Tag: harold ramis

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★

For the fourth year in a row, Phil (Bill Murray), a weatherman, is assigned to go to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover a Groundhog Day report. He resents this annual task and he makes his sentiments known to everyone. On the second day of February, Phil believes it is just another day. He figures if puts in half the effort and gets through the day, the torture would soon be over. To his surprise, he wakes up the next day and discovers that it is still Groundhog Day. And no matter what he does, the next day is the same, like he is stuck in a hell specifically designed for him.

Based on the screenplay by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, “Groundhog Day” is lucky because although it exhausts its premise rather quickly, it remains buoyant, once in a while reaching creative peaks, with the help of the lead actor. Take away Murray’s signature quirks and style of humor and the material is reduced to a mechanical formula with many of its plot developments readily seen from a mile away.

I enjoyed that Phil is an unlikeable guy. He knows he has a sharp tongue and is not afraid to use it because he knows he can get away with it. What makes the character very funny is that Murray plays him smart. His caustic sarcasm is always padded with an eye of condescension. Instead of simply playing a guy who says mean things from time to time, the performer in a way dares us to think that we are as witty as his self-centered character. How much of what he shares is the real Phil relative to Phil the TV personality? The irony and what makes him fascinating is that his two selves have become so in sync that discerning between them proves difficult for him, too.

Occasionally, the days on repeat have a freshness to them. The writing reaches a zenith when Phil is allowed to revel in his fantasies. Some standouts include stealing money from a bank, regaling a woman for a one night stand, and getting in trouble with the law for driving under the influence. He knows that his decisions for the day will bear no consequence so he lets loose. These scenes are executed with wonderful enthusiasm without losing track of the character’s rather offbeat personality. Also, I liked that it touches upon the other side of the spectrum by tackling more sensitive moments. I wished there had been more scenes between Phil and the homeless old man he passes by every morning.

The heart of the picture is the romance between Phil and Rita (Andie MacDowell), the producer, which left me lukewarm. Initially, the attraction is difficult to buy into because we get the impression that Phil just wants to get inside her pants. This is not helped by scenes that come just before when Phil tries to bed an unsuspecting woman who comes to believe that he is a former classmate. Eventually, through a slow burn, we get a sense that Phil’s feelings for Rita are real. Still, I did not believe it completely because I was never able to let go of the fact that Rita has really only come know Phil for a day—and on a very good day. The problem is that she has no recollection of the other bad days they share. They never feel as though they are functioning on the same page.

“Groundhog Day,” directed Harold Ramis, could have done without the undercooked romance. A more interesting trajectory might have been an exploration on how to earn mutual respect among colleagues. It seems as though Larry (Chris Elliott), the cameraman who seems to have a seething frustration, might have wanted to give Phil a piece of his mind every so often. But since the romantic relationship takes center stage, everything else gravitates around it.

National Lampoon’s Vacation

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
★★ / ★★★★

It is summer and the Griswolds are ready for their annual trip to Walley World. Since the theme park is located in California, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) suggests that it might be easier for their family of four to take the plane. But, no, Clark (Chevy Chase) insists that it is important they spend time together as a family and a way to do that is to drive their newly exchanged station wagon from windy Chicago to sunny Los Angeles. Supposedly, getting there is half the fun but they begin to encounter one disaster after another the second they try to leave their garage.

Although hailed as one of the greatest comedies of all time, I just did not find “National Lampoon’s Vacation” to be very funny. It is slightly amusing, sure, but it lacks the momentum of jokes tumbling over one another that will inevitably trigger uproarious laughter. Instead, it feels more like a series of sketches put together, the idea of reaching Walley World being the glue that barely holds it all together.

I suppose part of the joke is that we are never supposed to believe that an idiotic, privileged, and inexperienced middle-class family like the Griswolds can actually make it to the next county line—let alone trekking across the country. It is a spoof and I was down for the ride. Some bits are amusing like their accidental visit to the ghettos of St. Louis, Missouri with Clark urging his children to “look at [all the] plight!” as if they were in an African safari. But most of its jokes run for too long. We actually get to the point where black residents furtively steal from them.

The running gags get tired fast. Even I have a limit when it comes to watching the number of times luggages can fall off a car. And they never seem to run out of them. Eventually, the Griswolds get stuck in the deserts of Arizona. There are only so many jokes they can pull off when it comes to how hot and dry it is. Each one is attempted. Worse, every one of them is exaggerated to a painful second-degree burn. Since we can easily predict what is coming, the pacing drags. It is one thing to be stuck in the desert with your family because you care for them. But it is another to be stuck with strangers you can barely stand.

If the script had given its characters real motivations, real feelings, and real thoughts, perhaps they would have been less aggravating. Several attempts at man-to-man conversations are made between father and son (Anthony Michael Hall), but their exchanges are played dumb. Instead of giving us a chance to identify with them in real ways–even for only a couple of minutes—the screenplay seems intent on making fun of the cardboard cutouts. “Look at the stupidity of this white family”—that is what I got out of it. Aren’t vacations supposed to make us feel good?

At least one recurring gag in “Vacation,” written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, never outstays its welcome. When Clark’s family is asleep or not paying attention, a blonde woman driving a Ferrari (Christie Brinkley) drives parallel to the Wagon Queen Family Truckster to flirt with Clark—and he with her. Their scenes together reflect that of silly commercials targeted for men on the verge of a midlife crisis: the fantasy of being on the radar of a beautiful woman who can have any man she wants. Yes, it pokes fun of the woman in the fancy car but the joke is also on Clark. Everyone is and in on the joke.

Animal House

Animal House (1978)
★★ / ★★★★

Dean Vernon Wormer (John Vernon) wishes to expel all members of Delta Tau Chi fraternity because he is sick of dealing with their seasonal pranks. With the help of Greg (James Daughton), president of the uppity Omega Theta Pi, known as the best and most traditional fraternity in Faber College, the duo concoct a plan to finally delouse the university of the drunken party animals.

Written by Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller, “Animal House” is appropriately desultory in storytelling which reflects its protagonists’ overall lack of ambition and direction. This device is partly enjoyable because although each scene is episodic, more than half of the jokes are given enough time to escalate until the punchline is ripe for delivery. However, its lack of flow functions as a double-edged sword in that it is difficult to get to know its charming characters completely.

Bluto (John Belushi) is especially hilarious as a college student who happens to be on the heavy side. He is given very few lines to utter but each time the camera is on him, whether he is front and center or pushed to the side, all of my attention is on him like a moth to a light source. Staring at his oily, flushed, and petulant face, one part of me expected him to say something completely shocking and offensive. Meanwhile, another part of me braced itself for another one of Bluto’s inspired physical gag.

For example, the scene in the cafeteria that leads to a food fight is nicely executed. Although his frat brothers are capable of embracing a range of craziness and downright carelessness, Bluto is most fascinating because he symbolizes the id of the Delta House. Unlike his frat brothers, there is not one scene in which he is depicted second-guessing what he is about to do. Whatever feels good is right and whatever needs to be expressed is unfiltered.

Even Eric (Tim Matheson), also known as Otto, the confident womanizer of the group, has small moments of self-doubt. Otto is also interesting, in a different way than Bluto, but other than his penchant for bedding as many women as possible, he is not given much depth. It is a missed opportunity because I was actually interested in him as a person instead of just another beer-drinking member of the fraternity.

I wished there had been a more focused rivalry between the Omega and Delta Houses because the material is at its best when the two sides seek revenge against one another. There is an inherent fun in watching Delta Tau Chi—the secondhand underdogs, the campus losers—because the Omega Theta Pi members are willing to grab every opportunity to rub everybody’s noses in their poshness.

The film falls apart toward the end. The chaos in the parade feels like one careless gag after another which is most uninspiring. Instead of the attention being on the students, it becomes more about the repetitive stunts. Unlike a handful of its jokes, the messages it wants to convey about subverting the influence of an unfair person, or persons, in power do not arrive at a rewarding punchline, an ironic or satiric twist.

Directed by John Landis, I appreciated the juvenile sense of humor that “Animal House” offers. It would not have been a letdown if the screenplay had managed to maintain its jovial energy throughout and given the story a proper ending that the audience and characters deserve.


Stripes (1981)
★★ / ★★★★

John (Bill Murray) was so sick of being a taxi driver, he abandoned his rude customer in the middle of a bridge and threw away the key in the water. After he tells his girlfriend what he had just done, she tells him that their relationship is over. Desperate for direction, a U.S. Army recruitment commercial appears on television. John becomes convinced that enlisting is an excellent idea, but there is no way he is going to sign up alone. So, he persuades the dependable but equally dissatisfied Russell (Harold Ramis), his best friend, to enlist with him.

Although “Stripes,” written by Len Blum, Daniel Goldberg, and Harold Ramis, is set in the military for the most part, its technique in terms of how to deliver the comedy involves throwing random jokes on screen to see what would stick. This is very unreliable: the ones that work are really funny but the ones that fail to inspire even a hint of a smile come across as filler. The unsatisfying jokes outnumber those with wit and sense of irony which results in a very mix bag.

What I found reliable, however, are the performances. Murray is very entertaining as a goofball who is convinced that military training will be a breeze because, unlike holding a job, it does not have to be taken seriously. He is sarcastic and appropriately annoying at times which inspires Sergeant Hulka (Warren Oates) take notice of him in a negative way. When the two are at each other’s throats, the screenplay has spark and energy. While the camera stays in one place during their arguments, I noticed that I could not help zeroing in on their faces and wondering, “Oh, you’re going to take what that guy just said?”

I enjoyed listening to them bicker. If there had been more scenes of control being forced upon John, the material would have been more amusing because John absolutely despises authority. The more someone holds onto him, the wilder he becomes. And just when we think John has learned from a situation and has gained a bit more maturity, he proves that one cannot teach an old dog new tricks.

John Candy as Ox, another volunteer recruit, is enjoyable to watch particularly the scene when he wrestles five or six women in the mud. There are times, however, when I wondered if the writing would stop using his size and weight as a source of comedy. I sensed an intelligence in Ox, thanks to Candy for bothering to put a enough subtlety in his character, but I felt as though Ox is not given a chance to become more than just the fat guy in the army. The joke turns stale quickly because it is one-dimensional.

Lastly, the picture, directed by Ivan Reitman, completely falls apart in the third act. When the 3rd Platoon Bravo Company arrive in Czechoslovakia, everyone except for John, Russell, Stella (P.J. Soles), and Louise (Sean Young), the latter two a part of the military police, ends up with having no mind of their own. Didn’t anyone learn anything from their training in boot camp? Just because the picture is a comedy of errors, it does not justify allowing the characters to act dumb when we know that they are smarter than what the scene minimally requires.

Year One

Year One (2009)
★ / ★★★★

“Year One,” written and directed by Harold Ramis, was another one of those movies that looked really funny on the trailers but was actually devoid of laughs in the actual film. Jack Black and Michael Cera star as Zed and Oh, respectively, as they traveled from their village to many different places mentioned on the Bible. It also had other references from the Bible such as the forbidden fruit and popular characters such as Cain, Abel, Isaac and others. As a Bible farce, this was extremely disappointing because there were so many things that the filmmakers could have done to make the story funny and smart. Instead, it degraded itself into slapstick comedy and we literally see the characters urinating on themselves, tasting feces, and other things I won’t mention. Don’t get me wrong–I think Black and Cera are usually very funny comedians but I don’t know what they were thinking when they decided to sign up for this movie. Just the script itself was so bad; it was random, it lacked energy, and it didn’t have a powerful enough story to drive it forward and for us to ultimately root for the characters to succeed on their mission. At times I wondered whether the actors were literally making stuff up as they went along. The constant winking at the camera annoyed me greatly, which was tantamount to that pesky mosquito that kept buzzing at your ear when you’re trying to sleep. The only thing I liked about this movie was Paul Rudd as Abel, but he was in it for barely two minutes. Other actors such as Vinnie Jones, Hank Azaria, David Cross and Olivia Wilde didn’t add much to the picture because their characters were also one-dimensional. I really wanted to like this movie because every time the trailer was shown in theaters, it never failed to bring a smile to my face. Unfortunately, it was just so mindless to the point where I thought the director didn’t care about his movie. If the passion is absent, why then should the audience care? When I say that this movie is bad, consider it an understatement. Save your precious time and watch or do something else. I wish I did.


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.