Friday, August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim gets a life (like some movie reviewers should).

You know, I thought it was bad when graphic novels (aka comic books, to those who still don't think you can tell a good "grown-up" story in pictures) had to struggle with getting respect from the "critics". I mean, "Watchmen" came out in the mid-80s, and it made Time Magazine's list of the one hundred greatest novels ever. If you need more proof that the genre is perfectly capable of producing good literature, then you've probably never actually read any comic more sophisticated than "Garfield".

That brings us to the Scott Pilgrim series. The first volume was released six years ago, and the last (volume six) just came out last month. Yes, the movie finished shooting before the series had issued its final chapter. They accomplished this by having Bryan Lee O'Malley, the series creator, working closely with the director, Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead", "Hot Fuzz"), on the whole project; which is something every director should do when adapting someone else's work (again, reference "Watchmen"). Though the comic series and the movie both feature plenty of eye (and ear) candy for the video game/comic book/battling rock bands crowd, its base appeal is something far more profound than I think most movie reviewers even noticed.

I thank Linda Holmes of NPR for compiling a list of pretentious reviewers who not only miss the point entirely, but do a pretty good job of underestimating (and insulting) the fans in the process. One actually complained that the movie made the audience laugh too much. *rolls eyes* (You can read the list here.)

Anyway, what those reviewers all seem to miss is something that I missed when watching a highly-editted version of "The Breakfast Club" as a kid: that the movie is about the characters themselves. Where they are and what they're doing is (almost) incidental. First, of course, there's Scott Pilgrim, a dorky, depressed, delusional bass player in a band. When the movie begins, we learn that Scott, age 22, is dating a high schooler, Knives, age 17 ("and she's Chinese"). Scott's not trying to take advantage of her or anything ("We haven't even held hands"); he just likes hanging out with her, playing arcade games, and letting her listen while his band practices. It's a pretty nice arrangement (except for the fact that Knives is falling in love with Scott).

One day, Scott meets the girl of his dreams (literally). Her name's Ramona Flowers ("She's got battle scars"). Miracle of miracles, she seems to like him, too. Unfortunately, before they can live happily ever after, Scott needs to defeat Ramona's seven evil exes. It won't be easy; especially since Superman (Brandon Routh) and the Human Torch (Chris Evans) are playing two of her exes. Also, how will Knives react to Scott's leaving her? (Spoiler alert: not well.) Scott's band, of course, tries to be supportive, but they have their own lives (and the future of the band itself, of course) to consider. And then there's Scott's gay roommate Wallace Wells (played by the scene-stealing Kieran Culkin) who offers Scott sometimes-sage advice in between his own ... pursuits.

Okay, so it's not exactly "The Breakfast Club" with video game effects (although the fact that everyone Scott beats turns into coins is pretty awesome by itself). But neither is it "Mortal Kombat" with more laughs. The difficulty in adapting the graphic novel series is the same with adapting anything: knowing what to cut, what to add, and what to change. There are some backstory elements to both Scott's and Ramona's lives that can't be included because of time constraints, and others that seem out of place because, well, they are. At just under two hours, there's neither time nor room for the movie to take the sometimes leisurely pace the graphic novels take, and so the storylines dealing with the characters and their personal conflicts can feel a little rushed or canned at times.

That doesn't make it any less enjoyable, though; or any less insightful. The video game elements are a perfect metaphor for Scott's struggle; and it's a familiar struggle, one for both love and self-respect. Even Ramona has to decide how she wants her life to unfold, and whether, after accumulating seven "evil" exes, she's even capable of having a good relationship. It's a parable; maybe not the kind of which Shakespeare or Chaucer wrote, but it's still profound. I'd encourage anyone to both watch the movie and read the books (not necessarily in that order).

(Read the original review here.)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Old vs. New: The Last Airbender Movie

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" is one of Nickelodeon's finest accomplishments. It is the story of a young boy chosen by destiny to wield the four ancient elements of Fire, Earth, Water, and Air to bring peace to the four nations built upon those elements. Afraid of his destiny and the sacrifices he would need to make to fulfill it, Aang, already a master of the Air element (or Airbender) runs away from the monastery that is his home. He accidentally binds himself unconscious for a hundred years, which allows the Firebending Nation to destroy the other Airbenders and begin to conquer the Waterbending and Earthbending Tribes.

When Aang is revived by a young Waterbender named Katara and her older brother Sokka, he sees what his absence has done to the world. He resolves finally to fulfill his destiny and balance the elements once more. To do this, he must complete his training and master the three remaining disciplines. Katara and Sokka join him in his quest, and along the way they help to free other tribes and villages from the Fire Nation's oppression.

It's an epic fantasy in every sense, and when the movie adaptation was announced (especially with award-winning director M. Night Shyamalan at the helm), it caused no small amount of excitement among fans of the series. However, when the movie was released, it caused no small amount of disappointment. Critical and fan reviews alike have been unsparing in criticism, and I cannot disagree. Aside from stunning visuals and spectacular fight scenes, the film doesn't have much to offer viewers.

You can't take six half-hour TV episodes, put them back to back, and call it a movie. Unfortunately, that seems to be what Mr. Shyamalan has done. When adapting a TV show into a movie, you often are forced to package a ridiculous amount of exposition into the screenplay, depending on how long the show has been running. If the show is still on the air, then you are further forced to keep the movie in the same vein as the show without interrupting the continuity. If it's been cancelled, then your film is generally the capstone, the sequel or "final episode" that everyone really wanted to see.

That's not what you get with "The Last Airbender". It is, in short, a recap of the "most important" moments from the first season of the show. There was no great or noticeable deviation from the storyline, and nothing exciting or new was added. The film was merely a live-action version of the cartoon series. It was a wasted effort, in my opinion. By picking and choosing what information and scenes from the cartoon to adapt into the film, much of the richness of plot and character development was left behind. At just under ninety minutes, even actors like Dev Patel ("Slumdog Millionaires") and Jackson Rathbone (the Twilight saga) don't have much time to bring their respective characters of Prince Zuko and Sokka to life in the way their cartoon counterparts were able to. Newcomers Noah Ringer and Nicola Peltz gave good performances, but even they did not have the life or likeability that cartoon Aang and Katara had.

It wasn't a bad movie; not as bad as most think, at least. I'd recommend it for anyone who hasn't seen the TV series (though I'd recommend they choose the TV series instead); but for anyone who has seen Nickelodeon's "Airbender", you'll get nothing from this adaptation, and you even may find that you've lost something in the process. In my opinion, this will be the last Airbender movie.

(Read the original review here.)

Two words to describe "Inception"

Christopher Nolan, the visionary director behind "Batman Begins", "The Dark Knight", and "Memento", has finally brought to life his project of more than twenty years. Featuring a cast of some of the world's greatest stars, both young and old, and having been filmed in locations in six different countries, "Inception", in the words of the L.A. Times, "blends the best of traditional and modern filmmaking".

Leonardo DiCaprio headlines as Cobb, a con man who specializes in stealing people's secrets from within their very minds. Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("3rd Rock from the Sun") gives a remarkable performance as his partner in crime. Tom Hardy ("Star Trek: Nemesis"), Dileep Rao ("Avatar"), and Ellen Page ("Juno") round out a team of highly talented "intrusion experts". They are hired by Ken Watanabe ("The Last Samurai") to do the impossible: rather than steal an idea from their target's (Cillian Murphy, "28 Days Later ...") mind, they are to plant an idea through a process called "inception".

There are many words to describe this movie. "Crime drama", "sci-fi thriller", "international intrigue", and "mind-bending masterpiece" all would certainly be on the list. Nolan keeps you on the edge of your seat until the very last second, barely giving you time to breathe as you try to peel the layers and decide what is real and what is illusion. There are many questions to answer as you follow the characters ever deeper into the world of dreams. The greatest questions, however, surround Cobb himself and his motives.

Cobb is not your typical thief taking on "one last job". While his partner believes Cobb is just hoping to complete the job so he can see his children again, Page's character begins to suspect that he is seeking something more. She soon learns that Cobb is haunted by the memory of his dead wife, played by Marion Cotillard ("Public Enemies"), who does far more than simply distract him from his duties. After all, in the world of the subconscious, even the smallest distraction can take you in directions you never expected to go.

Like the layers of the dream worlds the team constructs for their marks, this movie is crafted to convey one story; one single point that comes delivered wrapped in marvelous visual effects, pulse-pounding action sequences, intelligent dialogue, and even a fair amount of humor. That single point, the two words I would use to describe this movie, is "love story". The great mystery of "Inception" is the story of Cobb and his family, his wife and children, what he has done to them, and how far he will go to recover them. While most reviewers may focus on the spectacular special effects or the unique storytelling elements, I believe the central theme of "Inception" is the unraveling of Cobb's character. Everything else is a vehicle for this storyline.

As a writer, I think this is one of the finest examples of good storytelling I've seen. As a moviegoer, I can't think of a better way to spend my money. I would recommend "Inception" to anyone, be they seeking an action movie, an art film, a mystery thriller, or a science-fiction wonder ride. For me, it is all those things and more; but at its heart, it is a poignant love story.

(Read the original review here.)