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Monday February 24, 2014

Harold Ramis: 1944-2014

Harold Ramis and John Candy in "Stripes"

Ramis (right) in “Stripes”: the triumph of the self-amused.

Harold Ramis. OK, that surprises. That’s unwelcome.

I was one of those guys who found SCTV in syndication in the mid-1970s, then found it again on PBS, then NBC late nights. I kept looking for it and finding it before its cast scattered into other, lesser projects. Or greater projects. Or both. Generally both. But my favorite episodes were those early episodes when Ramis was still on board.

He always seemed like he had a private joke going. He knew something was funny. Not the skit, necessarily. Everything else. Life. He was self-amused.

Apparently, in the early days of SCTV (the Chicago troupe not the Canadian TV show), he played the wild and crazy one. Then he came back from a trip to Europe to find a new guy, John Belushi, had usurped his role. So Ramis became the intellectual. That was probably a better fit anyway. He became “Specs.” The droll one. He became the guy with the private joke.

“Moe Green” is a private joke. On “SCTV,” Moe hosted this and that show, and became station manager for a time, but the name was stolen from “The Godfather.” For years, I couldn’t watch that tense scene where Fredo warns his younger brother, “Mikey, you don’t come to Las Vegas and talk to a man like Moe Greene like that!” without laughing out loud. Ramis basically ruined the scene for me. I kept thinking of Moe on “Dialing for Dollars” when the “prize jackpot giveaway,” for anyone who could name the late-night movie, was … (cue Ramis mopping his brow] … twenty-four dollars. Didn’t the late-night movie run long once? Wasn’t he calling people at like 2 am and getting grief? Didn’t he call the Pope? And his mother? I always liked those bits. I always liked Ramis mopping his brow.

You can tell the world he came out of: “Dialing for Dollars,” “Sunrise Semester,” late-night movies: that staid, surburban TV world. He mocked it all. Then he went on to bigger targets.

With Doug Kenney and Chris Miller, he wrote “Animal House.” With Doug Kenney and Brian Doyle Murray, he wrote “Caddyshack,” and directed it. Then he and Len Blum and Dan Goldberg wrote “Stripes,” and Ramis co-starred in it. As Russell Ziskey, the pacifist Jew who becomes the mad-dog soldier, he nearly upstages Bill Murray. That bit (above) where Ziskey overreacts to John Candy’s heart-felt talk? I did that for five years. So, yes, Ramis has some things to answer for.

In 1984, he and Aykroyd wrote “Ghostbusters” and it became the No. 1 movie of the year. Ten years later, he and Danny Rubin wrote “Groundhog Day,” and Ramis directed it. Apparently he and Murray had a falling out over that one. Murray wanted it more philosophical, Ramis wanted it funnier. Maybe that’s the tension that makes it work.

In its obit, The Chicago Tribune writes this:

As zany as Ramis’ early comedies were, they rigorously pursued a theme close to the heart of someone who grew out of the 1960s counterculture: characters rebelling against institutions, be they authoritarian college administrators and pampered rich kids (“Animal House”), a stuffy golf club (“Caddyshack”) or the military (“Stripes”).

I’d hold back on “Stripes,” which actually gave us a more nuanced perspective of rebellion. It’s one of the first post-Vietnam movies I encountered where the career military man, Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates), is actually a positive force. The movie recognizes the emptiness in rebellion, in mocking everything and believing in nothing. In its own way, it led to “Groundhog Day,” where you can’t just be a jackass all the time and expect the world to keep spinning.

In the last 20 years, every once in a while, I’d see Ramis in a movie and smile. There he was as the genial (but overweight!) doctor on “As Good as It Gets.” There he was as Seth Rogen’s dad in “Knocked Up." I thought: Will he always play the Jewish dad from now on? Or is that Eugne Levy’s role?

Yeah, he made some schlock: “Stuart Saves His Family,” “Multiplicity,” “Bedazzled.” But he turned down more of it. I love his 2006 interview with THE BELIEVER magazine:

BLVR: Rumor has it that you turned down the chance to direct Disney’s remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because you felt they weren’t interested in really exploring racism.

RAMIS: The way they wanted to do it didn’t have a lot to do with the colossal amount of pain and violence that swirls around racial injustice. It would’ve been like an episode of The Jeffersons. What’s the point? But who knows, maybe that’s as much as most people want. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “When I go to the movies, I don’t want to think.”

