Sunday, 29 August 2010

Film Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

(Directed by Edgar Wright, running time 112 minutes)

NOTE: This review isn’t completely objective, having read all six volumes of the original Scott Pilgrim graphic novels.

While still waiting on World’s End, the third film of the humorously dubbed “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy”, so far made up of modern British comedy classics Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, director Edgar Wright has gone completely state side, although further north... Canada in fact. Setting his sights on the comedy graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim, Wright intends on not only transferring the downright surreal and outlandish humor to the moving picture, but at the same time cramming all six volumes into the space of nearly two hours (incidentally, “vs the world” is the subtitle to volume two, while the film that shares the same name it’s still about six).

Like novel, like film, the story follows the daily trials of Scott Pilgrim (played by Michael Cera), a young adult living in Toronto and bassist for his aspiring band Sex Bob-omb (a’la Super Mario). Things quickly (and conveniently) take an unlikely shift when Scott falls for the mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). After hitting it off, Scott soon learns that Ramona has not only been with seven others, but he must defeat them all in order to stay in a relationship with her, being dubbed the “League of Evil Exes” (not ex-boyfriends, emphasized for reasons to knock the socks of the male viewers). What sounds like an odd set up is actually only the half of it. When you take into consideration that the league is more of a collection of super villain like characters with real powers in a world where bodies explode into loose change, any fight would surely be some form of spectacle.

The first thing viewers will notice however is how casual people react to displays of magical powers, super human strength and gravity deifying martial arts when the punch ups get heavy. Even the side characters show moments of other worldly fighting ability at times. Further more, the basic structure of daily life plays out at times like an 8-bit video game, with ability stats, experience points, life bars and extra life pick ups. Even some of the fights themselves play out like a game of Street Fighter or Tekken and that just scratches the surface of video game references. Throughout the entire run, random in-jokes and subtle hints will keep the most twitchy thumbed individuals with a great sense of reverence and nostalgia. The writers clearly have as much love for the medium as those of you.

But it’s not all Pac-Man (contrary to Scott’s belief), underneath all the geeky flash is actually a surprisingly solid social and relationship based narrative. From the get go, Scott is in fact a rather unlikable character, so rather than just an excuse to get laid in the long term, each fight also seems to slap some sense into his messed up inner mind (of which we get surreal literal glances of periodically). On top of that, Scott also appears to have baggage of his own as there’s very little in the way of the XX chromosome that hasn’t had a fling with him, particularly in the case of his recently dumped teenage girlfriend, the young Chinese Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) who is also the band’s biggest fan, border-lining on religious devotion. Despite being oddly left out of the marketing campaign and trailers, she is one f the most important characters who is having to deal with the break-up in her own irrational way. But don’t worry to those of you who may be fearful of walking into a “romantic comedy”, it’s much of that ill-fated genre as Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead was. Along for the ride are a mish mash of social stereotypes as the gang of friends including Scott’s gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) who is one of the most down to Earth yet funny characters in the whole film, along with the pessimistic other members of Sex Bob-omb. In fact, there are plenty more realized characters to fill up the roster, but I’d be writing this for days to each fully mention.

Regardless of whether you have read the original stories or not, Edgar Wright’s new coat of paint is actually very faithful with only a few noticeable changes, for better AND for worse. On one hand, some scenes have been completely re-imagined, such as the the battle between Scott and the fifth and sixth evil-ex twins where before it was a series of encounters (with robots), this time around is a giant musical standoff between the twins and Sex Bob-omb where their music summons giant monsters. It’s a hilariously over the top sequence but at the later stage in the film not out of place and fits perfectly with the constrained length. Yet on the other hand, audiences WILL notice the fast pace of the overall plot, more so for those unfamiliar with the series. While hardly too erratic, the film is trying to get to each set-piece fight to the next while trying to also keep the consistent mood of the characters. More to the point, what happened over a course of a couple years, this time around happens in what feels like a week or two and it shows. Another is the general style of editing. However this is rather a mixed bag down to personal preference. The film utilizes an eccentric form of editing that mirrors the style of the graphic novels such as separate character frames, jump cuts without warning, information boxes that spring up throughout and flashbacks in the original art style. While I could have done without the latter that feels tacked on and lazy on the film-makers’ part, the rest in something very unusual in conventional cinema and as a result creates a unique viewing experience. Yet while trying to be as objective as I can, I have to admit this fast paced comic style will be bewildering to those very used to traditional editing techniques.

If you’re willing to take real life yet hurl basic science and social norms into the sun then you’d be able to appreciate Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. For all it’s over the top fight sequences and video game conventions, there’s also a good chunk of characterization and well written humor, meaning there should be AT LEAST a few things to enjoy, long time fan or not. For fans however, the adaptation is outstanding. Sure plenty has been cut and remodeled but it’s all to provide a coherent viewing experience that’s faithful and not an insult.

Also starring Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman, Mark Webber and Alison Pill.

As a side note, the graphics novels are worth reading. The scenes that were changed are significantly more fleshed out, yet best of all there’s significantly more characterization and depth to the many side characters (including some great ones that never appeared in the film).

Friday, 27 August 2010

Film Review: The Expendables

(Directed by Sylvester Stallone, running time 103 minutes)

Big guns, big explosions and big muscles, what some journalists have dubbed the “big dumb action flick”, this pseudo-genre is one of the more noticeable critical divides between critics and audiences. On one hand the critic is right since their only drive is to cause on screen havoc and cheap thrills, yet on the other the audience is right since there’s really nothing wrong with a little pure mayhem once in a while. It was popular throughout the 80s and early 90s and now such demands have resonated once again with The Expendables, an ensemble 80s throw back starring real 80s throwback action stars while tossing in a view recent “manliest men” archetypes for good measure.

From the various incarnations of movie posters, The Expendables boasts a near perfect action ensemble cast. Action veteran Sylvester Stallone is fresh off the killing floor from 2008’s Rambo, this time driving the cast as both lead star and director with Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lunggren, Mickey Rourke and a whole convoy of muscle men that either haven’t been blowing up bridges and turning over trucks for as long or as memorably for me to mention in the same sentence. As with the “big dumb action flick”, the plot is supposed to be as straight forward as the many, many bullets going through the many, many disposable cronies. The low down on the synopsis is basically “agency wants to kill maverick in hostile country, mercenaries hired for dirty work”, simple as A to B and you don't care. How we eventually get to that conclusion however is not so much needlessly complicated, rather postponed for the first half hour. Prior to this set up, it’s a slog between establishing the entire parade “built like a brick-shit house”.

The first scene invokes memories of John Rambo’s notorious hyper death extravaganza with a crime boss getting a chest of projectile explosives before having to be wiped from the shaken faces of the nearby hired goons. Yet quickly the film already exposes a fatal flaw; BBFC 15. Despite Stallone at helm, The Expendables is far from the meat grinder that was Rambo. In fact, the first death of this film is probably the most violent and with the entire cast’s filmography having an on-screen body count large enough that could populate a small country making it genocide, you’d expect overkill to be an understatement in his next project. Instead the piles of bodies prior to the climax (that I will get onto later) is rather tame, with generic explosions, shot outs and punch ups making up most corpses. On top of that, between action scenes are sparse between exposition. With the exception Mickey Rourke (who gives an excellent yet out place within the film speech about death), the characters naturally are, how you say “meat heads” so of course the dialogue is equally simple. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was enough “big dumb action” to make up most of the “flick”. Between the opening and climax, the action is rather basic and in all fairness not that over the top either. Sure it’s fun but more to the point, it’s all been done in the 80s and early 90s, in some cases by the same cast members.

On top of that, the cast is regulated to Stallone and Statham, with the average on screen time for the rest of the ensemble before the climax amounting to roughly 5 minutes each. Even Jet Li who actually mostly appears in genuinely good films has a somewhat limited role and the much touted Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger are cameos at best. Now granted, Schwarzenegger was always going to be nothing more than a quick walk in and wave given his focus now being world conquest (of which they even joked about in the film) but Willis, who is still alive and kicking in acting was billed as an important role. For the man who played the immortal John McClane, that was a downright tease. It may seem like I’m being harsh on something that’s not supposed to be taken seriously, but things like that are supposed to be consistently entertaining... well, I wasn’t consistently entertained.

Ah, but don’t call me out just yet. I wasn’t not entertained either, like I’ve mentioned previously the climax was a check point before the flip flops between dumb fun and mediocrity. What seems like half an hour, the last stand of the rag-tag band and two-dimensional antagonists is the over the top ultra violence everyone came to see. It’s here and only here where each member of The Expendables earns their standout moment. We’re talking wide spread demolitions, gruesome dismembered, violent bone breaking and plenty of good old fashion cannon fodder on display. All past groans and yawns were rolled up in rug and thrown off a bridge as the insane massacre unfolded.

Yet there also lies the problem that it was pushed up against the wall from the get go. Unlike Rambo and even the very recent The A-Team, the build up was less than expected in the context of the “big dumb action flick”. Don't get me wrong, it's definitely down right mad at times (the notable case being an explosive get away in a plane), but when it’s the throwback to cheesy action greats, moments of serious exposition that isn’t supposed to be taken seriously and general lack of bloodshed, I can’t help but feel disappointed at times. Despite the climax being the most of the promise of over the top action expected from such a cast, everything else pales in comparison. Sure, some movie goers might lap up the action for the sake of it being action but they should also admit they saved the best till last. Best usually does come last in films, but Stallone failed to take the best bits and scatter them throughout. It’s definitely a “big dumb action flick”, where it aims to please it's an absolute success but not really a great one, and given the ensemble it really should have been just that. But now I won't SHAME it.

Now lets wait for, Machete.

Also starring... *sigh* a lot.