Archive for Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

See-Thru Hats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2010 by dcairns

Where DID you get that perspex skull-cap?

PROJECT X is a 1968 William Castle sci-fi espionage flick which is, characteristically, extremely interesting and utterly bananas. I may have already spoken of my Big Theory about William Castle, but let me lead off with it again —

While known as a gimmick-meister, inventor of Emerg-O (plastic skeleton on rails flies over audience’s heads) and Percepto (electric joy buzzers beneath seats zap audience’s asses) etc, Castle might usefully be looked at as a pure eccentric, whose fondness for bizarre gimmicks extended into the plots of his movies as well as their promotion. This notion ties together many of the thrillers Castle made before discovering B-movie horror and selling himself as a cut-price Hitchcock — he had a love of weird plots which led him to adapt Cornell Woolrich (THE MARK OF THE WHISTLER) and to stuff HOLLYWOOD STORY with old-time silent stars playing themselves. This tendency flourishes in THE TINGLER, of course, but you can also see it in movies Castle worked on as producer — Orson Welles’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI, for instance, where the idea of a man hiring an assassin to pretend to kill him so he can escape the imminent atomic holocaust seems like pure Castle. Similarly, ROSEMARY’S BABY, with it’s upscale New York coven, and BUG, with its sentient fire-raising insects who can communicate with humans by spelling out words on a wall with their bodies, reflect a very individual sensibility. It’s fitting that Castle’s last film as director was SHANKS, a comedy about electro-galvinism starring Marcel Marceau. Some might argue that in fact, no, it’s NOT fitting, it’s INSANE. But it’s definitely more fitting for William Castle to go out that way than, say, David Lean.

So to PROJECT X, a twenty-second century spy thriller about a race to extract vital spy secrets from the mind of an agent in suspended animation and suffering from chemically-induced amnesia. Like the recent INCEPTION, the movie is wall-to-wall exposition, but unlike that big moneyspinner Castle can’t afford a slew of charismatic supporting characters to mouth his sci-fi pseudoscience. He has to settle for Harold Gould (dad from Rhoda) and Henry Jones. Jones, known to cinephiles as the snide coroner in VERTIGO, is Castle’s secret weapon, imbuing the most sinister experiments with a decaying glee. His morbid charm allows Castle to indulge his Charles Addams type gallows humour (the script is entirely void of comedy: Jones does it by twinkle alone).

The story, augmented with Star Trek sliding door sound effects and see-through hats, is both amazingly prescient and ham-fistedly goofy, which means the movie is always watchable. Since the hero’s mind has been wiped, Jones and his scientists plan to stimulate his subconscious by placing the guy in a fake 1960s setting (the character was a historian specializing in that period) with a fake personality/cover story, or “matrix”. Then they periodically blast his brain with holograms, which reconstruct what they know of his mission to what they quaintly call “Sino-Asia.” Apparently the Sino-Asians were planning to win World War III by mass-producing male children (I told you it was prescient!), but the hero found out something much more sinister

The holographic flashbacks are produced by Hanna & Barbera animation, weird superimpositions, and painted backdrops by comic book legend Alex Toth. All very stylish in their kitsch way. The real-world scenes suffer by comparison, being flatly shot in a fairly televisual manner by the reliably prosaic Castle, whose visual sense never could keep up with his crazy brain. He does manage a fair bit of camera movement, but his main technique is to hold a wide shot until the scene starts to crust over, and the light gets fossilized on its way to your eyes , then break it by moving an actor or the camera, just enough to maintain a baseline of viewer consciousness. But the nutty plot developments, which throw in telekinesis, germ warfare, brainwashing, virtual cigarettes, and a guest spot from Keye Luke, do keep us tingling with dazed anticipation. The leading lady, Greta Baldwin, is a Swedish dairy worker who stumbles into the story by accident and hangs around for purely decorative reasons, but her bizarre acting style is so winning that she actually compensates for the lack of conventional production values. The awkward way she walks, and her huge hands, and her bizarro line readings, are worth any number of exploding starships.

Meanwhile, the film’s vision of a Cold War still going strong after 150 years (but no mention of the Russians), even after crime has been (s0mehow) abolished, is a weird and quasi-fascist one. The Americans apparently dictate how many children their women can have, and indulge in mass sterilisation to keep numbers down (as we learn in a brief aside), so there doesn’t seem much to choose between the two sides. Oh, and the Americans all seem to be white, the only other colours of face appearing archive footage of 60s rioting… At least Trek hypothesized an uneasy detente between Earth and a vaguely oriental, vaguely slavic alien race, blatantly transposing ’60s concerns to its sci-fi universe, without actually accepting Mutually Assured Destruction as an eternal constant in human affairs.

Still, such gloomy thoughts seem inappropriate to such a cheerfully wacked-out fantasy as this. Nice to see a sci-fi movie that’s ludicrous while still getting things right — the future Americans regard Freudian psychology as old wives’ tales, although the movie does feature a Monster from the Id (my second this week, after SCOTT PILGRIM!) which strikes down an enemy agent in a hilariously, disturbingly protracted bout of synth-jazz, loud male screaming, fish-eye lens freak-out and solarized colours.

The Sunday Intertitle: Anti Bellum!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2010 by dcairns

Thursday evening was wild — we’d booked seats for Buster Keaton’s OUR HOSPITALITY at the historic Cameo Cinema (as featured in Chomet’s THE ILLUSIONIST) at 7, and then belatedly found out that, after initially being rejected, we had, after all, been granted free tickets (as part of a promotion for Grolsch beer and Little White Lies magazine) free tickets to see SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD, at 8. Depending on projection speed, OUR HOSPITALITY is about an hour and ten minutes long. It looked dicey.

Fortunately, I realized that both films were playing in the same auditorium, so unless they intended to project the first ten minutes of SCOTT P on top of the last ten minutes of OUR HOSPITALITY, it looked like we were OK. And while, yes, I agree that would have been interesting, I’m glad they adopted the more traditional one-film-at-a-time approach.

Neil Brand on the piano — live! Fully amplified, and making a dramatic racket to simulate the onscreen thunderstorm in Scene One. I’ve seen solo piano accompaniments before, but none as effective as this at the serious bits. I once saw NOSFERATU with a pianist who made it seem funny and quaint with his tinkly counterpoint, and wondered whether a single instrument could do justice to a more serious tale. Now I’m itching to hear Brand’s take on Murnau.

This was ideal musical treatment, melodic at times, percussive at others, standing in for absent sound effects but in a discreet and elegant way. With the Edinburgh Festival raging outside, the audience wasn’t as big as I’d have liked, but the laughter still resounded at these eighty-year-old gags. Fortunately, despite the film’s deep south setting, Keaton eschews the racial caricaturing endemic to films of the time, so there’s nothing to greatly embarrass amid the pleasure. A joke about domestic violence (Buster intervenes to protect a battered wife, and she furiously drives him off with heavy blows, before proudly surrendering to her husband’s brutality once more) is certainly non-PC, but contains an uncomfortable kernel of psychological veracity.

I hadn’t actually seen a 35mm projection of this, Keaton’s second feature as (co-)director. My first big-screen viewing of SHERLOCK JNR had allowed me to appreciate the fine ensemble playing more (on TV, Keaton completely dominates). Since everyone save Keaton and a couple of locomotive workers (one played by Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad, athletically kicking hats off tall men’s heads — a trick that once rendered Buster unconscious) is played straight here, that wasn’t the revelation this time, although I appreciated Natalie Talmadge (Keaton’s real-life wife) a little more.

What came over were the production design details, like the little brushes affixed to the front of the train (a working copy of Stephenson’s Rocket) to clear small obstacles from the track, which incidentally is also Henry Fonda’s job description in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. What was also noticeable was the storytelling style, which isn’t as refined as it would later become. While it’s fascinating to see Keaton shoot the melodramatic opening in a serious manner, he hasn’t quite reached the minimalist perfection of his coverage of THE GENERAL. Richard Lester said of that film, “You can’t take a single thing from it.” Every shot is absolutely essential to the scene it’s in, and every scene essential to the plot. This theoretically means that if a single shot hadn’t worked, the film would be fatally flawed… based on this assessment, THE GENERAL may be one of the very few objectively perfect films, in terms of construction at least.

OUR HOSPITALITY doesn’t aim for such economy and precision. When Natalie is introduced, her dog, who has no narrative function whatsoever, gets a length closeup. When Buster goes for a ride on his bike, there are numerous shots of him running along astride it. The later Keaton would have settle for one. But these “flaws” are so charming they can hardly be objected to. They merely characterise the film as a more loose and rough-edged production than the “so real it hurts” detail of THE GENERAL.

Evil Xs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2010 by dcairns

Not much to add to the gleeful hubbub surrounding Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD. A rare film which takes faithfulness to its source as a call to have fun rather than stifle invention, it’s also one of the few movies that really works for me in terms of juggling sort-of-real characters with personalities and issues, and awesome fight scenes where people get exploded. There’s no sense of a mismatch at all, you don’t worry about the death side of things, you just accept that the mild mayhem is some kind of metaphor, and nobody really gets hurt within the world of this film.

Taking his cue from the graphic novel/s, Wright plays games, literally, with cinema, cheerfully eating up anime and comic book and video game techniques. It makes me curious to see what he’d do with 3D, since his showcasing of technique for the sheer hell of it makes self-consciousness a virtue. Also, it’s very funny.

Wright has always had a lovely sense of comic timing, and his hyperkinetic style actually works hand-in-hand with that. The sharp cut following Michael Cera’s reaction to the line “Bread makes you fat,” — a single, horrified, “What?” — is made retroactively funnier by the abruption of the edit following fast on the heels of the line. In a split second, your brain is reprogrammed to upgrade the line from amusing to hilarious.

Cera is of course delightful, but so is everyone. My new conversational opener for after a film viewing with a friend is “Who was your favourite?” and it works very well with this movie [Maybe wouldn’t be so helpful with something like SECRET HONOR] I asked Fiona, “Who was your favourite?” “What?” “Who was your favourite?” “Oh. Girl drummer.” An instinctive reaction to a good bob. And then, “And gay guy.” My favourite is Ellen Wong as Knives Chao, because everything she does is cute and funny. But it’s a tough call, because there’s a whole trench-full of cute funniness in the flick.

As one who’s gone on the record with a deep, almost sexual admiration for Cera, I felt uncertain about his darker hair coloring here, and Wright does a lot of profile and three-quarter views of his star, which makes him less beautiful, less a Starman and more a 21st Century Sterling Holloway. But that ain’t bad.

Is Scott sitting on a swing in the snow a reference to Kurosawa’s IKIRU? It seems like it might be. Or it might be a reference to Bruce MacDonald’s THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS, which likewise has teenage issues, split screen and Canada as sub-topics. Two references that seem fairly certain are the use of the hypnosis sting from Mike Hodges’ FLASH GORDON, and the appearance by the Monster from the Id from FORBIDDEN PLANET. What’s he been doing with himself in the last fifty years, anyhow?

He’s certainly kept in trim.