Tag Archives: Harold Ramis

A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (June – Part 2)

Dragonslayer (June 26)
For Your Eyes Only (June 26)
The Great Muppet Caper (June 26)
Stripes (June 26)

In my last post I wrote about how June 1981 could be ranked as one of the all time best movie months based on the quality of the films, their box office success and continued popularity forty years later. Now we’ll dig a little deeper into the best movie month’s best movie weekend with a review of the films released in the U.S. the weekend of June 26th 1981.

The Great Muppet Caper (June 26) was the second feature film in the Muppet franchise, and director (and muppet creator) Jim Henson’s film directorial debut. By 1981 the Muppets franchise was in full swing: their prime time television series The Muppet Show had just completed its fifth and final season, and two years earlier 1979’s The Muppet Movie earned $65 million at the box office. So going into The Great Muppet Caper you know it’ll have the usual cast of beloved characters, catchy tunes, celebrity cameos and humor that is also appreciated by adults. The film begins with reporters Kermit and Fozzie and photographer Gonzo unceremoniously fired from their newspaper jobs for missing the day’s biggest story when a jewel heist occurs practically under their noses. Determined to crack the case, they fly to London (though their tickets didn’t include a proper landing) to interview famous fashion designer Lady Holiday (played by the great Diana Rigg) for information on her stolen necklace. But instead Kermit finds Miss Piggy, who leads Kermit to believe she is Lady Holiday, and it’s love at first sight. While out on their first date at a restaurant (well, actually supper club…), Miss Piggy is framed for the theft of Lady Holiday’s diamond necklace, and Kermit and the gang are determined to get her off the hook. The cast includes Charles Grodin as Lady Holiday’s smarmy brother Nicky, with cameos by John Cleese, Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley. Overall The Great Muppet Caper is still an enjoyable film filled with the troupe’s trademark witty comedy (with that hint of vaudevillian flair), but the story and musical numbers didn’t match the charm of the first film and at times feels like more of a made for TV movie. It earned $31 million at the North American box office against a $14 million budget.

For Your Eyes Only (June 24 UK, June 26 US) was my cinematic introduction to James Bond and is still my favorite film of the franchise. For Your Eyes Only, with the iconic Roger Moore in his fifth turn as Agent 007, has a more grounded, contemporary story compared to Moonraker or The Spy Who Loved Me, without the over the top elements (such as villains with multi billion dollar hideouts or fantastical plots for destruction or domination) that would eventually become cliché and fodder for parody. For Your Eyes Only begins with a stunt filled helicopter sequence in which Bond puts an old nemesis to rest, and he is soon called to action after a British surveillance ship disguised as a fishing boat is destroyed by a forgotten World War II era sea mine and sinks to the bottom of the Ionian Sea off of Albania. Lost in the wreckage is British Intelligence’s ATAC transmitter, created to transmit ballistic missile launch orders to their submarines. The Soviets have caught wind of this and the chase is on to recover it first with stops along the way in Spain, Italy and Greece. Screenwriters Richard Maibaum, Michael G. Wilson and director John Glen (in his directorial debut after a notable editing career which included On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) created an uncomplicated spy thriller without sacrificing action or suspense. The motorcycle/ski chase in Cortina, Italy was especially well done, and second unit director Willy Bogner Jr. deserves mention here. Cinematographer Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi, Octopussy, Runaway Train), who had two other releases in 1981 with Eye of the Needle and Caveman, expertly filled the screen with For Your Eyes Only’s fantastic locations (with Corfu doubling for the scenes in Spain). The cast included the great Chaim Topol (Flash Gordon, Fiddler on the Roof), Carole Bouquet (Day of the Idiots, New York Stories), Julian Glover (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Empire Strikes Back) and Lynn-Holly Johnson (The Watcher in the Woods, Ice Castles). For Your Eyes Only earned $54 million at the U.S. box office and $159 worldwide against its $28 million budget.

