Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Wright, 2010)

British director Edgar Wright owes more to friends/lead actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost than most people are willing to admit. The trio teamed up on the hilarious if not problematic ode to the zombie film Shawn of the Dead and reached new jubilant heights with the anarchic action mayhem of Hot Fuzz. But Pegg and Frost are completely absent from Wright’s new film, the highly anticipated comic book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a technologically ambitious but ultimately hollow fusion of video game iconography and romance conventions. The material sways toward a younger generation, so it’s not surprising Pegg and Frost weren’t involved in Scott Pilgrim. But their clumsy charm could have at least given the film a beating human heart, something stars Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and the rest of the young cast consistently fail to personify.

Countless cinephiles and film critics have boarded the film’s gravy train, buying into Wright’s mash-up of multiple genre aesthetics that combine dynamic visuals with cutting edge special effects. But most writers have failed to bring up the film’s disingenuous vision of young romantic relationships, scenarios hat are completely eroded within a superficial virtual reality. The problems begin and end with Scott’s (Cera) absurdly narcissistic personality and his brazenly dense treatment of others throughout the fantastical narrative. With each battle sequence, ironic non-sequiter, and flimsy one-liner, Wright celebrates Scott’s egomania, only retreating from it during the lame, tacked-on denouement.

Scott Pilgrim’s world, like many twenty-somethings, revolves completely around himself. Selfishness, compromise, and uncertainty are a way of life, but Wright cannot reconcile Scott’s spastic behavior as a bridge to something more mature. By the end of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World it seems Scott and Ramona (Winstead) will invariably be linked by their own superfluous attitude toward the gamer existence, disavowing tangible consequences and ramifications until the bitter end. It’s a maddening thematic phase that seems endless, pointing the film in a sarcastic, snooty direction that goes against the “evolutions of character” each fight sequence supposedly represents.

If anything, Pegg and Frost give Wright’s previous film’s a soul, a hook to latch onto while their exercises in extreme genre revisionism run free. But Scott Pilgrim doesn’t contain any semblance of humanity, and these characters are merely surface-level entities geeking out on the same wavelength. All the jump cuts, tracking shots, and hipster music cues can’t hide this glaring emptiness, and it’s startling most have given the film a pass in this regard. Scott Pilgrim’s experiences are supposed to metaphorically represent a complex, nuanced relationship between the ultimate man-child and his dream girl within the confines the video game universe, but Wright and co. completely eliminate the small, tender moments that end up defining such a connection. All we’re left with is 8-bit pomp and circumstance, a nostalgic trip down video game alley where the love of an indulgent nerd is just a click away.

The Manchurian Candidate (Demme, 2004)

Jonathan Demme’s scathing remake of The Manchurian Candidate is one of those rare films that gets better with age, growing more politically poignant with each exposed cover-up, corrupt politician, and devastating corporate malfeasance. Upon it’s 2004 release, the film seemed too paranoid, maybe even loony for digging so relentlessly into the wide-ranging corruption choking democracy in the post-9/11 Bush-age. Now, Demme’s dynamic and often brilliant thriller feels like one of the most relevant films of the last decade, a diabolical examination of a cracking national ideology that’s not paranoid enough.

From the waving American flag pushing the opening credits into oblivion, Demme positions devoted but conflicted Army Officer Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) on the fringes of disjointed perception and horrifying reality. Marco’s quest to find the truth is more about alleviating his own interior monologue than unveiling an international act of treason, but the evolution of his momentum inevitably begins to represent a growing national outrage. Ideological symbols and political platforms construct a distrustful landscape brimming with faux nationalism, shunning the American everyman in favor of global power. The razor-sharp pacing, the nuanced mirror performances by Washington and Liev Schreiber, and Demme’s schizophrenically reflective mise-en-scene organically feed into Tak Fujimoto’s river of sharp hues, creating a cinematic stained-glass window awash in menacing red, white, and blues.

The Manchurian Candidate confronts the very essence of what it means to be a conflicted American in the modern age, the varying degrees of devotion to country and self and the greedy capitalistic center controlling us all. But Demme’s film isn’t anti-capitalism or anti-government, just pro-justice. The Manchurian Candidate is one of the few genuinely entertaining and sophisticated Hollywood films that is also a political manifesto on corporate greed and manipulation, a dual level for those willing to measure morality on film. But beneath the technical genius lies a brimming anger for the smug indifference of those willing and able to live in a selfish fantasy of their own design, a veritable Candyland hallowed by the real “evildoers”. For this telling dichotomy, Demme’s textural powder keg is nothing short of revelatory.

