Mr. Mom (1983)
★★ / ★★★★
Furloughed from his job as a car engineer, Jack (Michael Keaton) must now stay home with his three young children (Fred Koehler, Taliesin Jaffe, Courtney and Brittany White) while his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr), works for an ad agency. Completely unfamiliar with housework and his kids’ routine, Jack struggles while his wife flourishes in her new job.
Written by John Hughes and directed by Stan Dragoti, “Mr. Mom” is a time capsule, a look in an ancient time where men bring home the bacon and women stayed at home to raise the children. While the picture is amusing from time to time, there is little dramatic core. As a result, when the more sensitive moments come around, it is difficult to completely buy into the pain and frustrations of its characters.
The writing is safe and by-the-numbers. Of course we must see Jack being out of his comfort zone as a stay-at-home-dad and of course we must see him become very good in his new role. There are one or two very funny sequences—like the scene involving a vacuum, a stove, and a washing machine—but the writing seems stuck on showing behavior rather than a subtle shift of mindset. For instance, I wanted to see more scenes of the father connecting with his kids, having a genuine conversation with them, rather than yet another slapstick involving paint, cooking, and the house ending up a mess.
Keaton does a lot with how little he is given. Even trite scenes like his character talking to a mirror as he weighs the pros and cons of possibly being involved in an affair have a sense of whimsy to it because the actor finds a way to make the situation fun even though not once do we believe something like that can happen in real life. It is in the way he plays with the delivery and the inflections he employs with certain lines, compounded with a body language that is often unassuming. Thus, when the character tries to play extremes—like trying to come off very masculine toward his wife’s boss (Martin Mull)—the humor works effectively.
Scenes involving Joan (Ann Jillian), a neighbor who hopes to seduce Jack, are borderline dead. The seduction is not only forced, it is also inappropriate in a movie like this. Because of its generally playful tone, one cannot be blamed for thinking that it is all right for children to see the picture. Joan wanting to bed Jack is uncomfortable and out of place. I expected more from Hughes—he is the writer, after all—especially since the film is supposed to be for the entire family.
“Mr. Mom” is a product of the eighties but it manages to retain a level of amusement, especially because of Keaton’s ability to make fresh choices. If the script had focused more on complex emotions rather than superficial emotions and behavior, it might have had more staying power. More importantly, it would have been a better movie.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Neal Page (Steve Martin), in New York City for a business trip, planned to arrive in Chicago two days before Thanksgiving to be with his family. However, the moment he steps outside the client’s building to catch a flight, things begin to go horribly awry: his taxi is taken by someone else, his first-class ticket turns out to be no good at all, the plane is diverted to land in Wichita due to severe weather conditions… And yet these series of unfortunate events are only the beginning.
Written and directed by John Hughes, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” hits a magic spot of being holiday-themed movie and a great comedy, full of laughs from beginning to end without sacrificing its quality due to varying shifts in tone. Equally impressive is the picture’s ability to take risks when it comes to the different types of humor. While it is mainly driven by situational and physical comedy, laughs can also be derived from mordant and character comedy.
The latter aspect works well due to Martin and and John Candy’s performances. Candy plays a man named Del Griffith who sells shower curtain rings for a living and is a perfect foil for Martin’s uptight and intolerant Neal, vice-versa. Although having two opposite personalities forced to spend time with one another is no stranger to comedies, the manner in which these characters interact and bond is special.
We get the impression that Neal and Del are essentially good men when apart but when together, the worst is brought out in one of them—not both. Having one character function as a wall against one who reacts in the most dramatic ways in addition to having the duo’s dynamics change subtly throughout the film—not just in the end just because conflicts must be resolved—becomes the heart of the picture. We end up caring about both of them. Notice the emotional impact of the final two or three scenes.
