Wednesday, August 19, 2015


DUCK SOUP (1933)

The Writers:

Story by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby; additional dialogue by Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman

Why It's Here:

I find it extremely fortuitous that I'm writing about Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers' Depression-era travesty of totalitarian politics, spycraft and war a mere two weeks after the first televised debate of Republican candidates for president in next year's national elections.  Watching this film again, it's hard not to imagine how Rufus T. Firefly, the tinpot dictator of the film's mythical burg of Freedonia, might fare as a present-day GOP presidential hopeful.  I'm not gonna lie to you.  I think he'd fit in there fairly well.  He's got a lot of qualities the majority of Republican voters seem to be looking for in a candidate this time around.  He insults everyone and then expects them to be grateful for the privilege.  He thinks there's no trial facing a nation and its people that can't be solved with higher taxes on the poor and catastrophic war (backed, of course, by gaudy patriotic song-and-dance numbers). He refuses to ever apologize for any mistake, and he's never met a man so decent that he couldn't warp him, in his own mind at least, into his own image of everything he should be fighting against.  He's a louse with women and not much better on race (or have you forgotten about his throwaway reference to "darkies"?).  And keeping certain current front-runners in mind, like them, his hair habits are an embarrassment.  In fact, I can only think of one key factor separating Firefly from that motley crew of would-be POTUSes:  The laughs he gets are entirely intentional.

And a lot of laughs they are.  On the American Film Institute's list of the 100 funniest films ever made, Duck Soup ranks at a lofty number 5.  Though its box-office underperformance at the time of its initial release in 1933 led to the termination of the Marx Brothers' contract with Paramount, its reputation has only grown with the years, and it is now generally regarded as their finest work (its major competitor for that title, their 1935 MGM-released follow-up A Night at the Opera, lands on the AFI list at no. 12).  It's the oldest film on my 101 Favorite Screenplays countdown (probably the only one old enough that it could still have been described, at the time of its release, as a "talkie"), and also the shortest, running a lean-and-mean 68 minutes, most likely due to the absence of the usual piano and harp musical features for Chico and Harpo Marx, respectively.  And without a doubt, it boasts the strangest writing credits of any film on my list.

If you're a literalist about such things, Duck Soup, in fact, has no credited screenwriter.  There is a "story by" credit shared by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, best known as a Tin Pan Alley songwriting duo (and the subject of their own 1950 biopic, the Fred Astaire-Red Skelton vehicle Three Little Words) who also worked with the Marxes on their earlier films Animal Crackers (1930, based on the brothers' hit Broadway play) and Horse Feathers (1932).  There's also a credit for "Additional Dialogue" shared by Nat Perrin, a longtime comedy scribe and lifelong Groucho Marx friend (he wrote Groucho's famous Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel radio shows), and Arthur Sheekman, a film and theater critic who had worked with the Marxes since 1931's Monkey Business and who Groucho admiringly called "The Fastest Wit in the West."  But nobody is technically credited with having written a screenplay for this film.  This may have been part of the myth, more or less happily corroborated by the studios, that the Marx Brothers' carefully worked out and arranged comedy routines were actually the result of mad, uncontrollable improvisation on their parts.  This has often been a popular tactic for promoting the work of comedy geniuses; Charlie Chaplin, who worked out his routines to the point of acting out every single role himself, even those of the extras, before the cameras rolled, was often portrayed as a "spontaneous" creator who just liked to let things happen onscreen.  Leo McCarey, the Oscar-winning director for whom Duck Soup was his first and only collaboration with the Marx Brothers, has described them as essentially un-directable, that it was more just a job of aiming the camera and keeping Groucho, Harpo, et al. in frame and focus.  (It's telling that Duck Soup is always ranked as one of the best comedies ever made, but it's usually not brought up when discussing McCarey's best work.)  But whether Duck Soup is primarily the brainchild of Kalmar and Ruby, Perrin and Sheekman, or the Marx Brothers turned loose, there's no denying, once you step back and look past the jokes, that the film is a trenchant, pointed, and surprisingly brutal political satire, made all the more cutting by its release at the dawn of the rise of a far less funny (though just as ridiculously mustachioed) European despot.

Fascism was already on the march across the European continent when Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933.  Benito Mussolini had ruled Italy for several years at that point, and the Spanish Civil War that swept Francisco Franco into power was just a few years away.  But Hitler was something more, something far beyond the old-school pomposity of Mussolini and the baroque military savagery of Franco.  He was a man of almost mystical charismatic powers, able to hold crowds of thousands in the palm of his hand with the bellowing rise-and-fall cadences of his voice, the piercing glare of his hard blue-steel eyes, and his message of unparalleled and insurmountable Aryan superiority, which subjugated everything else on earth to sub-standard status...and the Jews, whom he held responsible for the Germans' devastating loss in World War I, the catastrophic economic collapse that followed, and everything else he could think of, to the level of walking vermin ready for eradication.  Even though the Holocaust was by no means in full swing in 1933, the first concentration camp, Dachau, opened its gates that year, and would soon enough evolve, as most every Nazi prison camp did, from forced-labor compounds to factories manufacturing pure death and destruction.  And the icing on this hideous, blood-flavored cake:  Hitler started it all with the full consent and support of the German people.  Don't forget:  Despite the pressure he and his minions exerted on their fellow political leaders and the rank-and-file citizenry, Hitler was still swept into the chancellorship via clear, indisputable victory in a popular national election (a fact that, decades later, critics of the eminently disputable first-term election of the some-would-say-fascist US President George W. Bush would gleefully bandy about).  And Thomas Frank thought something was the matter with Kansas...

Already, Hitler and his machine of defamation and misinformation, led by the reptilian Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, was cranking up the heat under the Jews of Europe, stoking the culture's ever-present, subterranean anti-Semitism to a fever pitch that would spill over into legal disenfranchisement, ghettoization, baseless imprisonment, and finally, cold-blooded mass murder on an unimaginable scale.  American and British officials knew about the death camps and the mass extermination of innocent citizens as early as 1942, but always claimed that prosecution of the war effort prevented them from any action more involved at that time than public condemnation of the criminal perpetrators.  At the time of Duck Soup's release, the US was buried in an isolationist philosophy to begin with, mired as they were in pulling themselves out of their own Great Depression, which hit its single worst year in 1933, with 25% of the viable American workforce without employment, a number that still has yet to be equalled on the national level (and hopefully never will be).  Hitler wasn't hiding his dark under a bushel.  He was giving his speeches in public, having them filmed, disseminating them worldwide, and doing nothing to hide his message of Aryan superiority and blind, hysterical rage at the whole of world Jewry.  But America's reaction at that moment in history was, basically, "So?  We've got problems of our own."

But all the way back in 1933, the Jewish Marx Brothers clearly saw who and what Hitler was...and what he was all about at his core.  Harpo was particularly terrified and infuriated by the rise of this frothing hatemonger; on several occasions, he halted production on the Duck Soup set so the crew could listen to the Fuhrer's fulminating speeches.  By the time the US formally entered the war in 1941, all of the Marxes were too old for the draft.  But in a way, they had already fired the first salvo in the US's campaign against European fascism by releasing Duck Soup in the first place.  And naturally, as comedians, they took on Hitler and the fascist menace the best way they had at their disposal:  They made gleeful, sardonic sport out of the whole mess.  Chaplin is often given bigger props for taking on Hitler more directly in 1940's The Great Dictator; his potshots are more clearly aimed at the man himself (from his frequently barked exclamations in pidgin German to his very name, "Adenoid Hynkel"), and you do have to give credit to the comic auteur for rolling the dice on such a film while the war itself was raging.  But the Marx Brothers got there seven years earlier, with what is, for my money, a much sharper, smarter, more politically astute film.

One of the marks of Duck Soup's superiority as a satire over The Great Dictator, is in fact the very fact that it's not directly aimed at Hitler.  It's impossible to deny, when watching the machinations, lunacies, and manipulations of Rufus T. Firefly (played, as if there was ever any doubt, by Groucho), that despite his superficial similarities to Hitler and the film's faux-Bavarian settings, he could really be a stand-in for any totalitarian-leaning politician, in any place, from any era.  Like Hitler, like many demagogues from time immemorial, Firefly rises to power on the back of a political crisis.  Freedonia is completely out of money, beholden for its financial health to the wealthy and snobbish dowager Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, who Groucho transformed into the swanniest, most elegant punching bag in movie history).  But she threatens to cut the country's cash flow off completely if they don't elevate to power the one man the people believe in and trust, the one man who, as she sees it, can save her homeland:  Firefly.

