27 10 2009

To: Doctors Raymond Stantz and Egon Spengler

From: The Bottom of My Heart

Since the advent of the world wide web in my parents’ den in the mid-1990’s, I’ve found the internet good for two things: firstly, this, and secondly, staying current on news of a possible third GHOSTBUSTERS film. There was the GHOSTBUSTERS IN HELL treatment that languished despite a Ben Stiller attachment, then a long dry spell in which I went to college, then a decidedly not-half-assed videogame, and now, drumbeats are sounding again for a third film. Based on a treatment by you, Doctors Stantz and Spengler, (Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis,) the screenplay’s being written by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, a couple of funny guys with funnier names. Once again, you’ve begun to stir the pot with plot tidbits and cast and crew commitments.


GHOSTBUSTERS 3, now made possible with revolutionary "cartoon finger addition technology"

But what I’m feeling right now isn’t called ‘excitement’ – partly because, Mr. Ramis, I just finished watching YEAR ONE, the recent would-be yukfest you directed and co-wrote with Eisenberg and Stupnitsky. It’s not just that this film isn’t funny. It’s inept. Countless gags fall flat due to poor editing, awful TV movie-quality photography, and worst of all, a Biblical disregard for plot and character. It’s hard to believe this is by the guy who made GROUNDHOG DAY… Mr. Aykroyd, your career of late seems defined by risk avoidance. Nearly all your feature roles have been supporting, and most of them have been of the same authority figure variety: from the President in MY FELLOW AMERICANS, to a Naval Captain in PEARL HARBOR, to a Fire Captain in I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK & LARRY, to… the Vice President in WAR, INC. It’s obvious you’ve been the lead drum-beater on GB3, (check out this self-promotion-disguised-as-musing from last week,) but when the tidbits with which you tease us include the introduction of a hip, young band of Ghostbusters including Alyssa Milano, the only thing I can say is… Alyssa Milano. Uh. Wow. You promise? … Apparently, this is a “passing the torch” movie. But might I ask a favor, Dan? Can you just hold the torch? Just- just hold it right there. Don’t pass it. Everyone, please stop passing the torch. It’s your torch, you lit it, you hold it.

It’s been a rough-and-tumble stretch for children of eighties cinema. The harbingers of darkness were the STAR WARS prequels, made palatable only by… you know… that one part with Yoda flipping around, I guess… In 2007, the DIE HARD trilogy was given a worthless addendum that took place in an alternate universe where the word “motherfucker” was never invented – though I do remain grateful to LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD BUT DON’T SAY ‘F*CK’ IF YOU DO for softening the blow of May 2008, and the sodomizing of my most significant icon, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. Yes it’s true, nothing’s sacred. But that’s about the only reason I can think of to bust any additional ghosts.


We came, we saw, we kicked His ass!

Of course, my apprehension over GB3, based on the recent work of its two prime movers, is flawed. The Spielberg entering the KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL was coming from MUNICH, a near-perfect film, helicopter sex montage and all. Who knew that Spielberg would be so out to lunch when returning to his greatest franchise? Perhaps Ramis could turn back the clock from YEAR ONE, to the quality of the original GHOSTBUSTERS… You know, with the help of Alyssa Milano. But let me say, if only to make up for the last DIE HARD, I seriously fucking doubt it.

What is it about these franchises that we feel the need to see what these characters would be doing twenty years on? The problem with that question is that it’s not we who need anything. It’s they, the filmmakers and stars. They have a full understanding of what they’re getting into by dusting off the fedora, recharging the proton pack, going back to the well – pick your epithet. They want to prove to themselves they’ve still got it, and they want points on the back end. (That is, a percentage of a film’s profit, as opposed to a lump sum up-front.) Say what you want about THE PHANTOM MENACE, the film wasn’t juvenile by miscalculation. George Lucas sought out a new market share – a fan base of the average age of ten – and he got what he wanted. By his own admission, his prequels weren’t made for anyone old enough to have seen the originals in theaters. The same can be said about Shia LaBeouf in CRYSTAL SKULL. If you can justify his inclusion, apart from drawing teens to a movie about a sixty-five year-old, please, speak.

Nuke That Fridge

The saddest action figure in all the world

Somebody’s youth is constantly being re-packaged for a youthier youth market. Known quantities sell to distributors before unknown, so sequels, remakes, re-imaginings and re-sequinvisionings hold the marketplace edge over original material. (Other Reagan-era properties set to re-appear soon include Conan, Axel Foley, Robocop and Johnny Five.) One day in a distant age, a future blogger will pen their own open letter imploring the powers that be not to compromise the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, or the ‘Twilight’ series – just as in the streets of ancient Athens, the original proto-blogger snootily announced that he refused to count ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ as part of the real Oedipus trilogy.

Greek Wall Painting

The first blogger, Epaphras (pictured right,) who called playwright Sophocles a "total sellout" circa 404 B.C.

Here and now, I’m just filling a role, as one whose childhood entertainment is currently on the chopping block – fodder for re-launch – a process that, due to the predictable appetites of movie makers and men, is perhaps inevitable. So, Ray, Egon, limber up, get out there, and have another go at GHOSTBUSTERS. Do it for yourselves – for cash – for kids. Just don’t do it for me.


Watch/Rewatch: DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)

20 10 2009

With All Hallow’s Eve a short week-and-a-half off, I’d like to use today’s Watch/Rewatch to praise a movie that gave me some truly harrowing nightmares last night, Sam Raimi’s welcome return to form, DRAG ME TO HELL. Any freak-fest worth its blood budget should be able to immediately and surreptitiously burrow into your unconscious, and based on this criterion, DRAG worked me over more skillfully than I even realized as I watched it. Ninety squirming minutes, plus seven hours fitful sleep, equals one successful horrorshow.

Oh hey y'all! It's me, Lorna Raver. Look me up on IMDB... IF YOU DARE.

Oh hey y'all! It's me, actress Lorna Raver. Look up my filmography on IMDB... IF YOU DARE.

Alison Lohman plays Christine Brown in DRAG (or- not in drag– I mean- you know what I mean.) Christine’s a bank employee who, after rejecting a loan extension to a creepy elderly lady, finds herself the victim of a full-on gypsy curse. (Is there any other kind but full-on? I ask you.) As her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) looks on helplessly, Christine’s circumstances grow more gooey, more bloody, and more dire. Will she or won’t Christine be dragged to hell? Well, the movie wouldn’t be much fun if she weren’t – and without giving anything away, I’ll simply say this is one seriously fun movie, simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, as are many classics of its genre. Take for example a scene that had me shouting at my television like someone significantly less Caucasian than I (presently) am: a horsefly, the agent of the wicked gypsy Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver,) crawls between the lips, and down Christine’s throat as she sleeps. “Bitch, wake up! There is a motherfucking gypsy fly on you,” I screamed – to no avail. Yes, the best horror will make you bellow as only Mo’Nique can.

There’s also a smart social subtext to the film (another sign of proper horror.) Allison’s the lone woman in a man’s world, and it’s her ambition to be promoted to assistant manager at her bank branch that’s pretense for her rejection of the old gypsy’s loan. That she’s pitted against another woman by the soulless men above and around her compounds the disturbance that the film achieves, making Allison’s downfall unsettling on more than just the visceral level. And Raimi’s psycho-sexual trope of choice is right in line with the chauvinist dynamic he establishes: invasive objects and liquids are shot, sprayed, and crammed suggestively down Christine’s throat throughout the film; she’s forced to literally stomach the insidious elements of her environment, and fights against her corruption by them.

Alison Lohman in grave / danger

Alison Lohman in grave / danger

Most interesting, though, is the parallel drawn by Raimi from the world of banking to that of black magic. Christine’s “tough decision” to reject Mrs. Ganush’s loan – passing the buck from her manager Mr. Jacks (David Paymer) – is resounded later, as Christine attempts to make another tough decision, choosing a helpless innocent onto whom to transfer her curse, and thereby free herself from it. Though it is first and foremost a highly efficient heebie-jeebie delivery system, DRAG uses as its departure point an ethical dilemma at the core of current events. The sin that necessitates her DRAG-ing is Christine’s sacrifice of human sympathy in the face of corporate parsimony.

All this is merely the spine of a gloriously debased corpse of a horror flick – and I do mean “debased corpse” in the most complementary sense of the term. Call me a ninny, I’ll take it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if DRAG ME TO HELL stuck with me for a few more nights – and nightmares – still. Enjoy.

Specious Thoughts on A SERIOUS MAN

12 10 2009

In almost every popular example, American narrative cinema can be said to be affirm the existence of a higher power – a universal structure – because widely-released (i.e., not ‘art-house’) films are themselves so thoroughly and often predictably structured. In movies, good guys win (or possibly lose, but awesomely,) and bad guys violate laws natural and supernatural, and are punished. There’s moral causation, as in a parable. This is Steven Spielblog, so let’s take RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. I do, everywhere. In a little pouch. At the end of RAIDERS, in one swoop, the characters representing good triumph over those representing evil, and it’s revealed to our hero that the Old Testament God is real, and he hates Nazis too. Righteous victory is the result of intelligent design. But the trick of such a film is, it’s not actually God assuring Indy’s glory, it’s Spielberg – or his non-Union Mexican equivalent. The director is the invisible hand behind his or her film, as God can be said to the invisible hand behind life.

