Review Roundup

This small selection may at first look a little disparate, including as it does two comedies, with release dates separated by a quarter of a century, and a horror movie. The two points of connection are that I watched them all last year, and I didn’t really enjoy any of them.

In today’s roundup:

  • Phantasm (1979)
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
  • Step Brothers (2008)


    Phantasm
    (1979)

    2018 #92
    Don Coscarelli | 89 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Phantasm

    A cult classic horror that spawned a pile of sequels and numerous novelty-packaged disc releases, Phantasm is about a supernatural undertaker, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), who (to quote Wikipedia) “turns the dead of earth into dwarf zombies to be sent to his planet and used as slaves.” Sounds totes plausible, right?

    Well, implausibility is no sin — many great fantasy or horror movies feed off setups that are just as outlandish. No, the problem here comes from the storytelling, because what happens in Phantasm is resolutely illogical. None of it makes any sense. No one behaves plausibly. Is there a mythology? I don’t know, because it all seems random. It appears to operate on some kind of dream logic, wherein stuff… just happens. And then at the end it’s revealed that it was, in fact, all a dream! Eesh. Are either of those things ok? Telling a story with “dream logic”, maybe. But then again, why should that be ok? We can’t control dreams, so we can’t expect them to obey the rules of narrative; but films are consciously made, so surely they should aim for coherence? And as for an “it was all a dream” ending, that’s just about the most despised device in storytelling for a reason. (Of course, there’s an “or was it?!” final twist, because it’s a horror movie and that’s how they always end.)

    It doesn’t help matters that the film simply isn’t well made. No one can act. Characters turn up out of nowhere. Most of it is cheaply shot and uninterestingly edited. There are a couple of good bits of imagery, but the rest of the movie is so nonsensical that that’s all it is — imagery. There’s no meaning attached.

    And yet the Phantasm series has its fans (or, predictably, “Phans”). Perhaps, if we’re being kind, we can say it’s an acquired taste — you either get something from its strangeness or you don’t. Clearly there are people (“Phans”) who see something in it. I wasn’t one of them.

    2 out of 5

    Phantasm featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    National Lampoon’s
    Vacation

    (1983)

    2018 #140
    Harold Ramis | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    National Lampoon's Vacation

    Written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, Vacation certainly has strong pedigree (I’m not even going to begin to list all the classic comedies attributable to their names). It also spawned three sequels and a remake, so it’s clearly popular. Unfortunately, something about it didn’t click with me.

    It’s about a family going on a summer holiday; specifically, a cross-country road trip from Chicago to California, to visit Disney Walley World. Naturally, the journey doesn’t go to plan, and a series of episodic hijinks ensure. These include such hilarious escapades as meeting some black people (who of course steal their hubcaps); falling asleep at the wheel and careening through a town; hanging out with a cousin who French kisses his own daughter; and accidentally dragging their aunt’s dog along behind the car until it dies. Good times!

    There’s also a song by Lindsey “Fleetwood Mac” Buckingham, called Holiday Road, which is played again and again throughout the film. I started out hating it, but by the end I was listening to it on loop while I updated all my post-viewing lists. It’s sort of gloriously terrible. Sadly, I didn’t have the same Stockholm syndrome reaction to the film itself.

    2 out of 5

    Step Brothers
    (2008)

    2018 #204
    Adam McKay | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Step Brothers

    Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly star as two developmentally-stunted man-children who are forced to live together after the former’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) and the latter’s dad (Richard Jenkins) move in together.

    The movie relies on the notion that watching two 40-year-old men behave like bratty 10-year-olds will be constantly hilarious. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. Unlike the infamous recent collaboration between Ferrell and Reilly, Holmes & Watson, this effort does at least manage some funny bits, though they generally occur when it moves away from the primary conceit for a moment. It also has the most implausible sex scene this side of The Room, which is some kind of achievement, I guess.

    2 out of 5

  • Groundhog Day (1993)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #42

    He’s having the day of his life…
    over and over again.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 101 minutes
    BBFC: PG
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 12 February 1993 (USA)
    UK Release: 7th May 1993
    First Seen: TV, c.1996

    Stars
    Bill Murray (Ghostbusters, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou)
    Andie MacDowell (sex, lies, and videotape, Four Weddings and a Funeral)
    Chris Elliott (Cabin Boy, There’s Something About Mary)
    Stephen Tobolowsky (Thelma & Louise, Memento)

    Director
    Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Analyze This)

    Screenwriters
    Harold Ramis (Animal House, Ghostbusters)
    Danny Rubin (S.F.W.)

    Story by
    Danny Rubin (Hear No Evil, Stork Day)

    The Story
    Dispatched to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a TV news team get stuck overnight by a snowstorm. When weatherman Phil Connors wakes up the next morning, he finds it’s Groundhog Day again — he’s stuck in a time loop which no one else is aware of, reliving the despised day over and over again. The only advantage is he might be able to use the special knowledge he gains to woo his producer.

