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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 Buzzing of Flydeas

I don’t always start my blargs by writing a title first, but when I do, I tend to immediately recognize the problems with the title. For example, I just titled this blarg “The Buzzing of Flydeas” (sticking with that, totally), and I realized that in that context, it might read more like Flydeas is a person perhaps of pseudo-Greek descent (Flid-E-es, or like Darth Sidious for you Star Wars berks out there) and not the mashup of flies and ideas (Fly-deas) that I intended. Incidentally, I’m setting aside “The Buzzing of Flydeas” (pseudo-Greek mythological hero) as a potential story idea. Trademarked, copyrighted, no takesy-backsies. If that’s even how you spell takesy-backsies. Takesie-backsies? Doesn’t feel right.

Anyway. I love Ghostbusters. Both of them. And one of my favorite moments of both movies is in the second film (is it pretentious to call Ghostbusters a “film”?) is when Yanosh (Janos? I dunno) is telling the ‘Busters, who have just busted up the museum and screwed up Lord Vigo’s resurrection attempt: “He is Vigo! You are like the buzzing of flies to him!” and he turns to see that Vigo has vanished completely. The confidence in his project that Yanosh has is so complete and inspiring, and then his despair when he sees that his master has (apparently) deserted him is priceless.

So, yeah. When I saw that the week’s SoCS prompt was “onomatopeia,” I thought immediately of Lord Vigo and the buzzing of flies. Here’s a guy with the power of the cosmos at his control. Survived multiple assassination attempts, harnessed the dark spirits of the underworld, bound his spirit into a painting so that he could come back from the dead in the new millenium, and rocked a freaking mullet. He had his sharknado together, even if his sharknado was all about building his throne of blood. And he was so focused on his sharknado that even the best resistance the world could muster against him (the Ghostbusters) was only as the buzzing of flies to him. So focused he saw his obstacles only as blurs in the side of his vision, tuned them out like static on the radio.

Where’s this metaphor going? Well, writing, of course. Because I’ve got the new novel on my mind in a big way. I started it with goals and portents in mind, but it’s been a bit of a slow start… I’m waffling on my protagonist a bit, I’ve agonized over the point of view, I’ve kvelled over the themes and tones and structures in the book. But this past week, that magic thing is happening; that thing where, like Frankenstein bunging a fork of lightning into the cerebellum of his reconstructed monster, the story flickers to life and starts to move of its own twisted accord. Characters have started doing things I didn’t expect. Unforeseen twists and deviations are sprouting up on all sides. The thing is getting seriously fun to write.

Which is awesome.

But. (There is always a but.)

The surge in creative energy (and creative determination: the writing is going well, so I’m more determined to get the writing done, which makes the writing go well, which…) has my head buzzing with ideas all the time. Some of them great for the story, lots of them not, scads of them completely unrelated to the story. Just a week ago I tossed off a really delightful (I felt) short story about a door-to-door salesman for vampires, and for whatever reason, it seemed to resonate with people. Whether it soaked up some of the creative juice from the novel or whether I just hit on something else good at the same time, it worked. And it worked so well, it got me thinking, “what if I extended it? Could this short about a solicitation by a wandering con man turn into a full short story rather than just a flash fiction? Could it grow into a novel?” And all of a sudden, I felt that story — that side tale, that deviation, the buzzing of flies — pulling me off my goal for the current novel.

The navicomputer was failing. I was drifting off target. (In much the same way I’m mixing my filmic metaphors now.)

But here’s the thing. When I’m in the flow, when I’m writing well and really enjoying the work, this kind of thing happens all the time. The ideas spew out like a pipe has burst in the wall: liquid inspiration pouring out of ceilings, drywall, light fixtures, electric sockets. Paradoxically, the project that generates the inspiration becomes really, really difficult to focus on for all the flydeas buzzing around (see, I finally got there). And it’s hard to say that this is a bad thing, because it gives me more material to think about for the Time that Comes After, that dread expanse of time after writing and editing the novel when it goes out for reading to various folks whose opinions matter when you have to start work on the next big thing.

Still, it gets frustrating dealing with all the buzzing of the flydeas when they’re all in your ear while you’re trying to get something done. What to do?

Make notes. I always keep note cards handy so that I can jot down any idea when it strikes me. I keep a notebook now, (one that I will not lose again, like I totally did about eight months ago) for more long form exploration of those ideas when I have a bit more time to sit with them. And I’ve started using Evernote, which is a fancy way to keep notes in a virtual space that’s accessible from any computer. Point is, if you’ve got all these flies buzzing around your head, ignoring them isn’t going to make your life any easier. You’ve got to either smash them (shut the idea down completely, which — just like swatting a fly — good freaking luck) or open the window and let them out (which means getting up from your work for a moment — stepping aside from the project for an instant to make a note — so that you can come back and resume your focus).

The Flydeas are a curse for pulling me off the project, but they’re a blessing too — they remind me that my creativity doesn’t live and die with the project I’m working on.

Let ’em keep buzzing. But they’ll do it in the tiny little jars I’ve trapped them in.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

How do you deal with your off-topic ideas when they strike?

Frickin’ Laser Beams

The future is here.

I remember playing video games as a kid (okay, who am I kidding; I remember playing them as recently as last week) and in just about every game, especially in the height of the Nintendo era, there was a hierarchy of weaponry. Peashooter, rapid-fire peashooter, short-range death-spraying flamethrower, some mystical weapon that sprayed bullets in a ninety-degree arc from the barrel of the gun somehow, and then at the top of the pile was the frickin’ laser beam.

This was before rocket launchers or sniper rifles could be realistically worked into games (because you know, the laser beams and spreader guns were totally realistic) and became the top of the heap like they are today. The laser beam was king. As soon as you got the laser beam you essentially became death incarnate, indiscriminately spewing fiery destruction in whatever direction you chose, melting the faces off any hapless henchman unfortunate enough to wander into your general vicinity. The holder of the laser beam could stroll to victory over a veritable heap of enemies’ corpses, charred to a smoldering crisp. Never mind whether the weapon was believable or not — I always went for the weapon, not simply because it laid waste to the enemy with effortless indifference, but because it was so much fun, not just to wield, but also to say. LASERS. Some games spelled it with a “Z”, which was even more aweZome. LAZER GUNS, pew pew!

And, of course, there was Star Wars. Oh, the Star Wars! Star Wars did for Laser guns what… well, what Star Wars did for the lightsaber, for that matter. The awesomeness of wielding a one-handed laser blaster was matched only by deflecting said laser blasts with a deft lightsaber dance. (God, I don’t know if my children will ever be able to understand how awesome it was having serious video games and unbelievable special effects for the first time literally ever.) And part of the magic of these impossible weapons was that they were just that: impossible. Sure, we have “lasers” in the real world, but in a practical sense, all they’ve been is tricky little optical games and, recently, some sort of pseudo-scientific surgical tool. Hardly the godlike power to incinerate your foe from miles away.

Until now.

One of my students today showed me this article from CNN. It’s a goldfingered LASER BEAM mounted on a boat, and that sucker is, much like the Death Star, fully fargoing operational. It flings not a bolt of neon-colored plasma a la Star Wars or any of the multitude of video games I played as a kid, but rather an invisible bolt of lightning that incinerates its target at the speed of light. Seriously. Its targets simply burst into flame or straight-up evaporate under the onslaught of… what? Photons? Higgs-Bosons? Tiny leprechaun arsonists? It’s the kind of destructive force that would make somebody on the business end of the weapon feel as if god’s judgment had suddenly struck down from the heavens.

And the best part? It is controlled — and this is a quote from the article — by a “video-game-like controller.” Imagine it. All those hours I spent as a kid parked in front of the Nintendo could have been training me to fire a deathly real, honest-to-goodness, death-from-above laser beam. If I had only joined the Navy.

Of course, a weapon like this calls to mind all sorts of ethical arguments, and one only wonders where the technology will go from here. Sure, the gun is enormous now, mounted to the deck of a battleship and requiring its own hangar to house it, but in a decade? Twenty years? How far away is a literal real-life iteration of a Ghostbusters-esque proton pack that laces the enemy with a maelstrom of positronic energy that simply causes all of its molecular bonds to scatter like so many roaches when you turn on the light in the kitchen?

But for the time being, let’s just bask in the sheer amazing innovative drive of science. Don’t F with ‘Murica.

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