Friday, July 15, 2016

"Ghostbusters" (2016)

No non-threatening, generic, slightly scared-looking ghosts allowed.
When I heard that Ghostbusters was going to be "rebooted" with a new cast, I felt pretty dubious. The time had well and truly come and gone for the original team, but to me a reboot sounded like an act of desperation. Then it was announced that the new cast would be all-female, and I admit I was intrigued. Why? Because my fear was that the "new" Ghostbusters would just be four guys with a passing resemblance to Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis and Hudson and the whole thing would just be a pathetic tribute act like the rebooted version of Star Trek. Four ladies taking the lead made it sound like they couldn't go down the straight "remake" route, so even though I was pessimistic about the idea in general (as I am about most things), I thought that this casting decision was actually an interesting one, something more valid than the alternatives.

The (Stupid) Controversy
"When you're walking down the street-"
It's worth taking a moment to consider the inevitable, but nonetheless stupid and pointless, controversy which occurred as a result of this casting decision. Of course the usual suspects perceived this as part of the alleged encroachment of socially-progressive totalitarianism (which somehow isn't a self-contradictory idea) which only exists in the minds of reactionary paranoiacs, mostly found in internet comments sections and on discussion boards, and the sinister power-mongers who feed them the lies and fallacious arguments that batten their delusions (usually as a way of attaining fame and money by collecting political "followers"). Anyone with a lick of common sense could see how absurd this notion was; rebooting Ghostbusters is primarily a means of Sony Corporation making money without the bother of establishing a new "brand", and if anything it could be argued that they were seeking notoriety, and thus exposure, by courting the exact controversy they received. Yet it's a disturbing rock to peer under, even for profit, because a good deal of online anti-feminism, as far as I can determine in my holding-my-nose peeping into some of the uglier corners of internet discourse, is just one tentacle of a reactionary octopus with some truly revolting conspiracy-theory beliefs at its core, including racism, its neighbours white supremacy and anti-semitism, and in some cases outright fascism and neo-Nazism. Call me a Godwin's Law invoker all you like, but there are some pretty nasty thoughts going on in the brains at the centre of these controversies, thoughts one ought to be cautious about giving too much attention to, or certain kinds of attention. This doesn't mean to say, of course, that all anti-feminists are crazy reactionary authoritarian racists, of course, just that many of their arguments are invented by such people, and many of them, wittingly or unwittingly, are being manipulated by such people. I'm also not trying to condone anti-feminism; I think sincere anti-feminism is almost exclusively just foolish paranoia. I simply think that anti-feminists might want to be aware that, firstly, they're probably taking feminism too personally (seems to be common) and secondly that many of their ideas are calculated pieces of political manipulation generated in the depths of the minds of would-be tyrants seeking money and power. Do you really want to be these people's pawns? I've never understood this train of thought that preaches rugged individualism, "standing out from the herd" as it were, and yet hero-worships "leaders" and talking heads.

On the other hand, many of these various reactionaries are probably just trolls and/or immature teenagers; I really hope so, 'cause otherwise it's a worrying thought about what the internet has really achieved if it has allowed genuine fascists and the like (ie idiots who would probably be amongst the first against the wall if their psychotic imaginings ever actually came to pass) to create giant delusory online fantasylands. At least with mad old people who are rusted-on right wingers and conservatives (usually against their own best interests) you know they mean it. With this lot you can't help but wondering what they'd do just for a laugh or to get a reaction if they had the opportunity.

"-and you see a little ghost-"
Anyway, wasn't the 90s cartoon show Extreme Ghostbusters already way more "progressive" than this? It had a female Ghostbuster, a Hispanic Ghostbuster and a Ghostbuster who was in a wheelchair in addition to the pre-established black Ghostbuster. I wonder if anyone was up in arms about that at the time. They probably were and just didn't have Facebook and Reddit as a means of finding lots of other people to vehemently agree with them and make them feel like everyone in the world was secretly on their "side". That's the thing these reactionary culture warriors don't seem to realise; the overwhelming majority of people aren't sitting around raging on Reddit and Twitter all day and actually don't give a flying shit either way about the enormous list of harmless things they're pointlessly outraged about. That's kind of something these people really need to start to realise: the "silent majority" is not on their "side" or their opponents' "side"; they're apathetic because they've got real things to worry about, like their jobs and their kids. Why don't people understand this?

