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Posts Tagged ‘Kristen Wiig’

‘No imprint lingers so indelibly on the face of modern fantasy film as that of this obscure yet brilliant artist. All his films, no matter how tawdry, were marked with a brilliant personal vision,’ wrote the Australian critic and novelist John Baxter, referring to the American director Jack Arnold. There is, indeed, no reason for normal people to have any idea who Arnold was, but for the fact that he was responsible for some of the most vivid and memorable SF and fantasy films of the 1950s – films which are still hugely influential, to judge from the fact that The Shape of Water, currently enjoying thirteen Oscar nominations, seems to owe a distinct debt to Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing likewise seems to have very much been made under the influence of Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. Can a remake of Tarantula by Werner Herzog be very far off?

Downsizing stars Matt Damon as Paul Safranek, a mild-mannered occupational therapist who is as surprised as everyone else when Norwegian scientists announce they have discovered the secret of ‘cellular reduction’ – a process where living creatures can be permanently and irreversibly shrunk, without suffering any ill-effects in the process. The benefit of this to the planet is an enormous reduction in the resources they consume and the waste they produce. The personal advantage to the shrunken folk is that their money stretches much further, allowing them to enjoy a luxurious standard of living within the sealed communities in which they live.

Encouraged by an old friend, Paul persuades his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) to sell up and move down to Leisureland, one of the largest of the communities of small people. All is set fair for them to commence the new existence of their dreams. But, of course, events conspire to sabotage Paul’s dream. Though there are new friends to be made in Leisureland (Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau amongst them), it turns out the place has a darker side, one which causes him to question his assumptions about life…

Alexander Payne may not personally have the secret of miniaturisation, but he certainly seems to have figured out how to polarise an audience: Downsizing is one of those films which seems to have received a very lukewarm reception, judging by the critical aggregation sites. Looking a little closer indicates that this is one of those films which people seem to love or hate in pretty much equal numbers.

I can understand why some people might respond negatively to this movie: beyond the fact that it’s obviously a science fiction film, it’s quite difficult to say with complete certainty what kind of story it is telling. Is it a satire? Is it pure comedy? Is it a drama? Is it something more philosophical? Certainly at times it seems to be all of those things. The lengthy running time is also probably an issue, especially when coupled to the apparent lack of focus: negative reviews of this movie often include words like ‘rambling’ and ‘meandering’.

I have to say that I am in the other camp, and found Downsizing thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing entertainment, not least because of the way it defies easy categorisation, beyond SF. Now, I have to say that as actual serious science fiction the movie is on very shaky grounds. While the script quite sensibly declines to go into the details of just how cellular reduction works, I’m still pretty sure that if you did shrink someone down to roughly 0.03% of their natural size, not only would they have severe difficulty in maintaining their body temperature without constantly snacking, they would also be unable to breathe (their lungs would be unable to process the now relatively-giant air molecules).

Once you get past that, however, this is an impressive and rather commendable attempt at a proper piece of genuine SF. One of the reasons for the unusual structure of the film is that it takes a particular concept – in this case, the notion of human shrinking – and explores it in a relatively systematic and comprehensive way. Just how would the world be changed? The film eschews the action-horror staples generally associated with size-change in SF and thinks in wider terms – how would it affect society? How could the technology be used and abused? (Despots start shrinking dissidents, for instance, who then start trying to enter the USA via some fairly unusual routes.) Once again, the economics as posited by the movie strike me as a little wonky, but I am prepared to cut it some slack: very often, SF ideas in films come with a single metaphor baked in, which the film then laboriously articulates over and over.

Downsizing treats the shrinking process as a piece of technology, rather than a metaphor-made-real, and one of its most drolly amusing sequences is the one in which we see Damon being processed – exactly how the mass-miniaturisation of new residents takes place has been worked out in some detail. The question is rather one of what the process reveals or illuminates about the human condition and our society in general, and the shift in perspective is enough to make one see the situation inside the shrunken colony in a new light. There are some striking moments of revelation, the heady stuff of proper science fiction.

In the end, though, the film seems to me to be mainly about the nature of life and particularly what it means to live well. Several possibilities seem to be offered in the course of the film – does a good life mean the absence of every little inconvenience and problem? Is it the luxurious materialistic hedonism promised by Leisureland’s advertising programme? Is it in taking a longer view and acting in the best interests of humanity as a whole? In the course of the film, the different characters make their choices, and I can easily imagine viewers emerging with differing opinions as to who is right and who is wrong.

The film is well-realised, with some striking visual moments, and Matt Damon gives a quietly impressive performance as something of an everyman, someone struggling to find his place in the world. The support from the likes of Waltz, Chau, and Udo Kier is also good. The film has a consistent inventiveness which means it is frequently thought-provoking and occasionally very funny. As you can tell, I was rather charmed by it, and willing to go along on the journey even when it sometimes seemed unclear where the film was taking me. There is much here to enjoy and think about; this is one of the best SF movies of recent years.