Once we see Firefly in action, it's clear that the faith of Teasdale and the people of Freedonia couldn't be more misplaced.  Firefly is transparently a charlatan, with seemingly no positive political skills, abilities or ideas, and definitely no interest in cultivating any.  Every idea he spouts seems designed to put the thumbscrews to the lower class.  When he's informed that the workers of Freedonia are demanding shorter hours, he readily obliges:  "We'll start by cutting their lunch hour to twenty minutes."  He blatantly touts his plans to tax the country back to the Stone Age, hiding this sure-to-be-unpopular notion, as politicians often have, in a rousing musical anthem ("The country's taxes must be fixed, and I know what to do with it / If you think you're paying too much now, just wait till I get through with it!").  He promises to execute corrupt, grafting politicians by firing squad...but only if "I don't get my share."

What's more, he seems to regard the entire apparatus of political dealings as a perverse child's game, a plaything for his own amusement.  While Mrs. Teasdale touts his skills and virtues to the public, he can't help but bounce around on one foot like a kid playing hopscotch; later, he holds up a cabinet meeting by playing jacks at the head of the table.  Any attempt at a serious political discussion is turned into a double-talking, pun-riddled Lewis Carroll tangle of nonsense:    

Secretary of War:  How about taking up the tax?
Firefly:  How 'bout taking up the carpet?
Secretary of War:  I still insist we must take up the tax!
Firefly:  He's right.  You gotta take up the tacks before you can take up the carpet.

Firefly makes no secret of how childish he regards the very nuts and bolts of statesmanship to be; while reading a Treasury Department report, he insists a four-year-old child could understand it, then tells his aide, Bob Roland (Zeppo, in his last appearance in a Marx Brothers film), "Run out and find me a four-year-old child,  I can't make head or tail of it."  A country that not too recently spent eight years under a president who seemed proud of his ignorance and unwillingness to read can certainly appreciate the timelessness, and timeliness, of such a gag.

Firefly is no more gifted as a diplomat than he is as a policy wonk.  He seems incapable of communicating with almost anyone without eventually bombarding them with insults.  Mrs. Teasdale, his main benefactor and staunchest supporter, is subjected to a non-stop barrage of cracks about everything from her weight to her widowhood (when informed that her husband is dead, Firefly jokes, "I'll bet he's just using that as an excuse.").  When "defending" his new Secretary of War, the enemy spy Chicolini (Chico...who else?), against treason charges, he informs the military tribunal, "Chicolini here may look like an idiot, and talk like an idiot, but don't let that fool you.  He really is an idiot."  Firefly saves his nastiest invective, of course, for Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern), the leading figure of the neighboring nation of Sylvania.  Virtually every word out of Firefly's mouth to Trentino is insulting; he calls him a baboon, a "cheap, four-flushing swine," and when the ambassador offers to simply shake his hand to forget all of the nastiness and hatred Firefly has heaped on him, Firefly accepts the offer of friendship...until his mind goes wild with thoughts of what would happen if Trentino didn't shake his hand, the rudeness and effrontery of withdrawing a gesture he hasn't even had a chance to make yet.  By the time Trentino arrives to formalize their truce, Firefly has worked himself up into such a baseless froth that he himself strikes Trentino across the face, irrevocably plunging the two countries into war.  (The fact that Trentino has indeed been duplicitous, spying on Freedonia via Chicolini and his mute buddy Pinky [Harpo] and attempting to seduce state secrets away from him through the machinations of the slinky dancer Vera Marcal [Raquel Torres], is the only thing that slightly, slightly lets Firefly off the hook of blame here.)  And no last-ditch effort to talk Firefly out of total war with Sylvania will work.  After all, he says, "I've already paid a month's rent on the battlefield."  And if you think that politicians have never built up straw-man opponents to distract the electorate from their real troubles, go to Mississippi, poorest state in the country.  Find a voter.  Mention the word "Benghazi".  Then try not to get any rage-spit on you.  

It's in their depictions of war that the writers of Duck Soup, and the Marxes, are at their most mordant and inspired.  The war with Sylvania is heralded, not with sadness and apprehension, but with a rollicking, leg-kicking musical number that cites the classic Americana tune "Oh Susanna" and features the brutally hilarious line, "They got guns, we got guns / All God's chillun got guns!"  Groucho, Chico and Zeppo use the helmets of jackbooted soldiers as a giant xylophone, driving home Firefly's vision of the apparatus of men and materiel that deal the death of war as nothing but his gargantuan toy.  His dedication to the meaningless pomp of the battlefield is driven home by the fact that every time we see him during the film's climactic skirmish, he's in a different ridiculous military uniform, from Davy Crockett buckskins to a classic English busby.  The writers aren't shy about dramatizing the fact that everyone wants war, but nobody wants to be the one stuck doing the actual fighting.  Chicolini is reduced to an idiotic kids' counting game to pick who has to go out into no man's land as a last line of defense; he keeps screwing it up, selecting himself, and insisting, "I did it wrong!"  Finally, when Pinky is chosen, entirely by means of cheating, Firefly says to him the most honest words, maybe the only honest words, any politician has ever spoken to any soldier:  "And remember, while you're out there, risking life and limb, through shot and shell, we'll be in here, thinking what a sucker you are!"  Of course, Chicolini has previously betrayed Firefly and is now fighting for Sylvania; the only reason he's even in Firefly's bunker is because he mentions, with perfect doughboy pragmatism, "Well, the food is better over here."  And in probably the film's darkest joke, Firefly opens fire on the field with a tommy gun (after one pathetic little burst of maybe two bullets, he gleefully shouts, "Look at 'em run!  Now they know they've been in a war!"), but is then informed he's shooting his own men.  His reply:  He pays Zeppo five dollars to keep it under his hat...then immediately takes it back.  "Never mind.  I'll keep it under my hat."  If this is the somewhat watered-down version of Duck Soup approved by Paramount for theatrical release, one can only imagine the gallows humor infesting the original draft (titled Cracked Ice), in which Groucho's character had made his own a munitions dealer.

You've probably noticed two things about my comments on Duck Soup.  One is that in reviewing a film billed as starring "The Four Marx Brothers," I've only talked at length about one.  For me, when I say, "I'm a huge Marx Brothers fan," I'm really basically talking about Groucho.  He was, to my estimation, one of the greatest and most fearless comedians who ever lived, never afraid to risk an audience's affection or approval if it meant getting the laugh.  Not many comics today would be willing to take so blatantly unsympathetic a role as Rufus T. Firefly.  Still fewer could wring the consistent, seemingly near-effortless laughs from the part that Groucho does.  From his plunging, shoulders-forward walk to his forever-waving cigar to his nonstop blitzkrieg of verbal buffoonery and high-insult humor (nobody delivers a surreally loony yet pompous proclamation like Groucho, as Firefly does when touting his family history:  "The Fireflies were on the Mayflower...and a few horseflies!  The Fireflies were on the upper deck and the horseflies were on the Fireflies!"), he's an absolute hurricane of hilarity, scoring belly laughs as easy as breathing.  The comic inventions of Groucho, rooted so firmly as they are in the endless absurdity and pointlessness of modern communication, are timeless.  Chico and Harpo's modes of humor, for me, don't age quite as well.  Harpo is the preferable of the two.  While pantomime is a comic style as old as stage performance itself, Harpo does manage to imbue it, through his manic, free-associative approach to his props and near-spastic physical effusions, with an edgy, modernist aggression that is compelling to watch.  (It's no surprise that Harpo, not Groucho, was the Marx of choice for the French surrealists.)  Groucho's insults sometimes seem as if he's completely incapable of controlling himself (after all, it's hard to believe he wouldn't rather score with Vera Marcal than insult her and drive her away), but Harpo takes genuine delight in putting one over on his victims, whether it's clipping off the lit end of Trentino's cigar behind his back or paddling his feet in the vat of a furious lemonade seller (silent-comedy vet Edgar Kennedy) like a child's wading pool.

Chico's comedy stylings are more fiercely wedded to vaudevillian traditions of somewhat antiquated "ethnic" humor.  A lot of the comedy comes from the fact that this ice-cream Italian funny speaka da English; it's heavily reliant on puns, as when he's accused of selling Freedonia's war code and plans and insists, "Sure, I sold a code and two pair of plans."  His almost deliberate misunderstanding of comments is the source of a lot of his jokes as well; when asked where he was born, he replies, "I can't remember.  I was just a little baby."  For me, a little of this sort of thing goes a pretty long way, but the very fact that he's apparently the Sylvanian government's no. 1 spymaster says a lot about the film's faith in the apparatus of espionage and secret surveillance that is a cornerstone of the successful prosecution of a modern war.  How in the world is a middle-aged Jewish man with a fake Italian accent and a Pinocchio hat supposed to pose as anyone else?  Chicolini's status as Duck Soup's absurd answer to James Bond finds its apotheosis in his funniest line in the film, an apt-as-any summation of the worth of subterfuge and dissembling in politics:  "Remember you gave us a picture of this man (meaning Firefly) and said follow him?...Well, we get on-a the job right away, and in one hour...even less than one hour...we lose-a the picture!  That's-a pretty quick work, eh?"  Chico's style of humor is not my personal favorite, but for what it is, it's hard to imagine it being better performed than by him.  And I know plenty of people who place him or Harpo above Groucho in their personal comedy pantheon, and I would never begrudge them their tastes.  Gene Siskel once said you can never argue with anyone over what is sexy or what is funny.  The second part of that quote definitely applies when playing pick-your-favorite-Marx-Brother.

Unless you pick Zeppo.  In that case you're obviously wrong.  This, as mentioned before, was Zeppo's final film as an official member of the troupe.  He was fed up with increasingly irrelevant parts and having not much to do in the films, and in Duck Soup, he's even less effectual than usual.  He's in the thick of the main mayhem to be sure, sharing musical numbers and the final chaotic fruit-throwing melee with his brothers, but he gets no big showcase moments like he had received in previous films, and he's a leaden presence in the oddly lugubrious, otherwise-Marx-free first ten minutes of the film.  (At one point, Zeppo says to Vera, "We've met," and he even emphasizes the word "We've" instead of "met".)  "What to do with Zeppo" is a problem even these writers weren't able to crack, and after Duck Soup, Zeppo basically left acting to become an actually fairly successful Hollywood agent.  His lack of purpose does point to the fact that Duck Soup, highly ranked though it is by me, is not a perfect film.  The Sylvanian skulduggery never quite crystallizes story-wise, mainly because the writers never really figure out what to do with Vera Marcal; she's positioned as if she's going to be an instrumental sexual weapon against Firefly, but the story more or less gives her nothing to do other than throw Mrs. Teasdale an occasional piece of bad advice.  Plus, the abbreviated length does make the film seem as if sections may have been missing.  The Marxes' previous film, the college goof Horse Feathers, is just about the same length, but seems somewhat more complete and coherent than this.  Whether edgier material had to be left on the cutting-room floor, or McCarey simply had to edit around uncontrollable Marxian nonsense, no one at this late point can say.

But none of that is a deal-breaker, because of the other thing my focus on Duck Soup's political prescience has kept me from really addressing:  This movie is laugh-out-loud funny, top to bottom, beginning to end.  It's jam-packed with classic slapstick set-pieces, from Chico and Harpo's odd hat-shuffling duel with the lemonade vendor to the legendary, oft-imitated mirror scene between Harpo and Groucho, still a marvel of conception and performance.  Groucho gets laughs nearly every time he opens his mouth (even his puns are a cut above; dismissing Mrs. Teasdale, he tells her, "You can leave in a taxi.  If you can't get a taxi, you can leave in a huff.  If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute in a huff"), and the film is unafraid to go for baldly surrealist gags, as when Harpo, showing off his tattoos, reveals a doghouse inked on his chest...complete with a real dog that pokes its head out and barks at Groucho.  Sadly, the laughs weren't enough to make Duck Soup the hit Paramount was hoping for and probably needed at the Depression's peak.  Even when movie attendance was at close to an all-time national high, the true humor of this film wasn't enough to leaven the savagery of the swipes it took at the international body politic of the era.  It's perhaps a cliche to say this film was ahead of its time.  Really, and more accurately, Duck Soup has always been right in step with whatever time you're seeing it in.  And it's our fault, not the film's, that it sometimes cuts too close, and veers into subjects that really, when you step back and truly see them, aren't quite so funny after all.

Groucho himself, if pressed on the question, might have put it simply:

The truth hurts, doesn't it?       



Tuesday, February 10, 2015


We are now less than two weeks away from both the Academy Awards and the Writers Store's annual pre-Oscars panel discussion, which I will be moderating for the second year in a row.  Since I wanted a chance to get my two cents in before the Academy has their say, here are your 2014 Zomboscar nominees, with my personal selections for the year's best in cinema noted in boldface.

You will notice that my listings for Best Picture do not conform exactly to the top ten list that I posted on this site several weeks ago.  Since that list went up, I have been catching up on a number of the year's major award nominees, some of which ultimately made it onto my list of the year's best.  This is not to say anything negative about the films that were knocked out of my original top ten; my comments about their quality and worthiness as films still stand, and so I will not be revising the list to reflect these new selections.  This is one of the pitfalls of being a non-professional critic; sometimes you are not as on top of the contenders as you'd like to be.  (My kingdom for a full-time critic's gig…)

Also, you will note that though several documentary features are among my picks for the year's best films, none of these pictures made it into my listing for the Best Documentary Feature category.  This is due to an admittedly arbitrary but still personally satisfying rule I devised when I started awarding the Zomboscars, one that I honestly feel the Oscars should adopt as well:  Any foreign-language, documentary or animated feature that garners a Best Picture nomination is thereby deemed ineligible to compete in the categories for those respective films.  Any complaints about the worth or value of this ruling should be emailed to me at this blog mailbox, ℅ Deez.

Though I have not seen every nominee in every single Oscar category, I have looked at all of the contenders in the eight major categories.  So if an Oscar nominee is not represented here, it is because I feel that other films, performances, and achievements superseded the Academy's judgment.

And now, without further ado, your 2014 Zomboscar nominees and winners…


The Babadook
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Jodorowsky's Dune
John Wick
20,000 Days on Earth


Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
David Oyelowo, Selma
Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Channing Tatum, Foxcatcher


Emily Blunt, Into the Woods
Essie Davis, The Babadook
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Jenny Slate, Obvious Child
Reese Witherspoon, Wild


Toby Kebbell, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Edward Norton, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Randall Park, The Interview
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Noah Wiseman, The Babadook


Carrie Coon, Gone Girl
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Frank
Emma Stone, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice


Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Ava DuVernay, Selma
Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Jennifer Kent, The Babadook
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher


Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher
Paul Webb, Selma
Michael Showalter and David Wain, They Came Together


Jennifer Kent, The Babadook
Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, Frank
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game
Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash


Steven Price, Fury
Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game
Jonny Greenwood, Inherent Vice
Clint Mansell, Noah
Justin Hurwitz, Whiplash


“I Love You All”, Frank
“Hal”, Only Lovers Left Alive
“Glory”, Selma


Radek Ladczuk, The Babadook
Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Jeff Cronenweth, Gone Girl
Jonathan Sela, John Wick
Erik Wilson, 20,000 Days on Earth


The Babadook
Gone Girl
20,000 Days on Earth


The Grand Budapest Hotel
John Wick
Mr. Turner
Only Lovers Left Alive


Get On Up
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inherent Vice
Guardians of the Galaxy
Mr. Turner


Guardians of the Galaxy
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jimi: All Is By My Side


American Sniper
The Babadook
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
20,000 Days on Earth


The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The Babadook
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


The Lunchbox


Life Itself

Thursday, January 1, 2015


No, your eyes are not deceiving you, and the sky is not falling.  You're reading it right.  The Movie Zombie is actually posting his annual year in review within actual spitting distance of the year's end.  To what do we owe this dramatic turn of events?  Partly, it's my desire to more consistently post to this blog in 2015.  My entry total for 2014 far outstripped that of the previous year, when I only managed four posts.  I hope to strongly surpass that in the coming year.  And it's also due to the fact that I'm genuinely enthusiastic about my selections for the top ten films of the year, moreso than in a few recent years.  I feel very secure in my choices and their placement on the countdown, and though the critic must be willing to fly in the face of the establishment opinion in order to be worth anything, I don't think I've made many choices (with maybe one or two exceptions) that you will have trouble finding on other lists, which is a testament to the easily recognizable quality of these ten motion pictures.  

But before we get to the cream of the crop, let's scrape the muck of 2014 off of our feet with the five worst films of the year….


In an early scene in Casablanca, Peter Lorre asks Humphrey Bogart, "You despise me, don't you?"  Bogart's reply:  "I suppose if I gave you any thought, I probably would."  That's more or less my entire review of Jose Padilha's pointless remake of one of the greatest sci-fi / action films ever made:  I'd probably hate it if it was even worth thinking about at all.  


You see?  Already I'm cheating.  This is supposed to be a list of the worst films of 2014, and Veronica Mars, the feature-length extension of the much-loved Kristen Bell cult series, is not a movie.  It's just a long episode of a TV show.  That's not its only problem.  For more details, read my full review here.  


I never thought it would come to this.  Regular readers of this blog know of my affection for Woody Allen.  Two of his films have already featured on my 101 Favorite Screenplays countdown, and two recent pictures made it into past top 10 lists, one in the top spot of the year.  But I have to give discredit where it's due and present Allen with my annual Human Centipede Award for the film I got the least out of watching in 2014.  Everything in this stupefyingly lugubrious "romantic" "comedy" has been done by Allen before, and done much better.  Colin Firth strains mightily to entertain and fails; Emma Stone, who would seem to be a slam-dunk fit for the Allen universe, clangs badly out of tune (she did redeem herself later in the year with Birdman, in which I think she's maybe never been better); Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden and nominee Jacki Weaver are criminally wasted.  Only suitably matrician Eileen Atkins makes a strong impression…but her performance is sabotaged by a late conversation she shares with Firth that is arguably the single worst-written scene of Allen's career.  At the risk of coming off ageist, Magic in the Moonlight is Allen's first film to feel like it was made by a tired old man with no new things to say and no new ways to say them.  He's been one on, one off for a few years now.  My hopes are high for the next film.  It would almost have to be better than this, which I think is close to the worst he's ever made.  


The marketing strategy for this misbegotten sci-fi thriller seemed to be "Squint and maybe you won't notice Nolan didn't direct this."  Oh, I noticed.  Wally Pfister's directorial debut, about a murdered scientist driven mad with power when his consciousness is uploaded into a supercomputer, has an intriguing premise, a Frankenstein tale with the doctor and creature embodied in the same being.  Then why are the results so crushingly dull?  It could be the presence of Rebecca Hall, an actress I almost never enjoy in anything.  It could be that award-winning cinematographer Pfister somehow manages to make a film almost utterly lacking in visual distinction.  I know it's not Paul Bettany or Kate Mara, who do what they can with very problematically written characters.  But part of the blame must fall to Johnny Depp.  If you think greasepainted, mugging-to-the-rafters Depp is hard to take, wait until you get a load of bored, phoning-it-in Depp.  And he was getting paid several million dollars to be there.  If that was the case, and he couldn't manage to hide his boredom, why should I be interested?


Interestingly, this suffocatingly pretentious post-apocalyptic thriller from Australian director David Michod (whose award-nominated 2010 crime drama Animal Kingdom was also no favorite of mine) shares a basic plot with one of the films in my top ten:  Both are films about men driven to extremes of violence and carnage by terrible things befalling their car and their dog.  But everything that the other film gets right, this one gets stunningly wrong, drowning any potential narrative or character interest in a lot of portentously ponderous imagery and "deep" moments of characters staring at one another while we struggle to figure out what they're thinking, if anything at all.  The film is admittedly beautifully photographed (by Natasha Braier), and Guy Pearce is not entirely ineffective as the strong, silent, and fairly filthy-looking avenger.  But Robert Pattinson, as the dim-witted brother of a scrungy "master" thief (Scoot McNairy), gives a twitchy, tic-riddled performance that actively annoyed me more than anything I saw in a film all year.  By the time a largely mute old man showed up near the end of the film, I literally said out loud during the viewing, "Now who the fuck is this guy?"  And the fact that the character that provoked this reaction shares a moment with Pearce that is meant, somehow, to be the film's emotional high point is virtually unforgivable.  I'm starting to think that Michod is one of those "major" filmmakers whose sensibility just does not click with mine.  One of the cardinal rules of cinema I abide by:  "You can't fake depth."  This utterly empty film is a textbook example of what it looks like when that practice goes very, very awry.

Well…now that that unpleasantness is over with…here are my choices for the best films of 2014…


Bong Joon-ho's explosive and trenchant sci-fi thriller is far from the year's subtlest motion picture (see, we live in the back of the train, but they live in the FRONT of the train!), and it's the only film on this top ten that had a major element that I really disliked (Tilda Swinton, cartoonishly broad, seems to be playing down to the film's origins as a graphic novel; I guess she doesn't know that comics are a legitimate literary medium and have been for decades now).  But those facts do little to diminish the elemental power of this gritty, fast-moving, surprisingly affecting film.  Chris Evans, in a complete emotional 180 from his earnest and enthusiastic portrayal of Captain America, is a grim, determined survivor of the new Ice Age, leading a band of refugees battling their way through a perpetually globe-circling train to unlock the secrets of the privileged elites who dwell in the plum positions in the front of their "rattling ark".  Joon-ho's action set pieces are bloody, fierce and swiftly choreographed, the production design by Ondrej Nekvasil is the year's best, and Evans is ably abetted by strong supporting work from Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and the magnetic Song Kang-ho as the train's disgraced designer.  Joon-ho and his co-writer Kelly Masterson manage to keep springing visual and narrative surprises on you all the way through the film; I never expected to see these characters enjoying some sushi, and I damn sure didn't expect Allison Pill as a manically joyful, hugely pregnant, submachine-gun-toting teacher of the children of the elite.  The film is perfectly thrilling and entertaining on its own terms, but it also has truly dark things to say about the 99% versus the 1%, and the ways in which one can turn the other in on itself to suit its own needs.  Evans has a tearful speech near film's end, about an interrupted meal, that it one of the year's most chilling cinematic moments, and there are some climactic images involving a few missing children from the train's rear cars that are genuinely disturbing.  The tensions between Joon-ho and The Weinstein Company kept this film from getting a truly proper release.  Hopefully you'll catch up with it on VOD or home disc (I saw it on a Redboxed Blu-ray) and see all the same fine qualities in it that I did.  


Those who know me best will probably accuse me of just ranking this film so high because of my undisguised and destined-to-be-unrequited affection for lead actress Jenny Slate (if a film were to be made of my life, I have always said she would be ideal casting for a particular ex-Zombette of mine).  Some of you will also dismiss it outright because, yes, this is the film whose plot pivots around an abortion sought by the film's main character after a drunken one-night stand with a man with whom she then awkwardly stumbles into a real relationship.  But Gillian Robespierre's debut feature, an expansion of a 2009 short film that also starred Slate, is a film featuring abortion, not a film about it.  It's actually a film about coming to terms with who you are vs. how you define yourself; about reconciling your dreams with your reality; and what to do when life-changing, possibly miraculous events are really just not on your to-do list at the moment.  Robespierre's screenplay (from a story by her, Karen Maine and Elisabeth Holm) is sharp, smart and full of laugh moments big and small (Slate gets to perform one of the great drunk dialing montages in cinema), and her direction is clean,  uncluttered and likable without succumbing too heavily to indie preciousness.  (I also like the atmosphere created by the fact that the film takes place in winter and climaxes, in a way that feels organic and not too overly programmatic, on Valentine's Day.)  Slate's performance, nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, is a marvelously impressive balancing act; she manages to make her confused but achingly sincere heroine funny, spunky and attractive while always making sure that she is also needy, self-annihilating, and yes, considerably childish.  Slate could very easily have been the whole show here, but Jake Lacy is a sturdy and sympathetic romantic foil, and there are nicely observed turns by Gabe Liedman, Gaby Hoffmann, and Polly Draper, who, as Slate's mother, shares a late-film conversation with her that is one of the best-written scenes of the year.  It was a fantastic year for women directors, and Robespierre's work was the best iteration of a genre that is traditionally considered to be a female domain.  It's not exactly a "romcom for people who hate romcoms," but for someone like myself who's relatively indifferent to the contemporary iteration of the genre, Obvious Child is a breath of fresh air.   


My choice for the year's best big-budget blockbuster delivered so much more than the explosions and gun battles that are often the best one can expect from a film of this type (though when it has to deliver those, man alive, does it ever throw down.  Three words for you:  Apes and tanks).  Matt Reeves directs a surprisingly thoughtful and intelligent film that picks up ten years after the ape-and-virus-driven cataclysm that rocked the earth in the previous Apes reboot film.  Apes and humans have built their own cautiously separated societies, but when the humans need something that only the apes have access to in order to survive, old wounds are opened, deadly lines are crossed, and the fallout of  violating the heavy pronouncement of ape-lord Caesar ("Ape…home!  Human…home!") comes crashing down with titanic narrative and dramatic force.  It's a film with interesting things on its mind, commenting on the potentially lethal consequences of utilizing torture tactics (a theme starkly resonant in light of the recently released CIA torture memos and brilliantly embodied in the motion-capture performance of actor Toby Kebbell as Koba, a former lab ape whose pain and fury at his treatment by humans makes him one of the year's most complex and multi-faceted "villains") and the ecologically minded dangers of overstepping the paradigm of "live and let live."  The film features the year's best visual effects, the mo-cap apes that fill the screen transcending any thoughts of pixels or digitization to become fully realized beings with heft and emotional power; the action sequences are slick but brutal in the best possible fashion; the cinematography by Michael Seresin is beautifully moody in its gray-green dourness.  The film also features a moment, scored with the Band's exultantly bittersweet "The Weight," that may be the year's best cinematic use of a classic rock song.  Astride it all is yet another benchmark effects-abetted performance by the great Andy Serkis, who is carving for himself one of the most singular niches in modern screen acting and who invests Caesar with dignity, authority, anger and final, tragic clarity of thought.  (The humans, led by Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and a sympathetic Jason Clarke, serve the material well, but it's clear whose story this really is, and not just because there are no humans onscreen for virtually the first ten minutes of the film.)  This new Apes franchise feels ballsy and risk-taking in ways that big-budget Hollywood films rarely do.  As long as we can keep getting pictures this probing and interesting amidst all the usual sound and fury of the blockbuster season, I won't have to spend the entire summer movie cycle just waiting for the leaves to start falling again.  


