(Second viewing, On TV, May 2018) screenwriter/director John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a comedy classic for a reason—it makes great use of two comic actors (Steve Martin and John Candy), features a series of memorable sequences, plays on universal annoyances and doesn’t forget to add a little bit of sentiment toward the end to temper the comedy. Everyone can relate to uncontrollable delays and setbacks in trying to get home for the holidays, and Hughes pushes it to the limit in describing what else can happen to two harried travellers. (The film reaches a comic apex of sort during its fiery highway sequence.) Martin plays exasperated as well as Candy plays exasperator, and the result couldn’t be better. It’s not a complex film, and it works largely because of this straightforwardness. It’s worth another viewing every few thanksgivings.
(On TV, August 2017) In retrospect, it may have been a mistake to watch Sixteen Candles the day after Pretty in Pink—while the two films are different, there are enough points in common between those two Molly Ringwald-starring, John Hugues-scripted teenage romantic comedies to blur the edges between the two. Sixteen Candles, to its credit, does have a better premise—what if, in the hustle and bustle of a big wedding, the sixteenth birthday of the younger sister was completely forgotten? Much of the rest of the picture is conventional high school romantic comedy stuff, but the concept is clever and allows the action to be packed within a short period of time without feeling unnatural. To its distinction (shared with other Hughes scripts), Sixteen Candles is suggestive without being raunchy, and treats its teenage characters like full persons rather than archetypes. It’s far more respectable than other teen movies, although it doesn’t escape frowns for some terrible Asian stereotyping and a sequence with a drunk girl that would have nearly everyone justifiably pulling their hair in outrage today. Ringwald, once again, makes for a uniquely appealing teenage heroine, while Anthony Michael Hall is curiously likable in a potentially grating role. Pay attention, and you will see Joan and John Cusack show up in small roles. Sixteen Candles wraps up in a very likable fashion and while it’s not a particularly profound film, it skillfully made with enough charm to satisfy. But then again I’m not exactly the target audience for the film any more.
(On TV, August 2017) As far as girl-meets-boy high school movies go, it’s hard to find a more representative example of the form as Pretty in Pink. The script, by a classic-era John Hughes, is witty and clever while aimed squarely at the teenage set. The eighties atmosphere is strong without being overpowering, while Howard Deutch’s unobtrusive direction gets all the pieces moving in the same direction. Molly Ringwald definitely has a unique appeal in this film while Annie Potts also claims a few highlights, and this quirkiness has contributed to the film’s continued appeal even today—it’s from a familiar recipe, but not so bland as to be undistinguishable from so many other similar films. I can see the appeal of the film for a certain audience, even though I have to admit that I’m not part of that audience.
(On TV, June 2017) Wikipedia tells me that Uncle Buck has, in the years since its release, become something of a cult movie. As usual, this kind of statement either resonates or is met by a blank face. In my case, imagine the blank face: While it’s not a bad movie, Uncle Buck doesn’t always know what it wants to be. The title character is alternately goofy, dangerous, serious and incompetent in short succession. The film has a solid arc, but the sketches that fill out the progression of this arc are inconsistent and seem to vary according to the whims of writer/director John Hughes more than any organic progression. To be fair, Uncle Buck does coasts a long time on the charm of John Candy and many of Hughes’s leitmotifs, starting with the sullen teenager in need of guidance (here Jean Louisa Kelly). It’s also easy to see how Home Alone sprang from Uncle Buck with the “mail slot” scene featuring Mackauley Caulkin. Some of the set-pieces are, indeed, quite good (such as the noir-spoof visit to the school director) … but it’s their disconnectedness that stops the film from feeling more satisfying. In the meantime, what we have is another piece in Hughes’s solid filmography, uneven but still entertaining on its own.
