Tuesday, November 9, 2010
There is only one new release worth talking about this week and that is that epic of epic epicness "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World."
After two spot on comedies with Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright ventures out on his own to adapt Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World." Wright directed and co-wrote "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" with Pegg (who also starred in both). The two also collaborated on the brilliant BritCom "Spaced." But with or without Pegg, Wright delivers the comic goods with a sharp eye to pop culture and geek obsessions.
Wright's panel for "Scott Pilgrim" at Comic-Con this past July was a huge hit with fans that worship him as a geek god. Some critics have used the film's failure to generate big box office despite great buzz from the Con as proof that the studios can't depend on the geek fest to help them sell a film. But I would suggest that there are certain films that strike a chord with Con-goers precisely because they are not mainstream fare. Films like "Scott Pilgrim" and "Grindhouse" were wildly popular at Hall H but neither of them is really mall theater material. Each is designed for a niche geek crowd and therefore cult rather than mainstream success. These are films that fans will buy, watch repeatedly, quote from, and even have parties to share the films with others. So although I wish that both of these films had hit mega numbers at the box office, I also breathe a small sigh of relief to know that they have not been embraced by the masses. They are too quirky and original for such broad popularity, and that's one reason I love them so much.
From the moment the 8-bit looking Universal logo rotates on with the videogame MIDI version of the Universal theme, I was hooked. I may not be a gamer but I appreciate Wright's meticulous attention to detail from the very opening moments of his film. Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 22-year-old living in Canada, trying to make a go of a garage band, and currently dating a teenager with the nifty name of Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Then he catches a glimpse of the rollerblading Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) with her fuchsia-colored hair and cool maturity. In the heat of infatuation, he dumps Knives and pursues Ramona only to discover that if he really wants her he will have to defeat her 7 Evil Exes.
The basic story of "Scott Pilgrim" is not that original: young man falls for a chick that's too cool for him. Yep, seen that before. But what make the film fresh are the details and how the story unfolds. Wright vividly keeps the feel of the comic book by breaking images up into panels, making abrupt jumps in narrative, and displaying a total lack of respect for the bounds of reality. He also tells the story as if it were a video game, especially when Scott has to face off against an Evil Ex. Scott's first battle has him an Evil Ex who performs a Bollywood-esque musical number with zombie chicks accompanying him. Later Brandon (Superman) Routh is an Evil Ex whose veganism has endowed him with demonic psychic powers. But he's brought down by the vegan police (Tom Jane and Clifton Collins, Jr. in the film's most hilarious cameos) for dietary infractions. Heck, there's even "pee meter" (like a video game health meter) that goes down when Scott relieves himself in the bathroom.
One of the places that the film excels is in the underappreciated realm of sound. Wright has always paid careful attention to the use of sound. Gamers will have a field day catching all the audio cues that Wright peppers through the film and uses to punctuate action and events. Plus, you don't just get audible (and may I add very clever) sound effects but also onscreen graphic depictions (in the form of floating words) of everything from ringing phones to slamming doors. And of course there are a wealth of POWS and BAMS in the spirit of the cheesy 1960s "Batman" TV show. Your heads spins -- and you can't help but grin with glee -- at all the fun things Wright throws at you in his film. In fact it feels like it's in 3D without even having to bother with the gimmicky glasses.
Wright also works superbly with editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss to make even the transitions between scenes fun and dynamic. So a character may begin a sentence in one scene and finish it in another or have the thought finished by a sign representing the name of the place he was about to say. Or in a bittersweet sequence showing Scott breaking up with Knives and going to see Ramona, we get panels drifting across the screen showing each character's emotions. Knives is sad in her panels. Scott begins sad but as panels of Ramona smiling are cut into the sequence he brightens but Knives remains the same. It's like scanning a page of panels in a graphic novel and again this cleverly reminds us of the source material. We also get animated sequences using panels and art from the books.
Although the story is rather simple, the characters actually avoid being one-dimensional stereotypes. Knives is a genuinely charming girl and a good fit for Scott. So she makes us question Scott's judgment for dumping her. In fact he's a bit of a jerk for doing so. And Ramona has sexy appeal yet we have our doubts that Scott has made the right choice in pursuing her. They form an interesting triangle and are surrounded by a great supporting cast of characters that keep us entertained and avoid cliché. (Kieran Culkin is especially good as Scott's gay roommate.)
Wright endows the film with boisterous energy and amazing charm. Just watching Scott and Knives play a video game is utterly endearing. And Michael Cera (who like Zach Galifianakis) is wearing out his welcome with his over used tics and mannerism manages to deliver his least Michael Cera-esque performance. He finds appeal in the trials and tribulations of being in love. And for the geeks, he throws in so many pop culture references that you need a scorecard to keep track.
I recently showed "Scott Pilgrim" to a group of teens that had never seen the film. They had not seen it because they didn't know how to categorize it based on the promos. They didn't know what it was. As they watched it they still didn't seem to know what to make of it. I heard them repeatedly ask what was going on and why was the story jumping around. But they kept watching and really enjoyed it. I was surprised that they had a hard time getting into the rhythm of the film since they were obviously well immersed in the video gaming world that "Scott Pilgrim" plays off of so intensely. So although the film would seem targeted to teenagers like them it may have actually had a difficult time connecting with them because most of the films they are seeing aren't challenging them enough in terms of narrative structure. They got the gaming references but the free form, stream of consciousness style of the narrative was oddly foreign to them.
The DVD edition of the film has deleted scenes, bloopers, and commentary tracks but the Blu-ray is loaded with much more including: "Adult Swim: Scott Pilgrim vs. The Animation," an animated short; "Scott Pilgrim vs. the Censors" with re-looped dialogue eliminating the naughty bits; Edgar Wright's director's diary; and a Trivia Track. And Wright, who understand us geeks so well, has included "Soundworks Collection: Sound for Film Profile," which allows us to appreciate the brilliant – as always – sound editing on his film.
"Scott Pilgrim" (rated PG-13) is refreshing in its lack of pretension and lack of smirking hipster irony. Instead we get something sweet, genuine, and dazzlingly well made. The film knows how to make fun of itself and its characters but without even being mean or cruel. Originality like this is rare and deserves to be appreciated.
Companion viewing: "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz," "Spaced," "Crank 2"