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Column Fri Aug 13 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, The Expendables, Eat Pray Love & The Extra Man

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

A lot has already been written about this film in the last month or so, so simply plowing through the plot and high volume of characters doesn't seem entirely necessary. So I'll keep that part of my review to a minimum. But to simply ghettoize Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as a pop-culture mishmash aimed at teens and twentysomethings is to be both narrow-minded and ignorant. I'm not saying you have to love or even like the movie, but to simply dismiss this ambitious, hormonally explosive and joyous work is asinine.

In many ways, director and co-adapter (with Michael Bacall, based on Bryan Lee O'Malley's comic series) Edgar Wright has wisely rethought the way films based on comic books or graphic novels should be visualized. Wright has always favored the occasional fast-paced editing style in his previous features Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but with Scott Pilgrim, he dismisses the idea that you need long takes and subtle editing to tell a story or get into the head of a character. Instead he interweaves quick cuts, fantastic videogame-like graphics and music, and a host of great young actors to tell this story of young Scott (Michael Cera), who is torn between his band that is on the verge of breaking big, and the great love of his life, Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). In many ways, the story of the band (called Sex Bob-omb) is as important as Scott's "battles" with Ramona's seven evil exes.

I hope people unfamiliar with the comic series (me included) understand that O'Malley (and, thus, Edgar Wright) aren't trying to imply that the wildly staged, brutal fight sequences between Scott Pilgrim and the exes (including the likes of Brandon Routh, Chris Evans and Jason Schwartzman) are meant to be taken literally. The film is more the view through Scott's eyes. He sees these men (and one woman) as villains who need to be destroyed (in an explosion of gold coins). What is closer to reality is the world of Scott and his band (featuring members played by the great Mark Webber and Alison Pill). And while the elaborate and visually thrilling fight sequences are always hilarious, they are maybe the least interesting part of the film. The scenes between Scott and Ramona, struggling with her past and his, were some of my favorite. Scott has a trail of dejected women in his wake, including his drummer and the sweet, current girl-on-the-way-out Knives (Ellen Wong), and the way he deals with them may actually make you hate the guy for a spell, which is the intention, I believe.

I don't mean to imply that I didn't love the action scenes — quite the contrary. They are creative, funny, and give us the rare (perhaps only) opportunity to see Cera strike believable hero poses and frequently get his ass handed to him. I don't really think I had a favorite evil ex, but if you put a gun to my head, Routh really stood out as truly getting the point of these encounters, as the peroxide blonde uber-vegan Todd Ingram, who is so vegan that it gives him super powers.

Also thrown in the mix are Anna Kendrick as Scott's judgmental sister Stacey, and my personal favorite character in the entire film, Scott's roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), a gay man who can transform straight men in a single glance. Culkin is remarkable here and, in a way, he stands apart from the rest of the characters as a sort of an observer and commentator on the unfolding events. He's devastating with his slight smile and subtly manipulative actions, and unlike many of the other characters in Scott Pilgrim, he isn't called upon to amp up his performance. With just a glance or brief comment, he puts Scott's entire world in perspective and makes us laugh while he's doing it. Maybe I have a crush on him too, but I didn't before seeing him in this role.

For those of you who are afraid you're too old to get the video game references you may have heard about in Scott Pilgrim, or maybe you just don't play, please don't let that stop you from seeing this movie. Most of the references aren't game specific, and the ones that are refer to games that were new when I was a kid playing them in my local arcade. They certainly don't dominate this movie by any measure.

What I think I loved most about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is that it unlocks and reveals so much potential in Edgar Wright as a craftsman. He has always been gifted at giving broad appeal to genres with targeted audiences (zombie movies, buddy cop action films); you don't have to love zombie movies to find Shaun of the Dead funny, and you don't have to be a lovesick twentysomething with ADD playing in a band to appreciate Scott Pilgrim. Wright has never been interested in appealing to a narrow audience; he's a born crowd-pleaser, both in person and behind the camera. And stepping out with his first work without his partners-in-crime Simon Pegg and Nick Frost has resulted in something that lives and breathes fun and entertainment. Don't be afraid of the bright lights and pretty colors, because behind them lives interesting — if not always likable — characters and a couple of great stories.

To read my exclusive interview with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World star Michael Cera and director/co-writer Edgar Wright, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Expendables

I'll admit, I'm slightly torn on this film. First off, I do not believe that casting trumps writing or acting or plot. But if it did, The Expendables would be the greatest movie of all time. I also don't believe that the maximum number of explosions and/or the most bloodshed makes for the best movies. Again, if that were the case, The Expendables would rule the day. But granting that there may have been a time in my life when cool-as-shit casts and non-stop action may have been my only criteria in loving a film, The Expendables brought out a lot of feelings and emotions in me that I simply didn't expect. Of course, these were feelings and emotions I probably last felt when Expendables stars Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren first met in the ring in Rocky III, but I'll take it where I can get it.

