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CHANNEL 366: SCOTT PILGRIM TAKES OFF (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: Abel Góngora

FEATURING THE VOICES OF: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Cera, Satya Bhabha, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, , Brie Larson, Alison Pill, , Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman, Johnny Simmons, Mark Webber, Mae Whitman, Ellen Wong

PLOT: Slacker bassist Scott Pilgrim must defeat seven evil exes in order to win Ramona Flowers, the girl of his dreams… but a surprising outcome leads Ramona to investigate her own romantic past and the new world that has resulted. 

Still from Scott Pilgirm Takes Off (2023)

COMMENTS: When Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was unleashed upon audiences, the entertainment world braced itself for the perfect synthesis of teen romantic comedy and arcade-style fighting action, the arrival of Edgar Wright in the big leagues, and the birth of a storytelling phenomenon. And the result was… something less than that. The film captured the spirit of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s anime-inspired comic, Wright’s dense candy-colored melange of light and sound was groundbreaking, and the movie’s cast would ultimately be revealed as a murderer’s row of silver screen talent. But crowds did not throng to to the cinemas, and the film fell well short of breaking even at the box office. So Scott Pilgrim did the only thing it could do: it became a cult object.

The thing about cult objects is that their dedicated fan base can sometimes inspire the development of more product, but re-capturing that initial magic is often be such a fruitless pursuit that the reality is worse than the longing for more. So it’s not a question of whether the arrival of a Netflix animated series featuring nearly the entire movie cast lending their voices would produce a response from the most devoted Pilgrim-heads, but whether that series would leave diehards fulfilled, or furious. Intriguingly, “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” charts a course that feeds into the nostalgia machine before almost immediately pulling the plug on it.

As if wanting to reassure faithful viewers that this is the very same material you fell in love with over a decade ago, the premier episode plays out as a near-repeat of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’s first act, re-introducing all the familiar characters and playing out the meet-cute between slacker-dreamer Scott and doe-eyed dream girl Ramona. But the big twist—which is so fundamental to the miniseries’ execution that the producers begged critics to embargo the surprise during its release, so let’s just consider this a big ol’ SPOILER ALERT right now—is that Scott loses his first showdown with a member of the League of Evil Exes. Leaving nothing behind but a few coins, our ostensible hero is gone, with seven episodes to go. (Essentially, the “Takes Off” part of the title should be interpreted in the most Canadian manner possible.) And what we’re left with is the World Continue reading CHANNEL 366: SCOTT PILGRIM TAKES OFF (2023)

366 UNDERGROUND: EMESIS BLUE (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: Chad Payne

FEATURING: Voces of “Jazzyjoeyjr,” Chad Payne

PLOT: A soldier discovers a conspiracy involving respawning and a valium-esque drug that leads him to question the nature of his reality as he ventures through a series of violent encounters.

Still from Emesis Blue (2023)

COMMENTS: Several months back, we featured a Saturday Short based on characters from the combat-oriented “Team Fortress 2” video game universe. In 2012, the Team Fortress released a program called Source Filmmaker (SFM) that allowed users to create animations using game assets (characters, objects, environments, animations, maps, sound clips, physics rules) from their library, with the ability to adjust angles and lighting or add their own soundtracks. The gaming community responded by creating scads of short videos, usually absurd, featuring game characters like Heavy (a type) or the masked Spy turning invisible, going on missions to retrieve baby toys, or partying with Thomas the Tank engine. It was only a matter of time until someone sat down with the now decades-old (and reportedly clunky-to-use) software to grind out a feature-length film. What no one expected was that this trailblazing work would be a deeply weird psychological thriller—and passable entertainment for people (like your present reviewer) with no firsthand knowledge of the game.

Non-TMF2 players can orient themselves with this first-person-shooter-as-horror-movie-film-noir world through knowledge of the basic motifs of video games. We deduce that “Team Fortress” is played in combat between two teams, and that characters respawn when they die. Respawning is, in fact, a major plot point. The movie’s gaming-derived premise—what if the real world military-industrial complex developed a technology that could literally “respawn” soldiers on the battlefield?—suggests a truly hellish dystopia. After some introductory investigatory plot suggesting a wide-ranging conspiracy, Emesis Blue throws its main characters—the constantly and incongruously helmeted “Soldier” and the dour Teutonic “Medic”—through a dungeon crawl where they enter one infernal room after another to fight one infernal enemy after another, spiked with revelations about an elaborate ongoing plot involving, among other things, the kidnapping of a politician who may be partially responsible for the flawed respawning technology. The numerous fight scenes play quite well; this is, after all, a combat game. The characters lack expressiveness, but context can do a surprising job of turning an essentially blank expression into a look of uncomprehending fear. The video’s look is unceasingly dark, almost all shadowy interiors, with most of the outdoor scenes taking place during nocturnal downpours. On top of the sequential antagonists and masked torturers (led, perhaps, by a mysterious boss in a plague mask), there are zombies and other monsters, a briefcase MacGuffin (that kind of goes nowhere), and references to ‘s M and to The Shining, among other films. The unceasingly strange events all seem to result either from respawn errors, hallucinations caused by the title drug, or possibly a combination of the twain.

