‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ – A Worthy Installment

The “Ghostbusters” franchise is a lot like the “Predator” franchise in that filmmakers take them in all sorts of directions in the hopes of reintroducing classic characters to a new generation. When it came to “Ghostbusters II” and “Predator II,” neither could match the power or cultural zeitgeist of the original, and we were reminded of how you cannot catch lightning in a bottle twice. A third “Ghostbusters” has been lingering in development hell for decades now, and the 2016 reboot looked like the best we could hope for. Then again, despite a terrific cast, the reboot was a financial failure. After that, I had to wonder, now who we gonna call?

Well, after many years and the COVID-19 pandemic which delayed its release, we now have “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” which was directed and co-written by Jason Reitman, the son of “Ghostbusters” (1984) director Ivan Reitman. What results threatens to be a mixed bag as this sequel relies a bit too much on fan service and treads through familiar territory, but if you can get past that, it still proves to be wonderfully entertaining and has a lot to say about the importance of family.

Thirty years after the events of “Ghostbusters II,” we are introduced to Callie (Carrie Coon), a single mother of two kids, the extremely bright but socially awkward Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and the restless and cellphone-addicted Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). This family is struggling financially and emotionally, and only their infinite sarcasm can help them get through the day. And just when they find themselves evicted from their meager apartment, Callie comes to discover her father, whom she has been estranged from for years, has recently died, and she has now inherited his dilapidated farmhouse where he appeared to be farming nothing other than dirt.

The farmhouse is located in Summerville, Oklahoma, a town which looks to be located out in the middle of nowhere. While the land stretches as far as the eye can see, there apparently is very little going on, and it reminds me of what David Ratray, who played Buzz McCallister in “Home Alone,” once said:

“We live on the most boring street in the whole United States of America, where nothing even remotely dangerous will ever happen. Period.”

But soon after this family arrives in Summerville, strange things begin happening which cannot be seen as anything other than terrifyingly supernatural.

I have to say I really admired how “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” reminds you of how things can be forgotten after so many years. Those who watched the original “Ghostbusters” back when it came out in 1984 have watched it many times since as it was that good and so hilarious. But as time goes on, you have to be reminded of how easy it is for people to forget about the past, or that some have not seen nor remember certain events because, well, they weren’t born yet. Phoebe has to remind others of this, and it brings back memories me of when I ask certain individuals, “You’ve never seen a ‘Star Wars’ movie?!”

Jason Reitman has stated this film is about family above all else, and it definitely shows. The family of Callie, Phoebe and Trevor have been through more than the average family should ever have to experience, but then again, maybe this is common for what’s left of the middle class. While the Spenglers may be stuck in a realm of bitterness and a desperation to understand why they are at where they are. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” implies while some families might be better off with certain members, others deserve an explanation. When it comes to explanations, the one this family gets helps to absolve a lot of bad feelings as living in a place of bitterness is a very unattractive quality in a human being.

When it comes to the screenplay, Reitman and his co-writer Gil Kenan have provided the cast with a lot of inspired dialogue as these two do not want them to be saddled with any of the clunky kind which ends up in every other motion picture. Seriously, the characters more often than not talk like real people here, and for me this is such a relief.

The cast all around is perfectly chosen. Carrie Coon, who may be best remembered for playing Ben Affleck’s sister in “Gone Girl,” is sublime as Callie. Right from the start, she makes this single mother a force to be reckoned with even as she matches her children’s sarcasm word for word.

Perhaps my favorite piece of casting here is Mckenna Grace who plays Phoebe as she takes this Wesley Crusher-like character and makes her ever so appealing. When I was a kid, characters like Phoebe were presented in movies as the kind I should avoid being like, but watching Grace here reminds me of how being incredibly intelligent but socially awkward can really pay off later in life. She really invites you to follow Phoebe as she becomes the big hero of the show here.

