Four Frames – National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. Throughout July, The Big Picture is running a series of articles on ‘journeys’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from the Chevy Chase-starring road trip comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Many of us will no doubt recall the times we spent as a kid sat in the back of a hot car watching our parents squabble over which way to go on the way to a summer family holiday.

We can therefore recognise, at least in part, the pain and suffering endured by the Griswolds in the name of ‘fun’ as they hit the road for a 2,408-mile trip from Chicago to the hallowed Walley World in California.

The cross-country road trip taken by the manic Clark (Chevy Chase), his long-suffering wife Ellen (Beverley D’Angelo) and teenage children Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron) takes on a Sisyphean struggle as they haplessly veer towards one self-destructive set piece after another.

A screwball comedy it may be, but director Harold Ramis and writer John Hughes also inject a little subversiveness into proceedings. With Lindsey Buckingham’s relentlessly upbeat Holiday Road ringing in our ears, the opening credits are a flip book of picture postcards showing off every corner of the U.S. It paints the sort of all-American summer vacation sold by people like Clark, an advertising executive who has drunk the Kool-Aid and can’t wait to witness first hand such unforgettable sights as the “second largest ball of twine on the face of the Earth” with his family.

The laughably awful station wagon (a vehicle created specifically for the movie) that ferries the Griswolds to hell and back puts the lampoon into National Lampoon. In addition, the wildly over-the-top illustrated poster of a buffed-up Chase draped by a scantily clad D’Angelo and Sports Illustrated cover girl Christie Brinkley (who plays a Ferrari-driving temptress) not only amps up the film’s shameless ridiculousness, but also merrily sends up Reagan-era patriotism.

Chase was among the first of the Saturday Night Live cast members who, along with Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi (until his premature death in 1982) broke out of the NBC sketch show and became one of the biggest stars in the ’80s.

Essentially a bunch of sketches tied to the narrative thread of the road trip to end all road trips (until they all did it again in National Lampoon’s European Vacation two years later), Vacation provided Chase with the perfect comedy vehicle.

Almost 35 years on, some of the jokes are best left in the past; in particular a cringeworthy sequence set in the seedy streets of St Louis where Clark and co are lost and ask a group of black pimps and vandals for directions back to the expressway – losing their hub caps in the process (Rusty wonders “if these guys know The Commodores” just to ratchet up the racial stereotyping).

Others remain darkly hilarious, including the moment when Clark realises the dog they’ve been looking is no longer tied to the back of the car and the scene in which the family tie the recently deceased Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) to the roof wrapped in tarpaulin.

However, the highlight remains Clark’s meltdown in front of his family in which he excoriates them for being “f**ked in the head” at wanting to go home after all they’ve been through, adding: “This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. You’re gonna have fun, and I’m gonna have fun… We’re all gonna have so much f**king fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles! You’ll be whistling ‘Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah’ out of your assholes!”

Hughes has a penchant for memorable expletive-laden monologues (the can of whoopass opened up by Steve Martin towards a car rental employee in 1987’s Planes, Trains And Automobiles is equally great) and Chase savours every moment, saving the best for last as the wild-eyed Clark warns his son “Don’t touch!”

The fates have one last kick in the shins for the Griswolds when they finally make it to Walley World, pushing Clark off the deep end and leading to a finale that’s as uplifting as it is unnerving and unlikely.

The less said about the increasingly painful and derivative sequels the better, but National Lampoon’s Vacation remains a laugh-out-loud skewering of the middle class American dream.


Review – Churchill

Thought Winston Churchill was behind the greatest gamble of the Second World War? Think again, according to this latest film centred on the iconic British leader.

Much like Shakespeare’s King Lear, the role of Churchill is a coveted one among thesps of a certain age and has been attempted more than a few times over the years on big and small screen alke.

Churchill PosterGary Oldman will be the latest to give the ‘victory’ sign when he stars in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour later this year, but getting there first is Brian Cox, who gained considerable weight and shaved his head to achieve the physical embodiment of the former British Prime Minister. However, it is the way he humanises a man still regarded as one of the United Kingdom’s greatest figures that has won him particular acclaim.

Cox has spoken of the Shakespearean element to playing Churchill, and this is no more personified than in the Bard’s Lear, the great leader who is gradually sidelined whilst howling against a storm he no longer has control over.

