Posts Tagged ‘Scott Pilgrim vs The World’

Sundance, Top Tens and Critics Groups. Oh. My.

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

2010 is a wrap, 2011 is here, but for most of us who write in this industry, until we get past February it’s all about Sundance and Oscar. The publicist letters about Sundance slates start hitting inboxes during the Winter Break (I send them straight to the “Sundance” file until after the new year, because I am getting old and grumpy and more hardcore about guarding family time these days) and don’t stop coming until about midway through the fest.

And of course, because the Academy has a twisted sense of humor, Oscar nominees are announced at the asscrack of dawn during Sundance, when everyone is running around Park City trying not to slip on the ice and break anything or freeze to death at a shuttle stop. Or both.

New York Online Crix Make Their Picks

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

New York Film Critics Online, composed of thirty critics whose outlets are exclusively online and two who are print journalists with a strong online presence, met at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre on December 12th and bestowed these awards at its 11th annual meeting:

The Complete List:

The Social Network

David Fincher – The Social Network

James Franco – 127 hours

Natalie Portman – Black Swan

Christian Bale – The Fighter

Melissa Leo – The Fighter

Matthew Libatique – Black Swan

Aaron Sorkin – The Social Network

I Am Love

Exit through the Gift Shop

Toy Story 3

Clint Mansell – Black Swan

Noomi Rapace – The Millennium Trilogy

John Wells – The Company Men

The Kids Are All Right

TOP 10 PICTURES (Alphabetical)

127 Hours (Fox Searchlight)
Another Year (Sony Pictures Classics)
Black Swan (Fox Searchlight)
Blue Valentine (The Weinstein Company)
The Ghost Writer
(Summit Entertainment)
Inception (Warner Bros.)
The Kids Are All Right
(Universal Pictures)
The King’s Speech (The Weinstein Company)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal Pictures)
The Social Network (Columbia Pictures)

Edgar Wright Vs. The Critics

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Edgar Wright Vs. The Critics

The DVD Wrap: Antichrist, The Elia Kazan Collection, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, Grown Ups … and more

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Antichrist: The Criterion Collection

Controversies that erupt at film festivals, Cannes especially, practically define what it means to stir “a tempest in a teapot.” For two weeks, the upper crust of the international film community – and way too many crusty critics – come together for the sole purpose of promoting cinema and themselves. The awards handed out to the men and women who make the films in competition are important for a dozen different good reasons, critics relish the opportunity to watch dozens of movies from around the world, almost in one long sitting, even those that will never see the light of a projection room back home.

In the last couple of years, as well, editors have demanded of their writers that they blog and tweet instant analysis of the films they’ve just seen, plus report the gossip and attend parties. The natural inclination is to report every “boo” as if it were a chorus and every walk-out a stampede. Such was the case with Realm of the Senses, Brown Bunny, Irreversible, Marie Antoinette, Trouble Every Day and Hail Mary. Ask the distributors of these films if they still think all publicity is good publicity.

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist created just such a raucous at Cannes. When it arrived on these shores, a few months later, hardly anyone even realized it was here. Antichrist isn’t a film made for the “entertainment” of its audience. If anything, it appears to have served more as a therapeutic tool for the writer/director, who, before production began, spent two months in a hospital for depression. In the attached interview, Von Trier describes his history of anxiety attacks and their debilitating effect on his creative process.

Having watched Antichrist for the first time on the Criterion Collection edition, it’s easy to see how it might have been inspired by nightmares and bouts with personal demons. It’s a horror fantasy, complete with talking animals, implements of torture and images right out of the Devine Comedy or a Bosch triptych.

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play an anonymous couple – He and She suffice — who, in the first scene, are too distracted by passionate sex to notice their toddler is about to fall out of a suspiciously open window. She becomes hysterical with grief and self-recriminations, while He simultaneously attempts to reason with his wife and deflect his own guilt feelings. We sense things are about to get really crazy when we learn She is studying the role of women in witchcraft, misogyny and the practice of “gynocide” throughout history.

He, a psychologist, suggests they spend time together in the remote mountain lair, Eden, even though She considers nature to be “Satan’s church.” Indeed, even the animals they encounter have demonic traits. No sooner does She declare herself cured of her guilt feelings than she completely flips out, confusing sex with torture and love with hate.

What happens in these scenes has been compared to the “torture porn” popularized in such movies as Saw. There’s no question Von Trier is a skillful director, whose ambition occasionally outdistances the substance of his material. In Antichrist, the most shocking moments – and they are that – are artfully lit, delicately paced and intricately choreographed. If that doesn’t sound as if it would be your cup of tea, no amount of great acting and cinematography will make it taste any better, probably.

To those who viewers impressed by the film, however, the Criterion Collection edition offers plenty of bonus material on which to chew. It includes a newly restored high-def digital transfer; commentary by Von Trier and educator Murray Smith; video interviews with Von Trier, Dafoe and Gainsbourg; a collection of video pieces exploring into the production of Antichrist; the featurette, Chaos Reigns at the Cannes Film Festival 2009; theatrical trailers; and a booklet, with a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Ian Christie.


The Elia Kazan Collection

No discussion of Elia Kazan’s career can go on very long before someone not only brings up the subject of “naming names” before the HUAC hearings, but also attempts to devalue his entire resume for doing so. Old scabs were picked when it was announced that the director would be granted an Honorary Award during the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony.

Several prominent actors, most of whom had never been forced to choose between a job and principle, refused to participate in the customary standing ovation. Long after Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, Jack L. Warner, Louis B. Mayer, John Wayne and dozens of “friendly witnesses” had been given a pass, the 90-year-old Greek immigrant and two-time Oscar winner was being asked to deliver a final, “mea culpa.” There’s a big difference between forgiving and forgetting, an act no one in Hollywood was being asked to do.

