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Scrooge Month Day 8: Bill Murray in SCROOGED (1988)

Scrooged 1988Director: Richard Donner

Writers: Mitch Glazer & Michael O’Donoghue, suggested by A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen, Carol Kane, John Murray, Robert Mitchum, Alfre Woodard, Jamie Farr, Robert Goulet, Buddy Hackett, John Houseman, Lee Majors, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mary Lou Retton, Michael J. Pollard, Wendie Malick, Nicholas Phillips

Notes: This is one of the biggest departures from Dickens we’ve seen yet (and the biggest, I suspect, that we will see in this project, although other movies stray even further from the formula). Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a disgruntled television network president who is planning a live production of Scrooge on Christmas Eve, loaded with stars like Buddy Hackett as Ebenezer Scrooge and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. But Frank has lived a rather Scrooge-like life himself, and the Ghosts of Past (Carol Kane), present (David Johansen) and Future are at work once more. We also get Bobcat Goldthwait splitting the Bob Cratchit role with Alfre Woodard (whose young son Calvin, unable to speak for some reason, is our Tiny Tim stand-in), Murray’s younger brother John playing a Fred-like part in the story, and Karen Allen filling in for Scrooge’s lost love Belle in a greatly expanded part than the character has had in any other version of the tale. John Forsythe plays Frank’s late boss, taking the Jacob Marley part.

Thoughts: This weird version of Dickens kicks off with Lee Majors leading an expedition into the North Pole to save Santa from a bunch of terrorists, which he accomplishes by arming the crap out of Santa, Mrs. Claus and all the Elves, all cast against a setting that could have fallen from Tim Burton’s brain. (It doesn’t hurt that we get a Danny Elfman score). It turns out to be one of several horrendous specials planned for the IBC network this year, all being shown to Frank Cross (Bill Murray). As we get to know Frank, we see quickly he’s not exactly Scrooge. Sure, he’s self-centered and greedy and completely lost touch with everything that matters in life – he’s so callous that when a woman has a heart attack and dies after seeing his Scrooge promo he considers it nothing but world-class publicity — but he’s still played by Bill Murray. Such a character cannot be without a sense of humor, and after yesterday’s bitingly joyless performance by George C. Scott, this is already a drastic improvement.

Forsythe’s Lew Hayward is the most gruesome apparition I’ve seen all month. Although he’s talkative and chipper, he looks like a zombie – and not a fresh one either. He’s dried up, desiccated, with rats crawling from a hole in his skull caused by the still-embedded golf ball that killed him. He fills his role neatly, but the sarcastic way Bill Murray deals with him deflates the character right up until Lew gets pissed and dangles him out the window to prove his point. It’s a shame that Murray didn’t have time to call his friends – he knows some people with ghost experience, after all.

Yet another thing that sets Frank Cross’s story apart from Ebenezer Scrooge is that he’s given a chance to return to his life after each ghostly encounter. His meeting with Lew Hayward puts him in touch with Claire Phillips – played to charming perfection by Karen Allen. Claire, it seems, is the one that got away, the love of Frank’s life, the girl who he left behind when he got big. Unlike Scrooge, Frank has a second chance – Claire is still single and she’s clearly happy to see him again. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t come close to screwing it up all over again.

David Johansen is our Ghost of Christmas Past – here depicted as a rough New York cab driver whose taxi takes Frank back in time to relive childhood Christmases where his father (Brian Doyle-Murray) gave him meat and less distant years when things with Claire were pretty good… until they went bad. Johansen is a nice character – funny and sarcastic at the same time, even with his harsh edge. Despite that, though, despite heaping verbal (and even a little physical) abuse on Frank, you never lose your faith that his ultimate goal is for Frank’s ultimate good.

