August 24, 2013

Cornetto Week: I'll Traverse The Golden Mile With THE WORLD'S END Any Day

"There comes a time where you have to go forward, not backwards."
Well, we've arrived at our destination.

I still remember the first time I saw Shaun Of The Dead at the Kendall Square theater in Cambridge at the beginning of my senior year of college.  Zombies had become fashionable after successes like 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn Of The Dead, so the time was perfect for someone to jump in give us a clever new riff on the genre.  I think I expected Shaun to be more of an outright parody, but what I got instead was so much better, using the familiar zombie touchstones as a backdrop to tell a smart and clever story about taking responsibility and embracing adulthood.  It helps that Shaun is also one of the funniest movies I've ever seen.  I will never forget the moment when Shaun accidentally pushes the shopgirl onto the umbrella stand and she slowly pulls herself up to reveal a hole in her stomach...and Ed slowly winds his camera.  I laughed so hard I literally fell off my chair.

I have an equally special place in my heart for Hot Fuzz.  My younger brother was visiting me in L.A. and he got really sick that day, but he stuck it out like a trooper and went to the movie with us anyway.  I grew up loving the sort of buddy cop action movies that Wright is playing on with Fuzz, so it's hard for me not to love Nick Frost's Danny Butterman and his obsession with the likes of Point Break and "firing two guns whilst jumping through the air."  Plus Danny and Nicholas Angel have some of the greatest homoerotic chemistry I've ever seen on film.  In a way, Edgar Wright's first two movies have always gone hand in hand for me; Shaun starts out as a play on zombie movies and slowly morphs into an actually great zombie movie, whereas Hot Fuzz actually plays things pretty straight for a while before its insanely great finale where Angel finally embraces all the action movie tropes he'd previously dismissed and, consequently, makes all of Danny's dreams come true.

Having now seen The World's End twice, both times as a full Cornetto Trilogy triple feature, I'm mostly struck by just how different it is from its predecessors.  The film addresses many of the same issues as Shaun and Hot Fuzz, particularly life in a small town and letting go of childhood, but World's End moves along a much darker trajectory.  Pegg's Gary King is an absolute dick, unlikable on almost every level and yet somehow still charming in a greasy sort of way.  He's a man who is totally unable to let go of the past, desperately trying to relive the best night of his life when he and his high school friends tried and failed to complete an epic, twelve stop pub crawl in their hometown of Newton Haven.  While his friends have all grown and matured, Gary is still stuck in that moment, wearing the same clothes and driving the same car with the same mix tape in the cassette player.  For him, that night was the pinnacle; he was leaving high school, he had his best mates and a load of booze and drugs and the whole rest of his life ahead of him, full of potential glory.  But that glory never materialized and Gary simply has no idea how to cope. That's a feeling with which I can keenly identify.  I think back to my high school and college days and it felt as if the world was mine to conquer, with unlimited opportunities to make my mark on humanity and achieve greatness. But as time marches on those possibilities are slowly whittled away until I'm left with only the consequences of the choices I've made, some regrettable but most having worked out for the best.  Still, as I commute back and forth each day to an uninspiring job with little potential for personal or professional growth, it's hard not to lust after the promise of youth and the strange mix of opportunity and invincibility that only comes when you're 18 years old.  In that way, I feel a sort of kinship with Gary King, even if he is a complete twat.

World's End features a very different structure from Wright's previous films, but it's sort of a requirement of the story he wants to tell.  Shaun and Fuzz both actively play with the audience's expectations, which is part of what makes them so sharply effective.  While Shaun and Ed remain in the dark about the growing zombie infestation until the last possible moment, the viewers are picking up all sorts of hints and nods in the background of the action or in the irony of the dialogue because we're aware that we're watching a zombie movie and we therefore know what's coming.  Fuzz does the same with the tenets of buddy cop movies, so that we're laughing even though the characters are being deathly serious.  That element is distinctly absent from World's End simply because the characters have to actually get to the small town of Newton Haven and then spend a bit of time there before the film can make that sharp left turn into robot/body snatcher territory.  In fact, it takes about 20 minutes before the gang makes it to The First Post and another 20 minutes before the "blanks" (their name for robots) actually assert themselves into the story.  There's nothing wrong with this structural shift and in fact I was quite enjoying just watching the five friends bickering and giving each other shit in a way that's very reminiscent of my own high school buddies.  But for the serious Shaun/Fuzz fans out there, it is a little bit jarring, as is the decreased use of one of Wright's signature visual flourishes, the quick-cutting series of closeups that Darren Aronofsky referred to as "hip-hop montages" in his own work.

Okay, now let me stop and make one thing very clear:


This is by far one of the funniest releases of the year, neck and neck with, appropriately enough, Seth Rogen's This Is The End.  But The World's End is funny in a completely different sense of the word.  I saw the movie a month ago at the Brattle and I saw it again this week at the Boston Common and I laughed just as hard (if not harder) the second time as the first.  Part of that comes from the astounding number of layers and running gags present throughout the script, which are so dense and which come at you so quickly that there are many bits I didn't fully appreciate the first time through.  My favorite is probably the "selective memory" joke, although there's also a great joke about theoretical band names as well as a long running debate about what to call the robots, in which Nick Frost gets a single line that I don't even recall hearing the first time through but which absolutely DESTROYED me on the second viewing.  Not only is the dialogue clever as shit, but there's also an astounding layer of physical comedy throughout the numerous fight scenes.  It's easy to see why Simon Pegg suggested I watch Legend Of Drunken Master, since all of the combat was so masterfully choreographed by Brad Allen of the Jackie Chan stunt team.  The first fight, a five on five brawl in the men's room, as well as a later fight in which Gary is desperately trying to drink a pint while beating up a swarm of blanks both display a keen mix of both laugh out loud hilarity and bone-crunching blue carnage.  The actual design of the blanks creates some fantastic opportunities for not only amusing visuals when they get damaged, but also some great fight moments - characters are frequently beating up the blanks with a severed mechanical arm that will suddenly turn on them and start fighting back, and there's one blank who swaps some limbs around in a way that both looks silly and makes for a memorable battle.

Here's the other thing: twelve pints in the course of a few hours is a LOT of booze, especially for a group of middle age guys whose days of serious drinking are long behind them.  That means that the further into the film we go, not only does the sci-fi insanity increase, but so does our heroes' blood alcohol level, until they're not only stumbling and mumbling about the town, but they're also forced to form and execute some form of coherent plan for dealing with a terrifying menace while getting completely hammered.  The idea that the guys would continue the pub crawl after learning the truth about Newton Haven makes no sense to the sober audience, but for our blitzed heroes it seems like the only logical course of action.   There's plenty of comedy to be had along these lines and Wright smartly mines all of it, until eventually Gary finds himself trying to logic to robots to death like some kind of shitfaced Captain Kirk.  It's marvelous.

There are a few movies that I've made a point to watch more than once before writing about them, (notably Star Trek Into Darkness and Man Of Steel) but none have made me appreciate that decision so much as The World's End.  Wright and Pegg are masters of creating films that reward second and third viewings, building jokes that can only be appreciated once you know how things will play out.  In Shaun, characters are constantly saying things that describe the ultimate fate of whoever they're talking to.  ("Next time I see you, you're dead."  Or my personal favorite, "If you want to live like an animal why don't you go live in the shed?")  In The World's End, the opening flashback that depicts that fateful night 23 years prior also perfectly mirrors everything that will happen when the boys return to Newton Haven.  And the last ten minutes of the film, which are COMPLETELY bonkers, is so packed with visual gags I still feel like there's more for me to discover.

As a final note, let me just describe my full viewing experience for you.  The wonderful Brattle theater hosted the Three Flavours Cornetto Triple Feature at the end of July.  I found out about the event a few weeks in advance, so I made sure that when tickets went on sale at 3:00 PM, I had my tickets by 3:01.  Good thing too, as they apparently sold the place out in under five minutes.  It was only later, after I had returned from Mexico, that I learned that Wright, Pegg and Frost would actually be in attendance for a Q&A, so suffice it to say I was pretty giddy.  The movies themselves were great, but the Brattle really went above and beyond to make the night into something memorable.  I made sure to purchase a "Virtual Pub Crawl" ticket which entitled me to a specially selected beer for each film.

Shaun Of The Dead featured Zombie Killer Cherry Cyser, which I found to be far too sweet.

Hot Fuzz was paired with The Bollocks, mostly due to the constable on the label.

And The World's End came with a bottle of the appropriately titled La Fin Du Monde, which was my favorite of the three brews.

And while the Brattle tried in earnest to provide us all with Cornettos, it turns out that Cornetto is owned by Good Humor, who does not allow the sale and distribution of that particular brand here in the Colonies.  So instead we got the Cornetto's American cousin the King Cone, or as the Brattle called them, "Faux-Nettos."

Wright, Pegg and Frost were in terrifically good spirits, especially considering that they had just flown in that morning from Austin, Texas where the Alamo Drafthouse had thrown a similar event.  They gave us some great insights into the film, including how they chose to deal with ideas like the individual vs. the collective ("It's our basic human right to be fuck ups!") and living in perpetual adolescence ("It's actually easier to deal with aliens than the fact that you're old or the town is shit.").  They also hilariously dispelled one fan's notion that Shaun was secretly full of Deer Hunter references, an idea that seemed to stem primarily from the fact that Shaun eventually wears a red headband.  Pegg even told the story of how he and Frost first became friends: they were out to dinner with a group of people and Frost was at the opposite end of the table, playing with the salt shaker and imitating the beeping noises of the little black wheeled droid on the Death Star that Chewie sends skittering down the hallway.  Nobody else knew what he was doing except for Pegg, who described the feeling by singing, "Take My Breath Away."

So my hat is off to the Brattle for putting in the extra hard work to make it a stellar night, and thankfully The World's End is more than deserving of their efforts.  This is easily one of my favorite movies of the summer and something that I simply cannot wait to own and watch again and again and again.

Fingers crossed for a badass Cornetto Triogy box set on Blu-ray.

Title: The World's End
Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Rafe Spall
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Brattle Theater

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