MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

MW on Movies: Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and The Expendables

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Three Stars)
U.S.; Edgar Wright, 2010

Oh, to be a kid again. To feel the juices running madly, to get wildly excited about comic books and top ten hit-lists and about the last good new teen movie you saw (the canon from A Hard Day’s Night to Superbad) and maybe even a (No! Whoa!) video game or two. To fall in love every ten minutes or so, to wake up in a new bed now and then (now, now, pray God),  to feel possibilities churning out of every flashy half-cynical gizmo that contempo-pop culture spews out at you, to anticipate sort of breathlessly every new load of possible super-stuff you can’t afford, blazing like neon from the record shelves or bookshelves, or the video/DVD rows, offering possible (non-cannabis) highs or potential mind-blasts waiting it seems around every street corner.

It isn’t great? It isn‘t good? Well, wait another day. Something may happen. Something always happens. If not a “Hey Jude,” then maybe a “Happy Together.”  If not a Tokyo Story, then maybe a Chinese Connection. If not a Nosferatu, then maybe a Shaun of the Dead. Zow! Bam! Zonk! R-I-I-I-ng!

Maybe I’m just getting a little, uh, jaded and old. But Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World — which is definitely the most inventive and entertaining new movie out this week (okay, maybe even this month) — pleased me, but didn’t really fill me with joy and chuckles, as it probably will some (maybe a lot of) audiences. Liked, not loved. Dug, not devastated. Good, not great. Pow, not Wow! But that may be good enough. It’s only this week’s top movie, after all. That’s all it has to be. At least, it made me appreciate Michael Cera again, and, truth to tell, I was getting a little sick of him.

You see, Michael Cera — with his elongated elfin looks, and dirty little smile, his sweetly dragged-out shnook-moves and sneaky-quick reactions, his Peter Pan hipsterism and trembling-on-falsetto nasal geek-squeak of a voice — had begun to seem like his generation’s prime example of “Who is that guy?!?”

You remember. Whatever sex or sexual preference you are. (Change gender or adjust fantasy in the following, if you prefer.) You’re walking down the street, and you see some girl you’ve had a crush on for a while — the one with the great smile and the great walk and the swing-loose-and-steal-your-heart hair — the one you fantasize about, and you look at the guy she’s walking with, laughing with, maybe even just woke up with, and you say to yourself, “Who is that guy?!?”

To yourself, stricken, you sotto-voce: “Where the almighty hell did he come from?” “Hey, why does he rate?” “Why does he have that smile on his face, dammit?“ And it spoils your day, for ten minutes or so. (If you stop and talk to them, maybe the smile goes off his face, but just for a second.)

That’s Michael Cera. Who is that guy? He plays the role to perfection, because Cera can always kid himself. He doesn’t have the usual kind of actor’s vanity, and, before we can get sarcastic, he beats us to the punch. He isn’t ashamed to act like a dork, because, hey, he’s walking down the street, behind the camera, and he’s the one with that great-looking girl beside him. Eat your hearts out, you jealous assholes.

Here, in this ad-campaign-certified “epic of epicness,” based on a graphic novel by CanadianBryan Lee O’Malley, and smartly helmed by Wright ( the guy who made the mother of all zombie comedies), Cera is playing, to kind-of-perfection, a goony-but-cute 22-year-old garage band bass player named Scott Pilgrim (Billy Pilgrim’s grand-nephew?), who plays with a band called Sex-Bob-Omb, and lives (and shares an apparently half-chaste mattress) with a cool gay roommate named Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) and W.W.‘s various steadies. Scott’s other Sex-Bob bandmates are Kim the gal drummer (Alison Pill, the epitome of cute-snide), Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) and Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) — and though they’re sure noBuffalo Springfield, I say “Love the One You’re With.”

Scott also has a cutie of a high-school girlfriend named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong, a living doll). But he nevertheless falls hard for a lavender-haired (sometimes), poker-faced punk charmer named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who can really stab you with her eyes). I would have stuck with Knives, but those deadpan dolls really mess up your mind when you’re teen or twenty-something. (You figure they know something you don’t, and maybe they do.)

But guess what? To win Ramona’s heart (such as it is) and her bod (admittedly a killer) and her soul (who knows?), Scott has to vanquish the dread Seven Exes — a snarling or smirking septet of former Ramona boyfriends (and one ex-girlfriend, and two twins), who show up, every ten minutes or so, and preoccupy her mind and this movie.

