Last Saturday night, my wife and I had a choice between going to see The Secret Life of Pets and Ghostbusters. By inclination, we probably would have chosen Pets, but Ghostbusters was playing at the Red Cinemas with their Luxury Seating.
We were both tired and sore, and the comparison between regular theater seats -- even the pretty good ones in the stadium seating at both the Red and Regal (Friendly Center) theaters -- and the Luxury Seating at the Red carried the day.
Of course, I had to assure my wife that even though Ghostbusters was technically a ghost movie and therefore contained elements of horror film, there would be nothing she couldn't deal with by simply taking off her glasses.
This is what she does in theaters where we don't have a fast-forward control. At home, when we're watching movies and TV shows that have scary passages -- usually consisting of blithering idiots walking into dark and dangerous spaces with (or without) flashlights -- fast-forward saves us.
Though these blithering idiots are the series regulars, so we know they won't die, we also recognize that cheap directorial tricks like the sudden pounce, the quick pan to reveal a foe that had been hiding in the great neverland of "Out of Frame," and the sudden presentation of the gory and grotesque are as likely to cause our hearts to race -- or stop -- as anyone else's.
Since my wife has had a heart attack and I've had a stroke, we feel perfectly justified in using fast-forward to move the puppets faster till the reveal has happened. This is even better than my wife removing her glasses, because it cuts down on the anticipation time. By not building up so much tension, the sudden snapping of it is less likely to cause an adrenaline rush, leading directly to an ambulance trip to the hospital.
Thus we carry on our own health maintenance program while still indulging our taste for movies and television shows.
My promise to my wife that there would be nothing particularly scary in Ghostbusters was fulfilled.
My promise that there would be a lot of funny stuff was, alas, not.
The scariest and funniest part of Ghostbusters was the first ghostly encounter, which did not really involve the titular quartet of female comic actors. Instead, it was comic character actor Zach Woods, playing the nebbishy tour guide, who had something really scary and dangerous happen to him -- and who was wonderfully funny in the process.
Then he, and the comedy, and the scariness, left the movie entirely. What a shame.
Here's the thing. I didn't think the original Ghostbusters was all that funny, either. What worked was that everything was unexpected. We didn't know if the dangers were real. We didn't know that all the ghosts would ever do would be to slime people.
This time, though, we caught on very quickly that however creepy and icky the ghosts might look, in fact the only peril was that they would loom at you and then, if you were unlucky (or, most often, if you were Kristen Wiig), you would be covered in slime.
In an appearance on the Graham Norton Show (q.v.) ["q.v." is abbreviated Latin for "which see," which is what I recommend you do to the Graham Norton Show when it comes back from hiatus], the four actresses of Ghostbusters mostly talked about two things: How sexy and talented and funny Chris Hemsworth was, and how hideous the chemical concoction called "slime" could be, since, because water made it swell, it had to be taken off with dry towels.
I have to take both points on faith, since we never saw anybody in the movie trying to remove slime, and we never saw Chris Hemsworth being talented or funny (sexy we already knew about).
It wasn't Chris Hemsworth's fault. He was given only a handful of running gags about how dumb his character was -- except when the plot needed him to be observant and clever -- none of which was ever, not for a moment, funny, because he never showed any confusion, as actual dumb people usually do. (They don't necessarily know they're dumb, but they do know that something's going on which they don't understand, and that scares them.)
Chris Hemsworth, in other words, was completely wasted in this movie. But he's not alone in this, because so were all the other leads, with the possible exception of Leslie Jones, the only ghostbuster who was able to make her lines funny now and then despite the lack of help from the writers.
When Melissa McCarthy isn't funny, something is seriously wrong with a comedy script.
The problem wasn't just that the movie wasn't particularly funny. It's that it wasn't interesting, either.
Here's my theory about why the script was so dull. We knew nothing about the villain, Rowan North, played by Neil Casey. Neil Casey wasn't the problem. The problem was that the script spent only a couple of moments to explain his generalized malice, and from then on, he just kept popping up, generating more and more ghostly appearances until, supposedly, all hell broke loose and New York City was full of ghosts.
But only New York City, and, as far as we could tell, only Manhattan.
Manhattan isn't the only place where New Yorkers die. But let's set the metaphysics aside. The real problem is, when the ghosts showed up they didn't do anything. Except for distracting some drivers and rearranging some buildings, they didn't actually do much damage to people. They were more a pestilence -- non-biting gnats swarming around your head -- than a danger.