When it comes to Finn Wolfhard, I imagine many will look at his performance as a regurgitation of his work from “Stranger Things,” but such an accusation is not altogether fair. As Trevor, he portrays the normal teenager who is quick to become enamored of the opposite sex once he arrives in Summerville. What results is something which may feel similar to the infinitely popular Netflix series, but this young actor clearly knows how to distinguish Trevor Spengler from Mike Wheeler just as he did with Richie Tozier from the latter in the recent cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.”

And then there is Rudd, Paul Rudd. The actor, recently named as People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (someday it will be me), is a blast as science teacher Gary Grooberson. Whether he is slobbering over all the Ghostbusters equipment or showing R-rated movies to a group of disaffected kids (kudos to him for selecting “Cujo” by the way), we are quickly reminded of how we can never go wrong with this guy. As much as I want to say “damn you,” the man never ceases to be an entertaining presence.

Now when it comes to the nostalgia featured here, it does come on fairly heavy, but it doesn’t capsize the film. Unlike sequels such as “Blues Brothers 2000” which was so jam-packed with so many familiar characters and scenes to where the déjà vu made me want to turn it off and watch the original instead, this one treads the line carefully to give us something a bit different even as it pays homage to the 1984 original.

Having said that, part of me wishes “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” was bit more original and did not simply re-employ old villains. If this franchise is to continue beyond this installment, and several post-credit scenes indicate it will, the filmmakers should be willing to take new chances in the future. Even Rob Simonsen’s music score sounds more like a simple adaptation of Elmer Bernstein’s to where it is hard to spot any new themes. It is a bit like when J.J. Abrams brought back Emperor Palpatine for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker;” he’s a great villain and the kind you love to sneer at, but he failed once before and we know he will again, you know?

Still, I very much enjoyed this sequel as it provides audiences with terrific characters who are inhabited by a very talented cast, and the effects are excellent throughout. And yes, there are great surprises to be found here, and I am not about to spoil them for you even if others have already.

But most importantly, this is a film with a lot of heart, and this should be completely clear during its last act. The final scene shows how the deeply embittered can be healed through love and understanding, and that’s whether or not you have a proton pack or ghost trap available. As the end credits came up, it was real treat to hear Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song once again. Where it once was annoying as hell, now it has been found again as “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” finally gives this franchise a truly worthy installment.

* * * out of * * * *

Edgar Wright Talks with John Landis About ‘Animal House’

Asks for Babs!

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2011 when this screening took place.

Edgar Wright continued his film festival he named The Wright Stuff II at New Beverly Cinema with “Animal House,” and joining him for this screening was special guest John Landis who directed it and succeeded in making what Wright called the first “adult gross out comedy ever.” Landis said director Todd Phillips had already made three movies where he did several shot for shot steals from “Animal House,” and even Wright had to admit he may have subconsciously stolen the taking coat gag for “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” from it as well.

“Animal House” was Landis’ third film, and he made it soon after finishing “Kentucky Fried Movie.” However, he was not the first choice to direct as it was initially offered to John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy”), then later to Richard Fleischer (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) and Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) who all turned it down. Landis said they all passed on it saying, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Landis was drawn to this project by what he called “a very smart script” written by Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller. Landis gave a lot of the credit to Kenney who had come to this from the Harvard Lampoon where he was described as being “consistently brilliant.” Kenney wrote scripts called “Laser Orgy Girls” and “Charles Manson In High School,” but then he did “High School Yearbook” which eventually evolved into “Animal House.” The thought was there were so many off-color elements to where it made more sense to set it in college.

“Animal House” marked the film debut of many young actors who would soon become big stars in their own right. It was John Belushi’s first movie, and he was already an established star thanks to “Saturday Night Live.” Tom Hulce was doing the play “Equis” on Broadway when cast, and Bruce McGill was discovered doing Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” As for Karen Allen, she originally drove her friend to audition for it, but she never planned to audition herself. But Landis took one look and told her, “First off, you just lost a friend. Second, we want you in the movie!”

Others from “Saturday Night Live” were considered, but Lorne Michaels was getting pissed about losing more of his cast. While Landis got Belushi despite a crazy schedule which had him available for only three days a week, Michaels refused to let Dan Aykroyd be in it. Then there was Chevy Chase, the show’s first breakout star, who was getting offered everything and decided to do “Foul Play” with Goldie Hawn instead.

The only veterans in “Animal House” were Tim Matheson who started off as a child actor, and Donald Sutherland who was already a big star. All of Sutherland’s scenes were shot in two days, and he was offered $35,000 plus gross points. Sutherland, however, instead took an offer of a flat $50,000 which turned out later to be a mistake as the movie made over $140 million. Everyone else was paid scale except for Belushi, and the horse got $150,000. This led Landis to admit, “I got paid less than the horse!”

The late John Vernon who played Dean Wormer was talked about quite a bit. Vernon played his role so deadly straight, and Landis said Vernon got exactly what the movie was all about. Vernon was also the only one involved with “Animal House” who knew it would be a success as Landis remarked at how he said, “No one realizes what an important movie this will be.”

“Animal House” had a budget of $2.1 million, was shot in 32 days and averaged about 43 setups each day of shooting. Landis said the studio left them alone during the making of it, but they later complained about certain things. They did not like the actors who were chosen and even said, “Why’d you hire John Vernon?! He’s a television actor, a villain in a Clint Eastwood movie!”

The studio also voiced concern over the scene where some of the characters visit a black bar. They feared, Landis quoted them as saying, that “black people will riot” and would “tear up the screen.” But Landis and the producers were adamant of how the scene was told from a white person’s perspective and that it was meant to be subjective. Landis even got Richard Pryor’s take on it, and Pryor said, “I think it’s funny and white people are crazy!”

Studio executives also had an issue with the girls never being shown going home after the party. This led one of them to ask, “How do we know those girls weren’t raped?”

Test screening “Animal House” was an interesting story. The filmmakers took it to Denver where it had audiences screaming with laughter. Landis even taped the audience’s reaction and played it for Belushi over the phone. As a result, Belushi jumped at the chance to attend another screening of it in Atlanta where it ended up being shown to a bunch of what Landis called “drunken booksellers” who sat in stone cold silence throughout. Landis said Belushi came out of it saying the movie needed to be recut, but he was told to shut up by the producers who reminded him he wasn’t around for the Denver preview.

In the end, audiences found “Animal House” to be extremely funny and filled with many laugh-out loud moments, and that’s even if not everybody got the Belushi erection joke. That there was a sold-out audience at the New Beverly is proof of how it continues to stand the test of time. Landis thanked everyone for coming out and said the movie will soon be debuting on Blu-ray, and that all the grain which was taken out while being remastered has been put right back in.

Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters 2016 poster

After being stuck in development hell for much longer than it took to get “Independence Day: Resurgence” to the silver screen, the new “Ghostbusters” movie is now playing in theaters everywhere. The filmmakers should get an award for actually getting this movie made as we spent years hearing news that production was on again and off again, that Bill Murray wasn’t interested in playing Dr. Peter Venkman again, and whether Ivan Reitman or Harold Ramis was going to direct. Well, it’s just as well we never got a “Ghostbusters 3” as the reasons to not make it kept piling up. Instead we have this reboot which proves to be a lot of fun for fans and a new generation eager to prove they ain’t afraid of no ghost.

We meet Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a teacher at Columbia University who is ever so eager to get tenure. The problem is that her former friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) is once again promoting a book they wrote together that deals with the existence of ghosts and paranormal activity. This book, however, proved to be unpopular and Erin has tried to distance herself from it ever since. But upon meeting Abby at her laboratory where she works with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), they get word of a ghost sighting at a haunted museum that is actually haunted, and from there they start their own paranormal business that Erin calls the Department of the Metaphysical Examination. Of course, we all know they will be blessed with a catchier name before they know it.

