Monthly Archives: April 2011

Flashback Review – Psycho: An Unbalanced Film

I haven’t showered in days. My cute lab partner keeps giving me these disgusted looks, and even my cats are starting to avoid me. It all began when I woke up from a nightmare around 3 a.m. one night and decided to watch Psycho alone in the pitch dark. I wasn’t scared or anything, I just, you know, haven’t wanted to take a shower since then. Even worse, I’ve no longer been able to maintain an iota of normalcy in my interactions with taxidermists. I always get this overwhelming urge to flee now, especially when they start talking about their mental illnesses and love for dead things. But such is life.

Ruined taxidermical relationships aside, Psycho was a film of singular value and quality whose ingenuity actually ended up detracting from its greatness. There is much to be gained by breaking away from convention, and Hitchcock has certainly done that here, but in the end, conventions exist because they make for good storytelling, and there’s a reason Psycho’s formula isn’t often replicated.

After some wiggly credits in which the word “psycho” dances around, the film opens with a bedroom scene that was apparently quite racy for its time (spoiler: she’s in a bra). We see Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) whispering sweet nothings to her lover, Sam (John Gavin), lamenting their unfortunate state. If only the pair had more money, they could have a real life together. It’s actually a very compelling scene, and from the first minute of Psycho, I was hooked.

For a while, the movie only gets better. When Marion heads to work and $40,000 in cash is placed in her care, I never thought for a second that she’d abscond with it. You’re used to main characters being good people, so when she stole the money, I was totally surprised (Hitchcock: 1; Russ: 0). After that, things keep getting more intense. Her boss sees her driving; a police officer taps on her window; and the used car salesman doesn’t believe her story. Every moment was an inspired scene of mounting thrills, and it was satisfying to see how bad Marion was at all of this lying and deceit stuff. How was she was going to pull it off?! For 45 minutes, we follow her story, becoming ever more invested, until she ends up at the Bates Motel and has dinner with a creepy taxidermist whose mother puts mine to shame in the overbearing department.

Before I go on, let me simply say that whenever you manage to create a scene an entire population remembers, you’ve succeeded. There’s no arguing that. When you implant a screeching sound so heavily into the public consciousness that any single person can hum it, instantly conjuring to mind images of a shower, a knife, and some Hershey’s Syrup swirling down a drain, you deserve a lavish amount of praise. Thanks to my being a so-called member of society, it came as no surprise when, around the 45-minute mark, Marion was killed (Hitchcock: 1; Russ: 1).

I had finally beheld the shower scene! I was elated, and then suddenly, I was left without a main character, and yet still an hour remained. I continued to watch, but nothing could get me excited again (err, about the movie). I’d spent 45 minutes getting to know Marion, worrying for her, hoping for her, and now she was gone, the only one left in her wake the freakish Norman Bates. But he’d only just been introduced. Why should I care about him? The film spends the next hour throwing random characters at you in waves—a private detective; Marion’s sister; the cynical sheriff—hoping that Norman Bates’ utter creepiness can sustain the film, but it’s not enough.

Why do we root for characters in movies? It’s because the story helps us understand their motivations. We can relate to their situation. Whether or not we like the person, whether or not they’re good or evil, something about them makes them human in our eyes, and we want them to succeed. I wanted that for Marion, but I didn’t care about Norman Bates. If this is meant to be a mystery movie, then it felt like an unpolished episode of CSI or Columbo. By now, writers have realized that you need to kill off the girl in the first 5 minutes. You establish the mystery, and then watch the real main character unravel the story.