On a third hand (?), those people who argued that everyone who was negative about the film was in some way being sexist and/or misogynistic were obviously making a ridiculous generalisation. The trailers were really bad and not funny at all. I think the amount of people who actually were making this argument was quite small, and exaggerated by reactionaries (surprise, surprise), but nonetheless I've read some pretty tortured arguments. These include people trying to claim that James Rolfe's video expressing his fan-oriented lack of interest in the new film, for instance, is sexist when I'm pretty sure it just isn't; I didn't find his arguments terribly persuasive, but I felt like they were his personal reasons, not something he expected anyone else to abide by. But I like James Rolfe and don't want people on either "side" to drag him into this futile "culture war" (the term "war" is dignifying these online spats with far more gravitas than is warranted). He seems pretty good on his own, though, at keeping out of these things, and a lot of people don't seem to get that for all his online exposure he's not really part of or clued into "internet culture", which as far as I can tell is an extremely good thing, largely because internet culture is stupid. For my own part, I watched the trailers and didn't think they were funny. I still went and saw the film because I was curious, because of a few early reviews and reactions saying it wasn't that bad and because of...

Casting etc.
"That's great, Ray. Save some for me."
I can't remember when the director and cast were announced, but it turned out Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy were among the leads and Paul Feig was directing, and I liked Bridesmaids, so I thought: this could be funny. As I said above, the trailers were very disappointing. The jokes shown simply weren't funny and I agreed with the argument that the depiction of the character Patty, played by Leslie Jones, seemed like a bit of a racial stereotype. So that wasn't good. Also, the CGI action looked pretty ropey (and indeed it was, but I'll get to that). Nonetheless, I was still curious, and when I realised it was out the next day and a friend of mine and I observed that we both wanted to see it... we went and saw it.

This is a comedy film without a particularly strong narrative (I'll get to that) so I don't think there's much point in me reviewing this in my usual review/recap style, so I'm going to divide this up into categories and sub-categories. Here we go:

"That's the Ghostbusters theme song."
1. How does it compare to the originals?
Well, firstly, it's obviously not as good as Ghostbusters (1984). It's by its nature not nearly as original and lacks a good deal of the quirkiness of the first film. The style of humour is quite different and doesn't feature the quotable absurdism of the first film. There isn't really a main "funny" character like Bill Murray's Peter Venkman (Egon was always my favourite; poor Harold Ramis), although Kate McKinnon's Holtzmann is the most outwardly facetious. As for Ghostbusters II, well, I can't say really. I watched Ghostbusters II a lot as a kid, so I was never "disappointed" by it the way a lot of fans supposedly are, and I think parts of it are quite memorable and funny, but I haven't seen it for years. If you're in the camp in which you think Ghostbusters II is too similar to Ghostbusters (1984), you might actually find this new one refreshing. If you're in the camp that likes Ghostbusters II because it's similar to the first one, and wants more of the same, you're not going to find it here. Better go rewatch Groundhog Day or something. Maybe play the 2009 video game that featured the original cast. Nonetheless, this 2016 reboot naturally has a lot of references to the original and features cameos from all of the surviving main cast (except Rick Moranis of course, but including Slimer), although some of them come across as begrudging (guess who?).

2. Is it funny? Are the cast good?
Which inferior follow up had a better subway sequence?
This or Ghostbusters II?
Short answer: yes. This is the key thing that supersedes all other considerations: it's a comedy film, and it made me laugh. I laughed out loud quite a lot, and anyone who reads this blog knows I'm very difficult to please. There are a lot of entertaining moments, usually derived from the characterisation. The cast are unsurprisingly strong, given that they come from comedy backgrounds, but the standout is probably Kate McKinnon as Holtzmann, whose regular gags are mostly funny. Kristen Wiig is good too; one of the funniest bits of the film, in my view, is when, after emphatically denying that she believes in the paranormal any more, she sees the first ghost they encounter and enthusiastically declares her belief on camera. Smash cut to her boss at the university, played by an amusingly posh Charles Dance, watching this declaration on YouTube. I personally don't think Melissa McCarthy and Leslie Jones got the best jokes of the piece, but they get the job done. Chris Hemsworth is entertaining as well as the clueless receptionist Kevin, but at times I found him to be a little too stupid; the joke became a bit tired after a while. I think it would have been stronger if he was more eccentric than purely oblivious. He's at his strongest, I would argue, late in the film when he's possessed by the antagonist.

That's not to say there aren't weak or cliché jokes, especially one-liners, and there's a lame metal concert sequence which is totally unconvincing. I'm not a metal fan, but m'colleague used to be (and still is to a tenuous extent), and I know the difference between a real metal concert and Hollywood's twee mental image of a metal concert. Nonetheless, I felt that more of the jokes were successful than not.

I used to be a pall bearer,
but I couldn't stop coughin'.
The cameos from the original cast are a mixed bag. Ernie Hudson's is predictable and perfunctory, as is Sigourney Weaver's; you can tell when she's going to appear by a process of elimination. Annie Potts's cameo is better, but the best is Dan Aykroyd as a curmudgeonly taxi driver who inexplicably knows about ghosts but is unconcerned. Bill Murray has the longest cameo, but supposedly Sony had to threaten to sue him to get him to do it, which is very unfortunate and definitely falls into the "ugly corporate logic" side of this film's production. I'm not sure if the film makes this work in its favour; he's cast as a nay-saying sceptic who shows up demanding that the girls prove their claims to him, but his performance, unsurprisingly, is completely phoned in. The thing I'm not sure about is whether this is a weakness or if the film actually succeeds by channelling Bill Murray's expected disinterest and disdain into the attitude of a minor antagonist, given that he appears to have been the main stumbling block in the way of a "true" Ghostbusters 3 with the original cast ever being made.

3. What's the story like?
"Wanna play Boggle? Or Super Mario Bros.?"
The story's pretty average. Kristen Wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig's character, Dr. Erin Gilbert, is reunited with her old colleague Dr. Abby Yates, Melissa McCarthy's character. Abby is now working with Jillian Holtzmann, played by Kate McKinnon, and when they see an actual ghost in an old New York mansion they decide to investigate the paranormal full time. Leslie Jones's character, Patty Tolan, joins them after she sees a ghost at her job in the Subway. Much like the original films they face government interference, but in this case it's because the FBI is investigating ghost activity themselves and wants to keep the situation hushed up. A crazy loner named Rowan is trying to get revenge on the world by bringing about the "Fourth Cataclysm"; he's exacerbating ghost activity by placing devices around the city along ley lines to achieve this. Eventually he succeeds and turns into a powerful spirit and they have to drive the Ecto-1 equivalent into a big portal to stop him. It's all pretty arbitrary, and is mostly about the characters and the comedy.

I didn't actually think this bit was that funny; it's just I've only got
so much material to work with from the clips in the trailer.
Part of the story, as should be clear from this hodge-podge synopsis, has to do with the team dealing with their public perception as frauds, and at times this feels simultaneously overplayed and underplayed. For instance, there are more than a few times when they're annoyed by dismissive or antagonistic social media posts (perhaps reflecting the leadup to the film) but at other times it seems like the public doesn't really perceive their fraudulent nature; I was expecting them to be protested against or abused by the public, but they aren't, and this plot element felt a bit ineptly handled. It's more effectively conveyed by the character of Rowan, who is basically like the Ghostbusters of this film but instead of dealing with the bad hand he's been dealt by life he thinks it's better to take it out on the world at large. This aspect, however, I didn't feel was too heavy handed and I thought it was done with adequate subtlety. My main issue was that I felt there were too many cutaways to Rowan. The audience knows about him before the Ghostbusters do, and the dramatic irony is a bit unexciting. I would have preferred more of a mystery; it might have been more effective if the only times we'd seen Rowan had been when he speaks to Patty at the subway station and when they confront him at the hotel later in the film. The other scenes in which he appears aren't that funny anyway, so as this is a comedy the film wouldn't really suffer by losing them.

In actuality the main story is, in a sense, Erin becoming reconciled to her past and rekindling her friendship with Abby, which is all the film really needs given that it's a comedy. Nonetheless, story isn't really the film's strong point. The characterisation is better, although I'd argue that Abby doesn't have the best characterisation. Honestly, I think Melissa McCarthy is the one who's short-changed by this film. Kristen Wiig's Erin gets the closest thing to a character arc, although Kate McKinnon's Holtzmann gets a more understated one.

4. What's it like visually?
Would the line "this man has no dick" somehow still work in this one?
Naturally, unlike the originals, this film uses CGI rather than practical effects, which is predictable but disappointing. The CGI is rather banal and you can tell that the actors suffer by not having anything "real" to react to. Because the ghosts are so vaporous and smokey at times they're difficult to really "see" clearly which diminishes some of the humour to be derived from their appearance. The effects from the proton packs and so on are all okay but look rather fake at times nonetheless. Probably the strongest visual elements are when physical effects and CGI seem to be blended, as I believe might have happened for instance with the bit where they're destroying the float parades, the last of which is of course the Stay-Puft™ Marshmallow Man.
"See youse all tomorrow!"
-Chris Hemsworth when he was on an Australian soap opera,
according to someone in the TV industry whom I used to know.

The time when CGI is most egregious, however, is in a pointless "battle" scene towards the finale in which the four use various weapons Holtzmann has developed earlier in the film to fight hand-to-hand with ghosts. It simply looks unconvincing, it doesn't serve the story and there are few to no jokes, so the whole thing seems pointless. The end credits feature a comedy dance sequence choreographed (in the story) by Rowan possessing Kevin, which would have been more effective than this. The friend with whom I saw the film stated that the fight scene is basically everything the film threatened to be from the trailers, but confined to one scene; as such, we're fortunate that this aspect is indeed consigned to a single scene.

5. What's my overall impression?
"Meanwhile... Deep beneath Monkey Island™..."
Overall, I was pleased. The film was a good deal better than I expected. It has a weak opening and I was initially dubious, but once it started being funny I found it consistently funny. The cast are engaging and they make the concept work with a new story and new characters. This isn't a remake so much as a reboot, because it's not trying to tell the same story or use the same characters, and in that regard I actually think it succeeds. As of my writing this it's the school holidays and a lot of kids were watching the film. I'd hate to think that this is their first taste of Ghostbusters, but it seemed to have appeal. Don't get me wrong, it's no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but for me at least it got the job done, and I say that as an enthusiast for both of the originals. The film is doubtless a cash grab, as James Rolfe observes in his video detailing the failed history of the nonexistent Ghostbusters 3, but, and I hate to say it, Ghostbusters has almost always been a cash grab, with a sequel a lot of people apparently didn't like, two animated spin-offs and a slew of merchandise including toys and video games, the majority of the latter being, according to James Rolfe himself in his facetious Angry Video Game Nerd videos, not very good. Thus, by its own standards, I actually think "Ghostbusters 2016" is quite a decent item in the franchise.

"That would have worked if you hadn't stopped me."
Perhaps I was bound to be pleased because my expectations were low, but I don't think so. I wouldn't say that being a fan of the original films will automatically make you amenable to this; I'd more say that you'd want to appreciate that Bridesmaids kind of humour to enjoy this. If your assumption is that this is some kind of outrageous attack on your pre-existing love of Ghostbusters, you probably won't enjoy it. If you know the kind of humour I'm talking about but don't like it, you probably won't enjoy it. On the other hand, if you're curious, give Ghostbusters (2016) a go. When I saw the trailer I thought they'd pulled the tablecloth out, but it turns out that the flowers are still standing.
"There's always room for Jell-O..."

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