This “Ghostbusters” starts off following the same path as the 1984 original as our heroes get tossed out of the world of academia as their love of the paranormal makes them untrustworthy and frauds in the eyes of non-believers everywhere. But being cast out of “normal society” forces them to go into business for themselves, and they set up shop in an office on the second floor of a Chinese restaurant. From there, the movie takes on a tone all its own to where it cannot be considered a shot-for-shot remake.

I found myself laughing a lot as the jokes came at a rapid pace, and if the pace ever slackened the actresses were quick to pull it back up. My only real issue with the humor is that it threatens to be too broad throughout. The 1984 original was very funny, but it was nowhere as broad because Reitman kept the characters grounded in a reality that separated them from the ghosts they pursued. Director Paul Feig doesn’t have that same success here as things are played up a little too much. Still, I can only complain about that so much.

Many are still apoplectic about this being an all-female “Ghostbusters” movie as if it were some of sacrilege that should be hidden from moviegoers everywhere. Frankly, the gender reversal is welcome as it gives this reboot an energy and a freshness it would not otherwise have. It was also a smart move not to have them playing the same characters from the original as those actors are irreplaceable.

Now let’s talk about this cast as they are not just female; they also have names. You really can’t go wrong with “SNL” veterans like Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and soon to be 5-timer “SNL” host Melissa McCarthy. Wiig brings her wonderfully unique sense of humor to Erin Gilbert and combines it with a vulnerability which gives us a vivid picture of the rough childhood Erin had to endure. McCarthy remains a comedic fireball, busting down everything in her path for the sake of a good joke. And then there’s McKinnon brings that same crazy energy that makes her impersonations of Hillary Clinton and Justin Bieber so hilarious to the role of an engineer who seriously loves her work.

Also in the cast is Leslie Jones who steamrolls her way into becoming a Ghostbuster without any hesitation. As her work on “SNL” has proven, you better stay out of her way if she has a good punchline coming. Her street savvy character of MTA worker Patty Tolan is more than just the female Ernie Hudson of this movie. Jones makes her an unapologetic hero ready to do battle with ghosts dumb enough to get in her path. That is, unless one of those ghosts is resting on her shoulders.

Are these actresses believable as scientists and paranormal experts? Does a movie like this need them to be? Did we wonder if the male actors from the original were believable as scientists? If the cast of this reboot was instead male, would we even be asking that question?

But as terrific as this cast is, they almost get upstaged by Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. He is simply hilarious here as Kevin Beckman, the Ghostbusters’ receptionist who is as sexy as he is dim-witted. Hemsworth proves to have great comic chops, and he steals every scene he has as he fumbles about his duties while trying to look cool. Be sure to stay through the end credits as he leads the NYPD and the FBI in a most hilarious dance sequence.

Feig peppers “Ghostbusters” with a number of artifacts from the original, and even the 1984 cast (with the exception of Rick Moranis) took the time to cameo in it. Still, he manages to make this “Ghostbusters” stand on its own. It has terrific special effects which look even better in 3D (I can’t believe I just said that), and even Slimer makes a return to the franchise and has a blast at everyone’s expense. The only other issue I have is with the movie’s villain, Rowan, a geeky hotel clerk and an occultist eager to open a portal to the ghost dimension. Neil Casey does good work, but Rowan is nowhere as threatening as Zuul, Gozer or even that old dude in the painting from “Ghostbusters II.” Had this movie featuring a more dangerous and despicable villain, it would have been even better.

There’s no way this “Ghostbusters” could have equaled or surpassed the original in terms of laughs or freshness, but I pretty much considered that a given when I sat down to watch it. All that matters is that this movie is a lot of fun and I think kids will get a huge kick out of it as well. In a dreary summer season where most blockbuster movies have failed to deliver, this one delivers enough to keep us riveted to our seats. For those who still fear that this reboot will “rape” your childhood, stop saying that. No one can rape your childhood, not even George Lucas.

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.