Adam Butcher explains the mystery behind a long-forgotten and unreleased Nintendo 64 game “Catastrophe Crow.”
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 books walk a line where you wonder if it’s fantasy, or if it’s really happening, At some point it stops mattering,’ O’Malley said, adding that he believes Wright captured the “whimsical weirdness” of the series.”—“Scott Pilgrim” franchise creator Bryan Lee O’Malley, quoted in L.A. Times article
DIRECTED BY: Edgar Wright
FEATURING: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Jason Schwartzman
PLOT: Scott Pilgrim is a slacker and bassist in the garage band “Sex Bob-omb”; his heart was broken a year ago by a former bandmate who cheated on him and went on to musical stardom. Scott, who’s in his early twenties, has taken to Platonically dating a wide-eyed high school girl named “Knives”. He (literally) dreams of a quirky, assured girl his own age by the name of Ramona Flowers, but while wooing her he learns that he will have to defeat her seven evil exes in battle in order to win her.
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was selected to go on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies in the 5th Readers Choice Poll. Actually, it ended the poll tied and was involved in a run-off vote which also ended in a tie, at which time it was declared the winner by editorial fiat.
- The film is based on a series of six graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley. The script was optioned after the first volume was published, and filming began before the series finished its run. Since the script was completed first, O’Malley provided the screenwriters with his notes on how the story was to end. O’Malley actually asked for permission to use lines from the screenplay in later “Scott Pilgrim” books. The final “Scott Pilgrim” volume was released in 2010, the same year as the movie.
- Scott Pilgrim cost $60 million to make and earned only $30 million in its theatrical run. It has proved to be a home-video hit, however.
- The film’s original ending, which had Scott reuniting with Knives, was rewritten due to negative audience response.
- Naturally, the film inspired a video game adaptation.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Split screens. Besides the “Batman”-style “ka-pow!” lettering floating past during fight scenes, the visual motif you may notice most about Scott Pilgrim is the abundant use of split screens. This is not simply a stylistic affectation; the device refers to the movie’s graphic novel inspiration, mimicking the freedom of the printed page to place each image inside the frame that best suits it, however bent. That’s why we selected the fanned out rouges gallery of the League of Evil Exes as our indelible image (some of the promotional material features the same iconic image, with the actors occupying different spots on the evil spectrum for variety’s sake).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A villain sets up a duel to the death by email, then brings his own Bollywood backup singers—who happen to be levitating “demon hipster chicks”—to the fight. When he’s defeated, he dissolves into a shower of coins. If you don’t think that’s at least a little weird, you probably need to put down the video game controller for a few hours a day.
Original trailer for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
COMMENTS: When Scott Pilgrim flopped at the box office, it became Continue reading 185. SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010)
DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg
PLOT: A game designer and a security officer flee violent sabotage during a virtual reality game demonstration and are thrust into increasingly bizarre and dangerous scenarios inside the virtual world.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is weird in a very obvious way, full of gross insect brunches and squishy scenes of body horror. Since nothing less is expected from Cronenberg, however, eXistenZ simply remains a solid entry in the sci-fi/horror genre, but not one of the weirdest.
COMMENTS: It’s not difficult to imagine the comment section of a youtube upload of eXistenZ to be laden with the now-famous phrase “WTF did I just watch?” If you were to present eXistenZ at a casual movie night with friends, then there would be no question that at least one person in the room would not-so-kindly ask for the movie to be turned off, and it’s probable that this would happen in the first twenty minutes. To its credit, eXistenZ reels in even mainstream viewers quickly, as the audience is desperate to find out just how the virtual video game will work (especially considering the game controllers look like alien sex toys from LV426). But Cronenberg sends the squares back to their cubicles when the characters Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) actually begin the game, which soon takes us from one “WTF?” moment to the next. eXistenz is not a dream, nor is it the Matrix. It hints at something dark within us, something ferociously organic and nasty, filled with bile and ooze and slime.
From the beginning, it appears that there is something vaguely sexual about the game. During the opening sequence we see several adults–this is peculiar, since video games are assumed to appeal to a younger demographic–sit in wooden chairs and fondle their controllers, which are be blobs of gooey, elastic flesh. As the game begins they squirm while sitting with eyes closed, and we are given a powerful image of human beings experiencing something sensationally fleshy. When Allegra (Leigh) is shot with a gun made of human teeth, she tells Pikul (Law, who was placed in charge of her safety) to pull over for “an intimate encounter”; we then cut to him holding a Swiss Army Knife and slicing into her flesh to remove the tooth. The sexual imagery reaches a peak when the game controllers are revealed to be biological organisms that plug directly into the spine via a lubricated bio-port.
Sidestepping the usual sci-fi entrapments of robotic laser fights and anti-gravity fight scenes, Cronenberg focuses on the complexity of the human body, desire, consciousness, and free will. There are moments when the characters are compelled to make certain decisions in the game in order to progress, and they must endure extreme discomfort (i.e. eating mutant frogs) to move forward. Cronenberg’s frequent jabs at philosophy are far from cliché, and with its powerful score the movie stimulates the curious mind holistically and sometimes aggressively, all the while maintaining an exhilarating sense of fun that comes from the wackiness of it all. The two leads both give powerful performances, while some of the minor characters in the movie fall flat (Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe are typically intense but perhaps a bit over-the-top). The picture’s strength comes from its volatility. Slimy fish guts, assassins, virtual games that run up a tab of 36 million dollars, and back-stabbing (literally and figuratively) wild-eyed gas station attendants make up the bulk of this wild romp through a world where games are hip, powerful, and significantly more important than reality itself. The relevance of these ideas can’t be understated in a world where kids in China die from playing too much World of Warcraft.
eXistenZ is an underrated picture, with detractors arguing that its ideas are worn out and too similar to other sci-fi movies. There’s no doubt it stands in the shadow of Cronenberg’s masterpiece Videodrome, but eXistenZ is intriguing, suspenseful, and creative on its own terms. It falls flat at times, especially when side characters are introduced, but whatever slump it rolls into is quickly saved by the bizarre plot progression, where characters change moods and motives at the drop of a hat in a setting that is at once alien and strikingly familiar. We experience what the characters are experiencing; we don’t know what the game means or if it even has an end.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“In the hands of anyone else, the notion of computer game terrorists would be ludicrous, and even Cronenberg fails to explain their motives, using the film instead to indulge in surreal exercises of dream logic.”– Jamie Woolley, BBC (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “alex.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
DIRECTED BY: Zach Snyder
PLOT: After accidentally killing her sister in an attempt to save her from their evil step-father, Baby Doll is locked away in a horrific mental institution and condemned to a lobotomy. She invents two separate fantasy worlds in which she and her fellow inmates can attain freedom through a video-game-like epic quest.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While some of Snyder’s visual tactics and musical cues are interesting, most of Sucker Punch is a highly referential, poorly written adventure whose stranger elements only recall better, weirder movies.
COMMENTS: Set in a dark, tall-tale version of the 1950’s, Sucker Punch’s plot is just a mess. The dank mental asylum is shown for no more than 5-10 minutes, with Baby Doll’s cohorts popping up briefly in the beginning. Her first mental escape—a glitzy brothel in which she and the other inmates are imprisoned sex workers—provides another set of challenges for our boring protagonist to meet. This leads to a second imaginary escape, prompted by the madame (Carla Gugino) forcing Baby Doll to dance for everyone. She slips into a trance involving an epic journey to secure five mystical items that will set her free, and her dance is apparently so sultry she practically hypnotizes everyone in the room. The script flits between these two fantasies for most of the film, mixing the made-up quests into one metaphorical goal: freedom.
The trailers for this film made me think Sucker Punch could go either way: it could be an imaginative, high-flying action flick with strong women characters at the center, or it could be a teenage boy’s sexual fantasy thinly disguising itself as a feminist steampunk adventure. To very little surprise, it turned out to be more of the latter. The story is almost offensively dumbed-down while somehow remaining unnecessarily convoluted thanks to the pointless fantasy-within-a-fantasy conceit. The barely-written characters are flat as can be, with most of the actors putting in dull-faced performances. The battle scenes, while large in scale and generally exciting, feature so many familiar set pieces and villains that it’s hard to be genuinely swept up in Snyder’s world. Oversize metal samurai? Mother dragon fighting to protect her baby? Nazi zombies? It’s been done.
The fact that almost the entire proceedings—all of which are meant to be the conscious projection of an independent 20-year-old woman, mind you—involve scantily-clad twentysomething hotties with heavy fake eyelashes fighting evil in egregiously high heels while their male tormenters ogle them, well… that just gives Mr Snyder a chance to incorporate as much exploitation and fetishization as he can. The overabundance of slow-motion is the cherry on top of this very indulgent and overloaded psycho-sexy sundae.
Admittedly, there are some positive aspects to the film. Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, and Carla Gugino—arguably the most talented actors present—do their best with the shoddy material, adding just a dash of emotional weight to the proceedings amidst the clunky dialogue and overblown electronica soundtrack. Malone especially stands out: with her adorable spiky haircut and acute expressiveness she is a welcome relief from Emily Browning’s infantalizing pigtails and ever-present look of worried, victimized Barbie doll. Many of the visuals, too, are quite intriguing, with Snyder utilizing his usual dulled color palette and sped-up/slowed-down battle sequences. Several of the action scenes feel like an anime in real life (Baby Doll’s ridiculous schoolgirl outfit and katana and Amber’s giant mech certainly help), which is a nice thought.
