Thursday, December 16, 2010

Indie in-demand: Whip It & Scott Pilgrom Vs. The World

I find it fascinating that "indie" has become a genre. The term "indie" used to refer to any independently made movie, regardless of subject matter and genre. Now, any quirky movie with young characters and certain "it" actors that gives the sarcastically sweet treatment to white, middle-class life (with a soundtrack full of "indie" bands) is deemed to be "indie" regardless of its budget size. I really wish there was another name for this new genre. I propose calling them "suburbies".

Whip It is the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore. It is a thoroughly charming movie with a "girl-power" theme that's pretty refreshing compared to most of what's out there. It tells the story of a Texas teenager, Bliss, who finds a purpose and motivation for life in roller derby- but struggles to gain her beauty pageant loving mother's approval.

Don't know anything about roller derby? Don't worry- Whip It lays out all the rules for you so you're not left wondering what's going on. I was confused by the fact that the features of roller derby that, I feel, are most important to the film's theme are sort of glossed over. Bliss's mother has shoe-horned her into competing in beauty pageants, which force girls to compete over something which they cannot totally control- their body and their face. No matter how great your talent or speech-giving talents may be, if you aren't born with the right body and face, you can't win a pageant. The forces girls to become alienated from their bodies. Their bodies become the thing that holds them back, the thing they cannot change or control, and this manifests in eating disorders and other body image problems.

Roller derby is an athletic sport where different body types are not only welcomed, they are essential to the different positions on the team. Blockers need to be big and strong, jammers need to be quick and nimble. Bliss finds herself viewing her body as a tool, as something she can control and use to get closer to her goals. This creates a positive body relationship that can culminate in body acceptance.
Roller derby players also play up their sexuality, while still being tough athletes. This breaks down the beauty conventions that women are fragile and demure, or must be perceived as such in order to be attractive. Players choose aggressive stage names like professional wrestlers do, but their contact sport is not costume play. They get hit, they knock each other over. Bones are broken, eyes are blackened, and lips are busted. They also have rabidly loyal fan bases who admire the women not only for their physical appearance, but their skill and ability as athletes.
Whip It barely touches these points, and it sort of makes me wish that there were a documentary to go along with the fictionalization. What is great is that the roller derby players in the film have diverse lifestyles, one is a single mom, but they are all equally dedicated to the sport and talk openly about what it means to them to be able to compete.

Barrymore is a competent director. She excels at giving us intimate glimpses into the relationships of her characters. But, as I mentioned, I hope that she learns how to flesh out the parts of the story that aren't character-driven. She is also a gifted comedic presence, and created an ensemble cast that you can tell are genuinely friends off screen, so the chemistry on screen is fantastic. Kristen Wig, who plays one of the roller girls "Maggie Mayhem", is a treasure, and I always enjoy watching her. Juliette Lewis plays an antagonistic derby girl "Iron Maven", and she smolders in every scene she's in. Ellen Page plays Bliss, and it's nice to see her taking a turn as a teen who doesn't think she knows it all. Perhaps now that she's 23, she knows the whole "disturbingly mature teen" shtick could no longer hold any water. It's easy to seem wise beyond your years when you're already actually five years beyond those years.
If you like sports movies and feel like there aren't enough of them starring women (which is disappointingly true), see Whip It. It's a lot of fun to watch.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World ( is a movie is so inventive that I can't help but like it and insist that others see it. It's far from flawless and definitely has some pacing problems, but I don't think I've ever seen a translation of comic book-styling and video game-structure so eloquently portrayed on screen.
The titular Scott is an average Canadian guy in a garage band. Well, except for the fact that his band is actually good and that his ex-girlfriend is now a rock sensation a la Gwen Stefani. Everything seems like it's going to maintain a steady course until Scott meets Ramona Flowers, the literal girl of his dreams, who has a literal league of vengeful exes.

So, this film runs with the literal gag. All the cinematography evokes a comic book feel. The special effects evoke a video game feel. There are bangs, ker-pows, and coins appearing where bodies once were. However, the film does fall victim to a problem that plagues many comic book and video-game inspired films: all that fighting starts to get boring after a while. It's extremely difficult to balance action with plot development, and when filmmakers try to cram a lot of both into less than two hours the results are never that great.
What saves this movie, aside from the aesthetic genius, is a strong cast. Michael Cera is perfect as the average, yet awesome, Scott Pilgrim. Ellen Wong is hysterical as Knives Chau- Scott's teen aged girlfriend. Mary Elizabeth Winstead somehow managed to be a witty, mumbling, effortlessly cool Ramona Flowers without being an Ellen Page clone. She's also simply beautiful and the camera loves her. Kieran Culkin steals the show as Scott's gay roommate, Wallace. And all of the "evil exes" actors- Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Shota Saito, Keita Saito and Jason Schwatrzman- are perfect, growling video game villains. They are terrific comedic foils for the average likes of Scott and his crew.

This movie is tough to wrap your head around while watching. It's very self-aware and willing to make jokes at its own expense, but it has some poignant moments that try to ground it as best they can.
I think Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is best viewed with a group of friends. I think the action and the comedy will be greatly enhanced by the group experience. Plus it has action, comedy and some romance. It will appeal to geeks and hipsters of all shapes and sizes.



Nena Nadine said...

A documentary on Roller Derby girls would be fan-flippin-tastic!

Still have yet to see Scott Pilgrim (sobs). Husband doesn't want to see it because he think if you've seen one Cera movie you've seen them all. I hate that stigma people give actors. I keep replying, You've seen one Will Ferrell you've seen them all. And I'm not ripping on Will Ferrell. It's just true. It doesn't make me want to watch his movies any less. So why all the hate (it's not just my husband)?

Noel said...

You must reassure him that Cera's character emerges with a backbone and a little grit at the end of the movie. However, I think you bring up an interesting point. It used to be that actors struggled against being typecast, nowadays it seems like they embrace it. Angelina Jolie has played a spy, or spy-like, character so many times that you'd think she'd turn down any further "smoldering feminine intrigue" roles, but then The Tourist comes out and flops at the box office.

Nena Nadine said...

I didn't think about that. I mean Angelina always playing a spy these days. Maybe she should get a new agent. Or maybe she is just in it for the money, to fund her off camera life that is.