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Sony gathers together Special Editions of three top Bill Murray comedies in one bargain-priced package. Two of the three very different movies are directed by Ivan Reitman and one by Harold Ramis. Murray was one of the few Saturday Night Live alumni to move on to a top-notch film career and the trio of films here show him at his best. Stripes is one of his first star vehicles, Ghostbusters is an elaborate special-effects driven blockbuster and Groundhog Day is a masterpiece, his best movie so far and one of the best of the 1990s.
The three discs come in completely new packaging, in three sturdy slim cases in a card sleeve that simply lists the three titles without further elaboration.
The 1981 Stripes is a lumpy and unambitious service comedy that's just good enough not to strand Murray in a bad rehash of Abbott and Costello's old Buck Privates. Ivan Reitman wanted to follow his Meatballs with a movie about Cheech & Chong joining the army. When that pair wanted to call all the shots, Reitman fell back on Bill Murray at the last minute, enticing him by proposing that Harold Ramis, one of the writers of Animal House, co-star. The two mesh well as a confused ESL teacher (Ramis) and a failed cabbie (Murray) who join the army on little more than a careless impulse.
After an extended prologue explaining how Murray loses his job, his car, his girlfriend and a pizza in one afternoon, we get a standard set of scenes showing the pair going through boot camp, shot at Fort Knox in Kentucky. Warren Oates is their hard-bitten drill sergeant Hulka. He plays straight man to their gags and comes up short mainly because Murray's style (carried over from his skit humor) doesn't allow for much commitment to the material. A delightful John Candy is a portly but gung-ho recruit and manages to instill some individuality into his role denied to the rest of the soldiers. At least five young actor parts are introduced and then more or less abandoned.
This Extended Cut of Stripes has a second play path that restores at least a reel of scenes cut for the theatrical release. Several of these involve sexy escapades with Murray and Ramis playing footsie with frisky femme MPs P..J. Soles (who might regret the reinstatement of her nude scenes) and a very promising Sean Young. There's also an extended cut episode wherein our boys pretend to be top brass spies traveling incognito with a commando unit parachuting into an unnamed Central American country (!!!). They're captured by revolutionaries but escape by singing a Tito Puente song, paying off Murray's interest in Puente established in the prologue.
Oates' drill sergeant character drops out at the beginning of the third act, returning for a rather ill-prepared battle set piece set in Italy, Germany and Czechoslovakia (all shot in Kentucky or Los Angeles). Murray's slovenly platoon puts on an amusing drill performance at Boot Camp graduation, which so impresses a visiting officer that he picks them to demonstrate a new army secret weapon -- basically an armored Winnebago with a computerized weapons system.
The script doesn't find a comfortable place for John Laroquette's excellent idiot officer act, and is sort of a bust. Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty have bit parts and Judge Reinhold has a larger part partly saved from the remnants of the Cheech Chong druggie humor. Stripes follows the raunchy comedy standards of 1981 by jamming in plenty of gratuitous nudity, especially at a big mud-wrestling match at a topless bar where John Candy gets to be front and center for a few moments.
Elmer Bernstein's score is rather generic; either that or the film never quite rises to the music's level of enthusiasm. Listen carefully and one can hear sections that seem to be take-offs on Bernstein's themes for The Magnficent Seven, The Great Escape and Zulu Dawn.
The extended version scenes only make the stew lumpier, but they also make Stripes a little less flaky. Some of the restored material is good improvised comedy schtick, so we won't complain. Reitman and co-writer/producer Dan Goldman provide a pleasant commentary track that only slightly stretches the importance of the film, and makes a forgivable error or two --Stripes was not John Candy's first American picture. The deleted scenes are also viewable on their own. A two part docu Stars and Stripes is something of a long haul, but it does let us see most of the stars (no Murray) reflect on the film twenty years later.
The immensely popular Ghostbusters spawned a huge franchise of toys, a TV cartoon show and a reasonably entertaining sequel; it's basically a horror comedy combining the occult idea of a 'door to Hell' (from The Sentinel or Lucio Fulci's The Beyond) with the phantom entrapment idea from the underrated English film The Asphyx. Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Ackroyd are discredited parapsychological quacks booted from their safe haven in a University. With the help of a fourth comrade (Ernie Hudson) they open a business specializing in trapping spooks, ghosts and poltergeists for psychic storage in their hi-tech electronic containment facility.
That's just the springboard for delightful comedy shrewdly tailored to Bill Murray's deadpan delivery - most of the laughs are linked directly to his put-on approach to arch dialogue: "Yes, yes, no normal human being would stack books like that!" Ramis adds his own brand of no-nonsense scientist talk ("I'd like to take a sample of your brain tissue") and Dan Aykroyd is perhaps a little broad as the more emotional Dr. Stantz. The comedy lampoons movie conventions about scientists, ghost stories and science fiction monsters, building nicely to a climax in a Central Park-adjacent hi-rise apartment building designed and wired to become "spook central" - a direct conduit to the evil spirit world.
William Atherton has his first go at movie villainy as Walter Peck, a meddling government nabob. Annie Potts does a great cute act as the boys' secretary at the converted Fire Station that serves as their Manhattan headquarters. The Ghostbusters roll to the scenes of haunting in an ancient hearse, the Ecto-1, carrying 'nuclear accelerators' on their backs that shoot colorful, ghost-trapping rays. Murray's Dr. Venkman explains that a wrong shot with the rayguns might set up an anti-matter explosion with catastrophic consequences, therefore prompting the "safety tip" of the day: Don't cross the beams.
Pepping up the film as an unlikely romantic couple (well, sort of) are Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis, a concert musician and a nerd respectively, who are possessed by the evil building. Murray gets to make sly observations about Weaver's new monstrous nature, while Moranis hops around as "The Keymaster," a dazed madman who can unlock the door to Hell.
Richard Edlund's Boss Films provides the dynamic and funny special effects that include a dozen cartoonish ghosts (who would be right at home with our old friend Casper) and wonderfully silly blasts of ectoplasm and atomic particle rays. The capper is a Godzilla-sized monster called the "Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man," probably invented because Pillsbury's "Poppin' Fresh" probably wanted nothing to do with a raucous comedy. This titan's adorable smile turns into a rather disturbing grimace when our heroes blasted into tons of goo by our heroes. Finally, Randall William Cook provides a pair of stop-motion animated Devil Dogs that guard the gates of Hell; they're quite effective chasing Moranis through central park.
Ghostbusters fills out the Panavision screen well. Ray Parker Jr's bouncy title tune must have been added at the last moment because there's barely enough space up front to let more than a bar or two peek through. Elmer Bernstein did the rest of the score.
This copy of the Ghostbusters DVD does not have all of the extras of the earlier Special Edition. The deleted scenes are there in workprint form, and the making-of featurettes are retained along with a selection of storyboards. The animated menu has been simplified and the previous commentary with Reitman, Ramis and associate producer Joe Medjuck is included, but without the amusing MST3K- inspired talking silhouettes feature. As this much more involved film has a lot of production history and detail to cover, the commentary is that much more interesting - although at least a quarter of it is dedicated to joking around. By the way, the official title as written in the main title sequence is broken into two as Ghost Busters, probably to allow a transfer to flat VHS without cropping or squeezing the main title shot.
Unlike the previous two pictures, 1993's Groundhog Day is not a revisit of a familiar star vehicle format or a Spielbergian rehash of older genres. Danny Rubin's original story is truly original and the rightful heir to the depressed genre hybrid known as Film Blanc. Albert Brooks' wonderful Defending Your Life (1991) is more of a literal 'heavenly waiting room' movie with a similar theme: If reincarnation is real, then we have all eternity to brush up on our self-improvement skills. Groundhog Day has an equally cute premise but finds its own wistful groove of Earthly wisdom that easily bests the 'life lessons' of older films blanc, even Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. No matter how universal films blanc try to be, their star characters always boil down to 'special' souls with special status in the Earth-Heaven-Hell equation. The rules bend and Heaven Waits while our glamorous leading players sort out their personal predicaments, celestial, romantic or otherwise: A Matter of Life and Death, Here Comes Mr. Jordan et al. George Bailey sees a vision of earthly doom (rendered in film noir terms, naturally) and learns a couple of lessons about friendship and the value of life, but remains a pawn in a game played by angelic overseers.
