Day Five – JayDanks introduces you to Beyond the Black Rainbow

Warning: I am going to curse my ass off in this post. My feelings about it still haven’t gotten very far past sitting on the couch staring blankly and muttering “fuck…” to myself repeatedly.

DAY FIVE: Beyond the Black Rainbow
QUICKIE DESCRIPTION: wtf, and I mean that in the best possible way
LESSON OF THE DAY: Apparently the script of this 110 minute movie was 11 pages long. I was on the edge of my seat for every moment.

The only thing I can say for certain about this movie is that it is a love letter to the science fiction movies of the 1970s.

On a whim, me and McCoyed got our hands on Beyond the Black Rainbow and my first warning to you is that this movie is scary as fucking fuck. I don’t like horror much at all, and this falls into that crazy realm of live-action anime visual horror that made me dread facing the night alone (on a totally unrelated note, I stayed awake until sunrise).

Beyond3

The Sentinaut is going to haunt my dreams forever.

But I still loved this movie. Everything about it is amazingly well done and even though it freaks you out, you enjoy the ride – the trying to figure out what’s going on, and the fact that even though it’s over you still don’t know… This film is going to unsettle you at the very least, but most likely is going to scare the shit out of you. Not in a gore way, I’m talking honest-to-goodness fear/terror. Michael Rogers comes out of nowhere to deliver one of the most terrifying yet (for the most part) insanely subdued performances I’ve ever seen. Between his acting and the atmosphere Cosmatos creates, a single stare can make you feel incredibly uncomfortable, and Rogers winds up doing a hell of a lot more than staring in this movie.

I’d say “be afraid” but I don’t see how you could help yourself.

I still don’t know what to think about this movie, and I hate to say anything about it because I really really don’t want to spoil it, and because it’s going to take me a few weeks and repeat viewings to piece it all together. Whenever it comes to theaters, I’m definitely going. I cannot recommend this enough.

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Day Four: “The Almighty tells me he can get me out of this mess, but he’s pretty sure you’re fooked”

After two decades of indifference… I FINALLY “get” war paint.

DAY FOUR: Braveheart
QUICKIE DESCRIPTION: True epic
LESSON OF THE DAY: What makes a film big.

I’m pretty certain that the only people in the world who could possibly hate Braveheart are English historians. Braveheart is an extremely liberal interpretation of the First Scottish War of Independence that centers on Scottish hero William Wallace. I don’t want anyone to think that me saying that is passing any kind of quality judgement on the film, because the story Braveheart tells is amazing. It’s so easy to see why this movie pervades our popular consciousness as much as it does. The writing, production and directing all work together to make an epic so damn good I’m a little surprised it wasn’t made in the sixties.

Even the child actors in this movie kick unprecedented amounts of ass. Everything you need to care about William is beautifully set up before Mel Gibson ever rears his squarish mug.

Braveheart is an epic, and it’s important to understand that epic is more than just a synonym for awesome. Wikipedia defines epic poetry as “a lengthy narrative, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation” and that’s a pretty good summation. Braveheart is a serious movie about loss, betrayal, revenge, and yearning for freedom, as it plays out over the backdrop of Scotland maneuvering for independence. Troy/The Iliad deals with hubris and rage in the most famous of the Greek-Asia conflict myths. You can see the same setup in The Ten Commandments and Lawrence of Arabia. Epics have a sense of scope that the wannabe McEpics we’ve been drowning in lately don’t even come close to achieving. Without getting too bogged down in it, I want to try to explain why this movie has the sense of size it does that Clash of the Immortal Barbarians of Mars completely fails to achieve.

I believe it really boils down to the shape of the story. Everyone remembers that godawful plot triangle that’s been shoved down their throat since middle school:

Gustav Freytag came up with this triangle as a model to analyze old Greek and Shakespearean plays. Like Joseph Campbell, it’s been perverted into some kind of all-knowing doctrine that explains the only possible way to tell a story.

