Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

One element of the Christmas season that I've always enjoyed is the glut of holiday specials that television studios crank out in that span between Thanksgiving and New Year's. A lot of these specials — the classic Rankin/Bass stuff and A Charlie Brown Christmas, for example — have achieved legendary status among Christmas lovers like me. But one special has gone beyond "legendary" and has become one of the most infamous television broadcasts of all time.

I'm speaking, of course, of the catastrophe known as The Star Wars Holiday Special.

If you haven't heard of it, then you've missed out on what many consider to be one of the biggest disasters in television history. Broadcast on CBS on November 17, 1978, just a year and a half after the hugely successful release of the original Star Wars movie, the special has done absolutely nothing but be a continuing embarrassment for everyone involved. The cast and crew either become angry or feign ignorance when asked about its existence. The story goes that even George Lucas himself once said that if he had the time and proper resources, he'd track down every bootleg copy he could and smash them with a hammer. But enough lollygagging; let's jump right into The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Keep in mind that this is a "holiday special," not a "Christmas special." That's important to know, because the holiday being celebrated in this glorious piece of trash is not Christmas, but "Life Day." And as the special begins, we're quickly dropped aboard the Millennium Falcon as Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) travel to the Wookie home planet of Kashyyyk to get Chewbacca home in time for his family's Life Day celebration. Their voyage is unfortunately impeded, however, when they discover that the Galactic Empire has initiated a security crackdown and their forces have established a blockade around the planet.

Down on Kashyyyk, Chewbacca's family prepares for his return. His wife Malla (Mickey Morton) struggles to prepare a big feast, while his son Lumpy (Patty Maloney) and father Itchy (Paul Gale) just try to stave off boredom through whatever entertainment they can find. But things get shaken up when their home is invaded by a squadron of Stormtroopers as the Imperial Army searches for members of the Rebel Alliance.

That's pretty much the entire plot. There's no way it could fill out an entire feature-length movie, so the special is pretty much presented in the form of a variety show. And as such, we're periodically presented with comedy sketches and musical numbers from such '70s pop culture luminaries as Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Bea Arthur, Art Carney, and Harvey Korman. And the whole thing is pretty much torture.

Of all the things to have had the Star Wars name slapped on it over the last thirty-four years, The Star Wars Holiday Special is perhaps the most bizarre. For starters, it's absolutely nothing like any of the six movies in the franchise. Sure, it's got some of the famous faces from the saga, but the production design and the overall tone and feel of the special come nowhere near matching the grand spectacle of the movies. And so awful was the reception to the special that it was broadcast only once, and has never seen any sort of official home video release. It exists today only in the form of bootlegs sold at fan conventions and digital copies uploaded to the Internet. If it hadn't been for that handful of people who owned VCRs in 1978 and had the forethought to press the "record" button, the special might have just vanished into obscurity forever. And that would have been a shame, because I'm sure Star Wars fans enjoy having something that makes those dreadful prequels look better by comparison.

This debacle was helmed by Steve Binder, whose entire directorial résumé consists of practically nothing but variety shows. I haven't seen anything else that Binder has worked on, since I'm not a fan of variety shows, but after seeing this piece of crap, I think I'll be staying far, far away from anything with his name on it. For starters, Binder must have had absolutely no budget at all to work with, because everything looks abysmally cheap. The sets and props look like they were slapped together with whatever they could find on the studio's backlots, and with the exception of Chewbacca, the Wookie costumes look like ten-dollar Halloween costumes. I know this was being made for TV in the '70s, but you'd think they could have given Binder and the crew more than 50 bucks and stock footage from Episode IV.

And then there are the different variety sequences, which range from not funny at all, to so saccharinely cute that they'll make you want to vomit, to just plain bizarre. The sequence where Harvey Korman appears in drag as a four-armed chef on a cooking show is so insanely manic that it'll probably have you screaming in hysterics at the screen. That's the tip of the iceberg, as it's definitely out-weirded by Diahann Carroll's segment. I honestly don't know where to begin describing this segment, but by God, I'm gonna try. The setup for the segment sees Itchy watching a performance by Carroll through a virtual reality helmet. The whole thing looks like it should be a bad LSD trip to begin with, but seeing Carroll in a hideous pink wig flirting with Itchy and making sexual innuendos while Itchy reacts like he's having the best sex of his life is all kinds of wrong. It's an incredibly creepy segment that goes on far past its welcome, and it's risqué enough that I'm surprised that they managed to get away with it in what I imagine was supposed to be a family show.

The only thing that comes close to rivaling the utter bizarreness of that segment is a portion near the beginning of the special where we see Malla, Lumpy, and Itchy going about their daily routine. What's so bad about that, you may ask? Malla, Lumpy, and Itchy are Wookies, and the Wookie language is basically roars and growls. It wouldn't be so bad if the segment was subtitled, but there's not a single intelligible word at all for nearly ten minutes. We have absolutely no idea what they're talking about, and maybe it's me, but if the actors were trying to communicate through body language, they did a really piss-poor job of it.

And when upon reflection, the special doesn't really feel like it has anything to do with Star Wars. Yeah, all of the big-name characters from the first movie are there (albeit they're mostly relegated to cameos) and the name is there. But in no way does it match the same sense of adventure or excitement that the original trilogy has going for it. If this was my first exposure to the Star Wars universe, there's no way in hell I'd want to watch any of the movies. It's like the producers just created a sci-fi variety show and slapped the Star Wars name on it. The truth is I blame the whole "variety show" garbage for making things that way, because if it hadn't been for that, they could have focused on silly things like a plot or making the special fun to watch. But no, we couldn't have that, could we?

The only part of the whole special that stands out as a positive is the animated sequence, which is really only notable for marking the debut of Boba Fett. Animated by Canadian entertainment company Nelvana, the segment is the closest the entire special comes to matching the feel of the movies. The animation isn't perfect and the characters look more like they belong in the opening credits of Grease rather than a Star Wars special, but it's still a fun little segment and I wish the entire special had followed its lead.

I understand why The Star Wars Holiday Special is the cult phenomenon that it has become. But having sat through it, I'm kinda sad that it even exists at all. I've never been a big Star Wars fan, but no franchise deserves to have something as bad as this be a part of it. The special is so horribly flawed that I can't say I blame George Lucas for trying to wish it out of existence. But then again, Lucas had no problem attaching his name to Howard the Duck, creating Jar Jar Binks, or making unnecessary edits to the original Star Wars trilogy, so what do I know? In any event, The Star Wars Holiday Special is an absolutely horrible mess, a train wreck of epic proportions. And though I may enjoy collecting bad movies, I actually feel kinda guilty for having spent ten bucks on a bootleg DVD-R of this piece of crap. So you'd better believe I'm going to give this awful thing one star. But I'll still totally recommend it to all the diehard Star Wars fans out there that have yet to see it. If you think Greedo shooting first and Jar Jar Binks are the worst parts of Star Wars, you haven't seen anything.

Final Rating: *

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

When it was announced that Guy Ritchie would be crafting a cinematic reinvention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic literary detective Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role, it was approached by some with great trepidation. It may not have pleased the diehard Holmes purists, but the movie was a tremendously fun action/adventure movie that made a boatload of money at the box office. And yeah, I personally enjoyed a lot. Because of that, I was really looking forward to its sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. It unfortunately falls into the same trap as most sequels — it's simply not as good as its predecessor — but I still found it to be an entertaining flick despite its flaws.

The wedding of Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) and his beloved fiancée Mary (Kelly Reilly) is soon approaching, and Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is less than pleased. He tries to distract himself by burying himself in his latest investigation. At the center of this investigation is brilliant mathematician Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), whom Holmes has managed to connect to a series of seemingly unrelated murders and anarchistic bombings around the world.

Holmes discovers during his investigation that Moriarty has killed Holmes's romantic foil Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and fully intends to do the same to Watson and his new bride should Holmes continue interfering with his grand scheme. A reluctant Watson is thus drawn away from his honeymoon into a new adventure with Holmes, an adventure that will see the duo try to thwart Moriarty from sparking World War I.

I said earlier that A Game of Shadows wasn't as good as the first movie. And I honestly think that's true. A Game of Shadows has a few flaws that I felt held it back from being the best movie it possibly could have been. That's not to say it's a bad movie, though. The movie is a fun ride from beginning to end, with plenty of exciting and entertaining moments that can definitely make the flaws forgivable.