Dragonslayer (June 26), directed by Matthew Robbins, is an underrated fantasy film with high production value and a story that has the tone of a good old fashioned sword and sorcery adventure novel. It’s a lighter film than April 1981’s Excalibur, but that plays perfectly to Dragonslayer’s more polished cinematography and production design compared to John Boorman’s darker Arthurian cinematic take. The film begins with a young woman’s sacrifice to the dragon Verminthrax Pejorative in an effort to appease it and spare the city of Urland from attack. Soon after a group from Urland journeys to Cragganmore to seek the sorcerer Ulrich’s help in destroying Verminthrax. But before Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) can make the journey back with them to Urland, King Casiodorus’s guards arrive, led by Tyrian (John Hallam) who is cynical of Ulrich’s and all wizard’s powers. Ulrich invites Tyrian to test his command of magic by stabbing him in the chest, and to everyone’s surprise it actually kills the old wizard. With his master dead, young apprentice Galen (Peter MacNichol) packs up for the journey to Urland and his date with destiny against the dragon. But while his magic seems to trap Verminthrax deep under his mountain lair, they soon learn you can’t keep a good dragon down and King Casiodorus resumes the lottery to select the next young woman to sacrifice. Galen must now face the dragon with more than an apprentice’s spells. Cinematographer Derek Vanlint’s (Alien) compositions and color values of the lush forests reminded me of the beautifully painted covers of the fantasy books I read (and tried to copy on canvas) when I was younger. The miniature model work to bring the film’s dragon Verminthrax Pejorative to life brings a texture and realism that is missing from too perfect CGI. It’s a shame Dragonslayer didn’t recoup its $18 million dollar budget, only earning $14 million in domestic box office which unfortunately may have been due to its niche genre rather than the crowded June 26th box office weekend (it earned $2.4 million its opening weekend, less than The Great Muppet Caper’s $2.9 million). On a personal level, one small thing that makes the movie going experience even better for me is when the art of a film’s poster accurately represents the story and the film lives up to the anticipation the poster creates. Artist Jeffrey Catherine Jones’s poster for Dragonslayer makes me wish painted movie posters would be the standard again. It truly was a magical time.

Stripes

Release Date: June 26, 1981
Starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Warren Oates, John Candy, John Larroquette, P.J. Soles, Sean Young
Directed by Ivan Reitman; Written by Len Blum, Dan Goldberg and Harold Ramis; Music by Elmer Bernstein

When the topic of classic comedies comes up, Animal House (1978), Airplane (1980), Caddyshack (1980) and The Blues Brothers (1980) are generally the first films mentioned and for good reason. These comedies brought a new level of outrageousness to the genre, launched film careers, and set the standard for film comedy for decades. But one classic and beloved comedy that deserves equal mention and also holds up forty years later is Ivan Reitman’s classic Army comedy Stripes starring Bill Murray and Harold Ramis.

By 1981, Murray had established his film career with Meatballs (1980), Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) and Caddyshack (1980), which was also Ramis’s directorial debut. Their collaboration with director Ivan Reitman on Stripes is the perfect showcase for their style of humor and set the tone for their future work together on Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2. But compared to the Ghostbusters films, Stripes is a simpler comedy that relies more on Murray and Ramis’s perfect chemistry based on their laid back, subtle approach (with a touch of wise-ass humor) that doesn’t play it too far over the top.

John Winger (Bill Murray) is a photographer (though not exactly motivated enough to include the word aspiring…) who works a day job as a taxi driver while his best friend Russell Ziskey teaches questionable English as a second language to new immigrants. A rude passenger leads Winger to quit his job (with the type of dramatic panache that most people wish they could add), and while that alone would constitute a bad day for some folks, Winger’s car is repossessed, he drops his pizza, and his girlfriend Anita, fed up with his inability to move forward in life, finally leaves him. Using the moment to finally take stock in himself, Winger talks Russell into joining the Army with him. With nothing of value to really lose, they enlist and soon after are taking their bus ride to destiny…or in this case Fort Arnold (after flirting with two attractive MP’s at the bus depot).

Drill Sergeant Hulka (Warren Oates) sees Winger for the slacker he is and uses every opportunity to make an example of him and whip him into shape. But hundreds of push ups later, Winger’s mouth still gets him into trouble and leads to the platoon getting worked harder. Captain Stillman (John Larroquette) is the officer that everyone loves to hate: a stuffed uniform with a pretentious enthusiasm and an inability to lead or command respect. He’s under orders to find the base’s best platoon to take over the Army’s EM-50 project, and at first glance Hulka’s underachieving platoon looks safely out of the picture.

After a rough day on the training course, a fed up Winger challenges Hulka to take on a rope climbing obstacle himself in front of the platoon, while over on the mortar firing range Stillman orders a group of inept soldiers to fire a round indiscriminately. When Hulka easily rope climbs to the top of the obstacle, he quickly hears the incoming mortar shell and is unable to duck to safety when his obstacle his hit, plunging him to the ground seriously injured. With Hulka out of commission Winger takes the group out for a night on the town at a local (cough) gentleman’s establishment that includes scantily dressed women and mud wrestling. He convinces Dewey “Ox” Oxberger (John Candy) to take them on in the mud wrestling ring, but the bar is quickly raided and they’re all arrested. But MP’s Stella (PJ Soles – Carrie, Halloween, Rock n’ Roll High School) and Louise (Sean Young – Blade Runner, Dune, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), now on their third run-in with Winger and Russell, take them back to base without any hassle. But Winger, in the spur of the moment breaks into General Barnicke’s empty house and Stella and Louise’s true feelings for Winger and Russell come out.

Stillman takes pleasure in telling the platoon that General Barnicke will see them for the screw ups they really are and they’ll have to repeat basic training. Winger and Russell make it back to the barracks to find the platoon too accepting of their fate and convinces them to pull an all nighter to cram everything they need to know to pass and graduate. They wake up an hour late the next morning, crash the in-progress graduation ceremony improperly dressed, and put on a demonstration that wows the crowd and General Barnicke, who admires their initiative in the face of losing their drill sergeant and assigns them to the EM-50 project in Italy.

The platoon arrives for their new assignment in Italy but their enthusiasm is quickly brought back down to earth when Sergeant Hulka’s creepy voice greats them in their barracks. Their job is to guard the EM-50 Urban Assult Vehicle: an RV equipped with high tech computers and weapons. But even with that new level of responsibility, and possibly the simplest job in the Army, Winger and Russell just can’t seem to play by the rules, and their cavalier handling of the EM-50 puts the platoon, Hulka and Stillman in some good old fashioned Cold War jeopardy.

No spoilers here. Part of what makes Stripes a great film and comedy is the supporting cast that perfectly complements Murray and Ramis, adding an extra layer that endears the misfit platoon to the audience. Larroquette (Night Court) and Oates (The Wild Bunch, Dillinger) are cast perfectly as the film’s foils, and even the smaller roles played by Judge Reinhold (Elmo), John Diehl (Cruiser) and Conrad Dunn (Francis…I mean, Psycho) lead to some memorable characters and classic lines. Be honest, how many of us have said or heard “Lighten up, Francis?” at least a few dozen times in the last 40 years?

Stripes turned its $10 million budget into an $85 million North American box office return, landing at #5 of the Top Ten grossing films of 1981. The film works on all levels, but special mention needs to be made of composer Elmer Bernstein, whose fantastic score keeps the film and the audience energized throughout its well paced run time of 106 minutes. I’ve seen the 123 minute director’s cut shown recently on the streaming services, and for years I’d heard of the additional scenes that answer where Winger and Ziskey were when they went AWOL, their unexpected predicament and how they got out of it. But I’m of the opinion that Stripes (and many other films that I will likely revisit down the road) works better without the additional scenes. If you’re a fan of the film, check out the director’s cut, but if you’re experiencing this near perfect comedy for the first time, go with the theatrical version.

