Masterminds (2016)

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threehalfstar

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It’s difficult to sell the potential enjoyment of a Jared Hess film to the disinterested, because the director’s work can be so aggressively quirky-for-its-own-sake & juvenile. Hess’s latest film, Masterminds, has been the most difficult sell of the director’s career yet, possibly in a very literal sense. His debut, Napoleon Dynamite, was a dirt cheap indie comedy that somehow stumbled into the kind of success that scores you decades-long merch sales in roadside truck stops & shopping mall novelty shops, despite being the director’s least interesting work to date. Titles like Nacho Libre, Don Verdean, and (my personal favorite) Gentlemen Broncos have mostly flown under the radar since, as have the projects of Hess’s wife & creative partner Jerusha. Not one of these examples has suffered the financial & distributive roadblocks of Masterminds, though. A harmless madcap bank heist comedy starring Zach Galifianakis & three Ghostbusters (Jones, Wiig, and McKinnon), Masterminds has struggled for at least two years to see the light of day. The film itself is very amusing to those already onboard with Hess’s lost-in-time awkwardness schtick, but also relatively unexceptional within the larger scope of his career. The fact that something so straightforward from Hess has taken this long to overcome its distribution setbacks (which included the financial collapse of Relativity Media), only to flop on its long-awaited opening weekend does not bode well for the director’s career at large. He can’t continue making these comfortable, mid-budget, non-flashy comedies and expect to survive in the current Hollywood climate, no matter how much I (and apparently very few others) happen to find them amusing. Not without bringing his content straight to VOD, at least.

I could make some sort of grand claim about how the virtue of honesty is what ties together the heart of Hess’s narratives or that his films are interesting in their application of a Wes Anderson visual craft to a gross-out Farrelly Brother aesthetic, but I’m not sure that’s what makes them work as comedies. What Hess brings to the table, besides the general quease of Sears family photo shoots, is the visual punchline. In Masterminds, the machinations of Zach Galifianakis’s hapless security guard being coerced into robbing a bank by his milquetoast seductress, Kristen Wiig, or her sleaze ball cohort, Owen Wilson, aren’t nearly as amusing as just the mere look of him. The Prince Valiant haircut, the full beard, the tight novelty t-shirts: Zach Galifianakis is the fashion version of a slapstick pratfall. Certainly, there are funny turns of phrase in the film (mostly delivered by Jason Sudeikis’s cold-as-ice contract killer) but no dialogue in the film made me laugh nearly as hard as just the distinctly awkward visual tableau Hess crafted with his vanity-free players. In many ways Kate McKinnon was perfect casting for this comedy style, as it’s the criticism she most often receives from her work in SNL. She doesn’t deliver jokes so much as that she is the joke, striking such a specifically strange, crazy-eyed image that no verbal play is needed to sell the humor. This might not be enough for some folks, but just the mere sight of her posing for wedding photos with Zach Galifianakis to an Enya song is personally all I need to guffaw.

The humor of Masterminds is, in the film’s own words, “dumber than a suitcase full of buttholes.” The “based on a real story” failed bank heist plot is amusing, but indistinct. Stray lines about a “fart transplant” or why boobs don’t bleed milk are certainly funny & Jason Sudeikis’s sociopathic assassin is hilariously out of place in this world of naïve dummies, but the film isn’t particularly memorable for any verbal or narrative touches. It’s Hess’s deft with the comedic image, whether McKinnon posing in a hideous wedding dress or Galifianakis chowing down on a goo-filled tarantula, that makes Masterminds a weird, dumb delight. It’s doubtful that Hess can continue to get away with constructing those awkward tableaus in perpetuity, given the lukewarm reception each of his films have received since his surprise hit debut (and his worst film to date, in my opinion), but for now I’m enjoying the weirdly wonderful results. Anyone else should be able to tell at a quick glance if they’re also going to be onboard, considering the visual nature of the director’s humor.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghostbusters (2016)

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fourstar

Like most people my age (I was born in 1987), my first experience with the Ghostbusters came not in the form of the 1984 comedy classic; instead, my love for all things Ghostbusting was the result of watching the animated The Real Ghostbusters as a kid. In fact, watching the cartoon adventures of Egon, Venkman, Ray, Winston, and Janine on Saturday mornings, alongside Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Garfield and Friends, is one of my earliest memories; unlike TMNT, I can actually remember particular episodes and character types from Ghostbusters (I know that the Turtles theme song delineates each turtle’s individual personality, but that blew right past me as a kid and I couldn’t tell you which one was a “party dude” right now to save my life). I didn’t see the original film until I was a little older, and even then my clearest childhood memories of the movies actually comes from Ghostbusters II, where the pink slime that fills Sigourney Weaver’s bathtub made me terrified of the tub for a few months.

I was pretty excited to hear about the remake/reboot when it was first announced last year, but wasn’t confident that it would ever really been made and even less thrilled about how well it might turn out. I still remember hearing on the radio about a fourth Indiana Jones film as far back as 1997, when Joaquin Phoenix was in talks to play Indie’s younger brother; then, eleven years later, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull plopped into theatres on my birthday like the worst present of all time. I had mixed feelings about Paul Feig; he directed seven episodes of Arrested Development, sure, but one of those was “Ready, Aim, Marry Me,” which is probably the worst single episode of the original three season run. I was also not one of those people who was terribly impressed with Bridesmaids, although it might merely have been that I was in a terrible mood the first time I saw it. Still, Feig was heavily involved with Other Space, Yahoo’s sci-fi comedy that was released last year and which I enjoyed much more than anyone really has a right to (and which featured super cutie Karan Soni, who plays deliveryman Bennie in Ghostbusters, and Neil Casey, who plays villain Rowan North*). Still, when I saw a pic of the all-gal Ghostbusters squad all suited up and ready to bust last year, I was super on board. I retweeted the picture and expressed my excitement, even (and Feig favorited it!).

*According to the credits, fellow Other Space alums Milana Vayntrub and Eugene Cordero were also in the film, as Subway Rat Woman and Bass Guitarist, respectively, but I missed them, unfortunately.

There was (unfortunately, inevitably, and unfortunately inevitably) a backlash, mostly of the misogynistic variety, because of course there was. Of. Course. There. Was. Most of the criticism of the film had little to do with the fact that Ghostbusters is pretty much a perfect movie in a lot of ways (if inarguably a little dated in its kinda creepy sexual politics); after all, this is the primary objection that is usually voiced in response to remakes of any kind. “Why would you remake Total Recall/Robocop/King Kong/True Grit/The Manchurian Candidate/Poltergeist (etc.) when the original still holds up?” But that’s not why (a certain subset of) people were upset about Ghostbusters 2016 at all, even if they tried their best to couch their anti-woman bias in that language. Of course, the blanketing effect across the internet meant that people who were legitimately concerned about the potential artistic or financial failings of the film, especially after the not-very- good first trailer was released, were lumped in together with the rabid woman haters; as a result, those who were anxious that the film would simply fail ended up being on the side of the worst parts of the internet, meaning that there any real criticism was immediately swept away in a wave of meaningless manpain.

So, as someone whose childhood was very GB-influenced, how’s the new movie?

….

I loooooooved it. I loved it so much, y’all. Of course, it pales in comparison to the original, but that’s like saying that Canopus pales in comparison to Sirius: they’re still both pretty bright. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a lot of fun, and I honestly can’t wait to see it again. There’s a perfect mix between nostalgia and novelty, a slew of cameos from the original cast, and a hell of a lot of laughs throughout.

The film opens with a tour of a supposedly haunted mansion that becomes a little too real for the tour guide (Zach Woods). Meanwhile, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is preparing for her final tenure defense at Columbia when a book about the paranormal she co-wrote many years before threatens to derail her career track. She tracks down the other author, Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and asks her to stop pushing sales of the book long enough for her tenure to be accepted. Yates and her engineer officemate Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) agree, as long as Gilbert assists them in investigating the mansion. Following a genuine encounter with a ghostly entity, all three women find themselves rejected from academia. Meanwhile, MTA employee and amateur historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) has a strange encounter with commuter Rowan North (Neil Casey), then follows him down to a subway tunnel where he plants a device that summons a ghost from which Patty barely escapes. The three parascientists set up shop above a restaurant in Chinatown and hire hunky dingbat Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) as their receptionist, and Patty invites them to check out the ghost in the tunnels beneath the city. From there, the Ghostbusters become a legitimate team, and the story builds until the four of them face off against an entity that threatens to destroy New York.

First, the negatives: this film lacks a lot of the New York flavor that permeated the first Ghostbusters and its sequel, although I’d argue that this was inevitable given the overall Disneyfication and general enforced conformity that New York has undergone since the Giuliani administration (Sam Delaney’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is required reading on this subject, if you can find a copy). Still, it’s impossible to ignore how much that affects the overall tone of this film in comparison to the original. Further, the original Ghostbusters is a film that has a very dry wit, and although that same temperament is here, the comedy is a little more broad (no pun intended) and varied: there’s slapstick, improvisation, and your standard jokes tied in with the more sardonic wit that characterized the eighties flicks. Here, instead, the film runs the gamut from very dry (the mansion tour guide notes that the mansion that opens the film had the best contemporary security measures at the time of construction, including a fence specifically designed to keep out Irish immigrants) to the more over-the- top (Andy Garcia, as the mayor of New York, blows his lid when Dr. Gilbert compares him to the mayor from Jaws, in one of the film’s funniest moments).

There are other negatives. The music choices in the film are terrible, frankly, outside of the revisitations of the original GB theme and its derivations. There’s an extended sequence in which the team captures a ghost at a nü-metal concert, and the music playing throughout is utter garbage, but even that sounds like the music of the angels in comparison to the closing credits theme “Good Girls” by Elle King, which stands out as possibly the shittiest pop song of the new millennium. There’s also a slight editing problem in a few sequences where it is apparent that a scene has been cut. For instance, it seems like the big psychokinetic dance sequence that plays out over the end credits might once have been part of the film proper, but that’s not terribly distracting on the whole. There also may have been a cut subplot in which Gilbert leaves the team after one of their very public outings that ends with a fake arrest, but that’s also not a problem for me (honestly, the sooner someone takes the “team member rejects the group but then comes back in the end” third act subplot out into a field and puts it out of its misery, the better). I also didn’t love the “battle sequence” toward the end of the film, but that’s more a statement about the the state of modern film structure than a complaint that’s specific to this particular movie.

As far as other things that people have had negative criticism for, I don’t really agree. I’ve heard complaints that some of the improv jokes go on a little too long, but I’m not bothered by them. I’ve also seen much hay being made about Patty’s being a blue collar worker and not a scientist like the three other (white) women in the group, but I found her to be a delight and not at all the potentially troublesome stereotype that she was presented as in a few of the trailers. There are some people out there who are intent on finding something to hate in the film, especially anything that seems “man hating,” but there’s so little of it and it’s so toothless in comparison to the generally misogynistic tone of most media that it won’t bother you unless you go looking for it (for instance, the fact that one of the ghosts takes a crotch shot is something I’ve seen a great deal of discussion about, as if hits to the groin aren’t a staple of comedies with brows both high and low).

Overall, however, the film is great. There’s a lot of great parallelism between Gilbert and Rowan, and the way that each fights or assists supernatural evil with science and technology. There’s very overt humor throughout as well as more subtle moments, and there’s a lot to enjoy whether you’re a fan of old school Ghostbusters or not. None of the characters are direct one-to- one parallels with Egon and the gang (although Holtzmann has Egon’s cartoon hair, which I love), and the story feels fresh and new while retaining echoes of the past. One of the best visual gags in the original GB is when Egon activates Ray’s “unlicensed nuclear accelerator” in the hotel elevator, and then he and Venkman subtly move away from the proton pack, as if a few extra inches would really make a difference; there’s a similar scene in this film in which two of the Ghostbusters inch away from an activated device in the alley where they test their equipment. It’s subtle, but there’s a lot of love and respect for Ghostbusters as a franchise in this film, no matter what you’ve heard. Some of the more slapsticky moments went on a little long for me, but there’s too much fun to be had to stick your head in the sand and ignore this movie just because the ‘Busters aren’t the same ones that you grew up with. And, hey, if Dave Coulier replacing Lorenzo Music as the voice of Venkman in The Real Ghostbusters or the creation of the Slimer! shorts to pad out the Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters hour didn’t destroy the Ghostbusters legacy, this certainly won’t either.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond