Tag Archives: character development

Terrible Reviews: Ghostbusters (2016)


So, the Ghostbusters reboot is out. And it’s gonna be hard to talk about the film without also talking about the six-hundred pound elephant in the room, which isn’t an elephant so much as it’s the manifestation of insecurities accumulated over decades.

There’s a bit of controversy around this film. I don’t know if you’ve heard. It has the dubious distinction of being the most downvoted trailer in film history, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t a thing until somebody who was determined to hate the movie went and counted to solidify his point. And, much like politics, the reasons for that largely depend on whom you ask.

Ask somebody who’s optimistic or indifferent about the reboot, and they’re likely to say the people downvoting the trailer and panning the film before it ever saw the light of day are antifeminist manbabies who, uh, tickle themselves to Pete Venkman getting slimed every night before they tuck in. These misogynists, they would have you believe, are just butthurt about the beloved franchise of their youth being repurposed with a female cast, and they are VERY VERY ANGRY ABOUT IT.

Ask somebody who’s not happy about the trailer, and they’ll blame it on any number of things: that the special effects look dopey, that the jokes aren’t funny, that the performances look flat, and the list goes on and on. Then there are those who insist that the film is “ruining their childhood” by remaking something that should never have been touched again, as if films, once they’re made, should get cast in bronze and locked in a hermetically sealed chamber until the rapture comes and Jesus himself uncorks them all for his own jolly consumption.

Then, of course, there are the actual misogynists, who literally say that it’s a bloody travesty for their beloved film to feature women in the lead roles.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s actually pretty damn tough to compare the 2016 Ghostbusters to the original, because they are not in any way the same film. They share the same conceptual core, the same nougaty center of “oddball scientists fighting ghosts and saving New York from the supernatural,” and pretty much diverge in every other way.

Whatever. Let’s get to the (spoiler-free!) review first, and we’ll get to the gender meta-analysis later. And I’ll go ahead and disclaim now that the original Ghostbusters is comfortably one of my top-5 films of all time. (And I didn’t hate this reboot.)

The Good:

Whatever else this film might be, it’s designed to be a summer blockbuster, which means action, some laughs, and a big, climactic showdown, probably one that causes millions of dollars in collateral damages and destroys most of a city.

And this film delivers that. The action sequences are pure eye-candy, with the redesigned but classic proton-packs slinging hot ghost death around willy-nilly, and a full load-out of new gizmos and doodads for the ‘Busters to show off. Proton Grenades, a Proton Shotgun, Proton Pistols … it’s all good and it’s all fun. (We’ll discuss the merits of this stuff later, but the visuals are top-notch.) McKinnon’s fight sequence with her Proton Pistols was a total wow-moment in the film, and her character is sure to be an audience favorite.

The comedy will be a sticking point for some people. The original had a dry, deadpan humor to it; this film is much more in the trenches. There’s slapstick. Poop and fart jokes. Ridiculousness. And a lot of people will hate that. But this film knows what it is, and that humor fits right in with the tone of this film, which is goofier than the original right from the start.

Then, the showdown. Buildings get smashed. Ghosts run amok. It’s pretty much what you’d expect, and it looks pretty great. I almost just typed that the final baddie was a bit ridiculous, but then I checked myself. We’re talking about a film in the original whose final showdown was with the StaPuft Marshmallow Man. So forget it. Last showdown is right in line with the tone of the film.

Finally, a note on the story: the main through-line of the story gets established a lot sooner in this film than in the original. Within the first twenty minutes or so, we see the guy (who will later become the big bad) messing around, acting weird, and his role is gradually fleshed out. In other words, we get an idea of what’s actually feeding the problem much earlier in this film than we did in the original (where we don’t really learn about Zuul or any of that until after the halfway point), and I think this film is better for it.

The Bad:

For me, the film has one critical flaw, and that’s the pacing. It’s forty-five minutes into the film (almost halfway) before the ‘Busters catch their first ghost, which is too long for my tastes. Those first forty-five are spent introducing characters, investigating hauntings, and in short, getting the team together. I felt like the introduction of the central two characters (McCarthy and Wiig) was entirely too drawn out, while the other two (McKinnon and Jones) get relatively little intro: then, all of a sudden, the four of them are together, on a gig, busting a ghost … and THEN the film takes off.

A related, but lesser, complaint is the development of these characters. Only one character really changes through the events of the film, and that’s Wiig’s — but the change doesn’t come at the climax of the film, rather it comes in the first thirty minutes. The film’s climax is therefore not transformative for any of the protagonists, which leaves a story wonk like me a little disappointed. Come to think of it, I could just as easily say the same of the original film, sooo….

