Personal Pantheon: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – 2010

Allow me to throw some of my favorite movies at you, and see if you can pick out the one that might not belong.

The Godfather.

12 Angry Men.

City of God

Pan’s Labyrinth

The Age of Innocence

Boogie Nights

Lost in Translation

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

If you asked me a couple years ago if one of my 10 favorite movies would be a graphic novel adaptation in a video game-esque universe starring Michael Cera and Macaulay Culkin’s younger brother, I would’ve thought you were completely insane. Then I saw the trailers for Scott Pilgrim and was blown away. I was unable to make it to the theater to see it, but I bought it for 9 bucks on half.com (seriously, if you buy all of your dvd’s from retail, you are being robbed. Half and Amazon have new and used DVD’s starting at under a dollar). Want to know how you know a movie is great? If you want to watch it again the second it’s over. When I finished watching this movie for the first time, the only question on my mind was when could I watch it again. “Scott Pilgrim,” directed by the brilliant Edgar Wright, is one of the most fun and entertaining movies I’ve ever seen. It has a brilliant visual style, great characters, an infectious sense of humor and most importantly, a heart at its center.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is stuck in an early-20’s malaise. He lives in Toronto and plays bass in the band Sex Bob-Omb. He just got dumped by his rock star girlfriend and is dating a high-schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), but is not entirely fulfilled by her. He lives with, and shares a bed with his wisecracking gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin), and the drummer in his band, Kim (Alison Pill) is another ex-girlfriend who constantly berates him.

Scott’s life changes when he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) at a party and immediately falls in love with her. She’s American, and moved to Canada to escape her troubled past. After the two strike up a relationship, Scott receives a message from the League of Evil Exes: Scott must fight 7 of Ramona’s evil ex-boyfriends to the death if he wants to win her heart. Among them is the pirate hipster Matthew Patel, Todd the rock star vegan (Brandon Routh), Japanese twins who play techno music, a chain wielding lesbian a self-obsessed actor (Lee Evans) and at the top of the heap is record producer Gideon (Jason Schwartzmann). Scott must fight all of them in over-the-top battles to find true love.

Yeah that premise, taken from the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, is pretty ludicrous. But it goes along with the world Wright creates in this film. Video game motifs are everywhere. The “Legend of Zelda” theme shows up on the soundtrack, words show up on the screen to signify sound effects, villains turn into coins when they lose fights, and Scott just happens to be an expert in kung-fu. Every frame of this film, which is absolutely gorgeous to look at, is filled with so many gags and visual flourishes that actually make it an pretty astonishing piece of filmmaking. This is Wright, who made the equally brilliant “Shawn of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” as well as the TV show “Spaced” (which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, it’s available on Hulu for free, if you liked “Shawn” and “Fuzz,” you will love this show, I guarantee it), coming into the full-flower of his gifts. The soundtrack, with songs written by Beck, is also phenomenal, as music plays an important part in establishing this world as well. Did I mention this movie is insanely funny? There are so many great lines and all the actors have such impeccable comic timing that I can safely say this movie succeeds on a comedic level before all the other stuff.

The meat of this film is the fights between Scott and the Exes. It is true, that one fight after another does throw off the film’s pacing a bit, but each fight is a unique, carefully constructed set piece that any structural issues fall by the wayside. Each Ex is a distinct character, and each fight is different as a result. With editing so kinetic it will make your head spin and some superb special effects, these scenes make “Scott Pilgrim” unlike anything you will ever see. My personal favorite fight is with Todd, the rock-star vegan, mostly because it’s based on “Dragonball Z,” which pretty much dominated my life in middle school.

But what makes “Scott Pilgrim” truly work as a movie is the emotional depth that runs underneath the spectacle. Scott is kind of a dick. He doesn’t know what he wants in life, he mopes, and he cheats on Knives to be with Ramona. It’s a tough thing to pull off, making Scott such a flawed character, yet expecting us to root for him. But Michael Cera was born to play this role. The bad rap against Cera, that he plays the same part over and over again and that he can’t act, infuriates me, since, to be honest, Denzel Washington, George Clooney, Cary Grant and countless other actors play the same part over and over again as well. There’s nothing wrong with developing an acting persona and doing different variations on it. Not everybody can be Daniel Day-Lewis. Cera is a great comedic actor, with his deadpan delivery and perfect comedic timing. I can’t think of another actor who could play this role, which is the key to any great performance. In a tougher spot is Winstead as Ramona; since Scott literally has to risk his life for her, and we have to believe that he would do so. Ramona is obviously inspired by Kate Winslet in “Eternal Sunshine” with her changing hair color and impulsive nature, but Winstead is such a vivid and flawed heroine that their relationship cuts through the stylized universe to create a bond that signifies the pain of betrayal and the endless possibilities of young love. The supporting cast is also pretty fantastic, with Pill and Culking being the major stand-outs, elevating deadpan dismissals to an art form.

