This weekend I saw two new movies. They were about as divergent as you can get. Big bloated action movie vs. quirky, snarky video game movie. Aging mega stars vs. indy kids. Jokes about therapy & cauliflower ear vs. jokes about Vegans and gay promiscuity. Sadly, it's clear that the bloated and forgetable The Expendables was the victor over the imaginative and resonant (at least with me) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Scott Pilgrim has a very easy story – he has to beat her 7 evil exes to get with his dream girl. It really doesn't get much more streamlined than that. Each ex is like a boss fight in a game (including one that comes back in a tougher form when you beat them the first time..) and the fights are all cleverly done. Not everyone is straight fisticuffs. One is a very cool battle of the bands, another a Bollywood musical.
The look of the film is amazing. Both the art direction and the effects. It's saying something that Michael Cera looks like he could kick ass in this film.
The film made me think of Amelie or Pan's Labyrinth. A small indie movie with modern graphics and effects. The movie is beautiful, often times looking like the graphic novel come to life. It is also a treasure trove of pop culture and video game references. It is a movie of it's time. In one strange choice, a short section of the movie is literally a Seinfeld reference (complete with trademark music and camera angles) that will be super confusing to viewers in about 20 years.
In contrast, The Expendables is cookie cutter film-making. The screenplay has every beat you would expect from an 80s action movie (except the black sidekick dying, shockingly) and just about nothing surprising (except for Stallone's face. Yikes!) It really fell flat with me, especially when compared to the energy and attitude of Scott Pilgrim.
Sadly, it also made $25 million more than Scott Pilgrim. In fact, people are already writing "what went wrong" pieces about Scott Pilgrim. That's too bad. In my opinion, the biggest issue was our expectations. If the film were treated like an indy, it's modest $10.5 million would be seen as a success. It shouldn't be compared to The Expendables (although that is inevitable) but to something like Kick Ass (which, alas, also tanked).
I know that if you went back in time and showed both films to a kid in the 80s, he would immediately connect with Expendables and be really confused by Scott Pilgrim. Same with someone 20 years from now probably. But I also know that they would immediately recognize the wacky inventiveness of Scott Pilgrim, and the energy and love that reside in the film. The Expendables just can't match that.
On a strange side note, the best acting in either film was (shockingly) from The Expendables, where Mickey Rourke once again proved himself an amazing actor. The few minutes he is on screen are magic, and he brings an inner life and pain to his character that makes you wish he were around longer. Especially compared to the other clowns in the film who think acting is making faces as they punch someone.
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