Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Scott Pilgrim vs the World

I changed my mind. This will be my last post for February. What are you going to do about it?

Leave it to Edgar Wright to direct the first truly great video game movie. Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) is not based on any video game (it's an adaptation of the graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O'Malley), but if there is another live-action movie that better captures the spirit, energy, and magic of the classic arcades, I don't know it.

To watch Scott Pilgrim vs the World is to see a video game brought to life, and it's done with zany style, deadpan humor, and wild, cartoon action and special effects. I don't know what else I can compare it to.

In Toronto, the eponymous Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) meets and becomes instantly smitten with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He's a bassist in a garage band, still recovering after getting dumped. She's the cool new girl who dyes her hair different colors. So far, this sounds fairly typical, right?

Going in, I thought I knew what Scott Pilgrim vs the World was all about. It'd be one of those quirky rom coms involving a slacker who likes video games. I was wrong. It's a quirky comedy about a romance set in a world that is a video game.

To date Ramona, Scott must defeat her seven exes. Collectively, they are known as the League of Evil Exes. They have super powers and oversized weapons. When they clash with Scott, they send each other  flying through brick walls, rack up points that appear on screen, and when defeated, the loser becomes a pile of coins.

(If only real-life dating was that simple.)

Scott Pilgrim vs the World jettisons concerns with being realistic. Set in the real-world of Toronto, the way the characters interact with it is complete superhero style fantasy. For every scene that looks like it belongs in an indy rom com - such as Scott and Ramona sitting on the floor eating garlic bread - there are scenes straight out of comic books.

When Scott squares off with one of the exes, the movie adopts the look and feel of a fighting game like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. As Scott works his way through the exes, he racks up points, even enough for an extra life. Sound effects from video games such as Legend of Zelda and Mario are used throughout the movie.

But the video game motif is not just gimmicky window dressing. Wright uses it in a way that creates jokes. We're not just acknowledging references. The unexpected arrivals of the exes to do battle, Scott brandishing a sword powered by love, and the use points create laughs from the situations and accentuate them. When Scott battles them with music, the sound waves are visualized as sonic beams that blast the participants with energy.

The film is populated with genuinely fun and interesting characters. Most of the exes are only around for a scene or two, but they make an impression and have their quirks. My favorite is probably Todd (Brandon Routh), a rival bassist who stole Scott's previous girlfriend. He's a vegan, and as a result, he has powerful psychic abilities, at least until Scott tricks him into drinking coffee laced with half-and-half. I am not going to spoil what happens next.

There's also video game logic at work with the character of Julie (Aubrey Powers). She's a snarker who tells Scott, several times, Ramona is too cool for him. She keeps popping up: at parties, coffee shops, record stores. She has a lot of jobs. She's like one of those characters in an adventure game that appears regularly to update the character on the plot, except she will insult you, too. When she swears, her mouth is blacked out and the words bleeped out, and that's not just for our benefit. At one point, Scott feels compelled to ask how she does that,

Even the more the relatively grounded characters are hilarious, especially Scott's gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin). Perpetually drunk and shameless, he calls it like he sees it, is bluntly honest with Scott, and apparently has a habit of stealing the boyfriends of Scott's sister (Anna Kendrick). Within minutes, at a concert, he goes from eyeing up and flirting with her uncomfortable beau to making out with him in front of her.

So much mainstream comedy is bland and visually predictable. Wright demonstrates yet again he's one of the best comedy directors working in Hollywood today. Scott Pilgrim vs the World is filled with so much unpredictable inspiration and wit that I was completely swept along. I was giddy throughout the movie.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Natural Born Killers

Sure, I might as well make Natural Born Killers (1994) the last movie I review in February after all those rom coms. If two deranged mass murderers can find love amidst a media blitz, then who can't?

The two mass murderers are Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis). They drive across the country, killing almost everyone they encounter. They always leave one survivor to tell who's responsible, and as a result, they've become a celebrity sensation. When they're finally captured, sleazy tabloid TV newsman Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) decides to interview Mickey during the Super Bowl.

For the love of all that is good and holy, do not under any circumstances watch Natural Born Killers back-to-back with Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas. That would be hazardous to your heath, I'm convinced. If there are any movies that overload your senses more than these two, I can't think of any.

With Natural Born Killers, director Oliver Stone (going off a story by Quentin Tarantino, who reportedly didn't like what Stone did with it) creates a mindscrew of a movie, a film so jarring and disorienting, you will feel like you just dropped acid from watching it. In a word, it's frantic.

Stone uses several different film stocks and shoots in both black-and-white and color. Sometimes the screen is painted red or green. He tilts his camera so it's constantly off balance, and he cuts back and forth between all these different formats. He also inserts near-subliminal imagery (usually of the characters as blood-splattered demons). Occasionally, there's cartoon footage. It's discomforting and disorienting. You feel like your brain is getting pounded with ping pong paddles, and viewers prone to motion sickness will probably feel a little sick.

That's not even factoring in the violence and other queasy subject matter. Blood flows readily and frequently. People do awful things to each other, and there are no "good" guys. The police are corrupt, the media glorifies and sensationalizes criminals until they're folk heroes, and Mickey and Mallory are mass murderers.

Stone pushes the violence and immorality so far it becomes black comedy. At times, you can't help but laugh at what you're seeing, even as it makes you uncomfortable. Other times, you just wince. Either way, it's provocative.

Natural Born Killers has an interesting theme regarding the incestuous relationship between crime and the media and America's intoxication with violence, and Stone attacks it with the subtlety of a nuclear bomb. Between the crazed filmmaking techniques and the outlandish nature of the characters, it's hard to take much of it seriously.

The movie is never boring. Parts are even brilliant, but I'm not in love with it. Stone's style makes it physically taxing to watch at times, especially when he get pretentious with the symbolism. More than anything, it's distracting, and it makes it difficult for me to become absorbed while watching it.

Stone attacks the audience with a hammer and screams, "SEE?! SEE HOW AMERICA LOVES VIOLENCE!? SEE HOW THE MEDIA FEEDS IT?!"

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Fade to Black

There's an old saying pertaining to movie criticism: review the movie that was made, not the movie you wish was made. Sadly, even on that criteria, Fade to Black (1980) emerges as a disappointment.

No, it's not an adaptation of the song by Metallica (Oh my god, that would be the most depressing movie ever). It's a thriller about a lonely, socially awkward movie buff, Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher), who, after being wronged one too many times by the people in his life, finally snaps. He begins dressing up as classic cinematic characters - Dracula, the Mummy, Hopalong Cassidy, James Cagney gangsters - and exacting his revenge.

On its own terms, Fade to Black could have emerged as a fun, nasty little thriller. The elements are there for one, but they never take off. The supporting characters, the various people who have harmed Binford and draw his ire - the shrill wheelchair-bound aunt, the bullying co-worker, the jerk boss -  are too one-dimensional and cartoonish to be sympathetic or even that interesting.

Tim Thomerson plays Dr. Moriarty. No, he's not Sherlock Holmes' arch-nemesis. He's a criminal psychologist working for the police department in a role of almost absolute pointlessness, and yet he keeps popping up throughout the movie.

The stalking and revenge scenes are not scary. That's always a challenge for a movie in which we're following the psycho around. Sure, it's fun to see Eric made up in the make up and chase people around, but after a while, it feels like old hat. Then, you start poking holes in the logic and asking questions you wouldn't be asking if the movie were more involving like where did Eric get that machine gun.

I spent a good deal of time wondering: when Eric dresses up, does he actually think he's these characters or is he still in control? During the murder scenes, an old movie clip will flash across the screen, suggesting his mental imbalance, lost in his fantasy, but I don't know know. Buying all these costumes, dressing up, planning his attacks, etc. suggests a composed, rational mind. The fact it takes so long for him to get caught strains credibility.

Ultimately, I'm not sure what Fade to Black is trying to say about movies. Does it view them as harmless escapism? As something that drives people to violence? I don't know. I think the makers just saw it as a gimmick and didn't give it much thought.

The one consistently good element of the movie is Christopher's performance. He deserves a better movie around him. Eric's life is not a happy one, and the movies - so big, bold, romantic - are his release valve. His loneliness is palpable as is his heartbreak from one rejection after another.

