Gene Wilder

I’m going to jump straight in.

Gene Wilder was a gentle genius. His name has been thrown around so many times over the last few days, to recount so many unforgettable standout performances – and rightly so. In the same spirit, here’s my chronological whistle-stop tour through some of his greatest films and memorable moments.

Wilder often portrayed tightly wound characters who were forever on the verge of being pushed over the edge. As Leo Bloom in The Producers (1967, his first film under director and friend Mel Brooks), Wilder played an anxious accountant who was just about as highly strung as is humanly possible. In my favourite scene, producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) makes Bloom feel decidedly uneasy. Bloom’s hysteria begins to escalate; his mop of curls bouncing around; his eyes blazing with frantic intensity, until you think Wilder can go no further with his performance and… he takes it even further. Finally, Bloom is laying on the floor with Max standing over him and he shrieks, “you’re gonna jump on me, I know you’re gonna jump on me – like Nero jumped on Poppaea… Up and down, up and down, until he squashed her like a bug. Please don’t jump on me!” In a moment of total and utter comic commitment, this gives way to screams and exclamations of hyperventilating panic. Also endearing and comic in equal turn is Bloom’s attachment to his blue blanket he had as a baby – “My blanket! My blue blanket! Give me my blue blanket!” making him neurotic and enchantingly vulnerable in equal measure.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) is probably the film that Wilder has become best known for, it’s certainly repeated on television often enough every school holiday! Wilder’s Wonka is often remembered as family friendly, charming and twinkling-eyed, but the character is more complex than that. Apparently, Wilder insisted on the inclusion of the ‘fall’ in the scene where Wonka is first introduced to the audience. He emerges from the chocolate factory looking infirm and unsure, holding tightly to his walking stick, then realises he has lost it and tumbles forward into a somersault. This is a perfect way to introduce such an enigmatic character, showcasing the dark, deceptive elements of his personality and a slightly sick sense of humour. Later, Wonka is shown to have no discernible remorse for what happens to any of the naughty children.

The other stand-out scene is where Wonka is riding on the chocolate river with the children and their adult entourage. As they go through the tunnel, things start to get a little weird, “Are the fires of hell a -glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing? Yes! The danger must be growing!” Soon the boat is hurtling out of control, Wilder’s face is illuminated by flashes of red light; his crazed eyes wide; clumps of hair escaping from the top hat of a truly terrifying Wonka. Take that, Johnny Depp.

Now I’ve seen The World’s Greatest Lover (1977) and it wasn’t all that. There’s a great little scene where Rudy (Wilder) and his wife Annie (Carol Kane) have ‘sex by numbers’, but aside from that, it doesn’t quite live up to its title. No, no – the film in which Wilder really does demonstrate himself to be the world’s greatest lover is, of course, Woody Allen’s Everything you always wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask (1972.)

The length and content of Wilder’s silent reaction when, as Doctor Ross, he is told by his patient, “I am in love with a sheep” is outstanding. When Doctor Ross meets Daisy the sheep for the first time he tries to resist her charms, but ends up giving her longer and more lingering looks, stroking her face, his voice softening, running his hands along her shapely sides – it’s as convincing a performance of love-at-first-sight as you would find anywhere. There follows a terrific montage where we are shown Doctor Ross tenderly caressing Daisy as they conduct an extra marital affair; Ross getting questioned by his wife for getting caught fondling his lamb’s wool sweater; Ross and Daisy meeting in a hotel room and Ross presenting Daisy with a necklace and tying it around her neck. It’s Wilder’s full committal to this concept that makes it funny.

Blazing Saddles (1974, Mel Brooks again) first introduces Wilder’s character as an unshaven drunken wash-up, Jim, once known as the Wako Kid. He recounts how, due to his reputation as the fastest gunman in the West, everyone wanted to challenge him to a quick draw. Jim explains that it all went wrong for him when a six year old challenged him, “I just threw my guns down and walked away. Little bastard shot me in the ass!” The wonderful comic turn between those two lines, the first half delivered with matter-of-fact resignation, the second half with outrage, is what makes it. Once Jim has sobered up, his becomes more of a ‘straight’ role, quietly smiling as the action unwinds, almost achieving cowboy coolness in his black shirt and Stetson.

Wilder then worked again with Brooks, only this time Young Frankenstein (1974) was Wilder’s story and Wilder’s screenplay. The stand-out scene is obviously the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” song and dance sequence. Doctor Frederick Frankenstein feels that he has tamed his monster and to prove his full mastery of the creature, he performs on stage with him in full top hat, white tie and tails. Wilder had to fight Mel Brooks to keep this scene and it certainly breaks the mood established throughout of an old-fashioned Universal horror picture, but it is this total incongruous stupidity which makes the sequence so beautifully perfect. The laugh out loud moment for me is when Frankenstein puts his hands on his monster’s shoulders and mouths “I love him” to his stunned audience, before giving him an affectionate knock on the jaw.