Guy Ritchie returns to the director's chair for the sequel, and his efforts are absolutely fabulous. Ritchie's direction is actually one element that A Game of Shadows improved upon. And considering I loved Ritchie's work on the first movie, that's really saying something. He once again brings an edgy style and panache to the world of Sherlock Holmes, something that I thought was quite refreshing to see. I had no experience with Holmes prior to the first movie, and what little I knew about him put images in my mind of a stodgy, boring, Masterpiece Theatre type of thing. And that's not up my alley at all. But Ritchie made him cool, dangerous, fun.

Ritchie's depiction of Holmes is very stylish, thanks in part to the very slick camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. That style adds a lot of flair to the movie, which makes some scenes a lot more awesome. Take, for example, the climactic fight between Holmes and Moriarty. Remember the fight scene in the first movie where Holmes uses his intellect to anticipate exactly what his opponent will do and ascertain an outcome before any punches are thrown? Ritchie reprises that here, only shaking it up a bit. Moriarty is capable of the same thing, and he and Holmes manage to have a full-blown fight with absolutely no physicality at all. It's a brilliant scene that actually goes a long way in showing that in the hands of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, intelligence is as powerful a weapon as any gun.

Ritchie also puts slow-motion and "bullet time" effects to use on multiple occasions, almost to the point of excess. But he uses it creatively, letting it be to each scene's benefit. The chase scene through the snowy forest is particularly noteworthy for this, primarily for the intensity Ritchie approaches it with. The scene is unrelenting, and although it borders on running too long after a while, it's still a fantastic bit of filmmaking.

And just like in the first movie, Ritchie benefits from having a great cast of actors in front of the camera. Everyone in A Game of Shadows makes a fantastic contribution to the movie; there really isn't a bad performance in the whole thing. Robert Downey Jr. returns to play the titular detective and completely owns the role. His portrayal of Holmes as an almost manic insufferable genius is a hell of a lot of fun. Downey plays the part like he was born to do so, and A Game of Shadows is a better movie for having him in the cast.

But that's not to knock the other actors in the movie. Jude Law is engaging and likable as Dr. Watson, essentially playing the straight man to Downey. Stephen Fry is also a great source of amusement in his minor role as Holmes's brother, and despite her character being superfluous to the point of feeling completely unnecessary beyond two or three scenes, Noomi Repace puts forth a fine performance as a gypsy fortune teller who gives Holmes and Watson some vital clues.

Perhaps the best performance among the supporting cast, though, came from Jared Harris as the villainous Professor Moriarty. Harris is superb in the role, playing Moriarty as a charming and charismatic yet completely coldhearted snake. Moriarty is Holmes's equal yet opposite, mirroring his intelligence and cunning yet being completely bankrupt of conscience; Harris portrays this perfectly, playing a perfect foil to Downey's Holmes. It's a captivating performance, one befitting Holmes's archenemy.

The only problem I had with A Game of Shadows was the same I had with the first movie, that being the script. Credited to the husband/wife duo of Kieran and Michele Mulroney, the script feels way too light on plot for a movie of this length. The movie is two hours and ten minutes, and there's only maybe an hour and a half worth of actual story. This was probably due to the need to set up each action sequence, and to the writers' credit, it allows for a lot of fun moments with the characters.

As I said, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows isn't quite as good as the first movie. It's still a very entertaining movie that I most certainly enjoyed a lot. The action is fun, the acting is stellar, and the movie itself is impressively produced. It's already been announced that Sherlock Holmes 3 is in the works, and if A Game of Shadows is any indication, we could be in for a great ongoing franchise. We'll have to wait and see how that one turns out, but as for now, I'm going to give A Game of Shadows three and a half stars and a hearty recommendation. There's a ton of movies out there for you to see this holiday season, but you wouldn't go wrong by seeing this one. It's well worth the time and money.

Final Rating: ***½

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

In my review of Parts: The Clonus Horror, I posited that more than a few people have wondered what it would be like to have a clone of themselves. But I wouldn't be surprised if a larger number of people had imagined what they'd do if they could turn invisible. While I doubt people having the ability to become invisible will happen in any of our lifetimes, it's definitely something that can send the imagination running wild.

