Tuesday, August 24, 2010

[Film Review] Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Two of the guys from my boardgaming group and I were talking about Riki-Oh and Ninja Scroll, and how the plots of those movies are really just excuses for their protagonists to fight a bunch of differently-gimmicked opponents, yet manage to be kind of mystifying at the same time. As one of my pals put it, there's no real plot to speak of, but there are a stultifying number of events.

Two days later, when my wife asked me if I wanted to go see Scott Pilgrim, I kind of assumed that I'd be seeing the same kind of movie. I haven't read any of the books, but from the trailer I knew that there were going to be seven boss battles, and that seemed like a lot to string together and still have time for anything more than the barest excuse for connective tissue. In retrospect, I was such a fool to have thought that Edgar Wright might fail me so spectacularly.

Instead, Wright made yet another romantic comedy that I didn't realize was a romantic comedy until after I was finished watching it. Neither half of that sentence should be read as a criticism. Though Wright doesn't seem interested in projects that aren't rom-coms, he mostly ignores the form and tropes of the genre and instead sticks to its most basic idea - a romance of some kind between two lead characters which is stymied and complicated by their own hangups and issues as well as wacky circumstances outside their control, which circumstances at some point get used by our plucky protagonists in order to fix their personal problems. That those circumstances tend to be more outsized than is standard for the genre is absolutely to Wright's credit, given how badly the normal formula needs some new ideas pumped into it.

Michael Cera does his normal Michael Cera thing, although the character of Scott calls for him to replace Cera's normal shyness with selfishness. If you're familiar with his usual onscreen persona, this probably means you already know whether or not you're going to find the character funny or annoying, but Cera does pull out an unexpected emotional beat: righteous fury. It only happens twice in the movie, as most of the time Scott displays his anger as petulance rather than wide-eyed rage, but Cera surprised me by totally selling me on Scott's triumphant anger those few times that the character worked his way up to it.

Not all of the jokes work, but the film is edited so sharply and proceeds at such a breakneck pace that you won't have time to dwell on the ones that didn't make you laugh. So much of the material is exhilaratingly funny that the few bits that don't work are mostly welcome as a quick break for the facial muscles, anyway. There's a particularly great device that the story uses just enough to not become tiresome, whereby a character will make an absurd statement about the world which works as a sarcastic commentary on another character but is later revealed to be an actual piece of the setting. Since none of what's going on here is explained, that technique serves as a novel way to turn humor into worldbuilding.

The action is good adrenaline-pumping stuff, and though the videogame style of the fights does make them feel a bit light, that ultimately works in the film's favor. It's not particularly visceral stuff, which is fine, since the model here is River City Ransom rather than Thrill Kill. Keeping the tone light by adding helpful onomatopoeic captions to the blows and avoiding the splatter that characterized Wright's previous two films works because the fights happen for a reason, and effectively removing the physical danger from these confrontations focuses our attention on the emotional stakes that fuel the motivation for the throwdowns in the first place.

Scott Pilgrim isn't doing well in theaters, which is a shame. Is it targeted at too specific a niche? I can remember when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out and was greeted by rapturous reviews from an arthouse crowd who probably didn't normally care much for wu xia/kung fu stuff, and that film certainly seemed to rely more heavily on knowledge of genre expectations to achieve its story than Scott Pilgrim relies on video game tropes. There are a lot of little Easter eggs sprinkled throughout, obviously, but there were definitely little nods that I recognized happening but didn't understand the full import of, yet that ignorance didn't harm the film for me at all. It may also have suffered from a paradoxical lack of overt exoticism, especially in its opening scenes. By assuming that what we are seeing is a somewhat stylized but mostly normal depiction of our real world, some viewers may have been irrevocably thrown for a loop when the weirdness began. If the film had been set in an fantasy land or even another real-world culture or historical setting, I'm betting that the supernormal elements would have gone down a lot more smoothly.

Monday, August 9, 2010

[Film Review] Up

A year before I graduated from college, my mom noticed that a mole I'd had on my cheek since birth had become a distinctly greenish tinge. I was all for letting it continue to mutate, in hopes of developing superpowers or at least enough of a hideous appearance that I'd have an excuse to pursue a career in supervillainy, but she insisted that I get it removed before I was no longer covered under her health insurance as a student. The dermatologist explained that he wouldn't be able to use the normal freeze-and-scrape method because the mole's roots were too deep under my skin, so instead he applied a local anesthetic and then cut it out by hand. While he was doing that, I still had enough sensation in my cheek to be able to feel the scalpel slicing through the flesh of my face and the subsequent stitching together of the incision, but those sensations were weirdly heightened by the lack of any accompanying pain. Up is the emotional equivalent of that experience. It's a bizarre but intriguing sensation to watch one's emotions be manipulated, and see it happening and understand how it's being done, and yet still be overwhelmed by that tidal pull.

