A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

March 27, 2012

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

At Amanda’s request I held off on buying this movie until our daily movie project was concluded because she had no particular interest in watching it. Her primary objection at the time that it came out was that it was a Michael Cera movie, and there’s really no way to deny that. Michael Cera has a set character he plays that grates on Amanda (sort of like jack Black) and this movie is no different in that regard. He plays a whiny, introverted, passive aggressive bumbling idiot, and she just really doesn’t want to watch that for a whole movie. I, on the other hand, feel no particular ill will towards Cera or his persona and was intrigued by the advertising for this film, so I went and saw it in the theaters when it came out… alone.

I’m glad I did see it, too, because it’s a really great movie that is aimed with laser-like precision at me as a target demographic. It’s a slick, well put together and entertaining film about the awful things people in love do to each-other. Of course it’s based on an indie comic book, so you know I was obligated to buy it eventually. (I had not actually read any of the books until after seeing the movie, but I did buy a couple and read them post-film and found it astonishing how closely the film followed the books – at least for the ones I’ve read. I understand they diverge near the end.) The movie is also heavily steeped in the lore of video games, something that it less true of the books but something which is, in the parlance, “relevant to my interests.”

The plot concerns Scott Pilgrim, a Canadian twenty-something guy who is between jobs and plays in an indie band (called Sex Bob-omb which will make sense to anybody with as much grounding in the lore of Nintendo as me.) He’s a bit of a douche and has a lot of baggage from some traumatic break-up he went through about a year ago. The movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that it is due to this trauma that he’s not particularly nice. His rebound relationship is an innocent fling with a starry-eyed high-school girl named Knives Chow (she’s Chinese) and much is made by other characters in the movie about how inappropriate this fling is. It seems that only Scott himself doesn’t realize just how wrong it is (though it’s hinted that even he has misgivings.)

Scott is surrounded by a crowd of fun characters who like him are adrift in life. There are his bandmates – Stephen and Kim. There is Young Neil, who hangs out with the band and plays DS games. (Actually – it looks like he’s playing classic Game-boy games on his DS – there’s no cart in the DS slot and at one time you can see the game cart jutting out of the bottom. Either that or he’s a FILTHY PIRATE with a ROM cart!) There is his sensible older Sister and his gay roommate. All of them are pretty much foils to talk him through his angst when he finds himself falling head-over-heels for a mysterious American girl with cool hair who roller-blades through his dreams one day.

This girl is Ramona Flowers – sort of a younger hipper version of Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She, too has baggage from past relationships. Rather more dramatic baggage than Scott is quite prepared for. In fact her seven exes have banded together into a league of evil exes whom Scott must battle to win her love.

The videogame iconography in this movie is plentiful and amusing. From the chip-tunes re-rendering of the Universal studio intro to the boss battles with the league to the Nintendo soundtrack (you have to love that Zelda music) this is a movie that knows its gaming lore. At the same time it’s a movie that revels in its comic book roots. There are written sound effects, cartoon interludes using the art style of the original books and a feel at times of looking at comic book panels. Both of these themes are things that I revel in.

Add to the game and comic style a bunch of great cameo appearances. It’s not surprising, of course, to see Chris Evans in a comic book movie, but then there’s Thomas Jane in a short appearance which I hadn’t spotted the first time I watched the film. Then there’s Jason Schwartzman in a prominent role near the end that I don’t want to spoil because it’s one of the many cool twists and reveals throughout the plot. I loved seeing these folks hamming it up and clearly having a great time.

How did they get these great cameos in what is essentially a big budget indie film? I’m guessing that the influence of director Edgar Wright had something to do with it. Yes, this movie is directed by the maker of Hot Fuzz and Shawn of the Dead. His distinctive quick editing style and fondness for clever cutting and misdirection is all over this film. It’s a movie that loves to catch you off-guard and tweak your expectations. It’s also perfect for the source material. If you mashed up High Fidelity, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 300 this is the movie you’d end up with. Gorgeous.

What’s more – I think I enjoyed it more the second time through. I’m so glad I own the film so I can watch it now whenever I want to (when Amanda’s not around that is.) My first impressions (posted here to my Live Journal) were that the characters were somewhat shallow and that especially Ramona was more a prize to be won than a character in her own right. On my viewing tonight I got a very different impression. This is a movie about how we hurt each-other and how we deal with baggage from past relationships. I went through a period of being lost and alone back in the early nineties and I remember the ill-advised romantic decisions I made at the time. This film is played for humor but has an honest heart that acted to remind me rather well of those times and emotions. Indeed it’s almost too close to comfort in some ways. Maybe in real life we don’t get in cataclysmic duals that punch holes in walls and tear the roofs off of buildings, but it can feel that way.

Like I said, this movie almost feels like it was made specifically with me in mind. Maybe that’s why it didn’t do as well as it might have deserved in the theaters. How many video-game and comic obsessed middle aged men are there out there who have the time on their hands to see a funny, touching and kind of poignant reflection on the foolhardy nature of young love? Not as many as you might think I suppose. If it sounds like that might be your kind of thing, however, I can’t recommend this movie highly enough.

March 27, 2012 Posted by | daily reviews | Leave a comment

The Adventures of TinTin

March 13, 2012

The Adventures of TinTin

When I saw the early previews of this movie I was unconvinced. I have fond memories of reading the TinTin books as a child. My friend John in grade school had many of the books (probably all of them) and I remember waking up early whenever I spent the night at his house and devouring them in the silence before any of his family woke up. I loved the crazy characters and the high adventure. I loved the slapstick humor, the exotic locales and the great illustrations. When I heard that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were teaming up to make a pair of motion capture based animated films based on Herge’s books I was intrigued. I figured they would try to make the movies look like an animated comic book, and I wanted to see what it would look like.

Then I saw the previews and the character designs and I was filled with despair. What the film makers have created is a photo-realistic world with characters inhabiting it that are some kind of strange hybrid of realistic human and comic book caricature. They looked, to my eye, more creepy than funny and it made me fear that the film itself would be unable to capture the spirit I remembered of the books.

What amazed me when I put the movie in to watch this afternoon is how almost instantly I was able to become accustomed to the strange characters and accept them as the well remembered friends from those childhood days. Part of it is the opening credits, which are much more along the lines I at first imagined with an animated adventure that looks almost like the books come to life. Part of it is the clever way that Spielberg and company insert Herge himself into the film at the start, showing us clearly that the odd looking mutant with the hair horn and wide eyes really is the European boy reporter and adventurer from the books. Most of it, however, is seeing the characters in motion.

It’s in the performances and in the motion capture and in the animation. There’s a whimsy to this movie that is so very true to the source material. From the first moment Jamie Bell begins to speak I completely bought the character. There’s also some inspired casting here. I would never have spotted Thompson and Thomson as being Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (they completely inhabit the characters and are utterly unrecognisable) but knowing that it’s them adds something to the strangeness of the film.

The thing it took the longest for me to get used to was Andy Serkis’ performance as Captain Haddock. I never pictured Haddock with a Scottish accent, for one thing. For another it almost feels like Serkis is too good an actor for the role. Captain Haddock is a big, blustery caricature, but here Serkis manages to make him a nuanced, almost tragic figure at times. It’s a combination of the writing, the direction and the portrayal I suppose. It seems odd to me to make a drunken and bombastic tough guy the emotional core of the film, but that’s the way the film makers have gone. Perhaps if I were not familiar with the books at all I would not find it so jarring.

The plot itself is a mish-mash of familiar moments from several books. It involves a lost treasure, a mystery from the past and of course a lot of globe hopping adventure. There’s a nefarious bad guy, clues to be discovered and figured out, and it’s all somehow related to Haddock’s family history. A family history he cannot remember because of his constant drinking.

It’s not a terribly complex plot, nor does it need to be. It’s swashbuckling adventure, and in the deft hands of Steven Spielberg that’s enough for a fun adventure. There are some truly astonishing action pieces in this film. Indeed I want to go back and watch the motorcycle chase scene again because I think it is one long insane swooping, flying shot from the establishing areal view of the car and motorcycle leaving the palace to the eventual arrival at the port below. This is of course much easier to do in an all digital realm, but choreographing such a monumental action scene into a single shot really shows off just how astonishing Spielberg is as an action director.

I watched this in 3-D on Blu-Ray and found myself often distracted by how absolutely gorgeous the film is. It is just so technically amazing and full of intricate detail. Compare this with even a recent Pixar film like Up and you get a sense for just how quickly the world of digital film making is jumping ahead. (I got much the same sense from watching Rango.) The environments, designs, effects and animation are all astonishing. I’m so glad I got to see it in 3-D too, because although it doesn’t have the level of storytelling through filmic technique that Scorsese brought to Hugo it is nonetheless far more immersive for me to see it leap and dive in and out of the screen.

In the end I found that I really enjoyed this movie. I loved seeing these familiar characters re-created in such a dynamic way. I loved the animation and the performances. I absolutely loved every scene with Snowy, who completely stole the show for most of the movie – which is exactly as it should be. Most of all it made me look forward to seeing what Peter Jackson will do with the sequel. Would it be too much to hope for Professor Calculus to show up? He was always my favorite comic foil when I first read the books about thirty years ago.

March 13, 2012 Posted by | daily reviews | Leave a comment

Hugo

March 10, 2012

Hugo

Okay. It’s about time to get back on the horse and start reviewing some movies again.

I have to admit that as we limped to the conclusion of our six hundred and forty six day movie marathon I was fairly burnt out on the whole project. As evidenced by the mass of placeholder reviews that still populate the last three moths of our blog as I’m writing this. (I promise – someday I’ll get those placeholders filled with complete reviews – there are a lot of movies in those last three months I’m looking forward to watching again without the rigorous constraints of daily movie viewing.)

