Remembering “Ghostbusters”

Ghostbusters logo pic

The 1980s was a very interesting decade in terms of popular culture. It played host to a whole new wave of music as well as a big boom of highly profitable movie and television franchises such as Back To The Future, Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Franchises like these were so successful that many of them are still being capitalized on today (in case you hadn’t noticed). The 80s also gave us a little flick called Ghostbusters, a highly entertaining comedy about a trio of misfit scientists who start a ghost-catching business. I bring this film up because there’s been a lot of talk recently about rebooting this franchise in some way or another. While miracles can happen, I’m not too sure what good could really come from this as I really think that the original film is a classic and doesn’t need to be revisited over and over. With that said, I thought I’d take a look back at the original and remind people why it’s considered to be one of the greatest comedies ever made.

So let’s start with the obligatory summary of the plot, which is ingeniously quirky. We’re introduced to three parapsychologists, Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stanz (Dan Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). Peter is an overconfident womanizer who takes nothing seriously and relies heavily on the other two, Ray is highly intelligent but far too overzealous, and Egon is a quiet and socially awkward super-genius. Shortly after their first encounter with a ghost at a public library, the three find themselves jobless and penniless due to their university grant being terminated by a disgruntled dean. At the suggestion of Peter, they decide to go into business for themselves as specialist paranormal investigators/eliminators and Ray is convinced to sell his old family home in order to provide funding. Things are slow at first, but after successfully capturing and containing their first “full roaming vapor” using the proton packs developed by Ray and Egon, the Ghostbusters become citywide celebrities. From there they are joined by Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), an average Joe looking for a job who knows nothing of the supernatural, and are tasked with saving the city and Peter’s love interest Dana Barrett from the clutches of the evil demigod Gozer. And as you can imagine, hilarity ensues.

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Blending supernatural elements with comedy wasn’t really anything new when Ghostbusters hit the screens back in 1984, as it had been done previously in films such as Spook Busters (1946). What makes the concept work really well here though is that the comedy element is mixed with moments of genuine terror. A prime example would be the scene in which character Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) is dragged by a demon armchair into the paws of the terror dog Zuul. The contrast provided by these scarier moments make the comedic moments even more enjoyable and adds to the overall experience. I believe we can thank Ivan Reitman and his stellar directing for that.

The film is very well written, with the narrative structure and pacing being kept very tight throughout and the characters being very well conceived. Although in my opinion it’s the performances and chemistry of the cast that really provides the comedic spark. The three main actors are all terrific comedic performers in their own right and as a team they work off each other brilliantly. On top of that, this film produces more hilarious and quotable one-liners than most comedies I can think of, one of my personal favourites being Peter Venkman’s line: “back off man, I’m a scientist”. While the movie showcases many top of the class comedians of the time, including Aykroyd, Ramis and Rick Moranis, the star of the show is without a doubt Bill Murray. Without his dry, deadpan performance I don’t think the film would be quite as good as it is. His reactions towards the ridiculous situations he’s placed in are just priceless; only Murray could make a line like “he slimed me” sound so pitch-perfect.

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The only thing as good as the acting is arguably the soundtrack, containing an effective mixture of eerie/dramatic orchestral music and lighthearted/jaunty stuff. And I don’t think I need to remind anyone of how awesome and unforgettable the main theme song is (so unforgettable you’ll never get it out of your head!). If any of us weren’t sure who we were gonna call, Ray Parker Jr. certainly cleared that up.

So is there anything bad about the film? Well, a lot of the special effects seem rather dated by today’s standards… but that’s perfectly understandable as it is 1984 we’re talking about here. Aside from that there is only one real problem I have with it: I don’t really see the purpose of Ernie Hudson’s character Winston. I get that he’s meant to be the “everyman” character that the audience can identify with more than the others, but in my eyes he doesn’t really do much. He’s introduced about half way through, we’re told nothing about his backstory, he’s given a few funny lines and he helps out in the climax, but apart from that there doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to be there. I’m certainly not knocking Ernie Hudson’s acting; he’s the king of cool, but I personally would like to have seen more of him throughout the film.

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Finally, I would like to say that any criticisms I have of Ghostbusters are all nitpicks and don’t come close to spoiling what is an incredibly well conceived, written, acted and directed comedy. I actually think many comedies today could learn a thing or two from it. I’m sure you’ve all seen it, but if you haven’t, get on it!

Posted by Frank Short

Remembering “Mrs. Doubtfire”

Robin Williams In 'Mrs. Doubtfire'

Ah Robin Williams. Will we ever forget him? Not likely. He gave so much joy to the world that sadly it seems he didn’t have any left for himself. But I didn’t start writing this post with the intention of being morbid. I intend to talk about a little film of his that I re-watched the other night called Mrs. Doubtfire. It was never one of my favourite films that I would watch over and over again, as I’m sure it was for many people, but I do remember it being a pretty big part of popular culture as I was growing up in the 90s (and incidentally it was released the very same year I was born). While there is no denying the film’s popularity and legacy, I’d like to give my own personal thoughts on how well it holds up.

The “drag queen” comedy, in which a male actor masquerades as a woman for comedic effect, has now been done many times in films like Big Momma’s House, White Chicks and Jack and Jill. The Chris Columbus directed Mrs. Doubtfire arguably started this trend, and I personally think the novelty wore off almost immediately. However, while I don’t find Adam Sandler in drag to be remotely entertaining, that is not the case with Robin Williams; I find him funny, believable and strangely charming as the eponymous character. I have no doubt that this is down to just how darn good an actor he was. He imitates the voice, personality and mannerisms of an old British woman almost flawlessly and it is his performance that brings life to what would otherwise most likely be a sub-par comedy.

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The film follows Daniel Hillard, an out of work voice actor whose irresponsible attitude soon leads to him getting divorced and separated from his three children Lydia, Chris and Natalie. Unable to bear the thought of only seeing his kids once a week, Hillard uses his skills as an impressionist to answer an ad placed by his wife Miranda (Sally Field) seeking a housekeeper/babysitter. With the help of his makeup artist brother Frank, Daniel takes on the role of sweet old house-lady “Mrs. Doubtfire”. After being hired by Miranda, he attempts to rebuild his relationship with his family while also trying to sabotage Miranda’s blossoming romance with the handsome Stu Dunmeyer (Pierce Brosnan). And naturally, hilarity ensues.

In terms of character, Daniel/Mrs. Doubtfire is of course the most enjoyable and the most fully developed, but the supporting characters aren’t too bad. Miranda can be unlikable at times but is always at least somewhat understandable in her actions. A working mother coming home to find that her husband has allowed the house to be trashed and attracted the police? Yeah, we can all see why she’d be a bit irritable. We do get to know her warmer side as the story progresses and Sally Field is a great actress as always. Pierce Brosnan’s character Stu also has both his unlikable and likeable traits, as while his distaste towards Daniel is made clear he does seem to genuinely care about Lydia, Chris and Natalie. However, at the end of the day he is still essentially Pierce Brosnan. The children themselves are fairly cute and charming, although they aren’t given an awful lot of development. We get a sense of their relationship with Daniel but we don’t find out much about them personally; we know that Natalie likes storybooks and that’s about it. Even though delving into subplots involving them would probably have distracted too much from the main story, it wouldn’t have hurt for us to know more about who they are so we can better identify with them.

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The story is reasonably well structured, although if I had one major complaint it would be that I think the film drags on slightly towards the end. The restaurant scene in which Daniel is switching back and forth between identities gets a tad exhausting. I do understand that the situation is a comedic setup and gives Daniel a problem to overcome; I just think it takes its time too much. As for the comedy, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The comedy that does work mostly comes from Williams’ charisma in the title role; lines like “broke by bag the b***ard” and “it was a run-by fruiting” are just unforgettable. Scenes in which comedy is derived from Daniel trying to be both identities at once don’t personally do much for me, but my tastes tend to be more off the wall than other people’s.

For all the film’s strengths and weaknesses, I believe the overall message it tries to convey to be well handled and relevant, if slightly over-sentimentalised. As I’ve mentioned previously however, it is dear old Robin that makes it as he delivers one of his many memorable performances that will likely be enjoyed for years to come.

Posted by Frank Short

“Kingsman”: Gratuitous Or Masterful?

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(Warning: this review contains some spoilers)

I saw the new film Kingsman: The Secret Service at the cinema recently and walked out with somewhat mixed opinions. Part of me liked it, part of me didn’t. So I thought: you know what? I’m going to channel my conflicted thoughts and write a well-balanced review.

The film has been described as James Bond meets Kick Ass… and yes, that is more or less on the money. So what is it all about? Well it stars Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson and tells the story of a secret organisation of spies operating beneath a Tailors shop. Taron Egerton plays Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, a youth on a path to self destruction who encounters Harry Hart (Firth), a suave gentleman who turns out be a high ranking member of the spy organization known as “the Kingsmen”. After learning that his late father was a Kingsman, Eggsy is persuaded by Harry to unlock his full potential by training to become a Kingsman himself. He is then forced to go head to head with Richmond Valentine (Jackson), a maniacal Internet billionaire, and his deadly assassin Gazelle (Sofia Boutella)  as they hatch an elaborate and diabolical plot to cull the majority of Earth’s human population.

When I summarize it like that it sounds pretty much like every other spy/thriller movie you’ve ever seen doesn’t it? Well… not quite. On the surface, it’s a story format we’ve seen a million times; the coming of age story about a young hero trying to follow in his father’s footsteps while being mentored by one of his father’s close friends who feels a degree of responsibility towards him. We’ve seen that in Star Wars and many other films. However, the content of this film tries to add a bit more of a kick (literally). There are quite a few jolting moments and action that will definitely keep your blood pumping. There are also moments in which the film attempts to defy cinematic conventions in a somewhat self-aware manner, which some may view as merely gimmicky but others may find fresh and exciting.

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The film derives much strength from its enjoyable characters. The sheer contrast of Eggsy’s rough and, for lack of a better term, “chavvy” personality mixed with the suave, James Bond style demeanor he is forced to adopt makes him an entertaining lead protagonist. He is developed quite well and there is not a lot of focus given to his romantic subplot, which I found refreshing. Taron Egerton gives a good performance to boot. The show stealers however are Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson, who both seem to have a lot of fun in their respective roles. I think what really makes them shine is the fact that the characters they play in this film are quite different in style to what they would normally play. Seeing Colin Firth swiftly beat up a gang of roughians in martial arts fashion is such a spectacle that it’s hard not to appreciate it, yet he still manages to maintain his trademark charm and cool-headedness. Likewise, Samuel L. Jackson’s take on a geeky Internet billionaire/super villain with a lisp is brilliantly quirky. Eggsy’s fellow Kingsman trainees are generally less interesting characters, with the exception of Roxy, but the film doesn’t devote too much time to them. Mark Strong gives a solid performance as the Kingsmen’s tech genius Merlin and as for Michael Caine’s character Arthur, while the actor commands a strong presence as always I can’t help but feel that he was under-utilised.

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The action sequences are very kinetic and exciting to watch, however my main issue with the film comes from the sheer level of violence and death. The problem for me started during a scene in which [SPOILER ALERT] Firth’s character Harry ruthlessly slaughters an entire Church congregation. Granted, Harry wasn’t actually in conscious control of his actions thanks to Valentine’s mind warping technique, but as the sequence went on (and it is rather lengthy) I reached a point where I thought to myself… this is a tad excessive. The level of violence is similar to that of Kick Ass, a film I enjoyed greatly. In Kick-Ass however, the context that the violence is placed in enables it to come across as satirical, which I can accept. Kingsman didn’t quite do that for me; it came across as more gratuitous. I may be overthinking it, but the morbidity sucked some of the fun out of the whole affair in my eyes and left a bad taste in my mouth. Saying that however, I still enjoyed the movie as a whole. In addition to the good characters, the story is well paced and it has some decent comedy.

To wrap up, there are three aspects that make this film worth seeing in my opinion: the visual style, the comically over-the-top action sequences and the performances delivered by the main cast, particularly Firth and Jackson. The violence may put some people off but overall I would say that Kingsman: The Secret Service is quite a fun-filled ride. Please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments.

Posted by Frank Short