Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, March 14, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (1989)

7. Ghostbusters II

After the enormous, blockbuster success of “Ghostbusters,” the studio naturally was interested in a sequel. Considering how prone Dan Aykroyd is to self-mythologizing, it’s surprising to read that he wasn’t interested in making “Ghostbusters II” at first. Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis, and everyone else considered the first film a complete story, with no room for continuation. Bill Murray certainly wasn’t interested, as he only appeared in the first one after Columbia agreed to finance his pet project, a remake of “The Razor’s Edge.” Eventually, five years later, the studio talked the guys into making a sequel. “Ghostbusters II” remains controversial among fans. Some hate the movie bitterly. Others considered it a worthy continuation. As someone who watched the sequel nearly as much as the original, I’ve always liked it.

Five years after saving New York City, the Ghostbusters have fallen on hard times. The business has been sued into non-existence. Ray and Winston now do birthday parties for unappreciative kids. Egon is doing quasi-scientific work and Venkman hosts a cheesy paranormal talk show, his relationship with Dana long over. In her job as an art restorer, Dana and her child Oscar come across an unnerving painting, of Vigo the Carpathian. A blood-thirty warlord from the twelfth century, Vigo’s spirit survives inside the painting. Gathering negative energy from all over the city via a subterranean river of slime, Vigo plans to bring about the apocalypse. The city needs the Ghostbusters again.

“Ghostbusters” begins with an unlikely proposition. New Yorkers now believe the events of the first film to be an elaborate hoax. So, wait, the entire city is now convinced that four guys somehow tricked everyone into seeing a giant marshmallow man? It’s unlikely, to say the least. The real reason the story takes this direction is to restore the status quo. Once again, the Ghostbusters have to convince every one that ghosts are real, that the city is in danger. Skeptical judges and officials have to be persuaded that spooks exist. Instead of being treated like heroes, the Ghostbusters were faced with volumes of law suits, their credibility destroyed. This story decision is lazy. Instead of building off the possibilities of the first film, we’re back to zero.

The movie doesn’t open with its heroes in the best place either. The relationship between Venkman and Dana, the secret heart of the first movie, has also been dissolved. It’s so over that Dana had enough time to marry another man, have his child, and then divorce him. As with the other sequel resets, Venkman has to impress Dana again, earning her trust once more. However, the sequel adds an aspect that works: Oscar, a bouncing, baby boy. Despite still being a charlatan, a slacker, and a horn dog, Venkman immediately bonds with the baby. The scenes of Dana and Peter navigating parenthood together are adorable. Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver still have great chemistry. By making Dana a single mom, it changes her dynamic. She’s even stronger, more determined. Venkman, meanwhile, has to grow up a little bit without loosing his roguish charm.

The script has some problems but “Ghostbusters II” gets a lot out of just reassembling the cast. The first scene that reunites the team, inside the occult book store that Ray owns, has them joking around and quibbing like nothing happened. When the guys disguise themselves as construction workers, drilling a huge hole into a busy NYC street, they end up talking shit with cops and officials. After busting their first ghosts in five years, they’re trading one-liners and jokes. If Bill Murray wasn’t as involved in this project as the first one, he doesn’t let it show. He’s as funny as ever, tossing off improvised lines. Aykroyd and Ramis both contribute plenty of dry hilarity, playing off each other fantastically. Though he still has the least screen time of the gang, Ernie Hudson is even given more to do. The sequel has issues but the charm of the team, and the joy of seeing them back together, takes it a long way.

The first “Ghostbusters” had a fairly vague villain. Gozer didn’t appear onscreen until the end, after all. The Terror Dogs, though impressive, didn’t have much personality. “Ghostbusters II” has an adversary with a clear motive. The idea of a living painting, containing an evil spirit, is interesting. Though immobile for most of the story, Vigo speaks with Max Von Sydow’s voice, a resounding baritone that conveys plenty of ominous wickedness. Unlike Gozer’s vaguely apocalyptic plan, Vigo has a defined scheme: To be reborn. Helping him in this goal is Janosz. Already a weirdo with an undetermined accent, the henchman helps the ancient warlord be reborn. Peter MacNichol invest a huge amount of eccentric energy into the part, making Janosz a bizarre, funny, unforgettable character.

In some ways, “Ghostbusters II” has more ideas than it can properly contain. Consider the river of slime. At first, the river of slime doesn’t connect with Vigo as an idea. It’s almost like two separate sequel concepts were smashed together. The river of slime reportedly generates bad vibes, in addition to feeding off it. At one point, the Ghostbusters emerge from the slime, angry at each other. Otherwise, the idea of the slime putting out negativity isn’t really expanded on. Why Vigo has access to a river of slime beneath the city, even where it comes from, are other questions left unanswered. Still, it certainly makes for a memorable visual. The sight of an endless river of pink goo, flowing under the city, is unlikely to be forgotten. How the film utilized it too, via a dancing toaster and slime blasters, is pretty cool too.