I haven’t stopped buying new movies for my collection though. I’ve slowed down an awful lot, but I’m still picking up movies I want to see as they come out, and Amanda and I have a big list of movies we want to buy and watch (and review) as we move forward. We just haven’t watched any movies in the past couple months that we hadn’t seen already. (Mostly re-watching the Lord of the Rings movies lately really.) I had promised myself though that if I watched any new movies I’d throw a review up for those movies when I did. This week I got several films to add to the collection – and today I had some spare time and figured it would be a nice time to see something new. What a perfect choice this movie was, too, as a way to ease myself back into the project.

Oh, movies, I could never stay mad at you.

I had carefully avoided spoilers for this movie until I watched it tonight. I knew from the buzz around Oscar time this year that this was a film that paid homage to the cinema, but I wasn’t really sure how. From the previews I knew this was a movie about an urchin living in a train station who had some kind of magical adventure involving a clockwork automaton. I knew there was some big twist in the film. I knew it was based on a childrens’ book that I haven’t read. I wasn’t really sure what genre the film fell into though. Due to the clockwork man angle I somewhat thought it was a kind of steampunk fantasy film. Maybe, I speculated, the big twist was that young Hugo – our rapscallion orphan protagonist – was a robot himself. I kind of figured there were hidden worlds in the walls of the train station. Maybe time travel. Who knows?

Well on most counts my predictions were way off base, but it IS a movie about fantasy and dreams. In a way. It’s also a big warm loving piece of cinematic wish fulfilment. The more I think about it the more amusing I find it how subversive this movie is. Especially with its deliberately unrevealing marketing campaign. It is only masquerading as a childrens’ adventure film when in point of fact it is a love note to early silent cinema and the magic of the movies. What must those families who went in to see it all unsuspecting on opening night have thought? It makes me grin to think on it.

The nominal plot of the movie involves the young waif Hugo who lives alone in a train station in Paris sometime after the end of the great war and before the second world war. His great passion is finding cogs and gears to repair a mechanical man that is all he has to remember his father by. Of course he has no money so he has to steal these mechanics and his victim is a crotchety old man who runs a toy store in the station. When the old man (played marvelously by the ever wonderful Ben Kingsley) catches Hugo in his thefts and takes from him a notebook containing details of the automaton. Hugo then enlists the help of the old man’s god-daughter Isabelle to attempt to save the notebook. There’s some kind of mystery regarding this mechanical man that is ties in some way to the old man in the toy shop.

That’s just the hook of the movie though. The mystery and adventure is mostly resolved by the end of the second act of the movie and then it morphs into something between a love letter and a history lesson. I don’t know that it’s a particularly smooth transition. I find it hard to review the movie for itself as a whole because I am so squarely the target audience. There’s a strangely disjointed feel to the film with its first act fantasy and second act history lesson, but I was so enraptured by the message of the movie that I was easily able to gloss over that as I watched it.

The movie also has a tendency in the third act to resort to flat out info-dumping. There’s a scene of Action Research (assisted by a kindly old book seller played by Christopher Lee) where the two children read aloud from a book on cinema history while we are treated to a montage of iconic moments from classic silent films. I loved it as a fan of such films, recognizing some that I wish were in our collection (like Buster Keaton’s “The General”) and movies we actually already own and have reviewed for the project (like the silent “Thief of Bagdad.”) It’s preachy and somewhat blunt, but as I said I don’t mind so much because I so enjoyed the subject matter.

I remember being puzzled when I first saw the previews for this movie that it was directed by Martin Scorsese. Why was this iconic cinematic heavy-weight making a childrens’ adventure film. Clearly it is because the movie he actually wanted to make is the bit in the latter half, and he poured his heart and soul into that reverential effort. The whole movie is steeped in filmic lore and for a fan of the cinema such as myself it’s a special kind of treat. It’s not just all the archival footage of classic films either. The movie is peppered with side characters that feel like references themselves. Hugo’s primary antagonist, the bumbling train station security officer has a distinctly keystone kops feel to him. There’s a side romance involving Harry Potter’s evil uncle as a mostly mute patron of a cafe in the station that reminded me of nothing so much as the films of Jaques Tati’s Monsieur Hulo. The entire introduction of Hugo and his world is an extended exploration of the station and its occupants with no dialog whatsoever for about five minutes. It would not surprise me in the least to hear that all the actors were immersed in reference material by Scorsese as preparation.

It must have been a treat for Scorsese to work on this. He got to re-create a lot of fantastic silent movie moments near the conclusion. He also got to play with a lot of the fanciest and highest tech effects available in modern movies. I bought this in 3-D Blu-Ray and watched it in stereoscopic 3-D on my computer and it’s great to see how a true virtuoso of the medium handles the new tools available in 3-D. He seems to enjoy using a kind of 3-D push in for emotional impact – it’s like a zoom in but it pops a character out of the screen during dramatic moments to add emphasis. I’ve talked before about the new toolkit that directors are exploring today as they work with 3-D film making. It’s like using different camera lenses for deep focus or the advent of the steady-cam. There are all these new tricks to be discovered to help drive the story and we’re getting to see these first steps now.

Watching this movie this afternoon rekindled my love of film and made me want to get back to watching more movies. For that alone I love it. Uneven pacing, info-dumping, awkward storytelling and all.

March 10, 2012 Posted by | daily reviews | 2 Comments