Home Alone 2: Lost In New York

Ever since I started reworking and posting old reviews from The Movie Critic: Book One (my amateurish attempt to emulate Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion) on here two and a half years ago, I’ve focused entirely on positive assessments.  For the most part it’s been difficult to flesh out a good number of these roughly composed pieces, regardless of where I stood in my opinions.  The writing is far from spectacular.  But it’s been especially hard finding a decent pan to fix and publish.
 
After all this time, I’ve finally found one.
 
I screened Home Alone 2: Lost In New York at the Centre Mall Cinemas on November 28, 1992.  Having been an enormous supporter of the original (I saw it twice in the same theatre and at least two more times on VHS), I was really looking forward to it.  Much to my utter dismay, it turned out to be a terrible film, as you’ll learn in this revised review.
 
You might be wondering why there’s no Home Alone critique to go with it.  Well, having looked at the second draft (an earlier, shorter version was submitted to my high school newspaper in 1990, I do believe), I realized there was too much focus on the early scenes of the film and not a lot of assessing going on.  Like most of the reviews I’ve looked at, it couldn’t be rescued.
 
Home Alone 2 was number 118 in The Movie Critic: Book One’s original running order.  It was clearly one of the better first drafts I had written during this period.  As a result, this finished version you’re about to read retains a fair number of the original thoughts and feelings from that initial take, albeit in a much clearer manner.   I did make one significant change, though.  With the exception of Catherine O’Hara, I decided not to grumble about the acting.  After thinking about it I realized John Hughes’ lacklustre screenplay was the biggest problem, not the performances.  When great talent has to make due with subpar material, they’re not really at fault.  As reflected in the original draft and this finished version, however, O’Hara’s work drove me crazy.  And not in a good way.
 
One last thing.  The original ending has been preserved but with a tighter, cleaner edit.  It was a rare prescient moment for me to correctly predict that Home Alone 2 would not be the final film in the franchise.  Home Alone 3 would surface without its star, Macaulay Culkin, in 1997.  It’s no wonder I became an atheist the year before its release.  No amount of praying could stop it from being made.
 
I’ve never seen it.
 
 
HOME ALONE 2: LOST IN NEW YORK
Parental Guidance
105 minutes, 1992
Starring:
Macaulay Culkin–Kevin MacCallister
Joe Pesci–Harry
Daniel Stern–Marv
John Heard–Peter MacCallister
Catherine O’Hara–Kate MacCallister
Brenda Fricker–Bird Lady
Tim Curry–Concierge
Produced by John Hughes
Screenplay by John Hughes
Music by John Williams
Directed by Chris Columbus
 
Home Alone 2: Lost In New York is a transparently pathetic attempt to repeat the winning formula of the original blockbuster.  Released a mere two years after its predecessor’s surprising success, it’s hard to understand the overblown hoopla for it.  Even sadder is the fact that audiences who adored Home Alone have been flocking in droves to this one, as well.  As a result, this inferior retread is making more money than it deserves to.  How depressing.
 
Once again, Kevin MacCallister (Macauley Culkin reprising the role that made him a star) and his family are planning to go on a fun-filled Christmas vacation.  In the first film, they were frantically getting organized for a jaunt to Paris to visit relatives.  This time, instead of flying out of the country, The MacCallister clan is travelling to Florida.  Of course, like the earlier installment, Kevin has a fight with his unsympathetic relatives who always appear to be picking on him for any old reason.  And, yes, also like the first film, they want him to get lost.  That inspires Kevin to say out loud that he wishes they would all disappear.  That way, he can celebrate Christmas all by himself.  You can’t exactly blame him.  When you’re part of a big, loud family that doesn’t always embrace you (or remember you), wouldn’t you want to get away, if just for a day?
 
In the first film, a blown transformer in the middle of the night assures a less than smooth travel day the next morning.  As you may recall, amidst all the confusion, The MacCallisters forget all about Kevin who has been banished to the attic after an incident the previous evening.  In Home Alone 2, Kevin actually makes it to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago with his family.  The twist here is that he gets separated from the pack.  He frantically runs after a man wearing a light brown winter coat thinking it’s his father, Peter (John Heard).  Unfortunately for Kevin, he’s been chasing a complete stranger.  Absurdly, he doesn’t realize this until his plane lands in New York City.  Once again, his dopey and remarkably careless family suddenly realize he’s missing only after they’ve boarded their flight to Florida.  However, Kevin’s very annoying mother, Kate (Catherine O’Hara), appears to be the only one who cares about this. 
 
