Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Pilgrim's Progress

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World(2010)
Directed By Edgar Wright

Just as we’d given up hope that this summer would produce nothing more than sweat and disappointment, the aptly named “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” bursts off of screens without the need of 3d.

“Inception” for all it’s visual money shots neither penetrated the head nor the heart, while Edgar Wright and friends, leave us humming along and vibrating with electric feedback like a favorite and all but forgotten pop song reappearing on the radio on a somber drive home.

Scott Pilgrim is an unemployed 22 year old, whose spent the last year recovering from a devastating break-up to a new successful rock starlet, while he tries to get his own garage band off the ground.

He’s now dating a 17-year-old high school girl, named Knives Chou, who initially worships Scott with the sweet, "Asian girl in catholic school girl outfit", naïveté of someone who “only found out good music existed like two months ago”.

Scott lives rent free with his gay, clever, gossipy and increasingly concerned about the rent, roommate whom he shares a platonic bed with (in the shadow of the house he[Scott] grew up in).

All is simple and swell enough in the wintry wonderland of mythical Toronto, Canada until a young, pale, quirkily dressed bombshell named Romana Flowers roller-skates into his dreams and then his real life.

Before any of the real “action” begins were absorbed into Scott’s love triangle, so much so that once the first of Ramona’s evil X’s shows up to challenge him to fight to the death at a battle of the bands, it’s just icing on a cake that’s already made of icing.

If there were no video game battles and comic book sound balloons like “thwack” and “kaboom” appearing on screen, Scott Pilgrim would still be a laugh out loud funny coming of age film.

A hero is only as good as his villains, and as if in preparation for his alleged upcoming “Ant-Man” film and Scott begins by battling superheroes.

Well if not the usual superheros, at least actors who've played them in movies, with Superman as a vegan psychic (his powers explained by the fact that “ vegans are just better than everyone else”), and the human torch and soon to be Marvel’s Captain America as an actor with a team of stunt doubles.

There's an emo shaman (providing a musical number within a musical number) complete with “fire spitting demon hipster chicks", and blast from Cera’s past, as his “Arrested Development” plane Jane churchgoing girlfriend Anne, is transformed into a bi-furious ninja assassin from Ramona’s experimental days brought down by an orgasmic Achilles heel.

all the way to quirky indie film icon Jason Schwartzman as the rightful boss of bosses, a record executive willing to sign Scott’s band.

Visually the film mimics video games and comic books, specifically recalling various games in various fights, (from Soul Caliber, to DDR, to King Of Fighters) but never getting so immersed in it’s lore, that it loses hold of it’s adolescent heart; the war drum to which Scott Pilgrim marches.

The common comic to film transition, the very introduction of motion into a static art form, turns all it’s characters into animated cartoon versions of themselves.

Character development is usually reduced or eliminated as with anything not easily translatable into action.

In the case of the serious toned “Watchman” these defects were obvious especially when it came to delicate moments like its abominable sex scenes, but in the hands of Edgar Wright the material walks on its own joystick shaped legs.

Wright’s “Shaun Of The Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” were buddy driven genre parodies that made some of the most effortlessly graceful use of post-modern references in a mainstream comedy since “Pulp Fiction”.

Those of us who are fans of BBC’s “Spaced”, are less surprised by Scott Pilgrim's success at building and sustaining a universe with its own rules and laws, because Wrights been successfully navigating the enchanted world of slackers for years, and long ago excelled beyond the Kevin Smtihs and Apatows.

Micheal Cera has now perfected the nerdy persona he’s been developing from his early TV days, through “Superbad” and “Youth In Revolt”, part Woody Allen and part young John Cusak.

All of the characters, with the exception of Ramona Flowers (the ever aloof obscure object of desire) are interesting and well formed. Like a TV show, we feel the cast has been hanging out for years, and though human beings turn into piles of quarters when they die we don’t have to strain our imaginations to understand why.

Flowing seamlessly between clichés of youthful romance and digital combat, Scott Pilgrim is more dreamlike and surreal than “Inception” which coldly cast a calculated eye cyberpunk as a literary genre, while Pilgrim's punky exploits and 2bit universe embody the genre in ways that feel original and most of all fun (Viktor Pelevin’s earlier but similarly themed short story “Prince Of Golspan” also works in world where video game logic is inseparable from reality).

I was looking forward to each scene in Scott Pilgrim each improving on the last, my attention never lagging for a second between the power chords, life-bars, and rainbow bright hair colors shifts.

It has a heart and a brain, it takes risks, and creates it’s own storytelling language while it does so, which all great cinema aims to do.

If it does not aim for eternal literary questions, or emotional catharsis through dramatic performance, it is because film is neither drama nor mere literature, it is a lively art with the ability to evolve around and incorporate new media into itself, and for all the hype about “Avatar” and “Inception” only here did I feel as if I was watching something new.

The idea of the fighting off the League Of Evil X’s is as much an excuse for random acts of violence, as it is recognition of the emotional baggage that everyone carries with them.

The pasts we have to overcome if we wish to move forward, to the next stages and levels in our lives.

Scott Pilgrim adds a distinctly modern hyper theatricality to this largely internal event, and with the flaming sword of self-confidence, takes it’s rightful place as the first great film of the new decade.

Crazy Over You

Butterfly Kiss(1995)
Directed By Micheal Winterbottom
Micheal Winterbottom's first film comes years after Greg Araki's "The Living End" and "Thelma And Louise", but where the later lead to some kind of bittersweet empowerment, the former film always existed in relation to society at large (usually depicted as angry rednecks).
y Kiss" lets it's cast, particularly Amanda Plummer, as the delusional and manic Eunice scouring the gas stations of England for a woman named Judith, who she claims to love, and murdering or assaulting those she finds to be "Not-Judith" for being impersonators, to really chew the scenery and draw us without irony or sentiment, into the maelstrom of raw performance.
Sheepish Miriam played by Saskia Reeves is submissive, frail, and doe eyed enough to be the heroin of a Lars Von Trier flick, and quickly takes up with and follows the mad Eunice like a homeless puppy, into murder, self-degradation, and the innocence of first love.
In fact the naturalistic cinematography, cruelty, and intensity of performances also fit the LVT trademark, but the fantastic use of pop songs, the mixture of ligthness into sudden violence, and black and white breaking of the 4th wall; these uncanny shifts in tone elevate it above the numerous 90's spree films, are proceed director Micheal Winterbottom's later works.
The highlights of "Butterfly Kiss" are the performances of the underrated leads, and the evocative use of pop songs (The Cranberries, Bjrok, PJ Harvey etc) that make up the soundtrack.
Funny, frantic, visually daring (especially for a first film) "Butterfly Kiss" lives in a world of it's own, soaking in the calm and scenic warmth of heads pressed against car windows, even if the cars have day old corpses in the trunk.