Then there’s all those weapons I mentioned up above. Storywise, they’re a waste: the McKinnon character rolls them out, not because the proton packs are inefficient, but “just in case”. Every character gets one, and every character waves their altered boomstick around during the final showdown. They’re nice eye-candy, but that’s about it: in fact, the only non-proton-pack weapon that ends up having any story significance is a freakin’ Swiss Army Knife.

The Tough-to-pin-down:

Chris Hemsworth’s character is a big question mark for me. He’s so over-the-top stupid that it really stretches disbelief that the characters would allow him to stick around. Then again, he has some so-stupid-it’s-hilarious moments (the phone in the aquarium for example) which kinda make me rethink complaining about him. So he’s hard to nail down. Then again, my wife points out that he is the male equivalent of a worthless secretary hired just for her looks, so I guess that’s just my gender-blinders falling right into place.

Then there are the ghosts themselves. A lot of folks complained when the trailer came out that the effects on the ghosts looked lame or cheap. Hogwash, if you ask me. They look a little over-the-top, maybe, but this entire MOVIE is over-the-top. Still, the first ghost they catch is not so much a ghost as a freaking winged green devil monster. Maybe I’m nitpicking too much, but that seems less “ghost” and more “demon”. Regardless, in their first attempt to capture a ghost, they go up against this monstrous thing and they bring it down with relatively little trouble. It felt a bit like too big of a victory, too early, against too powerful an adversary.

Outside the Frame:

I said at the outset that you can’t really talk about this film without acknowledging the gender controversy. You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned it at all (well, a little bit around the Hemsworth character). There’s a simple reason for that: gender couldn’t be less of a factor in the movie. Which kind of makes this film the height of a feminist accomplishment.

How’s that, then? Easy. The protagonists are women, but it doesn’t matter that they’re women. The film would work just as well with the original cast of Spengler, Stantz, Venkman and Zeddemore as it does with these four ladies, as it would with any four male actors from today, as it would with any permutation of players and genders. That’s because these characters are not strong female characters, they are simply strong characters who happen to be female. There is no chest-beating, bra-burning moment of “look what we women have accomplished! See how we have thrown off the patriarchy!” No, these are simply capable women, going about their business, kicking ass and saving the day. They don’t need to prove how “feminist” they are. They just do it.

Then, there’s the fact that the film is a reboot (not a remake). Obviously it will be compared to the original, even though to do so is an exercise in futility. This will never be the same as the original, which means that the haters crying that the movie got remade at all will never be wrong. Still, the movie pays homage to the original in the form of cameos from the original cast and callbacks to well-known gags from the original. You still have the hilarious moment when they crank up the “unlicensed nuclear accelerator” in a backpack for the first time, and the other characters slowly edge away. Rehashed again is Bill Murray’s yank-the-tablecloth-off-a-set-table gag that he can’t resist, only this time it’s Kirsten Wiig being dragged out of a restaurant by security, grabbing the tablecloth as a last resort. Some will claim that these callbacks show the film is unoriginal, that it’s simply scavenging the corpse of the first film. Nonsense. They are little head-nods to fans of the original, they are winks-and-nudges to the folks who recognize them for what they are.

The Verdict:

The fact is, this is a perfectly ordinary film. It’s not going to change your life. It’s a good time with some funny ladies and some pretty excellent explosions and light shows along the way. There’s nothing earth-shattering going on here, outside of the sheer balls it took to retool the original so completely. That said? It isn’t a bad film. Not on its own merits and not by dint of re-inventing a film that, truth be told, probably didn’t need to be reinvented.

But when did “need” have anything to do with the movies being made in Hollywood? This is a perfectly good film with a lot of controversy around it. The fact is, your experience of the film will almost certainly depend on the baggage you bring to it. If you come to the film determined to compare it to the original, you’ll be disappointed. This film isn’t trying to improve upon the original; it’s trying to spin the yarn anew for a younger generation. If you come to the film with a more or less blank slate, you’ll have the chance to enjoy a visually delightful take on a true classic.

I’ll reiterate here something I said when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, and the purists were jawing about “IT’S NOT A SEQUEL IT’S JUST A REMAKE,” “YOU CAN NEVER IMPROVE UPON THE ORIGINAL HUR HUR HUR”. Which is: at the end of the day, Ghostbusters is not just a film, it’s a franchise. Movies, TV shows, video games, toys, motherfargoing Ecto-Coolers. And that franchise? However much you may love it? However much it may have influenced you in your youth? It owes you nothing. Star Wars owes you nothing, and Ghostbusters owes you nothing. If you loved the original and think any new take on it is an abomination? Well, for yourself, you’re right, and this film isn’t for you. But if you are willing to take a chance on something a little different, a little less heteronormative (and I just broke the word bank with that word), then hey, holy sharknado, you might have a little fun along the way.

Finally, just look at this viral photo of Kirsten Wiig greeting some young fans at the red carpet:

If the looks on those little girls’ faces don’t make this film worthwhile, then I don’t know what does.

All images are the property of Columbia Pictures.


The Problem With Stella


Spoiler Alert. Okay? My wife and I are finishing up Orange is the New Black. So I’m here to talk about it. Which means if you’re the kind of person who gets uptight about shows getting spoiled for you, you may want to stop yourself right there. The bridge is out. KNOWLEDGE AHEAD.

So.

Orange is the New Black is doing a lot of interesting things and has a lot of people talking about it. One of those things in particular is the introduction of a new character this season, Stella. (STELLAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Okay, it’s out of my system.) She’s a sort-of-spunky, sort-of-aloof androgynous type with a Bieber haircut and enough ink on her to keep HP in business for a few years, at least. And there’s a lot of buzz about this character, particularly by way of the actor portraying said character, one Ruby Rose.

What’s got people talking about her is the fact that, apparently (and I heard this only secondhand from my wife… research is not really my thing around here, and I trust her sources because she’s a lot smarter than me) miss Rose identifies as female some days and male on others. And yeah, okay, it’s the new hotness to identify as this or that. (Personally, I’m a thirty-something white dude who identifies as that piece of gum you stepped in and tracked all over the floorboards of your car. That’s just how I feel.) But the show has always been pretty stern about its characters being who they are regardless of what you or anybody thinks about it (and especially if you happen to be a dude). The show works because of the personalities represented in it; they’re off-the-wall but somehow believable within the literal four walls the characters are stuck in. So, you know, kudos to the show for including an actor who plays, in real life, by the rules that the show plays by in our heads.

But I’m not here to talk about her identity or her sexuality or her gender-bending or any of that. I’ll leave that to Buzzfeed. (Seriously, they have something like a dozen “articles” about her in the past week.)

What’s bugging me about her is her character’s narrative drift.

See, if OITNB teaches us anything, it’s that you don’t have to like characters in order to care about them. Hell, some of the show’s most memorable, quotable characters are the least likable. A mother who emotionally blackmails another woman over the adoption of her own grandchild? A former socialite who takes to bilking the system and profiting off the perversion of the underbelly of the internet? A prison social worker who’s sometimes got a heart of gold and is sometimes a racist, sexist, insecure piece of sharknado? They all do terrible things, but we care about them because, as twisted as the things they do may be, we understand on some level why they’re doing those things. Daya’s mother knows how hard mothering can be OUTSIDE of prison so she conspires to get her daughter to give up her baby, and hey, why not make a little scratch in the mix? Piper feels betrayed by the world she thought she knew; her values are shattered, so why not embrace her criminal side and profit at the expense of people who are worse off than her? Healey, for all the good he tries to do, is married to a loveless transplant from Russia who emasculates him every chance she gets, so to remind himself he’s a man, sometimes he has to swing his man-parts around and show everybody what a big jerk he can be.

We don’t like them. But we understand them, and that makes us care, even if we’re not necessarily rooting for them. (On that note, does the show even have a protagonist at this point? Maybe it’s Caputo, but it’s hard to tell. Not that that’s stopping anybody from watching.) All these characters, for better or worse, want things, and because we care about the characters, we either want them to get those things in sympathy, or we want them not to get those things out of schadenfreude.

Which brings me to Stella. (STELLAAAAAAAAAA. Okay, last time.) I don’t care about her. At all. She’s been on the show for half a season, and I don’t give one randy sharknado about her. Why?

Because she’s a husk.

A pretty husk. A wrench-in-the-works husk. A will-she-or-won’t-she distraction and world-turner-upside-downer hurricane kind of husk. But she’s like a tree that’s rotted from the inside out, or a wax figure dressed in a thousand-dollar suit. Looks nice on the outside, but looks kinda disgusting or even creepy up close.

As far as I can tell, Stella was drawn up to provide a fork-in-the-road for Piper. She was designed to be pretty and devil-may-care to show the polar (and scornful) opposite of Alex, who has grown haggard and consumed with worry and fear. Where Alex is driven slowly mad by the confines of the prison and the perceived inevitability of her situation (she’s stuck exactly where a man who will in all likelihood kill her knows exactly where she is), Stella is so indifferent to her situation that she’s almost literally untouched and unfazed by it (see the scene where she dries naked in the communal bathroom because the prison’s “harsh towels” are too much for her “sensitive skin”, for example). Stella is a bird on the wind, whereas Alex feels like a sinking stone.