Meanwhile, our young, energetic hero is having the time of his life, thanks to his father’s credit cards and good old American greenbacks.  He somehow manages to check into a ritzy hotel.  (Donald Trump, in a brief cameo, even offers him directions to the front desk upon his first visit.)  After settling in, Kevin goes shopping for goodies, makes some charitable donations and explores the city like the wide-eyed accidental tourist he’s become.
 
Unfortunately, he’s about to run into some old friends.  Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), the dimwitted home invaders Kevin outsmarted in the first film, have sprung from the joint and are already planning their next heist.  The infamous Wet Bandits have their eye on a New York City toy store.  Not only do they want to loot the place of all its dough, they want the toys, too.
 
They bump into Kevin in the street and we know pretty much where all of this is headed.  In the film’s final act, Kevin manages to lure his foes to an abandoned house where he once again sets painful booby traps for them.  You’d think they’d learn their lesson the first time. 
 
Home Alone 2: Lost In New York is a sad spectacle, a platant ploy to squeeze as much money as possible out of its audience without even bothering to tell a superior, more original story than its blockbuster predecessor.  The actors cannot be blamed for a screenplay that lacks the heart and comic ingenuity of the original, a guilty pleasure if there ever was one.  This is especially true of two new characters specially added to this cynical follow-up.  Tim Curry is terribly wasted in the role of a hotel concierge, a weakly constructed character who offers no amusing one-liners.  How terribly disappointing that screenwriter John Hughes, a master of comic dialogue, failed to give him anything funny to say.  And then there’s Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot).  She has the thankless task of portraying Bird Lady, an elderly advisor for Kevin who has been homeless since the collapse of her marriage.  Her presence here is clearly intended to remind you of the old man from Home Alone, a mysterious character Kevin initially fears until an act of kindness completely alters his perception of him.  That relationship is deeply moving and sweet.  To shamelessly recycle that idea without giving us any real reason to care about the new friendship is not only irritating but insulting, as well.
 
This is a dreadful, unnecessary sequel.  I just hope and pray that Home Alone 3 never makes it past the talking stages.  Deep down, I already know I’m wrong.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
5:03 p.m.
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Published in: on August 25, 2009 at 5:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Revised Assessment)

Over three years ago in this space, I posted a review of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola’s gothic 1992 re-telling of the late 19th century novel.  This version was originally seen in the December 1992 edition of OMNIA, Delta Secondary School’s news magazine.  Without rehashing too much of what I wrote in that May 28, 2006 entry, let’s just say that rage was all I felt when I looked at that issue for the first time.  (Click the link to find out why.)
 
At any event, the critique that was submitted for consideration was much longer than the published version.  Two whole sections were excised as well as a few other random sentences, not to mention a few credits.  How do I know this?  This unaltered incarnation of the review was included in The Movie Critic: Book One, my unpublished manuscript of raw, unpolished opinions that was put together between June 1992 and March 1993.  It was number 117 in the running order.
 
Upon reflection, I’m not too thrilled with how the review was both written and edited 17 years ago.  Having thought about this numerous times and having finally sat down to look over my original thoughts, I’ve decided to do something I haven’t done before:  publish an improved version of a previously posted review.
 
As you will see, there’s far more plot summary in this revised assessment, not to mention restored credits, slightly more critical commentary on Keanu Reeves’ bad acting as well as a reworked intro and different conclusion.  I’ve decided to drop my original views on the film’s ending and its musical score.  I’m puzzled as to why I thought the final scene was "weak and inconclusive" considering how brutally violent it is and how it leaves no loose ends untied.  Chalk it up to sloppy, careless writing, typical of that period of my life.  I can’t for the life of me remember a single note of music from the movie and I’m willing to bet it’s not as "wonderfully orchestrated" or "enchanting" as I originally wrote.  To be safe and more accurate, I’ve left that comment out, as well.
 
All the other changes are pretty obvious if you compare the two reviews.  Without further ado, here’s the updated, improved version of a film I first screened almost 20 years ago.  Enjoy. 
 
 
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA
Adult Accompaniment
135 minutes, 1992
Starring:
Gary Oldman–Count Dracula
Winona Ryder–Mina Murray/Elizabeta
Anthony Hopkins–Van Helsing
Keanu Reeves–Jonathan Harker
Richard E. Grant–Dr. Jack Seward
Sadie Frost–Lucy Westerna
Tom Waits–Renfield
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Fuchs and Charles Mulvehill
Screenplay by James V. Hart
Music by Wojoiech Kilar
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
 
From the long, black cape to the dark, slicked back hair, the image of Dracula in 1931 was an unforgettable one, a blueprint established by Bela Lugosi that would be imitated and parodied for decades to come.  The role was a breakthrough for the struggling Hungarian stage actor and he would work steadily, mostly in the horror genre, for the rest of his life.  Unfortunately, it would remain his only iconic performance.
 
In director Francis Ford Coppola’s visually impressive remake, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, underrated (but exceptional) British actor Gary Oldman takes over the title character in this stylish re-telling that focuses more on the 15th and 19th Century settings of the original novel than previous cinematic incarnations.  It is a truly excellent performance that should’ve definitely earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.  (Sadly, he was overlooked.)
 
The movie opens in the late 1400’s.  A war is raging with no signs of a cease fire.  Prince Dracula, not yet a vampire, is a heroic Christian fighting for the freedom of his people.  Out on the battlefield, he is extremely confident in his abilities.  He proves to be a valiant warrior annihilating any and all enemies who dare to engage him in combat.
 
Meanwhile, his wife, Elizabeta (Winona Ryder), has been given some devastating news.  Her husband has died in battle, she’s told.  Immediately following her shocked response, she commits suicide by drowning.  Unfortunately, the new "widow" was misinformed.  Prince Dracula is still very much alive.  In fact, he returns to his castle just as his dead wife is being laid out on the floor.  He doesn’t take the news well.  Renouncing God over his sudden, needless grief, he unsheaths his sword and pierces it into a large cross directly behind him.  Like a human being, it gushes blood as the film’s title blazes across the screen.  It’s a fantastic transition.
 
The story then jumps ahead to the 19th Century.  Dracula is now an immortal buying up some real estate in London, England.   A miscast Keanu Reeves plays Jonathan Harker, a woefully unprepared agent assigned the seemingly innocent task of showing him property around the area.  He’s replacing another agent who was devoured by the Transylvanian vampire and his three lovely companions.  Harker seems destined to meet the same fate.
 
When Dracula learns that Harker is engaged to a prim and proper woman named Mina Murray (Ryder again in another excellent performance), he is stunned.  She looks exactly like Elizabeta.  Separating his new real estate agent from his bride to be becomes an immediate priority.  Their first meeting is quite memorable.  Dracula appears as an elegant old man, polite and ever attentive to his guest’s comfort.  Oldman clearly outshines his stiff, unconvincing costar.  When Harker accidentally cuts himself with a razor, Dracula sneaks a taste.  Creepy.
 
Despite his seemingly genteel manner, Dracula makes an unreasonable demand of Harker.  He wants him to stay in his castle with him for a month.   (I’m not sure any explanation is given as to why the unarmed Harker neither objects nor even asks about the reason why he must obey this order.  To his credit, he’s well aware that something is not right based on the reaction his client gave to Mina’s picture.)  Sometime after that confusing scene, Harker becomes overwhelmed with the presence of Dracula’s predatory but lovely companions.  Any chance of remaining loyal to Mina is impossible and it’s not his fault.
 
After securing the rights to more scattered properties across the city, Dracula, in a much younger appearance, seeks out Mina.  Eventually, a romance blossoms between the two of them which, inevitably, causes problems later on in the film.  I wouldn’t dream of revealing how that all turns out.
 
Other key characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula include Professor Van Helsing (a smart and comical performance by the great Anthony Hopkins who also narrates), an experienced and crafty vampire hunter who leads the crusade against the seductive vampires; Lucy (the vivacious Sadie Frost), an engaged friend of Mina’s who juggles four lovers including her fiance (Cary Elwes) and, of course, Dracula, who manages to drive her wild while resembling a wolf (well done, sir); and Renfield (a gritty and demented Tom Waits), a man driven insane by his blind loyalty to Oldman.
 
Despite these fine performances, terrific visuals and an unsettling, sexy atmosphere, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is far from excellent.  Like Batman Returns, it could’ve been so much more.  It’s a good thing Keanu Reeves has limited screen time here.  His performance pales against his co-stars in every scene he’s in.  He should’ve been replaced long before production.  
 
In the end, it’s Gary Oldman who stands out the most amongst the cast.  Charismatic, devious and obsessed with rekindling a lost love in the form of a more than willing doppelganger, he easily eclipses Bela Lugosi’s famous portrayal by utilizing the latter’s dramatic pause technique (sparingly, it should be noted) yet avoiding any silly over-the-top gestures that would hurt his own credibility.
 
Alternately spooky and tensely sexual, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, despite falling short of excellence, is a good film worth seeing.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, August 23, 2009
9:55 p.m.
Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 9:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Goodfellas

Time for another review from The Movie Critic: Book One, my unpublished manuscript of film assessments put together between June 1992 and March 1993.  Number nineteen in the original draft was Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece about Henry Hill, the real-life American gangster who risked his enrolment in The Witness Protection Program to see his biography translated for the big screen.  (It didn’t help matters that he also kept committing crimes under his new identity.)  Since reemerging as himself, his reputation, never great to begin with, has plumetted even further, thanks to his frequent, drunken appearances on The Howard Stern Show. 

 
I’ve screened Goodfellas twice on full screen tape in both 1991 and 1992.  The original version of this review was written after the second screening.  Because of its sloppy nature, however, it’s been extensively revised.  The first two sentences have been relocated to the ninth paragraph where they’ve been slightly tweaked.  The new beginning is the fifth sentence which is exactly the same here except for one word that proved unnecessary.  Despite efforts to maintain a fair number of the original lines, this new version of my review, while maintaining my basic, original sentiment, is tighter and less rambling.  Without a doubt, it’s a major improvement over the initial draft.  As usual, quite a few lines have been somewhat reworked, completely rewritten, slightly tweaked and dropped altogether.  Some more thoughts have been added to further flesh out the piece.
 
The recent airing of the film on MuchMoreMusic brought something new to my attention.  For years, I had no idea that Michael Imperioli (hot tempered Christopher from The Sopranos) played Spider, the waiter who makes a fateful mistake in one of the film’s most shocking scenes. 
 
Nearly 20 years old, Goodfellas remains one of the best loved and most quotable films in movie history.  As of this writing, it’s ranked #15 on The Internet Movie Database’s list of the Top 250 greatest all-time titles. 
 
 
 
 Goodfellas
 Restricted
 146 minutes, 1990
Starring:
Ray Liotta–Henry Hill
Robert DeNiro–Jimmy "The Gent" Conway
Joe Pesci–Tommy DeVito
Paul Sorvino–Paulie Cicero
Lorraine Bracco–Karen Hill
Catherine Scorsese–Mrs. DeVito (Tommy’s Mom)
Produced by Irwin Winkler
Screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese
Music by Various Artists
Directed by Martin Scorsese
 
Ever since he was thirteen years old, Henry Hill wanted to join the mafia.  His reasoning could not be any clearer.  They live the good life.  They get to party all night, park their cars wherever they want, have sex with all the good-looking women and never get in trouble with the police.  All of this fascinated young Henry to the point where he had to find out for himself what he was missing.
 
In Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s incredibly entertaining portrait of the real-life Hill, we witness fascinating highlights of some four decades of his life.  There’s an early scene where he ventures into a mob hangout in order to secure a part-time job.  His chutzpah convinces these wiseguys to give him a shot.  He starts off making small deliveries and parking cars.  Nothing special but even aspiring gangsters start at the bottom.  Soon, he gets promoted to selling stolen cigarettes.
 
But then, his Irish father learns that he’s been cutting classes for over two months.  One severe beltwhipping later (perhaps the most brutal one ever depicted in the movies), a black-eyed Henry tells his boss, Tuddy (Frank DiLeo), that he’s out for good.  This depressing news is deemed unacceptable.  Tuddy and a couple of cronies decide to visit the post office to straighten the whole matter out.  When Henry points out the innocent mailman who delivered the message that sent his father into a volcanic rage, Tuddy’s two goons basically kidnap him.  One brutal beating later, Henry starts receiving his mail at the hangout.
 
While his truancy problem goes away quietly, he is inevitably busted for selling those stolen cigarettes.  During his trial, Henry says nothing and receives no punishment.  No one is more pleased with the outcome than Jimmy "The Gent" Conway (Robert DeNiro) who gives the half-Irish, half-Sicilian upstart one of the most memorable pieces of advice in movie history:  "Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.".  More "family" members give him a warm reception outside the courthouse.
 
Almost a decade later, it’s 1963 and Henry is now a 21-year-old man played brilliantly by Ray Liotta.  Tommy DeVito (Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Joe Pesci) and Conway collaborate with him on numerous scams and illegal business ventures.  They do well, the money starts rolling in and their boss, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) is pleased.
 
Tommy is one scary dude, trigger happy to the point of tragedy.  Hypersensitive to ballbusting, he’s not always aware when people are giving him the gears.  His misunderstanding of these moments lead to some instantaneously poor decisions.  He says "fuck" and its variations more often than any other character in the movie.  It’s so natural for him to do this you’re amazed that he never realizes how much of a filthy mouth he really has.  Practically every character in Goodfellas curses but Tommy is in a class all by himself.
 
Avoiding long-term relationships like the plague, he has perfected the art of the one-night stand, banging a different woman every night and not caring in the slightest if they get hurt when he stops talking to them.  His latest temporary girlfriend is Jewish but, for some strange reason, is prejudiced against Italian men.  Despite being upset about this, ultimately, Tommy doesn’t care.  He still wants to have sex with her.  Incredibly, she agrees to go out with him but only if another couple joins them.  So Tommy sets up Henry with Karen (Best Supporting Actress nominee Lorraine Bracco), his girlfriend’s best friend who is also Semitic. 
 
The date is a disaster.  While Tommy and his future conquest are getting along fine, Karen and Henry don’t appear to be connecting.  She tries to talk to him but he doesn’t want anything to do with her.  The second date is even worse.  Karen gets stood up which makes her cry.  Unconvinced by Tommy’s explanation for his partner’s conspicious absence, she tracks him down that same night.  They have an argument and discover that there might something between them after all.  After their rough start, they get serious and eventually marry.  But the relationship returns to rockier terrain.
 
Here is another brilliant motion picture from the best director working in Hollywood today.  Martin Scorsese’s movies are often thought provoking and almost always entertaining, plus they usually provide interesting insight into Italian-American life.  Goodfellas is no exception.
 
From the screenplay to the cinematography to the acting to the music to the editing to the directing, the film never misses a beat.  Scorsese and journalist Nicholas Pileggi have done a phenomenal job adapting the latter’s true crime book into a terrific screenplay that offers disturbing emotional truths for nearly two and a half hours.  The unrelenting portrait of sudden, unspeakable violence; the immense difficulty of breaking one’s ties to the mob; the love; the despair; the tragedy; the betrayals; the realism; all compelling reasons to treasure this movie.
 
The performances are first-rate all across the board.  Robert DeNiro is excellent.  Ray Liotta (who does a wonderful job co-narrating Henry Hill’s story along with the very effective Lorraine Bracco) is perfectly cast.  Joe Pesci is alternately funny and terrifying as the loose cannon Tommy DeVito, the psychotic, thin-skinned womanizer with a sick sense of humour.  The infamous scene involving a young bartender perfectly exemplifies his unpredictable, needlessly destructive temperment. 
 
As Henry’s life devolves into a paranoid quicksand of addiction, Bracco is quite good playing his increasingly desperate, long despairing wife trying in vain to cope with an unbearable reality about to shatter "the good life" they’ve lived for so many years.  For all her devotion to Henry, she’s not afraid to stand up for herself like the shocking scene where she straddles her sleeping husband pointing a gun right at his head.  If that doesn’t explain the complex nature of their relationship, nothing will.
 
Goodfellas is easily one of the most gripping and believable portraits of American mob life ever committed to the screen.  It is rightly played out on an epic level and deserved all of its Academy Award nominations.  Without question, this is a movie viewing experience to remember.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, August 13, 2009
1:52 a.m.
Published in: on August 13, 2009 at 1:52 am  Leave a Comment  

Looking For A Muse

She doesn’t have to be lovely beyond words
She just needs to be herself
Her financial standing is unimportant
I don’t care about her wealth
She needs to keep illness at bay
The poster child of good health
A sincere disposition
No operating by stealth
 
I need her passion and cheerfulness
Conversations built on smart
Independence is a must
So we can enjoy some things apart
A sense of humour is key
Right from the start
But most vital of all
Is her great big heart
 
I’m not looking for marriage
Or a family of my own
There isn’t any desire
To be a domesticated drone
I want to sense her joy
When I hear her on the phone
And feel a sense of pride
When we’re together alone
 
If she loves movies and music
That would be great
But she needs a presence
That inspires me to create
Flaws are acceptable
There is no perfect soulmate
As long as we have chemistry
And as long as we relate
 
But what about age?
That’s a difficult one
How about under 50
But no younger than 21?
I know it’s a bummer
Restrictions are no fun
I might make an exception
For an extraordinary someone
 
And what about size?
How important is that?
She can’t be too thin
And she can’t be too fat
I don’t care if she’s busty
Or extremely flat
As long as there’s a mutual attraction
I’m down with that
 
Hair colour doesn’t matter
Her eyes can be any hue
As long as she radiates warmth
When she comes into view
I need someone calm
When things go askew
To shatter my stubbornness
When I need to pull through
 
If she looks good in glasses
That would be a definite plus
I want her to be comfortable
When it’s just the two of us
If she doesn’t drive a car
I won’t cause a fuss
We can always get around
by holding hands on the bus
 
No smokers allowed
No druggies need apply
I want someone stable
On which I can rely
There has to be trust
When we look each other in the eye
It’s an added bonus
If her beauty makes me sigh
 
She can be tall or short
In shape or not
As long as she gives me
More than a passing thought
If she hides in the crowd
Will she be easy to spot?
Or will my search for another chance
Be all for naught?
 
I’m tired of the unavailable
Fed up with the confused
Disappointed with the setbacks 
My heart breaks for the abused
How to break the stalemate
How to avoid feeling used
Like The Queen Of England
I am not amused
 
It’s too easy to get discouraged
You want to scream and shout
But it’s never a good idea
To count yourself out
Gotta get back up
Strangle all that doubt
A history of resilience
Is what I’m all about
 
Feeling stranded in the wilderness
Looking to break free
Will my slump come to an end?
It’s a possibility
She has to be out there
But it’s hard to see
Surely there is someone
just right for me
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
12:22 a.m. 
Published in: on August 12, 2009 at 12:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Paying Tribute To John Hughes & Dr. Gene Sutton

He was a highly successful writer/producer/director.  She was the most powerful woman in my high school.
 
Sadly, both of them are now deceased.
 
John Hughes was a Michigan-born, Chicago-based filmmaker who actually got his start in advertising as a copywriter.  According to Wikipedia, his comedy career began when he wrote jokes for stand-ups like Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield.  Then, he got into satire which led to a writing gig for National Lampoon Magazine.  After writing the screenplay for National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (the follow-up to Animal House), he reworked his somewhat autobiographical Lampoon short story, Vacation ’58, into a script entitled National Lampoon’s Vacation which Harold Ramis directed.  The film was a hit in 1983 (it spawned three sequels; Hughes only participated on Christmas Vacation) as was Mr. Mom with Michael Keaton.  Hughes wrote that one, too.
 
He made his directing debut with Sixteen Candles in 1984, the first of several films dealing with the lives and loves of teenagers.   
 
The Breakfast Club, the first film to ever credit him as a producer, remains one of his finest efforts.  Five very different high school students – a jock, a nerd, a popular girl, a troublemaker, and a weirdo – spend the day together in detention.  Despite moments of friction and the ever watchful eye of Paul Gleason, they find a way to connect and forge a bond that inspires the name of the movie.  Both funny and moving in equal doses, The Breakfast Club managed to achieve something that most modern teen flicks are too lazy and disinterested to attempt.  It respected its young audience at the same time it was entertaining them.  It taught them to be tolerant of those who are different without being preachy or condescending.  As a result, the film has endured for almost a quarter century.  It speaks to those who enjoy it the most.
 
Another career highlight was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  On the surface, you think the story is about a charming rascal who loves to torment his uptight high school principal.  But as Roger Ebert correctly pointed out in his original 1986 review, it’s really about saving a life.  Matthew Broderick really was the only choice to play the title character:  a funny, smartly subversive teen deeply concerned about his buddy, Cameron (Alan Ruck).  Cameron can’t talk to his father and always seems to be sick.  Ferris decides to fake illness, get his lovely girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), out of class and drag his depressed pal out of his bed for a day of fun and reflection.  All the while, Mr. Rooney (the perfectly slimy Jeffrey Jones), is determined to catch Ferris in the act.  How hilarious is Ruck during the scene when he puts a deeply embarrassed Rooney in his place while on the phone with him.  (Now the college kids on the TV show, Greek, get to do the same to him.  Ruck plays the Dean on the ABC Family series.)  Or how about all those close calls?  The Ferrari scene?  The clueless parents?  The jealous sister?  Much like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a sly, funny and compassionate teen comedy that understood its audience better than most films.
 
Many of Hughes’ movies were financially successful but one that wasn’t (but should’ve been) was 1987’s Some Kind Of Wonderful.  As I wrote in The Hamilton Spectator seven years ago, “Eric Stoltz is a high school student and aspiring artist desperately in love with rich girl Lea Thompson. His best friend (Mary Stuart Masterson), who works with him at the local gas station, is a would-be rock drummer who is secretly in love with him. Getting in the way of his chance to score with Thompson is Craig Sheffer, a real nasty piece of work and her on-again, off-again playboy boyfriend, who is able to keep her in line by mastering the art of emotional manipulation. Whenever she threatens to leave him, he brilliantly plays on her insecurities and continues to cheat on her. Canadian actor Elias Koteas has a wonderful supporting role playing a high school toughie who befriends Stoltz in detention and proves to be a surprisingly loyal pal as the movie progresses. All the leads are strong here playing intelligent, thoughtful characters in a warm and funny film that makes today’s teenage movies cold and loveless by comparison.”
 
That same year, Hughes offered his greatest cinematic achievement.  Planes, Trains & Automobiles was the original Bromance, a heartwarming and hilarious comedy about two polar opposites brought together by a series of calamities and ultimately, mutual affection.  The much missed John Candy plays the brilliant but overbearing shower curtain ring salesman, Del Griffith, and Steve Martin is Neal Page, the tight-ass advertising salesman desperate to leave New York City for his hometown of Chicago in order to spend Thanksgiving with his wife and kids.  Tucked below the surface of so many transportation mishaps is a love story about two men who learn to put up with each other’s differences and idiosyncracies, and embrace the unlikely companionship they both have found.  Each is made better and more tolerant by the sheer presence of the other.  The film’s final act is both heartbreaking and genuinely sweet.  The shot of Del’s hands holding onto his hat ever so tightly while Neal and his beautiful wife embrace says it all.  It was the masterpiece Hughes never topped.
 
Home Alone, the surprise blockbuster that followed three years later, was his last enjoyable film.  Siskel & Ebert didn’t get it but that didn’t prevent myself and millions of others from packing theatres in late 1990 and beyond from being immensely entertained by a rather preposterous live action cartoon.  Macaulay Culkin, who appeared in Hughes’ Uncle Buck, was never better as Kevin MacAllister, the kid who appeared to alienate everyone in his own family to the point of being completely forgotten on the morning of a big family vacation.  Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern were good sports playing The Wet Bandits, two dimwitted home invaders who meet their match in Kevin who has quite clearly benefitted from a childhood filled with cartoon viewing.  Throw in a mysterious old man that even made George Costanza cry and you’ve got heart to go along with the very funny slapstick.
 
After the awful Home Alone 2, Hughes’ career never again scaled the heights of commercialty or artistic brilliance.  He never directed another movie after the disappointing Curly Sue.  He abandoned teen films altogether for the less satisfying world of family pictures like Dennis The Menace and Baby’s Day Out, often recycling the burglar characters from his biggest hit.  Then, there were the remakes.  Miracle On 34th Street, a live-action 101 Dalmatians, Flubber.  His decline was staggering.
 
In a weird move, for much of the rest of his career, he continued to offer stories and scripts but under the name Edmond Dantes (the hero from The Count Of Monte Cristo).  It’s just as well.  Would you allow the name “John Hughes” to be associated with Beethoven, the Saint Bernard movie?
 
His last Edmond Dantes’ credit can be found on the 2008 Owen Wilson comedy, Drillbit Taylor (unseen by me).  Despite the fact that he hadn’t made a good film in nearly 20 years, John Hughes’ legacy will remain his strong 80s features and Home Alone.  His influence as a writer of teen comedies is glaringly evident even today in TV dramedies like Greek and One Tree Hill.  (A second season episode of the former actually mentions his name in passing.)
 
Hughes died of a heart attack while visiting his family in New York.  He was 59.
 
Long before she joined The Canadian Olympic Committee and became one of the most influential residents in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Dr. Gene Sutton was a high school gym teacher.  I never had her for any classes because she only taught the girls.  But there was no mistaking her presence at Delta Secondary.
 
During my four years there (1989-93), Ms. Sutton, as we called her, ran the Girls Athletic Council, an organization so powerful that it even eclipsed The Student Council.  During my first General meeting as President in September 1992, a motion was put forth by my predecessor to allow the GAC to do all the activities it had proposed.  It passed unanimously.  Just like that.  It was staggering.  And these were well-run activities, too.  I remember one time just before Christmas we all got to play Bingo in the gym.  I didn’t win anything but it was well organized and had a good turnout.  As an ineffectual student leader who couldn’t even organize a car crash, it looked that much more impressive to me.
 
Gene was passionate about amateur sport, particularly girls’ gymnastics which was her specialty.  She coached Delta’s gymnasts all four years I was there.  A number of her team members took dance lessons from my mother who learned firsthand how well respected Gene was.  They always talked about her.
 
Speaking of my mother, she reminded me of the time Gene came up to her at our church (also named Delta) during some school event that took place there.  “You must be Dennis Earl’s mother,” she said.  Mom never forgot how nice that moment was.  It was the first time they had ever spoken.
 
I didn’t know Gene particularly well but whenever I encountered her at school she was always warm and extremely supportive.  I’m pretty sure that if ever there was a vote for worst Student Council President ever, I would be near or at the top of the list.  But Gene would probably disagree.  Because I did Dana Carvey impressions during the speech that won me the election, she always called me “Dana”.  Sometimes, she would put me on the spot to do an impression which would make her laugh.  She liked the George H.W. Bush impression the most.  I would usually run into her in the office where I did the public announcements on many mornings.  She always mentioned how good a job she thought I was doing.  It was hard not to smile around her.
 
Dr. Sutton died of “complications from an aggressive infection”.  She was 64.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, August 6, 2009
10:39 p.m. 
Published in: on August 6, 2009 at 10:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Forever Haunted

The promise of seduction never fulfilled
The fears and doubts cannot be killed
Is your offer still on the table?
Or was this all just an exciting fable?
 
Do you remember everything that was said?
Do I enter your mind while you’re lying in bed?
Are you disappointed that we never met?
Or would I have been yet another regret?
 
I wasn’t prepared to feed off your passion
Have I fallen right out of fashion?
Have I elevated you to an impossible height?
Why is letting you go such an ongoing fight?
 
You were indecisive about what you truly wanted
What could have been leaves me forever haunted
I know deep down that we probably wouldn’t last
But I can’t leave the memories of you to fade in the past
 
You talked a good game but were you sincere?
Your forthright manner aroused me with fear
But I sensed depression as well as resistence
You were always nice but you kept me at a distance
 
Our conversations were never varied
One topic of interest was never buried
As open as you were to the subject of pleasure
Your genuine interest was harder to measure
 
I was scared to learn that side of your history
The rest of you remains a fascinating mystery
Are you as skilled and experienced as you claim?
Or was I another target in your manipulative game?
 
Titillation is your stock-in-trade
Have your partners ever given you a failing grade?
I’ll never know because of my permanent hesitation
How strong really is your offline presentation?
 
If only we had more than unexplored lust
If only I could relax and learn to trust
If only that seed could truly be sewn
If only you were alone 
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
11:10 p.m. 
Published in: on August 5, 2009 at 11:10 pm  Comments (1)