In Memoriam: Ivan Reitman (1946-2022)

By: Shawn McKee

Each year brings the inevitable loss of another cultural icon. It seems this has been happening a lot lately, especially for those of us who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The recent passing of Ivan Reitman at 75 is another reminder of irreplaceable talent in a fast-paced, ever-changing world. Reitman was one of the most reliably talented in his field. As the director, producer, and/or writer of countless seminal classics, his work behind the camera helped define the essence of modern American comedy. His films launched the careers of several comedic legends throughout the ‘80s, while reveling in absurd, wildly original concepts that always delivered.

Reitman’s strength lied in his dedication to offbeat premises and the realism necessary to keep them grounded. His track record wasn’t perfect, but there’s a reason his films remain so beloved today. He respected audiences and sought primarily to entertain. But none of that would have been possible without an adept storytelling methodology and greater understanding of the comedy formula overall.

Reitman was born in the Slovakian town of Komárom in 1946 to parents who were both Holocaust survivors. His family later immigrated to Canada, where Reitman studied music and directed several short films. After years of TV and stage production gigs, his first professional foray into film production began with two films from Canadian horror legend David Cronenberg, Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977).

Soon after, he found early success as producer behind the anarchic comedy hit Animal House (1978), notable for its memorable ensemble cast, including the great John Belushi. Reitman’s directorial debut Meatballs (1979) gave Bill Murray his first starring role as a clownish camp counselor. This was followed by another Reitman-directed comedy hit Stripes (1981), starring Murray and Harold Ramis, who sadly passed away in 2010.

Stripes further set the tone of the anti-establishment comedy prevalent during that time and featured Murray and Ramis as two aimless slackers who join the Army on a whim. Reitman seemed to have a knack for cultivating comic talent in what critics deemed the “slob genre,” mainstreamed by movies like Caddyshack (1980). But nothing could contend with the multi-million dollar cultural phenomenon that followed.

Ghostbusters exploded into cinemas in 1984 and quickly became the highest grossing comedy of its time. The supernatural special effects extravaganza was scripted by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, introducing a group of eccentric scientists who start their own ghost-catching business. Everything about the film has become a mainstay in our culture. The ubiquitous Ray Paker Jr. song and merchandise that followed continue the endearing legacy of a cherished film and its subsequent franchise.

As director, Reitman was primarily responsible for establishing a realistic backdrop to make the story more believable, and thus, more effective. Aykroyd initially envisioned the Ghostbusters battling supernatural entities in space. After several rewrites with Ramis and additional guidance from Reitman, the story was set in its now iconic location in the heart of New York City. Reitman hired effects wizard Richard Edlund and his company to deliver the groundbreaking special effects, including the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’s downtown rampage. Reitman knew that for the film to work, everything needed to be convincing. He also expertly merged comedy, suspense, and horror into the proceedings. The results are pure movie magic and a testament to his directorial abilities.

Reitman followed his biggest hit with the moderately successful comedy drama Legal Eagles (1986), starring Robert Redford, Debra Winger, and Daryl Hannah. The idea stemmed from Reitman to emulate the sophisticated legal thrillers of the 1940s. But its impact paled in comparison to his next comedy, Twins (1988), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his first comedic role) and Danny De Vito as two “twins” reunited after being separated at birth. By this period, Reitman displayed a mastery of the form and once again delivered a fantastical premise with heart, suspense, comedy, and broad appeal.

Ghostbusters II (1989) was released during a summer of blockbusters that included Batman, Back to the Future Part II, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It held its own and successfully brought back the original cast for more supernatural adventures in NYC. As a child, Ghostbusters II was the first film of the franchise I saw in theaters. It left me enthralled, even rivaling Batman as my favorite movie of the year. Today, the film holds up just as well as the original, despite what the naysayers say. Reitman’s direction remains reliably solid, utilizing the effective chemistry of the film’s key players and equally impressive special effects.

Kindergarten Cop (1990) saw Reitman once again team up with Schwarzenegger to deliver a raucous comedy blockbuster based on an improbable concept turned real. In this case, Schwarzenegger’s hard-edged detective character goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher to catch a bad guy. The movie was criticized as being too intense for children, which speaks to Reitman’s knack of fusing several genre elements together. Reitman was still at the top of his game, delivering the comedy hit Dave in 1993, the successful but embarrassing Junior (1994), and his welcomed return to science fiction comedy with Evolution in 2001.

