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If this is the first Dreck Fiction post you’ve read, trust me – this is unprecedented; I’ll never ever write another thing this long
Seeking out the films of Chan Wook Park after being exposed to Oldboy turned out to be a lucrative affair; JSA became an important movie to me while Lady Vengeance and Thirst were dazzling if difficult to penetrate. One thing was a constant across the five films of his widely available in the United States, something compelling and somewhat startling to me: there’s a confidence in his camera, in the composition, in the movement. Whether he employs the Steadicam or decides to shake around, the lens through which we experience brutality, terror, tragedy, and a startling breadth of human emotion and suffering is organic and the action depicted is unfaltering.
All too often in a movie will an actor stand up from sitting down in a medium shot and the camera will be too slow to follow, or try to rest after a slow pan and not quite settle for the duration of the shot. It makes me wonder why the director felt satisfied with the shot if there was a slight imperfection, a minor blemish. I may be paying too much attention to unimportant details but it feels like something of a compromise. Certainly there aren’t high brow camera techniques I’m getting at here, they’re ‘the details,’ and if a director is willing to map out a film to the details like these, they’ll go the distance, and this is evident in movies by Park, who was a master of the frame, as was Hitchcock and Leone. It gives the viewer the sense that goddamn these people knew what they were doing when they made those films.
It somehow didn’t occur to me that Edgar Wright too was in this league until Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and on further inspection in a reviewing of Shaun of the Dead I’ve found confirmation of this stirring suspicion. Shaun of the Dead was beautifully orchestrated on every level; the thematic mundane demonstrated in the opening titles establish an early sense of repetition, which carries throughout and touches on the film’s thesis – which is seemingly never necessary in the first place – that we need to stop being zombies and change sometimes to be happy.
Shaun battling zombies is a visual manifestation of this thesis, its cinematic equivalent if the idea is first captured on paper or in the writer/director’s head. Shaun is a comedy film, so one might imagine that it didn’t need a message or an intricate, relatively speaking, thematic framework to be funny. But this is Edgar Wright. And this is a comedy film, and its clear that the man takes his craft seriously, regardless of genre. The humor is integral to the movie, and that’s why ultimately, Shaun of the Dead requires the message and the discussions of habit – and the zombies – it’s a vessel for the humor. It is funny when the patterns are recognized, when Shaun takes the identical trip to the convenience store and doesn’t notice anything, when we discover that the silhouetted couple making out outside the pub turn out to be one zombie feeding on another – these instances of clever comedy have depth rarely seen in other comedies, and are all in service to what Shaun of the Dead means as a movie, as the best horror/comedy in ages.
But there I go again with the superlatives. I’m not an ace at this review nonsense – I could blame it on my age but that might not bode well in the future – so I tend to praise a film by calling it the best of something (see the Reviews section of this site for dastadly confirmation). So by all means I surprised myself by the modesty in my voice when talking about Scott Pilgrim with various people. To Podcast Co-Host I said simply that it was something I was enamored of, and to another I think I just explained how embarrasingly in love with Mary Elizabeth Winstead I was/am. I hesitated to call it a truly great film, and I guess I’ll continue to do so, because it just doesn’t sound right. I will say this: it’s a movie I love and it’s the obvious work of an obvious master.
The director’s confident camera is found in Scott Pilgrim, and so are the details and all that other stuff. It’s apparent in every shot that there was a great amount of planning and artistry set to work – it’s a smooth flow of film, if there ever was such a thing.
Wary of retreading an earlier review of the very same movie, I won’t talk about the technical aspects of the movie that I thought to cover before, but focus instead on the director’s craft. As mentioned earlier, Edgar Wright is a technical wizard, and not just because he keeps the camera still when an actor stands up or whatever, but because the movie’s visuals are both entertaining and significant on a higher level.
Every scene has a unique ‘gimmick,’ and that may sound bad but in the context of the film it keeps us engaged on a subconscious level. A few examples of the gimmick from scene to scene to note their differences: the Seinfeld laugh track after Scott’s second date with Ramona, which cuts off abruptly when Wallace hits a switch on the stove; Envy’s “Oh yeah’s” in between Scott and Ramon’s conversation at the Clash at Demonhead concert; the time cards during Scott’s dinner with Ramona; the censor bars over Aubrey Plaza’s dialogue; the labels for each of his friends (i.e. Stephen Stills, “The Talent”), and many more that are harder to approximate in words.
Because of the video-game influences and the ‘gimmicks,’ the latter of which were evident in Shaun of the Dead, as well as the absence of anyone over the age of 30 save the two ‘authority figures’ that later burst through a wall, it’s easy to call this a film for the ADD generation, or whatever name you give to such a thing. This makes for a high-energy experience, a film with a bizarre cadence and rapid pace. Not only does all of this translate to ‘uniquely entertaining comedy with some cool action and a distinct voice,’ but is consistent with the narrative.
Of course, one can dismiss these eye-popping visuals as eye-popping visuals and be on their merry; one complaint that I’ve heard about Scott Pilgrim is that it felt overdone, and this is not without justification. Obviously not everybody is going to appreciate a movie seemingly fixated on the ‘ADD generation’ because not everybody is from that generation (as it turns out, only one is… [laughs to himself]). Some older critics have said that the movie touches on feelings of nostalgia, while others say that it’s self-indulgent or whatever they say. Basically if you thought the only thing more nauseating and offensive than Crank was Crank 2 and that Avatar looked like a video-game cutscene (I don’t know what video-games you guys are playing, Christ) you won’t like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
Speaking of Avatar, let’s look at the effects for a moment. Everything from the hearts emanating from kissing to the vegan superpowers; these had to be created in a computer in order to emulate the comic-book. When an audience sees a trailer for the next alleged special effects movie, though what they’re really seeing is the visual effects, they divide. One half says “Uh, give it a rest Michael Bay,” and the other half is twelve years old. This too isn’t without reason, as we as audiences have had a torturous cinematic history of bad special effects movies, exacerbated to new heights by the endless cycles of Marvel and DC $175 million dollar extravaganzas, which are rarely good.
The 90s and ’2K era’ provided many Stan Winston films that made people scratch their heads and wonder, as the late screen magician did, ‘will there ever be a balance between special effects and story?’ Winston grew up with the science-fiction of the 50′s, you know, those types where if I said, “Attack of the Mars Snakes,” as a bad joke I might have named a real film, and he was upset that these movies were just effects vehicles that didn’t even show the damn Mars Snakes that much. That’s why he eventually turned to directing, but that’s another story for the Dreck Fiction to get into.
Jurassic Park may look good, holding up 18 years later while Carnosaur languishes in the embarrasing memories of a few, and even Walking with Dinosaurs seems CG-obvious nowadays, but where’s the human drama? Same with other major sci-fi movies that aren’t just straightup popcorn farces like Independence Day or Total Recall tend to be. Or John Carpenter’s The Thing, apparently, which is the movie I always use to begin one of the special effects arguments: it may look fascinating, but it’s ‘shallow.’ How wrong you are, critic #73, how wrong.
When will film use its special effects to enhance the story, when will story necessitate the special effects – when will a sci-fi or fantasy fulfill that audio/visual promise of the cinematic medium? It’s only rare this happens, and even rarelier from Hollywood. T2 I believe comes close, but some of the CGI feels superfluous. Only a little bit, but that’s just the Cameronman for you. Scott Pilgrim does this, but it isn’t necessarily an outstanding example – the outstanding example has yet to come and be popular/successful. Blade Runner may be popular now, but that’s what… thirty years later?
The visual effects in Scott Pilgrim are used to convey the two other major pieces of the movie: video-games and music. Romance is the main piece, and all three round out what’s important in Scott’s life. Here is where we get back to that point alluded to earlier with the purpose of the effects in the narrative…
Having never read or heard of Brian Lee O’Malley’s original comic series, Scott Pilgrim (the second volume’s title was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), I’m not sure exactly what was being said. I can make a guess however at the movie, and I have the strong feeling that it’s a movie, similar to Shaun of the Dead, about getting over yourself and moving on with your life to be happy. As much as the film was a celebration of retro-games, it was something of a criticism; I see their prevelance and significance to the fabric of the visuals as a metaphor for maturation on two levels. Not only are video-games typically ‘for kids,’ but we’re talking about retro-games like Zelda and um Tetris, which the medium left behind for our more modern Grand Theft Auto‘s and Call of Brothers in Honor Arms Battlefield Duty: Vietnam: Modern Warfare‘s.
Edgar Wright tends to see the movie as something of a daydream of Scott’s, where he imagines he’s the hero of his very own film. The feeling that we are in the guy’s mind is evident in the every scene, every piece of the frame; it’s so goddamn subtle. Sounds in the background like the thudding of suspenseful music will morph into some guy tapping a distant microphone – it’s a subconscious effect, and it works. If this movie sort of happens inside his mind, it makes sense that a big ol’ “VS” slaps the screen before a battle, anticipating the massive “KO” or in one instance a “BASS BATTLE,” as in “BOSS BATTLE” from a side-scrolling beat-em-up or fighting game. It is then internally logical that he doesn’t dump quarters in when the arcade screen from ‘Ninja Ninja Revolution’ prompts him to CONTINUE? 9, 8, 7… because he’s ended up with the right girl, not just the one of his dreams but the one he’s confident enough to say he’s in love with. He’s moved on from his world of Final Fantasy II and through the door, the thingy over there.
The video-game stuff and the visual effects stuff, which serve each other, are in tandem here to elevate the main theme of romance. As much as this is an action comedy, it’s a story of romance threatened by the past and bad habits.
If Scott ended up with Knives Chau the story wouldn’t have worked in the end because we’ve followed Scott and Ramona’s development, their making peace with the past (sometimes by headbutting it so hard it bursts) and trascending dabbling in being bitches by being with each other. Staying together after they go through the door is sort of the solution to the equation of their relationship. The only character arc Knives goes through is becoming a ‘badass,’ something that I do take issue with.
So the central theme is romance, and I’m not a coinesseur in romantic films so I can’t tell if it’s a ‘good romance,’ or a hackneyed one. My perception of this romance as ‘good’ is also probably sabotaged by that aforementioned crush, which is hilarious.
Anyways, Knives is one of the only characters, perhaps the only one, that I didn’t like. She certainly changes throughout the course of the film, starting out timid and dorky (she says “I’ll be quieter” really softly even though she hadn’t been saying anything, which was kind of funny), and then being driven crazy by Scott’s relationship with Ramona, the fatass white girl. By the end of the movie we’re supposed to believe that she is indeed too cool for Scott, and that’s why she can leave and Scott can finally have a peaceful breakup.
This is derived because as I think Edgar Wright had said she’s become something of a badass by the end of the movie, note the Gideon fight where she fought both Ramona and then Gideon with swords and a rather long scarf that was quite the trouble during production. I can see what they were going for here, that this evolution of the character from timid dorky schoolgirl into rocker badass ninja was what makes her ‘too cool’ for Scott, but there’s a major problem. Crazy as it sounds – I didn’t even notice that she was a rocker badass ninja.
When she flies out of the ceiling to fight Ramona I didn’t think anything of it. I mean didn’t we just see Ramona totally kick ass like five seconds ago? Or what about Scott Pilgrim, a normal kid, when he suddenly knew kung-fu and got the first hit off in the Matthew Patel fight? The movie employs an absurd logic, but it’s consistent, so Knives being a crazy fighter didn’t seem out of the ordinary when I guess it should have.
Another issue I had with Knives was her all the time during the second act of the film, after she’s seen Scott with Ramona for the first time, and notes that this blue-haired girl must be like twenty-FIVE. That whole montage of her changing her hair to blue and plotting to get Scott back all while accompanied by her straight-man friend was played for the laughs, but that wasn’t really my type of humor. Though to think of it, the things that I tend to laugh at the most in this movie aren’t even jokes so I’m probably wrong.
I just thought that her going crazy and acting out was too much comedically for this actress to handle, or maybe it was just uncomfortable to watch because it’s a weird stalker sequence. Who knows.
But anyways, I like the jokes in the movie, like the “She dusts,” bit, or “Is that the Uma Thurman movie?” (because seriously who the hell is ever gonna reference My Super Ex-Girlfriend? Though on second thought it was a new movie when the comic was coming out… who knows who wrote the line?) but it’s actually little moments in the dialogue that get me the most, certain deliveries like Brandon Routh saying “Thanks tool,” and Chris Evans saying, “It’s called a grind bro,” or “You really think you can goad me into doing a trick like that?” or saying “Prepare-” before ripping the background on the movie set and trying again with his ‘menacing’ delivery. That’s the kind of humor that’ll stick to a movie, but there is comedy in the film that won’t last.
Like Family Guy, some of this stuff is just too cutting edge. Only instead of being so modern you’re referencing the goddamn commercials of the day like that show does, Scott Pilgrim has a lot of comedy that is meant to appeal to that ADD Generation, the kind of implaceable humor that’s hard to describe, but I know isn’t my type and isn’t many’s, and won’t be cool for very long. Stuff like “Why is he dressed like a pirate?” “Are you a pirate?” “Pirates are in this year…” Hm.
But then Thomas Jane crashes into the wall with the bad guy from Crank 2 and he says, “Milk and eggs, bitch,” and everything’s back to normal. I swear – Edgar Wright in his technical commentary of the movie (a movie he’s made, mind you) had the same reaction to Thomas Jane that I and hopefully many others did: *laugh your ass off* “Holy shit it’s Thomas Jane!”
As great a film that I accuse Scott Pilgrim of being, it’s not something that I can just show off to people like I could with Strange Days or City of God – undeniably cool and interesting films, movies that even if you dislike, you are compelled to recognize as good. It’s a movie for teenagers, and it’s a comedy with very specific humor, some of which I don’t even appreciate. It’s also a Michael Cera movie in this post-Youth in Revolt, Year One, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Superbad world. I was clever enough to avoid all of those movies and so I never got burned out on the guy – I still think he’s funny. I’ve only seen the first season of Arrested Development and some of Clark and Michael, and both of those are hilarious, so I’m still a fan of his.
It does make me wonder though where Edgar Wright is headed next. This was his biggest financial disappointment thus far, which is not good, as it was his only American movie, and his only PG-13 rated movie. I believe he’s co-scripting the Tintin movie and he plans on doing Antman and a third “Blood and Ice Cream,” flick, rounding out a trilogy following Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz with the old Simon Pegg/Nick Frost team. My only concern there is with the Antman movie – Scott Pilgrim seemed to fit his style almost uncannily; the material and the director were a perfect match, just like the casting of Robert Downey Jr. to Barris in A Scanner Darkly. Some things, man, they just work. Will Antman allow for such visual trickery and thoughtfulness? I know it’s a humor-based superhero, but beyond that I know nothing of it.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, but with this guy at the helm and his three movies as evidence, I’m sure it’ll be wow… yeah, wow…