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Film Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Directed by Edgar Wright

Rating: ★★★★★

Scott Pilgrim is not unlike the sorts of indie hipsters you run into on the streets of Toronto, or any other metropolis.

You see him at Bloor Cinema, catching the latest zombie movie.  You see him at Sonic Boom, shopping for records by bands you’ve never heard of.  You see him at Lee’s Palace, seeing those bands live – hoping that one day his band (or her band, for there are many female Scott Pilgrims out there) can gain the amount of respectability to get booked there too.

In many ways, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is his generation’s Rob Gordon (the mid-thirtyish protagonist of High Fidelity).  He likes rock music, video games and girls – and as soon as a new one dazzles him, he’s forgotten about everything else in his life.  Pilgrim is happily dating a high school girl and playing in a band, until he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), at which point the only priority in his life is winning her heart.

Unfortunately for Pilgrim, Ramona comes with some baggage.  In order to be with her, she warns him that he must defeat all seven of her evil exes.  This is where the video game motif comes in.  Each time Scott faces one of Ramona’s exes, we are immediately thrust into a world reminiscent of Street Fighter II or Dragonball Z. When Scott defeats Ramona’s first evil ex-boyfriend, Matthew Patel, he bursts into coins – much like a villain in Super Mario Bros. would.  Meanwhile, an old school computer font flashes a large “1,000″ for points scored.  After defeating another evil ex, Scott reaches for a “1 Up” icon of his face, denoting an extra life.

Each face-off with one of Ramona’s evil exes is staged like a video game level, with a different soundtrack, different backdrop and different villain.  All of these villains seem equipped with superhuman strength and some sort of supernatural or metaphysical ability.  Although sleek and agile, he must use his creativity to defeat each one of them, leading up to the group’s mastermind, music promoter Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman).

Elsewhere in the film, we get to see Scott interact with a great supporting cast.  His sister (Anna Kendrick) and roommate (Kieran Culkin) in particular try their hardest to keep Scott grounded in reality, even if it never manages to work for very long.  Also entertaining are Pilgrim’s bandmates Stephen Stills (Mark Webber), Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) and Kim Pine (Alison Pill), not to mention his initial girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who he ditches as soon as Ramona comes along.

Scott Pilgrim may be the titular character of the film and the one we find ourselves rooting for (when he’s not being an asshole), but the true hero of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is director Edgar Wright, who has taken visual and musical cues from video games, television and comic books and delivered a well-crafted, widly entertaining feature film.  Even the opening Universal logo and music are done up in the style of an 8-bit video game, and audio and visual cues are all over the rest of the film.

All of the important elements of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels have stayed intact, most importantly the uniquely Torontonian references and setting.  Admittedly, as a Torontonian, it’s a unique thrill to see a film produced by an American company and directed by a Brit take place in my city.  There are a few jokes that may be lost on foreign audiences, but I secretly wait in vain until one of my friends visits and requests the “Scott Pilgrim Experience Tour.”

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Film Review: Up In The Air

Up In The Air (dir. Jason Reitman)

Up In The Air (dir. Jason Reitman)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Whether you work for a small business of fifteen employees or a multinational corporation of thousands, chances are that the current economic climate has led to some unfortunate personnel changes. This is precisely the backdrop of Jason Reitman’s third feature film, Up In The Air. The film centers on Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man who flies around the United States to tell people that their “position is no longer available.” In other words, he fires people for a living. But more than that, he is checking in and out of airports, staying in airport hotels and flying in airplanes.

Some people would find this lifestyle exhausting, but not Bingham. He finds it exhilarating. His dream is to become the seventh person to ever hit the 10 million mile mark. When he’s not firing people, he’s giving motivational speeches entitled “What’s In Your Backpack?” He encourages people to make the same decisions as he has by not overloading themselves with mortgages, possessions and even friends, family and acquaintances.

Bingham claims he doesn’t feel isolated because he’s constantly surrounded by people. This changes when he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer. The two share travel tips, compare loyalty program membership cards and fall for each other pretty quickly. Parting ways is tough for both of them, and they scramble to coordinate their busy schedules so they can meet again in a different city.

Meanwhile, Bingham’s lifestyle is being put at risk by the fresh ideas of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young new hire at Bingham’s company who has come up with a streamlined system of firing people via online chat windows, all from their physical office in Omaha. Ryan’s boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) is all for the idea and the cost savings associated with it. Bingham doesn’t like it one bit, but takes Keener under his wing and shares his experiences with her.

Some of the most memorable scenes in the film are the reactions of the various people getting fired. Some are young, but many are older people who have been at their company for many years. Some take it calmly, while others are hysterical. Bingham and Keener have clearly been trained to position themselves as coaches who are going to help these people find new careers. They do their research. During one of these firings, Bingham reminds someone (J.K. Simmons) of their interest in culinary arts and their promise as a young chef.

With Thank You For Smoking, Juno and now Up In The Air, Jason Reitman is positioning himself as one of the first auteurs in a new generation of filmmakers. His filmmaking is distinctive, featuring great visuals and a wonderful script. Just as you expect the storyline to take a predictable turn, Up In The Air manages to surprise the viewer by offering something a bit different than what they might have expected.

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Film Review: The Road

The Road (dir. John Hillcoat)

The Road (dir. John Hillcoat)

It is almost heartbreakingly naive to believe that in a world so ruined and stripped of life and true humanity – a world so obviously over – any amount of goodness could really tip the balance. One could argue that only a child could hold this belief, especially one whose moral compass clearly has two points: good and bad.
The means to the world’s end in The Road (based on the Pulitzer prize winning book by Cormac McCarthy) is never explained, but after the apocalypse, this child (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his father (Viggo Mortensen) journey to the southeastern coast of the US, keeping to the land off the beaten path. Stumbling and starved, the two plod on through a cold, dangerous and unrelenting environment, dodging thieves, cannibals and their own fear.

Despite their desperate love for each other, there are momentary bits of friction here as the boy inevitably grows and matures in a way his father had intended but for which he had not prepared. The boy doesn’t know where he’s going, but because he’s never known what the world used to be, he refuses to believe that this is all that the world is. Although we feel the boy cannot possibly hope to triumph over what the end has wrought, it is in the nature of a beloved child to aspire. His father, however, does remember the time before this life, remembers when their family was complete and his wife and the boy’s mother (Charlize Theron) was alive, and he knows that he’ll never have that again. While the father’s prime directive is to keep his son alive and safe, the boy has set his sights on remaining good and true, carrying “the fire” for them both.

The onus to relate the pair’s journey and their encounters along the way is not placed on pulsing, retina-jabbing special effects. All of the wreckage and ruin seen here is genuine footage from the aftermath of actual disasters and most of the film is shot in some surprisingly desolate locales in Pennsylvania, of all places. Likewise, this is not so much a story as a jagged, character-driven depiction of a fragment of a family’s life, broken in many ways.

One would hope that when faced with the end of the world, he or she would react with decency and humanity, that when encountering others fighting for their lives, one would extend oneself in a grand gesture of compassion. Indeed, survival and societal rebirth lies in hope and mercy, in the alleviation of the suffering of others, and a reminder of this often comes in the form of a child’s hope. It has been opined that the film does not always capture the desperate and immediate intensity of the father/son relationship, but it’s important to remember that this is not a big budget disaster movie, or even a disaster movie: this is a study in surviving ongoing, post-disaster emotional trauma. There are many layers, many undercurrents; Hillcoat, Mortensen and the impressive Smit-McPhee have seen to that and their work here deserves attention and appreciation. The film should be given further examination, perhaps long after the credits roll. It’s certainly worth that much.

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Film Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)
Rating: ★★★★½

From his indie breakthrough feature Bottle Rocket though 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson has made a name as one of the indie film world’s most polarizing directors.  Either you buy into his quirkiness and off-the-wall humor and “just go with it” or you don’t.  My love of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou has been met with blank stares by a number of friends and acquaintances.

Anderson’s new film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, adapted rather loosely from Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s book of the same name, is unlikely to do anything to change anyone’s mind about Anderson’s unique sensibility.   But for moviegoers attuned to his love of goofballs and eccentrics and his knack for inventive dialogue, it must rank as one of his finest achievements.

Painstakingly produced over a number of years, first in tandem with Henry Selick, who left the project to work on his own Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox follows the adventures of the title character, a reformed chicken thief turned family fox, who, restless with middle age, decides to pull one last grand heist at the expense of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, three unsavory local mega-farmers.

Using stop-motion techniques, beautifully crafted dolls and a stunning variety of miniature sets, Anderson succeeds in drawing the viewer completely into Mr. Fox’s world.  He is helped in no small part by a number of outstanding voice performances, most notably George Clooney as Mr. Fox — self-confident to a fault and possessing a devilish charm.  Meryl Streep’s Mrs. Fox is a down-to-earth contrast to Mr. Fox’s lofty plans and schemes.  A number of other Anderson regulars are on hand as well, including Jason Schwartzman as the couple’s son Ash and Bill Murray as Mr. Fox’s attorney, Badger.  Owen Wilson has a brief turn as Coach Skip, who teaches young Ash and his visiting cousin Kristofferson to play whackabat, a ludicrous cross between cricket and quidditch.

Naturally, Mr. Fox’s brilliant plan begins to unravel, and the second half of the film finds he and his family and friends in dire straits, pursued to ridiculous lengths by the three vengeful farmers.  The jerky style of stop-motion animation would not seem to be conducive to telling a story with a great deal of emotional heft, but the relationships between the animal characters – most notably between Mr. and Mrs. Fox and between Mr. Fox and Ash – are so beautifully drawn that you may find yourself investing as much or more in this animal family as you would in any human family.  The figures, faces, fur and eyes have a remarkably lifelike quality.  For those who associate stop-motion animation with hokey claymation or third-rate film school projects, this is art of a different order.

So the question remains, “Is this a movie for kids?”  For those raised on Pixar and Disney, it certainly could be a bit of shock to the system.  But for me (and my kids, age seven and nine, who loved the film), Fantastic Mr. Fox is a welcome antidote to the slew of cookie-cutter CGI features coming out of Hollywood.

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