RIORI Vol 3, Installment 63: Timur Bekmambetov’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012)


The Players…

Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie and Rufus Sewell, with Marton Csokas, Jimmi Simpson and Erin Wasson.

The Story…

Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe. Our 16th president. The Great Emancipator. And with his mystical axe a righteous slayer of the undead demons in the night, too.

Say what?

But what would drive the Rail-Splitter to take up his version of a oaken stake and hack his way through the evil droves of nocturnal blood sucking freaks?

Well, a vampire killed Abe’s mom, duh. That and protecting the Union. So how would you react?

Correct. Cleave a great swath through the corruption. It is for…the living rather to be dedicated…to the unfinished work which they who fought…have thus far so nobly advanced.

That’s from the Gettysburg Address. Proving Abe knew his sh*t about battling vampires. The end.

The Rant…

Ah, the vampire movie. A perennial Hollywood favorite. Seems like one graces America’s silver screens every other year (which I guess is why they’re called perennial). There’ve been so many iterations of the vampire flick that I don’t think any sub-genre of the movie hasn’t been tackled. Well, maybe not a musical. Some undead La-La Land.

…Hang on there.

*flip flip, click click*

Sh*t. We gots two, at least. I Kissed A Vampire and Suck: A Vampire Rock Musical Comedy. I kid you not and creep on over to the IMDb if you doubt me. Just not yet. Read on. I’m bleeding here (get it?).

So yeah, vampire flicks have been all over the movie landscape since FW Murnau’s fired the first shot with his seminal Nosferatu almost a century ago. There now must be thousands of undead cinematic offspring lurking in the shadows, and all with their own unique stamps, spins and sucks. Some good, like the original, uber-creepy Dracula starring uber-creepy Bela Lugosi as our beloved Count. Or the snappy, Brat Pack-esque The Lost Boys featuring both Coreys (this matters to certain factions of Gen X. Mostly the lonely ones)! And the punky, funky yin to Jack Bauer’s yang Near Dark. We had the cheeky and silly Fright Night (the original one. I’ve been finding myself using that quantifier a lot these days). Or the ludicrous actioner Blade, starring Wesley Snipes as the titular vampire hunter is all his martial arts/pre-tax trouble glory. And everything in between. Something for everyone.

Right. Now the other side of the coin. Y’know how it goes, folks: for every clean wipe you suffer a bout of explosive diarrhea, Kenny. You’re welcome.

The schlocky Dracula 2000, illustrating what a hot commodity Gerard Butler became (for a single film). Eddie Murphy’s turn in Vampire In Brooklyn, foreshadowing his decline as a Hollywood commodity (with no end in sight. Sigh). The incongruent Underworld franchise. Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead And Loving It was a super-duper waste of potential. I guess Breaking Dawn, pt 2 falls in there somewhere, too. And everything in between. Something for everyone.

So now here’s the biggie: why are there quite literally thousands of vampire movies? I know what you’re thinking. It’s them appealing details about eternal life, sexual freedom, blood and guts, bats and givin’ ya a good scare or three. All that truck adds up to “no sh*t, Sherlock” to the thinking vampire movie buffs. All twelve of you.

What I’m driving at is with a vamp flick those above facets are freakin’ mandatory by Federal law (that’s a joke, but perhaps a truth, too). You’re gonna get a taste of a few, if not all of them in your average undead fest. Like that old Prego pasta sauce ad said: it’s in there. Now all the filmmakers had to do was couch the goodies in a plot that kept your attention. If you were lucky, it’d be entertaining.

Here’s the thing. The “couching.” As far as drama goes there are only two kinds of plots: tragic and comic. Some writers have extended the count to 20. It doesn’t really matter what the plots reflect; the number simply invites this cinematic question. It’s the question that all—all—directors and scenarists ask when they undertake a movie:

“What can I bring to the table?”

The random list above of good and not so good vampire flicks is a fine example of this. Again, we know what to expect from a vamp movie. Sex and blood and guts are sovereign. It’s how it’s delivered. It’s what’s brought to the table. It’s not about re-spoking the wagon wheel. It’s about thoughtful innovation.

Considering the vampire movie template, such films are no different than your average western. Or spy flick. Or crime caper. Or Adam Sandler scatological comedy, farts—I mean warts and all. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that old, trashy joke: we’ve already established that, now we’re just haggling over a price. Attempting to overturn an almost century old formula is an exercise in futility. Might be why some vamp movies soar and others sink. Sure, acting, direction, story, dancing horses all come into play. That’s a given. It’s what’s brought to the table, the latest idea—no matter how Hollywood hair-brained—about how to spin a tried and true formula into something fresh. Again.

