Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Critics

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Movies that become cult pictures often become so because they speak to viewers who seek pleasures outside mainstream acceptance. But cult pictures can also draw strong contrary reactions as well. Mark Clamen and Shlomo Schwartzberg, for example, got into a friendly and engaging dust up over one such cult favourite.

'Scott Pilgrim' Levels Up

Imagine a world which is organized by the logic of video-games and comics. What if life’s painful social situations were staged as epic confrontations between good and evil? Also, while you’re at it, imagine you play bass in an unambitious garage band, live in a low-rent bachelor apartment, and have an unconscious littered with low-resolution exiles from old Nintendo games.

Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World opens theatres everywhere today, and nowhere (outside of comic conventions perhaps) is it more highly anticipated than here in Toronto. Based on Toronto native Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-part graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim is a special kind of triumph. Love it or hate it, you have never seen anything like it before. With its extended dream sequences, balletic fight sequences, and sometimes breakneck pacing, the film is a kinetic roller-coaster ride. The movie is not unlike a Golden Age Hollywood musical—except instead of the characters’ emotions manifesting themselves in song and dance numbers, here they become epic battles to the death.

If you, like me, missed the film’s sneak preview at San Diego’s Comic-Con three weeks ago, seeing it in Toronto is a solid consolation prize. There wasn’t an empty seat at the advance screening I was at Wednesday evening and the room was primed with eager anticipation. When the 8-bit rendition of the Universal Pictures theme rang out, the crowd let out a cheer. No doubt, the film had come to the right place. Whatever its box office numbers, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a cult classic in the making, and could forever engrave Toronto in the hearts of video gamers and comic book fanatics worldwide.

Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead
The action/romance/fantasy/comedy stars Michael Cera (Juno, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) as Torontonian Scott Pilgrim, a 22-year-old slacker and amateur musician with little drive and even less money, who meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the girl of his dreams, fresh off the boat from the USA. Unfortunately, there’s one catch: in order to keep dating her, he must defeat her seven evil exes - in mortal combat.

When I first heard that a Hollywood film adaptation was in the works, I knew there were two directions the film could have gone: translate Toronto into a comparable American Midwest town, turning the American allure of Ramona into a New York City girl in Cleveland kind of thing, or jump into Toronto with both feet. I’m thrilled they went the second route, and I have no doubt that the Canada-chic thing will play very nicely for the key US demographic. The film was shot across Toronto last summer, and many of the books’ signature Toronto sites even made their way onto the screen — including Casa Loma, Lee’s Palace, the Sonic Boom Record Store, and an array of Canadian brands probably unknown to Americans, like the CBC, Pizza Pizza, and Second Cup. As I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but see these elements as small remunerations for the hundred of times that Toronto has been forced to pass as New York, San Francisco, or Chicago on TV and film. (Despite all that, I do confess I did miss the apocalyptic duel at Honest Ed’s, but I think that was perhaps rightly understood to be a wholly untranslatable Torontoism.)

Excerpt from Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (2004)
In fact, O’Malley penned the first of the “Scott Pilgrim” books in 2004 while still working at a comic book store in Toronto. The sixth and final volume was published just this past July. The black and white graphic novels are drawn with a clean, stark drawing style inspired by Japanese manga, and play host to a wide cast of slackers, amateur musicians, and video-game obsessed 20-somethings. Though the stories themselves are profoundly embedded in the urban and social geography of Toronto, by Volume 3 (Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness, 2006) the series had gained an international audience. Detailing the rich inner lives of a generation raised on a steady diet of video games and indie rock, the books are clever beyond measure, laugh out loud funny, often poignant and even philosophical.

The screenplay, co-written by directors Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall, remains impressively true to the spirit and energy of O’Malley’s books. The dialogue is almost exclusively lifted directly off the pages of the books—and this is definitely a good thing. O’Malley has an ear for the spoken word that deserved to be taken to the screen. (To pick just one favourite of mine: “Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it.”) This reverence for the source material never stooped to a slavishness reproduction, however. Wright’s staging of the fight sequences is stunning, and there is a Bollywood sequence that plays much better in the film than in the book. Needless to say, adapting the six graphic novels to a two-hour feature came at some costs. The characters of Ramona and Scott’s own poisonous ex Envy Adams (Brie Larson,United States of Tara) lack the complexity of their book counterparts. The film’s cast shines nonetheless, especially Kieran Culkin (Lymelife) as Pilgrim’s “gay roommate” and best friend, who steals almost every scene he’s in.

Michael Cera and Scott Pilgrim
Adapting a beloved graphic novel to the screen is a unique challenge. (Let’s not forget the almost 25 years it took for Watchmen to finally get made.) But it seems the stars all aligned in advance to make Scott Pilgrim happen. Michael Cera, for example, may have been born to play the role of Scott Pilgrim. But as perfectly Scott Pilgrim’s retro-chic parka fits, Cera isn’t playing his usual “nice guy who lets the cute but self-involved girl walk all over him until she comes to her senses and sees him for what he is” character. Creator O’Malley describes Pilgrim as a “clueless, energetic, kind of innocent asshole.” And truth be told, Cera’s Scott Pilgrim is a bit of a dick. Still, Cera invests Pilgrim with the considerable charisma required to make the character the gawky, effortlessly cool lady-killer he needs to be.

Brandon Routh as Ramona's third evil ex-boyfriend
The extended cast is a meta-story in itself. In a brilliant bit of stunt casting, two of the ‘evil exes’ Pilgrim faces off against are played by Brandon Routh (of 2006’s Superman Returns) and Chris Evans, who will come to the screen as the star of next year’s highly anticipated Captain Americafilm. Key to a movie with such an indie music sensibility, the film’s soundtrack is equally noteworthy, with Beck composing the songs that Sex Bob-omb (Pilgrim’s struggling band) plays, and Toronto's Broken Social Scene making a cameo appearance on stage as the band's musical competition.

Director Edgar Wright is himself uniquely suited to this project. Though this was his first US studio film, the British director is coming off the heels of the successes of Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007). But in many ways, the film marks a welcome return to his pre-Shaun of the Dead days. In 1999-2001, Wright and his Shaun star and co-writer Simon Pegg collaborated for two seasons on a show for Channel Four in the UK called Spaced. Spaced, a cult classic in its own right, shares many of the themes of Scott Pilgrim, telling the story of two 20-something flatmates in London whose mundane lives are punctuated by bouts of surrealism and fantasy as they struggle to deal with the everyday challenges of job hunting, dating, and trying to keep from being bored.

Wright has always had a way of tweaking a genre film so that it approaches the giddy fun of parody, but he never loses sight of the emotional human core of a story. In the end, for all of the flash and CGI, the real substance of Scott Pilgrim's story is found in the non-fantastical stress and drama of daily life. In Scott Pilgrim’s universe, the most memorable event of the evening isn’t the epic battle, with Thor-like hammers or lip-syncing demon ‘hipster’ girls. Instead, it’s the utterly painful awkwardness of you and your new girlfriend bumping into your most recent ex, or meeting that ex’s stunningly douchey vegan boyfriend. Or more simply, working through the unintentional dishonesty of new relationships between sincere people who don’t quite know themselves. Doesn’t surviving all that make you some kind of hero?

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is over-the-top, noisy and colourful, ecstatic and (often literally) explosive fun, and for all that, the humanity of its story is never lost. This might well turn out to be the most original movie of the summer.

-originally published on August 13, 2010 in Critics at Large.

Mark Clamen is a lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television and popular culture.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: Another (Opposing) View

In yesterday’s Critics at Large, Mark Clamen weighed in on what is likely to become a major cult hit, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, He liked the movie. I didn’t. Here’s why.

I should point out that, unlike Mark, I haven’t read the graphic novels upon which the movie is based. But since Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is apparently quite faithful to its source material, I don’t think that matters all that much. More to the point, I don’t get what’s so great about this film, whose story has nerdy, anal and self-involved Torontonian Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) falling for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a new (American) girl in town and, in order to keep her, being forced to fight to the death with her seven evil exes. That’s pretty much the whole story and after ex- number two showed up on the scene, I was getting bored of the whole affair.

I agree with Mark that Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells, Scott’s gay roommate, is fine and funny in his role and that Cera (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Juno) spins some nice variations on his usual sad sack, sensitive persona. He also has an appealing chemistry with Winstead; you believe that Scott would want to date Ramona. Mark also points out, correctly, that most of the film’s characterizations are thin but feels that Scott Pilgrim is inventive, fun and original enough to compensate for those flaws. And that’s where we part ways.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may be original or more accurately original looking – it evokes the helter-skelter speed and patterns of a video game – but it’s awfully superficial and empty, in the same manner as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, this summer’s other unduly praised movie. There really isn’t a lot going on in Scott Pilgrim, particularly in terms of observations on twenty something life, its key selling point, especially when compared to the sharp Michael Cera film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008). That film covered the same romantic ground as Scott Pilgrim, minus the battles, and displayed the same gay friendly, loose attitude to life but it did it with more panache, depth, wit and style. And let's not to forget, it boasted one of the best soundtracks of recent years, with music by The National, Vampire Weekend and Mark Mothersbaugh, among others. As for the much remarked upon Toronto/Canadian references in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, saluting the local pizza places, coffee shops, record shops and clubs in the city’s Annex neighbourhood, while they were a pleasant surprise, coming from an American studio film, they were also just window dressing. There’s no real commentary underlying them. Scott is one tough Canadian when he has to be, so any possible comparisons between meek Canadians and violent Americans are moot. Canadian references do not equal a Canadian sensibility. If you want that, check out the brilliant apocalyptic science fiction film Last Night (1999), from Toronto director Don McKellar, who has a too brief cameo in Scott Pilgrim. It doesn’t help Scott Pilgrim, either, that so many of the performances and performers in the movie were so bad, especially Alison Pill (Milk) as Scott's fellow band mate and former girlfriend, Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air) as Scott’s snooty sister and, not surprisingly, Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore), as one of Ramona’s exes; I did like the vegan ex (Brandon Routh of Superman Returns), though more for his dialogue than his acting. (The movie isn't entirely devoid of wit.)

While watching Scott Pilgrim, and knowing that the glib directorial hand of Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) was all over the film, I couldn’t help feeling that I was being sold a bill of goods that the filmmakers were frantically trying (and failing) to convince me to buy. But I found nothing new and special going on here. Compared to most of the dreck being spewed out of Hollywood this summer (Grown Ups, Get Him to The Greek, Salt, Inception), perhaps there is. But to my critical eyes, Scott Pilgrim appears as simply a juvenile, banal and even stupid film. Cult hit or not, I just don't get its appeal.

- originally published on August 14, 2010 in Critics at Large.

- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

No comments:

Post a Comment