While I missed it during its theatrical run in 1981, I watched it countless times on cable TV throughout the decade, making Stripes one of my favorite comedies of the 80’s and one that I return to as often as Animal House, Blues Brothers and Airplane! Stripes is the kind of film where you can’t help but root for the characters, quote a few lines and just laugh your ass off.

Next Up: Fante’s Inferno continues its retrospective with the films of July 1981!

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The Summer of ’84: Ghostbusters

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie going with a look back at the films of the Summer of 1984.

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters Movie Poster

Release Date: June 8, 1984

Directed by Ivan Reitman; Screenplay by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis

Starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson, William Atherton, Annie Potts

For the three years that I’ve been writing my retrospectives on the films of the Summers of 1982, 1983 and now 1984, whether it’s the summer’s biggest blockbuster or one of the smaller hidden gems, there’s always been that one film in each year’s summer lineup that I look forward to reviewing the most.  The Summer of ’84 had a very strong lineup of high grossing crowd pleasers (particularly Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins), but the film that stands out the most from that summer is Ivan Reitman’s classic supernatural comedy Ghostbusters.

When I first saw Ghostbusters on the Summer of ’84’s lineup, my first thought was “How the heck has it been thirty years?!” (a sentiment shared by many of my friends).  It doesn’t feel like that much time has passed because countless screenings of Ghostbusters over the years have kept it fresh in my mind.  I’ve seen the film more times than any other released during the Summer of ’84 and I still quote some of the more memorable lines (say “Don’t cross the streams” to anyone over 40 and they’ll immediately get the Ghostbusters reference).

The film begins with a librarian experiencing an encounter with a ghost in the New York Public Library.  Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) drags Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) from his shady student research experiment to investigate the occurrence with Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis).  They encounter the ghost first hand, and return to their office at Columbia University to find their equipment being removed and their funding cut off due to questionable research and dubious results.  Confronted with the prospect of never working in academia again and having to find work in the private sector, Venkman proposes they strike out on their own and start a company dedicated to catching ghosts.  Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) contacts the Ghostbusters when she opens her refrigerator and finds another dimension and a demonic dog.  Smitten, Venkman takes a personal interest in her case.  After a slow start, business picks up with a high level of paranormal activity in New York City, but they’re shut down by the EPA for unlicensed equipment and the ectoplasm hits the fan.

The last time I saw Ghostbusters was during the pre-CGI era and its effects were still pretty cutting edge.  Going into this week’s screening I had to prepare myself that the effects of Ghostbusters, while amazing back in the 80’s, would look dated by today’s standards.  Watching Ghostbusters again this week I realized my reservations were unfounded.  The film is just as enjoyable today because it’s the story and the cast that make this movie great.  The effects are secondary to Aykroyd and Ramis’s script, Reitman’s direction and a talented cast.  Bill Murray is the anchor of the Ghostbusters as Dr. Peter Venkman but the rest of the cast doesn’t take the back seat, with each actor elevating the comedy by adding their own genius: the everyman quality of Dan Aykroyd’s Dr. Ray Stantz, the late, great Harold Ramis’ deadpan Dr. Igon Spengler, to the supporting characters played by Sigourney Weaver as the Ghostbusters client and Venkman’s love interest Dana Barrett, her dorky accountant neighbor Louis played by Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson as their newhire Winston Zeddmore, and William Atherton as the arrogant EPA bureaucrat Walter Peck.

I remember watching Ghostbusters in the theater back in June of 1984.  It opened the same weekend as Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which is surprising considering even with that direct competition and their neck and neck battle for the weekend box office ($13.6 million for Ghostbusters to $12.5 million for Gremlins) Ghostbusters still grossed over $200 million as the top grossing film of the summer and the #2 grossing film of 1984. It’s easy to see why both films were favorites of my generation, they’re both fun movies that were perfect for summer.  But in the long run I understand why Ghostbusters would prevail as the more popular film because it was more accessible to an adult audience, while Gremlins feels like more of a guilty pleasure.