When not directing, he produced dozens of notable films throughout the ‘90s and 2000s. He never stopped working, even producing the latest incarnation of the Ghostbusting franchise, Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021), directed by his son, Jason. For someone beholden to comedy, it’s evident by the sheer quality of his work that he took his profession and work seriously.

The passing of a film director may not have the same impact as an actor, musician, athlete, or noted celebrity. The same could be said for scientists, authors, physicians, or anyone whose grand achievements occur outside of the limelight. We only know what we see. To me, a director’s work represents one piece of their catalog. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but I always look for the stylistic similarities.

I remember seeing the Twins trailer in the coming attractions before The Land Before Time (1988). It showed two newborn babies crying, still in the hands of doctors, with caption across both infants that read, “Danny De Vito” and “Arnold Schwarzenegger.” I was intrigued, especially when Reitman’s name was listed in the credits. I recognized his name from the sleeve of my worn-out VHS copy of Ghostbusters. Today, I remain grateful for his work. He gave us with laughter, excitement, and a love for the memorable characters and situations that will live on for generations to come.

Special Edition: The 25 Greatest Non-Traditional Christmas Movies of All Time By Jesse Striewski

What really constitutes a ‘classic’ Christmas movie? Is the term limited strictly to the holiday specials of yesteryear, like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, or Santa Claus is Coming to Town? Or does it refer only to the same films played to death on cable television every year, such as A Christmas Story, Home Alone, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?

Over the years, there’s been many a film with Christmas either on the side or in the background all together, some more obvious than others, some more off-the-cuff. I tried to find twenty-five movies (for December 25th) for those with “alternative” tastes that prefer something slightly less than typical, and once and for all end the debate what exactly classifies as a Christmas movie (and of course, once and for all declare that Die Hard IS in fact a Christmas movie!).

It was not easy narrowing it down; as much as I wanted to include the likes of Maniac Cop 2, Robocop 3, or Jaws: The Revenge, they just did not fit the mold. Other films that also came to mind that deserve an honorable mention include Mean Girls (pictured, above), Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Can’t Buy Me Love, Vice Versa, and even the original Karate Kid, all featured some Christmas in them, but not quite enough to make the list. And as tempting as it was to include some horror films like Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night, they indeed still fall under the Christmas banner in their own demented ways. So, compiled here for you now, I present the ultimate misfits guide of not-so-obvious Christmas movies…

25. Reindeer Games (2000): What better way to start things off than with an uber over-the-top, early 2000’s action flick starring Ben Affleck, who plays a recently-released ex-con who gets tied up with the wrong people and finds himself in the middle of a casino heist dressed as Santa? A recent viewing proved the plot is still just as bad as it sounds, but if you like a good dose of violence with your holiday cheer, than this one’s for you.

24. Night of the Comet (1984): Okay, I know I just said I was not going to include horror on this list, but I’ll make an exception for Night of the Comet since this mid-80s flick starring Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney is not only more of a Sci Fi/comedy feature, but there’s no killer Santa in sight. Instead, the main protagonists here are zombies after a comet hits the Earth just days before Christmas.

23. Trapped in Paradise (1994): Nicholas Cage, Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carvey star as three bumbling brothers who rob a small town bank. The plot is predictable, and the jokes few and far between, but the winter scenery is on point and enough to put anyone in the holiday spirit.

22. Invasion U.S.A. (1985): Die Hard was far from the first action film to incorporate yuletide carnage in it. This mid-’80s Chuck Norris romp features plenty of exploding Christmas trees as Norris tears his way through shopping malls (among numerous other suburban settings).

21. Light of Day (1987): Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett star as brother and sister and bandmates in a struggling Ohio rock group trying to “make it.” Sure, the actual Christmas side of things are few and far between, but the amount of white snow seen throughout is enough of a holiday reminder, despite the dreary atmosphere.

20. Screwed (2000): When chauffeur Willard (Norm Macdonald) gets a lousy pair of cuff links from his boss for Christmas, he snaps and devises a plan with his friend Rusty (Dave Chappelle) to kidnap her dog and hold it for ransom. Everything that can go wrong, does, as the two bumbling anti-heroes scramble to keep their heads above water.

Dave Chappelle (left) and Norm Macdonald enjoying some holiday cocktails in Screwed (2000).

19. Daddy’s Home 2 (2017): The two co-dads (Mark Wahlberg, Will Ferrell) from the original Daddy’s Home take their respective families to a ski resort for Christmas vacation, with their own fathers (Mel Gibson, John Lithgow) in tow as well. One mishap after the other leads to a few memorable moments, with the film even culminating complete with an epic sing-a-long of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?.”

18. Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009): Paul Blart (Kevin James) is a harmless New Jersey mall security officer who must rise to the occasion when thieves disguised as Santa’s Village employees attempt to heist the mall on Black Friday. The majority of the film takes place within the mall itself, something once as synonymous with Christmas as mistletoe.

17. Dumb and Dumber (1994): Pals Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dune (Jeff Daniels) take a cross-country trip to Aspen, Co. to return a briefcase to the girl of Christmas’ dreams. Along the way, there’s visions of snowy ski resorts and even snowman building, all adding to the holiday vibes.

16. Diner (1982): This early ’80s buddy film who center around a group of friends (played by Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon, and Mickey Rourke, among others) hanging out and experiencing adulthood for the first time in late 1950’s Maryland. Almost every frame is dark and filled with frigid cold, often with Christmas decorations appearing.

15. Less Than Zero (1987): Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, and Robert Downy, Jr. play rich kids lost in the decadence of 1980’s Los Angeles. Scenes of Christmas parties include plenty of “snow” despite the film’s western setting.

14. First Blood (1982): The true O.G. of the Christmas action film, Sylvester Stallone’s first time portraying John Rambo contains more festive cheer than one might realize at first glance. From the sheriff’s office in the beginning, to the big in town shoot up ending, there’s plenty of Christmas decor to spot throughout.

13. Grumpy Old Men (1993): Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon play two bickering old neighbors in Minnesota. Snow covers nearly everything the eye can see in exterior shots (many centering around the two men ice fishing), while interior settings center around the holidays when family comes to visit.

12. Eyes Wide Shut (1999): Stanley Kubrick’s odd masterpiece of cults and cheating spouses starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman immediately starts off at a Christmas party in New York. The film maintains a cold, dark tone throughout, with the Christmas elements contrasting the material perfectly.

11. Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986): Long before there was “The Dude,” there was Nick Nolte’s brilliant portrayal of a homeless man who is reluctantly taken in by Beverly Hills elitists (Richard Dreyfus, Bette Midler) during the holiday season. Things eventually get so out of hand, even Little Richard shows up at the family’s Christmas party.

10. Rocky IV (1985): Going back to the 1976 original, the Rocky films were no strangers to holiday atmosphere. But by the time the Italian Stallion (Sylvester Stallone) got to the fourth entry, it was full-on, with the film’s final fight taking place on Christmas day in Russia. The trend would continue further five years later with Rocky V (1990), which also featured plenty of Christmas, but lacked much of the heart.

9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001): I can’t say I’m a Harry Potter aficionado (to this day I still don’t think I’ve even seen all of the films), but I do remember seeing the first movie and equating it to a Christmas film with much of its festive scenery. For many years the original film was even kept on the Disney Channel’s annual rotation of holiday films.

8. Ghostbusters II (1989): From ghostbusting in Santa hats on the streets of New York, to an outdoor sing-a-long on New Year’s Eve, this 1989 sequel to the original Ghostbusters no doubt contained the Christmas spirit.

7. Hook (1991): This early ’90s take on the classic animated Disney film Peter Pan (which contained Christmas itself) starring the late Robin Williams only featured Christmas in the beginning and ending of the film, but contains enough magic to qualify here. Williams would appear in another similar fantasy film just a few years later in Jumanji (1995), which also featured some Christmas in it.

6. Edward Scissorhands (1990): Tim Burton was hitting his stride as a director by the time he reached Edward Scissorhands in the early ’90s. Johnny Depp stars as the Frankenstein-like titular character trying to fit in in a pristine suburbia, and Winnoa Ryder appears as his love interest. Again, the Christmas season doesn’t appear until near the end of the film, but the snowy flurries from Edward’s ice sculpting throughout the film adds to the seasonal feel.

5. Batman Returns (1992): In this entry, Batman (Michael Keaton) takes on the sleazy Penguin (Danny Devito) and slinky Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) in sub zero temperatures. Children are kidnapped, and Christmas parties are crashed in this final Batman entry with Keaton and directed by Tim Burton.

Mel Gibson gets more than he bargained for while shopping for a Christmas tree in Lethal Weapon (1987).

4. Lethal Weapon (1987): One of the greatest of its kind, the original Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover blended fast-paced action over a Christmas backdrop flawlessly. Perhaps the most memorable festive moment comes when a bullet goes through Tom Atkins’ torso into a glass of egg nog (I was thoroughly pleased to see Atkins actually had stills of this to sign when I met him this past October). It’s great to see Lethal Weapon is finally getting the recognition it deserves as a Christmas classic.

3. Trading Places (1983): Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy brilliantly portray an upper class broker and a small time street hustler whose lives are swapped at the whim of two millionaires making a bet. Much of the film takes place in the frigid temps of winter in Philadelphia with Christmas decor in aubundance. Very few on screen Santa’s before or since have compared to Aykroyd’s boozed-up, show-stopping performance.

2. Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990): Yes, the original Bruce Willis blockbuster Die Hard, which takes place at a high rise holiday party on Christmas Eve, is absolutely a Christmas film. But its first 1990 follow up, which includes terrorists taking over an airport on Christmas Eve, is often overlooked as an equal Christmas film. Of course, nothing will ever top Hans Gruber falling off the Nakatomi Plaza in the original, but each deserves their own holiday viewing.

1. Gremlins (1984): Marketed as a horror/comedy upon its initial release, the original Gremlins has since become a staple Christmas time classic. When teenaged Billy (Zach Galligan) gets a cute and fury, foreign creature as a Christmas present, it turns out to be too good to be true when it multiples, and the rest turn into hideous little monsters who wreak havoc on the small town. From start to finish, Christmas is everywhere in Gremlins, which has been a go-to in my household since I first received it as a gift (for Christmas) on VHS when I was a kid in the ’80s.

Christmas caroling gone wrong in Gremlins (1984).

Film Review: Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Columbia Pictures/Sony Releasing)

By: Jesse Striewski

It’s exceptionally rare for a sequel or reboot to an already beloved, established franchise like Ghostbusters to come close to comparing to its the source material. But Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the long-awaited third follow up to the first two films, both breathes life back into the series, and redeems the entire franchise after that painfully embarrassing reboot in 2016, which I hope we all can agree by now was a mistake no matter who was cast in it.

Produced by original director Ivan Reitman and directed by his son, Jason, Afterlife does its best to wrap up and explain many questions fans might have about the original characters’ whereabouts, as well as introduce a host of new, yet surprisingly likable ones.

The plot is no huge stretch of the imagination; the daughter (Carrie Coon) of recently deceased Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (originally portrayed by the late Harold Ramis) is forced to pick up the pieces of her father’s past life and move into his decrepit old farm house. Meanwhile, her genius daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and rebellious teenaged son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) slowly uncover their grandfather’s mysterious past, and the small town’s ghostly secrets, all with the help of some newfound friends (played by Paul Rudd, Celeste O’Connor, and Logan Kim, respectively). What ensues is all-out escapism entertainment that allows viewers to get completely lost in.

Along the way there’s numerous references and throwbacks to the original films that’s every die hard fan’s dream come true. And yes, there’s appearances from series alumni Bill Murrary, Dan Aykroyd, Erine Hudson, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver, and of course a beautifully constructed tribute to the late Ramis (and I’m pretty sure this is all already public knowledge by now, so technically those aren’t spoilers!). Blink and you might miss some of the many subtle throwbacks weaved within the ongoing proceedings, too (like a ghost from the old animated series that I actually had the action figure of when I was still young!).

I’ve heard rumbles from other critics that the film panders to fans. But what would you rather have, another heap of total garbage like the last misfire of a film, or something with some actual heart like Afterlife?! This is the film that fans have deserved for decades now, and the one I’ve personally been waiting for since I was a kid sitting wide-eyed in the movie theater during Ghostbusters II all those years ago. Check the bonehead mentality at the door, and just enjoy what has been put together for us here.

Rating: 4/5 Stars