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by Bill Gibron

7 Nov 2009

It is perhaps the most maligned Best Picture Oscar winner of all time. While Sam Mendes’ equally misjudged American Beauty gets an equal number of harsh dismissals, it doesn’t have the artistic albatross of beating Quentin Tarnatino’s Pulp Fiction hanging off its hefty gold statue’s neck. Indeed, Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis will perhaps never live down the fact that Academy voters favored his Establishment romp through history over the Reservoir Dogs’ auteur’s genre-bending genius. Even now, some 15 years later, the critical throwdown still gets Messageboard Nation in a froth. For some, there is no forgiving the meandering manchild haphazardly wandering his way across the entire post-modern cultural spectrum. To them, there is no defending Zemeckis, his movie, or its motives.

Not even a new 15th Anniversary Box Set, fashioned like a collection of yummy confections (just like ‘Momma’ spoke about) will ease the controversy. Indeed, since it became a monster hit both in theaters and in the minds of award season voters, Forrest Gump fails about every test of cinematic classicism. It feels dated and of its era, the optimism of a pre-Dot.Com bubble burst awash in every eager, overly earnest narrative beat. It has the feel and focus of a determined epic, something that everyone involved believes is important without any of the onscreen scope or power to prove otherwise. Even worse, it’s become part of the standard bearers of satire, lampoons and spoofs of Tom Hanks’ take on the title character driving any available artistic measure deep into the ground. Oh, and did we mention it beat Pulp Fiction for the 1995 Academy Award?

Perhaps time will never be completely kind to this film, but the overall outrage over its existence is way overblown. In truth, Forrest Gump is a fine motion picture - nay, even at times, a great one. Sure, the whole feather motif is heavy handed and syrupy and the title moron as innocent everyman can get so saccharine and cloying as to almost cause diabetes. But Zemeckis is not some hack, manipulating his audience with false sentiment and unearned emotions. Everything about Forrest Gump feels natural and organic to the story being told. Indeed, it’s the tall tale itself, and not the way that Zemeckis presents it, that should cause the most consternation. Over the course of five seminal decades in the post-war “adulthood” of the United States, this movie takes the side of the jingoists and the patriots - and never once parts company.

For those unfamiliar with the narrative, the film follows the adventures of a Southern rube named Forrest Gump. Loved by his Momma and shunned by the community, his only friend is a poor abused girl named Jenny. As he grows, our hero is deemed ‘retarded’, but his domineering parent won’t let society treat him as different. Capable of running at amazing speeds, Forrest gets through high school and into college on his amazing athletic skills. After graduation, he fights in Viet Nam and becomes an army ping-pong champ. Out of the service, he hooks up with former commander Lieutenant Dan, and the two go into the shrimping business together. When that turns from a bust to a bustling success, Forrest tries to find solace in his former friend, Jenny. Yet their relationship has their bumps and bad patches. Befallen by tragedy and a last act attempt at escape, Forrest resigns himself to being alone - that is, until Jenny comes along with some sad/glad news.

The most important aspect of the story, however, is the way in which Forrest seeming steps into the annals of US history time and time again. He watches as George Wallace tries to stop the integration of Alabama’s schools, meets Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. He attends an anti-war rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the height of the ‘60s, and even inspires John Lennon to write “Imagine.” From suggesting the successful bumper sticker “Shit Happens” to inspiring the iconic yellow “Have a Nice Day” smiley face, Forrest Gump is the reason the country forges ahead through turmoil, strife, and illegal break-ins at the Watergate hotel (that’s right - he rats the burglars out). Between his personal pitfalls and his professional accomplishments, Forrest is the American Dream personified - and all inside a naïve country bumpkin who barely manages of 70 IQ.

In the telling commentary track included as part of this DVD release, Zemeckis tells you all you need to know about Forrest Gump‘s continued contemptuous reputation - and shockingly, its hidden political agenda. According to the director, the hero represents all that’s good, noble, loyal, and honorable about the stereotypical US citizen. Was he literate enough to coin it, Forrest would be first with the phrase “Our Nation - Love it or Leave it”. He never grows suspicious of the government or its goals, never questions authority or its perversion of power. Instead, Forrest falls lockstep into what every little boy and girl is told about being part of the civic fabric, and it pays off in wealth, property, and (after a while) personal happiness.

