Friday, August 13, 2010


- The memories of old-school videogames are forever burned into the very center of my brain. Don't get me wrong, I still love gaming, but I doubt I'll ever 100% recapture those blissful days of youth perched in front of the TV, playing Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter II, and Final Fantasy. The iconic 8 and 16-bit sound effects carry instant weight for me the moment I hear them. I can instantly identify the sound of Mario powering up via mushroom, the sound of Megaman jumping into the air, the sound of your mechanical arm swinging towards the heavens in Bionic Commando. And the music ... as much as TV theme songs were etched into the collective memories of one generation, so too were those legendary videogame soundtracks part of our pop-cultural cannon. If you're anything like me, you can hum the Mario Bros. theme (the 1-1 theme and of course the 1-2 "underground sewer" theme). You have the background music of at least one level from Megaman 2 in your head, or from Street Fighter II, or from Castlevania. Hearing the Final Fantasy theme might even give you a chill. It used to be that after hours of playing a game, it would work itself into the inner sanctums of my head. I'd have fever-dreams about the game. The line between reality and virtual reality would becomes ever so slightly blurred on a routine basis. I don't think I'm alone in this. I think there's a whole generation out there that grew up on this stuff, that saw the world through the filter of videogames. And yet, we've lived in a world so dominated by the remnants of Baby Boomer culture that it's STILL rare to find a big-budget movie that seems relevant to us specifically, that seems by, and for, the Nintendo Generation.

And man, that's why SCOTT PILGRIM just feels like a total adrenaline rush. It's one of the first-ever movies to fully translate the videogame aesthetic to the screen. But it's not just the aesthetic - it's the hero's journey as seen through games and pop-culture translated into real-life, and that's why Scott Pilgrim is much more than just a collection of references and visual homages. Sure, that's part of it. But to me, the genius of the film is that out of all that cultural jumble, it manages to find a greater Truth. It looks at life through the prism of pop-culture and somehow turns a series of videogame-style battles into a classic, epic quest of self-discovery. It realizes that all of these games are, in their own way, metaphors for our daily battles. Growing up on games taught us to never accept defeat, to look for ways to win through skill and perseverance, to learn from failure so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Scott Pilgrim takes place in a super-heightened reality, and yet there's an authenticity to it that much more "realistic" movies often lack. Part of that authenticity is that a lot of us can likely relate to Scott Pilgrim's warpzone worldview. Who among us hasn't occasionally viewed life-as-pop-art? We all take inspiration from pop-culture, and that's the magic of the relationship between people and art (sorry Roger Ebert, videogames are art). Scott Pilgrim is, in its own way, a pretty brilliant look at how one person, and by extension, all of us, transpose ourselves into movies, comics, TV shows, games, etc. on a daily basis -- how we see ourselves as characters in our own epic stories.

At the same time, Scott Pilgrim is just ridiculously fun and energetic. It's a nonstop rock n' roll spectacle, overflowing with visual imagination and humor. Edgar Wright nailed it, and created a movie right up there with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in terms of innovative, genre-breaking action-comedy. In fact, Scott Pilgrim is his best film yet. SCOTT PILGRIM is like no other movie you've seen before. It has its own aesthetic, its own visual style, its own storytelling techniques, it's own sense of humor. Want something new? Want something that taps into your childhood and explodes onto the screen in a flash of visual and sonic fury? See SCOTT PILGRIM. Sure, some people (lame people) just won't get it. Some people (even lamer people) won't even give the movie a chance. Don't be one of those people. It doesn't mean you have to have grown up on videogames or comic books. It just means you have to be open-minded. You have to have imagination. You have to be with it. You have to go with it. Accept that the movie is over-the-top and hyper-real. Dig the aesthetic. Root for Scott to defeat the Seven Evil Exes. Try it, like it, it's good.

But let's back up for a second, shall we, and recap our story for the unitiated. Adapted from the series of graphic novels by writer/artist Bryan Lee O'Malley, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is the highly-stylized story of the title character's fight to win the heart of the new love of his life, the enigmatic Ramona Flowers. Ramona has recently moved to Scott's hometown of Toronto from New York, and, with her punk-rock style and multi-colored hair, quickly captures the attention of hopeless romantic Scott. Sure, Scott Pilgrim (a twenty-something) is already involved with seventeen-year-old innocent schoolgirl Knives Chau, but Scott quickly falls for Ramona, leaving naive Knives for the new girl in town. And Ramona's got some baggage (she's also got a giant battle-hammer straight out of Soul Caliber, but that's another story). Turns out that the girl's been around the block. In fact, little Ramona has seven evil-exes (not just ex-boyfriends - there's one ex-girlfriend from Ramona's bi-curious years) who have ganged up to destroy any guy who would dare date her (Ramona may have been bi-curious, but the exes are bi-furious!). Now, Scott isn't exactly Sly Stallone here. He's a dreamer, a musician, a romantic. But if he wants Ramona, he's going to have to fight for her. And therein lies the central quest at the heart of the movie - Scott has to man up, reach for that proverbial power-up, and kick some ass in the name of love.

The cast of SCOTT PILGRIM really nails it, and everyone seems to completely get the unique, slightly-left-of-reality tone that Edgar Wright is going for. I know, a lot of people like to just dismiss Michael Cera, for whatever reason. I get it, he plays pretty similar characters in a lot of his films. But people - what do you *want* him to do? If you need a scrawny, geeky, sort of quirky lead you go with Cera - not just because he looks the part, but because the guy has a ton of talent as well as pitch-perfect comic timing. We've known that since the Arrested Development days. That said, Scott Pilgrim is a much different character than Cera's played before. He's fairly self-confident and in some ways self-assured - his problem is more just that his head is in the clouds and he doesn't quite know what he wants out of life. But this movie is about Scott's journey, and the place he ends up by the film's end is a different one from where he started. It's a lot of fun to see Cera as Pilgrim get that added drive and determination, to see him man up and kick ass and take ownership of his life. Knock him if you want, but this is a great performance from Cera.

There are so many other standouts in the film. Ellen Wong makes a huge impression as Knives Chau, and steals every scene she's in. Knives is perhaps the movie's most fun character, and her transformation from sweet schoolgirl to badass, leather-clad asskicker is a joy to behold. You will geek out for Knives, that's a promise. Kieran Culkan has some of the movie's funniest lines as Scott's roommate, Wallace Wells. The relationship between the two is great - supportive yet antagonistic - and there are some classic dialogue exchanges between them. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is perfectly cast as Ramona. She's the kind of girl who has a past but may just be ready to move beyond it. She's sort of dark, sort of brooding, but you want to root for her to see the light and smile a little more. When she pulls out that giant hammer and fights her evil-ex-gf to save Scott, it's an awesome moment. You get why she just might be worth fighting for. Meanwhile, the Seven Evil Exes are all hilarious and a ton of fun. From Matthew Patel and his demon hipster Bollywood dance troupe to Lucas Lee and his army of stunt doubles. Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Jason Schwartzman - they all rock, and all seem perfectly cast as bizarro subversions of the types of role that each actor tends to be known for. Evans is the cocky action-hero-as-asshole. Routh is the preachy, too-perfect uber-Vegan who's now in a band with (and dating) Scott's scornful ex, Envy Adams. Mae Whitman is the rage-filled woman scorned, and she totally owns the part. And then there's Jason Schwartzman - hilarious as Gideon Gordon Graves (aka The G-Man), the sinister-hipster leader of the League of Evil Exes, lurking in the shadows as Scott's final boss battle.

It's funny, because as I was racking my brain trying to think of any flaws with Scott Pilgrim, I briefly wondered if the movie suffered from "adaptation syndrome," in which a lot of minor characters from the source material are included in the film, but become more clutter than anything else. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I loved how complete of a world the movie creates, filled to the brim with colorful characters who are so instantly interesting that you wouldn't mind seeing them in a movie all their own. I'm thinking in particular of the members of Scott's only-okay band, Sex Bob-Omb (Mario Bros. reference alert!) - Kim Pine, Stephen Stills, and Young Neil (gotta love those names). Each member has enough personality that Sex Bob-Ombs' battle of the bands storyline - and their clash with the Envy Adams-fronted Clash at Demonhead (extra points for their name being an awesome obscure Nintendo reference!) is almost a movie in and of itself. Anna Kendrick is also excellent as Scott's sister, Stacey - the voice of reason in Scott's dream-world of power-meters and one-ups. Aubrey Plaza is super-funny as acerbic scenester Julie Powers. Like I said, it's an incredibly talented cast that helps to create this whole entire world for Scott Pilgrim to inhabit. It's quirky, and it's fun, and it feels like a place you just might want to visit again.

The number one star of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World though? Edgar Wright and his team. The visual energy of the movie, the look, the humor, the pacing, the vision - Wright deserves a ton of credit for creating something wholly unique and wholly awesome. From the overall, comic book-like editing of the film to the great little touches (vintage videogame sound/fx, 60's Batman-style action balloons, comic book "secret origins" of the Evil Exes) that give the movie its sensory-overload aesthetic. This movie is absoluely packed with fanboy-friendly moments big and small that kept me giddily smiling throughout. Plus. the action is also just flat-out awesome. Rarely has a movie captured the visceral, frenzied feeling of playing videogames - or the mental reward of defeating them - with such acute accuracy. The movie often plays like a videogame meets rock video. In many ways, you could almost compare the magical realism, the pacing, and the music-heavy nature of the film to a musical. I should mention though that the music in the movie is a ton of fun - the songs are integrated into the action in funny and unique ways, and the songs from the movie's bands are catchy yet rough-sounding, like what you'd actually expect from an amateur battle of the bands.

Still, Wright makes sure to give Scott Pilgrim a hefty emotional core. Again, all of the little visual shout-outs and dialogue references add up to create this portrait of life-as-pop-culture and vice versa. We all go on the same sort of journey as Scott in our own way. But the movie challenges us to be the hero in our own story, to step up and "get a life." Hey, to me, any movie that can use the "Continue?" countdown screen from old arcade games as a giant metaphor for life is possessing of a certain degree of genius. Scott Pilgrim is smart, it's funny, it's a nostalgia trip, and it's not quite like any other movie you've seen. There's action, romance, humor, and heart. So, yeah, it's pretty much the bomb. Okay, the bob-omb. Seriously though, this is one of those films that may end up being divisive, but for my part, I can't recommend it enough. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World delivers a cinematic K-O.

My Grade: A

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