(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2017) We can probably agree that a character like Ferris Bueller is a malignant sociopath who would be toxic in real life, but that doesn’t make Ferris Bueller’s Day Off any less than a success as a teen comedy. Issued by the John Hughes mid-eighties teen comedy factory, this is nonetheless a film that escapes from the usual formulas of the subgenre, taking an unconventional approach and defying caution in its ultimate objectives. Bueller himself is a memorable piece of work, manipulative and reckless yet almost immediately charming in the way he directly addresses the audience to gain their confidence. A gifted con artist, he is the driver but not the protagonist of the story, as he brings enlightenment to friends and siblings during the course of a single day off school. Matthew Broderick manages the heroic task of keeping Bueller likable, but it’s Alan Ruck who gets the film’s most dramatically significant role as a perpetually depressed friend shaken out of his rut by Ferris’s actions. Mia Sarah (in a dull role) and Jennifer Gray (in a far better one) are fine in the two female lead roles, although I’ve never quite warmed to Jeffrey Jones’s principal character. Then there is Chicago, lavishly showcased through most of the movie from the perspective of suburban teens heading downtown for fun. Surprising bits of philosophy pepper a script that breaks the fourth wall and attempts a few unconventional objectives. (Everyone likes “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” but I’m more partial to “The question isn’t ‘what are we going to do’, the question is ‘what aren’t we going to do?’”) The humour often veers from its good-natured realism to outlandish absurdity (as in the escalating “Save Ferris” moments), but it’s rarely mean-spirited even in its harshest moments. It’s fascinating that writer/director John Hugues both created a mold for the teen comedy and then broke it with this film—many people have imitated The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains sui generis even today. I saw this film at least once decades ago, but it more than holds up today. Despite the easy and often cheap appeals at defying authority, there’s a countervailing element of living life moment-by-moment that’s hard to ignore.
(Second viewing, On DVD, February 2017) Movies become semi-classics for a reason, and the appeal of National Lampoon’s Vacation can be found in nearly-universal nostalgic reminiscences of childhood road trips to visit some far-off destination. That’s the vein that John Hughes picked up in giving life to the episodic Vacation, featuring Chevy Chase as a bumbling dad trying to ensure happy holidays for his family. Nearly thirty-five years later, there’s a pleasant eighties patina over the film, but many of the gags remain just as funny today. (There are exceptions, of course—some scenes, such as the saloon fake-shootout, remain more mystifying than anything else.) It’s a great piece of Americana, a rather good showcase for Chevy Chase’ comic persona, and it remains a fairly solid touch-point for references even today. Plus you’ll get to hum “Holiday Road” for days. It’s not my favourite of the series (that honour goes to Christmas Vacation), but it’s solid enough to show why it remains popular even today.
(Second Viewing: On DVD, July 2011) At this point, I shouldn’t be surprised if movies I dimly remembered as being hilarious end up just on the amusing side of funny. Unfortunately, Weird Science goes to join the ranks of eighties comedies that just aren’t as good as they should have been. The central idea in seeing two nerds create “the perfect woman” thanks to some modern hocus-pocus is still potent (albeit maybe a bit less amusing nowadays given the age difference between the actors) and the film does have a few good scenes. But the connective tissue between those scenes… and the mismatch between the possibilities of the premise and what’s up on the screen is just annoying. Part of the problem, especially for viewers schooled in fantasy fiction, is the film’s very loose adherence to a coherent imaginative framework: everything seems possible in the film, and while this carries its own reward (let’s face it: the Pershing missile thing is still one of the film’s finest moments), it also unmoors the film and sends it in fantasyland where the stakes are low because everything’s possible –it’s far, far better to file Weird Science under “teen comedy” rather than “fantasy” or “science-fiction”. Both the plot and the characters are underdeveloped, and don’t go much beyond “two good kids learn a lesson”. The overacting in the film is a bit surprising twenty-five years later. Weird Science, seen from 2011, doesn’t quite hold together, and definitely seems like a minor John Hughes teen comedy when compared to the rest of his eighties filmography. Still, the film still warrants a look today for a couple of reasons: It has aged reasonably well, turning itself into an unabashed time capsule of the mid-eighties in their weird Reganian splendour. (Mid-riff shirts? Why???) It also remains one of Kelly LeBrock’s defining performances: being asked to play “the perfect woman” to two horny teenagers is a tough order, but she manages to make it look easy. The film also features early roles for Bill Paxton and Robert Downey Jr., and a catchy theme song that eighties kids probably still remember. Weird Science certainly isn’t perfect, but in the right mood it’s a charming throwback to another time –a perfect movie for a quiet evening.