Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

The single best joke in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz is perfectly underplayed. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and a strike team of rural policemen storm the front of a supermarket. You hear the cocking of shotguns. But then thirty seconds have passed, and you hear, on the second or third viewing, that the shotguns are still being cocked. The sound cue hangs in the periphery, sending comedy messages straight to your lizard brain, and the joke never stops landing, ever. This kind of ingenious filmmaking saturates Mr Wright’s output, from Spaced to Shaun of the Dead, and takes a quantum leap with new release Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. If you hear the click as an 8-bit Universal theme plays, you’ll know you’re in safe hands.

Based on the comic book series by Brian Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim charts the arc of deadbeat Scott (Michael Cera), who falls for hipster goddess Ramona Flowers (Mary Elisabeth Winstead) and ‘woos’ her in the idiom of our decade (which is, of course, 2010 by way of the 1990’s). This involves, naturally, a series of escalating battles with Ramona’s “Seven Evil Exes” and a few battles of the bands. This structure (and the source comic) informs Pilgrim’s visual style, which creates expressionistic overtures out of videogame archetypes. To the uninitiated (whoever you are), we’re talking health bars, level-ups, 1-ups, and stat increases, augmented by psychedelic anime stylings and fast-paced editing. Nobody’s surprised that Scott Pilgrim is “the best fighter in the province” when he throws down with Ex #1 (Satya Bahba), except the unsuspecting viewer, who until this point has been watching a quick-paced rom-com. But of course, this is the manner in which Scott Pilgrim versus The World.

The film’s visuals are built, and hit you, like a tonne of brick shithouses. The pacing of both violent and non-violent scenes is complementary, moving from a live-action anime film (think Speed Racer or 2004’s Casshern) to a Spaced-esque character piece with ease. Every game reference is played dead straight – this is the world that the characters, and we, claim without irony as a birthright. But their execution is such that even vigorous outspoken anti-nerds (who, let’s face it, simply don’t exist anymore) will be rolling with these jokes, winks and nods.

And then there’s the soundtrack. Indie heavyweights such as Beck, Metric and Broken Social Scene provide the tunes for the film’s ever-battling bands, including Scott Pilgrim’s Sex Bob-Omb. But the real highlight is the orchestral work of Nigel Godrich (contemporary of Radiohead and Beck), which fuses winsome Canadian strings, digitised spurts of 8-bit energy and hyper-kinetic basslines to create the perfect action score for the modern age. These pieces are equally at home in sparse indie bedrooms, furious action sequences and your average Goldeneye replay. The Godrich score cannot be more highly recommended.

The visuals and score are a product of Scott Pilgrim’s time, and the time is defined by the characters therein. Even within the hyperactive imagination of your average Nintendo/Sega child, the film’s characters shine in a series of smart casting choices. Michael Cera smartly rebrands his image as “that nervous kid from Arrested Development”, playing a character much more at home in his own skin, and proudly wearing the mantle of action hero throughout. As Ramona, Winstead is less utilised, but manages to balance aloofness and vulnerability as the plot’s motivator. The supporting cast includes Scott’s last girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a beautifully understated teen with a penchant for stalking, gay roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), a sardonic voice from the sidelines, and the less-exploited band mates Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and Kim Pine (Alison Pill). And you can’t forget the band’s roommate Young Neil (Johnny Simmons), a soft-spoken force for good. Just listen to his delivery when asked what he plays.

The seven evil exes themselves deserve discussion, each a vignette of scene-chewing emotional baggage. In addition to Bahba’s Matthew Patel, whose key role is establishing the film’s action dynamic, the septet is rounded by comic-book heavyweights Chris Evans and Brandon Routh, awfully familiar Mae Whitman (her?) and electronic dual duellists the Katayanagis (Shota and Ken Saito). Their hammy performances illuminate a series of absurd battles, and prove delightful foils to Scott Pilgrim’s heroic antics. This league is headed by smarmy record executive Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), who never misses a beat as the Final Boss, adept with a pixelated beam-sword and industry doubletalk. Each adds to the film’s dynamic, and you get the feeling that nothing is repeated (a blessing in this kind of action film). By the time the third-act/ seventh-level clusterfight takes place, you’re too involved in the proceedings to notice when the action briefly loses focus. But anyone who’s struggled with hideously-overpowered final bosses knows the right time to let go and let the hands do the talking.

In this case, the hands are Edgar Wright’s, and they are more than capable of crafting a new cult hit. With a filmic knowledge to rival Tarantino, and unparalleled comedic skills, Wright’s latest venture puts him three for three in terms of feature-length hits. Though some may double-take on the rapid transitions and tonal shifts, this is a film that cannot help but reward unlimited re-viewings. What’s more, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World captures a modern aesthetic in a way unlike anything we’ve seen before. This is sure to be a favourite of mine and many for years to come.