He falls in love with a model, Marilyn (Linda Kerridge), who resembles her namesake Marilyn Monroe. She actually treats him nicely and reciprocates his love of movies and trivia. When she stands him up on their date, it's a genuine mistake on her part, not malice. But that is the straw that breaks the camel's back and the beginning of his descent to madness.

Like I said, it's not constructive to pine for a movie never made, but I can't help but wonder what if the thriller and psycho killer elements of the movie were taken out. Start with the shy, lonely movie buff and see if he can actually have a sweet romance with a nice girl. Delve more into his love of movies instead of just using them as a slasher gimmick. Have the people around him resemble humans.

See where the movie goes from there.

Saturday, February 24, 2018


Man, who knew Mandy Moore could be a figure of terror?

Saved! (2004) takes satirical aim at fundamental, evangelical Christian high schools and goes after the hypocritical, judgmental, and holier-than-thou people it finds there. Yet, beneath its cynical exterior, the movie has a heart and demonstrates affection toward its characters. No one is beyond forgiveness, not even the worst Christianity has to offer.

Mary (Jena Malone) describes herself as Born-Again all her life, having been "saved" when she was 3. Entering her senior year at American Eagle Christian High School, she thinks she has everything figured out until her boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) drops a bombshell: he thinks he's gay.

Obviously, that's a big no-no, but after a vision of Jesus in a swimming pool, Mary decides to take drastic action. She has sex with Dean. Unfortunately, Dean's parents find his stash of gay porn and send him away to a halfway house to be "cured," and Mary learns she's pregnant. Confused, alone, she grows alienated from her familiar life at school, drawing the ire of her best friend Hillary Faye (Moore), who does not take kindly to anyone straying from the faith.

The movie proceeds as a coming of age story for Mary as she goes through the school year. She begins the movie rigid in her beliefs but confused by inherent contradictions and hypocrisies she experiences. She wants to do the right thing, but doing what she thought was right is what got her in her predicament. By the end, while her faith remains, she becomes more tolerant and understanding of other beliefs and behaviors, big on love, not exclusion, and the people around her become better, too.

There are a number of subplots and other characters. Mary's widowed mother Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker) is devout but clearly has the hots for the principal, Pastor Skip (Martin Donovon). Pastor Skip's son Patrick (Patrick Fugit), a nice guy returning from missionary work overseas, has a crush on Mary, but she, feeling shamed about her condition, pushes him away.

Mary falls in with two outsiders at school as her pregnancy develops. Since she cannot confide in her mother or other friends, they become her supporters: Roland (Macaulay Culkin), Hillary Fay's paraplegic brother who bluntly states he's not a Christian, and Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the only Jewish student at American Eagle and who revels in being the wild rebel at school.

Cassandra and Roland become an item early on. She doesn't treat him with condescending pity or like a burden; he appreciates her for who she is. Plus, they both enjoy enraging Hillary Fay, who, because of her self-righteous, self-centeredness, is pretty easy to rile up.

Saved! mixes comedy with teen drama. I don't know if director Brian Dannelly or his co-screenwriter Michael Urban went to a Christian school, but the details seem plausible. On the first day of school, Pastor Skip holds a pep rally that resembles a Joel Osteen service, and Cassandra spoils the event by pretending to speak in tongues. What's she's actually saying is a little more crude. She delights in being outrageous, but she and Roland also demonstrate more thoughtfulness and caring toward Mary than almost anyone else.

At another point, Hillary Fay and her gang try to perform an exorcism on Mary when they see her stray. The inclusion of the iconic Mike Oldfield theme is a nice touch. It's funny, even when Hillary Fay pelts Mary with a Bible (the symbolism is strong with this scene). Then, it becomes awesome when Mary tosses the Bible back. "This is not a weapon."

It leads to, all things considered, a rather touching and heartwarming ending. Lessons are learned, loving bonds are formed, and differences are celebrated and embraced, not condemned.

"Why would God make us so different if he wanted us to be the same?"