Then there is Jenny, clearly crafted to represent the counterculture. She is the true outside, the sexually abused Cupie doll who believes in all the beatnik/hippy promises and winds up a strung-out cocaine casualty attempting suicide and struggling for self esteem. She buys into Dylan and Baez’s foolish notions about art changing the world. She seeks dignity in the struggles of the anti-War and Black Panther movements. She loses herself in drugs and debauchery - and when all else fails her (and it always does) her retarded Rock of Gibraltar is always around to kiss the karmic boo-boo and make it all better.

Toss in Lieutenant Dan as destiny deferred by Forrest’s optimism and Momma as a less than virginal Mary and you’ve got the Bible as written by polarizing pre-millennial Neo-Cons. In fact, why Gump is not the poster boy for every Palin and Buchanan on the pundit circuit is astonishing - especially when Zemeckis admits that he is, indeed, the dimwit who finds a way to breeze through the more complicated parts of life. None of this really detracts from the movie itself, mind you. Tom Hanks still gives a heck of a performance, reminding the viewer of his ability to truly get lost in a meaty role. Robin Wright Penn is still underused as the object of his affection, the Job-like Jenny. Gary Sinise is all fire and battle weary brimstone as Forrest’s reborn disciple, and Haley Joel Osment is the best second Messiah a mentally challenged Jesus could ever hope for.

Pushing aside all freak show philosophizing for a moment and looking at the main reason we go to the movies, Forrest Gump definitely provides a powerful entertainment experience. We get caught up in its rooting for the underdog storyline, hiss when our hero is bullied, and cheer when he finds a way to overcome some obvious self-inflicted adversity. We marvel at the bows to pop culture (young Forrest - in leg braces - teaches Elvis to dance) as well as the nods to noted events in our country’s past. Sure, the ending turns all treacly when Jenny reappears bearing baby, but by then we’ve come to expect such schmaltz from this film. Zemeckis is no hack, but he’s definitely made better movies in his career. Indeed, Forrest Gump can’t really hold a candle to the value inherent in Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

That doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve the Oscar, though. Hollywood is not noted for championing the unusual and the groundbreaking, and still they gave Tarantino and his co-writer Roger Avary trophies for Best Original Screenplay that year. In their mind, Forrest Gump was the more Academy Award appropriate offering, and they were probably right. It’s a movie that plays by the rules instead of deconstructing them. It was a recognizable type instead of a revisionist genre reassembly. It was uplifting instead of complicated, wholesome and heartfelt instead of violent and vicious. Besides, did you really think a movie that has a major character raped by another man would wind up walking up the red carpet that year? If anything, Forrest Gump was designed and destined to take home the gold. It makes the legacies of both movies all the better. 

by Bill Gibron

4 Nov 2009

If only his mother wasn’t playing bridge. If only Roger O. Thornhill (“My own personal motto - R.O.T.,” he snidely explains), twice-divorced New York ad man hadn’t forgotten that important facet of his parent’s social calendar. He wouldn’t have rushed to his important meeting with some important clients. He wouldn’t have called on the Western Union boy to send a telegram (explaining to his secretary the locational faux pas). And he wouldn’t have incurred the curiosity of a pair of thugs, hitmen working for a foreign spy desperate to learn the identity of infamous secret agent George Kaplan. That afternoon card game eventually cost Thornhill his security, his safety, and his sanity as he becomes part of a major international conspiracy involving missing microfilm, double agents, and a conspiracy moving ever across the United States. 

Scripted by dependable collaborator Ernest Lehman (who set out to create the ultimate version of the Master of Suspense’s style) and featuring film’s singular leading man, Cary Grant (replacing intended star Jimmy Stewart), Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest remains the seminal example of the fabled director’s artistic proficiency. It’s thrilling, sexy, funny, fresh, inventive, exhilarating, and ultimately, a first-class illustration of the “they don’t make them like they used to” adage. Sure, some can argue over the legendary director’s constant shifts in locational perspective (in studio one shot, on location the next) and the highly formal manner in which he handles action, but Alfred Hitchcock is a legend for one obvious reason - he is a true cinematic visionary, someone who literally defined - and then proceeded to destroy - the limits of the motion picture artform.

By mistakenly drawing the attention of two hired goons, Thornhill comes face to face with crafty Cold warrior Phillip Vandamm and his henchman Leonard. Believing his is CIA operative George Kaplan, the duo threatens his life unless he converts to their cause. Of course, our oblivious businessman has no idea what they are talking about. Narrowly avoided an attempt on his life, Thornhill is soon framed for the murder of a United Nations contractor, forcing him on the run and desperate to seek out the real Kaplan. Learning that he might be in Chicago, our hero hops a freight, only to come face to face with sophisticated industrial designer Eve Kendall. She wants to help him. He winds up in ever deeper trouble. Soon, the government gets involved, letting Thornhill know that if he plays along with the Kaplan ruse, his name will be cleared. But there are complications, including how Eve fits into all of this.

Along with Vertigo and Psycho, North by Northwest is indeed the seminal suspense experience. It makes brilliant use of the everyman lost in a world of intrigue and danger ideal, and then amplifies the prospect by making Grant’s Thornhill more adept at these spy games than the villains. True, it takes a lot to show up James Mason and Martin Landau (getting a lot of mileage out of underplaying their roles), but this is Archibald Alexander Leach we’re talking about, the dashing, debonair superstar who more or less gave birth to the mainstream man crush. Grant agreeably gives his greatest performance here, at times both cosmopolitan and comically clueless. Just watch the scene where a completely inebriated and barely coherent Thornhill is trying to tell the police what happened to him. It’s a master class in bridging the gap between post-modern believability and studio system shtick. 

So are his entendre-laced clashes with Eva Marie Saint. No slouch as the femme fatale with a couple of troubling secrets up her designer sleeves, she is a flawless foil to Grant’s well-groomed wolf. There is absolutely no doubt about what’s on their mind when they meet, and later, when it looks like they will consummate their newfound friendship, the dialogue is just delicious. In the commentary track to the new blu-ray release (which looks AMAZING, one must say), writer Lehman lets us know about how careful he had to be with the words and phrases he chose to champion. Censors were already nervous about a middle aged man and a twenty-something sharing a train compartment. Several lines were snipped or trimmed when studio moralists believed they were too suggestive. In the end, Lehman actually got his way, if inadvertently. The scene between Grant and Saint in her darkened quarters remains one of the steamiest non-explicit moment between two people ever - all because of the oblique nature of the exchanges and Hitchcock’s handling of same. 

But the real North by Northwest showstoppers are the various edge of your seat sequences used to intensify the terror. Grant’s near accident while intoxicated is indeed harrowing and the classic crop duster attack remains a singular cinematic moment. The best is saved for last, of course, as Grant, Saint, and Landau traverse the various cliff-like edifices of Mount Rushmore. That’s right - Hitchcock had always wanted to conduct a chase across the façade of the fabled American monument, and thanks to some tricky F/X work (massive photos of the landmark were created, and then dimensionalized on a equally huge Hollywood set), he pulls it off magnificently. Indeed, watching Grant and Saint juxtaposed against this backdrop renews your faith in the power of filmmaking. While it may seem logistically impossible - or worse, highly improbable - Hitchcock makes it wholly believable. Like all of North by Northwest, his craftsmanship overcomes any shortcomings in “realism”.

As the introductory entry of the Master onto the new digital format, Warners works wonders with the North by Northwest blu-ray. The picture presentation is immaculate - clean, sharp, and loaded with detail. Indeed, there is no arguing with the 1080p transfer. The sound has also been remastered, giving Bernard Herrmann’s memorable score a whole new level of epic urgency. There are also some fascinating added features here, including the Lehman commentary, an hour long documentary on the making of the film, as well as a look at Cary Grant’s career and Alfred Hitchcock mythos. But it’s the chance to see North By Northwest as it was initially conceived - original aspect ratio and as close to theatrical quality as the home video domain can deliver - that really makes this masterpiece a must-own. One can only imagine the kind of optical bliss awaiting blu-ray remasters of Rear Window, or even better, Vertigo.

In a career that spans a stint in British silent movies and as part of television’s grandiose growing pains, it was his stint in Hollywood (and the stunning films he created during that tenure) that took Englishman Alfred Hitchcock from trivial to titan - and North by Northwest is an example of the genius at the height of his professional powers. Indeed, it’s hard to watch a post-modern take on the genre and not see this Cary Grant title as an obvious inspiration. Sure, it’s oddly out of place ‘domineering mother’ subplot makes the Thornhill seem slightly less than macho and we never really find out what Vandamm and his men are after (the classic Hitchcock ‘MacGuffin”). Still, if it wasn’t for that blasted card game, none of this would have happened - and that really would have been a shame. That’s because, as cinematic classics go, North by Northwest is one of the greatest of all time.

by Bill Gibron

3 Nov 2009

People like to complain that Disney - or better yet, the mega-multimedia side of the 2009 version of the company - owns the world. What with video, television, movies, music, theatrical productions, theme parks, networks, cable subsidiaries, all manner of merchandising, and a creative catalog that includes such divergent elements as The Muppets and Marvel Comics, the House of Mouse does seem like an omniscient entertainment enterprise. But back before there was such a thing as DSL, digital delivery, the satellite dish, and the coaxial connection, the world that Walt built was an equally influential amusement giant. During the ‘50s, they practically owned the fledgling novelty known as TV. Between The Mickey Mouse Club, the various Disneyland anthologies, and Guy Williams action-packed take on famous pulp character created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley, they were as well known then as now.

For many a sullen pre-teen suburbanite, growing up in the Conservative afterglow of two terms with Eisenhower, Zorro was the original superhero, a Robin Hood of the Southwest combining a cavalier attitude with dashing good looks and a full blown mastery of the sword. Along with his mute sidekick Bernardo, Zorro - aka Don Diego de la Vega - protects the people of colonial California from shady cattle barons, corrupt bandits, mean-spirited members of the military, and all others who would take advantage of the poor and disenfranchised for their own immoral gains. Along with his well-meaning nobleman father, Don Alejandro de la Vega, and a fat, friendly magistrate Sergeant Demetrio López García, the local legend rides out into the wilderness, righting wrongs and fighting the good fight.

Like the Lone Ranger, Daniel Boone, and any other number of Wild West folk heroes, Zorro tapped directly into the post-war zeitgeist that saw young people, raised on tales of grandpa and dad’s GI derring-do, yearning for their own place at the champion’s table. While too immature to achieve it themselves, regular TV serials like this gave kids an escape, a way of seeing the triumphant acts they’d only heard about realized in a simple, moralistic manner. While Zorro was fond of a black cape and mask, his actions were indicative of the old school ‘white hat’ sense of justice. As a result, almost every villain was hyper-evil, given over to the kind of hand wringing and moustache twirling that the silent films fostered nearly 50 years earlier. While TV was still nothing more than radio in motion, the chance to move the visual from one’s imagination to “reality” was a great leap forward for many fledgling fans.

Now Disney is offering an opportunity for post-modern munchkins to dig on what the older members of the clan clamored for back five decades ago. As part of the company’s exclusive metal box Walt Disney Treasures collection, Zorro: The Complete First Season (1957-58) and Complete Second Season (1958 - 59) arrive completely remastered, restored, and presented over 12 separate DVDs. In addition, the set also includes the four one hour specials created when rights issues halted production during the height of the series’ popularity. As nostalgia, it’s a knock-out, a wholesome slice of pre-cynic spectacle where the House of Mouse’s patented production value is draped onto a collection of continuing story arcs involving cautionary tale tenets like greed, disloyalty, and underhandedness.

One of the best things about Zorro was its decision to mimic the antiquated matinee serial style that was waning toward the start of the ‘60s. By giving each initial 13 episode span a legitimate linking story, the show guaranteed to have audiences coming back each week for another exciting chapter in the tale. The first narrative dealt with Don Diego de la Vega’s arrival and his ongoing battles with the cruel Commandant Captain Monastario. The next focused on a conspiracy by Magistrado Galindo to rule all of California. The final story in Season One revolved around the identity, and defeat, of The Eagle, a member of the aforementioned criminal cabal. Season Two found the hero falling in love with the lovely Ana Maria and then competing for her favors with an old rival named Ricardo del Amo. Several smaller plotlines involved an attempted assassination on the Governor of California, a visit from Cesar Romero as Diego’s ne’er-do-well uncle, and more backdoor power plays and politics.

As the star, Guy Williams was a perfect choice. Italian by heritage (his real name was Armand Joseph Catalano), his rugged good looks landed him limited work in Hollywood before the chance at playing Zorro came along. Personally interviewed by Walt himself, Williams stepped into shoes previously filled by Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power and more or less made the part his own. With a noticeable twinkle in his eye and the physical prowess to pull off the many high energy fencing scenes (he trained with an Olympic champion), he made both parts of the developing superhero dynamic - champion and chump - into likeable, identifiable figures. Though set many decades before the then modern tenure of the ‘50s, Williams seemed to represent the domineering new male of the era, a well turned out icon that offered up grace, machismo, and a sense of ethics and fairness.

Sure, some of the storylines seem dated, especially when placed alongside the uneven updates featuring Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. But for all their high tech Tinseltown scope, there is something far more fun about Williams and his merry band of recognizable Disney character actors. Another intriguing aspect of this collection is watching the supposed guest stars wander in and out of Diego’s life, including the fetching Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, Everett Sloane (of Citizen Kane fame) and TV stalwart Richard Anderson. They add an element of familiarity for those of us old enough to remember when Mickey and the Gang’s returned to TV stations in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. There, show-within-shows like Spin and Marty continued the familiar boy’s adventure tale style that Zorro utilized throughout its run. Fifty-two years later, it all comes across as rather fake and freakishly wholesome, but when held up against contemporary examples of same, these terrific tales of frontier justice hold up quite well.

Thanks to Disney’s attention to detail, the desire to preserve their heritage for future generations to enjoy, these limited edition box sets are like stepping back in time and witnessing the series premiere as it originally aired. Film critic and company expert Leonard Maltin is on hand to guide us through the experience (does this man ever age?) and the hour long specials, while padded in places, are solid attempts to keep the Zorro franchise moving forward. Williams would go on to yet another iconic series when Irwin Allen hired him to play John Robinson in his sensational sci-fi schlock-fest Lost in Space. But this is where the actor first found major mainstream success - and for a couple of years, America was indeed mesmerized by his character’s combination of swashbuckling and savoir-faire. Slice a “Z” into a piece of paper (or some other object) nowadays and you’re bound to get more than a few dumbfounded looks. In 1957, however, everyone knew the mark of Zorro. Thankfully, the House of Mouse is giving us a chance to experience this hero’s magic all over again.

by Bill Gibron

2 Nov 2009

“At its heart, it’s a love story…albeit a relatively strange one” or so says Oliver Stone at the beginning of the latest DVD version of his 1994 murderers-on-the-run masterwork, Natural Born Killers . Fashioned from a script by then hot-eur Quentin Tarantino and styled after the maverick director’s other ‘90s masterpiece, JFK , this combination commentary and cultural coming of age was turned from a exploitation thriller into a demented overview of our media-saturated society, the continuing obsession with crime (not punishment), the profiler like scenarios that jumpstart death sprees, and the always raging internal demons that fuel the carnage of onscreen characters Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis). And then there is the visionary aggrandizement of director Stone himself.

True, if you strip away all the quick cut complexities, if you remove the genre-bending approach to child abuse and molestation (rendered in repugnant ‘50s sitcom style), super cop corruption (policeman Jack Scagnetti - a sober Tom Sizemore - is just as perverse as his internationally idolized prey), and a seemingly ever-present obsession with Native American mysticism, what you wind up with is Badlands with an added satiric element. No matter what Tarantino intended with this screenplay, Stone literally skinned it alive, using the passion felt by Mickey and Mallory (and their violence illustration of same) as the basis for a denouncement of everything tacky and tabloid circa the end of the millennium. By taking the audience to task over its love of sex and violence (which the movie simply drowns in) Stone suggests we’re all Mickey and Mallorys…at least to a point.

The story centers on the couple’s notoriety and the desire by Aussie reporter Wayne Gale (a brilliant Robert Downey Jr.) to get an exclusive story. When Mickey and Mallory get lost in the desert, they come across a shaman who suggests that actual demons run through these antisocial outlaws. Eventually trapped inside a local pharmacy, the duo are captured and taken to jail. There prison warden Dwight McClusky (a Loony Tunes like Tommy Lee Jones) makes a deal with Scagnetti to transport his star prisoners out of the facility (the agreement is that Mickey and Mallory will meet an untimely “accident” along the way). However, their plans are thwarted when Gale lands a post-Super Bowl interview with the pair. Mickey uses the opportunity to escape, grabbing guards and using them as hostages, all in an effort to be reunited with Mallory.

Several things stand out about Natural Born Killers some 15 years later. Like the other great films of the era (Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, Se7en), Stone’s dark comedy about the fall of post-modern man is, today, a much imitated and mimicked effort. Entire subcategories of cinema rose out of this cacophony of images and collage of sounds. It’s also frightening how dated the declarations against the news media (and the public consumption of same) really are. If Mickey and Mallory could see what Fox News and the like have wrought, they wouldn’t waste time plugging police. It would be pundits in their well worn crosshairs. While the level of violence is minor compared to the once new, now old trend of torture porn, and there are still touches of studio stargazing when it comes to the casting (Harrelson, though not the original pick for Mickey, was a hot property back in ‘94), this is a still a subversive effort that remains relevant.

What keeps this otherwise marginalized movie controversial is its desire to let no one off the hook for what these mass murders do. Everyone is to blame in Stone’s film - miscreant parents, apathetic politicians, power mad law enforcement, copycat criminals, as well as the conspiratorial, clueless masses who drink in the couple’s appalling antics and revel in their repugnant hatred for humanity. Of course, Natural Born Killers would argue that Mickey and Mallory only kill “bad” people - men who mash on innocent young girls, rednecks who reject propriety to spew their brazen bigotry on an unresponsive world. But it’s the confrontation with the past and the accidental death of the medicine man that dooms the pair. In fact, what Stone is saying throughout this amped up narrative is that, while driven by fate and a mutual need and necessity, Mickey and Mallory are only as bad as circumstances make them. Murder a pedophile and you’re a hero. Take down a crooked policeman and you’re head for the electric chair.

With this latest DVD expanding Stone’s vision to include much of the gore removed from the initial release of the film, Natural Born Killers becomes more of a royal romantic geek show than ever. While our gun totting terrors spread fear around the countryside, the trail of blood and entrails leads directly to the gates of Hell (or in this case, a prison recreation of same). There is a Pilgrim’s Progress quality to the storyline, Stone taking his characters through various religious and moralistic stages of denial/acceptance before setting them before the great God/Devil itself - TV, in the persona of Downey Jr.‘s Wayne Gale. As perhaps the most important piece of the entire cinematic puzzle, this investigative hack, hoping to score enough ratings to up his profile (and keep his wife and girlfriend happy), represents the ultimate stand for our loathsome lovers, their 15 minutes-plus of fleeting fame - and they play him perfectly.

As with many Special Edition digital packages, this offering is loaded with intriguing added context. Disc two houses an amazing documentary that outlines the controversies surrounding the film, from the various protestations to the unusual court case where Natural Born Killers was accused of “inspiring” the criminal acts of two clearly misguided teens. All the while, Stone puts up his best bruised ego demeanor, taking the assault in stride (perhaps recognizing that any hype, including publicized hate, is good for the box office bottom line). Elsewhere, deleted scenes give us a chance to see cutting room floor performances from Ashley Judd, Denis Leary, and the Barbarian Brothers while a 44 page booklet outlines the various issues surrounding the production, as well as the film’s place in motion picture history.

There is no denying Stone’s artistry and vision, even if you’re nauseated by the images and ideas he’s offering. Just like he did with his take on the Kennedy Assassination (or later look at the Nixon Administration), this is a director who has an uncanny knack for opening up a can of worrisome worms, and then using said bait to lure the truth - or a version thereof - out of hiding. While we are still no closer to discovering the actual facts about what happened that sad day in November ‘63, Natural Born Killers has actually enlightened us toward the addiction and insidious nature of the shock speculative style of reporting that passes for news nowadays. Sadly we learned little from these lessons, turning Stone’s showboating maelstrom into one of the most prophetic films ever. Like the equally enlightened Network, what was once satiric and sly is now too real to be funny. Instead, like a huge neon warning that everyone ignored, Natural Born Killers gets to say I told you so - and yes, it really does have to wallow in our shame and relish it so.   

by Bill Gibron

1 Nov 2009

It’s a shame that John Hughes died when he did. In self-imposed exile for most of the last decade, he was clearly talented and certainly had more to offer the world of entertainment than his flawless teen comedies of the ‘80s and the less successful remakes and family films of the ‘90s. Proof of such possibilities came back in 1987, in the form of his first “adult” effort, the holiday themed Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (recently re-released on DVD). Relying on the undeniable chemistry of comedians Steve Martin and John Candy, and trading on the Thanksgiving theme to explore issues of family, friendship, and loss, it marked a radical departure from the coming of age growing pains of his previous films. It also proved that Hughes could direct something other than slapstick and/or schmaltz. For all its physical shtick, this is one buddy film that relies less of humor and more on heart.