Then again, the film is entitled “Psycho,” so it’s probably supposed to be viewed as a psychological thriller or even a character study. If it’s the former, then Psycho packs far too few thrills. The shower scene is the only real one, for as I’ve said, we don’t care enough about the detective to fear for his life. If it’s a character study, then Norman Bates needed a lot more screen time. He’s not introduced until far too late, and even then, we get only a few scenes with him. And we don’t actually witness much of his psychosis. The eventual twist did catch me completely by surprise (Hitchcock: 2; Russ: 1), but it felt a bit silly, and the way it was so fully explained (again by a completely new character) was the opposite of subtle. The viewer couldn’t possibly have predicted the ending, for there is far too little characterization of Bates. It’s 2011, and audiences have now been inundated with movies whose twists rely on multiple personalities, and while Psycho laid the groundwork, the formula has since been improved upon.

For all that, the acting was always compelling, especially Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, who, when he did get screen time, teetered masterfully between charming and creepy. The writing was often superb, the final voiceover a chilling note that leaves you shaken. And there’s no denying Psycho’s cultural impact. But in the end, Psycho is praised thanks not to its innate quality, but because it paved the way for slasher films and multiple personality twists, genres that have gained subtlety and depth since 1960.

3/5 Stars

I think I’ll go take that shower now. I mean, what do I really have to fear anyway? Norman wouldn’t even harm a fly.

Written by Russ Nickel

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Source Code Should Get with the Program

Suddenly, I came to a horrifying realization: Source Code was going to start without me. Still hoping to defy the odds, I drove downtown at a breakneck 25 miles per hour, flying up to every stop sign (then stopping) and racing through green lights. It was 8:17, 7 minutes past opening, and I still needed to find parking.

I circled the block once, but there were no spots, and I just ended up back where I’d started, like nothing had changed. Yet I knew the clock was still ticking. I decided to make another circle. There was the theater; there was the ticket box. It was the same block, but it was different. A parking spot! This time I knew what to do. How had I missed it before? I pulled in and jumped out of the car, happy to finally find freedom. Soon I was in the theater, and it was like I’d stepped into an alternate dimension.

For all that, I still missed the first 30 seconds, so I admittedly can’t be entirely sure that the movie didn’t meet my expectations. That opening shot could’ve been life-changing, but somehow I doubt it. I think probably my hopes were just too high. A sci-fi thriller told in the style of Groundhog Day? How could that not be the best thing ever? Groundhog Day is one of my favorite movies, and I tend to love any film whose structure defies the norm. The end-to-start style of Memento twisted my mind into knots, and I spent days discussing its every mystery. Vantage Point’s multiple, well, vantage points, raised it from blasé formula to edge-of-your-seat suspense. And the half-crazed chronology of 500 Days of Summer told us a tale of romance in the way we usually perceive it: scattered thoughts remembered seemingly at random. Each time, structure was perfectly united with story, creating that movie magic we so love.

Unfortunately, in Source Code, the time loop gimmick merely forwards a dull plot and hardly serves a higher purpose. The conceit of this film is that Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is able to relive the last 8 minutes of a different man’s life (in this case someone named Sean Fentress), using the time to investigate the facts surrounding his death. You see, Sean died in a train bombing, and it’s up to Captain Stevens to relive those 8 minutes over and over until he can figure out what happened, thus preventing a second bombing set to take place in just a few hours. Now, a variety of characters repeatedly state that finding the bomb is Captain Stevens’ main purpose, so you’d think the task would prove to be relatively difficult. You’d be wrong. He finds it in like 10 minutes. That’s ok, though, because what’s actually important is finding the bomber. Surprise! It takes him like 2 tries. There are no twists, almost no misdirects, and things happen so fast that ultimately, there’s no tension. We get only one scene in which Stevens impresses us with his foreknowledge, and the things he knows about are as exciting as spilled soda. Spilled soda!

Jake Gyllenhaal may be more charming than a street performer with a basket full of snakes, but even he can’t bring Captain Colter Stevens to life in this straightforward story that eschews twists and thrills in trade for, I don’t know, romance or something. The trailer bills Source Code as sci-fi action with a girl tossed in, but there’s not a single action sequence. Sure, the train blows up every 8 minutes, but it’s much more melodramatic than it is awesome. And the science fiction–don’t even get me started on the science fiction!

Too late. I got started. Now, Groundhog Day is a classic because science is cast aside, leaving room for that little thing known as character growth. Rather than try to explain why Bill Murray is caught in a time loop, the writers spend all their time taking him from unlikeable cynic to lovable romantic. Source Code, on the other hand, feels compelled to explain things to us, but its half-hearted attempt only leaves us feeling more confused than ever before. The ‘source code’ itself is described with Star Trek style technobabble, then made into a painfully simple analogy. Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) explains how everything works, saying, “It’s uh…quantum mechanics, parabola calculus…when a light bulb turns off, there’s an afterglow…the brain is like that.” Wow. Sounding real smart, doc. Source Code tries to prove how cool its premise is by throwing pseudoscience at us, but it never really matters since most of the movie actually takes place not in the ‘source code,’ but in reality, where we spend so much time that the train plot falls by the wayside, making Captain Colter’s ultimate success seem secondary and irrelevant.

While his triumph over terrorists is implausible at best, his skill with women is even less likely. In just a few iterations of the train fiasco, Colter is able to woo the lovely Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan). This is especially creepy for two reasons. First, Colter is literally stealing the identity of a guy that Christina obviously has some interest in. Now, for most of the film, Colter has to keep up the façade for only 8 minutes, but what happens afterward? Someday, Christina will find out that Colter is not in fact Sean Fentress, but is instead some hardcore war veteran on a top secret mission who, for all intents and purposes, has killed the guy Christina was interested in by taking over his body! How’s she going to feel about that (probably the way most women feel when that happens)? Second, Colter has fallen for this girl in just a few hours, and she has fallen for this new, more exciting version of Sean in literally 8 minutes. I know love happens fast in movies, but 8 minutes is just embarrassing.

There you have it. I love non-linear storytelling, but only when it’s done well and serves the plot. Here, it didn’t quite come together. Things happen too quickly, and nothing is particularly believable.

2/5 Stars

I know I railed quite a bit, but if the screenwriter had wanted to keep things on track, he should’ve trained more.

Written by Russ Nickel

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Flashback Review: V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta is a film of verifiable value, vetted by viewers both venerable and vernal. Victor and villain alike vivify this version of sovereign violence, a vicious and venomous violation of governmental volition. But valiant V, vexed by these vile and vindictive vices, evolves into a vigilant vanguard, vowing to revive virtue. Viewing such valor vindicates the conviction that this movie is a valid investment, a vibrant venture not devised in vain.

I’ve always found dystopian film and literature compelling. I railed against 1984’s annihilation of individual thought. I rallied behind Christian Bale’s change of heart in Equilibrium. And as an English Major, nothing angered me more than the book-burning senselessness of Fahrenheit 451. V for Vendetta is a film that paints such a strong picture of an overbearing government, develops with such skill the fear of the people, and so deftly raises its main character from terrorist to idealistic freedom fighter, that it deserves to be heralded as one of the greatest dystopias in recent memory. Its unique artistic style, compelling dialogue, and sublime acting weave together into a tapestry of excellence.

The year is 2020, and the condition of the world is, shall we say, subpar. America is in the throes of a second civil war, and across the pond, a deadly virus, thought to be the work of terrorists, has left Britain in a state of fear. Using that fear to gain more and more control, High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) has managed to cow his people. A purveyor of art and champion of idealism, the masked man known only as V (Hugo Weaving) rises up to take a stand against the imperious chancellor.

The plot is made all the more thrilling by the film’s unconventional pacing, sequences of high tension and of quiet contemplation intermingled—a mounting crescendo of elevated emotion and profound introspection, ever building toward a poignant and powerful finale. The movie starts off with a bang, and from the moment V delivers his astonishingly alliterative address to love interest/disciple Evey (Natalie Portman), we’re hooked. Then, when tension is nearly at its highest, the film veers away from the main plot, as a fellow prisoner passes Evey a scribbled autobiography during her incarceration. We are whisked away to another time, another place, and are told a tale of love and of sorrow. I can think of no other film that takes such a protracted break from the main conflict, but the Wachowskis pull it off expertly, using the time to show us how truly terrible this new regime is, and our breath of fresh air from the action leaves us wanting, so when it resumes, we are all the more engaged.

Natalie Portman gives us a stellar performance in Evey, who is both compelling and relatable, but it is Hugo Weaving who truly shines. Allowed to portray V through only his voice and body language, he still conveys more emotion than most main characters. Bereft of facial expressions, his head-tilts and hand gestures become all-important, and when matched with Weaving’s arresting voice, a sublime character is formed.

Dipping heavily into the inkwell of symbolism, the Wachowskis have crafted something much deeper and more literary than their previous endeavors. While The Matrix addressed issues of religion and morality, it catered more toward effects than true philosophy; this film, while still visually impressive, succeeds in layering substance beneath spectacle. For example, when V finally gains his freedom, escaping from a prisoner-testing facility, he is surrounded by flame. Then, when Evey reaches a similar freedom, she flees to the rooftops, engulfed in the pouring rain. The juxtaposition of fire and water brings about such an eye-catching parallel that I was left stunned, but more importantly, it shows that V and Evey are connected not only in name and in goal, but by nature itself. Theirs is a relationship of the deepest level. In another symbolic moment, V sets up thousands of dominoes, then knocks them over, a breathtaking chain reaction that ends up spelling out his name. Akin to a series of dominoes, V’s plan is so multifaceted that if even a single piece is out of place, he will fail.

Even the main character himself is a symbol. He wears a mask, a faceless representation of freedom and courage. He represents the downtrodden. He represents hope. He represents the idea of being more than just a man, more than just flesh and blood. He is change personified. In one of his better lines (Who am I kidding? They’re all good.), he tells the evil, second-in-command Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith) “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.”

Beneath the mask of a special-effects driven comic book movie, there is an ingenious script, and that level of writing is a rare thing indeed. The chancellor’s every speech incited in me palpable hatred, and I couldn’t wait to see him brought down. V’s every word brought me to new levels of idealism, making me question my own beliefs and relative apathy. Should I not try to be an agent of change in a world filled with misfortune? V’s morality moved me to tears more than once, and I could barely breathe by the end, stirred by the way the people began to believe in his message.

While some might claim that the villains are one-note to the point of parody and that their deaths are over-the-top in their grotesqueness, this film knows that it lies firmly in the grasp of metaphor; these characters exist as extreme examples meant to be taken symbolically rather than literally. In the end, V for Vendetta is a movie that is stunning on both a visceral and emotional level. It is well-written, well-acted, and stylistically revolutionary. Wachowskis, you’ve done it again.

5/5 Stars.

Can you believe they actually had 4 professional domino people spend 200 hours setting up 22,000 dominoes just for that one shot. How do you even get that job?

Written by Russ Nickel

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The Lincoln Lawyer, the Film that Never Ends

If you read my Sucker Punch review, then you know a little bit about O‘ahu and all the totally fun things you can do there. In fact, we were having such a good time with the rain and lack of surf that when it came to our last day of break, we decided to go to the movies…again, only this time we had to walk the 3 miles there, and we were late, and it was hot out. Who knew that three, shirtless, power-walking dudes would get so many cheers and catcalls? That’s right. Hawaii thinks I’m sexy.

After showing up to the theater sunburned and pouring sweat and getting told by a manager that clothing at this particular establishment was not in fact optional, we settled into what was a perfectly good but rather forgettable thriller. And that’s how I think this review will end up: Thrilling!…or forgettable. One or the other.

Anyway, I don’t remember how the movie started, but I do remember that lawyer Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) was a great character to root for. He’s charming and slimy in all the right places. He hires a guy to pretend to be a reporter, then talks him out of filming in order to keep heat off his client. As far as the client knows, Haller has complete control over all cameramen. Amazing! Haller loves his daughter and is on good terms with his ex-wife and is friends with a bike gang, and damn, what a good-looking guy that McConaughey is.

For all that, he’s no Tom Cruise–level lawyer from A Few Good Men, which I finally saw last night. I can’t believe it took me so long to not be able to handle the truth! I’ve been waiting for that for so long. Anyway, The Lincoln Lawyer is much more of a mindless beach-read, but it does a great job of being what it is. The thrills keep increasing in intensity, for not only is the courtroom setting nerve-wracking, but there starts to be real danger outside the office as people get killed off and the mystery weaves its way into Haller’s life.

There are twists aplenty, to the point that the person sitting next to me kept gasping and squeaking in fear and excitement. The twists were just unexpected enough, the acting never got in the way of anything, and the pressure was always on.

I enjoyed myself pretty much the whole time, and if I were a betting man, which I am, I’d put money on your liking it too. Still, there were some problems. For instance, the ex-wife: completely unnecessary. I’m sure she’s a relevant character in the book, but she doesn’t actually add anything to the film, thematically or plot-wise. In my opinion, they should’ve just cut her and found some other way to scare Haller, rather than relying on threats to a family to which his ties are tenuous at best.

Oh, and there’s some shameless product placement that was jarring and painful. When Haller is carrying his daughter home after their dad date, she’s holding this bright red AMC popcorn bag, then later it cuts to a scene of Haller and his ex-wife talking, and the first thing the wife says is “Who knew 3-D movies could be so much fun?!?!!” in this over-the-top “this is an advertisement” voice that reminded me of the wife in The Truman Show. Why advertise AMC to people who are already at the movies? It reminds me of when they used to have those “Don’t download movies” messages before the trailers. Preachin’ to the choir, man. Preachin’ to the freakin’ choir.

Last and the opposite of least, this movie has no ending whatsoever. The evidence is starting to mount against the bad guy, Haller is just about to be all kinds of awesome, and you can’t wait for the moment you get to see Haller kick ass in the courtroom and put away Mr. Evil for life, but instead a minor character pops in and informs us that everything worked out. There’s absolutely no catharsis. Your emotions are all pent up…and that’s how they stay. It’s especially obvious in the final scene as the bike gang pulls up alongside Haller’s car and you’re worried they’re going to betray and kill him. You know some manner of horrible thing is going to happen because otherwise why would this scene be there. I mean, the movie’s got at least 15 minutes left, right? WRONG! It’s just over. The bikers are all friendly and un-twisty.

Thrilling the whole time, but nothing new, plus that bad ending left a sour taste in my mouth.

2.5/5¢

Also, don’t watch the trailer. It gives away one of the twists, and though it’s not the most surprising twist, it’s certainly important.

Written by Russ Nickel

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Sucker Punch: What The Hell Happened?

(Warning: Hella Spoilers)

Some of you probably just think Sucker Punch is one of those smorgasbords for your eyes, but I’m here to tell you that there’s more. What more you ask? Well, besides being a complete overload of sensory input, this movie is also confusing beyond all reckoning. At least, it probably was to everyone who isn’t nearly as insightful as I. So if you’re wondering what happened, pull up a chair, sit forward, and let me tell you.

My Top 2 Sucker Punch Theories

Theory 1: The main character of this film is actually Sweet Pea. Baby Doll helps her escape, and Sweet Pea is able to start a new life.

Theory 2: Baby Doll and Sweet Pea are aspects of the same person.

Arguments for 1:

The movie opens with a narration by Sweet Pea, leading us to believe it’s her story. She tells us that angels may come in any form, including little girls (i.e. Baby Doll), but that they’re not here to fight our battles. They’re here to help remind us that we control the worlds we create. Baby Doll is Sweet Pea’s angel, and when she arrives at the asylum, her impending lobotomy reminds Sweet Pea how sacred a place the mind is, and she uses this newly rediscovered knowledge to create an imaginary world she can retreat to during her escape attempts so that fear doesn’t overtake her.

The entire burlesque layer is Sweet Pea’s creation, which makes sense, since Sweet Pea is the main dancer. We’re all the main characters of our own imagination. The question then becomes why we get a battle that contains only Baby Doll when she’s fighting those robot samurai. It’s a valid concern, but perhaps Sweet Pea is simply entranced by Baby Doll’s dancing and chooses to imagine it as a battle. If that’s true, why is it Baby Doll who meets the old man and comes up with the plan? Maybe Baby Doll really did come up with the plan, and to give it some more credence, Sweet Pea inserts a wise man into her imagined version of Baby Doll’s story.

What’s happening in the asylum this entire time? Baby Doll is brought in, rebels, and comes up with a plan. Her dancing might represent fits of mental breakdown, minor attempts at escape (like fighting guards or running through doors) or even actual dancing. But no matter what it represents, it’s powerful enough that Sweet Pea must fit it into her imaginative storyline.

Sweet Pea escapes. When we’re finally in reality at the end of the film, the female doctor tells us that Baby Doll caused quite a bit of trouble, including helping a patient escape. We should believe any information that’s actually presented in reality, for there’s very little of it. If a patient escaped, it only stands to reason that it was Sweet Pea, for she’s the only one who comes close to escaping in any of the imagined layers.

But if she really was set free, then why does the last scene look so imaginary. Whenever we transfer to another layer of reality, the camera starts on Baby Doll then does a 180º spin. In the last scene, Baby dolls closer her eyes, the camera spins, then we see Sweet Pea meet a bus driver who is none other than the wise man. If this is supposedly real, then how did any of the characters know the bus driver well enough to insert his face into their imagination? She couldn’t possibly have met him before, could she? And why did the bus driver lie, saying that she’d been on board the whole time so that the cops didn’t question her? It all seems a little convenient. Isn’t it more likely that Baby Doll is simply imagining this as well?

Arguments for 2:

The last scene of reality at the beginning of the movie is Baby Doll lying down in the doctor’s chair, about to receive a lobotomy. If we’re seeing this scene, it only stands to reason that Baby Doll has already failed to escape and we’ve reached the end of the film. In the next scene, Baby Doll wakes up in the burlesque layer, only it’s not Baby Doll. It’s Sweet Pea in the exact same position wearing a blonde wig.

Baby Doll receives the lobotomy, and her last shot at survival is to retreat into her mind where she creates Sweet Pea, the sexy, confident dancer. The rest of the film only covers a few seconds in real life, the small amount of time it takes to perform a lobotomy. In that time, Baby Doll fantasizes an entirely different situation and an escape, and as she loses her mind, the burlesque layer becomes even crazier, slipping into the crazy battle scenes we saw earlier. In this reading, we no longer have to try to match the fantasy imagery to the layer of reality, for nothing is actually happening in reality.

By sacrificing herself to help Sweet Pea escape, Baby Doll is able to find solace, realizing that though she, the physical version of herself, may not make it, Sweet Pea, Baby Doll’s imaginary self, is free, unable to be harmed by the cruelty of the world. Sweet Pea is Baby Doll’s angel, whispering the reminder that we have power over the world we imagine, and in that world lies freedom. If this is true, then who actually escaped? The doctor says someone did, so it must have happened. In this reading, we’re required to assume that we don’t know who actually escaped, just that it happened.

Also, if the whole film is simply a few seconds of a mind’s last thoughts before being erased, then how do we explain the other information the doctor gave us and its relevance to the movie. She tells us that Baby Doll started a fire and stabbed someone, actions that directly link to the fantasy world. Is it possible she accomplished all that in the 5 days before the lobotomy, including helping someone escape, and that we didn’t see any of it? That the movie flashes forward to the lobotomy, and we get to see Baby Doll’s twisted, imaginary version of the previous 5 days? That’s what I think.

What do you think? Who teaches us what’s real and how to laugh at lies?

Written by Russ Nickel

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Sucker Punch – Mindbending and Awesome

Reality is a prison. Spring break 2011: trapped on the island of O‘ahu. The streets overflow with prostitutes, the destitute denizens of a corrupt city. I stand on the balcony of my hotel; below me, a fight breaks out, and soon cops flood the scene. Desperate to escape, we drive to the theater, situated between an abandoned warehouse and a broken-down cannery. We see some mountainous Samoans, tattoos rippling along their muscles as they load pieces of bikes into a truck. Undaunted, we ask them about parking—

Wake up. Somehow, this place is a penitentiary no longer, though it’s still not without its trials. Inside an IMAX theater, we take seats on the stairs, all too aware of the glares of those around us, disdainful of our audacity. Theater employees walk into the room and head toward us, grim looks of duty spreading over their compassionless faces—

Overwhelmingly loud music, images so forceful they tumble from the screen. Suddenly everyone is gone and I’m alone, drawn into the movie, disconnected from pain and worry and self.

That’s basically how Sucker Punch worked. The film starts off with an incredible sequence entirely devoid of dialogue (my second-favorite opening in recent memory—right after Star Trek). The music pounds with a driving rhythm, and Zack Snyder’s signature slow-mo is used to great effect. The artistic style is stunning, and some of the crystal clear IMAX shots are beyond entrancing. I was immediately sucked in, and I simply wondered how long the movie would be able to sustain my adrenaline-fueled sense of total immersion. The answer was “the entire time.”

At the beginning, Baby Doll’s (Emily Browning) mother dies, and when her stepfather receives nothing in the will, he turns murderous. In an attempt to defend herself and her sister, Baby Doll shoots her stepdad but only clips him, and somehow her sister ends up dead. Things look grim for Baby Doll when she’s committed to an insane asylum run by a corrupt doctor who agrees to have her lobotomized so she can never tell her story. She lies down in the doctor’s chair and—

Wakes up. After that, none of the remaining scenes take place in reality until the last five minutes, and the rest of the time, it’s up to you to use your imagination to fill in what’s happening. So if you didn’t like it, it’s clearly because you’re uncreative (winky face). But seriously, while some films may be a metaphor, this is one in which every single scene is metaphorical, and the task of deciphering their meaning is placed on the audience.

Like Inception, this movie takes place in layers of reality. The lowest layer is the insane asylum. Then comes the imaginary world in which all the mental patients are dancers in a burlesque house. This world mimics the asylum in ways that are relatively easily linked, but the layers don’t stop there. Any time there would be a scene of conflict, drama, or action, instead of actually seeing it occur, we are whisked away to a chimerical world of pure fantasy. For those of you who doubt Zack Snyder’s screenwriting ability or level of intention, there are a few scenes that make it clear we’re supposed to read deeply into this layer system. At one point, Baby Doll is dancing in front of the cook, but some water is spilled, and it’s slowly flowing toward the radio. In the battle layer, the girls are trying to disarm a bomb, and some high-tension intercutting lets us know that if that bomb goes off, it’s equivalent to the water shorting the electricity. The way the stakes are heightened in one level through what you see in another level is an undeniably creative conceit that, in my opinion, was executed nearly flawlessly.

But don’t worry. This movie isn’t some plodding allegory that exists purely to enlighten us. It’s got more eye candy than a deranged, cannibalistic optometrist confectioner’s sweetshop. The cast is composed entirely of beautiful women, and as if that weren’t enough, they’re clad in sexy schoolgirl outfits in the burlesque layer, and during the battle sequences, they don hot femme fatale outfits and run around firing guns and wielding swords. What’s not to like? And my sci-fi and fantasy desires were more than sated. First we get to see a martial arts fight against gargantuan robot samurai with spears and Gatling guns; next a WWII battle against zombie steampunk Nazis that plays like a level of “Call of Duty”; then a fantasy castle siege in which the girls have to slay an army of Orcs, only to face a powerful, fire-breathing dragon; and finally a futuristic sci-fi thriller sequence on a high-speed train filled with robots guarding a ticking bomb. This movie was a combination of all the best action scenes from all the best genres, and it wove them together under the veil of a psychological mind-bender.

All the while, the film was artsy and stylistic, epic, and driven by a soundtrack so compelling that I downloaded it as soon as I got home. If you approach this film with the right mindset, you’ll be blown away. Make sure to see it in IMAX, because it’s imperative that your senses be bombarded as overwhelmingly as possible, and don’t forget that it’s up to you to decide what happens.

4.5/5¢

Despite all the layers and metaphors and everything, the most confusing thing about this movie is the title.

Written by Russ Nickel

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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Review

The fact that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a movie at all is a feat unto itself. A simple plot summary is likely to elicit blank stares from anyone unfamiliar with the books:

Twentysomething slacker Scott Pilgrim doesn’t have much going for him other than his crappy garage band and his high schooler girlfriend when he meets (literally) the girl of his dreams: Ramona Flowers. He falls head over heels for her, but there are complications. He has to defeat a league of her seven evil ex-boyfriends.

Author Brian Lee O’Malley renders his book in dynamic cartoon visuals and uses symbols from video game culture for both humor and narrative effect, but it’s not something that easily translates into a mainstream big-budget movie flick. But strong source material goes a long way, and so despite its flaws, Scott Pilgrim succeeds.

Most of the time, Scott Pilgrim is hilarious, giddy fun. It’s funny, really funny. Quite a lot of the original dialogue (which was what made much of the book so enjoyable) has been maintained, and the video game CGI elements connect effortlessly with the rest of the picture. The visuals are beautiful and visceral, though at times they border on being too happy and colorful, undermining the more serious themes at play. The artistic directors would have benefited from a more varied palate.

Director Edgar Wright is an excellent choice for such a plot-heavy ADD epic. The signature quick cuts that characterized his work in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are reincorporated en force, and scenes change mid-dialogue without missing a beat. It’s a source of humor and also a way of reflecting Scott’s own confusion.


Michael Cera is surprisingly good as the titular protagonist. He holds the perfidious title as the prototypical indie hero with all the backlash that invites, and his “star power” could have easily engulfed Scott Pilgrim and turned him into a blank-faced dope. Instead he shows off more versatility than he has in anything since Arrested Development, and while his performance doesn’t soar, at least it doesn’t destroy the movie as it could have. More impressive is Kieran Culkin, who plays Scott’s gay roommate Wallace with a reserved, dry wit.

Part of the problem with Scott Pilgrim is that it starts off at a run and never slows down. If they had spent a little less time on cartoon fights we might care a little bit about whether or not whether Scott gets the girl in the end (or which girl it ends up being). The second half of the film is  a relentless series of battles, and the emotional crux of the story isn’t addressed until the climax. The tension leading up to that point feels entirely unearned.

Like all film adaptations, the restrictions of the medium lead to compressions of plot. This is understandable and unavoidable, but unfortunately is done at the expense of character development. Side characters are reduced to nothing more than stereotypes with clever lines, and the evil exes are nothing but bosses to be defeated. The film could have (as the comic does) given the reader an idea of these character’s lives outside of their relationship to Scott, but they don’t. Worst of all, Ramona herself is reduced to a prize, a Princess Peach held captive by a hipster Bowser.
As a result, the nobility of Scott’s video game quest is never challenged, which borders on unforgivable. A major aspect of the book is Scott’s dickish behavior. He’s selfish and thoughtless, and his actions hurt a lot of people throughout his life. By contrast the film devotes little time to Scott’s internal struggle. There’s no examination of his integrity or his motivations. While the comic used the cultural currency of its audience for a compelling examination of relationships, the film takes the video game metaphor at face value and turns it into a shiny veneer on another typical love story.

3/5 Stars

Overall assessment: Fun, but they should have spent more time on the script.

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