Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Film Screening: 'The Last Temptation of Christ'

Winona State University's English Department, Mass Communication Department, Sociology Department, Darrell W. Krueger Library and Sounds of Cinema are sponsoring a screening of the motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ on Thursday, April 10th, 2014 at 7pm in the Stark Hall Auditorium at Winona State University. The event is free and open to the public.

Directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ is a fictional take on the life of Jesus, dramatizing the struggle between earthly desires and higher callings. Roger Ebert wrote, “This film is likely to inspire more serious thought on the nature of Jesus than any other ever made.” Ebert’s prediction was partly correct. When it premiered in 1988, The Last Temptation of Christ incited a fierce public debate. But, as is often the case with controversial movies, the arguments over the film had little to do with its actual content and many of the charges against it were irrelevant, disingenuous, and stupid. This reaction was unjustified and unfortunate. Scorsese and his filmmaking crew went about making this picture with an earnest regard for the subject matter and at the very least The Last Temptation of Christ is one of the most interesting religious pictures ever made. It remains a challenging film but it is worthy of serious consideration by believers and non-believers alike.

The Last Temptation of Christ is rated R by the MPAA. 

A webpage with links to reviews and essays on The Last Temptation of Christ can be found here.

Check out the Facebook event page here.

Questions about the screening can be referred to: nwardinski@winona.edu

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Film Reviews: March 16, 2014

Here are the reviews from today's show:

300: Rise of an Empire may not be a perfect sequel but it is a very good one. The film does much of what a follow-up should, complicating the story and raising the stakes. This picture sets up the series for a third installment and hopefully we don’t have to wait another seven years before it arrives.

Non-Stop is a mediocre movie. For fans of Liam Neeson’s action pictures, this is acceptable as an afternoon matinee time waster but the film could have just as easily have been a direct-to-DVD feature starring Nicolas Cage or Jean Claude Van Damme.

About Last Night is a flawed movie because of its reliance on the comedy of Kevin Hart but the central relationship between Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant is engaging enough to make the movie work. This is an enjoyable romance and a worthwhile remake.

Grand Piano is a terrific thriller. The movie may play fast and loose with reality but it commits to the premise and the story moves along so fast and is so involving that its improbabilities are barely noticeable. This is an exciting and slickly made picture and director Eugenio Mira proves himself to be a filmmaker to watch.

Phone Booth is a well-made thriller with a great concept that is well executed. However it may have dated, the core conceit of the movie holds up and the picture builds so well and is so involving that its anachronisms are overcome.

Full reviews are posted in the Sounds of Cinema review archive.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Remembering Harold Ramis

I spent the second half of today's episode of Sounds of Cinema paying tribute to the work of Harold Ramis, who passed away on February 24, 2014 at the age of 69. Ramis left behind a filmography that is among the most distinguished of American comedic filmmakers.

Ramis was best known to audiences as an actor for his performance as Egon in Ghostbusters but he had a much longer and more complicated filmography than that. In addition to his acting roles, Ramis worked extensively behind the camera as a writer, producer, and director. Many of the films he was involved with were some of the greatest comedy titles of all time.

Harold Ramis began his career working for Playboy as the magazine’s joke editor. He got his first experience in show business in live comedy and in the late 1960s and early 70s he was a member of Chicago's Second City's Improvisational Theatre Troupe, which had also given breaks to John Belushi and Bill Murray. Relocating to New York, Ramis began working on the television comedy series SCTV. This led to feature film work and between 1978 and 1981 Ramis had writing credits on four generation-defining Hollywood comedies: Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, and Caddyshack, the last of which he also directed. 

In a career that spanned nearly four decades, Harold Ramis would direct eleven theatrical features including National Lampoon’s Vacation, Groundhog Day, Multiplicity, and Analyze This. He also received writing and acting credits on films such as Ghostbusters and Back to School. Near the end of his career, Ramis directed for television, and he is credited on several episodes of The Office

In his acting career Harold Ramis was often cast as the straight-man against Bill Murray. This may have lessened public perception of Ramis as a comedian but his filmography stands with directors like Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, Mel Brooks, and John Hughes among the great comic filmmakers. 

