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.
Beneath the glossy sheen of Zac Efron there exists the makings of quite a fine actor glimpses of which were seen in both the blockbuster comedy 17 Again and the indie drama Me and Orson Welles. His transition out of the Disney-fied teen-dream world and into more adult-oriented projects is a gradual uneasy one as is evidenced by his latest film the metaphysical drama Charlie St. Cloud which finds him perched squarely in between the two camps. Efron it appears is in that awkward stage.
In Charlie St. Cloud Efron plays the title character a carefree college-bound sailing star whose bright future is torpedoed when an awful auto wreck takes the life of his beloved kid brother Sam (Charlie Tahan). Charlie at the wheel of the car at the time of the crash briefly dies himself only to be wrested from a flatline by a particularly stubborn and spiritual EMT (Ray Liotta).
Years later Charlie’s body has made a full recovery but his mind remains plagued by some nasty after-effects of the tragedy. He’s given up sailing ditched his college plans gotten a job at a cemetery and taken up the habit of holding regular conversations with dead people — specifically his brother Sam with whom he meets daily in a forest clearing to play catch. Usually such mental deterioration coincides fairly closely with physical deterioration which is why you don’t encounter a lot of well-groomed paranoid schizophrenics on skid row. But Charlie has kept up with his workout and grooming regimens earning a reputation among the residents of his sleepy Pacific Northwest town as a sort of beautiful nutcase.
Unable to escape his all-consuming grief Charlie seems doomed to retreat further into isolation and despair until salvation arrives wrapped in a cardigan: Tess (Amanda Crew) a feisty pro sailor and no stranger to tragedy herself can see beyond Charlie’s unhinged persona to the sensitive troubled and irresistibly hot man that lies beneath. As their relationship deepens Charlie is increasingly torn between his imaginary friends and his real-life love.
It’s a noble aim giving tweens questions deeper than just “Edward or Jacob?” to contemplate and Charlie St. Cloud’s principal message “life is for living ” is a worthwhile one. But director Burr Steers having learned from the success of 17 Again clearly knows where his bread is buttered and so he takes care to sate the demands of Efron’s screeching fanbase by stocking the film with ample glowing shots of his star lovingly lit and clad invariably in a light blue solid color shirt and emoting against a picturesque coastal landscape. (Lest you think I'm exaggerating check out this studio-supplied promo clip featuring an interview with a shirtless Efron.) The awkward mix of existential drama and Abercrombie & Fitch commercial combined with a healthy dose of loopy Sixth Sense-esque supernatural shenanigans tossed in toward the end makes for an experience only the most fawning of Efron’s fans could enjoy.
Having recently moved to England from America with his large family young Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig) is finding it difficult to adapt. But it isn’t so much the culture shock or calling his mom “mum” that’s giving him trouble—it’s the fact that he is a warrior and doesn’t yet know it. He is tipped off to the weirdness after witnessing two policemen hot on his trail for purchasing what he thought was a pendant for his sister (Emma Lockhart) morph into black crows. That pendant turns out to be one of six crucial “signs” in need of finding and Will turns out to be the last of the Old Ones fit for the job—as he is informed by fellow Old Ones Merriman Lyon (Ian McShane) and Miss Greythorne (Frances Conroy). Will’s success is mankind’s only hope of warding off the evil Dark whose goal is to defeat the Light and steal their free will; it’s your classic battle of Dark vs. Light. With each passing day Will becomes more adept at sensing new signs but he only has five days to do so before the nefarious Rider’s (Christopher Eccleston) skills reach their peak which will be bad news for everyone. If there were never a Daniel Radcliffe by whom all fantasy-protagonist performances are now measured youngster Alexander Ludwig (of The Sandlot 3 fame) might not seem so stiff—fine inept. But in The Seeker Ludwig struggles with the already tenuous special-effects sequences let alone with trying to carry the movie to franchise-dom. While it’s rare to find the young actor whose charisma trumps his inexperience—a la Radcliffe or even Macaulay Culkin circa 1990—Ludwig comes off more like a kid in a candy store than on a movie set and no editing-room fixes can help. Elsewhere the actors’ stakes are lower and the results mixed. McShane utterly incapable of a bad performance is leaps and bounds above all of his numerous costars. It’s too bad the former Deadwood actor starring as the most vocal of the Old Ones didn’t rub off on any of his younger costars; it’s also too bad he accepted a role well beneath him much like August’s Hot Rod was. McShane’s fellow Old One and HBO casualty Conroy (Six Feet Under) shares a similar venerability but she ditches it the second she wields a sword in a vain attempt to go medieval on our collective heiny. We could’ve used more of Eccleston (28 Days Later) as his wry alter-ego doctor but he spends most of his scenes obscured as the villainous Rider. In most modern fantasy flicks the grand-scale action scenes are where the magic’s at with their bank-breaking special effects and/or productions; in The Seeker such scenes expose the movie as a thrift-shop version of its more deep-pocketed genre brethren (i.e. Narnia Potter Lord of the Rings). It’s not only that the look of the action is less imaginative but also its conception: Each time Will must retrieve one of the signs there is seemingly no difficulty in doing so and thus zero suspense—like a bad video game. That could be because director David L. Cunningham (TV movie The Path to 9/11) seemingly wants the movie to play out like a video game instead of like Susan Cooper’s beloved novel The Dark Is Rising whose story was somewhat tweaked by screenwriter John Hodge (Trainspotting). On the bright side the lush snow-covered English village in which the movie is set is rich and evocative. In fact everything looks great and will keep viewers’ attention throughout the early part of The Seeker. But unlike its aforementioned contemporaries the movie takes a nosedive when it’s supposed to most enthrall us.