Weiner

weiner1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Winner of the grand jury prize for best documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s “Weiner” is one of 2016’s must-see features. Following the unbelievable NYC mayoral campaign of disgraced politician Anthony D. Weiner from the inside, Kriegman and Steinberg’s movie boasts a compelling up-close-and-personal take on high stakes elections and higher risk narcissism. Granted incredible all-access passes to Weiner’s life – Kriegman was a former Weiner aide and the filmmakers agreed to give Weiner’s camp footage at points throughout the race – the directors, along with their sharp editor Eli Despres, stitch together a wild snapshot of a man in flames.

Although the movie never breaks down in any kind of precise detail the number of “relationships” the married Weiner cultivated with women via text/sext, email, and social media, a deep well of cable news clips and quips from comics like Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher paint the picture of Weiner as an arrogant, libidinous adulterer jeopardizing everything that is good in his otherwise charmed life in exchange for the fleeting thrill of a new chat or picture. In one revealing sequence accompanied by motion graphics of a private message exchange, Weiner explains the progression of his online behaviors.

If the salacious and lurid partnership of sex and politics weren’t enough to pique interest, Weiner’s suffering spouse, Huma Abedin – a close friend to Hilary Clinton who served as deputy chief of staff from 2009 to 2013 while Clinton was Secretary of State – defies logic to also appear in the film. While Weiner has since claimed that the filmmakers did not, in fact, secure a release to include Abedin in the movie, her presence is essential to the strange success of the documentary. Calm and collected while her husband presents his combative “caged mongoose” (credit for that apt description to Mark Leibovich) persona, the mysteries of the opposites attract angle stoke the drama.

Filled with one brain-melting scene after another, “Weiner” reaches a fever pitch during a stop at a Brooklyn bakery. Following weeks of getting hammered by the press – and a decision to no longer remain in a “defensive crouch” – Weiner goes toe to toe with a loudmouth bully while the cameras have a field day. Once again, it seems like Weiner has blown it. But the microphone picks up Weiner’s antagonist disparaging the ethnicity of Abedin and the next thing you know, Jon Stewart is sympathizing with the perpetually ludicrous Weiner.

In a “Times” piece by Michael M. Grynbaum, Steinberg perfectly summarizes the appeal of Weiner as a subject: the “intense self-awareness, real insight and then complete blindness” that likens him to a tragic figure from Shakespeare. The nonstop fusillade of dick jokes and penis puns adorning the covers of the “New York Post” throughout the scandal (samples: “Beat It!,” “Weiner Exposed,” “I’ll Stick It Out”) casts the man as a royal fool. Less than one month ago, Weiner and Abedin announced a separation after yet another round of extramarital communications surfaced. Donald Trump, who has donated to Weiner multiple times in the past, used the occasion to suggest that “sleazeball and pervert” Weiner’s proximity to Clinton confidante Abedin could jeopardize national security.

Manchester by the Sea

MBTS_3869.CR2

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Longtime admirers of filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan will celebrate his third effort as writer-director when “Manchester by the Sea” moves into theaters, bringing with it plenty of buzz surrounding the performances of Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. Extending his reputation for astonishing voices and unforgettable characters, Lonergan also continues his unflinching affair with the darkness. Affleck’s morose, taciturn loner Lee Chandler faces a deeply buried personal tragedy when he is named as the guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The past intrudes on the present, and Lonergan weaves together the strands of several deeply moving stories.

Confidently structuring the events of the narrative to cleave along abrupt jumps back and forth in time, Lonergan’s bold choices pay off as the movie unfolds. While the central relationship between Lee and Patrick maneuvers around the sharp humor of the nephew’s amorous juggling of two girlfriends and the struggle of the two bereaved men to cope with loss, Lonergan’s ambitious agenda vaults into Lee’s history, initially presenting a happier man in a loving marriage with Randi (Williams). The marked contrast in Lee then and Lee now piques viewer interest, deepening our curiosity and tightening the suspense as Lonergan leads us toward the grim explanation for Lee’s metamorphosis.

Akin to the gut-wrenching personal devastation examined in great films like “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Rachel Getting Married,” Lonergan’s fascination is not so much with the details of the disastrous event itself but rather the ways in which life must go on. Lee carries with him a heavy burden, keenly felt given the amount of time we spend with him. But Lonergan lets us see how other family members and friends grapple with moving on if not moving forward. Williams is so brilliant you’ll wish she was in more scenes, but it only takes one late exchange between Randi and Lee – an absolutely fierce and emotionally raw admission – for her to establish another career highpoint.

For all his prowess as a crafter of beautiful exchanges of dialogue – comic, bitter, revelatory, and everything in between – Lonergan is just as capable of taking the tiniest, most mundane banalities and tweaking them into miniature epiphanies. A hockey practice interrupted with bad news, a fishing expedition peppered with good-natured teasing, a chilly exchange while trying to remember the location of the parked car, a vibrating cell phone during a funeral, a sickbed negotiation for sex – these seemingly insignificant flashes accrete into a memorable whole.

Lonergan knows exactly how to introduce information within the course of a scene that forces the viewer to recalibrate expectations. He also withholds enough exposition to keep the guesses coming. Rhythms and textures dependent on setting are infused with the same level of respect and importance the director showed to the fictionalized Catskill Mountains locales of “You Can Count on Me” and the New York City of “Margaret.” Not unlike Lonergan’s well-documented battle over the protracted running time of the latter film, several observers have endorsed cuts to the 135-minute length of “Manchester by the Sea,” presumably to brighten commercial prospects.

I wouldn’t change a frame.

Becoming Mike Nichols

becomingmikenichols1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Building his narrative around a pair of onstage conversations between directors and friends Mike Nichols and Jack O’Brien just four months before the death of Nichols in 2014, Douglas McGrath creates an intimate, pleasurable portrait of the early years and first two movies of the emergent filmmaker and future EGOT collector. While several critics, including Guy Lodge in “Variety,” have cited the film’s abbreviated 72-minute length as a liability, McGrath’s sharp focus on the origins of Nichols’ career emphasizes the thrill of emergence and all that comes with sky-is-the-limit possibility. The film is, after all, titled “Becoming Mike Nichols.”

Released almost simultaneously with the Elaine May-directed “American Masters” season premiere profile of Nichols, McGrath’s project eschews interviews with celebrity collaborators to present Nichols in his own words. The successful Nichols-May partnership is explored with an unrushed reverence, and stories of the team’s approach to the high risk/high reward world of improvisational comedy are punctuated by some terrific bits, including the classic “Mother and Son” telephone conversation and “$65 Funeral.” Undoubtedly, an entire feature could be devoted to the pair.

Not unlike episodes of “Inside the Actors Studio,” the star of “Becoming Mike Nichols” shares witty, polished, and educational anecdotes that a certain kind of show business aspirant will commit to memory. To his credit, Nichols confesses some delightful and juicy tales of the on-the-job learning and training required to direct a studio movie. His neophyte ignorance of, for example, lens choices and camera distance to actors is made all the more fascinating by the knowledge that it was Anthony Perkins who brought Nichols up to speed in just three days. Time and again, Nichols reveals that it never hurts to have really good friends. Especially if those friends are more often than not rich, famous, or powerful.

In addition to his quick study of the technological aspects of production, Nichols came to cinema as a champion of performance. Illuminating details of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” are paired with a series of striking production photographs and corresponding clips. The same treatment is given to “The Graduate,” and Nichols singles out Dustin Hoffman’s skill with a suggestion about actors who get better “in the bath” – that is, the printed dailies reveal a kind of magic imperceptible on the set.

Nichols’ doesn’t stray too far from the lights of the stage and screen, although McGrath does squeeze in some personal family history and backstory. First as a fan – a spine-tingling appraisal of seeing Marlon Brando during the original run of “A Streetcar Named Desire” is breathlessly recounted – and then as a creator, Nichols maps his charmed route. The great play-by-play revealing Lillian Hellman’s suggested improvements to “Barefoot in the Park” illustrates the importance of humility and the suppression of ego, skills that Nichols knew how to exercise. A few of the legends (like the tale of the hasty Simon & Garfunkel rewrite that became “Mrs. Robinson”) have been around the block a few times, but Nichols doesn’t seem to mind taking a victory lap and neither will the viewer.

