Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World(8/13/2010)

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When I was around 12 or thirteen I assembled a nice little comic book collection with a pretty good collection of Spider-Man comics and a handful of the more famous graphic novels (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, 300 etc.), but my time as an avid comic aficionado eventually did come to an end.  This wasn’t because my interest in the material really waned, but eventually I realized I didn’t really have the money to keep buying comics while simultaneously keeping up with my movie passions, all on a twelve year old’s meager income.   I still read the occasional trade paperback and feel like a member of the comic book fan community, but my knowledge of comics written since the turn of the millennium is not as great as my knowledge of older properties.  As such, the Scott Pilgrim property (which wasn’t released until 2004) was unknown to me until there was talk of a film adaptation.  That makes this a bit of a different experience for me than a lot of the comic adaptations that have been coming around recently, and the trailer just made it look like some kind of weird cross between Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Kick-Ass.  If that sounds like an odd mix to you, you’re right; Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is kind of a mess.

The film is said to be set in modern Toronto, but really, the film is set in its own surreal world.  The titular protagonist (played by the typically awkward Michael Cera) is a twenty two year old slacker-ish guy who plays bass in an incredibly mediocre indie band called Sex Bob-omb (that’s a Super Mario reference).  It’s been a year since Pilgrim went through a breakup with Natalie “Envy” Adams (Brie Larson), the lead singer of a band called “The Clash at Demonhead,” which has since singed to a major label and gone on to great success.  Pilgrim has been depressed ever since and the latest manifestation of this depression has been his decision to begin dating a seventeen year old high school girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), the relationship is strictly non-sexual, but still kind of creepy.  Chau is crazy about him but he’s pretty quick to forget about her after he sees Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the girl of his dreams.  After a little trying Pilgrim realizes he might have a shot with Flowers but before he can seal the deal, and this is when things get really weird, he needs to literally defeat her “seven evil exes.”  These exes are all bitter about the way their relationship with Flowers ended and plan to take out their frustrations on Pilgrim, who must literally fight them off using kung fu skills he inexplicably gets whenever these super powered exes show up.

The central conceit of having to literally fight the ex-lovers of one’s significant other is of course, meant to be a metaphor for the way that one is always “competing” with their lover’s previous mates.  That’s kind of an interesting idea, but one that I ultimately find kind of shallow.  Rather than actually improving himself in order to prove himself worthy of this relationship he simply seems to find power out of nowhere and then beat the crap out of these exes.  Occasionally these fights do seem to reflect something in the actual relationship, like in the case of the second evil exe played by Chris Evans, who pilgrim defeats by exploiting the ex’s foolhardiness, but all to often Pilgrim’s victories seem like unearned dues ex machinas, like his first battle which he wins through sheer brute force or another fight later which he seems to win just by playing music really loud… or something.  Regardless of how well the metaphor holds up, these fight scenes do get old fast.  I had had my fill of them somewhere around the third one, only to realize that there were still going to be four more of the damn things.

I’ve only really scratched the surface of how surreal this movie can be for a Hollywood film with all this discussion of fighting evil exes.  There are gratuitous visual tics used in almost every scene of this film for one reason or another.  Early film this kind of stuff is established by things like sound effects showing up onscreen via, for instance a phone will ring and the words “ring ring” will pop up on screen in a comic book-like font.  Stuff like that happens all the time in this movie, punches are accentuated by “pow” bubbles (think Adam West’s “batman” but with more irony), foul mouthed baristas are visibly bleeped, and bandmembers who’s voices are drowned out by noise will be subtitled.  The fights with the evil exes can at least be interpreted as metaphors, but all this other garbage are just pointless distracting gags. It’s like the whole movie is the main character’s elaborate daydream, he never snaps into reality.

Perhaps the most pervasive of these visual flourishes is the film’s fixation on video games.  The whole film is loaded with video game aesthetics: coins are dropped and collected, the fights with the exes are narrated by a voice not unlike the commentator voice in the “Street Fighter” franchise (compete with “KO” being shouted at the end of the fights), and Pilgrim even collects a “1Up” that gets used in as a dues ex machine late in the film.  This seems like an incredibly strange choice of motif because, frankly, romantic relationships are the last thing that video games have any business trying to represent (and I say that as an avid gamer).  Look, I’m not Roger Ebert; I think that games are certainly an art form on a visual level and that there are legitimately fascinating things that games can do with narrative, but romance sure as hell isn’t one of them.

In games players are given everything that they need in order to succeed from the very beginning; any foe can be defeated with the moves available to you, every boss has a weak spot that can be exploited, and if you fail you can always try again.  All that’s fine in a game, which is always supposed to give you a fair shot, but that’s not how life works and it sure as hell isn’t the way relationships work.  Relationships are messy and they can’t always be overcome by methodically defeating a series of bosses.  More often than not you aren’t going to be given the metaphorical kung fu skills you need in a situation simply by virtue of having fed the machine the necessary quarter for a credit.  That’s what bugs me about the whole metaphor, and in general the way problems are solved in this movie, Pilgrim never really earns any of his accomplishment, he just seems to be given what he needs from the start as some sort of privilege of being the main character.

