Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ghostbusters 2016 Review Part I

Well the movie has been out for a week. I’ve been hoping to get this review up but it’s taken a while to figure out what I want to do with it because there are a couple of points that I’d like to make and as I was writing the review, it was becoming as big a monster as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. 

But I really want to do the review because the original Ghostbusters happens to be one of my favorite films. My friends and I were huge fans of the film when it was released in 1984 and saw it repeatedly during the time it was out. I was not overly happy with the way the production team was treating any fan who expressed worry that they wouldn’t be able to handle it and as it turns out, I don’t think they were able to handle it. While it’s not as bad a movie as I thought it would be based on the trailers Sony itself released, I can honestly say that I think I laughed four times during the movie. The jokes are weak and often fall flat and the paranormal part of it isn’t overly scary. Especially considering the cartoon colors they use for the ghosts.

And I can’t help but think so many of the people calling it hilarious are sort of giving it a pass they wouldn’t have given if the controversy (some of it I believe ginned up by Sony) wouldn’t have happened. It’s noble to want to defend the cast who have indeed been hit by some incredible examples of walking (or blogging) misogyny, but if the movie was stronger, they wouldn’t need to be defended. They wouldn’t need a “handicap”.  They’d have quality material to put into the trailers released in an effort to entice people to see the movie. 

They wouldn’t need people who hadn’t even seen the movie yet claiming it was going to be awesome (at the same time slamming the original which is something I discussed in a previous blog entry which you can access here). Let the movie, the cast, the writers and director rise or fall on their own merits. And what I saw had little merit. 

So I’ve decided to do two reviews, each focused on a point of contention I have about the project and the controversy in general. This entry will focus on the idea of a remake/reboot. The next entry will focus on the misogyny angle. And there will be some spoilers though I'm guessing anyone interested in going to see it has seen it by now.

The other day, to my comment that the producers had borrowed way too much from the original for the 2016 version to be a reboot (I insist it’s a remake), someone insisted it was a reboot and that the producers had barely borrowed anything. 

I’m not quite sure if she saw the same movie I did, or if she saw the original, but the fact is, there was a lot swiped from the original for this movie. And I think it’s to the current film’s detriment because it forces a comparison to the original which simply had better material.

When deciding on an approach for the project, a passing of the torch movie would have probably been the best choice. It would have acknowledged the original and allowed for new blood (if done correctly as it was in “Star Wars the Force Awakens”, it can be exciting). A passing of the torch movie had been discussed with perhaps the daughters of the original Ghostbusters taking over the work, but that apparently was kiboshed. Personally, I think such a movie could have been a lot of fun. And it would have pleased a lot of the “Ghostbusters” fans who’ve been hoping for another installment in the series for years.

Like it or not, the original “Ghostbusters” is an iconic movie for adults who saw it when it first came out as I did and people who were kids when they saw it later. There's a reason for this: Partly because it was such a unique movie at the time (comedy with big budget special effects), but mainly because it was really good. An exceptional and organic blending of humor, horror and the paranormal. 

But when the new project was announced, Paul Feig insisted that he was going to do something completely original. Starting with making all the Ghostbusters female (I’ll discuss that in the second review). And as I watched “Ghostbusters” 2016 I started thinking, since they hadn't made a passing of the torch movie, that a reboot would have been the next best thing. It would have given both the production team and the audience the chance to enjoy a brand new take on the concept.

Despite his insistence, what Paul Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold ultimately created was a remake, and that's where part of the problem stemmed from. Hardcore fans (the ones he would later insult because they didn’t jump for joy over his casting choices) didn't want a remake. They've been anxious for a third “Ghostbusters” movie in the series (though many are making do with the video game as the third movie). Sure “Ghostbusters II” was off kilter, I believe partly due to the fact that at that point, Columbia Pictures was so concerned about merchandising and marketing to kids since the original had proven such a hit with the kids. But it wasn't a terrible movie. There were some really good aspects to it. Fans wanted a carrying on of the series without writing out the original Ghostbusters.

Making a remake as if the original never happened was bad enough, but then to swipe so many key elements of the original to prop up this remake just adds salt to the wound. And it only added excess baggage to the film by using elements that the “creative minds” behind the film just weren’t able to handle. 

Let’s consider some of the elements, down to the beats of the original that were used in this movie. The very beginning (a curator in a historical mansion comes upon paranormal happenings that frighten him) harks back to the original (in which a librarian at New York Library comes upon paranormal happenings that frighten her) in tone, pacing, even in the way the original Ghostbusters theme started up over the action toward the end of the scene and led us to the next scene. The only difference was the wretched excess that was used in the scene (a problem throughout the movie). 

