Josh Hadley invited me to talk about adapting the classic pulps into modern media over at Radiodrome. My part kicks in at the 25 minute mark.
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This is how you do a remake! Keep the core idea and story, keep the elements and tone people like, but feel free to go afield from that so long as you stay in the same ballpark.
Ghostbusters (2016; directed by Paul Feig, written by Katie Dippold & Feig, based on the 1984 film directed by Ivan Reitman, written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) does that perfectly, adapting and expanding upon the original by reinterpreting it for the 21st century and reflecting a female cast.
The new all-female Ghostbusters are not simply the original characters in drag:
They are unique and interesting on their own account, their relationship is not that of three college chums + an employee but rather a series of overlapping relationships and histories that finally jells into a single compact team. Kristin Wilg as Erin Gilbert is former BFF with Melissa McCarthy’s Abby Yates; the friendship broke up over Gilbert’s desire to pursue “serious” science instead of paranormal investigations. Yates is now friends / co-researcher with Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann, a hyperkinetic engineer whom my younger granddaughter describes as “the best because she’s funny, she builds things, and she’s flexible.” And to this mix Leslie Jones as MTA employee Patty Tolan who first comes to the Ghostbusters as a client and pretty much invites herself into the club; her encyclopedic and photographic memory of New York history and geography make her a vital addition to the team and while her character may lack to formal education the others possess she is certainly their equal in the brains department.
Oh, yeah, these ladies are all smart. Very smart. That’s what makes this film so delightful: The female characters are characters who are female, not stereotypes being forced into an old story. They come across as fresh and original while still maintaining the flavor of the 1984 film.
In fact, the only real dummy in the film is their beefcake receptionist, Kevin (played by Chris Hemsworth) who is one of the stupidest yet most endearing characters ever in movies. He, too, plays a vital part in the construction of the film, albeit not the one you might expect.
The basic plot is still the same:
Ghostbusters, after being drummed out of academia, start a business that nobody takes seriously until they finally catch a ghost; then as business booms the government tries to regulate them out of existence only to find itself hopeless outgunned by a massive supernatural invasions and forced to rely on the team to save the day.
The script construction is great, you get everything you want in a Ghostbusters movie only not in the way you expect it, including cameos galore featuring the original cast.
 Not a reboot, a remake. A reboot drastically alters something about the theme / tone/ intent of the original Reboots done well are good, but too often they are just a new creative team pissing on material to mark it as their.
 There’s been a lot of hate directed at this film by MRAs suffering terminal butthurt from the fact the four main characters are female as opposed to the four male protagonists of the first film. Congratulations, guys; now you know how women feel when they see men starring in 88%. Ghostbusters ’16 is aware of that animosity and comments on it directly more than once in the course of the film, and almost always to dismiss it as unimportant to Just Doing Their Jobs. Brava, Ghostbusters ’16!
This is gonna be a short one because despite many people lauding the new Voltron series on Netflix, I just couldn’t get into it.
Five minutes in and my interest failed to engage. Technically proficient, good character and mecha design, but man, the dialog and plotting were just gears slipping. Not a fresh idea in the bunch and all hammered home with sledgehammer intensity.
I watched the first two scenes, skipped ahead about 20 minutes, watched some more, tried the opening of the next episode, said fuggedaboutit.
Not saying it’s bad, not saying you can’t enjoy it.
Just saying for me it failed to grab my attention.
Conversely, RWBY sparked my interest immediately despite a lengthy deadly dull narrated opening and clearly derivative anime tropes.
Perhaps that’s why it attracted my attention:
When you start a faux-anime story with
rip-offs homages of Alex and his droogs raiding what looks like a candy or bubble bath shop, well, you’ve got my attention enough to want to see what happens next.
And when one of the pseudo-droogs points his sword a young female customer in a red riding hood and she looks at him innocently and asks, “Are you threatening me?” we all know what’s going to happen next, the question is how well and with how much panache?
And sunnuvagun, they pull it off. Frankly the video-game quality animation is far from perfect, but the character designs are fun and the character interactions and dialog keep the more familiar parts of the show from working against it.
RWBY is available online but Netflix has edited all of the first season into a single feature length story. It’s episodic but fast moving.
Comparing the two shows — even as briefly as I did with Voltron — sparked some critical thinking regarding media for kids then and now, and what quality of writing is to be found among them.
And to do that I’m going to need to invoke Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, and John Wayne…but that will require another post.
This is only a small portion of the large number of talented people we have already lost this year — musicians, composers, songwriters, creators — but I thought 13 would be an appropriate sample.
a.k.a. “Another One Bites The Dust”, in this case being Terry & Patty Laban’s Edge City strip, which just finished a 15 year run in far too typical a manner: A good strip, well drawn, well written, a core base of fans & readers, but never enough to break mainstream consciousness and, in the end, not nearly enough to justify the syndicator keeping them on.
Last November, as some of you may recall, Dinette Set went under without so much as an official nod from either artist or syndicator.
And several other strips are missing the occasional daily post; in a world where fewer and fewer newspapers carry fewer and fewer strips, these features are often found only online, and the blessing / curse of online media is that one doesn’t have to consume it on the creator/s schedule.
