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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Film Land - Ghostbusters (2016)

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Edited by Robert Beach

Well, it’s finally here, the movie event that’s been polarizing reasonable people and the hordes of obsessive dorks that fight them all year long: Ghostbusters. Who would’ve thought that such an innocuous little thing as a remake of Ghostbusters would cause so much anger and controversy? To the point of launching  a full-on culture war between the forces of common sense and the powers of unreasonable panic and blatant sexism, it boggles the mind.  Maybe that’s because I was never the biggest fan of the original Ghostbusters. 

I don’t hate it or anything but when it finally entered my cultural lexicon I don’t think it was as much of a landmark moment as it was for a lot of other folks.  As such, I’ve always viewed Ghostbusters as a fun idea where the spin-offs were more interesting implementations of that concept than the original, stuff like The Real Ghostbusters or Extreme Ghostbusters are what I really gravitated to.  I bring that up because I say to you now that Ghostbusters 2016 is every bit the equal of the original film, an amazing blockbuster ride from start to finish and easily my favorite entry in the franchise thus far. 

Though the film is definitely an ensemble piece, our primary hero is Erin Gilbert, a professor of particle physics at Columbia University played by Kristen Wiig. When an old book on the paranormal that Erin penned with her friend Abby Yates (played by Melissa McCarthy) back in the day resurfaces, she tracks them down to try and get it pulled before it messes up her shot at tenure. Upon confronting Abby and her new friend Jillian Holtzmann (played by Kate McKinnon), the three women get roped up into investigating a recent haunting and actually get evidence of the paranormal, which no one believes and only ends up getting them all fired. 

Taking up residence above a Chinese Restaurant, the three set out to continue their work and end up coming into contact with Patty Tolan (played by Leslie Jones), who brings their attention to a much bigger threat behind the ghosts that could spell doom for New York City.  The four women are then forced to suit up and take on the threat, becoming the city’s only hope: the Ghostbusters. 

That’s a pretty solid set-up for a film, structurally sound and allowing for a lot of great comedy to emerge from the four women bouncing off each other.  McKinnon is, of course, everyone’s favorite member of the crew, and it’s easy to see why.  McKinnon’s whole shtick is a lightness and awareness that speaks to a character that feels aware their actions are fictional.  As such, she spends a ton of the movie goofing around, having an absolute blast, and, occasionally, winking at the camera quite literally. 

It’s an infectiously fun and likable performance, though personally, I’d say that Leslie Jones is the real breakout talent here. We’ve all been aware what McKinnon could do for awhile now, and this is just her introduction to the films. Jones comes out of nowhere in this movie and steals every scene she’s in. She a great physical talent and works well as the only member of the group unwilling to put up with all these shenanigans without turning into a wet blanket.  What’s more, there’s just a bit more to her character than McKinnon’s. 

Early fears that she would be a sassy street-wise black lady prove unfounded as she proves the intellectual equal of the other women easily. When she says “I know New York,” she means that she has a profound and layered knowledge of the city’s history from her avid love of non-fiction reading. She’s a fantastic character, and I hope she doesn’t get overlooked in the windfall of part offers that are probably going to be coming out of this film.  

Kristen Wiig is also really great as the film’s lynchpin.  She’s doing most of the dramatic heavy lifting, which is what allows Jones and McKinnon to concentrate so much on the comedy. She’s the character we follow the most and gives rise to a lot of the film’s more emotional moments as well as the film’s overall throughline.  See, even though Ghostbusters 2016 didn’t seem to plan to become a cultural talking point, the movie still very much has sexism on its mind overall, and it pops up a lot in Wiig’s story. 

While McCarthy and McKinnon’s characters are accustomed to being regarded as crackpots, and Leslie Jones is new to the whole world of ghosts and monsters, her desire for legitimacy defines Wiig's character even before this entire endeavor. As such, she ends up on the front lines of people’s  widespread disbelief and skepticism of their work. It’s pretty clear that a good amount of that just comes from the ‘Busters being women.

This idea plays up a lot more in the film’s villain, which is another highlight of the movie. For once, we’ve got a human antagonist in a Ghostbusters film. The villain is a dumpy little janitor named Rowan, played by Neil Casey, who has figured out a way to build devices that weaken reality and allow ghosts to filter through. 

His whole motivation ultimately boils down to being incredibly angry over the fact the world hasn’t given him the success and admiration he feels he’s so rightly entitled to. That ends up making Ghostbusters the third major ‘80s reboot we’ve had lately to cast to whiny male entitlement as its villain, right after Force Awakens and Fury Road. And it works well here. It's especially damning as Rowan regards the Ghostbusters’ success as a direct insult. 

The only character with less to do than everyone else is, shockingly, Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy’s still great fun in the movie, but she’s just not as overtly funny as McKinnon or Jones and is less integral to the dramatic heft of the movie than Wiig. Her main role is something close to group mom, usually corralling the others and keeping everybody on message, trying to keep Wiig’s quest for recognition or McKinnon’s wackiness from overpowering the whole endeavor.  It’s a good use of McCarthy’s talent and lets the other women shine, but she does end up the least impactful member of the new team as a result. 

Meanwhile, the case of reliable comedy mainstays making up the supporting cast are all great like Zach Woods, Ed Begley Jr., Matt Walsh, Sam Richardson, but the real comedy supporting stand out is Chris Hemsworth as receptionist Kevin. Kevin is a great spin on the ditzy reporter stereotype; this time cast as an impossibly attractive guy with the awareness and intelligence of drywall. Hemsworth shows some insane comedy chops here, and it’s a blast every time he’s on screen. Also, he’s a great asset in the third act when Rowan possesses his body to live out the fantasy of being the hunky male model he always self-projected himself as in his head.

Speaking of the third act, that brings me to the central success of this flick: the production design. Seriously, everything about the set-up of this film is expertly designed from the ghosts to the gear. All the gear has a unique hand-built look to it and a grungy, open circuit aesthetic that helps set it apart from previous visions of this tech. 

McKinnon’s character allows them to keep putting together all kinds of new gear like proton handguns, brass knuckles, grenades, and more that make the big, third act CGI smackdown a real treat.  What’s more, the ghost design is cool with each of the specters sporting a unique identity and horror elements. The visual design is obviously Haunted Mansion-esque, but they take that to heart and put in a lot of visual uniqueness under the blue/green glow aesthetic. 

The only real complaint I have about Ghostbusters 2016 is that they don’t do nearly enough busting, which strikes me as a pretty positive problem for the film to have. The new cast is rock solid and has a real chemistry that plays off each other super well. The excellent production design speaks to real imagination and an enthusiasm for the material that’s absolutely infectious. It’s funny; it’s smart; it’s dramatic and well written; it affords all of the characters an actual identity and inner life beyond the token definitions of team membership that tend to inform groups of four. It quite simply rocks. 

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