The romantic action comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is like nothing — and if you’re a person between the age of approximately 18 to 35 everything — you’ve seen before. British director Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead Hot Fuzz) adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novel is so densely laden with pop-culture references it often times feels less like a movie than a mixtape. Those who share the tastes of the film’s 31-year-old writer and 35-year-old director will find the experience to be exhilarating; those who don’t however will likely be at a loss to comprehend what all the fuss is about.
The list of ‘80s and ‘90s video game nods in Pilgrim alone is daunting: Tekken Super Mario Bros. Tetris Zelda and even retro titles like Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man are represented just to name a few. To fit all of it in Wright must practically invent a brand-new kind of filmmaking. Using techniques and iconography culled from the holy fanboy triumvirate of comic books video games and anime/manga and armed with a clearly generous effects budget he splatters the screen with a dazzling array of CGI visual aids as the action unfolds: informational pop-ups supply key details on each character as they are introduced; words like “Boom!” and “Pow!” burst forth when blows are landed during fight sequences; a “Level Up!” graphic indicating increased levels of key character attributes appears after the film’s hero triumphs in battle. Even the old Universal Studios logo has been revamped by Wright rendered in the rudimentary graphics and sound of the old 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Call it easter-egg filmmaking.
At the center of this digital maelstrom is Scott Pilgrim a 22-year-old Canadian hipster waif played by 22-year-old Canadian hipster waif Michael Cera. Unemployed and in no great rush to find work he splits his time evenly between jamming with his middling band Sex Bob-Omb (a Super Mario Bros. reference) combing thrift shops for new additions to his near-limitless collection of ironic t-shirts and pining for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a beguiling New York City emigre whose signature attribute is her constantly-changing hair color.
After a few abortive encounters Scott finally gets Ramona to reciprocate his affections. Thus begins the quest — or "campaign " as gamers call it — portion of the film as Scott soon discovers that in order to secure Ramona’s hand he must defeat each of her seven evil exes (six boys and one girl) in spontaneous death matches of decreasing novelty. (A few of them could easily have been excised without harming the narrative but that might invite the ire of comic book fans who typically demand nothing less than absolute adherence to the source text.) With a variety of found power-ups and an entirely implausible collection of fancy kung-fu moves he faces off against among others a pompous vegan straight-edge (Brandon Routh) a self-absorbed action star (Chris Evans) a spiteful lesbian (Mae Whitman) and a smarmy record producer (Jason Schwartzman).
I expect Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will polarize audiences and not just because of Wright’s distinctively dizzying directorial style. (Which I thoroughly enjoyed even though it occasionally overdoses on manufactured quirk and is a bit too proud of its cleverness.) The film glosses over Scott and Ramona’s wooing process in its rush to commence with its succession of comic-book battles which grow somewhat tedious toward the end. It’s simply assumed that Ramona would fall for our protagonist as it’s likewise assumed that we already have. But not everyone will embrace Scott’s castrati hipster affect which too often comes across as grating rather than charming. (The movie’s funniest moments come courtesy of Scott’s sassy gay roommate played by Kieran Culkin who is never without a clever barb for his lovelorn pal.) And beneath Cera’s self-effacing sheen exists an unmistakable whiff of pretentiousness that isn’t entirely justified — at least not yet. Far less debatable is the appeal of Winstead whose spunky Ramona appears every bit worth the hassle of fending off seven or more ex-lovers.
God knows what she sees in him.
Tanzie (Hilary Duff) and Ava Marchetta (Haylie Duff) are heiresses to the multimillion-dollar Proactiv-like cosmetics company started up by their late father. Much like all the celebutante sisters in Hollywood (the Hiltons the Olsens the Simpsons et. al.) they live the privileged life--seamless entry into the hottest clubs maids waiting on them hand-and-foot actor boyfriends etc. But early on in Material Girls their high lives come crashing down when at a gala feting their beloved dad a video exposes the cosmetics line as dangerous. Their father’s oldest friend Tommy (Brent Spiner) tries to work damage-control magic but the damage is already done only to be worsened when the ditzy sisters accidentally set fire to their mansion. Forced to relocate to their maid’s (Maria Conchita Alonso) tiny apartment blacklisted by the people that matter--and their credit cards declined--the gals decide to go to work as um private investigators looking into what they believe was a scheme to sabotage the company. Along the way self-discovery bangs ‘em over the head. Separately the Duff sisters stay the ‘tween course recycling virtually the same type of role in the same movie and TV show after movie and TV show. The riskiest role either of the two has taken was Haylie’s turn in Napoleon Dynamite--not because it was edgy but rather because it had a potentially larger or smaller appeal than just the Lizzie McGuire crowd. Together in their first movie collaboration it’s double the nausea. It’s as if they decided to come together under an even wider safety net. Their talent as actresses won’t be clear until they take an ever-so-marginal chance but un-ironically they know how to play mini-mogul sisters. Anjelica Huston also stars as Fabiella the one trying to swoop in on Marchetta Cosmetics’ misfortune. We know precisely what we’re getting with Huston but we may never know why she took this role. Same can be said for Lukas Haas as a pro-bono lawyer who went from fare like Gus Van Sant’s Last Days to this (should-be-made-for-Nickelodeon) movie. Martha Coolidge has directed so much TV (The Twilight Zone Sex and the City) and film (Lost in Yonkers The Prince & Me) over the years it’s surprising to learn she wasn’t behind the movie that looks like Material Girls’ biopic: White Chicks. In all mock seriousness though it’s sad to see anyone attempt to helm what can essentially be considered “Duff Corporation” movies let alone a talented Hollywood vet like Coolidge. She had to know the limited parameters she was cornering herself into here but the director still manages to seem a bit lost. For example when she uses visual techniques such as juxtaposed scenes—which looked cool in say Sideways--it feels almost offensive here. It’s the dead-tired rich-girls-to-blissfully-bourgeois-girls story however that delivers the deathblow to the gut. And it’s Coolidge’s (possibly correct) assumption a movie that can be so narrowly focused toward a specific sect of moviegoers is the one that delivers a blow to the soul.
September 25, 2004 11:24am EST
Shaun (Simon Pegg) is an ambitionless electronics salesman whose idea of grabbing life by the throat is chugging beer at the local pub the Winchester. After three years Shaun's ennui starts to grate on his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) who presents the 29-year-old slacker with an ultimatum: Set some goals or get ready for the single life. Of course it isn't long before Liz dumps lazybones Shaun who drowns his sorrows in a pint of cold ale at--where else? The Winchester of course along with his out-of-shape and equally lethargic buddy Ed (Nick Frost). What Shaun and Ed are too wasted to realize however is that the good people of London are turning into zombies all around them. When Shaun is almost bitten by a strange pale lady lurking in his garden he realizes something's up--namely that the dead have risen and are feasting on the living. A newly-inspired Shaun springs into action and comes up with the perfect plan to thwart the undead. With the help of Ed he rounds up Liz her roommates his mom and stepfather and takes them to his idea of a safe haven: The Winchester!
As Shaun Pegg who had a small roles in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and the comedy 24 Hour Party People is quite endearing. Although he's shiftless Shaun is someone everyone can relate to--stuck in a comfort zone with no plan to change in his life. But Pegg brings some complexity to the character giving Shaun a sympathetic edge. Of course the film tends to overplay the sympathy card complete with shots of Shaun's fake tears after he splits with Liz. But in the end Shaun is not the lazy loser Liz and her friends all thought he was--just an easy-going guy who enjoys the simpler things in life. Ashfield who has starred in several British feature films is also impressive as Shaun's disapproving girlfriend. The on-screen chemistry between the two stars is surprisingly sweet and almost too down to earth for a parody; sure it's silly at times but incredibly believable. Frost meanwhile nails the sidekick role of Ed--a character you'll first despise but eventually grow to almost love.
In vein of his 1995 spaghetti Western spoof A Fistful of Fingers writer/director Edgar Wright uses his parodying skills once again for his second feature Shaun of the Dead--this time lampooning George Romero's 1978 zombie classic Dawn of the Dead. Like Romero whose zombie films take a satirical look at American counterculture of the late 60s Wright's Shaun takes aim at the dreadful idleness plaguing the underachieving Gen-Xers. The film's first 30 minutes are undoubtedly its best as Shaun and other young Londoners mechanically go through the motions of life without ever taking the time to smell the proverbial roses; they schlep to work traipse to the pub and slump into bed never fully appreciating their lives. While anticipating the imminent onslaught of zombies Wright takes pleasure in blurring the lines between the undead and the just plain lethargic. But the film loses its focus once Shaun's character takes a heroic turn and we are forced to endure several poignant moments with his mom and stepdad. Remember Shaun is suppose to be a zombie satire not a Lifetime movie of the week.
A promising young playwright Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock) lives in New York far enough away from her Louisiana hometown. After she gives a damaging interview to Time magazine--damaging mainly to her mother Vivianne Abbott Walker (Ellen Burstyn) who doesn't take lightly to her daughter's intonations that she was not a good mother--the two women begin a feud. It threatens to destroy not only their relationship but Sidda's own plans to marry her longtime boyfriend Connor (Angus MacFadyen). Enter the Ya-Ya Sisterhood--Caro (Maggie Smith) Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan) and Necie (Shirley Knight) Vivi's lifelong best friends. To bring mother and daughter back together the women decide it's time for Sidda to learn about the Divine Secrets of their little clique--and about her mother's painful past. They tell Sidda stories about the young Vivi (Ashley Judd) who was full of promise and hope but how certain tragic events damaged her. The bond between these four older women is unshakable and the most honest element to the film. The sad news for the novel's fans however is that while the script manages to convey the true spirit of friendship it can't quite capture the magic of the book.
In a cast of many the film is chock-full of wonderful performances but it's the matured Ya-Yas who steal the show. Smith plays the tough Caro a lifelong smoker now saddled with emphysema with all the biting wit the actress is best known for while Knight plays the sweet no-nonsense Necie with just a hint of sarcasm. Flanagan the best of the three shines as the wealthy Teensy a recovering alcoholic who has faced demons herself. Her exchanges are some of the more memorable especially when after being told by an angry Vivi that she could knock Teensy into next week Teensy tells her friend "And I'll kick your ass on Thursday." Yet the film truly belongs to Burstyn and Judd as the different faces of Vivi. Burstyn is all at once the highly dramatic Southern beauty who has come to terms with (or remained steeped in denial about however you look at it) her painful past while Judd gets to show us the nitty-gritty of what actually happened to Vivi to harden her. Unfortunately the weakest member of this ensemble cast is Bullock as Sidda. She never quite convinces us she grew up in such an eccentric and terribly Southern environment. And not to leave out the men completely--James Garner plays Sidda's father Shep with quiet patience having survived life with his lady love who never loved him quite the same in return. The devoted Connor mirrors Shep but MacFadyen plays him with a lot more backbone.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) couldn't have chosen a better film to make as her directorial debut. Sure she might be pigeonholed forever as the "chick flick" girl but she probably doesn't care much. Khouri had been approached to adapt Wells' novel a few times over the last couple of years but never had the time to do it. When the right time came along Khouri wisely decided it was also time to take on the directing chores. Even as a novice the writer/director shows us she knows her way around a camera. The film captures that Southern feel lush and languid as the moss drips down from the trees. She also knows how to handle her actors too and is able to elicit great performances (although with the likes of Burstyn and Smith this isn't hard to do). The soundtrack also is an added bonus with a variation of music from jazz to Louisiana Cajun. Yet even with all this going for it Divine Secrets misses a beat. In a novel it's great to read stories about an eccentric Southern family but to have vignettes told to you as a framework for a movie it can slow a film down. You probably won't be able to drag your husband to go see this one.