This is some heady shit, but it’s the kind of nerdy froth that the Coen Brothers are so damned good at working me all up into. A SERIOUS MAN, their newest, may be their frothiest and/or headiest yet, and as their third film in as many years, (with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and BURN AFTER READING,) it also doubles as something of an ultimate mission statement. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott nails it, as usual, in his review: “(The Coens’) insistence on the fundamental absence of a controlling order in the universe is matched among American filmmakers only by Woody Allen. The crucial difference is that the Coens are compulsive, rigorous formalists, as if they were trying in the same gesture to expose, and compensate for, the meaninglessness of life.”

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik in the Coen Brothers' inscrutable A SERIOUS MAN

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik in the Coen Brothers' inscrutable A SERIOUS MAN

Forgive the cribbing, I won’t try to cover the same ground as Mr. Scott does. Rather I’d like to expand on this one note he sounds… Real life, with very little exception, is not RAIDERS, as American popular narrative films are, with little exception, not reflective of reality. Believe me. Nazis don’t melt. The true story of the Jews in the twentieth century is largely a tale of suffering without recourse. Spielberg, and more recently Tarantino, have fashioned superb fantasies out of the elements of the Holocaust, but they are fantasies. With A SERIOUS MAN, the Coens have attempted to do something unprecedented by these standards: they’ve made a film about Jewish experience that retains the complexity and mystery of Torah – and of life itself. They haven’t made a parable, because there’s no clear moral causation in A SERIOUS MAN. But as an exploration of divine ambiguity, this is one serious document.

A SERIOUS MAN is a pile-on of darkly comic woe. It’s 1967, and middle-aged Minnesotan physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is beset from all sides. His wife’s leaving him, his brother keeps getting arrested, his tenure is hanging by a thread. And in almost every case in the film, these woes don’t resolve themselves, for better or worse. They just keep building up, without redress. Holy mystery is manifested in suburban trappings: the Columbia Record Club won’t stop calling, requesting money that Larry owes, simply because he didn’t request not to be sent the record of the month. The television antenna on Larry’s roof is constantly shifting, the weathervane of some unseen force. And suddenly, a freak tornado spins toward Larry’s synagogue. Why?  What’s the connection? The relationships between numerous plot elements are opaque, and the Coens don’t provide any Windex. They’re playing God as well – but it’s the God of Job. The Coens work in mysterious ways.

 Lo, and there was tea. And it was iced.

Lo, there was tea. And it was iced.

It’s not the first time the brothers have dealt in opacity, albeit not at these potential meltdown levels, and they’ve been criticized for it before (not by me, mind you – by some assholes.) Perhaps the best example is the Mike Yanagita character in FARGO. The face from Marge’s past, he intersects with her story, but has exactly no bearing on the plot of the film. Why include Mike Yanagita at all? It’s a question over which I, and many other Coen enthusiasts have lost whole nights of sleep for the past decade and change. But A SERIOUS MAN was actually even more reminiscent for me on first viewing of the most beloved film in the North American Greek system, THE BIG LEBOWSKI. In LEBOWSKI, The Dude is the comically passive vessel whose journey of woe begins with a swiped rug – and from there, insults and injuries and coffee mugs are hurled at him over and over. All the Dude ever wanted was stasis, in the form of his rug, back. And yet the Dude, like Larry Gopnik, is put through the ringer by forces beyond his comprehension, for reasons ultimately ambiguous. In LEBOWSKI, as in A SERIOUS MAN, the pieces of the mystery almost fit together, but don’t. They’re open-ended equations, not meant to be ‘solved.’ As one character in this film says, it’s best to just “accept the mystery.”

Acceptance may come to this Spielblogger, but there’s more pondering, more discussing to do. I can’t wait to see this film again, but even this point I’ve argued, with friends who can’t imagine being in the mood to throw this one in the DVD player. Like, ever. Heed the warning of my blog: this is a film as hilarious as the Old Testament, and as frustrating. It’s hard to think of a more daunting task to undertake as a storyteller than to re-frame a Biblical tale, and retain all its depth and pathos. But then, it’s hard to think of any working filmmakers Holier than Joel and Ethan Coen.

