Sunday, August 29, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Gotta love a girl with neon highlights in her hair.

Scott Pilgrim does. He's a geeky Canadian twenty-two year old played by Michael Cera, a geeky Canadian twenty-two year old.

The girl with the neon highlights is Ramona Flowers, a bewitchingly cool hipsterette Cera meets at a party in Toronto, where his adventures are set.

Against all odds, geeky Cera ends up charming Ramona into a date. Great for his love life, bad for his life life. Ramona has seven evil exes that must be defeated in battle before Scott can become Ramona's boyfriend.

Obviously, this is not a gritty documentary ripped from today's headlines.

It's based on a graphic novel equally influenced by Japanese anime and video games like Street Fighter.

Director Edgar Wright, a comedic Brit who does most of Simon Pegg's movies, like Shaun of the Dead, does a terrific job nailing the tone of the graphic novel. That tone is breezy and whimsical, with lots of super-fast cuts between scenes, lots of computerized graphics floating across the screen, and lots of action which gleefully defies physical law.

All this is perfectly in keeping with both the video game and anime genres. And it suits the movie version of Scott Pilgrim just great. In a world where every movie has a tendency to feel the same, it's refreshing to see one make a play at being something different.

Scott Pilgrim is different, all right, and by and large it is successfully so.

The Scott vs. The Seven Evil Exes plot is layered with a variety of quirky characters, including Scott's wise-cracking gay roommate, his wise-cracking sister, his wise-cracking bandmates and... okay, well, yes, there's a pattern developing there. But when scenes typically run ten seconds or less, the only way to get a word in edgewise is to make a wisecrack. Naturally, they abound.

And then there are the evil exes themselves, a collection of popular actors that do indeed make Cera's Pilgrim seem like a romantic underdog. Among them are Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, and most intimidating of all, Hollywood royalty and one-time quirky underdog himself, Jason Schwarzman.

I won't be spoiling much by saying Scott defeats all seven evil exes, but not before learning some genuinely thoughtful lessons about the relative merits of true love versus a true sense of self-worth.

As cheerfully implausible as the movie's action sequences are, there's something true-to-life about the central metaphor of overcoming a girlfriend's "evil exes." In real life, evil exes may not have to be fought physically, but they must be fought in other ways.

This lends a sprinkling of pathos, which makes the movie resonate more than one might expect.

The only real drawbacks in Scott Pilgrim relate to pacing. The story has an episodic shape due to its premise, and its fast pace, good for the first half, makes the second half drag a bit because the quick-cuts lose their effectiveness with repetition.

So Pilgrim has a dead spot right where most movies do, between the halfway mark and the two-thirds mark.

But then Scott loses Ramona to Schwarzman, and he must gird himself for the final confrontation, and things pick up nicely once again.

Scott Pilgrim got slaughtered at the box office last weekend, and due to its effects it wasn't a cheap movie to make. This is a shame because it is fun, fizzy and smarter than it looks.

There's no sequel coming, so you better enjoy this one.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 78/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 81/100

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Lisbeth Salander is pretty awesome.

She is, of course, the lead character in Stieg Larson's trio of books about a computer hacker and a journalist who tangle with a variety of unsavory characters in Sweden.

In the movie versions -- currently in subtitled Swedish, soon to be remade in English -- Salander is played by Noomi Rapace, who magnificently embodies the hardbitten girl with the dragon tattoo.

In Fire, Lisbeth gets herself in even more trouble than usual.

Her fingerprints turn up on a gun used to murder a nice married couple who work with Salander's partner in crimefighting, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Next thing she knows, Salander is an international fugitive, hiding from the authorities while pursuing the identity of an assassin with a mysterious grudge against her.

Blomkvist, a Salander devotee despite her frequent aloofness toward him, is convinced Salander didn't commit the crimes, and he conducts a parallel investigation to Salander's.

Their paths finally intersect only at the end, in a farmhouse inhabited by the sinister Zala and his blond behemoth of a lackey.

Much detective-work fun is had along the way, but at times the pace gets sluggish and overly complicated. There's a reason the police procedural has been shunted to television in recent decades. Movies have gone away from cerebral stimulation and toward the provocation of raw emotion. In that sense, The Girl Who Played With Fire is a throwback, more of an old-fashioned mystery than a modern thriller.

The most memorable scene involves a fistfight that takes place inside a burning building, and it's notable that neither Salander nor Blomkvist are present.

Fire lets its intricate plot take precedence over its interesting characters, and it particularly shafts the relationship between those characters.

Salander and Blomkvist are opposites, young versus old, wild versus civilized, female versus male, who happen to like each other spectacularly. But they have to spend time together to generate the sparks, romantic as well as platonic, that we're looking for from such a combination.

In the absence of this, what we have is an interesting story that twists and turns, but doesn't involve us emotionally beyond what it automatically achieves by having Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth Salander walking around in a Yankees hoodie with a loaded .345 in her hand.

And that's not bad!

But it's not great, either. Watch for the David Fincher remakes of these movies. Fincher's been known to swing for the fences before, and he may do so again.

There's greatness within the Girl Who... stories, but we haven't seen it on film yet.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 65/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 66/100

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Expendables

Argh!

This movie was supposed to be cool. It was supposed to be fun. It was supposed to be a throwback to the outrageous, outstanding action movies of the 80's, like Commando, Die Hard or Rambo.

Instead it's a surprisingly humorless series of explosions.

And, contrary to popular opinion, the action movies of the 80's were not all about explosions.

The action movies of the 80's were about panache!

Also: explosions.

But you can't leave out the panache. If you do, you get The Expendables, a bland action scenario about a gang of mercenaries who take on a corrupt drug regime on a tiny third world island nation.

What you get is a gunfight, pure and simple.

And that is so disappointing!

The marketing hook promises much more fun: the cast is populated with every action star you can think of. Sly Stallone leads the Expendables. His trusty lieutenant is Jason Statham. His karate expert is Jet Li. His big muscle is Dolph Lundgren. Stallone even has Mickey Rourke around just to give him tattoos.

On the villain side is perfect 80's twirl-your-mustache bad guy Eric Roberts, playing a rogue CIA agent squeezing drug money out of the ruling military junta. He is backed by pro wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin.

So the pieces are really in place for a fun, goofy, ridiculous action movie with lots of panache.

Except... no panache.

I can't report any memorable lines of dialogue because they do not exist. Bizarrely, The Expendables holds back on witty repartee and astonishingly out-of-place one-liners. Flagrantly overlooking the fact that such things are the reason people go to see movies like The Expendables.

Even the action is uninspired. What passes for a set piece is the strafing of a bridge by Stallone and Statham, requiring Eric Roberts and Steve Austin to jump into the water. And get all wet!

The big finale takes place in the presidential palace, a large stone structure that gets entirely demolished by the profligate use of C4 explosives. But as cool as that sounds, it's strangely underplayed. The explosives are detonated when they would logically be detonated, and that's a terrible idea.

This climactic event must come at just the right dramatic moment to achieve its full effect, and it has to be preceded by a Stallone line that goes something like... "Time to get some fresh air."

Instead, ridiculous events are portrayed with something approaching -- ack! -- realism. Or at least restraint.

This is exemplified by a scene in which Stallone fights Steve Austin mano a mano. Big good guy versus big bad guy. What happens? Stallone gets his ass kicked, as his character later freely admits.

Come act three, the task of dispatching the indestructible Steve Austin falls to Stallone crony Randy Couture, an ultimate fighting champ in real life.

This smacks of humility on Stallone's part. He's worried audiences won't buy a sixty year-old man defeating a professional athlete twice his height and weight.

But we already bought it! That's what we paid our ticket money to see! Kick his ass, Stallone, and don't apologize for it.

Overall, there's way too much good sense in The Expendables, and not nearly enough reckless abandon.

The 80's were a special time, when it seemed not just entertaining, but plausible, that a single man armed with enough ammunition could wipe out entire divisions of enemy troops. And have enough composure to mutter witticisms along the way.

I guess that kind of naivete can't be duplicated in the present. We're just too sophisticated now, just too jaded.

Sigh...

It's our loss.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 32/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 30/100

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks

Sometimes, plot can kill character.

A greedy, splashy, easily-marketable plot can become overemphasized at the expense of character. The last movie I reviewed, Salt, was like that.

Happily, Dinner for Schmucks contains an abundance of entertaining characters, partly because of its plot.

After all, you can't have a dinner for schmucks without schmucks.

The dinner in question is organized by a group of mean-spirited corporate suits who enjoy bringing colorful idiots to a sophisticated dinner party, then watching them make fools of themselves.

Nice-guy Paul Rudd doesn't want to participate, but if he demurs the promotion he's angling for will probably go to someone else.

On the other hand, if he participates, he'll incur the wrath of his beloved girlfriend, who thinks the practice is exceedingly cruel and arrogant.

Enter Steve Carrell's prime weirdo, Barry, a socially-inept IRS agent who spends his spare time -- ALL his spare time -- creating intricate dioramas featuring preserved mouse corpses in period dress.

Carrell is Rudd's ticket to that promotion, so he gives in to weakness and invites Carrell to the dinner.

But because Carrell is an idiot, he shows up at Rudd's apartment one night early and manages to inadvertently throw out Rudd's back, destroy his apartment, and ruin Rudd's relationship with his girlfriend. Because he's just that stupid.

And he's not the only one.

Carrell's IRS boss is played by Zach Galifianakis, who claims to have mind control abilities. Galifianakis only uses these abilities on Carrell. And Carrell, because he is an idiot, is helpless against them.

Rudd's girlfriend, meanwhile, is becoming worrisomely close to a handsome, successful, charming and utterly bizarre conceptual artist played by Jermaine Clement of the cult TV hit Flight of the Conchords.

All these "schmucks" constitute a world of their own, which comes with rules, sensibilities, hopes and dreams that are alien and at times frightening to normal-guy Paul Rudd and, by extension, the audience.

Mostly this strange world is not frightening, though. Mostly it's hilarious.

And the more time we spend with these idiots, the more familiar we become with their motivations and thought processes. Or maybe we're just becoming more like idiots ourselves?

Either way, the movie is just serious enough to pose the question of who the actual idiots are in life.

That's a philosophical tangler I'm not wise enough to solve, but I do know character counts in a story, just as much as plot, and you forsake it at your peril.

The makers of Schmucks -- which is based on a 1998 French film, and you can feel the elements of absurd French humor -- embrace character. Several of them, in fact.

And it makes for a lively, entertaining dinner.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 72/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 77/100