Scott Pilgrim vs. The World Review

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There’s almost too much of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to handle. Perhaps it’s the inevitable result of compressing an entire graphic novel series into a single film. Perhaps it’s the unavoidable pitfall of choosing an aesthetic so overwhelming that advil might be an acceptable substitute for popcorn. But only one thing is for certain: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World does not know how to handle itself. It’s too ambitious, too creative, and too dedicated to its aesthetic to remember to follow basic rules of narrative and pacing. As a result, Scott Pilgrim is consistently ingenious and original only in terms of its moment-to-moment filmmaking craft. It’s a great series of clips, but it can’t tie itself down to become a great movie.

That’s not to say it isn’t worth watching; Scott Pilgrim is absolutely saturated with style, at times resembling a fighting game, an anime, and a martial-arts extravaganza all at once. Most every moment contains some sort of expressive vignette (ie, sounds often appear spelled out within the frame, 1960s-Batman style) or a bizarre (yet almost universally effective) editing trick that never would have been considered in film school. It shines with a neon sheen, and the crowded fast-paced effects-filled action is chaotic while still somehow remaining (unlike most American action scenes) easy to understand. Its dorky titular protagonist defies gravity as he flies across the screen like a superhero, encapsulating the fantasies that all nerds have of transforming their (or rather, our) average bodies into the champions of our media.

The sense of empowerment is thrilling, but all too often it ends up drowned out by confusion. Scott Pilgrim’s story is almost incomprehensible, despite its simplicity, and it alternately moves too slowly (almost nothing happens for the first half hour) and too quickly (the last 45 minutes are fight scene after fight scene, all of which are well put together, but none of which significantly stand out from the rest). Pilgrim is tasked with eliminating the seven evil exes (not necessarily ex-boyfriends, as he is often corrected) of his new girlfriend, an aloof girl with brightly colored hair named Ramona. Scott Pilgrim makes a joke out of the fact that it doesn’t actually explain this motivation until well after the movie is running full force, but the joke certainly isn’t funny. The first time an “ex” appears, and the movie leaps out of the relative normalcy of its first half into utterly surreal retro-game-style action, it feels like being thrown into the deep end of a pool without ever being taught how to swim. Scott Pilgrim is one of those films that you simply have to accept at face value because its internal logic is so nutty it becomes impossible to follow. That itself is fine, but it would have been better if the film actually signposted for us that this was how it was going to be, instead of expecting us to adjust for ourselves after a somewhat lackluster first act.

The film is lifted by its casting, which uses the typecast-reputations of big names to embody the cartoony, exaggerated roles of its comic-book world. We can tell that the Aubrey Plaza character is going to be dryly sarcastic, because that’s who Aubrey Plaza is. We can tell that the Chris Evans character will be a confident action-packed he-man, because that’s who Chris Evans is. Despite the fact that so many characters are packed into so short a film with such few introductions, this phenomenon demystifies each character and allows the audience a chance to orient themselves. Michael Cera in particular is an absolutely perfect Scott Pilgrim, bringing a shy sincerity and a reserved sense of humor to the character.

I have to confess to the nerd-crime of having never read the Scott Pilgrim comics, but given their relative obscurity outside of a certain fandom, that likely gives me the same perspective as most potential viewers of Scott Pilgrim vs The World. The people who’ve read the comics (excuse me, graphic novels) seem to think that the film is a loyal representation. But there may be something in saying that this was an adaptation that either shouldn’t have happened or should have happened over a series of films rather than a single one. Its originality makes it worth seeing, and its flashy action certainly keeps it enjoyable, but taken as a film rather than as a series of scenes it’s an overstuffed mess, dull near the beginning, preachy near the end, and relentless in the middle. Director Edgar Wright has never made a more creative film, but he’s certainly made better ones.

When Marnie Was There Review


     When Marnie Was There is a film of goodbyes. To say exactly when or how would be a spoiler, but the most prominent farewell is to Studio Ghibli itself. Marnie was their last movie, the bookend to the most beloved and influential animation studio since Disney. Absent here is the bombast and fantasy of Ghibli’s past. Rather, Marnie communicates a sense of quiet reflection that makes it one of Ghibli’s most special films, even if it is far from its best. 

    Marnie is, at its core, a ghost and mystery story. 12-year old Anna is sent to the countryside to let the fresh air treat a serious ailment. The doctor says asthma. The audience knows severe depression. Anna hates herself, hates that she’s a burden to her foster parents, and hates the unnecessary interactions of people that she must so often be forced to deal with at parties and other social events. She takes refuge in her sketches, private drawings of the world around her that she refuses to show anyone on the grounds that they’re “not very good.” Her art is her happiness, until, of course, she meets Marnie, an energetic young girl that lives in an abandoned mansion cut off from reality by a small lagoon.

