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It’s 1982, and paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is summoned to the Thule research station in Antarctica by a rather intense Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), who’s made quite the discovery. Her expertise is required early on in examining frozen remains of an alien life-form, but when Thule is threatened by this thing from another world, it’s her survivalist instinct and pyro-tendencies that save the day–for the most part. If you’re familiar with John Carpenter’s The Thing, a remake in itself, there’s nothing new here in terms of structure or story, which depending on your viewpoint is a good or bad thing; for the 2011 film, the 1982 original was formula perfected, and this formula is not only repeated in Matthijs van Heijningen’s movie, it’s updated to satisfying modernity. We have, as we did thirty years ago, a team of scientists battling a malevolent alien creature capable of shape-shifting to the image of friends and associates, and gruesomely showing off in doing so. In this film, it’s the showing off part that sells.
When a member among the crew is suspected of being an alien in disguise, that’s bad news for him. When the alien then transforms into a more lethal form as self-defense, that’s bad news for everyone else. These transformations made the John Carpenter movie iconic, and in the new film, computer generated imagery and physical creature effects work in tandem toward sickening results. With a shudder of flesh and the grinding of bones, body parts sever, split, snake–and come after you. The creature makes a mockery of the human form, contorting it to mimic aliens it must have assimilated before, where heads meld together, and massive jaws rend out of stomachs to the tune of otherworldly wails. This is something you don’t want to become, be eaten by, or even look at–it’s easy to sympathize with the crew, who often turn on each other in the face of suspicion.
The crew of John Carpenter’s movie was a close-knit bunch of blue-collar boys, but at the first sign of trouble from the icy wasteland, tension brimming just below the surface begins to poke through. In Matthijs van Heijningen’s movie, potential factions are visible from the start: Americans vs. Norwegians, scientists vs. pilots, men vs. women, newcomer Kate vs. everybody, everybody vs. sinister Sander. As the film plays out, alliances and suspects shift–the alien could be anybody, and it isn’t telling. The prevailing question through not only this movie but the original is: who goes there? Human or alien? Characters only feel safe when they’re looking over their shoulder, and the alien certainly knows that frail human necks get sore after a while; paranoia manifests in tight grips on rifles and flamethrowers, and people are put into groups, examined, quarantined.
Moviegoers in 1982, when they did, came for the alien gore, and stayed for the psychological aspect. It’s a story akin to the greats in The Twilight Zone or Stephen King’s The Mist, where gooey creatures are portals to the much darker evils of man. Unfortunately, this piece de resistance of the story is not nearly as strong in van Heijningen’s film, though it does exist. A lot of it is that sacred law of diminishing returns, but mostly it’s the characters. For the most part, they’re enough to invest in but never truly cared for, as they occupy one of two roles: background detail or lazy stereotype.
There is precious little time for characterization; same as in 1982. But screenwriter Bill Lancaster was able to draw fully-rounded characters despite the forward-moving plot, placing great significance on every line spoken by individual members of the ensemble; they’re charged with defining not only the character, but the character’s place in the situation. Hefty work done efficiently, but not quite in 2011. The cast feels much larger this time, and that’s because we never get to know most of them by the time they’re assimilated. Names of the Norwegians were elusive, and it was difficult from the outset to keep track of everybody. By the time chaos hits Thule Station, these nameless guys are running around shouting things–often in a different language–which is appropriately panicked and confusing, so it works, but the audience is lulled into a distance from the action. It’s up to Kate to engage us, and whether or not she does is somewhat inconsequential, because the film would doubtless have been improved if the supporting cast wasn’t as expendable. For evidence of this, we can look to John Carpenter’s.
The film is written by Eric Heisserer (from drafts by Ronald D. Moore), based on “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, and he turns out a competent job, keeping the tension high despite mostly pale characters. Together with fine acting, the script is brought to life and touches all prerequisite bases for fun, alien-smashing action. As it checks steps off the list–unearth the creature, figure it out, deny it, suffer attacks by creature–the cast follows through in stride. Accents are masked and changed, tempers fluctuate organically, expressions speak loudly. In horror, strong emotions reign, whether it’s fear or anger or sadness. In science-fiction, suspension of disbelief is chiefly credited to the actors, and The Thing of course straddles both genres. Not an easy task on the part of the players, but one well performed here.
Unlike other modern creature features, physical actors could interact with equally physical monsters, though they were smartly enhanced by CGI. The creature itself is where the filmmakers stood apart from John Carpenter’s, as the original monster could seem to do anything–but move. The new creature is not only mobile but fast, and its new predatory nature adds a welcome element of suspense. Critics have noted that van Heijningen must have taken influence from Alien, with chases down hallways and even in some cases, creature design. One might of course argue that this is a necessary path the film needed to take.
The issue surrounding The Thing is that most films of its kind–good science-fiction horror movies–don’t need to take paths in the first place. They don’t have to be engineered to a specific blueprint in order to please people, but in this hideous day and age, where remakes of reboots of franchises of adaptations reign, the audience is king. With The Thing, the audience was a notoriously difficult bunch to please–fans. In adapting a preexisting work with any type of fan-base, there will be complaints. The filmmaker then has forked-roads to travel, whether he stays faithful to the source material or creates something new, if modernizing it or not is the right way to go, etc. He’s beholden to this crabby audience, which typically perceives his final decision as the wrong one. Producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman chose wrong when they decided to do a remake of a now beloved classic, and that was step one.
It’s a tragedy that The Thing was released to commercial failure in theatres, because it speaks to the greater realm of modern science-fiction film, a realm that’s slavish to the nerd kingdom. Not helping is of course that van Heijningen’s movie cannot stand on its own, where John Carpenter’s most certainly could, and felt nearly defiant, rather than adoring, in the face of its predecessor. This movie truly should have been titled Who Goes There?, but I suppose the distributors wanted to milk as much money from whatever marquee value The Thing brand name carries. Not much, as we discover. One is led to wonder exactly who was targeted to see this film. The big horror movie franchises of the day ring polar opposite to this one: Paranormal Activity, Saw, Final Destination–these days the creature feature has been displaced by the zombie flick, and those who appreciate monsters are used to the rubber or stop-motion dragons and Brundleflies of days gone by. CGI in The Thing? It was bad enough in 1982 when there was going to be animatronics and miniatures in The Thing, as opposed to only makeup effects!
