2011 Sundance Film Festival

February 7, 2011

Hi folks. I know it’s been a while. Please see my coverage of the 2011 film festival on my tumblr blog. More to come…

Star Wars: The Musical

December 13, 2009

If you’re a Gen-Xer, I can bet you love Star Wars. It was our Harry Potter–our morality tale of good versus evil, our way of relating with kids on the playground and finding common ground in unfamiliar situations like sleepovers and summer camp. Empire Strikes Back was probably the first movie I ever remember seeing. My dad took me; I was four years old. By the time Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, I was bona fide fan. My brother, cousins, and I saw that movie at least three times in the theater. We had the action figures, the Millenium Falcon, the Ewok village, the comic books, the bed sheets, the posters, the awesome t-shirts with the iron-on decals, and of course, the soundtrack. Last night, for the first five minutes of Star Wars in Concert at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, I was transported back to that thrilling time of Star Wars wonder and mania.

The “Star Wars Main Theme,” as performed by the Royal Symphony Orchestra can still invoke magic and emotion, albeit slightly bittersweet when mixed with childhood memories. It was lovely to see Gen-X parents with their young kids last night, both generations enjoying the drama of John Williams’ beloved score. Without John Williams, George Lucas would probably be some guy who directed a decent movie. The marriage of music and film in Star Wars is sublime and still powerful–to hear it performed live is a rare treat.

Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) narrates

Anthony Daniels, the voice of C-3PO, narrated the two-hour event, which features a large screen behind the orchestra where scenes from all six films are projected in tandem with the music. Daniels’ background in live theater is evident. He’s corny but believable. The man obviously loves being a part of this event. Though it did run long, and the pieces featuring the prequels are considerably more boring, Star Wars in Concert ended on a high note—a reprise of Dark Vadar’s Imperial March. In the words of George W. Bush, it’s quite obvious Lord Vadar “hates freedom”….just listen to the music.

CGI Friday’s

November 25, 2009

Roland Emmerich’s disaster flick 2012 is a traumatic experience. The earth surface cracks; hot lava explodes into the air; merciless tidal waves flood entire cities; the North and South Poles reverse; the earth’s crust shifts as the core bubbles. It’s fire and brimstone, people! Now, as I lounge in front of the fireplace in the quiet, rural town of Staunton, Virginia, the wall clock ticking peacefully in the background, I can imagine the waters of the Atlantic ocean hurtling over the Blue Ridge mountains in the distance into our fair valley washing me away in an instant. According to the Mayans, this exact scenario will occur in two years. Nowhere is safe. Not Virginia. Not even Wisconsin. There’s nothing we can do but repent and meet our maker. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m storing up my lethal dose of morphine now.

How is all this death and destruction depicted on the silver screen? CGI, of course. I may be old-fashioned, but, to me, computer generated images are cartoon-like and unrealistic. Watching a video game that you can’t control really isn’t that fun. This movie isn’t a lot of fun either, even with addition of real live actors like John Cusack and Woody Harrelson. The fantastic, intricate models of vintage George Lucas made films more realistic–not to mention better for the economy. Think about all the sets and costumes that had to be manufactured! 2012 could have been a public works project for the recession. At least it would have had more impact that way.

I think people are getting tired of CGI, and low-budget, box-office surprises like Paranormal Activity are a testament to that. There are a few scenes at the end of 2012 that are shot tight and close in digital video with a handheld camera, and these are the most frightening and compelling. Computer images are merely crude simulations of reality. Reality is much, much scarier.

ghostbusters-trioWho ya gonna call? Back in the summer of 1984, there was only one clear answer: Ghostbusters! Bill Murray, Dan Akyroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson, an odd group of social misfits turned national heroes, could handle any paranormal problem in New York City with a light, comedic touch.

As madcap hilarity ensued on screen, cash registers rang all across Reagan’s America. Ghostbusters was the unchallenged, top-grossing movie in 1984 and has raked in nearly $230,000,000 in domestic lifetime gross since its release, making it the 55th top-grossing film of all time, according to boxofficemojo.com.

2009 marks the 25th anniversary of Ghostbusters. To celebrate this milestone, Atari, in conjunction with Sony Pictures Consumer Products Inc., is releasing Ghostbusters: The Video Game featuring a script penned by the film’s original screenwriters, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd. The Ghostbusters game, slated for release on June 16, 2009, is certainly not the first. Activision created a Ghostbusters game for Commodore 64 in 1984. There have been at least eight versions for computer, gaming systems, and mobile phones since then. However, Ghostbusters: The Video Game is the first to feature the voices and likenesses of original cast members. It will be available on Playstation 2, Xbox 360, Microsoft Games for Windows, Wii, and Nintendo DS.

