Ghostbusters

poster-ghostbusters

Ghostbusters is a great sitcom but not such a great summer blockbuster.

The new Ghostbusters movie caused a bit of a stir in the months leading up to its release – the undeserving victim of some truly noxious sexist and racist vitriol, much of which masqueraded as complaints that the new movie doesn’t and can’t recapture the spirit of the original and therefore, in some unexplainable way, destroys childhoods.

Whether or not it does “capture the spirit of the original” is an immaterial question – to me at least, because I don’t remember the original well enough to make any meaningful judgment or comparison. More than other films, Ghostbusters should be judged on its own merits, irrespective of its legacy – because of the negativity that it has unfairly garnered with director Paul Feig’s bold decision to have an all-woman lead cast.

Unfortunately, while it can be uproariously funny much of the time, Ghostbusters just doesn’t have the narrative coherence or a compelling enough conflict to elevate it into the realm of the good summer blockbuster, irrespective of how it handles the legacy of the original.

Ghostbusters’ greatest strength is in the humor generated by the interactions between the members of its main cast with each other and with the oddballs that surround them. The big four – Kristen Wiig as physicist-for-tenure Erin Gilbert, Melissa McCarthy as supernatural researcher Abby Yates, Kate McKinnon as slightly crazed engineer Jillian Holtzmann, and Leslie Jones as former MTA station attendant-turned-Ghostbuster Patty Tolan – play off each other with the frenetic fluency befitting of their collective backgrounds in comedy, stand-up, and improv.

Their hangers-on are no comedic slouches either – Chris Hemsworth pulls off a mindbogglingly adroit comedic study of the stereotypical empty-headed hot secretary Kevin, while Neil Casey is top-notch weirdo as put-upon bad guy Rowan North.

The scenes in the first half of the movie are where it shines brightest. The interactions of the main cast as they start to convene their ghost-busting team, their first adventures with catching errant ghosts, feel like a feature film SNL comedy sketch without the laugh-track. Highlight scenes include everything with Kevin and the high-strung theatre manager (presiding over a rock concert, of all things). The big four plus Kevin conceivably make the greatest comedy trope of the 2016 summer blockbuster season.

But the laugh-a-minute pace of humor is actually also a symptom of the film’s lack of character interest, because the incessant quipping takes away from the genuineness of the characters. For all of Holtzmann’s hilarious quirks, she’s little more than a comedic trope – more an archetype for the manic pixie girl than a character. Patty, unfortunately, feels like the token black sidekick. And Kevin, for all his weirdnesses, is such an extreme case of empty-headedness that his character lacks verisimilitude.

As such, the film feels like a sitcom. The acting suffers for it – there’s always a hint that the characters are clued in on the fact that they just delivered a punchline and are overcompensating for that fact by appearing too deadpan. The characters, and by extension, the film, are a little too self-conscious that they’re being funny. It wouldn’t be such a  bad thing if the film were a sitcom – but it’s a 2 hour feature movie, and the sitcom format detracts from that.

And we see the effects of it in the second half of the film, when the big bad starts to emerge and the action and drama start to emerge in full force. The latter half, somewhat predictably, sees the Ghostbusters taking on a supernatural menace that has engulfed the entire city of New York. This is the part where they’re supposed to reveal to us how they’ve really grown into each other as a team, but their lack of character development hamstrings the emotional payoffs that Feig tries to put in near the end of the film.

The film also suffers from some lapses in plot logic during the fight scenes – many classic problems that are the consequence of lazy writing (i.e. not respecting the audience): like the villain being inconsistent with the application of his powers, with the Ghostbusters’ proton beams suddenly increasing in power from what was portrayed before to be able to deal with the enemy, to the city magically restoring itself to the condition it was before the opening of the portal to the other side.