    Our Hero
    Grumpy TV weatherman Phil Connors definitely doesn’t want to be covering the ridiculous Groundhog Day ceremonies, so it’s a personal hell to relive that particular day over and over, possibly for the rest of time. Equally, it might just wind up making him a better man.

    Our Villain
    Who knows what caused Phil’s predicament? Maybe it was the groundhog — he’s in the title, after all.

    Best Supporting Character
    Now, don’t you tell me you don’t remember Ned because he’d sure as heckfire remember you. Ned Ryerson. Needlenose Ned. Ned the Head. From Case Western High. Ned Ryerson, did the whistling belly-button trick at the high school talent show? Bing! Ned Ryerson, got the shingles real bad senior year, almost didn’t graduate? Bing, again. Ned Ryerson, dated Phil’s sister Mary Pat a couple times until Phil told him not to anymore? Ned Ryerson? Bing!

    Memorable Quote
    “Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” — Phil

    Memorable Scene
    Fed up with his limited immortality, Phil tries to commit suicide. It doesn’t work — so he keeps trying, in new and ingenious ways. I mean, when you put it like that it kinda doesn’t sound funny…

    Making of
    So, how long is Phil trapped in the time loop? Director Harold Ramis said the original idea was 10,000 years, though he later said it was probably more like 10 years. Various websites have tried to work it out, because of course. Estimates range from just under 9 years to more like 34 years, in order to account for all the time Phil spends learning to play the piano, become an ice sculptor, etc. In the film itself, we see events from just 38 days.

    Next time…
    The creative team behind the RSC’s successful musical Matilda are working on a stage musical adaptation of Groundhog Day, including songs by Tim Minchin, which will premiere at The Old Vic later this year before opening on Broadway in March 2017.

    Awards
    1 BAFTA (Original Screenplay)
    1 British Comedy Award (Comedy Film)
    1 Saturn Award (Actress (Andie McDowell))
    5 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Actor (Bill Murray), Director, Writing, Costumes)
    Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

    What the Critics Said
    “While Murray’s deadpan putdowns and dry dismissals of provincial peccadilloes are the comic highlights, Groundhog Day is no supercilious rip of small-town U.S.A. Under Ramis’ even-handed, smartly tilted direction, Groundhog Day also shows the strong virtues of small-town decencies and the maturing-effect they have on the glib media-slicker.” — Duane Byrge, The Hollywood Reporter

    Score: 96%

    What the Public Say
    “What has always come best from Bill Murray is a kind of flat, dead-pan delivery, a manner of looking at bizarre situations and sizing them up […] Groundhog Day is right at home for Murray because it affords him at least two dozen moments like that. It is the perfect playground for his kind of humor. Yet, it is something more than that. Here he begins by playing a man who is smug and self-important and slowly transforms into a man who is happy.” — Jerry, armchaircinema

    What the Philosophers Say
    “perhaps the ultimate meditation on man’s struggle to give meaning to his life within the abyss of an inconsequential existence, at least as far as ’90s comedies go.” — Colin Newton, Mind Over Movies

    Verdict

    A Twilight Zone-esque setup gets a comedic twist in the hands of co-writer/director Harold Ramis and star Bill Murray (teaming up in a version of that configuration for the sixth time). While the film is undoubtedly a showcase for Murray’s comedic talents (which is no bad thing), alongside that it develops an endearing vein about what it means to be a good person, touching on some pretty philosophical stuff along the way. It’s also a movie about leading a repetitious life, but it isn’t repetitious itself — surely a feat all of its own.

    How many #43s can there be? There can be only one.

    Ghostbusters (1984)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #37

    They’re here to save the world.

    Also Known As: Ghost Busters, technically.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 105 minutes
    BBFC: PG (1984) | 12A (2011)
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 8th June 1984
    UK Release: 7th December 1984
    First Seen: VHS, c.1990

    Stars
    Bill Murray (Groundhog Day, Lost in Translation)
    Dan Aykroyd (The Blues Brothers, Trading Places)
    Harold Ramis (Stripes, The Last Kiss)
    Ernie Hudson (The Crow, Congo)
    Sigourney Weaver (The Year of Living Dangerously, Gorillas in the Mist)
    Rick Moranis (Little Shop of Horrors, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids)

    Director
    Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Kindergarten Cop)

    Screenwriters
    Dan Aykroyd (The Blues Brothers, Dragnet)
    Harold Ramis (Animal House, Groundhog Day)

    The Story
    After losing their university jobs, a trio of paranormal researchers set up a ghost extermination business. They’re soon hired by Dana Barrett, who believes her apartment is haunted. Turns out it is, by an evil demigod who posses Dana and sets about bringing the world to an end…

    Our Heroes
    They ain’t afraid of no ghosts! Discredited parapsychologists Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz and Egon Spengler set up the Ghostbusters to combat the increasing problem of paranormal activity in New York City, and later recruit Winston Zeddemore to cope with demand.

