Ghostbusters

This review has been written as part of Todd Liebenow’s 1984-a-thon for his site, Forgotten Films. Be sure to check out everyone else’s reviews!

After three parapsychologists are kicked out of their university, they set up shop as the Ghostbusters, an elite force who will assist in any supernatural goings-on that may be bothering you. When a portal appears in the refrigerator of a particularly attractive client, the guys have their work cut out for them in working out what is going on, and how they can stop it.Ghostbusters-Screencaps-ghostbusters-30131200-1920-1080
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Guaranteed Happiness: Wall-E

Welcome to the first post in my new semi-regular feature, Guaranteed Happiness. I’ve discovered that a lot of the films I’ve watched recently haven’t necessarily dealt with very happy subjects, and this has been getting me down a bit. Now and then, I’d quite like to watch a happy film, or one that’s uplifting and ensures that I’ll have a big stupid grin on my face for at least 80% of it, and definitely at the end. After all, I’d much rather write about a film I’m passionate about, and I tend to have more to say about films that make me smile than those that make me suicidal. Praise should be aimed squarely between the shoulders of my girlfriend then, for sticking on Pixar’s gem Wall-E when I was in a decidedly cranky mood a little while ago. The aim was for me to sit down and write some posts, which to be honest I was in no mood to do after a fairly crappy day at work and having to shell out over a considerable amount of cash to fix my bike, yet as soon as the film began all thoughts of blogging and even glancing at my laptop screen were out the window.So, why do I love Wall-E? The simple answer is robots. It’ll come as no surprise to regular readers that a film featuring robots (or dinosaurs, time travel or Stephen Tobolowsky) will immediately be watched with heightened levels of glee. And the fact that it’s made by Pixar, a company that has made some of my favourite films to date, and is where I’d be willing to sell several members of my immediate family to work at, then so much the better.This is my favourite Pixar film, which is definitely saying something. I adore the Toy Story trilogy (especially, predictably, Rex), but there’s something about Wall-E‘s simplicity, its pared down scope and focus on telling a straightforward story in new, interesting, and above all, beautiful ways.

The plot is basic: in the not-too-distant future, the human race has polluted and destroyed the world so much that life has become unsustainable, and the only hope lies in the Axiom, a titanic spaceship resplendent with every luxurious convenience to fulfil any desire. Earth has been abandoned and left to the robots, who spend the next few hundred years tidying the place up. Wall-E, our intrepid hero, is the last surviving ‘bot, and he spends his days making and stacking little cubes of garbage into towering skyscrapers of trash, accompanied by his only friend, a cockroach. One day, a ship descends from the heavens, carrying EVE, a futuristic, high tech reconnaissance droid, and Wall-E is instantly smitten.

The tale of a schlubby, down-on-his-luck guy falling in love with an out-of-his-league wonder girl is hardly new, but as far as I know this is the first time it’s been told almost entirely wordlessly, and about mechanical beings. A certain amount of disbelief needs to be suspended to watch the film – the robots seem to have far more personality than they should have been implanted with in the factory – but this results in one of the most well-rounded characters in all of Pixar’s history. Wall-E (which stands for Waste Allocated Load Lifter – Earth Class, something I know from memory) has a love for all things quirky, unusual or fascinating, be it a Rubik’s cube, egg whisk or an old VHS of Hello Dolly!, and watching him investigate the functions of each item – wearing a bra like sunglasses, accidentally erupting a fire extinguisher – are a joy to behold. As are his attempts to woo the evidently disinterest EVE (whose acronym would be a spoiler). The couple’s dates are more moving and say far more than any scene of dialogue could.

It’s almost impossible to narrow the film down to my favourite scene, but I’d probably say EVE and Wall-E’s space flight. It’s nothing short of a work of art, as the two bots fly a merry courtship dance around one another, set to Thomas Newman’s beautiful score. In fact, every scene between just those two, all almost entirely devoid of dialogue, are so very easily lost in. Their relationship feels natural and real, and if anything the films is at a detriment as the plot moves away from Earth, and the story looks past our central couple.

There’s a few messages hidden not too deeply in the film – stop fucking up the Earth, grow your own food, get off your arse and exercise – but to be fair these are all fairly good messages, when compared to the standard Disney fare of wait for a handsome prince to come and rescue you. Wall-E’s messages are ones I personally agree with (“even if I don’t necessarily live by them,” he says, patting the spare tyre around his midriff) so I don’t really mind such unsubtle preaching in a film, especially one as entertaining as this.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’d have loved nothing more than to have been part of the character design team on this film. Wall-E himself has been so carefully thought out with regard to how he works and fits together. I may have appreciated this more than most, being a mechanical engineer by trade, but I think everyone should be impressed by the level of detail. Apparently the design team at Pixar meticulously analysed various machines, working out which ones were ‘male’ and which were ‘female’, and what characteristics defined these genders. Wall-E has clearly been inspired by more clunkier, mechanical machinery, as seen in factories and assembly lines, whilst the sleek, white plastic of EVE is straight out of an Apple store.

As you’ve probably realised, I love this film. The Wall-E poster, a giant pair of his eyes looking inquisitively out of the frame, justifiably hangs in in my lounge, yet I think it almost qualifies as one of the ‘other’ Pixar films that isn’t about toys, fish or superheroes. From the small details – sci-fi queen Sigourney Weaver voicing the Axiom’s tannoy – to the fully realised plot and the brilliance of casting Ben Burtt, the voice of R2D2, as Wall-E, I cannot fault this film in the least, and nor would I want to. And I’d still be trying to get Randy Newman’s closing credits song out of my head if it wasn’t so bloody good.

Choose film 10/10

Unlisted: The Cabin in the Woods

Five college kids head for a vacation in a deserted shack (or cabin) in a remote forest (or woods), with no-one around for miles and a very creepy basement. So far, so Evil Dead. Or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or… well, you get the point, but the fact this is written and produced by Joss Whedon, and co-written and directed by Drew Goddard, one of the men behind Lost, should tell you that this is no ordinary textbook horror.
The recent years have seen the horror genre be evaluated, analysed and turned on its head, with the likes of Wes Craven’s Scream franchise and Tucker and Dale Vs Evil, and also imbued with a greater sense of comedy, for example Shaun of the Dead and Severance, to name two prime British examples. Cabin in the Woods takes these films and goes much further, leaving you rethinking every slasher movie you’ve ever seen.
I’m going to do my best to not reveal spoilers here, but if you’re trying to avoid them then chances are you probably aren’t reading this. The trailers have been criticised for perhaps showing more plot than is strictly necessary, revealing that there is more to this cabin than meets the eye, but I personally feel this is essential for the trailer (though it could have been hinted at more subtly) else the only trade the film would have made would be from the slasher fans willing to pay to see them at the cinema, of which I most certainly am not. My only trailer annoyance was the use of a scene or two from the third act that, though I’d only seen the trailers once, still stuck with me and left me waiting for them, over-thinking the plot as I went.
The performances are all wonderful, particularly practically unknown Tim De Zarn as the token redneck doomsayer the kids encounter on their way, and there’s some casting coups for fellow Whedon-ites in Dollhouse’s Amy Acker and Fran Kranz (whose Topher Brink is, occasional Firefly cameo aside, the best thing about Dollhouse) as well as Chris Hemsworth, Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins.
I have very few faults with the movie. One came because I’m a film nerd, and caught the signposted closing cameo from a recognisable voice, and the third act feels a little off the rails at times, but in an exhilarating, thoroughly entertaining way, although I did question why exactly that big red button was there. I look forward to pouring through the features when it’s released on DVD, and it’s the first film in a while that I’m actually considering going to the cinema and watching again. Go see this film, it’s truly wonderful, especially if you’ve ever seen a film with a cabin and some woods, and chances are you have.
Choose film 9/10

The Ice Storm

Joan Allen’s Elena has been married to Kevin Kline’s Ben for 17 years. Ben is sleeping with Sigourney Weaver’s Jane, who is married to James Sheridan’s Jim. Jim and Jane have two sons, the creepy pyromaniac Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd) and Elijah Wood’s more normal Mikey, who is sort-of dating Elena and Ben’s genitalia obsessed daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) who, it transpires, is also the object of Sandy’s affections. Meanwhile, Wendy’s virginal brother Paul (Tobey Maguire) is desperately in love with his college classmate Libbets (Katie Holmes), and vies for her attentions with his much more confident roommate Francis (David Krumholtz). This ridiculously fractured love-dodecahedron forms the plot of this multi-stranded slow-boiler from Ang Lee, director of Brokeback Mountain and Hulk. Both sides of him are shown here, from his delicate handling of love stories to Maguire’s Paul discussing the depths of the Fantastic Four, and he ably handles all the aspects of the plot. There are many similarities with Todd Solondz’ Happiness, most notably the stellar ensemble cast and hard to watch yet easier to recognise situations the characters find themselves in. The film takes place over a relatively short period of time, with all the aforementioned relationships coming to a head during the particularly heavy ice storm of the title, with consequences both small and disastrous, yet a sense of humour is retained throughout, particularly during the swinging party.
Choose film 7/10

Avatar

So, you’ve created a new way to make films; filling a large indoor space (dubbed The Volume) with cameras, covering your actors’ bodies with hundreds of motion capturing dots, films a scene then changing the actors to aliens and the warehouse to a jungle afterward on a computer, but you can’t think of a decent story to set it round. So what do you do? If you’re James Cameron, director of such cinematic milestones as Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens and Titanic, then you steal. From everything. There isn’t an original moment in Avatar, with Platoon, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Halo, Cameron’s own Aliens and, most notably, Dances with Wolves all receiving enough ‘loving homage’ to keep copyright lawyers in business for years to come. In the hands of a lesser director, or without the shiny new technology and 3D CGI gimmickry available this film would have been lost amid the also-ran film flotilla of 2009, but effects overcame plotting to elevate the film above its rightful place.
Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a US marine (with Worthington’s trademark unshakeable Australian accent) paralysed from the waist down, who volunteers to take the place of his recently deceased scientist brother in a mission to infiltrate the alien race of the Na’vi, 9ft tall lanky blue cat people with 4ft long rope-like tails and long black ponytails with USBs on the end. Jake is able to control a scientifically grown ‘avatar’ that responds to his body when wired up in a big plastic pod.
The maguffin of the plot is that the Na’vi live in a giant tree, under which is a vast source of a precious fuel known as unobtainium. You get the feeling they were supposed to rename that at some point but forgot, or Cameron came up with it and no-one had the guts to tell him it sounded stupid. Stephen Lang’s scarred Colonel Quaritch and Giovanni Ribisi’s corporate suit Parker want Jake to get the aliens to move, whilst Sigourney Weaver’s scientist and fellow avatar occupier Dr. Grace Augustine wants to learn more about the Na’vi way of life. When Jake is accepted into the alien tribe, he is torn between these two warring factions, as well as his own developing feelings for tribe member Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and a simpler way of life that greatly appeals to him.
Breaking us into the sci-fi world gently, first showing us men, soldiers, scientists, then the avatars floating in their booths, 3D holograms and a few active avatars, we are then transplanted to the fully realised, completely created yet seamless and immersive fantasy world of Na’vi home planet Pandora, with vibrant, unusually active foliage and a wide variety of lifeforms perhaps a little too familiar to be believable as entirely alien. With 6-limbed bat-lemurs, giant hammerhead rhinos, vicious panther/dilophosaurus, wild oil-black dogs, helicopter lizards and of course giant freaking dragons, it’s not just the Earth film back catalogue from which Cameron has borrowed.
There was uproar when Saldana’s Neytiri wasn’t considered for an Oscar due to it being hidden behind a computer generated mask (yet Al Pacino was nominated for his latex-obscured turn in Dick Tracy, and John Hurt won for his in the Elephant Man), but there is no doubt she should have been considered for her fiery, animalistic turn as the fierce warrioress, her initial aggression towards Jake’s ‘dreamwalker’ gradually melting to pride, friendship and affection, ultimately leading to some freaky blue alien sex that was traumatising and completely unnecessary. As ever Worthington puts in a blank canvas of a role, although this is arguably what is required of his jarhead moron, leaving him ready to be imprinted upon by Quaritch, Augustine of Neytiri.
For those concerned with a new spin on Titanic’s across the tracks romance dominating the film fear not, as there is more than just romance breaking through language barriers and a less-than-subtle environmental message. The final half hour battle between the soldiers and the Na’vi, including aerial assaults and a reversal of Aliens’ giant mech battle, rivals any war film, and is worth the entry fee alone. Be sure to stop watching before Leona Lewis’ ear-gougingly awful credits song though.
Choose film 6/10

