Month: July 2016

Ghostbusters

ghostbusters-2016-cast-proton-packs-images.jpgThis reboot of a beloved 80s classic is neither a comedy masterpiece nor a proof that Jesus died in vain, as some people’s reactions would have you think. After seeing it, it’s actually pretty bizarre that so much controversy happened over something that’s just a fairly average, perfectly corporate piece of entertainment that deserves neither big praise nor vitriol. I guess it has the pressure of succeeding as a female-led comedy blockbuster, which apparently every female-led big movie has to prove over and over no matter the past successes, which is irritating as heck but I digress.

I haven’t seen the original Ghostbusters until relatively late, and most of my Ghostbusters-related memories are associated with The Real Ghostbusters, the animated spin-off series which my siblings and I got to enjoy on our TV screen after the fall of the Iron Curtain. So, not feeling particularly protective of my childhood memories or what have you, I walked into the new movie with a pretty clean slate, simply looking for a good time at the cinema. Did the movie fulfil my humble dream? Well I was never bored but neither was I particularly thrilled or my funny bone tickled – the biggest laugh the movie earned from me was a neat visual gag near the end involving a bunch of soldiers.

Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones star as the new ghost-hunting bunch, with mixed results. McCarthy and Wiig are instantly believable as the long-term besties Abby and Erin, with the genuine rapport and chemistry between the two that’s palpable. However, some of their prolonged comical riffing feels really self-indulgent and should have been edited out, and I felt that both actresses have done much funnier work in other movies (even Wiig’s more dramatic turn in The Martian was funnier, to me). Also, we’re let to understand that the two friends have been estranged for some time, but I don’t remember the movie actually explaining the reason why, and then the whole estrangement thing is quickly dropped until a rather arbitrary reference near the end. Sorry but that doesn’t make for an actual arc. Kate McKinnon, whose character for whatever reason is referred to by her surname, Holtzmann, plays a quirky wacky scientist who feels like she belongs in a different movie altogether. I understand that her character is meant to be someone who is off on her own planet most of the time, but she never felt like she really gelled with the rest of the team, and her particular brand of comedy felt irritating and energising in equal measure. I’ll be honest, Leslie Jones’ shouty scenes in the trailer made me cringe at the time, but her performance in the film actually turned out to be my favourite and her Patty was warm and down-to-earth.

Of the supporting cast, Chris Hemsworth shows once again that comedy and charm are his main strengths as an actor, in a hilarious turn as the world’s prettiest and dumbest secretary who the ladies grow fond of despite his woeful lack of qualifications. The original ghostbusters (bar Harold Ramis – rest in peace) pop up in brief cameos; most are fine but Bill Murray really should have been left on the cutting room floor. He looked terminally bored in his appearance as the sceptical scientist who comes to tut-tut at the gang, for no purpose whatsoever other than to include a Bill Murray cameo.

The story, such as there is, involves preventing a diabolical plan of a disgruntled nerd, a character who seems to be a conscious dig at the part of the audience most opposed to a Ghosbusters reboot. It builds up to a big finale that goes all Marvel, with tons of special effects and action scenes which unfortunately aren’t all that exciting to watch. Overall, the movie is not without its good points, but too patchy and low on genuine inventiveness to be truly memorable.

Love & Friendship

Love-and-Friendship-3.jpgConfession: though I always loved classic literature I could never make it through a single Jane Austen book – I tried at least four of her novels and gave them all up in the first fifty pages. Something about her writing style clearly rubs me wrong, but despite this, I enjoyed many of the Austen film and TV adaptations. While this onscreen version of her early, little-known novella is not my favourite it was amusing and diverting.

It stars Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon, a widow who is determined to secure a new marriage in order to maintain her lifestyle. At the start of the movie, beset with some scandalous rumours, she seeks refuge at her in-laws’ countryside estate, which looks as idyllic as anything from Downton Abbey but Susan considers dull and dreary. There she schemes to marry her sister-in-law’s gorgeous younger brother Reginald. It goes swimmingly until the unexpected arrival of her young daughter, Frederica, who is pretty if shy and dangerously close in age to Reginald. Nevermind the setback, Susan decides to arrange Frederica’s marriage with the rich, amiable but outstandingly stupid Sir James Martin, a man so thick he has never heard of common peas.

Unlike other Austen adaptations I’ve seen, this one doesn’t have much romance or heart, instead it’s a sharp, dry, snappy comedy of manners with a fantastic lead turn from Beckinsale, who has a ball playing a complete conniving, scheming bitch. I don’t think she’s had a better role in her entire career, although it made me feel old to realise that an actress I first saw onscreen as a young girl is now old enough to have a grown-up onscreen daughter. Susan is a terrible person, but so cheerfully cynical and such a master in the art of manipulation she’s impossible to truly dislike and you rather want her to succeed. It took me a while to wrap my head around the cast of characters (individually introduced with some droll captions), and tune my ear to the Austen dialogue, which comes thick and fast in this very talky movie. Once I got used to it though the language is delightful, with some hilarious one-liners, such as Susan’s remark on her American friend’s (Chloe Sevigny) husband: “too old to be governable, too young to die.” Naturally, as befits a period movie there’s also costume and scenery porn to revel in.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

mybrilliantfiendThis is the first volume in the Italian writer’s Neapolitan Novels series, and if the next three books are as good as this one I should make it to the end of the quadrilogy in no time at all.

My Brilliant Friend is set in the 1950s Naples, where two young girls, Elena and Lila, are growing up in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city. Theirs is the world of casual domestic violence and intricate power play and feuds between the various families; death, whether it happens because of disease, accident or murder, is not treated as a remarkable event. Elena, who is also the novel’s narrator, is a gentle, unobtrusive, well-behaved girl who most people tend to like, whereas Lila is fiery, intense and unpredictable. Naturally brilliant academically, Lila also grows up to be more beautiful than Elena, and the novel details peaks and valleys of their complicated friendship, as well as their coming into adulthood. In many ways, Lila dominates Elena’s life and their friendship is a transformative experience that is both a blessing and a curse. Elena, who is no slouch at school herself, has low self-esteem and is tormented by an ever-present feeling of inferiority, while at the same time recognising that no one can energise and motivate her like Lila does. Education offers Elena a chance of escape, but Lila is forced to quit school and work for her father the cobbler, and her path towards what she hopes will be a better life is of a different nature altogether (prediction: it will not work out well).

The book also paints a vivid picture of Elena and Lila’s slummy neighbourhood, with a massive cast of characters who can be a bit hard to keep track of, especially if you take a short break from reading (a helpful index of characters at the start remedies that somewhat). It’s an insular world, a point brought across painfully in one chapter where the girls and their friends go for a stroll into a more affluent suburb, where young people just like them seem like creatures from another world; or a passage where Elena realises that all she’s ever been reading was novels and she has no idea of what happens in the wider world outside of their cocoon. I think what I appreciated the most about the book is the raw honesty with which the childhood and adolescence are depicted – Ferrante doesn’t shy away from the occasional pettiness, cruelty and unkind or uncomfortable thoughts of the characters, or their complicated feelings about sex, love and male attention. Ferrante also has a wonderful, lucid writing style that never feels pretentious even when she gets wordy and reflective (kudos to the translator, as well).

If there’s any flaw I found it’s that, while Elena is a very believable, well-rounded main character (many of us can relate to having a more accomplished friend who makes your insecurities rise to the surface), Lila doesn’t gel into a real person until maybe the very end, and often feels more like a walking device – the foil and the centre of Elena’s universe, the rebel and the force of nature etc. It’s true that we simply don’t get to see inside her head as much as we do Elena’s but then none of the supporting characters came off as artificial and nebulous to me. Nevermind though, by the end of the novel I felt deeply invested in both characters’ stories and I can’t wait to read more.