In his A Letter to Elia, which kicks The Elia Kazan Collection into high gear, Martin Scorsese acknowledges the controversy that tarnished Kazan’s reputation, without dwelling on it. His narration provides a survey of Kazan’s life and triumphs on stage and in the movies. Moreover, it explains how such classics as On the Waterfront and East of Eden literally changed the way Scorsese lived his life and anticipated a career in films.

A Letter to Elia also describes how Kazan’s movies reflected his own experiences and those of his family. The archival material, clips and interviews shape a riveting portrait of the artist. A collector’s booklet covers much of the same territory in text, photos, publicity material and assembled credits.

What follows are 15 of the master’s 19 features, including 5 titles new to DVD (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Viva Zapata!, Man on a Tightrope, Wild River and America, America). They range from early noir crime thrillers (Panic in the Streets, Boomerang!) and message films (Gentleman’s Agreement, Pinky), through the great literary and theatrical adaptations of the 1950s, and on to his most personal film, America, America. Each is wonderful in its own way.

You’d need to use a calculator to keep track of the Oscar wins and nominations accrued by the films, casts and behind-the-camera talent represented in these films. Besides the unforgettable repeat performances of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Natalie Wood, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden, it’s also fun to watch such long-ago stars as Joan Blondell, Gregory Peck, Warren Beatty, Raymond Massey, Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, Richard Widmark, Anthony Quinn, Frederic March, Carroll Baker, Andy Griffith and Montgomery Clift. For the film buffs on your gift list, “The Elia Kazan Collection” easily qualifies as a no-brainer.


Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Blu-ray

The producers of the madly inventive Scott Pilgrim vs. the World must have thought they’d landed in Bizarro World when opening-weekend box-office tallies failed to match the positive buzz generated at ComicCon and in overwhelmingly glowing reviews from the mainstream media. OK, I hear what you’re saying: why should anyone under 30 trust any review written by a mainstream critic, especially about a movie adapted from a beloved comic book?

Well, how about this blurb from a review penned by Fanboy-in-Chief Harry Knowles?: “Sheer Imagination. Pure Kinetic Energy. A Genuine Visual Expression of the Essence of Rock N Roll Upon Geek Culture.” Don’t look to me for answers, though. After watching the movie for the first time on the splendid Blu-ray edition, I saw no reason why “SPVTW” couldn’t have matched the opening-weekend numbers of “Kick-Ass.”I could only come up with three possible explanation: 1) Michael Cera had exhausted all of his boyish charm, 2) members of the target audience were loathe to pull away from their video games for two hours, or 3) the more technically sophisticated residents of geekdom had already pirated “SPVTW” and shared it with all their Facebook friends.

Typically, movies heavy on CGI play extremely well in Blu-ray. The bonus features, alone, should make SPVTW a must-buy for anyone who cut their gaming teeth on Mario Bros. or remembers watching Cera grow up on Arrested Development. Finally playing someone his own age, 22, Cera’s Scott Pilgrim is a gangly Canadian rock musician who unexpectedly finds himself with a retinue of past and future girlfriends. The one to whom he’s most attracted requires more than the usual amount of wooing, though.

To win the Technicolor-haired Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Pilgrim must battle seven of her evil ex-lovers in hyper-kinetic duels straight out of The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario 64. Like Link, Pilgrim draws his strength from passing various tests and collecting superpowers. The terrific British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) worked closely with Bryan Lee O’Malley – creator of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels and video game – to ensure his movie would ring true with fans, and it shows.

The soundtrack also rocks, with music by the Sex Bob-Ombs, Beck, Crash and the Boys and composer Nigel Godrich. Also turning in nice performances are Jason Schwartzman, Anna Kendrick, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Kieran Culkin, as Pilgrim’s gay roommate.

Not surprisingly, the supplemental material is practically worth the price of admission, alone. In addition to four separate commentary tracks, there are 21 deleted scenes, bloopers, a 49-minute making-of documentary, footage of concert rehearsals, music videos, alternate footage and edits, pre-production material, a special-effects package, the animated short Adult Swim: Scott Pilgrim vs. the Animation, the director’s blog, a stills gallery, trivia track and U Control, with PIP storyboards. Fans of the movie will want to learn how Wright pulled off the amazing stunts and effects.


Grown Ups: Blu-ray

Unlike Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which critics loved and audiences mostly ignored, Grown Ups scored a direct hit at the box office, despite reviews that essentially described Adam Sandler and his cronies as lazy and self-satisfied.

There’s nothing to be gained by criticizing an audience’s willingness to support mediocre films, while dozens of really good movies can barely find a distributor, so I’ll simply say that I agree with the critics on Grown Ups and leave it at that. Producer/co-writer/director Sandler rounded up friends Chris Rock, Kevin James, David Spade and Rob Schneider in the service of a sentimental comedy that once again re-unites members of a champion high school basketball team after a beloved coach (or a player) dies.

To memorialize their coach, the men plan to spread his ashes outside a lakeside home they used as a refuge while kids. Along with their families, the old friends also hope to unwind from the pressures of urban life. The only other thing to know going into Grown Ups is that members of a rival team (Tim Meadows, Colin Quinn, and Steve Buscemi, among them) still live in the community and demand a rematch for their disputed loss, decades earlier. Otherwise, the men are merely older versions of their former selves, with the same personality traits, skills and hang-ups.

Grown Ups may, indeed, be a lazy production, but Sandler’s fan base has never demanded much of him artistically, or, for that matter, from his co-stars. (Rock is barely asked to work up a sweat, even in the basketball game.) The best material is reserved for the women in the cast, including such known quantities as Salma Hayek, Maria Bello and Maya Rudolph.

In short, fans of the stars of Grown Ups will cut the movie far more slack than those hoping to see one full of fresh ideas and original gags. The Blu-ray package adds a commentary track with and short profile of veteran comedy director Dennis Dugan; deleted scenes and a gag reel; The Lost Tapes of Norm MacDonald, which is as funny as anything in the movie; a look at the careers of the primary cast; a short piece, Busey and the Monkey; and BD-Live functionality.


Three and Out

Two years after it was released in England, Jonathan Gershfield’s dark comedy Three and Out (a.k.a., A Deal Is a Deal) arrives here on the straight-to-DVD express. Fans of smallish British ensemble pieces should like it, if only for the acting. Gemma Arterton, Colm Meaney and Imelda Staunton are known quantities in America, while Mackenzie Crook is familiar primarily for playing Garth Keenan in the original British version of “The Office.” (The role would inform Rainn Wilson’s portrayal of Dwight Shrute.)

Crook plays Paul Callow, a singularly unlucky train engineer who is unable to brake fast enough to avoid hitting two people in two weeks. Although neither fatal accident is his fault, Callow is shaken to his core. When one of his fellow drivers tells him that a third death would force the company to offer him early retirement and 10 years salary, Callow goes off in search of someone desperate to commit suicide. He finds it in Meaney’s Tommy Cassidy, a burglar who only wants to re-connect with his estranged wife and daughter before falling in front of the train. The more time Callow spends in Cassidy’s company, however, the less likely it becomes that the engineer can pull it off. The extras include a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.


Love Ranch

In an introduction filmed for the DVD, director Taylor Hackford describes what’s about to be seen as a “workplace” drama, with an unconventional romance – or two – at its center. His wife and the star of Love Ranch, Helen Mirren, stands alongside him, looking as if she had been awakened from an uneasy sleep. If one is able to read between the lines, Hackford is telling viewers that the version they’re about to watch isn’t the one he wanted them to see, and some of the best stuff he shot was saved from the cutting-room floor as evidence to be presented in the DVD package. And, he’s right.

Some of the deleted scenes are better than what ended up in the movie, which was shown in only a handful of theaters and given no marketing support. Not surprisingly, Mirren is very good as Grace Bontempo, who, along with her husband, Charlie (Joe Pesci), run Nevada’s first legal brothel, not far from Reno. Set in 1976, “Love Ranch” describes the rough-and-tumble atmosphere that surrounded the early days of legal prostitution in the state, when corrupt officials demanded kickbacks and cops served as bouncers and debt collectors. The prostitutes worked three weeks on and a week off, like “fireman,” often living in the same rooms in which they serviced customers.

It was the rare working girl who had a college education. Most were damaged in one way or another. All were capable of demonstrating great compassion one moment and petty jealousy the next. Grace was not only required to manage their diverse personality traits, but also cope with the temper tantrums and unfaithfulness of her unpredictable ex-con husband. One day, he announces that he’s assumed financial control of an Argentine heavyweight (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and he needs Grace to represent him as his manager. The handsome brute seals his fate by falling in love with Grace and allowing her to fall for him.

Love Ranch is based on the true-life story of Mustang Ranch owners Joe and Sally Conforte, as well as the final days of boxer Oscar Bonavena. Despite the seeming abandonment of the film by the distributor, Love Ranch is an entirely watchable entertainment, with genuinely fine performances from its leads. Also appearing in the cast are Gina Gershon, Taryn Manning, Ling Bai, Bryan Cranston, Emily Rios and Melora Walters. The set includes Hackford’s commentary, the introduction and deleted scenes.


Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives

As a rule, the movies with the best titles are found in the “cult” section of your better video stores. Indeed, the titles are usually better than movies themselves. Occasionally, though, a ringer manages to escape the dreck. Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives is no great shakes, really, but it meets the demands of the grindhouse genre and would be fun to watch at a party or midnight screening.

Israel Luna’s send-up of ‘70s exploitation flicks is essentially a tale of revenge, in which some glamorous transvestites exact revenge on a trio of thugs who didn’t expect to find a penis at the end of their rainbows … even if they picked up the ladies in a club known for its female impersonators. That’s really all one needs by way of plot description. What really sells the movie is its campy dialogue, ever-present evening gowns, far-out makeup and pedal-to-the-metal attitude.

Luna also would love for viewers to think the movie had been rescued from a closet in a long-closed drive-in movie, as it looks to be well into the process of decay. Beyond the snap, crackle, pops and scratches, entire spools appear to have been lost or tortured. If nothing else, Trannies makes you long for the days when John Waters and Devine still were considered subversive.

Speaking of which, Waters’ discovery Mink Stole is among the cast of characters in Steve Balderson’s homage to noir women-in-prison films, Stuck! In it, Daisy (Starina Johnson) is falsely convicted of killing her suicidal mother, based solely on the testimony of a nosy neighbor. Once in stir, of course, the “Mama Killer” is surrounded by predatory lesbians, demented cellmates, sadistic guards and an evil warden. Somehow, too, the women convicts are allowed to wear fishnet stockings, spike heels and lingerie they might have ordered from the Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogue.

Credit Balderson for taking the project seriously enough to put realistically terse dialogue in the women’s mouths and back up the tough talk with a slinky jazz score and evocative black-and-white cinematography. Neither does Balderson skimp on the shower-room scenes and cat fights. The only thing that looks cheap here is Karen Black’s purposefully horrifying blond wig.


I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

At one point in his fine bio-doc, I Knew It Was You, director Richard Shepard asks passers-by if they recognize the actor standing alongside Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and James Caan in a publicity still from The Godfather. While most correctly identify the character as Fredo Corleone, none identifies the actor, John Cazale.

It would be easy to dismiss their inability to recall his name, if it weren’t for the fact that Cazale, in his too-short life, also starred alongside such similarly great actors as Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and Robert De Niro, in five of the best movies of the 1970s: The Godfather, The Godfather II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter.

Even while sharing scenes with some of the most prominent actors of his generation, Cazale’s otherwise anonymous presence was felt. He accomplished this not by stealing any of their thunder, but by subtly enhancing what their characters were doing or saying. His ability to allow audiences to appreciate the vulnerability, weakness and humanity in his characters impressed everyone around him, on stage and in the movies.

Cazale died of lung cancer in 1978, at 42, after finishing work on The Deer Hunter. Also providing testimony in I Knew It Was You are directors Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet, actors Steve Buscemi, Richard Dreyfuss, Olympia Dukakis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Carol Kane and Sam Rockwell, and playwright Israel Horowitz. The 40-minute film is accompanied by extended interviews with Pacino and Horowitz, and two short films Cazale made in the ’60s.


Wake Up

One of the great luxuries of living in a society not bridled with a state religion or party-line explanations for spiritual phenomena – the appearance of Jesus or the Virgin Mary on a tortilla, for example — is that anyone can create their own religion to deal with the mysteries of life. Unfortunately, far too many people insist on sharing their opinions and philosophies with anyone in shouting distance.

Most dream of writing a book and going on “Oprah” to win converts to their belief system and becoming overnight millionaires. One morning, we’re told in Wake Up, an average young man awakens with an ability to see and hear angels, demons, auras and ghosts. After ruling out brain disease, Jonas Elrod decides he’ll spend the next three years documenting his search for clues and answers on film.

Everyone he meets on his quest offers a slightly different spin on God, the Void and what they consider to be the only guaranteed path to spiritual enlightenment. None is practically fresh or unusual. Not being a charter member of Bill Maher’s atheism-is-cool club, Elrod is so intent on finding inner peace and spiritual guidance that he accepts everything at face value. At the end of his journey, Elrod doesn’t appear to have discovered anything terribly revelatory, but, at least, he and girlfriend seem happy. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?


Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child

Twenty-two years after the death of Jean-Michel Basquiat — at 27, of a heroin overdose – and 14 years after Julian Schnabel’s biographical portrait in film, Tamra Davis’ affectionate bio-doc Radiant Child arrives on DVD to remind us of his enduring legacy. Basquiat rose famously from the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he first gained fame as the graffiti artist SAMO, to the heights of celebrity as a Neo-Expressionist painter.

He sold his work to rock stars and movie idols, while palling around New York with Andy Warhol and other A-list personalities. Davis’ documentary includes interviews with several of the survivors of that drug-fueled era, while also asking if her friend’s popularity could have been attributed as much to the color of skin as the accessibility of his art. Although he’d been elevated to wonderkind status, Basquiat knew he was an outsider. The New York art scene sustains itself on gossip, jealousy, cliquish behavior and an overriding admiration for one’s value in the marketplace.

Generally speaking, there’s only room for one or two outsiders at a time. Some can handle the fame, while others crash and burn. Certainly, any iconoclast with a heroin habit would find it difficult to fit into this often vapid landscape for long. The centerpiece of Radiant Child is an interview with a 25-year-old Basquiat, filmed by Davis in 1985. Also included is archival material and interviews with such scenesters as Schnabel, Larry Gagosian, Bruno Bischofberger, Tony Shafrazi, Fab 5 Freddy, Jeffrey Deitch, Glenn O’Brien, Maripol, Kai Eric, Nicholas Taylor, Fred Hoffmann, Michael Holman, Diego Cortez, Annina Nosei, Suzanne Mallouk, and Rene Ricard. An uncut version of the interview is part of the bonus package.


Car Bomb

In 2006, Kevin Toolis produced a documentary for British television, in which failed suicide bombers candidly discuss their rationale for strapping on a vest, tricked out with explosive material and shrapnel, for the sole purpose of killing themselves and people they consider to be infidels. Helping him gain access to this select group of would-be martyrs was ex-CIA agent Robert Baer, whose life was depicted by George Clooney in Syriana.

The men have teamed up, again, for Car Bomb. Although victims of IEDs probably would dispute the claim, the filmmaker argues that M-80s on wheels have become the decisive weapon of the 21st Century. Park a truck loaded with juiced-up fertilizer in front of a mosque or embassy, and a highly motivated terrorist could start a civil war. Better, yet, perpetrators live to brag about it. Car Bomb documents the history of the weapon, as well as the implications of its use.


Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XIX: Limited Edition

The longer one reviews DVDs as an avocation, the greater the admiration one has for the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000 assigned the task of choosing the titles deserving of such harsh and hilarious critiques. As is now apparent, the number of movies that fall of under the general heading, “So Bad, They’re Almost Good,” not only is huge, but the inventory grows larger with each passing week.

Possibly taking the lead from Criterion Collection laserdiscs, which began offering special-edition packages in 1984, the crew of the Satellite of Love effectively introduced the audio-commentary-track concept to the masses, albeit on Comedy Central. The Volume 19 DVD package includes the immortal titles, Robot Monster (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), Devil Doll (1964) and Devil Fish (1984).

It matters little what transpires in each movie, although it’s worth noting that Bride of the Monster represented Bela Lugosi’s second of three collaborations with Edward D. Wood Jr., and Devil Doll is about a ventriloquist’s dummy that’s trained to kill. Needless to say, Joel the Janitor and his robotic friends, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, have no trouble lampooning these all-but-forgotten gems.

The new package adds an introduction by J. Elvis Weinstein; Larry Blamire’s reflections on Robot Monster; featurettes on Bride of the Monster and Devil Doll; an interview with George “The Animal” Steele; and MST3K: Origins and Beyond: CONvergence 2009 Panel. The pièce de résistance, though, is the limited-edition Gypsy figurine included in the “Limited Edition” package.


The Dry Land: Blu-ray

It is the fate of too many veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that, upon their return home, they feel as if they’ve simply trade one war zone for another. The jobs that do exist pay next to nothing and no one seems particularly interested anymore in what they were doing in those dusty shitholes to protect “American interests abroad.”

Everyone’s got more pressing problems than the preservation of corrupt democracies in Kabul and Baghdad. Hell, Americans don’t even want to watch movies about the war. Ryan Piers Williams’ home-front drama, The Dry Land, describes one such homecoming. Everyone in his dry-as-dirt Texas town is ecstatic to see James (Ryan O’Nan) return home, apparently in one piece. It isn’t long before gossips start spreading the word of his strategic loss of memory and his unconscious nocturnal attacks on his wife (America Ferrera).

If only James could remember what happened to him, he might be able to shake his constant feeling of dread and take his finger off his hair-trigger temper. James’ depression is heightened, as well, by the failing health of his mother (Melissa Leo) and a bottom-rung job at his father-in-law’s slaughterhouse. (As metaphors go, that one is a doozey.) After hitting rock bottom, James decides to connect with an old army buddy (Wilmer Valderrama), who might have some compassion for his situation and join him on a road trip to Walter Reed hospital.

Once there, a seriously wounded friend might be able to fill in the holes of James’ memory. This, of course, opens another can of worms. The Dry Land is a competently made drama that comes perilously close to stacking the deck against its own protagonist, as was the case with Brothers. Everyone in the cast does a fine job and Williams effectively puts the war in Iraq and the war inside James’ head on parallel tracks.


Damned by Dawn: Blu-ray

You just don’t see many good banshee movies these days. According to Irish legend, the banshee is a female spirit whose appearance anticipates the death of members of certain prominent families. Their arrival can be telegraphed by barely audible moans or loud shrieks.

The banshee we meet in the Aussie thriller, Damned by Dawn, is of the latter variety. As usual, everyone in the movie makes all the wrong moves while waiting for their bed-ridden grandmother to die. First of all, they ignore the old woman’s request to let the banshee go about her business undisturbed. Then, during a storm, the men in the house decide to check out what’s hiding in the encroaching ground fog. (Ground fog in a storm? Don’t ask.) They also enter caves, armed only with flashlights, and peer through windows heavy with condensation, daring the ghouls to pop up during a lightning strike and scare the crap out of them.

Clichés aside, though, Damned by Dawn does manage to raise goose bumps and deliver jolts of surprise. It does lose steam in places, but a palpable aura of dread permeates most of the story. Newcomer Renee Wilner delivers an especially satisfying performance as the most inquisitive member of the family. Dark and pretty, Wilner should be able to find work in the greener pastures of Hollywood. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a making-of short.


The Brazen Bull
Hunt to Kill

According to, Michael Madsen currently has no fewer than 30 titles in one stage of production or another. With the death of James Brown, this officially makes the 53-year-old Chicago native the hardest working man in show business. In his latest straight-to-DVD thriller, The Brazen Bull, Madsen’s character doesn’t come into play for quite a while. Instead, we watch a pair of yuppies – one of whom, played by 29-year-old Jennifer Tisdale, looks and speaks as if she’s still in her teens — prepare to renovate a building they’d purchased after it went into foreclosure.

Little do they know that the largely gutted structure is inhabited by a mysterious squatter, who calls himself Brazen Bull. Madsen’s unhinged character is pissed off about something, but what exactly isn’t made clear until the blood starts flowing and appendages are sawed off. Douglas Elford-Argent’s film is a nasty piece of business that looks very much as if it were shot on the cheap, with the primary expense being the hiring of Madsen and Rachel Hunter, as the world’s most beautiful police detective. It does manage to raise a few goose bumps, though.

If you can get your head around the idea of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin playing a Texas Border Patrol officer alongside Eric Roberts, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Hunt to Kill. Others may want to pass. In his mostly straight-to-DVD flicks, Austin tends not to look for shades of gray in the criminals he pursues. The genre demands action, the villains require justice and average citizens want to live uneventful lives.

Here, Austin and Roberts make the mistake of busting a meth lab before ensuring their own safety. Four years later, Roberts is long gone and Austin is patrolling an entirely different border. While in snowy Montana, he also has to cope with a teenage daughter heading for an appointment on the wrong side of the law. When she’s taken hostage by a group of hoodlums led by Gil Bellows, Austin is required to take that same law into his own hands. The mountain scenery is an asset.


Light Gradient

As this lethargic story unfolds, newly attached lovers Johann and Robin venture deeper into Germany’s beautiful Brandenburg Forest, shedding traces of their previous lives along the way. The handsome young men seem to enjoy each other’s company, even as the clouds of destiny grow darker above them. Desperately hungry, they are invited to stay in a farmhouse owned by a thirtysomething woman and her equally handsome and seemingly vulnerable teenage son.

There’s a palpable air of sexual tension underneath that roof, but it’s difficult to say in which direction it’s flowing. Indeed, the sex in Light Gradient is mostly implied. I can’t say that I understand the ending, but I know it has something to do with do with the sinister beauty of the forest – especially at night – and the young men’s inability to merge with it. Light Gradient is a gorgeous film to look at, even if it leaves viewers scratching the heads as the final credits roll.


Lovely, Still

It’s interesting that a triple-hyphenate filmmaker, still in his early 20s, was able to cast Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, and the always interesting Adam Scott and Elizabeth Banks, in a rom-com for the seniors’ crowd. Substantial roles for these wonderful veteran actors either are few and far between or a talent agent owed Nik Fackler a huge favor.

Oh, yeah, Lovely, Still also features original music by Conor Oberst and a score by Nate Walcott and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes. (I’m guessing that this has a lot to do with the fact that the movie was shot in Omaha, home to the director, the musicians and the artist whose paintings appear in it. So, where’s Alexander Payne?)

Landau and Burstyn play a pair of old-timers who meet-cute in his unlocked home. Mary takes the bull by the horns by asking Landau’s Robert Malone for a date, leading the inexperienced gentleman to ask friends a series of questions a 16-year-old might need answered before his first real date. Lovely, Still is set at Christmastime, so there’s more than a little bit of magic in the air, along with far too much holiday schmaltz. Everything’s fine in their December-December relationship, until Fackler pulls a very dark rabbit out of his hat and the movie reveals its true identity.


Sherlock: Season One
The Boondocks: The Complete Third Season
thirtysomething: The Complete Fourth and Final Season
The Super Hero Squad Show: Quest for the Infinity Sword

I wasn’t a big fan of Guy Ritchie’s re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes as an action hero, last summer. Neither was I looking forward particularly to BBC/PBS’ contemporization, Sherlock, which is being shown currently on “Masterpiece Mystery!” The last thing I wanted to find in Holmes’ hands was a cell phone or laptop computer. Or, so I thought.

In fact, “Sherlock” is a welcome addition to the Holmes/Watson canon, thanks to performances by Benedict Cumberbatch (Atonement) and Martin Freeman (The Office) in the lead roles, and Rupert Graves (The Forsyte Saga) as Inspector Lestrade. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is insular and mysterious. He refers to himself as a consulting detective. Dr. Watson is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he developed a taste for warfare.

The good news is that, while crime-solving techniques may have advanced exponentially over the last 100 years, the fundamentals remain elementary. The stories adapted for the series and collected here are A Study in Pink, in which a series of suicides may or may not be linked to murder; The Blind Banker, which involves a break-in at a bank, where nothing is stolen but an employee is later found dead; and The Great Game, which requires Holmes to play cat-and-mouse with a bomber. Sherlock was conceived and writer by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, producers of Dr. Who.

Speaking of which, Doctor Who: The Complete Fifth Series also arrives on DVD this week. Matt Smith takes over as the 11th doctor, while Karen Gillan plays an adult Amy Pond. The new series begins with the TARDIS time-travel spacecraft plummeting from the sky and a reunion with Amy. Before returning to the stars with his companion, the doctor is required to save Earth from an alien plot. The weird creatures just keep on coming, though.

The bonus material includes newly filmed scenes, written by Moffat and exclusive to DVD and Blu-ray, telling what happens between the episodes; “Doctor Who Confidential,” an inside look at each episode; Monster Files; In-Vision commentaries; outtakes and video diaries.

The third-season DVD of The Boondocks opens with a German film crew following the Freeman family around during Barak Obama’s campaign for the White House. It doesn’t take long, though, for things to return to what passes for normal on the Adult Swim show. The box set includes introductions by Cedric Yarbrough and Gary Anthony Williams; several commentaries; Slink on the Street; a sketch gallery; and making-of material.

The final season of thirtysomething, one of the most influential series in television history, arrives with few, if any of the bonus features that fans came to expect from previous DVD packages. Considering how much happens to the self-indulgent boomers during the show’s fourth stanza – romantically, financially and otherwise – this is a disappointment. The episodes continue to speak for themselves, though. (Watch thirtysomething alongside NBC’s Parenthood if you don’t believe me about its still being influential.)

In the second volume of Quest for the Infinity Sword, the Super Hero Squad gets its kicks protecting Super Hero City from Dr. Doom and the VillainVilles. Among the guest vocal actors are Kevin Michael Richardson (Family Guy), Greg Grunberg (Heroes), Wayne Knight (Seinfeld), Ray Stevenson (Punisher: War Zone) and Lena Headey (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles).

MW on DVDs: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Chaplin at Keystone, Moulin Rouge … and more

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010


Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Three Stars)

U.S.; Edgar Wright, 2010

Oh, to be a kid again. To feel the juices and saps running madly, to get wildly excited about comic books and top ten hit-lists and about the last good new teen movie you saw (the whole canon from A Hard Day’s Night to Superbad) and maybe even a (No! Whoa!) video game or two. To fall in love every ten minutes or so, to wake up in a new bed now and then (now, now, pray God), to feel possibilities churning out of every flashy half-cynical gizmo that contempo-pop culture spews up at you, to anticipate sort of breathlessly every new load of possible super-stuff you can’t afford, blazing like neon from the record shelves or bookshelves or videoshelves, or the video/DVD rows, offering possible (non-cannabis, you Republicans) highs or potential mind-blasts waiting, it seems, around every street corner.

An Epic Visual Survey Of Scott Pilgrim’s Toronto-As-Toronto Loveliness

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

An Epic Visual Annotation Of Scott Pilgrim‘s Toronto-As-Toronto Loveliness

Gaming Vs. Scott Pilgrim

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

“Edgar Wright’s intriguing attempt to align filmmaking with more fidgety media suggests that the task is hopeless”

Weeks Late, Videogame Cricket Dispatched To Scott Pilgrim Just To Watch Him Die

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

“Annoying, contrived and as emotionally meaningful as a chalupa.”
Weeks Late, Videogame Cricket Dispatched To Scott Pilgrim Just To Watch Him Die

Toronto As Toronto, Eh?

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

Toronto As Toronto, Eh?

The Musical Notes Of Scott Pilgrim

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

The Musical Notes Of Scott Pilgrim

Voynar Goes Glory, Glory, Allegory On Scott Pilgrim

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Voynar Goes Glory, Glory, Allegory On Scott Pilgrim

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World: Less Than Perfect, But That’s Okay

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

I hate to repeat the beginning of my Inception column, but Scott Pilgrim Vs the World is neither the best nor the worst movie ever.

What is it about us as a culture these days? It seems like every film, album, painting, ballet, etc. has to be categorized as either “amazing” or “terrible.” Art runs along a spectrum and I’m really sick of the Rotten Tomatoesization of the American moviegoer.

Everywhere I looked, I found people claiming that Scott Pilgrim was either going to change the way movies are made or that it was a blight on the cinematic landscape. Of course, it’s neither.

Were The Graphic Novels Better Toward Its Femme Figures Than Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World?

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

Were The Graphic Novels Better Toward Its Femme Figures Than Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World?

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Toronto Drinking Game “I Wanted the Film to Feel Like a 13-Year-Old’s Brain Exploding”

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Toronto Drinking Game
With – “I Wanted the Film to Feel Like a 13-Year-Old’s Brain Exploding”

MW on Movies: Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and The Expendables

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Three Stars)
U.S.; Edgar Wright, 2010

Oh, to be a kid again. To feel the juices running madly, to get wildly excited about comic books and top ten hit-lists and about the last good new teen movie you saw (the canon from A Hard Day’s Night to Superbad) and maybe even a (No! Whoa!) video game or two. To fall in love every ten minutes or so, to wake up in a new bed now and then (now, now, pray God),  to feel possibilities churning out of every flashy half-cynical gizmo that contempo-pop culture spews out at you, to anticipate sort of breathlessly every new load of possible super-stuff you can’t afford, blazing like neon from the record shelves or bookshelves, or the video/DVD rows, offering possible (non-cannabis) highs or potential mind-blasts waiting it seems around every street corner.

It isn’t great? It isn‘t good? Well, wait another day. Something may happen. Something always happens. If not a “Hey Jude,” then maybe a “Happy Together.”  If not a Tokyo Story, then maybe a Chinese Connection. If not a Nosferatu, then maybe a Shaun of the Dead. Zow! Bam! Zonk! R-I-I-I-ng!

Maybe I’m just getting a little, uh, jaded and old. But Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World — which is definitely the most inventive and entertaining new movie out this week (okay, maybe even this month) — pleased me, but didn’t really fill me with joy and chuckles, as it probably will some (maybe a lot of) audiences. Liked, not loved. Dug, not devastated. Good, not great. Pow, not Wow! But that may be good enough. It’s only this week’s top movie, after all. That’s all it has to be. At least, it made me appreciate Michael Cera again, and, truth to tell, I was getting a little sick of him.

You see, Michael Cera — with his elongated elfin looks, and dirty little smile, his sweetly dragged-out shnook-moves and sneaky-quick reactions, his Peter Pan hipsterism and trembling-on-falsetto nasal geek-squeak of a voice — had begun to seem like his generation’s prime example of “Who is that guy?!?”

You remember. Whatever sex or sexual preference you are. (Change gender or adjust fantasy in the following, if you prefer.) You’re walking down the street, and you see some girl you’ve had a crush on for a while — the one with the great smile and the great walk and the swing-loose-and-steal-your-heart hair — the one you fantasize about, and you look at the guy she’s walking with, laughing with, maybe even just woke up with, and you say to yourself, “Who is that guy?!?”

To yourself, stricken, you sotto-voce: “Where the almighty hell did he come from?” “Hey, why does he rate?” “Why does he have that smile on his face, dammit?“ And it spoils your day, for ten minutes or so. (If you stop and talk to them, maybe the smile goes off his face, but just for a second.)

That’s Michael Cera. Who is that guy? He plays the role to perfection, because Cera can always kid himself. He doesn’t have the usual kind of actor’s vanity, and, before we can get sarcastic, he beats us to the punch. He isn’t ashamed to act like a dork, because, hey, he’s walking down the street, behind the camera, and he’s the one with that great-looking girl beside him. Eat your hearts out, you jealous assholes.

Here, in this ad-campaign-certified “epic of epicness,” based on a graphic novel by CanadianBryan Lee O’Malley, and smartly helmed by Wright ( the guy who made the mother of all zombie comedies), Cera is playing, to kind-of-perfection, a goony-but-cute 22-year-old garage band bass player named Scott Pilgrim (Billy Pilgrim’s grand-nephew?), who plays with a band called Sex-Bob-Omb, and lives (and shares an apparently half-chaste mattress) with a cool gay roommate named Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) and W.W.‘s various steadies. Scott’s other Sex-Bob bandmates are Kim the gal drummer (Alison Pill, the epitome of cute-snide), Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) and Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) — and though they’re sure noBuffalo Springfield, I say “Love the One You’re With.”

Scott also has a cutie of a high-school girlfriend named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong, a living doll). But he nevertheless falls hard for a lavender-haired (sometimes), poker-faced punk charmer named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who can really stab you with her eyes). I would have stuck with Knives, but those deadpan dolls really mess up your mind when you’re teen or twenty-something. (You figure they know something you don’t, and maybe they do.)

But guess what? To win Ramona’s heart (such as it is) and her bod (admittedly a killer) and her soul (who knows?), Scott has to vanquish the dread Seven Exes — a snarling or smirking septet of former Ramona boyfriends (and one ex-girlfriend, and two twins), who show up, every ten minutes or so, and preoccupy her mind and this movie.

Who are these guys? Over and over, Scott gets challenged by the Mag Seven. So he gets this determined Michael Cera look on his kisser, gets down to some kick-ass Jackie Chanaction, and, if he kicks their asses (they range from Jason Schwartzman as the smiling smug boss-man of your nightmares to Chris Evans as a blond Brit action star with an Eastwood growl), those defeated studs dissolve into coins, ready for the next video game match.

That’s all there is.  There ain’t no more. Oh wait, there’s also a rock band showdown/contest (There always is), with Sex-Bob-Omb taking on all comers.  You’ve seen it all before, except maybe for that over-occupied mattress. (Can‘t these roomies find a thrift store somewhere?) But not quite like this.

Director Edgar Wright (who made the killer Shaun of the Dead, and the okay Hot Fuzz) has a new idea every ten seconds or so, sometimes faster. Some of the gags are the old TVBatman this-is-a-comic-book ‘60s shtick, cranked up ten notches or so. Some of them are would be sub-Stan Lee smart-assery. But a lot of them work. When lovers kiss, hearts spray at you. When a video-store vixen cusses, she’s bleeped. The movie splits up into comic panels. When Scott hits a guitar note, the screen goes “D-D-D.”  Edgar Wright has his tongue so far and so constantly into his cheek, you sometimes worry that he’ll strangle on his own nonstop whimsy. Every ten minutes or so.