Elstree 1976

Elstree1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Jon Spira’s “Elstree 1976” rounds up a group of bit players, extras, and background performers who just happened to be part of “Star Wars” before anyone had a clue that the film would become a popular cultural juggernaut. In the North London studio location where many sets had been constructed, some of the actors labored under the impression they were working on a minor entertainment designed for television broadcast. Others, however, grasped the possibility that George Lucas was in fact the real deal. Built primarily for fans but nevertheless enjoyable for space fantasy agnostics, Spira’s documentary poses some interesting questions about the elusive and mercurial nature of fame and the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time.

For the most devoted “Star Wars” fanatic (and I count myself among their number), “Elstree 1976” makes a few unexpected moves in terms of structure and content. Dominated by talking head interviews, the movie spends as much time listening to the participants describe in detail their personal journeys in stage, screen, and show business as it does unpacking any new or juicy tidbits of information about the making of “Star Wars.” That turn toward the quotidian humanizes the ten subjects, but rabid devotees will hunger for more insider talk of what it was like to spend time in the Mos Eisley cantina or Yavin 4’s rebel hangar.

David Prowse, who wore Darth Vader’s helmet, swung his lightsaber, and spoke his dialogue on set under the impression that his voice would eventually be heard onscreen, is the best-known member of the “Star Wars” cast to appear in “Elstree 1976.” Spira spends plenty of time with Prowse, rehashing the one-time bodybuilder’s notable role in “A Clockwork Orange” before addressing the feud between Lucasfilm and Prowse that has resulted in bitterness and acrimony unusual at Prowse’s level of importance within the “Star Wars” family. I wish Spira had probed the matter more deeply.

I am not sure whether the staged reenactments of stormtroopers and X-wing pilots standing around with sandwiches or scratching at the crotches of itchy armor adds value to the movie, but one imagines that any independent, non-sanctioned examination of “Star Wars” has to come up with some creative strategies to get around the lack of access to actual behind-the-scenes footage. The frequent macro close-ups of action figures in the likenesses of characters portrayed by the interview subjects is more interesting, particularly because Spira turns his attention to the proliferation of appearances at fan conventions by even the most tenuously connected “Star Wars” employee.

To that end, another of the movie’s most intriguing rabbit holes considers the unspoken – and apparently often violated – code of honor among those who make money by selling autographs at cons. Spira alights on a curious rift that sees a hierarchical pecking order of the lower tier personnel determined partially by just how much a person needed to have done to be afforded status in the exclusive “Star Wars” club (spoken line of dialogue vs. silent, masked appearance is one dividing line, for example).

That so many extras were hidden under Imperial helmets has only complicated the assignation of credit. The recent death of Michael Leader inspired multiple online obituaries identifying him as the stormtrooper who accidentally bumps his head while crossing through a Death Star passageway. In “Elstree 1976,” however, it is actor Laurie Goode who claims to be the clumsy soldier. That at least two people have become associated with such a seemingly insignificant gaffe says much about our ongoing fascination with a galaxy far, far away.

Beaver Trilogy Part IV

Beavertrilogypartiv1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker Brad Besser unpacks the unbelievable story of cult moviemaker/artist Trent Harris and his best known work in “Beaver Trilogy Part IV,” an engrossing examination of underground cinema and the siren song of Hollywood fame. Starting in 1979 and concluding in 1985, Harris completed three movies revolving around a teenage dreamer known as Groovin’ Gary. While testing equipment at a Salt Lake City television station, Harris happened upon Gary (whose real name was Richard Griffiths), an affable kid captivated by the thought of being recorded on camera. The interaction resulted in “The Beaver Kid,” a nonfiction account of that first meeting and a later performance of Olivia Newton-John’s “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting,” made by Griffiths in drag as an alter-ego he called Olivia Newton-Dawn.

Among other things, the earnestness, sincerity, and vulnerability displayed by Griffiths as Newton-Dawn resonated with the storyteller in Harris, leading to a dramatized reinterpretation of the original movie. Titled “The Beaver Kid 2” and starring a young Sean Penn, who would later inject a bit of Groovin’ Gary into Jeff Spicoli, the second film walks a narrow line between respect for the original subject and a kind of ghoulish and exploitative fascination with Griffiths’ self-disclosure and naiveté. The latter charge, not directly confronted or deeply explored by Besser, manifests instead through a sense of gnawing guilt experienced by Harris.

Had “The Beaver Kid 2” concluded the odd saga of Groovin’ Gary, the tale might have been enough for the film’s fever dream status, but Harris cinematically returned to it one more time, making “The Orkly Kid” as his thesis at the American Film Institute. Shot on color film stock and featuring Crispin Glover in the lead role, the final chapter cemented the legend of Griffiths, now forgotten and out of contact with Harris. Although Besser plays fast and loose with his timeline, and punches up the melodrama with a comically heavy voiceover narration provided by Bill Hader, the best sections of “Beaver Trilogy Part IV” speculate on the feelings and motivations of Griffiths. Like all documentaries of this type, Besser saves a revelation or two for maximum impact.

Besser opts not to sustain the Griffiths thread as his movie’s sole subject, and turns to several of Harris’ other projects to pad the running time. Glover disciples who collected the fanzine “Mr. Density” in the pre-internet era of mom-and-pop video stores will especially enjoy the section on “Rubin and Ed,” the 1991 curiosity written and directed by Harris. The gonzo buddy movie, which tags along with Glover’s outré platform shoe enthusiast Rubin Farr as he seeks a final resting place for a frozen cat, was released too late to capitalize on a notorious 1987 “Late Night with David Letterman” appearance in which a fully committed Glover narrowly missed kicking the perplexed talk show host in the face.

“Beaver Trilogy Part IV” does not, unfortunately, include on-camera interviews with Penn and Glover, which for some will diminish much of the potential impact of the Groovin’ Gary metanarrative. A late section in which Besser recounts his own path to Harris, via the Utah filmmaking community, lacks the urgency of the movie’s previous content. The relationship of Harris to the Sundance Film Festival, which also factors in the saga, sparks additional interest, but like “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” “Winnebago Man,” and the found footage curated by the Everything Is Terrible! team, the very best part of “Beaver Trilogy Part IV” is the way in which the hidden treasures of the weird, the outside, the independent, and the low and no-budget got around in a time before YouTube.

Hitchcock/Truffaut

HitchcockTruffaut1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Finally making its way to HBO following a 2015 Cannes premiere and a festival run, Kent Jones’s “Hitchcock/Truffaut” (onscreen: “Hitchcock Truffaut”) demands attention from cinephiles of all ages. Bringing to life the 1966 book that emerged from a detailed series of face-to-face interviews conducted by Truffaut in Hollywood, Jones and co-scripter Serge Toubiana build a hagiographic monument to the filmmaker least in need of one. Even so, Jones makes a compelling case for Hitchcock’s lasting appeal as a master storyteller, and the tight documentary — which at 80 minutes will leave some salivating for more — serves as a visually engaging guide to one of the great directorial careers in motion picture history.

Crisply narrated by Bob Balaban (Mathieu Amalric in the French-language edition), “Hitchcock/Truffaut” cuts between key scenes from Hitchcock’s films — often accompanied by shrewdly selected audio clips from the 1962 meetings — and talking head interviews with a host of moviemakers inspired by the master’s techniques. Not surprisingly, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich are on hand to offer anecdotes and perspectives. They are joined by Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Olivier Assayas, and others, who frequently annotate unforgettable moments from “Sabotage,” “Notorious,” “The Wrong Man,” and on and on.

“Hitchcock/Truffaut” is not without significant shortcomings. While Hitchcock’s most important collaborator, his spouse Alma Reville, earns a brief, perfunctory mention, not a single woman is included among the contemporary interview subjects. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is the only representative from outside America and Europe. Indispensable translator Helen Scott can be heard several times on the tapes, but unfortunately, we are offered no context for her key role in the original enterprise. By contrast, Robert Fischer’s “Monsieur Truffaut Meets Mr. Hitchcock,” in which terrific insights are shared by Madeleine Morgenstern, Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, and Truffaut’s daughter Laura, accomplishes a more equitable representation of gender.

Another of the safe choices made by Jones is the emphasis placed in the second half of the film on “Vertigo” and “Psycho.” That two of Hitchcock’s most venerated movies feature prominently in the commentary is hardly a shock, especially given the longtime adoration of the pair by Hitchcock scholars and cineastes. The 2012 crowning of “Vertigo” in the number one spot on the Sight and Sound poll, which ended the fifty year record held by “Citizen Kane,” goes unmentioned in “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” but that “achievement” points to the unique position now held by the 1958 thriller. For the whetted appetite, Harrison Engle’s 1997 “Obsessed with Vertigo” makes a fine companion to Jones’s feature.

For the most devoted Hitchcock fans, Jones covers largely familiar territory. It is something of a welcome surprise, then, that the director deliberately omits explanations of the Bomb Theory and the MacGuffin, the latter of which is certainly a close cousin to Hitchcock’s fetishization of what Paul Schrader identifies as “dream objects,” those keys, handcuffs, ropes, lapel pins, and glasses of milk that, according to Assayas, may seem like minor details but “take a preeminent place” in the narrative, not unlike the way in which our own dreams govern what is important and what is not. In one delicious moment, Truffaut asks whether Hitchcock dreams much. The initial reply, in the negative, is only a surprise until Hitchcock slyly adds, “Daydreams, probably.”

Suicide Squad

Suicidesquad1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker David Ayer’s “Fury” featured muscular action, effective use of screen space, coherent storytelling logic, and — even though we knew they were doomed from the first trailer — a ragtag group of soldiers with distinct personalities. Not surprisingly given the nonstop tales of creative second-guessing and executive interference, virtually none of these qualities are on hand in the frustrating “Suicide Squad,” a critic-proof franchise rocket launcher affiliated with Warner Bros.’ full-frontal assault on Disney/Marvel’s tentpole stranglehold over the wallets of fanboys and fangirls across the planet.

For many who follow the fortunes of (or are personally invested in) the cape-and-tights world at the multiplex, the behind-the-scenes saga of “Suicide Squad” is equally if not more compelling than the disappointing mess that finally showed up. In a must-read story in “The Hollywood Reporter,” Kim Masters notes, “…despite grueling moments, multiple editors and competing cuts, the production of ‘Suicide Squad’ barely stands out in today’s landscape.” In other words, we should all exercise some caution in blaming or praising Ayer alone when Masters traces the mind-boggling “intervention” that led to an apparent “six or seven different versions of the film” (according to the filmmaker).

The 123-minute presentation certainly feels like it has been smudged with the fingerprints of a small army of decision-makers, highlighting the dreariness of the movie’s principal engagement — a dispiriting bullet festival of urban combat and bad one-liners staged in a complex of steel and glass sets (as Anthony Lane asks rhetorically, “What are the chances for gun control, honestly, if this is what Hollywood… prefers to hold aloft…?”). If indeed Ayer’s vision was darker and/or grimmer still, perhaps the powers that be should have called in the staff of teaser editors Trailer Park much sooner.

Given the pronounced lack of teammate-focused interrelationships, “Suicide Squad” should have more closely followed the better instincts of inspiration “The Dirty Dozen,” the cinematic template for stories in which the worst of the worst are pressed into service to complete what looks like an impossible task. Instead of exploring the psyches, desires, and motivations of the Suicide Squad participants through action and dilemma-forced negotiation, Ayer’s script chokes by filtering the bulk of communication through outsiders Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), two authority figures with the power to terminate misbehaving metahumans/supervillains who might try to cut and run.

One final complaint must be registered regarding the visual presentation of the movie’s climactic crucible: the uninspired reliance on yet another column of computer generated energy geysering heavenward. As you watch the supremely potent Enchantress make the questionable decision to engage the Suicide Squad in close combat while simultaneously maintaining/monitoring the earth-to-sky gate that so lazily represents the AWESOME POWER of the story’s Big Bad, ask yourself where you might have seen this before (a few answers: “The Avengers” and several other MCU titles, obviously, but just this year “Warcraft” and “Ghostbusters”). Joshua Rivera devoted an entire post to it, astutely arguing that “‘Suicide Squad’ is more proof movies need to stop with the giant beams of light in the sky already.”

 

Captain Fantastic

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker Matt Ross’s “Captain Fantastic” pursues a multifaceted thematic agenda as it explores the unorthodox off-the-grid lifestyle of a politically energized father of six played to prickly perfection by Viggo Mortensen. Despite the film’s “power to the people, stick it to the man” refrain, Ross accomplishes his most satisfying returns by examining the universally recognizable toll of grief on a nuclear family. While some key moments test the limits of believability, Ross labors to construct this universe with care and respect (arguably too much of the latter for Mortensen’s Ben Cash). Given the ubiquity of dystopian tales on cinema screens, it is refreshing to encounter a thoughtfully considered tale that wonders whether utopia is still within reach.