Technically, the animation is very nearly perfect. The visual textures are nothing short of astonishing, so dense as to nearly invoke a sight/touch synaesthesia. The protagonist, especially, looks more like a puppet than anything conjured on a Mac workstation, perhaps a long-lost cousin to Statler and Waldorf. Light is also so lovingly rendered as to be nearly palpable, so much so that it's easy to forget that none of what's on the screen is actually a tangible presence in the world. The greatest feat that Up accomplishes is its ability to present images that are cartoonish and exaggerated, but to deliver them so convincingly that once the movie has ended, it's the real world that looks slightly out of true, designed with no sense of credible aesthetic sense.

The dialogue is as polished as everything else in the movie, but the characters are so expressive and the environments so calculated for effect that the voice acting is essentially superfluous. The voice actors do a great job of conveying text and subtext, but since there aren't any surprises in the dialogue, it feels like its inclusion was more a matter of habit than any kind of artistic necessity.

Up suffers from a close relative of a common film malady, that of the opening scene so powerful that it overshadows the rest of a movie which isn't ever able to rise to that level of intensity again. Here it's not the opening scene, but the one immediately succeeding it, which raises the bar for itself just a bit too high. After a scene of the protagonist as a child, there's a montage which shows him falling in love with his childhood sweetheart, marrying her, growing old with her, and then sitting alone at her funeral. It's a fiercely emotional sequence in which we're shown the outline of a wonderful person who's then abruptly snatched from us, and the rest of the story feels pale and predictable afterward.

Which isn't to say that it's not well-crafted. The narrative is honed and polished and sleek, obviously the product of much loving effort, but this precision works against itself. There isn't a single scene here in which we get the faintest hint of spontaneity, and there isn't room to breathe between any of the perfectly-crafted lines of dialogue, facial expressions and body language. That machine-like relentlessness possesses a kind of cold beauty, but it's the perfectly symmetrical beauty of an ant or robot, something so singularly devoted to its purpose that you can't help but admire it at the same time that you realize you couldn't possibly empathize with it.

The story arc is so smooth and flawless that there's nothing to grab onto, and though my emotional responses to every scene played out exactly how their creators calculated, the rigidity of that same craft made those responses feel strangely mechanical. (It's very likely that the amazing quality of the visuals and the starkly streamlined story have a direct relationship with each other. Based on how beautiful the film is, it must have taken many, many work-hours to produce, and that work would have needed to be thrown away if some deviation from the script had occurred while recording the voice acting. Hence, that acting needed to be extensively worked out beforehand, leaving little or no room for improvisation or even tonal differences on the part of the voice actors. Or maybe my speculations are entirely wrong. Note: Since this review went live, I have been informed by people who work in the animation industry that these speculations are, in fact, entirely wrong. Standard Pixar practice is to record the voice acting before work begins on the animation.) This tendency to treat the story with such exactitude strips away what should be an organic experience, making Up feel like the dance of simulacra much more than its animation ever does.

[Animation "Review"] Monstrous Wildlife

I don't normally review shorts, mainly because I don't know how to - they generally don't have enough going on for me to wax pseudo-intellectual about, and it should be clear by now that I got into this here reviewing game for the opportunities for chin-strokage.

I'll make an exception for "Monstrous Wildlife," because it's beautiful and made me laugh out loud and has a fun soundtrack and makes me want to watch Tremors again. I don't have anything insightful to say about it, but maybe if it generates enough traffic, Frank Robnik will fashion more entries in a series that's got a ton of potential.

Monstrous Wildlife can be viewed here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

[Book Review] The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

Neal Stephenson likes writing smart, capable characters who aren't interested in spending time languishing in self-doubt or worrying about what makes themselves tick. They're not often the military or cultural or political movers and shakers in the worlds he creates, but they're the motivational forces in their own lives. To support the confident, forward-thinking worldviews of his characters, Stephenson's style is witty and conversational, never opting for dry exposition when a winking exaggeration would be funnier. Sometimes his characters, generally thin to be begin with, become lost under all that cleverness, but The Diamond Age is so much fun to read that it's hard to blame him for that. It's an engaging style in which to tell tales of characters who are leading interesting lives, both in a biographical sense and in that of the traditional Chinese curse.

That these same interesting people are necessary for the continued progress of society is the central theme of the novel. The book's setting underscores that by setting up different "phyles," each in conflict with the others as competing social organisms. These tribes are based around ideology and culture rather than birthright and ethnicity, thus allowing the book to sidestep any worries about racial politics in favor of opening a debate about whether or not some cultures are inherently better, or at least inherently better suited for survival, than others. The notion of government has been replaced by these tribes, but since the tribes largely serve the same purposes as governments, this mostly just means that cultural institutions are bound together by ideology rather than geography.

The plot is bifurcated, following the lives of a nanotech engineer who builds the quasi-sentient book of the novel's subtitle and an impoverished young girl who accidentally ends up with a copy of said book. That book is designed to create the previously-mentioned interesting people in a world that its commissioner fears is becoming too staid as a result of the ubiquity of nanotechnology. (Given all the goings-on in the background, that fear seems completely unfounded, but it does serve as a means of egress from one social stratum to another, allowing us to get a view of many of the disparate phyles which populate the setting.) Stephenson is a creator of intensely memorable scenes, but the connective tissue between those scenes is often atrophied and sometimes entirely absent. As a result, individual episodes have their own internal rise and fall, but the overall plot wanders quite a bit rather than following any internal structure. Those meanderings are often quizzical in their intent, as the book has a tendency to cut away at strange times and peek in on other plotlines which possess much less urgency, but they're also quite light-footed and don't dwell on any one focus for long, with the result that their rapid-fire progression makes up for the lack of any coherent overall arc.

By keeping the pacing brisk and giving its characters a lot to do, The Diamond Age distracts us from the fact that there's not a lot going on inside the heads of these people. Major revelations and psychological reconfigurations are given no more narrative attention than mundane details, and major shifts in character identity are treated almost summarily. It's obvious that Stephenson simply isn't interested in spending a lot of time having his characters agonize over their traumas and triumphs, and rather than force himself to write about a topic which he doesn't care about, he gives his readers enough information for them to at least understand his characters, if not actually empathize with what they're experiencing. How closely your own interests coincide with Stephenson's will dictate whether you think this approach to characterization is lazy or graceful.

The reactionary gender politics the characters display are a bit rough to read, though at least they're not based on any kind of statement about the innate inferiority of women but rather on the mores of the two dominant cultures we spend time with. It is a bit puzzling as to why these cultures were chosen by their progenitors as the ones which they should hearken back to, given that both of them historically imploded under the weight of the very virtues that their neo-iterative versions emulate. It's not much of an imaginative stretch to envision that a group of people would idolize an earlier culture so strongly as to ignore its flaws or assume that they won't fall prey to them, though, so this is a completely forgivable bit of worldbuilding.

The Diamond Age foregrounds pervasive nanotech as a way to examine what the basis of value is in a culture in which material goods no longer have any commercial worth. Though nanotech has made the production of standardized goods into a nearly free proposition, it hasn't effected enough of a singularity event to have abolished economics completely, so there are still socioeconomic strata in and outside of the various phyles. What has become more valuable than diamonds is the ability to innovate, an aptitude tied directly to the capacity for critical thought. The novel posits through its characters that critical thinking is earned via hard experience, particularly traumatic experience. This theme doesn't ever get in the way of the story, but rather runs throughout it as a means of both relaying setting information and relating the media-saturated world of the novel to our own. That tendency is reflected in the book's other higher-order concerns as well: though a lot of high-octane ideas get tossed around, none of them are allowed to overwhelm the sheer entertainment value of reading the text for its own sake.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

[Film Review] Inception

I do my best to avoid seeing trailers these days, because so many of them ruin the entire story of the film that they're advertising. There aren't many trailers that don't give away something that I'd rather have been surprised by in the theater. There are exceptions to this recent trend, but these are so few and far between that I can name them right off the top of my head:

The District 9 trailer made it look as though it would be a full-on mockumentary, rather than a traditional narrative with some mockumentary sequences. The promotional materials for Inglorious Basterds were very clear that it was going to be Tarantino's version of the Dirty Dozen, but it turned out to be something very different and much better. A Serious Man's trailer, well, that was just confusing enough to be a kind of thematic indication of what the movie would be like without giving away any of its details. The last really great series of trailers that I remember were the ones for the first Matrix film, which treated us to all kinds of eye-popping imagery but didn't ruin any of the surprises of the film itself.

Most trailers are far too honest for their own good. The best ones lie to us, by omission if not commission, leaving intact the experiential joy of being surprised. So though I'd seen the teaser trailer for Inception, which is intentionally very vague in terms of what the movie is actually about, I'd deliberately avoided watching the standard trailer for fear that some crucial bit of data would lodge in my brain before the movie had begun and inadvertently ruin some aspect of the film for me. It would be very difficult to discuss any aspect of Inception without spoiling something, and this is definitely a movie best viewed with no foreknowledge whatsoever. If you haven't seen it yet, but think you might want to, stop reading and go see it. It's stunning, and even if you don't end up liking the movie, you'll be glad that you watched it on a screen measured in "stories tall" rather than "inches across."

Christopher Nolan is everyone's darling at the moment, because he's the best director working in Hollywood when it comes to creating big-budget spectacle which is supported by very capable storytelling, all of which is accompanied by thematic underpinnings that actually have some heft. His non-Batman films are also constructed as puzzles for the audience to unravel, employing frayed (and sometimes disintegrated) narrative arcs and unreliable narrators to keep audiences engaged in the effort to decipher the fictional cryptograms they're presented with. His protagonists are frequently unsure of anything other than their commitment to the core obsessions which drive them, sometimes to the point of losing sight of the reality that caused those fixations to develop in the first place.

It's not at all surprising, then, that he'd want to make a film that centers on the malleability of dreams and the shifting uncertainties that accompany them, as navigated by a character compelled to find whatever truths he can in all those layers of subterfuge and outright deceit. What is surprising, at least during the initial viewing, is just how mundane those dreams turn out to be. While there are a few effects-laden scenes in which physics is treated as a set of suggestions rather than as unbreakable laws, there's a distinct lack of the kind of surreality that often characterizes actual dream logic. The scenes which are explicitly set in dreams mostly follow normal action film physics, meaning that they fit in well with other high-budget summer blockbusters.

This begins to make sense once the film makes its intentions clear: there are going to be so many potential jumping-off points for where reality meets dreamspace that the audience isn't going to be given any clear signals for when the characters are in a dream or not. By avoiding the use of standard film vocabulary for dream sequences (fog machine, midget, soft focus), Inception makes it impossible to know where its action is taking place. This is a film determined to spawn fan theories, and keeping its cinematography even-handed is the best way to allow the maximal number of those theories to maintain their potential viability.

Its mythology is similarly built to confound, starting off with what seems to be a fairly simple set of rules but soon enough circling around to modify those rules and eventually even contradict them. That the film never gives more than a passing nod to the mechanics of how any of the action onscreen is occurring is another sly obfuscation, leaving open the question of whether what we see is a simple narrative shortcut necessary to keep the pacing on track or a clue as to the nature of the characters' fluctuating realities.

Hans Zimmer's phenomenal score does an excellent job of supporting the thesis (well, theses) of the film while also succeeding on its own merits. As one perceptive viewer noticed, there's an extremely tidy trick that Zimmer pulls by using a honed-down sample from a bit of the source music which acts as a major plot point in the film. Being someone with an abiding interest in sample-based music, particularly the kind that embraces the alteration of samples rather than limiting their deployment to the use of strict cut-and-paste techniques, this fiendishly clever use of sampling (or extrapolation, as the case may have been) was incredibly toothsome. So far as I can recall, this is the most well-integrated piece of film scoring that I've ever seen, one which not only powerfully advances the mood of the story but also provides more clues to the puzzle which the film methodically lays out for us.

Nolan's use of repeated phrases and imagery, common to all his oeuvre as a way to suture together narrative strands, here does double-duty as the kind of intuitive feeling that we often get in dreams that we've been here before, had these conversations in the past, and followed courses of action whose consequences we already know. Though that use of repetition here invokes that exact feeling of deja vu, it doesn't overshadow the authority of the characters' choices or psychological states, with the odd result that the plot manages to feel simultaneously preordained and spontaneous.

Inception's final shot neatly encapsulates the primary argument of the movie, and was stunning enough in its emotional impact that there was an audience-wide gasp at the theater I saw it in. It's an extremely deft bit of sleight-of-hand which doesn't answer the questions raised by the rest of the film so much as force the viewer to begin reconsidering the entire reason that those questions are being asked in the first place. In a film which might well be an extended metaphor for the process of filmmaking, it's a very elegant feat to turn to the audience as the credits begin to roll and show them exactly how the previous two and a half hours weren't about the characters on screen at all, but rather the experience of having viewed the film itself.