Friday, February 23, 2018


I first saw Stardust (2007) in college. I remembered three things about it: Robert De Niro as a cross-dressing pirate captain, Robert De Niro as a cross-dressing pirate captain, and oh yeah, Robert De Niro as a cross-dressing pirate captain.

OK, I remembered more than that, but you got to admit: that's probably the most memorable part of the movie.

I also confess, when I saw Stardust for the first time, I was in what I consider my "movie snob" phase, the time when I had to look down my nose at everything new and popular and find fault with it. In retrospect, I acted like a jackass toward the people I saw it with. If any of you are reading this, I'm sorry.

Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, Stardust plays like an update of The Princess Bride: adventure, fantasy, pirates, magic, true love, miracles. It also has a darker streak of humor and a stronger emphasis on the fantastical. The main storyline, narrated by Ian McKellen, unfolds more or less straight, but the characters have quirks that make them funny and unpredictable. It's whimsical yet cynical, a fairy tale with a modern edge.

To win the hand of the lady he loves, young Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) sets out to recover a falling star, crossing through a hole in the wall outside his town of, well, Wall, entering the magical kingdom of Stormhold. He finds the star, shocked to discover it's a beautiful young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes).

Tristan becomes her protector against dark forces. Among them: a trio of witches led by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer). They desire Yvaine's heart. Eating it will allow them to regain their youth and beauty.

Also on the lookout for Yvaine and the gem necklace she carries are the sons of the dead King of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole in a cameo). Whoever finds and restores the gem will be decreed the new king, assuming any of the sons are left alive to claim it. They have a nasty habit of killing each other, but the ghosts of the dead princes don't seem to mind. They're less bothered by eternal torment and more annoyed they're out of the running. They provide running commentary on all they witness.

That's the condensed summary. If there's anything that hurts Stardust, it would be all the setup and exposition. We have a lot of ground to cover before everything takes off, which slows the movie down when a snappier pace might have worked better.

No matter. Stardust remains a lot of fun. Even though it deals with kings, witches, true love, and other fairy tale elements, it's not a children's movie, what between the heart-devouring and fratricide. Not mention all the sex references (Tristan is the produce of a one-night stand between his father an Englishman named Dunstan and a princess held captive by a witch).

Perhaps it's best enjoyed by adults who grew up on fantasy, are still fond of it, and can appreciate the movie's sense of humor, which ranges from dark to outrageous to silly. Somehow, the movie combines that attitude with a rather sweet romance, wondrous fantasy, and exciting adventure, sometimes all at once.

Consider Captain Shakespeare (De Niro), the pirate captain. He and his men sail the skies (yes, the skies), harvesting lightning. He acts tough and scary, but secretly, he dresses in drag and dances around in his private quarters. He also helps out Tristan and Yvaine from a tight spot and gives Tristan some parting words of advice he would be wise to remember.

Sometimes, true love is right in front of your face.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Lost in Translation

If you were disappointed that Her only saw fit to include Scarlett Johansson's voice, do I have good news for you. In Lost in Translation (2003), not only does she appear in person, she spends a good deal of her screen time in her underwear. I know how important that is to some of you.

Granted, it's not usually presented in what I consider erotic fashion. It's more subdued and casual, highlighting her vulnerability and loneliness more than it is presenting her as a sex object. She's a beautiful young woman to be sure, but Lost in Translation goes beyond that to reveal the person her character is.

A lot of people I know don't care for this Sofia Coppola-directed effort, which finds Bill Murray jettisoning the comfort of his familiar comic persona for something more serious. There are still plenty of laughs, but they are low key and not especially outrageous as we would expect from the actor of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. Plus, there's a buried sadness to his character; he makes us laugh but does not seem to enjoy it himself.

He's still the deadpan, sardonic fellow we've grown to love over the years, but the world around him is more distant, unfamiliar, and he doesn't feel too comfortable or welcome in it anymore. He feels lost and adrift. It opens the movie for serious talks about life, love, marriage, children, happiness.

Murray plays Bob Harris, and Johansson plays Charlotte. They're both visiting Japan. He's a has-been movie star filming a commercial. She joined her photographer husband of two years John (Giovanni Ribisi) when he travelled for a job.