95%

Knight and Day (2010)

The sudden rush of 80s/90s-style action films to the cinemas of 2010 goes to show how different the ‘modern action film’ has become. People are right to criticise the aimless Bay/Bruckheimer affairs (Transformers), subpar sequels to old franchises (Terminator: Salvation, Predators) and, yes, even the gratuities of your sacred comic-book flick (Iron Man II, Wanted, huge parts of Dark Knight Returns). Violence in these films is more often than not a progression from spectacle to spectacle, wherein characters are little more than running, firing props, tediously filling the film’s explosion quotas until the audience checks their collective phone.

But there’s a new (old) breed of film filling seats this year, from Kick-Ass to The A-Team, with The Expendables and The Other Guys on their way, which would appear to take a more old-fashioned, technical approach to the material of gunshots and flipped cars. Some take their cues from the recent crop of action comedies (Pineapple Express, Hot Fuzz), playing on self-reference and borderline absurdity. Others draw from the hyper-serious achievements of The Bourne Trilogy and its ilk, others still from the kitschy originals (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon etc). What’s important is that a balance is struck between characterisation, spectacle and strategy. These are ‘bullet films’, as opposed to the ‘bomb films’ of this decade which, well, often bomb.

One such ‘bullet film’ is, surprisingly, Knight and Day, starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. This film is probably recognisable to you (a seasoned, cynical person) as a genetic twin of this year’s Killers, wherein Ashton Kutcher plays action star to a befuddled Katherine Heigl. But Knight and Day is more than a forty-something’s retread of Killers. The plot is fuelled by a capable action narrative, and the romance is cleverly weaved into the developing story. June Havens (a sultry Diaz) is swept into the world of spy-gone-rogue Roy Miller (a twitchy/charming Cruise), who’s been charged with protecting a teenage inventor (Paul Dano!) and his perpetual energy source the corrupt Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard).

This straightforward setup allows for a progression of action set-pieces which, though as tongue-in-cheek as anything by Edgar Wright, are grounded by the characters involved. Cruise plays his uber-spy role through a wry sheen of almost-madness, while Diaz manages to believably portray her character’s transition from unlucky klutz to lucky shot to able heroine. The film is lifted, too, by their evident chemistry throughout, a more classically layered (some might say formulaic) treatment than we’ve become accustomed to.

The action itself is clear and logically presented, from airplane brawls to straightforward car chase shootouts – though there is little there in the way of innovation, these scenes are always played with an eye to the characters, and solid execution. The script shifts back and forth from witty banter to wittier action business without skipping a beat. Knight and Day is, despite one’s cynicism towards this kind of thing, a funny film. The comedy is not forced, as you might expect, through forced cameos or excessive action homage (though there is action homage to be had). Aside from Paul Dano’s feckless Feck, a brief interlude with ex-boyfriend Rodney (Marc Blucas) and a bittersweet exchange with an old couple named Knight, the bulk of the film’s comedic output rests on Diaz and Cruise. And by playing it straight, Sarsgaard and co provide not only a solid narrative foundation to the heroes’ unforced jokes, but provide a sinister, Bourne-esque counterpoint to the absurdities of a Mission Impossible Tom Cruise.

So, despite its lukewarm reception by critics, I hold that Knight and Day more than holds its own, especially if you consider its place in the new wave of bullet films hitting our screens. This is neither an action with comedic elements, nor a comedy with action sequences. It’s a film that remembers, along with its peers, that comedy and action are coextensive – there’s something violent about comedy, and there’s something funny about action. When neither are forced, the result is an entertaining film.

76%

Classics: Lost Highway (1997) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Having known me, you’d say I was a David Lynch devotee. I’ve devoted a huge portion of my study and thought to the auteur and his universe, as my Inland Empire review may have hinted at, and I stand behind everything the man has committed to film, paper and bathroom stall scribbling. But I’ve always had difficulties enjoying Lost Highway. Whether it’s because the motifs and material have been handled better before and since, or the differences in form and style that estrange the film from his corpus, but the 1997 effort lacks the uncanny charms of classics like Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive.

Despite this feeling of mine, the film’s execution is typically flawless, its themes of (again) sex, death and illusion are well handled, and each shot and sequence offers memorable glimpses into a classically embodied Lynchian universe. Contrasted to his previous effort, 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which was guillotined and gutted by critics for its awkward pacing, bizarre sentimentality and supposed misogyny, Lost Highway ought to be the better film. But I don’t think it is. Perhaps an examination and contrasting of the two films will help justify this.

Song to the Siren

Compared to Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway has been a better critically received film, but then this wasn’t a hard thing to accomplish. FWWM is Lynch’s conclusion/prequel to the acclaimed TV series Twin Peaks, which centred largely on the death of beloved Laura Palmer (Cheryl Lee) and its subsequent investigation by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan). This driving mystery was solved in the series’ second season and, its raison d’être gone, the show was cancelled shortly thereafter. FWWM returns to the circumstances of Laura Palmer’s death, her last seven days, and the warped relationships between Laura, her father Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) and the malevolent entity known as BOB (Frank Silva).

