Monday, July 18, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

That there exists a new Ghostbusters film which stars four of my favourite comedy stars and is explicitly feminist is perhaps the best gift I could have received in this all-too disappointing year of 2016 (RIP Bowie and Prince). I haven't frequented the theatre this year as much as 2015, if only because the usual Hollywood dreck (that I can't get enough of) hasn't been as compelling. However, the promise of a feminist Ghostbusters is more than ample incentive to patronize my local cinema. I had eagerly gobbled up the details of production during the long road to its release and I had tumbled, almost against my will, into the vortex of misogynistic and/or irrational hatred of the film from Ghostbros. Helpless but to witness, I've tried to avoid engaging with the Ghostbros, as they've been relentless in their vitriol. This afternoon, Monday July 18th, 2016, Leslie Jones is being inundated with specific racial abuse on Twitter, which makes me want to cry as I can't imagine celebrating the successful release of my big screen début with gendered racism. Still, the film has had a decent opening, and the haters gon' hate regardless.

In an effort to evade confronting the contempt heaped upon the film from misguided Ghostbros, I'll stick to proselytizing for the franchise and remain focused on this reboot—which I saw twice this weekend. There was no chance that I was going to miss opening night of the reboot of the film I love more than any other film. My partner and I, though forced to attend a 3D showing, were there, excited and enthused (more so enthused for my excitement, from my partner's perspective). It's hard to detail exactly why the franchise has captured my passion so fully: it could be the mixture of supernatural spectacle and nerds not typically Hollywood; it could be the sarcastic and sardonic wit that permeates the film; it could be the classic outsider is vindicated narrative. The original film has an unholy mixture of virulently memetic attributes: the costumes, the song, the dialogue, the visuals. It's something only accident could produce, a happy accident of course. I've seen the film probably over 50 times, tying it with its sequel for the movie I've seen the most. I wore out the VHS my family owned. Like so many white dude nerds, Ghostbusters spoke our language, that intelligence, sarcasm, and belief in yourself would win out over the bullies (so confusingly depicted as the EPA). It's practically cliché for me to articulate my undying love for the original two films. Yet, I say so just to provide the necessary context, to suggest, even a minuscule of it, the amount of excitement I had in advance of the reboot.

What I wanted, what I expected from the film, was the usual Paul Feig style antics, both heartfelt and witty, and the spectacle of a Hollywood blockbuster. I've been following Feig since Bridesmaids, and each of his films I've seen in the theatre. Melissa McCarthy, one of my favourite supporting actors from Gilmore Girls (SOOKIE ST JAMES FOREVER), has been a dependable and growing muse for Feig. Watching McCarthy grow as a performer and watching Feig grow as a director has been very fulfilling. While I thought The Heat was great, Feig stretched his formal skills with Spy. I didn't love Spy as a comedy, but his action direction had ameliorated in many ways. There's a knife fight in a kitchen in the film, and I would happily rate it as the best action scene of the year. Thus, I anticipated enjoying how Feig would present more CGI, spectacle-oriented action. Plus, add in the mix four of my favourite comedy actors: Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones have been stealing scenes on SNL for a couple years now, and putting them beside more professional comedians like McCarthy and Kristin Wiig could only be hilarious. 

Did the film meet my expectations, my wishes, my hopes? I'm pleased to report that after two viewings of the film, I love the movie. I'm not worried that with time, my estimation of the film will drastically decrease, though the flaws apparent in Ghostbusters might gnaw at me and prevent my full enjoyment during a third viewing, months down the road. The film isn't perfect, by any means, but I was pleased as punch. In fact, I can also report that during the more iconic bits (the opening, McKinnon's solo action showcase), I literally teared up. There's something to be said about the fact that this film stars four women, one of which is black, one of which is an open lesbian, two of which have non-typical body shapes for an expensive Hollywood blockbuster. As a cherry on top of that pleasant reality, Ghostbusters passes the Bechdel Test in multiple ways. This doesn't automatically make a good film, but it's certainly an excellent scaffold upon which to build a good film.

I loved the colours in the film. I knew from the trailer how colourful and dynamic the designs of the ghosts would be, but even outside of the action sequences, the film doesn't shy away from colour. The Chinese restaurant in which they make their headquarters is full of rich reds and browns, without ever tumbling over the line into the muddiness of a maroon or a "burnt umber" or a "redwood." I love the proton packs, the pulsating reds. I especially love the neon reds of the PKE Meter. Even the deep gorgeous greens of the apocalyptic finale provided me with aesthetic pleasure. In other words, this is a film that's lovely to look at.

I was initially disappointed by the climax of the film, as it felt perfunctory and routine, part of the paradigm of blockbusters, wherein the world itself must be at stake. But on a second viewing, the climax improved a lot for me as it was a bit tighter than I remembered. The narrative goes as follows: the Ghostbusters beat up some ghosts with teamwork; Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) gets an action scene to herself, the kind that will inspire countless women and girls to cosplay; they regroup, and fight the big bad, which takes up very little screen time, less than I recalled. The Holtzmann scene was enough for me to squeak in excitement.

Ghostbusters is meant to marry the action spectacle with comedy, so its reboot should potentially do the same. The action I felt was terrifically fun. There's a scene in which Kate McKinnon's character is defenestrated, leaving Leslie Jones to hold onto her hand while fighting a possessed Melissa McCarthy. Feig cuts around this masterfully, just as with the knife fight in the kitchen in Spy. The choreography of the fight, while not nearly as breathless as in a Hong Kong action film, unfolds like a mini-drama unto itself, with obstacles (McCarthy; McKinnon falling), triumphs (Jones has longer arms than McCarthy, and holds her at bay), and reversals (McCarthy demonstrates levitation). In terms of pure technical skill, it's the best action scene in the whole film. The Holtzmann sequence, though, by sheer exuberance and charm, succeeds as being the finest bit entirely.

In terms of comedy, I laughed more the first time around. Hollywood comedies have recently been stuck in a rut, thanks to Judd Apatow, Seth Rogan, and even Feig himself. The paradigm is improvised lines of ever-escalating absurdity instead of actual writing: a dadaist simile that deploys a pop culture reference. The recent "comedy" Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is this paradigm at its nadir. Already, Hollywood comedy struggles with visual storytelling, so to export all comedic labour onto the shoulders of moderately talented absurdly attractive "comedians" does the film no favours. Luckily, many jokes in Ghostbusters hit the mark. Not all. I especially loved the queef joke, but then again, I find flatulence to be intrinsically funny. Some of the non sequiturs and dadaist improv bits (eg. a flying baby) had all the comedic thrust of a falling rock. Still, I laughed and chuckled at some stuff. The problem with dadaist improv stuff is that it mostly works in the shock. A repetition of the same joke won't have nearly the same effect. Additionally, the film isn't nearly as complicated in its structuring of jokes. Consider how infinitely watchable Hot Fuzz is; Ghostbusters doesn't really reward multiple watches in the same way. This will hinder my love of the film in the long run, but it's not enough to sink the entire thing.

Really, the major downside to the film is the abbreviated narrative. The women capture one ghost and then are immediately on their way to saving the world. An opportunity for a montage was missed, especially since the characters set up the potential for a montage! In one scene, Abby (McCarthy) lists for Erin (Wiig) the people that need the help of a team of Ghostbusters, ie a chance for a montage. This would have given the sequence of events some time to breathe, as it feels like the film's narrative occurs over a day or two.

If these, then, are the flaws, let us return to the positives, the many riches to be found in the movie. It's not ideal that Leslie Jones's character isn't a scientist, at least for the political optics of the character's race. There are black women in the sciences (shocking, I know) so it's not out of the realm of possibility. In fact, the film might have missed a thematic opportunity: one of the overarching plotlines of the film details the soft sexism that women in STEM fields aren't taken seriously. Additionally, the sexism and soft racism faced by women of colour in STEM must be even more pronounced, especially if they speak in a pronounced AAVE accent. It would have benefited the film to have Jones's character be a scientist who isn't taken seriously by her peers due to her gender, her race, and her mannerisms. To have her expertise finally validated by the narrative would have been unspeakably inspiring, I'm sure.

That being said, I did love that Jones's character is competent and nerdy in her own way. The film has a deep affection for the enthusiasm of nerds, as Holtzmann, Yates, and Gilbert are all outsider nerds who love what they do. Their excitement is infectious. While Tolan's interests lay in the more material aspects of the world, she still gets multiple opportunities to demonstrate her competence and confidence. Never in the film are the quirks of the characters the butt of a malicious joke, and this is eminently true of Patty's fashion choices.

When one of the protagonists says to Patty, "you're a genius," and Patty replies, "I'm a Ghostbuster," I actually teared up. As a white cis male, I've always had representation. I can't imagine how fucking awesome it would be for a young black woman to see Patty Tolan, a 50 year old super tall black woman, in a blockbuster, announce that she is a part of one of the most famous teams in cinematic history.

Melissa McCarthy's ponytail and smile thrilled in a way that, I'm ashamed to admit, verged on erotic. While it was so stupendously refreshing that the leads were never subject to the territorializing male gaze, McCarthy's beautiful face, fantastic costuming, and performance provided me with the frisson of libidinal excitement. I mean, look at this picture and tell me she doesn't tickle your fancy:

The scene where Patty drives up in the hearse unfolds with a joke about a corpse. When Erin says, "Did you check for a corpse?" Abby giggles at the thought, and it feels so genuine, so charming, that if I wasn't already in love with McCarthy (again, SOOKIE ST. JAMES FOREVER), this would've done it.

I love that the characters, while not perfectly drawn, feel iconic to me already. I have no problems remembering all of their names: Erin Gilbert, Abby Yates, Lillian Holtzmann, Patty Tolan. They seem so real to me. Part of the appeal of this movie is for sure the allure of hanging out with the characters, especially as the film refuses to indulge in the same petty squabbles that plague other cinematic women: they don't compete among each other for a man, they aren't subject to the male gaze, they genuinely like each other. The affection they have for each other is infectious.

Ultimately, the film won't have the same longevity as the original. It's just not as well constructed. Perhaps the sequel will improve on this first reboot. Perhaps the cameos (which were fine, whatever) won't feel as forced. Perhaps the narrative will have time to breathe. But mostly, I hope the sequel retains the flavour of four badass competent smart women who are funny and fun to hang out with.

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