Ghostbusters (2016)

It is apparently incumbent on every white dude on the internet to register his opinion on this new ‘reboot’ of Ghostbusters, the 1984 film which brought together a handful of comedic actors and writers (most prominently from Saturday Night Live) in a supernatural-themed comedy pitting aforesaid actors against a demonic threat to New York City. And so again we have a handful of comedic actors and writers (mostly from SNL) in a supernatural etc. etc. The remake largely refocuses the film on the four titular characters (three dorky scientists and one subway worker played by Leslie Jones) and their comedic interactions. Supporting characters — including their chief antagonist, who in a nod perhaps to the source of much of the online “criticism”, is an introverted, maladjusted guy with very little in the way of a defined character — are reduced to a number of cameos from the original cast, and a fine turn by another SNL alum Cecily Strong as the mayor’s sceptical and unhelpful aide. Oh, and Chris Hemsworth as a beefy but very very stupid receptionist, who threatens at times to steal the film. He doesn’t though, because Kate McKinnon does that, as the compellingly weird Jillian Holtzmann, who also gets one of the key later action sequences, a relatively short but thrilling single-handed paranormal combat. I don’t know, maybe the script isn’t so tight in all respects, and I have to concede I was pretty drunk when I watched it, but I really fail to understand a lot of the film’s critics. Perhaps the humour won’t appeal to everyone, but it all seemed pretty funny to me, plus there were scares reminiscent of the first film. And as far as I can recall, there aren’t any scenes of anyone being sexually pleasured by a ghost, so bonus marks for that. As I see it, though, quite aside from the comedy and horror, the key points are: representation for leading characters who are women, who don’t need the help of men, who get to be intelligent and have that define them rather than their looks or their sexuality, and who get a happy ending. That much seems rare enough in contemporary Hollywood blockbuster films that I think it’s worth trumpeting.

Ghostbusters film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Feig; Writers Katie Dippold and Feig (based on the 1984 film by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis); Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 22 July 2016.

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Welcome to Me (2014)

Stories about characters with mental health issues crop up every so often, and I need to make it clear from the outset that I’m not one to judge how competent these films are with respect to the issues they raise. If for example Silver Linings Playbook seemed a bit cavalier with its characters — it seemed to me to have a propensity to treat them as adorably and irretrievably kooky — there are other voices who nevertheless adored it. I wouldn’t say quite the same about Welcome to Me (it seems less willing to laugh at its protagonist), but it does advance Kristen Wiig’s unlikely claim to be one of the most versatile actors currently working, or certainly one who’ll happily attach herself to outwardly uncommercial prospects (Kristens seem to make bold and unconventional choices, as her namesake Stewart is another I’d pick out in this category). Wiig plays Alice, a woman with a personality disorder who wins big on the lottery and uses it to realise her dream of a reality show on a local cable access network run by brothers Rich and Gabe (respectively James Marsden and Wes Bentley). Her flights of fancy become increasingly trying on the producers — one of whom is played by Joan Cusack, and indeed this is a film with many pleasing small roles for excellent actors — and on the brothers, but she garners a bit of cult success. Welcome to Me itself seems destined for cult status, and if it’s not always perfect, it does find a very interesting, blackly comedic tone in its awkward and stilted exchanges. Kristen Wiig is of course the glue that holds the whole thing together, and she shows great adeptness at the comedy, though this is perhaps unsurprising, given the overall sense that this film is like an extended final skit on Saturday Night Live (always the slot where the greatest weirdness is allowed to flourish).

Welcome to Me film posterCREDITS
Director Shira Piven; Writer Elliot Laurence; Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards; Starring Kristen Wiig, Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley, James Marsden, Joan Cusack; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Wednesday 30 March 2016.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

You can sort of understand why this film might be troubling to censors, who in the UK have slapped it with an 18 classification. It’s not that it’s particularly sexually explicit, or nasty or degrading, but that it deals with Minnie, a young woman of 15, having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. But probably more concerning to censors is that it’s entirely told from her point of view, in which adult characters have no moralising role in Minnie’s development (if anything her mother encourages her to flaunt herself more), and in which Minnie is unapologetic and unashamed about what she wants. But that’s a perspective so little seen in the coming-of-age genre, that it makes me wonder if my dislike for the genre is more its usual focus on gamine young women being objects of adoration seemingly unattainable to oily spotted teenage dudes, or other boring tropes of male self-actualisation like going out into the wilderness, or bonding with older guys to learn some Truth about masculinity.

In any case, I imagine the thematic and narrative focus here partly has something to do with its setting in late-70s San Francisco, as well as being based on the autobiography of Phoebe Gloeckner, a cartoonist growing up under the artistic influence of such figures as Aline Kominsky (mentioned here, later married to Robert Crumb). I’ve read her first published anthology, A Child’s Life, and it’s fantastic not to mention quite boldly graphic (Gloeckner also spent some time as a medical illustrator). Some of the nastier edges have been toned down in the film, but there are still magical little efflorescences of animation that crop up every so often around Minnie.

However, aside from its singular focus and unapologetic take on adolescent sexuality, the film also chiefly benefits from the performance of Bel Powley, largely a newcomer to film (although previously on TV in the UK, and the undoubted comic star of A Royal Night Out earlier this year), who impresses as Minnie largely for her unaffected ingenuousness and wide-eyed wonder, without ever feeling the need to dress up for the attention of men. As it’s based around her recorded diaries, there’s a fair amount of teenage solipsism, but this never overwhelms the story and is generally treated as gentle comic fodder, as Minnie knocks about from one adventure to another. Being told from Minnie’s point of view, Alexander Skarsgård’s Monroe is a sort of affable loser rather than anyone more threateningly creepy, while her mother just seems strangely absent (something Kristen Wiig, playing it straight, is very good at doing), though the appearance of her feared stepdad Pascal (Christopher Meloni) is a brief but enjoyable cameo and his advice sets up Minnie’s closure with Monroe perfectly, though you’ll really have to go see the film to know what I’m talking about. So I recommend doing that. It’s certainly not what you’d usually expect from an 18-rated film.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marielle Heller (based on the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner); Cinematographer Brandon Trost; Starring Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 8 August 2015.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

When I wrote about The Paperboy earlier this year, I talked a lot about what for me is the defining quality of a two-star film (at least under my ratings system as it was; now I have a category called “mediocre” but you could also call it a 5/10 or grade it a solid B), and this new film from Ben Stiller hits all those middling marks. There are plenty of ways in which this is not objectively a good movie (if such a critical standpoint can be said to exist), but it’s one I found fascinating in all its strangeness. Unlike The Paperboy, Walter Mitty does seem to be straining after awards credibility — which may explain its pre-Christmas release date — but at its heart it’s every bit as perplexing as the more luridly pulpy Paperboy.

For a start, there’s the fairly vacuous plot: man fears he has wasted his life, seeks to fill it. This may work in the short story format, but over a feature length it comes off as rather obvious. The titular character apparently feels there’s nothing interesting about his life as the film starts, but yet he’s standing on a subway platform in Manhattan, commuting to a job at Life magazine — his work preparing photographs for publication is actually quite fascinating (this isn’t The Office). Life is being downsized by a team led by a one-dimensional bad manager played by Adam Scott (distinguished only by a beard that makes him look like an Ancient Persian king), which swiftly brings him into conflict with Mitty. Star photographer Sean (Penn) has sent an iconic photo for the last print edition’s cover, but Mitty can’t find it and uses this as a pretext to travel the world, something he’s missed doing over the course of his life. Thus does one man seek to ‘find himself’ with all the connotations of that hollow phrase.

Then there’s the way the film presents this story and Mitty’s quest. I don’t deny that the images are at times gorgeous (shot by veteran cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh), but within the film they come across like the advertising that precedes this and so many other movies. Partly that’s the way that the kind of Tourist Board-approved aspirational imagery of untouched wildernesses is blended with that strain of modern music so beloved of advertisers, with all its lushly-produced and multi-instrumented promise of something epiphanic — the Arcade Fire being the key example here. It doesn’t really help that product placement is so front-and-centre: the framing story involves Mitty creating a profile on a prominent internet dating site, while his trip to Iceland involves him coming across a chain pizza restaurant which as far as I can tell doesn’t actually have any outlets in that country.

Maybe this stuff could be chalked up to Mitty’s persistent fantasising, but I doubt it. After all, his character’s key habit in the first third of the film is in imagining different outcomes for events he’s participating in, going off into reveries of heroism until the point that he actually does this for real. Thus, as the film progresses, one could follow a reading that his fantasies have taken on such increasingly epic proportions that he is ultimately controlling the very narrative and mise en scène of the film he’s in. In a sense, that’s true, in so far as the star of the film (playing Mitty) is its director, Ben Stiller. Certainly, none of what Mitty does as the film progresses seems particularly realistic, but the way it comes across is like one of those mood-establishing adverts for something aspirational like a luxury car, or aftershave, or visiting Iceland (pro tip: it’s probably worth visiting Iceland, but not for its American chain pizza restaurants). At one point it even turns into a pastiche of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (in which Stiller starred) for a few moments, the ultimate filmic index of stylised unreality.

The effect of all of this is to render the film fascinating to me, as if it were instead a film dramatising the creative compromises that are required to make a major Hollywood motion picture. It doesn’t hurt that the way the narrative progresses is so discursive, like a shaggy dog story or, perhaps more apropos, like a series of skits for Saturday Night Live. Mitty’s escapist fantasies, for example, could easily be stand-alone YouTube clips, and at their funniest (the hilarious parody of Benjamin Button) deserve success in this format. But elsewhere the film just feels unfocused. One moment, Mitty is in New York trying to figure out how to make the object of his affections — Cheryl, a temp played by the winning Kristen Wiig (herself an alum of SNL) — pay him some attention, and the next he’s dropping from a helicopter onto a fishing trawler, or skateboarding down the lower reaches of an active Icelandic volcano, or playing kickball in the Himalayas. And when he finally meets photographer Sean before returning to his life in the States, the film just seems to grind to a halt to take in an (admittedly enjoyable) conversation with Patton Oswalt at LAX.

That discursiveness — the film’s openness to just taking in whatever it likes the look of or thinks is funny, however obliquely it may relate to the advancement of the ostensible plot — is both the weakest element of the film and also what I found most strangely satisfying. Though I also liked all the cast members, from Ben Stiller’s salaryman (whose buttoned-down, almost straight edge, style makes him oddly believable in the subplot wherein he is a former skatepunk) to the lovely Kristen Wiig and the spiky Shirley MacLaine as Mitty’s mother. Plus there is a surprisingly generous number of laugh-out-loud moments.

I’ve tried with this review to make a case for what I liked about the film, but I’ll probably never convince either you or myself that it’s a great film or even worth watching a second time. But I enjoyed my trip with Stiller and co. that first time even if I’ll probably end up sticking with my uneventful office job.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty film posterCREDITS
Director Ben Stiller; Writer Sean Conrad (based on the short story by James Thurber); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 25 November 2013.