Thursday, December 16, 2010

Thoughts on Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

I love Edgar Wright. Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz are all marvellous things.

Scott Pilgrim is about a character who's absorbed video game culture, and largely processes the world in those terms. For Wright, this is largely going back to Spaced territory. I'm a video gaming nerd. This should be a home run. So the fact that this mostly didn't work for me was a major disappointment.

My problem with the movie can be summed up with two words: Knives Chau.

Knives Chau is a seventeen yearold high school girl. Scott Pilgrim is dating her, which is like totally a major scandal because he left high school like thirteen years ago*. She's charming, bubbly, naive and immensely likeable. He's dating her because it's nice and easy after the horrible breakup he suffered. If you've ever been on that end of a relationship you should already have a cringing realization of how horrible a dick he's being to her. This dickishness is cemented when he meets Ramona Flowers, the girl of his dreams -- literally: there's a subspace highway through his head, which she makes use of for her job as an delivery girl -- strings Knives along because breaking up is totally like hard and stuff until he bags Ramona and leaves Knives adrift in a terrible black frame of despair.

This is as good a point as any to point out that Scott Pilgrim makes no sense as a whole except at the metaphorical level. Scott Pilgrim has to fight Ramona's seven evil exes to be able to continue to date her. Scott gains the Power of Love, causing a sword to burst from his chest to fight an Evil Ex -- read: emotional baggage from previous relationships. This makes no sense in the real world, but on an emotional level it makes perfect sense.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes: Knives is likeable. She is far more likeable than Scott. Scott hurting her makes him immensely dislikeable. Now, in a comedy, having a dislikeable protagonist is not necessarily a problem. For one, a sufficiently charming actor can make you root for a character in spite of the dickishness. Alternately, we could simply be treated to watching the dick suffer at the hands of the Comedy Gods.

Michael Cera is not the actor to make Scott likeable. He can be a likeable nerd. A likeable asshole nerd? No. And the movie expects you to care about Scott's fight against the seven evil exes for Ramona's love. Worse: Scott and Knives have some chemistry. Scott and Ramona have none. If we had a hopelessly doomed relationship abandoned in favour of a promising one, I'd might still sympathise with Scott. Instead, we get the opposite.

In the end of a romantic comedy, which is approximately what this is -- CAUTION this is a major SPOILER coming up; if you haven't seen the movie, read along at your own peril -- when the secondary romantic interest sends the hero towards His True Love with a stoic "I'm too cool for you anyway" and your immediate reaction is "Damn right you are!" instead of "AWWWWWW" it is a major fucking problem.

Another problem is the fights against the seven evil exes. I hate to embarass myself like this, but I am as gay as Scott's awesome gay roommate has ever been for fellow Bushmill's loving sexy Irish redhead John Rogers, and his post on how to write action is as relevant as ever.

To summarize: action scenes are suspense scenes that require action to resolve. If there is no suspense, they should reveal character. If you can't do that, deliver exposition. If there's none of that, you're utter shit. Scott Pilgrim is to fight seven evil exes. So the first ex delivers exposition on the role of the exes. We've already established that the movie plays by no real-world rules, and we've no ways of discrning's if Scott's in danger or not. Besides, do you really believe anyone except the seventh would present a reasonable challenge? No, me neither. The fights slightly reveal character, but by revealing slight bits of Ramona's backstory, and ultimatey Ramona's a bloody cipher, nothing but an object of Scott's desire. If Scott is to earn his redemption, and redeem himself in my eyes, the fights need to make him face horrible truths about his dickishness. They do not. This means I was mildly bored, watching a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Sure, there was an occasional gag in there, but not enough to justify the screen time.

I am being horribly down on this, but it is inevitable, since the movie's emotional core and central conceit falls completely flat. But really, I love everything except he central characters. Kieran Culkin is brilliant as Scott's cool gay roommate, and his droll delivery of lines frequently salvage scenes that should be moribound. The movie's full of energy. The visual style is splendid. I love that Brie Larsen -- who plays the evil ex that broke Scott's heart -- actually sings the vocals to Metric's Black Swan instead of miming to the song. I love Kim Pine, Scott ex-girlfriend and his band's drummer. I love Knives Chau. I love that the movie turned me on to Metric:

I love everything except the central couple. There's a hollow vacuum where the movie's heart should be, and there's nothing the ancillary details can do to overcome this. I can't actually love the movie. And this breaks my heart.

*Actually, he's 22. Admittedly on dodgier end of things, but not quite Lolita territory, in case you were worried.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dragon Age: Witch Hunt

A three step guide to making your customers feel ripped off with your DLC:

1) Re-use your environments from the base game and expansion. (No, using origin stories environments who most players the might not have seen does not make this better.)

2) Make the battles piss-easy and uninteresting. Dragon Age had some wonderful tactical battles in its repertoaire. Any given random encounter in the main game will pose more of a tactical conundrum than the entirety of this combined.

3) Make the entire selling point of the DLC -- meeting up with bitch-witch supremo Morrigan -- take all of five minutes, and not resolving much of anything except in the vaguest of terms possible.

In a way, I can sympathize with the problem of developing new, bite-sized chunks for a game like Dragon Age. The appeal lies in the long game, developing your character over time and watching your choices play out. A couple of hours worth of satisfying content has to be much trickier to develop. But there's really no excuse for the lazy reuse of environments and terrible fights in this. Just...fuck off. It's particularly egregious when it's released on the same day as Lair of the Shadow Broker -- Mass Effect 2 DLC -- which similarly intended to resolve another character arc left hanging, but did so in a very satisfying manner, and showcased some fantastic new environments while doing so.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Recent Observations of Moving Pictures

The Brothers Bloom

I adored Brick, writer/director Rian Johnson's previous film. It was basically a love letter to Dashiell Hammett, a modern day film noir. Only set in a high school. It sounds unworkable, but it sold it beautifully, and managed the tricky feat of being very funny while still never winking at the camera.

Enter The Brothers Bloom. Convoluted tale of crime? Check. Anachronistic pulp aesthetic? Check. The signs are good.

So why doesn't it quite work?

Rinko Kikuchi nearly steals the show as the almost-mute Bang-Bang. Rachel Weisz is ditzy and adorable. Adrian Brody is put-upon and vulnerable. The actors all do their part.

The problem is in the plotting. The main characters are con-artists, and there's a bit too much knowing self-awareness there. And soon you become aware that everyone is being jerked around by Stephen Bloom and his preternatural planning ability. Including the audience.

It's just a bit too clever by half.

(Also, I don't know if I've been broken by too many movies slavishly adhering to the three act structure, but there's something wonky with it there. But let's not get too nerdy here.)

Public Enemies

The story of America's most famous bank robber and the FBI agent that hunted him down seems tailor made for Michael Mann, who's made a career out of depicting duels between men on different sides of the law.

Alas, this will go down as one of his mediocre pieces.

Not from lack of acting caliber though. Depp and Cotillard in particular are great, as is Billy Crudup as J. Edgear Hoover. A lot of the actors are short-changed by the script though, Christian Bale in particular has very little to do except being the grim humourless lawman. A lot of the elements, like the other big bank robber in the yarn, Baby-Face Nelson, feels very undercooked.

Somewhere, there's a half an hour longer cut that fleshes everything out and lets all the elements breathe properly.

His stylistic tics steer him wrong this time. He's been going for a glossy, high-saturation look since at least the Miami Vice/Manhunter days, so him embracing digital photography is in many ways a natural development. Much like the rest of the movie though, there's plenty of times when it just doesn't work. For every moment that feels like you're right there, there's another where the cinematography goes all high-contrast, ultra-digital and just throws you out of the scene.

It's a Michael Mann movie, so it's still worth seeing, but it's a bit of a disappointment.


He's a spy, she's a spy. They work for competing corporations, fighting over a new top secret formula. They have an affair. But wait! She's actually using him. But wait! They're really in love, and they're working together for one of the sides. But wait! He's get the idea.

It's reasonably likeable fare. Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are decent enough leads, and Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson are clearly having fun as the dueling CEOs. But after a while, you get tired of the constant reversals. Like Brothers Bloom, it suffers from too-clever-by half syndrome. And while it does have a stronger throughline in that we're constantly focused on the Roberts/Owen relationship, it's not nearly as charming or stylish as Bloom.

Crank 2

In a way, this was the most remarkable film I've seen lately.

But not in a particularly good way.

In the first Crank, Jason Statham had to keep his adrenaline up to prevent a poison from killing him. And then he fell out of a helicopter with the guy who poisoned him. Fin.

Well, no. It made money, so he miraculously survives and gets snatched for harvesting his miraculous organs. This time around he has to keep electrocuting himself to prevent his spare heart from stopping until he can get his real one back.

The first Crank was immensely stupid, and pretty funny. This one's immensely stupid, grotesque, rancid and mad.

At one point, Jason Statham gets so electrocuted he imagines himself as a child on a talk show. Geri Halliwell is his mother. Then he's electrocuted to the point that he imagines himself as Godzilla. That's the sort of lunacy that should make you cackle with glee, but instead you feel soiled. Part of it is the camerawork, which is the worst sort of ADD-filmmaking, and somehow makes every frame feel ugly.

The other part of it is the stuff like a man cutting off his own nipples for little discernable reason. Or a stripper getting shot in the breast, blood and silicone pouring out. And the movie expecting you to laugh at this.

Oh yeah. It has a bit of a problem with women. Every female character is either a whore or a stripper, or an old woman that Statham has to rub against to generate static electricity. Because that's hilarious.

Either this is writers/directors Geraldine and Naylor extending a giant middle finger for having to make a sequel against their will, or it's them vomiting their id all over the screen. In any case, you find yourself unable to look away, but really wishing you could.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The words "seduction community"

Catching up on Penny-Arcade and the associated newsposts brought this to my attention.

I wish it hadn't.

I'm not one to get moralistic about who people choose to have sex with; if some people who met five seconds ago choose to get it on, that's fine with me. It's only if the power dynamics get iffy that my hackles get raised.

The "Seduction Community" is basically selp-help -- with the all of baggage that brings -- where the objective is to form you into a grade A pussy hound, downing women like gazelle on the savannah. Learn to use Neuro-Linguistic Programming for speed seduction! Love Systems will teach you the secret of Same Night Lays!
This man will be happy to teach you how to get laid, for a little fee
Press up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, a, b for pussy.

If you're unaware, the basic idea of Neuro-Linguistic Programming is to hack language and social cues in order to get people to do what you want. In reality, it's a bunch of pseudo-scientific tosh dressed up in fancy language, more accurately summarized as sales technique.

Picture it if you will: a jolly bunch of travelling salesmen, gathering to share tips, slap each other on the back, and improve their oily craft. Only instead of selling insecure, unassertive people stuff they don't need, they're selling insecure, unassertive people fucks they don't want.

You don't have to be Feminist McRage for that thought to make your blood curdle.

The internet might be a magical place where dreams come true in the form of mpeg files, but before it existed, I didn't have to go to sleep with the knowledge of people coming together all over the world to celebrate and reinforce their pathologies instead of having their delusions ground away by a world filled with people outside their little circlejerk.

Sure Is The Risk Made

It seems like only two years ago that wily young man Conelrad put out a lovely lp of ambient/shoegaze noise filled with nuclear paranoia. And now he's at it again:

Yes, an entirely new, entirely free album. On the first couple of listens, it's been just as good, if not better. Go get it here.

Words. On the internet.

I'm drunk; here we go.

Friday, February 13, 2009


A courier carrying money to the families of imprisoned gang members. A middleman and his apprentice facilitating the illegal dumping of countless tons of toxic waste. Two teenage wannabe gangsters obsessed with Scarface. An even younger boy going from observing the clans' drug trade surrounding him to a participant. A tailor making haute couture for a pittance in a blackmarket factory. All lives inextricably tied to the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia.

Gomorrrah isn't a movie that bothers to spell things out to its audience. After opening with a seemingly unrelated massacre in a solarium, it heedlessly plunges into these five story threads, and observes them with a documentarian's eye. Even when the director pulls out obvious cinematic tricks like completely killing all the sounds in a scene, it never ceases to feel authentic. Small wonder, since it's based on journalist Roberto Saviano's exposé that landed him in police protection when published, and has a completely convincing cast compromised of local amateurs. (Some of which have apparently since been arrested for their ties to the Camorra.) It's grungy, gritty and thoroughly unglamorizing of its subject matter, with violence shockingly casual and ever-threatening.

The movie gives a good sense of the poisonous web of crime and corruption that permeates everyday life in Naples, but the complete dedication to the characters' viewpoints comes at the expense of clarity with regards to the bigger picture, both within the mafia and society at large. Saviano's book, for all it's flaws and tendency to ramble, never shied away from pointing out the way the Camorra's operations fit into the greater economy. And inside the movie itself, there's a war brewing within the clans, a splinter group of malcontents causing tension and an increasing bodycount, which initially seems to come completely out of left field. That is, until you remember the massacre that kicked off the movie an hour earlier.

Still, Gomorrah is an easy recommendation to make for anyone who doesn't mind their crime movies filled with uncomfortable amounts of real life.