The first picture that Ramis wrote was Animal House, released in 1978. Set on a college campus in 1962, the dean attempts to destroy a troublesome fraternity full of colorful characters. I have to admit that I don’t especially like this movie. It does have some funny stuff in it but the picture also has a mean and misogynistic streak to it. Nevertheless, Animal House is extremely influential with virtually every subsequent college comedy, echoing the movie or just simply ripping it off, making this one of the most important comedies ever made. Notably, Animal House inspired a short lived television series called Delta House, and the writing staff of that show included John Hughes.

After writing Animal House and Meatballs, Harold Ramis made his directorial debut with Caddyshack, which he also co-wrote. The film does not have much of a plot to speak of; it’s more of a kaleidoscope of set pieces and the strange characters who populate an exclusive golf club. Despite the haphazard nature of the movie, Caddyshack works because these various pieces fit together so well, which is a testament to Ramis’ skill as a director. The film features memorable performances by Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, and Ted Knight and it utilizes the same appeal as Animal House, pitting the underdogs against the snobs, and in many respects Caddyshack does it better. This is also one of the most quotable movies of all time.

After Caddyshack, Harold Ramis directed National Lampoon’s Vacation, the first installment of the Griswold family’s holiday adventures. The franchise was uneven in its quality but the first Vacation film is very funny. The script was written by John Hughes, who had gotten his start on the television series Delta House and Hughes would go on to write and direct movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

After the success of Caddyshack and Meatballs, the creative talents of those films united for Stripes. Directed by Ivan Reitman, the film co-starred Bill Murray and Harold Ramis as a pair of slackers who enlist in the army. The picture shows significant inspiration from the 1970 motion picture MASH but Stripes is a better movie than Robert Altman’s film and the 1981 picture has been enormously influential; every military comedy that has come since is inevitably compared to Stripes and they often borrow gags and sequences. Even military movies that aren’t comedies have echoed Stripes, namely Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Sam Mendes’ Jarhead. The film has its flaws but like a lot of movies of its time those imperfections are a part of its charm.

After the success of Stripes, the talents of that film reunited for 1984’s Ghostbusters. The picture was directed by Ivan Reitman and was written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, who also co-starred in the film with Bill Murray. This film tells the story of paranormal investigators who go into the ghost removal business. Ghostbusters is in many respects as perfect as a movie can get. Building on the successes of Stripes, the lead actors play to their strengths but everyone shows a heightened focus and the movie plays up the comedy troupe’s best qualities while also providing a much firmer narrative, more likable characters, and much higher production values. Comedy does not usually age very well but Ghostbusters remains as entertaining now as it was in 1984.

After Ghostbusters, Harold Ramis’s filmography becomes a little more uneven with titles such as Club Paradise, Armed and Dangerous, and underwhelming sequels to Ghostbusters and Caddyshack. But Ramis had one more great film to make: 1993’s Groundhog Day. In this film, which Ramis directed and co-wrote, Bill Murray plays a misanthropic weatherman who finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. It’s a clever premise but it’s also a thoughtful movie and in interviews Ramis has said that religious leaders of various faiths and denominations embraced the movie and found it affirmed something about their lives.

In 1999, Harold Ramis directed and co-wrote Analyze This, a comedy about a psychiatrist who tends to a mob boss. This was the first film in which Robert De Niro sent up his Goodfellas screen persona, something he has continued to do since (with diminishng returns) and so the novelty of this film is somewhat tarnished. However, De Niro and the film earned nominations at the 2000 Golden Globe awards. A sequel, Analyze That, followed in 2002.

The last feature film that Ramis directed was 2009's Year One. Although the movie is not at the same level as Caddyshack or Groundhog Day, this film was misjudged by critics and audiences at the time of its release. Year One has some great comic set pieces in it and its humor merges contemporary off-beat jokes with the style of older comedies like Life of Brian and History of the World: Part I.

Comedy doesn't get much respect from critics, academics, or the Hollywood awards circuit but there is great value in making people laugh. Despite the cold shoulder they might get from the critical establishment, these films are going to last forever because Harold Ramis was one of our great artists.