Into the Woods is an extremely pleasant surprise, a screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's fanciful but complex fairy-tale mash-up musical that fully surpasses director Rob Marshall's Oscar-winning work on 2002's Chicago.  The production is sumptuous, with impressive production design by Dennis Gassner and fantastical and amusing costumes by the great Colleen Atwood, and Sondheim's music, lush and intelligent with twisting, surprising melodic invention, is given a fine treatment by orchestrator Jonathan Tunick.  The cast Marshall has assembled is a strong one indeed; I could easily imagine this same crew of performers taking this show to Broadway and doing it well.  Standouts include Emily Blunt and the effortlessly likable James Corden as a sadly childless woman and her baker husband; gutsy little Daniel Huttlestone as the naughty-but-resourceful Jack (of beanstalk fame); Chris Pine, hilariously curling his eyebrows and puffing out his chest as a dashing but surprisingly shit-headed Prince Charming; and Meryl Streep, who of course knocks it out of the park as the snarling but surprisingly sympathetic witch whose curses (both from her and on her) set much of the sprawling story in motion.  Johnny Depp amounts to little more than a cameo, but he's having lots of fun as the Big Bad Wolf, and he fully socks home the creepy sexual undertones of his showcase song, "Hello, Little Girl" (its nastiness amplified by having Red Riding Hood, unlike in the stage show, played by an actually age-appropriate actress, the suitably spunky Lilla Crawford).  The show has been trimmed by necessity for time concerns, and yes, a number of the darker plot turns and unpleasant narrative implications have been sanded off; plus, we don't actually get to see feet hacked up during the comic number "Careful, My Toe," as Cinderella's stepsisters mutilate their feet to fit into the proffered slipper (and yes, this does happen in the original fairy tale).  But this Disney production, scripted by James Lapine, who also wrote the stage production's Tony-winning book, is still a story about how flawless heroes, unambiguously evil villains, and fairy-tale endings really only exist, well, in fairy tales, and that no one always lives up to their roles the way you expect them to.  This can be horrifying, but delightful as well, and the show has some interesting notions about love, parenthood and family that are fully respected by this production.  I don't know if this will be embraced by a family audience; they might be better sticking with Kenneth Branagh's live-action, likely-less-ambiguous Cinderella, which comes out in March. But for Sondheim fans, lovers of film musicals, and devotees of strong cinematic fantasy, I think there's a lot here to savor and embrace.


Given the recently checkered status of R-rated, mid-budget action films in theatrical release, it's hard for me to think of a film that I was rooting for this year more than John Wick, the directorial debut of long-time stuntman Chad Stahelski, about a hard-bitten former hit man (Keanu Reeves), grieving over the loss of the woman who saved him from a life of death-dealing, who's called back into action when the scum-of-the-earth son of a Russian ganglord (Michael Nyqvist) rips off his car and kills the dog his wife bought him as a farewell companion.  So it pleases me greatly to announce that no film this year was more purely satisfying than this stylish, energetic, and utterly thrilling reminder of the pleasures of practical-effects-driven, beautifully choreographed, no-holds-barred action cinema.  Reeves delivers what I honestly feel is the best performance of his career, as a terse, coiled, no-nonsense dealer of mayhem who nevertheless is driven by the most soulful and emotionally charged of motives; Reeves's seemingly total disinterest in looking cool is one of the reasons John Wick is the coolest m-fer you'll see in a film all year.  It's a role Reeves couldn't have played twenty years ago.  Believe it or not, the man is now 50 years old, and the part serves the added gravitas granted to him by age.  Also to be endlessly commended is Stahelski's direction; working with gifted action scribe Derek Kolstad (who also gave us the much-better-than-it-needed-to-be Steve Austin / Dolph Lundgren DTV blast The Package), he proves himself a master of genre-film world-building, giving us a secret subterranean society of professional assassins and a city with just enough comic book flair in the decor and lighting (the slick cinematography is by Jonathan Sela) to keep the action from getting too heavy.  And what action it is.  The gun battles and fistfights are lean, clean and explosive, with Stahelski carefully staging and editing the scenes so we can clearly see that Reeves is performing much of his own stuntwork.  The gem of the  set pieces is an exhilarating shootout in a crowded criminal-run nightclub, featuring a moment of Reeves shooting, reloading, and shooting again that got the only spontaneous audience applause I heard in a theater all year.  Disney is currently discussing one-off Star Wars films spotlighting supporting characters in the universe.  My suggestion:  Give Stahelski the proposed Boba Fett film.  Pull a James Gunn, give this clearly talented filmmaker a grand budget, and let's see what he can come up with.  If it's half as exciting as John Wick, my favorite action film of the year, it'll be something to sing about.  


A lot of readers who are familiar with my other writing endeavors might assume that I'm only a fan of Damien Chazelle's incredibly intense music-school indie drama because of the jazz milieu in which it traffics, and indeed, it is thrilling to see a musical genre to which I have dedicated much of my attention and literary time given such a prominent cinematic showcase.  But if all the film had going for it was saxophones and trumpets (and of course drums) on the soundtrack, I wouldn't be writing about it right now.  Fortunately, Chazelle, a music-school vet and drummer himself, has clearly poured both personal passion and exceptional filmmaking talent into this tale of a near-pathologically driven student drummer (Miles Teller, in an implosively charismatic performance) locked in a battle of wills with the legendary and dreaded Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, in a top-of-the-pride roar of a performance that I predict will win him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), a music teacher as celebrated for the great musicians that have passed through his band as he is excoriated for the depression, fury and wrecked lives his brutal drill-sergeant teaching style has left in its wake.  Working from his own screenplay, based on his short film, Chazelle doesn't shy away from the ugliness, the hostility, the bloody hands and sweat and strain that often go into making art that feels and sounds effortless, and he's smart and honest enough to portray the creative drive in ways that the non-artistic, and most studio executives, would find unacceptable.  (I was stunned by Chazelle's willingness to have a character turn his back on a romance that, while delightful and deep, is threatening his full concentration on his artistic endeavors.)  Teller and Simmons are arguably the year's greatest on-screen duo act; the parry-and-thrust of their scenes together, with Simmons screaming and hurling the vilest insults Chazelle can conjure and Teller answering him with scowls, sneers and sheer drumming brilliance, is mesmerizing.  The drill and performance scenes are like small wars, with Sharone Meir's whipsawing cinematography, the machine-gun editing of Tom Cross, and a fine score of very legit-sounding jazz building these scenes to a stunning frenzy.  The climactic performance of "Caravan," in which Teller and Simmons outdo one another in sheer naked dick-slinging, has been hailed by many critics as one of the year's best single scenes.  More than just a film about jazz, Whiplash is a movie about any consuming passion, what it can bring to your life, how it can save you…if it doesn't tear you apart in the process.  


Speaking of films with which I have a personal connection…I very seriously considering recusing myself from even commenting on Frank Pavich's documentary about the "making" of French-Chilean avant-gardist Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune, regarded by many as one of the greatest films never made and a picture whose creative team, including conceptual artists Chris Foss, Jean "Moebius" Giraud, and H.R. Giger and visual effects artist Dan O'Bannon (later to make his name as the writer of Alien and Total Recall and the writer / director of The Return of the Living Dead), would go on to revolutionize the next forty years of genre filmmaking.  As regular readers know, O'Bannon and I co-authored a book on screenplay structure together, and the fact that the film features audio interviews with the late O'Bannon, as well as talking head segments featuring Dan's wife Diane, a great friend and publishing / promotional collaborator of mine, made me think that my including it on this list might be seen as extremely biased at best, disgusting second-hand self-aggrandizement at worst.  But the facts are impossible to deny:  Few films this year were as damned entertaining as Pavich's chronicle of a masterpiece that wasn't.  The filmmaking is fleet-footed and sprightly, with delightful animated sequences bringing Foss's conceptual art and Moebius's legendary storyboards to life; the narrative is chock-full of memorable anecdotes (notably one in which Pink Floyd almost hamburger themselves out of working on the film's soundtrack); the film makes painfully clear both the reasons the film ultimately didn't happen and the myriad sci-fi and fantasy pictures that have borrowed from or flat-out ripped off the work of Jodorowsky and his team.  And without a doubt, there was no more pleasurable presence to spend 90 minutes in the company of this cinematic year than Alejandro Jodorowsky.  He's a madman, he's a visionary, he's a magnificent raconteur, he is so much fun to listen to that I wouldn't have cared if this film had turned out as long as his version of Dune probably would have been.  It's exhilarating to see how Jodorowsky, now in his 80s, can still get so furious over the money that he knows was the real reason his dream project never happened, and equally joyous to listen to his laughter and see his dancing eyes as he describes the experience of seeing the 1984 Dune ultimately directed by David Lynch for the first time.  I truly believe that if Jodorowsky's film had been produced, it would be a film that, folly or benchmark, would still be discussed alongside 2001 and Star Wars among the genre's signal achievements.  That will never be, but Pavich's loving tribute to the creative spirit is just as good.


Ava DuVernay's chronicle of the 1965 voting rights march on the titular city led by Martin Luther King, Jr. is not a revolutionary iteration of the historical drama, but in its power, detail and sweep, it is everything you could hope for from a mainstream Hollywood film on this subject.  I have read a number of articles and reviews comparing this film to Steven Spielberg's Lincoln in its portrayal of the back-room politicizing and sheer logistical spadework of inciting authentic change in American lives. But while Lincoln, for all its strengths of writing and acting, was still able to regard slavery and the Civil War from something of an arm's length remove, this film grabs you and shoves you into the trenches alongside King, numerous notable civil rights leaders, and ordinary Americans who see an injustice, know it's unjust, and will do everything in their (non-violent) power to set the wrong right. It's visceral, thoughtful and intelligently written (by Paul Webb, with an uncredited rewrite by DuVernay), and the director proves her ability with larger-scaled material after several small-scale independent relationship-drama successes. Bradford Young's handsome, burnished cinematography brings history to life without ever resorting to nostaligizing, and John Legend and Common (who also portrays activist James Bevel) give us "Glory", an appropriately stirring closing anthem. The performances are solid throughout, from Oprah Winfrey, affecting in a supporting role that could easily have been overwhelmed by her sheer cult-of-personality presence, to Henry G. Sanders, crushing his one big showcase scene as the grandfather of a slain activist, to Tim Roth as George Wallace, whose bigotry and institutional tolerance of same seems to have seeped into his very pores. But the standout, as it must be for the film to work at all, is David Oyelowo as King, in a fiery, well thought-out and intensely intelligent performance; he socks home the big moments of speechifying, sure (and all the more impressively when you realize that the film did not have permission to use King's actual speeches), but he's also electrifying in the quiet scenes, as when he gobsmacks Lyndon Johnson (a spottily accented but still effective Tom Wilkinson) with the sheer quiet force of his insistence, or being confronted by his steadfast-but-pained wife Coretta (a slow-burning Carmen Ejogo) about FBI tapes of his apparent infidelities. This is one of the great grand-but-human epics, and it's all the more vital in that the footage of the beatings on the Edmund Pettus Bridge could very easily have been ripped from CNN just weeks ago. Selma is a necessary reminder that, for better or worse, sometimes the more things stay the same, the more they change.   


I seem to be somewhat out on a limb with Bennett Miller's somber, multi-layered and thematically rich rendering of the real-life murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz by delusional multi-millionaire John du Pont.  This film entered the fall with a lot of seeming awards-and-acclaim momentum behind it, but mixed reviews and relatively indifferent critical reception will, I think, relegate it to awards also-ran status, an Oscar juggernaut that wasn't.  Hell, I think I liked this one more than one of its own characters.  But I stand by the thrust of my thoughts in my original review, with two fairly significant amendments:  Thanks to Oyelowo, Channing Tatum is no longer my pick for the year's best actor.  And the film has likewise been supplanted at the top by


…which was the only film I paid to watch theatrically in 2014…twice.  (If you think that's not momentous, note that when I told a friend I've known for fifteen years that I had just seen this film again, he said, with utterly no prompting, "But you never do that!")  A few interesting notes about The Babadook:  Its inclusion makes three films in my top ten of the year directed by women, and three based on short films by the same director as their feature versions.  Also, by funny coincidence, both my year's best and year's worst film were made by Australian filmmakers.  

But all that is trivia.  What of the film?  Horror films are frequently and justly celebrated for their almost peerless cinematic ability to harness metaphor to powerful narrative ends. But that doesn't always mean that those metaphors resonate with one personally. For that reason, I found Jennifer Kent's deeply emotional and cinematically miraculous shaggy-dog horror film, her feature directing debut, to be an almost overwhelming experience, one that sent me out of the theater seriously shaken and nearly in tears from the power and truth of the vision she has conjured here. This story, chronicling the terrors that beset a superhumanly stressed-out widow and her troubled child when they read a mysterious pop-up book that inexplicably materializes on their bookshelf, has been duly lauded for its utilization of the frequently fractious and often overwhelmingly difficult nature of contemporary parenthood. This is not something with which I am intimate, though I know that the film possesses considerable strength for those who are. But I am frighteningly familiar with another emotional area with which this film also traffics, with prescience, clarity and immense skill: The emotional effects of depression. While the film's protagonist is likely dealing with a situational depression rather than a clinical situation (she has never gotten over the death of her husband, killed in a car accident on the way to deliver her to the hospital to give birth to the boy), the signs are unmistakable. The constant state of tension she moves within, the unexpected bursts of rage and irritation that erupt like a volcano (many people don't know that depression just as frequently manifests itself as anger and irritability), the numerous shots of the heroine simply slumping, defeated, into bed. Kent complements the tension of Essie Davis's raw-wound, brutally empathetic, Oscar-caliber performance by maintaining an antsy, edgy editing pace; many of the shots, particularly in the early scenes, seem to cut off too quickly, mirroring the way that for the depressive, everything just comes at you all at once, too fast for it to be processed. And Kent has embodied the encroaching darkness of the depressive spirit with transcendent brilliance in the figure of the Babadook, a being whose ostensibly human shape frames nothing but foul, fetid, bottomless darkness. The film's finale, which I will not reveal here (save to cite a brilliant near-the-ending line: "It was quiet today"), perfectly captures what the depressive can do at his most powerful: Simply maintain. Davis's marvelous work is more than matched by young Noah Wiseman, who gives a vastly complex performance, one of the best we've seen from a child actor in quite some time. Kudos as well to Kent's team, particularly editor Simon Njoo, cinematographer Radoslaw Ladczuk, and illustrator Alex Juhasz, who gives us the scariest pop-up book of all time. And make no mistake: On top of everything else, The Babadook is scary as hell, with a marvelously building sense of unbearable tension and a titular monster whose iconography stands alongside Caligari and Count Orlok as an old-school ghoul for the ages. (In one magnificent scene, the fiend insinuates himself into a Melies film the harried mother scans by on late-night TV.) I wish everyone I know could see The Babadook. If they saw it, absorbed its feelings and mood, never again would they have to wonder how I'm feeling when I'm feeling the way I sometimes do. It is a horror tale for the ages, and my favorite film of 2014.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014



The Writers

Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis

Why It's Here

Ghostbusters joins previous countdown entries The Truman Show and Babe in being hailed as a "touchdown movie," a film that one could imagine going wrong in any number of ways, but blessed with a screenplay that takes a potentially doomed-to-fail premise and running with it all the way to the end zone.  This film, about a team of disgraced NYU parapsychologists who parlay their scientific know-how into a ghost-extermination business, right on the eve of a potentially world-destroying paranormal disturbance hitting the Big Apple, could very easily have resulted in a big-budget dud, particularly since it took on the added risk of melding its supernatural premise with sly, snarky comedy. (For a vivid example of just how badly a very similar premise can be executed, look no further than RIPD, one of the Zombie's picks for the worst films of 2013.)  But thankfully, Ghostbusters was under the stewardship of screenwriters Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis (RIP), who cut their comic teeth on Saturday Night LiveSCTV and comedy classics like The Blues Brothers and Animal House, and who manage, through the film's entire 105-minute running time, to never strike a false note in their marriage of an action-packed blockbuster-ready premise with just enough hilarious one-liners and gags to keep the film from collapsing under any potentially destructive self-seriousness.  The result was one of the biggest hits of 1984, a genuine cultural phenomenon that spawned T-shirts, toys, catchphrases, one of the most memorable title theme songs of the era (complete with an MTV video featuring the film's stars cutting up with musician Ray Parker, Jr.), and a long-running Saturday-morning cartoon series.  The potential durability of the Ghostbusters concept was never really at issue, but it took Aykroyd and Ramis's execution to take it from a good idea for a movie to a good movie, period.

