August 29, 2014

Ghostbusters 30th Anniversary

I have seen Ghostbusters dozens of times on television over the last 30 years, and at least once in a movie theater in 1984- we were on summer vacation in the Lakes region of Maine and I immediately fell in love with the movie (my mom not so much- she walked out around the time the roof blew off the firehouse.)
I have watched it on a taped-off-broadcast-television tape many times, then I bought the two-disc Criterion Collection Laser Disc (with a badass cover image) around 1994, then on DVD (bundled with Ghostbusters 2) in the last decade.
So, what's the difference? Why spend $13 to see a movie I can watch for free at home? I have already bought this movie twice, why keep paying for it?
Seeing Ghostbusters on a very big screen again was a special treat for two reasons:

Details, Details, Details

One of the advantages of seeing a good movie over and over, you can enjoy the little background details because you don't have to focus on the plot and dialog. The massive movie screen makes it possible to see so much detail that's really impossible to discern even on a LCD television with a DVD player. I can't imagine now, how blurry and incomplete my old pan-and-scan VHS taped off the TV copy was. I really appreciated all the little touches, the production design, and the background action.
The special effects look amazing. Ghostbusters was one of the first comedies of its era to actually spend money on effects- go watch Caddyshack or Animal House and you can see how cheap they were to produce, but Ghostbusters features terrific state-of-the-art effects. Thirty years later, only a few shots of the Terror Dog chasing Rick Moranis look phony.

The Audience

Watching a favorite movie, a movie you've only really seen at home is totally different and rewarding when seen with an audience. Where do the laughs come? This crowd was terrific, and they laughed in places I never noticed were funny, or even places that I didn't notice were jokes- When the mayor is considering believing the Ghostbusters story, Venkman reminds him that he has an opportunity to save the lives of "millions of registered voters." The movie cuts to the Archbishop who smiles and nods. This got a big laugh where I had never thought of it as more than a nice aside.

Theater Notes

AMC Boston Common, with George, Angus, and, sitting in a different row, Erin, Willy, et al. I go to the big movie chains so rarely I forget how nice it is to go to the Somerville Theater. AMC showed 20 minutes of trailers and commercials before the movie. The movie was scheduled for 9:05pm, but the movie didn't actually start until 9:25pm thanks to all this filler. I dislike this more and more the later and later the screening.
I wasn't sure whether the Friday of Labor Day weekend in Boston would be overrun with college kids and families, it turns out the town was very quiet. I drove from work in Lexington, and into a free parking space on Charles Street in 30 minutes. It was also easy to get a table for dinner at Fajitas & Ritas, and the AMC multiplex was very quiet at 8:45pm.

August 12, 2014

Robin Williams

Robin Williams is famous for his silly, nonstop, stream-of consciousness comedy, his wonderful voices, his loudness, but the dark edge has always been there. I had heard that Williams had been sober for decades when he relapsed a few years back, but I didn't really appreciate how low his life had gotten until I heard this interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast in 2010. (I haven't re-listened to it yet, but I will shortly.)
Comics are not happy or normal people. Anyone who is compelled to get onstage and tell stories is working some shit out. I think it was Jim Gaffigan who said "what people don't appreciate is, if we weren't paid, we'd still have to get up onstage every night and talk. We have to do it."
I am deeply saddened that Williams is gone. When I was a kid, Robin Williams was the definition of funny. The Garry Marshall TV empire ruled the airwaves. Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Mork & Mindy defined and dominated TV comedy, and Williams' Mork from Ork character was on all of them. His brand of childlike, yet edgy zaniness was everywhere.
Stand-up comedians have been trying to act in feature films since they were invented, but Williams was the TV and standup superstar who made that move when I was a kid. My five favorite Williams performances:

  • Williams starred in The World According To Garp during the Mork & Mindy years, and it could not be more different. It's a quirky drama, or an especially dark comedy, or a little of both. It's a challenging story (based on the John Irving novel) but Williams is terrific, especially when seen in the context of the pure silliness of his day job on television.
  • Good Morning Vietnam is remembered for Williams' on-air monologues - I bought the soundtrack album for the monologues AND the 1960s pop music - but also I remember how Adrian Cronauer grows restless with the sanitized "news" he's required to broadcast as he comes to know the country and it's people, mirroring America's disillusionment with the war.
  • Williams won over a whole new generation of fans who never heard of Mork with a perfectly distilled dose of his comic genius as the Genie in Aladdin, the first Disney animated movie where a movie star voiced a character. Williams paved the way for many comic actors animated alter egos, most directly Mike Myers' Shrek.
  • The following year Williams starred in and co-produced Mrs Doubtfire- a perfectly executed high-concept family comedy by Chris Columbus.
  • Robin Williams is amazing in The Birdcage, mainly because he's playing the straight man to the equally brilliant Nathan Lane as his comedic spouse. It's a testament to his acting chops that he lets Nathan Lane (and everyone else in the cast) get most of the laughs while his Armand underplays the comedy.

August 9, 2014

Guardians Of The Galaxy

A colorful and funny space adventure, GotG delivers an inventive and slightly oddball take on very familiar plot and characters.
The plot and characters could not be more familiar: five outlaws are bound together by circumstance to save the world by retrieving a powerful object from an evil overlord. The five Guardians are (from left):

  • A smooth-talking Butch Cassidy leader type
  • A gentle giant
  • An amoral thief
  • A man avenging the murder of his wife and child (think Inigo Montoya or Mason Storm)
  • A heartless assassin
[UPDATE: I've been thinking about GotG for a few days, and I suddenly realized that the Rocket & Groot pair are just like Han Solo & Chewbacca- the fast-talking amoral thief and the gentle giant whom only Rocket (Solo) understands. Except, here's the wild part- Rocket & Groot do it better! Groot is a more interesting and better partner than Chewbacca. Chewbacca is less expressive and contributes less to their adventures! Am I crazy or does Groot make Chewbacca really look like a "walking carpet"? PS: Please save the "Rocket & Groot in the comics predate Star Wars" emails- it doesn't matter which duo was invented first, it's just two variations on the same partnership. We could compare them both to Inigo Montoya & Fezzik from The Princess Bride if we wanted to...]

These five bouncing off each other creates lots of fun sparks. The dialog is sharp, five completely different body types leads to dynamic and inventive fight scenes, and their five different motivations are all illustrated and leveraged for interesting plot twists.
The production design also made the movie worth watching. Normally I prefer "hard science fiction" where the filmmakers attempt to be faithful to the way the universe really works. But GotG is more of a "soft sci fi" movie in the vein of the Star Wars prequels, where characters are blue, green, and magenta skinned, where the humanoids are weird looking for its own sake. The second act takes place at a mining colony inside the massive head of some space giant that died centuries ago, now the skull is floating in space, completely encrusted inside and out with an lawless scavenging mining encampment, kind of like Deadwood but with more alien goo. All this color is wonderful, but I was especially reminded of Star Wars (in a bad way) on the aseptic capital home world, that's all white and futuristic plainness and fountains and skyways for no reason. For a movie that's otherwise so inventive, this one planet was too underdesigned.

Fun Moments: Earthling Peter Quill uses the 'finger across the neck' motion as the symbol for 'kill', but the alien he's talking to doesn't know what that means "Why would I put my finger on his neck?"
The soundtrack is great - not my favorite 1970s music, but still, the silly glam and bubblegum pop is emblematic of the whole movie's lack of pretense in the sci-fi genre. Besides, who doesn't want to see spaceships flying set to the Runaways "Cherry Bomb"?
Theater Notes: My audience was completely dialed in- all the best punchlines were followed by that brand of laughter that drowns out the next few lines of dialog. The crowd included a cadre of comic book fans who were especially tuned into the parts that connected to the comic book the most closely.
(Arlington Capitol Theater, Screen 1, with Shiner Bock on draft!)

August 8, 2014

Stub Hubby On Demand Reviews Divergent

A novel variation on the oppressive tyrannical dystopia, spliced with a Harry Potter-style private school coming-of-age story, and custom-tailored for teen audiences, Divergent offers enough novelty to keep the project from feeling entirely derivative, with only the occasional pander to teen drama.
My grade: B
Teenager grade: A
Shailene Woodley offers plenty of organic empathy, passion, and courage. She's occasionally a little one-note with the constant worry line between her eyebrows, but there's plenty of raw talent there, and I am sure the kids just love her.
Her hair was distracting. Her long, thick, glowing, lustrous hair looks so beautiful throughout the movie- she's so busy being indoctrinated into a facist army, when does she find time to brush her hair 100 times before bedtime?
I liked the production design for the future society that has walled off what's left of Chicago. I appreciated how they don't really use the buildings that remain, but huddle in between them and below them, as if the past civilization's leftovers should be shunned. At the same time that the Divergent world seems to be a subsistence society, they have a working elevated train system, and someone's manufacturing brand new cars, weapons, computers, and chemical weapons.
I also didn't understand the tyrannical aspect of the society. Isn't there supposed to be a class of people who benefit from oppressing the other classes? It's obvious that some of the classes in this community are living a deprived life, but are the others benefiting from their status? It wasn't obvious what the bad guys are gaining in this world.
Also, as far as I can tell, this is one city with a couple thousand inhabitants, max. The stakes seem a little small. The powers that be say the city must remain walled off because "the rest of the world did not recover from the war" but what's really going on out there? Maybe the sequels will answer these questions. (On Demand with Emily and Sara)