Tag: dan aykroyd

Trading Places

Trading Places (1983)
★★ / ★★★★

Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche), aging millionaires with too much money on their bank accounts, have a bet. Randolph believes that he can turn a conman, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), whose current scheme is to pretend to be a blind man and a cripple so passersby will feel sorry and give him money, into a respectable commodity broker and an uppity commodity broker, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), who is very good at his job, into a contemptuous criminal. On the other hand, Mortimer believes that such a complete transformation is impossible because everyone is born to live a specific lifestyle.

“Trading Places,” directed by John Landis, is marginally funny when it doesn’t try so hard to impress and not at all amusing when it goes through great measures to elicit a laugh. The first and last thirty minutes are effective. The set-up is interesting because it plays upon the classic nature versus nurture debate with enough unexpected lines of dialogue that proves consistently witty—up to a point—which shows promise that the material can really take off as a comedy of manners as well as a social critique of the rich and the poor. We all have a certain perception of the very poor and the very rich. So when Billy Ray starts to steal expensive trinkets in front of people telling him that he does not need to because all of it belong to him anyway, it is absolutely hilarious.

Seeing Murphy and Aykroyd eventually playing against type makes a handful of scenes that do not work, for example Aykroyd’s character pulling out a gun at a Christmas party and threatening to shoot people with it, somewhat tolerable. Likewise, the payoff is engaging because Billy Ray and Winthorpe spend the majority of the time either apart or arguing. It is refreshing to see them interact on a different level and act as the puppeteers in the philosophical game.

The middle portion, however, is a boring wasteland of tired gags with an occasional funny line or two. Even then I was not sure if something genuinely funny was thrown onto my lap or if I just wanted to laugh to shatter the tedium. Furthermore, in order for us to feel sorry for a character, the screenplay relies on clichés.

Winthorpe is shown twice or thrice standing in the rain while looking like a wet, abandoned sheepdog. There is nothing funny about it nor is it an effective way for the audience to sympathize with him. Even though he is a bit spoiled, we already feel bad for him the moment he is framed, sent to prison, and all of his hard work is taken away.

And while I liked the idea of Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), a prostitute hired to hasten Winthorpe’s downfall but the two actually end up liking each other, there is not enough dramatic pull between the couple. When they kiss, it is awkwardly charming but we are at a loss in terms of what exactly they like about one another. In other words, they are not written as real people. The premise can be contrived but it does not mean that the character must be that way, too.

Ghostbusters II

Ghostbusters II (1989)
★ / ★★★★

Five years after they saved New York City from Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the Ghostbusters (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson) are out of business. The city also has a restraining order against the team which prevents them from pursuing and solving paranormal activities. Meanwhile, a spirit (Wilhelm von Homburg) inside a strange painting in a museum wishes to be reborn. Dana (Sigourney Weaver), divorced, happens to have a baby boy who just may be a perfect vessel.

“Ghostbusters II,” written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, begins promisingly but its paranormal subplot involving a river of ectoplasm beneath the city is overshadowed by the sheer joy of watching Murray and Weaver’s characters flirting with one another. The premise involving the slime is potentially interesting. When the guys are in the lab and test its capabilities, I was as curious as they were and there are times when I was genuinely surprised by its biology.

However, when the Ghostbusters are out and about the city, most of the humor either comes off forced or falls completely flat. There is only one time when I caught myself laughing out loud which involves the Ghostbusters pretending to be construction workers. A pair of cops are suspicious of their digging in the middle of the street but the boys must somehow persuade them, by acting like how they perceive construction workers are like, that they have been authorized to create a big hole and cause a commotion.

Unfortunately, this moment of inspired comedy is diluted by endless aimless gags where the jokes lack punch. I did not enjoy that I felt as though I was always one step ahead of our protagonists. For a bunch of really smart guys, the screenplay gives them too much time to finally make the connection between the research that Dr. Spengler (Ramis) is conducting and the slime that reacts to extreme emotions. I got the impression that padding is inserted between interesting scenes for the sake of bulking up the running time. As a result, the film’s pacing is slow and there is barely a sense of magic, despite the generous special and visual effects on screen, in the discovery of the evil plot.

Furthermore, I sensed a lack of creativity in the resolution of the bizarre happenings all over the city. While it is hilarious to see a woman’s fur coat come alive and attack her, why even bother showing us the police receiving calls from citizens about, for instance, being attacked by a park bench and other inanimate objects if the police were never shown doing anything about the report? Also, it is not necessary that we see another giant prancing around the city because that has been done before.

The film’s strength is its quieter moments. For example, Dr. Venkman (Murray) playing with Dana’s baby and Dr. Venkman and Dana going on a date and discussing what went wrong in their once promising romantic relationship. Such moments of reality should have been the anchors of the picture. If the screenplay had given the human angle to simmer and evolve and the paranormal quirks had been dialed down a notch, “Ghostbusters II,” directed by Ivan Reitman, could have had a chance to be good. Instead, the picture feels as weightless and lifeless as its transparent, raggedy-looking ghosts.

The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers (1980)
★★★★ / ★★★★

After Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) picks up his brother, Jake (John Belushi), from prison, they head straight to the Catholic orphanage they grew up in. They are told by the nun who raised them (Kathleen Freeman) that the place owes five thousand dollars worth of taxes to the county. The church chose not to pay this money so that, if the bill is not settled within two weeks, the place would have to be sold to the Board of Education. Jake and Elwood have an idea: get The Blues Brothers Band together, which will be a challenge because the former members are holding new jobs and leading new lives, and throw a concert for lovers of good ol’ rhythm and blues.

Written by Dan Aykroyd and John Landis, “The Blues Brothers” is musical comedy with flavor, pizzazz, and a sense of humor so infectious, what might seem silly or absurd on paper translates beautifully onto film. Its willingness to take risks constantly, like pushing a twenty-second gag of car chases to about five minutes utter destruction (sans casualty), sometimes longer, without losing its vigor, creates many scenes worth remembering. It establishes a universe that is fun to look at and even more enjoyable to listen to.

As plenty of comedies have shown, it is tempting to rest on a one-note joke. A couple of crooks deciding to earn money honestly is rife with irony so it is easy to recycle the elements that makes the situation amusing. Instead of traversing a well-worn path, it attempts to break out from the template by living up to the oddities in the screenplay. For instance, as Jake and Elwood visit various places, they are followed by a mysterious woman (Carrie Fisher) who seems intent on killing them. She wields a bazooka, is knowledgeable about setting up explosives, and she even has a flamethrower. Who is this woman and how does she know exactly where her targets will be?

Part of the charm of the brothers is that although we are told that they have a long history with getting in trouble with the law, there is an innocence and goodness about them. They wear black suits, black hats, and black sunglasses but there they are not especially tough or mean. They walk in and out of places and through people’s lives and they appear almost incorruptible. Interestingly, although many wild occurrences unfold around them, they command an endearing calmness. They bicker twice or thrice but the film holds onto their love for one another. Jake and Elwood come alive, almost like different people, when performing on stage.

The songs are joyous and brilliantly performed. My favorite was by Aretha Franklin, playing as one of the owners of Soul Food Cafe, as she tries to convince her husband (Matt Murphy) to think twice about rejoining the dismantled band. I loved that it takes place in a simple but comfortable cafe, the wife singing her lungs out, dancing in stained clothing, and even less fancy footwear. I was so into the moment, I wanted to sing along and dance. Also, I could not help but imagine how it would be like if people actually burst into songs to express how they really feel or think. It creates a fantasy. The medium is created in the first place to accomplish this very thing.

Directed by John Landis, “The Blues Brothers” has plenty of surprises, from the most unlikely cameos to the way an increasingly complicated situation unspools. The level of humor, too, is fluid in changing gears depending on the personality of the character, or characters, being targeted or breaking a mood on its way to becoming stale. On top of it all, it never loses track that music is a reason for celebration.

Grosse Pointe Blank

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

Martin Blank (John Cusack), a professional assassin, had been invited for a 10th year high school reunion in Grosse Pointe. He initially did not want to go for two main reasons: He did not want to talk about his career and he was reluctant to face his former flame (Minnie Driver) who he stood up during prom night. Coincidentally, Martin’s secretary (hilariously played by Joan Cusack) informed him of a job in Grosse Pointe so she advised him to attend anyway so that he could tie up some loose ends in his life. “Grosse Pointe Blank,” directed by George Armitage, is a comedy with an edge. While it did have its comedic scenes such as Martin’s interactions with his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) who was reluctant to have him as a patient and a fellow assassin (Dan Aykroyd) who wanted Martin to join his union, it also worked as an exploration of a man having a pre-midlife crisis and the regret of having to leave his youth so soon. There was conflict inside Martin and happiness was something that he couldn’t quite reach to matter how hard he tried to claim it. For instance, there was a spice of sadness when he found out that his former home was now a grocery store and his mother had lost touch with reality. It also worked as an entertaining action flick especially toward the second half of the picture. However, it was still cheeky because the characters never seemed to run out of bullets. The overkills were very amusing but I thought it was appropriate considering the assassins’ enthusiasm (or obsession) with their jobs. Although I must say I did wish Hank Azaria was used a lot more instead of him simply cracking obvious jokes in the car as he tried to stalk Martin around town. The best element about the film was the romantic relationship between Cusack and Driver. A guy coming back for his former lover could easily have been cliché but the writers came up with ways to keep the tension fresh between them. At first I did not feel the connection between the two characters but as the movie went on, I wanted them to be together because they complemented each other’s personalities. “Grosse Pointe Blank” was more than an 80s nostalgia flick. I loved the selection of songs. Even though I grew up in the 90s, it was the kind of songs I listened to while growing up because my parents were adolescents in the 80s. Watching enthusiastic and cooky characters and listening to music that was very catchy which reminded me of my childhood made me feel good inside. Fans of quirky action-comedies with a great script like Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” will most likely enjoy this offbeat but highly likable film.


Ghostbusters (1984)
★★★ / ★★★★

This movie provided me bucketloads of nostalgia because I used to watch the cartoons when I was younger. Starring and written by Dan Aykroyd (Dr. Raymond Stantz) and Harold Ramis (Dr. Egon Spengler), “Ghostbusters” is really fun to watch because of its originality and bona fide sense of humor. The film also stars Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman, Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddmore (an eventual Ghostbuster), Sigourney Weaver as their first client and Rick Moranis as Weaver’s mousy neighbor. I was impressed that each of them had something to contribute to the comedy as well as moving the story forward. I usually don’t like special and visual effects in comedies because the filmmakers get too carried away and neglect the humor, but I enjoyed those elements here because all of it was within the picture’s universe. Although the movie does embrace its campiness, it’s not completely ludicrious. In fact, since the Ghostbusters are part of the Psychology department, I was happy that the script managed to use the psychological terms and ideas in a meaningful way such as the idea of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious. I also liked the fact that it had time to respectfully reference (or parody?) to “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Although the humor is much more consistent in the first half, the second half is where it manages to show its intelligence such as the fusing of ideas from gods of various cultures and Christianity’s armageddon. Without the actors providing a little something extra (such as Murray’s hilarious sarcasm), this would’ve been a typical comedic spookfest. The special and visual effects may have been dated but it still managed to entertain me from start to finish because the film is so alive with ideas and anecdotes with universal appeal.