Tag Archives: Great Films

Wall-E

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: He may be a simple garbage-crushing robot, but Wall-E still dreams of finding true love among the ruins of Earth. When Eve descends from the heavens, the little fellow is terrified, then lovestruck; but she has a higher purpose than making friends – not that it stops Wall-E from holding on to her for dear life.

Poor old Wall-E (voiced, after a fashion, by Ben Burtt). The people of Earth have taken an extended break from the planet, leaving the hardy little robot alone – apart from an even hardier cockroach – to clean up the mess. Wall-E feels his loneliness too, reminded by a scratchy copy of Hello, Dolly! that love isn’t all around; so when a spaceship arrives and a sleek, curvy white robot called Eve (Elissa Knight) disembarks, it’s no surprise that he’s smitten.

Eve, however, has bigger fish to fry, or rather life of any sort to gather, but her reaction to Wall-E showing her a sapling is not what he would have wanted – she takes custody of the plant and shuts off completely until her rocket returns. Wall-E hitches a lift back to the mothership, The Axiom, a cruise liner built by the BNL company (under their CEO, Fred Willard’s Shelby Forthright) to save humans the trouble of looking after themselves or the planet. However, as Wall-E and Eve are to find out, and the Axiom’s Captain (Jeff Garlin) discovers very slowly, things have gone very, very wrong in the last 700 years.

For all its awards and critical plaudits, it would be wrong to say that Wall-E is beyond reproach. For some, the tale of a litter-tidying robot falling in love and saving the human race from its own sugar-guzzling stupidity will be the sort of sentimental, lefty, tree-hugging schmaltz that even George Lucas shied away from (there was never, we assume, a Mrs R2-D2*). I will give them this: the second half of the film isn’t quite as inventive or beautiful as the first.

On the other hand…until I see an animated film that’s truly indistinguishable from reality, I’m unlikely to be equally wowed by another CGI movie as I was by Wall-E. A foolhardy statement, perhaps; but I make it in all sincerity. Just in terms of its looks, the film is an incredible achievement, both on Earth – where the skyscrapers are eerily-familiar but made entirely out of junk – and in space. It’s immediately apparent that Pixar have honed their skills to perfection, both in terms of the protagonists and the worlds in which they live.

Moreover, the film is funny. From Toy Story onwards, Pixar have been superb at orchestrating scenes to achieve perfect comic timing; while that has occasionally been overly calculating – nobody will convince me of the merit of fake CGI ‘bloopers’ – the lack of dialogue here elevates many scenes to the level of Chaplin or Keaton at their best.

So far, so kiddie-friendly: but Wall-E explores more mature themes too. The sexless, almost wordless, yet incredibly tender romance between our hero and Eve works better than any number of explicitly romantic films – while Hello, Dolly! (to pick an example not quite at random) has its moments, it doesn’t come near to this film in terms of exploring what it’s like to fall, and be, in love.

Wall-E is the quintessence of a love story, and a doubly abstracted one at that (we’re not watching robots in love, we’re watching drawings of robots in love); since there’s no dialogue to speak of, all the meaning comes from the images married with Thomas Newman’s lovely music. The result is new, unexpected, a technological marvel that at times imitates ballet.

There’s another love story going on too, and I don’t mean John and Mary’s impromptu romance aboard the Axiom; while he battles the ship’s disobedient auto-pilot, the captain learns about long-forgotten Earth rituals: farming, dancing, pizza(!). By taking Western vices of laziness and wilful pollution to an extreme conclusion, Andrew Stanton gives us all pause for thought about the things we stand to lose; and how wonderful to see an American film confront the potential – repeat, potential – ills of unfettered consumerism on the planet and populace alike.

I’ll admit that the obese passengers of the Axiom are pretty unsubtle and suggest that Stanton (and Pixar in general?) might prefer the reliability of their machines over lazy humans, but as a cautionary tale it works stunningly well. As I’ve already conceded, the film does become more predictable as it ramps up the action, the deranged robots (for example) recalling the misfit toys in Toy Story. Yet all is redeemed by the touching denouement which itself continues to evolve as the credits roll, beautifully sketching the future of mankind through the history of art.

Though I’ve not reviewed everything of Pixar’s (I look forward to watching Finding Nemo again), I can’t help but applaud their dedication to quality film-making using tools that they are constantly re-inventing and refining**. Nothing will ever replace the joy of seeing Toy Story for the first time, but the visual, intellectual and emotional impact of Wall-E has to make it the ‘better’ film, whatever that means. Whether or not you have any affection for digital animation, if you like good movies you should watch both – and because it’s that good, start with this one.

NOTES: 1 Oh good grief.

2 Hence the disappointment with Cars. Not a bad movie, just unusually unbrilliant.

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Gran Torino

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: Grizzled widower and Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski despairs of his spoilt family and mistrusts his neighbours, members of the Hmong community that has come to dominate the area where he now lives with only his dog Daisy for company. When shy youngster Thao is goaded by a gang into trying to steal Walt’s precious Gran Torino, the sick old man nearly kills him; but as Thao pays penance Walt begins to take the young man and his sister Sue under his wing. Little do they know that the relationship will have devastating consequences for them all.

Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a wretched old man, an inconvenience to the money-minded family who congregate for his wife’s funeral and a thorn in the side of the young Catholic priest (Christopher Carley) who tries to look out for him, despite the insults he constantly receives for his troubles. A war vet and ex-Ford worker, Walt is pre-disposed to dislike his neighbours, the Hmong who were repatriated after the Vietnam War (they supported the losing side); and when impressionable young man Thao (Bee Vang) is forced by his cousin’s gang to try to steal Walt’s immaculate 1972 Gran Torino, Walt reacts with his customary fury and racist outbursts.

However, Walt saves Thao from being hauled off by the gang and soon after saves his sister Sue (Ahney Her) from a sticky situation, making him a local hero; Walt is showered with food (to which he is more than partial) and gets to know both Sue and Thao, who is made to work for Walt and is later given lessons in life by the relentlessly practical curmudgeon. Walt, however, does not have much life left and when Thao’s problems with the gang escalate, he takes it upon himself to find a solution.

Eastwood has stated that this is his last appearance in front of the camera; if so, it is a fine send-off for one of cinema’s greats. Essentially an exercise in old age vigilantism, Gran Torino provides an uncomfortable but incredibly gripping story as Thao and Sue’s lives become ever more threatened by their hateful cousin’s gang and Walt fights to protect them. More than that, Eastwood’s Walt is a superb and complex character study, a man troubled by the violence of war yet not afraid to use his muscle, hateful on many levels, disappointed in his children and snotty grandkids, yet regretful that he didn’t get to know his sons better.

Importantly, even as he comes to know and even like his next door neighbours, his ingrained racism barely softens: only the frequent reminders of impending death make him reappraise his life with the help of the callow priest. Throughout, the gleaming Gran Torino lurks in the background as a symbol of misplaced effort and love, highlighting Eastwood’s contribution as director. He never makes himself likeable, but by filming himself unflinchingly (there is a brilliant shot of Walt smoking in the dark, his blood pouring down his hands) he makes sure we feel everything Walt feels.

Alongside such a towering performance, Bee Vang and Ahney Her – non-professional actors – do admirably in their roles, Her in particular coming across as self-assured and (importantly) sympathetic in a role which is initially burdened with giving details about the Hmong but which later takes a shocking turn. Though other parts are necessarily limited, Brian Haley is excellent as Walt’s son Mitch, failing to connect with the old man and harassed by the wife into proposing retirement villages. John Carroll Lynch is also very good as the foul-mouthed barber who gives Walt as good as he gets, and who helps to school Thao in the art of being a man. Nick Schenk’s screenplay is poignant, funny and hard, and its morals are simple and direct; perhaps more so than in real life, but the impact of every scene is immediate and raw.

Gran Torino’s simplicity and refusal to become sentimental (a trait that afflicted Million Dollar Baby) is generally a blessing, but also leads to my only criticism of the film. At the very end, the ultimate destination of Walt’s prized car is easily guessed at, and Thao’s troubles are wrapped up rather too neatly to be entirely credible; but this is a small quibble, and one which only very slightly reduced my enjoyment of the film (since the build-up towards the climax is so expertly handled, I thought the climax itself might be…cleverer). If I’m being vague, it’s for a very good reason: even if it’s not quite perfect, Gran Turismo is a film that should be seen and appreciated without too much forewarning. It’s an uncomfortable watch, occasionally, but for every frame that Clint Eastwood is on screen, you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.

The Shawshank Redemption

WFTB Score: 17/20

The plot: Given two life sentences for murders he insists he didn’t commit, banker Andy Dufresne looks for ways to make his existence in prison bearable. While his professional skills make him useful to the warden, they bring him no closer to freedom. Andy turns to ‘fixer’ Red to obtain some products which will make his time more productive.

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), discovering that his wife is having an affair with a golf pro, takes matters into his own hands and kills them both. At least, that’s the verdict the jury arrive at at his trial, resulting in two life sentences to be served at Shawshank jail. To begin with, Andy’s overwhelmed, his rough treatment at the hands of “the sisters” causing him to be pitied by long-term inmate Ellis Redding (Morgan Freeman), known as Red – especially since neither brutal guard Hadley (Clancy Brown) nor warden Norton (Bob Gunton) have the slightest concern for their charges’ welfare.

Andy strikes up a friendship with Red and uses the older man’s facility for smuggling items into prison to obtain a rock hammer and, later, a poster of Rita Hayworth, while Andy’s own skills at moving money around become increasingly useful to the guards and especially to the warden, who amasses a small fortune from Andy’s efforts. Little wonder, then, that while Norton indulges Andy’s efforts to improve the prison library – named after tragic old lag Brooks (James Whitmore) – he’s reluctant to let Andy go, even when newcomer Tommy (Gil Bellows) appears to offer Andy grounds for appeal. Nonetheless, Andy maintains his hope, his dignity, and a plan in which Red becomes a key player.

If it’s a self-evident truth that a film about a man living a regular, uneventful, troubled life would offer little to audiences, it’s reasonable to believe that the opposite – a protagonist going from the degrading depths of imprisoned despair to the exhilarating joys of freedom – would offer an enormous amount; especially if the imprisonment and despair are caused by injustices, some more calculated than others.

The huge gulf between the peaks and troughs of Andy’s journey inform the viewer’s own experience of The Shawshank Redemption, guided by the terrific storytelling abilities of Stephen King and Frank Darabont. We instinctively understand the parallels between Red’s repeated parole hearings and Brooks’ short-lived freedom; we instinctively react to Andy’s care of Tommy, and the way Andy’s glimpse of freedom is dashed by vile, violent corruption. We also appreciate a number of beautiful and memorable moments, such as Andy broadcasting The Marriage of Figaro to stunned inmates or the revelation of Andy’s plan, the swells of emotion emphasised by Thomas Newman’s excellent score.

Overarching the whole film is Andy’s quiet stoicism, his insistence on retaining hope while others are prepared to throw in the towel: not only does he sustain himself, he inspires Red, Tommy and dozens of others who benefit from his efforts to make the library – and the prison – a true place of redemption. The theme ‘Get busy living, or get busy dying’ shines through; and while the super-happy ending is undeniably over-the-top, it feels right given the decades of pain Andy has suffered.

At least as important is the credible and heart-warming friendship between Andy and Red. Tim Robbins keeps Andy’s secrets well-hidden, whilst Freeman is simply magnificent as Red, his good humour and wisdom covering up his own pain at being constantly overlooked for parole – who wouldn’t want a friend as resourceful and philosophical as the old jailbird?

