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The Accountant (2016)

unnamedHow much do I have to pay for Ben Affleck to do my taxes?

Christian Wolff (Affleck) is autistic and one of the top accountants in the world, able to quickly penetrate stacks and stacks of numbers to analyze trends and problems. His clientele varies from an older couple trying to save their family farm to the mob. He’s also a very dangerous assassin who takes out bad guys with exacting precision. As a young boy, Christian’s autism caused great anxiety within his family, and his father was determined that his son would be able to fight back against a world that didn’t accept him. Ray King (J.K. Simmons) is a retiring Treasury agent trying to track down the identity of Christian and possibly bring him to justice for his vigilante status. On the run from hired guns, Christian decides to stay and fight rather than flee and start a new identity because a co-worker, Dana (Anna Kendrick), is also targeted. Together they must stay one step ahead of killers and the ensnaring investigation of Ray King.

It would be easy to dismiss the movie as an autistic Bourne imitation, except that The Accountant is exactly that and takes ownership over its more ridiculous plot turns. The major problem with the Bourne series, which I believe is only now fully coming to light now that Jason Bourne has run out of legitimate past memories to remember, is that its lead character is a bore. Jason Bourne is a pragmatic and resourceful killing machine, but you wouldn’t want to talk to him at a party. He’s a boring character who is only interesting when he’s moving forward and inflicting damage. The Accountant has a lead character with the same set of skills but it also makes sure that he’s compelling even when he’s not killing the bad guys. Christian Wolff is a compelling lead character because he doesn’t fit in, he doesn’t relate easily to others, and he has social and emotional vulnerabilities that make him easy to root for while also serving to ground him. I’m not saying that those on the autism spectrum would make the world’s greatest assassins, though the job does require a dispassionate, detail-oriented mind. I was amused just watching Christian talk to others because I didn’t know how he would respond or how others would respond to him. He acts differently and it makes regular interactions interesting, and that’s before he becomes a superhuman assassin later. He’s leading a double life, and that provides just about every scene with an extra layer of irony, mystery, and intrigue. Christian is an intelligent warrior, working through strategy and improvisation but also luring his opponents into traps. He’s deadly but also efficient. He goes for headshots and dutifully moves along. He doesn’t play around and neither does the movie. When Dana is trapped in her bathroom with a hired killer on the other side, she takes the toilet lid and smashes the guy’s hand. That’s exactly what a thinking person should do in this life-or-death scenario. I appreciated that even with the action thriller heroics that the actions of the characters were still credible to their behavior.

The larger world is also populated with interesting characters and a complex story structure to match. I’ll readily admit that the screenplay by Bill Dubuque (The Judge) doesn’t need to utilize all of the subterfuge it does. We open on one perspective, circle back later with a richer understanding, jump around in time, and then we even sit down with Ray King and the movie takes a 10-15 minute pit stop to explain everything. It’s a strange moment where Ray gives us his full back-story, which is unexpected and unnecessary in the overall big picture but I enjoyed the commitment to larger world building. Another great addition was Brax (Jon Bernthal), treated as a parallel storyline for the first half of the film. In two very effective scenes he’s introduced with menacing efficiency and he’s a memorable foil we know will have to be faced later. I recently watched the atrocious revenge thriller I Am Wrath that was filmed in my city of Columbus, Ohio. There wasn’t one enjoyable moment, memorable villain, or even memorable death. In one scene with The Accountant, where Brax convinces his target the reasons why he should kill himself with an insulin overdose, I had an interesting and intimidating foe. The impression is immediate and unmistakable and in one scene you establish his danger. There’s a level of detail that isn’t seen that often in these kinds of films. There are several storylines and timelines and lingering questions but by the film’s end they’re all reasonably put back together and the audience is left satisfied. There will be some twists that a quick-witted viewer will be able to anticipate knowing the economy of characters but that doesn’t take away from their impact.

Affleck has rightfully earned serious acclaim as a director and screenwriter during his career rebirth but the man deserves his due for his acting as well. By most accounts, he was the best thing about the steaming pile that was Batman vs. Superman, and this is after the Internet exploded in apoplectic fits over his casting. With The Accountant, he gets to play a superhero and a socially challenged outcast, which must seem like the best of both worlds for an actor. Affleck is wonderfully dry and matter-of-fact as Christian. When he jumps into action he has a disciplined sense of purpose that can be fascinating. It’s a great lead role for Affleck and he finds interesting ways to demonstrate various emotions through an unorthodox lens. Christian doesn’t break down and blab his feelings, nor does he necessarily process emotions in the same conventional sense. He commands the screen whether he’s talking or running and shooting bad guys, and that’s all I can ask for.

the-accountant-sniper-rifleAfter leaving The Accountant, I desperately wanted more adventures with this lead character and this world, and I was even dreaming up the idea of adapting this concept into a weekly TV crime procedural. It’s rare that a movie leaves me wanting more, and it’s even more rare when a movie leaves me wanting to watch a weekly variation of Christian Wolff living as whiz kid accountant by day and enforcer of justice by night. Director Gavin O’Connor (Jane Got a Gun) has given me a glimpse of a world that has plenty of shades of moral ambiguity but still dishes out the action thriller goods. It begins like A Beautiful Mind, shifts into a Bourne adventure, and then concludes like a mixture of Haywire and O’Connor’s own Warrior. There is far more action than I thought there would be. It blends the influences and tones without losing its own sense of identity as well as its pinpoint sense of what an audience craves for entertainment value. The movie doesn’t treat those on the autism spectrum as freaks or as “others.” It feels far less exploitative or borderline manipulative with its inclusive message than, say, Rain Man. The reason he’s a super assassin isn’t because he has autism but because his insane father trained him to be Batman to combat his autism. The non-linear narrative doesn’t need to be as purposely hard to follow but it does keep the audience guessing until the climax. The Accountant is a character study, a twisty thriller, an exciting action movie, an overall satisfying slice of good vs. evil, and a world that I need weekly adventures, please.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)

mike-dave-need-wedding-dates-movie-posterLoose in narrative and derivative in nature, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is a raunchy comedy that entertains thanks to the comedy interplay of its four leads. The “inspired by a true story” tale follows two rowdy screw-up bros, Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron), who are given an ultimatum by their frustrated family: bring dates to their little sister’s wedding in Hawaii or don’t come at all. The guys’ online ad goes viral and two down-on-their-luck party girls, Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza), answer the call, posing as “nice girls” for a free tropical vacation. What follows is a comically episodic series of hit-or-miss set pieces, and yet what really shines is the energy between the foursome and the unexpected jokes. Kendrick and Efron, playing a very similar part from Neighbors, are positioned as more straight foils to the loud, obnoxious Plaza and Devine, though every member gets a chance to shine. Special mention must go to actress Sugar Lynn Beard, as the much beset bride, and her deft physical comedy skills. Mike and Dave is a movie that had me laughing fairly consistently and was mellow enough not to grate when it dipped into its fleeting dramatic portions. There are plenty of Neighbors vibes with the movie, not just from Efron’s efforts but also because this movie shares the same writers. It’s not quite as well developed nor are the characters as fleshed out. I’d rate Mike and Dave a small notch below Neighbors 2; it’s fun and consistently funny though hardly memorable. Something I found interesting, and I may be alone in the universe, is that all of the female nudity in Mike and Dave is played for laughs instead of titillation. Usually male nudity is the one played for laughs and discomfort. If this one small step toward progress, let the acceptably lowbrow Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates exist as a footnote of history.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Last Five Years (2015)

last5bigIt’s a musical about the beginning and end of a five-year relationship, and each partner is starting at a different point and meeting in the middle. If that sounds confusing, The Last Five Years will do little to better orient you, the audience, on its criss-crossing narrative-leaping timeline. Anna Kendrick is Cathy, who is traveling from the breakup of her marriage to the moment she met her eventual husband. Jeremy Jordan is Jamie, who is traveling the more linear path of infatuation to marriage to his divorce from Cathy. Neither character is particularly that involving though their eventual conflicts that lead to their parting of ways are more relatable than I was expecting since Jamie becomes a publishing phenom. I was looking for parallels with the song pairings, since we switch from a Cathy song to Jamie song, but the more I listened the more the narrative structure felt like an unjustified gimmick. Director Richard LaGravenese (Beautiful Creatures) feels like he was rushed to complete this film because much of the camerawork feels lacking, losing track of the characters in their long takes. Could he afford to do more than one take? There isn’t so much a sense of style or expanding into the medium of film. It feels like LaGravense was grabbing what he could. But that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that for an entirely sung musical (there may be like two lines of spoken dialogue) none of the songs are particularly memorable. Even minutes after finishing the film, I could not for the life of me hum one tune. To be fair the music isn’t offensive to the ears, but it falls within this vanilla middle ground that plays like it should be background noise rather than featured music. Kendrick and Jordan do a serviceable job singing these bland songs, but when your movie is wall-to-wall with music that doesn’t engage or register, it’s the equivalent of a comedy being unfunny. The Last Five Years is a movie musical that is decidedly pleasant and deadly bland.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Into the Woods (2014)

ITW_1-Sht_v18_Lg-560x829Theater fans, take this review with a Broadway-sized grain of salt because I’m going to admit I’ve never seen Into the Woods prior to its film release. I consider myself a Stephen Sondheim fan, especially with Sweeney Todd. Now with all that established, I found Into the Woods to be a thoroughly uninvolving and middling musical without any memorable tunes and a series of annoying characters that just kept running in comic redundancies. Perhaps it’s my own ignorance to the original 1987 theater production, considering subversive and edgy and not the most natural fit for the Disney brand. Perhaps I’m just not hip enough to Sondheim’s academic use of melody. Or perhaps others out there will share my opinion that Into the Woods is a tuneless bore.