It’s another ‘reaction’ shot which gets my second favourite moment in Young Frankenstein. Over breakfast, Doctor Frankenstein explains the large proportions of his monster to his assistant Inga, (Terri Garr) and she remarks, “He would have an enormous schwanzstucker!” Wilder stops chewing, his eyes shift and his brows rise, before he calmly says, with his mouth full, “Well… that goes without saying.”

Another film for which Wilder wrote the screenplay was See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). He co-stars in this film which Richard Prior, in which they play an on-the-wrong-side-of-the-law odd-couple, something which they do several times together in other films. In See No Evil… Wilder plays Dave, a man who is deaf and Prior plays Wally, a man who is blind. Nothing encapsulates the working relationship between Wilder and Prior better than the scene in which Dave and Wally get into a barroom brawl and must co-operate with one another in order to participate in the fight. I also enjoy the dead pan delivery when Dave has incorrectly lip-read a frustrated police officer and reprimands himself, “Yeh, why would she say ‘ship, ship, ship, ship!’ It wouldn’t make any sense.”

Alice in Wonderland (1999) is an underrated TV movie version of the classic tale, in which Wilder plays the mock-turtle. This is one of Wilder’s last performances in a film. Throughout his scene, which contains two musical numbers, Wilder delivers his role with a soft smile and a shine in his eyes, as if the mock-turtle is unsure whether to laugh or cry.

The frame story of this version of the tale involves Alice running away from a party her parents are holding because she is scared to stand up and perform in front of them. This scene, featuring the mock-turtle and the griffin (a Jim Henson creation voiced by Donald Sinden) is crucial in helping Alice to overcome her stage fright. At first, they explain how to dance a Lobster Quadrille “They are waiting on the shingle, will you come and join the dance?” and Wilder engages in a little dance of his own. Then comes “Beautiful Soup” in which the mock-turtle encourages Alice to sing with him. The song is simple, but the delivery is haunting. Wilder performs both lovely songs with his usual dedication, only too pleased to look a little silly dressed in a turtle shell.

This will undoubtedly sound corny, but I can’t think of a better role to finish on. Wilder, a shy man who was nevertheless a fantastic performer, playing a mock-turtle, who comes out of his shell in order to encourage the younger generation to do the same. That’s a pretty good legacy.

A Boy and His Dog (1975) Written and Directed by L.Q. Jones, based on a novella by Harlan Ellison

 

I came to this film with no expectations because, well, I didn’t really know what it was about. Initially, I saw a short and rather odd clip when I had fallen down the endless rabbit hole we folks call YouTube and it was odd enough to make me want to investigate from whence it came…

There are plenty of post-apocalyptic sci-fi films out there and in some ways this is no different. There’s the dystopian depiction of the future as hot, dusty and unpleasant; of civilisation circling the toilet bowl; of lawless loners; gangs and a societal divide. Seeing this in the same week I was reading Stephen King’s 11.22.63, there’s also the not unfamiliar ‘what would have happened if Kennedy hadn’t died’ trope. There’s also the utopian dream in the face of adversity, hopes of what lies “over the hill.”

The main partnership in the film is between, as you may have guessed from the title, a boy (well… a man…) and his dog. Again, this isn’t that out of the ordinary, it’s a device used so that the loner character doesn’t have to spend the whole of the film talking to themselves, or shop mannequins. For example, it’s used in I am Legend (2007, based on the Richard Matheson novel of 1954.) In this instance though, the dog talks back, kind of like Adventure Time (2010-present) if Finn was trying to find and ravage Princess Bubblegum and Jake was helping him track her in return for food.

Vic (Don Johnson) is a human with shady morals, who can communicate telepathically with Blood (voice provided by Tim McIntire), a smart but creepy shaggy dog. The exposition is delivered as Blood gets Vic to repeat back to him the facts of the recent political upheavals and wars, while berating Vic for his general idiocy. It is seeing a cuddly-looking dog and simultaneously hearing McIntire gruffly saying things like, “I hope the next time you play with yourself, you go blind” which is so disconcerting.

This is a society where the women are few and far between and Vic is horny. After finding, stalking and capturing Quilla (Susanne Benton) who then escapes, Vic follows her home, underground to a place described as ‘Downunder.’ Then things start to go in an even stranger direction. The Downunder dwellers are like sinister 1950s townsfolk, parading and picnicking in a sunless world. They also hold committee meetings. The Committee, however, is constantly shipping troublesome citizens off to the Farm, in a parody of small-minded, small-town America.

It is clear from the start that something is a little off in this underground society. The film contains a lot of creepy details which are not contained in Ellison’s 1969 novella. For instance, the residents of Downunder all wear ‘whiteface’, with pink blush on their cheeks and a 1984 style series of loudspeakers are constantly blaring out unavoidable public service announcements and recipes for domestic harmony.