So if not fans of The Thing, and if not modern horror fans, perhaps this will be The Thing to rein in a new generation of fans? Afraid not; the kids of the day would rather see ghosts and Death itself kill people, which, on a visual level, is to say nothing at all kill people. Movies (a visual medium, by the way) of that type also tend to feature kids, which is something of a selling point whether we like it or not. Compare Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character Wendy in Final Destination 3 to Kate in The Thing–there was romantic tension where now there is only survival and stern, commanding looks. While some might prefer the latter with more passion, a majority prefers the former, albeit casually. The youngsters of the day would just as quickly wonder what a Snake Plissken is as they would claim that the new Thing is a rip-off of the video-game Dead Space. Another audience not easily pandered to when sixty-year old aliens are concerned.
Additionally, and possibly most importantly, The Thing is a remake. It may technically be a prequel, but why then wasn’t it called Before the Thing, or The Thing Zero, The Thing 2, or One More Thing? Because those are all terrible titles–once again Who Goes There? was left wide open. The money-men were banking on its assets as a remake, not a prequel, and in late 2011, audiences have had their fill. Not only of remakes, but of horror remakes.
The giants in the genre have all been dried up in the last couple of years: Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead, even smaller titles like The Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left, Black Christmas, Fright Night, and of course, arbitrary entries in the John Carpenter canon: The Fog and Assault on Precinct 13. Maybe next year we’ll get rumblings of a Big Trouble in Little China remake, but dark. The Thing came far too late, though ironically it was just as late as John Carpenter’s was, following up Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby’s.
It may have felt like a good idea at the time, but revisiting The Thing was as fruitful as taking a tissue sample from the frozen alien specimen. It is as it’s always been–a film with a small, but significant appeal. Van Heijningen’s movie may not interest you on principle, but I’d advise you to seek it out on home video. It’s a creature feature in a league with Frank Darabont’s excellent The Mist rather than Underworld Evolution or Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and at its best moments, provides very real, very intense moments of terror that don’t merely recall the 80s days, but fill us with those same, welcomed feelings. It may not be the best sci-fi horror movie of all time, but it breaks this writer’s heart when a genuinely entertaining film is passed up because we were all expecting it to be bad. It’s the current climate–we’re done with remakes, and perhaps we could blame the victim here in saying that it shouldn’t have joined those ranks to begin with, but as the credits roll and we see how this story bridges into John Carpenter’s The Thing, I’m glad it did.
Hey guys, I don’t ever do this, but I’m gonna go ahead and recommend picking up The Thing on Blu-Ray when it drops on the 31st. There’ll be a new review shortly after then — just to show my appreciation. It’s a movie that somehow introduced novelty into its form as a remake, and makes for a highly entertaining monster flick.
This sounds like advertising, and I’m even wondering why I write this. The Thing (2011) isn’t the best movie I saw that year, but it’s very close to my heart. It also gets mixed into a fandom-related argument I find myself engaged in — don’t let personal bias get in the way. I won’t promise you’ll be blown away, but The Thing (2011) is like all remakes, prequels, sequels, or 3D re-releases: it does nothing to sour the original’s reputation as a classic, and stands on its own as an effective entry into sci-fi/horror canon.
1. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Note: It’s kind of confusing, but the post “1. The Ghost in the Shell,” did not mean that that was the #1 thing of the year, despite it following the other two Year End Review posts.
Here on Dreck Fiction I’ve talked about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World at length, so this will probably be retreading old territory — bear with me. In the end, the most awesome thing I saw this year came out last year, Edgar Wright’s third, and in my opinion, best movie — crazy as that sounds. When I first saw the movie over the summer, I was blown the hell away. Unfortunately I saw it the last day it was available OnDemand, one of the motivating factors behind the big decision to press enter. I always knew I was gonna like Scott Pilgrim; the trailers seemed promising and I had a lot of faith in Edgar Wright to make something that was at least entertaining. I remember very specifically — quite a feat, as I saw this perhaps five months ago — my dad came in the room and delivered some message so I had to pause the movie, and I paused it right before the Ramona/Roxy fight, maybe after Ramona threw Ann (who?) away. Sitting there, I was just thinking to myself, “I’ve really enjoyed this movie so far. I like the direction this is headed.”
As somebody who’s invested some time in learning about filmmaking, it’s hard for me not to zero in on the technical side of things, and ever since I started this blog I tend to think critically about movies when I’m watching them. Scott Pilgrim actually rewarded me for being aware of the filmmaking, because it’s such a finely crafted movie that when immersion is eschewed in this way, it’s a good thing. It allowed me to notice the details, which to director Edgar Wright are extremely important. The frame is always brimming with significant details and easter eggs — and boy does he and DP Bill Pope love the frame.
In terms of the look of the movie, it’s not even “look what we can do,” not even “look what we can do and how well” — it’s a spectacle resultant of very measured craft. Every eyepopping moment on screen, whether a product of the camera movement, clever composition, actor blocking, or visual effect, means something. Of course, the point of contention then for critics is that what it all means may not interest them, but that’s no excuse to not recognize the inspiring brilliance in this film’s making. Scott Pilgrim, appreciated today only by a small but very, very vocal minority, will have genre standing as time goes on.
It’s an outstanding example of the action-comedy, which, like the horror-comedy (of which Edgar Wright so excelled in six years earlier), requires a hefty amount of balance: tone, structure, wit — these elements aren’t enough, it’s within their combination that Scott Pilgrim and Slither and Desperado and other great, modern genre-mashups emerge. They must work with each other; this doesn’t feel like an action movie with comedic elements or a comedy with action scenes, it’s a whole film that plays out from start to finish, and by the time we reach the end, we’ve laughed, we’ve been excited, and we’re had our hearts warmed. The manufactured feel of so many other comedies and so, so many other action movies was left at the door.