I could go on even longer on why I adore this film, but I think it is something one should experience for themselves. Roger Ebert said when he first saw The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” he said it was the (I’m paraphrasing here) greatest, most infectious display of cinematic joy he had ever seen. Since I’ve seen “Scott Pilgrim,” I know what he’s talking about.

P.S.: I will likely post a review of The Avengers next week. I cannot wait to see that thing.

Personal Pantheon: Raiders of the Lost Ark – 1981

“I’m making this up as I go.” -Indiana Jones

That quote, uttered by the immortal Indiana Jones (played of course by Harrison Ford) sums up everything that is great about “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” directed by Steven Spielberg at the height of his considerable powers.

The Indian Jones movies were the part of a lot of childhoods, except mine. I just never got around to actually watching these movies all the way through until this past year. While Temple of Doom is solid (even though Willie and Short Round are the 2 most annoying characters this side of Jar Jar Binks) and Last Crusade is excellent and Crystal Skull is…Crystal Skull, “Raiders,” the first film, is by far the best. It’s one the greatest action movies ever made, and easily one of the most purely entertaining.

Indiana Jones was based off of the old afternoon serial films that Spielberg and George Lucas loved when they were kids; they had larger than life heroes going on adventures in exotic locations, and getting into absurd situations in the search for some lost treasure. The plot of “Raiders” is no exception. Jones is an archaeologist and college professor who is asked by the government to find the Arc of the Covenant, the chest that Moses carried the Ten Commandments in, before the Nazis do. The Arc has incredible powers, and Hitler is obsessed with finding it. Indy meets up with his ex-fiance Marion (Karen Allen) and his Egyptian contact Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and he’s on his way.

That’s a pretty simple plot, but the film gets away with it because of how it’s paced. From it’s legendary opening scene to it’s face-melting (literally) finale, “Raiders” is paced like a rocket that just blasted off. The movie is 115 minutes long, but it feels like it’s half that length. That’s what happens when you have a master filmmaker at the helm like Spielberg. This film is basically a series of the most exciting, brilliantly staged and dizzyingly suspenseful action scenes that have ever been conceived. I can’t stand a lot of modern action movies because they all use the shaky-cam and are edited into oblivion, making them incomprehensible to watch. But the camerawork and editing in “Raiders” is crystal clear. If the audience knows what’s happening, then it’s easier to get maximum enjoyment out of the action (that’s why “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol” is so freaking awesome btw). Every set piece builds as it goes along, increasing the stakes and the enjoyment level. Just when you think Spielberg has topped himself, he pulls of another scene that’s even more intense.

What also helps is the performance by Ford as Jones. Ford was born for this part, it fits him like a glove. He makes Indy not only a credible, charismatic hero, but a flesh-and-blood human being. I think Indy is so enduring is because he’s relatable in some ways. He gets injured, he’s terrified of snakes, and he escapes some situations by pure blind luck. These movies wouldn’t register as strongly if Jones was less flawed.

I’ve always loved Steven Spielberg, even though I have some problems with his methods. Some of his movies are incredibly sappy and sentimental, and try way too hard to convey a specific message. I think this is because he cares so deeply about all of this projects; he never phones it in. Even his lesser movies, like “The Terminal,” “War of the Worlds,” and last year’s “War Horse,” he tries damn hard to make each movie as good as he possibly can. That’s something that is pretty commendable. Especially since his great films: “Jaws,” “Close Encounters,” “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List,” “Minority Report,” “Catch Me if You Can” and “Munich” are a murderer’s row that any director would kill to have on their resume (I don’t know if “A.I” is great or not. That movie is for a future post). When he trusts the story and let’s the sentimentality fall by the wayside, Spielberg is as good as any director ever born in this country. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one of his masterpieces. Anyone with a pulse can enjoy it.

Revisiting Titanic

This week’s post is going to be difficult because I just got out of “Cabin in the Woods,” and I’m still picking up pieces of my brain from the floor of the theater.

Anyway, (seriously, don’t read this blog, go see “Cabin in the Woods” and come back later) with the re-release of Titanic in 3D, I thought I would share my thoughts on this movie, and how people can turn on movies just for being insanely popular.

“Titanic” was the first non-kids movie I ever saw in the theater. I saw it with my Mom when I was 9. The most memorable thing about seeing it then was my mom desperately trying to cover my eyes during the Kate Winslet portrait scene, and how blown away I was by the movie’s sheer spectacle.

So here’s the question: is “Titanic” good? Overall, yes. Contrary to the IMDb boards, this isn’t the worst movie ever made. Far from it. This film’s strengths and weaknesses can easily be split into two halves: James Cameron the writer, and James Cameron the director.

I’m not bothering with a plot synopsis, since everyone has seen this movie: Titanic sets sail, two people fall in love, boat sinks, Leo dies. That’s pretty much it. Since this movie took over the world in 1997, its become a bit of a punching bag among people who don’t want to admit they liked this movie because it’s a “chick flick.” But, more on that later. I saw this movie on HBO again 2 summers ago, so it’s pros and cons are still fairly fresh in my mind.

Let’s start with what doesn’t work: the script. Here’s where I stand with Mr. Cameron: James Cameron the filmmaker is a genius. James Cameron the writer, however, is a fucking hack (you know who isn’t a hack? Joss Whedon, who co-wrote “Cabin in the Woods,” which you should see). The central love story between Jack (Leo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) is really broadly written. All the 1st class passengers, where Rose is, are rich snobs, and everyone in 3rd class where Jack is are impoverished and lovable. Some of the dialogue is cringe-inducing (“I’m flying, Jack!”) and too contemporary. Jack talks like someone from 1997, not 1912. And then there is the Cal problem. Cal, played by Billy Zane, is Rose’s fiance, and is an over-the-top douchebag. William Goldman, one of the greatest screenwriters who ever lived, has a great essay where he calls Cal the most useless character in movie history. He’s probably right. He exists only to be a jerk, his character has no arc whatsoever. It doesn’t help that Zane is hilariously over-the-top in his performance. The scene where he flips out on Rose and flips the table (not on YouTube)  is more funny than menacing.

But the weaknesses in the script are helped by two things: the acting and the structural clarity. With clarity, what I mean is that Cameron is a very fluid, if problematic, storyteller. His movies never become incoherent. We always know who the characters are and what is happening with them, even when the boat starts sinking. That may sound like a minor point, but in movies these days, especially action movies, directors don’t care about that, they just want more explosions and camera tricks (see Bay, Michael). Another thing that helps is that DiCaprio and Winslet are fantastic together. They transcend the crudeness of the writing with vivid, impassioned performances; you really believe these two are in love. DiCaprio hasn’t been as relaxed or charismatic in any movie since, and Winslet finds the steel-willed woman buried underneath Rose’s constricted exterior.

With these flaws, why is Titanic still a good movie? Easy: the second half. All of the bad dialogue and melodrama goes away once the iceberg hits the boat. The second half of Titanic is the greatest disaster movie ever made by far, and has some of the greatest filmmaking ever done. Period. Watching the Titanic sink is an amazing sight, and Cameron’s wizardry with combining practical sets and CGI is amazing. This is a greater achievement than “Avatar” I think, since so much of Titanic is done with mechanical effects. Titanic didn’t deserve Best Picture at the Oscars that year, but Cameron absolutely deserved to win Best Director.

I think the reason people rip this movie so much is because of its popularity; this happens with every piece of pop-culture, especially movies. I actually like it when things I like become popular; great art is best when experienced and discussed with others. I might write an entire post someday about this issue, but in Titanic’s case, it just really annoys me. There is nothing wrong with enjoying this movie (or Cabin in the Woods, which you should see).

So overall, Titanic is a mediocre, but well-acted, movie for the first 90 minutes and an absolute masterpiece for the last 90 minutes. Except for that nightmare of a Celine Dion song. That really is awful. Go see Cabin in the Woods.

Personal Pantheon: Midnight Cowboy – 1969

“I gotta get outta here…Miami Beach, that’s where you could score. Anybody can score there, even you. In New York, no rich lady with any class at all buys that cowboy crap anymore. They’re laughin’ at you on the street.”  -Ratso Rizzo

 

For this Personal Pantheon series, my original intention was to reserve it for movies I’ve seen several times and know inside and out, so I could convey why I think they are great in the most complete way possible. I didn’t think a movie I literally just saw for the first time the night before would hit so hard that it achieved instant pantheon status for me. I mention all of this, because last night, I saw John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” for the first time.

I’ve been meaning to see this movie for years, but it was worth the wait. I was totally blown away by this movie. Everything from it’s deceptively emotional story of friendship, to its unique visual style to, most importantly, the unbelievably great acting from the two leads.

Like most American films from the late-60’s and early-70’s, there is not much of a traditional “plot,” in “Midnight Cowboy.” It’s 2 hours of these two characters and their lives in the weird, revolutionary and electric world of 1960’s New York City. That may make it sound like the film is dated, but the story at its core speaks universal truths about the nature of friendship and the American Dream.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight, back when he still cared about acting) is an affable, naive and ambitious good ol’ boy from a small town in Texas. He’s decided he can’t stand being a dishwasher at at roadside diner in the middle of nowhere, so he decides to move to New York City to try his luck as a male prostitute. You read that correctly. Joe models himself after John Wayne, with a cowboy getup that everyone finds ridiculous except for him. He has horrible luck as a hustler; in one scene, the customer ends up asking him for money. He gets locked out of his hotel room because he is broke, and he ends up meeting Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) in a bar. Rizzo, who is a cripple and has tuberculosis, offers to help Joe with his hustling business. Rizzo at first tries to con Joe, but the two become friends after Joe spends the night at Ratso’s abandoned apartment, and the rest of the film is about them trying to survive in a world that sees them as outcasts.

One of the things I really loved about this movie is how unflinching it is in its portrayal of urban life in New York City at the end of the ’60s. This film was rated X when it was first released, and although its numerous sex scenes and portrayal of urban decay are pretty tame in 2012, you can see why this movie was so shocking in 1969. That didn’t stop it from winning Best Picture at the Oscars, however (Imagine an NC-17 movie winning an Oscar today, it’s unheard of). That grittiness also comes through with how the characters of Ratso and Joe are developed and Schlesinger’s visual style. Joe is a strange, fascinating character. He may seem like Southern caricature at first, but we learn more about his past and find that he is just a lost, naive soul who’s warped sense of manhood is keeping him from finding a place to belong. We see flashbacks to Joe’s childhood and find that he had a very, very strange relationship with his grandmother and his first girlfriend, and learned how to be a man from watching old westerns, hence the cowboy obsession. He believes that he is God’s gift to women, and that the cowboy persona exemplifies that. Voight convincingly brings this incredibly complicated character to life, portraying a man who slowly realizes that New York City is not the place to have all of his dreams come true.

Ratso is the polar opposite. With his high-pitched, nasally whine of a voice, his matted,greasy hair and his filthy clothes, and his dream of making enough money to move to Florida to find a better life, he is the epitome of pathetic. But  Dustin Hoffman’s performance is astonishing. He forever obliterated the concept that movie stars needed to be glamorous to be interesting. Hoffman completely transforms into Ratso, with the way he walks and his ever-worsening health. He and Joe are both people who have been discarded by society, which is why they form such a strong bond. This film is a reminder that even when the “counter-culture” was in full swing, there were still people struggling and desperate. The scene where the two are invited to a beatnik party filled with all sorts of odd people, and they still are unable to fit in, even among misfits like themselves.  “Midnight Cowboy” is like Jack Kerouac by way of Charles Dickens.

I was also surprised by how stylized this film was. I was expecting a slow-paced, ultra-realistic film like so many others of it’s time, but Schlesinger uses black-and-white cuts, montages and different types of film stock to create such a fascinating, vivid atmosphere. He effectively captures the jumpy, crazed nature of the City in the 60’s without ever losing the emotional bond with Joe and Ratso.

“Midnight Cowboy” is still a great movie even though it is so focused on a specific time period because the story deals with universal themes of friendship, hopelessness and the crushing reality that your dreams are not as easy to achieve as you thought they would be. From it’s legendary opening credits set to Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin,” to the heartbreaking yet subtle final shot, “Midnight Cowboy” is still a masterpiece, one of the key films of the New Hollywood era, when movies were galvanized by the introduction of one important element: the ragged truth.