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Most producers of major Hollywood summer blockbusters would probably react with dismay, to put it mildly, upon learning that their movie was not going to get a release in one of the world’s biggest and most lucrative markets. For the people behind Paul Feig’s new version of Ghostbusters, however, I suspect China’s decision not to allow the film to show in their country will come as something of a relief: it will at least give people something else to talk about, for this is a project which has attracted a higher-than-usual level of chatter since it was announced.

Ghostbusters-2016

The film is set in present day New York. Kristen Wiig plays Erin Gilbert, a physicist who reluctantly finds herself drawn back to her one-time interest in parapsychology, and also her former friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). A spate of ghost sightings across the city lead the duo to go into business with semi-unhinged engineer Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) and former metro worker Patty (Leslie Jones) as professional psychic investigators. But things seem to be quickly getting out of control, as someone seems intent on unleashing a supernatural disaster on the city. The citizens and government desperately need help, but (and I’m aware you’re probably ahead of me on this) who are they gonna call?

Yes, this is the All-Female Ghostbusters Remake which you may or may not have become aware of in recent months. If you’re going to talk about it with any degree of credibility, I suspect you are required not just to have an opinion on the film but also on its gender politics – I saw one internet comment, following the Chinese decision (apparently because the 1984 Ivan Reitman original never got shown in China there is no demand for it, but rumour suggests an arcane anti-superstition regulation in the censor’s code may also have played a part), along the lines of ‘Men, please take just two hours out of your life to watch this movie and show your support for women’ – which is not the sort of thing people usually say when recommending a Melissa McCarthy movie. It’s almost as if normal debate has been shut off and any suggestion that you don’t like this film means you are basically this century’s answer to Bobby Riggs.

This is just one of a spate of recent films, most of them remakes, which have been drawing flak for their diversity, or lack of it, while this remains a hot-button topic in many areas of popular culture. I must confess to being left bemused, at best, by a world in which the fact that a 15-year-old girl can be a character named Iron Man even makes sense, let alone gets acclaimed as a great progressive victory: attempts to retool long-standing characters with new genders, orientations, and even sometimes ethnicities strikes me as a rather cynical means of cashing in on existing name-recognition while disregarding the work of the original creators. The All-Female Ghostbusters Remake at least opts to include a completely new set of characters, rather than regendering the originals – but I still think it’s a little disingenuous of the film-makers to express surprise at all the attention their decision has drawn. Making a blockbuster VFX-heavy comedy with an ensemble female cast would be a bold move and perhaps a risky one, but not especially controversial – remaking such a well-known and indeed classic film in such an ostentatiously radical and arguably odd way was always going to get a strong response. (The film itself has a couple of somewhat through-clenched-teeth gags about internet trolls, which at least shows a good degree of self-awareness.)

One wonders if there is anything more to this decision than a cheery willingness to exploit the goodwill surrounding the 1984 film, not to mention its familiarity to audiences, because this is by any standards an extremely loose remake, not just in terms of plot and characters but also in style. Ghostbusters sort of hearkens back to the original horror-comedy films like Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which there was a strict delineation between the two genres – the monsters are played straight and people really do get killed; the threat is taken seriously. The new film is much more broadly and consistently comic, with plenty of slapstick and jokes about orifices, much as you’d expect from this particular set of artistes. It is also more emotionally articulate and character-driven, with an essentially human antagonist rather than an unearthly pseudo-Lovecraftian menace. That said, it also works hard to keep fans of the original on-side: all the main stars who are still alive and active in the film business get cameos, and one of them even gets the last word before the closing credits – it is (spoiler alert) ‘flapjacks’.

Well, hie me down to my reinforced bunker as the Diversity Enforcement Squad head for my garret with flaming torches in hand, but I think I’ll be sticking with the 1984 film, which I saw on the big screen again not that long ago and still found to be tremendous entertainment. The All-Female Ghostbusters Remake is stuffed with un-engaging neon-hued CGI and has the same kind of deadpan, ironic, mock-bathetic sensibility as the other Paul Feig films I’ve seen, but I have to say neither of these things really draw me in any more, simply because after a while they both get a bit predictable. Wiig and McCarthy carry the film pretty well, but I suspect it’s Kate McKinnon who is going to get the best notices of the main quartet – she can probably look forward to becoming a dressing-up icon very soon, and, who knows, maybe another sort of icon too. There is also a somewhat revelatory performance from Chris Hemsworth as the new Ghostbusters’ epically dim receptionist, which I thought was one of the funniest things in the film (Hemsworth is cheerily objectified as an object of lust in a way that neither Sigourney Weaver nor Annie Potts were back in 1984 – just saying).

But in the end, as an even vaguely horror-themed film this just isn’t very spooky, and as a comedy there seemed to me to be quite long gaps between laughs. It just about functions and stays watchable as a fantasy-action movie, but then this is by far the least demanding of the three disciplines it attempts. It’ll be interesting, in the light of the Chinese decision, to see what kind of money this film makes, not least because it has clearly been set up as the start of a new franchise (Dan Aykroyd, who exec produces in addition to his cameo, has suggested a Marvel-style series of connected-but-separate series of films is in the offing, which to me sounds wildly optimistic, but we’ll see). I will be surprised if it does super well – not because I think audiences are sexist and reactionary, not because I think films with a mainly female ensemble cast are a bad idea, but simply because this isn’t a particularly accomplished film, for all that it retains one of the catchiest theme tunes in history. Not a comprehensive sliming of the classic original, by any means, but it still feels curiously lightweight and non-essential.

 

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Ah, a new year is upon us, bringing with it the usual abrupt shift in the type of films going on general release: from glittering festive spectaculars with no ulterior motive beyond simply luring in an audience, to more thoughtful, high-minded pieces made with half an eye on the Academy Award shortlist. It is, as I’m sure I’ve said before, the multiplex’s answer to a January detox, and I sometimes find it a little hard to cope with – could they not spread these films out just a bit more?

Oh well, such is life. One of the first off the blocks this year is Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller, produced by Ben Stiller, and starring Ben Stiller too. Well, that’s one way of keeping the budget down. Something about the trailer for this film, the first time I saw it, really put me off: it looked terribly twee and a little bit hackneyed, with the secret of finding happiness in a humdrum life promised by a gaggle of multi-millionaire film industry creative types. However, a close family member fancied going to the cinema, but wasn’t keen on the Mandela movie, so off we went to see it anyway (I will, as regular readers know, turn up to almost anything, especially¬†if someone else is buying the ticket).

mitty

Stiller plays the eponymous character, a reserved everyman working in the photo archive of Life magazine. His true nature, which is that of an adventurous romantic, only finds expression through his rich and bewildering fantasy life – even if this does threaten to give him a reputation as a chronic daydreamer amongst those who know him. One of his most meaningful relationships is with a photojournalist (Sean Penn) whom he has never actually met. He certainly seems to have no realistic prospect of getting with a co-worker he quietly bears a torch for (played by Kristen Wiig – the co-worker, not the torch).

Then the magazine is bought out by a gaggle of bearded, suited nincompoops who announce the physical edition of the periodical is to be discontinued. The cover of the special last issue is to be a photograph specially taken by Penn’s character, and entrusted to Walter’s care – but he can’t find it anywhere! If he is to meet his obligation to the magazine, Walter is going to have to track his friend down and find out where the missing negative is…

This is based on a famous short story by James Thurber, although I suspect not a great deal of the original has survived. One of the things that gives the lie to my attempts to seem properly cultured is that there are many celebrated literary figures like Thurber with whom I am barely familiar – this case being particularly inexcusable, as Thurber short stories are always popping up in the books I constantly use at work. A Thurber admirer would probably have their own view of Stiller’s movie, but I have to say I very much enjoyed it in the end.

On paper it does look like a by-the-numbers, carpe diem, live your dreams piece of fluff – but it is lifted well above this level by some beautiful photography, inventive direction, and a cleverly reserved and slightly off-beat script. This is considerably less broad than most of the films I have seen from Ben Stiller, and much more to my taste. The more spectacular excursions into Walter’s dream-life are very funny, but to begin with the real world of the film exists at a slight angle to reality too – there’s an odd but subtle formalism to the designs and some of the dialogue that helps to smooth the joins between fantasy and reality. As Walter becomes more rooted in the real world, this diminishes somewhat – and it’s to Stiller’s credit that this is done with such great subtlety.

The transformation of Walter Mitty from, essentially, a ‘grey piece of paper’ to an inspirational, aspirational hero is perhaps not done with quite the same level of nuance – we are tipped off to the kind of person he was in his youth very early on – but this was always going to be a difficult balancing act. Personally, I liked the film very much – but then the story of a man escaping from the confines of a dispiriting office job and going on a series of surreal international adventures was always going to chime with me in a very particular way.

I think this is a good film, though it is arguably quite old-fashioned – the central message of going out and experiencing the world first-hand, rather than living in daydreams or cocooning yourself in management-speak and only communicating via the internet, is arguably nothing very new or surprising. Nevertheless it still seems to me to have some validity to it, and I did find the film bringing back a lot of memories and even stirring up just a little of my own spirit of adventure. I understand it has received mixed reviews, which rather surprises me. As of now, this is the best new film I have seen in 2014. This is not saying much, but I suspect it has a good chance of still being near the top of the list in twelve months’ time – and that is noteworthy. A very thoughtful and wise movie; entertaining, too.

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