That said, these strong, archetypal performances also hint at why I can’t agree with the voters of IMDB who routinely put this film at the top of the Top 250. Andy always seems a little too much in control, maintaining his icy composure even as terrible things are done to him. And while it’s by no means to the detriment of this film, the laconic Morgan Freeman voiceover has now become such a cliché that it’s difficult to hear without a small roll of the eyes.

More damagingly, there’s very little shading to the villains of the piece: Norton hides his sins behind outward adherence to the Good Book, while Kurgan Hadley is a trademark thug with almost no redeeming features, apart from keeping his word in respect of the beers. Anyone who’s seen an episode of Porridge could tell you that the screws are the enemies and the lags the good guys, regardless of their crimes.

That last observation may be facetious, but it cuts to the heart of what I feel about The Shawshank Redemption. In terms of subject, theme, script, score, performance, cinematography and so on, it doesn’t put a foot wrong; and if you’re not thoroughly moved by Andy and Red’s (eventually) uplifting travails, there’s probably something wrong with you. On the other hand, it really doesn’t tell you much you haven’t seen before, and there’s just a whiff of misplaced mawkishness about its (slightly) simplistic sentimentality and the way it doles out of karmic justice at its climax. Handsome? Of course. Touching? Absolutely. Best film ever? For me, far from it.

Toy Story

WFTB Score: 17/20

The plot: The idyllic life of young Andy’s favourite toy Woody is turned on its head by the arrival of newcomer Buzz Lightyear, who is not only brighter and bolder than the old Sheriff but doesn’t even know he’s a toy. Woody’s resentment of Buzz leads to both going missing on the day Andy’s family is due to move: can the arguing duo overcome their differences and avoid being lost forever?

It’s Andy’s Birthday, D-Day for the toys who have spent a happy year organising themselves whenever Andy himself is not in the room. Leader of the gang – anointed by his owner’s name on his foot – is Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), an old-fashioned sheriff figure with pull-string phrases, and Woody marshals the troops together to eavesdrop on potential competitors for himself, Mr Potato Head, Rex the dinosaur and so on. All appears to be going swimmingly until a surprise toy is brought out and soon after introduced to the group in the stocky form of Buzz Lightyear.

Buzz (Tim Allen) is a plastic Space Ranger with electronic insides, wings and absolutely no idea that he’s a mass-produced toy; which Woody would find hilarious, except for the fact that everyone else – including Andy – finds Buzz irresistible, leaving Andy’s former favourite sulking on the sidelines. In a reckless moment Woody causes Buzz to fall out of the window, much to the horror of the other toys; and in the effort to rescue Buzz and restore his own reputation, Woody inadvertently leads them both into the lair of their next door neighbour Sid, a brat and renowned toy-torturer. Woody regrets the repercussions of his jealousy and Buzz makes an alarming self-discovery via a television advert, but there are more pressing matters at hand since Andy’s family is moving house and the two toys are still next door, Buzz due to be blown apart in Sid’s latest experiment. A combination of help from unlikely sources and sly bending of the rules is needed to prevent Woody and Buzz from the terrible fate of being permanently separated from their owner.

Were it dismal in every respect, Toy Story would still have a place in cinema history as the first feature-length film to be created entirely by computer animation. Happily, though, it’s not just a magnificent technological achievement but on any terms a rattling good film, from the central idea outwards. Since children are upset when they lose precious toys, it’s only natural that the toys should feel the same way, and the creative team at Pixar use this concept to craft a story that’s full of emotion, boosted by the two leads’ journeys of self-discovery.

And this is an important aspect of the film. There are plenty of animated comedies that play on the set-ups for laughs, though few of them match the sharp jabs of Toy Story’s script or its excellent sight gags (Don Rickles’ Mr Potato Head providing many of the laughs); very few explore their subject as thoroughly as Pixar’s first feature, with Buzz’s depression after realising he is ‘just’ a toy proving a particularly poignant and philosophical moment. The thought that has gone into little moments like this (there are others: where is Andy’s father? Why is Sid such a neglected child?) elevates Toy Story from a bright children’s film into something that can be savoured by all ages, especially when it is packed with other non-childish moments such as the funny horror of Sid’s ‘cannibals’ emerging from their hideaways and the not-so-funny terror of Woody coming to life in Sid’s hands.

The acting talents of Hanks and Allen make for lively sparring and invest Woody and Buzz with enormous amounts of character, a feature that also applies to the supporting toys: apart from Rickles, there’s good work from Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn and John Ratzenberger as (respectively) Slinky, Rex and Hamm the piggy bank. But at the end of the day, you have to go back to the graphics, which are little short of magical as they bring a roomful of toys to life. The computer animation is so good that you often forget that you’re watching a collection of pixels, the three-dimensional world filled with light, depth and texture, with some of the more difficult effects (Woody’s reflection in a spoon, a puddle of muddy water) still holding up today despite massive technological advances. The pastel colours and caricaturised human forms remind us that we are in a cartoon world, but it is a world that for the most part feels absolutely real. If there is to be a criticism, it would be of the occasionally stiff movements of the humans and especially of Sid’s dog, Scud; but it would be harsh to knock the film too much for simplifying something that could have taken years to perfect when the film was released (six years later, Shrek still cut corners when animating some of its characters). I’m also not too keen on the slightly intrusive nature of Randy Newman’s songs, but I don’t think they bothered me when the film was first released so the opinion is probably skewed by Family Guy (if you’ve seen the relevant episodes, you will know what I mean).

The success of Toy Story has been a blessing and a curse for the movie industry, with the march of technology making it much easier in successive years to churn out progressively cheaper (and often far inferior) animated films, though thankfully Toy Story 2 was also a notable success. I lament a little the mania for creating CG films to the almost total exclusion of traditionally-drawn animation (or even films that use both sympathetically, like The Lion King), but Toy Story cannot be blamed for what came after it. It stands on its own as both a landmark and a masterpiece.

Withnail and I

WFTB Score: 17/20

The plot: At the fag end of the ‘60s, two house-sharing, unemployed actors decide to get away from their troubles by taking a trip to the Lake District. The remote accommodation is sorted, courtesy of rich Uncle Monty; but the strings attached to the favour are too much for one of them to bear.

It’s 1969 in London’s Camden town and the outlook is not good for ‘resting’ actors Withnail (a cadaverous Richard E. Grant) and our narrator, who for argument’s sake we’ll call Marwood (Paul McGann). Sick of freezing and drinking themselves to death in their grotty digs, and wound up by the paranoia induced by Danny’s (Ralph Brown) dodgy drugs, the pair decide they need a break; but how can they get out of London whilst spending next to no money?

As luck would have it, Withnail’s rich Uncle Monty (Richard Griffith) has a tumbledown cottage in the Lake District, and Monty’s rather taken with young Marwood, which secures them the keys; however, when they arrive in Penrith, they find the experience is no less miserable than the squalor they left behind. The weather is awful, the cottage damp and cold, the locals unfriendly or downright threatening, and readily edible food hard to come by. When Monty arrives unexpectedly, he brings money, food and fine wine to the desperate actors; on the other hand, his aggressive pursuit of Marwood brings a whole new set of complications to the needy – but not that needy – young men.

Reviewing films frequently leads you from the sublime to the ridiculous, or in this case vice versa. For, having spent a dismal ninety minutes on Mr Bean’s Holiday, I watched this film immediately afterwards – and what a relief it was to be back in a land where script, character, story and themes all had a place on the screen. It’s worth commenting on each. The script has all the sharp writing of a play, peppered as it is with imaginative swearing and inspired, frayed lunacy: ‘How can we make it die?’, ‘You can’t threaten me with a dead fish’, ‘Why have you drugged their onions?’ and my all-time favourite, ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!’ (There’s also the brilliant follow-up to Withnail’s ‘Are you the farmer?’ which I won’t repeat here for modesty’s sake). Withnail and I is easily, endlessly quotable for anyone who has found themselves way out of their comfort zone, in a spectacularly louche mood, hung over beyond tolerance or any combination of the above.

The script, helped by uniformly superb performances, creates unforgettable characters. Grant’s monstrous, selfish, cowardly yet altogether magnificent Withnail is obviously head of these, but he’s by no means alone. Griffith in particular invests Monty – aggressive bugger though he is – with a tragic, almost childish sensibility; and Danny is a wonderful creation in Brown’s hands, with his semi-comatose delivery and thousand-yard stare lending credibility to his crazy ideas. If Marwood is bland by comparison, it’s surely a deliberate and necessary move; his anxiety and relative normality is the viewer’s insight into an otherwise bizarre and alien world.

The story, coming from Robinson’s own experiences, is a unique amalgam of period piece, road trip and long day’s journey into night (in a beaten-up Jag). It’s funny, tense, tender, and occasionally creepy; ultimately, it’s the tale of friends, one of whom needs the other but, even on the borders of depravity, is too proud to admit it. When the friendship has to come to an end, it’s a tragedy that literally takes on Shakespearean dimensions.

More than that, and this is where the theme comes in, it represents the end of a decade that started with new ideas and music, and appeared to offer endless possibilities, yet finished with drug dependency, burnout and decay: “They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths” laments Danny, ruefully acknowledging that the dream is over. So when Withnail/Grant bursts into his speech from Hamlet, its connotations are both individual and universal and the scene forms an almost perfect moment of pathos.

If it were merely well played, written and so on, Withnail and I would be a really good film, but perhaps too short on content to be thought of as really great. The details bring it to greatness: the costumes and set design, which are utterly convincing – at no time do you ever believe you’re anywhere but the 60s – and make it all too easy to forget that the film was actually made in a time of Ford Sierras and compact discs. It’s topped off by its powerful, evocative soundtrack, starting with King Curtis’ wonderful live arrangement of A Whiter Shade of Pale and boosted further by Hendrix’ magical version of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower.

There are Withnail deniers out there, and I’d readily admit that the film isn’t shot with great panache; though it has to be largely intentional, it does have that dreary, grey Handmade (pun intended) look of Britain on a particularly dull day.  To be completely honest, there are small stretches in the gloomy bed-hopping middle section that I could do without, if I were to watch the film ten times in a row; but I set that statement against the fact that I’d gladly watch most of it on a near-continuous loop. If you’ve seen Withnail and I, you’ve probably made up your mind already. If not, seek it out for, amongst other things, its wonderful use of language, some superb acting and British cinema’s defining anti-hero.

Ghostbusters

WFTB Score: 17/20

The plot: When paranormal activity starts spooking the citizens of New York, who can they call? The Ghostbusters, of course, a group of scientists dedicated to professional paranormal investigation and elimination – unless they’re making it up as they go along, that is. Con artists or the real thing, they had better be prepared for a seismic amount of trouble heading their way from the spirit world.

A disruptive spectral disturbance in the bowels of New York’s public library is investigated by a curious trio of parapsychologists: Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), enthusiastic but unfocused; Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), serious-minded to a fault; and Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), a cynic who conducts ESP tests mainly to hit on pretty students. However, the breakthrough proves short-lived when Columbia University ejects them for a lack of results, forcing Ray to mortgage the old family home to set up ‘Ghostbusters’ as a private enterprise in a mouldy old fire station.

Business starts slowly, but picks up when cellist Dana Barratt (Sigourney Weaver) visits with tales of dogs in her fridge barking mysterious words at her. Venkman suspects that Dana herself is slightly barking but is still keen to woo her, although larger forces have other plans for her. The Ghostbusters, having worked out how to capture and store ghouls with powerful proton streams, find themselves increasingly in demand and take on a new recruit in Winston Zeddemore (Ernest Hudson). What’s more, Stantz and Spengler discover that Dana’s building is a lightning rod for an ancient Sumerian God who is using Dana and her priggish neighbour Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) to gain access to our dimensions. The God’s arrival unleashes ghostly mayhem on New Yorkers and pits our heroes against the most unpredictable of adversaries.

