Ghostbusters (2016)

★★★

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Ghostbusters PosterDirector: Paul Feig

Release Date: July 11th, 2016 (UK); July 15th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Fantasy; Science fiction

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon

You might use the term “whipping boy” to describe someone who is unfairly or unevenly hammered for the flaws of someone or something else. That political leader who bears the brunt of the blame for a vote gone awry. The footballer whose defensive error gives away the second goal in a 5-0 defeat. You get where this is going. Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters has been, for quite some time now, cinema’s highest-profile whipping girl. And for what? Because it’s a reboot of a cult classic? See Jurassic World. Because it’s the product of a big studio using an established brand to cultivate cash? See just about every summer blockbuster for the past decade. Or because it subs four leading men for four leading women? Ah. Bingo.

Well the four women are funny and, shock-horror, the film is funny too. It’s also in the same ballpark quality-wise as its predecessor, a movie apparently moulded in the hands of God himself (of course God is a guy, pfft). Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters was a fun flick with charismatic players and a popcorn plot. A lot like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, in fact. Neither is worth the buzz that surrounds it: Reitman’s Ghostbusters is far from the greatest comedy of 1980s, let alone all time, and Feig’s effort is far from the end of masculinity, let alone cinema.

This incarnation follows Erin Gilbert, Abby Yates, Jillian Holtzmann, and Patty Tolan — Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones — an academic, two scientific minds, and a general knowledge buff who collectively band together to defend the streets of New York City from insurgent ghosts. The ghosts’ sudden arrival has everything to do with spiritmonger Rowan North (Neil Casey), whose barmy devices pave a paranormal path to the real world. Though that hardly matters. What matters is the re-establishment of the ghostbusters, that they are legitimised both within and outwith the narrative, and that we get some laughs along the way.

And there are some laughs, often at the expense of the male characters in the piece. Chris Hemsworth, for instance, plays a dumb blonde receptionist, a role that has historically been reserved for the token female in big budget cinema. Spoiler alert: Bill Murray shows up as the film’s biggest sceptic. He doesn’t believe in ghosts, and by proxy, he doesn’t believe in these ghostbusting women. Even the male tour guide we see at the beginning is utterly afraid of bumps in the night, so much so that he has one of those juvenile ‘accidents’. I can’t recall one strong male character, and guess what? That’s sort of the point. That is the joke. The film does not set out to demonise men (#notallmen) but rather to pithily tear down the cultural and filmic stereotypes prevalent in cinema.

You could argue this approach is overplayed and that it perhaps gets in the way of other would-be satirical adages. For example, the ghostbusters find themselves not only battling their paranormal opposites, but also the non-believers. YouTube trolls bear the brunt of a quip or two: “Ain’t no bitches gon’ hunt no ghosts,” reads one comment. And still, they do. Maybe co-writers Katie Dippold and Feig’s stereotype-smashing could have even gone a tad further, but this is standard comedy fare after all. Besides, Hemsworth’s dopey Kevin — the longest-running and most vociferous of the stereotype gags — is worth his screen time. He wears glasses without frames and has a cat called Mike Hat (phonetics). Hemsworth plays the idiocy straight; Kevin is a cardboard cutout coloured with heightened irony, and it works as well as any other strand of amusement.

The remaining amusement is served up by our key quartet. You initially pin Wiig as the reluctant one of the group, her attire academic and her exterior distant, but that reluctance quickly evaporates. Wiig, perennially brilliant at being awkward and standoffish, gets to be awkward and standoffish before gelling with the gang. That Gilbert so suddenly abandons her academia in favour of beliefs she has repressed for many years does suggest a sense of rushed characterisation, but it at least affords Wiig the opportunity to exercise her versatility. Speaking of gelling with the gang, Jones’ Patty is treated as an equal instantly — it hardly matters that she has no scientific experience, only that she has valid local knowledge and a desire to rid the city of ghosts. Crucially, the performers season a believable camaraderie.

The action is run-of-the-mill. The visuals, expectedly lively (it all goes a bit weird during a Godzilla meets Avengers final act, particularly when Feig invokes 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Shapiro’s score is fun and bombastic and nods admiringly towards its predecessor. And the costume design matches that bombast, effectively reflecting the variable personalities of our four leads — especially the goggles-wearing Holtzmann, McKinnon’s wide eyes purveying excited madness. The story itself isn’t especially laudable, a criticism that has been thrown at many a recent franchise reboot. In a lot of ways Ghostbusters is vintage Feig, cultivating a light atmosphere with steady technical facets and the occasional barb. It is not as volatile as Bridesmaids, and thus not as good, emphasised by McCarthy’s less-brazen approach.

But Ghostbusters is fine. It’s a solid reboot, not narratively groundbreaking but funny enough (listen out for a terrific Jaws gag). It isn’t mistake-free: for whatever reason, there is a disorienting Ozzy Osbourne cameo and the human villain is a barely-realised two-dimensional prospect. However, Feig’s Ghostbusters is not going to taint whatever legacy the original has mustered, but will instead encourage a new generation of fans. It’s frothy, not vindictive. It’s another big studio reboot in an era of big studio reboots that people will either love or hate, and as they decide the world will keep spinning. Relax.

Ghostbusters - Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon & Leslie Jones

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

★★★★

Avengers Age of Ultron PosterDirector: Joss Whedon

Release Date: April 23rd, 2015 (UK); May 1st, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo

When Marvel rolls into town, you can absolutely expect two things: sarcastic humour and blistering action. The first phase of Kevin Feige’s super-cinema initiative had both of these in abundance. Iron Man brought the wit, Thor the hoopla and while Hulk mainly sulked, Captain America struck a balance between fun and funny. Phase Two, especially since The Winter Soldier, has provided something even more. Sure, those characteristics are still plentiful but now that the franchise’s myriad of characters have had time to flex their muscles — or branches — storytelling has the stage.

In a way, Avengers: Age of Ultron is the perfect amalgamation of everything MCU-related up until now. It is formulaic in the sense that you know the narrative structure before the lights go down: early energetic sequences designed to engross, a meatier, more reserved middle section, and finally a ball-busting finale. That’s not just superhero cinema, that’s action cinema. The antithesis of formulaic, however, is how director Joss Whedon almost manages to divulge equal spotlight to the most star-studded cast on the silver screen.

We re-rendezvous with the Spandexed Six during a battle in the frosty forests of Eastern Europe, where ardent anti-swearer Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) is calling the shots. The raid is a success, thankfully, with the Avengers managing to obtain Loki’s sceptre. It’s an opening scene worthy of closing many a superhero jaunt, packed with effervescent camera work and some fist-pumping teamwork: Cap and Thor’s shield-hammer double team manoeuvre is a particular highlight. The Asgardian receives the least amount of screen time, certainly it feels that way, which is a shame as Chris Hemsworth’s gallant personification has become a wholesome source of entertainment.

As it turns out, Loki’s magic stick is the final piece Tony Stark needs to initiate his Ultron program, a system designed to defend the world from extraterrestrial threat. Stark’s unfiltered approach, driven by his insistence on protecting others and living up to expectations, ends in disaster when the artificially intelligent Ultron (James Spader) embarks on a violent purge of humankind.

The film fragments its characters when they’re not in the process of resisting their machine-bodied, prescient enemy. Hawkeye finally gets his chance to shine as a result, and Jeremy Renner hits the mark when it comes to emotional beats and wry comedy. A scene towards the end is one of the funniest of the entire franchise, this down as much to the actor as the writing. It pits Hawkeye, bow in hand, directing murmured threats towards a companion (“Nobody would know”). Nobody would.

The bowman has largely been ignored up until this point because he is just that, a supremely skilled man with bow. By inconspicuously embracing this notion, Whedon and company essentially break the third wall. Under the guidance of many others, playing the ‘normal guy challenging adversity’ card might have come across as cheesy and cheap, but Renner’s earnestness encourages us to believe in the character.

Draped in American patriotism and outdated chivalry, Captain America once could have flailed in the same situation — embodying an unrealistic symbol of humanity. Fortunately, since his initiation back in 2011 Chris Evans has injected palpable authenticity into Cap, and here we watch Evans evolve into a true leader with stature and assuredness. Even the egotistic Stark quips, “Actually, he’s the boss”. The piece is littered with Civil War previews built upon the duo’s clashing ideologies, paving the way for another Captain America instalment currently brimming with potential.

Age of Ultron, despite the customary destructiveness, is actually at its most compelling when it hones in on the people involved. It’s basically a quarter of a billion dollar psych evaluation, with relationships tightened or, as above, hollowed. Mark Ruffalo maintains his best-Hulk-yet aura, often sharing solid romantic screen time with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are the latest lover-to-sibling converts, following on from Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The Godzilla co-stars play Wanda and Pietro Maximoff respectively, both welcome additions despite some shaky accent work.

