The Review: Remember a time when British comedy films either had three or four Pythons in them or Richard Curtis’ name on the front of the script? That is, if you were lucky and you weren’t watching yet another tired attempt to extend the Carry On franchise past its normal lifespan. British comedy was alive and thriving on TV, and covering every demographic, but it wasn’t until Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg made the transition from their cult TV hit Spaced to their cult film hit Shaun Of The Dead that successfully combined a host of geeky film references with a strong plot and a parade of familiar faces. They returned three years later with Hot Fuzz, and replaced the world cult with the word massive, finishing in the top 10 of the year for the UK. Wright is headed to the Marvel cinematic universe and Pegg now has roles two major Hollywood franchises and the likes of J.J. Abrams and Tom Cruise on speed dial. But ever since Hot Fuzz, they’d been promising a third entry in their loose trilogy, and The World’s End now provides the answer as to whether it was worth a six year wait.
Except closer examination reveals that the similarities between the three films run very deep. Each is bolted to a high concept (Romero zombie homage, buddy cop action film, and the sci-fi trappings of The World’s End) and examines a different core relationship dynamic: the relationship breakup of Shaun and the father / son conflict of Fuzz give way to the forgotten childhood friendships and the difficulties of raking up the past. But each also holds up a reflection to modern British life, from the struggles against the encroaching apathy of the
youth of today zombie hordes to the pressures of conformity and the sheltered attitudes of middle England prevalent in Sandford. The World’s End gives us Newton Haven, and when five school friends (Pegg, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman) return to attempt to finish an epic pub crawl from their youth, the nature of their friendships and their willingness to accept change are called into question. Marsan still works for his father, Considine is dating a woman fifteen years his junior and Frost is clinging to the end of a failing marriage, but it’s Pegg’s Gary KIng who seems to have been trapped in a time warp. When they stumble across Newton Haven’s dark secrets, the seeming alienation of the town’s inhabitants and the homogenisation of its finest watering holes turn out to be just a metaphor for what’s really troubling the town, but even that doesn’t get in the way of the Pegg / Frost dynamic.
Each of the films in this decade-long triptych have concentric circles of the finest of British acting. On the periphery here are cameos from old familiar faces such as Rafe Spall and Mark Heap. Peeling away at the layers sees stronger supporting turns from the likes of Reese Shearsmith and David Bradley, before the core ensemble (which also includes Rosamund Pike as the sister of one and the object of teenage affection of two others), but as with their predecessors the key relationship is between Pegg and Frost. Where they have looked to vary things up is in the nature of that relationship, and here Frost is the straight man to Pegg’s unlovable loser. Neither Pegg nor Wright seems afraid to make Gary King anything other than outwardly lazy and contemptible, the friends who don’t seem to suffer fools gladly at least willing to suffer this one out of a sense of misplaced loyalty, but the drawback is in losing any one of the main characters to really root for when the trouble comes. The Shaun / Ed and Nicholas / Danny pairings from earlier films may have had their drawbacks, but there was a warmth to their double acts that’s deliberately absent here and it inevitably makes the viewer have to work harder to engage with the group. It also doesn’t help that the second layer of Freeman, Marsan, Pike and Considine feel more one dimensional than they have in previous efforts; you long for a Dylan Moran or a Timothy Dalton to really energise proceedings.
So that’s the similarities covered, and indeed thematically and tonally The World’s End does feel part of a trilogy, but there are differences too, not just in the core relationship but in the nature of the story itself. Where Shaun is a creeping dread and Hot Fuzz a gradual escalation, The World’s End pivots on a scene in a gents toilets and instantly goes from five guys on a pub crawl to a pending apocalypse in a shift that may prove too sudden for some. It’s fair to say that The World’s End isn’t as funny as its predecessors either; it’s not that the jokes fall flat, rather that they’re sidelined in favour of a darker tone and a more sombre approach which once again prioritises story over everything else. The other marked difference is that the references to the source material feel less prominent – possibly due to Wright and Pegg feeling slightly less confident in, or in love with, the genre than they did with zombies or buddy cop movies – and if you can put aside the need for big belly laughs, the story works well. It’s still littered with references to itself, which may prove a distraction on first viewing (when you hear the young pub crawl described in the prologue, it’s impossible not to want to look for the references later in the film, but it’s best to pick up these aspects on later viewings) and the sheer level of detail may be a little overwhelming. But The World’s End is a fitting trilogy capper, and it’s not afraid to explore some different territory in a familiar manner. If you’re prepared to adjust your expectations as you follow Wright, Pegg and Frost to the end of the world, then your faith should be reasonably rewarded.