Senor Spielbergo


Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Friday, October 9, 1:45pm showing

Watch/Rewatch: SILVER STREAK (1976)

10 10 2009

Word broke yesterday that the upcoming biopic RICHARD PRYOR: IS IT SOMETHING I SAID? is at long last coming together, and with an unlikely and exciting choice to play Richard: Mister Marlon Wayans. Personally, I dig the sound of this. But in honor of a man who is, to an extent, inimitable, today’s ‘Watch/Rewatch’ is devoted to one of Richard’s best, Arthur Hiller’s SILVER STREAK.

Marlon Wayans and Gene Wilder, in a scene from SILVER STREAK

Gene Wilder and Marlon Wayans, aboard the SILVER STREAK

Today, the term ‘genre filmmaking’ is one used to describe some of my favorite films: those that implement spectacle to actively involve the viewer; in other words, ‘action movies.’ And SILVER STREAK, in that regard, should be classified as a genre film. But where that term fails (or fails by 1970’s American film standards,) is that SILVER STREAK excels as an example of multiple genres: suspense, romance, comedy, and yes, action, but it can’t be described accurately as just one of these. It is a total entertainment.

The plot involves Harry Caldwell (Gene Wilder,) a passenger on the Silver Streak train from LA to Chicago, who becomes enwrapped in a scheme to steal the long lost letters of Rembrandt. Got it? Good. I’m glad. What’s interesting about SILVER STREAK is that as comedy, it plays its cards close to the vest, taking time to build, and then pay off humor. Compared to modern “broad” comedies, of, let’s say, the Apatow school, this film seems beyond subdued. The first fifteen minutes hardly contain a joke. Gene Wilder, the greatest spaz in the history of cinema, (nay, of all history period,) starts off charming and dry – think Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST – which makes his first expletive-laden outburst all the more hilarious.

From there, director Hiller continues to slowly crank up the funny. There aren’t any superfluous wisecracks. Wilder lets the escalating situations realistically wear away his composure, with a performance notable as much for what is held back as for what is shown; and it allows for Pryor’s entrance to properly bring  down the roof. When he arrives, Pryor becomes the wild Id to Wilder’s Ego. In a way, Pryor’s Grover Muldoon is the first real comic character in the piece.

It’s surprising just how late Pryor enters the film, (at the 63 minute mark,) as if he truly is the reward of its second act. And shit, is he rewarding. “We the man!” he shouts, speeding a stolen cop car through a police blockade. As Grover, Pryor’s the thief who doesn’t run away; he takes on Caldwell’s adventure, it seems, out of a sense of justice, and a sense of fun. He enjoys the chance to be the Man – and stick it to the Man. No, he’s not Sweet Sweetback, but for a studio film, he might as well be. Frankly, his role is pretty cliché, today: the street smart (read: Black) rake, lobbing jokes left and right at uptight authority figures (read: Crackers.) But it’s easy to forget that such a cliché was forged in a much different time, and Pryor, as Muldoon, is one of the first and best popular examples of the black man who thumbs his nose at the Man – and gets away with it.

Richard Pryor coaches Gene Wilder on how to be less like Gene Wilder and more like Richard Pryor, in SILVER STREAK, starring Gene WIlder and Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor coaches Gene Wilder on how to be less like Gene Wilder and more like Richard Pryor, in SILVER STREAK, starring Richard Pryor, and Gene Wilder

That’s not to say that SILVER STREAK can or should be classified as race comedy. It’s not – not fully, at least – though it does contain perhaps the funniest single white-guy-pretending-to-be-black scene ever, with Wilder coached by Pryor in a train station bathroom on how to jive in order to evade police. I was interested to read that this scene was altered, after the notoriously temperamental Pryor stormed off the set and refused to return. Originally, a white man was to enter the bathroom, and be fooled by Wilder’s routine. Pryor requested this be switched to a black man, who easily sees through the act. It’s a seemingly slight change, but it makes all the difference: the black man is empowered at scene’s end, instead of the white man being oblivious to the very obvious difference between blacks, and whites imitating blacks. The latter could be read as reinforcing the same stereotypes SILVER STREAK otherwise boldly bucks. Thanks for standing firm on that one, Richard.

With a noteworthy supporting cast, Jill Clayburgh, Ned Beatty, Patrick McGoohan, and Scatman Crothers (as a porter with a great line towards the end: “The brake lines have been cut!” “Damn hippies,” he responds,) and an actually quite intense climax, this film works in a way few modern equivalents do. It resembles Hitchcock more than anything, though it’s funnier than any of Hitch’s films, because nowhere in his filmography will you find two more brilliant comics than Wilder and Pryor. They’re both at the top of their games here, and I think the strength of SILVER STREAK can be said to carry some of the popularity of their later collaborations. This is certainly the most accomplished of the four.

