Author Archives: S.S. Julian

About S.S. Julian

Cartoonist and designer.

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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Paul Review

About halfway through the second act of my pre-screening of Paul there was a sound error, and the dialogue and soundtrack of the movie became accompanied by a sort of droning, thumping, static sound. At first we thought it was part of the film, but after a few scenes without any justification we determined otherwise. The sound continued unabated for about half an hour, sometimes growing so loud that it was actually impossible to tell what the characters were saying. This might have been a problem, but I found that with Paul, it didn’t actually matter much. No one was saying anything so complicated that it couldn’t be deduced though body language and context. It’s too bad, because Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s previous works (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) both demand to be torn apart word-for-word to root out all the layers of comedy. Paul ditches the high-concept premise and instead becomes a crass homage to science fiction movies without ever being more than a momentary distraction.

Paul begins at San Diego Comic-Con, the first of its many fan services. Graeme and Clive (played by writers Pegg and Frost) are on vacation and taking a road trip to see all the famous UFO sightings in America. Instead, an actual alien crashes a car in front of them. Paul, a wise-cracking little green man, greets them with a snide remark and quickly convinces Pegg to drive to a remote location in Wyoming so that he can get back home. From there the film becomes a race to the finish line, with special agent Jason Bateman hot on Paul’s tail. Various events occur before the end of the movie; we meet Kristen Wiig as a one-eyed Bible-thumper who abruptly becomes a scientific objectivist after Paul uses his convenient healing powers to fix her eye and transfers his collective memory to her brain (don’t ask). Then there are some explosions, some pathos as Paul apologizes to an elderly woman for accidentally killing her dog in the prologue, and then everybody’s running to Forest Clearing A, where Paul uses some store-bought fireworks to signal a mothership the size of New York City. Sigourney Weaver cameos as the villainess, because she’s like a sci-fi staple now, and Paul saves the day by reincorporating his well-established healing powers.

I don’t really know where to start with this movie. I’m really disappointed in Pegg and Frost, who I thought were a lot smarter than this. Compared to their previous work, Paul flat-out sucks. There’s virtually no character development between anyone. Peripheral characters are either unfunny stereotypes or just unfunny. The writing feels bland and lazy, so much so that the same “joke” will be repeated three times with the only variation being that a different person said it at a different time. It doesn’t help that the film’s definition of a jok is creative profanity. The flimsy plot, which never gets beyond a manic “escape the baddies” chase, makes sense only until you actually scrutinize it, upon which it collapses from its own weight. And while the film heaps on the nerd homages, as a science fiction story it’s embarrassingly short-sighted. There’s potential in the script for something worth watching, but they never got past the first glimmer of an idea.

That’s pretty much all you need to know. I’m going to go in depth to the above points, so if you’re not interested in the process just skip to the bottom where I’ve conveniently distilled the film’s qualities into an amount of stars.

The film’s protagonist and main relationship character are naturally, Pegg and Frost. This is fine, and expected, and while it’s disappointing that Frost isn’t given the lead as was originally planned (wonder who axed that one) it’s a false distinction since neither of them really have any agency whatsoever. So they’re friends, one’s a writer and one illustrates science fiction novels. But the film is called Paul, which is neither of them, so how does he fit into the film? Well, the film tries to make him the source of conflict between them. Frost is a little more freaked out by the alien, a little more untrusting. This is kind of hard to believe because literally any nerd would gladly cut off a finger to be in his shoes, but could still work if they had backed it up with some characterization (perhaps his knowledge of science fiction leads him to be suspicious of Paul’s motives?). Instead he’s just a wet blanket. Frost comes around to Paul but becomes jealous of Pegg who, as the protagonist, gets the romantic interest. And Paul bonds with him over that, so everyone’s good and we can go into the climactic action sequence without any lingering uncertainty hanging over our heads.

I’ve compiled a theory that Frost’s character is actually written as gay and secretly pining for Pegg. There are homophobia jokes galore, enough to beg further justification. And honestly, it would completely explain Frost’s resentment and complaints that the trip was supposed to be “just the two of them.” It would even resonate with the themes of fraternal geek culture that Paul tries so hard to embody. But in the end that possibility is left unresolved. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was written in and then cut by the producers for being too “controversial”. I guess nerd audiences are okay with jokes about being perceived as gay, but to actually have a gay character (excluding the self-proclaimed bisexual Paul) would hit too close to home.

Pegg and Frost clearly had something going on with this nerds-encounter-an-alien plot. It has all the elements of their previous genre-bender films, only this time for science fiction. There’s even a formula for us to follow. At first common tropes are undermined amusingly, but they are eventually embraced and reincorporated in the end of the film. It seems like that’s what they tried to do, but for various reasons it doesn’t work, the main one being that they don’t have any kind of investment in the science-fiction portion of the story.

Science fiction is supposed to be about speculating on the vast possibilities of the universe, and what makes a close-encounter story compelling is the chance to interact with an intelligent organism entirely different from humanity. Paul the Alien is basically your college roommate inside the body of a squat grey midget.

The explanation for why his personality is so abrasive is that he’s lived on Earth for 60 years and evidently maturity or tact are qualities less enlightened species are burdened with. His explanation for why his biology is so stereotypical is dismissed as a subconscious conditioning program dispersed through the human population over the years in order to keep humans from freaking out should they ever make contact. This does nothing to explain why he’s humanoid in the first place– I guess because the answer is, “it was convenient.” That’s the answer for pretty much every interesting question the film poses.

Why does Paul have godlike powers of healing, invisibility and telekinesis?  He’s the title character for the film, but by the end we know virtually nothing about him. We know nothing of his race, where they come from or what their society is like. All we know is that we have to get somewhere to shoot off fireworks so that the massive, invisible alien mother ship will know where to pick him up. The ship only poses more questions. Did they drive all the way from Alpha Centauri to rendezvous with Paul? Or were they always there? Are they upset that the USA was interested in killing one of their citizens to harvest its stem cells? What kind of diplomatic relations does the government have with these guys, anyways? No one knows, because the movie doesn’t bother to address any of these questions.

You might say (Russ I’m looking at you), that I’m overly scrutinizing what’s just supposed to be a lighthearted romp through some old science fiction tropes. But is it too much to ask that a film riffing off of science fiction actually do its homework? If I can come up with these few questions just sitting here at my computer, couldn’t two guys actually faced with a real-live alien do at least as well? They’re poor representatives of nerd culture if they can’t approach a close encounter with at least a hint of skepticism.

2/5 Stars

Posted by Sam Julian

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Easy A – A Better Late Than Never Review

So I saw Easy A last week, a few months after its theater run. It’s not a movie I’d normally see of my own volition, but it was a free showing, Emma Stone is hot, and since Easy A got decent reviews I figured it was safe to temporarily expose myself. And I’d like to make clear in advance that I knew what I was getting myself into. And it’s not really fair of me to begrudge the film its genre conventions. But they opened themselves up to it by openly acknowledging them, so I’m going to call this one fair game.

Emma Stone stars as an intelligent, unassuming hot girl, a cipher for all the bookish white teens watching. After lying about losing her virginity to best friend Michalka, Stone attracts the attention of their school’s stunningly efficient rumor mill (played with rigidly rehearsed efficiency by Steadicam operator Geoffrey Haley). Evidently this is a huge deal, and Stone is immediately labeled a harlot and shameless hussy by the school’s ardent, very vocal religious community.

Through a series of convenient coincidences incorporated to ease digestion of the plot, Stone chooses to embrace and perpetuate this rumor, first to protect her totally gay friend, and then because she pities a fat, sniveling stereotype. She proceeds to take payment for lying about her sexual escapades in the form of gift cards. This is doubly efficient because

1) It’s topical (Gift cards! I got like five of ‘em for Christmas!), and

2) It’s not real money, so you don’t have to explicitly address the fact that your protagonist has essentially become a prostitute.

One montage of wry commercial transactions later, and Emma Stone’s bad-girl behavior has gone too far. She doesn’t know who she is anymore, everything’s so messed up. Except it isn’t, because the nice-guy childhood crush trusts her version of events and actually really likes her. Together they stage an elaborate dance number in the gym on the day of the big basketball game to announce her live webcast explaining everything and clearing her name.

So basically, Easy A is exactly like every high school rom-com ever except for the fact that it was made in 2010 and therefore must exhibit an awareness of the culmination of pop culture that’s preceded it. I lost track of how many times the film winkingly referred to the fact that the plot was “just like one of those cheesy 80’s movies”, as if acknowledgement of that fact exonerated it of any derivativeness. Usually this meta-commentary was through Emma Stone’s webcast voice over. If this reach at “topical” youth culture wasn’t insulting enough, the narration is consistently used to repair lazy screenwriting, caulking in all the signposts and plot advancements the acting neglected to include.

Now, “meta” is something of a joke nowadays cuz it’s rampant, but it can be used effectively. In Easy A, it is not. Stone’s observations point out the creakings  of the plot machine and justify a couple homage moments, but the only element of meta wedded to the plot is the fact that it’s framed as a webcast. The movie doesn’t take it any further than that.

Think about this for a moment. There’s actually a lot going on here. It’s a mesh of the Scarlet Letter and 80s comedies set in the nascent technological wonderland of the 21st century. You could go to town on themes of vouyerism and spectacle; you’d even be able to implicate the viewers of the film for going to see a story about a hot promiscuous girl. The more I think about it, the more I realize this plot had a lot of potential.

Despite what my criticism may communicate, the movie wasn’t terrible. It was thoroughly average and even funny at times. When I think about how awesome it could have been, the mediocrity stings me more than an awful movie would. Easy displays the bare minimum of effort, the movie equivalent of fast food. It stands in the shadow of older, better works of art, offering no commentary or innovation. The pretense of meta-comedy becomes a shield the writers use to defend lazy and strategic screenwriting. What we see here is a cookie-cutter script developed for an up-and-coming marketable actress. It’s a remake of Mean Girls, with a Lindsay Lohan who hopefully wont self-destruct.

Every character is a stereotype chosen with formulaic calculation. Amanda Bynes plays an idiotic evangelical included to provide the opposing viewpoint with a villifiable antagonist. Dan Byrd is the non-threatening gay friend who shows up when the plot requires him. Penn  Badgley (listed as “Woodchuck Todd”) plays a love interest whose defining character trait is that he wears funny things. Thomas Hayden Church stole his deadpan teacher shtick straight from Tim Meadows. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they wrote in Stone’s adopted brother when they started shooting, took a look at the cast and said, “oh shit, we need a black person!”

There was some stuff for me to love. Stone’s protagonist is a bookworm, and so her jokes often appealed to the English major in me.  Her parents are pretty funny. But the few gems that existed were quips, shoehorned into static scenes chosen for convenience of shooting rather than any inherent interest. While their words may have been objectively funny, they were in a story without energy or momentum.

This overall laziness is evidenced by the sloppiness of the film’s exposition. The writers didn’t go to any trouble to embed the plot in the film, leading to moments like the Turning Point, where Stone’s scandalous behavior goes too far. What happens is the school counselor, who happens to be the wife of Stone’s English teacher, gives gonorrhea to a student who happens to be “going steady” with Amanda Bynes. The student implicates Stone because she’s an easy target, who agrees to corroborate the alibi because she cares deeply about preventing her favorite teacher from discovering that his marriage is a sham and he should probably get tested for gonorrhea. I could delve further into why this is absurd, but the main point is that none of this is set up or explained before it’s all dumped on us at once. We only learned that the school counselor existed about five minutes ago. We didn’t even know that she and another major character were married until one of them got gonhorrea.

This isn’t an isolated incident. It happens regularly, with Stone’s wry narration “reminding” us of three more things that weren’t mentioned before but are now vitally important to the advancement of the plot.

And part of me thinks maybe I missed something, and in actuality the whole movie went over my head. All these crazy coincidences and random plot elements, all the stereotypical cardboard cutouts, they’re all part of some grand deconstructionist joke that I was too judgmental to miss. Maybe all the random stuff that happens is just a reflection of the chaos of real life. Or maybe they just had a tight deadline.

2.5/5 Stars

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Comics that will Never be Films

Are you fed up with Hollywood co-opting every marketable idea in popular entertainment and releasing a cynical, half-assed bastardization of the works you know and love? Everyone’s heard that “the book is better,” but that isn’t so much a truism as a testament to the challenges of adaptation. It is possible to make an adaptation that surpasses the creative vision of the original.

For an example, look no further than the film version of A History of Violence. While the original comic book is straight up pulp crime melodrama, director David Cronenberg created a film adaptation that meditates on the nature of conflict and the motivations of violence. Where the comic exploitatively reveled in the graphic violence that its characters inflicted, the film lingered on the brief brutal moments of bloodshed so as to make you squirm at the horror of it.

The rigidity of film structure and the expense and scale of the moviemaking process make actually good adaptations few and far between. Poor adaptations are legion and decent adaptations something to be prayed for. The Last Airbender was an embarrassment. Anything written by Alan Moore (yes, even Watchmen and V for Vendetta) has been bastardized or drained of its originality. All Iron Man fans care about is whether or not they got his glowing chest insignia right.

What I offer you today is an escape. Here are four comics that couldn’t be adapted to films even if Zach Snyder was given 500 million dollars to write, produce and direct them.  They’re either unmarketable, unfilmable, or too damn smart for their own good. But they’re all brilliant.

Promethea by Alan Moore and J.H. Williams

Let’s start with the magic hermit king of comics, just to give you an idea of what Hollywood has driven the poor man to. Promethea starts off as a hilarious, exciting romp through futuristic New York and then abruptly becomes a philosophical discussion of reality. The main character, a girl who becomes the incarnation of a female spirit of creativity, starts out as a superhero and ends up as a goddess. Frankly, the middle of the series lags, as its protagonists spend most of their time walking through the multiverse talking about Moore’s trippy religion, but J.H. Williams’ art is some of the best ever seen in comics. And the insane visual homage’s and literary references are exactly what make the series unadaptable.

Weathercraft by Jim Woodring

Woodring’s latest comic in the Frank series is a full-length graphic novel, and as usual, it’s like Looney Tunes from another dimension. The whole thing is wordless and populated by symbolist archetypes that manipulate each other in alternately hilarious and gruesome ways. The series is far too weird to be made into a mainstream movie, though an Adult Swim cartoon would not be out of the question. If you like clever social commentary with a side of LSD, I recommend you start with The Portable Frank and work your way through the series.

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

Ware is a designer at heart, so half the fun of reading his work is the creative, inventive layout. Any adaptation of his comics would lose the visual juxtaposition that permeates his work. Even without that, Jimmy Corrigan is far too depressing to be made into a movie. The story follows not a smart boy but a rather underdeveloped, middle-aged shut-in as he stumbles through his sad, little life. This is paralleled by the childhood development of his grandfather in the early 1900s. The two storylines converge in a wordless, sprawling climax that confounds description. Hollywood likes a little glimmer of hope in its stories, but Ware doesn’t offer any, though the story is beautiful and should be read by anyone who hasn’t yet been convinced of the medium’s maturity.

David Boring by Dan Clowes

Clowes wrote David Boring to be a story that couldn’t be adapted into a film, and ironically, it could actually be a pretty great one. To do so would counter the spirit of the story, however, which is a self-aware commentary on the nature of storytelling and genre conventions. The eponymous protagonist is constantly avoiding narrative structure, seeking only the presence of his ideal female fantasy. The story begins as an offbeat noir, then switches from romance to horror to thriller and back again. Towards the end of the story, Boring struggles to write a screenplay that “follows all the conventions” but can’t seem to put a single word to the page.

Hollywood would like you to believe that nothing is legitimately popular until they’ve turned it into a blockbuster, but I think you’ll find after reading a few of these, that film in its current form is restrictive, and movie adaptations are mostly cynical economic ventures. If we want our movie culture to grow as a medium, we must demand higher quality, original ideas with our wallets. In conclusion, go see Inception.

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The Inception Trilogy!

Christopher Nolan is far too classy to discuss this himself, but the powers that be at Warner Bros. are undoubtedly racing furiously to figure out how to milk everything they can out of the creative masterpiece that is Inception. Since all lucrative film epics come in threes, I decided it would be fun to speculate on the ways we can expect our fond memories of this movie to be bastardized in the years to come.

Inception II: Deception

Three years after the events in Inception, Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) is a happy single father working as a dream researcher. But someone doesn’t want the world’s greatest dream thief out of the game that easily. They kidnap his children and blackmail him into doing one last job: to convince Miles (Michael Caine) to release the patent on his invention, a dream machine that can connect all of mankind’s subconscious to a collective limbo. But is any of it real? Or is Cobb in a dream of his own devising? Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt return as a dream-hopping super spy couple with a dark secret.

Inception III: Conception

Cobb (DiCaprio) averted disaster and saved his family in the last film, but he has unwittingly released a startling new technology on the world: the ability to enter dreams wirelessly. Now dream hoppers everywhere are gearing up subconscious armies for all-out war. Everyone wants control of the dream-world, and Cobb’s mind is ground zero for the battle. Cobb, Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) and Ariadne (Alexis Bledel) have the ability to stop it, but the dream world isn’t enough this time. With the help of energy tycoon Saito (Chow Yun-Fat), they have to find the dream hoppers in the real world, and bring them to justice.

This would bring the whole series to a nice, explosive conclusion. But of course, that’s never enough…

Inception IV: Reception (Written and directed by Brett Ratner)

Cobb (Hayden Christensen) is the Chief of Dream Police, the organization that regulates “Heaven”, the shared psychic space between all of humanity.  During a routine sweep of an unconstructed area, Cobb is contacted by an alien consciousness with dream-constructing powers unlike anything he’s ever experienced. How will mankind respond to these creatures from outer space visiting their dreams? Are they benevolent, or will they brainwash everyone on Earth in their sleep? Will Ariadne and Arthur’s marriage go off without a hitch? Does any of this make any sense? No one knows!


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