Why see it at the cinema: So much going on in terms of details that the cinema screen is your best option to catch it all. There’s also half a dozen big laughs and plenty of smaller titters to keep you entertained. But the close choreography of the fights and the sheer kinetic energy that Edgar Wright seems to have carried over from Scott Pilgrim at those moments will also best be absorbed on a larger canvas.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for very strong language and strong sex references. Edgar Wright’s exchange with the BBFC about that language gives a fascinating insight into the modern relationship between film maker and film judger.
My cinema experience: I’ve so far managed to see The World’s End two and a half times at the cinema, oddly a feat that I also managed to perform on both Star Trek (2009) and Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (don’t ask). The first one and a half times were both at Friday night late shows at the Cineworld in Cambridge, and both were very sparsely attended and moderately received, my early departure from the second viewing enforced when Gary jumps off a roof in order to pick up Mrs Evangelist from work. A third viewing, this time on an early evening Friday showing, confirmed that people are more inclined to laugh when in large crowds.
The Score: 8/10
Ever wondered where you’d go to if you could go back in time? Would you check out the Battle of Hastings? Take in the 1966 World Cup Final? Drop in on a stable in Bethlehem with some frankincense or myrrh? (Let’s be honest, if you’re going to take one of the gifts, cheap and practical’s always best. What’s a carpenter going to do with gold?) Maybe you’d take the Marty McFly route and check out a pivotal moment in your own life. If I was considering a trip back, it would come down to one of three moments.
There’s the time I attempted to overcome my fear of heights by attempting to drink half a pint of whisky and sliding down the death slide at the children’s playground behind my student house. If I timed it right I could give myself a big enough push to get me sliding and overcome my fear, rather than what I actually did, which was freak out, run two miles away, and then have to walk home very, very drunk. Maybe I’d go back to when I sent a girl I had a crush on a blank Valentine’s card and actually own up to sending it, rather than deny all knowledge then end up practically stalking her for a week. Or maybe just to reassure myself that she wasn’t The One, and not to panic, my soul mate was waiting just a bit further down life’s troubled road. Or possibly, I’d find myself on a Tube station platform on a Sunday morning, about two years ago, to try to get my past self not to ask a man about his shopping.
Cast your mind back a couple of years, then. I’d been writing this blog about three months when the annual Empire Magazine event Movie-Con rolled around, and the three day celebration of all things movie-related felt like an ideal way at the time to take it to the next level. It all seemed to be going so well at the time: I blogged ahead of the event about my struggle to get tickets, my sartorial choices, my expectations for the event, and in detail about the Friday and Saturday of the BFI-hosted event. I’d also managed to get my reviews of the films I’d seen posted, in record time, having written them on the Tube journey back to my car journey home. Friday was The Expendables, which initially led me to doubt my own critical faculties, enjoying it more than pretty much everyone else put together; Saturday was The Hole in 3D, a Joe Dante helmed disappointment which most others seemed to love, but not me. And then came Sunday. That fateful Sunday, where the advanced screening was announced as Scott Pilgrim vs The World, which had created that stampede for tickets in the first place. But looking back, one thing is conspicuous by its absence; I didn’t write up my Sunday experience.
If you weren’t at the event, you’d have no idea about the particular occasion that drove my shame to such an extent, a peculiar paralysis that somehow outstrips a fear of heights or even of asking a girl out. Empire’s website features detailed write-ups of the Q & A sessions that took place that day, and buried in the middle of one with Edgar Wright is this brief exchange:
What you wouldn’t know is the ten hours leading up to that particular point. Ten hours starting on an Underground platform, leading to the event where I sat on the back row and got increasingly hyped up. Two days of commuting to London and minimal sleep, coupled with the regular injections of caffeine needed to keep me going and the excitement of what had gone before had already gotten me to a state of wide-eyed euphoria by 10 a.m. Further Q & A sessions with the likes of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on their upcoming road movie Paul, and some impressive footage from Tron: Legacy (which turned out to be the only impressive footage from Tron: Legacy) had elevated me to an almost frantic level of expectation. By the time the lights went down for Scott Pilgrim seven hours later, I couldn’t have been more excited.
Oh wait, no, I could be even more excited exactly 112 minutes later. Scott Pilgrim finished, stamped its place as my favourite film of the year – a position it still held at the end of the year – and by now I was practically exploding in my seat. Not only a film which seemed to understand the true nature of love and relationships, but had overlaid with such a glorious sheen and continued Wright’s run of films built on geek references and in-jokes. And it had struck me during the closing credits that there was a question that must be asked during the following Q & A with him and comic book creator Bryan Lee O’Malley, a question befitting this director and his film but also the Empire hosts and which would charm them all and the audience. But how to give it the right context? And how to make sure, sat in a tiny corner on the back row, that the question got asked?
So I sat, waving my arm in the air frantically until I was finally given the microphone, at which point I blurted out something along the lines of:
“I’m sorry I don’t have a better question for you Mr O’Malley but Edgar, you’re about the same age as me and seem to have achieved so much, I feel I’ve kind of wasted my life and the only thing that will leave me something to hang on to is the thought that you no longer remain grounded in reality. So please answer me this one question: how much is a pint of milk?”
Ouch. Three days of caffiene, no sleep and excitement burbled into one almost incomprehensible question, but one at the end which got a knowing laugh from the rest of the audience. (If for any reason you’re reading this and don’t know the context, then How Much Is A Pint Of Milk? is one of Empire’s longest standing features, asking pointless questions of far from pointless film celebrities. Of course, the joke is never as good if you have to explain it.) And if I’d just left it there, that would probably have been it. But after giving the answer above, and fielding host Christ Hewitt’s follow-up question, the mic had left me and started its journey round the audience to the next participant. This didn’t stop me shouting out the answer to my own question. Yes, seemingly unsatisfied with Edgar’s own, perfectly reasonable answer to my question, I attempted to give the “correct” answer. Two years later, I can’t even remember what it was. It was something about the nature of love and how that relates to mammalian lactation retailing. I do know it got booed by an audience of geeks, many of whom probably thought it was a personal attack on their own love lives.
I was gutted. I’d ruined my own moment, hyped up to the point where I couldn’t stop my own stupidity. I slunk away from the Con at the end of the day, privately devastated that someone who had now become a film-making hero to me would now, for ever, think I was an idiot. (Not that he could probably even see me sat that far back, of course.) But what was the legacy of this moment of ineptitude? Pushed on by this, I felt driven to ask better questions at Q & A sessions, driven to ensure that at least the person asking the question didn’t think I was mad. I’ve learned that it’s not about the person asking the question, but the one answering it, and I’ve learned when not to ask the question if it’s just not worth it. I’ve actually hosted Q & A sessions myself at my local Picturehouse, the glorious Abbeygate in Bury St. Edmunds (and thanks to the team at the cinema, it’s always been a complete and utter pleasure) and I’ve even gotten my first actual director interview up on the blog earlier this year. And I also made a fantastic group of new friends, a group that talked the same language and loved movies at least as much as I did, and many of whom now get together regularly throughout the year for other screenings and general socialising. Not only that, two years later few if anyone remembers my question, thanks mainly to someone asking a much more inadvertently offensive question of Chloe Moretz the day before.
But still something felt wrong. Unfinished business. The Edgar Wright question still burned me at the back of my head, an irritating reminder of not only my own weakness, but also of his. 99p? Hewitt was right, I’m not even sure Hollywood cows are charging that much these days. Had he really lost touch with reality that much? Had the West Country lad who’d become a geek idol gone so far from his roots? Was it all worth it if that was the case, was fame, fortune and an enviable abundance of talent too much of a price to pay for losing track of the simple things in life? Then yesterday, on Twitter:
The Review: Come closer, come right in, and I’ll tell you a tale. A tale of a youngster and his faithful companions on an epic adventure, which has been in the hearts of millions for many, many years. A tale of how a newly discovered map could prove crucial to success or failure. A tale of an attempt to recapture former glories and past treasures. There’ll be highs and lows, and familiar faces in unfamiliar situations. Yes, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have teamed up to bring Tintin to Hollywood for the first time, and to hopefully find him a position in cinema for many years to come. It’s famously renowned that Hergé himself said that Spielberg was the best person to adapt his tales for the big screen. With Lord Of The Rings director Jackson on board as well, what could possibly go wrong?
First then, to the tale of the youngster and his companions. That youngster is Matt Smith, and his adventures in Doctor Who for the past two years were what drew original screenwriter Steven Moffat away from Spielberg and back to Blighty. But the most recent series of Who has not been without its critics, especially of the Moffat-scripted story arc episodes; many find them too dense and too complex, filled with set pieces and big moments but a little lacking in heart and soul at crucial moments, or indeed time to just stop and breathe occasionally. Tintin suffers a little from the same flaw; it’s set-piece after set-piece, exposition often delivered on the run, and the pace is so frenetic at times all you can do is cling on and hope things continue to make sense. After Moffat left, Spielberg brought in two other Brits (and why not – who knows Belgium better than, er, the British?), Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. There’s a whole host of witty asides and in-jokes which will be picked up which feel in tune with their writing style, but it cranks along in top gear for a little too much of the running time. You can’t help but feel that the decision to attempt to condense elements of three Tintin novels into one story was maybe one too many.
What then, of the map? Yes, this particular treasure is not gold or jewels, but believable motion-capture animated characters, and according to the map they can be found on the other side of the uncanny valley. If you look at the lines on the “map” to the left, you’ll see two upward curves. Apparently, we humans feel more responsive to something the more human it looks, but there’s a gap – if you look just short of believably human then that becomes more disconcerting to the viewer and we actually find ourselves repulsed. Problems with earlier mo-cap from the likes of Robert Zemeckis suffered from dead-eyes; the eyes are right here, but it’s the faces that are wrong. Somehow, Tintin actually falls into a double uncanny valley and it’s one the film unfortunately calls attention to. Not only do the facial expressions, and also the shape of Tintin’s head, feel just slightly wrong, but an in-joke of Hergé’s original drawing makes you realise that there’s a Tintin valley at work here as well, the character looking generally right, but whenever the camera settles on him in close up, you can see it’s not quite Tintin and not quite human; doubly freaky, in fact. Consequently Tintin works better whenever the camera is set back and the characters are mid-set piece, which is where the cranked-up pacing starts to work to the films advantage, keeping the number of character close-ups down to a minimum as events progress.
There are familiar faces, although they often don’t relate to the voices in question, one of the joys of the technique. Those that work best at creating a believable character include, somewhat unsurprisingly, Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, who practically steals the entire film, a Nicholson Joker to Jamie Bell’s somewhat bland Keaton Batman. Oddly, Daniel Craig seems more animated here than he normally does in real life, somehow finding liberation but still retaining an edge; other than that, the voices could have been pretty much anyone and you may not have noticed. In particular, the third collaboration (of sorts) between Edgar Wright and the Pegg / Frost combo suffers from Simon Pegg seemingly not settling on one particular voice for any length of time, with random levels of gruffness affecting his performance. And the former glories and past treasures? Those are being sought by Spielberg, who was the master of this type of thing for much the Seventies and Eighties, but has lost his lightness of touch in recent years and many feel he still has to atone for the last Indiana Jones film. This shares a spirit with the likes of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but where that’s pacing and storytelling perfection, this feels over-egged and over-enthusiastic, and doesn’t quite hit the same marks. Overall it’s a brave attempt, and it’s a lot of fun if you’re prepared to just sit back and cling on for the ride, but the problems mean that Tintin’s first Hollywood adventure doesn’t quite come up with the goods.
Why see it at the cinema: It is a visual feast, and you couldn’t ask for more in terms of the visual spectacle. You might actually ask for a little less, if anything.
Why see it in 3D: If this was made entirely with 3D in mind, it doesn’t show. There’s a few “wave a giant stick in the face of the audience” moments, but the editing isn’t always with 3D in mind, and the vertiginous shifts and sweeps of the opening titles could leave the odd person feeling seasick in 3D. So 2D will be fine if you fancy it.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: Cinema as a medium is threatened, if you believe the popular press. We now prefer to watch movies in our comfy home cinemas and IMAX and 3D are touted as the last hopes of cinema chains keeping people seeing movies where they were meant to be seen. But the thing that will actually keep people coming back is good storytelling, and what the great movies of 2010 are starting to show is that it’s the layers of depth of storytelling, and indeed of many other facets of the production, that will get people engaged and keep them returning.
Edgar Wright’s first two movies have had that feeling of layers, working so well at a broad level but also with the finest details polished and then joined together in often unexpected ways. Other than the obvious directorial touches, though, it’s been difficult to tell exactly who contributed what in the two Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg collaborations, so seamless has the join been. What’s now abundantly clear is that Wright can blend just as seamlessly with the right material of others as well, and has honed from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comics something that actually feels a level up (if you’ll pardon the pun) from his first two movies, unlikely as that may seem. Wright’s had a slightly ADD directorial style at times, but one that still fit the vast majority of the material at hand, but here the flourishes are subtle, and ramped up over the course of the running time.
What’s truly inspiring about Scott Pilgrim is how many different cultural themes are composed into the greater structure. Where Shaun took references from the zombie / horror genres and Fuzz raided action movie lockers and thrillers (with a smidgen of horror thrown in), Pilgrim is a love story to video games, comic books and indie / rock music, among others. As Ang Lee’s Hulk proved, translating the visual style of a comic book directly to the screen can go wrong in the best of hands, but the comic book sensibility is retained very effectively, on-screen writing and captions giving a well-structured feel. Somehow, the video game aspects of the comic books form the basis for a visual frame of reference on top of that; as anyone who’s played them will know, keeping your interest is nigh on impossible if you can’t follow what’s happening, but the action is well staged, always clear and progresses effortlessly up through the gears.
Through it all, character development is weaved in effortlessly to the tightly plotted but flowing story, and of course O’Malley’s titanic contributions should not be understated here, having provided much of the meat, but the central pairing characters get to work through as many relationship issues and combinations as a whole Friends box-set, but in a way that feels refreshingly honest and ultimately powerfully cathartic for anyone that’s made any mistakes in the past – which, let’s be honest, should be most of us. That Pilgrim the movie covers so much ground in storytelling terms while successfully mining so many layers of modern culture is nothing short of breathtaking.
The cast, meanwhile are all pitch perfect and uniformly brilliant, but Cera, Winstead and Culkin should all be proud of what they’ve done here. Much is always made of Cera’s seemingly repetitive performances, but he continues the trend of Youth In Revolt of twisting that persona just a little further each time, to winning effect here. Of the exes, Brandon Routh is a twisted highlight but you’ll wish nearly all of them had about three times the amount of screen time, so enjoyable is the company of the characters and the performances. But more than the acting, Wright and his production team have assembled an embarrassment of riches in the craft departments; from musical collaborators including Nigel Godrich and Beck, through Brad Allen’s stunt coordination to Bill Pope’s cinematography, everyone has raised their game and the final product somehow manages to exceed expectations, which started pretty high.
It’s the emotional depth, though, that takes this all the way up to the classic level. By the end you’ll find yourself rooting for the characters and their eventual fates, and there’s a delicious irony that this movie is about growing up when the cultural fabric it’s woven from wants us to remain young at heart for ever. Overall, this is just another affirmation that Edgar Wright, in his own way, ranks alongside Christopher Nolan as one of the finest British directors of our times. Continue? Yes, please.
Why see it at the cinema: Despite all the above, there is one reservation; as with Shaun and Fuzz, there is probably an entry level for required knowledge to get from it as much as I did, in that knowing nothing about video games or comic books that aren’t Spider-Man could hamper your enjoyment here in the same way that not knowing something about zombies or action movie clichés may not allow you get the most from those other movies. But the game-mimicking aspect ratio shifts and extraordinary level of detail really do deserve to be seen on the big screen.
The Score: 10 / 10