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
The Review: Some franchises manage to knock out films like they’re going out of fashion; others prefer to take their time, attempting to mature like a fine wine. It took us seventeen years to see four Alien films, eighteen years to get to four Die Hards and ten more than that again for the fourth Indiana Jones film to roll around. There’s often a feeling, especially when looking through lists like that, that by the time a franchise gets to number four it might not as well have bothered. Even if you have a strong central idea, finding ways to take the story for a fourth trip round the block can be tricky; when your third film was five years ago, and your star had such a public bout of crazy that audiences stayed away in droves, then you might be forgiven for thinking that someone, somewhere, was still channelling that crazy. But you know what? Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol might be up there with the best in the franchise, possibly even the best, so how did that happen?
First off, it has a lot to do with the star. He might do a passable impersonation of a Tasmanian devil on a couch from time to time, but Tom Cruise is still The World’s Biggest Movie Star™ (no pun intended). Part of the reason that the series has never been less than watchable is Tom himself; for any perceived faults offscreen, when he turns on the charisma onscreen he has the star power to cause the rest of the movie to gravitate to him. In the M:I series, he’s brought something else, a willingness to commit to his own stunts which has given the films that added sense of danger. Whether running through an exploding fish tank or hanging off a mountain, he’s absolutely committed to his craft, and suitably for the fourth film he’s taking things, quite literally, to new heights, running about on top of the world’s tallest skyscraper with an energy and a madness that would shame most men half his age. He’s a little more dialled down here, skimping on the goofy grinning and instead showing off muscles and smoulder, but still he’s the nexus which links the series and the film itself together.
The other secrets have been renewal and a sense of personal craft. Mission: Impossible was completely and unmistakeably a Brian De Palma film; John Woo’s fingerprints and JJ Abrams’ lens flare (ow, my eyes) were all over the sequels. Brad Bird might not be quite the auteur of his predecessors but he has a gift for storytelling and can shoot an action sequence to within an inch of its life. Sadly, the first area is a slight let-down here, attempts at grafting personal conflict coming over as half hearted, and Mission: Protocol – Impossible Ghost, or whatever, is better when it sticks to being a Cold War throwback film, almost as if the last twenty years never happened in the real world. The emotional arcs also result in a coda that feels tacked on and unnecessary, rather than the satisfying resolution to the plot it could have been. The only other slight failing is Michael Giacchino’s score, so relentlessly staccato that it might induce a form of aural epilepsy by the time you attempt to leave the cinema.
But everything else works a treat. Simon Pegg gets a promotion to field agent and but still manages to leaven the film with a streak of mild humour without unbalancing the tone, Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner have just about sufficient character to round out an enjoyable team, and the story never tries to get too much in the way of the string of set pieces that keep the momentum moving nicely. You feel it might have been nice to give Michael Nyqvist’s Eurotrash bad guy a few more juicy lines, but it doesn’t derail the rest of the film. Brad Bird has achieved the seeming impossible, breathing new life into this fourth entry but in a way that has echoes of all three previous films, and the actions sequences are well framed and, especially in the case of the skyscraper caper, genuinely tense and utterly thrilling. From the time the opening credits unspool with the traditional highlight reel and Lalo Shifrin’s iconic theme blasts out, Mission: Ghost – Thingummy Whatsit kicks into a high gear and never lets up. Jeremy Renner was brought in to take over the mantle, but on this evidence here’s hoping the Cruiser’s got one more in him before he stops accepting missions.
Why see it at the cinema: Action films are an increasingly rare commodity these days, big studios preferring to spend their money on costumed crusaders rather than old-fashioned car chases and shoot-outs. So when one does come round, and it’s as enjoyable as this, then make it your Saturday night priority, and don’t forget the popcorn.
Why see it in IMAX: If you even have the tiniest fear of heights, the moment when the camera follows Tom Cruise as he steps out of the window of the 130th floor of the Burj Khalifa and then pans down to see the ground in the far distance, in the crystal clear quality of the IMAX image, should cause your heart to leap up through your chest, out of your mouth and to head for the nearest exit forthwith.
The Score: 8/10
Oh, and what about that Dark Knight Rises prologue? If you’ve not heard by now, it’s the opening six minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, plus a brief teaser trailer lasting about a minute. If you saw The Dark Knight in IMAX, then the prologue is easily the equal of anything from that, and without giving away anything much, if they did what they did for real, then wow, and if they didn’t, then CGI has developed to a point of such total realism that you’ll no longer care that you can’t tell the difference.
There is an issue with Bane’s dialogue (I was paying close attention, and I think I caught about 75% of what Tom Hardy actually says, but it looks to be another character study to rival Heath Ledger’s – Nolan seems to know how to get the best out of his actors), but somehow Nolan is such a perfectionist that it feels like a deliberate ploy at this stage, rather than something careless in the sound mix. Only seven and a half months to found out…
The Review: Great comedy double acts of the cinema used to be common, from Laurel and Hardy to Abbott and Costello, from Hope and Crosby to Prior and Wilder, but nowadays we have to put up with the likes of the Wayans brothers or Harold and Kumar. Also, Laurel and Hardy aside, there’s never really been a British pairing to compare; at least until the 21st century, when the unlikely geek stylings of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been brought together on worldwide cult hits including Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. With a Spielberg movie (admittedly a motion capture one) also in the can, the pair have taken off the Edgar Wright-shaped stabilisers and have written and are starring in their latest adventure, this time with Greg “Superbad” Mottola behind the camera. The pair gained inspiration from their time spent hawking their various other wares at events like Comic-Con, so this sees them start at that very event and get drawn into a road trip with a small grey friend they inadvertently pick up along the way.
It’s testament to how far special effects have come that Paul is a fully realised and integrated character in the story. Even ten years ago, he’d have either been some form of puppet or Muppet with possibly the occasional CG shot and a midget running around in the costume, filmed from a distance, but he gets plenty of screen time and he’s far and away the best thing in the film, thankfully, not only for the remarkably conveyed emotions in his well animated face but also for Seth Rogen’s stellar voice work. It’s also fair to say that Paul gets the vast majority of the best lines, almost as if he’s wandered in from a much funnier movie. His story, as such, is fairly linear but it does take an occasional detour, and along the way manages to pick up additional stragglers, including Kirsten Wiig’s one-eyed Christian and a succession of shady government characters including Jason Bateman and Bill Hader trying to capture Paul before he can reach his goal.
It’s a stellar supporting cast, many of whom get reduced to barely cameos, and some of them do serve to take you out of the story, if only briefly. However, they pretty much all manage to make an impact of some sort, which leaves only two characters who struggle to truly engage, which strangely are Graham and Clive, a.k.a. Pegg and Frost. They have somehow not recaptured the chemistry of their Wright collaborations and end up both playing the straight man in the comedy double act to Paul’s broader laughs. Consequently the movie is as flat as a pancake until Paul arrives, and also nearly gets derailed with the ham-fisted subplot around Kirsten Wiig’s beliefs. While the kinetic energy that Edgar Wright brings might have been too much for this more casual road movie, there’s still a lack of drama or tension at many points in Greg Mottola’s more restrained direction and the eventual outcomes are all signposted a mile off.
That’s not to say there’s not a lot to enjoy, because there is. As well as the titular alien lighting up the screen, Wigg, Bateman and Hader all fill out their roles well and Sigourney Weaver relishes her role as the boss trying to stop Paul’s progress. The whole movie is a love affair to Spielberg, so there’s plenty of nods, nudges and winks and even an appropriate cameo, and if you’re as geeky as the lead characters you’ll have a whale of a time spotting all of the references. Somehow the special magic of the Pegg-Wright collaborations gets missed here, as the references feel more obvious, possibly because of the setting, and drama and pathos are also somewhat lessened. Crucially, it’s just not as consistently funny as Shaun or Fuzz, and so ends up being a movie you’ll probably like rather than love, but it doesn’t stop you wondering what this comedy double have in store for us next.
Why see it at the cinema: The wide open spaces of the US of A get a good airing on the cinema screen, and the giant viewing area will allow you to take in the amazing detail of Paul’s animation at its best. There’s just about enough laughs to warrant the communal viewing experience as well.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: John Landis is responsible for some of the finest comedies of the Seventies and early Eighties. Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places would be a fine legacy for anyone, but then Landis also has horror chops, having unleashed An American Werewolf on London and the world. Somehow, though, Landis seemed to use up all his good creative instincts during that fertile period, and his career ever since has languished in mediocrity. Coming To America, over 20 years ago, may be his last even half-decent effort, so maybe it makes sense in that context to make something that’s both horror and comedy. Sadly, for everyone concerned, what we have ended up with is neither.
It all seemed so promising, especially when Simon Pegg and David Tennant were announced as playing the titular duo. Tennant, of course, departed to be replaced by Andy Serkis, in a move which Tennant must be very grateful for whatever scheduling gods forced his replacement. Pegg is generally good value and Serkis mugs appropriately, but neither feels especially comfortable with the material or, indeed, their accents. Burke and Hare were from Northern Ireland, a fact that’s barely discernible from Serkis’ accent and only slightly more so from Pegg’s.
At least they fare better than the love interest Isla Fisher, who manages to be Dick Van Dyke bad in terms of both accent and performance. There are some gems in the supporting cast, including Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry as competitors in medicine (and in a much more interesting movie) and Jessica Hynes, who seems to be about the only person to have correctly captured the broad tone that Landis was aiming for as Serkis’ wife. The rest of the cast is also filled with “ooh, is that…?” faces of varying familiarity; the tragedy is that the game of spot-the-random-famous-face quickly becomes more interesting than the actual movie.
It’s not broad enough to be successful as a farce, or funny enough to work as a straight comedy. The story itself would quite happily lend to straight horror, but sadly the gruesome moments feel like flicking between a horror marathon and CBeebies, so oddly juxtaposed and ill-considered are they against the rest of the piece; and critically, there’s really not enough of them. On top of all that, the liberties with the truth are so extensive that only one major character actually has their real life fate bestowed upon them, and the alternate fates conjured up for the rest don’t feel anywhere interesting enough to justify the changes. Somewhere in here there was a great movie trying to get out, but sadly all that’s left is for future film scholars to pore over this one’s festering corpse and ponder where it all went wrong.
Why see it at the cinema: If you like to see some of the greatest talent of British film today, plus Ronnie Corbett, dying slowly on their backsides, then this is the film for you.
The Score: 4/10