Archive for Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

The Soho Dialogues

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2021 by dcairns

Something different — Fiona and I bounce around thoughts on Edgar Wright’s LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, avoiding major spoilers — but if you want to go in clean and blind, you still might want to bookmark this for afterwards.

DC: So, we both enjoyed LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, though you loved it more than I did. It was certainly nice to see a filmmaker enjoying himself so much — several of my worries about the project proved quite unfounded. To start on a high note — I loved the dance where the two lead actresses keep substituting for one another, in a long take which uses framing and blocking rather than visible special effects to make the changes. Edgar Wright COULD have been using CGI to enhance the trick, but the beauty of it was that it wasn’t visible. Rather like the mirror tricks in our recent viewing, THE HALFWAY HOUSE. I enjoy special effects but in-camera stuff has it’s own thrill.

FW: At the end I wanted to stand up and applaud, but then I had an emotional connection to it that you didn’t. I empathised with Eloise so deeply that I was dragged in, almost unwillingly at first, into the narrative.

LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is such a tour de force of filmmaking. I didn’t frighten me, apart from one superb jump scare, I was just vibing on the emotions and the extremely clever steals from other movies. I struck up a conversation with a couple in their twenties who’d been seated behind us and I was really surprised when the guy admitted to being scared shitless by it. We, being old hands, had to explain that most of what we’d just witnessed was a wickedly clever homage to other films, so it was more of a hugely enjoyable box-ticking exercise for us. I really like that cinephiles and non-cinephiles can appreciate it together for different reasons.

DC: Agree that the story and dialogue do a great job of setting up the character and making us feel for her, by giving her such an implacably hostile environment, personified by the awful Jocasta. I have a slight question about why that evil woman scenario is the right way to set up a story about toxic masculinity and the patriarchy in sixties media, which seems to have been the foundation of Wright’s interest in the material. But that’s maybe one example of why it’s often best to ignore what the filmmaker says about their work. But it makes me wonder if the two writers were on the same page. There’s a tantalising story told by Wright that he had wanted to make all the sixties sequences musical numbers, and Krysty Wilson-Cairns talked him out of that. The idea being they could get more emotion in if there was dialogue, which strikes me as a failure to understand musicals. I kind of wish he’d made that version, because as stylish as the film is, that could have been truly remarkable.

FW: When you think about something like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, you don’t have to give up emotion at the expense of the genre. I’d love to see Wright’s original conception of this movie. However, I also loved what Wilson-Cairns brought to the piece, so I feel a bit torn. I still felt like I was caught up in a maelstrom of film and being flung about hither and thither by its makers. Normally I don’t like feeling out of control, but this was just so deliciously delirious. When we got home, I started declaiming Wright as one of those rare British directors who take flamboyance to the next level. I was putting him in the same pantheon as Ken Russell, Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock. You, very wisely, pointed out that they were originals, so I came to the conclusion that Wright is more like a supremely talented magpie, exuberantly stealing ideas out of other filmmakers nests. 

Shall we talk about the ‘colour’ problem?

DC: Well, in term of the film’s colour palette there’s no problem, just a luscious blend of Bava, Argento, Clouzot’s pop-art phase and Hitchcock’s tests for the unmade KALEIDOSCOPE-FRENZY. 

In terms of race and representation, yes, we each picked up on different things. I found it strange that there are no gay characters in either the sixties section (Soho, polari, a vibrant queer culture) or the modern section (a fashion college). Homosexuality seems not to exist, even as a concept, so that Eloise never even wonders if the sympathetic John (Michael Ajao), who’s a fashion student who’s interested in her as a person, not a lust object, might be gay. There may have been something I missed, but if so it was very minor.

FW: I pointed out that I was surprised there seemed to be no people of colour in 1960s Soho, which was incomprehensible to me. Also, Eloise’s boyfriend, John (Michael Ajao) seemed almost tokenistic in his representation.

DC: That’s very weird, as you see all races even in British films of that milieu made at the time. The customers in the particular nightclubs depicted may well have been overwhelmingly white, but you have black performers in BEAT GIRL and JUNGLE STREET, and Burt Kwouk turns up on the Soho Streets in both EXPRESSO BONGO, eating fast food, and DEEP END, selling fast food. And then there’s FLAME IN THE STREETS and SAPPHIRE.

Wright’s movies have been pretty damn white — BABY DRIVER is the only one with a major Black character, but it was shot in Atlanta, where you might expect to see more than one. So, in a film that wants to cast a critical eye over the entertainment industry’s exploitation of women, is there no room for any other kind of representation? It’s great to see Ajao featured, but he has to stand in for the entirety of a multiethnic metropolis here.

FW: HA HA HA. I’ve just re-watched the trailer and they’ve put Psycho ‘stabs’ into Land Of 1000 Dances by Wilson Pickett the Walker Bros! Genius.

Shall we talk about the use of music? You seem to know more about the inspiration behind, and the making of, the film than I do, because I went in completely ‘blind.’ As we’re still writing about it, I’m really struggling not to look at other people’s reviews because I want my response to be pure and untainted. So far, I’m winning, but I’m teetering on the brink.

DC: I went in as blind as the trailer leaves you, but it was all interesting enough to make me want to read up on it. Wright has an impressive list of influences.

Since he’s adept at using music that’s quite on-the-nose, but never being clumsy in a Zemeckis way (e.g. the use of the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society in HOT FUZZ) I was waiting for a couple of songs to turn up: the Pogues’ beautiful A Rainy Night in Soho (produced by Elvis Costello) and Pulp’s Bar Italia (Soho is “where all the broken people go”) but the concentration on sixties tunes, even in the modern sections, ruled that out I guess. He’s said he liked the idea of using songs that have well-known cover versions, reintroducing the originals people might not have heard. What did you think of the use of songs and score?

FW: Oh God! She’s so adorable.

 Maybe we should talk about the performances and how great they are. And also how neither of the leads are English but they do flawless Cornish and London accents respectively.

DC: Almost nobody in this film is using their own accent: McKenzie and Rita Tushingham are being Cornish, Taylor-Joy is doing London, Matt Smith does Cockney. Only Ajao, Terrence Stamp and Pauline McGlynn are talking naturally, but you’d never know it because everyone’s so good.

FW: Anyway, back to the soundtrack. I loved it. It’s given as much importance as the visuals. The result is overwhelming, but in the best possible way. Triple threat Anya Taylor-Joy actually did cover versions for the movie.

Was just watching the Anya Taylor-Joy video and picked up ANOTHER cinematic reference. Last night, as our Halloween treat, we watched DEAD OF NIGHT. There are shots in LNIS that reminded me of Robert Hamer’s Haunted Mirror section from that movie. 

DC: Which goes back to your enjoyment of non-digital effects in LNIS. DEAD OF NIGHT and THE HALFWAY HOUSE are jam-packed with practical effects that are still incredibly impressive to this day.

FW: I guess Wright wanted to keep an element of “old-fashioned” filmmaking in his period-infused movie. There’s also superb editing going on, courtesy of Paul Machliss, who worked on Wright’s BABY DRIVER, SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD and THE WORLD’S END.

I was fascinated when you told me the cinematographer was Chung-hoon Chung, who’s probably known best for OLD BOY. When the Oscar noms are handed out, expect to see his name. He’s done an absolutely spectacular job on LNIS.

Production designer Marcus Rowland, another Wright regular, also deserves a nod.

DC: One missed opportunity in the film — there’s a sequence where Matt Smith’s bad guy bites Sandie and it’s Eloise who receives the hickey, so we learn that her link to the sixties is actually physical as well as audio-visual. What happens to Sandie happens to her. But this never recurs. Which seems like a missed opportunity (1) to develop and clarify the rules of the game and (2) to add jeopardy. There is actually another scene where Eloise experiences Sandie being injured, but this time she does NOT share the injury. Inconsistent, and weaker dramatically than it would be if they’d kept that idea going. (If you die in a dream you die in real life.)

FW: Yes. They had a marvellous opportunity to enlarge on that material and inject some real jeopardy. That loose end might have been caused by two writers coming together who hadn’t worked as a unit before, but surely someone else reading it could have pointed out that are real-life consequences to the events in Eloise’s dream world. You mentioned before that they might not have been on the same page, and this certainly seems to reinforce that idea.

Inspired by this, I started thinking about what I might have done with the material as a writer, based on my own experiences. As a child, growing up in an abusive household, I had such horrifying nightmares that I would dig my nails into the palms of my hands until they drew blood to stop myself from falling asleep. I think that once Eloise discovered that these wonderful, inspirational dreams had taken a very dark turn and were actually having an effect on her own body, she would do anything to stay awake – Do what I did. Drink gallons of coffee. ANYTHING to stop it. This would cause severe sleep deprivation in the ‘real’ world. Sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations. But she wouldn’t have any control over her autonomic nervous system, so she would fall asleep anyway, in the design studio, on the underground, anywhere in fact, leaving her in a constant state of terror. She would still want to solve the mystery, but this would be balanced with her need to stay safe and not get sucked into a potentially fatal situation in the dreams.

DC: I’m very glad that Diana Rigg got a decent role at the end of her life: the oldsters in HOT FUZZ were very welcome but it looks in retrospect a bit uncomfortable to have Simon Pegg kicking them in the head, when they were all so close to the end. Rigg’s role is juicy and doesn’t have the same kind of discomfort.

What else can we say? It embraces giallo style without indulging in giallo-style misogyny. I know Farran Smith prefers to use the word “sexist” when it’s adequate, but sometimes only the M word will do. The stuff that allows the film to escape misogynist sadism is the psychological and parapsychological angle, which tries to introduce fear unrelated to physical violence. And the #MeToo theme makes it imperative that leering sexism and sadism be avoided, and it mostly is. But the giallo is also a genre of crazy plot twists, and maybe overmechanistic plots have a tendency to pull filmmakers back to stereotypes and retrograde attitudes. I’m not sure why that should be, unless we accept Daniel Riccuto’s “narrative is evil” theorem. Which might be right. Or, at least, it might be right that when a creator is trying to follow what feels like the right narrative line, they’ll be unconsciously guided by hidden prejudices. At any rate, the need to make things turn out neatly turns a film about female victimization into something about female predation. Wright and Wilson-Cairns do inject some surprising tender beats into the climax which are commendable, but it’s almost like someone trying their damnedest to subvert a genre they really love and not quite admitting whether what they want to make is an anti-giallo. And then it’s weird to do all that and then serve up a female hate-figure like Jocasta.

FW: I completely agree. It’s an admirable attempt to do something different with a traditionally misogynistic genre. At the end I wanted to stand up and cheer. I’d been picked up and carried off by a cinematic twister, just like Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ, another film about alternate realities. It’s a tornado of film, throwing you about all over the place as you descend into the eye of the storm, then depositing you in a field, miraculously unharmed. And LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is not just about alternate realities. We’ve got time travel and the supernatural in the form of Stone Tape theory. It’s an exhilarating mix. I also connected to it emotionally in a way I wasn’t expecting.  I think I said, “Whoa! What a ride!”

But that ending. Are we supposed to feel pleased about what Eloise sees in the mirror, or disturbed that the image is still there? It adds an interesting element of unease.

MY VERDICT – Flawed but brilliant.

DC: I don’t have a fixed opinion — it seems quite likely I’ll love it or hate it more next time I see it, so I’ll record an open verdict on this unusual venture. More films like it would definitely improve the national cinema’s hit-rate, even if it took a few tries.

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.