I may have seen Gremlins in the theater first, but that didn’t take away from the enjoyment of watching Ghostbusters that wonderful summer.  One thing I enjoyed the most when I revisited Ghostbusters this week was that I was able to pick up on a number of one-liners that would have been over my head at age 12.  I also enjoyed the fact that for the first time since June 1984 I was able to see Ghostbusters as it was meant to be seen in letterbox format rather than the pan and scan version that was on cable TV and home video for over 20 years.  I was able to overlook the dated special effects because despite the supernatural/paranormal aspect of the story, the movie wasn’t as heavy on the visual effects as I thought.  Had the film been shot today (or rather, when the reboot is filmed in the next couple of years), CGI would have dominated the screen and at the end of the day would only look fake.  In spite of CGI’s ability to create a whole world out of a green screen shot, in many cases it only ends up being a distraction rather than a seamless effect because it just doesn’t look “right.”

On that note I have to say it was quite refreshing to see New York City as it was in 1984.  The establishing shot of New York Public Library at the beginning of the film is hidden by scaffolding because maintenance work was actually being done on the facade at that time.  If shot today the scaffolding would have been magically removed by CGI and a majority of the cityscape would have been painted in.  I loved just seeing New York as it was shot on a hard negative, particularly that every corner of Manhattan you saw in Ghostbusters wasn’t dominated by a bank, pharmacy or Starbucks.

I guess the main purpose of my revisiting Ghostbusters this week wasn’t to see if it still holds up 30 years later, because every screening of this classic comedy has been equally enjoyable for me over the years.   What I really found myself thinking more than anything was the lost opportunity to get four comedic geniuses back together for a third installment of one of the great comedies of the 80’s.  Murray, Ramis, Aykroyd and Reitman are at the top of their games for Ghostbusters, which makes the fact that they’ll never all be in Ghostbusters 3 all the more heartbreaking for fans of the first two.  There’s been talk of Bridesmaids director Paul Feig in discussions for a reboot of Ghostbusters, possibly with an all female cast.  As funny as that film might be, and as much money as it might gross, it wouldn’t provide the same sense of anticipation of a sequel or the nostalgia of the joy of watching the first two Ghostbusters films.  In my humble opinion the Ghostbusters are Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson.  Without them and Ivan Reitman, a reboot just doesn’t have the soul of a beloved original.  And without them, who you gonna call?

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The Summer of ’83: National Lampoon’s Vacation

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of ’83.

National Lampoon’s Vacation

National Lampoons Vacation Movie Poster

Release Date: July 29, 1983

Directed by Harold Ramis; Screenplay by John Hughes based on his short story Vacation ’58

Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Imogene Coca, Randy Quaid, Jane Krakowski, John Candy, Christie Brinkley

National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of the films that I looked forward to the most going into this retrospective.  Even though I tend to concentrate on fantasy, sci-fi and comic book films I have to include a classic comedy now and then.  There are movies that you enjoy, there are movies that you watch many times over, but every so often there’s that one movie that you just seem to empathize with.  National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of those movies, and 30 years later it still gets an audience to laugh at its classic scenes and cringe at the memories they bring back of our own summer family vacations.  I’m sure most folks over the age of 40 hear a few bars of Lindsay Buckingham’s Holiday Roads on a long distance drive.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) plans a cross country drive from Chicago to California with wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and teenage kids Rusty and Audrey (Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron).  He’s convinced himself (but not his family) that a road trip to Wally World (a theme park based on Disney World) will allow them to experience the bonding and quality time they wouldn’t experience by flying.  The trip starts on the wrong foot when the Antarctica Blue Sport Wagon they ordered from the car dealership hasn’t arrived and the only car available for them is the frumpy, olive green, wood paneled, eight headlighted Road Queen Family Truckster.  Along the way their car is vandalized in St. Louis, they’re stuck with Ellen’s annoying Aunt Edna in the back seat, money runs out and a wrong turn totals their car.  But, as the ever patient Ellen says, “With every day there’s new hope.”

The film has great cast led by Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, but it’s the supporting actors in their cameos that add the extra layers of humor that keep the laughs going: James Keach as the highway patrol officer that goes from threatening to crying in a scene that is both hilarious and just wrong at the same time, John Candy as the Wally World security guard dragged into Clark’s breakdown, and Randy Quaid as Ellen’s ne’er-do-well cousin Eddie that suckers them into driving Aunt Edna from Kansas to Phoenix.  It was a treat to see comedic icon Imogene Coca as Aunt Edna in Vacation, but her role provided only a fraction of the comedic gold she brought to TV viewers on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in the 1950’s and I wish there was a little more written for her.  But the scene stealer throughout the film is Clark’s muse of the road played by Christie Brinkley.  Is there anything more 80’s than Christie Brinkley and a red Ferrari?

In under two hours, director Harold Ramis is able to pack in urban plight, teenage drug use, underage drinking, animal cruelty, death and a midlife crisis on the Griswold family’s road trip to Wally World.  John Hughes’ screenplay was based on his short story Vacation ’58, and soon after his career as a director would explode with 80’s teen classics like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The running gag in the subsequent three Vacation films (European Vacation, Christmas Vacation and Vegas Vacation) was the casting of different actors to play Rusty and Audrey.  Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron will always be the Rusty and Audrey movie fans will remember, and it would have been fun to see them reprise their roles in European Vacation.  Barron was supposed to return as Audrey in the second film, but when Anthony Michael Hall had a conflict starring in Weird Science (also directed by John Hughes), the role of Audrey was re-cast as well.

I wasn’t able to see National Lampoon’s Vacation in the theater back in 1983 due to its R rating (although the film is very tame by today’s standards), but it’s a film I watched on many a Saturday night with my friends and cousins throughout the mid-80’s.  Back then we appreciated the humor at face value, but 30 years later we now approach the film with a sense of empathy.  Back then, the farthest my family ever drove on our vacations was Montreal, with most of our summer trips taking place in Lake George, NY.  Our version of the Road Queen Family Truckster was a midnight blue 1977 Ford Granada with burgundy pleather interior.  But as fun as those trips were, without fail, just before putting the car in gear for the drive back home, my father would end the trip with, “Next year, I’m taking a vacation by myself!”

This year, my faithful sidekick and I flew out to Colorado and spent a week and a half driving through Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska before flying back to New York.  It was my first time in that part of the country, and the most surreal part of the trip was the lack of cars on the road compared to the Northeast.  Highlights of our trip included Devils Tower, Custer National Park, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands with a few roadside attractions along the way like the giant Campbell’s Soup Can in Colorado, Dinosaur Park in South Dakota and a giant coffee pot in Wyoming.  This was our first real road trip together, and after 30 years of watching Clark Griswold experience everything short of locusts in National Lampoon’s Vacation I couldn’t help but wonder what lay ahead of us on the road.  But along the way, a miracle happened: nothing.  No broken down car, no bad weather, no short fuses (okay, there was that one time I missed a turn and went nuclear a la Clark in the classic “Can we go home” scene).  But it went as smooth as can be and it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.  Coincidentally, next up is a road trip in Europe…

Overall National Lampoon’s Vacation was as I remembered it, although the pace felt a little slower this time around.  And while each scene made me laugh and gain a greater appreciation for the Ramis and Hughes’ style of humor, my older self began to see Clark in a different light.  He was no longer just that nerdy dad who’s best intentions tend  to make everything worse.  At the end of the day, Clark goes through each of those great lengths, much to the chagrin of his family, just to bring them all closer together and have them experience a little bit of fun that they might remember when they’re older.  And watching National Lampoon’s Vacation again 30 years later, I simply smiled and looked forward to the day I’d be behind the wheel of my own version of the Family Truckster, family in tow, on a quest for fun.

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