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Posts Tagged ‘Melissa McCarthy’

The official photo of the nominees for the 2019 Academy Awards was published the other day, and I for one was quite pleased to see that not all the participants appeared to be taking it entirely seriously. But then again, I realised years ago that taking the Academy Awards seriously is a mug’s game – the whole circus is basically an articulation of pompous Hollywood self-regard, made somewhat risible by too many issues to be easily enumerated. Not that they necessarily do themselves many favours at AMPAS – the whole ‘Best Popular Movie’ debacle basically shone a spotlight on the awkwardly competing desires to be both populist and refined. It’s an impossible circle to square, demanding the Academy to make many tough choices year after year, most of which they arguably get wrong.

Still, winning an Oscar does provide a quantifiable boost in a film’s take – how many people only went to see Moonlight after it picked up a statuette? I was one of them- and also, one presumes, in the asking price of any actor lucky enough to acquire one. (It must be rather frustrating that so many acting Oscars are the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, given to people for their body of work rather than any particular role, and only acquired when the performer’s career is beginning to wind down anyway.) Am I suggesting that film stars are quite so acquisitive and venal as that makes them sound? Well – maybe, I don’t know. What I am sure of is that if you really do want an Oscar, there are a few tried-and-tested routes to picking one up. Famously, if you are a man, you should play someone with a medical condition, and if you are a woman, you should play the least glamorous role you can find.

Both these things are kind of true of Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which has picked up a raft of award nominations, not just at the Oscars. Most these have gone to its leads, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant.  This is yet another supposedly true story, concerning the activities of the New York-based writer Lee Israel (played by McCarthy). Israel was, briefly, a successful writer of biographies, but as the film opens her unpromising choice of subject matter and the fact that she is basically a horrible person to everyone around her means she is not so much a failed writer as one on the verge of failing – isolated, heavily in debt, and drinking too much. The closest thing she has to a friend is Jack Hock (Grant), a similarly dubious character.

To raise money to make ends meet, Israel resorts to selling some personal effects, including a letter from Katharine Hepburn, and discovers the high prices that such memorabilia can command. The price is even better, she realises, when she makes a few small amendments to the letters herself to make them more appealing to the collectors interested in such things. From here it is but a short step to Israel forging literary memorabilia as her main source of incoming, producing hitherto-unknown works from the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and Louise Brooks. After a while, it becomes necessary for her to recruit Jack as her representative when doing the actual selling, simply because the dealers are growing too suspicious of her. This inevitably places further strain on what was a somewhat fragile relationship anyway, and with the FBI closing in, how long can they keep on getting away with it?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (a phrase given to Dorothy Parker in one of Israel’s fake letters supposedly written by her) is a curious film, not necessarily because of the story but because of a slight unevenness of style. On one level, it deals with some fairly serious and even quite abstract concerns – loneliness, isolation, what it means to be a good or successful writer, and above all else the notion of ‘authenticity’ and what it really means. Israel’s forged letters when writing as Coward and the others are so successful because they are more entertaining and characterful than the genuine ones – the film is big on the notion of forgery as a creative act, in this case at least – and there is a suggestion that at least some of the people involved chose not to look too closely, at least to begin with. And the tone of the film is often appropriately understated and naturalistic, with the kind of score (contributed by the director’s brother) that suggests a serious drama.

On the other hand, this is still kind of a film about various criminal capers, where the victims were basically gullible rich people who didn’t really know they were being robbed, and the audience is to some extent invited to feel complicit in Lee and Jack’s success and share it with them. Melissa McCarthy is one of those innately funny performers who could probably raise a laugh playing Hedda Gabler, and her instincts allow her to zero in on every even marginally funny moment in the script and milk it for all it’s worth. (On the other hand, there are moments in the film which almost come across as unintentionally funny, but this may have more to do with a low-quality stuffed cat employed as a prop at one point.) On the whole this is a very strong performance, but it mostly consists of McCarthy being sharp, abrasive and witty, which is essentially what she does in most of her movies anyway. As I said, actresses wanting an Oscar are wise to de-glam themselves (see Halle Berre in Monster’s Ball, Charlize Theron in Monster, and so on), and McCarthy certainly does that here – is it too harsh to suggest that her nomination is due more to an unflattering wig than any revelation about her acting ability?

I must admit to being rather more surprised about Richard E Grant getting the Academy nod for this film. That said, I’ve never been particularly impressed by Grant’s range – it always seems to me that the abiding tragedy of his career was that he was born about ten years too late to be an original cast member on The Rocky Horror Show. All his performances seem to me to be essentially the same, including here. Various scenes of domestic squalour, overindulgence of alcohol, and strained friendship inevitably put one in mind of Withnail & I (still really Grant’s signature role). It’s a funny turn, with perhaps a smidgeon more depth to it than usual, but still hardly anything really new.

Still, it would take a bigger churl than me not to be somewhat disarmed, not to mention amused, by Grant’s obvious delight at getting his Oscar nomination; no doubt Marvel will soon be on the phone to him, as well. As far as Can You Ever Forgive Me? is concerned, this is an enjoyable and engaging film which (perhaps inevitably) works better in its lighter moments than its more dramatic ones. It is a curious tale, well told, with two strong if not exceptional performances at its heart. Probably worth watching if you like thoughtful, quality films in a minor key.

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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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2015 has, so far, seemed to be a bit of an annus mirabilis for those of us who are fans of (the man, the legend) Jason Statham – true, things got off to a slightly wobbly start with the virtual non-release of Wild Card, but set against this are Mr Statham’s appearances in Furious 7 and now Paul Feig’s Spy. Not only are these big, mainstream releases, well outside the action ghetto which the great man once seemed to be stuck in, but they also indicate that he’s at least attempting to broaden his range a bit – Furious 7 had him playing a villain in a major blockbuster, while Spy sees him trying his hand at comedy. Possibly I’m biased, but the omens looked good for this one.

spy

That said, Spy isn’t really his movie, but a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy. She plays Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA analyst whose normal duties are to support suave super-agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She has a bit of a crush on him, naturally, which equally naturally is entirely unrequited. Susan is understandably devastated when Fine is killed on a mission to investigate ruthless arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, sigh).

With the CIA seemingly compromised, Susan volunteers to go into the field herself for the first time (her identity being unknown to the bad guys), much to the chagrin of crazed macho-man agent Rick Ford (you can probably guess who this is). Nevertheless, the mission is approved and off she goes to Paris, technically only on surveillance duties but with vengeance on her mind…

The first and most important thing to say about Spy is that, given his prominence in the advertising, Jason Statham really isn’t in it very much. In a way it’s oddly similar to his appearance in Furious 7, in that his contribution doesn’t amount to much more than a series of scene-stealing (and very funny) cameos. Mr Statham’s usual intensity reaches the point of incipient, swivel-eyed madness, but he’s still playing a version of the Jason Statham Character, which just adds to the humour.

As I said, though, it’s McCarthy’s movie all the way. I haven’t seen any of her previous movies, but on the strength of this one it seems to me that her schtick is based on two things – her physicality, and a startling facility with profanistical vocabularisation. Both of these are given full reign here. I remember that many years ago, Dawn French went to Hollywood with the idea of making a movie in which a short, plump woman found herself mixed up in a Lethal Weapon-style action caper, to comic effect. That movie never got made, but Spy – at least to begin with – is based on a similar premise.

Except, of course, this isn’t a pastiche of buddy cop films, but spy movies in general and the Bond franchise in particular. I say pastiche rather than parody: the opening titles are a spot-on copy of the Eon style, but they’re not actually funny, while the actual plot of the film – a hunt for a missing nuclear bomb – is handled relatively ‘straight’ (one consequence of this is that the film contains some unusually graphic violence for a comedy). The story isn’t terribly original, and I’m not sure how much it actually makes sense, but it mainly functions as a container into which to put jokes, anyway. These start off relatively restrained, and to be fair the film always retains a concern with Susan as a semi-believable human being rather than just as an over-the-top comic character. That said, at some point around half-way through she inexplicably transforms from a slightly awkward but generally decent lady into a sort of foul-mouthed berserker, although one of the results of this is that the film gets funnier and funnier as it goes on.

Quite apart from the reliable technique of inserting McCarthy into staple scenarios of the genre – the visit to be issued with gadgets, the casino sequence, the high speed pursuit, and so on – the film is notable for being a largely female-led crack at this particular target, with equally strong supporting performances coming from Byrne, Miranda Hart, and Allison Janney. And beyond this, the film seems to have an inexhaustible supply of off-the wall running gags and surprise cameos to draw upon – a joke about the surprisingly vermin-infested CIA HQ made me laugh a lot, while Peter Serafinowicz is extremely good value as a outrageously inappropriate Italian agent.

I’m still a little disappointed that Spy doesn’t contain a bit more premium Statham, and I’m not sure I’ll be becoming a regular visitor to Melissa McCarthy movies, but as you can probably tell I rather enjoyed this one. It probably isn’t the greatest comedy spy thriller ever made, but it is consistently funny in all sorts of ways, and if this style of modern comedy is to your taste – let’s just say it’s broad and irreverent – you will probably have a good time watching it.

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