Cash’s progeny, introduced in a feral, rite-of-passage forest hunt, range in age from roughly seven to eighteen. Frustrated and confused by the absence of their hospitalized mother Leslie (Trin Miller), the children follow a grueling schedule of intense exercise, survival training, and intellectual and philosophical study overseen by Ben. Eldest son Bodevan (George MacKay), who secretly plots to leave the compound for college, is the most fully defined of the sextet. Even though we don’t get to know daughters Kielyr and Vespyr (Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso) quite as well, Ross can be commended for fairly consistently delineating the specific personalities of the brood.

Initially, Ross lays out a challenging binary pitting Ben’s leftist idealism against the man’s physically dangerous and emotionally cultish dominance over his flesh and blood. To a certain extent, the question of whether Ben’s way of life has helped or hindered his offspring continues throughout the film as one of Ross’s going concerns. In one scene, Ben defends his educational methodologies by exposing the ignorance of his rude, screen-addicted nephews. In another, Bodevan reveals a shocking naiveté in matters of courtship and romance. Parallel to the trusty road trip framework, Ross uses these fish-out-of-water culture clashes as a way to drive forward the action and feed conflict.

Mortensen’s charisma and Ross’s admiration for Ben make it difficult to question the extent to which the man may be stunting and even harming his kids. In one scene that recalls a similar ruse in Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy,” Ben stages a distraction to “liberate” supplies from a supermarket. Later, father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) calls out Ben for the crime, but as far as Ross is concerned, Ben is saintly and even at times heroic. A more complex, nuanced portrait of Ben, especially in the last third of the film, lays just out of reach.

With a running time of nearly two hours, “Captain Fantastic” might have benefited from a haircut, particularly given the protracted final section and a series of false conclusions (even if Ross ultimately lands a terrific closing shot). While critic Keith Watson identifies “about five different feel-good endings,” he takes special umbrage at the curious choice of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” — performed diegetically by the characters — during the movie’s emotional climax. Questioning the likelihood of the Guns N’ Roses hit given the family’s fierce anti-corporate belief system and previously documented pop culture illiteracy, Watson argues that the “moment is calculated for maximum emotional punch.” While that particular critique is certainly true, an alternative reading suggests that the song was loved by Leslie, a touch that would be in keeping with other evidence of the matriarch’s softer attitudes about the world left behind.

Ghostheads

Ghostheads1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following a work-in-progress premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Brendan Mertens’ “Ghostheads” moves to Netflix to capitalize on the theatrical release of Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” reboot. Pitched to crowdfunders as a “documentary that explores the extreme side of Ghostbusters fandom, and looks back at the impact the franchise has had on the world over the past three decades,” Mertens’ film favors the former, exploring the cosplay subculture that devotes much time, energy, and money to proton packs and public appearances.

Despite talking head interviews with a sizable contingent from the original movie, including Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Ivan Reitman, Sigourney Weaver, and William Atherton (sorry, but no Murray or Moranis), Mertens spends most of the time following the average folks who know the intricacies of class 5 free-roaming vapors and unlicensed nuclear accelerators. One Ghosthead, Tom Gebhardt of Keansburg, New Jersey, emerges as the movie’s de facto mouthpiece, articulating the philosophy of shared community and charitable giving embodied by Ghostheads across the United States, Canada, and regions beyond.

Gebhardt, like rabid devotee Peter Mosen and many of the other Ghostheads profiled by Mertens, speaks to the therapeutic aspects of fandom that in several cases have functioned as a safe haven for recovering addicts. Many of the on-camera interviews quickly bring tears to the eyes of the subjects, and Mertens labors, not always successfully, to strike a balance between the lighthearted and comedic components of the Ghosthead world and sentimental uplift that veers dangerously close to mawkishness.

While it is tremendous fun to reconnect with the likes of Jennifer Runyon and Steven Tash (the students involved in Venkman’s electric shock ESP test) as well as check in with Ray Parker Jr. (who deserves a more thorough look at his hit theme song), Mertens takes a keener interest in the DIY everyperson willing to pursue “Ghostbusters”-themed marriage proposals or build screen-accurate replicas of the Ecto-1. The strongest argument on behalf of the true faith’s appeal lies in its egalitarianism: Ghosthead uniforms are most commonly and proudly adorned with the wearer’s own last name rather than the moniker of one of the fictional Ghostbusters.