    The relationship between Marnie and Anna is the focus of When Marnie Was There, burgeoning into a solid friendship after just the first meeting. Marnie is a quiet film, so every one of the limited lines carries developmental weight, and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (whose only previous directing credit was the beautiful yet formulaic Secret World of Arrietty) keeps the film plodding along at a pace that never sacrifices either the love between the two or the supernatural, surreal mystery that pulls Marnie along (although it will be considerably too slow for younger children).

    Nevertheless, that mystery itself is simplistic at best, sprinkling out only a few clues before the final climactic reveal. Blink, and you can miss them.

    But the bare-bones mystery is not the only reason to widen your eyes. Ghibli has crafted each frame of Marnie with more care than mother would give a child. Every image is strikingly beautiful and compositionally perfect, and Ghibli’s trademark attention to detail is as strong here as ever before. The character design and animation of Anna and Marnie have been meticulously formed, allowing them to move and express in a way that creates remarkably real chemisty between two sets of lines on paper.

    Yet Marnie is far from perfect. A cast of secondary characters are introduced and quickly dropped, potentially out of regard to give more screen time to Anna and Marnie, potentially out of script-writing laziness. For most of these characters this amounts to little more than wasted potential, but one relationship in particular, between Anna and her foster mother, feels like a terrible failure. Anna’s mother plays an integral role in every aspect of Marnie, yet she’s given under ten minutes of time to interact with Anna in any way. This oversight thematically damages the movie, reducing what could’ve been a life-changing emotional-gutpunch near Marnie’s end to simply a series of powerful moments.

Despite its PG rating, this is not a film for children. It is too slow, too sad, and too sincere for a child to tolerate. Yet despite its script’s shortcomings, When Marnie Was There is a tear-jerking, bittersweet, and visually stunning portrait of two characters that feel more real and grounded than any Ghibli has produced in the past. We know that Ghibli can do better, but I’m unsure that it needed to. When Marnie Was There is an unfiltered act of love, the dying whisper of a studio that the world is forced to see fade away.

Deadpool Review


    To look at a static image of one of Deadpool’s katanas is to watch the film itself. Deadpool is a shiny, violent, perfectly sharp but also completely flat film that seems annoyed at itself for requiring such petty things as “story” or “a villain.” Deadpool treats traditional movie concepts as “characters” or “the fourth wall” as paltry trivialities, aiming instead to be what results in one long admittedly clever dick joke.

    Deadpool revels in the freedom afforded by its R-rating. Freed from prepubescent eyes, cartoony gore gleefully splatters the screen while constant references to asses and blowjobs abound. Even the credits don’t escape, depicting a little cartoon Deadpool whose erection grows like a Pinocchio nose upon the increasing “hot”-ness of each successive actor. Yet despite the lack of mature humor, Deadpool the film is just as often smart as it is smart-ass. It openly mocks both the conventions of superhero movies and its own creators. At one point Deadpool insults the studio for not granting the film enough money to get any better X-Men, a quip that may or may not be related to the film’s last minute budget-cuts.

    But all this humor stands on shaky legs. Deadpool’s story is as thin as it can get. Wayd Wilson, portrayed with sass by Ryan Reynolds, is a hitman with a heart of gold, “standing up for the little guy” even as he intimidates and threatens a pizza delivery boy because some blond girl accused him of being a stalker. Reynolds stands out as the only lady-killer (not literally…except once) among his crowd of hitman-buddies, one of whom is called “fat Gandalf” by a sex worker (Morena Baccarin, who, with both this and Firefly under her belt, is dangerously close to becoming the strangely specific typecast of “prostitute in a sci-fi movie”) who later turns out to be the main love-interest/damsel in distress. Wilson gets cancer, decides to run away so that his girlfriend “will remember him how he is” and yadda, yadda, yadda. The drama is so thin the film seems to be aware of it, sneaking in more and more one-liners and pop-culture references to break up scenes that contain only empty shells of emotions. The romance is barely developed; all we know about the couple is that they connect over their mutual crappy childhoods and over constant sex. 