“I think that they realized that the Ghostbusters franchise will simply be an old generation’s memory unless they re-inject it into a new generation,” said Robert Thompson, Trustee Professor and Director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “The biological clock on any pop culture thing is about twenty-five years. If they don’t do it now…people are going to start forgetting.”

Hollywood producers have been looking back to the 80s’ and repackaging old blockbuster franchises for the new millennium. Paramount released Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in May, and the movie has already grossed over $750,000,000 worldwide.  The Star Wars prequels led by The Phantom Menace in 1999 have dominated the box office over the last decade.  Could a Ghostbusters sequel be far behind?

According to Variety magazine, Ghostbusters III is in the works. Ghostbusters II was released in summer 1989 to disappointing reviews and ticket sales. Columbia Pictures has hired co-executive producers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky of the hit NBC sitcom The Office to write a script that is set to feature the original cast. Although, no casting decisions have been officially announced.

The script is shrouded in mystery but rumors are swirling in cyberspace about the plot.  Apparently, the four original Ghostbusters (all in their late fifties and early sixties) will pass on the business to a younger, more vibrant team of current comedians.  One can imagine Seth Rogan, Vince Vaughn, or Jack Black suited up with proton packs raring to go, as Grandpa Bill and Dan try to teach them the ins and outs of this very risky business.

“Making a movie where they put their seal of approval on a bunch of new goofy younger people is a good idea,” said Thompson, professor of popular culture. “There’s no reason why you couldn’t do Ghostbusters and make it a good movie.”

Ghostbusters is a snapshot of the Reagan 80s: America was embroiled in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and Americans lived with the threat of nuclear annihilation; the country had not yet been hit hard by the AIDs epidemic; political correctness and sexual harassment had yet to be defined. The next generation of Ghostbusters is living in a very different world and faces a different set of enemies. We can only wait to see how they handle America’s ghost problem in the new millennium. Are Americans poised to remember the four men who easily fought supernatural forces in order to save the world in the mid-80s’ or would they rather forget?

For more Ghostbusters on Beet Salad click here.

bloodtrailRichard Parry’s astonishing documentary, Blood Trail, follows the career of American Photographer Robert King as he covers conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, and Iraq. Chasing a dream of capturing Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, King stalks the bloody battlefields of war-torn cities. He knows that pictures of dead bodies sell the best.

We first meet King in 1993 when he is a naïve twenty-four year old living at the Sarajevo Holiday Inn.  Clueless about the conflict but eager to get his hands dirty, he was mocked by veteran reporters for his inexperience. Oblivious, King smokes endless cigarettes and keeps a journal of his ambitions in the candlelight of his modest room: a romantic prelude to the ensuing violence.

When King gets his first taste of the frontline, he is visibly terrified; the camera follows him as he runs across an empty field, armed with only his Nikon, as sniper fire flies overhead.

In a Tennessee drawl, King describes his motivation to photograph wars, citing his self-destructive tendencies and attraction to extreme lifestyles as key factors. When he’s not out in the trenches, he self-medicates with drugs and alcohol.  After witnessing brutal attacks in Chechnya, he is understandably shell-shocked. In moments of peace in downtown Grozny, he sets off firecrackers and cackles hysterically.

Parry intersperses graphic footage of battles with interviews with King taken on a hunting trip in Tennessee. As King recounts his experience covering wars, he frequently stops to take aim at deer grazing nearby.  Dressed in camouflage, with a shotgun in hand, King explains how hunting in the woods provides him with the solitude he needs to “decompress”.

King is certainly a contradictory character, but he comes across as honest, humble, and genuinely interested in understanding himself and the bloodthirsty world where he makes his living. He has become desensitized to horrific violence and that disturbs him. He is the American everyman thrust into exotic foreign countries to record death. We get a sense that King himself doesn’t know how to process what he’s seen, and he’s taking photos for a public that doesn’t want to look. When Parry asks him if he’s cynical at the end of the film, King doesn’t know how to answer. He merely says that he’s had to step over hundreds of dead bodies during his lifetime.

Written in September 2008 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Ghostbusters Revisited

October 5, 2008

I was eight when Ghostbusters came out. It was the summer of 1984, and we piled into my mom’s brown van with all my cousins to see it at the Lafayette Square Mall. I loved it fiercely along with the Ray Parker Jr. Soundtrack that we had on LP.

Yesterday, after attending an afternoon fundraising concert in Syracuse called Barack around the Block, underdressed and shivering in the wet grass, I decided to come home and watch a movie. I don’t have a TV, so I opened Hulu.com, a site with loads of free TV shows and movies. The movie selection is strange: Starship Troopers, Bring it On, Weird Science…and Ghostbusters I and II. I hadn’t seen it since the 80s.

