Today in Movie History: June 8

We’ve been getting our 80s on recently, and today is a red letter date for that. We’ll start with the earliest: Trading Places, John Landis’s Wall Street retake on The Prince and the Pauper, remains a doggedly entertaining comedy provided you can accept that its heroes emerge triumphant via insider trading. Buoyed by Dan Aykroyd’s fantastic blue-blood buffoon and Eddie Murphy just hitting his stride as a fast-talking con man, it rides their chemistry all the way to the bank. It doesn’t hurt to have greats like Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy and Denholm Elliott strutting this stuff, or Jamie Lee Curtis definitively breaking out of her scream queen typecasting as a deliciously self-assured leading lady. Trading Places opened 35 years ago today in 1983.

Just one year later, the #1 and #3 movie at the box office both opened on the same day. We doubt that will ever happen again, but what’s doubly interesting is how well both of them held up. At the top of the list, of course is Ghostbusters, another Dan Aykroyd flick that has justly earned its place as a comedy classic. Beyond the way he provides an 80s update to the old fashioned monster comedies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, director Ivan Reitman actually touches on some reasonably scary conceits — almost Lovecraftian at times — and never sacrifices the core of the scenario for the sake of cheap laughs.

That same day, another film in a similar vein opened, slightly closer to the horror end of the scale than the comedy end, but touching some of the same emotions nonetheless. Joe Dante’s Gremlins not only found a dark heart beneath a façade of Normal Rockwell America, but let us buy into the sheer anachronistic glee of watching it all burn down. Its old-school effects hold up quite well, and it even managed a sequel that people think is pretty awesome too.

And here’s the catcher: a third movie opened that same day in 1984, and while it didn’t make nearly as much money as the other two, and it may never escape the shadow of its iconic predecessor Airplane!, Top Secret! may be the best film the trio of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams ever produced. So before we sign off, ask yourself: how do we know he’s not Mel Torme?

 

 

Movies for the Resistance: Ghostbusters (2016)

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Andy Garcia and Chris Hemsworth
Directed by: Paul Feig
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 2016

 

Donald Trump’s rampaging shitshow didn’t arise out of a vacuum. He merely took advantage of prevailing trends to seize the presidency, and his toxic brand of misogyny showed no shortage of warning signs in a pop culture environment already littered with sexism. Nowhere was this more keenly felt than with the kerfuffle around the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot: featuring an all-female cast and provoking the kinds of outraged screams from entitled men that one expects from third-graders asked to share their treehouse with a girl.

The collective tantrum was disgusting for a number of reasons, but in part because it ended up eclipsing the movie itself. Most negative opinions on the film arrived well before anyone had a chance to look at it. Manbaby screams arose from every corner of the internet – “SJW!” “PC bullshit!” “It’s not about hating women even though I clearly hate women!” – and the de facto rejection of such rants from the other side became as much a matter of basic decency as a plea to wait until the actual film hit theaters. By the time it did, negative opinions had largely been cemented, and were unable to change in the face of, you know, actual content. Naturally, the movie found itself hobbled by expectations it didn’t deserve. The Manbabies trumpeted its box office “failure,” while defenders fought to uphold its honor by default (again).

I’m not linking to any of the copious rants out there about it. A YouTube or Google search will take you to them, still littered about the pop culture highway, and you’ll see how ridiculously, absurdly whiny the lot of them are. (The Mansplaining. It burns!) They were bad enough at the time, but now — with the catastrophic events of the last year in perspective — they’re positively horrifying.

More importantly, they serve as a reminder that our current culture of “alternative facts” arose well before November 8. Hot air generated by the infantile fear of women playing with the boys’ toys, fed by outraged entitlement unvarnished by reality and treating inconvenient facts as obstacles to be beaten down rather than reasons to modify preconceived notions… our entire culture has been devoured by such tendencies, practiced almost daily by the narcissist in the Oval Office and supported by a hard-core base unwilling to entertain even the most obvious challenges to their repugnant (and largely uninformed) opinions. Ghostbusters 2016 was hit by all of that before it even had a chance to show us what it could do.