That being said, Ghostbusters was a very entertaining experience, especially in the first half, although it did get a bit tiresome in the second. I hope the sequel plays to the strengths of the Ghostbusters and further builds their relationships, to make them a more believable as real characters as opposed to comedic foils to each other. Ironically, I think that Ghostbusters might do better as a television series – more akin to the sitcom style that characterised the first half – with a ghost-of-the-week type deal – than as a series of films with bigger-than-life villains and CGI-heavy action sequences.

I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 proton fists

Apprentice

appentice1

While imperfect, this Boo Junfeng film is still a solid win for Singapore cinema.

Apprentice is the second full feature film by Boo Junfeng, a director whose short in Seven Letters I admired highly. Parting was an elegant and beautifully short love letter to lost moments in time, and was, in my opinion, the best of the films in that anthology.

With Apprentice, Boo turns to an altogether darker subject. It is a film about the death penalty, but focusing on the subjective experiences of the executioner and the inmates on death row. The protagonist is a correctional officer named Aiman, who is befriended by the executioner, Rahim, of the fictional Larangan prison and begins, under his tutelage, to learn the craft of the noose. But Aiman, himself, is locked in the shackles of his family history – his father had been a condemned prisoner done in by Rahim years ago, and this fact hangs over his head.

The film’s treatment of the death penalty is the best thing about it. Boo’s unique aesthetic sensitivity ensures that the film never descends into the kind of moralising extemporising that might have characterised similar films of its subject matter. Instead, it is more multilayered and somehow more heart-wrenching an experience for that.

There is no normative judgment being made about the institution of the death penalty. Instead, it seems more like an immutable law of nature. Labels of just or unjust do not apply. Instead, what matters in Boo’s eyes are its effects on the people affected by it.

From the dread or fear or resignation of the condemned as they stumble along the corridor to the execution chamber in the pre-dawn light, to the scholar police officers (that the executioner makes no bones about disdaining, which made me smirk) and civil servants and religious figures who preside in silence over the deed, to the anguish of families that stand vigil with candles and pictures or scream and wail – to the whispered reassurances delivered by the executioners as they pull the lever that releases the trap-door: everyone associated with the act of hanging is affected by it in some way, mentally, physically, emotionally. It is these that the film is primarily preoccupied with depicting, and it does so in a way that gave me heart palpitations as I watched.

Another great thing about the film is its visual aesthetic. Boo’s asset is in his cinematographer’s eye. Each scene has a deliberateness to it, a visual completeness, always communicating something important, showing and not telling. Boo is good at doing that – using the visual language of the frame to deliver exposition, filling it with things that deliver the message and advance the plot in an elegant and efficient fashion and avoiding the kind of expository slog that bedevils many films.

But if Boo is good at visual and visceral storytelling, he is not so good at creating the stories that he is able to tell with such aesthetic aplomb. The plot, and especially Aiman’s story arc, still has that vestigial soap opera quality to it. You know the type: the over-telegraphed character motivations, the odd, plot-serving coincidences, the transparent maneuvering of plot threads to put characters in thematically meaningful situations.

Aiman’s personal character conflict is compelling but also a bit muddled, even though Boo has mentioned that it is ostensibly the emotional heart of the film. While it is necessary to make the film stand on its own two feet, at the same time it doesn’t really ring that true to me – Aiman’s need to apprehend his father’s death by taking on the instrumentality of his death. Aiman, by letting go of his gang past and becoming an officer of the law, has already abandoned his shackles – why does he seek out and cultivate as a surrogate father the man who took his father’s life? It seems more a kind of attempt to construct that perfect reflective metaphor, than naturalistic characterisation.

Late in the film, the morality of Aiman actually accepting the mantle of executioner becomes an operative issue, but the film isn’t ruminating here on the intrinsic morality of killing in the name of the law, but rather sets the dilemma as being whether Aiman will step away or embrace becoming the successor of the man who executed his father, which is a personal struggle, not so much a philosophical one. Frustratingly, the film never shows us the outcome, ending – quite predictably, I should say – at the point just before Aiman is supposed to pull the lever.

But Aiman’s story notwithstanding, Apprentice should be lauded for its craftsmanship, visual flair, and sensitivity to a topic that stands as a haunting emblem of the Singaporean judicial system. Apprentice is a film that tells us, in powerfully evocative terms, of the human cost of the death penalty without pontificating on whether that cost is justified to sustain our society.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 pinions

Finding Dory

12792317_10154164942382240_2487411388686774115_o

A sterling Pixar effort that features the high craft we’ve all come to associate with the studio, but lacks the thematic depth that characterises the best Pixar productions.

Finding Dory is the rare sequel – one in which the concept stands on its own two feet, rather than being an flimsy excuse to milk the franchise cash cow. In Finding Dory, the star is the titular blue tang with the short-term memory loss problem, played by Ellen DeGeneres, who one day suddenly recovers long-buried memories about her family and decides that she has to go find them. So she sets off across the ocean, with Marlin and Nemo in tow, on another feature-film spanning journey to find them, and by, extension, her own uniqueness and identity emerge more strongly through this journey. Hence, Finding Dory.

The film’s a visual delight, as is usual with Pixar, brimming with bright colors, visual panache, and a kind of modernist optimism for ecological enlightenment and co-existence – the Jewel of Morro Bay Marine Life Institute is a utopia of well-intentioned aquatic rehabilitation and release. The film is kinetic, tautly paced, and full of gags (not all in the best of taste – see Gerald the sea lion). I’m anticipating the youtube comparison videos that will invariably pop up to showcase the differences in animation quality between Dory and its 13-year-old predecessor when the DVD comes out. And the new characters – Destiny the short sighted whale shark and Bailey the beluga with sonar problems – are just merchandising gold mines.

The film also has its share of strong emotional beats, centered around Dory’s recollections of her family and her yearning to meet them. Pixar really knows how to strike gold with this – appealing to the most primordial and ingrained of human impulses, in a way that makes their manifold characters seem so human, despite their decidedly non-human natures.

Despite the film’s virtues, however, it’s still not on the same league as Inside Out or Toy Story 3, in part because, from a thematic standpoint, Finding Dory doesn’t really deliver a universal message the way Pixar’s best films do.

Dory in the film is presented as an almost Gumpian figure – a protagonist with a form of mental disability, whose disability actually lets them perceive the world in a different way than others, and drives them to accomplish much more than ordinary people. The message here might be not to let your limitations hold you back, but that’s a simplistic and perhaps even dangerous message to deliver.

The film’s chief refrain, the one that motivates the characters is, “what would Dory do?” Dory doesn’t plan, doesn’t think ahead – the polar opposite of Marlin, the chronic worrier and overthinker. Her impulsiveness is a function in part of her memory loss – she can’t make plans because she can’t follow them, and therefore acts on pure instinct. One can see why that might not always be the best advice to follow. And yet, Dory’s impulsiveness is presented as her chief virtue, the source of her value to the team, but all her impulsive stunts only succeed because of good luck and cartoon physics. At least Forrest Gump’s feats were the result of his utter lack of self-consciousness. For Dory, impulsiveness is presented as unreservedly a virtue, when it shouldn’t. To me, this is an overly simplistic rendition of a thematic leitmotif, one that doesn’t quite live up to the sensitive and nuanced motifs seen in the best Pixar films.

The other part of the film that didn’t quite click for me was Hank the octopus. Although a great character in his own right his motivations didn’t feel particularly real to me – his desire to escape the ocean and get cooped up in an aquarium, his growing friendship with Dory – it seems too neat, like Hank is filling a narrative foil-shaped hole in the structure of the film. Why he suddenly changes his mind and ventures back out into the ocean is also a bit beyond me, and the proffered reason – that he’s finally made some friends – strikes me as a little twee.