But of course, the triangle we’re all familiar with has far less words. Beginning, Initial Incident, Rising Action, Climax, Denouement. What nobody realizes is that this is supposed to line up with a five-act structure – as in, the climax happens halfway through the play. For example, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play and the death of Polonius, or when Macbeth has Banquo killed. It’s an entirely different meaning of climax then we tend to use today, but for some reason we still cling to this triangle for dear life. Thinking that the only high point in the movie should be at the very end is why so many movies fail to make you care about the characters and only invest you in the “and next, this happens” events plot. But if all we cared about were events, documentaries would reign supreme. Movies have to be about character. This movie is as much, if not more, about William and the affect he has on people, mainly the next Queen of England and the Scottish noble Robert the Bruce, than it is about the battles that make up the war. For contrast, Clash of the Titans is just about Perseus’ totally internal journey bringing him to the point where he is able to pull off the final battle. That isn’t why the movie is bad, mind you, just why it isn’t an epic, and would have done better if it had abandoned the world-at-stake thing it sucked at and been a little more earnest about the sword-and-sandal adventuring.

I think what best fits the “initial incident” is this scene. 45 minutes into the movie. Everything before this just makes you care more and more. You’re hooked before the first action scene even happens.

Braveheart has very clear ups and downs that don’t conform to these stupid  “strip everything away until you have the simplest plot possible” analysis formulas that lead to unimaginative, simple plots. (What did you expect?) And these aren’t just things that slow down the race to the finish. There’s wins, losses, reversals of fortune, when we say rising and falling action we totally miss the far more interesting words on those lines: complications and unravelling. The most basic plot description is: A character wants something badly… but something is in the way of him getting it. This something is the complications. In Braveheart the primary complication is King Edward Longshanks who just doesn’t want to leave Scotland alone. Longshanks complicates William’s journey of fighting for freedom through waging war on all sorts of fronts. Contrast with movies where shit gets summoned up to fight, gets defeated, and then the movie moves on as if nothing ever happened. Every action William takes is met by complications from the Scottish nobility and countermoves by Longshanks. Sometimes King Edward seems to be winning. Sometimes William seems to win. I started thinking the movie was over at least twice before it actually did, because so many movies just cut win and loss into black and white. And what happens after the last big action climax? What felt like a good half hour at least of things unravelling before the emotional resolution and end of the movie. So that’s my message today. Don’t just keep building up to a solitary high point. Sometimes, build your story down.

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Day Three: “Maybe on their planet ‘responsibility’ just means ‘asshole’.”

I didn’t mind the Ring Constructs the way a lot of people did. It just kind of makes sense to me that in the heat of the moment you’ll go more for familiar things than imaginative ones. And that’s the only nice thing I have to say about this movie.

MOVIE: Green Lantern
QUICKIE DESCRIPTION: I want a refund
LESSON OF THE DAY: You can’t fix the script in post, stupid!

I decided after two glowing reviews I should try something I knew was bad. And sweet baby Jesus in the manger is this movie bad. I spent a good forty minutes after the movie ended just trying to figure out what overall lesson I could pull from Green Lantern. Since it so closely matches why I didn’t like the movie, I don’t think I’m going to separate the two today. Let’s just dive into it.

When I say “you can’t fix the script in post” what I mean is that this movie should have never been made. The script is full of holes so big you can fly a giant space rasta monster through them. I almost feel like I should do a Red Letter Media-style video review, because that’s how I felt through the entire movie – you ask questions that don’t get answered because somehow somebody decided this cavalcade of nonsense was a good final draft.

The first problem I’m going to talk about is the huge missteps Green Lantern makes in how it handles its characters. Hal Jordan’s character arc is the laziest Zero-to-Hero story I’ve yet to see. The writers put the smallest amount of effort possible into the journey Hal is supposed to be taking. He just sort of stumbles into the end where this cocky irresponsible fighter pilot is suddenly a real boy. What propelled him there? Well, Mandatory Love Interest saw courage in him. That’s all it took to conquer his supposedly crippling fear. A god damned pep talk.

Although a pep talk from Blake Lively could quite possibly motivate any male to do anything.

The issue is that Hal is secretly afraid. Which is why his entire family thinks he has a death wish. (uh….) What never gets explained to us is what it is that Hal is afraid of. Fear is distilled into a canon sin of the Green Lantern Church. Which is why when the best Lantern suggests weaponizing fear for their own purposes, the immortal Guardians instantly agree. (uh…) The only real instances we have where Hal is supposed to be afraid is when the Medusa-picture of his dad in his cockpit makes him freeze up and crash his plane (which leads to the question of how did he not notice this BSOD-inducer before? How did his love interest wingman who’s known him since childhood not stop to go “by the way Hal, take that picture of your dad out of your god damned cockpit so you don’t look at it at the wrong moment and crash like a god damned idiot”?) and when Sinestro kicks his ass in training (though apparently getting teamed up on by five guys behind a bar didn’t give him pause? Does Hal have a phobia of the color of sunburn? Or swords? Then why did he pick swords to fight with in the first place?)

WAIT NOTHING ABOUT THIS FILM MAKES ANY SENSE

Every character who isn’t Hal doesn’t even get the dignity of an honest fracking introduction. The fairly important fact that Blake Lively is an old flame of Hal’s doesn’t come up until about halfway through the movie, where, after yelling at him for being late for the flight demonstration, getting screwed over by him in the middle of the flight demonstration, then ripping into him for completely botching the flight demonstration and potentially having completely ruined her father’s company, she shows up for drinks so they can flirt. (Uh….) In case you were wondering, no, she doesn’t have anything properly resembling a character arc. Hal’s best friend, who might not have even been named, is basically the audience stand-in who gets to cheer at inappropriate times. There’s a senator who does everything and Blake’s dad/Hal’s boss, who I honestly mixed up more than once because there’s nothing that stands out about either of them. And the villain…. oh, let’s talk about the villain.

Which one could possibly be the bad guy?

About three or four appearances in we finally discover that people we are supposed to give a single solitary shit about actually know the guy who did the autopsy on the dead Green Lantern and got infected with fear, and over the course of the film turns into a swollen-headed rage monster (Uh…) and even then it’s the barest lip service. He’s supposed to have some kind of history with Blake and Hal. I don’t know if this is intentional but Blake seems to do the whole staring-at-your-face-for-an-awkward-30-seconds-before-even-remembering-your-name bit, and Hal basically just says hi to him because it would be impolite not to. What kind of villain could this guy possibly be? In case you haven’t guessed yet, he’s the Buffy-famous Monster of the Week. Did I mention one of the writers was responsible for a good third of the first season of Smallville? It’s okay for tv characters to barely interact with the bad guy of 1/24th of a tv season, but there should be some sort of quantum of depth to a big budget superhero movie villain.

Beats like the one where Hector gets mad at his dad’s pulling strings to make him the first scientist to ever study a life form from another planet (other scientists are more qualified!) just… stupify me. That’s not as much about characterization though, it’s more of the whole “things in this film just don’t make logical sense” category.

The Green Lantern Corps is another joke. None of them do anything except Sinestro, who basically suggests they forget everything they stand for (and that he personally preached to Hal while kicking the snot out of him) to fight their enemy. But Hal makes a stand for the green power of will or whatever, kills the space rasta Difference in Apparent Position (a name that truly does strike fear into the hearts of first-year astronomy students) and in doing so… decides to take his place in the Corps that sat around and did nothing? Also in a middle-of-the-credits scene Sinestro throws the yellow ring of fear on, for shits and giggles I guess. At the end of the movie, Sinestro was all humbled by Hal’s being right about will being stronger than fear, so it’s this totally nonsensical “Sinestro is a villain so we have to show that for the sequel” hook that just further drives home that whoever is holding the reigns for this monster doesn’t know what they’re doing at all. You can’t just copy what Marvel is doing at face value, guys. Come on.

“Mister Jordan, I’d like to talk to you about the Super Friends Initiative.”

I think the main problem with the script is that is just isn’t clear what the point is. Movies need themes, and this movie doesn’t really have one. Things happen because they are supposed to happen, not because they are building up to some sort of climax. My friend Evan calls it a “paint-by-numbers” movie and I have to agree with him – on the whole this movie is uninspired. It’s a recreation of superhero movies, a back-engineering.  But it’s a damn lazy one that forgets everything these guys really ought to know about filmmaking. That the man who directed Casino Royale thought this script was good enough to start shooting is frankly baffling and makes me wonder if this is one of those “screwed by the executives” kind of film. So to whoever makes the reboot: Ask yourself why the audience should care about what they’re seeing at any given time, and how this scene is taking you to the next step of not only the plot, but whatever personal thematic journey the protagonist is taking.

And for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Rasta, that jumping between scenes bullshit needs to never happen again.

There’s this great moment where Blake Lively almost got crushed to death and Hal puts her on her feet after saving her all hero like, and she’s acting “dazed” but it just looks like she’s grinding against him. It’s hilarious.

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Day Two: “Give me the damn veggies!”

Dwayne Johnson’s acting in this movie has to be seen to be believed. Complete ridiculousness is what makes his character so damn charming.

DAY TWO: Fast Five
QUICKIE DESCRIPTION: Phrack Fysics
LESSON OF THE DAY: Tropes Are Not Bad.

I haven’t seen 2 Fast 2 Furious or Fast & Furious, and it took talking about it for about ten minutes for me to even realize I had seen more or less the first “act” of Tokyo Drift. Going into this I was relying entirely on my memories of the first movie (which I’m convinced I saw on VHS, so however the hell long ago that was) and the exposition of the friend I was watching it with (who, when it comes to film, usually has the memory of a confused goldfish) so all I really knew going into this was as follows:
One guy’s a cop, one guy’s Vin Diesel. Cop went native and is dating Vin Diesel’s sister. First movie, Ba Dump.
Everything that happened since: Something something Vin Diesel’s girlfriend died, so instead of holding a wake they decide to steal a bunch of shit. Vin Diesel gets caught. Vin Diesel learns that grief isn’t the best motivator for pulling off heists successfully, and now he’s going to jail. Now this movie!

Despite the movie launching you right into the action that ended the previous movie, I was surprised by how well it handled the backstory. While it never outright states who Leticia was, she’s mentioned, sometimes by name, sometimes not, and Dom’s (VD) actions make it clear what she meant to him. It was nice to see this film actually expect the audience to use their heads to figure out what’s going on there.

I mean the part of your head that processes personal drama. Pay no attention to the magic eezo vault.

We were both surprised at how well this movie handled the decision to make Mia pregnant. Rather than the usual Hollywood fare of it becoming the MacGuffin that needs protection Hollywood usually centers the entire plot around, this movie never goes down the “Mia and her fetus are in trouble” rabbit hole. It’s just another motivation for the characters. Dom wanted everyone to split up and lay low to hide from the cops, but he can’t break up his sister’s soon-to-be family or bring himself to leave either. It’s a great touching moment that first adds a complication that pushes the characters into the next act; and second, it beautifully compliments the theme of family that runs throughout the entire movie. It’s a good time to note that if you’ve been ignoring these movies because they look like big dumb action flicks, the action can definitely be big and dumb, but there’s a bigger story going on than the car chase scenes. Unlike so many action movies that throw in the obligatory wife/daughter/nebulous excuse for the hero to go somewhere, these characters are motivated by their relationships with each other. Everyone they call in for the heist is a friend from a past movie. It’s great to see a team that doesn’t just join together out of convenience or for the money, but has a real connection with the main characters.

Although it’s important we don’t forget about the money.

So long as you’re willing to leave physics at the door, the action scenes are really good. Action scenes are, generally speaking, the single biggest guilty party for the “and then this happens” style of filming. I’m going to try not to turn this into a retread of the Hulk Explains Action article, but what he says about geography and logic really stood out for me in these scenes. Here’s a (sadly short) example from Fast Five:

There’s a real flow to the action some movies just don’t pull off. The scene gets set up, there’s a complication, the characters respond and that sets up the next part of the chase. You never lose track of what’s going on or where somebody is except for the moments the movie wants you to be asking those questions, and then they’re pretty quick to give you the payoff. Just contrast it with this clip, where it’s literally five minutes where nothing about the scene changes.

There’s three real actions in that entire chase – Sean knocks over the power pole, Nic goes through a building to avoid it, and Sean crashes a tram. That’s the entire chase. There’s just a shitton of chaos between those beats. In the minute long clip from Fast Five, the characters start to get away, but an obstacle is placed in front of them, and they have to find a way around it – essentially the same thing – but they accomplish it in under a minute. There’s a joke in a behind the scenes features of one of the newer Star Wars movies where George Lucas says the script was really easy because he just kept writing “they fight” a lot. The action in those movies is actually pretty good though because George was making a joke – even he knows that action isn’t just a flashy bit of excitement, action scenes tell stories. A little bit of chaos does work, but your action should go somewhere, and, like I was saying with cause and effect yesterday, where it goes needs to be directed by the choices your characters make. But enough about why I liked the movie.

As you can tell, once I sat down to start writing this I found I had a lot to say about things the movie did well that made me like it. But I’m still in a writer frame of mind so the first lesson I felt I got out of this movie is a simple one: Tropes Are Not Bad. The friend I was watching this with got excited when the movie came to what she calls “the Ocean’s Eleven part.” And she’s right. This movie does a lot of recognizable moments, Assembling the Team only being one of them. This movie has that duo of outsiders that argues all the time, Sexy Action Chick moments that are positively dripping with cheese, redemption through death, the adversary that joins up for revenge, and the list goes on.

Hell, 90% of The Rock’s dialogue is amazing for the simple fact that it is intentionally BAAAD. I haven’t fallen in love with cheesey lines this much since Willem Dafoe in The Boondock Saints.

This movie is very obviously derivative. It follows a ton of the heist movie and action flick cliches. But it’s still a damn good movie, for the same reason that the Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai and Avatar are all the same story but each good in their own right (though it wouldn’t have hurt if Avatar had tried hitting it’s points into your head with a smaller hammer). The outsider going into a different group, learning their ways and falling in love with the culture he’s in is a certain type of movie and there’s nothing wrong with transplanting that story into different settings – hell, The Fast and the Furious franchise did it twice! It’s okay to take ideas that have already been done and put them into your own movie. But you have to be smart about it.

Pictured: the duo of outsiders who argue all the time.

I don’t know if I’m anywhere near qualified to tell you “how to be smart about it” but the best way I can think of putting it is that you have to ask yourself the simple question of “Why am I doing this?” If the answer gets anywhere close to “because that’s how this is supposed to be done” you should ask yourself how the story would flow without that part in it. Skid and Mudflaps didn’t ad anything to Transformers 2, but I’m not sure if Fast Five could work the way it does without Leo and Omar. You can make a cliche work for your story. How exactly? Maybe here’s an even better answer than my first one.
Watch more movies!

Day One: “When I’m around you, I kind of feel like I’m on drugs. Not that I do drugs. Unless you do drugs, in which case I do them all the time. All of them.”

His life is an arcade game. Need I say more?

MOVIE: Scott Pilgrim Vs The World
QUICKIE DESCRIPTION: Nerdgasm
LESSON OF THE DAY:  Cause and Effect

I feel bad starting off with a movie that I wound up loving so much, but it’s too late for that now so let’s just ride through the gush-fest and I promise we’ll be out the other side before we know it. Scott Pilgrim uses the day-to-day life of an awkward, careerless, directionless twenty-something still-teen that so many of can instantly empathize with to craft an action movie that puts most modern action movies to shame. The narrative is kept very tight throughout the entire film. Unlike so many other movies, Scott Pilgrim never hits one of those points where it’s so obviously coasting through a formula scene (a perfect example being the romance arc bits in the otherwise amazing Thor) that you know you can start checking your phone, go to the kitchen for nachos, etc. without missing anything – but we’re straying into Lesson of the Day territory. This is one of the rare films where very noticeable editing and cinematography are a good thing – and I’m not just talking about the fight scenes.

Scott’s awkward first attempt to impress Ramona with a Pac-Man anecdote is perfectly framed to make the protagonist we already relate to feel small.

Edgar Wright is a master of perspective, shooting a tiny room in such a way that we don’t see somebody standing two feet away from Scott until he turns and notices her. There’s an amazing sequence where Scott is walking through his day in a daze with time-skip jump-cuts that he rides with the audience – where another movie might just show a bunch of shots of the protagonist just moping around out of it, Scott’s perspective is matched with the camera’s. He hasn’t noticed the time go by that the camera didn’t see. It’s one of those things I’ll struggle to explain that make perfect sense on film. I could probably go scene by scene talking about how well done this movie is for hours – and these would still just be the things I liked about the movie. But we should move on.

But first, a gratuitous photo of Chris Evans. He’s in this film too, ladies! He fights Michael Cera in front of the X-Mansion.

For Lesson of the Day I put “Cause and Effect” and this movie really is a perfect example of how you should logically progress a story. To borrow from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, there is never a true “and then this happens” moment. The flow of the narrative is incredibly organic. Sometimes the logic of reality is totally crushed to bits but the cause and effect never swerves. There’s a great bit they introduce early in the movie where as soon as Scott decides he is going to do something, his roommate blabs to Scott’s sister, who immediately calls to give advice. This whole process takes two seconds at most. It’s unrealistic, and the movie knows this. But it doesn’t hang you up for a moment because it takes you to the next step of the story – Scott getting a second opinion. Every decision in the movie is like this. Choice-action-consequences-new choice-action and so on. It’s really a breakneck pace but you never feel rushed because the progression is logical throughout. You never get stuck going “Wait, why is this happening and how does it connect to the main plot” or “Hold on a minute, when did this giant fighting robot cross six city blocks to get to this side of the battle?”

You might say I’m missing the “and then an Evil Ex shows up to fight” moments but it isn’t the same thing. Every moment can’t be directly controlled by our hero’s actions, but the film has to make sure to build up to these ambush moments – and it does. It’s hard to explain – really, it’s worth its own article.

The only real times something “just happens” in an “and then” fashion is when Scott and Ramona run into each other in a coffee shop and during a fight when Scott performs an off-screen slight of hand trick. The first one is such a small thing there’s no need to question it and the second one – which could normally cause some issues with a fight’s cause and effect – turns into the set up for an amazing joke I don’t dare spoil for you. And there’s something else you should take from this – there can be small coincidences if they serve a purpose for that scene. But you can’t build the entire plot on coincidences. The plot should be what happen because of your character’s actions, not your character’s reactions to things that just happen for no reason. And Scott Pilgrim does things happening for a reason exceptionally well. In fact by the end of the movie it becomes pretty clear that everything that has happened to the Scott and Ramona is their “fault”. It’s no coincidence that a big theme of this story is baggage. Traits we see these two characters displaying in the present created problems (or are creating problems) that have to be dealt with. And this is what drives the entire plot of the movie. Not all plots all character-based, but this level of cause and effect should be present in any plot. Let the things your characters are doing or have done to each other be what moves the plot forward. Don’t just make an endless barrage of “and then this happens.” That will only lead to one thing.

KSSHHPOW!

BAYSPLOSION!!!

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Why 110, Danks?

Before I get to the bread and butter of this blog, I’m going to write a few quick words on what I’m trying to do here, and why the posts here aren’t going to be as long as a lot of the other reviews you find out there. This project isn’t really about comprehensive analysis of films, if I start accidentally doing that it’s great, but I’m not really at the point where I feel qualified to do that. I’m giving myself the goal of watching one movie for every day until the end of summer (ignore the seasons, for my purposes the end of summer = September 1) because I feel that as somebody trying to get into film I have one huge stumbling block:

I don’t have my own camera.

Okay, *two* stumbling blocks:

I haven’t seen enough movies.

Before you can ever start writing books you have to read them. And before I can really start making films, I have to get a better understanding of movies. When things do and do not work, and why that happens. And yeah, one can just start throwing things up on Youtube and learn the craft through trial and error, but you’re not going to advance very quickly that way. There’s no sense stumbling onto how to tell a story when you can learn from those who have come before you.

And I’m not just talking about the obvious “what not to do’s”.

In essence, I suppose this is as much a journal as it is a review blog. I’m trying to teach myself how to be more critical when I watch movies. How to better understand what’s being done well, and what isn’t. The biggest aid I’m going to have in all this is a blogger everyone should be following, Film Crit Hulk, who has already hugely influenced the way I think about movies. I’d especially like to point to his article on tangible details, the things we cling to that aren’t actually why movies succeed or fail.

So what can you expect when you accidentally follow the links I’m going to be throwing onto your Facebook homepage damn near daily over the next few months? I’ll open with a super quick summary of the feel of the movie (in as little as a single adjective if I can swing it) and what lesson I feel I’m taking from the movie. Right now I’m posting those on facebook as soon as I finish, but with enough prodding I could be convinced to set up that tweetir thing everyone keeps talking about – either way, they’ll also be at the front of each post. After that I’ll get into two things – why I liked or disliked the movie, and go into what exactly the filmmaking lesson I’m taking away is.

Coming up next (as soon as I write it): The first movie of this project, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.