This was not a problem in the original movie, because as I remember, the deep cause of the ghostly outbreak remained off-camera, while we were enticed into following the vaguely sexy subplot of Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver being brought together like key and lock through the workings of supernatural forces.
Thinking of Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver making love was probably the scariest thing in the original Ghostbusters. Whereas Rowan North was never scary.
Compare Neil Casey's performance and the script he was given with the brilliant, unforgettable performance of Andrew (then "Andy") Robinson as the Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry (1971). Robinson was given time to create a character, and he gave us one of the scariest believable homicidal maniacs in film history. (He's the guy to whom Clint Eastwood said, "Do you feel lucky, punk?")
It's not that Rowan North is incapable of giving a memorable performance. It's that he was a given a script that made his character forgettable during the movie. He was sometimes forgettable while he was on screen. Literally -- somebody would mention him and my wife and I would ask each other, "Who?" And then he'd come on screen and I'd ask, "Who is that?" and my wife would shrug.
That's bad writing.
Well, no. It's unimaginative writing. It's perfunctory writing. They were touching all the bases (except sexiness) in the original movie, but without any heart.
I think the actors cared, even if the writers didn't. I think they tried to turn their characters into something. But just as the scariest moment in Poltergeist was the completely unjustified scene where a guy's face comes apart in the mirror, the scariest moment in Ghostbusters was when Zach Woods almost fell through collapsing stairs as he was trying to escape from the top floor of hell. Neither scene, and neither character, amounted to anything in the story -- but the scene itself had teeth. It had staying power.
Does this mean that I hated Ghostbusters? Of course not. Even when they have nothing to work with, the interactions among Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones were always enjoyable. Just not laugh-out-loud funny.
It was a pleasure to see the stars of the first movie pop up in parts that were better than cameos -- Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, and Ernie Hudson.
We missed the late Harold Ramis, who co-wrote the original with Aykroyd, and later wrote the much-better Groundhog Day -- though he was remembered by having his son Daniel Ramis cameo in the Metalhead sequence.
What about Rick Moranis? He is not dead, but he seems to have done mostly voice work since the mid-1990s, and he may have turned down a cameo. I'd like to think they at least offered.
Look, I think everybody connected with Ghostbusters wanted to make a very good movie. But in some ways they were too dependent on the first movie, and in other ways not dependent enough, since the writers this time clearly had no idea what made the first movie work so well.
Was it worth seeing? Sitting in those extravagantly comfortable seats in the Red Cinemas Luxury Seating, yes. At home when it comes on cable, satellite, or download? Also yes.
And to those who excoriated the movie before it even came out, because they cast women in the lead: You were not right. The women did a great job. All four of them are better actors and better comedians than any of the original guys -- even though all four of those guys have played some excellent, memorable roles.
The real problem was that remakes are generally speaking a really stupid idea. Since the first movie still exists, why make another version? The shot-for-shot remake of Psycho: Stupid. What's the point?
Back when Rio Bravo (1959) was remade as El Dorado (1966) and then as Rio Lobo (1970) -- the first two both starring John Wayne, which makes them almost impossible to tell apart -- VCRs had not yet made it possible to buy an old movie and re-watch it at leisure.
If you wanted to see a favorite old movie again, you either had to wait for the rare theatrical re-release, or pay close attention to TV Guide so you'd be able to catch it when it came up as an afternoon movie or a late show. And since you couldn't record it, you had to set your alarm (not your cellphone) in order to be at the television at the right time.
As kids, we knew that every Christmas they'd re-run the Laurel & Hardy March of the Wooden Soldiers and The Wizard of Oz -- though what The Wizard of Oz had to do with Christmas, nobody could explain.
Movies that weren't on a regular annual schedule, though, could only be told about, not seen. Until VCRs.
But after VCRs came along, with tapes you could buy or rent, remakes became completely pointless unless there was something you could do better with the remake.
Remaking Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory -- why humiliate Johnny Depp by forcing us to compare him with Gene Wilder?
And since there's never been a good movie of Little Women, it's understandable that they keep remaking it, hoping to find a way to make it work. (They can't. There's no saving the horrible Professor Bhaer ending. In 1994, Gabriel Byrne did the part as well as it can be done, thereby proving that it can't be done.)
There have been a few remakes that were better than the original. The Thomas Crown Affair. Sabrina. Heaven Can Wait (a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan.)