But the movie makes you laugh. It made me laugh. I bet even you guys out there who didn’t like it much, or got nervous because of Wallace on the mattress, half-snickered every now and then. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World fulfills its mission, at least if you’ve ever played a video game (I haven‘t),  read a comic book or “graphic novel” (guilty) or lusted for a deadpan doll (God, guilty, guilty). It’s a sharp movie that gets sweet at the climax. There are worse ways to spend your time and stupider ways to drop your coins.

Michael Cera, you lucky dog you, enjoy it while it lasts. And I have just one thing to say aboutEdgar (Zombie Man) Wright.

Who is that guy?

The Expendables (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Sylvester Stallone, 2010

Sylvester Stallone could have been a contender.

In fact, once upon a time, he was the contender, even almost the champ. Stallone‘s 1976  sleeper hit movie Rocky — from his original script, starring Stallone himself as Rocky Balboa, the seemingly washed-up but tender-hearted Philly boxer who gets a shot at the heavyweight title from the Muhammad Ali-like champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) — won the 1976 Best Movie Oscar, as well as Best Director honors for John Avildsen.

Sly’s Rocky was in some ways a formula heart-tugger, but it was inspired by the best. The part was probably heavily influenced by Brando‘s washed-up pug Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, considered by many the finest male performance in any American movie.

As for Stallone, he got beaten out that year for best original screenplay, by Paddy Chayefsky, for his scalding TV-behind-the-scenes classic “Network — but that’s no disgrace. Stallone was also bested as 1976’s best actor by the late Peter Finch, playing the plum part of Howard Beale, the psycho TV news anchor who was the first man to say on the air, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” (Other Psychos, including real-life ones, followed Beale and stole his catch-phrase.) And that’s no disgrace either.

Stallone was young, he was on top, and, at the Oscar show, Muhammad Ali came on stage to fool around and joke with him. Stallone could do, it seemed, anything he wanted. Surely, someday, he would win the Oscar that he missed that time out.

So he acted in a hit Ted Kotcheff movie, First Blood, that introduced the long-haired one man killing machine Vietnam vet Frank Rambo. And he started out multi-tasking again by writing, starring in and directing another movie, of some Coppolesque, Scorsesean ambition, calledParadise Alley. It didn’t work.

So Stallone went for different stakes at a bigger, more expensive table. He started making movies, often sequels to his big smashes Rocky and First Blood,  that were calculated to make a lot of money, and not to take too many chances on art. Rocky the series began to look like a string of hits afflicted with progressive elephantiasis. Each new Rocky movie was like a weird inflated dream taking place in the head of the Rocky from the movie before.

The Rock re-fought for the title with Apollo, and this time he beat him. Then he fought another contender, who was like a much, much nastier version of Apollo (Mr. T) and he beat him, with Creed‘s help. Then, Rocky beat the entire country of Russia…excuse me, he thrashed Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the Crusher from the Kremlin, in Rocky IV, the Cash-Cow from Moscow.

Something similar hampered to Rambo. First Blood was halfway-plausible, a good drama as well as a thriller, and it introduced a terrific cop-actor antagonist, in Brian DennehyRambo: First Blood 2 and Rambo 3 were wilder, crazier, and more gaseously inflated. Then times changed. Stallone tamped down Rocky, eventually scaled down Rambo,” played punchy, tried to grab at our heart-strings again. Charlie, Charlie, you don’t understand…

Now comes The Expendables, an action movie for moviegoers who miss the ’80s. (Personally, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to forget them.) Sly is back, and he’s playing Barney Ross — not the heroin addict boxer portrayed in Andre De Toth’s Monkey on my Back, but the deep-voiced, heavily-muscled,  mellowed but kick-ass leader of a gang of mercenaries that includes a whole Dirty Dozen or so of once or current upper-echelon action heroes: Lundgren as the scarred hothead Gunner Jensen, Jason Statham as London’s “Lock, Stock”  basher Lee Christmas, martial artist Jet Li as Chinese mauler Ying Yang, wrestler turned actor Stone Cold Steve Austin as Paine, Terry Crews as Hale Caesar, Randy Couture as Toll Road — enough action stars or superstars it seems to start a new country, Actionland, whose national motto is “Mess with the Best, and Die Like the Rest.”

Sending them on their way is a stern C. I. A. schmoozer named Church (played with an admirably straight face by Stallone action rival Bruce Willis). Sitting this one out is another Stallone rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the smirking Trench. (“He wants to be President,” Barney mutters.) The main villain is Eric Roberts, in another headcase role as James Munroe (not the president). The love interest is Gisele Itie as Sandra, the radicalized daughter of the evil general of a wild and woolly banana republic. Peddling bananas, and Uzis, is Jose Carioca, of the Three Amigos. (Just kidding.) And giving the guys tattoos, as Tool, is Mickey Rourke, Roberts‘ costar in that neglected 1984 NYC street classic The Pope of Greenwich Village, a great ’80s movie that a lot of people have forgotten or never knew. Co-writer Stallone gives Rourke an aria, and he steals the entire movie.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn‘t sometimes enjoyable to watch these guys, in their muscle-flexing, exploding fireball of a class reunion, or mega-basher’s convention. But I’d also be lying if I didn’t say it was a second-tier action movie that doesn’t make much sense. (“But that’s the point!“ hard-core ’80s-lovers will lecture us “dumb-ass critics.“ “It’s from the ‘80s! It’s not supposed to make sense. It made money!“ ) Oh yeah? If this movie had a lot more humor, more camaraderie and less phony cojones, more Mickey Rourke and Roberts, and even some more non-action Stallone, it could have been a lot better. Instead, it’s an occasional hoot, but expendable.

Michael Wilmington
August 12, 2010

The Scott Pilgrim Trailer Reincarnated With “Scott Pilgrim” Panels

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

The Scott Pilgrim Trailer Reincarnated With “Scott Pilgrim” Panels

Trailer: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Scott Pilgrim must defeat his new girlfriend’s seven evil ex-boyfriends in order to win her heart.

Trailering Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Thursday, March 25th, 2010