Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Love and Friendship (2016) ****

Based on a little-known, Jane Austen Novella called “Lady Susan,” “Love and Friendship” represents director Whit Stillman's re-imagining of a comic tale of a classic scoundrel. Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is conniving, manipulative, and a notorious flirt, yet despite her notoriety, people still manage to get taken in by her charms. It's a good thing. She is a penniless widow with nothing but her looks and charm to depend on. She sets out to arrange a good marriage for her daughter, and perhaps for herself as well, although she finds it difficult to give up her sexual dalliances.

Lady Susan is a horrible person, yet she constantly has people in her orbit, defending her indefensible deeds. It seems to be a part of human nature to be attracted to a truly, un-self-consciously amoral person. Susan sometimes lies, but for the most part, her atrocities are right there in the open, and she practically dares people to call her on them. She reminds me of the two atrocious characters, Valmont and Merteuil from “Dangerous Liaisons.”

I never would have selected this movie on my own, but my wife dragged me to it, and good for her! This thing is a hoot! Whit Stillman, known for his talky, funny send-ups of modern, high society types is the perfect person to adapt Jane Austen. Beckinsale was born to play Lady Susan, who is similar in many ways to the harpy she played in “The Last Days of Disco,” an earlier Stillman film. You have to give this movie about 10 or 15 minutes to get used to the period language and figure out who all the characters are, but once the story gets going, it is hilarious. The screen really lights up when Tom Bennett shows up as the silly, borderline-retarded Sir James Martin.

I hesitate to use the F-word, but there is something feminist about Lady Susan. As deplorable as she is, her notoriety is based largely on the fact that, in 1790's England, she is a woman. Were she a man, she would use her intelligence to make a fortune, and she would be able to engage in her sexual dalliances as a sideline, with little or no judgment from society. As a woman in that time, however, the only way for her to survive is to find a new husband. As for her sexual peccadilloes, 18th-century England has trouble even conceiving of a woman with such appetites. As the doltish Lord Martin points out, “If a man strays, he's just following his biology. Such behavior from a woman, though, is impossible to imagine.”

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016) ***1/2

You cannot discuss the new “Ghostbusters” without making comparisons to the original, 1984 film, so let's just get something out of the way: The original “Ghostbusters” was not perfect. Like every other kid, I liked it when it came out, but when I re-watched it years later, I found it formulaic and lazy. (See my review of the original here.) These guys on the internet complaining that the new movie, with its female ghostbusters, is tarnishing the legacy of a classic movie are giving the original way more credit than it deserves. Bottom line, I think the new version, by Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”), is better.

Kristen Wiig plays Erin, a physics professor trying to gain tenure and completely leave behind her past as an investigator of the paranormal. That past comes back to haunt her when her old ghost-hunting partner, Abby (Melissa McCarthy) re-releases their book on ghosts. Laughed out of her professorship, Erin has no choice but to join up with Abby and her assistant Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). The timing is perfect, however, as ghost sightings in NYC are on the rise. A sociopathic janitor (Neil Casey) is summoning ghosts and planning to unleash “the 4th Cataclysm.” With ghost-catching devices invented by Holtzmann, and with their new friend Patty (Leslie Jones), the Ghostbusters set out to prevent the Apocalypse.

It's the same basic story outline as the original, but Paul Feig and his stars really make it their own. There are four ghostbusters, as in the original, but they are not simply analogues of the original characters. It's a new set of human beings, and Feig actually takes the time to develop these characters, which the first movie did not do. Wiig and McCarthy are comic geniuses, and both get to shine here, albeit not like they did in “Bridesmaids.” Kate McKinnon is funny, and gorgeous in a butch sort of way, but she perhaps overplays her badassness a bit. I never got the feeling that she was fully inhabiting her role. For my money, the star of the movie is Leslie Jones, who plays Patty. She could have easily played Patty as a straightforward sassy-black-friend, but she has so much screen presence that she lends the character more heft, if not depth.

The movie's weaknesses are the weaknesses of every action-comedy. The film is so busy packing in jokes, sight gags, and scenes of mayhem that the plot suffers. I would say the ghostbusting team comes together a bit too conveniently. Sometimes the ladies flap their gums when they should be firing their proton guns. Speaking of those proton guns, sometimes they work on the ghosts, and sometimes they don't, depending on what is most convenient for the plot. That's just lazy writing. Chris Hemsworth is sometimes funny as the ghostbusters' dim-witted, pretty-boy receptionist, but I never felt like they got the tone quite right for his character, which is also the feeling I got from McKinnon's Holtzmann. Still, the original “Ghostbusters” had all of these weaknesses and more.

The one thing that the original movie did better than the reboot is the mythology. All that stuff about Sumerian destruction gods and the Keymaster and Gatekeeper from the original film was actually kind of cool. This reboot really isn't all that interested in the supernatural, and barely manages to throw in a little bit about ley lines and vortices.

One thing “Ghostbusters” is NOT, regardless of what trolls on the internet are saying, is sexist or racist. I never felt, as a white man, that I was being attacked. What I did feel was joy at seeing a summer movie that is actually funny and fun. “Ghostbusters” isn't going to change your life, and it isn't another “Bridesmaids,” but it's definitely worth the price of admission.

3.5 stars out of 5