In a fantasy kingdom, a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are trying to conceive a child but having difficulty. A witch (Meryl Streep) reveals that the only way to undo the infertility curse is to gather a series of magical items. The baker ventures into the aforementioned woods, desperate to find these items, often running into the likes of other fairy tale icons like Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Prince Charming (Chris Pine), the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his beanstalk, and the entrapped Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).

INTO THE WOODSIt must have been more relevant back in 1987, but today we are awash in the darker side of fairy tales. Analyzing the implications of “happily ever after” in a more adult and pessimistic way is nothing new. We’re saturated with TV shows and movies that have explored these issues before, revealing the darker truths to some of our favorite fairy tale characters, so it’s hard for a Woods novice to approach the show without a sense of ”been there, done that.” It’s unfair for Sondheim but that’s the reality that greets an adaptation of a musical that’s almost thirty years old. Because of this context, the insights and subversions with the fairy tale characters never feel somewhat pat. The fact that Little Red Riding Hood might be featuring a sexual awakening related to the dangerous Big Bad Wolf is the only striking one that adds dimension to her character. Other “twists” given to the characters are either predictable or just underwhelming. Oh, Prince Charming isn’t so nice and marrying into royalty isn’t the fantasy it’s made out to be? Then there are character betrayals that come out of nowhere, without any proper setup, that feel like the musical is just flailing around in transparent shock value. Just because someone suddenly does something out of character does not mean it was a good plot choice. The guilty party even sings, “I’m in the wrong story,” admitting the identity crises. I wouldn’t have a problem with these wrinkles if they felt better setup or there was more commentary attached. Instead, as delivered in the film, it feels rushed and unearned.

Music is inherently subjective (then again so is film, I mean…), so I’m sure others will vociferously disagree with my stance that Into the Woods is mediocre. True to Sondheim’s works, he establishes character-based melodies that fold and cascade atop one another, weaving in and out. The problem is when none of those melodies captures your attention. These are not humable tunes. To my ears, the songs just collided into one another forming one long string of tonal mélange. The singing is more than adequate by the performers (though Pine’s crooning is a bit subpar) but the songs just flatline. I just took a break from writing and listened through Amazon.com’s soundtrack for the show, sampling every song one again, and they all just blend together. There isn’t one song that burrows its way inside your brain, taking residence beyond the immediate. Then again, if you’re one of the fans of the show who loves these songs then having a fresh coat of Hollywood production will make them sound even better for you, especially with Corden and Blunt and Streep as the top performers.

Another hindrance for me was that I found many of these characters to be insufferably annoying. I found Red Riding Hood and Jack to be irksome and thieves, and so I didn’t feel much sympathy when Jack’s breaking and entering and giant manslaughter lead to dire consequences in the last act. Does not the lady giant deserve her vengeance? Her home was broken into, pilfered for its valuables, a small portion of which would have been sufficient but Jack cannot help his felonious ways, and then the boy killed her husband in a hasty escape attempt. If anything, I would have preferred the lady giant picking her teeth with the plucky lad. I also wanted Little Red to remain in the belly of the wolf (spoiler alert?). Cinderella lost my interest with her wishy-washy behavior. I believe it’s meant to be funny that she keeps returning and running off for three days in a row of princely balls. Another way of looking at that behavior is frustration. The only characters I actively cared about were the Baker and his wife, and the calamitous plotting of the musical’s second half tested even those allegiances.

into-the-woods-07The story gets to be rather redundant as well once the main characters are established and their plight is set in motion. I suppose I can now understand why Into the Woods is one of the most popular stage productions to perform at high schools and colleges: the scarcity of scene changes. Much like other aspects of the film, the setting just blends together and becomes tiresome. My pal Eric Muller remarked, “It’s called Into the Woods and not Into Multiple Sets.” I got sick of the woods. The plotting requires the various characters to keep running into one another again and again. It’s amusing at first but once it keeps going, and going, and going, the repetition loses its charm. You start to feel like the show is as lost as the characters and just going in circles to bide its time.

Acting-wise, I cannot fault the big-screen version. Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow) has a great singing voice and has shown great range as an actress in 2014. Streep improves upon her shaky start to musical theater from Mamma Mia. She’s still the great Meryl and seems to be one of the few people having fun. She enlivens every scene she’s in. Pine (Star Trek Into Darkness) is enjoyably self-involved as his caddish prince. Depp (Transcendence) is suitably lascivious though he only has about five minutes on screen. Corden (soon to be the new host of CBS’ Late Late Show in 2015) is the real standout. The man has a self-effacing likeability to him that serves as an anchor for the show. He’s funny and tender but he’s the heart of the story, and the film is at its best with Corden as its center.

If you’re a fan of the original Into the Woods, chances are you’ll likely find enough in this adaptation to enjoy. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) and his crew re definitely fans and you can feel their appreciation for the source material. However, if this is your first exposure to the Broadway show, then you may too find the characters annoying, the commentary underdeveloped and dated, the songs tuneless and unmemorable, and the plotting to be redundant and tedious. The actors do what they can but it was ultimately a losing cause to my ears. I found the film more exhausting than transporting. I’m at a loss how people can work up such passions for a show that feels so thoroughly blah. I await the Sondheim crowd to tar and feather me as an ignorant heathen, but there you have it. Into the Woods is an underwhelming musical that made me want to turn on the radio.

Nate’s Grade: C

Pitch Perfect (2012)

11167512_detTake the plot of Bring it On, add remixes and mash-ups of popular music thrown through the Glee grinder, Rebel Wilson’s adlibbed one-liners, and shake, and you have Pitch Perfect, an a cappella singing comedy that was a sleeper hit last fall. My female friends raved about it. It’s from a 30 Rock writer. It’s from the director of the irreverent musical Avenue Q. I like Wilson and the movie’s star, Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air). I wanted to like it, and while I found most of it passably cute, I could not get too attached and the chief reason was Kendrick’s character. She’s so surly and standoffish and just plain bratty, and for no good reason. It gets really annoying. Her rote romance with a bland hunky guy is made even more incredulous because Kendrick, get this, hates movies. Not certain kinds of movies or movies with certain actors, just the entire medium. Who is like this? That’s like disliking all of music entirely. The overall comedic spirit of the movie is amiable with a few oddball touches that keep things interesting, notably one girl who talks very quietly and says outrageous confessions. Listen well. The performance segments are impressive in their own right enough so that I wish there were more of them. There’s also a level of reality to projectile vomit that I was not prepared for. Overall, Pitch Perfect is a fitfully amusing comedy that never really settles down a functional tone, and Kendrick’s bratty character drags the movie down. It’s far from perfect but depending upon your love of a cappella, it could be good enough.

Nate’s Grade: B-

End of Watch (2012)

David Ayer has written seven movies and directed three, and almost all of them have followed the Los Angeles police department. The man wrote a character that got Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar, and from there it’s been all cops all the time, some dirty, some noble, but all residing in the LAPD. I suppose Ayer knows what he does best and is sticking to his wheelhouse. End of Watch is Ayer’s newest tale featuring one of the protagonists recording his activities on the force to put together for a documentary. And with that flimsy excuse, we have ourselves the first found footage cop drama.

Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are two young police officers patrolling the mean streets of Los Angeles. Rather than dark and brooding, these guys are often quick with a joke and get along peachy. That doesn’t mean they don’t take their jobs seriously, and we watch them take down suspects, save children from burning buildings, and discover horrible mass slayings by Mexican cartels. During their off duty time, Taylor is dating a spunky woman (Anna Kendrick) whereas Mike has a wife (Natalie Martinez) and children of his own. The guys are honorable cops and run afoul of the local gang leader Big Evil (Maurice Compte), a man with connections to those dangerous cartels.

The best reason to watch End of Watch is the ebullient yet natural chemistry between Pena (World Trade Center) and Gyllenhaal (Source Code). These guys really come across like partners that have been through thick and thin. Their interaction is arguably the best part of the movie, watching two guys who defy cop movie stereotypes. First off, neither is naïve or world-weary; they’re idealistic but grounded. Both men get to be complex individuals, each funny, each warm, each flinty when called upon, each dealing with the heavy toll of protecting and serving, each an honorable police officer trying his best. These guys feel like real-life partners and not just Movie Partners, and that is a great testament to Ayer’s script and the performances by Pena and Gyllenhaal. I also appreciated that the guys are presented as co-leads; I would have assumed Gyllenhaal was going to anchor the movie. These guys really love one another and you understand their camaraderie. The actors went on ride alongs for a solid five months before shooting, and that must have been an invaluable tool for an actor because these guys are so natural with one another. They can bicker but it’s mostly playful, and the dialogue feels authentic and crisp. The performances are measured and meaty and we emotionally invest in these characters and fear for their welfare. These guys are great together and so you worry that we may not see them both live by the end credits.

These guys are such pals, you’ll start to ask yourself, “Hey, shouldn’t there be like some conflict some time?” For almost tow full acts, we are immersed in police procedure details, routines, mundane realities, with the occasional burst of action. Except it takes until the very end of Act Two before there’s a real conflict, one that lasts beyond an individual sequence. These guys are so chummy, so lovingly buddy-buddy, so there’s no tangible conflict between the two of them. The LAPD seems mostly supportive despite some paranoid warnings that do not bear fruit. Even the local thug, Big Evil, doesn’t prove to be an active threat until the Mexican cartel pays him to kill our lead cops (the cartel also wants an expense report of the hit). But this threat doesn’t emerge until well into the film, so much so that the plot feels rather aimless, like we’re on one eternal ride along with our boys in blue. It’s a good thing I enjoy their company.

Here’s why I speculate why Ayer chose to tell his story through the guise of found footage. I don’t out rightly see it as a cash grab, Ayer’s attempt to repackage something old with something new (that is quickly becoming something old). Ayer is not particularly dogmatic about the found footage approach; often we’ll get first-person angles, gun POV angles, or just general angles that could not have been captured through the found footage mechanics. I think Ayer chose this route because he felt it afforded him greater latitude to craft a realistic depiction of the daily grind of the embattled LAPD officer. This approach allows Ayer more freedom to flout cop movie clichés we’ve become well accustomed to. There are no wildly mismatched partners, no long gun heroics, and no long-suffering personal relationships. Though I find it extremely unbelievable that the LAPD would be so casual and blasé about an officer recording his activities and internal workings. That seems like an open invitation for a lawsuit or a subpoena especially if a criminal attorney gets wind. To a degree, the found footage edict works and the authenticity of End of Watch is never in question, but it also seems like Ayer’s convenient go-to excuse when you’re looking for that missing conflict. It is a fictional movie after all.

The visceral nature of the camerawork, and the extra emotional attachment we feel for the leads, makes for some pretty nail-biting suspense, though only after the cartel issues their hit. The movie teases you with a gutsy ending, one that exemplifies the men’s sense of brotherhood in arms and the fatalistic prospect of protecting the City of Angels. It felt fitting and poignant. I was surprised that Ayer was taking an audience in this direction… and then he didn’t. The film chickens out and gives us a miraculous plot turn that also reinforces the Hollywood pecking order of racial significance. It’s a misstep and one that costs End of Watch from being more emotionally resonant.

As a side note, I’m not a prude when it comes to the use of salty language. Films that reflect certain realities should not curtail the way people genuinely speak. Some people just have filthy mouths. However, the profanity level in End of Watch is off the chart, notably concerning the character of Big Evil. I am dead certain that every second or third word out of this guy’s mouth is some variation of the f-word. If you catalogued all of his dialogue, I bet over 75% of total words would be profanity. It starts to get ridiculous and even funny when you hear nothing but the same three words during an angry outburst. And this is no David Mamet or Kevin Smith poetic composition of vulgarity and the profane; this is just lazy dialogue, like Ayer told his actor that, when in doubt, let loose a litany of f-bombs. Perhaps Big Evil would be less evil if people just helped him with his limited vocabulary.

End of Watch is an involving police procedural with some gripping moments of tension thanks to the stellar performances from its pair of police officers, Pena and Gyllenhaal. Ayer’s found footage motif gets some visceral excitement out of an old story, but what really sucks us in are the emotional bonds we’ve forged with these two men over the course of an hour. That makes the danger feel very dire. The movie feels like a bromance at times. I wish Ayer hadn’t pulled back from his more dour ending but it’s not enough to spoil what is an above average genre film with a spiffy new visual polish. I don’t know how many films Ayer can keep cranking out about the LAPD but as long as he pays due attention to character, and gives us the occasional break from the ubiquitous antihero with a badge, then at least he’ll keep making compelling genre cinema.

Nate’s Grade: B

ParaNorman (2012)

The gorgeously animated stop-motion film ParaNorman is a terrific sight for the eyes. There’s a certain magic to stop-motion, the tangible nature of it all, the knowledge that these intricate worlds actually existed. Like Coraline, the previous film by the same animation house, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this handcrafted world. The animation is so fluid, so sprightly, and displays a rich artistic tone. The story, about a kid who can see ghosts, is noticeably less ambitious. The characters are a tad one-dimensional (bratty older sister, dimwitted jock, socially awkward chubby best friend, etc.) and the plot is fairly predictable, but what really elevates ParaNorman is its sense of humor. I was laughing heartily throughout the movie, not just a giggle or a chortle but good, solid laughs. ParaNorman has an irreverent sense of humor with some surprisingly adult-oriented gags (nothing to worry about parents). With these virtues, the movie becomes an entertaining horror comedy aimed at young teens and older adults. It’s a fun movie, short of a saggy second act, and the animation is aces.

Nate’s Grade: B

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

What happens when the millennial generation gets its own (attempted) seminal movie? It stays home and plays video games, letting the film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, languish at the box-office. I guess that’s what happens when you finance a movie whose target demographic will just as readily download the movie for free off the Internet.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 22-year-old Toronto slacker. He?s the bass player for the band Sex Bob-Omb, along with lead singer Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and acerbic drummer Kim (Alison Pill), a former ex-girlfriend of Scott’s from high school. The band’s biggest fan is 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who also happens to be Scott?s new girlfriend. The world of Scott Pilgrim is abuzz with this scandal, especially Scott’s gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) and Scott?s younger sister (Anna Kendrick). Scott insists it’s all on the level and he has no ulterior motives for dating a high schooler. Then he sees the mysterious and alluring Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who?s new to the area and American. Scott rabidly pursues her in what could best be described as stalking, eventually getting her to agree to date him. Trouble is, he hasn’t broken up with Knives just yet before starting this new venture. Scott is then confronted at the Battle of the Bands concert by a man who comes bursting out from the ceiling. He is the first of Ramona’s seven evil exes and Scott must defeat them all in order to earn the right to the violet-haired beauty. “Everybody has baggage,” Ramona says. “Yeah, but my baggage doesn’t try and kill me,” Scott wearily replies.

Visually, this movie showcases director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) using every crayon in the Crayola box. This is a visually resplendent film where every scene seems crammed with details to delight the eyes and light up the senses. It’s a rush to watch the kaleidoscope of colors and motions. The Scott Pilgrim universe clearly differs from our own. This is a realm that borrows heavily from old school video games, where people burst into coins when vanquished, where life-decisions are met with “leveling up,” where people have onscreen pee bars that will deplete after a trip to a urinal. Sound effects will routinely be verbalized on screen, everything from a “RIIIIIIIIIIING” of a telephone to the “Ding Dong” of a door. It’s amusing, though also easily overused. Jobs and stuff like that are for the real world, hence too square to be depicted. It’s this entire idiosyncratic comic book world treated like everyday reality.

The enormous display of style is impossible to ignore. Scott Pilgrim is a slick, flashy piece of entertainment that is riddled with nostalgic references for a select crowd. I appreciated how a nice walk was accompanied by the theme song from The Legend of Zelda, or that sound effects and onscreen graphics echoed the fights from Street Fighter II (don’t ask me which of the 800 versions). Scott Pilgrim is an excellent pop pastiche of a specific culture, namely a slacker, hipster, amiable, comics and gamer group. I myself was an avid Nintendo gamer back in my day, but I admit to waning interest when the games got too complicated and grisly (“Back in my day we had two buttons to push, one to jump and the other to shoot, and that’s how we liked it!”). The movie is an explosion of color, light, and (lo-fi garage rock) sound, which also might sound like the description of a seizure or a stroke to some. Like those ailments, Scott Pilgrim will be seen by some as an infliction. It’s hyperactivity and eagerness to please via nostalgic reference points will be what drives people to this film and what drives them away in equal measure.

The Scott Pilgrim graphic novels total six volumes and approximately 1200 pages, which means it?s not the easiest fit for a two-hour window. It also hurts that the Pilgrim books have a wide supporting cast of characters to tussle with, plus there?s the whole seven deadly exes thing which means the movie has to provide about a solid 20 minutes of set-up before finding enough time for seven antagonists (or boss battles, following gamer parlance) and a reasonable amount of resolution. Add on top of this the fact that Wright keeps the movie moving at an outrageous, ADD-addled pace, like the plot conveyor belt lever got broken and the scenes speed one after another. Everything about this movie feels fast and over caffeinated. The editing in particular has characters holding conversations where every line is in a new location, implying an added sense of movement. So you shouldn’t be too surprised when the Scott Pilgrim film feels like a whole lot of a little; it’s moving at the speed of light to entertain.

Because of the plot mechanics and oversized cast of characters, Pilgrim can give off the impression of shallowness. It seems like all style and little substance and that’s because the movie attempts to cram an entire series of stories, back-stories, and conflict into two hours. The film version only has enough time to attempt to give Scott and Ramona characterization, though both come across as weak-willed, tentative, and less than charismatic, wondering if either party is worth the trouble. The movie tries to paint over these differences through distraction and force of will. The large cast of supporting players all elbows each other just to be mouthpieces for one-liners. Knives actually comes across as the most complete character, consumed by her infatuation, heartbreak, and then quest for misguided vengeance. She’s somewhat dismissed and yet she is the most developed person on screen thanks to Wong’s endearing and relatable performance. The entire experience of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World can be somewhat fatiguing when there’s little evidence presented for emotional investment. The books supplied the reasons for caring besides the whole underdog angle.

The movie aims to be a battle over love, but it’s not entirely convincing. Scott appreciates Knives because she’s simple, a relationship he doesn’t have to invest much within, something casual and enjoyable while it lasts or until it becomes too taxing. Then he goes ga-ga for Ramona and stalks her, wearing down her defenses. He’s purely smitten with her and willing to do whatever it takes to earn her affections, though he can?t explain why he feels this way. Here’s a note to screenwriters: when characters are asked why they love somebody, do not have them say, “I don’t know.” But for Ramona, Scott is her Knives. He’s something easy that won?t break her heart, an escape from the jerks she’s been dating before. He?s low maintenance. He’s something to pass the time. There’s an interesting dynamic here, made even more complicated by the fact that Scott’s time with Knives blended with his time with Ramona. There was not a clear end point. The movie takes a literal approach to the idea of love being a destructive force of nature. Scott is punished throughout because of his infatuation with Ramona, but he persists despite the bruises. And he doesn’t even really know much about her. There’s an interesting statement somewhere there about the punishment we endure, sometimes foolishly, over the affections of people we may love, or convince ourselves of, but not even like.

It may sound peculiar but I’m paying Michael Cera a compliment by saying his performance in Scott Pilgrim is the least Michael Cera the actor has ever been on screen. Gone is his gawky, awkward, ironic shtick that has fast become the Cera persona in films like Superbad and Year One. Scott is unjustifiably confident in his life’s pursuits, and Cera gets to act cocky and quippy, even if it?s done with a wink. He?s an unlikely kung-fu star but then again he?s also an unlikely leading man. Winstead (Live Free or Die Hard) is cute but plays her part a bit too toned down, like Ramona’s still searching for the right medication combination. Culkin and Pill are both scene-stealers of the first order, doing so with unabashed and flippant sarcasm. Every scene is made better by their presence. Among the evil exes, Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) has plenty of fun as a dim-witted super-powered Vegan bassist (“Vegans are just better than other people”), and Jason Schwartzman epitomizes hipster snark with such relish. The film is exceedingly well cast from top to bottom.

I’ve read some reviews positing that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an elaborate fantasy taking place in the mind of its titular hero, that he blends his knowledge of comics and video games to help make sense of the troubled waters of relationships and lingering hurt from the demise of love. I think that’s a nice explanation but perhaps trying too hard to frame this film as some form of psychoanalytical commentary on modern youth’s interpersonal relationships and the value of love. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is really just a spastic, hip, clever wank that, as presented, gives little room or emotional investment. It?s a blurry, messy, prankish good time at the cinema that doesn’t translate into much more than the equivalent of sensory button mashing (video game reference). It’s fun while it lasts but it doesn’t have much beyond those astounding visuals to make it feel lasting, and I say this as a genuine fan of the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Alas, heavier discussions about the thorny, maddening issues of love are better left to more dramatic, and romantic, movies like Brokeback Mountain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and even WALL-E. This movie is more preoccupied with spinning as fast as it can and then vomiting.

Nate’s Grade: B

Up in the Air (2009)

Up in the Air is the kind of movie that slyly sneaks up on you. This charming comedy is much like George Clooney’s character, a man paid by cowardly bosses to fire their employees. He’s so good at his job that his skills appear effortless, but at the same time he can take heavy subject matter and make you feel better and thankful afterwards. The topical backdrop of corporate downsizing and layoffs could produce plenty of easy pathos, but Up in the Air works expertly on several layers; it’s a brisk, clever comedy with revealing repartee; it’s an adult romance that blissfully lets them behave like mature adults; and it’s a moving character piece about people realizing what they have gained and lost due to their lifestyle choices. When Clooney is fighting back tears from a crushing disappointment over being overlooked to walk his sister down the aisle, it may be the most compactly perfect moment of acting in his career. Throughout director Jason Reitman’s script (he co-wrote the adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel), the human element is debated in our technological age. Clooney’s young cohort (Anna Kendrick) wants to simplify by firing people over the Internet. What is the cost of losing our human connection? Reitman doesn’t resort to a stolid happy ending, which is somewhat of a relief. The movie doesn’t present easy answers or pretend that life can be tied up with a bow. Up in the Air is a bristling comedy with an understated emotional current running alongside. It’s racking up tons of awards and deserves many of them, though I won’t get t the point of calling this the best film of 2009. However, Reitman has delivered another deeply entertaining, charismatic, and involving comedy that sprinkles in potent human drama.

Nate’s Grade: A

New Moon (2009)

Admittedly, I am not a fan of the Twilight series. I have never read one of the books but I didn’t hate the first Twilight movie. I thought it kind of worked on its own merits even if it wasn’t for me. However, New Moon is a crushing bore and a mess.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is celebrating her eighteenth birthday with her vampire boyfriend, the 119-year-old Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). She accidentally cuts her finger and the sight of blood sends one of the Cullen vampires crazy with instinct. Edward concludes that his love would be safer without him. He bids her goodbye and promises, “This is the last time you will ever see me,” forgetting that there are two more books to go. Bella is heartbroken and spends months in a stupor. She finds solace with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), her friend of many years. Jacob’s people are indigenous Native Americans to the area, and he holds a secret as well. Turns out that Jacob is a werewolf. Now Bella has to decide between a vampire or a werewolf (does a Frankenstein monster enter the romantic fray later?). Edward mistakenly believes that Bella has died, so he too wants to die and will seek execution at the hands of the illustrious Vultari, the ruling vampire clan in Italy. Bella must decide between her two loves.

I can precisely indicate where everything goes wrong for the abysmal New Moon — the character of Bella Swan. For the majority of this sequel, I didn’t just detest and dislike her I downright hated her. I hated her. I understand her appeal to the millions of Meyer’s literary acolytes, but man does she come across as a self-centered, casually cruel, messed up girl who spends most of her time being whiny, mopey, and sulky. It’s not just that she has a guy interested in her, it’s the absurd notion that every man cannot get enough of this sullen gal. As presented in New Moon, Bella is such a dour and lifeless personality. I cannot see whatsoever why she is worth such effort. This criticism may be tracked all the way to Meyer’s source material, making Bella absent in defining character dynamics expressly so pre-teen readers can insert themselves as the character and swoon over being the object of universal desire. It is insultingly thin wish fulfillment that this girl has every man, vampire, and werewolf fighting over her in the Pacific Northwest. After Edward leaves, she shuts herself out and rejects all her friends. We see in one camera pan that she spends literal months in a stupor. I understand that teenagers think everything is the end of the world, but she and Edward were together for, what, a few months? Then again, heartache is something that knows no exact time frame for healing, so consider this but a quibble. Bella seems to push others away except when she needs a set of ears to whine.

It is post-Edward where Bella becomes insular, self-centered in her pursuit of danger placing herself in stupidly reckless scenarios, and hurtful. Where Bella really infuriated me is her treatment of her lifelong friend, Jacob. Obviously the big guy has a thing for his her and she knows this, which allows Bella to string Jacob along for almost a whole movie. She leads this little doggie along, teasing him with a “Maybe I will be with you, maybe I won’t” dance that becomes irritating and rather loathsome. Jacob is a swell guy who has looked out for Bella from day one, accepted her coupling with a vampire, sworn enemy of werewolves, and he’s been the best listener to all her self-involved drama. Plus this guy is ripped and has hip flexors that could cut glass. And he is there for her and didn’t abandon her like Edward. So Bella toys with her self-described “best friend” until she can hear the word “Edward” and then she can think about nothing else, even after months of complete separation. I understand that Edward has the sexy, brooding, bad boy appeal, where women think they will magically be the key ingredient to change the troubled man for the better. But on the flipside, Jacob thinks he?’ the key ingredient to finally get Bella to commit to a healthy relationship, and he gets screwed. Seriously, what’s the worse thing about dating a werewolf? You may have to take him for more walks. I suppose this makes me sound like I’m on Team Jacob, as the fans call themselves. I’m really on Team Bella Deserves to be Alone.

I don’t want to sound unduly harsh. I don’t necessarily have an inherent dislike for characters that make bad decisions or who are, at their core, unlikable. I could forgive the sins of Bella Swan if she had even a hint of subtext. Bella Swan is a void of personality. I cannot recall if this was the same with Twilight, which I haven’t seen since I watched it on opening day in the theater a year ago.

What also sinks New Moon is how it repeats the same plot from Twilight. Once again Bella feels alone, she finds comfort in a boy that says they can’t be together, this intrigues her and pushes her into action, she’s warned of danger, and then finally she settles in with a pseudo relationship with a supernatural stud who makes blanket promises like “I’ll always protect you,” and, “I’ll never let anything happen to you.” It’s not complex folks; Meyer is just feeding pre-teen girls their fantasy of a male romantic interest. Because of this repetitious plot structure, very little of substance happens during the overlong 130 minutes of New Moon. Bella kinda sorta almost gets involved with a werewolf, there’s some lousy Romeo and Juliet allusions, and thanks to a delightfully hammy Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, The Queen), we learn a little bit about what makes Bella special to the world of vampires (it’s telling that her “specialty” is her lack of reaction). Beyond that, this is two hours of posturing and some gratuitous beefcake shots of shirtless men. My theater was sold out and packed with the Twilight faithful who swooned when they saw Edward strutting in slow-mo and openly hollering in approval when Jacob first whipped off his shirt. For supernatural creatures, they do more brooding than anything.

Director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy) replaces Catherine Hardwicke to steer the second movie. I actually think Hardwicke had the right sensibilities for this franchise and she brought a youthful, rambunctious spirit that gave the first film a teenage synergy that made the romance feel pulpy. Weitz does away with this and makes the movie feel more ornate and chaste and dull. The execs spent major money to film in Italy for the vampire Volturi clan, but as near as I can tell some sets would have done the trick. Note to filmmakers: if you spend money to film in an exotic location, show it. As far as I can tell, Weitz was hired because of the bump up in special effects for this picture. Gone are goofy vampire baseball sequences and now we have cheesy wolf battle sequences, which come across like a less refined version of the polar bear brawl from Golden Compass. The special effects have improved but that doesn’t mean they?re good.

This isn’t exactly the kind of movie that asks for much from its actors, and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg distills Meyer’s text to the point that the actors pout and yearn. Stewart is an actress I have liked for years since Panic Room, so imagine how I would feel about the Bella character with a less capable actress. Pattinson is absent for almost the entire movie and it’s hard to say that his presence was missed. The best actor of this weird love triangle is Lautner who at least seems to have some fun with his role. He has an amiable spirit that penetrates all the gloom. He’s come a long way from being Shark Boy in 2005?s The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.

The plot is a shadow of the first film, and the main character is annoying and hard to sympathize with, there?s so little of consequence that happens, it?s way too long, and, oh yeah, did I mention how much I disliked Bella Swan? At this point, the Twilight franchise is a juggernaut that cannot be contained (as I write this it’s poised to make over $70 million on opening day) and the Twi-hards will find the movie to be catnip, swooning at the visualized male sex objects. For anyone outside the cult of Twilight, the movie version of New Moon will fail to communicate the appeal of the series. The movie feels bloodless. Twilight is like a tedious soap opera scrubbed clean of teenage hormones. I think I’ll stick with HBO’s True Blood, a more nuanced, adult, sexy, and just plain fun series following vampire-human love. Bella could learn plenty from Sookie Stackhouse.

Nate’s Grade: D+

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