Vic, incidentally, has been lured into a trap. He is required for his precious free-range sperm. In the novella, this means the promise of sleeping with a lot of women. The film includes a short but arresting scene in which Vic is tied up and mechanically… ahem… milked for his produce… while being simultaneously married off to a succession of women in big puffy dresses. Incidentally, it was this scene which bought me to the film in the first place. I wondered what was going on…

Women don’t come off that well in this film. Quilla is initially depicted as beautiful and naïve but is soon revealed to be a bit of a deceitful temptress (although good for her, in the circumstances.) She also comes across as the ultimate ‘high maintenance’ woman when she continually purrs to Vic about their love for each other and her plans for their lives together. How much of this is Quilla simply being manipulative is up for interpretation. She also features heavily in the film’s rather remorseless final little twist.

The enduring relationship in the film is that between Vic and Blood. Vic explains that for the telepathy between Blood and himself to work, the two of them must “have a feeling for each other.” I would argue that they don’t seem to care for each other particularly, in fact neither character is really very likeable. Harlan Ellison himself, however, will never win any charm-school awards, so this is perhaps unsurprising.

This film did not do well at the box office. This does not surprise me. I thoroughly enjoyed A Boy and His Dog it for its quirkiness, for the unsettling contrast between the over and underground worlds and its bald refusal to try and force me to like anyone. At ninety-one minutes long there’s no fat to trim away from this film and it is well worth a watch for its novelty value, seeing a common sort of story told with uncommon components. Ultimately, the film is unpleasant and darkly comedic in equal turns and that’s just fine with me.

“Momma, Just Killed a Man” Suicide Squad (2016, Written and Directed by David Ayer)

 

I’m laying my cards out on the table before we even begin. Jokers and all. I’m not really all that into comic books. I’m as nerdy as the rest of them and I know the basics, but I’m not a hard-core fan by any stretch. I’ve also had enough of comic book movies; the last time I went to see a Marvel or DC film I genuinely enjoyed was back in the time of the original X-Men trilogy (2000-2006). Ah, those were the days. For the most part, I’ve started to keep my distance from a genre of films which is doing, re-doing and re-booting itself to death and enjoyed the occasional graphic novel-inspired piece of loveliness every now and then instead. In terms of previous knowledge about Suicide Squad, the story arcs involved and the main characters, I knew enough about Harley Quinn to know she was always going to be my favourite comic book character and that was about it.

Despite my genre-orientated misgivings, I wanted to see this movie the moment I saw the first trailer. When the film started getting panned a bit by critics, I wanted to love it even more, because it’s always fun to go against the flow. For the most part: I really, really liked this film.

The plot was bodacious and horrendously far-fetched and the time spent characterising some of the more central bad guys meant you weren’t entirely sure who some of the others were (there was a sewer-dwelling crocodile-man and some Australian bloke and I never really got a handle on who they were…) It was hyperactive and silly and about halfway through, the pacing and exposition became muddled and rushed, but none of these things really mattered to me.

There is an attempt to clearly establish each character from the outset. Each of our anti-heroes are introduced to the audience in the style of a fast paced music video, each song intended to provide a short-cut summary of who these people are. Harley Quinn’s introductory song, for example, is Lesley Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’. Within the first few minutes, the film I was thinking of most was Sucker Punch (2011) and both films just about manage to keep the balance between style and substance.

The women in this film are phenomenal. I’ll be honest, I hardly noticed the male actors who were in it at all. This was the first film I had seen Margot Robbie in (I’m previously accustomed only to seeing her in Neighbours whenever I visited my parents for dinner.) Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn was pretty darn fantastic, using the right combination of upbeat and down-and-out. Harley bounces off the walls, oscillating between depraved acts, relentless optimism and random acts of friendship. She holds her own against trans-dimensional ooze-beasts, but deep down just wants to set up house with The Joker and have his babies. She also reminded me a lot of singer-songwriter Emilie Autumn.

Karen Fukuhara is both kick-ass and tender-hearted as the Japanese Katana, though she is underused and never gets the chance to speak the same language (and therefore converse with) the members of the Squad. Cara Delevingne gives an innocent performance as June Moon and a racy turn as Enchantress, the Witch who takes possession of her. Now, it’s true, these powerful and dark-hearted women are often scantily (or at least tightly) clad. In the case of Delevingne, the Enchantress character could not be wearing any less clothes and she is constantly swaying and gyrating. I know a lot of women have not been happy about the fact that the female characters are very underdressed and the male characters look overdressed by comparison. As a female (hi! hello!) I didn’t feel that any of these portrayals were outside the reasonable bounds of what you might expect from each character. Viola Davis also gives a coolly spot-on performance as the sociopathic Amanda Waller: the woman who tries to wrangle this Suicide Squad and keep them all in line.

It is inevitable that Jared Leto’s performance as The Joker is going to be compared to Heath Ledger’s (for which Ledger won a posthumous Oscar) and it’s weird that it still feels ‘too soon’ to be making that comparison. My view is the performances are simply different. Both played The Joker in very different ways, as if both diagnosing their version of him with a different mental illness. Both leave an equally unpleasant impression and both are, I feel, very strong performances.

Will Smith’s character Deadshot easily falls into the cliché of a struggling father who above all else just wants the love (and custody of) his child. Think Robert Carlyle in The Full Monty (1997) but with shooting instead of stripping. Smith made the decision to do this film instead of Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) and, all things considered, I think it was a wise move.

The plot may have wandered into coherency occasionally but one of the things that helped to tie it together was the overarching theme of love. Awwww….  Let me explain. Deadshot is motivated throughout the film by the love he has for his daughter. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the Special Forces operative, falls desperately in love with June and the two of them must fight to stay together while she is torn apart by the Enchantress inside of her. Harley would die (and live) for The Joker and this is part of what makes her so likeable. When these monstrous and evil characters are depicted as capable of love and self-sacrifice, the lines between good and evil become blurred; the line which DC adaptations have been playing with for a long time. It’s a dark film, but it’s still a PG-13; dark like a Nightmare Before Christmas fangirl at Halloween. My favourite touch was when Batman (Ben Affleck, who gets seconds of screen time rather than minutes) pulls Harley out of an underwater car wreck. He has acted on the side of moral right, as you would expect, but the unexpected moment comes as Harley lies unconscious in his arms, he can’t help but kiss her.

The other noteworthy element of this film is its soundtrack. Before I even left the cinema, I wanted to be on Amazon and buying the album. The music choices go from the sublime to the ridiculous; Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ to Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’ – and of course the greatest band in existence, Queen and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ The music compliments, juxtaposes and underlines key moments, it’s used well and every new song that rung out made me smile. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like any of these amazing songs are on the official soundtrack. The album looks to be made up predominately of cover versions… and no one needs to hear Panic! At the Disco doing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Such a shame!

Suicide Squad started strong, it carried on well enough, yet became more shambolic and less well constructed as it drew to a close. This didn’t really upset me the way it does with a lot of other films. Despite its problems, I sincerely hope for more antics from the Suicide Squad and am thrilled that there’s already a Harley Quinn film in the pipeline.  Silly and serious… big, bold and darkly beautiful, this film is like a twisted League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) or a bubble-gum version of Watchmen (2009). You should make time to see this film and, with any luck, the DVD release will herald an extended Director’s Cut which makes slightly more sense.

Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937)

Lost Horizon was directed by Frank Capra and released in 1937. It’s based on a 1933 novel which goes by the same name, but hasn’t really been adapted that faithfully. It is a film which has been chopped up and put back together again over the years and as a result of this there are times  on the DVD version when the picture quality dips, or only the audio is available. However, a reasonable attempt has been made to match relevant production stills with the audio. As far as I’m concerned, the diminished picture quality or missing footage does not happen regularly enough throughout to detract from the final product.

It’s a black and white (but nevertheless pretty to look at) film very much of its time; the slowly advancing shadow of the Second World War is palpable. Lost Horizon begins with Disney-style storybook pages which turn as the words are read in a voiceover. The audience is rhetorically asked, “In these days of wars and rumours of wars, haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” From the outset the viewer is prompted to crave the elusive utopia with which the film is so concerned.

The first scene deals with a hectic escape; a mismatched group of individuals are the last to be evacuated from Baskul, China, just prior to the outbreak of a violent revolution. They clamber aboard their flight and start to form unlikely bonds. Before too long they realise that their flight does not appear to be going in the right direction. After a fraught crash landing and an equally fraught hike through the Himalayas, they realise that they have been taken somewhere off the map; to a place that preaches good manners and moderation, “A way of life built on one simple rule: ‘be kind’ ” Made at a time when the threat of war was very real, this story is pure idealistic escapism and it is our hero who takes the ethos of Shangri-La the most to heart.

The hero in question is Robert Conway (played by Ronald Colman). Colman is a relaxed adventurer, with an alluringly clipped British accent. As the protagonist, Conway is shown to have had enough of war. He has dreams of living a world where there are no weapons, but sees himself as powerless to make a difference to the turbulent society which he was born into. When the other characters around him are fearful and hysterically hostile, upon realising that their plane is headed to some unknown location, Conway is calmly optimistic. When he arrives in Shangri-La, he feels immediately at home and seems accepting of the idea that he and the other travellers have technically been abducted.

The visionary founder of this society is the High Lama (played by Sam Jaffe, who I find it difficult to trust as a beneficent utopian leader after a lifetime of watching him try to steal from Angela Lansbury in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, 1971.) The High Lama explains the workings of Shangri-La to Conway at length, meaning that there are some exposition-heavy speeches. Capra obviously felt that these discussions between Conway and the Lama were crucial, he wanted to explain an ideal utopian society in detail to his audience (indeed, Capra’s original cut of this film was much, much longer). To me, however, the point of the film isn’t instructional; it is inspirational and these long speeches threaten to hold up the pace. At the time of Lost Horizon’s release, scenes which made a plea for peace weren’t welcomed by the US government and some of these conversations were trimmed (one short edit is evident because only the audio now survives.)

The enjoyable comedy odd couple in this film are Lovett (the straight man, played by Edward Everett Horton) and Barnard (the joker, portrayed by Thomas Mitchell.) The pair are constantly sniping at one another and Barnard relishes every opportunity he can to irritate Lovett, referring to him as “Lovey.” My favourite character, however, is the surly Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell), who is established as sassy from her first line. Westerners are shown clamouring to climb aboard their plane to safety and she deadpans, “You’d better take some of those squealing men with you first. They might faint on you. I’ll wait.” It is later revealed that she is a terminally ill woman who is a year into her six-months-left-to-live, eager to see those around her “squirm for a change. What a kick.”

Serving as a clear contrast to our hero, Robert Conway, is his brother George (John Howard.) Fringe-tossing, hot-headed George is a tightly wound, highly strung man who fires first and asks questions later. He is unable to keep his cool in moments of tension and demands empirical truth of the wonders of Shangri-La, whereas his brother accepts what he is told. Throughout Lost Horizon, the pace of those local to Shangri-La is slow, George on the other hand is a character who thinks and acts too quickly, who would “go mad” if he had to stay.

A thirties black and white classic wouldn’t be complete without a love interest. In this case, Robert spots his as he enters Shangri-La for the first time in the form of Sondra (Jane Wyatt, who is legendary to me by virtue of the fact that she plays Spock’s mother, Amanda, in the Star Trek TV and original film franchise.) As a woman, Sondra is as idealised as her Shangri-La birthplace. She is in touch with nature; she skinny-dips, seems to be able to understand squirrels and ties mini panpipes to the tails of pigeons, so that strange music follows her wherever she goes. Granted, these behaviours might be classed as symptoms of mental illness in our modern and embittered world, but they seem to be working for her in this instance. Though Sondra is clearly a focus for Robert’s affections, it is Shangri-La itself which he truly falls in love with.

The only aspect of the film which makes me feel a little uncomfortable is that it can feel as if it’s preaching. Even though the Shangri-La residents do not punish those characters who later reject it, they are nevertheless punished in a big way by the narrative itself. The residents of Shangri-La all speak English, even though this fantasy world exists within the Himalayas, and those who seem in control of the society are all very White-Caucasian in appearance. Shangri-La is a place where knowledge and the arts are preserved in the face of all-encompassing destructive warfare. Those who live there are granted good health and incredibly long life, yet there is no interaction with the outside world, who are described in barbaric terms (and presumably are labelled as too foolish to mend their ways.) Possibly in response to this, the local porters who bring supplies every few years seem to look upon the society with disdain or, at least, indifference. The High Lama explains Shangri-La’s philosophy as being built on a “Christian ethic” when surely all other major religions also promote a peaceful life. These problems could easily be explained away by declaring the film to be ‘of its time’, but it doesn’t make those small niggles any less unpalatable.

Small criticisms aside, Lost Horizon is a classic, one which I have manged to re-watch again and again (always a good sign!) The society of Shangri-La is said to survive because its central ideas are based on that of moderation, “As a result the people are… somewhat more than moderately happy.” In my view, this tendency to allow all things in moderation is the reason that the film itself is successful. Capra includes a healthy balance of gentle comedy, naïve romance and a philosophical, even political, message. The last five minutes of the film provide a satisfying ending, but does feel rushed as it easily includes enough spoken content to inspire an entire film in its own right (perhaps one I would like even more.) The final moments of Lost Horizon make it a must-see film for anyone who’s ever had to leave a place that feels like home, as well as do anything to get back there.

Zoolander 2 (2016) “You really are amazingly stupid, aren’t you?”

 

I’ll leap right in. Zoolander 2 was awesome. I truly had one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had at the cinema in a long while watching this movie. Although admittedly, going with your best friend and getting in as a student without even lamely claiming to be, really, really helped. As did my horrendously overpriced Ben and Jerry’s milkshake.

There does, however, seem to be a lot of hate being pushed on this film at the moment on the old internets. People are saying that a sequel was never necessary – and I probably agree that it wasn’t needed, but it is welcomed. Others are saying that the sense of humour is weaker, sillier, than in the first film. Fortunately for me, if it is sillier (and I’m not convinced), it’s just my kind of silly. From the moment Derek Zoolander solemnly declares, “I’m going to retire, withdraw from public life, and become a hermit crab.” I was hooked. Let’s make no mistakes; Zoolander 2 is a very silly film, but if you’re a fan of the first instalment, you should really know what to expect. A lot of the comedy comes from Derek Zoolander’s complete and total idiocy, but there are also moments of complete general absurdity which are also fun.

Others are arguing that the narrative is very convoluted and does not make any logical sense. The first film credits the writing and screenwriting to Drake Sather, Ben Stiller and John Hamberg. The Zoolander 2 writing and screenwriting credits belong to Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller, Nicholas Stoller and John Hamberg (with Drake Sather given joint accreditation for originally developing the character of Derek Zoolander with Stiller). While it is tempting to suggest that Zoolander 2 is a case of too many writers spoiling the script; the first film was written, it seems, in much the same way. In any case, I don’t think a logical and perfectly constucted plot is the main selling point of a film like this. You find yourself buying into a plot the likes of which people accepted readily enough when they were paying to see The Da Vinci Code (2006) – and it holds about as much water. It doesn’t really jump the shark so much as pole-vault it and then soar off into the stratosphere.

Arguably, Zoolander 2 actually surpasses the original in many ways. Everyone’s favourite characters are back (with the exception of Vince Vaughn’s silent role as Derek’s brother, I always enjoyed that…) There’s also a whole new batch of crazy new characters. My particular favourite was Kristen Wiig, who is virtually unrecognisable, both in form and voice, as Alexanya Atoz. I’ve seen the Star Trek: 30 Years and Beyond (1996) TV Special enough times to suspect, given a comment which Stiller makes about the character of Mr Atoz, that Alexanya’s second name could be a nerdy reference to the original episode ‘All Our Yesterdays’ on his part. Watching Wiig is always a delight, particularly when she interacts with other talented comic actors. In this case, it’s great to watch her and Will Ferrell (who returns as Mugatu) work together. In Anchorman 2 (2013) she weaves similar magic with Steve Carrell as Brick’s love interest, Chani. There’s also Penelope Cruz as Valentina. Most of the comedy of her performance comes from the enjoyment of watching a good actress play a silly role seriously (which, to be fair, I suspect is harder than it looks).

There’s also an abundance of ridiculous and unexpected cameos, the surprise of who shows up being half the fun, so I’ll say no more. Although it’s tricky – because some of the cameos are so good (and last for so long!) they dominate sections of the film. As usual, cameos from of-the-moment celebrities as well as real life fashionistas mean that this film will unfortunately date quite quickly, as in the way that Zoolander (2001) now feels like a summary of who-was-who-who-wanted-to-be-in-Zoolander in the nineties. Much has also been made of Benedict Cumberbatch’s cameo (I feel I can mention this one as it’s in the trailer and has been discussed in the media) as All, who is presented as a humorous myriad of confusing trans-omni-androgynous traits. People have quickly become enraged that this is a very offensive portrayal of transgender people. The phrase I believe which has been used a lot is “worse than blackface”. It’s important to remember that comedy tries to stay with the times and almost ‘name-check’ societal and fashion trends. To make a film in 2016 and not include a nod to these changes may also have been criticised, and I don’t think you’d find a character in the film who wasn’t a mocking exaggeration. While I feel that I would hate to think that you could point anything out as ‘satire’ and thereby legitimise something deeply wrong, I don’t think that this was the intention of the writers in this case. It’s possible that Derek and Hansel’s reactions to All could have been less stereotypically obsessed with trying to ascertain what kind of sexual apparatus All was equipped with, and it’s also possible that to use a real-life cameo featuring someone who represented this world may have been safer.

This sequel does rely on its audience having seen the original film, in that it’s referenced throughout and relationships from the first film have developed and moved on (I just wish Mugatu and Todd’s simmering semi-abusive relationship climbed to some kind of tempestuous conclusion…) Zoolander 2 starts with an introduction which establishes the events of the original Zoolander in 2001, then fills in the rest of the narrative up to present day (2016). Stiller’s direction should be praised for the fact that, even from this opening, you feel you are watching something epic and exciting. Stiller uses all of the high octane music, the special effects and thrilling shots and the twists and turns you would expect from a Blockbuster action movie, parodying these films which take themselves so seriously.

I, at no point, even thought about thinking about glancing at my watch. I had a big old grin on my face for the duration.

Is there a deeper message burning away at the heart of this film? A sensitive little message about learning to love oneself and others, regardless of your parentage, the scars (internal or external) you may have, or what size you are? I don’t know, probably not.

Give Yourself Goosebumps. Again.

I went through a rather intense Goosebumps phase when I was in year five or six at primary school (1996-7), as did many my age. I liked the feeling that I was reading something slightly forbidden, in that it was a little unpleasant. Mostly though, I liked the bobbly book covers. The original series of books and the subsequent TV series (I had A Night in Terror Tower on VHS) hold a lot of nostalgia for me. Recently, due to the newest spin-off set of books, the Goosebumps: HorrorLand series which started in 2008, R. L. Stine has had another swell of popularity.

I was delighted yet also wary when I heard there was going to be a Goosebumps movie, and for the most part it was the delighted side of me which was rewarded at the cinema this week (see, sometimes it pays to be positive).

For me, the time it takes for the main selling point of the film to actually happen within the narrative (i.e. Stine’s creations escaping from their bookish prisons) can give an indication of the writer’s priorities. An awful lot of time was spent establishing a variety of main and supporting characters, as well as the setting of the story and this was very refreshing for a modern children’s film. The scene was set with loving care and attention, rather than plunging into the action to keep impatient viewers happy.

Jack Black used just the right amount of melodrama in his performance, portraying a grumpy-old-man-next-door-meets-overprotective-dad version of R. L. Stine, who is quick to lose his temper if mentioned in the same sentence as Stephen King (“… Let me tell you something about Steve King…”). Black’s real achievement, however, was as the chillingly maniacal voice of Slappy the (gulp) Dummy.

All three younger leads (Dylan Minnette as Zach, Odeya Rush as Hannah and Ryan Lee as Champ) gave thoughtful performances and, most importantly, were not grating in any way. They also helped to pull of many of the script’s genuinely funny moments, often arising from the ‘teenage’ style tendency to either underplay or overplay a specific dramatic moment.] There’s also some well observed comedy from Aunt Lorraine (Jillian Bell) and an over-zealous police woman in training (Amanda Lund).

The overwhelming volume of monsters, when they do come, could be a bit much for more easily alarmed PG viewers, though there is no bloodshed (well, a few cuts and bruises) and the film seems to go out of its way to show that the human fallout is minimal. The special effects are impressive, in that money, time and most importantly care has gone into making the strange assortment of beasts and ghouls featured unquestionably ‘real’.

However, it may be that there were different books in the US which were popular than in the UK, or even just among my social book-sharing circle, or that the filmmakers wanted to reference some of the more recent books, but I didn’t feel I knew who all the ‘baddies’ were. Obviously, the ‘unleashing of monsters’ story motif means that some of the more, let’s say, conceptual books I was familiar with, like Piano Lessons Can be Murder, or Be Careful What you Wish For, were never really likely to get prime space in the narrative. There is something for every Goosebumps fan, though I would have been happier with an even higher hit-rating, content to spend the entirety of the film nerdily picking out references to obscure titles. I especially wanted the funfair, which is planted in the introductory stages and does feature in the finale, to magically transform into HorrorLand (One Day at HorrorLand being my ultimate personal favourite).

There are a handful of creatures which become the main focus; Slappy is really the main antagonist, accompanied by sinister figures such as Murder the Clown, the giant praying mantis from The Shocker on Shock Street (included I imagine for the sense of spectacle), the Werewolf of Fever Swamp and, of course, the Lawn Gnomes. The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena also provides an initial set-piece.

The device which forms the film’s denouncement is nothing new – see my article on ‘Stories about Stories’. As it progresses, Goosebumps becomes very much like Inkheart (2008) meets Jumanji (1995), and almost seems to be poking fun at just how ‘rushed’ and mass-produced the process of writing and churning out Goosebumps books actually became/still is.

Still, at the end you have genuine ‘feels’ for the characters, all of whom are likeable. You’ve also had a few laughs and feel you’ve watched a film exhibiting spectacle rather than horror (unless you have clown fear). Goosebumps will withstand repeat viewings and, crucially, it will make a good basis for my next Halloween party. I don’t know if it will be fast and furious enough for some ‘modern’ young audiences, or if the real fans will be us late-twenty somethings who just want to give themselves Goosebumps all over again.

Alan Rickman: Ten Ambivalent Roles

Looking to give a quick rundown of my ten most favoured Rickman roles (in chronological order), I realised how many of his characters are made more real by a central conflict. They are all fellows of tremendous ambivalence; figures at once likeable and unlikeable, who perhaps both like and dislike themselves. What also became clear was just how versatile Alan Rickman was as an actor, as well as how often he worked with the same actor/s more than once – always a sure sign of a beloved man.

Die Hard (1988) Hans Gruber

This was Alan Rickman’s feature film debut – and not a bad one at that – coming rather later than you would expect, in his forties. Playing the now iconic villain Hans Gruber, Rickman also demonstrated that he could do not only a passable German but also American accent. Gruber is portrayed as mercilessly professional in the execution of his criminal tasks, terrifying but also somehow charming.

Truly Madly Deeply (1990) Jamie

This film could only really be described as a ‘weepie’, yet Rickman’s matter of fact, ‘real’ and still very human portrayal of the ghost of Nina’s beloved boyfriend, makes his reappearance seem somehow believable. Jamie is shown to have loved his girlfriend dearly, to have adored her, but at the same time he eventually comes to realise that he has to leave her.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) Sheriff of Nottingham

As the Sheriff of Nottingham, Rickman threw himself into the glorious tradition of English actors portraying larger than life villains (surrounded by a bunch of Americans pretending to be the English good guys!) Here Rickman delivers some delightful tongue-in-cheek lines with enough spiteful gravitas that the film almost seems like a high-brow piece of drama. He prowls around his castle, pointing at lowly looking women, “You, my room, 10:30. You… 10:45. And bring a friend” is said with such careless conviction that I am only just now realising that the Sheriff probably didn’t have a timekeeping device that accurate. This was also the film in which Rickman gave us the slightly dubious sexual manoeuvre of forcefully leaping on top of your captive bride and athletically scissoring her legs open with your own. What a mover.

Dogma (1999) Metatron

The explanation of the Metatron is that he is the “herald of the Almighty”, the voice of God (Alanis Morissette) addressing humans on Earth. Rickman as the Metatron is introduced when he appears in our main protagonist’s bedroom. Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) is understandably startled and expresses concern that he has entered her home with the intention of doing something criminal to her. The Metatron’s response is straight-faced, if a little wistful, “I’m as anatomically impaired as a Ken doll.” Rickman’s performance in Dogma is genuinely funny because it is so dead-pan, even when his wings unfold gloriously around him. As the film progresses, he is also shown to be compassionate, faced with the challenges of having to explain the more difficult realities of God’s great plan to Bethany.

Galaxy Quest (1999) Alexander Dane

Alexander Dane is a British character actor. He has grown tired of only being remembered for his role as Dr. Lazarus, an alien member of the crew of the starship Protector. Alan Rickman’s turn as a long-suffering lovie, condemned forever to attend wearisome sci-fi conventions is genuinely funny. In this film, Rickman demonstrates not only a natural talent for comedy, but also for affectionate parody.

Love Actually (2003) Harry

The conflict here is between two women, Harry’s wife Karen (Emma Thompson, who also worked with Rickman in Sense and Sensibility eight years earlier), versus the flirtatious piece of crumpet from the office, Mia (Heike Makatsch). Perhaps the best known of Rickman’s scenes in this film is when the shop assistant (Rowan Atkinson) is trying to package a purchase for him. Harry’s rising irritation and simultaneous sense of impending dread at being caught out as he tries to swiftly purchase an expensive necklace is palpable. He creates a character who shows genuine love for his wife, but also lust for Mia. It is surely due to Rickman’s ability to portray Harry’s conflict, having committed reprehensible actions but also warm towards his wife and family, that the great wide female internet out there detests Mia and still gives old Harry the benefit of the doubt. That’s dedicated fan girls for you.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) Marvin

While only used for his vocal talents in this film, Rickman manages to elevate Marvin the Paranoid Android to new heights. Though I will admit that I prefer the BBC TV rendering of this classic series of books, Rickman’s dry yet somehow loveable voice work gives the audience new empathy for Marvin.

Snow Cake (2006) Alex

Here Rickman stars as Alex, a man who flitters between two women in very different ways. On the one hand, he is an attentive friend to a recently bereaved autistic woman, Linda (Sigourney Weaver) on the other he is paying naughty visits to town outcast Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss) most evenings. Whatever secrets Alex reveals to Maggie at the end of the film, we forgive, so endearingly is he portrayed.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) Judge Turpin

Judge Turpin is a totally deplorable character and his actions lead to the downfall and deaths of most of the principal characters of Sweeny Todd. Despite this, it’s a real treat to hear him singing Stephen Sondheim classics, particularly in the duet ‘Pretty Women’ with Johnny Depp.

Alice in Wonderland (2010) Absolem, the Blue Caterpillar

Appearing in another Tim Burton/Johnny Depp extravaganza, Rickman plays Absolem as a contrary character to most you will meet in Alice in Wonderland. The blue caterpillar is a slow and commanding, tiny little creature, who through the voice of Rickman manages to ask the right questions at the right time and in just the right way. Absolem provides just the push Alice needs to finally accept who she is and, crucially, to remember her previous trip to ‘Wonderland’. In his final scene, the blue caterpillar is seen working himself into a cocoon, ready to transform in the way the audience hopes Alice is about to. In their exchanges, Absolem calls Alice, “stupid girl” and “dim-witted” but at the same time Rickman’s voice always sounds fond. “Perhaps I will see you in another life” he tells her. Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass (2016) will be Alan Rickman’s last film. From the trailer, we can see that Absolem is now a beautiful blue butterfly.