    Our Villain
    Gozer the Gozerian, a Sumerian god of destruction. Likes to turn his servants into supernatural hounds and allow the good guys to choose the form of their ‘destructor’ — which is how you end up having to fight a 112½-foot marshmallow man.

    Best Supporting Character
    Among a strong cast of memorable characters, one has to feel for William Atherton as antagonistic EPA agent Walter Peck. Peck is so unlikeable that, according to director Ivan Reitman, it “ruined” Atherton’s life: people confronted him as if he were the character, including starting fights in bars. He’s just too good at being a slimy little so-and-so, I guess.

    Memorable Quote
    “Don’t cross the streams.” — Dr. Egon Spengler

    Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
    “Dogs and cats, living together!” — Dr. Peter Venkman (well, we used it a lot…)

    Memorable Scene
    The Ghostbusters fail to stop the coming of Gozer, who shortly declares that the destructor will follow, in a physical form chosen by the team. Although three of them manage to clear their minds, something pops into Ray’s head — “the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never, ever possibly destroy us.” Unless it was eleven storeys tall and motivated by evil, of course.

    Sing the Theme Tune…
    “If there’s something strange in you neighbourhood, who you gonna call?” Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song is as iconic as the movie itself. It lost the Oscar to Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You. Won the BAFTA, though.

    Truly Special Effect
    The film is full of excellent effects work — all done practically, of course, in those pre-CGI days. That also means an abundance of techniques were used, from simple stuff like hanging things on wires or using wind blowers to make library cards fly around, to miniatures with a Godzilla-style man in a suit, to full animation for things like the proton packs’ streams. And it was all produced on such a tight schedule that, according to the film’s effects mastermind, 70-80% of the work was achieved in the first take.

    Making of
    Dan Aykroyd wrote the part of Winston with Eddie Murphy in mind, having just worked with him on Trading Places. When Murphy was unavailable due to working on Beverly Hills Cop, Ernie Hudson was cast. He was so excited by the part that he agreed to do it for half his usual salary, only to then receive a revised script in which Winston had a greatly reduced role. In 2015, Hudson commented, “I love the character and he’s got some great lines, but I felt the guy was just kind of there. I love the movie, I love the guys. I’m very thankful to Ivan for casting me. I’m very thankful that fans appreciate the Winston character. But it’s always been very frustrating — kind of a love/hate thing, I guess.”

    Next time…
    First came The Real Ghostbusters, an animated series that ran from 1986 to 1991 and produced 140 episodes (the addition of The Real to the title being due to another series from the ’70s). Due to its success, the cast and crew were cajoled into making a film sequel, Ghostbusters II, which scared the life out of me when I was about 4. In 2009, Ghostbusters: The Video Game used the likenesses and voices of many of the original cast, and Dan Aykroyd described it as “essentially the third movie.” Rumours and/or plans for a genuine second sequel persisted for a very, very long time (there’s a mass of details here, if you’re interested), though finally seem to have been abandoned in favour of this summer’s all-female reboot.

    Awards
    2 Oscar nominations (Visual Effects, Original Song)
    1 BAFTA (Original Song)
    1 BAFTA nomination (Visual Effects)
    1 Saturn Award (Fantasy Film)
    Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

    What the Critics Said
    “The cast could not be better. Although his role is too small, Aykroyd is endearingly serious as a diehard, but easily scared, ghost-hunter. Harold Ramis, the co-writer of the script, is extremely funny as a hopeless egghead […] But Ghostbusters is primarily a showcase for Murray, who slinks through the movie muttering his lines in his usual cheeky fashion and getting off an occasionally hilarious crack that proves he’s thoroughly enjoying himself.” — Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

    Score: 97%

    What the Public Say
    “the use of special effects, specifically practical effect, shines as well. The ghosts may not be perfectly rendered, but they are so interesting in design and they have so much energy onscreen that you don’t mind it. The practical effects, like having the ground open up or drawers being opened by unseen ghosts are done very well. In a time where many effects-heavy films rely solely on CGI, it’s nice to look back to a time when practical effects were still commonplace in movies and done well in movies.” — Joey Sack, Reel Reactions

    Verdict

    Along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and ThunderCats, I loved Ghostbusters when I was a kid — I had a dressing up set, with a jumpsuit and a proton pack with a yellow foam whatsit for the stream, and one of the traps, and an Ecto-1, and the firehouse playset, and one time I got my fingers caught in the grill on the roof (which was there to pour goo through, because toys) and I’m sure I panicked until liberal application of butter freed me… Good times. I guess back then my love for it was more to do with the animated series than the movie, but the film itself is a work of blockbuster comedy art. The characters are a joy to be around, the dialogue is hilarious and quotable, multiple sequences lodge themselves indelibly in the memory, the special effects are exemplary, and the dramatic stakes can be surprisingly effective for what’s primarily a comedy.

    All together now: “bustin’ makes me feel good!

    #38 will have its revenge… in this post or the next.