It’s no surprise that Ghostbusters is funny, the director and stars of the entirely passable Stripes teaming up with an inspired Dan Aykroyd (starring and co-writing with Ramis) to hilarious effect – examples are too numerous to mention, but I particularly like the sarcasm of Venkman’s reaction to Dana’s tales of monsters in the fridge: ‘generally you don’t see that kind of behaviour in a major appliance.’ Bill Murray is the undoubted star of the show, his quick wit and knowing smirk lighting up the screen and sparking effectively off William Atherton’s pompous Environmental nitwit William Peck; but he’s run quite close by a number of his co-stars, not least Moranis who’s on top witless form.

More than any gag, though, the real delight about Ghostbusters is how hard it works to persuade the viewer to suspend their disbelief. Enormous effort has gone into making the world of the Ghostbusters plausible, with special effects that still look pretty good, for example the upheaval of the pavements outside ‘Spook Central’ (of course the effects creak in places, but they’re not the awful CGI that occasionally invaded Ghostbusters II). Another example is the sly work that goes into establishing Stay-Puft marshmallows as a brand throughout the movie – it’s so convincing, I always assumed Stay-Puft was a genuine product.

There’s also a pseudo-scientific logic to the script which explains events very well (mostly through Ramis’ stiff, stern delivery), introducing terms such as ‘psychokinetic energy’ and ‘ectoplasm’ (‘he slimed me!’*) to a wider audience. Sigourney Weaver’s statuesque presence undoubtedly adds gravitas to the picture too. These elements all distinguish Ghostbusters from more lightweight and knowingly parodic fare such as The Three Amigos or Dragnet, or gimmicky 80s films like Weird Science; and it means that when Mr Stay-Puft goes on the rampage, it feels less like a goofy joke and more like a real (if absurd) threat.

Ghostbusters is a comedy first and foremost, and it’s by no means a horror flick; on the other hand, it has a few fun scares and takes its fantasy elements seriously – when it’s time to not be jokey, it looks and sounds like a proper action movie. And I’ve not even mentioned Ray Parker Jr’s invaluable contribution, an incredibly catchy theme song – even if it does lean heavily on a track by Huey Lewis and the News.

So is there anything not to like? Only if you’re really looking. Ramis is stiff in comparison with the others, Ray’s dream sequence is unnecessary and Zeddemore’s religious slant on events doesn’t add a great deal either. Also, the climax, particularly Gozer’s distinctly brief appearance, does feel slightly truncated, and its resolution – reversing the particle flow – is a Science Fiction staple from year dot (as, I suspect, the writers knew well). Finally, in retrospect there’s an awful lot of smoking for a family film. But as I say, you do have to go out of your way to pick nits.

I may well be compromised by nostalgia and my fondness for Ghostbusters as a youngster, but to my mind – and unlike some other childhood favourites (see Superman II) – the film holds up every bit as well today as it did in 1984. If anything, I can appreciate the sublime performances, especially Murray’s, even more as an adult.

In short, you should by rights fall into one of two camps as far as Ghostbusters is concerned. You’ve either seen it, in which case you know how good it is; or you’ve still got the pleasure of watching this clever and well-made fantasy action comedy ahead of you, in which case – what are you waiting for?

NOTES: I mention this purely to wallow in a bit of nostalgia about the Ghostbusters video game for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which – impressively for the time – sampled speech from the film. Unfortunately, whilst ‘Ghostbusters!’ came out pretty clearly, ‘he slimed me’ sounded like ‘he szlmnlmlnmlml’.

King Kong (1933)

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: When fearless filmmaker Carl Denham lures down-at-heel actress Ann Darrow to be in his overseas action picture, even he has little idea of the danger he is putting them in. But when Ann is kidnapped by a superstitious tribe, leading First Mate Driscoll and the rest of his ship’s crew to discover fantastical beasts on Denham’s secret island, one beast in particular turns the director’s mind away from movies towards other ways of making money.

