Sunday 16 June 2019

Thirty Years of Ghostbusters II

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the premier of Ghostbusters II. Also just gone is the 35th anniversary of the original Ghostbusters, but I wrote about that film five years ago. Back then, I wrote about the different continuations of the franchise and the rumours of a third film. Five years on, a new film has been and gone, rebooting the franchise but failing to kick off its own sequels. However, 2016's Ghostbusters showed there was enough interest in the franchise to get a sequel to Ghostbusters II greenlit, which is expected to arrive next year. Dan Aykroyd, who has a habit of announcing imminent projects that exist only in his head, has also said he's working on the script for a prequel, set in the sixties when Ray, Egon and Peter meet in college. While there's a good chance this will never happen, I actually feel this is the best way to continue those characters. Recast them, tell the characters' stories without having to worry about increasingly aged (or dead) actors. Aykroyd has even talked about making it a TV series, which I think is honestly the best format.

But enough about the future, let's talk about the past. Everyone loves Ghostbusters, but where's the love for the sequel? While I'll be the first accept that it's not as good as the original (let's be fair, not much is), Ghostbusters II is an absolute cracker of a film. It's clearly influenced by the success of the animated spin-off The Real Ghostbusters, which made the franchise a huge hit with kids, and is a more family-friendly affair than the original. There are still a few grubby jokes in there (Egon's line about his epididymis is one that I didn't understand for years), but the overall tone is much less adult-oriented. This is no bad thing, and the film's whole style is a little smoother, more accessible than the original. It's less interesting than the grad humour of the first film, but it's one that can appeal to a broader audience, and it's a film that you could easily put on for the whole family to watch and enjoy. It doesn't quite go as far as making Slimer a character as he is in the cartoon, but he is inexplicably floating around both the firehouse and New York, although only Louis seems to ever see him.

On the other hand, while Aykroyd and Ramis tweaked their approach to the script to make it a little more kid-friendly, they don't miss the chance to have a little pop at their unintended new target audience. Ray and Winston make their entrance as children's entertainers, dancing to the theme song at a party full of “ungrateful little yuppie larvae.” (Which includes Jason Reitman, son of the film's director Ivan and now working on the upcoming sequel. There's something very funny about him telling the Ghostbusters that his dad says they're full of crap.) There's some clear resentment from the writers there, that they're having to write this sequel and make it more accessible to kids. None of the main players were keen to work on another Ghostbusters, (which is funny in hindsight considering that Aykroyd has spent the intervening years trying to make a third), but even working on half-enthusiasm they produce a great script.

It's true that the script essentially follows the same beats as the original, with the 'busters going from has-beens to world-savers via a couple of major set pieces and a ghostbusting montage. It's hard to disagree when critics complain that they weren't getting anything new, but there's also a sense of “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.” While there's some influence from RGB, the intervening five years have been very different and the 'busters have been sued out of business for almost destroying New York City. What's less feasible is that they're generally considered charlatans by the public (although the court scene sees some definite support). They might have trashed the city when they accidentally summoned up a giant marshmallow man, but it's pretty much impossible that anyone could deny that actually happened. There's a sense that the writers are snapping at the fickleness of the public. Ghostbusters II had a record-breaking opening weekend, only to crash completely when Batman was released the following week. (Perhaps, given the New Years setting, releasing the film in June was a mistake.)

While it's not quite up to the standards of the original, there are some elements that simply work better in the sequel. The characters have changed over the five years between, in believable ways. Egon is a researcher, Ray runs an occult bookshop, and Peter is a schlocky TV host, all roles they fit perfectly into. While we still have little indication of what Winston does when he's not in uniform, he gets a much better share of the lines and action than in the original (although he is unforgivably left out of the comeback bust in the courthouse). Most notably improved is the Peter-Dana relationship. Peter in particular is a far more likeable, more relatable character, still a bit of a manchild but far less of a jerk. While Murray's performance made Venkman the standout character of the first film, it's inarguable that the character is a selfish, unpleasant person, and it's hard to see why Dana falls for him. It's much more believable that between films she broke up with him and made a new life for herself, and that she'd grow close to this improved, less asshole-ish version.

Janine and Louis are stepped up to main characters, instead of recurring jokes. Annie Potts (who got spectacularly hot between films) gives a less abrasive but still brassy performance, and gets to play Janine without her fawning over Egon. Not everyone liked this development, but she and Louis work weirdly well, and it gives Louis the kick in the confidence pants that he needs. Plus, Rick Moranis absolutely rules the courtroom scenes. There's an amazing array of antagonists as well: Kurt Fuller as the oily mayor's aide, Hardemeyer; the great Harris Yulin as the ferocious judge Wexler; and of course, Peter MacNicol giving a career-great performance as Janosz Poha. Indeed, Janosz is perhaps the best addition to the set-up, something the original film lacked – a secondary villain with a link to the main threat. Janosz is at once pitiful and unsettling, and works as both comic relief and a growing threat. Perhaps the inclusion of the snubbed, nebbish white male using supernatural powers to try to get one over on the world influenced the script for 2016's Ghostbusters, with its own loser villain Rowan.

