Scott Pilgrim vs. the World


Michael Cera

Game on, Michael Cera!

(Universal) Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Alison Pill, Ellen Wong, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Mae Whitman, Bill Hader (voice). Directed by Edgar Wright

There’s something about videogames that appeals to most of us; the clear delineation between good and evil, the use of skill and deduction to be successful, the ability to explore amazing places and live vicariously through the characters in the game. We can become anyone, defeat anything, but we can’t escape love.

Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is a 22-year-old slacker who has broken up with his girlfriend Envy Adams (Larson) for some time and hasn’t really gotten over her. He’s dating a 17-year-old high school Asian chick named Knives Chau (Wong) who worships the ground the Scott walks on. He’s also playing bass in a trio known as Sex Bob-omb along with fellow slackers Steven Stills (Webber), drummer Kim Pine (Pill) who Scott once dated and Young Neil (Simmons), who subs for Scott on bass when he isn’t in the mood to play. Knives also worships the ground they rock on.

Then, into Scott’s life comes Ramona Flowers (Winstead), a lively red/blue/green-headed hipster who recently moved to Toronto from New York City. Scott falls immediately and implacably in love with her, much to the disgust of his sister Stacey (Kendrick) and gay roommate Wallace Wells (Culkin). At first, things are a little rough between Scott and Ramona; she’s getting over some fairly rough times and is inclined not to trust anyone. Gradually, Scott’s charm wins her over.

That’s when Scott’s problems really begin. It turns out that Ramona has seven evil exes, people she dated with super powers and evil intentions. Scott will need not only to fight all seven of them, he’ll have to defeat them in order to win the hand of the woman he loves.

It’s a simple enough concept, but under the guidance of director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) the execution is imaginative and clever. You know from the 8-bit version of the iconic opening of Universal Studios that you’re in for something special. Videogame conceits order the action, from the onscreen graphics to the extra lives to even the look of the movie.

There are a lot of homages to various classic and current videogames, from Pac-Man to Dance Dance Revolution to Mortal Kombat to Sonic the Hedgehog. There are also lots of pop culture references, from the graphic novel culture from where this project originated, but also the indie music and movie scene as well. However it is videogames that are the primary inspiration for this movie and those who aren’t at least aware of some of the conventions of videogames aren’t going to be able to follow the movie very well, or at least get some of the humor.

Much of the movie rests on the skinny shoulders of Everytwerp Michael Cera. I have never been a huge fan of his mainly because of what I perceive as a sameness of the characters he plays in movies like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Juno and Superbad not to mention his role in the cable series “Arrested Development.” Cera tends to speak in the same annoying, mousy tones and plays guys who get women way out of their leagues. Here, he has a bit more of a crafty undertone to him; we find out during the course of the movie that he’s a little bit of a player when it comes to women.

Most of the critical brickbats have focused in on Winstead’s Ramona Flowers and I can understand some of the criticism. She’s a bit aloof emotionally (as is Cera’s Scott to a very large extent) and that creates a bit of a gulf between the audience and the action. It’s hard to want a relationship to succeed if you aren’t feeling that the love is genuine; Cera and Winstead never convince that there’s a real deep emotional bond between Scott and Ramona.

That’s what keeps me from giving the movie a higher score, but the clever visuals and the frenetic pacing are what elevate the movie to something better than standard summer action fare. The fight sequences are some of the best I’ve seen in a movie that didn’t come from Asia, and the humor throughout appeals not just to the videogame crowd but for general audiences as well. This is one of those movies that seem much shorter than it is; you’re enjoying yourself so much you don’t notice how time is passing by.

My son Jacob has been looking forward to the movie for eons. He is a big fan of the original graphic novel which I haven’t read yet; he is also a nutcase about videogames. This is HIS movie, and these are HIS people. The movie speaks to him and his friends in ways I can’t; it relates to him in ways I won’t either. It speaks his language and knows his shorthand. I suspect this will be a cultural touchstone for him and his generation for years to come.