I understand that there are multiple Easter eggs to enjoy if your familiar with the Team Fortress and its characters. As for me, I was sometimes confused as to who was who, incorrectly assuming, for example, that “Spy” was a reskinned doppelganger of “Medic.” But Emesis Blue is by all accounts a non-canonical Team Fortress movie occurring in an independent alternate reality, and I am proof that it can be viewed and (reasonably) well understood by people with no background in the game (per Reddit, those thoroughly familiar with Fortress can be equally baffled by Emesis Blue‘s plot). The clues to unraveling Emesis‘ riddles, if they exist, are to be found within the story itself.

Obviously, this project was made with a particular audience in mind, and most of them eat it up. There are dozens of r/tf2 threads discussing the film (and fan theories as to what the hell the plot is all about), as well as an explanatory video on YouTube that’s longer than the feature itself. But to be honest, Emesis Blue is not that great as a movie. It’s dreary and repetitive, which can be blamed on the limited palette afforded by the SFM technology. Psychological thriller is perhaps too ambitious a genre to tackle in director Chad Payne’s first time out; the balance between ambiguity and explanation lists too far in the former hemisphere, and too many of the story’s rabbit holes end in cul-de-sacs. But what is unquestionably great about Emesis Blue is that it’s a movie at all: that’s right, it’s an honest-to-God, fully-plotted feature film made in video game editing software, and it’s more entertaining than a handful of movies released this year by major studios. Neither Red nor Blue may triumph in this phantasmagorical game of Capture the Flag, but Payne amasses a virtual shelf full of achievements.

Emesis Blue can be watched for free on YouTube.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you want a film that relishes in not just mystery but the macabre and horror of things you can’t or shouldn’t even begin to comprehend, there is one I can recommend… it gives off a ghastly mood, and you are drawn in by its clever use of cinematography and cryptic shots that can foreshadow or enhance the theme, and the weird, almost out-of-nowhere scenes that only raise more questions.”–Rasec Ventura, The Gothic Times (Newspaper of New Jersey City University) (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “anonymous,” who suggested it was a “Weird one to suggest…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: SEQUENCE BREAK (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Graham Skipper

FEATURING: , , John Dinan,  Lyle Kanouse

PLOT: A young electrical technician unwisely installs a mysterious circuit board that arrives at an arcade game refurbisher and finds himself getting increasingly absorbed by the machine and its game–literally.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Here’s a list of nouns: nipple console buttons, white goo circuitry, and coital gaming seizures.

COMMENTS: From the first man to star as Herbert West in Re-Animator: the Musical comes a science fiction debut catering directly to the Cronen-bourgeoisie. A millennial update to the classic Videodrome (and to eXistenZ), Graham Skipper’s Sequence Break is a creepy love letter to the 80s tech-gore genre. There are tips-of-the-hat to those who have come before—Skipper’s most obvious inspiration is David Cronenberg (explicitly stating as much in his introduction to the movie’s world premiere)—but there are elements of Steven Lisberger’s Tron, and even John Hughes-style romance between the teenage-acting, 20-something boy and girl nerd leads.

Osgoode (Chase Williamson) works at “Jerry’s Arcade Spot,” using his technical prowess and tunnel vision to bring old upright consoles back to life. Tess (Fabianne Therese), an out-of-work geek girl, enters his life just as Jerry (Lyle Kanouse) tells him that he’s going to have to close the place. A mysterious zealot (John Dinan) delivers a circuit board on a night Jerry is supposed to be out of town. After an unfortunate murder the parcel is forgotten until Osgoode makes the mistake of installing it in an empty frame. Playing the game, reminiscent of the arcade classic “Tempest” by way of a Tibetan mandala, Osgoode finds himself increasingly absorbed—first metaphorically, then in dreams, and then physically—and his grip on life outside his machines loosens considerably. Does he have the focus to regain control? More importantly, is there the possibility of a second play-through?

Beyond its arcade premise, Sequence Break is a throw-back in many ways. Most of the special effects are of the practical sort, an art that—thank goodness—keeps coming back to life despite the assault of ever-advancing CGI nonsense. The sexual goo and manipulation of the “haunted” arcade console feels real as we see the controls squishify in Osgoode’s able hands. Simple editing and camera techniques create an increasingly jarring perspective: flash-cuts, image-distortion, twin-screen action, and most hauntingly, facial disintegration. Like Osgoode, we become unsure of what’s real, what’s a dream, and what’s in the machine.

The organic-mechanical world of classic Cronenberg is a frightening thing, and Graham Skipper pulls off the tricks nicely. Combined with the sickly-sexual imagery is a story of a young and talented fellow who only seems to have discovered human love well after adolescence. In a way, Sequence Break is a “love-conquers-all” kind of romance, where the male protagonist has to find the desire and focus to choose the real world over a sticky facsimile. As a directorial debut, Graham Skipper’s effort is an impressively unsettling but ultimately uplifting piece of low budget sci-fi cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The grand finale, in particular, goes into deliriously weird territory, in the best possible way.”–Mike McGranaghan, Aisle Seat (Fantasia)