It can’t be done, of course. Try as one might, there is no way a 21st century filmgoer can watch a film of King Kong’s vintage with any real sense of the impact it might have had on its release. We now have colour, seamless digital effects – hell, we even have Peter Jackson’s swanky version of the story, so anything a 75-year old film has to offer is bound to be lacking, right? In fact, you barely need any appreciation of the history of film, or of the fact that ‘Talkies’ were still in short trousers in 1933, to know that this Kong is something special.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is about to set sail for territories unknown, at least unknown to the ship’s captain and surly First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot); but first he needs a girl, since the studios have told Denham that pretty girls are what the public wants. Finding one in would-be petty thief Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), they set sail with only Denham knowing their ultimate location: an island where exotic beasts are rumoured to roam. They reach the island, but are stopped from progressing by a sacrificial ceremony being held by natives; although everyone gets back to ship safely, no sooner has Driscoll declared his love for Ann than she is kidnapped to be the replacement sacrifice for the island’s great beast, ‘Kong.’

Kong takes Ann but something about her stops him from simply eating her; instead she becomes his screaming plaything, and he vigorously fights off attempts to snatch her, both from the island’s other creatures and Driscoll’s rescue party, which also has a variety of terrifying dinosaurs to contend with. When Ann is snatched back from Kong’s grasp, his pursuit leads to his own capture and display in New York (though he has lost his film, Denham never misses the chance to make a buck). Predictably, iron shackles cannot hold the beast and he breaks free to cause havoc in the city, before his final showdown with bi-planes atop the recently completed Empire State Building.

Were King Kong simply a show-reel of Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion effects, it would be a curiosity piece, albeit an impressive one, showing animators and directors experimenting with the possibilities of the medium. But the smart set-up, with the Arabian proverb and Jack Driscoll’s mistrust of women melting into love, and the atmospheric approach to the island, elevates King Kong into the realms of allegory whilst retaining all the thrills of a no-nonsense monster movie. To 21st Century eyes the effects are primitive, with many jerky movements, a less-than-perfect fit between the model Kong and his giant, expressionless head, and obvious use of back projection that makes interaction between the stop-motion and live action characters a mixed bag (when creatures charge towards the screen you never quite feel – as a modern viewer – that they will ever reach the actors).

However, the film fits the action together as well as the technology allows and the action sequences are immaculately constructed and always incredibly exciting. Whether it’s the crew being nudged off the raft, Kong battling the T-Rex and flapping its jaw after the fight is won, or all of the fantastic New York sequence, there is an immediacy about the film’s action that makes the viewer willingly suspend any disbelief. It should also be said that sound effects, married to Max Steiner’s evocative score (one of the first bespoke film scores) add greatly to the atmosphere of the film, not least Fay Wray’s full-blooded screams.

On the human side, the actors are limited not by technology (though their scenes are all rather static to modern eyes) but by the acting style of the time: Cabot is fairly wooden throughout, Darrow doesn’t do much more than faint or scream, and Armstrong’s Denham is as heartless as he speaks the famous final lines as he was in the opening scenes.

But this is as it should be, letting the movie be about its eponymous star. For while O’Brien’s Kong may lack the motion-captured emoting of Peter Jackson’s, there is easily enough variety of expression and mood to convey whether he is angry, playful or protective, without having to go into the silly sign-language stuff. Indeed, coming to the original after watching the 2005 version only serves to enhance this film’s reputation. Here, Ann is terrified of Kong throughout and the crew of the ship are largely expendable – we are not asked to care about everyone and everything before they meet their destinies; but most of all, the film simply gets on with it – we get the picture of who Ann is from her two-minute conversation with Denham, and can imagine how down on her luck she has to be to take the job. Had Jackson made a more faithful two-hour or under remake he could have had a monster smash on his hands, but… well, that’s another review.

Whereas a lot of ‘old’ films bear so many hallmarks of the time they were made that it becomes difficult to watch them objectively, King Kong overcomes its limitations with a story and action that are both truly beguiling. The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ is exactly that – a wonder – and even if your head tells you it could all be done more effectively today, you heart is likely to be beating too hard to hear it.