Director Edgar Wright has of course made a career out of these sort of pop culture reference gags in his previous collaborations with the like-minded comic actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in movies like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz as well as the BBC series “Spaced.”  I liked all of those projects to some extent, though perhaps not as much as some have.  The video game motif and other throw away gags like that probably would have been right home in those films, but the main difference is that the gags in those movies were really funny, and they aren’t funny here.  I giggled a few times while watching this movie, but mostly at the awkward character moments and not at the pop culture gags.  The audience I saw it with wasn’t really laughing either and I’m not sure they were supposed to, this is a movie that seems to be aiming for clever rather than funny and while I’m not inherently opposed to such a goal, these gratuitous references really just feel self-indulgent without actual laughs to justify them.

I wasn’t completely immune to the charms of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.  I was pretty fascinated by the progression of evil exes, each with their own unique quirks and many of them being played by interesting actors making neat cameos.  I also thought the young cast was pretty good, even Michael Cera, who may not have much of a range but who is certainly good at what he does.  Also, while I don’t personally relate to the hipster sub-culture that the film inhabits, I recognize that the movie is probably a pretty good representation of that world and will probably appeal to the people within it.  The movie will probably hold up pretty well as an artifact of turn of the century youth culture in much the same way that something like, Reality Bites was able to take a snapshot of its time and place even without being a particularly memorable film in and of itself.

There were a lot of individual scenes in this movie that I did quite enjoy and there seems to be some sort of genuine message about relationships buried somewhere under all the pointless pop culture gags and video game references.  Unfortunately the film just gets really repetitive and at times kind of grating when all these moments get put together into a full movie.  There seems to be an enjoyable movie that could have been made here with a little more discipline on Wright’s part, but as it stands this is a near miss that can at least claim to be a lot more interesting than a number of Hollywood’s more banal failures.

**1/2 out of Four

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DVD Catch-Up: Hot Tub Time Machine(8/12/2010)

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When Hot Tub Time Machine came out in early 2010 it mainly seemed to get publicity for its title, which seemed to be the most intentionally stupid name for a movie since Snakes on a Plane.  The title was basically a big signal to the audience, promising that the movie they were about to see was going to be shamelessly stupid and immature.  Seemed like a good idea at the time, after all there had just been a sting of hit comedies like Superbad, Pineapple Express, and The Hangover that could hardly be called “mature.”  The Hangover in particular seemed like the movie this was trying to be: both had similar concepts (four “dudes” get into trouble amidst vacationing shenanigans), and the two films had similarly constructed casts (each had a straightman, a former Daily Show Correspondent, and someone with a little more comedic street-cred within their casts).  While Hot Tub Time Machine did break even at the box office, it was hardly the breakout hit that those earlier films were and seeing it now I think it’s pretty obvious why.

The film begins with a man named Lou (Rob Corddry) drunkenly driving into a garage, closing the garage door, but leaving the car running so he can drunkenly sing along to the Mötley Crüe song playing on the radio.  The garage fills with poison, but he ultimately survives the ordeal.  Lou’s estranged friends, Adam (John Cusack) and Nick (Craig Robinson), hear about this and assume that this was a suicide attempt.  In an attempt to cheer him up they plan a trip to a ski resort that they all used to attend during their 1980s youth.  Adam also brings along his twenty-something nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) on this trip.  However, once they arrive at the Colorado ski resort, they realize that the place has become a rundown hell-hole.  Still, they decide to try and have fun as best they can, and this leads to a drunken visit to the room’s hot tub.  Suddenly though, something odd happens and when they wake up the next morning they realize they’ve been transported back to the eighties and inhabit their former youthful bodies (the younger Jacob remains his same age).  Some of the more responsible members of the group consider simply recreating the weekend they once had, but Lou is more interested in using this opportunity to Party.

It should probably go without saying that the actual time travel aspects of this movie are incredibly dopey.  Here the eighties looks less like an actual decade that people actually lived through and more like the retro days thrown at hip bars and enjoyed by twenty-somethings that don’t actually remember the decade.  There’s some lip service given to the notion of these guys changing history, and possibly preventing Joseph from being born, but the ultimate resolution to that conflict is wildly predictable.  Meanwhile the film is filled with dumb scenes where the characters accidentally mention modern developments like Facebook to people who aren’t going to understand them then suddenly remember that Facebook wasn’t invented in the 80s.  Look, I’m sure the people who made this are going to say “quit taking the time travel so seriously, it’s a comedy.”  That’s true to some extent, I don’t expect something like this to be a perfectly realized exploration of the implications of time traveling, but I wish it had at least been a little bit clever about how it used the topic.  The famous Back to the Future series obviously wasn’t a wildly serious work either, but they did put some thought into what they were doing and it made the movie a whole lot more memorable because of it.

Otherwise this feels like little more than an attempt to make one of these “bro” comedies that have been popularity lately, except done by people that don’t really know what made those movies so appealing.  The first problem is that this is a movie that lacks a lot of the restraint of its peers.  Judd Apatow’s movies might be crude at times, but almost all of the crude elements are restricted to dialogue, unlike this movie which is happy to throw gross-out gags about urine and poop that make The Hangover look positively restrained.  The movie also fails miserably at trying to give this movie a heart at its center the way that those movies do.  When the characters do suddenly start getting contemplative and “bromancy” it feels completely unearned.

The movie I’ve described sounds pretty dire, but I’m not going to completely dismiss it if only because it has a very good cast that is able to eke a fair amount of laughs that otherwise wouldn’t be there.  I especially like Craig Robinson, who’s a master of conveying inner frustration with a straight face (it’s why he’s so perfect for “The Office”).  There are a handful of laughs here and the movie is moderately well made and is probably still a league above some of the particularly awful comedies out there, but that’s certainly not good enough.

** out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: The Crazies(7/29/2010)

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There were three major trends in horror during the aughts: torture porn, the zombie resurgence, and remakes of older horror movies (which can include the J-horror thing).  It is in that environment that one can understand a movie with a terrible title like “The Crazies” getting remade.  Such a project would, after all, be a remake with zombies that has a level of violence that’s often associated with torture porn (even though it doesn’t really have any torture scenes).  The remakes have probably been the least appealing of these trends, especially when the likes of Platinum Dunes are behind them.  But if you’re going to do one it’s probably for the best that it’s done to something like George Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies, which really didn’t have the budget or the polish to fully live up to the potential of its ideas.

The film is set in a tiny rural town called Ogden Marsh, Iowa.  Early in the film a local farmer walks onto the high school baseball field with a loaded shotgun for no apparent reason and the town sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) is forced to shoot him dead.  Odd as that was, it quickly proves to not be an isolated incident, other acts of unmotivated crimes occur and the perpetrators seem to be, well… crazy.  Soon Dutton manages to discover a downed military aircraft in the river that provides the tower with its water, but before anything can really be done about it the military arrives on the scene and initiates a quarantine.  Fearing that his wife (Radha Mitchell) will be mistaken for an infected, Dutton decides to go on the run, but now he must contend with both the military and the mindless infected as he tries to escape his town.

Probably the defining feature of The Crazies is that the “zombies” are a bit smarter than they are in other movies, while they’re driven to kill in the same way that the average zombie is they do it in slightly more lucid ways.  Take for example the scene that’s featured on the poster, where a “crazy” walks into a room filled with people strapped into cots dragging a pitchfork on the ground.  In other zombie films the pitchfork guy probably wouldn’t have even been able to use a weapon and would have just bitten into his victims with an animalistic rage.  Here though, the “zombie” walks calmly from one victim to the next and effectively murders each one with passionless efficiency.  Interesting as this approach is, it is taken directly from the Romero movie and the film really doesn’t bring a whole lot new to the zombie genre aside from what it borrows from that film.

The idea of making “zombies” out of people who aren’t actually undead has been pretty prevalent since 28 Days Later hit the scene, and the idea of making military people as big a threat as the zombies was done pretty effectively in… 28 Weeks Later.  But that’s alright, not every horror movie needs to reinvent the wheel in order to be effective, and that’s what The Crazies is, a very effective workmanlike thriller.  The film is shot with a nice slick panache and there are a number of pretty cool zombie setpieces that are well choreographed.

It also helps that the movie has a pretty competent cast that are a marked improvement over the usual screaming coeds that we usually get in movies like this.  I certainly wouldn’t call Timothy Olyphant’s work here to be a pristine example of film acting, but he does exactly the kind of B-movie acting that’s needed for a role like this.  He’s has a certain kind of relatable toughness that avoids macho posturing but still makes his character appropriately strong.  Olyphant does have issues delivering lines while he’s supposed to be angry, but for the most part he works here.  The rest of the cast also works pretty well here and I really appreciated that the film follows a group of adults rather than the teenage douches that usually populate these movies.

So, is The Crazies a classic of its genre?  Hell No.  Is it one of the best horror movies of the recent wave of the genre?  No.  Is it likely to be the best horror flick of the year?  Probably not.  But hey, not every movie needs to be a grand slam home run, sometimes a solid dingle is all you need and that’s exactly what this is.  It’s definitely better than a remake like thi has any business being and while I might not have wanted to pay to see it in theaters but it’s very good DVD rental material that will lead to a very fun night of entertainment.

*** out of Four