Ghostbusters (2016)


Uncorking the genii.

Uncorking the genii.

(2016) Horror Comedy (Columbia) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Zach Woods, Ed Begley Jr., Charles Dance, Karan Soni, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Nate Corddry, Ozzy Osbourne, Andy Garcia, Annie Potts, Cecily Strong, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Al Roker, Susan Park, Katie Dippold. Directed by Paul Feig

 

I have to make a confession; I was not pleased about the prospects of an all-female Ghostbusters team at first; for one thing, it seemed kind of gimmicky to me, a means of establishing a bit of notoriety before the movie opened. The more I thought about it though, I figured I was just using that as an excuse; I was being a sexist so as a critic I swallowed my pride, sucked it up and tried to look at the movie as objectively as I could.

That’s not to say that it’s possible; like millions of others, the original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorite films. When you take on a remake of a classic that is so beloved, comparisons between that film and yours are going to be inevitable. Surely Paul Feig had to know that. But I don’t think he expected the venom that would be directed at his choice to change the gender the team; fanboys absolutely lost their minds, some going so far as to claim that it “ruined their childhoods” which is generally an indication that their childhoods probably should be ruined, if that was all it took.

The storyline here is pretty similar to the original; a trio of scientists – Erin Gilbert (Wiig), a physicist; Abby Yates (McCarthy) a paranormal investigator, and Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), an engineer – are brought together to investigate a haunting. Erin and Abby had once co-authored a book – Ghost from Our Past – but had a falling out. Erin was trying to distance herself from those days and when the book shows up on Amazon just as she’s about to become tenured at Columbia University, she and Abby are brought together. Eventually, Abby agrees to pull the book from Amazon on the condition that Erin allows them to investigate a paranormal activity at a local mansion that had been brought to Erin’s attention by the home’s curator (Begley).

When their investigation is successful beyond their wildest dreams, they enlist Abby’s new partner Jillian who is like a kid in a toy store on Christmas morning – she has all sorts of devices to try out, including a proton pack and a ghost capturing device. With Erin cashiered from Columbia who has found out about her somewhat unorthodox beliefs in the supernatural, the three decide to start up a ghost investigation business. During an investigation into a New York subway, they are assisted by Patty Tolan (Jones), an MTA employee with an encyclopedic knowledge of New York City history, particularly the haunted kind. She joins the team as the fourth Ghostbuster (as they are now called, much to Erin’s annoyance).

They hire a receptionist to handle the calls which turns out to be Kevin (Hemsworth), a male model who gets the job because he dampens Erin’s panties more than anything – he proves to be an utter imbecile and not much use at all answering the phone. As they investigate, they discover that someone has been creating gateways allowing the ghosts to come into New York. That someone is uber-nerd Rowan North (Casey) who has some very unpleasant plans for a world that has rejected him and ignored him. When someone plans a paranormal apocalypse, who ya gonna call?

The special effects are spectacular here, which is definitely an unexpected plus – Feig has never really worked an effects-heavy film before but he does a fine job here with the CGI. It’s impressive without being overwhelming. The cinematography is gorgeous and most of the technical end of the movie is soundly executed. I also think that his casting is spot-on – on paper.

Unfortunately, on celluloid is where I have the issues. The chemistry between the team just isn’t as strong as it was for Murray, Aykroyd, Hudson (who all have cameos) and the late Harold Ramis, whose son appears in a brief cameo and who also appears as a bust outside of Erin’s office at Columbia. McKinnon is a little too over the top at times as is Jones who’s shrieking is almost anachronistic, sounding uncomfortably like depictions of African-American characters in horror comedies from say 50-75 years ago.

Wiig and McCarthy are both strong comic actresses who have given terrific performances in other movies, but they are both overly bland here. McCarthy is strangely subdued; I sometimes complain about her characterization in other comedic roles but I would have welcomed more of that energy she brought to those roles here. Wiig is generally an extremely understated performer and was completely miscast; they needed someone who had a little more of a presence. This may surprise some, but I think Leslie Jones might have been better suited for the role of the physicist/doubter, Kate McKinnon better as Abby, Melissa McCarthy more fun as Patty and maybe a different actress – Amy Schumer for example – as Jillian. But still, just reshuffling the roles might not have helped; the ladies just don’t seem as comfortable around each other as they should be.

Despite all of the issues I have with the team, the script isn’t half-bad and there are some very funny moments. The cameos are welcome, but also serve to remind us of how much better the original was than the remake and Feig might have been better advised to leave them out, particularly since he chose to do a reboot rather than a sequel, which I think might have been a better move. Still, one has to give him points for trying, but trying doesn’t save a movie that’s just average.

REASONS TO GO: The effects are impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: It simply doesn’t hold up to the original.
FAMILY VALUES: Some somewhat rude humor and a bit of supernatural action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The book Ghost from Our Past supposedly co-written by lead characters Erin and Abby, is really for sale on Amazon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Haunted House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Legend of Tarzan

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Spy


Fish out of water.

Fish out of water.

(2015) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jessica Chaffin, Miranda Hart, Morena Baccarin, Will Yun Lee, Carlos Ponce, Richard Brake, Raad Rawi, Michael McDonald, Peter Serafinowicz, Nargis Fakhri, 50 Cent, Ben Falcone, Katie Dippold, Jamie Denbo. Directed by Paul Feig

We are, as a moviegoing public, fascinated by spies. Of course, there’s the glamour – playing baccarat in Monte Carlo, wearing designer suits and dresses, using sophisticated gadgets that look like ordinary items, only deadly. Who wouldn’t want that kind of life?

Certainly Susan Cooper (McCarthy) does, to the point that she works for the Central Intelligence Agency. She is this close to getting an assignment in the field, but she winds up being a kind of handler/assistant to debonair field agent Bradley Fine (Law). She’s also quite smitten with the devilishly handsome spy, but he won’t give her a second look. In fact, nobody gives her much respect, not even the deputy chief (Janney) who supervises the team.

Unfortunately, while trying to discover the location of a nuclear bomb that is up for sale to the highest terrorist bidder, things go horribly, terribly awry. It turns out that the bomb seller, Reyna Boyanov (Byrne), has somehow identified every one of the CIA field agents. With a nuclear bomb in play and crippled by the fact that every agent she sends up against the bitchy Boyanov is sure to be spotted, the harried deputy chief is forced to send in someone that Reyna doesn’t know – Susan Cooper is finally getting her chance to be a field agent.

She is aided in her quest by gawky fellow basement dweller Nancy (Hart) and over-the-top touchy-feely Italian agent Aldo (Serafinowicz). She’ll also be hindered by egotistical, braggadocios agent Rick Ford (Statham) who, like about everyone else in the CIA, thinks that Susan doesn’t have a chance out in the field and will only mess things up. Susan, however, has a few surprises in store and is determined to complete her first mission. Will it be however, the last thing she does?

I’ve always blown hot and cold about McCarthy; she shows flashes of comic brilliance but Hollywood seems interested in casting her only as a boorish slob or an overbearing bully. One gets the sense that Hollywood can’t see past her weight, which coincidentally is Susan Cooper’s problem. One person who does see more in McCarthy is Feig, who has been at the helm for her three best performances yet – Bridesmaids, The Heat and now this.

McCarthy has always been adept at physical comedy, although it has often been to her detriment (having to do with her size) but here she outdoes herself. That’s not what makes McCarthy’s performance so memorable though; it’s that she portrays Susan as intelligent, capable and dare I say it, pretty. She turns all of our prejudices about overweight women on their ear, and for that alone one should applaud this movie, and Feig and McCarthy specifically.

What holds this movie back is that the story is really kind of generic spy stuff. We’ve seen the plot in movies and on television many times before. However, it is executed very well  here, with some cool high-tech sets in the CIA and lovely exotic (to American eyes anyway) locations. I would also have liked to see the villains be less bitchy and more evil. A spy movie is only as good as its villain and while Byrne is delicious as Reyna, one doesn’t get the kind of threat from her as one might from Auric Goldfinger, Ernst Blofeld or even Siegfried of KAOS.

Still, McCarthy gets to be James Bond and how cool is that for her? You can tell that she’s having the time of her life in this role, and it translates onto the screen and audiences are picking up on that, judging from the box office and audience test scores. It is said that Fox intended this all along to be a new franchise for them and quite likely it will be and I for one can’t wait for a sequel if McCarthy wants to do one.

REASONS TO GO: Statham plays against type and McCarthy is at her best. Some nifty sets and locations.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really explore new territory. Villains not villainous enough.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language, some violence, a little bit of sexual content and a brief scene of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Feig is a huge fan of Jason Statham and wrote the part of Rick Ford specifically for him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Means War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Departed

The Heat


Some pictures say a thousand words; this one just says "say WHAT?!?"

Some pictures say a thousand words; this one just says “say WHAT?!?”

(2013) Buddy Cop Comedy (20th Century Fox) Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport, Jane Curtin, Spoken Reasons, Dan Bakkedahl, Taran Killam, Michael McDonald, Tom Wilson, Peter Weireter, Erica Derrickson, Kaitlin Olson, Joey McIntyre, Michael Tucci, Bill Burr, Nathan Corddry, Jessica Chaffin, Jamie Denbo. Directed by Paul Feig

It is 2013 in Hollywood and after decades of inspired (and uninspired) Odd Couple buddy cop pairings, America gets its first all-woman cop buddy duo. I would think that just for being a trailblazer The Heat should get props, and it does particularly since they cast the two roles perfectly.

Sarah Ashburn (Bullock) is an ambitious but uptight FBI agent. She’s very successful at closing cases but her people skills are a bit lacking. She’s smarter than most of the men around her and she knows it but what’s worse she likes to show it off. She’s eager for a promotion that she’s probably richly earned but her boss (Bichir) isn’t so sure; he instead sends her from New York to Boston to take down a mysterious drug lord who is pushing his way into the city.

Shannon Mullins (McCarthy) is a rude, crude and lewd Boston cop who intimidates her colleagues with her foul mouth, her nasty attitude and her hair-trigger temper. When she’s not abusing her boss (Wilson) – who bears more than a passing resemblance to Biff Tannen – she’s having one night stands with clingy men and bickering with her family. She’s so tough she arrested her brother Jason (Rapaport) and sent him to prison, from which he’s just emerging.

The two are more or less after the same guy. At first, of course, they are competing but when ordered to work together these lone wolves find out that there is some benefits from working in a pack. However they’re up against a very male-oriented culture which doesn’t take them seriously and to make matters worse, Mullins family is at risk from a sadistic killer (McDonald).

Melissa McCarthy broke out as a big star in a supporting role in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids and it’s no accident that he’s behind the camera for the role that may make her a superstar. This is the perfect part for McCarthy – foul-mouthed, physical with a tender side that really makes better use of her talents than this year’s earlier hit Identity Thief did. Some of her zingers were the kind that made you laugh so hard that you missed dialogue that came out after it.

She is paired perfectly with Bullock who has played tough cops before but here she allows a little prissiness to set in. She’s so lonely that her cat isn’t even hers – it’s her neighbor’s who is vexed that the cat visits “the weird lady next door.” Bullock is one of the best at playing socially awkward but extremely competent women – remember her boss from Hell in The Proposal? – and nobody does book-smart-but-people-dumb like Bullock. The chemistry between her an McCarthy is on the level of Nick Nolte/Eddie Murphy and Mel Gibson/Danny Glover in the annals of cop buddies.

Although the film is groundbreaking, it’s a shame they couldn’t give the two leading ladies a groundbreaking script to work with. Despite the terrific performances of Bullock and McCarthy (and of the cast in general), the plot is such that it feels like it was written in a Screenwriting 101 class. If you’re going to have two women leading a cop buddy movie, play to the strengths of women in general instead of just having them referring to their lady parts in a series of crude jokes. Cagney and Lacey and Rizzolli and Isles were both able to do this successfully on television; while I get those shows are both more procedurals than this one, I don’t think they needed to give the women ugly male characteristics to make this funny, unless of course they’re trying to make the point that the two sexes are more alike than unalike which I can appreciate.y

In any case, this is superior summer entertainment that has that element of familiarity that Hollywood thinks American movie audiences yearn for. It bodes well for the future of McCarthy to take the throne as America’s reigning film comedienne superstar with her two big hits this year. She is clearly the reason to go see this movie and clearly looks to be as funny if not funnier than some of her highest-paid male colleagues right now.

REASONS TO GO: Bullock plays surprisingly well against type and for her part this is right in McCarthy’s wheelhouse.

REASONS TO STAY: Beyond the novelty factor of two women in the lead roles, the movie doesn’t really add much to the buddy cop genre.

FAMILY VALUES:  A buttload of bad language. Some of the content is on the crude side, and there’s a bit of violence to top it all off.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was originally set for a late spring release, but the studio, encouraged by early reception to the film, decided to move it into the summer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100; the reviews are pretty much split but leaning towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Other Guys

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Lone Ranger (2013)