ZOMBIELAND: For Folks Who Just Can’t Wait For THE ROAD

4 10 2009

There are, I think, two ways a mainstream comedy can work: first, there’s the unassailable concept, the idea so intrinsically hilarious that it can carry almost whatever film is built up around it. Then, there’s the comedy that, lacking an ingenious, or even original premise, succeeds with a high laugh-to-joke ratio. It’s fairly impossible to argue with laughter – or over laughter for that matter. Ruben Fleischer’s ZOMBIELAND is an example of this latter category. In the current zombie zeitgeist, (zombgeist?) it’s not a winner because it sets itself apart in terms of any particular novelty; it’s a winner because it’s full of jokes – funny jokes – period, full stop.

Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg take down a corpulent corpse in ZOMBIELAND

Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg take down a corpulent corpse in ZOMBIELAND

At 82 minutes, this is a film with a grasp of its limits, which is more than you can say about so many studio comedies, which throw off their laugh/joke ratio with prolonged sojourns into sentimentality, like anyone gives a shit about Vince Vaughn’s feelings. ZOMBIELAND is brisk and efficient – which isn’t to say it’s classic – but it’s certainly hard to mount an argument against spending some time with it… unless you’re gore-averse. Like any true zombie flick, this one delivers the carnage.

To synopsize plot is beside the point. This is a road movie, which finds a quartet of survivors – Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) – well, they’re on the road. And, there are zombies. Everywhere. As Michael Cera was out shopping for wholesale highwater jeans at the time of production, Jesse Eisenberg was evidently offered the lead, and after the dull indie dramedy ADVENTURELAND, accepted, if for no other reason than to complete the second chapter of his long-gestating ‘Land Suffix Trilogy.’ Eisenberg, unfortunately, is the one performer here who fails to impress. He’s too gee-golly twee, in a role that could have paid dividends with a bit more snark. Jesse Eisenberg, if you’re out there, it’s time to get a new schtick – or else all that seems left for you is to play the Alvy Singer proxy in an upcoming fourth-tier Woody Allen effort, and call it a career.

The other players fare better than Eisenberg, however, with Harrelson dependably dry, Breslin continuing to stave off a post-LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE awkward period, and Stone of SUPERBAD standing out where other, more conventionally attractive and less dynamic actresses might have blended in. Amber Heard (Seth Rogen’s impossibly gorgeous love interest in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) is relegated to a four-minute scene in ZOMBIELAND’s opening, and wisely so. She almost certainly wouldn’t have had the fun Stone has with the role of Wichita.

Emma Stone, you can shoot me in the face any day...

Emma Stone, you can shoot me in the face any day...

But the film is all but hijacked (in the best sense) by a celebrity cameo, which, after much agonizing, I won’t reveal here. His (or her? – OK, his) appearance is the funniest portion of this otherwise amusing film – and once he (or she? – OK, he) departs, what remains seems tepid by comparison. The climax, in a zombie-filled amusement park, is necessary only in that it helps ZOMBIELAND fill out the unofficial time requirement for a theatrically-released motion picture. To call it nonsensical is again beside the point.

What ZOMBIELAND lacks is social commentary, a basic element of zombie cinema from its genesis. Zombie-ism has been used as cinematic metaphor for racism, totalitarianism, consumerism – and quite a few more ‘isms,’ too. That’s a key to the popularity of zombie fiction: the individual versus the bloc, representing any one of society’s demeaning structures. ZOMBIELAND, however, is content to take zombies at face value – and then shoot them in that face value. It is, as its title suggests, a playground, and not much more. One interesting scene has the protagonists gleefully demolishing a store full of Native American trinkets, in the middle of an American wasteland. This may be taken as a statement on the ugly ends of the manifest destiny – or something – but the filmmakers never to return to, or expand upon this idea. Hey, fair’s fair. They know their audience – and in the auditorium in which I saw ZOMBIELAND, that was teen boys, who applauded the credits like they’d just watched ‘La Traviata.’

As zombie comedies (zombedies?) go, Edgar Wright’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD will hold the crown, I expect, in perpetuity. The clarity and cleverness of that film’s concept put it squarely in that first category of comedy, long may SHAUN reign. But ZOMBIELAND manages to wring a lot of humor from the post-apocalyptic world into which SHAUN doesn’t venture, and it’s hard to imagine another zombie comedy coming along that won’t have to try awful hard to traipse around the land ably covered here.


Connecticut Post Cinemas, Milford, Connecticut

Friday October 2, 5:20pm showing