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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Feig’

Disney’s current near-hegemony at the box office is always just a bit more apparent at Christmas time, where for some years now it has been very apparent that everyone else is running scared of the power of the Mouse House. One sign of this is that other studios are releasing their festive movies absurdly early: bringing anything new out at a sensible time, like actually at Christmas, risks being squashed like a bug by their latest stellar conflict brand extension or whatever.

As a result, Paul Feig’s Last Christmas has been out since about the middle of November, which is plainly a bit ridiculous, especially when you consider the grim, steely determination with which it sets about spraying the audience with yuletide cheer, like an Uzi set to fully automatic. As is not entirely unexpected for a film heavily trading on affection for George Michael and his music, it opens with a choirgirl singing ‘Heal the Pain’. This is not unpleasant to listen to, but I was almost at once distracted by the fact she is apparently singing it in a church, in – according to a caption – Yugoslavia in 1999. Did they sing pop songs in Balkan churches in 1999? Was Yugoslavia even still around in 1999?

Best not to get too tangled up in such issues, anyway. For reasons which remain obscure, the bulk of the film is set at Christmas 2017, and concerns the now-grown choirgirl, Kate (Katarina to her family), who is played by Emilia Clarke. She is an aspiring musical theatre actress, but is going through a sort of ill-defined long-term personal crisis. She is also (initially at least, though this kind of gets forgotten about) a huge fan of George Michael and Wham, and (in the name of ensuring the film’s festivity quotient is maxed out) works in a year-round Christmas shop run by Michelle Yeoh.

It is while she is working here that she meets Tom, a mysterious stranger played by Henry Golding, in a more than usually contrived cute-meet involving a bird shitting on her face. All the usual stuff blossoms between the two of them, and slowly she begins to reassess her life, be more considerate of the people around her, and generally attempt to be a bit more positive… WAKE UP!!! (Sorry. I just know the effect that this sort of thing has on me, and I imagine it’s the same for other people.)

The first thing I should mention about Last Christmas is that it is a film built around a plot twist. Nothing wrong with that; many fine films can say the same. The thing about a good plot twist is that it should come as a complete and breathtaking surprise when it actually happens in the film, but (in retrospect) seem entirely reasonable. Last Christmas‘s plot twist does not quite reach these lofty heights: unless all the bulbs in your cerebral Christmas lights have blown, you will almost certainly be able to guess the twist just from watching the trailer. Even then, this wouldn’t necessarily be a fatal problem if most people were not then moved to say ‘That’s a really cheesy/stupid/terrible idea’. But they are. Hereabouts we respect plot integrity (even in bad movies), so I will simply suggest that the film’s plot pivots around a uniquely reductionist interpretation of some George Michael lyrics. Enough said.

So: basically, what we have here is the archetypal seasonal story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, involved in a head-on smash with the Richard Curtis rom-com formula. Various often acceptable performers are scythed down by the ensuing shrapnel, and quite possibly members of the audience too. The story was thought up by Emma Thompson and her husband, and written down by Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, possibly all on the same afternoon. I can’t speak about Thompson’s husband or Kimmings, but Emma herself always struck me as a fairly smart cookie, and I am surprised to see her so signally fail to figure out that these two story-patterns are just not compatible. For the Christmas Carol pattern to work, you need to have a genuinely flawed character seriously in need of redemption. Rom-com characters are also flawed, as a rule, but not to anything like the same degree: the form requires them to be cute and loveable from the get-go. Last Christmas‘ problem – one of its problems – is that it can’t get over how wonderful it thinks Emilia Clarke’s character is. We are occasionally told what an awful person she is, but that’s all: the film is almost palpably needy in its attempts to make you root for and sympathise with her. Only having watched certain selected highlights of Musical Chairs on the internet, I am not really familiar with Emilia Clarke; but even if she really is as great an actress as my friends often assure me, she would need a much better script to make this particular character work.

It probably doesn’t help that she is sharing the screen for a lot of the film with Henry Golding, who is playing – and let me just pause for a moment here while I reflect upon the mot juste – a git. Specifically, he is a rom-com git, the kind of relentlessly warm, quirky, caring, decent chap guaranteed to evoke feelings of homicidal animosity in any right-thinking viewer (cf Michael Maloney in Truly, Madly, Deeply, for instance). As the name suggests, it takes an actor of significant skill, nuance, and charisma to transcend the essential gittishness of this kind of role and turn them into someone whose appearance in a scene does not cause the heart to sink. Golding brings to bear all the experience and technique he has acquired in his long career as a presenter of TV travel shows, and yet still somehow falls short.

There does seem to be something awfully calculated and insincere about Last Christmas, and I do wonder if this doesn’t extend to the casting. One of the trends I have noticed in commercial cinema over the last few years is the tendency to stick in a couple of Asian actors, just to help flog the film in the far east, and I can’t help wondering if the inclusion of Golding and Yeoh (Anglo-Malaysian and Chinese-Malaysian respectively) isn’t just another example of this sort of thing. It does make the various jokes in the film about the proliferation of horrible commercialised Christmas tat seem rather lacking in self-awareness, given the whole movie is horrible commercial Christmas tat itself. Nevertheless, we are assured this is ‘the Christmas film of the decade!’, although without specifying which one: possibly the 1340s.

It would be remiss of me to suggest that Last Christmas is all bad, of course: there was one moment which actually made me laugh, although as it featured Peter Serafinowicz this is not really surprising. Unfortunately he is only in the film for about a minute. The rest of it is fairly consistently horrible, containing weird plot holes, mistaking quirkiness for genuine wit, and failing to realise that feel-good moments only come at a price: you have to really believe the characters have been knocked down if you’re going to rejoice when they get up again. The film’s attempts at moments of genuine emotional seriousness and pain just feel trite, though I should note that Clarke is trying hard throughout. The film’s habit of occasionally sticking in a glib and superficial political subtext with little real bearing on the plot is also rather crass, and does rather jar with Emma Thompson’s sizeable performance as a comedy Yugoslavian immigrant.

In the end, this is all surface and sentimentality, without any real sense of believeable characters or genuine emotions, with a soundtrack of George Michael songs (seemingly picked at random) trying to hold it together. I imagine that admirers of this thing (and they must be out there, for it has made $68 million to date) would say that its heart is in the right place. Given how the plot turns out, this is somewhat ironic, but it’s not true, in any case. Last Christmas‘ heart is in the right place only if you believe the right place for a heart is between the ears.

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Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor (I am going to stick with the American English spelling, even though it does make my teeth itch somewhat) is not a film I would necessarily have chosen to watch, even during the bacchanal of cinema-going which I am currently enjoying after an enforced one month drought. There’s no particular reason for that, but – and I do have to remind even friends of this sometimes – I don’t go to see absolutely everything, even when I’m at a loose end. Then again, there I was: all proper work done and dusted by noon, having agreed to go and see another movie with a friend in the early evening, and with a fairly sizeable space in my schedule until then. To be perfectly honest my first choice of movie-to-fill-the-gap would probably have been Mile 22, but it had finished the previous day (lots of big new movies starting today), and Feig’s film seemed like the best option.

Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a cheery, upbeat, perky, fluffy, home-oriented single mother whose life revolves around recipes, her son, and her vlog (which heavily features recipes and parenting tips). She is quite terrifyingly wholesome, upbeat and proactive, but is there something missing from her own lifestyle? Just what does she secretly aspire to? Well, the barest suggestion of an answer comes when she meets Emily (Blake Lively), another mum from her son’s school. Emily appears to be everything that Stephanie is not: elegant, sophisticated, a bit of a hedonistic rebel. The two women become unlikely friends, despite some occasional signs of odd behaviour on Emily’s part.

Then one day Emily asks Stephanie for a favour (Hah! Take that, American English!) – will she collect her son from school? Stephanie happily obliges, but then Emily fails to get in touch, and vanishes, apparently without a trace. Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) doesn’t have a clue where she’s gone, and nor do her employers, and so the police are called. Soon everyone is beginning to fear the worst, and Stephanie and Sean find themselves drawn closer together in their shared grief. But is everything quite as it seems…?

It’s always a slightly curious thing when you find someone apparently trying to get out of their comfort zone and do something genuinely new and different, and from a certain angle this is what Paul Feig appears to be doing with this film. Feig, as you may or may not be aware, is best known as the director and occasional writer of comedy films, most frequently starring Melissa McCarthy: he’s the guy who did Bridesmaids, and also Spy and the All-Female Ghostbusters remake. So for him to be directing what looks on paper to be like a fairly mainstream thriller is a bit of a departure. Then again, the film stars Anna Kendrick, who is also not really known as a dramatic actress – okay, she’s done things like The Accountant, but even then I distinctly remember being somewhat nonplussed by the fact that this sort of thriller would feature someone who’s essentially a musical-comedy performer. (Blake Lively, on the other hand, isn’t primarily known for comedy. But then she seems to limit her film appearances rather strictly, so her profile in general is a bit more limited than I might have expected, and she hasn’t really been typed in the same way.)

My feeling is that comedy is much more difficult than straight drama, and so all things being equal I’d much rather watch a drama made by comedians than a comedy film made by drama specialists. The question is whether this film really is a drama made by comedians. Well, several key creative people on it are best known for comedy, as previously discussed, so that part is not really in doubt. But is it really a drama?

Well – I suppose it is, because lots of serious and often quite dark stuff goes on (Kendrick’s character has a particularly off-kilter element to her backstory), crimes are committed, unpleasant secrets come to light, and so on. The weird thing is that all the time you are laughing – not in a sustained, from-the-belly way, but nearly every scene contains a little bit of business or a snappy line or a reaction from Kendrick or so on. It may be that this is genuinely a comedy thriller, but if so then it is one of the blackest possible shade.

Then again, the fact that this is such a peculiarly and unexpectedly funny film works very much in its favour, because it works very well to give it its own distinctive identity. This is something that it definitely needs, because otherwise this tale of apparently-affluent couples with corrosive money troubles, mysterious disappearances in suburbia, Machiavellian scheming behind a domestic facade, and so on, would owe just a bit too much of an obvious debt to Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl and its movie adaptation.

There really did seem to me to be quite a lot of similarities between Gone Girl and A Simple Favor, but the fact that A Simple Favor doesn’t come across as being quite so thorough-goingly misanthropic, and actually contains some pretty good jokes, made me warm to it much more than its precursor. There are also signs of the film-makers being willing to admit just how implausible the story of their film is, which is always welcome (there is a joke at one point about a character writing a novel, which is apparently dismissed by other people because of its ‘far-fetched plot’).

I don’t actually mind watching movies with absurdly contrived storylines, as long as you don’t also try to tell me that this is actually a serious and mature story about deep unpleasant truths in contemporary society. Feig’s film doesn’t try to pull any of that – it’s more or less up-front about the fact that it’s a disposable piece of entertainment. This doesn’t mean that it’s a poorly made film, by any means – the performances are strong, the direction good, and the script hangs together pretty well (there are occasional slow patches). It is a little bit strange that such a dark film should also feel so upbeat and lightweight, but this is hardly a fatal flaw. Tonally odd and very derivative, but also rather entertaining.

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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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