I mean, c’mon, folks, that’s what
binge watching on Hulu or Netflix
is all about, am I right?
The classic one-to-four panel daily comic strip is an artifact of the past, and even while new ones are being tried out, the sad truth is there is no real place for them.
Their offspring, the webcomic, may survive, but to do so it will probably have to evolve, both in terms of content and presentation.
While cartoons have been around since before Gutenberg, and had certainly been appearing in print as long as there were people making prints of anything, they certainly flowered during the heyday of printed media in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Comic strips were published (along with other regular features) with the intent of enticing casual readers back again and again to a daily newspaper.
While they certainly included younger kids in their audience, truth be told they had adult readers from the gitgo.
At their high water mark (roughly late 1920s to mid-1960s) they were essential cultural touchstones: Regardless of who you were or where you lived, everybody was familiar with the comic strips that defined their culture (i.e., specific time and place in world history).
Foreign readers may have had an entirely different batch of strips but nonetheless they had strips that defined their lives for them.
And regardless of whether the strips were gag-a-day, soap operas, adventures, or fantasy, something about them linked you to other people in your community / culture.
Even to this day, long after they have ceased to appear in print on a regular basis, certain comics strips still inform the national discourse: “That crazy Buck Rogers stuff”, “Well, blow me down!”, “It was a dark and stormy night…”, etc., etc., and of course, etc.
They were an odd form of niche marketing: There was seemingly a comic strip for every specific taste and interest and audience and if one was willing to look, ample places for them to appear.
But nothing remains static and the days when the bulk of America gleaned its cultural clues through daily newspapers has long since passed.
And while many are fond of the format of the old comic strips, there’s really no compelling reason to stick with that format in today’s media world.
Today’s webcomics don’t set the terms of the cultural debates, they only reinforce our pre-existing prejudices and biases, “prejudices and biases” here not necessarily referring to anything negative but rather the presumptions we live with in our daily lives.
We follow webcomics because they agree with our points of view, we do not turn to them to see what other people are thinking.
There’s no real innovation on the
remaining comics page anymore.
I read Peanuts Begins and get more out of it than any contemporary strip (and I do enjoy a number of contemporary strips).
As the writer Jack Enyart once observed, the best work in any medium is done at the very start and the very end of that medium’s dominance; the former breaking boundaries with new ideas, the latter distilling those ideas down to their perfect core.
We are enjoying the long wake of the comic strip; we will not see its like again.
But nobody really wants to
close the bar and go home…
 Tho not necessarily; a lot of American strips found loyal audiences in some truly oddball places, such as the Nordic countries really glomming onto The Phantom.
 As a young boy, I followed Dondi religiously; the stories of a young Italian-American refugee trying to find his place in America resonated with me as my own mother was an Italian who met my American father during WWII. Dondi is not held in very high esteem by most comic strip fans / historians, but it made a difference to me, dammit!
 Indeed, a strong argument can and has been made for more experimentation, but we’ll leave that topic for another day.
 Bloom County is back with new material online, and I read it, but it’s more for nostalgia than any real enjoyment.
Edge City © Terry and Patty Laban
“The Force awakens” can mean
“the Force itself wakes up” or
“the Force wakes up others.”
SPOILERICIOUS AFTER THE JUMP
Like many others in my generation, I grew up watching old B-Westerns on TV. Hopalong Cassidy was my favorite, narrowly beating out the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers (though I loved them as well).
When a friend informed me he’d purchased Classic Westerns: 50 Films, I felt I had to give it a try, too. What follows are the films as I viewed them in the order they play on the DVDs. Although I’m calling this a B-Western Round-up, there are some Italian Westerns and a few Hollywood A-Westerns than fell into public domain included as well.
The round-up starts after the jump.
(Will I do this next year with other megapacks? Maybe, I dunno…)
A story of two Hollywood street hustlers on Christmas Eve, it has everything you could want in a holiday film: Inventively obscene language, rampant prostitution, startling displays of nudity, and horrifying-yet-hilarious street violence.
Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is barely out of jail when friend & fellow street hustler Alexandra (Mya Taylor) informs her that her fiancé / pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan).
This sets off the erratically bi-polar Sin-Dee on a one-transgender woman mission of vengeance to track down Mickey and confront Chester with her. Alexandra tags along, first trying to calm Sin-Dee down, but also trying to promote her own one-person show at a local bar later that night.
Add to this basic Frankie & Johnny mix –
- (a) Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a roving cabbie who pines for Sin-Dee and hopes to keep his wife from finding out,
- (b) Ashken (Alla Tumanian), his vengeful mother-in-law who has found out about his dalliances with transgender hustlers, and
- (c) a third complication which we’ll refrain from mentioning as it’s a spoiler
– and Tangerine rockets off on a howling funny erratic roller coaster ride which, like all good roller coasters, convinces us at times it’s about to fly off the tracks but in reality is always skillfully and deliberately operating exactly as intended.
