Feature: Scott Pilgrim European Premiere

Premiere time again in London’s Leicester Square, and on this particular Thursday evening at the rather legendary Empire cinema it was the turn of Edgar Wright’s much-hyped latest, Scott Pilgrim vs the World.  Following an explosive appearance at this year’s Comic-con (with the Scott Pilgim ‘experience’ towering over most of the other stalls) this was to be Wright’s triumphant homecoming to his native Blighty.

And yet – the internet was ablaze last week lamenting the poor US box office showing for the slacker comic adaptation.  Scott Pilgrim enjoyed the kind of online buzz usually reserved for big superheroes, but after only scraping into the top five on its opening weekend in North America, every blogger and his mum was trying to work out what the hell went wrong.

If Wright and his team were chastened by their film’s relative financial failure, they didn’t show it on the red carpet of the European premiere here in London.  The director, most of the cast including Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Brandon Routh, Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman, Kieran Culkin and the original comic creator Bryan Lee O’Malley were all out to greet the crowds, and despite being in the thick of a heavy press tour, all were in high spirits.

And you would be with this crowd – as is de rigeur at these occasions, much of the fan’s screams bordered on hysterical, fanatically wailing the name of anyone remotely famous in their immediate proximity in the desperate hope of a scribble from their Sharpie or a cheek-to-cheek photo.  Many could be seen reading various volumes of the Pilgrim comics on which the film is based as they waited for the red carpet to be rolled out, their places at the front of the barrier secured.

The biggest screams were reserved for title star Michael Cera, who despite arriving dressed head-to-toe in geek-chic (complete with huge prescription-style glasses) nonetheless enjoyed a reception one might expect for a superhunk.  (One sign, quoting a line of dialogue in Juno, proclaimed ‘Michael Cera: You’re the coolest person I know’.)

Cera’s unique brand of caustic humour was very much on show, too; when a fellow journalist in the press pit asked “Who is Scott Pilgrim?”, Cera drily replied, “Well, Scott Pilgrim is the character that I play, and he is also in the title of the film, as you can see from that huge poster.”

With a careful effort to avoid those sort of questions, I asked Cera if making the film was a challenge.  It was indeed, “but we had the training,” Cera told me.  “I knew that Edgar wouldn’t make it look stupid.  He’s a perfectionist.  It’s nice when you’re working with someone so obsessive about their work, you don’t have to worry about things.”

Others were just as quick to praise the British director.  Brandon Routh (playing Romana’s evil ex Todd Ingram), looked sheepishly guilty to talk to us as hundreds of fans behind him screamed his name (“I feel so bad…too many people”), but applauded Wright’s “extraordinary originality”.  The delightful Brie Larson said she felt “privileged” to be part of “this piece of art”.  Co-writer of the screenplay and one-time Inglorious Basterd Michael Bacall modestly brushed aside his efforts, saying “it’s all down to Edgar and Bryan.”

Encouragingly, there were big cheers for Wright and O’Malley, a reception not usually seen for behind-the-camera talent.  Wright’s Twitter feed suggested he was operating on just a couple of hours sleep, but he didn’t show it, brightly spotting one journo’s print out for the Edgar Wright Wikipedia article and offering to “cross off the things that aren’t true”.  He told us he was simply “glad of the opportunity to make films” and was “blown away” by the crowds.  O’Malley was similarly flummoxed, claiming this was a bigger crowd than the American or Canadian premieres. “You Londoners, you’re insane…”

As the great and the good flowed down the red carpet into the Empire, a PR rep told the assembled press there were some spare seats for the screening, a rare treat not usually granted to lowly film hacks.  Needless to say, your plucky reporter gallantly took the call, and was only too happy to mingle in the stalls with the cream of British comedy, along with some rather pointless slebs.  It’s a rather curious feeling to share a toilet queue with Simon Pegg, comedy genius Graham Linehan, that bloke off the X-Factor and Superman.

Before the film, Wright and his producers introduced the cast onstage, and told the audience to “have a blast” watching the film.  “Or two blasts.  Seven blasts.  Twenty, if you want… A hundred.  A million blasts.  As many as you want.  Just enjoy it!”  As the lights went down and the cast exited down the aisles, Kieran Culkin whispered to anyone who was listening “this movie sucks!”, while Jason Schwartzman went for “Room 408…Room 408…Hi – Room 408”.

I hardly have to tell you that the film itself was an absolute joy, an explosion of fresh, funny, inventive filmmaking from a director born to do it.  It was clear from this premiere that both cast and crew had an unqualified riot of a time making the film, and enjoyed each other’s company off screen even as they beat the living hell out of each other onscreen. Scott Pilgrim vs the World is released in UK cinemas today; if you want good quality movies to continue being made, vote with your wallet.  For god’s sake, go see it.

Review: ‘Avatar’ (Special Edition)

Yes, you’re reading that correctly – Avatar is back on the big screen, just a few short months after its original release.  James Cameron’s 3D epic, which was still being screened in some places as recently as last month, has been given a hasty re-release, in a ‘Special Edition’ form. An extra nine minutes of previously unseen footage has been added to sweeten the deal and it is being shown exclusively in 3D.

A lot of questions surround what could quite fairly be described as a rather pointless re-release.   Let’s start with this: it’s officially the biggest film ever – surely everyone’s seen it by now?  Unless you are a member of an Amazonian tribe uncontacted by Western civilisation, you must have already seen this epic tale of love, war and futuristic blue aliens.  Is it really worth you spending another tenner, after such a short amount of time?

And with this in mind, does Cameron really need the money?  After all, this is the man who has already held the record for Highest Grossing Movie Ever (for Titanic) before beating his own record.  Avatar’s stats are an explosion of superlatives:  the largest opening gross for a non-franchise film; biggest IMAX film ever; highest Martin Luther King weekend gross; first film to gross over $700m in North America, first film to gross over $2bn…  It’s a safe bet that Cameron ain’t a pauper.

Indeed, the lure might not be enough for some – nine minutes of new footage is a fairly insignificant drop in the ocean of the original two and half hour running time.  Cameron has loudly claimed that each minute of new footage cost $1million – though in Avatar’s grand terms, $9 million is relative pocket money.  There’s an extended hunting scene, more on the death of Naa’avi leader Tsu’tey, and yes, the much hyped alien sex scene (not since Team America: World Police has an unseen sex scene caused so much excitement).  But none of the new sequences change the composition of the film dramatically.

And many might ask the question: does this film really warrant a repeat viewing?  Avatar did get some negative reviews on release, mostly criticising its heavy reliance on cliches, its occasionally stiff acting and the rather dodgy script.  If the story – Pocahontas meets Dances With Wolves in space – was any more derivative, Cameron would be accused of plagiarism.  Many felt Avatar was an explosion of style over substance, from a filmmaker concentrating more on his technical achievements.  Story, it seemed, had given way to spectacle.

But by God, what a spectacle!  It’s very easy to go into re-watching Avatar with the above questions rattling around in your head, but they are quickly silenced when Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) first arrive on Pandora and encounter its incredible alien wildlife…or when we first see the floating ‘Hallelujah’ mountains…or when Jake makes his first flight on the Banshees…or the final, epic battle…

Against all odds, Avatar feels as fresh and exciting as it did nine months ago, and has lost none of its razzle-dazzle.  It is perhaps the most technically impressive film yet made, and still somehow irretrievably drags you in to its world.  For all his faults as a cliched storyteller, Cameron remains an extraordinarily talented filmmaker, an artist with an insatiable eye for attention to detail and an incredible knack for immersing you totally into this expansive universe that unfolds in front of your eyes – or the 3D glasses in front of them, at least.

The added nine minutes, as has been acknowledged, are fairly inconsequential, and ludicrous motion-captured CGI sex scene aside, you may not even notice them.  It’s quite understandable if you’d rather spend your money on the DVD or Blu-Ray.  But even the smartest of HD tellies will pale in comparison to the marvel of 3D on a big screen.  Forget about the ‘special’-ness of this edition, take this as another opportunity to catch the greatest cinematic spectacle of the decade on the big screen again, as it should be seen.  And if you’re one of the half a dozen Amazonian tribe members yet to see Avatar, it’s time to leave your cave and see what the hell you’ve been missing.

Review: ‘Salt’

Sliding in on the tail-end of the summer action movie season, Salt, out this week in the UK, has been somewhat overshadowed by The A-Team and The Expendables, two monstrously big hitters both showcasing the gratuitously greased-up torsos of a load of old men. Salt dares to be different by proffering that rarest of beasts: a lady action hero.
Your heart doesn’t sing with hope for the future of feminism when a film like Salt comes along, especially when you learn that Tom Cruise was originally attached for the lead role. When Angelina Jolie was hired the script underwent numerous hasty rewrites, with the eponymous protagonist undergoing the scriptwriting equivalent of gender reassignment. You can picture the Cruiser in the role, too; it’s just the kind of guns-blazing movie the pint sized star has gone for in recent years, and it’s not hard to imagine his grinning mug amongst the high-octane madness.
Salt succeeds, however, in not being another action clone; in spite of everything it’s a surprisingly engrossing and well-crafted thriller from the veteran hand of Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games) that keeps you guessing. Amidst the ludicrous stunts and silly twists there is a gripping, well crafted plot and some ably-directed action scenes to make Salt one of the more watchable popcorn movies of the year.
The copious marketing has not dulled the key question of the film: who is Salt? Evelyn Salt is a more complex action hero than we are used to, one who makes some distinctly unheroic and sometimes shocking choices. This is a captivating lead character with an identity crisis to rival that of Jason Bourne, even if Jolie never truly convinces us that this dainty vision of A-list beauty could kick so many burly henchman’s asses.
A little Cold War nostalgia is indulged in for the villains of the tale: a group of Russian ex-KGB ‘sleeper spies’ who infiltrate American society with the ultimate long term aim of bringing the old superpower rivals to the brink of nuclear war, a premise less far fetched in the wake of the recent Anna Chapman spy scandals. Jolie, accused of being such a Ruskie, goes on the run to clear her name – or so we are led to believe…
The twisty plot unravels thusly, and from very early on the pace never lets up. The action is exceedingly well shot (an initial car chase sequence is thrilling) and for the most part, this is a film which grabs you tightly by the nads and doesn’t let go.
Only occasionally does the standard slip; there’s a bizarre scene where Jolie dons some prosthetics as a disguise, ostensibly to look like a man, with the effect that she has just undergone some poorly performed gender reassignment surgery. There’s also some dialogue in rather poor taste – prepare to wince at lines like “one billion angry Muslims”.
And, like most action films (yes, even Bourne), there’s a plethora of plot holes. But these can be reasonably excused for the sake of an intriguing concept, an exhilarating serving of high quality action and a gripping script which will keep you tightly hooked. Noyce has a made good one here, who aided by the cinematography of Robert Elswit and the editing of Stuart Baird and John Gilroy – proves what an accomplished team can do with lots of cash and no comic book frame to work from.  Salt could turn out to be the best action movie of the year, and this from the former face of luxury fashion brand St John. Who’d have thunk it?

A version of this review originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com

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