Who are these guys? Over and over, Scott gets challenged by the Mag Seven. So he gets this determined Michael Cera look on his kisser, gets down to some kick-ass Jackie Chanaction, and, if he kicks their asses (they range from Jason Schwartzman as the smiling smug boss-man of your nightmares to Chris Evans as a blond Brit action star with an Eastwood growl), those defeated studs dissolve into coins, ready for the next video game match.

That’s all there is.  There ain’t no more. Oh wait, there’s also a rock band showdown/contest (There always is), with Sex-Bob-Omb taking on all comers.  You’ve seen it all before, except maybe for that over-occupied mattress. (Can‘t these roomies find a thrift store somewhere?) But not quite like this.

Director Edgar Wright (who made the killer Shaun of the Dead, and the okay Hot Fuzz) has a new idea every ten seconds or so, sometimes faster. Some of the gags are the old TVBatman this-is-a-comic-book ‘60s shtick, cranked up ten notches or so. Some of them are would be sub-Stan Lee smart-assery. But a lot of them work. When lovers kiss, hearts spray at you. When a video-store vixen cusses, she’s bleeped. The movie splits up into comic panels. When Scott hits a guitar note, the screen goes “D-D-D.”  Edgar Wright has his tongue so far and so constantly into his cheek, you sometimes worry that he’ll strangle on his own nonstop whimsy. Every ten minutes or so.

But the movie makes you laugh. It made me laugh. I bet even you guys out there who didn’t like it much, or got nervous because of Wallace on the mattress, half-snickered every now and then. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World fulfills its mission, at least if you’ve ever played a video game (I haven‘t),  read a comic book or “graphic novel” (guilty) or lusted for a deadpan doll (God, guilty, guilty). It’s a sharp movie that gets sweet at the climax. There are worse ways to spend your time and stupider ways to drop your coins.

Michael Cera, you lucky dog you, enjoy it while it lasts. And I have just one thing to say aboutEdgar (Zombie Man) Wright.

Who is that guy?
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The Expendables (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Sylvester Stallone, 2010

Sylvester Stallone could have been a contender.

In fact, once upon a time, he was the contender, even almost the champ. Stallone‘s 1976  sleeper hit movie Rocky — from his original script, starring Stallone himself as Rocky Balboa, the seemingly washed-up but tender-hearted Philly boxer who gets a shot at the heavyweight title from the Muhammad Ali-like champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) — won the 1976 Best Movie Oscar, as well as Best Director honors for John Avildsen.

Sly’s Rocky was in some ways a formula heart-tugger, but it was inspired by the best. The part was probably heavily influenced by Brando‘s washed-up pug Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, considered by many the finest male performance in any American movie.

As for Stallone, he got beaten out that year for best original screenplay, by Paddy Chayefsky, for his scalding TV-behind-the-scenes classic “Network — but that’s no disgrace. Stallone was also bested as 1976’s best actor by the late Peter Finch, playing the plum part of Howard Beale, the psycho TV news anchor who was the first man to say on the air, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” (Other Psychos, including real-life ones, followed Beale and stole his catch-phrase.) And that’s no disgrace either.

Stallone was young, he was on top, and, at the Oscar show, Muhammad Ali came on stage to fool around and joke with him. Stallone could do, it seemed, anything he wanted. Surely, someday, he would win the Oscar that he missed that time out.

So he acted in a hit Ted Kotcheff movie, First Blood, that introduced the long-haired one man killing machine Vietnam vet Frank Rambo. And he started out multi-tasking again by writing, starring in and directing another movie, of some Coppolesque, Scorsesean ambition, calledParadise Alley. It didn’t work.

So Stallone went for different stakes at a bigger, more expensive table. He started making movies, often sequels to his big smashes Rocky and First Blood,  that were calculated to make a lot of money, and not to take too many chances on art. Rocky the series began to look like a string of hits afflicted with progressive elephantiasis. Each new Rocky movie was like a weird inflated dream taking place in the head of the Rocky from the movie before.

The Rock re-fought for the title with Apollo, and this time he beat him. Then he fought another contender, who was like a much, much nastier version of Apollo (Mr. T) and he beat him, with Creed‘s help. Then, Rocky beat the entire country of Russia…excuse me, he thrashed Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the Crusher from the Kremlin, in Rocky IV, the Cash-Cow from Moscow.

Something similar hampered to Rambo. First Blood was halfway-plausible, a good drama as well as a thriller, and it introduced a terrific cop-actor antagonist, in Brian DennehyRambo: First Blood 2 and Rambo 3 were wilder, crazier, and more gaseously inflated. Then times changed. Stallone tamped down Rocky, eventually scaled down Rambo,” played punchy, tried to grab at our heart-strings again. Charlie, Charlie, you don’t understand…

Now comes The Expendables, an action movie for moviegoers who miss the ’80s. (Personally, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to forget them.) Sly is back, and he’s playing Barney Ross — not the heroin addict boxer portrayed in Andre De Toth’s Monkey on my Back, but the deep-voiced, heavily-muscled,  mellowed but kick-ass leader of a gang of mercenaries that includes a whole Dirty Dozen or so of once or current upper-echelon action heroes: Lundgren as the scarred hothead Gunner Jensen, Jason Statham as London’s “Lock, Stock”  basher Lee Christmas, martial artist Jet Li as Chinese mauler Ying Yang, wrestler turned actor Stone Cold Steve Austin as Paine, Terry Crews as Hale Caesar, Randy Couture as Toll Road — enough action stars or superstars it seems to start a new country, Actionland, whose national motto is “Mess with the Best, and Die Like the Rest.”

Sending them on their way is a stern C. I. A. schmoozer named Church (played with an admirably straight face by Stallone action rival Bruce Willis). Sitting this one out is another Stallone rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the smirking Trench. (“He wants to be President,” Barney mutters.) The main villain is Eric Roberts, in another headcase role as James Munroe (not the president). The love interest is Gisele Itie as Sandra, the radicalized daughter of the evil general of a wild and woolly banana republic. Peddling bananas, and Uzis, is Jose Carioca, of the Three Amigos. (Just kidding.) And giving the guys tattoos, as Tool, is Mickey Rourke, Roberts‘ costar in that neglected 1984 NYC street classic The Pope of Greenwich Village, a great ’80s movie that a lot of people have forgotten or never knew. Co-writer Stallone gives Rourke an aria, and he steals the entire movie.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn‘t sometimes enjoyable to watch these guys, in their muscle-flexing, exploding fireball of a class reunion, or mega-basher’s convention. But I’d also be lying if I didn’t say it was a second-tier action movie that doesn’t make much sense. (“But that’s the point!“ hard-core ’80s-lovers will lecture us “dumb-ass critics.“ “It’s from the ‘80s! It’s not supposed to make sense. It made money!“ ) Oh yeah? If this movie had a lot more humor, more camaraderie and less phony cojones, more Mickey Rourke and Roberts, and even some more non-action Stallone, it could have been a lot better. Instead, it’s an occasional hoot, but expendable.

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Michael Wilmington
August 12, 2010

One Response to “MW on Movies: Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and The Expendables”

  1. Clubber Lang says:

    A war for 6 rounds and then Drago takes over and wins by 9th round kayo with both men taken to the hospital.

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“Well, actually, of that whole group that I call the post-60s anti-authority auteurs, a lot of them came from television. Peckinpah’s the only one whose television work represents his feature work. I mean, like the only one. Mark Rydell can direct a really good episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ and Michael Ritchie can direct a really good episode of ‘The Big Valley,’ but they don’t necessarily look like The Candidate. But Peckinpah’s stuff, even the scripts he wrote that he didn’t even direct, have a Peckinpah feel – the way I think there’s a Corbucci West – suggest a Peckinpah West. That even in his random episodes that he wrote for ‘Gunsmoke’ – it’s right there.”
~ Quentin Tarantino

“The thought is interrupted by an odd interlude. We are speaking in the side room of Casita, a swish and fairly busy Italian bistro in Aoyama – a district of Tokyo usually so replete with celebrities that they spark minimal fuss. Kojima’s fame, however, exceeds normal limits and adoring staff have worked out who their guest is. He stops mid-sentence and points up towards the speakers, delighted. The soft jazz that had been playing discreetly across the restaurant’s dark, hardwood interior has suddenly been replaced with the theme music from some of Kojima’s hit games. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is sublime in its context but ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ is not, Kojima acknowledges, terribly restauranty. He pauses, adjusting a pair of large, blue-framed glasses of his own design, and returns to the way in which games have not only influenced films, but have also changed the way in which people watch them. “There are stories being told [in cinema] that my generation may find surprising but which the gamer generation doesn’t find weird at all,” he says.
~ Hideo Kojima