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Those damn kids today: Cera (l) and pals in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

A Hero for Our Time

By John Rodat

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Directed by Edgar Wright

Almost as soon as the comic-book biz became a real industry in the ’30s, Hollywood began looting, er, looking in that direction for source material. By the ’40s, Tinseltown had scarfed up such less-than-legendary titles as Congo Bill, but also made serials of Captain Marvel, Captain America and, of course, Superman. In recent years, this wellspring has been an absolute geyser, spewing forth films of incredibly varied quality from graphic novels and comic franchises, equally varied in their appeal, at an incredible rate. Hardly a day goes by, it seems . . .

With Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright has produced—if not the Citizen Kane—perhaps the Blazing Saddles of comic-book adaptations. The movie is fun and funny, exciting without being cheaply spectacular, savvy without being crass, and self-aware without being precious.

Michael Cera stars as the titular Scott Pilgrim, a 22-year-old Canadian slacker, living (or crashing) with his gay friend Wallace (Kieran Culkin, who, in a better world, would get as much work as Cera). He spends his time rehearsing with his band, Sex Bob-omb (a video-game joke many people, like me, will have to uncover on Wikipedia), and, apparently, casually breaking the hearts of increasingly young women, his current flame being a sweet and naively dedicated high school girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong).

Scott’s unremarkable life takes a turn for the super heroic when he dreams of, then meets the mysterious and rollerbladed Amazon delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Ramona’s spurned exes have banded together to form the League of Evil Exes, whom Scott must defeat to successfully woo Ramona. Each ex is, in true video-game form, more powerful than the last, and Scott’s easy, early victories give way to a series of increasingly, if playfully, brutal punishments for the callow kid.

Writer-director Edgar Wright, whose previous work includes the cultishly popular films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and the worthy BBC series Spaced, makes of this a fast-paced, funny mash-up of the informing comic series, video games and pop music: the score is provided by Radiohead’s “sixth member” Nigel Godrich; soundtrack contributors include Broken Social Scene, Dan the Automator, Kid Koala and others, and Sex Bob-omb’s songs were written by Beck. (The guitar coach was one of the dudes from Sloan, for cryin’ out loud!)

Though there’s been some critical mewling about the film’s appeal to the “short-attention span set” this is nothing but cranky ageism. It’s a film based on a comic book featuring characters for whom video game is vernacular. Some puns, verbal and visual, will slip by us older folk. But, c’mon. The superimposition of comic-book text wasn’t indication of ADHD in the ’60s, when it was used in that schlocky TV Batman; so goosing them with some video-game-derived visual elements probably isn’t either. And Wright’s direction, though swift, is less so than, say, Run Lola Run—which is 12 years old, now.

It’s a slight, boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-gets-girl plot, admittedly. But it’s amusing and the characters are all charming, and the music is awesome. The “augmentation” provided by comic book and video-game elements may lose some; but it’s no more ridiculous that the mustachioed, 8-bit head of an Italian-American plumber should appear than characters should randomly burst into song. (Cough! Chicago. Cough!)

 

Road to Nowhere

Eat Pray Love

Directed by Ryan Murphy

Julia Roberts’ megawatt smile has never looked as mechanical as it does in her latest chick flick, Eat Pray Love. Adapted from the memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert and directed by Ryan Murphy, who is apparently more vivacious working in TV (Glee) than in movies (he directed the interminable Running With Scissors), this travelogue of one woman’s supposedly-spiritual-but-actually-romantic enlightenment is more boring than a vacation in Rome has any right to be. But Rome is just part one in the itinerary of Elizabeth Movie Version (Roberts), a writer in her early 30s who discovers that everything she ever wanted wasn’t what she wanted at all. Are you ready to heave yet?

Elizabeth is trying to get pregnant while perfecting her perfect house, all the while secretly yearning for a trip to Aruba. Since her husband (Billy Crudup) isn’t interested, Elizabeth realizes she isn’t interested in him, and so she appeals to God, ending her prayer with the film’s only remotely witty line, telling her deity, “I’ve always been a big fan of your work.” What follows is a supposedly painful divorce and a supposedly tempestuous but domestically unsatisfying fling with a younger actor (James Franco). Supposedly, that is, because these developments are so superficially rendered (in brief scenes showing the men to be one-dimensional props) that only Elizabeth’s narration—sometimes to her New York friend (Viola Davis), sometimes to the audience, and later, to her e-mail—clues the audience to how “painful” these break-ups are. And so she decides on a yearlong trip of self-discovery, starting in Rome, where she eats pasta and gelato with abandon and occasionally has reason to flash Roberts’ trademark toothy smile. Mostly, though, Roberts looks worn down by the inane script, which doesn’t fit the financially assured travails (author Gilbert’s trip was paid for by an advance for the memoir) of an attractive woman following her every whim without a single impediment. Liz leaves Rome for a sacred ashram in India, where she doesn’t quite get the hang of meditating but does get to reiterate her desire to open herself up to love to everyone she meets.

And wouldn’t you know it, a sensitive hunk (Javier Bardem) is waiting just around the corner (of the globe), as Elizabeth’s relaxing jaunt to Bali positions her for a romance with a lonely business owner, and to find redemption through the local healers, who benefit tremendously from the incursion of American largesse. Bali does not, however, benefit from the cinematography, which is peculiarly clichéd and shallow, just like the film’s will-she or won’t-she conclusion. Call this one Yawn Writhe Belch.

—Ann Morrow

 

No Movie for Old Men

The Expendables

Directed by Sylvester Stallone

In movies, there’s something cool about veteran tough guys getting back in the saddle in order to wreak their specialized brand of ass whooping on parties who shoulda, oughta have known better. Whether the leads were a bit on the crude and sadistic side (like The Wild Bunch), had more noble personae (Ride the High Country), or were playing it for laughs (Tough Guys), the idea has legs, in large part because of our inherent fear of aging, loss of purpose, irrelevance. So the concept for The Expendables wasn’t half bad, and I, for one, was kind of geekily looking forward to what I hoped would be a real matinee’er.

The fact that writers Sylvester Stallone and Dave Callaham evoked the haunting John Ford title, They Were Expendable, didn’t escape my notice, which made it that much the worse when I realized what cinematic crap I had stepped into. The story is anemic—retired mercenaries regroup to bust the guts of a Latin American dictator and his CIA handlers. You’re thinking, “Seriously, Laura, what did you expect?” Bear with me. Stallone, as Barney Moss, the group’s lead dog, summons fellow action figures Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Tool (Mickey Rourke), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) for the purpose of blowing shit up and male bonding of a kind that one would usually expect from a decidedly different kind of movie.

There are beautiful women on hand, namely Sandra (Giselle Itié), the put-upon daughter of said dictator, and Lacy (Charisma Carpenter), who has enough gumption to dump Christmas after he, yet again, disappears for weeks on end (the nerve!). Just in case we had any sympathy with her, Stallone and Callahan add a bit about Lacy’s having moved on, with a bigger and abusive guy. As for Sandra, Barney clearly likes her, but more as an ideal than an actual playmate. Again, the movie seems to exist for the sole purpose of allowing the guys, as actors or characters, the chance to play cowboy. At one point, one character actually throws an artillery shell at a helicopter. Bare-handed. Of course, he shoots, he scores. The Expendables even get a cool clubhouse—complete with dart boards and the latest electronic gadget games—as a home base from which to plan their attacks. I seriously expected Mrs. Cunningham to stop by with a tray of cookies and a keg of beer; despite the group’s average age of what, 55, they seem to have quit progressing into adulthood around age 13.

The Expendables tries for light humor, with such sparkling dialogue as Lee’s self-introduction: “I’m Buddha,” then pausing before introducing Barney as “He’s Pest.” I actually had to think about that a minute to realize that the co-writers were attempting wit; alas, this would be like trying to repair the Titanic with an air pump. There’s the slightly fun sight of seeing Barney and a CIA spook played by Bruce Willis make jabs at yet another mercenary, played by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (!), mocking his weight and his political aspirations. But such treats are forgotten the next time one of the characters intones a terrible one-liner, like, “Friends don’t let friends die alone.”

Or see this movie, for that matter.

—Laura Leon


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