Groundhog Day is special in that it puts the responsibility for finding meaning and happiness in one's life squarely on the shoulders of the individual. Bill Murray's obnoxious weatherman Phil Connors is one huge fussball of conceit and contempt, blaming everyone around him for the slightest of inconveniences and dismissing the needs of others as the trivial foolishness of clods. Then a rather odd thing happens --- he becomes trapped in a strange temporal cycle in which one day, Groundhog Day, is repeated ad infinitum. At first he goes crazy, or flies into denial; whatever outrage he can think of (including suicide) to break the endless cycle has no effect. No matter what, he falls asleep and wakes up again in his bed with the same radio patter playing. Everything has 'reset' as in a video game; he has to go through it all over again.
Instead of becoming hell on Earth, Connors' experience gradually reveals itself to be a spiritual blessing, a karmic 'time out.' Forced to relive the events of one day forever, he has no choice but to observe what is happening with the people around him. To his surprise, he finds value in people in general, and the loneliness of his seemingly meaningless existence breaks him out of his egotistical shell to attempt real contact with others. He takes an interest in their lives to the point of memorizing the events of the day (which never change) and interceding to make things better - fixing flat tires, catching a boy who falls out of a tree, rescuing a choking victim with the Heimlich maneuver. The better he behaves, the more Phil is appreciated: Even when he starts from scratch, by the end of the day the whole town loves him.
The 'time out' also enables Phil to achieve a massive self-improvement. At first he uses his unusual form of omniscience to seduce a local girl, but then he sets his sights on a more worthy mate, his news co-producer Rita (Andie McDowell). He finds that love isn't as predictable as a boy falling out of a tree; as with the homeless man that he can't save from a heart attack, every sneaky trick he can think of with Rita ends up with a slap to the face. But by improving himself, and letting others discover his untapped qualities for themselves ...
The practically perfect Groundhog Day is an excellent example of a kind of movie that's nearly become extinct: A challenging and complicated premise given A+ attention by its cast and makers. Producer/director Harold Ramis could have gone on making dipsy comedies forever (the last decade has more or less reverted to the Stripes level of sophistication, complete with the raunch) but this little work of art is all-redeeming.
Also getting their share of laughs while fitting beautifully into the fabric of Danny Rubin's script are Chris Elliott as Phil's cameraman and Stephen Tobolowsky as an insurance salesman who gets to do at least four hilarious variations on the same sales pitch. The rest of Punxutawney's citizens are an impressive ensemble of individuals, orchestrated better than the 'colorful characters' that populate Frank Capra movies.
The insightful extras are split between a Harold Ramis commentary and a docu The Weight of Time, both of which stress the brilliance of the concept and its near-miraculous tranference to the screen. Ramis explains that the original tale started out in the middle of Phil Collins' time-warp, forcing us to figure it out like a Chinese puzzle, a la Memento. He also assures us that he's received tons of mail from religious people thanking him for expressing the core philosophy of their particular faith, from Christianity to Buddhism.
And that's the final charm of this immensely over-achieving 'comedy' film. We walk away from It's a Wonderful Life concerned for George Bailey's life and his kids and wondering why the film is so convinced that Mary Bailey would be a miserable spinster without him. It's a great feeling but there's little to be learned from the experience besides, "Gee, isn't it important to value ourselves and each other?" Groundhog Day's philosophy is a practical one that can't be written as a simplistic motto on a Christmas card. We need to be shaken from our complacency to feel a bit of the cosmic mystery of the universe, and then turn inward with our energy to combat that spiritual loneliness through self improvement. Only then can one offer an open heart towards others. Groundhog Day makes life seem as magical as an ice sculpture (carving something that we accept is not permanent) or as funny as an oversized rodent afraid of its own shadow (and a poor driver, too).
If a few thousand buyers scoop up this 3-disc set for more nudity in Stripes and join the many who have been spiritually transported by Groundhog Day, it will be a great thing.
The quality on all three films is fine - and all are 16:9 enhanced. Insofar as aspect ratios are concerned, Stripes and Groundhog Day are 1:85 and Ghostbusters is 2:35.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stripes Extended Cut, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day rates: