Sunday, 29 August 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

Scott Pilgrim is a 23 year old Canadian slacker who spends all day playing old video games when he isn't playing bass in a shitty band. I guess you could call him a hipster, although that word has been abused so much that I don't even know what it means anymore. He is dating a 17 year old girl named Knives Chau, although she is all but forgotten when he becomes obsessed with a mysterious American ex-pat named Ramona Flowers. He learns that in order to win her love he is going to have to deal with the emotional fallout from her past relationships and hopefully grow up a little in the process and stop being such a whiny douchebag. I should also mention that in the world of Scott Pilgrim (the one he is versus) these kind of issues are generally dealt with through wicked awesome kung fu fights and the acquisition of video game style powerups.

Before we get further I should lay my nerd-cards on the table and admit that I'm a big fan of Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series, although it shouldn't come as a surprise that I like a comic book that uses fistfights as metaphors for dealing with emotional baggage. I was also pretty excited when I heard that Edgar Wright was going to direct, as I like pretty much everything he has done. I don't get this mentality amongst nerds that a film director has to be "one of us" in order to "get it", but I think in this case it's pretty important and anyone who has seen Spaced knows that Wright shares a lot of the same obsessions as the comic. He's a solid filmmaker to boot. I knew the series was in safe hands.

The appeal of the comic is that it's full of all these crazy ideas that bubble up without comment or explanation. In the world of Scott Pilgrim, delivery girls travel through "subspace highways" in people's subconscious and veganism gives you telekinetic superpowers. Indie bands can rock so hard that they literally kill you and every argument is resolved through video-game-inspired epic kung fu battles. When enemies are defeated in battle they explode into change; "Not even enough for the bus ride home" Scott laments after he defeats his first opponent. All of this is carried through into the movie, which uses all sorts of audio and visual effects to make it look more like a cartoon or a video game. Wright peppers the film with all sort of joyfully absurd touches. There is one scene in the film that has a laugh track like an episode of Seinfeld, complete with theme music. No real reason that I could tell.

There are also all the video game references, which get a bit obnoxious after a while. The first time a band is named after an obscure old video game it's cute; the fourth time it isn't. However, one thing I like about both the comic books and the movie is the way it incorporates video game iconography to tell the story, using things like status bars and experience points as metaphors for Scott's personal growth. Video games have a language all of their own, so it's interesting to see it being used in a different medium.

With a visual style drawn from comic books and video games, this film could have easily been hyperactive and visually overwhelming. Luckily this isn't the case, thanks to some skillful editing and meticulous composition. The fighting in particular is great, shot in an exaggerated, wire-fu style which suits the source material perfectly. No shaky-cam bullshit here (The Expendables, I'm looking at you). Everything is accentuated with sound and visual effects to make it seem like a video game. As a result it never seems like anyone is in any real danger of being hurt, so the fights don't really have the tension of a tradition action scene, but they are really well put together and are a lot of fun to watch.

Another thing that could have gone disastrously wrong was the pacing. It's never an easy task to compress six chunky graphic novels into a feature film, but they were very smart in the way they pared down the narrative to the bare essentials. It was touch and go for the first fifteen minutes, which goes from jump-cut to jump-cut so rapidly that it's completely disorienting, but it settles down to a more manageable pace later on. Even with some good script decisions (the film completely drops the subplot about Knives' dad, which I thought was pointless anyway) it moves way too fast to develop any of the characters. To be honest I would have preferred a few more character moments, even at the expense of an evil ex or two.

This ties into the major problem with the film (and to a lesser extent the comics), which is that the central protagonists aren't particularly likeable or interesting. It's never clear why Scott Pilgrim is infatuated with Ramona Flowers or vice versa, a pretty damning flaw when the plot is structured around Scott fighting for their relationship. I've heard people say that their relationship is intentionally shallow, another manifestation of Scott's emotionally stunted world view, but that doesn't fly with me. I'm pretty sure you're supposed to be rooting for Scott to defeat Ramona's seven evil exes and win over her love. You can use meta-textual arguments to justify all sort of narrative shortcomings. The ending of the comic book was more satisfying in that respect. It plays out a lot differently than the movie, which is not surprising since the last book hadn't been written when it was being filmed.

I also have to mention the casting, which is excellent. Ellen Wong is a particular highlight as Knives Chau. Aubrey Plaza is great as the bitchy Julie Powers (although this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has seen her in Parks and Recreation). Kieran Culkin is great as Scott's gay roommate Wallace Wells, Jason Schwartzman is eminently hateable as Gideon Graves, and I just should stop before I just list the entire imdb credits. Special mention must be made of Toronto, who is typically typecast as New York but here has a rare role playing herself. Congratulations, Toronto. Nice to see you getting some recognition.

When it comes to the cast though, the skinny, awkward elephant in the room is the choice of Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim. Now I don't have a hate-on for this guy like a lot of people do. He doesn't have a lot of range as an actor but I think he's good at what he does, so I don't want it to seem like I'm riding a wave of Internet e-hate when I say that I don't think he was a good choice here. Scott Pilgrim comes across as almost unbearably whiny, and while Scott Pigrim was whiny and self-absorbed in the comics he could be cocky and self-assured too. That doesn't come across too well in the movie, making his character a lot less likable and a lot more punchable.

Anyway, I think this is a fun film worth seeing. It's definitely worth seeing if you are a fan of the comic in any way, shape or form, although if that's the case you've probably already seen it. Good thing too, because I don't think it will be in cinemas for much longer. It has flopped so hard. Audiences have spoken and they would rather see Julia Roberts engage in self-indulgent travel-porn. Between this movie and Kick-Ass, I think producers are going to think twice about funding big-budget nerd-pandering movies, regardless of how well they are received at Comic Con. It's a shame, because while flawed it's pretty rare that a film comes along that is this fun and creative.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Expendables (2010)

I'm not going to insult your intelligence by explaining the cast or premise of The Expendables. If you have fond memories of the same 80s action movies that I do, then you probably already know about it and have been gritting your teeth in anticipation of it's release, but I guess that's part of the problem. Any film that trades so heavily in nostalgia is bound to raise expectations to impossible levels. I'm certainly not immune. Let's face it, it's been a pretty lean decade for action films and I'm only human. When you've been subsisting on direct-to-video scraps, a film like this is going to have you climbing aboard the hype train for a one-way trip to Disappointment Interchange. Luckily my natural cynicism kicked in before catastrophic derailment, and my excitement was tempered to manageable levels. In the end I found the film enjoyable but seriously flawed. Not quite a non-stop express to Awesome Central, but an exciting if bumpy ride that eventually pulls into Adequacy Station.

If there is a penny on the train tracks that threatens to derail the whole film, it's the script. At its core it's a fairly standard action movie scenario. A corrupt CIA agent (Eric Roberts) is stirring up trouble in a fictional South American country (surprisingly it's not Val Verde, the fictional country referenced in Commando and Predator) and it's up to Stallone and his team of Expendables to take him down. Somehow though, it seems oddly structured and paced, curiously missing in typical action-movie beats. Apparently there were a lot of rewrites due to scheduling conflicts, and it shows. You know how sometimes a big-name actor will drop by the set of a Direct-to-Video film for a quick paycheck, but because their scenes are so rushed they seem weird and out-of-place? Well most of this film is like that.

The other major problem with writing a script for such a big, iconic cast is that it's really hard to juggle them properly. Inevitably some actors are going to get shortchanged. Statham and Stallone get the bulk of the screen time, Li and Lundgren get a lot to do as well, but some of the others, like Crews and Couture, just show up inexplicably in the middle in the film. It's sad, because at 107 minutes there just isn't enough time to develop any of the characters properly, or at all. There isn't even a getting-to-know-you scene where everyone is introduced by name and specialty. Crews's character has the hilarious name Hale Caesar, but they don't even bother to mention it as far as I could tell.

A couple of Expendables appear briefly but manage to steal the show anyway, and one is Mickey Rourke as their mentor Tool. There's a part where he's chatting with Stallone and gets all emotional as he relates one of his old war stories. It's a cliched moment but Rourke sells it, and I was thinking "Why are you in this movie, Mickey? You are too good for this script." He's given the character his trademark Rourke quirks (or "quourkes", as I call them) like goofy glasses and a big pipe. He steals every scene he's in. Can we have some prequels about Tool's previous adventures with Stallone please? You can call it Toolin' Around.

The other Expendable I liked was Dolph Lundgren, who, like in the recent (and awesome) Universal Soldier: Regeneration, looks like a terrifying Frankenstein's monster. When he calls someone "cockroach" or "insect", I can believe that they'd shit their pants in fear. I particularly liked the bit where he stands on a guy's head (while he's driving!) and when he pulls him up off the floor he's got a Dolph-sized bootprint on his face. I'm glad they gave his character Gunnar his own little mini-arc too. When the film begins he is acting crazy and Stallone kicks him out of the gang. He is hired by the bad guy and tries to kill the other Expendables, but at the very end of the film (spoiler) all is forgiven and he is brought back into the fold. I thought that was very nice of them. I guess they aren't that Expendable after all.

Nobody is expecting a brilliant script from a film like this, but I do expect one or two badass one-liners and I'm not sure I got them. I know terrible one-liners are action movie staples, but here they don't seem to make a lot of sense. There's a part where Terry Crews blasts some bad guys and then shouts "You remember that next Christmas!" What does that even mean? When Schwarzenegger pinned a guy to the wall with a machete and quipped "Stick around!" it wasn't exactly Oscar Wilde, but at least it made sense in context. Schwarzenegger's much ballyhooed cameo in this film is particularly disappointing. It almost seems improvised.

Unpolished banter is just one symptom of a script riddled with weird moments. Subplots are brought up and then abandoned. Certain lines seem important but go nowhere, like vestigial organs from earlier drafts of the script. Stuff that is common to direct-to-video but is strange to see in a big budget film. For instance, there's a part where bad guy Eric Roberts is discussing the evil General's rebellious daughter, and when he discovers that she's a budding artist he shouts "She paints too? This is how it starts!!" I don't know where this art-hating thing comes from, but in a neat callback the General later paints up his men with lightning bolts on their faces like they're the Baseball Furies.

Now, I hear you saying "Nobody gives a shit about the script! If you want more than tits and explosions in your action films then you're a gay homo fag etc." I really hate this attitude, but okay. Let's talk about the action scenes.

As we all know, the current style of filming action scenes involves strapping handheld cameras to some hyperactive labradors and then cutting between them every half second. This method is the mortal enemy of old-school action, which emphasised choreography, clear geography and visual storytelling. If modern action scenes were a person (I picture them as a two-headed monster with the heads of Michael Bay and Paul Greengrass) the old-school action hero would impale it with a pipe and tell it to "let off some steam".

I thought if anyone could understand the appeal of classic action movie choreography it would be Stallone, but alas it was not to be. The fight scenes in this film are over-edited and sloppily put together. There was a Li/Lundren fight that was apparently choreographed by the great Corey Yuen, but damned if I could tell from the way it was edited. It's a pity, because from what I could see of the fights they were pretty good, with lots of creative and interesting violence. Gary Daniels gets a particularly grisly and entertaining death.

The action isn't all bad though. Action sequences that do not involve hand-to-hand combat are filmed well, with lots of fiery explosions. The final assault on the General's mansion is a particular highlight, with a body count in the triple digits. I can think of a lot of good bits, such as Stallone's crazy-fast reloading skills, Terry Crews mowing down dozens of bad guys with his full-auto shotgun and Statham tossing knives into many uniformed bad guys. With moments like these I can't write the film off completely. It's still a lot of fun.

I should note that most of the blood effects in the film are all CGI. Obviously I would have preferred squibs, and if I had to guess at why they went in that direction I'd think it was so they could have the option of selling their souls down the track and cutting the film down to a PG-13. There's also a bit where Steve Austen stumbles around on CGI fire, which looks terrible. I know Steve Austen is a big guy, but I'm pretty sure you could have found a suitably huge stuntman and put him in an asbestos suit. Or put a normal sized stuntman on a miniaturised set, like Godzilla. There are many options. CGI fire is the coward's way out.

So yeah, the film had some flaws, but it also had some good action and memorable moments. I enjoyed it a lot. Judging from the crowd at the showing I went to, I suspect there are a lot of hipsters seeing this film simply for snark potential, but luckily they can only pay for their ticket in real money and not Irony Dollars, so the film is still doing pretty well. I was worried that it would be another case of Snakes on a Plane syndrome, where everyone is so busy making fun of the premise that they forget to see the actual film. Hopefully it makes enough money that they can make a sequel. I'd definitely see it. I'm even hoping for a Direct-to-Video knockoff starring Steven Seagal. They can call it The Dispensables.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Cybertracker (1994)

Cybertracker is a film that dares to ask the question:
What if the Terminator was Robocop?

In Cybertracker, Don "The Dragon" Wilson takes a break from pumping out Bloodfist films and teams up with Ring of Fire cinematographer Richard Pepin to dabble in a slightly different genre; one with lots of towering glass skyscrapers, hugely powerful corporations with generic names like Cybercore and lots of green computery fonts that roll out onto the screen with a series of electronic bleeps and blorps. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Not Too Distant Future. Wilson plays Special Agent Eric Philips, a bodyguard for the US Government, who has been assigned to protect the controversial Senator Dilly.

Dilly is the main proponent of the new Computerised Justice System, where a computer program determines the guilt of defendants and the frequently lethal sentences are carried out by low-budget Terminators called Core Trackers. It doesn't seem to be very popular, because when the first see Dilly at a press conference the attendees are greatly outnumbered by anti-Cybercore protestors. They are waving hilarious signs that say "Computers don't have hearts" and "Computers aren't machines... they're killers". The best part is where a guy angrily shouts "Computers killed my brother!" I want that on a t-shirt.