Me? I figure why the vampire theme is so attractive and potent—separate from the tropes—is that the canvas has been spread so wide any director worth their salt and is interested in the genre will say, “Sh*t, can do that!” Directors far and wide, esteemed ones like Francis Coppola and schlockmeisters like Roger Corman have taken a stab (ha!) at vampire-as-movie challenge. Like above, some good, some not so much. Again, the appeal beyond the obvious? You got a whole mythos to cull from. Keep the king and queen in set and let the pawns charge up the board. One space at a time. Add your spin. Take the tired tropes and turn them on their ears. Mix it up. Give it a personal stamp. Sign your signature. Make gravy with the lumps.

Above all, make a well-trod warhorse trot again. Take the well established archetype of the vampire movie and give it clever spin; use a device more original that how fast to build the body count. Very few have done that. Shadow Of The Vampire did it. Near Dark did it. Hell, Mel Brooks’ anti-epic tried and failed gloriously. Nowadays (and those nowadays have been nowadays for over 50 years, if not longer) it’s all about the stamp and the twist. Despite the clutch of vampire movies that have came along since the turn of the century (e.g.: Underworld, Byzantium, 30 Days Of Night, etc), precious few have really cleared the tabletop for their feast for the senses. I mean that dishing it out when it comes to being innovative with the formula. Few and far between.

Small wonder why it took so long for this blogger to cover one…

Abraham Lincoln (Walker) was born into humble means. At an early age he learned about and fast understood the values of hard work, justice and family. Bright kid. Might be destined for great things someday. Growing up poor does set a determined spirit in motion, after all.

So does the death of one’s mother.

Naturally such a loss would change the course of thinking in a young boy’s mind and a more rapid step in his heart. Especially when said boy was witness to how his beloved mother met her fate. The doctor said it was blood poisoning. He was not incorrect; young Abe spied the pestilence that took his mother. An intruder skulked into their log cabin home and…bit her. The next morning she was at death’s door, which opened wide swiftly.

The doctor said it was blood poisoning. He was so right.

Fast forward many years. Lincoln is an aspiring lawyer and has made his way to Springfield, Illinois to set about future plans. Whilst setting up stakes, a curious stranger named Henry Sturges (Cooper) confronts Lincoln. He’s a man who…knows things. Knows things like how Lincoln’s mother met her fate. Like how Abraham has a burning need to solve the mystery…and exact revenge on her toothy killer.

With no pretense, Henry tells Abraham a vampire took his mother.

Ridiculous. There’s no such thing as vampires. But then again, how else could Abraham explain away what he saw done to his mother all those years ago? Henry goads him, believes his story and offers some “training” to Abraham to battle these nasties of the night.

Fueled by revenge and justice also, Henry takes him under his wing, learning the tricks and trade of hunting the undead. But Lincoln fast learns that it takes a lot more than skill with a blessed axe to take out these beasties. It takes a certain prowess. A kind of diplomatic one. Henry informs Abraham that there is a great deal more to the vampires’ agendum than merely feeding.

Simply put, politics breed strange bedfellows. Especially when there’s the whole of the Union to be under siege in the name of power.

And sustenance…

Recall again what I said about bringing life to the vacant table that is the vampire movie. I never figured a fresh breath would come from a bastardized History Channel miniseries. Circa 2005, naturally. Well, okay, regarding the current programming codswallop of a once proud network. We do have one axe man here.

Aw, shut it. That was the best gag you’ve read here in a fortnight. Moving on.

Big surprise here, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter definitely brought something different to the table at the vampire feast. Heck, with a title like that what’d you expect? I bet folks came in droves to catch it at the local multiplex by the title alone, even if they didn’t like vampire movies.

Well, that didn’t happen, hence why it’s in the canon of The Standard. However many movies taken to task here to try and improve/expand on Dracula’s legacy, sh*tty returns does not a boring movie make. Moreover, an interesting movie, even within the confines of the well-worn vampire movie blueprint. Even if the movie in question didn’t exactly light up the night.

The point I’ve been meandering towards for the past decade from that whole table discussion is thus: same old story, unique execution. Lincoln pulls this trick off almost brilliantly. Adapted for the screen from Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name, director Bekmambetov (how’s that for a mouthful?) execution of the story is nothing short of miraculous. C’mon, consider the premise. Hell, consider the freakin’ title. Our esteemed 16th president is a statesman by day and Buffy by night. Timur (gonna refer to him by that from here on out) had some stones to cut what he did. Kinda like Abe’s trusty axe.

It worked, amazingly enough. If only just.