ChurchillSet in the final days and hours leading up to Operation Overlord, otherwise known as D-Day on 6 June 1944, the film portrays Churchill as a man haunted by the slaughter that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of men at Gallipoli almost 30 years earlier and convinced the Allied invasion of France will be equally catastrophic.

Although the serving Prime Minster and Minister of Defence, Winston finds that his protestations count for nothing in the face of the united front taken by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower (Tony Slattery), British Army Commander Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and Field Marshall Alan Brooke (Danny Webb).

His reduced status as little more than a figurehead is a bitter pill to swallow for Churchill, whose tirades and self-pitying fail to impress his devoted, but increasingly frustrated wife Clemmie (Miranda Richardson), while even his trusted friend King George VI (James Purefoy) must talk him out of a misguided plan to be at the frontline of the Normandy landings.

ChurchillThere’s no doubt the angle taken by the film in chronicling the lead-up to one of the defining events of the 20th century is an interesting one, based as it is on the diaries of Brooke as well as other historical sources. It’s a shame therefore that Alex von Tunzelmann’s one-note script and Jonathan Teplitzky’s stagy direction fail to get away from the fact that Churchill would have worked better on television rather than in cinemas.

In case we hadn’t absorbed the message that the Prime Minister was against Overlord, the film, like a broken record, continuously has Churchill imploring Eisenhower, Montgomery and anyone else who’ll listen not to “make the same mistakes as before”. Cox raises his game to play a role he’s reportedly wished to portray for years, while Richardson is equally fantastic (the supporting cast do their best with limited material); however, neither are served by a script that stretches itself to breaking point to fill 90 minutes.

ChurchillThere are some nice moments here and there; in particular a beautifully played scene between Cox and Purefoy in which the King gently breaks his friend’s heart in an effort to save Churchill from himself. The crushing weight on the shoulders of Einsenhower and his senior military staff as they weigh up a decision that will ultimately decide the fate of the war is also effectively handled – lest we forget that D-Day was a leap into the unknown with potentially devastating consequences.

Excellent performances, however, cannot ultimately save Churchill from being an also ran in the long history of films involving one of history’s Great Britons.

A film blogger’s journey into indie filmmaking – writing/producing ‘Hearts Want’ short film

What can I say? Ruth is something of a hero for bringing her dream to life! Please support her project – she absolutely deserves it!

FlixChatter Film Blog

It’s been forty plus years in the making. No, no, it didn’t take me 40 years to write the script, though if I had written something as an infant I might’ve been a literary genius by now.

Some of you know my life’s been consumed by my short film project lately. Well, I had just launched the Kickstarter campaign to help fund the film, so I thought I’d share the journey of how I got here…

It feels as though I’ve been wanting to make a film for as long as I remember. Even in grade school, whenever the recurrent question ‘what do you want to be when we grow up?’ came up, I always proudly answered that I wanted to be a screenwriter. Yep, even long before I knew what a screenwriter was! For some reason, I had always had this longing to follow my late dad’s footsteps, who…

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Decades Blogathon — 12 Angry Men (1957)

Thomas J

It has been an absolute delight getting to deliver a third round of film reviews for the Decades Blogathon! On behalf of my excellent co-host Mark, of Three Rows Back, I would like to give everyone another round of applause for taking the time to write something for our little event. You guys make it possible. With any luck we’ll be back again for another, so if you found yourself missing out this year, keep those eyes peeled. Without further ado, here is my take on Sidney Lumet’s 1957 courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men

Release: Saturday, April 13, 1957 (limited)

[On Demand]

Written by: Reginald Rose

Directed by: Sidney Lumet

Something I didn’t expect to take away from Sidney Lumet’s astounding feature debut 12 Angry Men was just how much perspiration would be involved in the deliberations. An equally fitting title would have been 12 Sweaty Men. Of course…

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Decades Blogathon – There Will Be Blood (2007)

Well, we’ve arrived at the final day of the Decades Blogathon – ‘7’ edition. Just as with the previous two years, it’s been a lot of fun with a host of fascinating and diverse reviews from across the board. Thanks to everyone who has taken part this year; you are all on my Christmas card list! However, my biggest thanks must go to by fellow blogathon buddy Tom – his site Thomas J is one I have followed as long as I’ve been doing this blogging game and his talent for insightful and engaging reviews has only grown over the years. This year’s blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the seventh year of the decade and for this final day, you’re getting a review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood from yours truly. See you again next year!

Just as cinema became the preeminent art form of the 20th century, there can be little doubt its dominant source of energy has been oil.

As the Age of Oil begins its slow march towards death as the world’s reserves are sucked dry, Paul Thomas Anderson’s complex, frightening and wildly ambitious masterpiece There Will Be Blood shows us how this modern capitalist world came to be.

There Will Be Blood Poster

It also reveals to us how religion has, in turn, allowed itself to be perverted and ultimately usurped by unfettered capitalism and, in its final act reveals to us that, once there is nothing more left to consume, such a system will finally turn on itself.

Based loosely on Upton Sinclair’s satirical 1927 novel Oil!, Anderson’s Mephistophelian figurehead is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a singularly driven man whose insatiable hunger to possess what he doesn’t have and destroy whatever stands in his way are laid bare in the film’s incredible opening 15-minute salvo where nary a word is spoken but the intentions are clear.

Accompanied by an unsettling, otherworldly score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, this first reel is startlingly reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as Plainview helps to usher in the Dawn of (Oil) Man. Just like the black gold he so covets, Plainview is a primordial force summoned out of the ground; in this case a makeshift mine.

There Will Be Blood

At times we see hints in Plainview there is more to him than pure unadulterated avarice. He takes on the guardianship of a baby he names H.W. after the boy is orphaned following an accident, while he takes in a man claiming to be his half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), at one point opening up to reveal to him that: “I have a competition in me; I want no-one else to succeed. I hate most people.”

However, any hope of salvation or humanity is snuffed out on both counts, with H.W. being deemed by Plainview as little more than a prop to sell himself as a ‘family man’. Indeed, when a freak explosion robs H.W. of his hearing, Plainview is more focused on the “oceans of oil” the incident has revealed exist under their feet.

There Will Be Blood

The majority of the film takes place in a small Californian town which Plainview is first drawn to by Paul Sunday’s (Paul Dano) boastful claims of oil. There he encounters Paul’s twin brother Eli (also Dano), an evangelical preacher who understands what Plainview represents.

There is an argument that Eli and Paul Sunday are not twins at all but one in the same character. Although unlikely, there’s a logic to this theory insomuch as while one is a pastor and the other a businessman, both are opportunists.

Eli, like Plainview, is a salesmen, in this case one who hawks religion to a community ripe for exploitation. Plainview is also content to use religion to his own ends, stating that it is “the Lord’s guidance” he has arrived, referencing “the good Lord” as he makes lavish promises of grain, water and shared wealth to townsfolk who seemingly crave God’s love and material wealth in equal measure.

The film ostensibly follows the power struggle between the oil man and man of God. However, in reality the war is over before it begins as Plainview rhetorically enquires to an official “can everything around here be got?” and proceeds to get to work when given an enthusiastic endorsement.

The one time it appears Eli has bested his foe when he attempts to humiliate Plainview in front of his congregation by getting him to kneel and seek the Almighty’s forgiveness for abandoning H.W. is revealed as the hollow victory it is when he realises it’s merely served to shore up the support of the town – the look of anticlimactic disappointment on Eli’s face speaks volumes.

There Will Be Blood

That victory is itself revealed as empty in the film’s memorable final moments, however, when a desperate Eli comes to Plainview’s mansion years later foolishly seeking to sell a plot of land. Plainview’s demeaning taunts (“Drainaggggeee!”) and elaborate milkshake metaphor (“I drink it up!”) may be the final nail in Eli’s coffin, but the cost to a savagely alcoholic, embittered Plainview is plain to see.

Day-Lewis has been criticised for his scenery-chewing by some, but there can be little argument this is a titanic performance; one for the ages and then some. From his magnetic, full-throated drawl (inspired by John Huston so it’s said), to his coiled, wounded gait and full-blooded moustache, Day-Lewis’ Plainview leaves everyone in his wake, including poor Dano who gives it his all but, like his character, is paper standing up to a force of nature.

Anderson’s masterpiece will be studied by generations to come as a hypnotic account of how we came to be and what awaits us as the oil begins to run dry. It’s a work of pure cinema and one we should continue to cherish.