National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation


Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

(1989) Holiday Comedy (Warner Brothers) Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, William Hickey, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mae Questel, Natalia Nogulich, Nicolette Scorsese. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechnik

hollynquill-2013

We all have our ideas of what an ideal Christmas is – snow on the ground or fun in the sun. Most of our ideals however involve being surrounded by family. There’s nothing quite like a traditional family Christmas.

Clark Griswold (Chase) believes that with all his heart. He has become reasonably successful and provides well for his wife Ellen (D’Angelo), his daughter Audrey (Lewis) and his son Rusty (Galecki – yes that one). His gift to the family is a swimming pool and although the ground is too hard to start digging, he needs to put the deposit down for it before Christmas. He’s counting on his bonus at work to pay that bonus but it is late in arriving.

Clark is planning on having all the grandparents at his place this year – his own parents Clark Sr. (Randolph) and Nora (Ladd) as well as Ellen’s mom (Roberts) and dad (Marshall). Naturally the two sets of parents take to ceaseless bickering.

Add to the mix the unexpected arrival of cousin Eddie (Quaid) and his family in a dilapidated RV which it turns out the family is living in after Eddie lost his job and was forced to sell the family home. Clark offers to buy cousin Eddie’s Christmas presents this year which Eddie gratefully expects. With senile Aunt Bethany (Questel) and crotchety Uncle Lewis (Hickey), things descend into utter chaos.

With nothing going right, Clark loses it a little bit – all right, he loses it a lot, especially when he finds out that his bonus isn’t what he thought it was going to be. Power grids will be overloaded, sleds will fly as will flaming Santas and sewage will explode before Christmas comes to town.

The third movie in the Vacation franchise broke with formula a little bit. For one thing, the Griswolds weren’t fish out of water in some unfamiliar place – they were in their home base which was being invaded by others. Legendary director John Hughes wrote the screenplay based on his own short story which had been published in National Lampoon (the first movie in the franchise was also based on a short story in National Lampoon). Quite frankly this wasn’t his shining hour.

And yet it was a cut above the odious National Lampoon’s European Vacation. There are some terrifically funny moments (like Clark’s sled ride from hell) but not enough of them. However the funny moments are so hilarious it kind of makes up for it. There’s also a heartwarming element that’s present in most of the other Vacations but more so here than in any of the others.

There are those that consider this a “classic” Christmas movie. I wouldn’t quite go that far but it certainly is one of the more popular ones from the 80s. By this point in his career I was finding Chase less funny than he had been during his SNL days (and I think most people agree) and certainly less funny than he’d been in Caddyshack. Still while the Griswolds weren’t particularly subversive, they did strike a chord with the American public and for many people of a certain generation this is required Yuletide viewing. To each their own.

WHY RENT THIS: When it’s funny, it’s funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s not funny often enough.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some rude humor and sexuality, more than a bit of bad language and comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be Mae Questel’s final film. She is best known as the voice of Betty Boop.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition comes in a Christmas tin with a Santa hat, coasters, an “I Survived a Griswold Family Christmas” button and a plastic cup. While no longer available in stores, you might try picking one up on E-Bay or Amazon. Otherwise you’ll just have to make do with the standard Blu-Ray or DVD which have the same features as this more expensive edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.3M on a $25M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Christmas With the Kranks

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: More of The Holly and The Quill!

Goya’s Ghost


Goya's Ghosts

Francisco Goya stands before one of his completed works.

(Goldwyn) Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgaard, Randy Quaid, Michael Lonsdale, Jose Luis Gomez, Blanca Portillo, Mabel Rivera. Directed by Milos Forman

These days the Spanish Inquisition is a punch line, but back in the day the name would induce fear for the suffering it caused. Being summoned by the Inquisition was in no way a joke, and those who received such a summons usually had reason to regret it later.

Francisco Goya (Skarsgaard) is perhaps the most renowned painter in all of Spain. He has the eye of the royal court, including King Carlos (Quaid) and the clergy, including the Inquisitor General (Lonsdale) and more to the point, an ambitious clergyman named Lorenzo (Bardem) who is having his own portrait painted by Goya. Lorenzo has recently lobbied the Inquisitor General to be given charge of the Inquisition so that he might return it to stricter standards.

Noticing a painting of a young girl in Goya’s studio, Lorenzo finds out that her name is Ines (Portman) and she is the daughter of a prosperous merchant (Gomez). When Ines is picked up by Inquisition spies for refusing to eat pork in a tavern (since those of the Jewish faith didn’t eat pork, this is construed as a sign of Judaism and not of someone just not liking the taste of pork; this particular policy was bad news for those who didn’t like pork and worse news for pigs), her parents beg Goya to intercede with the Inquisition. He goes to Lorenzo, who visits the torture-ravaged girl who has already confessed for her crime of not eating pork and therefore being a Jew (horrors!) and rather than helping her, he rapes her instead. Nice guy, that Lorenzo.

As the days and weeks begin to pile up, the merchant decides to take matters into his own hands. He invites Lorenzo and Goya for dinner and pleads directly to Lorenzo. When Lorenzo placidly says that the whole concept of the Inquisition is that those who speak the truth will receive strength from God to weather the torture, the merchant goes ballistic. He feels, quite rightly, that people will admit to anything under torture and to prove it, he strings up Lorenzo (over Goya’s strenuous objections) and gets him to sign an affidavit that Lorenzo is, in fact, a monkey who consorts with other monkeys. Such a document would be blasphemy and Lorenzo would be disgraced and defrocked and quite probably feel the ministrations of the Inquisition himself. The merchant threatens Lorenzo with the document if he doesn’t release Ines; Lorenzo being a stubborn sort rapes her again.

Thus the merchant makes the document public and Lorenzo is predictably defrocked, fleeing Spain in disgrace. 15 years later, King Carlos is dead and Napoleon has conquered Spain, abolishing the Inquisition and installing a new prosecutor – that’s right, Lorenzo. He has wholeheartedly embraced the doctrine of the French revolution and enthusiastically applies it to Spain with mixed results.

Goya in the meantime has gone deaf and is embittered, although he is still a great painter (and would be for several decades). Ines has lost most of her mind during her long incarceration; when the French empty the jails, she wanders to her family home only to find all of her family dead, killed by rampaging soldiers during the invasion. With nowhere left to go, she seeks out Goya, begging him to help her find the baby she’d had in prison who Lorenzo had fathered but had been taken away from Ines shortly after birth.

Forman, best known for Amadeus has again presented a place and time in all its glory and sordidness, warts and halos combined. This is a place of disease and putrefaction, but one where great works of art were created.

Forman took many of his visual cues from Goya himself, and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe does a magnificent job of making the movie look not unlike a Goya painting; often dark and mysterious but always full of life.

Skarsgaard makes a formidable Goya, charming and driven at once, his talent protecting him from the worst offenses of the time. The surprising thing is that he is not the central character of the movie that bears his name.

In fact, nobody has that distinction. Ostensibly, it’s Lorenzo’s story but it really isn’t about him, not altogether anyway. Nor is it about Ines, who spends much of the film rotting away in prison offscreen.  It’s not because of the performances of Bardem and Portman who do solid work here – no, it really is because there is no focus on any one specific character, leaving us to focus on the environment, which might be a good thing because Foreman does such a great job at creating it.

This isn’t a trip to the Prado by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the next best thing. Admirers of Goya may cringe at the liberties taken with the painter’s life and the history of Spain but even the most stringent of those will surely be pleased by the overall look of the film, which captures the spirit and intensity of the great artist’s work.

WHY RENT THIS: Skarsgaard, Bardem and Portman deliver solid performances. The film depicts a time in history rarely seen in films.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is a little confusing and the plot a bit brutal from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s rape, violence, murder, nudity, torture, sexuality, foul language and all manner of mayhem. Just another day at the office for me, but you might want to consider hard before letting your kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Natalie Portman was cast as Ines after Forman noticed her resemblance to the Goya painting “Milkmaid of Bordeaux.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Escapist