The Expendables (Stallone, 2010)

As a series of kill shots, explosions, and one-liners, Sylvester Stallone’s action mosaic The Expendables works best in small fits of furry, individual sequences where physical prowess and illogical movement transcend story concerns and character development. Within this context, Stallone’s massive cast of icons each get solos on the dance floor: Statham’s Lee Christmas strafes an entire dock full of enemy soldiers from the nose of an airplane, Lundgren’s Gunner Jensen revels in his deadly sniper fire with a catatonic grin, and Mickey Rourke’s strangely named Tool throws knives with deft precision across a dank tattoo parlor. All of these scenes stand alone, but never together as a cohesive unit. Stallone’s fails to use even the most plausible story devices to connect his grandiose vision of genre nostalgia, opting out for ridiculous jumps of time and circumstance merely to position his characters in familiar narrative situations. It seems simply showing up for work was enough for this production. Leave the realistic details and cost overrides for the pussy’s.

Yet The Expendables contains an abrasive, rigid charm, a rough neck attitude of honor that represents an incomplete vision of the modern warrior. Like the criminal underworlds of Michael Mann, Stallone’s testosterone infused mise-en-scene references actions but never reasoning, the faces of men but never their souls. These characters pull the trigger because they must, and no other explanation is required. This makes The Expendables both a fascinating dissection of action cinema and also a maddeningly incomplete example of unsuspecting auteurism. Stallone’s failure as a director becomes even more apparent in the film’s crazy-lazy opening and ending action sequences, which fall apart from a visual standpoint only to be salvaged by the charming allure of its maniac stars. In turn, political or social commentaries are blown to smithereens, wonky anchors for a film completely obsessed with fantasy land hand-to-hand combat.

As one of the few who found Stallone’s Rambo (2008) a well constructed and dynamic action throwback with half a beating heart, it’s disappointing watching him retreat back to the unfocused laziness of the abysmal Rocky Balboa. But while not as hackneyed as that unnecessary film, The Expendables still never fulfills its amazing potential. There are too many gaps in the carnage, too many holes between the machine gun fire and explosions to sustain a lasting impact, even for those of us weened on this sort of bloody mother’s milk.

Life During Wartime (Soldonz, 2010)

In Life During Wartime, a warped sequel to Happiness (1998), Todd Soldonz surprisingly side-steps his patented masochism and bitter pessimism to find a genuine character study of great depth, watching tormented characterizations come to grips with their conflicted lives while dissecting the past traumas rooting their pain. The film begins ten years after the venomous ending of Happiness, with Soldonz casting new actors to play the key roles of the Jordan family. It’s a strange, hypnotic jaunt into cinematic revisionism, one where sequences seamlessly overlap, painfully repeat, and effortlessly fade away like blown out memories.

The opening sequence between Joy (Shirley Henderson) and her husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) mirror’s the previous film’s intro, but this devastating interaction carries more weight mainly because Soldonz never descends into acidic rage during the confrontation. The pain, the heartache, the exhaustion, mostly remains repressed beneath a facade of normalcy. At this point in his career, Soldonz seems to understand the power of silence, those waiting moments in between the tent poles of hope and disappointment, and he finds so much poignancy within this spectrum. Soldonz continues this motif throughout the film, no matter if it’s the haunting sequence between pedophile Bill (Ciaran Hinds) and his now grown son, or when Harvey (Michael Lerner) hopelessly tries to console Timmy (Dylan Riley Snider) during a particularly vulnerable moment. Soldonz becomes a master at keeping characters sequestered by the invisible boundaries of perception and reality, while ghosts of the past become ghosts of the present.

Watching Happiness and Life During Wartime back-to-back helps clarify why the repellent venom of the first is far less convincing than the sequel’s deft attention to humanity. But taken as one long time-line of familial trauma, it’s hard to separate the two since they are so obviously connected by the tissue of regret and weakness. Soldonz specifically morphs the dire and flat colors of Happiness into a vibrant splash of Florida sun and California gloss, providing a visual trajectory to pace alongside the various character evolutions. This visual schematic, along with certain heightened sequences where dreams and phantasms play a key role, make Life During Wartime a more nuanced and fateful cinematic experience, one less dependent on shock and awe and more focused on the changing faces of a generation at war with themselves.