Friday, November 29, 2013

Worth Mentioning - Thanksgiving Programming

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody chews on a couple turkey day favorites.


Out of all filmmakers working in the '80s, one who had the greatest impact on the pop culture landscape of the decade was John Hughes. After getting a few of his screenplays produced with other directors behind the camera, including National Lampoon's Vacation, which was directed by Harold Ramis, Hughes began directing some of his scripts himself, starting off with 1984's Sixteen Candles. The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off quickly followed, all becoming instant classics for the teenage set. By 1987, Hughes was working on his fifth and sixth movies simultaneously, and both would deal with more adult situations and characters - the marriage/starting a family drama She's Having a Baby, and this film, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, which began filming a few months after She's Having a Baby and reached theatres a few months before.

The two movies were filmed so close together that Hughes got She's Having a Baby's star Kevin Bacon to make a cameo appearance at the beginning of Planes, Trains, racing this film's star Steve Martin for a taxi cab. Kevin Bacon wins the race. This is the beginning of a monumental streak of bad luck that Martin's character Neal Page is going to experience throughout the rest of the film.

Neal is trying to accomplish something that should be very simple; it's two days before Thanksgiving and he needs to get from New York City to Chicago in time to have dinner with his wife and children on the holiday.

Everything that could possibly go wrong for him does go wrong.

First, he has trouble getting a taxi to the airport. Then his flight is delayed, he has trouble getting a seat, the plane is diverted to Wichita, Kansas due to bad weather. Once Neal has landed in Wichita, all flights out are cancelled. He's grounded. Stuck, more than 700 miles from home.

To travel that 700 miles, Neal must use the other modes of transportation in the title and overcome increasingly bad luck and annoying obstacles - breakdowns, wrecks, fires, his money is stolen by Gary Riley of Summer School and Stand by Me... And through all of this, the most maddening aspect of his two days of travel may be the fact that he's stuck with Del Griffith, played by John Candy.

Del is a great guy, and he does his best to help Neal along his way, but there are aspects to his personality that absolutely infuriate Neal, and his attempts to get them to Chicago do get them stuck in some very oddball situations. Neal blames Del for worsening his luck, but no matter how much he tries to ditch and diss the man, he just can't shake him.

The film is a highly entertaining, hilarious comedy of errors, with a very cool score by Ira Newborn. Steve Martin is really funny in the role of Neal, whose frustration and disgust builds and builds the more he has to deal with absurd inconveniences. The late, great John Candy really shines in the role of Del Griffith. Candy was one of my favorite actors growing up, and not only is he as hilarious and lovable as usual here, but he also has some very poignant emotional moments that make me start to get choked up. He is wonderful in this movie.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is another classic comedy in the Hughes filmography, and given the holiday setting it's a great one to watch at this time of year. Watching it again this week, I was reminded of childhood viewings of the movie, and the memories, images, and Newborn's music all worked together to make me feel very nostalgic for times gone by.


King Kong, co-directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and written by Schoedsack's wife Ruth Rose (among others) from a story conceived by Cooper, first hit theatres in 1933, and one audience member who was profoundly affected by the spectacular film at that time was a thirteen-year-old boy from Los Angeles named Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen was completely enthralled and blown away by it, he went back to watch it again and again. The stop-motion effects work that Willis O'Brien used to bring Kong and the prehistoric inhabitants of Skull Island to life on the screen were particularly fascinating to Harryhausen. So fascinating that he even contacted O'Brien to discuss them and started creating his own stop-motion works. Sixteen years after the release of King Kong, Cooper, Schoedsack, Rose, and O'Brien reunited to make a film that was along the same lines as their 1933 hit, and thanks to the time and practice Harryhausen had put into his stop-motion work over those years, he was brought on to be part of O'Brien's special effects team on this new film.

The movie Harryhausen ended up working for his childhood idol on was Mighty Joe Young. With this film, he earned his first feature film credit, as the "first technician" working under "technical creator" Willis O'Brien. As his first technician duties, Harryhausen was actually responsible for doing 85% of the stop-motion animation for the film, based on O'Brien's designs and storyboards.

