Sunday, 31 July 2016

Ghostbusters; More Holtzman, please

It doesn’t bother me at all that they’ve remade Ghostbusters with women. Women are in my top two favourite genders. I can’t think of anything women don’t improve. My problem is that on the one hand, they didn’t have faith in their new cast, and on the other hand they forgot what made the original movie really pop. It wasn’t the special effects; it was the swagger. The original, male, ghostbusters defied authority. They weren’t afraid of no ghosts. They also weren’t afraid of The Man.

The new ghostbusters? Not so much with fronting up The Man. Which is a pity, since every single actress there is more than equal to getting right up in The Man’s grill. I’d been looking forward to seeing Melissa McCarthy saying solemnly “Yes, this man has no dick.” Not just because it’s a great scene which could have withstood endless repetition, but because giving a woman that line would be even funnier.

From some points of view, the new version is an improvement on the first movie; it’s got a tighter, almost TV-episode plot, and this time the black Ghostbuster has some real weight as a character. These are useful improvements. And Chris Hemsworth’s idiot secretary is good fun, not least because it’s no longer practical to write a female character that transparently stupid.

But it’s a movie which struggles to get out from under its original, winking back at it all the time, and then dragging in more and more cameo roles from every surviving cast member of the original. I mean, I didn’t hate seeing Sigourney Weaver popping up over the credits, but if you want to make a movie, make that movie. Don’t keep reminding us that you’re making a copy of it.

The upside of it all is that it’s done well enough at the box office that a sequel’s more likely than not. And no-one really rates the “original” sequel. So it’s all to play for if they go for Ghostbusters 2. And if they do, they need to double down on this


That. Right there. Best thing in the movie, doing what she does best. Swagger.

Central Intelligence; Chekhov's inflatable gorilla

Central Intelligence is an anti-bullying PSA wrapped up in a bad spy thriller. And when I say “wrapped up” I want to you to imagine an elephant wrapped in a single serving cheese slice.

It’s also a movie in which Snowball gets funnied off the screen by Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, which isn’t surprising, but after Kevin Hart’s wonderful turn as Snowball, it was a disappointment to see him doing a generic stressed out middle class black guy straight out of the 80s movie they seem to have wedged their bullying movie into.

Other than that rather obvious point, it’s kind of an amiable mess. It reminded me a lot of Knight and Day, if you could somehow imagine Cameron Diaz being played by a hysterical Kevin Hart while the Rock channelled Tom Cruise. There’s a ditz in over his/her head and an amiable super spy who keeps coming up with ever more lunatic methods to get the ditz out of trouble and closer to the McGuffin. The spy movie end of things feels as though it’s been sitting in a desk drawer for years waiting for a green light; it’s the same old same old notion of a widget which the bad guys want to to buy and the good guys want to keep. The bullying movie is more interesting, but only because the Rock has had his standard brand super hero rewritten to be amiably bonkers. Given that he’s obsessed with movies from the eighties when his character is written to be a teenager in the 1990s, I now find myself tempted to carbon date the script as more than ten years old.

Anyhow, there are occasional jokes, the odd interesting stunt, and an inspired use of an inflatable gorilla which I worked out about ten seconds ahead of time, making me slightly more intelligent than the desired audience for a movie which was advertised with the tag line “You need a little Hart and a big Johnson”.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Secret Life of Pets; More Snowball!

The Secret Life of Pets had a fun trailer showing pets getting up to all sorts of things when their owners left, which seemed promising. Specifically, promising anarchy, which I am a fan of. The actual movie is, perhaps inevitably, another one of those things where a well-meaning idiot gets into trouble, undertakes an epic journey, learns some lessons and discovers the importance of friendship. I could blame Contour, I could blame kid friendly programming, or I could simply accept that by the time you’ve worn yourself out imagining cool things to animate, there might not be anything left in the tank for a cool story stringing it all together. And then I can sit there enjoying the lunacy, assuming that the lunacy has been delivered on schedule.

The Secret Life of Pets delivers an acceptable level of goofy stupidity, even if a week later I’m having trouble remembering any of the details. There’s a wander across Manhattan which is full of the kind of invention that wasn’t there for the plot. There’s lots of cat jokes. And most importantly, there’s Snowball, who provides about 110% of all the energy on offer in the movie. Once Snowball explodes onto the scene, plotting the overthrow of all humanity, I lost all interest in the domesticated heroes, and just wanted a whole movie devoted to Snowball wrecking things like some sort of demented cross between Heath Ledger’s Joker and Bugs Bunny on a bad hair day.

I could bend my own head into a pretzel wondering about how right-on it is to have Kevin Hart voicing a white rabbit who’s rebelling against the slavery of pets by humans, but while it was happening I was just enjoying the sheer audacity of it all. As the action builds to a climax, Snowball steals a bus and starts barrelling over the Brooklyn Bridge; the only nod to realism is that he can’t work the wheel AND the pedals, and if you stop to wonder how he stole the bus in the first place, there’s something dead inside you and we can never be friends, though I will happily engage you to manage my money because that’s the kind of soulless dedication to detail I like in a fiduciary. My actual friends will be nodding slightly to the Beastie Boys and hoping the bus ride goes on forever. It doesn’t, but until it stops, everything seems possible.