    Once Wilson escapes he ends up in the hands of a shady organization that aims to cure him by unlocking his repressed mutant genes. And the only way to do this is to torture him because, reasons. And his final mutation makes him look like a monster because…other reasons. It’s all facilitated by a bald British man with a pair of the worst, least threatening superpowers ever to grace a Marvel film. He: 1) can’t feel pain, but no-one in any action/superhero movie can ever feel pain anyway, and 2) has really good reflexes so he can get a high score in the Deadpool videogame. This man’s unthreatening name quickly becomes the crux of an over repeated, annoying joke that’s only funny once.

    All of this is delivered in a back-and-forth flashback structure that quickly becomes tiresome. Though the attempt at telling the obligatory origin story in a different way is admirable, it stalls any sort of cohesive narrative from evolving until almost halfway through, making Deadpool appear wholly without structure.

    Eventually, other “characters” become involved, like the recognizable Colossus and a teenage X-man with a name like “super teenage atomic bomb” or something along those lines. The former has a mildly entertaining fight scene that mostly just steels screentime from Deadpool. Colossus serves as the necessary “reaction” character to Deadpool’s slapstick. The other X-man is a teenage stereotype, with few lines and little purpose other than to trigger the final action-set-piece.

Deadpool only has two “big superhero-y” scenes, and if you’ve seen the trailers, one has already been given away almost in its entirety. Despite the relatively low amount of fighting, Deadpool goes to Jackie Chan levels of mixing comedy and combat. First-time director Tim Miller gives us battles that are refreshing both in style and content, unafraid to give the occasional long-held-shot to fully show the on-screen acrobatics or casually introduce a (often brutal and bloody) visual gag. 

    Ultimately Deadpool is a one-trick pony. It’s a dumb, funny film with nothing else to offer. It’s as two-dimensional as the original comics (in all meanings of the word “two-dimensional”) and its story and relationships are nothing but an absolute waste of time. I became bored near the end once my dick-joke tolerance became a bit too flaccid, and I suspect most moviegoers will be turned away by the pointless story and constant, constant lack of maturity. But Deadpool does not want to entertain most moviegoers. It wants to entertain the man-child craving to see on the screen the equivalent of a two-hour middle-school sleepover. And that, it achieves perfectly.

Kingsman: The Secret Service Review

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a film that understands how nostalgia gilds memories, how what we remember about a particular pleasurable experience is often better than the experience itself. Such can be said for the glory days of James Bond films, when Sean Connery pranced around in a stylish suit spouting one liners and taking down the most devious of villains. From a modern perspective, these films have not aged particularly well. They remain classic because of their influence in popular culture, not because they’re able to compete with some of the best action films that came out before or since.

Yet we remember these films as cornerstones of our childhoods, capturing our imaginations and causing us to dream of our own suave futures as 007-esque agents. Kingsman aims to recreate the feeling of those films, not as they exist, but as they exist in our memories. As a result, it’s forced to turn the Bond-ness level up to eleven, going over the top in every way possible without losing the charm that made the originals so special. We don’t have a James Bond; we have a team of them. They don’t fight to save the government or to save Fort Knox; they fight to save the planet. And they do it all amidst London bars and disco balls, moving with such smooth acrobatics as to put Mr. Connery to shame.  

But as much as Kingsman understands what made the original Bond films great, it also understands what pulled (and continues to pull) them down. Never has a serious action movie been so self-aware of the tropes of its own genre, and never has it gone to such lengths to let the audience know how it avoids them. One of the best scene of the film involves the agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) having a conversation with the villain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) about how they both dreamed of playing roles like the ones they saw in spy movies as children. Jackson concludes with “This is not that kind of movie.”

To backtrack: The Kingsmen are a non-governmental intelligence agency with the mission of…doing spy stuff. “Keeping the world at peace,” one character describes it as. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s not supposed to. Kingsman glosses over the details of funding and logistics for an elite international organization that seems only to hire British people to do its dirty work. Instead, it wants to show you a dressing room full of lighter-hand-grenades and umbrellas that act as bullet shields. “Eggsy” (Taron Egerton)is a poor kid who ends up recruited by Hart to join the Kingsmen, and who, of course, gets tangled up in a plot involving a tech mogul with a very Agent Smith view on the human race.

The ultimate plot of Jackson’s character is far too apocalyptic to be believable, but it works on a base level where most other modern spy movies fail: it’s simple, easy to understand. The unfortunate trend in recent entries in the espionage genre is to get so wrapped up in an incomprehensible, overly complex plot that the film spends most of its time trying to explain what’s going on and far less time giving the audience what it wants: the action (we’re looking at you, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation). At least this comic-book villain gives clear and uncomplicated motivation to every action and every fight scene without the audience having to pull out a notebook and diagram what’s going on.

In fact believability is the film’s only major problem. It’s hard to buy into Eggsy’s backstory of a tough life growing up on the street when he can leap and jump across rooftops like a ninja (we’re told that he did some gymnastics in elementary school, but I’ve never seen such fluid parkour taught at “Fliptastic” down the street). But at the same time the energetic, exaggerated nature of the rest of the film goes far enough so that believability can easily be forgotten.

The forgetfulness applies to the one female character, Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who starts off strong and appears as if she’s going to play a leading role alongside Eggsy for the entire rest of the film. She’s made interesting from the outright, breaking conventions of the sexy lady spy by showing cracks and fears that humanize her beyond the level of the other agents. Nevertheless after the lengthy agent-training section she seems to vanish, taking part in only one comparatively menial task that ends up having no impact upon the story anyway. It’s a shame. As much as Kingsman embraces its spy movie stereotypes, Roxy was the one character with the potential to break things up and add some variety to the cast.

Nevertheless, Kingsman’s fluid combat pulls the film up from the pit. Director Matthew Vaughn creates some of the best fight scenes in recent memory, moving the camera quickly but never falling into the trap of the shaky-cam. Every hit is clearly shown, and Vaughn makes excellent use of Snyder-esque slow motion and quick in-and-out zooms to dramatize and emphasize the most stylish parts of the action. In between the action scenes (of which there are many, far more than most blockbusters of this type care to insert)  writers Vaughn and Jane Goldman throw in enough humor to stave off the boredom, and develops the characters enough so that we actually care about the fight scenes because we care about the people in them.

If you didn’t like and never liked the original Bond films, than it goes without saying that you won’t like this either. Kingsman is not a different beast; it just has more teeth. If the prospect of colorfully exploding heads and a legless acrobat with swords for prosthetics makes you cringe with stupidity, then I suggest you go read a book for something more intelligent. For everyone else however, Kingsman: The Secret Service is one of the most memorable big-screen blowhards in the last decade. Let’s raise a martini (shaken, not stirred) to the sequel, in hope that we see far more of the Kingsmen in the future.

 

One last thing: I’ll concede to the criticism that the scene in which an agent smoothly slaughters every congregant in a church amid a background of rock-and-roll music may have been out of taste. Then again, it was a fictional version of Westboro Baptist, so you have to admit that, at least a tiny bit, it’s a fantasy we’ve all had.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya Review

The Tale of Princess Kaguya was robbed. It was robbed by a team of colorful superheroes taking on a he’s-not-really-so-bad villain. It was robbed by a big fluffy robot that said “hairrryyyyy baby!” to the delight of children everywhere. It was robbed by an academy who prefered the cutesy mass-marketability of Big Hero 6 to the sublime artistry of Princess Kaguya. We already gave one Best Animated Feature Oscar to Studio Ghibli with Spirited Away in 2003. Apparently two was one too many to ask.

That’s because The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the type of movie that everyone in the film industry says they want made before failing to turn up to the theater. Director Isao Takahata’s movie retains Ghibli’s trademark meticulous attention to detail that’s wowed critics and animators from all over the world ever since the chimerical and inspirational Castle in the Sky. However, it does so in a style that can only be described as calligraphic. Lines flow across the screen as if refusing to be held down by the meager physical barriers of paper. Brushstrokes are loose and flowing, throwing even still and quiet scenes (of which they are many) into a sort of subtle yet perpetual motion. All the while, a watercolor palette stays muted and calm. It never attempts to match the level of energy, color, or depth of the “classic” Ghibli style, but its unique aesthetics are just as beautiful, and far more expressive. It’s as artsy and off-the-beat as you can get, riddled with visual touches that people might think they’ll find annoying and pretentious, but that they’d stop noticing within minutes if they sat down to watch the film.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya follows the titular “Princess” (her name, not a title), a country farm girl borne of a bamboo stalk. Her father, an old bamboo cutter, chops her free of a glowing stem and raises her, along with his wife, as their own. She grows so quickly that she earns the nickname “Li’l Bamboo” from her peers. She lives happily in the countryside, singing songs, frolicking with friends, and, most importantly, soaking in and appreciating the beauty around her. Then the inevitable: her father, acting on messages from heaven, moves her to the big capital city using a stash of gold bestowed upon him by another glowing bamboo stem. There she is treated like her royal namesake, and given the additional name “Kaguya” (meaning “radiant moon”) by an aged noble awestruck by her beauty.

You can guess what comes next. The country girl stuck in the big city slowly descends into misery as she quickly grows up. The social formalities and constant flow of suitors exacerbate her depression almost as much of her ignorant, greedy father. She does not want to belong to anyone, but cannot escape the possession of the gilded cage that surrounds her.

There is no “plot” so to speak. Rather, The Tale of Princess Kaguya draws out as a series of linear events taking place over multiple years. Pacing is effective but slow, best exemplified by the fact that there is no or very little conflict at all until more than half an hour into the movie. This fairy tale has its lighthearted moments, but is altogether too downtrodden, stylized, and sluggish to appeal to a young audience.

This is an animated movie made for adults. That’s not to say it’s inappropriate (Common Sense Media gives it a 9+); it’s just that only adults will be able to fully appreciate the growing-up narrative, the flow of the aesthetics, and the bittersweet nuances of the film’s final fifteen minutes. In the end, Takahata’s eight years of work have paid off. This is by far his best movie ever.

The Perfect Dictatorship Review

The Perfect Dictatorship one of the few far-from-perfect movies that everyone should see. Director Luis Estrada’s fourth film is a political satire that hardly diverges from his previous work. Funny? It tries every once in awhile, but fails at every attempt. Long? You betcha. This 140 minute movie probably could’ve worked just as well, if not better, with about 60 minutes cut out. Impactful? Oh, like a meteorite.

That’s because Estrada’s film works on a basic level. It knows exactly what it’s trying to accomplish and accomplishes it majestically, but then proceeds to throw a bunch of pointless details in the way. Case in point, the film’s final shot is beautiful and dark, a grim visual metaphor that summarizes The Perfect Dictatorship’s entire runtime. A perfect way to end a film…until an utterly unneeded epilogue concludes with more of a whiz than a bang.

The Perfect Dictatorship follows Carlos Rojo, a young producer at the fictional station TV MX, and his reporter/partner, Ricardo Diaz. After an incriminating video of a governor named Carmelo Vargas is aired on their station, the two are hired by Vargas to save his reputation (and possibly even improve it). Vargas is depicted as a vile, corrupt pig, killing on a whim and indulging himself in every imaginable earthly desire (even if he has to work with the criminal underworld to get it). Surprisingly, he’s the only one-dimensional caricature in a genre of film (political satire) that often relies on one-dimensional caricatures. Carlos and Ricardo are never depicted in a positive light, or even in a morally conflicted one, but their collectedness and know-how make them likable protagonist-villains.

Damian Alcanzar as Vargas is perfectly cast, balancing charismatic and disgusting in a role that, in other hands, would’ve been uninteresting. The rest of the cast, including Alfonso Herrera as Carlos and Osvaldo Benavides as Ricardo, aren’t quite as strong. That’s partially because of some weak writing and some out-of-place character-specific scenes, but mostly a result of the characters possessing a relatively slim emotional range.

The main plot is gripping in the best possible way, sprinkling in new developments as much as needed to keep a potentially dull concept engaging. But along with that sprinkling come a number of subplots that seem like filler at best and attempts at unnecessary complexity at worst. Only one, a story about what appears to be the only honest character in the entire movie, amounts to anything. And even it gets dropped about mid-way through the film, leaving other pointless scenes (such as those that cover an uninteresting group of criminals) to drag out an hour or so of additional runtime.

The camerawork, though usually standard, occasionally shows traces of genius. Scenes in tight spaces retain a claustrophobic feel without ever feeling crowded, and important shots are highlighted with a beautiful sense of shadow, reminding the viewers about the film’s dark message in contrast to its usually light tone.

Now, I don’t pretend to know Mexican politics. I especially don’t pretend to know the intricacies of Mexican media. But if this film is any sort of representation of the way Mexicans view the powers of their oftentimes chaotic country (and I think it does, considering what I’ve read online), then it’s something that we as US citizens should be aware of. With all the talk in the Middle East and Far East, we usually give little thought to our neighbors to the south. It’s time that we realize how many problems our next door neighbor still has. The Perfect Dictatorship is perfect for accomplishing just that, even if it achieves little else.

Sicario Review


Early on into Sicario, a group of police officers heave and puke upon discovering a tomb of drug cartel victims stuffed into the walls of a suburban house. But even though these warriors-on-drugs lose their lunch, they never lose their heads. The same can be said about Sicario, a blood-soaked, hollywoodized yet still-grounded police flick that maintains a strong sense of direction.