In retrospect, it stands as both more and less of what defenders and detractors alike labeled it as. For all the talk about a “bomb,” it did kind-of-okay numbers domestically ($128 million, enough to make it Sony’s biggest draw of the year) and had kind-of-okay reviews (73% on Rotten Tomatoes, hardly a bomb). In a more just universe, it would be lauded for its more creative moments, chided for its reliance on formula, and left to stand or fade as prevailing tastes dictated. Its notoriety stems from the simple presence of women in the lead… and a gaggle of self-proclaimed tough guys who start shrieking like Brazilian hairdressers the moment capable female characters ask for a seat at the table.

Here’s the irony: without the women, this movie wouldn’t work at all. You could plug four talented male comics of the Seth Rogen/Paul Rudd variety into a similar project, and it would be doomed. But with these four performers in place, the movie finds some magic. The worst sections confirm the stale nostalgia that causes projects of this ilk to crash and burn. An awkward nod to Slimer and slighty-less-awkward nod to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man reflect a lazy desire to coast on the cultural cache of the 1984 classic. Some (though not all) of the cameos from the original cast reflect similar sensibilities, though Bill Murray (playing a professional skeptic) is having a ball and Sigourney Weaver knocks her moment out of the park. Other times, the movie rises to the occasion more gallantly. Good villains go a long way and the bad guy here (Neil Casey) delivers the right combination of inferred menace and comic relief necessary for the project to stand on its own.

That wouldn’t be enough to save the movie from its own worst instincts, however, and again, had other leads been cast, it might have become another lazy cash grab. But director/co-writer Paul Feig understood the real energy powering the first film – the extraordinary chemistry between the leads – and found the perfect quartet to deliver a fresh take. Kate McKinnon gets the best of it, as the team’s irreverent gadgeteer Holtzman, but Melissa McCarther and Kristen Wiig resurrect their Mutt-and-Jeff routine from Bridesmaids to beautiful effect, and Lesie Jones plays the odd gal out who gradually wins the other three over: bringing her own sensibilities into the mix in a way that enhances rather than detracts from the overall chemistry. Chris Hemsworth gets a hand in the action as perhaps the least qualified secretary of all time, but the film’s real power belongs to the ladies.

That becomes most apparent whenever the film deigns to just get out of their way. Whenever any of the quarter appear, in any combination, Ghostbusters becomes a joy: feeding off of their breezy vibes and ability to conjure serious laughs at will. They look nothing like the foursome in the first film and yet the easy camaraderie remains: morphing into a new form that honors the original while happily charting its own path. The characters stay honest and true to themselves without descending into empty one-liners (check out McKinnon’s genius confession of love for her buds: heartfelt and moving while still generating constant laughs.) Without them, the film has little going for it. With them, it becomes a stone groove and in a just universe, their gender would be incidental to the way they drive it across the finish line.

As it is, they got slimed… though not as nearly as completely as the Manbabies proclaim. And therein lies another parallel with our current situation: the one that treated the election like a boss fight and blithely assumed that the game was over once 45 moved into the Oval Office. It doesn’t work that way, as Trump and his supporters are reluctantly learning. Movies work in a similar fashion, and one year’s disappointment can morph into something much more meaningful over time.

We’re still too early to assess where Ghostbusters will ultimately stand, but while detractors trumpet its “defeat,” anyone who missed it in theaters won’t exactly struggle to secure a copy. Separated from the hissy fit that presumed to undo it, its merits speak for themselves and will likely hold up far better than the asinine attempts to hold it down. Reality eventually bangs back, and the reality is that Ghostbusters is lighter and funnier than it got credit for. Long live all busters of ghosts, no matter their race, color, creed or gender. If you can’t see that, the loss is yours… and the rest of us won’t miss you at the party.