REASONS TO GO: A pop culture icon for the digital generation. Cleverly designed and executed, the movie moves along at a frenetic pace.

REASONS TO STAY: There are times when the characters get a little hipper-than-thou, and Cera is playing yet another Michael Cera role, so if you don’t like Michael Cera you won’t like him any better here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some stylized videogame-like violence and a few bad words here and there. There are also some sexuality and drug references. Pretty much okay for everyone, although parents may want to decide if it’s suitable for their younger children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitman, who plays one of the evil exes here, previously played the girlfriend of Michael Cera’s character in “Arrested Development.”

HOME OR THEATER: This should be seen in a theater with a bunch of cheering fans, but if you can’t get there, a roomful of videogame addicts at home will do just as well.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Drillbit Taylor

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Kick-Ass


Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass and Hit Girl do what they do best.

(Lionsgate) Aaron Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Lyndsy Fonseca, Omari Hardwick, Xander Berkeley, Craig Ferguson, Yancy Butler, Elizabeth McGovern, Garrett M. Brown, Clark Duke, Evan Peters, Kofi Natei. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Everyone wants to become that which we most admire. We want to be heroic, rich, athletic, good-looking, shrewd or all of the above. We long to become the same type of person as our heroes. If our hero has superpowers, however, that becomes a bit dicey.

Dave Lizewski (Johnson) is a gawky, rail-thin high school student whose only power, as he himself admits, is to be invisible to girls, in particular Katie Deauxma (Fonseca) whom he is sweet on. His mom (McGovern) had a massive aneurysm at the breakfast table and died a couple of years earlier, leaving Dave and his somewhat oblivious dad (Brown) trying to make things work alone together. He hangs out with his fellow geeky friends Marty (Duke) and Todd (Peters) at the local comic book store slash cafe. The three of them are constantly being set upon by bullies and having their money and things taken from them.

Dave is fed up with this. He wonders why, with all the comic books in the world, nobody has actually attempted to be a costumed superhero (his friends respond “because he’d get his ass kicked in five minutes,” which seems accurate to me). Being fed up, he orders a wet suit that looks a bit like a superhero costume and decides to try out the lifestyle for himself.

His first attempt ends up horribly, with Dave ending up hospitalized. The silver lining on that cloud is that his nerve endings wind up “messed up,” allowing Dave to not feel pain as much as the rest of us do. That turns out to be very handy in his line of work. When Dave intercedes in a gang beating, the incident is captured on a phone cam and becomes an Internet sensation. When Dave is asked who he is, he responds “I’m Kick-Ass” and a legend is born.

What Dave doesn’t know is that there are a couple of costumed vigilantes who are actually out there. Damon Macready a.k.a. Big Daddy (Cage) is teaching his daughter Mindy a.k.a. Hit Girl (Moretz) to be a lethal combat machine. Damon has an issue with crime boss Frank D’Amico (Strong) who was indirectly responsible for the death of his wife and he intends to take him down, despite the objections of his ex-partner Marcus Williams (Hardwick) who worries about the effects of this on Mindy, whom he helped raise.

Through a set of coincidental circumstances, D’Amico gets his sights set on Kick-Ass who was present at a massacre of thugs by Hit Girl. The most unprepared superhero of all time is about to face unimaginable brutality; can he become the superhero he longs to be?

This isn’t your big daddy’s superhero film. This is a movie that is literally awash in cultural reference, so much so that you might wind up wondering if Quentin Tarantino has a hand in it (he doesn’t, but I suspect he finds this movie delightful). Director Matthew Vaughn, who made the criminally underrated Stardust as well as the ultracool crime drama Layer Cake, hits all the right notes here, from the many references to superhero movies from Spider-Man to Batman with stops at Men in Black and Mystery Men.

There are also some nice little subtexts, with Katie striking up a friendship with Dave because she thinks he’s gay, and much of the ass-kicking being done by 11-year-old Mindy, who has the mouth of a sailor and the moves of Jet Li; one of her first sequences is done to the timeless strains of the Dickies’ version of “The Banana Splits Theme Song.”

Now some, like Roger Ebert, have found the latter aspect reprehensible. Certainly Hit Girl is not meant to be a role model; it seemed to me that the filmmakers took special care to make sure she didn’t wind up that way. Was she put in mortal jeopardy? Yes she was, but I’m one of those folks who don’t think that should be taboo. After all, nobody said boo when two kids were menaced by a T-Rex in the original Jurassic Park and it is no less fantasy for a kid to be menaced by a hallway-full of machine gun-toting goombahs. However, it is true the violence is excessive and brutal in places and sensitive souls may find it to be too much.

That said, I found this to be a good deal of fun. While Moretz was a bit too cute in places, Cage and Johnson held up their end well and Strong is rapidly becoming one of the best villains in the business, his brutish D’Amico a far cry from the urbane Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes but just as vicious and effective.

A special mention of Christopher Mintz-Plasse should be made. Although I don’t want to give away too much about his role as it is crucial to the plot, let me say I think he’s perfectly cast for the role and adds a good deal to the movie. He also nicely sets up a prospective sequel should the box office warrant it.

This is meant to be over-the-top and satirical, and those who find videogames to be too tame will probably have some fun with this. For the rest of us, check your inhibitions at the door, and try to keep in mind this is just a movie that’s not meant to be taken as a serious examination of societal woes. It’s a live action Looney Tune, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with the occasional anvil to the head.

REASONS TO GO: Stylized violence, a wicked sense of humor and an accurate portrayal of geekly sorts. Never afraid to go too over the top.

REASONS TO STAY: Chloe Moretz is a little too precious at times. One gets numbed to the brutality after awhile.

FAMILY VALUES: Let’s see, there’s lots of violence, some of it gory and gruesome; there’s some nudity and sexuality; there’s also some drug use. Hmmmmm….I’m thinking you might want to think twice before taking the kiddies to see this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stan Lee makes a cameo in the movie as one of the people watching the news footage of Kick-Ass on television. Also, Nicolas Cage modeled his speech mannerisms as Big Daddy on Adam West of the television version of Batman.

HOME OR THEATER: Big, dumb, fun movies like this one need to be seen on a big screen with a raucous audience.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Amusement

Valentine’s Day


Valentine's Day

Jennifer Garner finds out what Demi Moore already knows - Ashton Kutcher delivers.

(New Line) Julia Roberts, Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Shirley MacLaine, Jessica Alba, Queen Latifah, Emma Roberts, Jessica Biel, Hector Elizondo, Topher Grace, George Lopez, Eric Dane, Taylor Lautner, Patrick Dempsey, Anne Hathaway, Taylor Swift, Bradley Cooper, Kathy Bates, Bryce Robinson, Larry Miller. Directed by Garry Marshall

There are many who consider Valentine’s Day to be a “Hallmark holiday,” an artificial occasion that prompts the sale of chocolate, jewelry and flowers, as well as dinner reservations. It is a day for those who are single and not seeing anyone to be reminded painfully of that fact, and for the unromantic to give their best shot at actual wooing.

It is a sunny day in Los Angeles on February 14, which means that the florists of the Southland are going to be hella busy. For Reed Bennett (Kutcher) who inherited his flower shop from his grandparents, it’s going to be a little different; this morning he has proposed to his girlfriend Morley (Alba) and she’s said yes. His best friend Alphonso (Lopez) is happy but seems surprised she accepted his proposal.

Schoolteacher Julia Fitzpatrick (Garner) is awakened by her boyfriend, handsome cardiologist Dr. Harrison Copeland (Dempsey) who is unfortunately flying up to San Francisco to perform surgery there and will have to miss his Valentine’s Day rendezvous with his deliriously happy girlfriend. Still, he leaves her with a cute little memento.

Liz (Hathaway) and Alex (Grace) have had a night of incredible sex; they’ve only been going together for a couple of weeks but things look very promising. He is a bit of a nebbish from Indiana and she is a sophisticated L.A. woman who has kept from him that in order to help pay off her student loans, she is also working as a phone sex operator while she works as an assistant to bitchy high-powered sports agent Paula Thomas (Latifah) whose star client, quarterback Sean Jackson (Dane) has just been let go by his ballclub. Sean’s publicist Kara Monahan (Biel) is working on spin control at the same time she is planning her annual “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party. Terminally single, she commiserates with buddy Kelvin Moore (Foxx), the second sportscaster at a local television station whose station manager (Bates) is relaying instructions from on high that more fluff pieces are wanted and Moore, who doesn’t believe in romance, finds himself doing a piece on romance in L.A.

For romance, he could have looked no farther than one of Julia’s students, Edison (Robinson) who has a big crush on someone at his school and hires Reed to send some flowers there. He is staying with his grandparents (MacLaine, Elizondo) because his mother is away. The grandmother has just revealed something to the grandfather that is a game-changer in their relationship. Edison’s babysitter (Emma Roberts) is contemplating having sex with her boyfriend and her best friend (Swift) is head over heels over track star Willy (Lautner). In the meantime, a businessman (Cooper) and an army captain (Roberts) are sitting next to each other on a flight home.

Just another day in L.A., no? No. It’s a day on which romance will bloom for some, wither for others and make unexpected turns for all of them. Some of these relationships will not survive the stress and pressure of Valentine’s Day.

Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate have crafted a sort of American version of Love, Actually and quite frankly, it doesn’t measure up. For one thing, there are far too many threads going on here and quite frankly about half of them are unnecessary. That forces many of these relationships to be given short shrift in terms of screen time so we don’t get the opportunity to become invested in them. We didn’t really need two high school romances, nor did we need multiple anti-Valentines Day cynics in the mix. One gets the feeling that there were stars who called Marshall and said “I want in” and Marshall had his writer add another vignette to accommodate them.

Surprisingly, Kutcher proves to be the most winning actor on this fairly distinguished list. He is at heart a really nice guy, and he is the real glue that holds this entire handmade Valentine together. His relationships with Garner, Lopez, Robinson and Alba are all well-thought through and work nicely. Lopez is also impressive as the somewhat clumsy but lovable sidekick. Julia Roberts, one of the biggest stars in the world, shows why as the captain coming home to the love of her life. She is alternately warm and sweet as well as cold and sandpapery. Not Oscar-winning material mind you but compelling nonetheless.

I’m a sucker for a good romantic movie, as Da Queen can attest – Love, Actually and About a Boy are two of my favorites, and I watch them regularly on DVD. Although this movie has it’s share of sweetness, it won’t bear the same repeated viewings on home video for me. There’s just too much going on and despite the talented actors who do their best in roles that are just not that well-developed, not a lot here to love.

REASONS TO GO: A star-studded cast and a lot of awww moments. Kutcher does a nice job of being the glue that holds this movie together.

REASONS TO STAY: While some of the pairings work from a chemistry standpoint, not all of them do. It seemed to me there are too many vignettes going on for the movie’s own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of sexuality, as well as some partial nudity but nothing very naughty. Indeed, this movie is suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Julia Roberts’ last name in the movie, Hazeltine, is a combination of her daughter’s names; Hazel and Valentine. Also, on Alex’s phone the date “Monday, February 14” is plainly seen. Since Valentine’s Day fell on a Sunday this year, we have to assume that the movie takes place in 2011, the next year that Valentine’s Day falls on a Monday.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie to be seen cuddling on the couch with someone you love.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Starting Out in the Evening