Those aren’t pillows! (Planes, Trains and Automobiles 1987)

Having Steve Martin and John Candy star in a 1980s John Hughes comedy drama was probably a no brainer. The two have great chemistry together and are present for a series of funny and entertaining mishaps that accompany the pair as they attempt to return home to Chicago. The road trip movie was very much a thing by this point, yet Planes, Trains and Automobiles is definitely one of the best road movie comedies I’ve ever seen.

Another reason this movie works so well is that everyone can see themselves in both of the characters. It’s very easy to be the uptight Neal and the easy going Del, sometimes all in the same day for many people. I relate more to Del if only because I also talk too much and I try to be likable and get along with people most of the time. On my worst days I’m Neal, completely annoyed with everyone and easily ruffled by random troubles that seem to pop up at every turn. This flick sure puts both men through the ringer, which in turn is both funny and melodramatic.

If looks could kill haha

In fact the comedic elements help set up the more serious parts, especially in a poignant hotel scene and a great train station part as well. John Hughes also wisely populates his movie with numerous character actors and even has three people from Ferris Buller’s Day Off making appearances. I had forgotten that Kevin Bacon is in this movie for a brief moment, and Edie McClurg has a scene stealing bit as a rental car agent. This makes the movie even funnier than it has a right to be, although the most hilarious part to me is the wrong way on the highway scene.

Other great moments include a freezing truck ride, the infamous classic “Those aren’t pillows!” bit and Neal’s very profane tirade at the car rental agency. I’ve seen this movie multiple times and it improves every viewing, which is the mark of a great movie. Shame that Martin and Candy never teamed up again, and the closest we’ve gotten to a flick like this may in fact be Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, a movie that also wisely balances comedy and drama equally well.

Let’s Get Criterion Presents: The Phantom Carriage (1920)

The hues of the ancient silent screen prints for The Phantom Carriage are mostly blue and yellow, and it works for this movie. I liked how it is a drama rooted in the fantastic, working as a bleak tragedy that shows a man in desperate need of a course correction. He neglects his family and laughs at the notion of goodness, until he ends up faced with a most dire situation. I am reminded a bit of A Christmas Carol with the ghosts coming to tell Scourge to change his ways, however this take is more horror movie related to a point.

I loved the practical special effects showing death’s ride, a ghastly thing powered by skeleton horses and driven by a person cursed to serve. There is also a scene that clearly inspired The Shining’s infamous axe moment, and the film is centered in a clear sense of morality. A poor woman cares only to save a man’s soul, even as she fades away. Another woman lingers for her husband to be a better person, knowing that he may never achieve it. Oh and the jailhouse scene is a harsh wake up call that unfortunately only takes on its intended target for so long.

This film took me a while to get through, since it is a silent film and I am used to sound. However The Phantom Carriage is marvelous, a well constructed movie that clearly has been the basis for other, equally great, works. Also I was surprised that the movie got away with a suicide scene, although I guess 1920s Europe was much different than America.

Never Piss Off a Satanic Cult (Night of the Demon, 1957)

I actually wish this had been my first Jacques Tourneur film and not Out of the Past. Don’t get me wrong, his 1947 film is a great hard boiled film noir classic, setting standards for the genre. It’s just that Jacques Tourneur was really a horror director. An auteur so to speak, working with the same producer, Val Lewton, for a number of films. I have seen all of the ones he did with Lewton, and it seems the man knows how to make a good picture. I would love to see some of his other non horror films, too.

Despite his budget restraints and the fact that he made movies in the 1940s when the industry was just entering middle age, the guy pulled off some worthy and even creepy films that have since been regarded as worthy additions to not only the horror genre but also cinema. Night of the Demon (also known as Curse of the Demon) is for the most part an excellent example of how Tourneur suggested horrible things without really showing them. Yes the demon does make an appearance, but this wasn’t actually part of his plan and the creature isn’t really featured hardly at all. This only makes it fiercer, strange, and gives it an awesome and eerie menacing quality. I love how its looks exactly like a soldier of the Devil would appear like, and it has a grand entrance that is both freaky and cool despite the obviously dated special effects.

The protagonist, played by Dana Andrews, simply fills the role of the skeptical man of knowledge who finally realizes too late that guess what: the supernatural, the ancient evil that lurks beneath the world of science and understanding will get you. Naturally there’s a devil worshipper who controls the foul creature with a method that seems both sensible and silly all at the same time, and he is played by the wonderfully diabolical Niall MacGinnis.

For the most part one can take this film both seriously while also regarding it as a rather outlandish yet entertaining movie. The demon is pretty badass, and the use of shadows and music only add to the film’s already creepy and somewhat surreal quality. Even though she is the supporting character I also rather liked Peggy Cummins in this as well, even if she is given the thankless role of the love interest.

For being able to expertly walk the line between camp and realism, Tourneur is to be admired, and has inspired and been copied by other horror directors, as he is the shining standard of “Less is more.” That doesn’t always work in every horror movie, but the creators of some rather modern and recent bombastic, typically wretched horror films could learn something from the man.

Neo-Western Before Neo-Westerns Were Cool: Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray)

Every so often I finally get around to viewing a Nicholas Ray film and so far I have been well rewarded every time. Some are better than others, and in this case his 1954 cult western classic Johnny Guitar might be his best, or at least one of them. What aids this picture is that Ray takes cliches and works around them while also embracing many of them at the same time. He even manages to create some new ones, and works in a romantic subplot that is more of a square than a triangle. Even though one member of it refuses to admit that she hungers for a man she openly loathes.

Naturally Johnny Guitar has those picturesque views of the old west. Yet the costume design and additional use of color rounds out things very nicely. I could look at this movie all day, and whatever transfer Hulu featured looked great. Guitar, Vienna, Dancin’ Kid and his bunch are all dressed up in bright, vivid colors, while Emma, Vienna’s rival, and the townspeople she manipulates are dressed in either dull or black clothes. Even though they are supposed to represent law and order in contrast to Vienna and company, if you looked only at what people were wearing in this movie you would easily peg Emma as the villain. Which incidentally she is in this movie.

In fact the Vienna-Johnny-Dancin’-Emma love affair mess probably contributed the most trouble in this movie than anything else. I got the HUAC Committee parallels however I felt that the theme of suspicion without cause is one that fits in well in any era. Oh and the angry mob descending on Vienna’s home later in the film, stirred up by Emma, remains haunting and anger inducing to this day. Guilt assumed before innocence and by association is an all too common aspect of history that people tend to sweep under the rug. Best to just assert they “Deserved it” instead.

Having made film noirs before and after Ray could not help including those aspects in his western. It is really a marvel that this movie exists. There is no gun fight duel in the street, no stirring speeches or wrongs particularly righted. Yes some justice happens despite the circumstances, yet it comes too late to be truly satisfying. Unlike some of the films from it’s era and genre Johnny Guitar stands apart, confusing some of it’s intended audience while inspiring some like myself. Too bad Ray was so far ahead of his time, a decade or so early to a brand of western that is mostly what the genre is today.

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