The film had a predestination in terms of its artistic success, just like The Thing (2011), the next Mary Elizabeth Winstead movie, was doomed to critical and commercial failure at the point of its inception. It was based on preexisting material, which is a first for the director, though at the time of screenwriting the final volume had yet to be released, which led to some merciful reshoots* at the end of production. I’ve never read the comic, but I think the process and idea of adaptation set the wheels in motion for Edgar Wright. He took on a mission and was rather noble about it. Like Rodriguez wanting to make Frank Miller’s Sin City over Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, Wright strove to recreate the comic, but adapt it to the moving medium of film.
With such a dedicated force at the helm, there should’ve been little doubt in my mind that Scott Pilgrim was a movie to look out for, and right now there’s little doubt in my mind that the director’s fourth movie will be one to watch. It’s a pretty bold adaptation — in these days of Nolan’s Batman and endless reboots (these X-Men weren’t gritty enough), Scott Pilgrim feels fresh. The creators behind the film obviously adore the movie medium, and don’t shy away from its possibilities. Some people (I think) have called Crank one of the best comic book movies ever, because it is exactly that, despite not being based on anything.
Crank is the antithesis to a movie like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, or any of the X-Men movies, which like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider and all these things — it revels in its form. Movies, like comic-books, have a heightened reality, but somehow this gets lost in Hollywood’s endless struggle to be super serious and realistic. I’m not saying that when Peter Parker and Mary Jane upside-down kiss that CG hearts should come out, because that would be inappropriate to its foundational laws of reality, but the dedication to realism has led filmmakers to want to play it safe in terms of spectacle.
With such high budgets, why don’t we ever see something that’s completely balls-to-the-walls? Like fucking Punisher: War Zone! Christ, every time I gotta complain about these damn comic book movies that’ll always be mentioned. War Zone wasn’t made on a $100 million budget, but it was totally fun. It had energy. Like Scott Pilgrim, which, because it was made on a very high budget, was able to go above and beyond. Very rarely in that movie has a frame been untouched by frenetic computer enhancements and craazy color.
At the end of the movie, we know that the heroes are going to fight the villains, probably in New York, and they’ll throw cars around. With a movie like Scott Pilgrim, it’s a mystery as to what’s simply going to be seen next. And when something wild happens, it’s almost always logical or, at least, never truly out of left field. Giant animated yeti is going to fight dragons in the middle of a battle of the bands? Sounds alright to me.
Well, that’s probably enough of my Continuing Adventures in Eternal Praise for this One Movie for now. I kind of lost steam there towards the end, but those comic book movies always piss me off, so when I perceive a chance to rant, I’ll take it.
So there you have it. Those are the ten best, and two worst, things I saw this year. Overall, it was pretty solid. Last year there were actually ten movies, but hey — if TV shows are gonna be as good as Arrested Development, I’ll certainly take TV shows. Good night, and have a happy New Year! (Excuse me if you don’t celebrate New Year’s, I know that’s not very PC of me**).
*The original ending to the movie was changed when the final book was released. Originally, and you can still see these scenes in the DVD, Scott ends up with Knives. Thankfully Brian Lee O’Malley was there to save the day, and Edgar Wright was so goddamn dedicated to being true to the source…
**HAHA SOCIAL COMMENTRAY
There was a moment in The Thing when I did lose focus and begin to drift, started thinking that I couldn’t wait to get home and watch some more Party Down. Indeed after the opening moments where we see that this movie isn’t characterizing its scientists nearly as carefully as they did in ’82, it slows down to something of an odd pace. The alien is loose and running around, and so are the characters. Scenes from the first movie (of this ilk) are recycled; we get a sense of where they’re going with all this, but it’s not engaging. This continues for only about a half hour/forty-five into the movie. After that, the gloves come off, and I saw exactly what I wanted to see – and more.
In the original The Thing, there are three major Thing set pieces that always stand out in my mind: the dog, the spider-head, and the blood test scene. They’re all self-contained pieces of fantastic horror, and they do exactly what most horror films skip over. In the new one, there is exactly one scene like this – and it’s a pretty good one. Keeping spoilers to a minimum (ironically enough), it’s the origin of the two-faced thing that gets examined in the original movie. The rec room scene, I suppose I’ll call it, has got a great transformation sequence, a lot of Thing-related fatalities, and above all – and this is what the original did that few other horrors do – it was really intense.
Watch the movie for this scene, because this is when it’s most like the Carpenter version. That movie alternated between dedicated suspense and high-intensity terror. That formula didn’t translate wholly to the new movie, which tries its hand at the suspense part far more often, and doesn’t excel. The rec room scene is key though; writhing body parts split off and start skittering away as the face moans its alien moan, flamethrowers aren’t working, tables are being flipped, people are screaming in horror – it’s an expertly done scene, and it gives us a really cool Thing monster, something that I’ll touch on later, because presently it reminds me of what this scene, and the movie, is very reminscent of.
That’s The Mist, the wonderful Frank Darabont adaptation of God-knows-who, which had, like this movie, somewhat CG-obvious creatures, fire-axes being used to kill said creatures, paranoia, and a nostalgic monster movie sensibility. I believe that when Darabont set about making The Mist, he probably wanted to do what Kubrick did for science-fiction with 2001 – make the ‘proverbial good monster movie.’ That’s why there’s a black-and-white version on the DVD.
This is something that sets both The Thing 2011 and The Mist apart from modern horror movies. Attached to the new Thing was a trailer for Paranormal Activity 3, which shambles into theatres this month. That’s the type of horror movie the demographic (teenagers) wants to see. They’ve never been into creatures and monsters – it’s all about just people, just dying (the Human Centipede definitively does not count as a monster). That’s why Final Destination does so well, and Saw, and all those slasher movies that find creative ways to kill people. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but hey – I love a good monster every once in awhile.
I know what you’re thinking – The Thing wasn’t really about monsters, because the thing never got five feet without being fried. The horror came from the transformation sequences, and all the grisly, disgusting inventions it cooks up to escape the flame. This new movie decided, thank God, to take things a step further, and this is the real reason to see this movie before it closes shop without making its budget back. The Thing doesn’t mess around. He wants two things – to survive, and to kill. Due to the limitations of the animatronics back in the day a decade before Jurassic Park, the alien wasn’t limber, wasn’t mobile. It wasn’t much of a hunter.
People are often face to face with a dribbling, fangy alien with tentacle face, or hiding from it without nothing but an ineffectual knife – these moments were a pure joy and certainly worthy of comparison to the 1982 flick. It’s simple really: the design is cool. Though I’ve played the games, the aliens look a lot like, or take the principle of, the monsters from the Silent Hill series. You take a human body and twist it into a four legged tentacle monster. It’s really the most unnatural, unnerving thing you could ever imagine being in the same room with.
Luckily our intrepid heroine is able to take action, and she proves quite capable in this movie. Picking up on the creature’s game pretty quickly (she probably got a few pointers from Kurt on the sets of Sky High and Death Proof), she leads the charge as Norweigans are being picked off all around her. I never really got to know any of these people. I know none of their names, save Sanders and Peder, though I don’t know who Peder is, just that his name came up in subtitles a lot. These guys, heroine Kate Lloyd included, aren’t nearly as memorable as MacReady, Childs, Norris, Palmer, Fuchs, Windows and the gang. When they died I was really more interested in their transformation, and what mutants their bodies would provide. I wasn’t really upset or anything, except maybe for the younger looking guy and the dude who gets killed by the facehugger arm – everybody was just standing around watching as he died a slow, horrible death. Pobre bastardo.
There is an ending in this movie that will undoubtedly piss off the purists. It’s a sure case of ‘we never needed to know that,’ but it’s like Gears of War 2, for those who played it – they show you questions, meaning they do things that are cryptic and try to maintain that less-is-more legacy that’s served the genre so well. In Gears 2, that was plainly amatuerish storytelling. Here, very little is gained, as mystery is uncovered only to give way for mystery, but it all seems useless, because the first mystery was so good.
The Thing was the Avatar and the Machete of 2011 for me. While I wasn’t as excited to see this as those two, this one is so, so much better. Would buy again, and indeed sometime in the future I’ll revisit this one to talk about the ending, and some other things that require spoiling for elaboration on. So for now I’ll leave you with one final recommending comment: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a total badass.
Why I saw this movie is a long, almost embarassing story that I won’t suffer you to read here. While I suffered in watching it, I felt compelled to report back here on this blog, because I actually had something to say. Something negative.
After seeing just this one entry in the lengthy franchise, in addition to twenty-minutes of Final Destination 2, I can’t fathom why anybody would ever return for 4 and 5, or even 2 and 3. These movies are formula, and their movie-as-formula isn’t exactly the problem, it’s the formula itself. The template these are all based on – vision, no one believes him/her, it happens, more deaths, more people don’t believe him/her – is built on frustration. The hero/heroine’s (let’s just go with heroine in reference to Wendy from 3) efforts to save people are frustrated, she is frustrated by the other characters’ aggresive ignorance, and the characters are goddamn frustrating to the audience because they’re drawn to fill out one role.
The frustration stops when a clamp comes down on somebody’s head or a truck tears the back of their skull of. These gruesome death scenes are the only moments when the story moves forward, so it’s nearly cathartic in its alleviation of the frustration, but in a really bad way. In addition, Final Destination the series trades on its death sequences. But the problem with a medium like this – movies – is that the death sequences are tethered to and held back by the plot, which is crucial to the formula. As a result, there are only five or six death scenes in the movie, and the only one longer than a split second is far from entertaining – tanning booth death.
The premise to the series is actually pretty good; it feels like an episode of The X-Files. I bring that show up specifically because the writers and directors and producers of several entries in this series were James Wong and Glen Morgan, huge contributors to the long-running television show. The difference between the show and the movie series is something that could have made this series legitimately good, and not almost-half-average: adults.
If the series had adults instead of teenagers, maybe there could have been a sense of engagement in any facet of the movies rather than none. Why does there exist the requisite that all modern horror movies must have screamy teenagers? Because they’re cheap? Because of Halloween? Some of the most famous horror movies of all time have adults – Alien and The Exorcist spring to mind. Teenagers can never be well-rounded characters in this context of light horror because adults have difficulty writing them both in general and for a teenage audience. They assume that we’re expecting a certain thing, and what we get is boo-yah douchebags and womanizers and OMG orange tan chicks, where characters are defined by their stereotype.
The problem here is that the key demographic – teenagers and younger – are notorious for being dumb. That must be how they’re seen by the writers, because these characters don’t have complex characterization or subtle nuances; the audience understands them because they tap into various, specific parts of the cultural lexicon.
I think that the series could benefit if not only we had adults dealing with this problem, but if it was a detective story. The detective must solve these crazy accidents before he goes too, though nobody believes him and he must endure being witness to bizarre fatalities. It could be a gritty, dark story that would work once, but it would work well. Final Destination 3 has a scene where characters – the fringe weirdos – are talking about how death is inevitable, and it made me think that if we were dealing with characters who weren’t just going for the laughs we could actually tackle interesting themes about life and death.
But the series has never been about themes. In fact, one of the themes in Final Destination 3 is control, where Wendy is a control freak. How do I know that? Because whenever anybody, even Wendy, is describing her, they say she’s a control freak. I swear ‘control freak’ is the most frequently used term in the entire movie. She likes to control things, and this conflicts with death, who also likes to control things. Okay, that’s fine, but what does it mean on a higher level? Nothing, it’s just superfluous motivation for our character Wendy to have conflict with death, as if dying wasn’t enough.
Final Destination 3D takes a more hackneyed detective approach, which isn’t nearly as good an idea to keep the premise fresh as seen in Final Destination 2, where a bunch of people were gathered into a room and tried to stay alive. That could have been cool, but I never saw the rest of the damn thing. In Final Destination 3, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character Wendy took a bunch of photos and notes how they correlate to the deaths. Shoddy theory, but that’s why she pulls a photo of the World Trade Center and notes how a shadow of the plane on the building anticipates that a plane was going to fly into it. What the fuck?
So she goes out with her friend, Kevin, and they try to save these morons before they’re killed. None of them want to stay alive. They’re all antagonistic, and I guess the effect here is that we’re supposed to be rooting for death to kill them. Either I’m just not cynical enough to ever think that these people deserve what comes to them, or I just can’t distance myself from these characters to appreciate them as characters who actually, really, want to die.