In Carol Kane, we get a Christmas Present that looks like a tooth fairy and has the clear-headedness of a toddler. She also has no problem with smacking Frank around when he needs it, which he frequently does. Her visits with Frank’s brother and Alfre Woodard’s family do more than the traditional Christmas Present visits, where Scrooge usually sees what he’s missing out on and begins to feel empathy for Tiny Tim. Here we also see how good everyone else is in comparison to him—Woodard goes behind Frank’s back and sends his brother a VCR for Christmas rather than the proscribed towel he’s handing out to everyone else. This is also where the movie takes a sharp turn into melancholy when we encounter a homeless man (Michael J. Pollard) Frank had earlier met at Claire’s soup kitchen, now frozen to death. It’s a perhaps the saddest moment in the film, and it gives Frank just the right blow to turn the chink forming in his armor into a full-on crack. It’s just such a sad, hopeless, pathetic sight you can’t help but be affected, and Murray’s enraged screaming at Pollard’s frozen corpse is the clearest indication yet he has a conscience in there somewhere. He may be yelling at Herman for being stupid, but he really hates himself for not doing anything to save the man when he had the chance.

The puppet they use for Christmas Future here is the scariest damn version of the character yet, making his first appearance on a wall of television monitors and reaching out of it for Murray just before Bobcat Goldthwait bursts in with his shotgun. (More on that shortly.) The future he shows Frank is even bleaker than Scrooge’s usual future. Claire isn’t just alone, she’s embraced Frank’s gospel of greed. The non-talking Calvin (Nicholas Phillips) isn’t dead, but he’s been committed to a sanitarium. Brother James comes off the best in the future – he and his wife (Wendie Malick) are the only two people who show up to watch Frank’s cremation, except for Frank himself… and he, naturally, winds up in the coffin.

Although Bobcat Goldthwait’s Eliot Loudermilk is filling the Bob Cratchit archetype, a Cratchit he’s not. He has good intentions, but after Frank fires him in the opening scenes of the movie, he goes nuts. He shows up later toting a shotgun, planning to get his revenge. Fortunately for him, Frank has been redeemed by that point and not only gives him his job back, but recruits him as his sidekick in the glorious finale, in which he takes over the studio at gunpoint and shows off his newly-discovered Christmas spirit to the world.

The finale, in fact, is why I love this movie so much. Not to say the rest of it isn’t entertaining, but if it weren’t for the ending, when Bill Murray stands in front of the cameras and expresses his joyful spirit to the whole world, even winning back Claire. The happiness and sincerity in that final sequence is maybe the most believable such redemption I’ve ever seen a Scrooge undergo. He shouts at the camera, he pleads with the audience for everybody to embrace the feeling that’s overtaking him, and Bill Murray sells every inch of it. And if you don’t laugh when he starts talking to the audience in the movie theater, compelling them to sing along, I don’t know if I want to know you. Scrooged may be the least Dickensian of the films we’ve watched, but it’s easily one of my favorites.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Lunatics and Laughter Day 19: Zombieland (2009)

zombielandtDirector: Ruben Fleischer

Writers: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Bill Murray

Plot: Zombies have taken over the world, and only a few isolated survivors remain. A young man from Columbus, Ohio (Jesse Eisenberg) has lasted longer than anyone he knows thanks to a carefully constructed set of rules, assembled mainly through trial and error. Little things make a difference in Zombieland: cardio, “double tapping” (always use a second bullet to make sure the zombie is dead), and of course, fastening your seatbelt. He’s a nervous sort, afraid of clowns, and mostly a loner. “Columbus” is making the long journey home from Texas in the hopes that his parents may still be alive. He is picked up by a cowboy hat-wearing fella in an SUV who calls himself Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). In order not to get attached, Tallahassee insists on using their hometowns as identifiers, rather than bothering with real names. Tallahassee’s passion for killing zombies is matched only by his craving to find a Twinkie, and when they encounter a supermarket, Tallahassee insists on stopping to check it out. Instead, they find a young woman who identifies herself as Wichita (Emma Stone). Her younger sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) has been bitten, and they’re begging for help – they need a gun to kill her. Tallahassee is about to pull the trigger, but Wichita asks to do it herself. Taking the gun, she turns on the men, stealing their car, ammunition, and weapons; it was all a scam.

The girls head west, planning to get to a supposed safe zone called Pacific Playland. Tallahassee, meanwhile, finds a Hummer in good condition, loaded with big guns. They set out to find the girls, and although Columbus cautions Tallahassee not to let his anger take him, Tallahassee says he’s got nothing but the little pleasures since he lost his puppy, Buck. They find the SUV on the side of the road, hood open, abandoned. While Tallahassee checks it out, Little Rock hijacks Columbus in the Hummer. The girls rob them, again, but this time take them on the road. Wichita drops the sad news that Columbus, Ohio, burned to the ground during the outbreak. She offers to drop Columbus off so he can find a new path, but he decides to stay with her.

Eventually, they make it to California, where Tallahassee suggests finding and resting in the home of his favorite celebrity: Bill Murray, an unknown quantity to the 12-year-old Little Rock. They split up to search the place for zombies, and Columbus decides to culture Little Rock by showing her Ghostbusters in Murray’s own movie theater. Tallahassee and Wichita, elsewhere, make enough noise to summon a zombie – Murray himself. Or so it seems. Murray, still alive, had himself made up in zombie makeup as a defense. He begins showing his guests a good time, reenacting scenes from his movies, and they convince him to prank the jittery Columbus by pretending to be a zombie again. The joke goes too far and Columbus shoots Bill Murray in the chest. As he dies, Murray identifies his one regret: Garfield.

As they decompress and remember the things they miss from the Pre-Zombieland world, Columbus realizes the “Buck” Tallahassee has been mourning isn’t really his dog, like he said, but his son. He has a good cry, finally letting the emotion out. Later, Wichita brings Columbus a bottle of wine. As they trade life stories, Wichita asks him to dance, and he’s about to kiss her when Tallahassee interrupts, asking for help in moving the couch to build a fort.

In the morning, the girls take the Hummer and leave the guys behind, Wichita upset that she almost broke her cardinal rule: the sisters trust no one but each other. They drive the last few miles to the Pacific Playland amusement park. Instead of the zombie-free paradise they were promised, when Wichita turns the power back on the lights and sounds draw all the undead for miles. They are trapped at the top of a ride, surrounded. At Murray’s house, Columbus fails to persuade Tallahassee to help him find the girls and starts to set out on his own. When he drives a motorcycle into a hedge, Columbus takes pity on him, and they take one of Murray’s cars to Pacific Playland. Tallahassee lures the zombies away from the ride so he can blow them away. He locks himself in a carnival booth, shooting through the bars and ceiling, killing all the zombies he can. Columbus, meanwhile, makes it to the girls just in time: there’s a zombie climbing the ladder towards them and they’re out of ammo. But before he can charge to the rescue he encounters his greatest fear: a zombie clown. Taking a page from Tallahasse, he beats the clown to hell and saves the girls. Wichita gives him a special prize – her real name – and he kisses her. As they leave, Little Rock tosses Tallahassee a Twinkie from the snack bar, and the odd little family sets out on the road again.

Thoughts: Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick originally conceived Zombieland as a TV series, and looking at the movie through that prism, it’s actually pretty obvious. It plays much like a TV pilot, introducing a cast of characters and a situation through which it would be easy to tell a lot of stories over an extended period of time. It also explains why, unlike most zombie movies, the entire principal cast survives the film. There are a lot of short holdovers from that TV script as well – the rules for surviving Zombieland were intended as part of the TV framing sequence, and the “Zombie Kill of the Week” was going to literally be a “kill of the week.” It also suggests that there may have been intended answers to some of the assorted questions the story leaves open – why sisters Wichita and Little Rock have different home towns, for example, or perhaps even more tellingly, why on Earth the electricity is still on everywhere we go. Seriously, throughout the film we see a total of five living people post-outbreak, how is it that the only place with no energy is the amusement park, and all it takes to get that going again is Wichita hitting a few switches?