A lot of it had to do with the acting. More like the casting. For instance, Ben Walker as Abe was a find, akin to a low-level discovery of Chris Reeve portraying the Man of Steel. I enjoyed how earnest and naive Walker’s manner was. He also looks like Lincoln, and carries himself as the president we (think) we know in an uncanny fashion. This is especially true as the movie stretches. Walker divides himself between modest and dedicated politician against pure action hero when it comes to slaying the evils of the night. Well, Honest Abe was a man of action, so we have that, which is nice.

One might regard such a role—such a performance—as schizo as they come. But it works, barely. A lot of things in Lincoln barely work, and again I think it comes down to the acting by a very eclectic cast. The casting director earned his pay with their roundup. Apart from Walker, the supporting cast was a weird, delightful melange of folks who did not belong together in the same movie. Yet they were, and proved to be the glue that (just) held the film together.

I really dug Sewell as vampire leader/lord of the manse. He seemed so logical, so gentle in his demeanor (a Southern gentleman vampire. Why not?) as well as his scheming. His Adam was one cool character, not the occasionally hot-headed Abe. Sewell was an ideal foil to, well the idealistic Walker. Another good piece of a good vampire flick? Make the lead bad guy charismatic, always more so than the hero.

Cooper as the ruffian Van Helsing element in another instance. Of course we gotta have the guy behind the guy as expert in destroying vampires. But it’s a nice twist that Cooper’s Henry REDACTED as the opposite of the somewhat gallant Walker’s Lincoln. Another vamp trope; you just gotta have the keen-eyed, seasoned hunter in the film somewhere to pass on his legacy. It’s always fun to see how the sausage is made (unless it’s actual sausage). It’s also kinda fun to watch lanky Walker try to  learn anti-vampire ninjutsu as the hands of scruffy, dandy Cooper. He was fun, teetering on hammy. Cooper has the tendency to overplay his hand though (despite trying keep it close to his chest) like why I REDACTED his cachet above. You kinda want a guy like Henry to keep the cards close to his chest, but like the whole atmosphere of Lincoln you just—must—go along with it. Embrace the absurdity. Keep a pokerface like no doubt Timur and the rest of the crew had to.

We’ll tackle those details later. Now let’s tug at the tapestry proper. Lincoln, at its core has a cozy, subtle B-movie flavor (regardless of the title). Despite a (most likely) hefty budget, the thing plays out as if shoestring. We have corny dialogue, but it’s fitting. Charming even. All the settings appear pulled off the Gone With The Wind backlot with a little bit of Glory thrown in. Even the dusky costumes seem hack and stereotypical, like what you were expecting to see. This whole “barely works” charm binds the film together. Again, barely. Threadbare sometimes.

This may sound like bitching. Not really. Moaning maybe, but then again that’s a sound you want to hear in bed. That’s what I’m getting at: Lincoln is a made-to-order guilty pleasure. There is so much off with this movie that you can’t help but watch and wait on baited breath for the whole sh*tstorm to collapse. But it never does, and that’s a really odd way to hold an audience’s attention. Despite all the action and intrigue I watched the thing perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. Incredibly it never did. The laces must’ve been too snug.

That tightness results from a constant, palpable tension running through the whole flick. All the way through Abe is either hunting or fleeing from the demons—literally and figuratively—that drive him. It’s constant, almost relentless. Tension is what drives a story after all. But then again, there’s this goofy undercurrent that distracts us enough to lend a “what the heck?” aspect in and erstwhile action-cum-history lesson. That alone keeps one glued. It’s all very byzantine, and trying to describe it’ll make you sound as nuts as an almond grove.

Still I’ll try. Further.

I think I’ll call this whole affair “frontier Fringe.” You like that? We have an interesting alt-history at work here, a malleable tableau. Supernatural activity in the prebellum South. Undead nasties attempting to usurp power from the Union via the Civil War. And the director and scenarist having keen eyes and ears considering the historical record and how it can be properly twisted to suit the narrative. No easy feat, then again not something invited by your fire sale vampire movie. It allows just enough breathing room political science to temper all the craziness. Call the whole wad Ken Burns meets Tim Burton (he co-produced the damned thing BTW). It’s what is brought to the table personified. And it works well. Mostly.

I keep saying that. It’s an insistence that Lincoln is not a good movie. It isn’t, but it’s also not lousier than the sum of its yadda yadda. It has the hallmarks of a summer blockbuster and was released in June, but smells like a September leftover and the returns reflected that. It’s a vampire movie, but smeared with a bit too much commentary to really take off. We have a lot of cool action scenes, staggered between Edward Herrmann-esque narrated History Channel outtakes. Lincoln is entertaining to be sure, but often bewildering.

