Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Film Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
  • Publisher: Universal
  • Studio: Big Talk Films
  • Genre: Comedy/Action
  • Release: 13 August 2010
  • Director: Edgar Wright
  • Producers: Eric Glitter, Nira Park, Marc Platt, Edgar Wright
  • Writers: Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright
Now that Roger Ebert has passed away, God rest his soul, we are ever-so-steadily reaching the point where the culture of video games becomes totally accepted by the mainstream.  Two films released in the early 2010s take place in fictional game-inspired environments, and they've done it right.  The first of those two is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, an adaptation of the graphic novel mini-series by Brian Lee O'Malley.  (The second I had in mind is 2012's Wreck-It Ralph, and I'll get to it later.)  Under the direction of Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Sean of the Dead), an already-stellar comic becomes transformed into an audiovisual tour-de-force, or in the words of some YouTube video I saw once, a theoretical blowjob for your eyes.

The eponymous hero of our story (Michael Cera) is a Toronto twenty-something and a bass player for the garage band Sex Bob-Omb.  As the story begins, Scott starts bragging about his new girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a Chinese-Canadian Catholic high-school girl -- and his friends are not amused.  He goes on a date with her only to glimpse Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the girl of his dreams -- literally; she's a delivery girl who takes shortcuts through the subspace highways in his head.  With that, the quest is on for Scott to defeat Ramona's seven evil ex-boyfriends, put down his relationship with Knives, and all in all become a man.

Did I mention that all this takes place in a pseudo-video game environment?  I hope so; I'm pretty sure I was leading up to that.  While this live-action movie was filmed and set in Toronto, Canada, both the concept and a visual style evoke classic brawlers like River City Ransom (NES, 1989).  The seven evil exes leave behind coins and points when they die, and on-screen sound effects are plentiful.  And the dialogue is tightly integrated with the quirky visuals and rapid-fire transitions, with liberal addition of lampshade hanging, to boot.  For example, a black bar covers up a local sour puss's profanities, and Scott asks her how she does it.  But thankfully, very few of these gags are referred to by the dialogue, but serve mainly as Easter Eggs for diligent viewers to seek out, such as the many numerical motifs accompanying each Evil Ex boss fight.  Seriously, if you ran a clip of Film Brain shouting his "SYMBOLISM!!" catchphrase after every such occurrence, you may very well double the film's running time.  And no, I do not intend to test that.  Thank me later.

I will agree that these boss fights are the film's high points, given the kooky characters to have come out of Ramona's love life.  Given that, a common criticism of this film has been the first half-hour or so before the first Evil Ex shows up, when compared to how dense the action is after that point.  Up to that point, the script focuses on the conflicts of Scott's love life and his career (if you can call it that) with Sex Bob-Omb, and more or less comes across as -- please don't flame me for this -- the Twilight Saga for dudes.  Think about it:
  • In the main romantic structure, Subject A (Bella / Scott) is torn between a distant Subject B (Edward / Ramona) and a sensible Subject C (Jacob / Knives).
  • In their respective film adaptations, Subject A is delivered by an underwhelming performance; more on that later.
  • Subject B has an unnatural element to his/her appearance (Edward's sparkle skin, Ramona's hair colours).
  • Subject C is a third wheel of non-European descent (Jacob is Native American, Knives is Chinese).
  • Characters in both universes have supernatural fighting abilities with little to no explanation.
So, all we need is another iteration of the Scott Pilgrim saga in novel form, and we will officially no longer have a need for Twilight.  Now where was I...?  In terms of translating the story from the comics, the first volume, which ends just after the first boss, is given a disproportionate amount of screen time.  As such, do I agree with such complaints?  ...Actually, no.  Even in these relative doldrums, the rapid-fire comedy I previously described runs in top gear.  They could've cut out the Evil Ex plot entirely, and this movie still would've fun to watch again and again.  Having the capability to send up action-movie tropes as well is just good business.

But more importantly, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World takes itself seriously when it needs to be.  Whilst this angle is more pronounced in the original comics, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a tale about its title character growing up and accepting post-adolescent responsibilities, such as the perils of juggling two girlfriends, and grow up he does.  Even better, it manages to be one of the most Canadian films in recent memory without resorting to the stereotypical "Canada, Eh?" concepts that would just push it back into non-believability.  I for one chalk this up to references to real places and things in Toronto, even if this includes product-placements from Canadian chains such as Second Cup and Pizza Pizza (a.k.a. the reason Little Caesar's can't use their original motto in Canada).  On an equally welcoming note, this film's depiction of homosexuals is also to be applauded.  Characters including Scott's "cool gay roommate" Wallace Wells, his boyfriend Other Scott, and Ramona's 4th Evil Ex Roxy Richter exhibit no camp-gay tendencies, rather being first and foremost human beings with a specific place in the plot.  Sure, Wallace has his ship together more so than Scott, but then again so does everybody else, regardless of whether or not they believe opposites attract in the bedroom.

That said, is there anything I would deem fit to criticise?  ...Actually, yes.  I wasn't a big fan of Michael Cera's performance in the title role.  He comes off as a quirky young adult here and there, but for the most part he lacks the conviction that even the Scott Pilgrim of the comics exhibited.  For a frame of reference, I liked Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network; if this depiction of mister Pilgrim had been more like that, it could've pushed this movie to a perfect score.  Plus, the Sex Bob-Omb subplot is de-emphasised once the Evil Exes start rolling in, only to be rather abruptly ended later on.  One wonders what would've happened if the script had focused on being either a slice-of-life love-triangle drama set in Toronto's alt-rock scene, or a power fantasy about said love triangle.  But as an adaptation of some awesome source material, Edgar Wright's film version of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World does said material justice -- and then some.

+ Uber-slick visual design and writing.
+ Scads of visual gags.
- Some weak acting by Michael Cera.

Acting: 4 Evil Exes out of 5
Writing: 5 Evil Exes out of 5
Technical: 5 Evil Exes out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)

So yeah, this obviously deserves a Dragon Award.  But before I go, I'd like to give a tip of the hat to the comic book mini-series which started it all.  In terms of plot and aesthetics, both the film and the books tackle different elements here and there, so if you like one, you'd definitely be well-served to check out the other.  And there's the video game, a downloadable beat-em-up which carries on the delightful spirit of the other media and does away with many of the genre's flaws.  And while I'm at it, I might as well throw out a recommendation for the soundtracks of both the movie and the game.  So, Dragon Awards all around!  Beat that, Twilight Saga.

Yes, I know I had to shrink these awards to get them to fit on the page.  But when it comes to the Dragon Award, (and ONLY the Dragon Award ^.^;) size doesn't matter.

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