As the main villain, James Spader has stumbled into an almost impossible task. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki managed to eclipse convention by being devious and charismatic in equal measure. Computer generated Ultron is a bad entity, plain and simple, and Spader’s croaky voice is packed full of calm menace, which works really well. But comparison, perhaps unfairly so, is inevitable and the character isn’t as enticing on screen as Loki.

The main problem abound throughout Age of Ultron is a familiar one: in handling so many characters, Whedon must oversee the lighting of touchpaper for multiple story arcs. You can feel the film seeping at the seams on occasion, with so much being rammed into such a short window (though, ironically, two and a half hours is normally an overindulgent runtime). Resultantly, some of the goings-on are left underfed. Hot off heels of Alex Garland’s probing science-fiction parable Ex Machina, the AI story told between Ultron and the Vision here isn’t quite as fascinating as recent evidence suggests it could have been.

Not consigned to resting on its opening sequence laurels, the piece ups the ante even more during a blistering, if somewhat disorienting, conclusion. You do get the sense that the stakes are shuffling their way up a notch the longer the clash between our Avengers and Ultron’s robot army goes on. By the time Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman’s booming score coalesces with Ben Davis’ now signature circular shot, goosebumps are flourishing. We’ve seen it before, and yet it carries no less weight this time around.

This is a Marvel film first and foremost, and a properly pulsating one at that. We live in a cynical world when it comes to big budget blockbuster movies, and at $300 million this is a very big budget blockbuster movie. But it’s one that doesn’t discriminate against proper storytelling and intelligent character development in favour of the extra exploding vehicle. Prompted by a build-up where hype levels usurped dollar bills, Age of Ultron matches expectations — at least, for my money.

Avengers Age of Ultron - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

★★★★

Director: Alan Taylor

Release Date: October 30th, 2013 (UK); November 8th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman

After Iron Man 3’s failure to ignite Marvel: Phase Two into top gear, Thor: The Dark World signals a brisk return to form for the franchise king as the film quenches any Mandarin-shaped spectres. Regardless of a few questionable plot elements, the second instalment of Thor brims with fun and is the epitome of rip-roaring cinematic entertainment, perhaps even bettering much of Marvel’s pre-Avengers universe.

With the impending arrival of the evil Alien-inspired Dark Elves — led by an utterly unrecognisable Christopher Eccleston — Chris Hemsworth’s Asgardian hero Thor must put aside much of the loathing he is entrenched in and team with his imprisoned brother Loki in order to save the Nine Realms.

Tom Hiddleston returns as the devious Loki and is a joy to watch when he is present on screen (which is certainly not enough) in another scene-stealing performance. There is a slight shift in the central relationship this time round: from the son of Odin and his mortal love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), to the natural-yet-severed dynamic between the brothers, and this certainly amps up the tension. Portman doesn’t have as much to do this time around and, much like Thor in the previous film, finds herself in unusual surroundings. The novelty of seeing Foster wander around Asgard doesn’t quite reach the same level of playfulness as bearing witness to the God of Thunder eating breakfast in a New Mexico diner.

The film simultaneously manages to be darker, wittier and more enjoyable as it rises above the satisfying level set by that of its predecessor. Director Alan Taylor takes a slightly different approach than Thor’s (2011) Kenneth Branagh, as he powers every nuance of the film with Mjolner and tongs. Taylor, who has recently worked on the hit television series Game of Thrones, delves into the fantasy world even more with encapsulating Lord of the Rings-esque costumes and landscapes aplenty. Stir in Brian Tyler’s grandiose score — which haunts as much as it packs a punch — and you’ve got the perfect concoction of post-Middle Earth entertainment.

Even the very occasional influx of sap quickly evaporates by way of some creepy imagery and a brooding underlying tone which was missing previously. Genuine danger manifests around the Dark Elves spearheaded by Eccleston’s Malekith — the villain’s name boasts a snake-like quality as it slithers off the tongue.

Proceedings threaten to boil over into mind-boggling territory come the final showdown, but a frantic pace and exhilarating action mesh together successfully as a means of retaining the audience’s attention.

The direction of Thor: The Dark World is set early on as action engulfs events (“Is that why everything is on fire?”) and by the time the realm-interchanging plot starts to confuse a little, the aesthetically supreme film has already delivered in pure enjoyment.