POSTED ON AUGUST 18, 2010:
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World speaks volumes to its audience, and The Killer Inside Me does the book justice
Fighting Back. Michael Cera (in front) plays Scott Pilgrim, who must battle seven exes of Ramona Flowers to gain her attention and affection in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
I'm a pretty unapologetic fan of writer/director Edgar Wright. Shaun of the Dead, the film that introduced him to American audiences, was a lovingly hilarious ode, not just to zombie films, but film geek culture in general. It was anchored by the instantly classic pairing of its Abbott and Costello protagonists, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (who all re-teamed in 2007's Hot Fuzz).
That was the beginning of my expedition into a new wave of British comedy stars. Delving into Wright's earlier BBC slacker comedy series Spaced (also starring Pegg and Frost) led to a whole microcosm of talents and shows: Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding (The Mighty Boosh); Matthew Holness and the incomparable Matt Berry (Darkplace); Peter Serafinowicz (Look Around You), and a slew of others whose work revealed an exciting, comedic Petri dish percolating with strange new life half-way around the world.
It was like stumbling into a hidden kingdom of bizarre, unique, imaginative, nearly unhinged, hilarity, long before many of those stars and shows began popping up at 3am on Adult Swim on Cartoon Network.
Contrasted against that history, it's plain to see how Wright has grown as a visual artist and how his latest film, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World marks a natural progression of his very particular (and peculiar) comedic ethos.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a Canadian slacker and bass player for his "horrible" band, Sex Bob-omb. Still reeling from a break up the year before, he's attempting to rebound with his current girlfriend, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a high school girl who Pilgrim's band mates mercilessly chide him for being with ("Scott, if your life had a face I would punch it", says his ex-girlfriend and current drummer, Kim). Nevertheless, they stick together in order to win a Battle of the Bands.
But one night, at a party, Pilgrim sees Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the girl of his literal dreams, and he immediately begins a campaign -- without bothering to break up with Knives -- to win her heart.
Unfortunately, his quest is thwarted by The League of Evil Exes, seven of Ramona's former flames who Scott must defeat in ever escalating battles in order to earn the right to be Ramona's boyfriend.
Adapted from the Bryan Lee O'Malley graphic novels (by Wright and Michael Bacall), Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is essentially the story of a guy who thinks he's a lot nicer person than he actually is and whose trials in winning Ramona teach him to take responsibility for how his decisions affect those around him.
Set in the proto-sci-fi world of a video game come to life, Scott Pilgrim is awash in geek and pop culture references aimed straight at the generation that grew up in the '80s.
Whenever Scott defeats one of the Exes, whose powers graduate like increasingly difficult boss battles, they explode into a pile of coins that Scott collects -- a la Super Mario Bros. A battle between Scott and skateboarding Ex, Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), is a not only a dig at phony action stars but a nod to Tony Hawk games.
The film is positively loaded with visual cues as well as sound cues that tag nerdy staples from Geddy Lee to Ming the Merciless in the 1980 film version of Flash Gordon -- and some so obscure that there's no way to catch them all in one viewing. Even the opening Universal logo and theme song is rendered like an 8-bit video game boot screen.
It's all brought to life with a wonderful sense of detail as Wright festoons his frame with comic book visual gags (text bubbles, game-like graphical flourishes and asymmetrical panels). Scott Pilgrim fuses Wright's ever growing -- and always present -- visual prowess with material that seems tailor-made to his story-telling sensibilities.
But therein lies Scott Pilgrim's Achilles Heel. Part of the appeal of Wright's work has always been rooted in his sly commentary on the cultural influences of his generation, but with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, that appeal was broader. After all, most people are familiar, at least generally, with zombies and the tropes of buddy-cop films, even if they don't get the more subtle references he weaves in for the part of the audience that is steeped in the same influences that have defined him.
While O'Malley's source material fits perfectly with Wright's sensibilities, it's a very specific world, one not as penetrable as his previous films, so it speaks to a very specific audience. Not necessarily a bad thing but hardly a prescription for mass appeal.
I was tickled (and sometimes dazzled) by its freshness and originality, but a film like this is laser-sighted straight at my tastes. While those without them might enjoy it, Scott Pilgrim's thankfully unapologetic indifference to the broadest common denominator means it won't be as endearing to some.
The cast is uniformly goofy -- in a good way -- and charming and it's good to see Cera taking some risks. He's even passably convincing in the fight scenes if only because of their stylized alternate reality. I keep forgetting that he is a fairly funny guy until he's in something that's actually funny (R.I.P. Arrested Development). Kieran Culkin also turns in a funny performance as Scott's gay roommate.
Winstead is ethereally beautiful and mysterious as Ramona Flowers, and she shares a solid chemistry with Cera. She breathes a sense of empathy and underlying sadness into Ramona that makes her beauty even more fetching. Plus, her purse is a sub-space portal from which she can pull out a giant hammer, which makes her good in a fight -- all great qualities for the girl of your dreams.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the great soundtrack. Beck wrote the songs performed by Sex Bob-omb (and they aren't "horrible," at all), and the film also sports tracks by Frank Black and Broken Social Scene. It will eventually find my CD player.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a blast of charming and vibrant entertainment that's loaded with personality, though perhaps more so for those with a similar one.
Dying a Little Outside
Books and films work from different palettes. The media meet in many ways, but where a film is confined by what can be shown or implied, books are only hindered by the skillfulness of a writer's prose and the imagination of the reader. Adapting one to the other dilutes the source, more often than not.
Sometimes there's an improvement. Mary Harron's take on American Psycho realigned Bret Easton Ellis's laborious tome, taking the tale of a narcissistic, Madison Avenue serial killer and transforming it into a disturbingly funny satire of the '80s culture of conspicuous consumption -- adding a thematic layer that wasn't present in the novel.
The Killer Inside Me is a different animal. Director Michael Winterbottom goes for the faithful interpretation of Jim Thompson's chilling first-person memoir of a small town sheriff/serial killer, and while he's crafted a fine film, his ambitions toward narrative fidelity inevitably loses something in translation. I had the same problem with The Road.
Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) is a deputy sheriff in Central City, Texas. He is unremarkable in almost every way, though affable and liked by most everyone. No one would ever suspect that Ford harbors a black indifference and reptilian morality born of the mind of a murderous schizophrenic.
But he's had it under control for years, "the sickness." That is until he meets Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), a beautiful prostitute who Ford begins an affair with but whose resemblance to a dark secret from his past stirs old compulsions.
Before long, he succumbs and the tale unfolds as Ford covers his tracks in plain sight, while his colleagues and friends try to get to the bottom of the bizarre double murder that they would never think to suspect him of.
But soon the loose ends start to stick out, and Ford finds himself mired in the quicksand of his actions and increasingly desperate to plug the widening cracks in the wall of his denial and complicity.
The Killer Inside Me is a dark, sometimes brutal film and, in that sense, it captures the tone of the book very well. But even with the use of narration, it still loses the intimacy of being locked up with the mind of a psychopath in confines of the page.
One of the most disturbing things about the book was that, despite it all, you can't help liking Lou Ford a little bit, and the reason that works is because of that intimacy.
Instead, Winterbottom observes Ford and the characters that orbit him with a certain detachment, which adds its own layer of uneasiness but feels perfunctory. It's an artist's eye, which makes for a richly atmospheric period film but which lacks depth and impact because the slavish adherence to the narrative doesn't allow the film much room to breathe.
I was surprised Winterbottom didn't try to get more experimental with his approach, as his style is generally more avant garde than his work here.
That said, it is a beautifully shot film, and yes, you'll notice parts of downtown Tulsa standing in for Ft. Worth. That was a bit surreal.
But I don't want to sound like I'm getting too down on The Killer Inside Me because it is so well crafted, and it does capture much of the tone of its source, even if the emotional impact seems muted. Adapting a writer as fiendishly good as Jim Thompson means you're swinging for the fences, and Winterbottom brings a lot to the batter's box. Also, his infield is well cast.
Casey Affleck does a great job bringing Lou Ford to life from his sometimes incomprehensible West Texas drawl and lanky, dull charm of a bumpkin deputy to the calculating expressions of a cold-hearted killer.
As the suspicions around Ford mount, Affleck ably captures Ford's easy way of shifting the possible to his favor. As a performance you couldn't ask for much more, and he goes a long way to giving depth to the matter-of-fact script.
Supporting roles were well cast, be it Ned Beatty as the overbearing Conway, Kate Hudson as Ford's needy fiancée Amy or Jessica Alba's somewhat daring turn as Joyce Lakeland. They all turn in fine work, though by design, this is Affleck's movie. Lou Ford is in almost every scene, a testament to Affleck's ability to carry it all.
While it doesn't defy the adage that "the book is always better," The Killer Inside Me certainly does earn its right to exist alongside it.
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