The first 30 minutes of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World won me over with an exhilarating visual style and inventive cinematic language: this is fresh, this is new, this is a story told in a way we haven´t seen before. But during the rest of the movie the freshness wore off, the excitement faded, and I was left with a singular, inescapable conclusion: this just doesn´t work as a feature film.
Pilgrim combines elements of comic books (it´s based on the series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley), video games, anime, rock´n´roll, pop culture, and just about everything else under the sun (even the 1960s Adam West Batman) into something so bold and unique that you can´t help but admire the effort director Edgar Wright put into it. If nothing else, the visual style of Scott Pilgrim has secured it a place in cinema history.
Scott is played by Michael Cera as a shy, put-upon twentysomething slacker living in suburban Canada. He plays in a band (Sex Bob-Omb), lives in a cramped apartment with his gay roommate (Kieran Culkin), and is in an innocent relationship with highschooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), following a bad breakup with his previous ex Envy (Brie Larsen) a year prior.
Scott seems to be ambling through life unmotivated, but he soon comes across the lovely Ramona (first in a dream, then at a party), and he´s instantly smitten. Though Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has little interest in Scott, his persistence soon wins her over. But there´s a catch: “if we´re going to date,” she tells him, “you may have to defeat my seven evil exes.”
It´s actually a beautiful little metaphor: to pursue a successful relationship with Ramona, Scott must overcome all the emotional baggage she carries with her from past relationships. This is a surprisingly deep and resonant theme for this kind of movie, and something that isn´t usually explored in mainstream cinema.
For most of Scott Pilgrim, the metaphor is literalized as Scott physically battles the exes (Brandon Routh, Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman and others) in video game action setpieces during which he transforms into an action hero and anything can happen. This is my one real qualm with the film, and the problem with literalizing a metaphor. Why does he have to fight them? Most of them no longer care about Ramona, and we´re never given a satisfactory explanation. What are the rules of the fights? None – Scott can get thrown fifty meters into a building, then get up and deliver a single punch that shatters his enemy into an explosion of coins and bonus points.
And thus, the bulk of Scott Pilgrim becomes watching these metaphorical battle scenes that are well-choreographed and visually exciting but completely devoid of not only suspense or tension, but anything that would allow us to understand what is going on, or who is winning. It´s all wham-pow-crunch with an arbitrary and predetermined outcome, and the audience is simply unable to fundamentally interact with these scenes. A life meter, that old video game standby, would have helped immensely here; the final fight features characters that begin to flash when they get low on health, but until then? Nada.
Don´t get me wrong: I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim quite a bit. It´s funny, touching, and filled with characters we like and care about. I´m also part of the target demographic, someone raised on comic books and video games who might get an emotional tinge during a music cue from The Legend of Zelda. It´s something I look forward to revisiting in the near future.
But Pilgrim, in direct opposition to director Wright´s previous films, the tightly-scripted Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, displays a basic storytelling flaw that distances itself from the audience and turns the second half of the film into an all-style, no-substance chore to sit through. We can understand the internal logic of a Road Runner cartoon better than what´s going on here.
Elizabeth Gilbert´s novel Eat Pray Love, going by the user reviews on Amazon.com, is a book that has polarized readers: many find it inspirational, thoughtful, even life-changing, others find it boring and self-absorbed. Unread by me (and unlikely to be read in the future), I´m guessing I´d fall in with the boring and self-absorbed crowd, because Eat Pray Love is also the most excruciatingly torturous cinematic experience in recent memory. Yes, it´s more painful to sit through than Sex and the City 2.
Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) is depressed, lost in life, searching for answers. I think most will reach this crisis at some point in their lives. The majority will have to deal with it during the course of their everyday lives, and probably have bigger problems to deal with than finding inner peace. The rich will see a psychiatrist. The über-elite will take a year out of their lives, travel to Italy to eat, India to pray (or meditate, rather) and Bali to fall in love, claim to have solved all their problems, and then write a bestselling book about it.
So Liz Gilbert is lost. This isn´t the first time, because she´s already been to Bali and seen the prophetic Ketut (Hadi Subiyanto), who didn´t solve her problems but told her that she´d be back. Hey, good business; as long as Liz believes in him, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So she drops her loving husband of eight years (Billy Crudup), has a fling with a soulful actor (James Franco) and then dumps him too, and then she´s off to Italy.
In Italy, she does the tourist thing, eats a lot of pizza and pasta, and makes some new friends, including Sofi (Tuva Novotny) and Giovanni (Luca Argentero). Then she´s off to India, where she tries to meditate, and gets some bumper sticker life advice from Richard (Richard Jenkins), the most interesting character in the movie. And then back to Bali and Ketut, where she meets handsome expat Felipe (Javier Bardem).
Most movies go from A to B. Eat Pray Love goes from ? to ?. It´s basically a travelogue: Liz goes here, does this, sees that. But everything is arbitrary, nothing is explained. The goal, I presume, the point of the movie, is to find inner peace. But what she lacks in the beginning is unclear, and what she has gained by the end is even more unclear. She seems exactly the same. Equally vague is every single step of her journey: why does she go here, specifically? How is this supposed to help? Does it help? All questions I cannot answer from the movie alone.
There is nothing – nothing – in this movie to engage the audience. No plot, no story; just a vague and unsatisfying journey that promises enlightenment and delivers nothing. Not even fortune cookie-level advice. “Here´s what this rich writer did, and it seemed to help her,” the movie seems to be saying. “Now good luck with your own problems.”
It´s not all bad. The cinematography by Robert Richardson is Oscar-level stuff, and it´s not just the exotic locales (which look stunning) and the food (which looks delicious), but also the framing and composition of individual shots, which is impeccable. There´s also some extended single-shot steadycam work, which I was surprised to see here. On a technical side, the rest of the film is similarly first-rate.
But being technically well-made is not enough. A film has certain requirements at a script level that Eat Pray Love simply does not meet; it´s agonizing to sit through, as if you´re watching a bad pseudo-metaphysical self-help book, and claustrophobic, because you cannot simply stop reading it. I was writhing in my seat for the entire 2:15 runtime.
And Liz Gilbert, as presented here, is an awful, awful person: she goes through the movie expecting help from everyone that surrounds her, and gives nothing back. Even a charitable cause at the end is almost entirely about her. Roberts, always a likable actress, cannot overcome such gaping character flaws. Director Ryan Murphy doesn´t help with long, lingering close-ups that accentuate her always-parodied facial features; during some scenes, her mouth threatens to swallow the whole screen.
Machete started life as a “fake” trailer that preceded the theatrical release of the Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse; response was so good that director Robert Rodriguez decided to adapt it into a feature film. Another trailer, Hobo with a Shotgun (which preceded the Canadian release of Grindhouse), has also been adapted into a feature-length film. I wonder if a precedent has been set.
That Machete trailer was a perfect little piece of filmmaking, and probably better than the actual movie. But the movie delivers the goods (all scenes and themes accounted for) and then some: numerous additional characters and subplots, and even a socio-political message.
Machete (played by instantly-recognizable character actor Danny Trejo) is a Mexican Federale whose wife is murdered before his eyes by drug lord Torrez (Steven Segal). Segal, in his first theatrically-released film in nearly a decade, is hugely disappointing here: too soft-spoken to effectively play a villain in an exploitation movie, too past-his-prime for any convincing combat. Thankfully, there are no less than three other actors chewing up the scenery in villain roles.
Three years later, Machete shows up outside a Texas taco stand looking for work as a day laborer. The stand is run by Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who fights for the illegal aliens that surround her, and monitored by Yvette (Jessica Alba), a policewoman tracking illegals. Another policeman, Von Jackson (Don Johnson), enjoys hunting and killing illegal aliens for sport; in his first scene, he shoots a pregnant woman, rationalizing “if it´s born here, it becomes a US citizen.”
Machete finds work, but not the kind he´s looking for: businessman Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) hires him to assassinate Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), who is basing his re-election campaign on getting rid of the illegals in Texas, and building an electric fence to keep them out. Fahey steals the show here with a surprisingly mannered performance; De Niro has less to do, but hams it up wonderfully when he gets the chance.
Like the individual Grindhouse releases, Machete has been modeled after a 1970s exploitation film, and it effectively captures the feel: it plays fast, loose, and unfocused (like most of the director´s films), with excessive cartoon violence and gratuitous nudity. Of course, modeling a movie after low-budget drive-in fare – no matter how well it´s done – isn´t going to appeal to everybody.
What surprised me about Machete was the timely, relevant issue of illegal immigration. Now, it brings almost nothing to the table – the good guys are illegal aliens, the bad guys are anti-immigration, and that´s about the extent of it – but it´s right there, front and center throughout. Rodriguez deserves some amount of admiration for this alone.
My one real qualm here – and it´s the same problem I had with Sylvester Stallone´s similarly-realized The Expendables – is the overuse of CGI, particularly in explosion and blood splatter effects. That´s the one thing on prominent display here that you wouldn´t find in a 70s exploitation movie, and it always kills the vibe when it´s too noticeable.
Also opening: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (showtimes | IMDb), a 3D animated feature from director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen). Screening in a Czech-dubbed version in local cinemas, but you can catch it in English at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům.