National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
★★ / ★★★★
It is summer and the Griswolds are ready for their annual trip to Walley World. Since the theme park is located in California, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) suggests that it might be easier for their family of four to take the plane. But, no, Clark (Chevy Chase) insists that it is important they spend time together as a family and a way to do that is to drive their newly exchanged station wagon from windy Chicago to sunny Los Angeles. Supposedly, getting there is half the fun but they begin to encounter one disaster after another the second they try to leave their garage.
Although hailed as one of the greatest comedies of all time, I just did not find “National Lampoon’s Vacation” to be very funny. It is slightly amusing, sure, but it lacks the momentum of jokes tumbling over one another that will inevitably trigger uproarious laughter. Instead, it feels more like a series of sketches put together, the idea of reaching Walley World being the glue that barely holds it all together.
I suppose part of the joke is that we are never supposed to believe that an idiotic, privileged, and inexperienced middle-class family like the Griswolds can actually make it to the next county line—let alone trekking across the country. It is a spoof and I was down for the ride. Some bits are amusing like their accidental visit to the ghettos of St. Louis, Missouri with Clark urging his children to “look at [all the] plight!” as if they were in an African safari. But most of its jokes run for too long. We actually get to the point where black residents furtively steal from them.
The running gags get tired fast. Even I have a limit when it comes to watching the number of times luggages can fall off a car. And they never seem to run out of them. Eventually, the Griswolds get stuck in the deserts of Arizona. There are only so many jokes they can pull off when it comes to how hot and dry it is. Each one is attempted. Worse, every one of them is exaggerated to a painful second-degree burn. Since we can easily predict what is coming, the pacing drags. It is one thing to be stuck in the desert with your family because you care for them. But it is another to be stuck with strangers you can barely stand.
If the script had given its characters real motivations, real feelings, and real thoughts, perhaps they would have been less aggravating. Several attempts at man-to-man conversations are made between father and son (Anthony Michael Hall), but their exchanges are played dumb. Instead of giving us a chance to identify with them in real ways–even for only a couple of minutes—the screenplay seems intent on making fun of the cardboard cutouts. “Look at the stupidity of this white family”—that is what I got out of it. Aren’t vacations supposed to make us feel good?
At least one recurring gag in “Vacation,” written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, never outstays its welcome. When Clark’s family is asleep or not paying attention, a blonde woman driving a Ferrari (Christie Brinkley) drives parallel to the Wagon Queen Family Truckster to flirt with Clark—and he with her. Their scenes together reflect that of silly commercials targeted for men on the verge of a midlife crisis: the fantasy of being on the radar of a beautiful woman who can have any man she wants. Yes, it pokes fun of the woman in the fancy car but the joke is also on Clark. Everyone is and in on the joke.
Total Recall (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had a recurring nightmare about being with a brunette (Rachel Ticotin) in Mars. Feeling like he needed a break from his job, he decided to get an operation done in which scientists would upload memories of him going on a vacation onto his brain. The operation failed (with disastrous results) because, as it turned out, the current memory Douglas perceived to be his real life was simply artificial. Douglas decided to go to Mars and face a corporate leader (Ronny Cox) who was behind the charade. However, before he left, he had to face his wife (Sharon Stone) who felt strongly against his course of action. The first few minutes of the film did not give me a good impression. I thought the acting was laughable, especially from the lead, and I wasn’t quite sure if the campiness was intentional. But as it went on, I became more impressed with its creativity in terms of the questions it brought up regarding which reality was real, the technologies that defined the future, and the intense action sequences. I had fun with its many product placements which were popular back in the late 80s but lost selling power after twenty years. Furthermore, for a science fiction film, I did not expect it to have so much blood. There were times when I felt like I was watching a horror film. The picture constantly changed gears. It wasn’t just about Douglas’ quest to find his true identity. There was a subplot about humans and mutants in Mars who decided to join forces and rebel against the greedy corporate leader. Cox’ character was determined to keep the element that could ultimately create atmosphere in Mars for himself for the sake of cash flow. Slow death of dozens of lives due to a lack of oxygen meant absolutely nothing to him. In a nutshell, I was convinced that he was a villain worth experiencing a painful demise. “Total Recall,” based on a short story by Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” and directed by Paul Verhoeven, was a very entertaining film because it had a plethora of ideas that shaped and defined its underlying themes. Impressive special and visual effects were abound which helped to elevate our perception of the futuristic world. After the main character’s discovery that his life was a simply a fabrication, every scene that followed was thrilling action scene. But there was a question that lingered up until the final scene: Was everything we saw reality or was it the “perfect” fantasy vacation that Douglas asked for?
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.
Youth in Revolt (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) was obsessed with losing his virginity to the point where his id, appropriately named Francois Dillinger (also Cera), pitied Nick and decided to take matters into his own hands. Nick, his mom (Jean Smart), and her boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) decided to temporarily move away in order to escape angry sailors who wanted their money back. Convinced that he would not have a good time during his mini-vacation, Nick was surprised when he met Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), a girl who had substance and had similar interests as him such as foreign films and music. “Youth in Revolt,” based on the novel by C.D. Payne and directed by Miguel Arteta, was one of those films I decided not to see after watching the trailer for the first time because it just did not make any sense. From the trailers, I somehow got the impression that Francois was some sort of an evil twin. I’m glad I decided to give this movie a chance because it actually entertaining and the characters, though not fully explored and some were more like caricatures, exhibited intelligence unlike most teen flicks about losing one’s virginity (Sean Anders’ “Sex Drive” immediately comes to mind). The strongest part of the picture for me was the first twenty minutes prior to the appearance of Francois. Though I did somewhat enjoy the conceit regarding the alter ego, there was something very refreshing about the unpretentiousness of two lonely souls meeting and sharing something special, which may or may not be love. Cera and Doubleday did have chemistry but the picture did not rely on that initial and lasting spark. The material bothered to show more tender moments between the couple and I felt like I connected with them even though it was instantaneous. The rest of the picture, on the other hand, was not as strong. It used Cera’s very awkward mannerisms as a crutch instead of using his acting skills as a base to present terrific material that was focused but unpredictable, funny yet sensitive in its core. Although the film did have its darkly comic moments, it was too obvious with its comedy such as Justin Long drugging everyone in his path and Jonathan B. Wright, as much as I love him, finding ways to make Nick’s life unbearable. It was too safe and safe, in this case, was boring. The only side character I thought had potential was Nick’s dad played by Steve Buscemi. I wanted to know more about him and I wished he and Nick had more scenes together because I saw the son’s qualities in his father. If “Youth in Revolt” had a lot more edge and darkness, it would have been a much more memorable film. Although a part of it was slightly different than Cera’s other roles, the majority of it was more of the same.
★ / ★★★★
An uptight woman (Katherine Heigl) who recently got out of a relationship decided to go on vacation with her parents (Catherine O’Hara, Tom Selleck) in Nice, France and luckily met her future husband (Ashton Kutcher). He seemed to have it all: he’s charming, has a sense of humor, a great body and he genuinely wanted her despite her geekiness and flaws. He just happened to be a contract killer who worked for the government. I really wanted to like “Killers,” directed by Robert Luketic, because I have a penchant for stories involving spies and sleeper agents. Unfortunately, the picture needed to trim a lot of fat, especially the very unfunny first thirty minutes. It had a chance to establish the characters before diving into the action scenes but the dialogue was so flat, so empty, and so one-dimensional. I found that our conversations in real life were more interesting to listen to than the two characters having a dinner date by the sea. Their conversations didn’t pull me into their relationship because there were far too many giggly, awkward moments instead of two people sharing a real connection. I think this would have been far more effective if the first half was a romantic comedy and second half was a predominantly serious but occassionally funny thriller. The elements were certainly there: the close-knit suburban community which reminded me of “Desperate Housewives” with perfect picket fences and all, the quirky and sometimes annoying neighbors, the parents who were too involved with their daughter’s marriage, and the husband harboring a secret that he couldn’t hide forever. I thought it had a very difficult time juggling comedy and action so it managed to excel at neither of them. As for the sleeper agents, like the lead characters, they would have had more impact in the story if we got to know them a little bit. The battle scenes would have been more interesting if each of them had a specialty and a different style of assassination. Because let’s face it: gunning someone down with fragments of glass flying everywhere can get old pretty quickly. “Killers” desperately needed a lot of substance and a lot of edge in order to be a killer film. Heigl and Kutcher were easy on the eyes but that was about it. Be warned: there is a vast difference between the trailer and the movie–like having a crush on someone from afar because of their looks but when you really try to get to know them, it’s very disappointing because they turn out to be quite empty. Rewatch “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” instead because “Killers” was just no fun.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I knew Woody Allen still has it in him to make a really good film. After the wishy-washy “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” a lot of people began to lose hope once again because they wanted a film as great as “Match Point.” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is sexy, character-driven and sublime. The premise is two best friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) spend a summer in Barcelona and unexpectedly fall for an artistic and charismatic Spaniard (Javier Bardem). At first I thought I could relate more with Hall because she’s sensible and she knows exactly what she wants. But as the film went on, I could identify with Johansson more because she doesn’t limit herself by following society’s labels. She’s very open to things that can enlighten her not just intellectually but spiritually as well. Things get more complicated when the Bardem’s ex-wife, played by the gorgeous Penélope Cruz who deserves an Oscar nomination, returns after trying to kill herself. She provided that extra spice that the film needed in order be more romantic not in a safe way, but in a dangerous and unpredictable manner. I was impressed with this picture because each scene felt so organic. The characters talked and acted like real people, which I think is difficult to accomplish in a story about the complex dynamics between the characters. All of the actors had something to do and impacted each other in both subtle and profound ways. Another factor that I admired about this film is its stark contrast between American and European. The most obvious one includes Hall’s business-minded, unexciting husband (Chris Messina) compared to raw, passionate Bardem. One can also argue that Hall is more American while Johansson is more European. These differences even go as far as which types of clothes the characters wear. As much as I loved this film, I cannot give it a four-star rating because it needed an extra thirty minutes to reach a more insightful conclusion. I don’t mean tying up some loose ends in order for everyone to be happy. In fact, I love that this film was bold enough to leave some unhappy characters. It’s just that, in a Woody Allen film, you expect something more profound, something more complete. It’s not as introspective as “Match Point” but it comes very close.
The Man of My Life (2006)
★ / ★★★★
This movie is all over the place. I gave up trying to figure out its purpose about half-way through. This film is like an unnecessary overextended vacation–we get shots of adults talking and children playing, but all of them don’t seem to amount to anything. I get the idea that Bernard Campan does not have a sense of self and he tries to find it by interacting with Charles Berling, whose character happens to be gay. But at the same time, I feel like they can’t really learn from each other–at least not in a meaningful way–because their relationship is only by means of utlity. Their conversations are shallow and choppy; maybe I’m lost in translation but a great movie resonates through language barriers. Partly written and directed by Zabou Breitman, I thought he could’ve done a much better job with the pacing (cutting off thirty minutes or so) and escalating the drama a bit more (why can’t some of the adults notice that Campan and Berling are around each other a little too much?). In the end, I felt like nothing great is at stake so I couldn’t feel for the protagonist. I couldn’t relate with any of the characters, especially Berling’s because he sees life in such a negative light. The filmmakers tried to justify Berling’s pessimism by introducing a story regarding his relationship with his father. It felt contrived, if not forced, so I didn’t buy it at all. Although some people have strained relationships with their father, they learn to rise above it and be strong people. So it begs the question: how can Campan learn something about his life from Berling if Berling doesn’t even know himself? Avoid this one especially if you’re a person of logic.