That’s especially important in what is, for the first hour and a half of the film, a fairly slow jog through names and places, constructing a tower of a situation that the final half hour of the film then proceeds to completely knock down. Despite the complexity of the War on Drugs and the confusion of the various cartels of Mexico, Sicario skillfully presents all aspects of its small (fictional) subsection of the War on Drugs story in a way that is never for a moment confusing or hard to swallow. Confusion and constant unexplained name-dropping has been the death and downfall of too many police/espionage/military films, but Sicario avoids this deadly trap, even while its characters often fall into others.

Sicario follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI SWAT team member who tires of fighting drugs in the outskirts of Arizona and accepts an opportunity to plunge into the violent mix near the Mexico-US border. Instead of targeting low-level hit men, she, along with her partner (Daniel Kaluuya), joins up with a Department of Defense advisor (Josh Brolin), a scorned Mexican ex-prosecutor (Benicio del Toro), and a squad of gruff soldiers to form a plan to draw out the cartel’s leadership.

Blunt as a level-headed yet idealistic officer delivers the best performance of her career. Yet despite her intense facade that cracks just enough to let the audience in, she never steals any scenes from del Toro, who plays the role of the dark, mysterious antihero in a way that dodges cliche and stays grounded throughout. Blunt and del Toro combine and clash in the numerous sections of verbally combative dialogue, creating some of the strongest overall scenes, from both an acting perspective and a writing perspective, between two characters that we’ve seen this year. The rest of the cast holds its own, doing all it can to keep up with its stellar leads, but as time goes on their performances will likely fade into the background of their careers, just as they fade into the background of the film.

Director Denis Villeneuve shoots with precision and creates geometrically interesting shots with finesse, mixing up his style in sometimes dramatic ways (like a scene shot almost entirely through thermal and night vision) to compliment Sicario’s rapid shifts from crime drama, to action flick, to realistic war movie, to Bond-ish espionage.

In regards to accuracy in depiction of the War on Drugs? I’m hardly qualified to say, but I can at least vouch for the honesty and authenticity that appear to come through in the decent (although by no means outstanding) screenplay and the robust (but not too action-oriented) pacing.

Sicario should be seen by everyone who enjoys action, everyone who enjoys war films (or doesn’t enjoy them, as is often the goal of the war film genre), and by everyone who wishes to show off their 2015 astuteness at the Oscars in just a few months.

Battle Royale Review

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There’s a moment near the end of Battle Royale when the main character, Shuya, overlooks a cliff to rest his eyes upon the crumpled body of a dead classmate, and shouts, “What is the point of all this? Why?” Ok, that’s not an exact quote; I’ve inevitably mixed it with my own words because the same question was running through my head for the entirety of Battle Royale. Shuya does not know the answer. I do not know the answer. And I’m wholly convinced that no-one, not the director, not the screenwriter, probably not even the writers of the original novel or of the following manga, knows the answer.

Battle Royale is a shameless film, one of the few examples of “torture porn” to be seen outside of the B-horror genre. Known mostly for being a predecessor of the wildly popular Hunger Games franchise, it’s no wonder that this unrated film comes with a viewer discretion warning.

See, the Hunger Games and Battle Royale are both films about kids forced to kill each other. But Hunger Games has a point. Among other things, it is cleverly self-reflective and savagely critical of its audience, condemning brutal child-gladiator-fights as entertainment for a world of excess, while drawing real-life audience members and readers attracted to little more than the premise of said battles. The Hunger Games hates you for enjoying it, even as it entertains you with a completely realized sci-fi world and complex characters that endure realistic pain and realistic arcs.

Battle Royale has…none of that. It is a film almost as soulless as some of its characters, students from the same class forced to fight to the death because of, um, unemployment? If memory serves, the US during the Great Depression had an unemployment rate considerably higher than near-future Japan’s 15%, yet dystopian mass kidnap/forced murder seemed to have been kept to a minimum.

Battle Royale tells us nothing of its world apart from a short exposition. Within minutes the class is set loose on an abandoned island and within hours they start deliberately killing each other. Shuya and his crush hobble helplessly around the battlefield, equipped only with binoculars and a pot lid for protection. The more barbaric and well-armed of the students stay conveniently away from our heroes, that is, until they stumble across a benevolent protector that seems perfectly willing to do all the fighting for them.

Battle Royale switches between characters and plot lines frequently and sporadically, yet it somehow fails to provide any of its characters with meaningful change or development. The fact that the fight can only last three days is a poor excuse for why so many normal middle-schoolers have worked up the guts to become mass-killers so quickly, somehow digging so deep into their melodramatic angst that they were able to pull out a bit of Freddy Kruger.

Of course, many try to resist the violence, to make peace with fellow classmates, to act with honor. But the honor usually reduces itself to a series of valiant knights in shining armor; boys ready to take a chest full of bullets to save a girl they think is “cute.” And that peace? That resistance to violence? Even the most pacifistic of teenagers seem to become unusually blood-thirsty on a moment’s notice, attacking classmates with guns or switchblades or hatchets only moments after talking about how they’re not killers.

The violence in Battle Royale earns its parental advisory. Blood spurts in an exaggerated fashion, but not exaggerated enough to summon up a feeling of style, as in the Kill Bill movies. Teenagers die with over-the-top reactions, but not over-the-top enough so that their sobbing and begging in their final moments fails to disturb. Combat is too savage to be fun and too brutal to be morbidly entertaining. It is utterly pointless, and, frankly, quite boring. Battle Royale is two-hour film that amounts to little more than a countdown from forty-something to zero. Every time a kid dies (which is basically every scene), the film almost literally checks off a box. One more down, and this many to go. Meanwhile, the audience checks off one more minute until the credits roll.

Throughout all of Battle Royale I was hoping for an eventual First-Blood, a sudden revelation at the end that sheds light on “what it was all about.” But there was none. The “villain” characters remain absent of any motivation, and with the exception of a single character the “good guys” that the movie follows (until it spontaneously decides to jump somewhere else) are all basically one-dimensional. Battle Royale sort of just ends when the fight ends, giving little explanation on how the characters’ lives were affected by being thrust into a war zone for three days. When the blood stops flowing, the camera starts rolling. Let’s hope that the audience has already left.

The Babadook Review

The Babadook is the rare horror film that is both limitlessly creepy and supremely insightful. With a $2 million budget, director Jennifer Kent had to creatively allocate resources to create a movie where decisions obviously made to accommodate cost appear as natural and deliberate as a far more expensive movie. Paradoxically, The Babadook is a perfect example of how lack of money seems to spur more originality than unlimited funds.

In fact,  The Babadook probably never would’ve been made in the US. This isn’t a very “‘Murica!” oriented horror flick. There is barely any gore, there are no jump scares,  no shocking makeup (at least, not in the traditional sense), an abundance of incredibly deep symbolism and very little violence. In fact, whether or not the monster exists at all is purely up to interpretation.

The Babadook, an 8 foot tall cloaked figure sporting a top hat that serves as a representation of grief, steps into the lives of a young boy named Sammy (Noah Wiseman) and his mother Amelia (Essie Davis) through the pages of a demented pop-up book. Of course, the grief itself started far before then. A car crash on the way to the hospital to deliver Sammy costs Amelia’s husband, Sammy’s father, his life. The shadow of his departure hangs gloomily over the two and their household. Amelia is weak-willed, dwelling on the past and clueless about how to express love towards, or how to control, her misbehaving son. Sammy is a difficult child, incessantly obsessed with weapons, who regularly hurts other children and who blames his troubles on imaginary (or are they?) monsters.

The Babadook’s disturbing image within the creepy popup book is drawn with a speech bubble saying “let me in!”, and the film’s first two acts gradually and masterfully shift in tone as the two, and Amelia especially, unwittingly start to do exactly that. The threat of the Babadook hangs heavy in the air of Amelia and Sammy’s house, as Amelia and Sammy’s sleep deprivation and constant fear cause the literal decay of everything around them.

The third act is the least impeccable, resorting to a more classic survival-horror structure. That’s not to say that the third act isn’t terrifying, just that the inevitable physical presence of the Babadook can’t match the feeling of ominous, building anticipation that graces the first two acts. Resorting to a format more traditional than acts one and two is disappointing in comparison. Though the film’s final half hour is still one of the most creatively constructed in horror history, its return to relative normalcy seems hypocritical, considering how frequently The Babadook seems to enjoy mocking normal horror tropes (in one scene, an enraged Amelia pulls a kitchen knife on Sammy, only to then use it for a relatively nonviolent purpose).

It’s all tied together with flawless editing and a perfect sense of timing that goes farther than multi-million dollar effects in lending The Babadook a feeling of grim introspective into its characters. What doesn’t always contribute to this same feeling is the lighting, which is at times so dark that everything on screen seems to become one large, amorphous blob. As much as The Babadook seems entirely created with deliberacy, the lighting can sometimes make important scenes difficult to make out.

But a traditional third act and under-lighting are tiny scars upon an otherwise perfect black rose of a film. The Babadook uses horror as it was meant to be used: not to shock or thrill, but to provide introspection into ourselves through the lens of a monstrous darkness. Watching The Babadook can remind you of what this oversaturated genre is capable of, and what it is currently failing to do in the States. It is undeserving of the cult-classic status that started to surround it even before it came out. It should be recognized as a full classic, all on its own.

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

 

Mad Max: Fury Road will pound your eardrums until they pop. It will pull on your eyeballs until they bleed. It will pump your adrenal gland until it explodes. Max’s 35-year coming resurrection is an assault on the senses, an utterly relentless film that stops for breath only for an instant in the second act, only to rush back even stronger than before. In short, it is glorious.

Max is a movie that builds itself a plot with just enough bone to flesh out with explosion-filled muscle. In Mad Max’s harsh post-apocalyptic desert, water and gasoline are the only substances that matter. An evil, masked warlord (the type of which frequent the Max series) named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) controls a village of a few hundred people by pumping out water from the ground and carefully rationing it. A warrior driver named Furiosa (Charlize Theron) steals the warlord’s concubines (to whom his minions refer to as “breeders”) in a weaponized big rig and attempts to bring them to a sort of green Eden a few hundred miles away.

Of course, Joe gives furious chase, along with an entire army of pale, bald crazies called “war boys.” Max entered the story strapped to the front of a war boy’s car, serving the pleasant purpose of a living blood bank. His inevitable escape drives him to join Furiosa, dragging one of the younger war boys by the name of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), along for the ride.

The chase scene in the first act, and the chase in the third act, take up the vast majority of Fury Road‘s two hour runtime. The second act isn’t more than 15 minutes long, only existing to provide a brief breather from the action and to set up, of course, an even bigger and more explosive third-act chase. Fury Road‘s action is pure, simplifying itself to the bare bones and introducing new gimmicks as it sees fit. Despite the title, there is no road. There is only open desert and a menagerie of cars speeding through it, all pursuing a single precious big-rig.

The high definition and overly retouched sky pull away from the Mad Max series’ trademark grittiness, but director George Miller wins it back tenfold. Most effects and stunts are done in-camera, and the fact that these effects and stunts look far better and more grounded than anything in a monstrous Marvel movie is a testament to the eternal superiority of real life over digital. The number of cars destroyed is ridiculous, and the stunt work, done mostly by olympic competitors and Cirque-de-Soleil performers, is just as soaring as you would expect from distinguished athletes.

War boys leap from car to car to truck with monkey-like grace and flexibility, and Max and Furiosa knock them off like flailing bowling pins. The action is loud, but it’s hardly dumb. War boys fight like actual people; they don’t go down easy. And, shocker!, main characters actually get shot and injured with some frequency.

George Miller exhausts every possible action idea for the simple car-chasing-truck central theme. A particular favorite comes near the end of the film, where black-clothed soldiers atop enormous sticks protruding from moving vehicles try to swing back and forth to mount the war rig.

Fury Road deviates substantially from the norm by being easily one of the most feminist films aimed toward men ever made. Charlize Theron is an attractive woman, but in Fury Road she’s made into a fighter, dirty, armored, bald, scarred and missing an arm. The concubines are shown partially clothed and overly sexualized, but they quickly prove to the viewer why they escaped in the first place: they will not be treated as objects. In one scene, a nude woman is seen screaming for help from a tower. However, rather than the damsel-in-distress that she would be reduced to in other action flicks, she is, as Furiosa describes her, voluntary “bait”, reeling in victims for a badass biker gang of kindly old ladies.

But where Fury Road excels the most, and where it will almost definitely win an Oscar, is in its production design. Fury Road is an artistic spectacle, not just because of its creative, threatening, and rustic car design (including one mounted with drums and a maniac playing a flamethrower electric guitar) but because of complex costumes and makeup that go far beyond Mad Max 2‘s menagerie of BDSM gear. Fury Road‘s cinematography is flawless, smoothly transitioning from capturing impossibly large chases to surreal, dull landscapes. Mad Max: Fury Road certainly has its share of gorgeous, poster-worthy shots.

Never in recent memory has a film been made that is so pure in every form, that stays big while still paying minute attention to detail, that makes the heart race with smart action, and that is so feminist that, as one Kotaku writer described it “my scrotum killed itself.” Mad Max: Fury Road is a spectacular colosseum of violence, and as one war boy remarks, “a lovely, lovely day.”