They're both lonely and unhappy and not just because they're both far away from home in a strange country where they don't speak the language, although that doesn't help. He's grown distant from his wife, who sends him emergency faxes asking which color carpet they should use, and is experiencing a mid-life crisis. She feels neglected by John and unsure of her future and marriage. They meet, and over the course of a few days and nights, they connect, they bond, they develop something that possibly could be love as they take in what Tokyo has to offer.

Bittersweet. That's the best adjective I can think of to describe Lost in Translation. When they're together, Bob and Charlotte have a great time. They let their guard down. They divulge their hopes, dreams, fears, hangups. They sing karaoke. They hit the bars. They run carefree through the streets. Somehow, Japan, which had seemed so disorienting and distant to these outsiders, feels like a much better place when they can explore it together.

But it won't last forever, at least it probably won't. They're still married to other people. They still only just met. There is an implied assumption on both ends that the relationship will end when it comes time to leave Japan.

Lost in Translation was filmed in Japan, and it has an authentic flavor as a result. Coppola uses a lot of handheld cameras and point of view shots that at times suggest a documentary. The country might be far removed from what Americans are used to, and it can be overwhelming, but it has its charms and character. It looks like a cool place to soak in. Maybe when you're far from home, you learn what you're really like.

There's humor in the culture clash, most often because Bob and Charlotte don't speak Japanese. The scene in which Bob receives badly translated direction on the set of his commercial is a riot. We don't have subtitles to tell us what's really being said, but the point gets across.

Coppola does not construct Lost in Translation with a plot from point A to point B. It's more of a collection of little episodes and vignettes. Some might say it meanders and does nothing. I say it's about two people with a lot of time on their hands in a place far away from their normal responsibilities.

Their story is told not through grand actions or melodramatics but the little details, the small gestures, and the dialogue that reveals so much without stereotypical declarations and promises. It's compelling enough to see how they interact with each other and the world around them. Words can be misheard or mistranslated, and sometimes, a simple glance can say everything.


Strange. Very strange indeed.

Not the movie. I'd attach many adjectives to Interstellar (2014) but not strange, at least not as a whole.

I watched Interstellar for the first time just a few days ago on Valentine's Day (I know. I'm a fool for not seeing it in theaters. If ever a picture was designed for the big screen, this is one.), and when it ended, I was at a loss. I had no idea how I felt or what I wanted to say about the movie.

I could admire the technical qualities, no doubt. The special effects, the production design, the sound work, the editing and cinematography, etc. all superlative. Stunning even. If I didn't know better, I'd say it looked like director Christopher Nolan had really taken his cast and crew to outer space, distant galaxies, and hostile planets. The representations are that convincing.

But I felt torn. At times, I felt lost, overwhelmed by the scientific explanations, confused about why certain events unfolded the way they did, moved by some parts, and frustrated by others, and I wondered: did I like the movie?

Originally, I gave myself a couple of days to process the movie, let my mind absorb before trying to formulate my thoughts. It wasn't enough. I had to watch it again. It wouldn't feel right otherwise.

So, I here I sit at the keyboard, having just finished my second viewing of Interstellar. It certainly plays better the second time through. I followed more of the explanation betters, had a better grasp of the characters, and some of the things that bothered me before, well, either they grew on me or I at least had a better grasp of why they were done the way they were.

Overall, Interstellar is a near-masterpiece. Nolan aims for the moon, the stars, and beyond space and time. He stumbles in a few places, but his ambition and vision can't be faulted. In a movie filled with crash courses on gravitational relativity, quantum mechanics, wormholes, and blackholes, Interstellar is really about what makes us human: love and the need and desire to connect with the people we love.

The story takes place in the not too distant future. Matthew McConaughey plays Joseph "Coop" Cooper, a widower and former NASA pilot who never reached space and now works as a farmer, as do most people. Food scarcity is a big concern because blight has eliminated many crops, dust clouds force people to seek shelter, the military is apparently disbanded, and the public at-large doesn't care much for science and engineering. In a telling moment, Coop's daughter's school gives out "corrected" textbooks that describe the moon landing as a hoax to bankrupt the Soviets.