Big kudos to writer / director / photographer Sean S. Baker, co-writer Chris Bergoch, co-photographer Radium Cheung, their production team, and the remarkable cast, especially Rodriguez and Taylor who brought a lot of their own real life experience and insight to the production. The sassy but savvy minority sexual nonconformist is a well established trope in films and drama now, threatening to become a full fledged stereotype. Rodriguez and Taylor occasionally get close enough to that trope to wave and yell hello from the other side of the street, but they never actually embrace it.
The relationship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra shows how diametrically opposite personalities can find solace and companionship in one another. Alexandra, for all her street cred, at heart harbors a bittersweet yet very conventional ambition, and despite her failure to gain traction towards her ultimate goal she never seems foolish in her pursuit.
She wants a very conventional form of success and acceptance, and one senses she would cheerfully leave the street far behind if she could find even a modicum of success as a performer.
Sin-Dee, on the other hand, is the most outrageous street hustler since Pam Grier’s Charlotte, the gold standard of psychotic street hustlers from 1981’s Fort Apache: The Bronx. If Rodriguez was not able to lace Sin-Dee’s anger and hurt with inventive humor, she would have been as terrifying as Grier was.
But despite her intense emotional pain, Sin-Dee will not abandon a friend, and even though she’s kidnapped Dinah and is en route to confront Chester (via public transit!), she nonetheless finds time to drag her hostage into the bar where Alexandra is singing so as to support her friend’s performance to a room full of barflies.
Indeed, not only has Sin-Dee compassion for her friend, but she even shows compassion to Dinah, helping her clean up a bit and become more presentable for their inevitable confrontation with Chester.
And in the end, when she is feeling at her worse — abandoned, shamed, betrayed, friendless — she finds Alexandra genuinely cares about her, and is literally willing to give her the shirt off her back (or rather, the wig off her own head) to comfort her.
The film intercuts between that and Razmik sitting in his brightly lit apartment, his life and marriage not exactly destroyed but certainly irreparably damaged, and Dinah facing one of the emotionally coldest and bleakest Christmas Eve’s imaginable, and let’s us know what is truly important in our lives. It strips away all the surface distinctions that we get hung up on and let’s us see people relating to others as people, not objects to be used.
Merry Christmas indeed.
Now, some will wonder why I’m celebrating a grim & gritty / down & dirty film about low lifes instead of more upbeat / happy / zesty holiday fare ala White Christmas.
And I love White Christmas.
It’s a family favorite we
watch every year.
But the big difference between White Christmas (specifically) and other films like it is that they very rarely touch on real life.
White Christmas is a good counterpoint to Tangerine: It also deals with betrayal and trust and compassion, and like Tangerine ends up with an affirmative scene.
But it’s also a fantasy, wholly unrealistic, a lifeless product of the studio system that, while absolutely entertaining on the surface, really doesn’t carry a very deeply resonating meaning.
Yeah, it turns out Rosemary Clooney
could trust Bing Crosby after all,
But there was nothing real about their on-screen personas, nothing real about the characters they played.
They were perfect happy characters with perfect happy lives that had Some Whacky Complications but in the end everything turned out even more perfectly happier than everything that had happened before.
And that’s fine in a film that is just light entertainment; we certainly don’t need to be stretching our intellectual muscles over a movie designed to shoehorn as many Irving Berlin songs as possible into a single production.
But while the characters’ conflicts symbolized similar problems audiences might face, there is precious little in White Christmas itself that people then or now could recognize in their own lives.
It’s like a Saturday Evening Post illustration come to life: It pretends to depict reality but in actuality it’s a highly stylized interpretation of same.
Tangerine, on the other hand, may exaggerate reality by cramming so many wild incidents into a single night, but it never depicts anything, no matter how outre’, that doesn’t seem to be 100% authentic.
Which is what makes the reconciliation and forgiveness and compassion at the end so refreshing and — heaven help us — heartwarming.
It doesn’t ring of triteness,
but of real, genuine feeling.
A further word on Tangerine, this wholly unrelated to the dramatic aspect of the picture.
O’Hagan and Rodriguez preparing to shoot
a scene with photographer Radium Cheung and
writer / director / photographer Sean S. Baker (right).
[photo by Shih-Ching Tsou]
Tangerine was shot entirely on iPhone 5s Smartphones* and that should have traditional production companies and major studios defecating cinderblocks. It gets in and among its characters with astounding ease, and people familiar with the Hollywood / Highland / Santa Monica Blvd area where the film was shot will be amazed at the versatility of the production.
Seriously, you’ve got a film that looks as good as any other low budget feature, and accomplished entirely on a device you are probably already carrying in your pocket. Tangerine had a $100,000 budget, but in a big part that’s because they were filming with permits in Hollywood; I can imagine a production with less scruples and / or shot in a less media savvy area costing but a tiny fraction of that.
What in means in terms of film & media production is that there’s now literally no bar to entry except the imagination and ability of the film maker/s & casts.
* Wikipedia notes “They used the FiLMIC Pro app, a video app (to control focus, aperture and color temperature, as well as capture video clips at higher bit-rates) and an anamorphic adapter from Moondog Labs (to capture widescreen). They also used Tiffen’s Steadicam Smoothee to capture smooth moving shots.)”