Through a series of events, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig) reunites with her old friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) who she’s had a falling out with years before. Abby is doing paranormal investigations with Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Erin mentions being contacted by a man who told her of a ghost appearing in a mansion (the ghostly haunting that opens the film) and the three rush over to the mansion the way the three originals rushed over to the New York Library to investigate the ghostly haunting that opened that film. (This, by the way, is when the wonderful “messing of the pants” joke is driven into the ground which unfortunately seems to be the highest level of humor the remake can achieve).

So…in the library of the mansion, the three paranormal investigators confront the ghostly woman. Just like in the original. And as in the original, the woman seems relatively normal…outside of the whole ghost thing. And as in the original, these three women have no plan on how to communicate with the ghostly woman. And as in the original, when one makes a try for it, the woman turns into a hideous creature and scares them out of the building.

The library ghost in the 1984 Ghostbusters

I don’t think we’re even a quarter of the way into the film and already it’s borrowed a number of major elements from the original. But in this case, it goes one better (or I suppose I should say, worse). It takes an element that occurs later in the original and crams it into the mansion scene. In the original, slime is used quite sparingly. It appears on the card catalogs in the library and Bill Murray has a fun scene dealing with it. But the only other time it’s used a lot for the sake of a joke is when the Ghostbusters go to the hotel to catch the ghost that will be later known as Slimer. When he goes through walls, he leaves a little slime behind. 

While investigating one of the hallways, Murray’s character Venkman has a run in with Slimer which is actually kind of a tense scene. Cut to Stantz (Dan Aykroyd’s character) running down the hallways to help his friend only to find Venkman rolling around on his back on the floor like a turtle (because of the proton pack) and covered in slime. He then utters the immortal line, “He slimed me.”

Now in her rather pathetic piece appearing on, "Sorry but the Original Ghostbusters Isn't Even that Good", Stephanie Zacharek claims that this is the sort of line that sounds " a parody of dumb comedy writing, the sort usually accompanied by an aggressively fake laugh track." Which is her prerogative to think. But it’s ironic that the line is not only considered one of the most quotable lines in the movie, the crew of the 2016 version (the version she said in the piece that she liked) thought so much of the concept of sliming that it takes the concept to such idiotic heights. When the mansion ghost turns into the monstrous entity, she opens her maw and vomits about 80 gallons of slime on Erin in what I’m guessing the writers thought would be one of the funniest scenes ever filmed. It wasn’t. It was stupid and over-done like so much in the movie. But it’s also a direct rip-off of a funnier scene in the original (and probably also a rip-off of countless scenes in countless Nickelodeon shows). Perhaps Stephanie Zacharek is easily amused.

The mansion ghost from Ghostbusters 2016 spewing wild

And the similarities with the original continue. As in the original, this experience convinces the women that they can actually do something with this paranormal investigating.

The three paranormal investigators, in an effort to get a grant to get better gear, visit the dean of the “institute” (a loose description since the institute seems fairly shady) where Abby and Jillian were conducting their research. The dean’s name is Yeager and once he realizes that the department was even still functioning, he promptly throws them out of the institute. A name and move straight out of the first movie in which the grant of the three soon-to-be Ghostbusters at Columbia University has been terminated and a Dean Yeager is only too happy to inform them that they’re out of the University. In the original movie it’s used basically as a narrative device to propel the Ghostbusters into their new life. And in the new one, it’s also used as such but goes on much longer. Now the scene in the new movie is actually kind of funny, but don’t tell me that you’re making something fresh and original when you pull a move like that. There could have been any number of reasons invented to make these women go out on their own as Ghostbusters. Feig and crew chose to recreate (remake) a scene from the original movie to accomplish the same goal and even used the name of the main character instigating that change.

Another unnecessary scene swipe comes later in the film as Erin tries to get the mayor’s attention as he and his aide are eating in a fancy restaurant. She’s pounding on one window, then the other, then another, shouting at him. The diners aren’t paying attention and even the mayor and his aide, who do see her, are pretending to not notice her (because in this universe the mayor has decided not to acknowledge the ghost threat publicly to avoid… “mass hysteria.” Yes, another classic line from the original used to weak effect here). As I watched the scene all I could think about was how similar the scene was to the scene in the original where a panicked Louis Tully (played by Rick Moranis who didn't make a cameo in the new film), chased by a demon dog intent on possessing him, runs to Tavern on the Green and pounds on windows, unable in his fright to figure out where the door is. He screams for help but the restaurant patrons don’t even look up until the very last minute when the demon finally gets him. The patrons look up, wait a beat, then return back to their eating as Tully slides down the window. It’s a funny scene, but sort of a sad scene too as you can’t help but feel bad for poor Louis and that’s thanks in large part to Moranis’ sympathetic portrayal.

The scene in the new one just alternates between shrill and bland and all I could think about while watching it was how good the scene was in the original. And that’s why I say all the remaking and re-purposing was to the new film’s detriment.

But it goes on:

In looking for a base of operations, the ladies visit the firehouse that was featured in the original (but it’s too expensive for them so they have to choose the office over the Chinese restaurant). Why even feature the firehouse (which they do find their way back to by the end of the movie) at all? The team achieves fame after its first ghost catch (though unlike the original which shows a montage of the team going out and catching ghosts which is why they need to hire help and hire on Winston, this team seems to have caught only one ghost and they don’t seem to have an idea what to do with it). The team meets with the mayor (in a scene much more sedate than in the original). The gear is similar, the traps are similar, the car is similar (and is even called the Ecto 1).

The threat is similar (something is breaking down the barriers between this world and the next and the ghosts are breaking through), they use possession to advance the plot (in the original it was the client Dana played by Sigourney Weaver) and Louis Tully; in this one it’s the team’s secretary, Kevin played by Chris Hemsworth), there’s a face off at the end with an entity that apparently has god-like powers and the end battle involves a giant figure of a cute character who comes to destroy everyone. This is perhaps the most egregious swiping as Rowan, the evil entity in the remake allows them to choose the form of their destructor. That’s straight out of the original movie.  

The difference, of course, is that while it was handled hilariously in the original, it was handled ridiculously in the 2016 version. The reveal of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (who also makes an appearance in this film as a parade balloon) is probably one of the funniest scenes in a movie. It’s a perfect build up to the absurd humor of it all. 

In the 2016 film, the “turning” of the Ghostbusters logo into the giant destructor is ham-fisted and really not very funny. Again, it goes back to the wretched excess and an inability to know when to stop because at that point there's so much being thrown at you that you don't really care.

Which was what all those "whining fanboys" out there were worried about when some pinhead at Sony said, “Hey, I know, let’s remake ‘Ghostbusters’!” Fans of the original were worried that the source material would be used by people who had no idea how to use it right. 

And let’s be honest, all this plot, character, scene borrowing and allusions to the original is Sony hedging its bets. The first trailer they released tells us that 30 years ago four scientists got together to save the world as a soft piano rendition of the "Ghostbusters" theme plays. Then the first scene you see is the original Ghostbusters logo on the wall of a subway. The problem is those four scientists in the universe of this remake, never existed. So why bring them up unless you want to spark interest for the new film in the fans of the original? Why was it so important to have cameos of the original actors (albeit playing different characters) in this movie if you’re simply erasing all thoughts of the original with what you term a reboot? Heck even Slimer has a cameo which makes no sense since he wasn't a part of the new Ghostbusters busting scene. 

There’s talk that Sony had to strong arm some of the actors, especially Murray, to appear in the film. That could be why Murray gives the performance of a man who would really rather not be there at all. But with those cameos Sony can say, “See, we have nothing but respect for the original film. We even included the original cast.”

Outside of the late Harold Ramis’ “cameo” (a bust of him is seen in the hall outside of Erin’s office) and Ernie Hudson (who plays Patty’s uncle from which she borrows the hearse for the Ecto-1) the cameos are fairly forgettable and actually sort of gum up the pacing of the film when they occur. Hudson’s, which is okay, is at the end and actually made me think of how easily this movie could have been a fun passing of the torch movie with a bit of tweaking. Aykroyd (who has a piece of the film) plays a cabbie who claims, “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts”, Annie Potts (the wonderful secretary Janine from the original) plays a hotel manager, Sigourney Weaver plays a mentor of Jillian’s (which might have been great but too little time is given to the scene as it runs during the credits).

But Bill Murray’s…what can be said about the weird little scene they concocted for Bill Murray? 

He plays a skeptic who goads Erin into releasing the one ghost they managed to catch (I’ll address this more in the second part of the review because it certainly didn’t scream, “Girl Power”). He sits through most of the scene and when the ghost does fly out of the trap, it takes hold of Murray’s character and tosses him out the window. 