The script, written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Dr. Peter Veckman (Bill Murray), Dr. Raymond Stanz (Dan Akroyd) and Egon (Harold Ramis) are paranormal psychologists working for a university that looks a lot like Columbia. They’re all very thin and healthy looking. Bill wasn’t nearly so morose back then. There’s a lot of gratuitous smoking, and apparently they’re all geniuses that understand nuclear physics. But this crew of eggheads is more interested in chasing ghosts.

I remembered the opening scene vividly. A librarian at the NYC Public Library is down in the stacks, and, all of a sudden, the cards from the card catalog (remember those?) start flying in the air. The librarian sees something scary and screams, but the audience doesn’t see what it is. I don’t quite remember why the “doctors” are called out there (they hadn’t formed the Ghostbusters yet), but after investigating the scene, they see a scary ghost lady and run out screaming. Bill Murray convinces Dan Akroyd to take a second mortgage on his home in order to launch a ghostbusting business. Pretty risky. But these were the booming Reagan 80s. And the American dream was still rooted in the powerful American dollar.

Enter Sigourney Weaver. She looks absolutely stunning in this movie. Somehow despite being a gorgeous cellist for the New York Philharmonic, living in a co-op overlooking central park, she’s still single. She has to brush off her nerdy neighbor Louis Tully, played by the inimitable Rick Moranis. Rick Moranis! Where did he go? Did he and Dan Aykroyd run back to Canada?

But one day, when she’s unloading her groceries, the eggs start popping out of the carton and frying on her countertop. Her fridge starts to growl and lights up mysteriously. When Sigourney opens it she sees a neo-gothic temple floating in a purple sky. She hears the name Zuel and it’s all pretty trippy.

She decides to call on the Ghostbusters, who had been advertising on TV. Bill Murray falls for her immediately, but Sigourney thinks he’s kind of a sleaze. Together they inspect her kitchen, which is now bereft of ghosts much to her embarrassment.

Suddenly, phantom spirits overrun NYC. Remember Slimer? He’s a fat, green ghost that can somehow eat hotdogs—lots of them. And the Ghostbusters, who trap these unfortunate creatures in little boxes with nuclear powered guns, become famous. We get a nice montage of all the Busters on the cover of USA Today, Time, even the The Atlantic Monthly (a nice shout-out to the liberal elite).

Then, things get really weird. Sigourney is attacked by a devilish dog-creature in her living room, and she’s possessed by “Satan”, although the evil spirit isn’t actually called that. It’s called Zuel. Now she’s the Gatekeeper in a gauzy red dress, hair wild, eyes lined with kohl, hypersexual and heaving. Her dress is nearly always slipping off, but it doesn’t because it’s a PG movie (by the way, I counted only one instance of profanity during the entire movie. It was “shit”.). So the sexy, possessed Sigourney is looking for her Keymaster. Turns out it’s Rick Moranis (he was also attacked by a devil-dog in Central Park). Rick is great in this role. Nobody plays nerdy and awkward quite like Rick Moranis. There’s such warmth in Moranis. I think back to his performance as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. He was so touching. But I digress.

Okay this is where it gets really complicated. In the 1920s, apparently some sorcerer guy designed the building where Sigourney now lives. He built it to attract ghosts—or as I understand it—the devil named Gozer the Gozerian—to come and destroy the world. It’s hazy. But I think the sorcerer/architect is returning as Gozer. But this time he’s taking the form of a sparkly, half-naked woman, who has hair like Grace Jones and demonic, red eyes. She’s a mean bitch. And she’s also heaving and hypersexual. So, I guess, if we’re going to get into metaphors or semiotics—in the 80s, we were afraid of strong, sexy women because they had evil powers. They had to be wiped from the face of the earth.

Then, the four Ghostbusters (Ernie Hudson joins the lineup at some point as the token black guy) destroy her with their big guns that shoot out long streams of white-hot heat, but she’s not really destroyed. Instead, she transforms into the Stay-Puft marshmallow man.

The Ghostbusters realize that the only way to “neutralize” Gozer is to cross their streams of white lightning (rendering them red)—a sort of a nuclear circle jerk that could potentially be very dangerous and blow up the entire city.

But, as we all know, the Ghostbusters pull it off in the end and are celebrated as heroes by the citizens of NYC, who are cheering and wearing Ghostbusters merchandise. Oh, Rick and Sigourney survive too. Sigourney is hot for Bill after he rescues her.

In the final scene, we see Slimer the glutton-ghost and we are poised for a sequel–the dreaded Ghostbusters Too.

For more Ghostbusters on Beet Salad click here.