I'm using Moviefone's list of the best remakes of all time as my reminder. But I don't count any remakes in the horror genre, since, with rare exceptions, all horror movies are remakes of all other horror movies.
I also don't count American adaptations of films first made in another language. To American audiences, the first English language version is the "original." (Except, of course, for Japanese animé; the true fans don't even regard English language dubs as legitimate, in most cases preferring subtitles -- if they haven't yet learned Japanese in order to understand the original voices.)
Nor is it worth cataloguing reboots that come so soon after the original that it feels like a confession of failure -- it's a sign of studios flailing around, trying to get old franchises to make money again. Batman. Spider-Man. Superman. Star Trek. Star Wars. The Tedious Hulk. A few hits. A few adequate films. Mostly misses. Can we please get off the Same-Old-Hero treadmill?
The Italian Job was pretty good both times. The Jon Voight/Ricky Schroeder remake of The Champ was no more of a mindless manipulative tear jerker than the first one.
The Father of the Bride? Steve Martin is good. Spencer Tracy is peerless. Sorry, Steve. Pointless remake.
All remakes of It's a Wonderful Life? Stop insulting us by thinking we'll like your remake better than Frank Capra's original. Ditto with Miracle on 34th Street. Or The Bishop's Wife, remade as The Preacher's Wife solely so that Whitney Houston could satisfy her ego and making a sickeningly selfish movie.
A Star Is Born -- the 1954 Judy Garland version was already a remake of the 1937 original, and the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson remake was completely unnecessary but did give us a pretty good soundtrack album.
Ocean's Eleven -- nice to see so many huge egos working smoothly together, but in the end, so what? A caper movie is a failure if you have to go back at the end and reshow the whole movie in order to explain what actually happened.
The Fly was silly both times; the Jeff Goldblum remake is certainly better acted and the special effects are far more nauseating, but ... "better"? Hard to say.
You get the picture. It's very, very rare for a remake to be worth the space it takes up in the careers of any of the people involved in it. In almost every case, we would be better off if they had made something new.
Saturday night date with my wife. A chance for us both to get out of the house and sit in some really nice chairs. And Positano gave us an excellent meal in the limited time we had before the show. A successful night. A not-horrible movie. A good time was had by all.
But the four women sitting on Graham Norton's couch were much funnier than they were ever allowed to be in Ghostbusters itself.
So on Monday night, recognizing that on Saturday we had been right about the chairs, wrong about the movie, we went to see The Secret Life of Pets at the Regal.
When it's a good movie, the regular stadium seating chairs are good enough. Especially if P.F. Chang serves you dinner so quickly that you can get to the theater in time to get those seats where you can put your feet up on the railing.
And The Secret Life of Pets (hereafter Pets) is a genuinely funny, entertaining movie.
I had seen the bits shown in the promos so often that none of them was funny anymore, and I was afraid that, like so many movies, the promos contained all the good bits.
In the case of Pets, the promos didn't contain any of the best bits.
You see, the writers didn't forget to have a story worth telling. And they found a perfect balance between the actual behavior of animals and the humanlike personalities that we need for a story to work well as entertainment.
The writers (and, of course, the first-rate animators) did a splendid job of moving these animals through the New York cityscape in ways that were sometimes thrilling, sometimes hilarious, and always worth watching.
The only boring scenes were the party scenes at the big white poodle's pad. But to be fair: human party scenes in movies and TV shows are usually even more boring. Those parties are only interesting to people who are consuming alcohol. I have no idea why the animals bothered.
But the writers also navigated through a much more dangerous landscape than New York City: They managed to fully give the arguments for and against keeping animals as pets.
When, escaping from the human animal-control officers, our main heroes, Max and Duke, find themselves in an underworld of "flushed" animals -- pets abandoned or rejected by their owners -- we hear a savage white bunny name Snowball (Kevin Hart, in one of the best performances of his career) giving a hilarious, dead-on explanation of all the reasons why people have no business domesticating most animals.
And in the case of the truly undomesticable animals like alligators, snakes, and lizards, I am already in complete agreement. Leave wild animals in the wild, people!
But animals like dogs, who were, as a species, almost certainly created by their long association with humans, and housecats, who seem to have domesticated us rather than the other way around, that rule simply doesn't apply. The love between humans and dogs is real.
The love humans feel for cats is real; the love of cats for humans is largely delusional, but still brings pleasure to all concerned, so why disrupt the fantasy?
The writers were careful to make neutering animals funny without making us see it as cruelty to destroy a pet's ability to follow the biological imperative to produce offspring.
In other words, they navigated the whole how-we-treat-animals minefield so carefully that I wanted to give them a cheer each time they struck exactly the right balance.
I have to praise the people who cast this movie: It takes real skill to separate the voice from the face, and since voice acting is a very different art from screen or stage acting, voice casting can be awful.
I remember how horrible Kathleen Turner was in an old audiobook version of H. Rider Haggard's pulp classic She -- Turner was there only to read the dialogue of She Who Must Be Obeyed, but while I would have cast her in a movie adaptation of She back in those Body Heat days, as a voice actress she was a disaster. She has a speech impediment that makes it very hard to understand her when you aren't seeing her lips move. The audiobook was completely unlistenable; I never finished it.
All the casting in Pets was, in a word, perfect. When you see the dog Max -- our point-of-view character -- you hear the voice of Max, not the voice of Louis C.K., who performed the part. We don't see Eric Stonestreet of Modern Family, we see the big shaggy dog Duke, and the voice we hear is Duke's.
Jenny Slate, though we've seen her in guest and supporting roles in practically everything, is best known to us as a voice actor -- and she's perfect as Gidget, the cute neighbor whom Max keeps perpetually in the friend zone.
Other well-known actors, and many familiar voice actors as well, disappear beautifully into the characters created by the animators.
Most important is the writing, because the dialogue they say is worth hearing, and the story they tell is worth devoting a couple of hours of your life to hearing.
On the surface, it's your standard Quest-To-Rescue-Our-Friends. You know, like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, only funny.
It's also Everything-That-Can-Go-Wrong-In-The-Big-City, like The Out-of-Towners, only funny.
Though Pets is touted as being from the same humans that brought us Despicable Me, the boring Minions cartoon just before Pets reminds us that the Despicable Me team can completely lose track of what they're doing. Every single gag was predictable, boring, unfunny. Watching that cartoon made me expect Pets to be just as bad.
Fortunately, The Secret Life of Pets is worth leaving the house for. It's not just for children; we had no short people with us, and the theater contained mostly adults, as is usual for Monday night showings. (It's the best night to be sure of getting great seats in the theater, even for first-run hits.) I think we all enjoyed the show.
I hear a lot of hostility toward the people who are playing Pokémon Go. And it's true that right now, in the game's first rush of success, some of the players can forget basic rules of safety and public order.
No, you don't shout and laugh loudly in a residential area at three a.m.
If you're in the act of collecting a Pokémon, stop the car. If you're not in a car, stop walking. Otherwise you will hurt yourself or someone else.
All the sites where you pick up Pokémon are remnants of an earlier Google geography game, so the stores and businesses and yards and parks where you find the Pokémon did not volunteer to be a gathering place for loud crowds.
But in the meantime, those who are not playing should be charitable enough to remember that most of those playing this game so avidly had not been out of the house for pleasure in years. They have forgotten, if they ever knew, some of the rules of civilized behavior.
The sheer health benefit of sedentary electronic game players getting up and walking around, sometimes eagerly and quickly and aerobically, may make this the most socially valuable game in history. (Yes, even more than Trivial Pursuit.)
If you aren't playing already, my guess is that you wouldn't enjoy playing. Here's why.
Back when our youngest was in kindergarten, my wife volunteered at her school to help young students fulfil an assignment to write original stories so they could be "published" as "books." She was chagrined to learn that the kindergartners were being left out because they simply didn't have the writing skills.
So she took it upon herself to listen to the children, one by one, tell her aloud the story they had created illustrations for. She typed up their stories and then her typescripts were added to the illustrations to make the finished book.
She was quite surprised that most of the boys and some of the girls told remarkably boring stories about Pokémon.
But the stories were only boring to us, adults who didn't care about the trading-card game. For some reason, Pokémon had captured the hearts of these young children, and they would never lose that love for Pokémon.
That age group, like our youngest, is now in their early twenties. And this is the same age group -- plus and minus ten years -- that is now avidly playing Pokémon Go.
Why? Because when you look at your smart phone with the camera on, you can see the little animated Pokémon characters cavorting and being cute right in the physical scene where you're located.
My daughter, for instance, recorded a Pokémon sitting shyly in her mother's hands at a restaurant in Kill Devil Hills.
And there are lots and lots of different Pokémon characters. When you "catch" one you've already "caught" before, you add up points until the character "evolves" into a higher form.
So you don't just collect them like tokens. Continuing to collect them helps them "level up," and can lead to social encounters in which you basically play a Pokémon game using the characters you've collected.
And that, for people like me who don't care about Pokémon, is truly all that you will ever need to know about the game.
One more reason why the game is a really good thing. It allows the players to forget about the repulsive presidential election that, like Ghostbusters slime, we can't wash off.
As I watch the Trumples at the Republican Convention prove P.T. Barnum's dictum that you can fool some of the people all of the time, I'm sick at heart.
This week's New Yorker magazine contains an article about the confessions of Tony Schwartz, the guy who actually wrote every word of The Art of the Deal. "I feel a deep sense of remorse," he says.
(Said the book's publisher, asked if Trump wrote any part of the book, "Trump didn't write us a postcard.")
And the article's writer, Jane Mayer, does an excellent job of substantiating all of Schwartz's claims about the amount of truth content in anything Trump says. Ever. About anything.
Add that to Charlie Sheen's story recounted on Graham Norton, about how Trump took off the gold-and-diamond cufflinks he was wearing and gave them to Charlie Sheen as a wedding present, along with the claim that they were really, really expensive.
(Trump does not believe in the rule that polite people never talk about the price of things they own, even to people who can probably afford them.)
Sheen had an appraiser over to his house a while later to look at some jewelry, and as she was leaving, Sheen asked her to look at one more thing -- those Trump cufflinks.
She looked -- and then recoiled as if she had been stung. Those cufflinks, supposedly so valuable, were, "on their best day," nothing but pewter covered with something goldish in appearance. The diamonds were bad zirconia.
In short, like everything else that Trump has ever claimed, those cufflinks were fake, false, phony. And these were cufflinks he had been wearing himself.
There is nothing real about Trump. He's not a self-made man -- his father bailed him out time and again. He's made a lot of bad investments and a few good ones. He isn't very good at negotiating with people who aren't markedly poorer than he is.
He loves publicity so much that he'll undoubtedly be the opposite of Obama in terms of public relations. Obama barely talks to the press (see Hillary Clinton), but Trump, you can be sure, won't shut up.
Four years of Trump tweeting from the White House. We'll be praying for a revival of Our American Cousin just to get a little peace.
But, after reading that New Yorker article (and remember that, while The New Yorker is an extreme leftist publication, their fact-checking is impeccable), do remind yourself of something else. The leftist media won't admit it, but Hillary Clinton is just as empty, just as dishonest, just as vain, just as prickly, and far more corrupt than Donald Trump.
Here's another difference: When Trump, on a whim, orders something illegal or unconstitutional, the people around him won't obey him. He'll hate it, but mostly they'll keep him from being an anti-constitutional dictator like Obama and Hillary want so badly to be.
Of course he'll fire them, but as long as he remains a Republican he'll keep having that same "problem" with anyone he appoints. The military especially do not obey illegal orders.
But Democrats have long since proven that they don't care about integrity or honor in their public officials. Lyndon Johnson. Barney Frank. Bill Clinton. Over and over again, corrupt orders from corrupt Democratic politicians are not just obeyed but covered up or dismissed as nothing.
Elect narcissistic liar Trump, and he'll probably be contained within reasonable limits. Elect narcissistic liar Hillary, and the entire Democratic Party (and the lapdog leftist media) will unite to protect her and defend and enforce all her illegal actions, as they have done for Obama.
Of course, the German politicians who decided to have President Hindenburg appoint Hitler as Chancellor in 1933 thought they could control Hitler.
But Hitler was a relentless, driven man who never lost track of his goals. Trump is a dilettante with the literacy, knowledge, and attention span of a housefly.
I think that, of the two putrid candidates this year, Trump is the less dangerous. Marginally. But he'll probably appoint Supreme Court justices who have actually read and understood the Constitution, and are willing to abide by it, something that can never be said of Obama or Hillary, or anyone they would nominate to the court.
Pundits are saying that there are viable paths by which Trump might conceivably win. Just remember that if those paths don't work out, it won't be much of a relief, because then Hillary will win.
I have a friend whose citizenship came through last week.
Just in time to vote, I reminded her.
I think it spoiled the whole event for her.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com