The film's opening scene reveals one of the wisest decisions made by the writers in crafting this film:  Though Ghostbusters is a comedy, the ghosts themselves are basically never played for laughs.  When an employee at the New York Public Library (a memorable small part for Alice Drummond) is terrorized by floating books, flying file cards, and a snarling apparition, the moment is presented with the utmost seriousness; one can imagine a person of weaker constitution being possibly genuinely frightened by the sequence.  Here and throughout the film, the apparitions the 'Busters go up against are never permitted to be less than a credible, frightening challenge, even when the characters' reactions to them ("He slimed me," indeed) get a chuckle.  This allows the film to build a sense of genuine obstacles that need to be overcome and real villains to vanquish, something all too rare in most comedy screenwriting.  When was the last time you saw a comedy that climaxed with a genuine threat to the safety and survival of the free world?  Ghostbusters manages that tricky feat, deploying a cadre of memorable spooks and demons to bedevil the 'Busters and the city of New York.  Zuul the Gatekeeper and Vinz Clortho the Keymaster, demonic emissaries of the Sumerian destructor god Gozer (played, in a memorable and unexpected visual conception, by Yugoslavian actress Slavitza Jovan), are genuinely freaky dog-monster beasts who take possession of unassuming symphony cellist Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) and her neighbor, nebbishy health-nut accountant Louis Tully (Rick Moranis, Ramis's fellow SCTV alumnus who, according to IMDb, also did some uncredited work on Aykroyd and Ramis's script).  While Dana and Louis are occasionally funny in their demonically possessed personae (the enslaved Louis / Vinz amuses by presenting everything he can pick up, including a frying pan and a lamp, to Ramis's nonplussed Egon Spengler), their plight is treated with enough seriousness that their potential death in the cacophony of destruction that climaxes the film has some genuine emotional heft.  Likewise, when the 'Busters are ordered by Gozer to "choose the form of the Destructor," and nerdy, boyishly enthusiastic scientist Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) can't keep himself from thinking of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, a childhood advertising icon who thus appears, in Godzilla-sized form, to destroy New York, the initial image of the gigantic, blobby Marshmallow Man gets a big laugh from the audience.  But when he turns to the rooftop where the 'Busters are waiting, roars in anticipation of the coming carnage, and begins climbing the walls of the skyscraper after them, there's no doubt that our heroes, and the city they love, are in true and dire peril.  Right off the bat, Aykroyd and Ramis let us know:  Just because this is a comedy doesn't mean you can relax too much, making Ghostbusters a thoroughly credible melding of the supernatural horror and comedy genres.  

The writers also smartly differentiate the personalities of the Ghostbusters, playing to the strengths of the performers by writing them characters that, for their particular comic personae, are straight-across-the-plate home run opportunities.  Ray perfectly plays off of Aykroyd's endlessly amusing facility for lightning-speed recitations of arcane technical dialogue; he frequently rattles forth with comments about  "Class Five full roaming vapors" and an apparently staggering "undersea mass sponge migration," the dialogue and Aykroyd's brilliant rapid-fire delivery fully convincing us of Ray's tremendous intelligence and capacity for knowledge, as well as his genuine enthusiasm for his chosen line of work. He's a generally enthusiastic individual, which often manifests itself in ways that mark him as a big overgrown kid.  When Egon and fellow Ghostbuster Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) are ready to turn their backs on the dusty deathtrap of a firehouse they're considering for their new headquarters, Ray wins the day with his giddy reaction to sliding down a real firemen's pole ("Hey, does this pole still work?"), and his conjuring of Stay-Puft is due entirely to his faith in the memories of his childhood to keep him safe and protected (even as the monster stomps down the streets to destroy them, Ray waxes nostalgic about roasting marshmallows at summer camp).  It's perfectly understandable how a man like Ray could choose a line of work that traffics in what many would consider to be unbearably esoteric, if not wholly incredible fantasy nonsense.  

Egon is just as committed as Ray to the power of encountering the unbelievable, but he approaches his craft from a much more drily scientific point of view.  While Ray views the supernatural as a font of endless wonder and potential terror, Egon looks upon even the most fantastical and spectacular phenomena as pieces of data, informational blocks that can be taken apart, quantified and broken down to their essences through sheer, scientific know-how.  The physical manifestation of ghostly activity, in the form of ectoplasmic slime, doesn't rattle him in the slightest; his only reaction is to whip out a small Tupperware container and ask Peter to save a sample for him ("Someone blows their nose," Peter sneers, "and you want to keep it?")  When confronted about what he likes to do for fun by the 'Busters' sassy but obviously smitten-with-Egon secretary Janine (Annie Potts), he flatly states, "I collect spores, molds and fungus."  His ability to break the whole world down into easily manipulable component parts allows him to describe even potentially catastrophic actions with maximum emotional disconnection, as when he cautions his fellow ghost hunters, on their first real spirit-trapping outing, against crossing the streams of their proton-pack ghost-catching beams. ("Imagine," he says, "all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light."  Peter deadpans, "Okay, important safety tip.  Thanks, Egon.")  Still, his faith in the power of facts and figures allows him to be willing to gamble, in a nice pay-off of the script's earlier plant, on crossing the streams as a means of destroying the dimensional gate that has let Gozer into our realm; he waxes enthusiastic about the "very slim chance" that they'll survive the resultant blast.  To a man like Egon, a very slim chance is still better than nothing.  After all, only zero percent means zero percent.  He also displays a surprisingly delicate common touch when he explains to Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), the regular-joe blue-collar guy who's hired when the 'Busters' ghost-hunting obligations get overwhelming, the amount of psychic energy building up in the city's strained supernatural membrane, using a Twinkie to illustrate the potential immensity:  "It would be a Twinkie thirty-five feet long, weighing approximately six hundred pounds."  Carl Sagan couldn't have put it better himself, and Ramis, with his dry, slightly adenoidal delivery (picture a less off-putting Ben Stein), makes Egon a grand addition to the lovable-nerd comic tradition.  

Winston at times threatens to feel like something of an afterthought on this team.  He comes into the film about forty minutes in, he doesn't get much in the way of laugh lines (though he does get a great moment when he tells the city's mayor, vouching for the veracity of the Ghostbusters, that, "Since I joined up with these guys, I have seen shit that would turn you white!"), and the only time we really see him out on duty with the rest of the team is in their final encounter with Gozer, so we don't have much of a sense of what he'd be like as a day-to-day member of the busting squad.  It has been suggested that the role of Winston was originally intended for Eddie Murphy; one imagines that, had he been cast, his improvisational skills would have been called upon to account for some of the flatter aspects of Winston's personality.  But as written, Winston performs a valuable function by bringing a bit of ground-level reality to the fantasy-world business of hunting and trapping ghosts.  Ray and Egon are scholars and inventors fully ready to grasp the technical and metaphysical nature of inter-dimensional combat with spirits, while Peter (who we'll get to momentarily) is able to tackle the mind-blowing nature of the obstacles they're up against the same way he deals with everything:  By turning the whole world into one huge straight line.  Winston's role is to present to the viewer the way he or she would probably react in a situation like this:  With profound awe, mixed with shoulders-down "let's-get-this-done" stick-to-itiveness.  He's not a scholar, he's not a brilliant mind.  He's just some guy who answered a want ad in the newspaper and, several weeks later, found himself battling demon dogs and a gigantic walking marshmallow bent on destroying mankind.  And his reaction?  "This job is not worth eleven-five a year."  He also gets a few spotlight moments that flesh him out nicely.  He shares a driving conversation with Ray in which they discuss God and the Book of Revelations (Winston proclaims admiration for Jesus's "style"), and he reveals himself as a man who has clearly thought about the nature of what lies beyond himself.  He also gets one of the film's triumphant final lines, as he bellows, following Gozer's defeat, "I love this town!"  Winston is not just a regular guy.  He's a New Yorker, and the film uses him to help craft its identity as a great New-York-as-city-of-survivors blockbuster, a mindset also adopted to nice effect by 2002's original Spider-Man.  

