Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

In theaters.

Like many people, I’ve tired of Michael Cera’s whiny, wavering, painfully awkward persona. It was cute back when he was on Arrested Development, but he’s not an adorable kid anymore, and the schtick has gotten very old. When I see that little-boy-lost face, hear that whimpering little voice, I want to throttle him and shout that it’s time to grow the hell up already.

Exasperated as I am with Cera, I wasn’t overly optimistic about his new movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but to my considerable amusement, telling his character to grow the hell up turns out to be the whole point of the movie. Every time I rolled my eyes at Scott, virtually all the other characters rolled their eyes at him, too—a very gratifying development indeed.

But there’s more to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World than eye rolling. Director Edgar Wright (who also cowrote the screenplay adapting Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series of graphic novels) got his start working with Simon Pegg, directing the cult TV show Spaced and the brilliantly satiric movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and with those collaborations, he’s developed a wonderful sense of style, an ability to craft action sequences that are both thrilling and hilarious. That talent serves him well with Pilgrim, which constantly references the aesthetic of O’Malley’s graphic novels as well as countless old video games while still functioning as a exuberant, glossy movie. Thematically, it doesn’t quite come together—the metaphors are hopelessly mixed—but it’s delightful to watch, definitely more fun than your average action comedy.

A Song of Ice and Fire

By George R. R. Martin. Series includes A Game of Thrones, published in 1996; A Clash of Kings, published in 1998; A Storm of Swords, published in 2000; and A Feast for Crows, published in 2005.

The studio exec overseeing HBO’s upcoming adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s sprawling epic-in-progress into a serial TV drama is fond of claiming that the series isn’t really high fantasy. His motive is obvious—HBO doesn’t want A Game of Thrones (the TV show’s title) to be consigned to the genre ghetto, seen only by fanboys—but there’s still something to what he’s saying. Despite the presence of dragons and wights and other mythical beasts, Martin’s world rarely feels alien to our own. In part, that’s because the creatures and magic are on the periphery, but more significantly, it’s because, fair or not (probably not), fantasy has a reputation for drawing bright white lines between Good and Evil, and Martin refuses to do so. In the Song of Ice and Fire books, sympathetic characters feel compelled to do terrible things, and unsympathetic characters have admirable qualities. No one has a clear Hero’s Quest to follow, and everyone encounters awful questions for which there are no easy answers. The world is complicated, muddy, and deeply unfair. Even dragons can’t make such a familiar world feel entirely like fantasy.

Slings and Arrows

All three seasons on DVD and streaming on Netflix.

The creators of Slings and Arrows, a Canadian TV series that ran from 2003 to 2006, clearly weren’t worried about reaching a mass audience. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the show aired on a premium channel, not because it features network-unfriendly sex and violence (it doesn’t) but because it’s unrepentantly snobby about theater, which is, in its way, even more network-unfriendly. Set at a troubled Shakespeare festival (the show’s title alludes to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy), Slings and Arrows knows the Bard’s plays very well and operates under the assumption that viewers do too. (In one emotionally climactic scene, a character quotes from King John without attribution!)

What’s more, much of the drama derives from the ongoing struggle to produce those plays with integrity, worrying not about marketing or ticket sales but about how best to breathe life into the still-vibrant Elizabethan-era text. Slings can be deprecating and satiric toward its theaterfolk, sometimes cuttingly so, but it’s premised on the idea that a bad production of Hamlet is a genuine tragedy—even, perhaps especially, if it’s well received. Those who don’t share that belief probably find that the series become very exasperating very quickly, but for those who do care about the finer points of interpreting the great plays, Slings is charming and funny and poignant.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

On DVD and streaming on Netflix.

Much to my amusement, the movie’s English subtitles conspicuously neglect to translate the title card. That is, of course, because the book that English-speaking readers know as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was first published in Sweden as Män som hatar kvinnor—literally, Men Who Hate Women. Sure, American publishers have been known to replace quirky, distinctive non-English titles with dull, generic titles, but in this case, I think they did author Stieg Larsson a favor. Men Who Hate Women is a hilariously unsubtle and thus hilariously appropriate label for the grim, plodding work—or at least the Swedish film adaptation of it. (The inevitable American version is in production now.) I admit, I haven’t read the wildly successful book or its two sequels, but having seen the movie (which is, to my knowledge, scrupulously faithful to Larsson’s bestseller), I don’t feel any need to do so.


In theaters.

The echoes of the Bourne movies are impossible to miss. Preternaturally gifted assassin protagonist—check. Assassin goes rogue—check. Shadowy puppet-masters attempt to determine just what the titular assassin is up to—check. Assassin may have grudging allies among the puppet-masters—check. Highly choreographed on-location action scenes—check. Explosions, gun fights, and improbable leaps from one moving vehicle to another—check, check, check. Evelyn Salt might be more likely to use a maxipad to staunch blood flow from a bullet wound (which is actually kind of hilarious and awesome), but other than that, she and Jason Bourne are essentially the same character, right down to the chiseled physique, stoic demeanor, and ninja-like reflexes.

But despite the glaring similarities between Salt and Bournes Identity, Supremacy, and UltimatumSalt doesn’t begin to measure up to its predecessors. It’s not a problem of execution, though: Salt might be a knock-off, but it’s not a cheap knock-off. Angelina Jolie was born to play superhuman roles like this, and she’s backed up by a great supporting cast, including Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and August Diehl. Director Phillip Noyce is no Paul Greengrass, but he’s talented enough to keep the energy up and pull off a few rollickingly good sequences.

No, the problem with Salt is in the fundamentals, past the look-alike plots into the storytelling itself. The Bourne movies might not be cinéma vérité, but they take place in a recognizable contemporary world. Salt, by contrast, is utter nonsense—worse, dated nonsense, like someone awkwardly dolled up a forgotten McCarthy-era screenplay in modern-day garb and CGI. And why the hell would anyone want to do that?

L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

The Mark Morris Dance Group at the Mostly Mozart Festival on Thursday, August 5.

I knew there was a reason I kept attending performances of Mark Morris’s choreography. Even when a particular work didn’t click for me, I always saw something intriguing there—the musicality, the pared-down aesthetic—and now I’ve finally stumbled across a Morris work I love passionately and wholeheartedly. In L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed it Moderato, all the characteristics of his style that I dislike fade into the background, and the traits I admire move to the forefront. And despite the fact that it’s a long nonnarrative, two-act work, it’s never dull. L’Allegro is a gorgeous mosaic—with funny, playful passages and sad, delicate passages; subtle, thoughtful passages and joyful, exuberant passages—and all the disparate little tiles somehow fit together with perfect coherence, becoming more beautiful and revealing new truths in one another’s company.

Big Bambú

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 31.

Truth be told, I went mainly for the view. The Met isn’t very tall—certainly not by New York City standards—but the building juts into Central Park, and from atop it, you can see the park in a stunning panorama, end to end, with the city skyline as a backdrop. That outlook makes the roof garden exhibits worth visiting under any circumstances, and Big Bambú, an enormous bamboo structure with walkable pathways that take you another forty feet up, seemed like an even better draw simply because it provides an even better view.

I was pleased to find, however, that Doug and Mike Starn’s grand construction is worth seeing for itself. The rooftop sometimes swallows up the art on display there, but Bambú is a site-specific work, and the open air and spectacular views feel like a part of it rather than an overwhelming frame. When you first step out of the stairwell onto the landing, you enter a small forest of bamboo, the stalks rising from the ground to support the structure above. From the side, you can see that the thousands of bamboo poles, bound together by nylon rope, actually take the shape of a cresting wave—a striking image against the blue sky above.