BLVR: Does that offend you as a filmmaker?

RAMIS: It offends me as a human being. Why wouldn’t you want to think? What does that mean? Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head?

I like this quote, too, where he basically articulates why the GOP is never funny:

It's hard for winners to do comedy. Comedy is inherently subversive. We represent the underdog, since comedy usually speaks for the lower classes. We attack the winners.

Early on, he even attacked the ultimate winner, who got him today:

If there’s anything to know, now he knows. Rest in peace, Moe.

Posted at 01:11 PM on Feb 24, 2014 in category Movies
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Thursday February 13, 2014

Seagal of Choice No Longer Steven

From an email I received today:

We wanted to let the readers of Erik Lundegaard know about the fan contest for “Dark Vengeance,” the newest Steven Seagal movie which is hitting Redbox February 27. In exchange for posting their best Steven Seagal fan artwork, fans earn the chance to win an Aikidogi, MMA fight gloves, or a wooden bokken signed by Seagal.


  • Steve Seagal is still making movies?
  • I have readers?
  • I don't know what the readers I do have would do with MMA fight gloves or a wooden bokken. Although maybe I'm underestimating. Uncle Vinny? Reed? Daniel? Dad?
  • Steve Seagal is still making movies?

But if you want to enter, go here. If you want to watch the trailer, go here.

Me, I was never interested. A range of emotion from A to B, as they say. The only Seagal I'm interested in are these.

Posted at 08:53 PM on Feb 13, 2014 in category Movies
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Sunday February 02, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

Philip Seymour Hoffman

He surprised me (Freddie Miles stepping off his car with all the swagger of the rich and unaccountable in “Talented Mr. Ripley”), and saddened me (Scotty J.'s lament, “I'm a fucking idiot, I'm a fucking idiot, I'm a fucking idiot ...” in “Boogie Nights”), and now this one last sad surprise: Philip Seymour Hoffman dead of an apparent drug overdoes at 46 in his New York apartment.

I wrote about him for MSNBC in 2006 after he won the Oscar for best actor over Heath Ledger—his death seems to mimic Ledger's: alone, NY, drugs, too soon—and I haven't stopped thinking about him and his characters since. Earlier this week, in fact, I was mulling over his Lester Bangs, counseling William Miller on rock 'n' roll and life, lamenting their collective lack of cool. I always thought cool was overrated, and that Cameron Crowe bought into cool too much, and you just had to look at most of Hoffman's performances to see how overrated it really was.

His first Oscar nomination was for a lead—in “Capote”—which is surprising, since he was so good for so long in supporting roles: Dustin in “Twister,” Scottie J. in “Boogie Nights,” Brandt in “The Big Lebowski,” Mitch in “Patch Adams,” Phil in “Magnolia,” Freddie in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Lester in “Almost Famous.” But then the Academy has usually been late to parties.

From the MSNBC piece, “Philip Seymour Hoffman Is Us”:

Hoffman makes these small, exquisite choices all the time. The look of horror on Scotty J.’s face as a coked-up Dirk Diggler loses it and tells off the crew. The get-along chuckle of Brandt, the manservant in “The Big Lebowski,” and the respectful way he acquiesces to everyone’s wishes, even the Dude’s, even to the point of calling him “Dude” in a respectful, manservant tone of voice. The pause he gives tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds talking to the FBI in “Red Dragon”: “It’s a pleasure doing business with you ... chumps.” What’s sadder? That “chumps” is the bon mot he pauses for, or that he doesn’t realize it’s not much of a bon mot? We watch Hoffman act the way we read the best sentences of the best writers. It’s worthwhile on its own.

Hoffman's manager got in touch with us after the piece appeared, saying how much he liked it. I wrote my editor that I wished I could believe it, but, whoops, I accidentally sent it to Hoffman's manager instead. No, she insisted. It's true, she insisted. Another Scotty J. moment. I am such a fucking idiot.

That was always the key to Hoffman's performances: we identify. Remember “Patch Adams” from 1998? Great box office, horrible film. Title character wants doctors to care. Nasty dean of med school doesn’t. Hence: conflict. Patch even has the typical, snobby, blue-blood roommate we’re supposed to hate. Except there’s a late-night confrontation between the roomies and the film is upended:

Patch (Robin Williams): Why don’t you like me? You’re a prick and I like you.
Mitch (Hoffman): Because you make my effort a joke! I want to be a doctor. This isn’t a game to me! This isn’t playtime! This is serious business. I have it in me to be a great doctor, but in order to do that I have to sacrifice if I want to be better.
Patch: “Better.” Better than me, hmm?
Mitch: I will save lives that could have otherwise not been saved. Now, I could be like you and go around laughing and have a good time, ha ha, but I prefer to learn, because the more I learn, the more likely I will have the right answer at the crucial moment and save a life.

The filmmakers give Patch the final word, but if you’re a thinking person you realize Mitch is right. More, you identify with Mitch. Most of us try so hard in life but there’s always some idiot who hardly tries at all and still passes us up. Mitch could have been a clichéd, reviled character but Hoffman gave him humanity.

All of which recalls something Hoffman told movie critic David Edelstein in a 2006 New York Times profile. Illuminating his struggle to keep Truman Capote less attractive in “Capote,” Hoffman said, “The way toward empathy is actually to be as hard as possible on this character. The harder you are, the more empathy you'll gain, ultimately, by the end.” When Edelstein questioned him on this — less attractive equals more empathy? — Hoffman added, “I think deep down inside, people understand how flawed they are. I think the more benign you make somebody, the less truthful it is.”

Sad sad sad. I wanted decades more of this.

Posted at 12:02 PM on Feb 02, 2014 in category Movies
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Wednesday January 08, 2014

Am I the Only One Who Flashed on ‘The Ten Commandments’ During Martin Scorsese’s ‘Wolf of Wall Street’?

The golden calf orgy scene in "The Ten Commandments"

I keep thinking about this as the controversy surrounding “The Wolf of Wall Street” roils forward unabated: the connection between these two movies.

There are complaints that the movie is amoral, or even immoral, and that director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter don’t do enough to condemn their main character, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, for his crimes against humanity—bilking people of their fortunes and using the money to have a really, really good and depraved time with drugs and prostitutes—spent a few years in a fairly cushy federal prison, and today, or so the film suggests, travels the world giving seminars on “how to sell” to audiences willing to buy; willing, you could say, to be bilked again.

There’s a lot to say about this ending, and I did in my review, but for most people there’s not nearly enough comeuppance for Belfort. Scorsese says that’s part of the point. In an interview with Mike Fleming at Deadline Hollywood, he says of the audience for the film:

I didn’t want them to be able to think problem solved and forget about it. I wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country, and that it affects business and the world and everything down to our children, and how they’re going to live, and their values in the future.

People feel slapped, sure, but many are blaming the slapper. They’re demanding comeuppance ... but from Scorsese and the movie, which is easy, and not from regulating the financial world, which is hard and potentially impossible.

Some go so far as to suggest the movie is immoral.

But that ignores “The Ten Commandments.”

Did no one else feel this way? In the orgy scenes in the “Wolf pit” at Stratton Oakmont? All of those bodies roiling together? Was I the only one whose mind flashed to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 Biblical epic?

Specifically the ending scenes. Moses (Charlton Heston) has led his people from Egypt and toward the promised land, and he ascends Mt. Sinai to retrieve the word of God. In his absence, Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) convinces the people, so easily swayed, that Moses is gone for good, that they’ve been led astray, and that they’ve angered the true gods, who demand a golden calf in recompense. So that’s what the people do. They create a golden calf, a false idol, and worship at its feet. They indulge in wine, and brutality, and sex. Their bodies roil together.

That’s what flashed through my mind watching the orgy scenes in “Wolf of Wall Street”: the orgy scene in “The Ten Commandments.”

I don’t know if this is a coincidence. I don’t know if Scorsese—who grew up Roman Catholic, and for a time intended to be a priest, and who’s forgotten more about movies than you and I will ever know—intended for us to make this connection. I wouldn’t be surprised either way. All I know is I felt it.

And beyond the feeling is the analysis—the comparison of the two scenes. What are both about? A people so lost they worship a false idol: a golden calf.

Of course, in DeMille’s version, Moses returns, angered, and the idolaters are punished and killed.  They're sent to hell. That’s what moviegoers want of Belfort. Instead, he’s sent to New Zealand. Instead, in real life, the golden calf simply got bigger and the worshipping became greater.

“You didn’t make things right,” moviegoers are complaining to Scorsese.

No, he’s saying, we didn’t make things right.

The Wolf of Wall Street bull market

Posted at 10:02 AM on Jan 08, 2014 in category Movies
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Sunday January 05, 2014

Indicting the Audience: Hollywood, the Dream Factory, Tries to Wake Us Up in 'Wolf of Wall Street,' 'Her' and ... 'Anchorman 2'?

Leo DiCaptrio in Wolf of Wall Street

Sweet dreams, America.

Hollywood has long been known as the dream factory. It shows us who we want to be rather than who we are. It lies to us at 24 frames a second.

Is Hollywood now tired of its lies? Of our need for those lies?

Three late-season movies that have almost nothing in common have this in common: They indict the audience, us, for our lack of seriousness; for our overwhelming wish for the sugar-coated world; for buying into the lies.

In Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Thedore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), which is obviously a form of fantasy, but that’s not what I’m thinking of. I’m thinking of an early moment on the subway home when he’s offered the news of the day via earbud. Conflict in the Middle East? Skip. Budget battles in D.C.? Skip. Photos of sexy, pregnant soap opera star? Pause. Open.

That’s us. Sadly. Or inevitably. In Jonze’s hands, gently.

“Her” is set in the near future while “Anchorman 2” is set in the near past: 1980 and the birth of 24-hour cable news. It’s also the birth of the Hollywoodization of the news. The whole movie (and, it’s implied, our entire culture) turns on one thought, first voiced by Will Ferrell’s bumbling everyman Ron Burgundy: What if we didn’t give people the news they needed to hear but instead gave them the news they wanted to hear? So that’s what happens. Instead of interviews with Yasser Arafat, it’s shots of fluffy animals and footage of high-speed car chases and an overwhelming patriotic flavor. “Don’t just have a great night,” Ron tells his audience as he signs off, “have an American night.” It’s a short step from there to Sean Hannity.

Eventually Ron learns the error of his ways but of course we never did. We keep buying into the lies Ron started. Even in the near future, we’re still Theodore, tired and lonely, ignoring Syria and D.C. to look surreptitiously at the sexy soap opera star.

Finally, and most pugently, there’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Yes, that final shot, and please accept all spoiler alerts. The movie ends with a shot of an audience watching an unscrupulous man selling them on selling. They hope that they too will learn how to sell and get away from what they have and who they are. Here’s Richard Brody of The New Yorker on the audience in that scene:

It’s a moment with a terrifying, Olympian blend of compassion, disdain, and anguish; it shows a fatal lack of imagination combined with a desperate range of unfulfilled desires. The shot shows not just an audience, but the audience: Scorsese puts the film’s viewers face to face with themselves, charges us with compensating for our lack of imagination and fatal ambition through contact with the wiles of a master manipulator. Just as the fictionalized Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is presented at the seminar by a host (who, in a diabolical cameo, is played by the real-life Belfort), so we, the movie audience, have been introduced to Belfort by another enthusiastic impresario, namely Martin Scorsese, who knows perfectly well that he is giving us something that we want, something that we need, and something that taps into dreams and ambitions that are both central to life and completely suspect.

There’s a more direct and dismissive example earlier in the movie. Belfort is telling us, the movie audience, about IPOs. He’s looking right at us. Leo is. With those pretty eyes. And he says this:

See, an IPO is an initial public offering, the first time a stock is offered for sale to the general population. As the firm taking the company public, we set the initial price then sold those shares back to —

Then he catches himself, smiles, and adds:

You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying. The question is, “Was it legal?” Absolutely not.

Why does he stop? Because he realizes who he’s talking to. You and me. And Theodore Twombly and Ron Burgundy. Do we want to hear about IPOs? Of course not. Skip. We want fluffy animals and sexy soap opera stars and flags unfurling. And when the world collapses because of what men like Jordan Belfort do with IPOs and CDOs, we’ll look for others to blame rather than ourselves.

So what’s happening in these movies? Is this a trend? Is the dream factory trying to wake us all up?

Or is Hollywood simply marking its territory? Each instance, after all, isn’t about the movies; it’s about the news, and the dangers that occur when news divisions horn in on Hollywood’s territory by presenting wish-fulfillment fantasy rather than the Walter Cronkite stuff.

Whatever it is, I hope the trend continues. Wakey wakey.

Posted at 07:51 AM on Jan 05, 2014 in category Movies
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