Snowball aside, it’s hard to buy into it; this is a movie where the side characters are more interesting than the main characters, because they all do one thing and do that well for just long enough to entertain us before bouncing off the screen. The main characters - well, it’s great that Gidget is an empowered female just driving things along, but if she has a conversation with a named female character which ISNT about her quest to get back her man, I missed it. At the time, that annoyed me less than the fact that Gidget was full of moxie and Max was at best an amiable moocher with a modicum of charm and not quite enough brains to notice that he was stupid. Gidget didn’t need to settle for that when she plainly could have had her pick of the pet world. 

But never mind that. Snowball. Who, like all criminal masterminds is eliminated at the end by irony, in this case getting suckered back into slavery by a little girl stroking him. So this time next year I damn well EXPECT a sequel about his rescue and riproaring rampage of revenge.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence. Hazard Moppets

There’s a moment in Independence Day: Resurgence when I said, out loud, in the cinema, “hazard moppets”. Emmerich conjured up a bunch of kids specifically so that they could blunder into the elaborate, stupid, trap which lies at the heart of his movie’s climax. Boldly led by Hazard Grandpa, because what could be more riveting than Jeff Goldblum’s dad running into him at the worst possible moment. Actual riveting, one of the most boring, yet noisy and dangerous, things in the world; that’s what could have been more riveting, and also more fun.

ID: R is one of those movies which succeeds only to the extent that it reminds you of something better. Skilfully loading the dice against itself on that score, it packs the cast with people who were fun in the first, better, movie and pretty much the only fun to be had in the new one. The kids never had a chance. If you’re in the mood to save yourself two hours and a modest sum of money, you can get most of the fun to be had in ID: R by watching the trailer up to the bit when Jeff Goldblum deadpans “They like to get the landmarks.” 

This is the kind of movie which sets out to trade on your fond memories of the original and winds up making you wonder if the original was any damn good at all. Well, I’m not going to make the time to check it out, just in case it turns out that twenty years ago I was easily pleased. But I do remember original ID as being a bit better paced. The new movies flails about trying to get us invested in the cast’s newcomers, and then throws a big mid-movie disaster in to get the stakes up, followed by yet another plucky attempt to take out the mothership by subterfuge. 

For all practical purposes, it’s the original movie, with more grey hair and more CGI. The grey hair adds something; the extra CGI takes it all back out again. There are some perfectly good ideas; the notion that the aliens would come back for seconds is a good one, and so is the idea that humans would have spent the last twenty years reverse engineering alien tech to get ready for the re-match. Good ideas are not, in the end, enough. Neither are CGI spectacles. And everything runs on coincidence; no matter what happens, there’s always a member of the principal cast to watch it. That’s a narrative convenience I can overlook; but when that rando runs into someone else who has no business ever getting near them … which runs to the grand climax of the Levinson family reunion, an idea so dumb it makes everything else look plausible by comparison. And of course there’s a dog which has to be recognised. 

I had way too much time to ponder the alien business model. In the first movie, they were just a bunch of dickish aliens come to take all of our stuff and kill us when we got in the way. This is a terrible business plan; if you have the kind of energy that can let you move from one star to another, you have the kind of energy which lets you make whatever you want, right where you are. However, compared to the new business plan, it’s bordering on genius. It now turns out that the aliens go from planet to planet, drilling into them to extract the molten core. Which they somehow use for building more ships or whatevs. 

Yeah. About that. The earth’s molten core is utterly unremarkable. There’s a bunch of iron, and there’s traces of other lighter elements, but nothing you couldn’t hammer together from other sources or find stuck in the core of pretty much any rocky planet anywhere. Even assuming that you decided it was cheaper to travel than to synthesise, for every inhabited planet with an iron core, there are almost certainly hundreds of uninhabited ones. It wouldn’t be worth the energy cost of wiping out the defence forces of an inhabited planet to get at the core when you could have your pick of hundreds of other ones without a fight.

And the science; the alien ship is so huge, it has its own gravity. Until it doesn’t, somehow. Extracting the iron core will switch off the earth’s magnetic field (almost certainly true) which will mean the atmosphere will disappear (complete crap; the earth’s atmosphere is not magnetic. Losing that much of the earth’s mass would certainly affect our ability to retain atmosphere in the long haul, and not having a magnetic field would play havoc with the delicate balance of electromagnetic fields and ionised layers in the atmosphere that keep a lot of solar radiation from getting down to the surface, but …) and so on. I hope there’s a DVD extra that consists entirely of a fed up physicist explaining that science does not work this way.

It’s not terrible. It’s just not good. It takes a couple of perfectly good ideas, and some half way fun characters, and just rehashes all the old story beats from the first movie. And fun and all as it is to watch Jeff rehash the David Levinson character, it would be just as much fun to watch him hash it the first time.