The original “Ghostubsters” signaled its transformation into full awesomeness when the guys met Slimer at the Sedgewick Hotel. “Ghostbusters II” has a similar story structure. After winding up in a courtroom following the road digging incident, a small jar of the hate slime and an angry judge combine to awaken the spirits of the Scoleri Brothers. Purple spectres jolting with electricity, both are fantastic designs. The sequence, with tables and chairs flipping into the air, escalates nicely. Mostly, the scene is worth it to see the gang back together again, busting ghosts just like the old days. When Ray, Peter, and Egon flick on their proton packs, the reaction is joyous. Both inside the film and inside the audience.

“Ghostbusters II” came after the massive success of “The Real Ghostbusters” animated series. The sequel, in terms of salaciousness and spookiness, was reportedly toned down, in hopes of not upsetting younger viewers. While the humor is definitely less risqué, “Ghostbusters II” creeped me out as much as the original during childhood viewings. A sequence of Janosz walking down a darkened hallway, highlighted in red light, with glowing eyes always spooked me when I was young. Later, he flies through the air, dressed as an antiqued nanny, extending out an arm to grab Oscar from a perch. The slime emerging from a tub, twisting the metal as it reaches for the baby, is also striking. While exploring an abandoned train tunnel, the Ghostbusters are haunted by visions of floating, decapitated heads. During the montage of ghosts terrorizing the city – another scene emulated from the first – a woman’s mink coat springs to life and attacks her, a sequence that has always stuck with me. “Ghostbusters II” isn’t exactly scary but neither was the original. It still manages to be pretty creepy for a PG-rated film.

While I consider “Ghostbusters II” a solid follow-up, the sequel does struggle to match any of the iconic images from the first film. Nothing really matches Slimer or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. In the last act, the sequel makes its biggest attempt to recapture some of the original’s famous imagery. A dome of hate-powered slime covering the museum containing Oscar and Dana, the Ghostbusters decide the only thing that break through it – the only symbol that all New Yorkers can get behind – is the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty, marching through the streets of New York and piloted by an NES Advantage, is an eye-catching visual. The special effects are extremely good. It’s also a not-overdone but genuinely sweet example of this franchise’s love of New York City. No, it’s not as great as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. But it’s not bad either.

The sequel smartly brings back much of the original’s supporting cast. Even David Margulies is back as the Mayor of New York City, blustering his way through a few short scenes. Annie Potts and Rick Moranis return as Janine and Tully. Moranis has an expanded role, being upgraded to the Ghostbusters’ attorney and accountant. He even puts on a ghost busting suit by the end. Even while trading quibs with a suddenly pacified Slimer, Moranis’ maintains the comedic anxiety he built his career upon. As an enthusiastic Egon/Janine shipper, I’m not a huge fan of Janine throwing herself at Tully. It’s seems unlikely that an incredibly attractive woman like that would be interested in a mess like Tully. Still, Potts and Moranis have a few nice moments together, both actors getting the most out of the material.

Something consistent throughout Ivan Reitman’s thus far seven films has been the director’s use of pop music. “Ghostbusters II” brings back Ray Parker Jr.’s unforgettable theme song, a handful of times. In a likely attempt to stay hip and relevant, the sequel fills its soundtrack with trendy hip/hop and R&B songs. Run-DMC present their own take on Parker’s song which is… Interesting, if not especially memorable. Bobby Brown’s “On Our Own” is the sequel’s proper theme song, playing twice. Brown even has a cameo. The song’s not bad but doesn’t fit the film’s tone very well. Doug E. Fresh’s “Spirit” is silly but awfully catchy, the song I always associated with the movie. Randy Edelman’s score is decent, putting amusing spins on Elmer Bernstein’s themes from the original.

Detractors of “Ghostbusters II” claim it leans heavily on the formula established by the first film, that the villain is not as effective, the cast isn’t as invested, and the jokes aren’t as funny. Perhaps. Maybe countless childhood viewings have made the weaknesses of the sequel unnoticeable to me. “Ghostbusters II” is obviously not as good as “Ghostbusters.” Yet it makes me laugh, entertains consistently, has several memorable sequences, and features a beloved cast successfully reprising their roles. Without topping the original, it manages to be a totally pleasing follow-up. [Grade: B]

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