Lynch’s treatment of what is essentially known information to fans of the TV series could have, in lesser hands, been little more than a retread. But we know better. This expressionistic telemovie is buoyed by Cheryl Lee’s intense characterisation of Laura – oscillating between tortured child, promiscuous femme fatale and certifiable psychotic, Lee’s performance is a standout even among Lynch’s considerable body of work. Laura Palmer, true to her words, freefalls until she bursts into flames, and then falls further. But Lee is able to invest this descent into hell with fierce, almost unconceivably fierce, defiance, and stands with Laura Dern and Naomi Watts as one of Lynch’s unforgettable heroines.

Wrapped Plastic

The same cannot be said for the protagonists of Lost Highway. This is, in part, a product of the script – co-written with Barry Gifford (whose novel Lynch adapted in 1990’s Wild at Heart), Lost Highway’s dialogue and characterisations are deliberately pared-down, keeping in step with the film’s noir atmosphere. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) are a couple with troubles – not only wracked by overt infidelity on Renee’s part, but increasingly unnerved by anonymous videotapes left on their doorstep. When one of these videos reveals Fred howling over Renee’s dismembered corpse, we cut to Fred on death row, awaiting the chair. Hilarity ensues – Fred, unable to cope with his crime, metamorphoses into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty, of TV’s Brothers and Sisters, and little else). Pete, being not Fred, is released to his life as a mechanic, where he meets the girlfriend of Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia), whose name is Alice (Patricia Arquette once more).

Things get complicated, but Lost Highway’s setup is relatively simple compared to Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, and its execution is emotionally drained when compared to Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart. Bill Pullman/ Balthazar Getty make for one of Lynch’s only forgettable protagonists, through stale delivery of minimalist dialogue. Fred Madison’s arc is obscenely signposted early on in the film, with this line: “I like to remember things my own way, not… necessarily how they happened.” Amateur. Patricia Arquette suffers too – though undeniably femme fatale­-ish, one gets the feeling that David Lynch has (uncharacteristically) placed his actress in a series of exploitative filmic situations, with little investment resulting beyond that of the protagonists. Robert Loggia mugs his way through a hammy, Tarantino-derivative set piece on Mulholland Drive, and only becomes remotely threatening when paired briefly with the ghoulish Mystery Man (Robert Blake, but more on him later). As far as this sub-villain is concerned, car chases, LA roads and Dennis Hopper have all been done far better elsewhere. Notably, none of these main actors have been called upon to appear in any further Lynch films.

Nine Inch Fail/ Red Roomies

At every point, Fire Walk with Me is the stronger “David Lynch” film, especially when considered alongside the director’s later, arguably more sophisticated works, while Lost Highway remains anomalous. Lynch maestro Angelo Badalmenti brings an incredible orchestral/jazz score to FWWM, featuring the sublime work of singer Julee Cruise. But where FWWM is timeless, Lost Highway is just dated. The film is punctuated throughout with contemporary singles by Rammstein, Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson and the like. No comment on the merit of those particular artists, BUT their appearances in the film often sour what could’ve been classic scenes. These aren’t the brilliant, defamiliarising music choices Lynch has gifted us with, such as Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ and ‘Crying (Llorondo)’. They just kind of suck.

And perhaps most importantly, Lost Highway just doesn’t bring the crazy. Aside from Fred Madison’s transformations and some isolated stylised scenes, the only true weirdness comes from Robert Blake’s Mystery Man. Like a pale-faced assassin he intones to Madison, “You invited me in. It’s not my custom to go where I’m not wanted.” His presence brings this dull affair to life in brief spurts. A demonic force on par with BOB, the Mystery Man must compete, though, with the most recognisably Lynchian folklore – Twin Peak’s Red Room, home to the backwards-talking, dancing midget (Michael J Anderson). Not a fair contest.

Fat Trout Trailer Peaks

But more significantly, Fire Walk with Me is infused throughout with the Lynchian uncanny. Each scene and characterisation is shot in an archetypal, almost cartoony fashion, and the film is thus able to weather instances of the lamest dialogue since “Why is there so much trouble in this world?” (Blue Velvet). Special mention, too, to the film’s prologue, in which Dale Cooper doppelganger Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) navigates the anti-Twin Peaks town of Deer Meadows, in a glorious summary-by-contrast of the beloved TV series. Lost Highway’s best treatment of the meta-cinematic is probably that lame Fred Madison line from earlier.

To sum up, though, Lost Highway is not a bad film – it’s just definitely the weakest David Lynch film (disregarding Dune, of course). Its superb elements simply do not cohere in an organic fashion – they’re let down by subpar performances of overly-minimalist dialogue and unwise concessions to then-popular culture. Filmmakers need to stop wearing “Marilyn Manson is a fan” as a badge of honour (Jodorowsky, listen). Meanwhile, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is an idiosyncratic, visually gorgeous piece of film, which succeeds in evoking genuine atmosphere and emotion, and in crafting an expressionistic character study of one of the richest characters in TV history. I know which one I’m watching right now.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): 91%

Lost Highway (1997): 76%