And then there's Peter Venkman, played by Murray in one of the most celebrated comic performances of his career.  (Like Winston, this role was originally intended for another performer, in this case John Belushi, whose usual salt-of-the-earth slob persona might have negated the need for Winston altogether had he lived to play the role.)  Given his current status as a minimalist maestro of indie emotionalism, it's bracing and exhilarating to revisit the days when Bill Murray was the most archly ironic presence in all of American cinema.  I recently read Richard Zoglin's briskly entertaining biography of Bob Hope, and watching Murray's take on Peter here, I couldn't help but think of the debt this character and performance owe to Hope's performance style.  Like Hope, Murray creates a character whose general presentation style melds comic braggadocio with deep-rooted cowardice (Peter gives a grand verbal buildup to the final confrontation with Gozer, only to puncture his own bravado by capping his boldness with a quick, "Get her, Ray!"), he uses cocky one-liners as his primary flirtation method when making a play for Dana, and when she becomes the sexual aggressor (after being possessed by Zuul), he displays the same fumble-fingered cluelessness Hope often evinced in the face of assertive women.  He occasionally sings his dialogue for no discernible reason, and at one point, bruised by a rejection from Dana, he begins narrating the action as if a character in a bad dime novel ("And then she threw me out of her life…").  It's no surprise that, alone among the Ghostbusters, Peter frequently finds his aptitude as a scientist called into question; the dean who kicks them off campus declares his theories "the worst kind of popular tripe," and Dana declares that while Ray and Egon seem credible enough, Peter comes off "more like a game show host."  (Not surprisingly, our first image of Peter is in a game-style setting, coaxing volunteer students to guess images on large cards as an ESP test; of course, he's mostly using this as a means of flirting with a pretty student, even going as far as to lie about her guesses of the images on the cards.)  The risk in evaluating this performance is in just making it a list of the classic one-liners that pour from Peter almost at will; he gets arguably 90% of the film's major laugh lines and most quotable jokes (a personal favorite:  Peter, facing a gaggle of reporters and photographers, declares that the Ghostbusters are on call "any time, day or night, no job is too big, no fee is too big…").  Murray, indeed, at times makes Peter almost seem like the film's master of ceremonies as much as he is a character.  Peter uses constant one-liners and a general attitude of smart-assed detachment to covertly distance himself from the danger he and his fellow Ghostbusters face; Murray never directly addresses the camera as Hope might have in a similar role, but virtually his every utterance puts air quotes around his performance, his character, and the movie he's acting in.  So important is Murray's comic attitude to the impact of the character of Peter Venkman that, more so than any other major role in the film, it's difficult to separate the performance from the character as written.  But Peter does include his own intriguing dimensions, and it's there in the supporting cast's regular dismissal of his scientific credibility.  One of the sub-themes of Ghostbusters is the frustrations of being doubted by others.  Dana is extremely upset when her initial reports of supernatural beings haunting her refrigerator are treated by Peter as just another gag, and the Ghostbusters themselves have to conquer the prejudice of doubters and supernatural skeptics to even get their business off the ground (it's no accident, I think, that the tagline on the Ghostbusters' TV commercial offers support to potential clients who might likewise find themselves the victims of doubters:  "We're ready to believe you!").  Despite his default mode of ironic disaffection, at the end of the day, Peter is honestly aware of what people think of him, and it's telling when he declares to Dana, after finding no evidence of the spooks she claims haunt her apartment, that he's going to solve her problem and silence her doubts by proving that "Peter Venkman is a guy who can get things done."  And when the chips are down, the balls are to the wall, and New York looks like it's going to go the way of the dodo (even though the 'Busters don't even try Peter's suggestion that they just get the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man laid...after all, "he's a sailor, he's in New York…"), Venkman steps up and takes on Gozer toe-to-toe.  Firing up his proton pack, ready to make a move that might save the world, but might just as likely destroy him and the city he loves, he has his most unambiguously brave line of the film:  "Let's show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown."  Dizzy Dean said it ain't bragging if you can back it up, and by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his friends and saving the city, Peter proves that he is, indeed, a guy who can get things done.  

Ghostbusters  also excels at the subtle, harder-than-it-seems skill of effective cinematic world-building.  Decades before the concept of world-building was a genre fan buzzword, Aykroyd and Ramis create a scientific and scholarly framework for their film's supernatural goings-on that seems realistic without ever weighing the film down in techno-jargon and minutiae.  Though Ray gives Winston a precisely detailed breakdown of how to transfer a captured ghost from one of the team's ghost traps to their firehouse storage facility ("The light is green, the trap is clean"), we never know quite how the traps capture the ghosts, how they are held in the storage tank, and indeed how the ghost-zapping nuclear-powered proton packs function and what about the beams they emit is able to catch and hold ethereal ectoplasmic beings.  We never see any of this gear being designed or built (though we somehow assume Egon is the main mind behind crafting the team's equipment); the phrase "PKE" is tossed around with great frequency without ever being concretely defined (though if you pay attention to the dialogue, you can figure out what it means); Egon and Ray reference two spiritual reference texts, the Spates Catalog and Tobin's Spirit Guide, that may or may not be real; and even Peter, when confronted by Dana about the use of a ghost-detecting wand he brings to her apartment, seems basically unaware of its real function (merely telling her, "It's highly scientific").  Rather than turning a fast-paced action-driven comedy into a scientific dissertation, Aykroyd and Ramis are smart enough to know that if the characters know their craft and are comfortable around using their equipment and knowledge, the audience will react and not worry about all the niggling little details that they don't actually need to know to enjoy the story.  It's as if the writers, quoting Peter himself, tell potentially over-questioning geeks in the audience, "Back off, man, I'm a scientist."  This also lends credibility to the boys when they advance their theories about crackpot Gozer-worshipping architect Ivo Shandor and the skyscraper he designed and built and in which Dana Barrett now lives; the building, designed with strange materials and odd design configurations, turns out to be basically a large wand for attracting spiritual energy.  Or, as Ray much more eloquently tells Peter, "Your new girlfriend's apartment building is the heart of Spook Central."  In addition to the lived-in believability of its scientific understructure, Ghostbusters also does a fine job constructing the inner-film myth of the Ghostbusters themselves.  Many films attempt to build characters into folk heroes within the world of the film itself, but few do it as skillfully and (again) believably as Ghostbusters.  This is largely accomplished by Aykroyd and Ramis (along with producer / director Ivan Reitman and editor Sheldon Kahn) through a genuinely effective montage that shows the growing popularity and scope of the Ghostbusters' business, another trick later borrowed from Spider-Man, which more and more seems like it might just be a covert Ghostbusters remake.  We see the 'Busters appearing on major magazine covers and on tabloid rags advertising the new "Ghostbusters Diet"; the boys accepting ready-to-eat ducks from merchants in Chinatown and accolades from admirers all over the city; and honestly impactful cameos from anchorman Roger Grimsby, DJ Casey Kasem; and talk-show hosts Larry King and Joe Franklin (who amusingly asks Peter "the question on everyone's mind:  How is Elvis, and have you seen him lately?") discussing the Ghostbusters phenomenon.  Their presences truly enforce the feeling of the Ghostbusters as genuine New York personalities, and when the city rallies in the streets to show their support for the 'Busters as they arrive to battle Gozer (complete with kids waving T-shirts featuring the then-ubiquitous Ghostbusters logo), we're not at all surprised to see them there.  

Ghostbusters is one of the films that helped to define the modern blockbuster, and I was happy to see its 30th anniversary celebrated this year with such enthusiasm and genuine affection, as it had seemed, in somewhat recent years, to have faded a slight bit from many folks' radar.  People still enjoy throwing around rumors about the always-discussed, hopefully-never-to-be-made Ghostbusters 3 (Rebel Wilson may be many things, but an adequate substitute for Harold Ramis she is definitely not), and the various video-game iterations over the years have kept interest in the franchise up, but many of these discussions have, in my opinion, never quite given the original film its due as a piece of blockbuster filmmaking or screenwriting.  Aykroyd and Ramis's work here reminds us, in the wake of years of comedies primarily predicated on turning the camera on a group of usually funny people and waiting for them to be funny, of the virtues of a solidly crafted comic story that still delivers the laughs while creating a satisfying beginning-to-end narrative experience as well.  Ramis would do better work about a decade later, but this remains perhaps the pinnacle of Aykroyd's screenwriting art, and, along with previous countdown entries Beetlejuice and Galaxy Quest, one of cinema's definitive marriages of fantasy material and comedy.  Many comedies are lucky to put one quotable line in the cultural lexicon.  This one had three times that many in its theme song, and Aykroyd and Ramis didn't even write that.  

Postscript:  I hadn't seen this film in quite a few years when I watched it for this review, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a quick small role for Reginald Veljohnson as a holding-cell cop.  Since the character is not given a name, I like to think this was Al Powell, and that after the chaos with Gozer and   Stay-Puft, he decided to take the promotion to sergeant and move to Los Angeles.  It's sunny all year in LA.  Gotta be more mellow out there, right?  What could go wrong?  

AWARD NOMINATIONS:  Hugo Award, Best Dramatic Presentation (nomination shared with director Ivan Reitman)