It’s a chimera, but not like it’s better than the sum of its parts. It’s Lincoln‘s determination to be straight-faced and utterly entrenched in its execution and conviction. It’s a vamp film with a pokerface, and after all my ribbing it’s a better film for it. Kinda like Evil Dead 2 or Big Trouble In Little China (admittedly one of my fave films. Get off me; my blog, my rules), it’s a mash up of several genres, all surprisingly well intertwined. I know I’ve been smacking Lincoln around for the past 80 paragraphs, but that’s mostly out of the aforementioned bewilderment that the thing worked. Again barely. The whole “barely” thing stems from my expectations that the movie will fall flat on its ass for the duration of the viewing. It never did. Pokerface. Grim determination. You will f*cking accept and like what we’re doing here. Either that or the Bog of Eternal Stench for you!

You gotta respect a filmmaker who does that. Someone who shoves the chloroform-soaked celluloid in you face and makes you submit to a ridiculous premise. Sure one dappled with a stellar cast, crazy action, nods to history, Civil War battles, a revenge story and vampires vampires vampires, but crazy nonetheless. It often results in some rather curious technical things.

For instance, remember my muse? That cagey bitch whose always testing my patience: the pacing. It’s  a kinda slow, if not creeping build up. The story really only catches fire in the second act, and even then there’s this lugubrious feeling crawling around, all drab and listless. Another aspect of the “barely” descriptor. Such sludge actually works despite itself. It holds the serious action back, so when the sh*t gets real, you’re glued to the screen. I suppose it’s all about trickery courtesy of Timur and Co.

And what would a vampire flick be without blood and guts? Right, an aerobics video. Lincoln can get stylishly gruesome at times. Violent, yes, but with flair. Timur smartly holds back on the vampires chomping on necks. Instead we get vamps as viruses, surreptitiously sneaking around, draining life and only baring fangs for a menacing effect, like who’s the boss here. It sure ain’t Tony Danza, thank goodness.

This clever device really stirs the blood (so to speak). It’s cool to have intrigue over immediate action in a vampire flick. It worked quite we in the 1931 Dracula. What’s going on? There’s more going down than just Abe hacking away and trying manage a war torn republic. The scenarists were pretty smart in incorporating the politics of the day (or properly lifting sh*t from the source novel) to set up the stage in the third act. I dug the “slaves vs masters” allegory regarding humans vs vampires. The war between the states became the war between the “states” if you catch my drift. It’s clearly disguised as a history lesson (consider the Gettysburg Address scene, which was beautiful, BTW). All the key facts are in place, just dressed up in a different skin. It adds a little weight to the scattershot execution, forgiving some faults.

I guess that’s the whole deal to enjoying Lincoln, besides the action and the acting. Forgiving faults is just another piece of suspending belief. Like I kept hammering, this film barely worked. But it did work. The premise was ludicrous. The acting, though good, was stone-faced as if daring you to defy the gravity of this work. The action grew so over the top that it dared you to join the ride. All this sh*t tempted you to throw up your arms and give up (or simply throw up). Didn’t play that way for me, and since I’m so terribly cynical you should surrender to the absurd and give Lincoln a chance.

Take a bite, if you will.

Okay, now that is the best gag you’ve heard in a fortnight.

BTW, what’s a fortnight?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it. It’s not that Lincoln teetered on crappy, but came across as rather fragile at times. That was distracting. Still, it was stupid fun and that counts for something. Barely.

Stray Observations…

  • Nice shot there, Abe. Your quest has begun.
  • “That hat makes you ridiculous.”
  • It’s tough to watch Simpson act and not think of the McPoyle brothers. Want some milk?
  • New Orleans? Really? Despite actual historical significance did Anne Rice catch a whiff of this movie?
  • “I work nights.”
  • Nice out, Will.
  • And nice out, Abe.
  • The burning trestle scene was over the top. Way over the top.

Next Installment…

For the uninformed, “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” (switch the italicized words around for our next feature) is a tune by Vaughan Mason and the Crew, celebrating the joys of rollerskating. Also for the uninformed, roller skates were the precursor to rollerblades. Um, again for the uninformed…

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 28: Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)


The Players…

Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Alison Pill, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin, Anna Kednrick and Aubrey Plaza.

The Story…

When the literal girl of his dreams Ramona starts popping up in his life-on-hold, slacker musician Scott Pilgrim wakes up. But to win the love of this rollerblading goddess, Scott must vanquish all seven of her evil exes in martial arts battles. You read that right. Bonus round!

The Rant…

I’ve covered a few comic book-based movies here at RIORI. To note, we’ve seen Green Lantern, the Watchmen, Iron Man, Superman (twice) and the Spirit (once and only once. Ugh) raked over the coals by the Hollywood combine, most of them with confused results. My responses have been generally positive than not on my watch, by the way. I try to separate my bias from…some other bias. To save time and spittle (and I’m slowly learning my readers can sometimes tire of the spray), most of the middling comic book adaptations I’ve seen under The Standard have been palatable, at times even enjoyable. But I think not all comic books deserve the dubious honor of making it to celluloid, or whatever they use these days.

Set the way-back machine, yet again, for the not too distant past. Oh, quit groaning. You made the hit here, didn’t you? This one’s gonna a get a bit more personal than before, and admittedly has very little to do with the context of this week’s movie. Why and what for? Well, sometimes you gotta just blog when you have a blog. Didn’t you learn anything from the Control installment?

2005. Between reality and semi-sobriety, a decade ago I decided to find a job. The inheritance that I had plopped into my lap was fast wasted on booze, pills, ennui and a grad school degree. Well, almost on that one. The only clear-headed thing I did with that wad of cash. I burned away my prospects and not a few bridges. Addictions are like that. You trade turns in the road only as often as you find the freakin’ road. So I was broke, strung out and stuck terminally in my late-20’s living under the ‘rent’s roof to get on the mend with my feet touching the pavement. Some pavement, anyway.

The job part comes in later. Remember my screed attached to the prior installment? Fire, walk with me; it’s a stinkin’ blog.

There was one addiction I used to have that remained dormant for a long time, however. And believe me, it did far less damage than the aforementioned blurs. Bless childhood.


Since middle school comic books were one of my balms against the cruel realities tweendom. I got hip to the funnies in summer camp, back when the sensible price for a new Marvel ish was a respectable 60 cents. This was the 80s. Yes, Millenials, I am old. So’s yer f*ckin’ iPhone 5s. The camp had a “system”; the parents doled out some discretionary spending that yeilded coupons for various items at the camp “store.” On sale was candy, cheap toys like balsa wood gliders and kites and, of course, comic books. The decent 60 cent kind. I wrapped my imagination around the likes of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man and—back in ‘85—issues from Marvel’s “New Universe.” For the uniformed, the New Universe was a line of then-new Marvel titles with brand new characters and storylines not drawn from their classic canon. It was launched in honor of Marvel’s silver anniversary. These titles, although new, were kinda derivative, stale and on the whole sucked. But as brand new stuff for a brand new collector such as myself, it was pretty cool overall. Anyway, the line tanked before the year was out, and it more or less caused then Marvel Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter to resign his position in frustration and shame. Them’s the breaks.

Fast forward many years, up until high school. I quit collecting comics upon graduating middle school. Why? Not for a very good reason; comics were for kids. I was in high school now, a big boy. I got rid of almost all my books and delved instead into regular books, music, writing and pursuing the opposite sex with complete futility. You know, you mature. Or rather you just get older, and not necessarily wiser.

(By the by, according to the history books, the ‘90s were a terrible time for comic books. Sh*tty stories, bad artwork, prices skyrocketing and the ol’ House of Marvel even filed for bankruptcy. In other words, I didn’t miss out on much during the ‘90s. Call it blind luck.)

Jump ahead again a decade or so. A college graduate. Time for the real world, which I avoided completely for most of the ‘00s as the abovementioned confessional explained. I gave up on most of my existence, mostly living for my Friday nights (and Saturday’s, and Sunday’s, and…), generally hand-to-mouthing it the rest of the week. I had a hard time holding down a job, and lived a Bukowskian existence for a few seasons. While I was trying to my head together, I reflected on “what went wrong” and backtracked, trying to assess the damage. I won’t go into great detail here, other than I tried to relive my past. That and I began collecting comic books again. It was a hesitant step, mind you. I heard about the abortive ‘90s and tentatively perused what had came before. Ugh. I got turned onto manga instead, and eventually weaned my way up back to America again. The turn of the century, after some housecleaning, brought about a Renaissance to the comic industry. That and prices, although higher, had stabilized. Again, I lucked out.

Between moping and scraping together what little cash I could, I began to frequent, or rather re-frequent the local comic shop of my youth. The owner, Jeff—who still holds court in the place for over twenty-five years. Quite an accomplishment for an independent comic book store, or any indie bookstore for that matter—was a sometimes acerbic, always opinionated but overall friendly dude who was also, of course, encyclopedic in his knowledge of the art form and history of the medium. To say his store had a lot of books is akin to saying the Antarctic is a tad chilly. Thanks to his hospitality and salesmanship, he re-activated the dormant comic-collecting addict I had once been in my callow youth. This was a major turning point for me, whether I knew it or not, and I slowly began to get my sh*t together.

Instead of carousing at my local watering hole, I hung out with Jeff and our fellow comic patrons (he kept late business hours) of all stripes. Young and old, male and female, black and white; it was a real crazy quilt of folks that would either shop and/or just chill there. I’d do some shopping, argue the merits of this book or that with Jeff and crew, or just simply hang and shoot the sh*t. I began to heal, although I didn’t know it at the time.

One day, I was doing that week’s shopping when Jeff extended either a hand of goodwill (he knew of my troubles, financial and otherwise) out of either being the charitable sort or knowing I was fast becoming one of his best, most reliable customers. Maybe both. In any event, he asked me about my work prospects. He must’ve known I was down on my luck by my constant yapping yap. Job opps? I said I had a few—meaning zero—irons in the fire, and then he made his pitch. He needed a guy to mind his store nights, from 5 till close 6 nights a week. He wanted someone he knew, perhaps trust and definitely not a snot-nosed kid who’d only rifle through the “adult books.” It didn’t pay much, but he would throw in an “employee discount” for me as a bonus. So whaddya say?

Of course I took it. Yes, the gig did indeed pay peanuts (and most of those peanuts were fed back into the elephant), but it got me out of the house—and bar—with a semi-productive routine. I managed the register. I recommended books in a salesman-like way, not some frothing fiend fresh outta momma’s basement. I was at in-stores, charitably promoting the local and not-so-local talents. I was also witness to the sad spectacle of life-arrests actually getting into fistfights over arguments regarding who could beat whom: Thor vs. Superman. On more than one occasion, I had to physically, but politely escort such ruffians out the door, reminding them to not carelessly chip a tooth on the concrete (sh*t like this really happened, Kevin Smith plot or no). As for promotion, the then EIC of Marvel Joe Quesada did a Q&A via conference call at the store, candidly fielding all of our geekish questions about what Spider-Man was gonna do next month. And the next. And the next. And the you get it. Joe suffered our silly inquiries handily and with much humor. I figured he was an old hand. After dealing each Wednesday with the usual rabble-rousers, I could only imagine what ol’ Joe has to do weekly with shareholders. It was all in good fun, and I wished I had only found a gig like this sooner.

At the end of the day, and I can’t repeat this enough, my time immersed in the comic book world as I had never done before in my youth became a lifejacket in a drowned world of my doing. Am I clean? Hell’s no. I tipple every time I watch a movie for this abortion. I smoke a lot too. Occasionally I’m solicited by co-workers with wondrous tales of the rapture that coke and weed may provide. Whatever. In this day and age, I find it takes a strong soul to say just that. I mean, look who we have to vote for. Still, my current vices possess the aegis of legality on its side. I’ll remain there for the time being. So long as the current Marvel/Disney hydra fails to notice its eighth head (you figure that one out, with your iPhone 6 Plus, bright boy).

Now. What I’m finally getting to here, is like the classic Cobsy line: I told you that story to tell you this story. While I was in “rehab,” immersing myself and getting caught up on the adversities of my favorite superheroes had triumphed over during my collecting absence, I came upon a format of comic book that I only had a passing understanding of: the graphic novel. I knew that publishers would often compile a story arc of a particular title—say, the Avengers—into an omnibus edition; it was simply collecting several back issues into one comprehensive whole, like a trade paperback. During my manga years, I only collected comics in this format (I initially thought all manga was published in this way). I wasn’t aware of stand-alone graphic novels of a single story and artwork carried across a self-contained package until my time at the comic store.

The first example of a “true” graphic novel came in the form of Harvey Pekar’s Our Movie Year. It documented Pekar’s experiences getting his long-running, cinema verite series American Splendor made into a movie. Pekar has sort of become the archetype for this style of comic book storytelling. I’ve read other novels of his, like the bio of his friend in Michael Malice: Ego and Hubris and his urban historical, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland—a complete account of his beloved hometown—the backdrop to his Splendor series. I dug into other novels: Alison’s Bechel’s autobiography, Fun Home, about growing up gay set against the backdrop of her family’s business, a funeral home as well as an adaption of Paul Auster’s City of Glass and other novels by Frank Miller, Alan Moore and others. These comics had little to do with superheroics, more to do with drama and humor. If conventional comic books were USA Today, graphic novels were the New York Times.

More like premium cable, actually. If you wanted to watch Homeland, Shameless or The Affair, you’d have to plunk down some extra cash. Like these cable series, graphic novels offered up a bit more freedom to explore more mature content than you average ish of Spider-Man (and like HBO, the prices were higher). Some stories were dramatic, others scary, some humorous. On the humorous side, and also attempting ironic commentary on folks from my generation, was this little collection called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Here, before I run on any longer, I’ll simply jump to the synopsis and get on with the meat grinding:

Once upon a time in Toronto…

Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is the archetypal 22-year old slacker. No real job. No real prospects of any merit. Living in his dingy flat shared by his pompous, gay roomie Wallace (Culkin). Endlessly the bane of his younger sister’s (Kendrick) existence. Adrift, and he likes it that way.

Scott’s got nothing better to do with his days except endlessly pluck bass with his going nowhere garage band (the knowingly named Sex Bob-Omb) losers Stephen Stills, Young Neil and grumpy Kim (Simmons, Webber and Pill, respectfully). Oh, and on the side, date some 17-year old girl from a catholic school, the fetching Knives Chau (Wong). Right. Scott has a sh*tty track record for dating. His list is short and sweet and hopefully won’t get any longer wooing this recipe for a crime.

Then one fateful night, it comes to him in a dream. Really. A dream. The true “girl of his dreams,” whom at first could only be a figment of Scott’s staid imagination trying to break free. So when at a party, Scott and his amigos hear about a local battle of the bands—networking! This could be the way to Sex Bob-Omb’s big break!—there she is…

Her name is Ramona Flowers (Winstead), an ex-pat from New York City trying to settle down and find some stability in the Great White North. With her punky garb, snarky ‘tude and locks of many colors, Scott is transfixed. If not by her presence, then by the fact she has a presence outside his mind. Hey, all men are great in the their dreams, right? Scott pleads to the fates that this is true.

Ramona is somewhat taken with Scott’s geeky charm, but is reluctant to commit to any kind of relationship just yet. Not unlike Scott, she’s had some bad turns in the road on the dating scene. In fact, she’s had seven. Seven really whacked-out relationships that more or less scared her off to Canada. Scott thinks out loud: How bad could they have really been?


At the fated battle of the bands, Scott gets a taste (one of seven) of what Ramona warned him about. In a less than straight line, Scott faces off with one of Ramona’s exes, who apparently followed her flight up north. To win her, Scott must defeat him, Mortal Kombat style. Wait. This poof with the Lina Yamazaki hairstyle and his raiding of Prince’s wardrobe, this guy dated Ramona? And what about the psychic vegan bass player (Routh)? Or the witless, square-jawed action hero actor (Evans)? Or the Goth girl…girl? Or the twins!?!

Yikes. It’s like one of those video games Scott never plays, but (dum-dum-dum) it’s for real. How the heck is he gonna get past this rogue’s gallery of jealous freaks and win Ramona’s heart? Wit? Grit? Basslines?

And what’s Knives gonna think…?

It’s movies like this that make me question whether I was the target audience or not. The endless video game references, indie music soundtrack, alt-scene caricatures and the like seem to be aimed at me. Seem. However while watching Pilgrim, I got the creeping, crawling sensation that I had (shudder) grown beyond these hooks.

No, I’m not. All of it was just poorly executed.

Let me get one thing clear right now: I’ve never actually read Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I was aware of it. It slouched on the shelves at my former place of employ, but I never picked it up. After watching the film version, I kinda wished I had. Along with that sneaking suspicion that the raison d’être for Pilgrim on film was slipping past me, I also felt that taking the story out of its original context was doing me no favors. And the film was lousy with bleeps and bloops that winkingly told the audience that, hey, this was originally a comic book!

I mean—ahem—graphic novel.

I understand that for over a decade comic book movie adaptations have been en vogue, but not all books really need an adaptation. Admittedly, Pilgrim had an interesting way of “adopting” the comic book format for a movie. A lot of the gimmicks of the trade (sadly mostly clichéd concepts) were employed on screen. Sound effects—a la the 60’s Batman TV show—action lines, dialogue balloons, asides to the audience and ridiculous scenes of fight scenes lifted from hyperactive video games like Mortal Kombat, Looney Tunes chase scenes and/or supernatural portals into otherworldly, kaleidoscopic world via Dr. Strange’s sanctum sanctorum, all were employed to keep you in on the joke. Unfortunately, the joke’s not that funny.

Even the editing is comics panel-like. Scene to scene, things just swoop in and out of view like some slideshow with a corrupted file. I guess this was to come across as surreal—and believe me, Pilgrim has surrealism in spades—but it also was exhausting. The pace is so frenetic that if you felt you missed something, you probably did. Trying to make sense of what you see here makes no sense.

And despite the breakneck dynamics, Pilgrim feels boring. I say feels, not is. Yes, the plot is a well-trodden road, yet the overall vibe of the movie tries to have some verve. But this movie drags. At an almost two hour running time, Pilgrim is something of a slog. It feels like all of this sh*t could’ve been wrapped up on a nice, neat 75 minutes. It doesn’t; Pilgrim goes on and on and on. I blame the stale script and the tired storyline. This movie looks like it’s not supposed to be boring, but it sure as hell feels that way. Plus it has a corny, after-school special kind of ending. Did that ruin it for you? No, it didn’t.