And that’s fine. That’s even great. A nicely-turned dichotomy, a troubling love triangle for Piper, stuck between Alex, with whom she has history and allegiance and yeah, they do it a lot in the showers and stuff; and Stella (STELLAAAAAAAAAA. Sorry), who is mysterious and intriguing and probably does the weird stuff. In bed. That conflict works, and it’s even making people mad. (Which, again, just shows that we care.)

Here’s where it breaks down for me. Alex is a little old and busted this season, but we know why. Piper ratted her out. Got her sent back to prison after she thought she was out. Alex fears that her former boss will have her killed for implicating him when she got sent in. She’s tired. She’s hurt. She’s afraid for her life. Again, we don’t have to like her, but we understand.

But what’s Stella’s story? What makes her so light and carefree? The show doesn’t tell us. Why is she interested in Piper? We don’t know, outside of perhaps a raw physical want-to-bone feeling (which doesn’t necessarily come across, I humbly offer). What is she even in prison for in the first place? These are things the show doesn’t bother to share with us.

All we know about her is that Piper wants to do her, and that’s making problems for her relationship with Alex.

We don’t know what she wants. We don’t know why she does the things she does. So we (or, at least, I) don’t care.

It’s not a deal breaker for the show. It doesn’t make me not want to watch. But for a show that does so many things right with its characters, it feels like a pretty glaring misstep.

Maybe my feelings will change when I see the last episode tonight. But I maintain that, if you’re going to have a character appear for half of season, and that character is going to play a major role in the show, I should at least care about that character a little bit by the end.

Am I overthinking this? Am I wrong? Let me hear it.


Editing, Day Whatever


The edit rolls on.

I feel like I’m in an episode of the Twilight Zone, editing this novel.  You know, one of those really creepy ones where there’s nothing overtly terrifying going on, but there’s a subtle horror creeping in at the edges of your vision, lurking behind you in the dark, an intrinsic strangeness to every piece of furniture, every passing stranger, every blade of grass.  I recognize this text.  I’ve walked its halls — hell, I created its halls — and I have a reasonably good memory of doing so.  I remember building this character to do this thing, and developing this relationship so that x can help y do things later in the story.  Nothing wrong there.

But as I read, there are oddities presenting themselves.  Little misplaced things.  Glitches in the matrix.  Loose ends of code.  I see a misspelled word here, a character referring to an event that never happened there, a magically-appeared whatchamacallit over there.  Who left these things strewn about, like so many of my toddler’s toys in the abandoned toy chest which is this monolithic block of text in my word processor?  They’re familiar, yet they’re not.  Strange.

Then, there are the bits of prose which I do not recognize, and those are even creepier.  They fit the tale, they advance the action, they’re even often funny and clever, but they, too, are wrong somehow.  Like an alternate me wrote them.  A me that wasn’t nearly so concerned with plot or character development or narrative unity, but rather focused on witticisms and playful digression and intermittent drizzling dazzlings of poesy.

Like so many other things in the novel, these interludes fit, but they don’t match.  They’re definitely part of the same story and spun by the same hands, but maybe not crafted by the same mind, or at least not the same mind thinking on the same frequency as it was when it wrote the bulk of the story.  So here, the usual quandary: is the rest of the novel — the bulk of the novel — written properly, while these flashes of poetics and digressive humor are out of place and merely distracting?  Or are these misty patches the real essence of my story peeking through, and the rest of the novel is obscuring the heart of the tale with its drudgelike march through the necessary rigidity of the plot?

Thus the ever-growing EPOS (Editing Pile of Sharknado) grows ever larger.  I knew that the first editing pass was going to be harsh times, but that pile is growing exponentially every time I process a few pages.  I know it has to be done — I’ve got to process the whole thing and then I can break out the tools and start putting the monster back together right-side up — but the whole thing feels like one tremendous exercise in procrastination.  I’m working, sure, but I’m not actually repairing the damage.  Semantics, perhaps, but it’s just one more way I’m working against myself on this project.

Of course all this makes it sound like I’m slogging through swamps of sadness and misery working on this thing.  Not the case.  Re-reading my creations, being surprised by the little things I’d forgotten about, rediscovering the little quirks and eccentricities that burrowed their way in, is noting short of delightful, no matter how tedious and daunting the task at hand may be.  I’m a little over a third of the way in.  Keep the head down and keep pushing.


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