Our story begins the week of Turkey day. Advertising executive Neil Page (a nicely moderated Martin) is in New York, trying to wrap up an account before the holiday starts. Desperate to get home to his family in Chicago, he dreads the next few hours. Still, all he has to do is catch a cab, make his plane, survive the flight, and it’s a few fun days of wife, kids, and candied yams - that is, until he boards the aircraft. There he meets traveling shower curtain accessories salesman Del Griffith (Candy at his very best). A massive mountain of a man, this overly earnest passenger takes an instant liking to Neil and as they prepare to depart, they strike up a casual friendship. Then, disaster hits. O’Hare is snowed in and no flights can land. Neil and Del end up in Wichita, Kansas and with hotels all booked and no rental cars available, they have to figure out a way to get from the Midwest to Lake Michigan, less the miss the festivities all together.

One has to give Hughes credit - the premise for Planes, Trains, and Automobiles remains as unique today as it did 22 years ago. Sure, now we have cellphones and PDAs, means for any traveler to take the bullshit by the horns and improve their chances of getting home for the holidays, but way back during the waning days of the Reagan era, getting around during the madhouse that is Thanksgiving week was a challenge of low tech Herculean proportions -and the talented writer/director makes the most of it. Some of the material may be straight out of an old burlesque skit (Candy and Martin having to share a bed) and a few jokes do trade on the guys’ individual flaws (Neil marveling at Del’s cavernous underwear), but thanks to the shared experience that both of these divergent personalities have to go through, because of how their yin/yang archetypes play against and into each other, we come to identify and sympathize with their plight.

And then Hughes pulls out all the sentimental stops. Few can remember how devastating Del’s secret is now that it’s become part of cinematic common knowledge (don’t worry - we won’t spoil it here), but it stands as the kind of risk that the Ferris Bueller filmmaker wasn’t really known for taking. Most of his movies ended happily, narratives tripping over the occasional problem or personal pothole before reaching a kind of zany Zen optimism. But Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was different. It was mean to be serious and edgy. It was made to explore more mature elements in a person’s life. Martin’s harried ad man just wants his workday to be over so he can find his way back home. Candy, on the other hand, must cover up the truth so as not to look desperate or pathetic - and he does such a great job that when the reveal arrives, it’s stunning.

Indeed, this is the best these two ‘70s icons have ever been in a comedy. Both are poised, polished, and well moderated. Martin is more or less the straight man, forced to forage for laughs in hilarious putdowns of car rental agency personnel and his traveling companion’s cockeyed cheerfulness. Candy’s part is more complicated. Sure, he’s the fat man with quasi-questionable social skills (never, EVER, take off you shoes in a closed aircraft, John) and many of the jokes come at his physical expense, but this makes for a more meaningful finale. It’s a mutual discovery that both Neil and the audience have misjudged Del, elevating his human pratfall into something almost noble. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, especially since Candy was a genius at finding the complexities within the cliché. In a film that has basically two main focuses to lead us through the plotting, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles couldn’t ask for two better guides.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this film is nowhere to be seen on the new “Those Aren’t Pillows” Edition of the DVD. According to reports, Hughes shot almost twice as much film as a normal production does, leading to an initial three hour cut that is less a movie and more a montage of alternate takes, extended sequences, failed bits, and other character subtext. While this “holy grail” version of the film has long been coveted by fanatical lovers of the title, Hughes himself hinted it would never see the light of day. Not only was it a mess, he argued, but it was more or less “rotting” away in Paramount’s vault. Now, with his death, there is probably no call to see such a sloppy first attempt. At least this new disc has a few fun features, including three EPK like looks at the film itself, Hughes’ attempts at making movies for adults, and the talent that was John Candy. The sole deleted scene about airplane food is interesting, but not necessarily funny.

Hughes would go on to try another adult theme with the pregnancy-oriented She’s Having a Baby, starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern. It was not as successful for reasons that continue to remind us of how wonderful Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is. No matter what you think of Martin now (Pink Panther remakes? Please…) or how Candy eventually ended up, this was a pinnacle for all parties involved. It was the moment when Hughes was seen as finally casting off the angst of adolescent America and instead embraced the equally complicated complaints of 20 to 35-somethings. While we’ll never know if he had another classic in him (one can’t judge based on the silly scripts he contributed recently), it’s safe to say that John Hughes has a secure legacy in Hollywood laughfests. No matter the age bracket, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles stands as one of his very best. 

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