Given the inventive design efforts that Ghosthead groups have poured into their geographically specific collectible patches, Mertens misses an opportunity to address the durability of the instantly recognizable international prohibition logo created by Michael C. Gross for the 1984 film. The simultaneous ubiquity and appeal of the so-called Icon Ghost (nicknamed Moogly by Reitman and Aykroyd) represents the gateway to “Ghostbusters,” and its fascinating history, which included a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Harvey Cartoons against Columbia Pictures due to the character’s resemblance to Fatso of the Ghostly Trio, marks a key chapter in Tobin’s Spirit Guide.

It is difficult to say how much or to what extent Mertens knew about the misogynist and racist backlash against the new “Ghostbusters” during the production of “Ghostheads,” but his movie – which significantly exploits the timing of renewed enthusiasm in the franchise by interviewing Feig, visiting the NYC set, and showing a number of Ghostheads already emulating the costumes worn by the female squad in general and Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann in particular – could have been a richer and more rewarding record had it taken that decidedly anti-Ghosthead issue into account.

Ghostbusters

GhostbustersCrop1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The insightful Caity Birmingham recently said, “Someday we’ll be able to give ‘Ghostbusters’ an honest B- and cite ten movies that did the female scientist action buddy movie so much better.” You gotta admire the optimism in Ms. Birmingham’s note, since the discourse in the almost two years leading up to Paul Feig’s parallel universe/remake/reboot/reimagining of the hugely popular 1984 comedy phenomenon has focused on an awful lot of ugly and ignorant outbursts screamed by angry trolls.

From the horrific racist and misogynist abuse suffered by Leslie Jones to commentaries unpacking the head-scratching chauvinist myth that women can’t be funny, the noise surrounding the new movie is so cacophonous virtually no major critic has tackled the film without addressing what Dana Stevens perfectly describes as the “acrid reception” of “Ghostbusters” by the “airless lairs of hardcore fanboys of the original, irked that a classic of their childhood has been slimed by the presence of women.”

While the laughable cries of “ruined childhoods” are misplaced in an industry that survives on the constant recycling and extending of any product that carries even the slightest whiff of money, one wonders if the invective would have reached the same fever pitch had the new squad featured XY chromosomes. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones are uniformly terrific, breathing far more life into their characters than what has been provided or required by Feig and Katie Dippold’s wobbly screenplay.

Arguably, our new “Ghostbusters” does not go far enough to distinguish itself from the movie directed by Ivan Reitman, depending as it does on familiarity with the first one when it could and should be exploring new directions and a fresher climax. This blueprint tactic is particularly detrimental in the second half of the movie, when a full-scale “save the city” SFX extravaganza misses the hysterical urgency of Peter Venkman’s confrontation with William Atherton’s obstructionist Walter Peck. Instead, the plot hurtles chaotically toward a kitchen sink melee featuring cameo appearances by the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (in ghostly parade balloon form) and Slimer (hijacking the wheel of the Ecto-1).

In addition to the appeal of the central quartet, the new “Ghostbusters” looks absolutely gorgeous, with eye-popping colors and stunning visual effects that honor the apparitions we saw more than thirty years ago. Feig and Dippold stumble, however, with the ill-defined creeper Rowan North (Neil Casey), a functional combination of the conduit-to-malevolent-spirits aspect of both Dana Barrett and Louis Tully. The filmmakers fail to come up with anything as funny as the gonzo mythology of Sumerian destroyer Gozer the Gozerian, Zuul the Gatekeeper, and Vinz Clortho the Keymaster.

Even so, another of my friends, the redoubtable cinephile Dan Hassoun, speculated that the Gilbert/Yates/Holtzmann/Tolan “Ghostbusters” was preferable to a “Ghostbusters III” featuring the surviving cast members from the original film. For that we may thank Bill Murray, who was widely reported to refuse participation following the death of Harold Ramis in 2014, but now turns in an appearance as a foppish debunker.

And as for the contingent crying foul, let’s not forget that “Ghostbusters” is hardly a pristine relic. Along with the 1989 sequel, the brand has spawned episodic animated television, comic books, action figures, and more than a dozen different video games. Whether you are a Ghosthead or not, the new incarnation is a welcome addition to a property that will be a going concern of Sony for years to come. Strap on your proton pack and take a look. Busting just might make you feel good.