These might  seem minor issues, but fine gradations separate the good from the great when it comes to Pixar. While Pixar hasn’t made a bad children’s animated movie, it has made some that aren’t as great a watch for adults. While Finding Dory is a triumph on many levels, it just doesn’t have that extra oomph that makes it a must-watch for adults.

Oh, but Piper, the short preceding the movie about a sand piper coming of age, is awesome in both animation and its heart.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 buckets

Both Flesh and Not

51mr0b5q2gl-_sx327_bo1204203200_

Not for first-timers.

Both Flesh and Not is a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace, an American writer and essayist of uncommon lingual prowess and checkered reputation. Wallace wrote about pretty much anything that caught his fancy and did so in a way that was as incisive as it was meandering – a kind of stream of discourse that wended its way like a one-sided conversation, dotted here and there at the banks nuggets of insight that were sometimes liable to be lost in the onslaught of obscure, precisely-used words, complex, multi-clausal sentences, and footnotes that took up half the page.

DFW’s essays were therefore not what you’d call easy reading. Free from strictures of structure and bursting with erudition and, at times, a sort of classist self-entitlement to verbiage, trusting in the ability of the reader to keep up, DFW wrote as he thought educated people should like to be written to – and his definitions for what constituted one were strict. But his essays could be surprisingly forgiving.

To continue the above metaphor, to truly grok one of his essays is to engage in a sort of mental whitewater rafting, mastering every treacherous turn of phrase while resisting the allure of breaking your flow by glancing at one of the infamous footnotes. But stray from the path of DFW’s frothy, exhilarating prose and come back and more likely than not you’ll just continue on for the ride – reading about whatever it is DFW has set his sights on. DFW’s essays were more often than not exercises in modular logical flows rather than discursive monads.

That said, however, this freewheeling style lends itself  better to topics of general interest. DFW’s other collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, was an eclectic collection on the most variegated of topics – 911, culinary ethics, conservative radio talk show hosts, pornography, McCain’s campaign – as I recall, a breathtaking journey over the skein of the American lived experience. DFW, writing for a more general audience, was DFW as his best – able to extract filaments of deep insight from places intimately part of some shared cultural fabric.

By contrast, Both Flesh and Not is a more targeted affair. More than Lobster, it is a compilation of essays, many of which first found themselves in literary journals, where DFW writes for a more well defined audience. In that context, DFW goes the opposite direction, wending down into narrow corridors of interest, indulging in his own, specific geekdoms that coincide with the geekdoms of the readers – Wittgensteinian philosophy, number theory – in ways that could alienate a more general audience interested in more of the same from Lobster. The longest pieces are the most symptomatic of these, while the shorter, more general ones are oftentimes too short to count.

There is a literary bent to these – many are book reviews of esoterica long neglected, some meta-pieces about the art and experience of writing, and, most interestingly, quirky and highly instructive usage notes for 24 common and uncommon words (of which I dearly wish there had been more).

The hit rate of these essays for the generalist is iffier than one would expect, and many would not probably put DFW in good stead in the first impressions of the newbie reader. DFW’s review of the philosophical book Wittgenstein’s Mistress, for example, is so suffused with obscure references to philosophy and literature as to muddle the discourse – and over a book which calls itself “experimental” (read: few would have read it).

There is some interest in the collection itself in the sense that its essays are arranged chronologically – one would expect to be taken on a bit of a tour of 1980s America through 2007. In many ways it is an interesting journey – from DFW’s slightly stiff, clearly developing voice in his early works to his oddly moving ode to Federer as a young man, to his concerns over trading security for liberty in late 2007 – but the evolutionary flow is curtailed by the many atemporal pieces, written in the timeless ivory tower of the literati-philosopher complex, that avail themselves of little contemporary or historical interest to the reader.

The upshot is, DFW’s greatest virtues are less on display in this collection than one would hope. For a much better showcase of his essaying talents, consider Consider the Lobster as your starting point. Both Flesh and Not seems an exercise for DFW’s more devoted readership.

I give this 3.5 out of 5 hot dogs