Saturday, August 14, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010) Review (and more regarding the comic)

When 23 year old Toronto native, Scott Pilgrim(Michael Cera) comes across what could very well be the girl of his dreams(literally), the currently underaged girlfriend he's been dating may soon be the least of his problems. Oh sure, there's the issue of no job, no real room of his own, and the lack of any college to speak of, the trouble comes in perhaps the worst example of partner-baggage imaginable, the rogues gallery of exes from this dream girl's past. Upon meeting her, it's clear that the stylish and mysterious Ramona Flowers comes with a fair share of battle damage, but when it appears in the form of near-rampaging, kung-fu kicking lunatics out to make poor Pilgrim's precious life of a bass-playing slackmaster into a Rumiko Takahashi nightmare on LSD, it becomes time to make a choice, and stand up for a dream calling.

And so with the film version of Bryan Lee O' Malley's chibi-epic comic series finally out on screens, I felt it best to come clean on certain views I withheld from my previous posts regarding the books. As much as I did in fact enjoy it overall, it does come up short in a good many places. By the time the third book came out, it becomes apparent that the narrative is splitting into fragmented plotlines to help amble it toward six volume conclusion. And the effect is at times lacking in the immediacy department as Scott's confrontations with Ramona's "Seven Evil Exes" become increasingly scattershot at times, and filled with idiosyncratics that are hit & miss, and ultimately detract from the core attractions of it all for me.

 And while the books feature some quite-astonishing battle sequences that pop from the page to great effect (Scott's battle with Todd the vegan is especially memorable), not enough fuel is given for us to feel that the metaphor for both Scott & Ramona is anything more universal than it could be. Then again, that is likely the point. In that respect, a lot of the latter volumes may leave some wanting. In fact, where the series did excel as mentioned before, was in the characters surrounding the story. Particularly in the areas of characters like Lisa Miller, Kim Pine & Knives Chau.

Characters whom O'Malley seems quite capable of granting souls with near-minimal effort. Again, the jury is out as to whether or not if this is the entire point, which makes the underlying emotional & even contemporary implications of our hero that much more troubling. What may intrigue some readers is how cleverly the story implies that while some may take action as being a nudge toward the inevitability of hurting others, the same can also be said of inaction. This for my part at least, is one of Scott Pilgrim's greatest double-edged strengths.The other edge being that it feels clear that O' Malley is not as comfortable with elaborating on the emotional, and just letting the visuals do most of the talking. In understated manga fashion, our so-called hero is in danger of being a painful black mark in the lives of others. And perhaps even Ramona's should he not rise to meet his ultimate opponent, himself.

And so when it comes to Edgar Wright's dizzying assault of an adaptation, one can rest easily in knowing that as it pulls off a few superhuman feats for a non-superhero-based adaptation produced by a major studio. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World embraces the daffy world of O'Malley's artwork, verbiage, & mannerisms with a drunk giddyness only fitting for a film stylist/uber geek like Wright. In a time where adaptations have near reached their final apex, it is more than refreshing to see a film so dosed on manically hallucinogenic ideas actually working from one frame to the last. Irrevocably plugged into the last decade's explosion of pre-Hipster indie-nerd metaculture, this is the film Speed Racer was attempting to be.(And in many ways, the film most encompassing the entire last five years of my life in the Los Angeles area, for better and worse.) This is a generation's response to wacky mind-altering rock opera ala The Phantom Of The Paradise by way of SNES taken intravenously in some back area of a local rock venue as another's dream fight has just begun onstage. Quite simply stated, this is pure cinema in full low-fi glory.

As mentioned prior, Scott Pilgrim is a jobless/aimless college drop-out who has been in so-called "self-repair" mode for nearly a year after a devastating breakup, and dealing with it in the best way he can, by dating someone much younger, and much less requiring of any real effort. Poor Knives Chau(Ellen Wong) in her naivete embraces Scott wholeheartedly, and yet has no idea of the rollerskating enigma now haunting her boyfriend's dreams. And when Scott realizes that this dream girl is very much a being of flesh and blood, his mission of meeting (and hopefully dating?) miss Ramona Flowers(Mary Elizabeth Winstead) crosses boundaries, and places him in a terrible spot. Now if only this were the end all of his problems. His scrappy homebrew garage band, Sex Bob-omb seem serious about getting noticed as the band's leader, Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) takes it upon himself to go for whetever show comes their way, as the band's freckle-faced drummer, Kim Pine looks on bitterly at the drama little Scott's been bringing to practice. Knives has suddenly become Sex Bob-omb's "biggest fan", and has no idea of the trouble in store. And yet it is only once Mr. Pilgrim decides to move forward with Ramona, do his troubles take on galactic proportion as he must face the pain of this dream girl's checkered past. And in the form of seven evil exes, we are thrust into the madness that is Pilgrim's greatest battle.

"Whetever Happened To The Teenage Dream?" Indeed.

