long pent up rage at Del Griffith (John Candy), who stands there, takes it all, does not crumble and asserts his individuality. It is a scene that would almost be too painful to endure if Neal's viciously cruel rant was not also so savagely funny. What takes this sequence to the next level is how Hughes occasionally cuts to the face of Del Griffith, where we can have a few moments to witness his pain and hurt feelings at the other end of Neal's harshness. It deftly transforms the sequence into a social lesson and depicts how the sadistic rules of the playground exist well into middle age. This is the scene that not only raised the acting stakes and bar for Martin and especially Candy, but it also elevated this film from terrific comedy into something much deeper and memorable."
In fact, as I just re-watched this scene days ago, I was struck by how much I actually didn't laugh this time around and was instead drawn in by the brutality, and ultimately, the strength of Del Griffith, a painfully awkward, deeply lonely man who somehow houses an exceedingly impressive stamina that keeps one foot marching in front of the other and a sense of steadfast optimism where so many of us would crumble to pieces. Where Neal Page screams to the universe, "You're messing with the wrong guy!!!," we see that he is easy pickings. Del Griffith, on the other hand, will always get to his destination...that is if he even has one.
The final moments of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," when all is fully revealed to Neal Page (as well as to all of us in the audience), I am still hard pressed to find anyone, anywhere who has not been shaken and emotionally shifted to a hefty degree, especially within a film during which we had been laughing so constantly. It is simply that all of the elements concerning Del has snapped into place for us in regards to Hughes' storytelling and how we regard our own lives. For instance, take the placement of Del Griffith's trunk, which arrives somewhat innocuously (but painfully for Neal) in the film but ultimately becomes a towering symbol by film's end.
Literally and figuratively, the trunk is indeed Del Griffith's entire life and the immense baggage he shoulders every day of every year. Even further, the trunk represents the baggage that Neal Page shoulders every day of every year, as well as for us in the audience and what Hughes depicts via Neal's transformation is his at first reluctant, then tentative then fully empathetic reach towards Del to shoulder the baggage together in friendship and community, for no one should navigate the world completely alone.
The aloneness of Del Griffith, even as I write about it, just touches me in a way that I am finding difficult to describe. Maybe because the feelings are primal in its painful existentialism. Despite his occasional vulgarisms (from crude expressions to bodily functions to his horrific treatment of motel bathrooms) and obnoxiousness, Del Griffith, armed with his street smarts combined with his considerable charm, his ability of fully knowing and engaging with his audience, and his general overall decency, he has built the ability of ingratiating himself to people all over the country.
Unlike the prickly Neal Page, Del Griffith is an accepting individual of all people, regardless of class or status, and that makes him a warming and considerably convincing presence even when he is hustling for money in order to return to Chicago (I absolutely love the montage of Del selling his shower curtain rings yet passed off as "Walter Cronkite moon rings," "autographed Daryl Strawberry earrings," "Czechoslovakian ivory," etc...). Yet, there are two major factors regarding his complete nature that does indeed strike at the core of his being: He knows himself well enough to realize that he tries too hard when he finds himself truly enjoying another's company, potentially ruining a friendship before it has even begun, which then leads me to my second realization...Del Griffith does not have any friends.
Frankly, Neal Page is someone who strikes me as one who does not really have any friends either. Yes, he has work associates and colleagues but those are not friends. I also gather that he may be a fine neighbor in his community but perhaps a somewhat distant one, having no close relationships with anyone outside of the sanctuary of his home and family, a place and people he rarely sees due to the demands of his career. Where Del's baggage, in the form of that trunk, is as visible as the heart upon his sleeve, Neal's baggage is distinctly cloaked but arrives in often misguided, misplaced fury. By the time the twosome begin to make some strides towards each other, and definitely by the film's emotional climax, the story of Neal Page and Del Griffith feels like the song "The Weight" by The Band as they each take a load off of each other to help carry the weight equally.
John Candy, Steve Martin and John Hughes on the set of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" 1987
And what of John Hughes himself? In many ways, so little is really known about him personally. But from what I have been able to gather after all of these years is that he was a uniquely gifted writer and filmmaker within an industry he was most likely not tailor made. He enjoyed working with actors but felt a distaste for the Hollywood industry and executives. His ego was incredibly fragile although he was never precious about his own material regarding on-set improvisations, script re-writes and the changes made in the editing phases. He was a tremendous wordsmith on the page, eloquent during interviews yet possessed difficulties communicating with his crews and over the course of his Hollywood years, his rage and tantrums are now legendary.
I have always wondered just what may have happened to Hughes over his Hollywood years, why he became consumed with such anger and why he abruptly departed from making films altogether. And now, as I have watched "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" again, I am wondering if Neal Page and Del Griffith are actually two sides of the John Hughes coin, so to speak. John Hughes could be considered to have been a workaholic as the speed of his output can attest, where he would typically have one film in theaters, while the previous film would arrive on home video formats and a third film was in pre-production all at the same time. His late night writings, while chain smoking and blasting music are also legendary as well as the rapid nature at which he produced completed screenplays ("Planes, Trains and Automobiles" was reportedly written in a mere three days).
Yes, John Hughes' work ethic is sound and completely responsible for his success, wealth and legacy. But even so, it seemed that what he wanted most of all was to simply write his stories and be left alone in the sanctuary of his family. By all accounts that I have ever read of the man, his wife Nancy Hughes and his two sons, James and John III, were nothing less than sacred to him. His love of Chicago was also unshakable.
For a spell during the mid 1980's, his peak period of creativity, Hughes was essentially forced to movie his family from Illinois to California, a move he always resented and ultimately, felt uninspired by. While I will never know about how much time he was away from his family while making movies, I do wonder if having two-year breaks from directing between "Planes, Trans and Automobiles" and "Uncle Buck" (1989) and "Curly Sue" (1991) as well as ceasing his directing duties entirely after 1991, it was a way to keep himself at home with his family and writing instead of dealing with the maelstrom of on-the-set movie making.
In the case of the actual filming of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," everything that I have ever read over these past 30 years have expressed that the shoot, which involved working and acting in routinely bitterly cold temperatures and the chasing of the ever elusive snow, has described the creation as nothing less than hellish and Hughes' reportedly grouchy, acerbic behavior on-set certainly did not help at all. It's one thing to become lost in creation while in the solitary act of writing but to make the story live and breathe and walk around via the aid of hundreds upon hundreds of other individuals who may not be as invested as yourself, that is another story entirely and could make for a miserable existence.
I also wonder if John Hughes, like Neal Page and Del Griffith, suffered from a lack of friends, something that he seemed to crave. It is well known how closely he bonded with both Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall once he bean directing his screenplays and how devastated he was when they each wanted to move onwards creatively (yet Hughes took it personally-essentially not speaking to them again). With each new project, he attempted to forge new relationships with his actors and some behind the scenes participants, but none seemed to connect in the way he wished until John Candy entered his life.
The friendship of John Hughes and John Candy was a powerfully deep one as some reports and articles have suggested they were as close as brothers, as they devised new projects together and spent hours upon hours talking on the phone and bringing their respective families together as well. It has also been suggested that John Candy's death from a heart attack in 1994 may have been the final straw regarding Hughes' relationship with Hollywood and his decision to leave it altogether.
I think that knowing even the little that I know, it would be difficult to think that none of the pathos of his real life did not find a way into his films. With John Hughes, the very best of his work contained more personal details than he was ever willing to fully admit, if at all. And in doing so, it feels right to think that whatever conflicts that faced Hughes during the process of creating "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" weaved their way into the narrative, whether consciously or not, making it all the more incredible to witness what a fall down hysterical yet beautifully bittersweet film the film actually became.
Perhaps this is the road map that John Hughes' "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" has placed in front of me, a map that I am still attempting to decipher as well as follow. The film represents a map that transcends one's age but speaks directly to it as the middle point of life sees one looking backwards as much as looking forwards, with the knowledge and understanding of mortality being more apparent than in years past. "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is a dual journey of two, lonely middle aged men in the throes of constant travel--one constantly in motion for the purposes of maintaining the very family he rarely sees, the other constantly in motion in attempts to outrun his own private pain--made by a then younger middle aged man in constant motion, moving as fast as his brain could think up stories and his hands could type them...yet, all for what if the experience ate away at him.
Neal Page, Del Griffith and John Hughes, all salesmen, all possible echoes of the fictional Willy Loman from Arthur Miller's "Death Of A Salesman" (1949), all experiencing a sense of being adrift in a cold, unforgiving world only to find each other at the very holiday designed for the grace of community and the warmth of communion.
And to think, all of this from a comedy.
John Candy, John Hughes & Steve Martin circa 1987