In terms of execution, one element that stands out is the way the writer-director utilizes the camera as a way to see through a character’s eyes. Take note of the sequence that takes place in the streets of NYC as Neal becomes increasingly desperate to book a cab. The camera adopts a subjective view—its movement brisk, energetic, full of alarm. Another sequence involves Neal noticing there is only one bed in the motel room that he and Del have booked. It makes sense that the former is shown to be highly competitive due to the nature of his occupation. Not once is Del shown to be as aggressive.
In addition to its perfectly cast duo, leading performances, and sharp writing, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” offers a number of colorful characters that never overstay their welcome. The car rental agent (Edie McClurg), the stereotypical hillbilly with a pregnant wife (Dylan Baker), and the man who races Neal for a taxi (Kevin Bacon) are especially hilarious. The movie offers that warm, special feeling of holiday, friendship, and family—seemingly easy to accomplish but many movies of its type end up floundering.
Weird Science (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★
Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) have absolutely no luck with the girls. A mixture of dweeb, wrongly-timed elevator eyes, and mouth-breathing make the girls look at them like they were from outer space. Gregarious guys like Ian (Robert Downey Jr.) and Max (Robert Rusler), on the other hand, cannot help but thrust the duo into more embarrassing situations. While watching “Frankenstein” during a sleepover, Gary has an idea: They will create the perfect woman to help them win over girls. Wyatt, adept at computers, agrees. By feeding the computer a series of magazine cutouts and information from the web, Lisa (Kelly LeBrock) is created.
Written and directed by John Hughes, although the basic premise of “Weird Science” is hackneyed–guys so willing to be in the company of the opposite sex that they will do almost anything to be in the “in” crowd–it manages to be quite interesting because it is not afraid to take risks. A bit of science fiction, like transforming a mean character into a Jubba the Hut look-alike and mutilated biker gang members, go a long way. Instead of allowing the film to be mired into a quicksand of typicalities, the oddities help to keep it afloat. It even reaches some creative highs at times.
Every other scene is hyperbolic and partnered with cheesy visual effects. However, its core, the need to belong and be accepted, is real. Wyatt and Gary are smart but they lack the confidence and self-esteem to go up to a girl and make conversation without coming off like a nervous wreck. The material is in touch with how it is like to be young and unsure.
Hall and Mitchell-Smith have a wonderful, sometimes homoerotic, brotherly chemistry. Their characters complement each other: Gary is more daring and goofy while Wyatt is more sensitive and reticent. While we expect Hall to be an excellent awkward geek–and he is–Mitchell-Smith is quite a nice surprise. He is able to bounce off Hall’s manic energy without having to depend on too many physical gags to get our attention.
I wished that Wyatt had more sensitive scenes with his older brother, Chet (Bill Paxton), currently on leave from the military. Chet tortures his brother endlessly for no reason and they eventually become exasperating. It is like hammering us over the head with the fact that Wyatt is unable to stand up for himself. We already aware of this fact from with the way he deals with bullies at school. The weakest aspect of the film is the lack of spark and originality in terms of Wyatt and Chet being brothers. It is unfortunate because Mitchell-Smith can simply stand on one spot and look solemn yet we cannot help but wonder what his character is thinking.
As for Lisa, she is beautiful and it is understandable why men and women are drawn to her. She is cheeky without being too robotic. The funniest scene is when she asks a cashier, approximately in her 70s, if she thinks wearing a black thong can help seduce a fifteen-year-old. The grandmother stares wide-eyed and unable to respond.
“Weird Science” is purposefully immature at times, with phallic symbols abound, but funkiness and sweetness permeate throughout.
Pump Up the Volume (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) moved to Arizona from the East Coast and started his own radio broadcast–under the pseudonym Hard Harry–because he didn’t fit in at his new school. The topics he talked about while on the air ranged from silly (sexual jokes) to serious (fellow classmates expressing they wanted to end their lives). Students from all social strata found a connection with Hard Harry even though they didn’t know his face; they all shared the unhappiness of being a teenager. As the students began to express their thoughts and feelings, school officials, led by the tyrannical principal (Annie Ross), expelled students who chose not to abide by the rules and those who did not maintain an excellent academic record. This film might have been an instant favorite if I had seen it back in high school. I had my “moody rebel” phase and I thought it managed to capture teenage angst perfectly. While it successfully balanced humor and real issues, I admired that it always respected its characters. The screenplay did not result to template clichés common to John Hughes’ movies. The majority of the picture was dedicated to Hard Harry ranting to his listeners how the system essentially limited the potential of young minds and the hypocrisy of the rules imposed on students. Such scenes became all the more magnetic because the camera would cut to different teenagers who felt like they had no voice. Via participation in the ritual of listening to the nightly 10 o’clock broadcast, they felt like they had a voice, like they belonged. Like the many colorful listeners, I did not always agree with the opinion being broadcasted but the voice had enough insight to challenge our own beliefs. Moreover, there were some truly moving scenes like the student who wanted to kill himself and the bullied homosexual who was comfortable with who he was but just needed someone to talk to. Unfortunately, the second half of the film spun out of control. The romance between Mark and Nora (Samantha Mathis) felt a bit forced–which resembled her bad poetry–and the silliness of students acting like wild monkeys at school did not feel at all believable. In some ways, the scenes that depicted too much rebellion took away some of the power from the real message Mark wanted to share with his fellow students. “Pump Up the Volume,” written and directed by Allan Moyle, is an inspiring film especially for the disaffected youth and those who feel alone. Specific scenes designed to inspire someone to live one’s life will most likely remind viewers of the current surge of tragic pre-teen and teen suicides. Perhaps they, too, felt like they didn’t have a voice.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★
Five high school students who personify a geek (Anthony Michael Hall), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a jock (Emilio Estevez), a basket case (Ally Sheedy) and a criminal (Judd Nelson) spent a Saturday in detention under the eyes of a begrudged principal (Paul Gleason). The picture’s argument was the fact that although we label ourselves (or others label us) to be in a specific category in the high school social strata, we can relate with each of the five characters because we share one commonality: in high school, all of us are just hoping to get by and waiting for our lives to actually begin. The film was astute in observing the teenagers while they interacted with each other and when they were on their own. Even if the characters were not saying anything or if they were just on the background, I was able to read them and I thought of things that they might have been thinking at the time. Having been released in era where typical teen flicks were abound, “The Breakfast Club” almost immediately gained a cult following because of its honesty, right amount of cheesiness, and cathartic quality. My favorite scene was toward the end when the five were in a circle and decided to share why they were sent to detention. I liked the fact that it wasn’t a typical “sharing time” where everybody was solemn and serious all the time. They were actually able to make jokes toward and around each other in between discussing their issues. It made me think of me and my friends when would do the same thing. Out of the five, I could relate to Hall’s character the most (and a bit of Ringwald’s because of her slight conceitedness). It made me think of the way I was in high school concerning my penchant (or perhaps even obsession) for getting straight A’s. It got to the point where getting straight A’s was something that I expected of myself instead of something that I had to strive for. I remember being so hard on myself for making small mistakes when, looking back on it, I didn’t really need to. Now that I’m older, I just think of grades as letters on a piece of paper and nothing more. They don’t define us and they certainly don’t dictate what we can offer the world. The difference between me and Hall’s character was my parents did not pressure me into getting the perfect grade point average. However, I can just imagine how it must have been like for other students who were not so lucky–those that jumped off buildings in college because they felt a need to have the “perfect academic record” to have a “secure future.” Written and directed by the legendary John Hughes, I thought he did a wonderful job capturing the essence of teenagers despite their place in the high school hierarchy.