Those minor holes aside, the movie is still intensely enjoyable. The story comes across as a clear Type A horror movie, but that doesn’t diminish the comedy at all. We get a group of very funny, very relatable characters in this movie, each of whom displays more depth and potential than their archetypes would suggest. Columbus is your standard awkward nerd, and the others tease him as such, but at the same time the very fact that he’s survived so long on his own reveals the sort of steel he really has. Tallahassee’s tenderness is hidden for much of the movie, but obvious when he decides to open up about his son, and integral in his decision to join Columbus on the rescue mission. The girls are tough and fight dirty, but at the core is a mutual desire to protect each other. We don’t know why, exactly, they’re so damaged, but that damage is presented in a believable way that makes their behavior easy to understand. The four of them fit together very naturally and very organically, in a way that leaves open plenty of room for the comedy.

I was reluctant to talk about the Bill Murray sequence in my recap, because not only is it a delicious, hysterical segment of the film, but it was such a surprise when I saw it that I think it ratcheted my overall enjoyment of the movie as a whole, and I hate to spoil that for anybody else. But then, I suppose anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet either won’t read this recap or doesn’t care about spoilers, so why skip talking about something so memorable? The thing is, the film was planned in such a way that any of several celebrities could have been plugged into those scenes, depending entirely on who they could get to agree to do it. I don’t know who else was under consideration and I don’t care: Murray was perfect. His pedigree, the chance to listen to him as he performed some of his greatest one-liners, the admission that making Garfield was a terrible mistake… who else could have possibly filled that role in such a perfect fashion?

The finale, not to overstate it, is the greatest thing ever committed to celluloid. Killing zombies is always fun. Doing it while riding roller coasters, marching through a haunted house, or dangling from one of those spinning swing rides? It’s the stuff that dreams are made of. Or at least a bitchin’ video game. In fact, that’s what the last fight actually feels like: we’re watching Tallahassee and Columbus fight their way through the final level, except instead of one boss it’s just more zombies than anybody has ever seen.

The zombies themselves really feel like a secondary element to this film. While it wouldn’t work as well if the apocalypse was caused by vampires or a virus or something of those sorts, the zombies are just stage dressing. In many ways, this movie shares a lot in common with that other zombie TV show that did get made. In The Walking Dead, the zombies are usually relegated to the background – a problem to be dealt with, to be sure, but not the major thrust of the stories. The same is true here. The major difference is that The Walking Dead plays the scenario for drama, while this is a relatively lighthearted comedy. The only truly serious moment, in terms of character, is when we realize that Tallahassee is mourning a dead child instead of a dead puppy, and our hearts break a little… something that is rectified only moments later when he wipes his tears away with a wad of now-useless money.

Like I’ve said for several of our recent films, I hope the suggested sequel to this someday gets made. Sure, Eisenberg and Stone have both become much bigger stars since the film premiered and Breslin is a teenager now, but that doesn’t mean the time lapse couldn’t be worked into the story in an organic way. By design, these are characters that have a lot of life left in them and much more story to tell. I just hope, sooner or later, we get to see it.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 6: Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters movie posterDirector: Ivan Reitman

Writers: Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis

Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, William Atherton, David Margulies, Slavitza Jovan

Plot: A librarian in the New York is terrified by an apparition that levitates books and spits cards into the air. A team of university parapsychologists are called in to investigate the phenomenon: Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). They find a fully-materialized ghost in the stacks, and when it attacks, they flee. Returning to the university, they find that they’ve being evicted for sloppy and inconsistent results, not to mention Venkman’s immature behavior. But Venkman has an idea: Ray and Egon are on the verge of developing a system to capture a ghost. Venkman convinces Ray to mortgage his family home to fund their new operation: the Ghostbusters.

The team buys an abandoned firehouse and sets up shop, but are initially low on clients. They finally get a break when contacted by a violinist named Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver). When Dana opens her refrigerator, she sees a bizarre temple with a hellhound that growls a name: “Zuul.” Although she is skeptical of the Ghostbusters’s credentials, she doesn’t know where else to turn, and she winds up bringing Venkman to investigate her apartment. Although he finds no evidence of ghosts, he makes a pass at Dana and vows to solve her problem.

