Saturday, 1 January 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010) DVD Review

Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

After an 8-bit rendition of the Universal logo Scott Pilgrim vs. The World explodes into a sonic crash of pure nerd-mania. That's a sentence I never imagined myself writing, but then, Edgar Wright's third directorial outing is a film I never thought I'd find myself watching. How best to describe it without sounding lavishly hyperbolic? A living comic book? A videogame movie not based on a videogame? It's both of those things, simultaneously, but also a sensitive coming-of-age drama and a dryly witty essay on the complications of young love. It's unfussy, totally focused, and more fun than most films released in cinemas last year.

By now everyone has written about Wright's innovative aesthetic, and it's true - this gifted auteur has transferred his fast-cutting, one-liner strewn Brit-com style into a multi-million dollar comic book movie, and not only has he retained every sense of artistic integrity, he's also built on it to create something totally unique; visually astonishing and a melting sensory experience. The visuals are lovingly in-touch with the source material, by Bryan Lee O'Malley, but they also exist within the world of videogame culture. Sound-bites are included from Sonic the Hedgehog (SEGA, 1991) and The Legend Of Zelda (Nintendo, 1991) - characters recreate dress from beat 'em ups such as Soulcalibur (Namco, 1999) and the sprawling fight sequences, right down to the lingering vs. sign that electronically appears to signal each one, are straight out of Tekken (Namco, 1994). There are references and in-jokes peppered through every aspect of production - Pakkuman (Namco, 1980) is mentioned in dialogue, Scott plays the bassline from Final Fantasy IV (Square Company, 1991) and the score, by Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich, is layered with computer and console effects, and generally sounds like a rave between a Sega, Nintendo and a Playstation. The sequence that sees Scott fighting the Katayanagi twins is a stunner, with computer generated dragons, seemingly made from neon-lit pixels, facing off with a giant gorilla, over a stadium of people rocking out - the song that complements the showdown is by Godrich and genuis-of-the-moment Beck. Essays could, and will, be written on the aesthetic and artistry of this movie, but I wish to focus on three elements that have been sadly overshadowed by the cultish charm on Scott Pilgrim's surface.

Firstly, it's the aforementioned score by Godrich who has, in the past, also collaborated with Ultrasound, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Air and R.E.M. - so he has musical talent to spare. The soundtrack alone would be good enough - Scott's band Sex Bob-Omb are terrific and their song 'Garbage Truck' a genuinely great track. Elsewhere songs by The Black Lips, Blood Red Shoes, Metric and Broken Social Scene underscore key moments, and Beck provides character track 'Ramona'. But Godrich's score is a genuinely absorbing and moving piece of work. A majority of the tracks are high-tempo, videogame-inflected fight songs - 'Chau Down' and 'Katayanagi Twins vs. Sex Bob-Omb' being two highlights - the former a techo groove that throws punches of its own and plays with synth and drums to pulse-pounding effect, the latter a more structured battle-of-the-bands with sonic guitars and distortion going up against mysterious synth beats. Best of all, however, is 'Rumble', inspired by the song 'Fight!' from The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979), which underscores the battle between Scott and egomaniacal Lucas Lee (Chris Evans). But there are surprising layers too - 'Love Me Some Walking' is an ambient dream - an intoxicating four minutes that just recalls the sensation of love, and the falling of snow at midnight. 'Sorry I Guess' is a beautiful melody and 'Bye And Stuff' a mellow moment of awakening. It's a diverse, highly energetic and equally relaxing piece of work, and one of the best scores of the year. It's also worth noting the track 'Love' by Osymyso, one of several 'trailer remixes' which takes lines of dialogue from the movie, worked around a specific theme, and plays them over a simple and beautiful melody. It's captivating.

Secondly, the pitch-perfect casting. Obviously Michael Cera fits like a glove for Scott - playing another awkwardly lovelorn musician, his look hasn't changed anymore than his comic timing (and nervous silences). But there is a sense that he's building a character here, and it's certainly his most confidently mature grasp on that shtick, and he mixes it up with some intense rocking-out sessions and fight sequences. Watching him take down an army of Lucas Lee stunt-doubles is a treat I never expected from the actor, and he lends surprising weight to the showdowns - he's no Bruce Willis, and he'll never lead an action movie - but Cera can throw a convincing punch and wows with some of the athleticism on show in the final battle, against Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman) - a Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) themed fight scored by Sex Bob-Omb. But there are star turns everywhere that prove to be much funnier than expected. Alison Pill is hysterically deadpan as Kim, every line a stingingly sarcastic remark, she spends the whole film wittily scene-stealing. Also on-form is Kieran Culkin, the strongest of the Culkin's who also excelled in the underrated Igby Goes Down (Burr Steers, 2002) - the closest we'll ever come to a Catcher In The Rye adaptation. His character, Wallace, is always on-hand for advice but he mostly gets all the best put-downs and dry observations, charismatically working his way through Scott's nightmare. Chris Evans and Brandon Routh also impress as two of the seven evil ex's, but it's Routh especially who surprises with his comic stylings. He received a fair amount of flack for his turn as The Man Of Steel, but he displays quite a knack for comic timing as vegan Todd Ingram, whose dedication to the no-animals cause has given him X-Men-like powers. They've had fight training before but what's great is seeing actors, like Cera, that you wouldn't expect in these scenarios - kicking ass! This is largely thanks to Bradley James Allan and Peng Zhang, stunt and fight choreographer respectively. They bring a rawness to the fights that grounds them as Wright employs his technical wizardry, and despite the presence of flaming swords, they make Jason Schwartzman a believable cool tough-guy.

Last of all is the frankness of the sexual politics. It's so refreshing to see a movie that displays no prejudice or discomfort in portraying homo or bi-sexual relationships. They just exist, as in the real world. Wallace sleeps with three guys during the movie, and makes an explicitly clear reference to gay sex in the latter third. It's also taken for granted that Ramona had a lesbian experience ("I was curious") with Roxy (Mae Whitman), and that's perfectly fine. Everybody is allowed to think and feel however they want in the world of Scott Pilgrim - there's even the delicately handled matter of Scott's relationship with the lovely Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a 17-year-old, five years his junior. But the relationships are handled maturely and with consequence; Scott and Ramona talk about past love experiences with all the world-weariness of people twice their age. It's this complete openness that really won me over, and makes the film so unique. Technically it's a marvel - the camerawork, special effects and editing (especially the 'THONK', 'WHUMP', 'POW' style) are spot-on, and the perfect cast ensure that every joke and emotional cue works. But a simply frank attitude towards contemporary relationships and dating; the actual acknowledgement of homosexuality in a mainstream comic-book blockbuster, and the fact that it doesn't exist in stereotype or ridicule - that's the biggest achievement of all.

2 comments:

  1. Definitely a strong contender for the Most Boring Movie of the Year award, especially since the humor didn't work most of the times.

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  2. I actually enjoyed Scott Pilgrim and being a big game fan it was my cup of tea really. The story was decent, the casting was great and I agree, it was a marvel!

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