Invisible people have been a part of pop culture for seemingly forever. But the concept was perhaps most famously depicted in the 1933 movie The Invisible Man, starring Claude Rains. Based on the H.G. Wells novella from 1897, The Invisible Man was another entry into the batch of classic horror movies starring what's since been labeled the "Universal Monsters." The movie would inspire countless imitators, one of which I remember really enjoying when I was a kid. The movie in question was John Carpenter's Memoirs of an Invisible Man, itself based on a novel written in 1987 by H.F. Saint. I liked the movie a lot in my adolescent years, so when I saw it on HBO recently, I figured I would check it out and see if I liked it as much as I did back then. So what say we dig in, huh?

Meet Nick Halloway (Chevy Chase), a stock analyst so disenfranchised with his life and his job that he spends every waking second trying to avoid his responsibilities. Stuck attending a boring shareholders' meeting with a nasty hangover, Nick sneaks out and tries to catch a nap in an empty room. But thanks to a freak accident in one of the building's laboratories, Nick is caught in the ensuing blast and is rendered completely invisible.

His presence is discovered by the technicians responding to the accident, and word of an invisible man catches the attention of shady CIA operative David Jenkins (Sam Neill). Jenkins sees the potential military applications of an invisible secret agent, but fearing the possibility of being a lab rat for the rest of his life, Nick flees. His only help is Alice Monroe (Daryl Hannah), a woman Nick recently met through a mutual friend and quickly fell for. But her assistance may not be enough, as Jenkins and his goons keep moving in closer and closer.

When my family first got HBO in the middle of the '90s, I remember discovering Memoirs of an Invisible Man and thinking that it wasn't that bad a movie. It wasn't great, but I thought it was an okay little flick. Revisiting it as an adult almost twenty years after its release, the movie's mediocrity is more readily apparent. To its credit, it's a watchable movie that does show a few flashes of potential greatness. But there are so many things that it just doesn't get right, and that really hinders the whole project.

Sitting in the director's chair is legendary horror/sci-fi filmmaker John Carpenter. I enjoy a lot of Carpenter's work, but Memoirs of an Invisible Man marks a shift in his career. He'd reached what was arguably the peak of his creativity during the '70s and '80s, but once the '80s transitioned into the '90s and Memoirs was made, it all started going downhill. Sure, he came close to regaining his previous glory with In the Mouth of Madness, his criminally underrated homage to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but Carpenter's movies from the '90s on haven't really been all that great.

But we're here to talk about Memoirs of an Invisible Man, so let's stick with that. Though I rag on the movie, Carpenter's direction isn't that bad. His work is actually what makes the film watchable. Even when his movies aren't that good, there's no denying that Carpenter has boatloads of talent. And though Memoirs isn't among his best work, he's still obviously trying as best he can. Unfortunately, Carpenter seemingly can't keep the movie's tone consistent. The movie comes off like it's supposed to be a serious character study, but finds itself bouncing around with romantic and comedic scenes that muddles what I'm assuming was the movie's original identity. It feels like Carpenter was forced to deal with meddling studio executives who wanted a movie with a broader appeal.

I'll get more into that later, but I will say that for all of the movie's flaws, Carpenter at least tries to make things work. It helps that the invisibility effects are good. There are a few moments where they aren't 100% effective, but these instances are few and far between. The effects are really, really good, to the point that they're practically the star of the movie. Carpenter does cheat quite a bit by (more often than not) actually showing Chevy Chase and having everyone else on set pretending they can't see him, but I can forgive that. I imagine that it would be hard to form an emotional connection with a character if they're practically a disembodied voice.

But let's go back to that whole "executive meddling" discussion for a second, this time in regards to the script. Credited to Robert Collector, Dana Olsen, and William Goldman, the script seems like it could have made for one hell of a movie. I mean, I think the movie would have turned out for the better had things been done differently. Drop most of the comedy, rein in the romance, and make it simply a character study about a man who spent his whole life hiding from the world and has now been put in a situation where he desperately longs to be found. That would have been a great movie.