The speech is interrupted by an attack from an anti-Cybercore terrorist organisation called UHR, or the Union of Human Rights. Wilson foils the attack and saves the senator's life (scored by some ridiculously over-the-top choral music), much to the chagrin of Dilly's personal chief of security Ross, played by Richard Norton. Despite Ross' protests, Dilly decides to test Wilson's loyalty by making him a witness as they brutally execute a Cybercore scientist who they suspect of collaboration with UHR. Wilson balks and is consequently framed with her murder. With a Core Tracker chasing him down, he is kidnapped by UHR and forced to help them infiltrate Cybercore's headquarters and steal evidence of their illegal activities.

Although the Trackers are supposed to be virtually indestructible, Wilson takes out three of them over the course of the film, the first one 25 minutes in. Every time he destroys one the bad guys get another identical Tracker out of cold storage, which really deflates the tension. Taking a cue from Terminator 2, their bodies are made from some sort of rubbery protoplasmic goop, allowing them to store guns in their thighs with tearaway stripper-panels in their pants for easy access. Of course this feature also allows Wilson to shove a live grenade into it's abdominal cavity, so it's a pretty serious design flaw. The Trackers are played by Jim Maniaci, who makes for a pretty imposing/hilarious bad guy as he is fucking enormous. Unfortunately it makes it particularly unconvincing when he has to tuck a tree-trunk sized arm into his leather jacket and pretend like his arm has been blasted off.

Although the film is far too busy ripping off the Terminator to include an actual plot, they do manage to work in a love interest. At first Wilson is too hung up on his ex-wife, sitting in his apartment watching security camera footage of them fighting over his job, which I guess he recorded for some reason. This scene is pretty hilarious as it includes some terrible acting and head-scratching dialog like "I can't live my life waiting for you to walk through that door, dead or alive." Eventually though, Wilson meets Connie, a TV news reporter and the secret leader of UHR. Though for the leader of a terrorist organisation she's not very secretive about her political views, regularly including UHR-sympathetic , anti-Cybercore editorials in her news reports. She and Wilson exchange quips, bodily fluids etc.

It's easy to forget that this film is set in the future since the technology looks particularly dated, even for 1994. One weird touch is that Wilson's apartment is controlled by a voice-activated computer that is basically his robo-wife. It asks him annoying questions about his day and gets huffy when he's curt with it, and he even apologises to it like a chump. For some reason it's programmed it to simulate drunkenness, which sounds like a pretty bad idea. I think we've all drunkenly bought stupid crap off the internet, I wouldn't want my computer doing that shit too. It has all my credit card numbers. His computer also helps him sleep by blasting his head with lasers. Hopefully when he breaks news of his relationship with Connie it doesn't start jealously chasing him around the apartment with kitchen appliances like in Electric Dreams.

Since this is a Merhi/Peppin film it's really about the action, but unfortunately it's mostly rote and uninteresting gunfights. It's established quite early on that the Trackers are virtually immune to gunfire, so I'm not sure what anyone gains from three uninterrupted minutes of UHR freedom fighters cowering behind crates and firing clip after clip into it's torso. There are some decent stunts now again, though. I love seeing people flung across a room by gunfire or explosions, even when the wires are clearly visible as they are here. There's a good bit where the Tracker gets caught in a fiery explosion and stumbles around on fire for a while before getting blasted through a fence with a bazooka.

One thing they do love in this film is having cars ramp into the air, flip over and explode. I believe it happens three times, including once with a fire engine, regardless of whether it makes any sense. In one scene Wilson parks his car across the road to block the path of an incoming van, only to have it ramp up off his car, flip over and explode, leaving his sedan completely unharmed. And that one makes the most sense, other times there's a car just parked in the middle of the road for no reason except to obscure visibility of the stunt ramp, which is clearly visible anyway. I do appreciate their realism-shunning commitment to vehicular mayhem though.

They also work in a few excuses for people to be unarmed, so that Don Wilson can unleash "The Dragon". Consequently he does a lot of kicking of guns out of people's hands, a move I wouldn't think would be very effective in reality but here it's like the evil henchmen's kryponite. There's also a scene at a police station where they have an order to shoot him on sight yet they still attack him with billy clubs. None of it is as well choreographed as I would like. I was looking forward to the big Don "The Dragon" Wilson/Richard Norton fight at the end, but while it's the best fight in the film it still isn't that great. It's one of those fights where the combatants politely take turns wailing on eachother until one of them finally goes down. Wilson gets in a few cool spin kicks at the end, though.

If you showed a robot The Terminator and Robocop and told it to make a movie you'd get something like this, unless the robot refused to participate in the production of anti-robot propaganda on political grounds. It's like Terminator without the thrills and Robocop without the social commentary. As a delivery vehicle for car explosions it's okay, but it doesn't use the sci-fi setting to say much of anything, except that a judicial system controlled and operated by computers would be a bad thing, which isn't really blowing anyone's minds. Surprisingly the film ends with a quote from Ayn Rand, who I'm sure would have appreciated the film's anti-corporate message and the notion that emotion and compassion are vital components of the judicial system.