It’s always nice to see confident, independent women kicking butt onscreen, and it’s a thing that doesn’t happen as often as it should, but Sucker Punch is not a good example of this genre. While on the surface it features some memorable fantasy images, sexy babes in killer costumes, and exciting gunplay, it’s neither fun nor smart enough to make up for the uninspired script, bad acting, and wanton exploitation. In the end, the weirdest thing about it is that it seems to take itself seriously.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Spastic, bombastic, and incoherent, Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch is a baroque, highly polished chunk of pop culture vomit. A nonsensical mash-up of Shutter Island, The Lord of the Rings, I, Robot and Kill Bill, it doesn’t even have the decency to have fun with its cartoonish obsessions, instead delivering a somber, moody, metafictional melodrama that that thinks it’s about female empowerment but instead has all the philosophical heft of Maxim Magazine.”–Jeff Meyers, Detroit Metro Times (contemporaneous)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time. Comments on this initial review are closed. Please leave any comments about the movie on the official Certified Weird entry.
DIRECTED BY: Edgar Wright
FEATURING: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Jason Schwartzman
PLOT: Slacker bassist Scott Pilgrim must defeat seven evil exes in order to win the girl of his dreams.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: An alternate reality comedy that at times feels like something Monty Python would have come up with if they’d been raised on video games and graphic novels instead of “The Goon Show” and Oscar Wilde, Scott Pilgrim has substantial cult movie potential. The movie dispenses with logic scene by fractured scene, but probably its weirdest joke is casting Michael Cera as an action hero. It’s shiny surface sheen is fascinating, but at heart it’s a conventional coming-of-age tale for the PlayStation set; despite it’s comic leaps of illogic, it’s weird-ish, at best.
COMMENTS: With its role-playing game quest to defeat seven escalating opponents (right up to the final “boss” battle) and it’s onscreen scoring system (defeated enemies turn into piles of coins as a digital score rises from their corpses), Scott Pilgrim becomes the first film in history to use the video game as a metaphor for growing up. The movie milks maximum mileage from this conceit: when Scott goes to the bathroom, we watch a pop-up pee meter go from full to empty so we can stay informed on the condition of his bladder. The viewer is stuffed inside a video game console, treated to constant text updates on the characters’ status. But even beyond that basic technique, director Edgar Wright piles on the artificiality and stylization whenever an idea crosses his mind: multicolored valentines bloom from young lovers locked lips at first kiss, 1960s Batman-style “KAPOWS!” accompany fight scenes, and when a character’s profanity is bleeped out on the soundtrack a black bar also appears over her mouth. The bent humor sports a pop-absurdist tone; this is the only movies where a villain sets up a duel to the death by email, then brings his own Bollywood backup singers to the fight. Sometimes Wright’s choices become overly referential and fall flat, as when one expository scene is announced by the “Seinfeld” theme song, but you have to admire his willingness to try absolutely anything, and there are more hits than misses in the mix. The film moves almost too fast at times, with dream scenes emerging back into reality with no warning (there’s little difference between the two states anyway), and jarring leaps forward in time. But Wright embraces the short-attention span aesthetic and makes one of the cornerstones of the film; it’s neither a satirical jab at youth culture nor an unconscious adoption of its rhythms, but a stylistic choice that works in the context of the zeitgeist he’s trying to evoke. The fast-cut style is also necessary to fit in all the film’s teeming ideas: Scott Pilgrim is delightfully overstuffed, a real bargain for your matinee dollar. There are six big, comic fight scenes, multiple romantic subplots and back stories, a Battle of the Bands, and so many quirky supporting characters you almost need a scorecard to keep up. Besides everyboy Pilgrim, there’s cool love interest Ramona Flowers (whose shifting dye jobs call to mind Kate Winslett’s Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), jailbait romantic rival Knives Chow, wisecracking gay roommate Wallace Wells, Scott’s band-mates in the awkwardly named “Sex Bob-omb,” evil exes who’ve become Hollywood action stars or Vegan bass players… and even with that list I’ve still omitted somebody‘s favorite of the dozens of significant characters. The film is anarchic and ramshackle in spirit, but it’s actually tightly controlled and easy to follow and connect with. With it’s ADD edits, it’s geeky embrace of everything pop culture and willful ignorance of any other type of culture, and its amiable twenty-somethings who act like John Hughes’ teenagers of an earlier era, Scott Pilgrim suggests either that the onset of adulthood is slipping ever closer to 30, or that the film is aimed at a demographic aged much younger than its protagonists. I prefer to believe the latter; and, like the aforementioned Mr. Hughes’ film, the movie’s innocence about love and the easy answers about life’s big lessons creates a nostalgic crossover appeal for adults, even if they don’t get every NES video game system reference.
Edgar Wright’s previous two films were cultish genre spoofs: the zombie film parody Shaun of the Dead and the cop burlesque Hot Fuzz. Scott Pilgrim sees Wright stretching his talents with a far more baroque, but equally hilarious, approach. With Scott Pilgrim Wright’s no longer exaggerating the conventions of an existing genres to ridiculous lengths; he’s inventing an entirely new genre.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: