The World’s End

ImageWell ladies and gentlemen, the Cornetto trilogy has finally come to a close.  Whether you knew it or not, director Edgar Wright and writer/actor/producer Simon Pegg teamed up in 2004 to create the most loosely connected cinematic trilogy of all time beginning with Shaun of the Dead, followed by Hot Fuzz in 2007, and culminating in 2013 with The World’s End.  The films share no characters, plot devices, settings, or  really any foreseeable connective quality.  What they do share is actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, passing references to a popular British ice cream treat called Cornetto, and a few surprises for die-hard fans.  Otherwise, these three films are as unrelated as could be.  What we’re left with is a social commentary wrapped up in an inside joke that unfortunately has no solid punch line.

The World’s End follows Peter, Andy, Oliver (also known as ‘Oman’ because of an unfortunate birthmark shaped like a 6 on his forehead), and ringleader Gary.  In 1990, Gary (Simon Pegg) and his four best friends attempted and failed to complete “The Golden Mile,” a 12 tavern pub crawl in their hometown of Newton Haven that ends at a particular pub named The World’s End.  Twenty years later, Gary’s life has paled in comparison to that fabled night two decades ago, and while he has not quite left the wild days of his youth behind, his friends have.  After recounting his happier days at a rehab session, Gary decides to reconnect with his reluctant friends and convince them to give “the Golden Mile” one more go.    

The World’s End does very well moving from point A to point B providing lively introductions to the characters and Hangover-style laughs as the group of friends reminisce over past antics and attempt to reclaim the passion of their youth.  Pegg’s performance as Gary is uproarious and sharp.  His reaction to Andy (Nick Frost) ordering a tap water rather than a proper pint is comic perfection, and his various monologues are quick witted, fast, and smart.  Unfortunately, the film hits a stumble moving from point B to point C and does a world class face plant on its way to point D. 

I want to preface this next point by saying that I do not think From Dusk Til Dawn is a good film, nor do I feel that The World’s End is a bad film, yet a comparison must be made.  From Dusk Til Dawn, the George Cloony/Quentin Tarantino vampire western, is notoriously critiqued in the following way: “It was pretty good until the vampires showed up.”  The World’s End will likely receive similar word of mouth, except replace “vampires” with “alien robots.”  The movie does not come entirely off the rails upon the revelation of alien robots, but the tone becomes uneven and “ludicrous” becomes a word that might be used to describe the events from that point forward.  Proponents of the film will cite Shaun of the Dead as a film that similarly injects a sudden influx of horror into an otherwise silly comedy.  However, the mixing of genres in that film works far better than in this one.  The “body snatching” alien storyline interrupts all of the progress made in the film’s first half and unfortunately leads to an incredibly unsatisfying conclusion.  

The World’s End is admittedly British.  By this, I mean that the humor, styling, and overall mood of the film is dry and at times very silly.  Fans of this type of humor know what I mean, and those who go through life saying, “I don’t understand what’s so funny about Monty Python and the Holy Grail” should stay miles away from The World’s End.  The film works somewhat well as a critique on the globalization of society where the boys find the pubs they once loved for their individuality becoming increasingly “starbucked,” resembling one another in every detail.   Additionally, Wright and Pegg have written a film that cleverly alludes to films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing in quite nuanced and ingeniously fresh ways.  Quite a bit works in The World’s End, but ponderous choices are made from time to time that will leave audiences scratching their heads.  Overall, The World’s End is funny but also preposterous, and it fails to successfully convey a satisfactory point about being middle-aged or the loss of youth, both of which are so strongly introduced in the film’s first half.  I for one would enjoy a film about these five guys rehashing the past and drinking – end of story.  There is no doubt that Wright and Pegg are a good team, and while Pegg is becoming more of a household name thanks to high profile roles like Scotty in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films, he still has plenty of passion for his roots.  As they leave the “Cornetto” behind, I think strong collaborations are in store for the future.  B-

The World’s End is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes.  Aside from Pegg and Frost, the cast also features some interesting cameos (some more obvious than others) as well as Martin Freeman (currently playing Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films), who successfully revives the phrase “WTF,” and Rosamund Pike (soon to be seen in David Fincher’s Gone Girl) who successfully revives the phrase “oh crumbs.”

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Blue Jasmine

ImageFor The People’s Critic, perhaps the most anticipated moment of any cinematic calendar year is not the summer blockbusters or the fall awards-hungry films.  It is the release of the latest Woody Allen film.  With Blue Jasmine being his 41st film as writer/director in as many years, the always reliable, always prolific auteur has earned the respect of The People’s Critic as a living legend.  The Brooklyn-born neurotic genius shows no signs of running out of steam at the age of 77 with Blue Jasmine being one of his most insightful and finely-tuned films of his career.

Have you ever wondered who that blabbering stranger is who sits next to you on an air plane or who that mumbling nut-case is who sits next to you on a park bench?  These are quite possibly the questions that inspired Allen’s latest film.  The film’s title refers to Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), a modern American socialite who suffers a life crisis when her financial investor husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), turns out to be a white-collar crook in the vein of Bernie Madoff.  Jasmine’s story is told as a fractured storyline flashing back and forth to Jasmine’s life before and after her impending ruin.  Allen handles these juxtapositions flawlessly, carefully crafting the triggers that send the story hurdling back and forth.

Allen’s film may be contextually set within the confines of financial crisis; however, the film is actually about trust and fate.  The strength of the story rests on the complex and fractured relationship between two adopted sisters, Jasmine and Ginger (Sally Hawkins).  Jasmine and Ginger were separately adopted, raised together, but fate sent them on wildly different paths.  The film opens with a freshly ruined Jasmine leaving New York to live with Ginger in San Francisco.  The transition is not an easy one for her, and Ginger’s low-middle class lifestyle disgusts Jasmine.  What complicates things even more is that Ginger and her now ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) were victims of Jasmine’s husband and lost everything.  Jasmine is mindful of this tension and it is a testament to Blanchett’s ability in how strongly she plays a victim who is also a victimizer!  Allen explores this element throughout the film while also examining Jasmine’s sense of entitlement regardless of the fact that she has no skills and simply fell into wealth; we even learn that even her name is false as she changed it from Jeanette to Jasmine because she thought Jeanette “lacked panache.”

Furthermore, trust is a dynamic issue presented in the film.  While mostly known for his impeccable ability to create fascinating female characters (and Blue Jasmine is no exception), Allen also presents the damage of deception through his uncharacteristically diverse set of male characters.  Bobby Cannavale is especially indicative of this as Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili.  Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., and Peter Sarsgaard join Cannavale and Dice Clay in developing the vital effect of trust, or lack thereof, on the human condition.

When one looks at the career and accomplishments of Woody Allen, one sees the maturation of an artist, of a genius.  It is this maturation of Allen’s techniques, subject matter, and films in general that I find most interesting.  And it is fitting that Blue Jasmine is probably most comparable with one of Allen’s most mature films, Crimes and Misdemeanors as both films utilize his broad knowledge of literature and film as well as exploring a whole range of moral ambiguities while accomplishing the difficult task of combining comedy with drama.  Cate Blanchett is poised to enter the Oscar race swinging as is Allen’s screenplay.  Blanchett is clearly the film’s major talking point and she delivers a tragic performance worthy of much discussion.  I can only imagine how Ruth Madoff feels about this one.  A

Blue Jasmine is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes.  This is another solid film in Allen’s storied career that is sure to illicit emotion while also emitting a slightly disturbing tone. 

Elysium

ImageWhat if Wall-E were real?  That’s the question director Matt Damon and director Neill Blomkamp try to answer in Elysium.  Actually, there have been plenty of films depicting world-ending scenarios this summer, nonetheless, this is the one that stars Matt Damon, so pay attention.

The word “Elysium” actually refers to a Greek notion of the afterlife where those chosen by the gods would spend eternity.  Blomkamp’s Elysium reveals a similar idea with the ironic twist being that the “chosen few” are simply the world’s wealthiest and most privileged.  Here Elysium is a space station constructed miles above Earth’s atmosphere designed to house the planet’s most fortunate, so that they can maintain their lavish lifestyle without the burdens of living on an overpopulated Earth.  The year is 2154.  Max (Damon) is an average guy living in L.A. who finds himself in a life or death situation that can only be cured by the advanced medical treatments available on Elysium.  Elysium’s strict immigration laws prevent unauthorized travel to the haven, leaving Max to desperate measures.

Blomkamp’s film is wonderfully directed.  With brilliant juxtapositions between Elysium and Earth, he designs a very well made story that looks all too real!  Scenes of sweeping, Eden-esque beauty are shattered by guerrilla-style wildness of a civilization clinging to existence.  Slightly reminiscent of Minority Report, Max’s humanity and loss thereof is accentuated with symbolic intensity and careful pacing.  His decent into despair is marked by a crude cyborg-like surgical implant that Blomkamp uses to remind us of how close we are from becoming a race of data transfer capsules.  The film’s various villains are united and yet compartmentalized representing a visionary balance of complexity that while slightly excessive could have been tremendously overbearing.  Blomkamp’s previous film District 9 was in a similar topical vein, and while it was a better film overall than Elysium, this latest film is a finer directorial effort, perhaps worthy of Oscar’s attention, although unlikely given the film’s weaknesses in other areas.

Elysium’s main problem is in the writing.  The problem is that Elysium should be more upsetting than it is.  It attempts to invoke the spirit, the outrage, and the temperament of the Occupy Wall-Street movement, showing a wealthy 1% looking down on a struggling and desperate 99%.  However, this is done in a rather heavy-handed way that comes across simplistic and, at times, stereotypically vapid.  This is most apparent in examining Jodi Foster’s Secretary Delacourt who attempts to plan a coup for seemingly no better reason than because her fascist ways are more fascist than the current fascist in charge.  Foster does her best with what she’s given, but a complicated issue is reduced to a shred of viability, turning what could have been a deeply stirring sci-fi commentary into just another by the numbers hero tale.  Questions are left unanswered especially in the film’s closing act, which offers a naive and, while plausible, uneven resolution.  Not to mention that the film fails to soften the reality that Damon, Blomkamp, and company are pandering to a low to middle class audience about the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  I had a similar issue with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby from earlier this Spring.  This is the “Catch-22” of A-List Hollywood in the economically polarized 21st century.

Pompousness aside, Elysium offers a fast-paced, stirring, visually well-made exploration of a slice of humanity.  While it may not accomplish what it set out to do contextually, it is still a worthy film deserving of some credence.  B

Elysium is rated R and has a refreshingly appropriate running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes.  While not the near masterpiece of sci-fi that was District 9, Elysium is a good summer movie and a great example of visionary directing. 

The Conjuring

ImageOne of the best things you can say about a horror movie is simply this: it’s scary.  In January, I wrote a short discussion on the horror genre masked as a review of Mama.  I have chosen to foolishly assume that my small blog post has single handedly reminded filmmakers and studios of the potential effect creative horror films can have.  The Conjuring is scary.

Strangely enough, the man who revitalized the exploitative “torture-porn” style of horror with his 2004 film Saw is now looking to do the very same thing to the classic horror style that films like Saw all but demolished.  James Wan helms the efficaciously eerie film, The Conjuring which tells the true story of two paranormal investigators who agree to help a family whose house may be infested with a demonic presence in 1970s New England.

From the Exorcist inspired main titles, The Conjuring is off and running.  We are introduced to paranormal investigators Ed and Loraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they hear out potential clients explaining a feared demonic infestation by way of inhabitation of a very disturbing looking doll.  We discover that Ed is a demonologist who while not ordained is still accepted among the Catholic church and his wife Lorainne is a clairvoyant, both with many successful cases behind them.  After this introduction, we are informed that the true story that follows details the most horrifying case that the Warrens have ever encountered.  The film’s structure then fragments into a dual narrative where we simultaneously follow the Warrens as well as the frightening events that lead a family to seek them out.

This dual narrative is an excellent choice for Wan to keep the scares coming as well as inform the audience to what is happening while not losing track of either the Warrens or the Perron family’s decent from infestation to oppression and ultimately to possession.  The story of a family bothered by something extra-terrestrial is not as fresh of an idea as it once was, but Wan’s simple techniques like a quick focus  or a back and forth camera pan offer terrifying results.  Additionally, the Parron family is quite large composed of Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters.  This allows the danger to feel more real and their options to seem more limited while the terror is more expansive.  Furthermore, the appearance of a bouncing ball, a creaking door, or a quick clap provides some of the best scares in recent horror history without feeling cheap or cut-rate.  Not since the first Paranormal Activity have ghostly scares been so effective, but unlike Paranormal Activity, the scares in The Conjuring do not necessarily come with the forewarning of a timestamp on a video camera.

Reviewing a good horror film is an art in itself as quite a bit must remain unsaid, but enough must be said to entice the reader to see it.  James Wan has created a horror film that appeals to a nostalgic retro vibe that calls back to the monumentally creepy films of the 70s like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Don’t Look Now.  I first saw The Exorcist at age 17 on home video on a sunny afternoon and it still scared the ever-loving shit out of me.  I can say that The Conjuring provided me with the closest experience to that in a long time.  I’m sure it will be quite a while before I decide to watch The Conjuring alone at night.  A-       

The Conjuring is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.