Tuesday July 26, 2016
Book 16: Big, Dumb Objects — Part IV
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Ghostbusters

There was no crossing of the streams, but there has been a crossing of my Threshold of Awesome.

Ghostbusters2016PattyI had a blast at Ghostbusters. There was a little bit of a pacing drag at around the midpoint, and a few of the jokes didn’t fire for me, but in most places the film was kind of perfect.

My biggest concern going into the film was that Leslie Jones’ character was going to be the stereotypically “street smart” character. My worry was based on a snippet of her dialog in the trailer, and I’m pleased to spoil a teency bit of the film by telling you that those lines read quite a bit differently in context.

Of secondary concern was the sound. Specifically, the sound of that lawsuit-worthy walking bass riff, the one that became the audio signature of Ghostbusters back in 1984. Good news! We get plenty of that riff in the film. We also get lots of new stuff, and I find it all much more pleasing to the ear now that I know there’s coexistence rather than replacement.

I had exactly no concern that Paul Feig would give us a fun movie. He and Melissa McCarthy opened a solid line of credit with me last year with Spy, and I’m delighted to announce that the balance has been paid. Whatever their next joint is, I’m in.

Ghostbusters2016HoltzmannIf I’m to quibble about anything, it would have to be the scenes with misplaced focus. Kate McKinnon’s character, Holtzmann, usually was not the focal point of shots where the four Ghostbusters are interacting, but she was by far the most interesting person to watch. It’s as if there’s an entirely different story being told from her point of view.

This isn’t much of a quibble, really. I figured out pretty early on that I didn’t want to miss what Holtzmann was doing in each scene, and I was rewarded for paying attention.

And on the subject of not missing things, the entire credits sequence is entertaining. Don’t leave. Stay in the theater until the lights come up.

I’d love to write a much longer post offering a critical analysis of differences and similarities between the 1984’s Ghostbusters and the 2016 remake/reboot, but regrettably I am made of meat, not time. All I can say at this point is that the craft of cinema has come a long way. The new film is very tightly written¹, and provides lots of wonderful SFX in strong service of the story.


 

¹For me the 1984 Ghostbusters film plays like a concatenation of good Saturday Night Live sketches. The seams are pretty well polished down, but the sketch-comedy aspect is visible. The 2016 Ghostbusters film feels “through-composed.” When I say that it is “tightly written,” I mean that the story feels like it was structured first to work like a story, and carefully refined in that regard, and then the comedic bits were punched up as appropriate. 

 

The Secret Life of Pets

TheSecretLifeOfPetsMy 15-year-old daughter joined me in the theater for The Secret Life of Pets. She loved it, and while I enjoyed it quite a bit, I’m sure I liked it more for having her with me.

I’m not sure why it doesn’t quite clear my Threshold of Awesome. It comes close, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint, but it didn’t shine as brilliantly for me as did the stuff above that line.

A critical¹ analysis of the film might prove interesting. The main character, Max, is our protagonist, but he doesn’t appear to be the hero. He’s proactive, and is “protagging²” enough to hold down the protagonist job, but the character taking heroic action, the one for whom we’re actually cheering, is the dog who goes looking for him. This is an exercise that students of film, and of storytelling in general, may get quite a bit out of³.

Here’s my take on your weekend movie money: If the adults in the room are on the fence about which animated film to see this week, Finding Dory has more to offer. Kids (and especially kids with pets) are going to have more fun with The Secret Life of Pets.


 

¹For “scholarly” values of “critical.” 

²I’m not sure if I made up this verb, or if somebody else did, but Brandon Sanderson keeps giving me credit for it. We use it from time to time on the Writing Excuses podcast. Protagging is what protagonists are doing when their decisions move the story forward. Often when we’re bored with a story it’s because the story is waiting for something to happen to the protagonist that will shove them plotward. 

³The main character, the hero, and the protagonist do not all need to be the same person. They often are, but in stories with lots of interesting characters they just as often are not. 

 

The Legend of Tarzan

The Legend of Tarzan is a much more thoughtful film than I expected it to be. Also, it’s a much less predictable film than I thought we’d get. I was expecting Yet Another Superhero Origin Story, and that’s not what this was. Sure, we AGAIN see gorillas kill Bruce Wayne’s I mean John Greystoke’s parents, but it’s in flashback¹.

LegendOfTarzanOur first glimpse of the film’s namesake is in England, where he sits sipping tea and rejecting a dubiously-extended invitation to go back to the Congo as a representative of the Crown. He and Jane have been Lord and Lady Greystoke for eight years now, and as he says in that scene “My name is not Tarzan. My name is John.”

At that point I realized that beyond the standard action-movie arc and the spoilery-bits from the trailers, I didn’t really know anything about the story I was about to get. This was cool.

One of the best things about this film was Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of George Washington Williams, a real figure from history², who I would argue is the actual hero of the film. Tarzan does impressive stuff, but Williams does the stuff that will matter in the end. Also, he gets some of the best lines. When someone says “you cannot keep up with Tarzan,” Williams responds with “No, but I can keep up with John Greystoke.”

The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t clear my Threshold of Awesome, but it does a good job of defying expectations, and telling a story that has more heart to it than just swinging through trees and screaming.


 

¹A gunshot, and then we go to extreme slow-mo. A strand of pearls snaps, and the individual pearls glisten and fly, while massive ape-fists, flecked with blood okay that’s not how it goes. 

²The real George Washington Williams fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, fought under Espinosa in Mexico to overthrow Emperor Maximilian, and was the first African-American to be elected to the Ohio State Legislature. In 1889 he went to the Belgian Congo to observe the treatment of the Congolese people, and in 1890 he filed formal protests. He never got to do most of what he does in this movie, but even just a cursory examination of his life convinces me he would have loved to. Samuel L. Jackson plays him that way.