Saturday, August 21, 2010

Movie Review: "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World"

Normally I don't care enough to make more than a passing note of what films succeed or fail at the box office. If I liked a film, I consider it a success. If I dislike it, I don't care how much money it made - it remains a bad movie.

But once in awhile, moviegoers make a huge mistake. And last week, that was ignoring "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World," one of the year's most original, funny and enjoyable movies. Moviegoers instead decided they'd rather see Sylvester Stallone, Julia Roberts, Will Ferrell or take a third go-around with "Inception," leaving the adventures of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) to settle for fifth place at $10 million.

Nothing against those choices - I enjoyed most of them. And I can understand why some may be a bit reluctant to see a film so heavily steeped in geek culture that it plasters its video game and comic book influences on the screen.

But gamer or not, there's a lot to enjoy in "Scott Pilgrim." Director Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz") has crafted a modern-day slacker epic so packed full of action, romance, comedy and fantasy that the film sometimes seems at risk of toppling under its own whimsy. It's a miracle that Wright brings this all to life with a steady hand and a skill at controlling chaos, turning what could have been a hollow action-comedy into a funny, exciting and surprisingly smart look at maturity and relationships.

To be sure, Scott doesn't have much of either at the start of the film. A self-absorbed slacker who avoids steady jobs so he can play bass in his garage band Sex Bob-omb, Scott is rebounding from a broken heart by dating a 17-year-old high school student Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Knives may be a poor dating option, but Scott isn't looking for a relationship - he's content to just stay at the hand-holding stage, so long as Knives tells him how much she adores him.

But then, one night, Scott meets the literal girl of his dreams when Amazon delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) rollerblades through his subconscious. After a disastrous encounter at a party, Scott tries again with Ramona and the two start dating. Things are progressing nicely until Scott learns what every person who has been in a relationship discovers at one time or another: Partners come with baggage.

In this case, however, the baggage takes the form of seven evil ex-boyfriends, who Scott must battle to the death if he is to win Ramona's hand. These exes include a Bollywood-singing hipster (Satya Bhabha), a punk-rock chick (Mae Whitman), a psychic who gains his powers from veganism (Brandon Routh) and a Hollywood action star (Chris Evans).

These fights are staged by Wright with the flair and energy of musical numbers - sometimes literally employing song and dance. Influenced by gamer culture, "Scott Pilgrim" unleashes a visual and aural assault on audiences, with every "smack!" and "kapow!" boldly flashed onscreen, guitar bass lines that erupt into sonic waves and villains that transform into coins when they are defeated. Wright also employs comic book tropes - such as abrupt "panel shifts" in lieu of cuts and written narration - to keep the film moving at a bullet's pace.

There's so much wit on display - a Bollywood number here, vegan superpowers there - that "Scott Pilgrim" could easily risk being ADD-adled and empty. But Wright, who showed a skill at tweaking genres while celebrating them with his previous films, allows the film to show a surprising maturity and understanding. Scott never questions his newfound skills or ridiculous situation because, as a slacker steeped in gamer culture, this is how the world appears to him. Who hasn't felt like they've had to fight against the men or women their current love knew in the past? And who hasn't ever looked forward to falling in love, only to discover that it's a battle and we have to face our own demons, put a little elbow grease into the relationship and do some growing up - even if it means facing our own flaws. "Scott Pilgrim" may be hilarious fun, but there's a strong heart propelling it from start to finish.

It helps that all the comedic anarchy is grounded by one of the year's best ensembles. Cera is the go-to guy for playing awkward youths, but he finds new notes to play as self-obsessed, somewhat narcissistic Pilgrim. Winstead ably portrays Ramona as the punk girl every guy wants, with an air of mystery about her. Each of the evil exes appear to be having the time of their lives hamming it up for the role, but none get as many laughs as Routh, playing the perfect tool as the Vegan supervillain. Even the supporting actors get big laughs in their scenes; Wong has an enthusiasm and innocence about Knives that makes her a sympathetic heroine, and Kieran Culkin steals the film's biggest laughs as Scott's sardonic gay roommate.

Every year I ask for just one movie that shows me something I haven't seen before. And while "Inception" deservedly gets a lot of attention for its trippy narrative and action sequences, "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" blasts out of the gate with so much visual wit, energy and charm that it's impossible to dislike. It opens, with an 8-bit video game graphic of the Universal logo and charges through, never putting the same joke on screen twice, and gaining big laughs from its plethora of video game, television, movie and comic book references. By the time the film ends, asking the audience if we'd like to continue, I was already reaching for more quarters.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Movie Review: "The Expendables"

Never have so many "Y" chromosomes been pummeled in the name of entertainment.

With its never-ending parade of machismo, bone-shaking combat scenes and a summit placing Rambo, the Terminator and John McClane in the same room, Sylvester Stallone's "The Expendables" aspires to be the "Godfather" of action flicks. Stallone clearly wants nothing left than to give audiences a film that reeks of gunpowder, sweat and grease.

Though he falls short of that goal, the former Italian Stallion can find consolation in knowing he made a tough, red-blooded and enjoyable action picture.Comprised of a who's who of B-movie action stars, the Expendables are a group of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Stallone), and include knife-wielding Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), short but lethal Ying-Yang (Jet Li), gun-packing Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and therapy-addicted Toll Road (Randy Couture). When they're not dispatching pirates or toppling drug cartels, the boys hang out with ex-Expendable, Harley-riding tattoo artist Tool (Mickey Rourke).

Yeah, it's that kind of movie.

The film opens at the end of a job, in which the team has outwitted a group of Somali pirates but had to cut loose one of their own (Dolph Lundgren), who became a little overzealous. The team is offered a new mission in a fictional South American country overrun by a corrupt dictator (David Zayas) and slimy ex-CIA official (Eric Roberts). Barney and Lee initially turn the job down after a close encounter scouting the land, but, as always, a determined girl (Giselle Itie) draws them back to save the day.

But "The Expendables'" target market doesn't care too much about plot. They just want to know how good Stallone blows things up. And although I could have done without the computer-generated blood sprays that punctuate every fight, I'll admit that this is a welcome return to the gritty action of the '80s, when fists, knives and guns were involved in every fight. Every team member gets an applause-worthy action moment, be it diminutive Li facing off against big lunk Lundgren or Stallone going fist to fist with Steve Austin. Statham gets a nice brawl on a basketball court and Crews gets the loudest cheers from the audience wielding a very big gun at a very opportune moment. Stallone, who brought vitality back to the Rambo and Rocky franchises in the last decade, seems eager to revive the days when action pictures were less cerebral and more physical, and stages chaos with a good eye. The film's last 30 minutes will be bliss to action aficionados.

Statham and Stallone command much of the spotlight and have a nice little chemistry. Not much is told about Barney, but Stallone has a good heart-to-heart with Rourke, who brings a surprising amount of soul to his world-weary ex-soldier. Statham is saddled with a tired subplot about a jilted ex-lover (Charisma Carpenter) that only exists for a nice basketball court brawl with her violent current boyfriend.The other Expendables are relegated to the sidelines until the film's final act, which may be a blessing. Li and Lundgren may be action icons, but they stumble through their dialogue, and Itie speaks her lines with a monotone earnestness that would seem amateurish even in the worst moments of "Rambo." Roberts tries to be as slimy and creepy as Alan Rickman in "Die Hard," but can't pull it off, and cuts a fairly disappointing villain; it's little stumbles like this that keep "The Expendables" from being the great action epic Stallone clearly wants it to be.

Although many will tout the brief scene featuring Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis onscreen together as the film's most iconic moment, the truth is that the 2-minute scene is a bit expendable itself, just a nice occasion for the Planet Hollywood co-owners to trade some barbs and set up the plot. It's a fun scene, but it hints at a bigger, flashier film that exists in Stallone's head. He wants to be making "Die Hard," but is instead making a more expensive variation of "Navy SEALS" or "The Last Boyscout."

Truthfully, if "The Expendables" were released in the 1980s it would be a second-tier action movie that found its audience on late-night HBO. Coming in an age where heroes have to apologize for brandishing weapons and spend more time on computers than in car chases, it carries a refreshing and nostalgic feel. Even its lame one-liners and puns are exactly what we expect from this genre and, were Stallone not so prone to sincerity in the film's few quiet moments, this could almost pass as a "Grindhouse"-style action revival.

Action fans are notoriously forgiving as long as the explosions are big, battles are brutal and heroes are larger than life. I suspect they'll have a great time with "The Expendables." It's easy to criticize a film for having no meat on the bone, but here's one that's all meat, no bone. I suspect those who line up for "The Expendables" would want nothing less.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Movie Review: "The Other Guys"

Few comedy duos have been as consistently successful as Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.

The actor-director team has spent the better part of a decade tweaking the American male psyche in all its lust ("Anchorman"), swagger ("Talladega Nights") and juvenilia ("Step Brothers"). Ferrell has created a classic collection of blowhard idiots, lampooning male hubris and idiocy, and McKay, a writer-director pal from his "Saturday Night Live" days, has always been his best collaborative partner, finding new levels of absurdity to explore.

With the duo turning their eyes to the action-comedy genre for the new release "The Other Guys," it would seem a given that they would tweak the over-the-top, testosterone-fueled macho male hero. Perhaps sensing our expectations, McKay sends Ferrell the other way, encouraging him to be as fussy, cautious and nerdy as possible as NYC forensic accountant Allen Gamble.

Not that they totally resist the urge to poke fun at buddy cop conventions. The film opens with Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson playing two NYC super-cops who appear to have been flown in from a bad Jerry Bruckheimer movie, unafraid to destroy millions of dollars in property if they can catch their crooks. Allen and his partner Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), who would much rather be the one crashing cars and shooting guns, are "The Other Guys" - police officers assigned to write up all the paperwork for the real cops.

Chasing a tip on a paperwork violation, Allen and Terry stumble upon a financial crime of unexpected proportions. When the city's best cops are taken out of commission, they step up to solve the crime and save the day, much to the chagrin of their captain (Michael Keaton), who can't be expected to clean up their mess and balance his part-time job as a Bed, Bath and Beyond store manager.

Unlike this year's wretched "Cop Out," "The Other Guys" isn't that interested in slavishly paying homage to cop movie conventions. While there may be a plot to follow and bad guys to find, McKay is more interested in using the genre as a framework for his cadre of bizarre characters to bounce around in.

Allen lacks the over-the-top nature of Ferrell's most famous characters, but he may also be the actor's most fully-formed creation. Allen likes the cautious nature of his job and enjoys filing paperwork. He's prone to outbursts of enthusiasm, such as telling his coworkers to "have a great day" every morning at 9:15 and buying random gifts for Terry. It doesn't bother him that he has to carry a wooden gun, and he's wise enough to call for an MRI after an explosion knocks him on his back. It's refreshing to see Ferrell play a character so normal on the surface, which makes it funnier when each random tic and non sequitur fly out of his mouth, especially when he bemoans his "plain" wife, played by the ravishing Eva Mendes, or ventures to remember his dark collegiate past. Allen isn't as instantly memorable as Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby, but Ferrell fills him with enough character and quirk to make it one of his best-realized roles.

McKay's gift as a director is to fill his movies with a cast of great supporting actors, and then step back and let them play. Wahlberg's intensity is used to great comedic effect here, and the actor elicits some big laughs as we learn more about Terry's life away from the force and his haunted past as the Yankee Clipper (he shot Derek Jeter). Comedians Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans, as two competing cops, bring wit to roles that could have been easily forgettable, and Jackson and Johnson perfectly parody their own macho personas. Keaton, just weeks after stealing "Toy Story 3" as Ken, reminds us once again how much we've missed his presence on screen, eschewing the tendency to play the loud-mouthed captain and, instead, portraying a mild-mannered father figure with a proclivity for quoting the music group TLC.

McKay has a wonderful knack for bringing absurdity to the big screen, both in big comedic moments (Terry and Allen's first car chase) and small expository scenes (the explanation of events that took place in Allen's stolen Prius will make you never hear the words "soup kitchen" the same way again). He's a nimble comedic mind, able to let his actors improvise to great effect and also able to deliver a great sight gag. One visual joke, featuring Jackson and Johnson's characters, made me laugh long into the next scenes.

If "The Other Guys" feels like it meanders in some spots, it's only because the action-comedy conventions require it to pause for plot updates, although the movie rarely stops delivering big laughs throughout its nearly two-hour run time. For the most part, every joke lands squarely, and the film moves forward with energy and confidence."The Other Guys" isn't really much more than a clever buddy comedy, but it never pretends to be anything more than that. The key criterion to its success is that it be funny. And while Ferrell and McKay have been at this game for quite a while, I'm pleasantly surprised to find that they haven't grown old, and that "The Other Guys" can stand proudly and idiotically beside "Anchorman," "Step Brothers" and "Talladega Nights" as a testament to one of cinema's great current comedic collaborations.

Originally published in the 8/8 edition of The Source.


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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.