Monthly Archives: January 2014

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

Ellen Wong, Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Ellen Wong, Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Edgar Wright made a name for himself with funny, fast-paced send-ups like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The first poked fun at zombie flicks and the second was a dead-on parody of the action genre. Obviously the guy has grown up addicted to movies. He has a remarkable gift for taking images and sounds we’re all familiar with from pop culture and splicing them together into giddy, intoxicating confections. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a dizzying mix of teen romance, slapstick comedy, pop music and over-the-top action. It’s like Wright is channeling Buster Keaton for the iPod generation.

Scott Pilgrim satirizes its subject at the same time that it’s giving it a big warm hug. The characters all live in a swirling pop culture universe where ordinary physical laws don’t apply. Characters move through three or four different settings in the course of the same conversation. Written words fly across the screen. Doors appear out of nowhere. And Wright pays as much attention to sound as he does images. He underscores the action by weaving together an intricate collage of ethereal voices, grating static and video game chimes. Most of it slides by without our being “consciously” aware of it, but Wright knows that it’s still having an impact. He understands how important sound is to the rhythm and the texture of a film.

When we first meet Scott, he’s an arrogant little jerk. Totally self-absorbed, he expects the world to revolve around him, and seems baffled when it doesn’t. Completely insecure, the smallest slight sends him into depression. But he meets a girl he really cares about, and she makes him raise his game. He realizes that if he’s going to be with her, he has to fight for her. It’s a standard coming of age story, but Wright tells it with a light touch and a wicked sense of humor. It may not be deep or heavy, but it is heartfelt.

Once more, we find Michael Cera playing a clueless nerd, and once more, he somehow makes the character interesting and engaging. He is truly obnoxious during the first part of the movie, but as he slowly, painfully starts learning what it means to take responsibility for his life, he starts to earn your respect. It helps that Cera has an amazing supporting cast to back him up. And Wright again deserves credit for the way he handles the actors. All the performances are stylized to fit the movie’s tone, but they’re not flattened out, as is so often the case when people try to make comic strip movies. All the characters are bursting with energy, and it’s hard to single anybody out because they’re all so enjoyable to watch. Kieran Culkin is razor sharp as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace. Ellen Wong somehow manages to make a character named Knives believable, first as an absurdly innocent schoolgirl, and then as Scott’s insanely jealous ex-girlfriend. As Gideon, Ramona’s rock producer ex-boyfriend, Jason Schwartzman is so unctuously hip that you want to punch him. He’s great. And while everyone else is freaking out or falling apart, Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings a low-key vibe to the part of Ramona, sort of like the calm at the center of the storm. She has a matter-of-fact openness that stands in stark contrast to Scott’s raging insecurity. You can see why he’s drawn to her, and also why she’s such a huge challenge for him.

Scott Pilgrim tanked at the box office. According to the IMDB it only earned thirty million in its US release, but most of the people I know who saw the movie loved it. I wouldn’t be surprised if in five years or so it’s considered a cult classic. It’s probably not for everybody, and no doubt plays better with younger viewers. But it is a legitimately awesome flick. It seems like most of the comedies that get released these days are competing to gross us out. What a welcome surprise to see a smart, stylish comedy that relies on wit and imagination.

If only we could clone Edgar Wright.

Preserving the Future

2001 final

Last week I came across a post on David Bordwell’s site which gives an in-depth look at some of the challenges we’re facing in terms of preserving both film and digital. It’s long, but it’s well worth reading. I was especially interested in the essay by Margaret Bodde, Executive Director of the Film Foundation, regarding preservation of digital media. As the studios rush to embrace digital, they seem blithely unaware of the fact that preserving media in this format is much more complicated, much more work intensive, and much more expensive than preserving film.

Anyway, if you’re into this stuff, I think you’ll find it pretty interesting. The link is below.

David Bordwell – Preservation Forum

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Victoria Shaw and James Shigeta

Victoria Shaw and James Shigeta

Sam Fuller often bit off more than he could chew. He liked to confront the world head on, and his best films are a delirious mix of iconoclastic fury and wild energy. Loving America as much as he did, he seemed driven to attack its flaws, exposing dishonesty, hypocrisy and racism with an intense fervor. Unfortunately, his skills as a filmmaker didn’t match his passion. Some of Fuller’s best movies can be maddeningly stiff and awkward at times. While his scripts bristle with ideas, his dialogue often falls flat. Sometimes his actors display a scary intensity, but at other times they’re embarrassingly awkward.

Nowhere are Fuller’s strengths and weaknesses more evident than in The Crimson Kimono. The film’s main characters are two LAPD detectives, Joe, a Japanese-American and Charles, an Anglo. From a twenty-first century perspective, it may be hard to understand how provocative this was in the fifties. The Crimson Kimono was released less than fifteen years years after WWII, when Japanese-Americans had been rounded up and sent to prison camps, ostensibly because the US government felt they might be a threat to national security. For most filmmakers of the time, it would have been daring enough to introduce a Nisei cop in a crime thriller. But the central conflict in the story actually comes out of the fact that Joe gets involved in a relationship with a white woman. How this film got released by a major studio back in nineteen fifty nine is beyond me.

The turning point for Joe is when he falls in love with Chris. She loves him as well, but he suddenly becomes aware for the first time that as a Japanese man he is seen as an outsider. In reality this is completely absurd. It’s hard enough to believe that any Japanese-American could come of age in mid-century America without having encountered racism, but the idea that Joe would fit right in with the LAPD at that time is laughable. Still, Fuller deserves credit for even talking about this kind of alienation in the fifties. Whether or not we accept the specifics of Joe’s story, the director was trying to make the point that in this “land of opportunity”, there were many people who felt excluded.

Fuller opens the film, as he often did, with a wallop. The opening shots bring us to a burlesque theatre in downtown LA. We see Sugar Torch dancing onstage as the band in the pit belts out a raucous tune. Moments later she’s lying dead on the crowded street outside. Much of the film was shot on location, and we get a good look at Los Angeles in the fifties. But even more important, the film is an amazing document of the Japanese-American community during that era.

Fuller’s camera follows the detectives as they roam through the streets of Little Tokyo. We see Japanese women working in a wig shop. Cooks in a kitchen making rice cakes. A couple of nuns standing in front of the Maryknoll School. To my mind the most remarkable scene shows Joe looking for an older Japanese man who may have information about a witness. He finds Mr. Yoshinaga at the Evergreen Cemetery, where the man is visiting the grave of his son, killed in WWII. Few Americans were aware then (and fewer now) that Japanese-Americans fought with the Allies in Europe. To make sure no one misses the point, Fuller lingers over monuments dedicated to these men. Joe asks Mr. Yoshinaga for help, and the man agrees, but says he must first attend a memorial service for his son. We follow him into a Buddhist temple to witness the ceremony, watching as the priest strikes a gong, taps a wood block, recites a prayer. This scene does nothing to advance the plot, but it opens a window on a world that most Americans have never seen. A world that’s right in our own backyard.

Whatever his faults as a filmmaker, Fuller challenged himself and he challenged his audience. It’s not just that he didn’t support the status quo. He was infuriated by the complacency with which most Americans accepted the bland reassurance that Hollywood dished out during the studio era (and still dishes out today). He tried to show us America in all its diversity, all its contrasts, all its complexity.

Really, he was trying to get us to take a long, hard look at ourselves.