If you asked me to recount the story of The Expendables, I couldn't with any degree of accuracy because it doesn't matter, and it's beyond forgettable once the film is done. If anything, I kind of hope Stallone and his team are planning a sequel because I think that film would be an even better effort and a chance for us to actually learn enough about these guys to give a shit what happens to them. And this may be considered a spoiler, but I had a slight problem with the body count among Stallone's teammates. That's all I'm saying, but let me just add that the title of the film is a little misleading.

The one thing that is not misleading are the ads for this movie. They promise death and destruction, and this movie delivers them with a cherry on top. Holy shit! I'll give Stallone credit, his love of excessively brutal death has not wavered as he's gotten older. If anything, he loves it more. When a guy basically unloads a full pistol clip into the chest of another guy standing about six inches away from him, that's quite a mess. And I have to applaud the sound team for blowing my ears out with gunshots and explosions. My ears are still ringing from a mega-gun that the great Terry Crews wields for much of film's 30-minute climax. While we're on the subject, let's talk about that 30 minutes. I was on the fence on The Expendables until that ending sequence, which is basically just never-ending chaos and death. I was in a place just north of heaven for that bit of the movie, and it essentially propelled this review into the positive column.

And what about that cast? There's no getting around that Stallone has pulled together a great crop of guys, including current action king Jason Statham, martial arts master Jet Li (who spends a lot of time using guns and grenades, even though he's supposed to be the hand-to-hand combat guy), ultimate fighter Randy Couture, and the aforementioned Crews and Lundgren. Also popping in for a spell are Mickey Rourke, as I believe a former member of the team who still offers up his tattoo parlor as a meeting spot for the team; wrestling superstar Steve Austin as a bodyguard for the villainous Eric Roberts; David Zayas as a South American puppet dictator under Roberts' thumb; and Mexican actress Giselle ItiƩ, as the dictator's beautiful and rebellious daughter. And then there's the stunt casting of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a totally disposable scene that still brings a couple knowing laughs to the proceedings. Amusing but completely unnecessary.

My biggest problems with The Expendables is that I wasn't impressed with the writing, which is actually kind of surprising, since I'm a fan of Stallone the writer. I thought he did a great job with Rambo and Rocky Balboa. The banter and one-liners fall flat, and most of the characters are written as rice-paper-thin cliches. Believe it or not, a bunch of guys trying to out-badass each other isn't that interesting. What is more interesting is three-dimensional human beings trying to out-badass each other. I wasn't looking for elaborate backstories for each and every character, but give us something. A weak subplot involving Statham's character and a woman (Charisma Carpenter) he sees when he isn't on mission is a step in the right direction, but even that is reduced to two guys squaring off. The Expendables is never boring; it's just not always as interesting as it could have been. Still, I admired Stallone's take-no-prisoners approach to the action, especially in the final act, and for that and little else, I'm recommending it. The movie feels familiar, but it's a comforting kind of familiar.

Eat Pray Love

Until I started hearing things about this movie, I was blissfully unaware of the phenomenon and controversy surrounding Elizabeth Gilbert's divorce-and-seeking-mental-fortitude memoir Eat Pray Love. But the more I read up on it, the more I began to get curious about both Gilbert and this movie. I felt like I was missing a component to her adult life, something that caused her to snap and abandon her husband and her successful life. Turns out, there was no snap. Unlike in the movies, most big life changes occur over time, and eventually Gilbert (played in the film by Julia Roberts) realized she couldn't stay married to her husband (the rightfully confused and frazzled Billy Crudup) and needed to travel by herself for a year to search for... I guess that's what some people still don't know. Whether you agree with Gilbert's decision or not isn't really the point; this is actually what she did and so it's only my job to tell you if the filmed version of Eat Pray Love (directed and co-written by "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy) is any good.

The truth is, parts of the movie are quite good. Ironically, the best parts of the movie are the men Elizabeth encounters — some as lovers, but not all. Aside from Crudup, whose characterization of husband Steven alternates between heartbreaking and perfectly frustrating, we meet James Franco's David, a struggling actor who acts as Elizabeth's rebound younger guy; after an extended stay in Italy to eat her brain and stomach out, she goes to India, where she meets Richard Jenkins' Richard from Texas character, who is absolutely the best thing in Eat Pray Love. Their conversations, which don't occur until about the halfway point of this 135-minute spiritual epic, get to the heart of what Gilbert is seeking. They help define for her (and us) what she is searching for, and Jenkins' plain-spoken approach to meditation and inner peace is a refreshing and necessary burst of folksy wisdom.

The one thing their conversations — or any other part of this movie — didn't really tackle is why I should care. How am I supposed to look past the fact that Gilbert is suffering from rich, successful white lady disease? I get that she wasn't happy in her marriage, and it's probably good she got out, but what lessons are we supposed to take from her post-marriage journey? Can poor or unemployed or sick or some other version of unfortunate women supposed to experience this tale and say, "You go, girl!"? I guess if you can swing taking a year out of your life to travel around the world, more power to you. And I can't dismiss this as "Hollywood fantasy" (such as Under the Tuscan Sun), because this is a true story. This woman did this and probably encouraged thousands of other people to do something similar.

I don't begrudge Julia Roberts any fault in the shortcomings of Eat Pray Love. She's a terrific actress who makes this character as likable as she can, but she still comes across as a woman who will never be satisfied. The "Love" portion of title takes place in Bali, where Elizabeth meets her current husband, a handsome (and I'm guessing rich) Brazilian named Felipe (Javier Bardem). It's this section of the film I had the biggest problem with. I found it a bit disappointing that a woman who sets out on the voyage of self-discovery doesn't really complete the journey until [SPOILER!] she's in the arms of another man. Now, I knew this was coming, but when we get there after all the trials she's gone through, it's a massive letdown. I guess a little self-reliance was out of the question. If, in fact, as Gilbert claims in her book, Felipe is her true love, the film sure doesn't convince us of that, and that's through no fault of Roberts or Bardem, both of whom are excellent here.

There are certainly parts of Eat Pray Love that are exquisite to look upon. The food scenes in Italy will have you drooling on your shirt, and the picturesque views of both India and Bali are glorious. But this film is about an individual's struggle, and while I truly did wish Gilbert luck in what she's searching for, I got no sense of any kind of redemption or awareness through this process. I was ready to go there with her, I really was. In the end, this story is about a pretty, successful lady doing some cool stuff. How nice for her.

The Extra Man

This slight but often laugh-out-loud funny work of quirk is worth seeing if for no other reason that to watch Kevin Kline, who I haven't seen in a movie in at least two years, create a character so alternately aggravating and hilarious that to miss the performance would be mildly criminal. Paul Dano plays a weird young English lit professor named Louis who loses his job at Princeton and decides to move to Manhattan to work on his writing. He moves in with an eccentric named Henry Harrison (Kline) who has more rules about living in his modest apartment and tells more tales about his life that you don't know what to believe or discount as outright lies. One of Henry's truths is about his occupation as a professional "extra man" for elderly women in need of a companion for various social gatherings (Henry explains that showing up single to such events throws off the seating arrangement).

When the action moves outside the apartment, The Extra Man grows a bit wearisome, but fortunately there's plenty of Louis and Henry action. Henry won't stand for female guests or sexual perversity in his home, which is good news for Louis, who is a budding transvestite. Louis also has a burning crush for a co-worker (Katie Holmes) at an environmental magazine where he works, but his awkward social skills and demeanor threaten to derail any possibility of a relationship before he even gets a shot at asking her out. I'm take it or leave it when it comes to Dano in general, but here, I think he plays Louis with just the right amount of sensitivity that he makes us feel for the guy, although I'm not sure the tranny angle really amounts to much of anything.

By the end of the film, American Splendor and The Nanny Diaries co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (working from an adaptation of a book by Jonathon Ames) have assembled a weird bunch of characters, most of whom aren't nearly as interesting as Henry or Louis. But the gem of The Extra Man is Kline, who hasn't played a character this against the grain since A Fish Called Wanda. He's a cruel assessor of character, has a staggeringly dated sensibility about women, and some of the weirdest quirks I've ever seen committed to film. As a bizarre bonus feature of the movie, John C. Riley pops in from time to time as the high-pitched downstairs neighbor Gershon, who looks like a homeless man but sings like an angel. Just go see it for yourself; you'll understand. The film is far from perfect, but the main characters and their adventures are easy to enjoy. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Jang Jang / September 16, 2010 3:20 AM

I already saw the movie and It was really great. It is a great combibnation of greatest actors in film. They are really amazing :).

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Architecture Mon Apr 14 2014

"Mecca Flat Blues": Where Modernism Began in Chicago

By Nancy Bishop

Explore one of the most important buildings in the city at a new Chicago Cultural Center exhibition.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Apr 18 2014

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