Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, July 18, 2016

Recent Watches: Ghostbusters (2016)

No film of 2016 has attracted more controversy then “Ghostbusters.” Any time a beloved, nostalgia property is remade, there will be some inevitable fan backlash. Yet the reception that the female led reboot of “Ghostbusters” received, even before any trailers or posters were released, was unprecedented in its negativity. Some of this was expected but a distressingly large amount of the backlash was undeniably sexist. These assholes have set the nerd fandom back twenty years. Anyway, now that the movie is actually out, it can be judged on its own merits.

Dr. Erin Gilbert is trying to make it as a legitimate physics professor, putting her history as a paranormal researcher behind her. That is until childhood friend and former colleague Dr. Abby Yates starts selling the book they co-authored on Amazon. When Erin confronts Abby about this, the two ends up going on an adventure and discovering irrefutable proof of ghosts. Along with eccentric new partner Holtzmann, the three set out as a business, busting ghosts. It soon becomes apparent that something strange is happening in the neighborhood. A villain has built devices that amplify the ghostly activity in an area, prepping for a full-blown spirit invasion of the living world. Teaming with a street smart subway clerk, the Ghostbusters seek to protect the world.

While much of the backlash against the new “Ghostbusters” was simply gross, some of it was based in legitimate concerns. The original “Ghostbusters” is one of the most beloved comedies ever made, retaining a loyal and passionate fan base despite being more-or-less stagnant for twenty years. It’s a hefty comedic legacy to stand up to. I didn’t know if Paul Feig, Kristen Wigg, and Messlia McCarthy were the right fits for the job at first either. I wasn’t very familiar with Feig or Wigg and found many of McCarthy’s most recent characters to be obnoxious. However, the more I saw, the more I realized this could be more then a cheap cash-in. 2016’s “Ghostbusters” isn’t as funny as the original. But what films are? It is, however, a entertaining modern day blockbuster.

The film does take a while to find its comedic rhythm. Early scenes featuring overly pithy or sarcastic dialogue are clearly straining for laughs but do not reach them. The characters, at first, strike a viewer as somewhat obnoxious. Everyone is a little too mean to everyone else in the beginning. The awkwardness of the early scenes reaches its peak during a painfully unfunny sequence. Melissa McCarthy tries on the proton pack for the first time and ends up sliding around an alley way in a moment of uncomfortably bad slapstick. During these scenes, I kept thinking to myself “This is going to get better, right?” Luckily, it does. Once the story finds it groove and the cast becomes comfortable with the characters, “Ghostbusters” starts reliably producing decent laughs.

Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig feel like an established comedic team, even though this is only their second movie together. The emotional crux of “Ghostbusters” is built around their characters' friendship. At the story’s beginning, Abby and Erin are isolated from each other, even outright antagonistic at times. By the end, they’re reunited as dear friends, saving each others' lives. The film plays down McCarthy’s more colorful physical comedy. There’s only one or two scenes of overdone slapstick, such as an exaggerated leap into the air. Wiig’s style of humor is more neurotic, often focusing on awkward, confused, or nervous reaction to other characters. Moreover, the two are funny together, playing well off one another.

Wiig and McCarthy are fine but the supporting players are those that truly shine in “Ghostbusters.” Kate McKinnon has been getting the most attention as Holtzman. McKinnon undeniably has a comedic energy all her own. A sequence where she dances with a pair of blowtorches is a highlight. As funny and interesting as McKinnon is, the character is ultimately too bizarre to be lovable. Holtzman, at times, feels less like a real person and more like a collection of bizarre quirks. Leslie Jones, as Patty, strikes me as the break-out talent of the film. Jones’ comedic timing is perfect. She manages to produce big laughs out of small lines, simply by utilizing an incredible screen presence and sense of delivery. Some were concerned that the character was a reductive “street smart” cliché. Instead, she’s a clever, thoughtful, knowledgeable person well suited to Jones’ abilities.

In the original “Ghostbusters,” the all-male team was supported by a female secretary. The reboot switches this around as well, giving the all-female team a male secretary. However, Chris Hemsworth’s Kevin contributes more to the plot then Annie Potts’ Janine ever did. Hemsworth plays the character as an exceedingly eccentric simpleton. He wears glasses without lens. He doesn’t seem to understand how to operate a phone. He has named his dog “My Cat.” As a would-be actor, he shows off glossy of himself posing, shirtless, with a saxophone. It’s another example of the film creating characters perhaps too off-beat for their own good. Hemsworth, however, makes it work. He jumps into the part with full gusto, mining solid laughs from Kevin’s increasingly strange behavior. He also manages to find a heat, if not an intelligence, inside the character.

2016’s “Ghostbusters” seems to have anticipated the sexist nature of its backlash, to some degree. There’s a throw away line concerning YouTube comments. The main villain, meanwhile, is a socially inept male who spends a lot of time in a basement. Rowan, as played by Neil Casey, is an outcast who believes the world owes him recognition. He relates with the ghosts, similarly forgotten and shunned by the world. He looks to reek revenge against a society that rejects him. What I really like about Roman’s character is how much it reminds me of a comic book bad guy origin. Rowan starts out as brilliant but ordinary. His home-made ghost amplifiers are his main weapon. Before the end, he’s transformed into an honest-to-god supervillain. Casey nicely balances the character’s awkwardness with his budding sinister qualities. (Refreshingly, unlike certain other recent blockbusters, the villain has no personal connection to the heroes.)

Much of the criticism that has faced the reboot has been nonsensical. One that strikes me as especially false has been the criticism of the special effects. One of my favorite aspects of the new film is its ghosts. They look amazing. Skeletons glow inside translucent, colorful skin. Each of the film’s main spectres seems like variation on traditional ghost archetypes. One is an elegant woman in a fancy gown. Another is a convict who died in the electric chair. Each looks amazing, bringing a certain cartoon aesthetic to their designs without appearing improbably. The best utilized ghost is a large, dragon like entity. Equally skeletal and reptilian, it makes an impression. The new “Ghostbusters” doesn’t have any of the creepiness of the original. The best scare involves a mannequin, a moment equally comedic as spooky. But that’s fine, as scares isn’t really one of the new film’s objectives.

Despite being the purest definition of a reboot, telling a totally new story with a similar premise, the new film still felt the need to reference to the originals. Sometimes, this is more distracting then endearing. The way the Ghostbusters logo is created feels especially unneeded. Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song is heavily incorporated into the score, to the point of diversion. And, of course, there are cameos. These mostly work. Bill Murray’s appearance seems to play with his stated disinterest in the “Ghostbusters” franchise. Dan Aykroyd and Annie Potts’ scenes intentionally recall their roles in the original, to mild amusement. Sigourney Weaver’s cameo is a little too self aware. Ernie Hudson’s cameo is my favorite, as it pays off on a running gag set up throughout the film. Even Harold Ramis appears, in a sense, as a bust. However, the best cameos belong to Stay Puft Marshmallow – who is incorporated in a clever way – and Slimer. Slimer even gets a girlfriend, a delightfully silly addition.

The biggest problem facing 2016’s “Ghostbusters” has nothing to do with its talented cast or solid screenplay. Instead, Paul Feig’s direction seems ill suited to an effects driven film. He seems far more comfortable to uniform sequences devoted to characters standing around and talking. The action scenes are never incoherent but are often oddly framed. Like the film’s humor, even the visual direction seems lightly off at first. It’s not until the end, when a slow motion fight scene appears, that Feig appears confident in his action direction. The editing, meanwhile, is even more off. The film awkwardly cuts between big effects shots and unrelated reactions. It’s blunt, at best, and baffling, at worst.

When all things are considered, “Ghostbusters” is entertaining. This is most apparent during the lavish finale. The team is reunited. They converge in Times Squares, to battle a small army of different ghosts. Each of the main cast members get a moment to shine. All of the new weapons and gear introduced throughout the film are utilized. We see lots of cool new ghosts. The big finish has Rowan assuming the shape of the white spook in the Ghostbusters’ logo. What starts out as cute soon becomes giant and scarred. It’s not a visual gag equal to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’s original appearance. However, it’s a respectful nod towards the series’ history and something we haven’t quite seen before.

I have my nitpicks concerning the newest “Ghostbusters.” I wish the ghost traps had a bigger role, for one. A sudden cameo from Ozzy Osbourne is terrible. As is a rock group featured in one scene. For the most part though, the movie works fairly well most of the time. Whether or not this new “Ghostbusters” launches a new franchise remains to be seen. (Sony created an entire new production company – Ghost Corps – just to exploit the Ghostbusters I.P. So, even if this film underperforms, I suspect we’ll see new entries somehow.) The cast works the best once they grow into their characters, meaning a sequel would likely lack some of the bumpy edges this film has. As a long time fan of the series, overall, the new film satisfies me. It’s as true now as it was in 1984: Bustin’ makes ya’ feel good. [7/10]

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