Archive for the ‘Disney’ category

Life is not a John Hughes movie

August 6, 2009

I just saw the bulletin that movie maven John Hughes died today, of an apparent heart attack.

How great a loss this news is to the cinematic community depends somewhat on your tastes. It also depends, to a certain degree, on your age, as Hughes — one of Hollywood’s most active and popular producer/directors throughout the 1980s — helmed his last film in 1991. Hughes retired to his native Upper Midwest in the ’90s, and has been entirely absent from the entertainment scene for the past decade.

But when the man was working, he was money in the bank.

I first discovered Hughes long before he got into the movie business, when he was a staff writer and editor for National Lampoon magazine in the 1970s. Hughes was my favorite Lampoon scribe, contributing infinite belly-laughs to those halcyon times when I sported considerably less belly. I still have, buried in a filing cabinet somewhere, a copy of the Sunday newspaper parody that he and PJ O’Rourke cowrote in 1978. It was one of the funniest things my adolescent brain had ever read at the time. I’ll have to dig it out and see whether the sophomoric humor holds up.

Hughes soon segued from publishing to film, scripting the comedy hits Mr. Mom and National Lampoon‘s Vacation in 1983. The following year, he made his directorial debut with the movie that made Molly Ringwald a superstar: Sixteen Candles. For the next several years, Hughes could do no wrong — he wrote and directed such classics as The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (my personal favorite), Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and Uncle Buck.

When Hughes wasn’t directing his own scripts, he was penning screenplays to be lensed by his army of protégés — Pretty in Pink (directed by Howard Deutsch), Some Kind of Wonderful (Deutsch again), National Lampoon‘s Christmas Vacation (Jeremiah Chechik), Home Alone (Chris Columbus) and its two theatrical sequels (Columbus redux, then Raja Gosnell), Career Opportunities (Bryan Gordon), Beethoven (Brian Levant), Dennis the Menace (Nick Castle), and the live-action remakes of 101 Dalmatians (Stephen Herek) and Flubber (Les Mayfield).

If you added up the combined box office from all of the above flicks, you could pretty much erase the national deficit.

The critics didn’t always embrace Hughes’s works, especially in his latter period from Home Alone forward. (In fairness to those critics, they were right about the stuff Hughes churned out during the 1990s.) His name became synonymous with teen angst, the Brat Pack, and mawkish sentimentality. For abut 15 years, though, the public devoured almost everything on which the Hughes name (and his nom de plume Edmond Dantes) appeared.

I never knew why Hughes left the business in the late ’90s. I don’t know whether he lost creative focus, got tired of the ridicule from film snobs, or just decided to take his mega-millions and go home. But when one’s name becomes the brand for an entire genre of cinema — if you say “John Hughes film” to anyone who knows movies, they know exactly what you mean — he or she has accomplished something. Like it or not, Hughes’s legacy is more than secure.

In memoriam, we present Uncle Swan’s Top Seven John Hughes Films, in ascending order of greatness.

7. Nate and Hayes. The third Hughes screenplay produced in 1983, and the only one to bomb at the box office, it’s Hughes’s most atypical effort — a pirate movie starring Tommy Lee Jones. It’s largely forgotten today, but if you enjoy Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, it’s well worth seeking out. Directed by the otherwise obscure Ferdinand Fairfax.

6. Weird Science. Best remembered for its bombshell starring turn by Kelly LeBrock (the future Mrs. Steven Seagal) and its quirky theme song by Oingo Boingo, this bizarre fantasy also features solid work by young actors Anthony Michael Hall — a Hughes staple — and Ilan Mitchell-Smith. Any movie in which Bill Paxton turns into a humongous pile of excrement — literally! — is worth seeing once.

5.The Breakfast Club. The quintessential Brat Pack flick. The acting is worse than you remember — Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy are dreadful here, and Judd Nelson is… well… Judd Nelson. But the screenplay, while overwrought, is effective, and the lesser roles are excellently performed (especially the underrated Hall — again — and Paul Gleason). Besides, it’s an icon of the Me Decade.

4. National Lampoon‘s Vacation. Still hilarious after all these years. Right now, I’m betting that you can quote a dozen lines from this movie. Docked one place on the list for making Chevy Chase think he’s funnier than he is. (Has Chevy ever made a non-Vacation comedy that was even remotely good?)

3. Some Kind of Wonderful. The best Hughes film not directed by Hughes is also one of the strongest, most realistic teen pictures in Hollywood history. It also boasts the solid cast that The Breakfast Club desperately needed. Can you imagine Eric Stoltz as Andrew, Lea Thompson as Claire, Mary Stuart Masterson as Crazy Freak Girl, and Elias Koteas as Bender? Now that would have been some kind of wonderful.

2. Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Hughes’s most adult comedy, and his only one centered around two fully realized and believable adult characters. It’s one of the few films in which Steve Martin plays straight man to a superior comedian. John Candy finally got a starring role worthy of his talents. A Thanksgiving weekend staple at Casa de Swan.

1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The best teenage comedy ever made — period — and among the finest film comedies of all time. About as flawless an example of the genre as could be constructed, while managing to be touching and thoughtful at the same time. Matthew Broderick creates one of the truly great comic heroes, and Jeffrey Jones matches him note for note as one of the great comic villains.

As Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” John Hughes, dead at 59, proves the truth of those words.

Let’s all warble like nightingales

July 14, 2009

I loves me some Disneyland.

Living, as I do, some 450 miles from the front gates of the Magic Kingdom, I don’t get to visit Uncle Walt’s happiest place on Earth with anything approaching the frequency that I’d like. So, when I found myself attending a convention literally across the street from Disney’s Anaheim resort, I made it my business to squeeze in as many hours of blissful Mickey love as an already jam-packed schedule would permit.

With time at a premium, I had to be selective about the attractions that I visited. That meant taking a pass on a few old favorites with agonizingly lengthy lines — sorry, Peter Pan’s Flight — in favor of getting the most bang for my Disney Dollar. It also meant foregoing some of the most delightful but schedule-consuming parts of the Disney experience — wandering through the three Disney hotels, character dining at Goofy’s Kitchen, cruising the Downtown Disney shopping and dining complex, taking leisurely circuits on the Monorail and the Disneyland Railroad.

Alas. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta get stuff done.

Between three abbreviated trips, though, I managed to get around to most of the attractions that mean Disneyland to me, as well as several new experiences that have appeared on the Disneyscape since my last visit seven years ago. Some of the highlights follow.

Pirates of the Caribbean. Number One on my list since the first time I rode it 37 years ago, and not even an interminable action movie franchise can change that. Unlike many Disneyland fanatics, I’m not such a hardcore traditionalist that I resist change, so I was tickled to see the new tweaks that have been added to Pirates to tie the ride and the films closer together. The appearances of Captain Jack Sparrow and company, in my opinion, actually give the ride more of a thematic through-line. And the Davy Jones mist-projection effect is wicked cool.

Haunted Mansion. Another classic that has benefited from a handful of high-tech upgrades. I love the new talking bride effect in the wedding scene. She’s a fitting companion to Madame Leota and the singing busts.

Toy Story Midway Mania. The newest addition to the offerings at Disneyland’s companion park, Disney’s California Adventure (hereafter referred to as DCA), is worth the trip all by itself. It’s a spectacular melding of a traditional Disney dark ride (it reminded me a lot of Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin) with a shooting gallery video game, with the added flair of 3D. The mothership park has its own newer ride based on a similar concept (Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters), but TSMM kicks the basic notion up about five levels of awesomeness. I could spend hours hopping back into the queue for this one.

Splash Mountain. It’s worth getting soaked — and believe me, I did — to experience one of Disneyland’s best-designed attractions. I’m old enough to recall when most of the Audio-Animatronic characters in the final scene resided in the Tomorrowland attraction America Sings, which long ago retired to Yesterland.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. I’ve never quite gotten past the bizarre disconnect of finding Indiana Jones in Disneyland, but when it’s working (the technically complex attraction breaks down frequently), this is still an amazingly fun ride. I do wish the Imagineers could find ways to fill in the attraction’s several dead spaces. Then again, if they put more effects in, the ride would probably break down even more often.

Jungle Cruise. My enjoyment of this classic is closely tied to the raconteurial talents of the skipper who guides the tour. Skipper Randy earned a solid B on this trip — nothing fancy or outside the box, but skillfully delivered. I confess a preference for the skips who push the envelope and really make the monologue their own, but I realize that isn’t everyone’s bag.

Enchanted Tiki Room. A visit to Disneyland would be woefully incomplete without a stop at the original Audio-Animatronic attraction. As I told the energetic and enthusiastic cast member on duty during my visit, the Tiki Room never gets old to me. Even in my advancing middle age, I feel no shame in singing along with the animated birds, flowers, and tikis. For 15 minutes, it’s my 1960s Hawaiian childhood all over again. Be sure you get a Dole Whip frozen pineapple dessert at the stand outside. Dole Whip is life.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The older I get, the less of an adrenaline junkie I am — not that I was much of one to begin with. But of all the Disney roller coasters, this one remains my favorite. The ride is less monotonous than Space Mountain — which, aside from the environment, is an awfully pedestrian coaster — and more jarring and electric than the Matterhorn. It’s also the only one where the theming really works. Always a treat.

Soaring Over California. The signs outside this DCA ride warn that people who are afraid of heights may want to skip the experience. No one on the planet is more acrophobic than I am, but I absolutely love this ride. The idea is that you’re soaring in a giant hang-glider over a series of scenic California locations. The effect is achieved through a combination of ride effects and an enormous IMAX screen — and what an effect it is! The one thing that would make this ride more effective is less abrupt transitions between the sequences. Oh… and 3D.

The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh. When last I visited Disneyland, the Pooh dark ride was still under construction. (Somewhere I have a photo of my daughter sitting in the ride vehicle that was then on display as a teaser for the coming attraction.) I’m glad I finally got to see the finished product. It’s a throwback to such old-school Fantasyland attractions as Snow White’s Scary Adventures and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, but with a modern twist. Nicely executed. (Bonus: No wait to ride.)

Monsters Inc.: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue: Another of the newer dark rides, this one at DCA. It’s an excellently themed attraction that makes clever use of the characters from Monsters Inc., though I doubt that the storyline makes much sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the film. For some reason, this ride is tucked away in an obscure corner of DCA that makes it difficult to find — at least, it did for me. I’ve never had to ask for directions at the Disney resort before, but I needed help from a friendly cast member this time.

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle Tour. The walk-through dioramas relating Princess Aurora’s story have been completely redone, incorporating distinctive visual effects. This little gem has always been one of Disneyland’s hidden treasures, but now it’s every bit as stunning as any of the other Fantasyland attractions. Very, very cool.

Independence Day fireworks. The Disney people outdid themselves with the aerial display on the night of July 4th. They threw in several pyrotechnical effects I’d never seen before. I can’t recall the last time I enjoyed a fireworks show as much.

Beyond my unavoidable time constraints, the only disappointment of my Disneyland journey was missing the Finding Nemo retooling of Tomorrowland’s venerable Submarine Voyage. This has always been a slow-loading attraction with a lengthy wait, and with the new theming, everyone who visits the park — especially everyone with Nemo-loving kids — wants to see it. I’ll have to catch it next time around.

Shopping is an essential facet of the Disney experience, and I’m pleased to report that I contributed my fair share to Mickey’s corporate coffers. I brought home souvenirs for the girls: KJ got a sweatshirt, a new Disneyland tote bag to replace the one she’s been carrying for the past seven years, a Mickey mug, and an addition to her spoon collection. KM got a Tinker Bell T-shirt and a Cinderella mug, the latter laser-etched with the legend, “Once a Princess, Always a Princess.” (She’ll need that as a reminder when she heads off to college next month.)

For myself — yes, of course, I bought goodies for myself; it was my trip, right? — I picked up a vintage baseball shirt (memo to Disney Merchandising: stock more apparel in plus sizes, because fat guys spend money too), a rolling tote that will be the new addition to my travel ensemble, and a terrific mug reading, “Beneath this Grumpy exterior beats the heart of a dashing hero.” As Baloo would say, “You’d better believe it!”

After singing my heart out on the BHS International stage and tripping the Disney light fantastic, I capped my Anaheim trip on Sunday afternoon by taking in a baseball game pitting the homestanding Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim against the visiting Baltimore Orioles. More about that in my next post.

Until then, save me a seat in the Tiki Room.