Quote of the Day

In honour of Mum’s new kitten, here’s a passage from Doris Lessing’s On Cats that I always loved:

Kitten. A tiny lively creature in its transparent membrane, surrounded by the muck of its birth. Ten minutes later, damp but clean, already at the nipple. Ten days later, a minute scrap with soft hazy eyes, its mouth opening in a hiss of brave defiance at the enormous menace sensed bending over it. At this point; in the wild, it would confirm wildness, become wild cat. But no, a human hand touches it, the human smell envelops it, a human voice reassures it. Soon it gets out of its nest, confident that the gigantic creatures all around will do it no harm. It totters, then strolls, then runs all over the house.

Excalibur

excaliburDirected by John Boorman and telling the classic story of King Arthur, Excalibur is one of the finest fantasy films ever made and one of my favourite films, period. I didn’t always love it – in fact the first time I caught it on TV many years ago I actually thought it was one of the most ridiculous, stilted, hideously overacted things I’ve ever seen, and I suspect that this reaction would be fairly common. It wasn’t until later that I rewatched the movie and hopelessly fell before its dreamlike charm.

In fact “dreamlike” is a crucial word when approaching Excalibur: this is a movie about a legend that makes no attempts at gritty realism or modern psychology. Like all fairytales, it has its own internal logic and consistency, but it has little to do with the real world – instead it creates its own magical, legendary, highly stylized universe, with an amazing sense of otherworldliness that pretty much ruins all the other adaptations of the Arthurian myth for me, which can only feel mundane and jarringly modern in comparison. Mind you, none of that otherworldliness is clean or dainty – the movie is at the same time grimy and hazy, with a rough-edged tactile quality and a realistic lack of grace to the fighting scenes. Knights in this movie don’t do elegant choreography – they just bash and swipe at each other while looking very uncomfortable in their bulky armour.

Visually, the movie serves up one gorgeous, sumptuous scene after another, with the lush Irish landscapes and beautiful costumes – the knights’ shining armour in particular is so stunning I can overlook the fact that it clearly moves like a fake light armour in some scenes. The ladies’ flowing dresses and Morgana’s increasingly elaborate and kinky costumes are also a standout. The musical score makes a clever use of Wagner, and while Carl Orff’s O Fortuna has become something of a commercial cliché, damn if it isn’t one of the most stirring pieces of music ever used in a film. If the sight of Arthur and his knights galloping through the blooming countryside to the soaring choir doesn’t raise your pulse and make you want to ride in front of your own giant army, this movie is probably not for you and it’s highly likely that you’re in fact dead.

The cast of the movie is a curious one; while it showcases actors like Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and Patrick Stewart in early small parts, other than Helen Mirren I couldn’t put a name to anyone in the major role without the help of IMDB. Nigel Terry at first makes for an unlikely future king – not particularly tall, with a rather high-pitched voice, his Arthur initially comes off like a Middle Ages version of Luke Skywalker circa A New Hope – which makes his maturation into a true sovereign even more impressive. He is not supposed to be a perfect speciman anyway, because that’s Lancelot’s job, and Nicholas Clay is perfect as the beautiful, melancholic knight who has a misfortune of falling in love with his best friend’s wife. My favourite performance in the film though is Nicol Williamson as Merlin – once I got over how eccentric, over-the-top and plain bizarre some of his line readings are. Merlin here is wily, powerful, dangerous, wise, lonely, whimsical, caring, ruthless, and unlike most onscreen older wizard/mentor type characters, he’s no sexless creature and has his eye on Arthur’s half-sister Morgana, understandably so since she’s played by a young alluring Helen Mirren. I’ve read that the real-life actors had a personal feud going on at the time, and the director clearly put that volatile chemistry to a good use onscreen.

Story-wise the film has a lot of ground to cover, from Arthur’s father King Uther and his lust for Igraine, a wife of a fellow king; to the sword in the stone; the Knights of the Round Table; Guinevere and Lancelot’s betrayal and the ruin of the kingdom; Mordred, Morgana’s creepy child from her and Arthur’s union; the quest of the Holy Grail where the film gets even more dreamy and quite loopy; to the climatic battle and Arthur’s final journey to the Isle of Avalon… whew! Despite story galore, the passages of time are done well and while unavoidably episodic the movie never feels like it’s rushing through things. It touches on the theme of the passing of the old pagan ways in the wake of Christianity, but doesn’t dwell too much on the religion.

Excalibur has dated of course: some of the make-up is a tad unconvincing by today’s standards, the staging of Arthur and Mordred’s final fight feels clumsy (Mordred is running a giant bloody spear through Arthur and Percival just stands there with zero reaction… huh?), and Merlin’s Amazing Secret Chamber of Melted Wax is pretty cheesy and silly. But these are all nitpicks. Excalibur is a ballsy, full-blooded, operatic movie that really shouldn’t work as well as it does, and it works because it commits fully to its crazy, bloody, beautiful vision.

Mustang

mustangLovely movie by a first-time Turkish-French director that takes a look at adolescence, the suppression of female sexuality and the arranged marriage in modern Turkey, a bit like a darker Pride & Prejudice or a more optimistic Virgin Suicides. The movie starts off in a small village on the Black Sea coast, on a last day of school term, as five young sisters say tearful farewells to their teacher who is moving back to Istanbul. Then, to celebrate the holidays, they frolic in the sea with some boys from their school. Unfortunately, their innocent games scandalise an elderly neighbour who tattles on the girls to their grandmother and uncle and makes them out to be a bunch of shameless hussies.

This incident sets off a chain reaction as the girls’ phones, make-up, or any other “corrupting” material is confiscated, the two eldest girls are taken to the doctor to certify their virginity, and the sisters become virtual prisoners in their home, bars on the windows and all, while their guardians hastily arrange to marry them off one by one. The eldest sister Sonay is lucky enough to get a reluctant approval to marry her boyfriend, but Selma, the second sister, is not as fortunate, while the third sister’s story, hinted at rather than made explicit, is the darkest in the film.

While this scenario is fairly depressing, the movie is anything but, with the natural fresh performances and the characters whose youthful exuberance and tight sisterly bond endures in the face of their ordeal. There are many tender scenes of the sisters goofing around and laughing together, all loose limbs and long hair, and moments of pure joy such as when the girls manage to escape the house in order to attend a football match with a women-only crowd (I wondered if this was for real, but apparently yes, banning men from the stadiums was Turkey’s extreme solution for tackling crowd violence). The young girl who plays Lale, the youngest and most rebellious sister, is the standout, with a watchful intensity and determination that eventually leads to an uplifting if not entirely plausible finale.

Monkey’s Mask

monkeysmaskA strange little movie based on a poem novel by an Australian author Dorothy Porter – a fact I had no idea about before watching it, but you can guess its literary roots from the kind of dialogue that probably sounds fine on the page but comes off as mighty pretentious and unnatural onscreen. The movie stars Susie Porter as Jill Fitzpatrick, a private detective who is hired to investigate the disappearance and subsequent murder of a young female student and a budding poet who, surprise surprise, turns out to have led a double life her parents had no idea about. Jill’s investigation leads her to the girl’s uni lecturer Diana (Kelly McGillis), who she is immediately attracted to. The two women embark on an affair that Diana’s younger husband (Marton Csokas) strangely doesn’t seem to mind, while Jill starts to receive spooky phone calls meant to scare her away from any further sleuthing.

The best thing the movie’s got going for it is Susie Porter, who is an appealing and engaging lead, with an open expressive face that’s both earthy and delicate. She has a believable chemistry with McGillis, who is also fine as the sophisticated, seductive Diana. The film itself however is an uneasy hodge-podge of a rather trite and trashy crime story and the low-budget arty pretensions – I almost thought that going for broke and fully embracing its pulpy side would have made for a much better movie. The supporting characters are barely sketched and poor Marton Csokas is saddled with some shockingly bad dialogue, and while most of the nudity and sex in the movie feels like a part of the story I’m not sure we needed to see his little Marton near the end of the film. Deborah Mailman pops up as Jill’s best friend, and I didn’t realise that the murdered girl was played by the very young Abbie Cornish, who even then had something alluring about her.