They finally get a paying job when a swank hotel summons them to investigate a disturbance on the 12th floor. Using Egon’s new inventions – a proton pack to use as a weapon against the creatures and a trap to contain them – the three of them locate and capture their first ghost, a little green spudball that manages to slime Venkman before they take him down. Egon does give them one bit of safety advice while working: don’t cross the streams from your proton pack, as “it would be bad.”

Suddenly, the New York area is awash with reports of spectral activity and the Ghostbusters are swamped with work, rushing from one bust to another and becoming media darlings in the progress. They get so busy they hire more help, Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson). As they train him on the equipment, they get a visit from Environmental Protection Agency representative Walter Peck (William Atherton). Venkman refues to show him their storage facility, and Peck promises to come back with court order. Egon, meanwhile, is growing concerned that the amount of spectral activity in the city is growing to dangerous proportions.

Venkman goes back to Dana, telling her he’s found the name Zuul in his research: Zuul was a minion of a dark Sumerian apparition called Gozer. He convinces her to go to dinner with him so they can “discuss the case.” That night, a gargoyle on the roof of her building cracks open, revealing a living hellhound underneath. The beast attacks and pulls Dana into a glowing doorway. A second beast attacks and possesses Dana’s neighbor, the nebbishy Louis Tully (Rick Moranis). When Venkman arrives to pick Dana up, she is clearly possessed, asking him if he “the Keymaster.” She introduces herself as “Zuul, the Gatekeeper,” preparing for the coming of “Gozer the Destructor.” Louis, now calling himself Vinz Clortho, the Keymaster, bumbles through the city seeking the Gatekeeper. The police pick him up and bring him to the Ghostbusters’s firehouse, where Egon examines him.

The next morning Peck returns with the police, an electrical worker, and a court order giving him access to the basement. Although Egon and Venkman implore the electrical worker to leave their machines alone, Peck forces him to turn the containment facility off. The machines blow up, spilling all of the captured ghosts back out into the city, and Louis escapes in the chaos. Peck has the Ghostbusters arrested and brought to jail. While in their cell, Ray reveals that he’s been studying the blueprints of Dana and Louis’s apartment building and believes it was designed to act as an antenna of sorts, drawing ghosts to that spot. It was designed by a Gozer-worshipper who wanted to use it to cause the end of the world. The Keymaster returns to the apartment building, where he and the Gatekeeper ascend to the roof.

The Mayor (David Margulies) has the Ghostbusters brought to his office, where Peck accuses them of using hallucinogens and light shows to take advantage of people. Venkman convinces the mayor to let them out, giving them a police escort and national guard backup all the way to the apartment building, where the roof has transformed into Gozer’s temple. As the Ghostbusters reach the roof an enormous doorway opens, spilling light into the city and transforming Dana and Louis back into the Hellhounds. Gozer appears in the form of a woman (Slavitza Jovan). Ray tries to make contact, but when he makes the mistake of telling her they aren’t gods, she blasts them, nearly hurling them from the roof. (This results in one of the greatest lines, not only in movie history, but in western civilization. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

The Ghosbusters go on the offensive, but Gozer easily evades them and vanishes. Her disembodied voice tells them to choose the form of their destroyer. Although Venkman warns them to empty their minds, Ray is unable to draw a blank. Gozer plucks a form from his mind and the city is suddenly attacked by the enormous form of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Egon concludes the only way to reverse the portal through which Gozer came to New York is to cross the streams of the proton packs. The plan works, Gozer’s power is eliminated, and the boys, Dana, and Louis miraculously survive. The city proclaims them to be heroes. Which is great, even when you’ve got 22 stories worth of marshmallow to clean up.

Thoughts: The eighties, by my way of thinking, produced three truly great film franchises. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg gave us Indiana Jones. Robert Zemekeis and Bob Gale gave us Back to the Future. And Ivan Reitman and the boys gave us Ghostbusters. Here we are, nearly 30 years later, and the love of this franchise remains undiminished: a sequel and a beloved cartoon series spun off, we’re still seeing video games and comic books, and despite the fact that they haven’t seen the inside of a movie theater since 1989, it’s still one of the most popular Halloween costume choices a person can make. Dressing as a Ghostbuster brings the same cache and recognizability you get if you’re the Boris Karloff Frankenstein or Bela Lugosi Dracula. If you don’t love the Ghostbusters, you are objectively wrong.

To me, this is the quintessential A-Type of horror/comedy. Every beat of the plot is straight out of a horror movie – the opening scenes where the monsters are first identified, the building tension as they grow stronger and stronger, the situation worsening due to the stupid actions of an interloper, and finally a grand climax with the fate of the world at stake. The comedy isn’t slapstick, is rarely broad, and is entirely character-based. Ghostbusters is funny because Bill Murray, Dan Aykroid and Harold Ramis are funny, funny guys.

From the Marx Brothers to the Stooges, these guys have picked up on the comedic power of three by developing a trio of unique, highly entertaining characters. Venkman is all libido, driven by lust and impulse with little regards to the future, the idof the group. Egon is the ego, driven by logic and reason to the detriment of those same baser urges (he barely realizes the way Annie Potts’s Janine throws herself at him throughout the movie). Even in Egon’s rare moments of humanity, such as when he embraces a frightened Janine, he breaks away quickly, clearly uncomfortable showing even that minor hint of feeling.

You’d think this would make Ray the superego, but he’s hardly a balance between the other two. Although his character isn’t as pronounced as it would be in the sequel or the cartoon series, Ray is a sort of wide-eyed innocent, technically very knowledgeable and every bit Egon’s equal, but with a naivety and a love of simple things (like sliding down the fireman’s pole) that serves him well. Of course, this comes back to bite them in the ass when Ray is unable to empty his mind and accidentally chooses the Stay-Puft Man as the form of the destroyer, sent to annihilate New York City. It’s a great moment, in fact, as Mr. Stay-Puft marches down the street, the huge smile on his fluffy face, as he steps on and crushes everything and everyone. Way to go, Ray.

Ray is a child’s id, Venkman an adult’s. If there is a superego in the group (and even this is stretching the metaphor) it would be the mid-film addition of Ernie Hudson’s Winston – the everyman, the audience’s viewpoint character. Winston is the blue-collar guy in the group. He’s the one you can throw back a beer with, the one who is there so Egon can explain the technical stuff, but also to cut through some of Ray and Venkman’s crap. He completes the group in a very unexpected way.

All four of the Ghostbusters serve vital functions, both in comedy and in terms of relatability. We all want to be Venkman, most of us are more like Ray or Winston, but for my money the real underrated comedy gem of the team is Harold Ramis’s Egon. He has a sort of clinical distance, a way of looking at the world as though he isn’t really a part of it, that makes the movie. I was in elementary school when this movie came out, and I remember all the kids talking about Slimer, about the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, about Gozer slithering around in her skintight suit that looked like it was made of bathtub bubbles. But if I’m ranking the great moments in this movie, I look at the bit in the hotel when Egon, waving his PKE meter, casually scans a hotel guest, then gives him a little poke in the arm and walks away, clearly disappointed that he’s just an ordinary man instead of a walking corpse. The classic Twinkie metaphor is a close second, but that’s more due to Bill Murray’s brilliant delivery: “What about the Twinkie?”

The film also passes the true test of a memorable comedy: quotability. Aside from the aforementioned Twinkie line, we get such classics as “There is no Dana, only Zuul,” and “Yes it’s true, this man has no dick.” And If not for the Ghostbusters, how would we ever know the correct response if someone asks you if you’re a god? (Hint: “Yes.”)

There were a lot of great movies made in this time period, a lot of great horror films and a lot of great comedies. But here we are, all these years later, and people are still hoping for a third film in the series. Is it the tone of the film? The cast? The way that kids and adults alike can lock on to these characters and this story and enjoy it on totally different levels? I think it’s a combination of all these things, frankly. Whatever the reason, Ghostbusters has permanently chiseled a place in my heart. It’s a fantastic comedy, it’s an awesome monster movie, and it is simply put, one of my favorite films of all time.