Another problem is that the only interesting thing about the movie is the relationship between Wendy and Kevin. I was surprised but I actually liked their budding friendship, but of course – it didn’t add up to anything. The ending is ambiguous, so maybe they all died. I’d have to watch The Final Destination to find out if they did, or if they’re still cool.
God, the acting is so damn bad in this movie, and I don’t want to do what I used to do when I wrote my little movie reviews for the school newspaper (go down the list, you know, the directing sucks, the acting sucks, the script sucks, the editing sucks) but I need to make an exception here. If they didn’t have Mary Elizabeth Winstead, maybe I wouldn’t notice, but a lot of these characters are poorly portrayed, if only as a result of the weak writing. It’s not atrocious writing, it just feels synthetic and a product of little effort. Even Winstead can’t salvage it because Wendy, like I said, is a control freak. That is her character. She is not a character. Control freak is not character.
As a last note, this series has the worst string of titles ever, more stupid than First Blood, which goes
Rambo: First Blood Part II
Just take a look:
Final Destination 2
Final Destination 3
The Final Destination
Final Destination 5
It’s comical because there is exactly one that stands out. I’ve never seen a horror franchise that actually goes back to the numbering after they’ve dropped it, which is the trend nowadays, not to have numbers. I guess I give them credit for 5, but hell – I’ll never see it.
In the aftermath of watching Scott Pilgrim for the first time, I found myself in a strange situation. After watching movies like Hard-Boiled and Serenity, things I was very fond of, I immediately wanted to share them with everyone, and was fairly sure they’d like them. Scott Pilgrim was another, so I contacted various people and found that they had already seen it and ranged from being lukewarm on it to disliking it outright. During this summer, I’ve discovered that certain Internet circles I see myself as associating with don’t think much of the movie either. So here was a movie I loved, and nobody to share that appreciation with, which is why I wrote Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: An Appreciation rather than talk about it in real life with some person.
I’m not going to make this about some self-pity cry for help, but I will say that the movie’s poor reception on local and general levels (made no money, but hey – I didn’t see it in theatres either) has affected my perception of the film in this post-mortem period. The personal faults I have with the movie feel more glaring, like some of Michael Cera’s line delivery and a lot of the jokes, and I have had to accept that obviously this movie isn’t very well liked, but I do like it for reasons that are very personal and unique to me as an appreciator of motion pictures.
Even after all this time, I watch Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and I marvel every time and in the same magnititude. I marvel at the technical superiority employed by director Edgar Wright and Director of Photography Bill Pope, the mastery of craft that I find easy to both watch repeatedly and study (as an aspiring movie guy), the beauty of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who’s one of those people I just really enjoy watching in movies, and the crappiness of some of the jokes. It’s a movie that means a lot to me, the one movie that I could literally never stop talking about, but won’t devote the site to like I will with its flagship movie, Blade Runner. The film has so taken me, a power I thought I would have attributed to a darker, more thematically serious movie like Apocalypse Now or Oldboy, which are both amazing, but don’t match up with Edgar Wright’s PG-13 actioner for me on a personal level.
The movie has actually had the power to push me to read more books, because I couldn’t quite find what I found with Scott Pilgrim in the other movies I’d seen this summer; movies that people really like sort of fell upon glazed eyes: Mulholland Dr., Pi, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (the best of the bunch), The Wild Bunch, The Thin Red Line, Green Zone, and Brazil. None of them matched the bizarre and difficult-to-pin-down effect Scott Pilgrim had on me.
But for how long? Assumedly when I’m 35 I won’t give a shit about a romantic comedy about 20 year olds, so maybe I feel like I have to enjoy this fleeting movie as much as I can while I still do. Or maybe, and this was something that struck me while making my way through the James Cameron biography, The Futurist, maybe Scott Pilgrim was the Avatar that never was.
Of course, the two movies have absolutely nothing to do with each other, but I expected to fall in love with James Cameron’s biggest movie to date (for now), which by his own admittance, was the wrong way to go, “I think if everybody was embracing [Avatar] before the fact, the film could never live up to that expectation … Have them go with some sense of wanting to find the answer,” (James Cameron) and didn’t. Perhaps I’ve been waiting for that hole in my heart to be filled since it was punched into creation back in December 2009, and it finally was with Scott Pilgrim.
But that doesn’t make any fucking sense because last year I saw not only top twenty movies like Ghost in the Shell 2, Jin-Roh, and Jacob’s Ladder, but a movie I’d go on to consider one of my absolute favorites, JSA. Why didn’t those fill the hole or whatever? They’re complex, intense, dramatic movies, and three of them are exemplary in my “film as suduko” philosophy, where Scott Pilgrim does not. However, JSA is a drama ending on a note of tragedy, Ghost in the Shell 2 is beautiful but contemplative and not very fun, and Jacob’s Ladder is an intense journey striking with enthusiasm upon themes I find very frightening (but intriguing). With Scott Pilgrim, I finally found a movie that very simply, makes me feel good. It’s a conventional romance with action elements – light, funny, and highly entertaining. Exactly what I need sometimes.
I understand that where it lost audiences was in it’s conception, however. It’s a Kung Fu movie that doesn’t make Kung Fu a priority, instead opting for a musical approach, where action scenes are ignored after they’re over, like they didn’t even happen. It’s a movie taking cues from retro-games, trying to appeal to a very specific generation that prefers other things and is very picky. It’s a romantic comedy, but isn’t just for girls and isn’t just for guys. So who goes to see it?
Other issues I’ve come upon with respect to Scott Pilgrim are of course, Michael Cera. I agree that he’s not really much of an actor, and some of his weaknesses are evident here, but I think he was the perfect casting choice for the character: an awkward dude who’s skinny and would look funny Kung Fu fighting Chris Evans. One of the more jolting criticisms I’ve read was from a publication I enjoy quite a bit, ScifiNow. Basically they said that Ramona wasn’t a girl worth fighting for, so they couldn’t relate to motivations of our hero.
That’s absurd. I don’t want to talk any more or ever about Mary Elizabeth Winstead unless I have to again, but needless to say, I was pretty shocked to read that. Easily my favorite piece of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is Winstead’s performance as Ramona Flowers. Not only is she attractive and easy to watch, but she’s a truly wonderful actor who’s breakout role simply hasn’t come along yet. She’s a perfect fit for Ramona Flowers, the brooding, cynical, just-trying-to-get-by chick – and yet you wouldn’t think it based on her filmography up until that point. Edgar Wright saw something in the cheery young actress, and goddamn he was so right.
This is not something I wanted to write and certainly not something I wanted to post on Dreck Fiction; it’s the third in a series of posts about one movie, and a movie that only barely makes sense being covered here on this science-fiction/movies blog. My excuse is pretty lame, that essentially I’ve found the most wonderful and endearing cinematic experience in years in a movie that… kinda sucks? I shake my head at it but I think about it constantly.
People like to think that they have good taste, and pride themselves on it. I was always one of those people. The only reason I think Scott Pilgrim is lowbrow is because of its general reception by fans and non-fans of movies, video-games, and modern media culture. But it’s very important to me, and I feel like I need to mention it as much as possible here because I’ve found hardly anybody else to talk about it with.
I wish I could have written something more conclusive on my feelings about this movie, but it’s difficult – such feelings are more puzzling to me than with any deep science-fiction movie or book, so take this Final Assessment with a grain of salt, like the titles of the fourth and ninth Friday the 13th movies. I’ll get back to you when I’m a better writer…
And how could you not? As much as I know I’ll enjoy the film when it hits theatres in October, I know it won’t last long or be well-recieved or good. It’s just not a movie that needed to be made, but I look forward to it anyway as a fan of the John Carpenter original, a fan of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and a guy who saw and enjoyed somwhat the Howard Hawks original original. The Who Goes There? story template is great, and even without that key casting I’d still look forward to it, even if it is seemingly just another in the line of horror remakes following the Wes Craven reboots of recent times and Friday the 13th and all that.
Horror is such a shitty genre nowadays that remakes don’t faze me. If original material turns out to be garbage like The Strangers, then I welcome familiar faces and ideas. I’ve come to peace with the fact that The Mist is the product of a brilliant filmmaker who probably won’t continue to dabble in horror (unless it’s Stephen King), and that M. Night Shyamalan is making some terrible, terrible choices years after his incredible Signs. Maybe it’s just fine by me because horror isn’t one of the genres I look for. I like horror/comedy, but I haven’t seen too many of those I’ve disliked. From Return of the Living Dead to Slither, the horror/comedy has been good throughout the ages, but I didn’t even like a horror classic like The Exorcist so how am I supposed to like its inevitable remake?
It’s a difficult genre, and I guess that’s why these filmmakers do it. Nothing is sacred, as people are bound to say, but I really don’t care about that. They’re not actively working to ‘ruin’ the original film, and the constant theory against the naysayers is that maybe attention will be brought to the old one with the release of the new one. Who knows? And that’s right – on some level John Carpenter’s The Thing was a remake, and it’s a classic, as is The Fly remake. Who’s to say that this new one won’t be? Aside from history and the formula it seems to be following…
In fact there are other things that concern me about this new movie. A long time ago I got into some farcical argument with a ’30 year old woman’ on YouTube.com, and it was on the video for The Thing 1982 trailer. Maybe you can still find it, I don’t know – I’m HeroOfCanton99, like Jayne and 1999 combined, the year I wanted people to think I was born in. Basically this lady’s stance was that she was uncomfortable with a girl being cast in the movie, because some seriously horrific things tend to happen to people in The Thing. I said “Damn it, I’m agreeing with you, you freaking moron,” but she didn’t really realize and continued to argue out loud to herself. It was surreal. Wonder what’ll happen when she finds out about the women in Gears of War “Curb Stomp Downed Enemies” 3?
I don’t feel entirely comfortable with it because I’m aware of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s history – three horror flicks, one where she gets killed, probably gruesomely. She’s assumedly not afraid of it, but I am. I don’t want to see that. I wouldn’t want to see it if it was anybody else, not just Mary Elizabeth Winstead, though that certainly doesn’t help. In The Thing, it’s not the character deaths that are actually gruesome: people die when they burn by flamethrowers. The terror comes out of the creature’s mutations, where faces split open and heads tear off slowly and painstakingly while tongues lash around and it’s the most horrible thing you’ve ever seen done to a human body. So awesome. God just typing that makes me want to watch the movie again. Really ingenious horror, and really cool sci-fi – the perfect blend captured here in this totally underrated flick.
If Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s head falls off and turns into a spider I might just vomit, but I’ve made a speculation as to what happens in this new movie:
The Swedish guy at the beginning of The Thing was a guy, not a girl. That means that she either dies in the helicopter explosion, dies earlier, or escapes to the mainland. I think that she’ll escape and leave the male hero to chase the dog and magically become non-foreign. Maybe that’ll pave the way for sequels… which is an odd thought. Hm, if they made a Thing remake trilogy, that would mark one of the strangest movie series ever.
That’s only a guess. Chances are she gets killed by a massive Thing monster, because I hear that we’ll see different forms of the creature, which is a good change of pace. Maybe one form will be Frankenstein’s monster, like the 1951 movie. HRRRNGGG…
Another issue I have is an idea resulting from a filmmaker’s passion for the original movie. When McG, a big fan of the Terminator movies, made a Terminator movie, he had a lot of visual call-outs to the earlier films, particularly the first. I didn’t mind; I thought it was cool because I share his sentiment that those two movies are totally sweet. But if the director of The Thing (I’m not going to try to spell his name) also does this visual homage deal and has similar things happen, for some reason I don’t see it as working, perhaps because of the proximity to this story to the 1982 one.
In other words, won’t it be silly if the crew of the 2011 had a blood test scene if only days later a different crew did? Eh it’s a nerdy complaint, but that’s why it’s an issue and not a problem, I guess. Also, will this movie take place in 1982? Or will it be like Casino Royale (2006) and take place in the future of the 60′s Bond films, despite its chronology as first in the series?
So that’s it. If Avatar and Machete were the most anticipated movies of years previous, well, that’s not a good track record, so The Thing better work out because I definitely look forward to it more than… Captain America? If they do things similar to the 1982 movie I don’t see much margin for error, but that’s probably what was said about The Phantom Menace. Well, that’s definitely what was said.
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…
Major Spoilers for Death Proof
Grindhouse is a strange entity. Its two halves are Planet Terror, as directed by Dreck Fiction favorite Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. Both are homages to an earlier time, earlier genres, and earlier attitudes. It’s critical consensus that while Planet Terror is the truer half, as it’s fun and creatively gory, Death Proof is the better film. In my opinion, they’re both surpassed by the film from years earlier, From Dusk Till Dawn, which was the spiritual predecessor to Grindhouse (just check out every review of the movie ever written, and you’ll find people jumping all over it for being two movies in one). I do think that on the whole Planet Terror is more fun, and that’s the one that I chose to have on the Blu-ray Disc. I guess you can only have one.
That’s another problem with Grindhouse; because one of the major criticisms of fans was that it was too long, which seems rather imbecilic, the home release was split up into two movies. Rather than having Grindhouse on DVD and PSP we have Grindhouse Presents Planet Terror and Grindhouse Presents Death Proof, I believe. Nowhere except for on the Internet can the fake trailers be located. At least, they aren’t on Planet Terror‘s disc, aside from Machete, which remains better than the expanded version by ten miles.
Death Proof, just like its parent in Grindhouse, is a strange entity. It too is split up into two movies, or at least, we have two major groups of characters in two separate plotlines. The first, which drags, follows around potential victims of serial killer Stuntman Mike. Most of the action takes place in the bar, and invariably, these characters – four girls – are overshadowed and outdone by the surprise faces in the bar like Eli Roth and of course, Quentin Tarantino. QT is found playing the one role he always plays, perhaps the role he was meant to play – some scheezy guy.
Once this segment is out of the way we’re introduced immediately to a group of girls that are most interesting in every way. Among them is Rosario Dawson, who I’ve always been enamored of, and who’s kind of a cult favorite after movies like Sin City and Clerks 2. We also see Mary Elizabeth Winstead, mentioned earlier in the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World review. She plays a much different character here.
In Scott Pilgrim vs. The World she plays a darker, more broken character. Yet she is in a comedy film. Here, in this horror/comedy, she is the comic relief. We’re supposed to laugh at her because she’s too damn happy, too dumb, too girly. The disparity between Lee in Death Proof and Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World really speaks to a subtle acting prowess – she’s entirely convincing in both roles, yet one appears very distracted and sunny, and the other is serious and more complex.
Lee plays a significant role, just as all the other girls in the film do. This is a movie about females, about female empowerment and film postmodernism. Death Proof overall is about Quentin Tarantino, and his DJ stylings – he takes characters from the mythology of film and mixes and matches. Here we find a serial killer from a Wes Craven slasher movie – but the twist is that he’s out of place. We have a commentary on the passing of time in film as enhanced by the theme of female progression. The ultimate triumph in the story is of girls over the slasher, and this happens only after the slasher’s been taken out of his 70′s environment, where he has the power to kill Rose McGowan and all the other girls of the first group.
In order to arrive at that point we need to experience the various female cliches and archetypes established by earlier movies. Lee’s character is summarized in her appearance – despite being an actor playing an actor, she’s the cheerleader. She is nothing other than the cheerleader, thus she’s happy, dumb, and girly. Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms are the adrenaline junkies – sort of the idealized strong woman in Quentin Tarantino’s eye. Zoe Bell plays herself, and was a real surprise. When we first see her she’s this Australian chick with the cute accent and a sunny face, but as it turns out, she’s the biggest adrenaline freak of them all; she’s the one who gets on top of the speeding Dodge Challenger to duel Stuntman Mike’s death proof car.
The cheerleader gets left behind, which is an uncomfortable moment in the movie (not as uncomfortable as the lap dance however, which is retained in full for the DVD release [allegedly in theatres Tarantino slipped in the 'missing reel' gag over it]), and we only have the strong women to overcome the slasher.
The other group of girls were manipulative and got drunk all the time – really the opposite of role models. As we learned in that YouTube video, something like “Tarantino PWNS some woman named Jane,” QT believes that the girls he depicts on screen are women that little girls should not only be watching (all of his movies have been hard-Rs) but taking after. That’s what Kill Bill was all about. These girls however, don’t have it in them to overcome the baddy.
And what a badguy; Stuntman Mike was perfectly cast here, and it follows the theme of postmodern filmmaking. What do we remember Kurt Russell for? We remember him for two movies – Escape from New York, and Big Trouble in Little China, two of the most iconic Carpenter flicks around, in a filmography filled with icons of cinema. The characters of Snake Plissken and Jack Burton reinvented the hero by being A-grade badass and A-grade clumsy respectively.
Stuntman Mike, twenty or so years later, is purely evil. The badass still remains, but it’s a new take on a familiar face; not something we’re used to. This shake-and-bake* approach to genre filmmaking is rare and it’s something that if overdone would get old, like the documentary approach for District 9 (fingers crossed Elysium will be different), but that’s why Quentin Tarantino is one-of-a-kind, and this is a good thing.
Tarantino rip-offs are usually always a bad idea; The Boondock Saints for example stands out, which needed to take more cues from Rodriguez than QT, and he makes these glorified B movies with the artistry and skill of a master. No, he’s not one of the A-list directors like the Spielbergs and Jacksons of the world, but he’s a niche filmmaker who can do niche things that have only really recently taken on wide popularity, as we’ll see next.
Death Proof is the deeper half of Grindhouse, which itself is a great movie. Watch Planet Terror to see Rodriguez go nuts with an excellent cast and extreme effects, and watch Death Proof for what is truly the truer grindhouse flick.
Planet Terror plays it safe in terms of its homage; it’s a cheapo exploitative movie with a budget (like the equally brainless Sin City and From Dusk Till Dawn), so it’s something new, but retains the staples of what we think of when we think of exploitation: nudity, guns, blood, and visual quality that appears to tear at the seams. It celebrates the feel of grindhouse cinema, which can’t be pegged for a specific genre but a range – certain kung fu movies are considered grindhouse, as were blaxploitation and sci-fi movies and of course, those infamous women in chains movies.
On the other hand Death Proof celebrates the chase movies and slasher movies by reinventing them, by combining them and seeing what fits. It may not be a perfect movie – like I said the first half drags like the knuckles of Cro-Magnon Man [sigh] but the noted chase scene at the end was really rather exhilarating, and meant something. The final shot of the movie is just perfect, and the second group of girls really embody the strong-woman archetype that Tarantino began to observe with his magnum opus, continued through Death Proof, and stopped with Inglourious Basterds. I really didn’t give a fuck about Shoshanna, but we’ll get there.
Celebration was the goal here, to pay homage to an earlier age in film. As only Quentin Tarantino can however, he also pushed forward.
*Is that gay?
I don’t give a rat’s ass about retro-gaming. I like Halo, I like Mass Effect. I didn’t grow up playing Mario or Zelda, and the only Final Fantasy I played was three minutes of FFIV. A lot of what happened in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World I only had a minor grasp on in terms of the references that we’d expect from Edgar Wright, but what’s important in a movie like this is that the experience comes through, and these references, while over my young head, certainly made that happen.
Here’s a movie that’s all about creating a visual world, creating a look, moving rather quickly, and being unique. The visual effects were constant, over-the-top, but organic, and perhaps that’s what keeps this from being something like ever other comic book adaptation that’s even been made: its reality is apart from our own, wheras the X-Men are grounded in our drab contemporary world, making everything embarassingly pulpy, despite it trying its damnedest not to be. By being self-aware, Scott Pilgrim feels confident in everything it does, and is technically strong.
When the first ‘evil ex’ flies onto the scene, it doesn’t seem strange because the audience is trained to accept bizarre imagery, even though the previous imagery manifested out of the mundane. The opening moments of the film work to establish the new world over the one we accept as reality – transitioning us into bigger and better set pieces.
This sense of pace hasn’t been seen in a PG-13 action movie in God knows how long, probably since The Rundown from nearly a decade ago. It moves along swiftly, and the forward momentum is helped along by visual playfulness, for example during the fight with Brandon Routh, where he seems to teleport to another place once he’s off frame.
Action directing is more than choreographing and shooting fight sequences (an art that’s lost on many a filmmaker, East or West), a lot of it comes out of the storytelling. Story? Just like in Die Hard, Commando, Crank, Doomsday, Hard Boiled – it’s nothing to write home about. It’s got a good premise, but the real kicker is in the way it’s told. Plot points are hit with precision, and the characters are what drive it forward, amped up on those absurd effects.
Of course, the most noticeable thing about a character, to me anyway, is who it’s being played by. The faces that came up in this movie really shocked me. I was just as shocked and pleased to see Thomas Jane making a small appearance as I was in seeing Southland Tales, and he’s only one of the many cult actors having a laugh in this movie. Aubrey Plaza essentially reprises her role from Parks and Recreation, a show that may not sound any good, but trust me Season 2 or whichever one just ended, was shockingly good. Then we have guys like Brandon Routh and Chris Evans, your typical leading men-types, playing these comic assholes – and it works.
And then we have Kieran Culkin.
After seeing Igby Goes Down, I pretty much wrote the actor off entirely. Every delivery he made in that movie made we want to reach into the screen and punch him, and when Jeff Goldblum of all people finally did it, I cheered inside. That movie was terrible and I was under the impression that he was the worst part. When I saw that he was in this movie, I didn’t even have time to say, “God this guy sucks,” because whatever first came out of his mouth had me dying. He was easily the funniest character: Scott Pilgrim’s gay roommate who always makes the punchline and has a wonderful but subtle relationship with our hero. Very surprising.
Michael Cera, who gets a lot of hate for playing the same character, worked here because he’s a believable dweeb. He’s clumsy and the scene that best encapsulates this is his first attempt to pick up Ramona Flowers. He tries to tell some story about the origin of Pac-Man that he related earlier, and he stumbles and shares an incredibly awkward laugh with himself before stalking off and saying, “Do you mind if I never talk to you again?”
There were moments in this movie that I laughed out loud at, and since I typically try to skip watching comedy movies, making rare but important exceptions (Black Dynamite), it was refreshing. My general philosophy is ‘why spend 90 minutes watching something designed to make you laugh if you can just research Nicolas Cage Losing his Shit and get multitudinous more entertainment value in a fraction of the time and cost?’ Yeah, Step Brothers might be funny, but it wasn’t seemingly custom tailored to make me laugh like some videos you can find online are. They’re bound to be there because there’s so many, whereas there’s only a few comedy movies, and aren’t they all kind of the same?
Invariably, the two characters will have some sort of bromantic break up and there’ll be a classic walking montage right before they team up for the end of the movie. Pineapple Express was a surprisingly funny movie until this moment, and I was just too distracted by how formulaic it all became.
Unless you do find yourself watching a comedy like Black Dynamite or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, or anything directed by Edgar Wright, there’s a good chance that the movie wasn’t a labor of love. Comedy is the biggest cash-grabbing genre I’ve observed (sci-fi is sometimes balanced by a Children of Men every five years), going for the leading men like Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller (though they are kinda… 2004), and playing it safe.
Is it just to dismiss an entire genre like that, when this site is devoted wholly (mostly) to the legitimization of one? Of course not, but too many comedy movies seem to be coming out just because damn it, we need another comedy movie. That’s why we’re going to start seeing comedy franchises like The Hangover, and pretty soon we’ll see comedy franchise reboots. You know how Hollywood is. It’s been years since I’ve been excited to see a comedy movie that was released wide in the theatres, and historically I’ve enjoyed trash like Zoolander and Anchorman, but it’s not high entertainment like Scott Pilgrim. It doesn’t fire on all cylinders, and those movies don’t have to be such extravaganzas, but at least have a fucking R-rating, for Christ’s sake.
This Unrated-Cut for the DVD nonsense is old. To be fair, it works equally poorly for horror and action like Terminator Salvation. What the hell was that? Or how about The Chronicles of Riddick? How do you make a terrible movie terribler? There’s your answer.
Well, as long as I’m keeping this informal and unorganized tone and style, I’m excited to see Super 8 this weekend. Anybody else?
One more note about Scott Pilgrim – Mary Elizabeth Winstead is definitely the actress to look out for. She’s great in every single last role I’ve seen her in (Death Proof, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), she’s super attractive, and wouldn’t you know it she’s got a great singing voice. Let’s hope The Thing prequel doesn’t suck, but I don’t think anybody was kidding themselves (except for me).