While there's no topping Slimer or Stay Puft, Ghostbusters II has some truly spectacular supernatural action. The battle with the Scolari brothers in the courthouse is the best single ghostbusting scene in the franchise, utilising some remarkable puppetry and video effects to create two horrible phantoms with real character. While, like the first film, much of the ghost action is put across in a pair of montages, the creatures and encounters are more elaborate and imaginative. Particularly memorable are the fur coat coming to life and attacking its wearer, and the Titanic finally coming into dock (“Well, better late than never.”) Vigo the Carpathian makes for an impressive villain, one with genuine personality, something that Gozer lacked, being more a force of nature than a character. Wilhelm von Homburg was reportedly very unhappy with being dubbed over, but the combination of his snarling face and Max von Sydow's booming voice are effective.

The use of rivers of slime must surely have been intended to appeal to the kids (and no doubt further merchandising of “Ectoplazm”), but the idea that the misery, cynicism and general shittiness of attitudes in New York would manifest physically is a stroke of genius. It's never completely clear what the link is between the slime and Vigo, but the intention seems to be that the ghost is simply taking advantage of a pre-existing phenomenon now that he is in New York, boosting his power and using it to his own ends. Indeed, the use of positively-charged slime against him would suggest that the ghost and the gloop aren't directly connected. However, while the slime is undoubtedly a kids' treat, Ghostbusters II manages to include some genuinely unsettling, even scary moments, perhaps able to get away with a little more due to its overall more family-friendly content. Janosz in his spectral nanny guise has to be the most upsetting visual of the franchise, although the garden of impaled heads comes a close second. Most memorable of all, though, is this film's giant monster: the Statue of Liberty herself, animated by ectoplasm and the voice of Jackie Wilson. While it may not be as out there as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, it's a brilliant and unforgettable visual.

Of course, there are some elements that make you wonder what they were thinking. The soundtrack is, charitably, not quite as good as the original's (Jackie Wilson not withstanding). I've a soft spot for Run DMC's new Ghostbusters theme, but accept that this is nostalgia talking, and it can't be considered a good track. There's a nice bit of Oingo Boingo on there too, but mostly, this is not a decent soundtrack, and the best performance by a musician on the film might be Bobby Brown's cameo as a doorman. While I love the idea of Peter as a psychic talkshow host, that scene is tonally out of step with the rest of the film. Chloe Webb gives an impressively disturbed performance as the date rape victim who's twisted her head up into thinking she was mind-wiped by an alien, but that's a seriously tasteless and, above all, unfunny joke. It's made all the more annoying by the fact that so many fans misunderstand the whole point of the scene, thinking that she was the one with the right date for the end of the world, when it is obvious that the other guest was indeed psychic and got the date right. The world was going to end on New Year's Eve that year, but the Ghostbusters stopped it. Talk about missing the joke.

In spite of a couple of missteps, Ghostbusters II gets so much right that I fail to understand so many fans' bad feeling towards it. It's a fun, arresting adventure with a refreshingly uncynical message: that, you know, being nice to each other actually is a good idea, and that treating people like crap has poor consequences. It has some great performances from a cast who, even if some of them didn't want to be there, were firing on all cylinders, combined with some wonderfully weird ideas brought to life with great effects. And how many films can pull off a dancing toaster?

Saturday 15 June 2019

REVIEW: Men in Black: International

It's been seven years since MIB3, and twenty-two years since the original Men in Black film, which was (very loosely) based on the Malibu comic series by Lowell Cunningham (since Malibu was absorbed into Marvel, this technically makes the MIB films Marvel movies, and wouldn't that be a crossover worth seeing? Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson could play two characters each). There's no sign of Will Smith or Tommy Lee Jones, with Emma Thompson (no relation to Tessa to the best of my knowledge) as Agent O being the only actor link to the earlier films.

Tessa plays Molly Wright, who made it through an MIB encounter as a child with her memories intact, and has made it her life's work to join them. This leads to her turning down positions with the FBI and CIA, which was probably the worst thing she could do since she'll never get noticed by the recruiters that way. She tracks them down herself, and impresses O enough to get a probationary recruitment as Agent M (the designation once held by Michael Jackson in MIB2, and there are far more agents than letters in the alphabet. It must be a bureaucratic nightmare). Tessa is a joy to watch throughout, hugely confident in the early scenes before being a little more out-of-her-depth once she's on duty and slowly finds her feet.

Hemsworth is Agent H, doing his best English accent. He's the MIB's best agent, or was until he saved the world and became a cocky, arrogant louche. There's more to it, of course, but H's decline reflects the decline of the MIB, an organisation that, in both London and New York, seems to be losing its way. The two leads display the same great chemistry they showed in Thor: Ragnarok. Alongside M and H we have Agent C, played with jobsworthy excellence by Rafe Spall ("Oit noodle!"), and High T (tee hee), the head of the London office, played by Liam Neeson.

MIB:International is a different beast to the trilogy that preceded it. Although it has the same producers as the earlier films (Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald), Barry Sonnenfeld hasn't returned to direct, instead making way for movie and music video director F. Gary Gray. Scriptwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway are also new to the franchise, although they have definite form as the writers of the first Iron Man film. It has a different feel to the earlier films. While it's written and made by Americans for an American company and based on an American concept, there's a more British feel to the humour in this film. It's a grumpier, spikier version of the Men in Black - if anything, the more downcast feel fits more with the MIB animated series of the late nineties.

I've long felt a film about a British arm of the MIB would work well. I imagined more of a clash of styles between the departments, akin to the second Kingsman film, with the New York-based MIB rubbing the rather more proper Gentlemen in Black the wrong way. Here, Agent O still heads up the New York office as in MIB3, and while she's the only British character from the original trilogy, she has her doubts about the running of the London office, but there's no clash between the two. No, she serves simply to recruit the new agent and send her to London to test both her and the UK office.

However, this isn't merely a London-based film. It's actually a global concern, with the MIB globe-hopping between Italy and Morocco between returns to the office. It's an irritating facet of Hollywood that 90% of the world's high-stakes action takes place not simply in the United States but in New York City, as if aliens, gods and monsters really only want to conquer that particular conurbation. (You know what else is set in NYC and owned by Colombia/Sony? Ghostbusters. Now that's a crossover with promise, and if it's based on the 2016 version of GB, Hemsworth can have two characters in that too.)

The visuals are therefore of a different league to the earlier films. It's not merely NY cityscapes and the occasional trip to the 'burbs, but beautiful islands, desert vistas and the grubby squall of Marrakesh. Not forgetting the completely different cityscapes offered by London (seeing a brnach of Grubbs bakery in an MIB film is weird, although not quite as weird as seeing Lloyds Bank in Detective Pikachu). Plus, the film is bookended by scenes on the Eiffel Tower, providing another memorable and different image (although we all know that Eiffel wasn't an MIB, but a proto-Ghostbuster who built the tower as an ectocontainment unit. This crossover writes itself). The aliens also feel different to the previous films, or at least, the first two. The original in particular was made in a time when all aliens and monsters were grey, brown or an unappetising shade of green. They're much more colourful now (the sixties flashback aliens were pretty colourful in MIB3). There are cute monsters with blue fur, tiny green goblins in bright red armour, and the Twins (played by the French dancers Les Twins), two plasma-based aliens that dance with motion and colour even when they stand still.

MIB:International is a lot of fun. It's not exactly a complex film with an elaborate plot that's going to change the genre, but it's a rollicking adventure. The reviews have been almost uniformly awful, but I really don't see the problem with the film. When did everyone get so negative? When was just making a film that provided a fun adventure not enough?

You've got aliens, you've got action, you've got Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson walking the Earth looking beautiful. While it's not as good as the 1997 film, it holds up well against the others in the franchise and provides a fun, colourful way to spend a couple of hours, while opening doors to a broader franchise for future MIB films.

Sunday 2 June 2019

REVIEW: Aladdin (2019)

Disney's remake juggernaut continues apace, and while I'm not that bothered by the new versions of Dumbo or The Lion King (supposedly a live action version - they're not actually real animals you know, just fancier cartoons) this was one I didn't want to miss. Aladdin is one of my absolute favourites in the Disney collection, and one that was ripe for a reinvention. From the outset I was intrigued by this one, not least because Guy Ritchie directed it. He's definitely not the sort of director you'd expect to take on a musical fantasy for children, but his version works. It's not on a par with the original (which is to say, the 1992 film, I realise the original story is several centuries old), but it's pretty brilliant.

Naturally, the biggest deal was always going to be the Genie. Robin Williams was the absolute star of the original, and going forward without him was always going to be a challenge. (Not that it's the first time the Genie has been played by someone else; in the straight-to-vid sequel The Return of Jafar and the underrated Aladdin TV series, it was Dan Castallenetta.) Hats off, then, to Will Smith for firstly taking up the daunting challenge, and secondly making such a success of it. He wisely doesn't try to ape Williams's performance, but stated he wanted to pay tribute to it, and he totally pulls it off. Smith's Genie is cooler, surprisingly camp and very much Smith's own. The CGI version of the character almost works, but dips into the uncanny valley where the integration of Smith's face onto the animated form. He's better when he gets to play him in human guise. I love that the Genie gets a new subplot in this version, with his own chance at romance. The object of his affections, Jasmine's handmaiden Dahlia, is a new addition to the story, and in the hands of actor-comedian Nasim Pedrad provides some of the biggest laughs in the film. In fact, I feel the addition of her character is one of the best things about the film, making it a great deal less male-centric and humanising both the Genie and Jasmine.

While the Genie was the big challenge, it was also vital to get the rest of the cast right. Mena Massoud is incredibly likeable as Aladdin. He has an easygoing but awkward charm, and has great chemistry with both Genie and Jasmine, and wow, he's got moves. Marwan Kenzari is a younger, more handsome Jafar than we're used to (although I once knew a girl who had a big thing for the original Jafar). He's still as sinister as hell, judging well when to be softly spoken and when to scream in rage. I love the extra background we have on Jafar's character. He's from the same background as Aladdin, a thieving pauper who's slowly dragged himself up into a position of power, and now refuses to ever settle for being the second most powerful person in the room. It gives him a rationale for his supervillain behaviour, and shows us how easily Aladdin could become corrupt if he makes the wrong choices when he is presented with power.

Naomi Scott is exceptionally good as Princess Jasmine. She gets two solo songs, something the character lacked in the original, and while they're never going to be rattling round my head the way "Prince Ali" does, they're pretty powerful and Scott's voice is incredible. Jasmine gets to have a lot more impact on the plot this time round as well, being far more involved in the climax of the film (and I'm pleased that her cringe-inducing fake seduction of Jafar has been excised). It's also easy to see why men would be falling over themselves to marry her (aside from the obvious consolidation of power aspect). I'm not saying that Naomi Scott is the most beautiful woman in the world, but it's definitely possible.

The animated Aladdin's gender politics were pretty good by 90s Disney standards, but this update gives Jasmine a greater status in the story. Rather than purely trying to find someone she'd be happy to marry, here Jasmine campaigns to have a voice in her kingdom's future, to actually be the ruler of Agrabah rather than merely marry him. We also get more background about her, learning that her mother was from another kingdom and that her death is what has led the Sultan to keep Jasmine confined to the palace. I guess this was vaguely implied in the original, but it's good to have some more depth to the setting - Jafar's intention to conquer Agrabah's neighbours also makes for a more realised world.

There aren't many family blockbusters that feature barely any white faces. It's absolutely right that the cast are predominantly from Arabic backgrounds, although there are also a number of people of other ethnicities (Scott's mother is Ugandan-Indian, Pedrad is Iranian by birth, and Smith of course is African American). While I understand some people being dissatisfied by this, seeing it as Hollywood's generic interchangeable dark skin approach, Agrabah isn't a real place and who's to say exactly what ethnic make-up it would have? Jasmine, especially, is explicitly the daughter of someone from another country. The diversity of the cast is a strong element in its favour, and it's not like the story of Aladdin was ever set in a real version of Arabia (the original story was set in China, albeit a China that was suspiciously Arabian). One oddity is the inclusion of Billy Magnussen as Prince Anders, from some Scandinavian-esque kingdom, and while I understand some people seeing this as whitewashing, he's one character and I saw it more as illustrating how men were willing to travel from all over the world to meet the Princess. Anyway, Aladdin's probably set ten thousand years in the future and can feasibly reflect all sorts of influences.

The pacing is admittedly off, with some scenes dragging a little, but on the whole the film balances story and song effectively. It's astonishingly beautiful, wonderfully colourful, and the song-and-dance numbers are spectacular, almost Bollywood-esque in some cases. There are some tweaks to the lyrics of the classic songs as well, some correctional (changing "Sunday salam" to "Friday salam" because someone finally remembered they were dealing with Muslim characters) others funny ("I hear your princess is hot, where is she?"), and they make the most of Smith's skills as a rapper by tweaking the style of his songs to make them more his own. (Although I'd have guessed we'd see the Genie beatbox, I wasn't expecting it from Jasmine.)

I was pleased to see the original climactic defeat of Jafar was retained, although the final confrontation was extended for greater effect, albeit perhaps a little too long. Absolutely delighted that Frank Welker returned to voice the Cave of Wonders, and uncredited, provided the squeaks and grumbles of Abu and Rajah. Alan Tudyk makes a decent Iago the parrot, although it's a reduced role compared to the original. In spite of heavily following the '92 film, the new Aladdin strikes a balance between recreating the original and being its own thing. A great success in my eyes.