Yes…there is a notable death in the movie. Now that’s something they didn’t steal from the original because no one was killed during that movie. At least, no one was shown being thrown to his death by a ghost. And after, when the girls…well I’d say "rush" downstairs but it seems like they take a leisurely stroll to get downstairs considering how the police and Homeland Security are on the scene by the time they got on the street, they're taken to see the mayor by Homeland Security. No one seems overly upset over the fact that a man was just tossed out the window and is lying broken on the ground below their office. No one asks the team to make statements. You’d think something like that might just tarnish the team’s reputation slightly. 

So you have a film with all these elements from the original film practically the same plot which the producers insist isn’t a remake, it’s a reboot. They’re rebooting the franchise. Please, don’t do me any favors.

And yet, toward the end of the film, as I finally started warming to the characters, I thought of all the potential wasted on this project. If they weren’t going to do a passing of the torch movie, then they should have went for a true reboot and made minimal if no use of the original source material. That’s what I meant about the baggage that was in this movie. How do you not compare the two movies when so much of the original is used for the remake and in that case, how can you not think, “Christ they did this better 30 years ago”?

I also left the movie with the firm belief that as a writer and a director, Paul Feig is creatively lazy. Not only with the humor, which when it's there goes for the easy laughs but because there are so many things in this movie that he doesn’t even try to make sense on. Yes, I know it’s a comedy about the paranormal, but even in the original, they at least tried to give some context to what was happening. 

Take Rowan, for example, the villain of the story. He might have been a good villain if a little more effort had been spent on developing the character. But Feig seems to go with the Stephen Moffat philosophy of character/plot development which is, “I don't want to make the effort explaining it. Just go with me on this.”

Rowan North (Neil Casey), a busboy at the hotel where the big showdown at the end takes place, is apparently also an occultist trying to usher in the ends times. He builds a big device to break down the barriers between the worlds, then plants smaller devices on ley lines around the city (that’s when he’s discovered by the Ghostbusters) to break down the barriers. Why? I mean obviously he’s nuts (and brilliant) but what made a brilliant man go nuts? Why is he simply a busboy in a hotel (or is that part of his plot since the hotel has such a strong paranormal force to it—it’s really hard to tell)? How long has he been working on this scheme. Where did he get the funding for all this? How has no one discovered the doorway to hell that he’s built in the basement of a major hotel? 

Eventually we discover that he wants the apocalypse because…he was bullied. Now I’m not saying that bullying hasn’t pushed people over the edge. But this is probably one of the lamest reasons a movie has used for their villain trying to destroy the world. And who bullied him? Has he been nursing this hate since childhood? Was he bullied at college? Is he doing it because his fellow scientists laughed at him and his experiments?

If you’re going to present me with a villain who is interested in ushering in the apocalypse, then you’d better give me a better reason than he was simply bullied. Or if that’s what you’re going with, you’d better explain properly.

Rowan forces his own death (oh, that’s death #2 in the remake) so that he can cross over to the other side and apparently become King of the Ghosts. He’s able to possess people as he does with Amy and eventually Kevin, and later does with the military and police forces sent out to battle him. And he’s able to do all these other fabulous and magical things including ordering other ghosts to battle the Ghostbusters, which is interesting considering how, evil as he may be, he’s fairly new to the paranormal realm. Where did this new ghostling get this power? The power to control entities that have been on the other side for centuries?

The end of the movie is over accessorized with product placement
Am I nitpicking? Perhaps. But it would certainly make a more well-rounded movie to have at least some of these details. The original "Ghostbusters" faced off with a god from another realm. That’s how they explained the entity being able to create something like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. 
What do we have in this movie? A guy who was bullied and achieved his power through suicide.

A similar questions comes in to play when Kevin suddenly decides he wants to be a Ghostbuster. The decision (that conveniently leads to his being possessed) seems to come out of nowhere. In fact, it's hard to imagine this character would desire much of anything he's so vapid and cartoonish. But suddenly he wants to be a Ghostbuster "and no one is going to stop" him. Except for the spirit of Rowan who after possessing Abby in a particularly unfunny and unsuspenseful scene, flies in to possess Kevin.

Explaining a character's decision really does help add to the experience of a movie. But Feig doesn't seem to think it's all that necessary. 

So in the end, this movie was more an excersie in frustration than anything else because of the wasted opportunities. I didn't despise it as I thought I would. I laughed a few times. But when I think of the joy that the original brought me years ago and still does, this movie doesn't even come close.

My hope is that Feig will not be at the helm for a sequel and perhaps they can actually really do something creative with the concept or the characters. Though, judging by the end of the movie, which is a set up for a sequel, there will still be some milking of the old movie. As the women listen to the Electronic Voice Phenomena (played on a tape player that I think went out of style in the 1970s), Patty hears the name Zuul.

Let the games begin again. 

On to Part II of my review.

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