Coop's daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) shares his scientific interests, and he encourages it, proud it puts her at odds with the school that pushes most children, including his son Tom (Timothee Chalamant), toward agriculture.

"We used to gaze up at the sky and wonder about our place in the universe," Coop tells his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). "Now we look down and worry about our place in the dirt."

Murph thinks a ghost lives in there house, and while Coop doesn't believe in ghosts, he encourages her to investigate it scientifically. Soon, he realizes there is some sort of gravitation anomaly in the house, and Murph and Coop learn it has left binary coordinates to some unknown location. They follow them and stumble upon a top secret NASA base, lead by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway). They have bad news.

Earth is dying. Soon, corn, the last viable crop, will be eliminated by the blight, and as Prof. Brand explains, "The last to starve will be the first to suffocate."

But there is hope: a wormhole by Saturn. It leads to another galaxy where there are potentially habitable planets humanity could evacuate to. A dozen astronauts have already been dispatched to investigate. Who built the wormhole? No idea, but apparently, they're the same beings who led Coop to the base.

The elder Brand wants Coop to pilot the last rocket and find a new home for the species. Coop reluctantly agrees, knowing it will mean years if not decades away from Murph and Tom. Tom takes it about as well as can be expected, but Murph is angry, refusing to say goodbye.

This character background comprises the about the first forty minutes of the movie's nearly two-hour-and-fifty-minute running length. The rest of the movie involves Coop and Dr. Brand's voyage to save humanity, and indeed, enough time passes to the point Murph grows up to become a scientist herself, played by Jessica Chastain, working with Professor Brand to solve Plan A, an unsolved equation that will enable a mass evacuation of Earth. If Plan A fails, Plan B involves establishing a colony using frozen embryos on Coop's ship, which means leaving the people still on Earth to die.

That is probably the longest plot summary I've ever done on the blog. I usually try to condense those as much as possible, but in this case, I feel it was necessary, and if you are watching the movie for the first time, it may help to know as much background as possible. In my first viewing, I think I was overwhelmed by all the plot threads, characters, conflicts, etc. to the point I couldn't let myself be absorbed by the drama. With the second go around, I stopped playing catch-up and could let myself be swept away.

How accurate the science of Interstellar is, I don't know. It's sounds fascinating and plausible, and the movie builds action and tension from such ideas as relative time. Coop's crew lands on a planet in which one hour there equals seven years earth time. They better work fast, even before a massive tidal wave threatens to drown them.

But as cool as the science is, it's the human drama that drives Interstellar. Coop loves his children. He will do anything for them. Saving the world means saving them, which is why he makes the painful the decision to leave them. His entire motivation is to find a new home for humanity and return in time to save Murph and Tom, even if they will age faster than him.

He bears a heavy price for it. This is the kind of thing that could be schmaltzy, that could tip over the line from sentimental to cheesy, but Nolan, as usual, has chosen his cast well, actors and actresses capable of conveying the heart beating within the exposition and philosophical ramblings.

If there is a better performance by Matthew McConaughey than when he breaks down and cries as he watches more than twenty years worth of videos from his children, describing all the moments he missed and will never get back, or later when he literally looks on his past and yells at himself to stay with his children, I have not seen it. He sees his last moment with Coop, when he tried to say goodbye to her on good terms, and his shame, anger, regret, and sadness are on full display.

Stuff like that could have been done in passing flashbacks, but they would have been hokey that way. We'd be wondering why they even bothered to include them. This way, they're fully fleshed out, and they mean something when we call back to them.

We also get the emotional story from Murph's point of view. She and her father were close, and she feels abandoned by him (he never told he was leaving to save the world), but she hopes and believes he will return, even though she cannot bring herself to send him messages the way Tom does. When she learns the truth about Plans A and B, she feels betrayed, but this steels her resolve further to save the world.

But by the end, when the truth comes out, their emotional connection remains. Across the span of space and time, their love remains strong. Even though they are separated by countless light-years and decades, when it looks like they will never see each other again, they still connect.

Love is a force in the universe as strong as time and gravity.