Annie Hall

Woody Allen famously has a tendency to write himself into most, if not all, of his scripts. It is usually difficult to distinguish where Allen ends and his characters begin, and this is none more so than with Alvy Singer, Allen’s neurotic obsessive from this, arguably his greatest and funniest film. It is this ability to use himself, or at least a variation of himself, as his protagonist that has allowed Allen to create such a well rounded, nuanced persona. One wonders if he hasn’t been living life as this character since birth, honing the pessimism, the paranoia and awkwardness, so now all he needs to do is put the ‘character’ into a slightly heightened situation, and a natural comedy will emerge.
Not that character is the only weaponry in Allen’s arsenal. The script is hysterical yet droll enough to quote in everyday life (“we can walk to the curb from here”), the performances perfect, particularly Diane Keaton as the eponymous Hall, both Singer’s ideal partner and greatest foe, and the film is peppered with fourth wall breaking with moments of originality, from a narration that admits it may be exaggerating to direct-to-camera conversations and asides.
Thee almost sketch-like format of the film, flitting backwards and forwards in Hall and Singer’s relationship, suits Allen well, as he is a filmmaker of varying styles and techniques, so he is able to showcase this without jarring the rest of the film, such as when he used split-screen to compare different family meals, or stopping random people in the street for relationship advice.
Oh, and the woman waiting with Singer at the end of the film, out of focus and silent in the distance for a matter of seconds? None other than Sigourney Weaver.
Choose film 8/10

Alien

One of my favourite movie subgenres is the limited cast, limited locations films, where, for whatever reason, only a handful of characters are involved, and are confined to a small number, preferably one or two, of areas. This is best seen in 12 Angry Men, as previously discussed, where the principle cast are the 12 jurors on a case, and the principle sets are the jury room and its adjacent restroom. Similarly, Alien sees the seven crew members of the mining spaceship Nostromo largely confined to the ship and a planet it docks at in response to a distress signal. Things take a turn for the worse when, upon docking, the ship picks up an alien lifeform (later known as a Xenomorph), whose main ambition in life seems to be removing it from other creatures.
The film shows an interesting depiction of the future far removed from the more utopian worlds of more classic science fiction. Here, men seem to have retained dominance (shown by the exclusion of women from any decision making), and where class separation is still rife (the two engineers, Parker and Brett, are paid half as much as everyone else on board). The ship’s design is a far cry from the gleaming visuals of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Nostromo is, after all, a mining craft, so the ship’s functional, mechanical nature is only to be expected, although the overly futuristic sleeping pods do jar with the rest of the ship.
Aside from the infamous ‘chestburster’ scene (of which you can now by lifesize plush toys!), I couldn’t remember most of the film, although in my memory it does tend to blend with the other films from the franchise, as my only previous viewing was in marathon format. That said, there is much that sticks in the mind now, from Hurt’s descent into the alien nest, littered with giant eggs covered in a mysterious fog, or Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) seeing off an 8 ft alien with molecular acid for blood and far too many sets of teeth dressed only in vest and knickers (Ripley’s wearing the knickers, not the alien).
Having seen many survival films, where the cast is slowly whittled down one by one until the final confrontation, I noticed that with Alien it is not immediately obvious who the main character, and therefore the final survivor, is. Most of the characters are given fairly equal screen time, characterisation and dialogue, so it is not until the numbers start to dwindle that it is clear Ripley is the heroine, as earlier in the film she seemed to be the more heartless, professional crewmember, condemning Hurt’s Kane to death by refusing him entry onto the ship without a proper scan. That being said, she does become stupid later on, stopping to put two suffering crewmembers out of their misery minutes before the entire ship, them included, will be blown up (I’ve never understood this, why do ships have self-destruct mechanisms? Were they expecting an alien lifeform to come aboard, and the only way to kill it would be to blow the whole ship up? If so, surely some other defence mechanisms could be implemented instead?), and then she goes back for the cat, kept on board purely to jump out at random moments to scare the bejesus out of anyone in the vicinity.
Choose film 9/10