Saturday, August 21, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”

USA. 2010. Directed by Edgar Wright. Screenplay written by Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright. Based on the original graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong, Alison Pill, Johnny Simmons, Mark Webber, Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Keita Saitou, Shota Saito and Jason Schwartzman.

Rating: ★★★

Last weekend, The Expendables was No. 1 in the American box office, not least because of the nostalgic appeal of its cast of beefy action stars from explosive 1980s action movies. The same weekend, a modestly advertised movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World also came out and was just No. 5. In a fair universe, Scott Pilgrim would have blown The Expendables right out of this world with its far greater achievement in delivering pure fun.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the latest effort by British director Edgar Wright, who may now corner the market in turning fading genres into very funny satirical comedy. His last two films, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz brought out like a spring fountain the hilarity lurking beneath the preposterousness of the zombie and the bombastic Hollywood cop buddy action genres, respectively, while still paying affectionate homage to their roots. While Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not quite up there with those two great comedies, his turn to old school video games proves his sharp eye for loving, visual satire.

This is the movie that you wish all the past video game adaptations had been, only that this is based on the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley (and video games have yet to serve as rich enough source material for a movie). From the opening Universal logo theme played with that old organ synthesizer from Nintendo games, the movie grafts all the familiar video game tricks into a wild, clever visual comedy. Its only drawback is that the movie, towards the end, gets a little too carried away with its visual tricks.

Michael Cera, who has never appeared more comfortable in a role before, stars as Scott Pilgrim who is a 22-year old slacker dweeb living in Toronto, Canada. He leads a garage rock band of even dweebier slackers including his ex-girlfriend, Kim Pine (the wonderfully droll Alison Pill), Stephen Stills (Mark Weber) and Young Neil (Johnny Simmons). Just like a video game, the movie introduces each of its characters with a black box on the screen containing the name, the character’s age and a distinguishing trait. Scott actually starts out as a bit of a jerk, as he is casually dating a 17-year old girl, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) merely to stop himself from being lonely from his break-up with his last girlfriend, Envy Adams (Brie Larson), much to the chagrin of his sister, Stacey (Anna Kendrick). There is also his gay roommate, Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), who draws some good laughs in his random and unusual forwardness with some guys he is introduced to.

Then, enter the American girl of Scott’s dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is somewhat like a younger, more deadpan version of the Kate Winslet character from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In a hilariously lousy pickup attempt, he tries to get a rise out of her by explaining that Pacman was initially called Puck Man but changed because it would sound too close to the swear word. After he finds that she works as a package deliverer for Amazon, he orders a package to see her again and, as seen in the trailer, she says yes to going out on a date with him just to get a signature for his package.

As the high concept premise goes, he then finds that he has to battle Ramona’s evil exes in true video game style before he can be together with her. The battle with the first ex, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) sets the tone for the movie where it seamlessly combines fanciful visual and sound effects of pows, bangs, booms and crashes (all of which display as text effects on screen) with surprisingly impressively choreographed martial arts. The ante is then raised with every successive ex, including actor, Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh), punk rocker Roxy (Mae Whitman), the Katayanagi twins, Kyle and Ken (Keita Saitou and Shota Saito) and the haughty record producer, Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman).

Fans of video games will surely have a field day with the endless visual homages throughout the movie, as they not only recreate the martial arts fights influenced by games like Street Fighter and Tekken but also reference a slew of others like Battle of the Bands and Guitar Hero. In the tinier details, there are also twists on old school Mario such as the 1 UP life or every defeated opponent in a battle disappearing into a shower of gold coins. My favorite battle of all is the one with Brandon Routh’s Todd Ingram who humorously uses his green “vegan” power to control and debilitate Scott (you will have to see the movie to find out how) just like Superman weakens Lex Luthor, which has an ironic wink in that Routh had played Superman before. I also liked how the movie in one scene borrows a staple from past Jet Li movies where the man has to fight a woman when he cannot hit her. This one, instead of the fighter carrying another woman to land the hits, uses the reverse tactic of having Ramona move Scott’s arms and legs in the fight.

Even with the nonstop barrage of creative sight gags, Wright solidly integrates them with the growth of the characters and the sweet romantic chemistry between Cera and Winstead (and Scott’s personal realizations get neat twists in flaming swords that appear in his chest). If there is a way he can improve as a director, it is to learn a tighter sense of economy on his innovation and when to end his movie. Yes, Hot Fuzz also went a little long in the third act but that was more justfied within the parody of the overblown action films that also tend to go on too long. This movie, which sells itself with the tagline, “an epic of epic epicness,” does become a too much of muchness towards its climax, as it passes through at least two potential endpoints in the story.

Nevertheless, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World further cements Wright as one of the freshest comedic voices out there who can display a firm grasp of hilarity and tone even with a bigger Hollywood studio budget. And here, I was about to write that Wright should skewer self-indulgent action films like The Expendables. But, of course, he has actually done that already with Hot Fuzz. Maybe then his next film can be a parody of the brain-rottingly dizzying Michael Bay summer movies to try to prevent those from making any more money and make the world a fairer place. And hopefully, the studios and movie stars will get in on the joke as well to make it a hit.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Expendables

“The Expendables”

USA. 2010. Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Story by David Callaham. Screenplay by David Callaham and Sylvester Stallone. Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, David Zayas, Mickey Rourke, Gary Daniels, Terry Crews, Giselle Itié and Charisma Carpenter.

Rating:

This summer has seen a string of attempts to bring back the retro 1980s flavor to the screen with the remake of The Karate Kid, The A-Team and Predators. Here finally comes the most overt attempt in The Expendables, whose roundup of action heroes should tip off to the fact that this movie will strive with every ounce of its testosterone juice to recapture the anarchic, over-the-top B-movie spirit of 80s and 90s action films. The end result though is that the overt translates to self-serious posing and the trying does not try hard enough.

Personally, I wished and hoped I could think otherwise because I have always had a soft spot for the ridiculously cheesy, machismo action movies of yesteryear. This one as directed and co-written by Sylvester Stallone occupies a peculiar middle ground where the action remains inevitably ridiculous while the story takes itself much too seriously. When you round up this group of action heroes, there should be more kickback enjoyment.

The very opening action sequence provides the closest thing to that kind of enjoyment as the titular Expendables, who are a group of highly trained mercenaries, face off against a band of Somalian pirates. It will probably not surprise most audiences to note that the first kill is one of the most graphic in the movie as one of the gang literally blasts a guy’s upper half into the camera (in a shot that seems left over from the last Rambo film). As the hapless pirates start to get mowed down one by one with great rapidity, we see the fighting and weapon specialty of each member of the Expendables.

Is the movie an ensemble piece with all of these big names in action? Not really, as Stallone’s Barney Ross and Jason Statham’s Lee Christmas are in the center for most of the film. The others are relegated to supporting roles with Jet Li as Ying Yang, Dolph Lundgren as Gunner Jensen, Randy Couture as Toll Road and Terry Crews as Hale Caesar. And in the scene that sets up the central plot, there are also uncredited cameos by Bruce Willis, who explains the mission to Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Stallone’s old rival who bows out to leave Stallone to take over the mission. This actually turns out to be the most fun in the movie as these three former owners of Planet Hollywood poke sly, twinkling jabs and smirks at one another's star personas, especially for Schwarzenegger, about whom Stallone states the film’s funniest line on his political ambition.

What is the mission? To overthrow the corrupt dictator, General Garza (David Zayas) ruling a fictional, remote South American island named Vilena. Once Barney and Lee make it to Vilena through a female contact, Sandra (Giselle Itié), however, it turns out that Garza is not entirely be the man in charge. Rather the real villain behind the whole corruption is (excuse me while I bring up the other action guest list) rogue CIA agent, James Munroe (Eric Roberts, in all his full-on hammy, sniveling, cigar-chomping glory) who leads his own gang including his right-hand henchman, Paine (Steve Austin) and The Brit (Gary Daniels).

So why isn’t this film more fun than it is (and as you can see from my last few paragraphs starting with questions, I did have a lot of curiosity and hope for this one to deliver)? Mainly because the dialogue in the screenplay by Stallone and his co-writer, Dave Callaham starts to really clang. Of course, most of the B-grade action movies of the past did not contain the most scintillating lines either but there was a way in which many of those movies (intentionally or not) turned their cheesiness to campy fun by being so on-the-nose about the silly plot and situations going all around them. This movie has little to none of that and rather makes a poor attempt to make us “care” about the camaraderie of the Expendables and the whole seriousness of the mission, all of which are just awfully trite and predictable. The worst of this is in the scene when Mickey Rourke enters as the tattoo parlor, Tool and delivers a hopelessly clichéd monologue, all taciturnly morose and teary-eyed, about a source of guilt he feels from a past botched mission to convince Barney to go back in (surprise, surprise, it is because of a woman he could not save).

In fact, the screenplay, which half the time is strangely consistent in conjuring up merely three-word sentences like, “Are you crazy?” “Not so funny,” and “Let her go,” becomes so leaden that we end up waiting for something to blow up. To be sure, those explosions do come in droves towards the end, as I lost count of the number of fiery detonations. Unfortunately, beyond the aforementioned, efficient opening scene, the action scenes, most of which are concentrated really in the last 30 minutes, only work in fits and starts. There are times when the close-up shooting and quick-cut editing is effective in trying to show how fast these guys can move, especially with Statham's character who is quite handy with his knives. Much of the time, however, that style of frenetic shooting and editing becomes repetitive and reduces the often bloody action to a mere series of indiscernible kills.

Among the cast, Statham comes off best, as his character’s handy knife weaponry fits best with the film’s quick-cut style. Meanwhile, Stallone, probably with some Botox help, actually looks a lot better in this film than he did in the last Rambo, although some viewers will howl at the most violent scene in the film that is pretty much a direct replica scenario from Rambo. The one who gets the most shortchanged, however, is Jet Li. He is a good sport for willing to blend in with this all-American action gang (even at the expense of being the butt of jokes poked at his shorter height by the other guys). But his more realistic wushu martial arts background does not mesh with the rest of the outrageous, 80s style action and Stallone does not know how to integrate that more into the action (which is likely why there is not much martial arts fighting at all). And truth be told, Jet Li was my favorite action hero from my childhood, which makes it all the more personally disheartening.

It is more than likely that, with the exception of the youngest of the bunch, Jason Statham, The Expendables will sadly be the last big hurrah for most of these action stars whose greatest enemy in the end, like the rest of us, is time itself. Knowing this, the film provides a montage of its stars' smiling faces over the end credits that certainly drew a lot of nostalgic affection from me. As many massive star vehicles have often proven, however, the star power and the resultant self-awareness can smother the pure essence to just have fun like the old days. To be a lot more entertaining and satisfying, The Expendables should have been cheesier or better.