And in watching the movie that was eventually released, I can see that Collector, Olsen, and Goldman were trying to write the movie that I wanted to see. But the inconsistencies in its tone, the continued bouncing between drama to comedy to romance and back again, causes the movie to be unsure of its own identity. If the movie doesn't know what it wants to be, then the whole thing suffers.

It even causes the cast to suffer too. From everything I've read, the movie was intended to be a vanity project for Chevy Chase. The story I heard is that Chase had wanted to use it as a bridge into more serious acting jobs after spending his entire career working in comedy. And I'll confess that I did struggle to buy Chase in a serious role because of how long he's been a comedian. His performance here isn't perfect, but considering that this was his first real attempt at broadening his acting horizons, he's not bad either. In retrospect, I'm not sure if Chase was the right guy for the role, but I honestly can't say he was awful.

Daryl Hannah, on the other hand, didn't really do much to impress me. She seemed way too low-key for my tastes. And I can't say I thought she and Chase had a very believable romantic chemistry together, either. Their whole affair came off to me as being a bit tepid and dull. The way their story was written was lame enough to begin with, but Chase and Hannah simply didn't do anything to make me care.

And last but not least is Sam Neill, who I still enjoyed despite having the feeling that he was playing just another paint-by-numbers sleazeball government agent. It's a character that's been done a million times in a million movies, but Neill does just enough to make it work.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a movie that could have been awesome. It could have been one of the best sci-fi flicks of the '90s. But with less-than-impressive performances and a general inability to decide just what the hell it wants to do with itself, it ends up being disappointing and sadly rather forgettable. I wanted to like the movie, but it was too hard for me to overcome the huge mountain of mediocrity that it builds up. All in all, I'm going to have to give the movie two stars. I don't normally call for movies to remade, but I'd actually be okay if somebody wanted to do a remake of this particular little train wreck. Maybe then Memoirs of an Invisible Man could be awesome.

Final Rating: **

Saturday, December 10, 2011

DOA: Dead or Alive (2006)

Although it was not the first fighting game, Capcom's Street Fighter II revolutionized and redefined the entire genre when it arrived in arcades in 1991. Fighting games were big business for game developers in the years that followed, with imitators and wannabes all gunning for a share of the pie. While the most famous of these is the Mortal Kombat franchise, other games made name for themselves as well. Virtua Fighter and Tekken gained prominence through their then-groundbreaking use of 3D polygonal graphics, while the Dead or Alive franchise gained fans for... well, other reasons.

Since the franchise's debut in 1996, Tecmo's Dead or Alive games have become notable primarily for its extensive use of what's been dubbed "jiggle physics." That is, how much the bosoms of the female characters bounce during gameplay. Yeah. The jiggle physics became so prevalent that Tecmo even created a series of spinoffs titled Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball. This focus on sex appeal would even transition into the eventual live-action film adaptation of the franchise. Yeah, you may not know it if you're an American, but they actually made a Dead or Alive movie. It was only released to 505 theaters here, a full year after it was released in the rest of the world. It had pretty much no promotion, and it didn't even make back half of its budget. And yeah, it totally sucks. It really, really, really sucks.

A group of top fighters from around the world have been assembled at a private island for the prestigious "Dead or Alive" tournament. Among these fighters are skilled assassin and thief Christie Allen (Holly Valance), pro wrestler Tina Armstrong (Jamie Pressly), and ninja princess Kasumi (Devon Aoki). Overseen by the tournament's unscrupulous organizer, Victor Donovan (Eric Roberts), the three women start clawing their way up the tournament's rankings to accomplish their own personal goals. But it soon comes to light that Donovan has concocted a plan to harness the fighting prowess of each contestant for his own nefarious purposes. The fighters will have to unite and stop Donovan from fully orchestrating his evil scheme.

This is the part where I have to confess that I've never once played any of the Dead or Alive video games. I barely even knew they existed; I'd only vaguely heard of the Xtreme Beach Volleyball spinoffs prior to seeing the movie and doing my research for this review. So I can't judge how close the movie sticks to the game. But what I can tell you is that the Dead or Alive movie is one gigantic steaming turd. It's the kind of video game movie that's so bad that I could have sworn Uwe Boll had something to do with it. (So you can imagine my shock when not once did I see his name listed in the credits.) I just... wow.

DOA was directed by acclaimed fight choreographer Corey Yuen. Although he's directed tons of movies over the last three decades, the way he directs DOA makes it look like he was fresh out of film school. Yuen's direction is uninspiring, sub-generic, and just plain boring. There's a lot of stuff going on at all times, but none of it feels like it matters. It fails to capture one's attention to the point that I just couldn't be bothered to care. The fight scenes aren't all that exciting either; they're nothing that hasn't been seen in a hundred other karate movies. The CGI is ugly and unconvincing too, to the point that it looks like the effects had absolutely no budget at all.

However, I should give Yuen credit for trying to keep the movie close to its gaming rules. Disembodied voices boldly announce when knockouts occur, and surveillance footage of the fights feature life bars at the top of the screen. It's silly, goofy, and undeniably corny, but it's still a funny little element that does liven up the movie a little bit. But it still cannot save Yuen's work from being less than adequate.

And then there's the terrible script, credited to J.F. Lawton, Adam Gross, and Seth Gross. Seriously, this screenplay is really, really bad. I'm aware that most '90s fighting games had practically no plot at all beyond "pick a character and kick some ass," but the DOA movie's plot is friggin' preposterous. "The tournament being a cover for a mad scientist who wants to harvest fighting styles in order to create technology that would make its user the greatest fighter alive" is a phrase I never thought I'd ever have to write, ever. And I never would have, had it not been for this movie.

The real problem with the script, though, is that I just plain didn't give a crap about a single one of the characters. They're written so blandly, so one-dimensionally that I can't begin to even pretend I'm interested in anything they do. Maybe one could argue that Lawton and the Grosses were staying close to the source material, since in addition to not much plot, '90s fighting games had characters whose whole character could be summed up in one sentence (if that). It allowed the games to focus on what brought people to the party, specifically the fighting. I've seen and enjoyed some movies that were nothing but action set pieces, but the DOA movie simply doesn't pull it off.

Last but probably least is the cast, who simply aren't all that great. Jamie Pressly is okay and amusing in spots but still kinda bland, while I thought Devon Aoki's acting was a lot better in Sin City. And considering all that was required of her in Sin City was to stand around and look cute, that's saying something. Holly Valance's performance is stiff, while I didn't think Eric Roberts was even bothering to try. I'm convinced that Roberts just took the job because he needed a quick paycheck, but I can't prove that. The only performance in the entire movie that I liked at all was Kevin Nash, who has a small part as Jamie Pressly's character's father. His part isn't much, but he's funny, entertaining, and enjoyable. I wish I could say that about the rest of the cast, but everyone else is just kinda lame.

Upon reflection, I don't think the creative forces behind DOA: Dead or Alive were striving to make a good movie. I think they just wanted to make a movie that would appeal to 13-year-old boys. All there is to the whole thing is scantily-clad women and fight scenes. And there's even a scene where, while one of the male characters fights off a group of mooks, the female characters drop everything to play a round of beach volleyball. It's not only a cute little shoutout to the Xtreme Beach Volleyball games, but it pretty much sums up the entire movie: people fighting, babes in little clothing, and not much else. And really, the movie might have at least been entertaining had it not been so unbearably boring. But for all the fight scenes and for all the pretty ladies in bikinis, I could barely make it through. And I'm going to have to give DOA: Dead or Alive one and a half stars. Thanks for helping propagate the stereotype that video game movies suck, DOA! That was mighty nice of you.

Final Rating:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

In the unbelievably slim case that you haven't noticed, most of the comic books that Hollywood has adapted into movies have been based on the superhero pantheons of DC and Marvel. But movies based on lesser-known comics from independent publishers haven't always been as successful as their DC/Marvel brethren. Dark Horse's Hellboy might have seen success at the box office, but most movies based on independent comics — the ones I've encountered, anyway — haven't done too hot.

Take Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, for example. Based on writer/illustrator Bryan Lee O'Malley's series of graphic novels published by Oni Press between 2004 and 2010, the movie was a box office bomb despite getting rave reviews from critics. Even I had initially dismissed it as "hipster crap" based on the commercials alone. But after being convinced to check it out on HBO by a friend of a friend, I was pleasantly surprised.

Meet Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a twenty-something slacker from Toronto who's trying to make it as the bassist for the band "Sex Bob-omb." Although he constantly faces criticism from his friends and bandmates for dating Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a teenager five years his junior, Scott is happy with her. That is, until he meets the girl of his dreams. And I don't mean that as a euphemism. She's literally appearing in his dreams.

The girl in question is Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a mysterious young woman who Scott quickly falls for. They end up starting something of a relationship, which is naturally complicated by Scott's seeming inability to dump Knives. But if Scott truly wants to be with Ramona, he must fight and defeat Ramona's seven evil exes, nearly all of whom have superpowers.

Okay, I'll admit it: I completely misjudged Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I thought it was going to be lame, but it surprised me by being charming and downright funny. Scott Pilgrim is a unique flick; I haven't ever really seen anything like it. There's no real base of comparison that I know of. The movie exists in its own little world, one where it has no real equals. I've seen a lot of weird, wacky, silly movies over the years, but very few are quite like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The movie's a trip, and it's a hell of a lot of fun.

At the helm is Edgar Wright, the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But this is a much different beast than either of those other movies; it's more effects-driven, with a wackier sense of humor. Because of that, I wasn't quite sure how Scott Pilgrim would turn out under Wright's watch. Turns out the movie was placed in good hands. Wright's direction is fantastic, perfectly pulling us into what feels like a live-action video game. The way he paces the movie and his creative sight gags make the movie feel like a 21st-century version of Airplane! as far as its overall tone goes.

Wright crafts the material in such a way that I found it hard to not find at least something amusing about the movie. The fact that the movie is in no way constricted by a definitive style, choosing to let its imagination run free and wild rather than narrow itself down into something specific or restrictive, lets Wright go absolutely bonkers. There's so much energy, so much over-the-top zaniness that if your comedic sensibilities correspond with the movie's, you'll easily fall in love with it.

The visuals and sight gags are a huge part of Scott Pilgrim‘s silliness, but the script is as well. Written by Wright and Michael Bacall, the screenplay is full of so many great jokes and so much quotable dialogue that if it were any better, I don't believe I could bear it. Some of the humor is so absolutely random that there's no way it won't catch you off-guard. I mean, there's one short scene that parodies TV sitcoms, with a laugh track and the Seinfeld theme song added for effect. Why? Beats me. It doesn't make a single bit of sense at all. It's just there to be funny, but there's nothing wrong with that. And really, you can describe the whole movie like that. Not much of it makes sense, but it doesn't have to because it gets by with just being funny.

And this brings us to our cast, who are all big factors in making Scott Pilgrim work. Let's start with the actor in the title role, Michael Cera. Cera has pretty much made a career out of playing the same character over and over. Go watch Juno, Superbad, and Year One, and you'll see what I mean. That's actually one of the reasons I was hesitant to watch this movie to begin with, because I was absolutely sick to death of seeing Cera play awkward, dorky yet quick-witted twenty-somethings. I wanted to just avoid any movie he was in at all costs. But the guy's damn good at playing that part, so kudos to him for finding something that works and sticking with it. Of all the times he's played that type of character, though, the role of Scott Pilgrim gives him the chance to do his best at it. Cera gives Scott charm, making him enjoyable and fun.

But honestly, Cera is outshined by the rest of the cast. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Ramona with a sarcastic cynicism that provides a fun counterbalance to Cera, while Ellen Wong's bubbly, energetic performance is a real treat. Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh, and Chris Evans are great as members of "the League of Evil Exes," but the entire movie is pretty much stolen by Kieran Culkin. Culkin grabs the movie and runs away with it, making every single second he appears in the movie all the better through his absolutely hilarious performance.

If there are any negatives to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, it's that it seems to be aware that it's too cool for school. But by the time this becomes apparent, the movie's almost over so it ends up not being that big a deal. The honest truth is that it's a fun movie that never once stops being amusing. You'll find yourself chuckling at even the corniest jokes and enjoying the interactions the characters have with one another. I wish I had seen it during its theatrical run, because it probably would have completely blown my mind. And for being one of the most imaginative movies I've seen in a long while, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World gets four stars. If you haven't seen it yet, please check it out. It's totally worth your time.

Final Rating: ****