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
A year after the McCallisters accidentally left Kevin alone at home during Christmas, the family decided to go to Miami for vacation in hopes of getting some sun. Once again, the parents (Catherine O’Hara and John Heard) overslept the night before so the family had to rush to the airport in order to catch a plane. But they didn’t leave Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) at home this time around. They actually lost him at the airport because Kevin followed a man with the same coat as his father which resulted to our little protagonist boarding a plane to New York City. The sequel to the highly successful “Home Alone” proudly followed the same formula as its predecessor which was not necessarily a bad thing. While it was slightly weaker than the original because it did not feel as fresh, this installment was still entertaining because Culkin was still endearing as young Kevin and he had a knack for solid comedic timing mixed with being cute as a button. The fantasy of being in the Big Apple, staying in a fancy hotel, and spending as much money as possible was something that we can all to relate to. I have to admit I did salivate when I saw the obnoxious amount of candy and ice cream that surrounded Kevin in his hotel room. The two idiotic burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) from the first movie escaped from prison (now calling themselves “Sticky Bandits”) and planned to rob a toy store in which all of its profits were supposed to go to a children’s hospital. Kevin heard about their evil plan so he planned to punish the two in a relatives’ house currently being renovated before handing them over to the cops. The confrontation scenes were much longer and much more violent. I especially enjoyed the scene with the seemingly endless number of bricks being thrown at the villains. It was very violent but no one lost consciousness or died (there wasn’t even a drop of blood). It felt like watching an episode of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner–the slapstick came hard and fast but every chuckle and laugh was earned. I was surprised that a giant hammer or an avalanche did not make an appearance. “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York,” written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, embraced its cuddly simplicity, but both children and adults would most likely find it very entertaining. Everything felt bigger in scope with excellent supporting actors like Tim Curry as the suspicious hotel clerk and Rob Schneider as the bellboy who just wanted a generous tip but couldn’t get any. It is unfortunate that most sequels lose the energy and charm that made the original material so fantastic. Luckily, It wasn’t the case here.
Home Alone (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
The McCallister household was frantic a few days before Christmas because the entire family and a few relatives were about to head to France for vacation. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), one of the youngest of the kids, felt neglected because his siblings and cousins wouldn’t take the time to help him pack his luggage. Not even his parents could take a minute of their time to aid the plucky youngster. So, during dinner, Kevin acted out and was sent to sleep in the attic as punishment. The next day, everyone slept in and had forgotten they had a flight. As a result of their hustle and bustle, they boarded the plane to Europe completely unaware that Kevin wasn’t with them. “Home Alone,” written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, was a huge success commercially because it played upon one of a kid’s and a parent’s biggest fear (being alone at home while burglars tried to force themselves in and leaving behind a child, respectively). One of the many smart elements about the film was the fact that the two criminals (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) were kept outside of the house for the majority of the picture. Kevin was forced to create many creative and funny diversions to make the robbers believe that the house had people in it. Much to Kevin’s advantage, the two criminals were complete idiots. (Their modus operandi was leaving the water running in the sink after they’ve looted the place.) What made the film much better than a typical child-in-trouble story was Culkin’s energetic and hilarious performance. He was as cute as a marshmallow but he was precocious so he was able to pull off lines that adults might say. His facial expressions–may it be surprise, joy, or teary-eyed sadness were simply priceless. Surprisingly, I found the slapstick comedy thoroughly entertaining. It wasn’t done just because it was convenient. The slapstick was a result of Kevin using household items (and his toys) as a defense against men who wanted to hurt him. When someone slipped on the ice or when someone was hit on the head with an iron, I couldn’t help but wince as if I was the one in pain. But the whole experience was enjoyable because we didn’t want the villains to get their hands on our tiny but brave protagonist. What did not work for me as much was the creepy-looking neighbor (Roberts Blossom) who turned out to have a heart. The scene dedicated to exploring the man’s backstory (a typical one at that) slowed the story’s momentum. Nevertheless, “Home Alone” is a very charming film. More that twenty years have passed since its release, but it still holds up as one of the favorite family movies often played around Christmas. I cannot image anyone not being entertained by its sharp wit, heart, and manic energy.