Other than the threadbare plot, Pilgrim is a movie about the dynamics of being dumped. In the long run, you learn from it. But the short run runs so quick that, even for maybe a few months, it feels eternal. It’s ultimately harmless and a fact of life. Under normal circumstances, tempered with a reality that excludes the dumped, a breakup seems world ending over a span of some very long days. We’ve all been there, and many of us may be there again in the future. Like I said: fact o’ life. If that’s the message of Pilgrim, it seems a little high-minded. Okay, I said it, but I think I was trying to put something into the film that wasn’t there in the first place. Most of it seemed like a lot of Gen X audience bating, but I never read the graphic novel, so what do I know?

Is Pilgrim Gen X nostalgia? I’m not sure. There are those tiring video game in-jokes, and the music is the post ur-grunge that saturated the marketplace circa 1995. But the series was launched in 2004, and I think that might be too soon to wax poetic about ago in this case. Overall, Pilgrim really reads like Looney Tunes meets Dazed and Confused. Is this supposed to be a comedy? Because it’s not terribly funny. Sometimes the snappy dialogue is engaging. When forced, not so much. And the hell of it is that director Wright is a vet of the alt-comedy standup circuit in LA. I figured here he was trying to apply his craft on film. Actually weld is a better term; welding shows its seams.

Pilgrim is trying too hard to be “hip.” But it’s catering to the wrong crowd. Seriously. Gen X virtually invented cynicism towards pop culture while simultaneously embracing it. If the producers of Pilgrim was aiming to make it a tongue-in-cheek lambast of everything “cool” in 90’s alterna-culture, then they should of took a step back and rethink their drink (Christ, even writing that sounds hopelessly 90s. I suck). I cringed a lot here.

One final carp (you’re welcome): Pilgrim is suffering from a bad case of The Matrices here, and not in just overt terms. Never has CGI been used so wastefully. It’s an extension of the forced hip pretenses of the movie. I know that nowadays you couldn’t execute the same kind of video game F/X here without digital aid (most moviemakers simply don’t want to), but it sure gets numbing. Made to make Pilgrim more comic book-y? I dunno. Maybe it was like that in the book. I’m still at a loss there.

Universal’s jump on the comic book cum movie bandwagon falls short here. Then again, I might be completely wrong in my opinions. All the other movies based on comic books I’ve taken apart here at RIORI I was a least familiar—even in passing—with the source material. When one goes to see a movie based on pre-existing media, comic book or otherwise, part of the enjoyment of the film stems from what the director lifted and (hopefully) got right from the book. I didn’t have that here, and it was entirely my fault.

Then again, a good movie—adaptation or no—should lend itself to some enjoyment at least. That was sorely lacking here in Scott Pilgrim’s world. The whole thing was a grind.

A grind. Y’know. Like in video games? That’s hip.

The Verdict…

Rent or relent it? Relent it. It’s stupid. If this is Universal’s hope of tossing its erstwhile notion of hip into the ring of the lucrative comic-as-movie trend, then they have dysplasia.

Stray Observations…

  • Seinfeld reference! Definitely Gen X nostalgia.
  • “Pirates are in this season!”
  • I have an affinity for Rickenbacker basses. Must be my early-Rush fanitude speaking.
  • Evans is really enjoying his role here. You can tell. He also has great facial hair.
  • It appears that the rabble who blinded and willfully go to the multiplex have little to no concept of dues ex machina It gets shamelessly employed here in Pilgrim World a lot. Good work, advertizers! (That’s not a typo.)
  • I tried veganism for a few years. Lost some weight, which, in fact, I needed to (lost some muscle mass, too, though). My blood pressure improved, as well as my endurance. A poorly maintained vegan diet however, as mine was (I then knew nothing of quinoa) is a highway towards anemia. Been there. On the whole, and not out of hipster dynamism, one should experience once in a while a diet sans animal products. You’ll feel quite clean and refreshed. And after a few months sanity will set in and you’ll be queuing up at Mickey D’s for the semi-annual relaunch of the McRib wearing nothing a lobster bib. Really, try quinoa.
  • “Kick her in the balls!”
  • Was that Thomas Jane? Awesome! “No vegan powers!”
  • DRUM. Heh.
  • Pill is the best actor here, deliberate or not. As the eye of this hurricane, her flat affect works wonders.
  • “What are you doing?” “Getting a life.”
  • Up up down down left right left right A B (select) start.

Next Installment…

John Cusack quits sleepwalking through movie roles long enough to rejoin the Adult World, if only for one film.