Edgar Wright & Michael Bacall's script nails many of the best elements of O'Malley's books, and comes up with an alternate universe "suite" version of the Scott Pilgrim tale that talks as fast as it cuts. And in the fashion of the series, Pilgrim is rarely filled with much to say except to react to others around him. And when those around him speak, it is where the film's dialogue truly shines. Most impressive is how the Knives Chau subplot is altered to compliment the entire story's backbone, which gives Ellen Wong some surprising range to truly inhabit the world of a young girl who's done nothing wrong, and yet is learning some painful lessons quite early. It is an unexpected performance that helps ground the madness of the film when it runs in danger of derailing (which it almost does several times). Also worthy of note are performances by Mary Elizabeth Winstead who's Ramona Flowers is potent, and filled with a certain desperation & longing for stability, as well as Allison Pill's seething & often deeply funny take on Kim Pine. Easily my favorite character from the comic, she leaves one wanting more by merely the visage of her expressions alone. Wright's direction allows the ensemble cast also including Kieran Culkin, Johnny Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, and even Chis Evans to turn out some amazing work. Should be no surprise as for my dollar, the ensemble power was among Shaun Of The Dead's greatest stealth abilities. One must hand it to Wright and Bacall for coming up with a truncated, yet fittingly streamlined version of the tale.

It is a choice that is quite appropriate considering the rogue's gallery of opponents Scott must face. Whether it be against Evans' X-treme era marquee idol & his stunt doubles, or Routh's numbskull vegan, the film takes on a bizarre guise between the panel and the screen. Possible favorites include Brie Larson's Envy Adams, Satya Babha's Matthew Patel, and Jason Schwartzman's Gideon Graves. They all grant themselves just enough to imply that Ramona isn't as ideal as Pilgrim perhaps imagined. The exes are not truly evil, and only so in the mind of a girl eager to continue running. A pretty significant achievement considering everything else Wright brings to the table.

And yet his directorial hand maintains amongst some of the maddest cinematic conditions imaginable for a middle-budgeted subversion of the romantic comedy. The film unrepentantly never repeats the same shot. The amount of setups with the help of the legendary Bill Pope (The Matrix,Spiderman 2) is intimidating to say the least. And all in the name of creating a singularly disorienting experience punctuated by the visualized onomatopoeia, speed lines, framing & paneling that engulfs the film like a vinyl album cover. Mix this with some of the most thrillingly visualized martial arts sequences ever executed, the film is unwilling to be easily classified. Much like what would happen if a rock opera collided with a Shaw Brothers film. Capturing the ultra geeky satire of slacker & hipster-culture of the 2000s is achieved with the assured, gleeful hand of Wright & co. Embracing everything from the garage rock life of any city, to the snow-capped suburban life of Toronto, all the while finding enough energy to embrace the language of anime & japanese video games. Major props go to Wright, alongside editors Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss for the at times mind boggling achievement. The presentation alone is worth the price of admission. And yet, the experience offers far more to certain cutural niches which makes the film an overall success, but one perhaps restricted for certain audiences. Kudos to Universal for even considering this, especially in a time most desperate for a crossover success.

This said, there are some speedbumps in Scott's journey that keep the film from being a complete success for this one reviewer. Some of which can be argued as being unavoidable, but would argue that it potentially hurts future viewings. Especially in the department of the film's central relationship, there are elements there that while are sublimated well at the offset have gaps that may leave a certain taste in the mouths of newcomers to the series.Ramona never seems to have her say in how their relationship develops. A story like this hinges upon us being able to register the chemistry between the two leads, which unfortunately comes up short here. There's a grand opportunity within the first half hour that is completely squandered, and leaves a lot of the film without much of an emotional leg to stand on. Long story short, we never see what Ramona ever truly sees in the boy. This is where the film does what it can to gloss over in all of its wacky veneer, but is unable to overshadow. Also missing are the central proofs that Scott is in fact evolving. This is akin to having all the afterglow without the foreplay. Leaving the viewer with little else but the fights undercuts the books' central themes of awakening, and taking responsibility. If the film had taken a little more time to develop these changes, the piece might become something more than a mere cultural artifact. We never actually see Scott step up his game, and this makes the film into kind of a cheat that it never really recovers from.

And somehow despite these deficiencies, Michael Cera's Scott Pilgrim makes for a unique brand of anti-superhero in a performance that rewards with a near effortless charm. To see his expressions go from hopeless child to love warrior is impressive. There is a great deal going on behind Cera's work in this film, and it makes for a truly fun protagonist that could easily have been completely unlikeable. It's a charm that works well in conjunct with Wright's bottomless enthusiasm, and I hope they work together again.

And complimenting matters is a spectacular soundtrack that will likely become a favorite for years to come.

So when all is said and done, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a thrilling, funny & charming as hell love letter to geek culture. After years of anticipation, we now have two unique versions of the ultimate loser saga released into the ether, with its feet firmly planted in the subcultures from whence it came. Whether this means big business or not for the studio folks is completely arbitrary. The film is a success on its own levels, and dares viewers to balk at it, turn away in disdain, or lap it up with bottomless reservoirs of love. Even at its weakest, the film has a human center that somehow (like the books) works in spite of things. Part romantic comedy defiance, part pop art spectacle, the film is what the summer's been longing for. Any way one looks at it, Scott Pilgrim is here to stay, and it is a most welcome one at that.

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