August 13, 2010

Review: 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' Comes to Life

"Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it."

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not just a film adaptation of a beloved series of Canadian graphic novels. It is the cinematic pop culture experience to end all experiences. Based on the six volume series by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is directed and co-written by British filmmaker, Edgar Wright of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz fame, making his first American production (in Canada).

Meet Scott Pilgrim, played by Brampton native Michael Cera (Superbad, Juno); he is a lovable, slacker, loser type from the far away land of Toronto. We all know and maybe are some version of Scott. He must defeat the seven evil exes of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in order to date her. The subtle and obvious riffs on the hipster culture of today and video games references are delightful with indie music lingo and nods to pop culture.

The movie, especially the first act, has an insane pace where a multitude of characters are introduced at a breakneck pace. Wright transitions through scenes rapidly with quick cuts and artful transitions. The execution is incredibly pleasing with great laughs and comic timing. Wright brings a vivid sense of imagination to the video game style battles and rapid action sequences. The furious pace does getting tired at certain points as the momentum of the story works towards an epic finale.

Cera is utterly likeable as the titular hero a the cast is ridiculously deep. Keiran Culkin steals every scene with a pitch perfect tone of sarcasm and wit as Scott's gay roommate. Newcomer Ellen Wong is so charming and earnest in her portrayal of Knives Chau, a high schooler desperately in love with Scott despite being way too good for him. Allison Pill (Milk) is under served by the the rapid pace of the film that only alludes to her deep past with Scott from the comics. However, Pill still shines, even if somewhat superficially, as the mean, sardonic drummer. All the evil exes excel in different ways, particularly Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) as an obnoxious vegan rock star and Chris Evans as a pompous movie star.

Every frame is composed with care and detail, demanding to be seen again and again. The invention and whimsy moment to moment triumphs through great performances that are joyfully acted and very well cast. The ridiculous creativity displayed on screen is pure fun and enjoyable as scenes play to a nostalgic era of a few short years ago.

Wright never really establishes a reality or grounds it in an internal logic, besides the setting of Toronto. This is because the viewers are already familiar with the reality and space. Once boss battles begin, we immediately recognize it as a video game fight where the laws of physics and logic are abandoned in favour of wildly absurd action and fight choreography.

The soundtrack and music are inspired and thrilling. The music played a large part of the books as cultural touchstones and inspirations and they translate literally very well on screen. The score is done by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and bands like Metric, Broken Social Scene, and Beck stand in for the bands in the film. The raw, unpolished tracks played during the rehearsal scenes feel very true to life. Evidently, Beck wrote and produced 17 tracks for the film in a weekend and their basic sound are really appealing.

This film is for the Nintendo generation. Those not aware or familiar with the digital age might be lost and possibly confused. I think older viewers, part of "a generation of moviegoers that is [not] acclimated to music video-era storytelling" would be adverse to the rapid, MTV-style editing employed. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World plays as a sort of movie musical except with fight scenes instead of singing and dancing. Like most contemporary love stories it aims to be a feelgood, pop cultured movie about getting dumped in the vein of High Fidelity, Say Anything, or (500) Days of Summer, but with the action of Kill Bill.

What the film does best, as with the books, is capture the exhilaration and emotional weight with which we live our early twenties including all the drama of relationships. Wright and company explore the emotional baggage and immaturity we experience, while using visually pleasing effects and sequences, crafting a fluid action-drama-adventure. The imagery and video game construct allows characters to explore and digest personal issues and problems through humour and character. All of Ramona's exes are elements of Scott's own personality as he must overcome his own internal conflict in order to get past his and Ramona's emotional baggage in order to successfully date her. Elements of the film are very shallow and superficial resembling real life young adulthood.

I share the similar complaints many had with the very end where a hard shift is made and you can sort of tell or at least suspect, something changed. Evidently, upon the completion of the sixth and final volume of the series by Lee O'Malley, Wright re-shot the end to better match the ending of the books. It feels slightly out of place and not true to the momentum of the film's climax. Its biggest flaw is that is packs so much (six books worth of content) into two-hour film.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World acts as a sophisticated and intricately orchestrated, well-made, other worldly film for the digital age and today's self-aware youngsters. The film captures the art and wonderful storytelling tone and feel of the comics and its style from frame to frame, while having all the fun of traditional video gameplay. CBC film critic Eli Glasner aptly described it as "pixel perfect" with its visual storytelling that feels like cinematic cotton candy.

Go see this film in theatres. If you have not already, check out the excellent graphic novels and watch the previous works of Edgar Wright: Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz. They are, like this film, all a lot of fun with equally as much heart.

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