Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Scott Pilgrim vs. The WorldWatching an Edgar Wright movie is a bit of an experience in and of itself, and requires a certain amount of detachment from reality.  In the vein of hyper-kinetic filmmakers like Guy Ritchie and Tom Tykwer, Wright’s movies tend to be fast-paced and filled with quirky, incredibly flawed but ultimately lovable characters who are just trying to do the right thing.  His style is well-suited to a post-MTV generation weaned on ten-second YouTube clips and augmented-reality mobile applications that meld a virtual world with the real one.  Pairing this type of director with source material steeped in videogame references and indie music seems like it would be a match made in heaven.  And you know what?  It pretty much is.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, like Avatar, isn’t so much a movie to watch as it is a film to experience.  Michael Cera plays Michael Cera Scott Pilgrim, a 22-year-old socially awkward slacker who plays bass in a band (flaunting 80′s geek-cred with their name Sex Bob-omb) and is dating a high schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong).  His life is going nowhere, and his friends are more interested in working the local music scene than going to college or getting real jobs.  With lives steeped in 8-bit video games and indie music, Scott and his friends are content to live their lives in Toronto, Canada, without too many worries outside of (what else?) winning the local Battle of the Bands competition and getting signed to a record label.

But since Scott Pilgrim is an Edgar Wright movie, even this bit of exposition near the beginning is far more interesting than it could be.  The opening Universal Pictures logo is re-done with pixellated graphics and music that could have been ripped from an original Nintendo game.  Visuals of Sex Bob-omb playing in their ramshackle apartment are augmented with anime-style lightning bolts and Batman-style words that pop out with each “one-two-three-four” screamed by drummer Kim Pine (Alison Pill).  Video game sound effects and music from permeate the onscreen action, even if it’s just two people talking to each other.  And yet the characters in the movie are entirely conscious of this hyper-realistic world around them, which invites the viewers to just sit back and enjoy the blissful escape from reality.

Scott Pilgrim: Ramona

Hey Scott, 1996 called. They want their Smashing Pumpkins shirt back.

Scott soon meets up with aloof emo chick Ramona Flowers at a party and immediately falls in lust love with her.  But in order to go out with her, he must defeat her seven evil exes.  Yeah, defeat.  As in, fight, even though Scott has no training in martial arts beyond a couple rounds of Street Fighter.  And so when her first evil ex Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) shows up during the first round of the Battle of the Bands, he and Scott immediately jump into a bout that could give Neo and Agent Smith a run for their money.  They fly through the air, landing punches with all the hyper-stylization of Japanese animation, and verbally spar with trite dialog to match.  When Scott lands the finishing blow, Patel literally disintegrates into a pile of coins, just like in a video game.

After this initial fight, the movie pretty much falls into a pattern.  Since Scott must defeat all seven of Ramona’s exes, the rest of the movie is somewhat of a foregone conclusion as we witness one round after the next, each one upping the ante in terms of outrageousness and nintendo-meets-anime-meets-live-action visual overload.  It’s something to behold, really, especially the fight with ex number two Lucas Lee (Chris Evans) who meets his demise in a fiery explosion as he skateboards at near-supersonic speeds down an icy outdoor handrail.  There’s also a nice joke at the expense of vegans when Scott fights Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh, continuing to rebuild his acting career after the disaster that was Superman Returns).  All of it is darkly whimsical and not to be taken with one iota of sincerity, and even though the plot of the movie is about as deep as Wayne’s World or Ace Ventura, it nonetheless contains the same type similar type of disenchanted charm and warm appeal as well.  There’s quite little in the way of actual plot, mind you, but like the Super Mario Bros. movie, the plot isn’t really the point.  Unlike the Super Mario Bros. movie, though, one could probably make a convincing argument for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as the best video game movie of all time. (And the video game adaption of the movie looks to be pretty good too.)

Basically, if you like Michael Cera, or have ever played an original Nintendo, you will probably dig Scott Pilgrim.  It’s a movie that proudly wears 80′s and 90′s counterculture cred on its well-torn sleeve, but infuses it with a playful energy that feels altogether fresh and new.

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Second Skin

Second SkinLet me get this out of the way right off the bat:  Second Skin is outstanding.  It is a documentary that does what it should:  document.  There’s very little in the way of agenda or self-aggrandizing.  There’s no narrator, no artificial plot or conflict created by the director, and some loose ends are purposely left hanging and questions left unanswered.  What we have, then, is a thoroughly compelling, entirely engrossing exploration of online games and the people who play them.  Director Juan Carlos Pineiro-Escoriaza follows several individuals from a variety of walks of life who all happen to play some form of online role-playing game such as EverQuest or World of Warcraft.  Through the course of the film we see how these online games affect the lives of the individuals–for better or for worse–and also hear thoughts and insights about online games from game developers and other industry insiders.  And while online gaming might seen like a strange subject for a documentary, it’s the way in which these games affect the subjects of the film that transforms the film from a mere curiosity to a must-see for anyone who either plays online games or know someone who plays them.  And there’s a lot more than you might think.

The individuals that Pineiro-Escoriaza uses as the subject of his documentary are fairly normal people:  they have jobs, significant others, and social lives.  But the one thread they all share is their love of online gaming.  And I don’t mean love, like one might say “I love cookies.”  These people game (yes, it is a verb) for six, eight, even twelve or more hours a day.  Online gaming has, in many cases, supplanted reality as the preferred method of social interaction for these individuals–and in some cases for very good reasons.  As is pointed out through interviews with the gamers as well as developers and academics, online games and their social communities can be a place where looks, cultural background, talent, and past failures are entirely erased.  In essence, the first time anyone logs on to World of Warcraft or any one of the hundreds of online games available, he or she is free to create a dopplegänger that can literally be anyone he or she wants it to be.  In a world where people are so often judged by looks, clothes, social status, and myriad other factors that belie the true character of the individual, online games offer a refuge in which people are free to live out alternate lives free of the prejudices and trappings of reality.  And within the massive constructs offered by these worlds, people are free to pursue goals, gain new skills, meet friends, even join secret societies and elite clubs like The Syndicate.  A compelling alternate-reality existence indeed.

Second Skin: Kevin Keel

Kevin Keel, an online gamer who found what he hopes is true love through EverQuest II.

Careful to not gloss over the complications of living this type of life, Pineiro-Escoriaza shows the good and bad sides of how this passion (some would call addiction) affects the subjects of his film.  Andy Belford is a man who moves to Indiana to live with three other men he met online, and the four of them form a friendship that is deep and fulfilling both in real life and online.  Kevin Keel moves from Texas to Florida to be with Heather Cowan, a woman he met on EverQuest.  And Andrew Monkelban, an individual severely crippled by cerebral palsy, is able to life a fulfilling virtual life within the confines of his computer screen, meeting people, forming relationships, and enjoying simple activities like walking in a park that are beyond his reach in reality.  Liz Wooley, a woman whose son committed suicide after becoming so engrossed in World of Warcraft that he lost touch with reality and took his own life, is now committed to helping gamers with their online addictions and even provides a safe house and a 12-step program.  But with all the positive ways in which online games affect the individuals of the documentary, there are plenty of downsides too.  Keel and Cowan have incredible difficulty relating to each at times, and are forced to deal with the many struggles inherent in merging lives in the real world.  Belford and his friends drift apart after marriages and children begin to take over, and encounter an entirely new set of difficulties when they try to balance their love of (addiction to?) online games with newfound responsibilities in real life.  And Dan Bustard, a healthy and prosperous man in real life, becomes so entrenched in playing World of Warcraft that he loses his friends, job, girlfriend, and even thinks of taking his own life.

Second Skin: Andy Belford

Faced with the birth of twins, Andy Belford is forced to balance real-world responsibilities and maintaining a Level 70 WoW character.

Interspersed throughout the stories told in Second Skin are a number of interviews with couples who have found each other online, brief investigations into the shady practice of Gold Farming, history lessons on online gaming, as well as the aforementioned interviews and comments from actual game developers (though, curiously, none of the individuals behind WoW, EverQuest, or any of the other online games which are the subject of the film).  In fact, more than most documentaries I have seen, Second Skin succeeds because it accomplishes the goal of the medium:  it documents.  And while there is always more to the story than what is shown onscreen, it doesn’t really push one particular viewpoint over another.  Is online gaming good or healthy for people?  How much online gaming is too much?  Is is normal for people to take sick days off work just to play a World of Warcraft expansion pack?  Such questions are raised but not answered, and instead left for the viewers to decide.  And while the film does leave some loose ends, it does offer as much conclusion as possible on some of the storylines.  But beyond the basic interviewing and reporting, Second Skin is a thoroughly engrossing and often entertaining look at a subset of a subset of our culture that is actually a lot bigger than most people realize.

Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is Bustard, who eventually kicks his gaming habit not through the help of Wooley and her program, but through sheer will and determination.  In the end he regains his health, trims his waistline, and decides that even a solitary walk around town on a snowy evening is far better and more satisfying than any excursion in an online gaming.

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