As the events of King Kong were kicked off by wildlife adventure filmmaker Carl Denham taking a crew to the uncharted Skull Island to find the truth behind the legend of Kong and then bring the beast back to New York City to feature it in a stage show, the events of Mighty Joe Young begin with nightclub entrepreneur Max O'Hara gathering a team of ropin' and ridin' cowboys for a trip into darkest Africa, where he intends to capture some lions to bring to Hollywood and feature in his Africa-themed club.

The lion capturing expedition goes smoothly for a couple weeks, but then a surprise visitor arrives at O'Hara's camp - a twelve foot tall gorilla, which has come around to check out the unusual sight of a caged lion. When O'Hara spots the beast, dollar signs fill his eyes. This gorilla would be great for his club!

With elephants and zebras stampeding around them, the cowboys set out to lasso the giant gorilla, an endeavor that doesn't go very well for them. The men circling him on their horses and tossing ropes around him only serve to set off the gorilla's temper, and when he's angry he is very dangerous and destructive. In his rage, he nearly causes the death of O'Hara, but a young woman named Jill Young arrives just in time to stop him from going too far, appearing out of the wilderness and ordering him to leave the man alone. She then chastises the men as bullies and walks back off into the jungle with the gorilla in tow.

Jill was raised in the wilderness by her single father, and the gorilla first came into her life twelve years ago, when it was just a baby and she herself was only eight years old. She has raised the gorilla as a beloved pet and companion, naming him Joe. Joe Young. In the six months since her father passed away, Jill has been living in the countryside with Joe as her only friend.

She has been living in the wild all her life, so of course when O'Hara follows her home to offer her the chance to perform in a stage show at his nightclub with Joe, she's dazzled by his talk of travel, beautiful clothes, bright lights, parties, and fame. She signs a contract and she and Joe are swept off to Hollywood.

The Jill and Joe show is a success, as they perform acts that mostly show off Joe's immense strength, like his ability to lift Jill in the air on a platform while she plays piano or win at a game of tug-of-war against a group of professional strongmen, boxers, and wrestlers. Still, the glamour of the whole situation wears off quickly for Jill as the club's patrons become more unruly and the acts Joe performs increasingly humiliating. She is heartbroken that the gorilla who was once allowed to roam the jungle at will is now forced to live in a cage for days... weeks... months at a time. Joe isn't very happy with the arrangement, either.

Soon, Jill and Joe want nothing other than to be able to go home, but the money-minded O'Hara intends to keep them around indefinitely. Viewers will know that it's only a matter of time before disaster strikes, and things to indeed go terribly wrong...

Terry Moore, Ben Johnson, and Robert Armstrong all do well in the roles of Jill, her cowboy love interest Gregg, and Max O'Hara, respectively, but the real star of this film is, of course, Mighty Joe Young himself, and the stop-motion effects designed by O'Brien and executed by Harryhausen that bring the huge gorilla to life on the screen. The effects work is fantastic and it's awesome to witness.

I decided to watch Mighty Joe Young this week because TV showings of the movie, paired with King Kong, were a Thanksgiving tradition in many areas, although I don't recall watching the movies on that holiday myself.

Although Joe Young is a similar movie to Kong in many ways, and also harkens back to the first gorilla movie idea Cooper had pre-Kong, which was to pit a regular gorilla against Komodo dragons (here we have an above average sized gorilla tussling with lions), it is quite different in style and tone, the scope is smaller and the story more dramatic. It's not the astonishing spectacle that Kong was, it works in a different way because the plight of Joe and Jill is very emotionally involving.

Still, this film does have its fair share of action. Joe's destructive fits of rage and the fights he gets into are impressive to behold, but the standout action/suspense sequence of the film is a climactic one involving a raging fire, during which the black and white film is tinted red.

Unlike Kong, Mighty Joe Young was a box office disappointment when it was first released, but it has since gained a legion of fans and a reputation as a classic in its own right. It is a great movie; fast paced, captivating, and touching.

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