Friday, July 15, 2016

New ‘Ghostbusters’ is outright fun comedy-horror, just as good as 1984 original

By Steve Crum
Regarding the new Ghostbusters, let us cut to the proverbial chase. It is a re-imagined work for sure, but that does not make this female-driven comedy-horror movie any less hilarious, special effects laden, and outright fun. There are enough plot variations and new inclusions to satisfy diehard fans of the original franchise. And it even pays satisfyingly clever homage to the original cast via cameos that perfectly work into the plot. I like 1984’s Ghostbusters, and I like 2016’s Ghostbusters. Both are very watchable and rewatchable. 
Be aware that this is not a sequel to the original movie, even though some of the old cast members do appear in this new take. However, they do not portray their original characters. For example, Dan Akyroyd is a cab driver here.
That said, it is impossible to review the new Ghostbusters without referencing the old. TV’s comedy bastion, Saturday Night Live, once again supplies a goodly amount of the starring talent: Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones (2016) and Dan Akyroyd and Bill Murray in ’84. Melissa McCarthy, who has guest hosted SNL, joins the new cast. 
As in the original, each actor brings individual comic stylings. For example, McCarthy is known for her slapstick physical bits, and she gets slammed around pretty well here. McKinnon (my favorite of the current SNL cast) is a master of in-your-face goofiness. Jones speaks her funny mind loudly and becomes as courageous as her teammates. Wiig, an SNL alumnus, plays it low key, getting laughs out of her subtlety and attempt at staying rational.  The chemistry between Aykroyd, Murray, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson jelled well 32 years ago, and a balanced blend succeeds with the new cast. (Look fast for a mini-tribute to the late Harold Ramis.) 
While not a duplicate of the original, the plot loosely follows the same template.  Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are old friends and parapsychology co-workers who reunite years after co-writing a book that claims paranormal activity (ie ghosts) is a reality. Dr. Erin Gilbert (Wiig) is now a respected teacher at Columbia University, while Dr. Abby Yates (McCarthy) is still carrying on experimentation with the paranormal. She now has a new assistant, Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Yates republishes the book, resulting in Gilbert losing her job. Through a series of circumstances, the co-authors reunite to explore paranormal occurrences in New York City. It is not long (following a ghastly encounter) before MTA worker Patty Tolan (Jones) joins the crew. 
There you have it. The ghosts are for real, and the ghost hunting business flourishes. The spooks are being triggered by the demented Rowan North (Neil Casey), who wants to lead a ghost army to destroy civilization. When the spirits arrive in full force, expect colorful, spectacular CGI effects. Seeing this in 3D will treat you to being slimed right in your face by several creepy creatures.
Factor in our ghostbusters' dimwitted, macho receptionist, played by Chris Hemsworth, a situation offering a vast amount of reverse-sexual leering directed toward Hemsworth’s dorky character. 
Ivan Reitman, who directed the ’84 Ghostbusters, is executive producer. Helming this time around is Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), whose comedic flair is evident. 
Incidentally, a few favorite ghosts from the original reappear, including the humongous Stay Puft Man. Oh yes, be sure to stick around for a funny scene after the end credits. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: B+

Friday, July 1, 2016

There is not much to yell about regarding ‘The Legend of Tarzan’

By Steve Crum
Including the Disney animated versions, The Legend of Tarzan marks the 38th Tarzan feature I have seen. (Thank you, author Edgar Rice Burroughs.) And that includes Elmo Lincoln’s second Tarzan take in the silent version of 1921, The Adventures of Tarzan. (I would show that as part of the Hollywood film history unit I taught.) Tarzan during my 1950’s youth was portrayed by Lex Barker, and I thrilled to all five Barkers during his treetop tenure. Other fav Tarzans include Johnny Weissmuller (of course), Gordon Scott and Jock Mahoney. As for the current vine swinger in this 49th official Tarzan feature, Alexander Skarsgård ranks a tad above average….which is better than the overall film.
Do not expect any slapstick inclusions of a cute, goofy chimpanzee sidekick—Cheetah or otherwise—like the Weissmuller Tarzan films introduced.  Neither look for Tarzan and Jane living in the splendor of a large jungle treehouse. The Legend of Tarzan is pretty much grim and gritty stuff. Those elements are intensified once Jane is kidnapped, and Tarzan must rescue her. By the way, that plot line of Tarzan’s honey in peril is conflict central for at least half of all Tarzan movies. It is a stalwart plot device that seems to be a necessity.
This version is more bonded with 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes—not only by title, but content. Tarzan’s civilized name was both headlined and expanded upon in both films. In The Legend of Tarzan, the backstory is also told of how baby John Clayton III is raised by apes after his parents are brutally murdered in the African jungle. Unlike the 1984 version, the story is related in flashback snippets. 
The child is lovingly raised and fiercely protected by his surrogate ape mother, and grows into a callous knuckled (he runs on all fours), long-haired hunk who resembles Fabio. But it is actually the Swedish actor Skarsgård, who plays the role humorlessly and with much stoicism—no doubt the way he was directed. There is very little to laugh about in this gritty, violent revenge movie, except a degree of humor supplied by Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams, a U.S. Government emissary (via President Harrison) on board to accompany Mr. and Mrs. Clayton. The Claytons are on a trek to Africa representing the British Government in regard to trade negotiations. Margot Robbie is fine as Tarzan/John’s not so vulnerable wife, Jane. 
Let it be known at this abrupt break that Tarzan does not do the famous Tarzan yell, popularized by both Johnny Weissmuller and Carol Burnett. However, he does communicate with his animal friends, emitting a wail.
Tarzan’s heroic derring-do could only be accomplished with a formidable villain, and Christoph Waltz fills that description as the nefarious Belgian captain, Léon Rom. In his white suit and fedora, he seems very Nazi, even though the time period for this story is 1889. He is in Africa for diamonds, and capturing Tarzan plays into his scheme. 
A huge plus of The Legend of Tarzan is the gorgeous cinematography capturing the Congolese landscape. But wait, it is mostly digital effects, since England and Wales provide the only actual geography. It looks authentic, and fooled me.
For those seeing a live action Tarzan movie for the first time, The Legend of Tarzan should be a fun but slow moving 110 minutes. The infrequent action sequences are appreciated. It was directed by David Yates, responsible for the final four Harry Potter films. 
This is the second recent movie to deal with a human male being raised in the jungle by wild animals, the superior The Jungle Book being the other. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: C

Although not great Spielberg, ‘The BFG’ provides laughs, thrills, great digital effects

By Steve Crum
Based on Roald Dahl’s 1982 novel of the same name, The BFG is a big budget fantasy-adventure that deftly combines live action with digital effects. As director Steven Spielberg’s second fantasy-adventure film, the other being 1991’s mediocre Hook, The BFG turns out to be more satisfying but no classic.
Still there is much to enjoy in this gorgeously mounted film, set both in a downtown London of 30+ years ago and a make believe hilly land, aka Giant Country, located many hours away. The collaboration of Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and set designer Rick Carter is frequently stunning. Melissa Mathison’s fine screenplay is her finale, since she died Nov. 4 last year. She previously worked with Spielberg on the screenplay of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
Newcomer actress Ruby Barnhill portrays 10 year-old Sophie, who lives in an orphanage located in London’s inner city. Mark Rylance, who won a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, makes a dandy BFG, the “Big Friendly Giant” of the title. The two occupy most of the film’s nearly two hour running time together, becoming close knit friends to the extent BFG becomes very much Sophie’s surrogate dad. This is a relationship that begins, as the film states, during the “Witching Hour,” at 3 a.m. As usual, Sophie, accompanied by an active imagination, is wandering around the orphanage as everyone else sleeps. It is then she hears a noise in the alley outside, and goes out on the balcony to check. It is a 24-foot giant man, replacing a trash can he has accidentally knocked over while rooting around for food and the like. Then the BFG spies Sophie. Naturally, he cannot just leave her so she will inform others, so…kidnap time. 
What seems at the outset to be great cause for alarm soon turns humorously comfortable after Sophie ends up in BFG’s abode located in the center of Giant Land. Their relationship turns supportive, particularly when Sophie’s new friend has to protect her from the rest of the gigantic inhabitants of Giant Land. 
Like other Dahl stories (Willy Wonka and the like), there is a very dark side to the tale—something we always expect in Grimm’s fairy tales too. In this case, we get irritable guys towering in height and strength over BFG. In fact, they relentlessly bully him. And they eat humans, unlike BFG, who is a vegetarian. 
Conversely, BFG’s worthy purpose in life is to use a butterfly net to collect dreams that illuminate the grassland at night. He then places each in individually labeled jars. The intent is to release chosen dreams to humans in need. You want sweetness in a family movie? Look no further. 
A delightful plus is the film’s language, specifically that of our giant hero. As in Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there is a goofy descriptiveness to the giant’s speech. Whereas the Wonka story introduced us to words like “Oompa-Loompa,”  “gobstopper” and “scrumdiddlyumptious,” the BFG laces his talk with “gobblefunk,” “ucky-mucky,” and “whoopsey-splunkers.” There are even more that are “absolutely squiffling.”
A highlight of the film involves BFG and Sophie visiting the Queen of England. There is actually more to it than a visit, but let us leave some spoilers unrevealed. Herein we get the film’s biggest laugh, which makes the bean eating sequence in Blazing Saddles look like a fizzled liftoff at Cape Canaveral. 
Incidentally, this movie is an example of unnecessary 3D format. Audiences will visually enjoy The BFG just as much flat. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: B+