Wednesday, January 8, 2014

To Numb The Sense Of Impending Doom

I’ve always been the sort of person to dwell a little too much on the past but so much time has gone by since I left the town I grew up in (Scarsdale, NY, as I’ve written about before) that any ghosts left back there when I moved away have reverted to being little more than tiny pieces of memory rummaging around the back of my head. I’ve long since moved onto other hopes, other women, other regrets, other dreams that never quite worked out. You get older but those things still chase after you in the dead of night, the girls in question still pop their heads up when you run into them at the exact wrong time.
The end of the year has now turned into the beginning of the year. Whether it’s the beginning of anything else for me, I suppose time will tell. A year ago at this time I announced that I was ending this blog. Of course, I changed my mind several months later and now have no plans to stop again. I’d update it more if I could. If I’d thought about it rationally at the time I would have just taken a quiet sort of sabbatical and left it at that but whatever my reasons were, burnout or what have you, I ultimately came to a place where I missed it. Writing this blog is a good thing for me, regardless of who is reading, it’s an outlet to express myself and what I love. Crazy as it sounds now, this blog is a part of me. And if anyone out there appreciates odd, long looks at the likes of CISCO PIKE or STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET then you have my gratitude. As I’ve written about before, few films have resonated with me the way Edgar Wright’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD was able to when it was released in 2004 and now going on a decade later I’m finding a certain similar kinship with Wright’s recent THE WORLD’S END (written by himself & star Simon Pegg), billed as the final part of his Cornetto trilogy with 2007’s HOT FUZZ coming in the middle. It’s a film which is as tightly plotted as possible while at the same time a complete and total character study within that incessant narrative drive—it’s swirling with what feels like a lot of ghosts from the past of the people who made the film. It’s often hilarious as well, although the laughs have a different goal than they did in Wright’s earlier films, a reminder of how they’re not designed to go down as easy as they have in the past. They’re not supposed to.
Fortyish and aimless Gary King (Simon Pegg) suddenly comes up with a plan to reunite his childhood friends Andy (Nick Frost), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) to return to their hometown of Newton Haven and recreate the night they attempted the Golden Mile, a crawl of the small English town’s twelve pubs which they never finished way back when on a night Gary remembers as the greatest night of their lives. Somehow talked into it by Gary, the reluctant four turn up and as Gary wonders why a few of the bartenders don’t remember him old tensions soon begin to rise up not the least of which is when Oliver’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike), who Gary and Steven always fought over, also turns up. But all of these arguments are back-burnered, or at least you’d think they would be, when Gary makes the most surprising discovery of what has really happened to their hometown of all.
Often designed to allow for jokes that can only fully register on repeat viewings, this is a part of what makes Edgar Wright's films so good and so rich but ultimately it’s not what draws me back over and over. There’s clearly something I’m connecting with--as director and screenwriter his style is developing, growing, making his characters even more vivid, the continuing onslaught of dialogue that much more memorable and makes me sit there in awe, whatever identification I feel towards some of it more than a little unnerving in how it hits close to home. In making up a ten best list for 2013 (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is at number one and that’s what I have to say about that; much of the rest is in flux) I found myself putting this one pretty close to the top for a number of reasons. And I’m not rewatching just for the pure sensation of it all.
While looking at some of THE WORLD’S END again I found myself fixating on the setting of Newton Haven and the prominent glimpses of renovations taking place along with the sameness of it all, the landscape being improved (WE BUILD WE IMPROVE WE PERFECT a few banners read) with the ‘Blanks’ that pose the overall threat chasing after Simon Pegg’s Gary King and his friends, to reach out and make sure they can never leave again with every metaphorical significance imaginable. HOT FUZZ didn’t contain anything quite so specific in its storyline but Edgar Wright actually filming that one in his hometown adds a subtext of a place that wants to get its grip on you and your individuality, getting out some of his feelings about what was burrowing underneath before he could move on. And that’s all over THE WORLD’S END, a film that has the past chasing after you, the place that was once an integral part of your world chasing after you, trying to get you to submit to conformity and abandon what was always your true identity. The phrase “It’s time to go home” turns up in THE WORLD’S END, reminiscent of a similar sentiment in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but even though it doesn’t necessarily mean something literal in each case it stings as if recalling what someone actually said long ago. If anything, it seems to mean that someone who’s been putting off actually becoming an adult should finally start to live like everyone else. Just grow up already. Stuff that keeps me up in the middle of the night is different these days than it once was, but I do understand the concept of the past chasing after you, having to realize that you’re never going to fully reconcile certain things as you try to somehow face the future. Does that even matter? Does anything about the past even matter? It’s a film about people who are older than they used to be—some are ok with that, some clearly aren’t. I’m still not sure which category I fall into.
The first 35 minutes of THE WORLD’S END are so tight and well-played that it’s tempting to imagine the version where it doesn’t take such an extreme right turn and remains a character-based comedy with the five leads getting progressively drunker, the inner demons coming out more and more. Maybe some would have preferred this and, yes, it would be nice to see what the Edgar Wright version of something purely character based would be one of these days (with this trilogy now complete, there has to be something else to come, right?) especially considering how good his narrative skills are. But the genre element is not only appropriate as a way to follow SHAUN and FUZZ, it also serves as an updated version of British stories of decades past along the lines of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED not to mention INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (particularly the ’78 version—that film showed at Wright’s pre-release ‘World’s End is Nigh’ series at the New Beverly in August along with other pertinent titles like WESTWORLD, AFTER HOURS and IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER). As things proceed from one pub to the next on this 12-step journey it becomes fascinating to see how the two genres are melded together and the pacing is so non-stop which adds to the growing paranoia immeasurably. After the first third the John Carpenter-like frisson of the townspeople continually lurking there in shots has that much more of an effect (Bill Pope’s evocative cinematography feels deliberately anamorphic in all the best ways) and somehow the overall narrative manages to reference both PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE at once.
Much as the dread builds and the sci-fi plot takes over, much as the tight time frame of the story keeps things moving, the character aspect never takes a backseat—there’s a dream element to it all, actually—and it’s as if these parts of the movie are battling with each other which almost seems like part of the point. Within what turns out to be more than just a sci-fi spin on SHAUN OF THE DEAD that you’d expect the film seems aware that there’s something wrong with this bar crawl that these guys are really too old for this. More than that, it’s whatever’s wrong with Gary King that nobody seems quite willing to call him on it right away. As you’re facing 40 (not to mention moving beyond it) certain things start to matter more so some of the drama in THE WORLD’S END matter more as well. Not only does Gary King want to recreate what he insists was the greatest night of his life—and, really, who wants to peak when they’re 18 anyway?—it’s as if when he sees the truth of what’s really going on it’s a chance to make it even greater. Pegg’s Shaun in SHAUN OF THE DEAD seems to know that the clock is running out on the chance to take some responsibility for his life but with Gary King, either he knows the clock has run out or he’s not paying attention anymore, long since having disappeared from the lives of his friends and the movie gets that awkwardness of seeing an old friend who you don’t have much of a connection with anymore—Gary’s strung-out appearance makes me think of when I’ve gone way too long without a haircut recently and reminds me that, for all I know, I am that guy. To be honest, I’ve sometimes feel a little like I’ve imploded in the past few years. I don’t really want to remember the past but I’m not sure what else to say either.
Paced like a metronome that gradually gets faster and faster (the work by editor Paul Machliss is impeccable and composer Steven Price’s score is dynamic as well), with Wright’s visual style stronger and more confident than ever allowing for a genuine flow in the scenes between the five guys playing off each other. The way moments are choreographed within the frame are so precise in their activity even during otherwise standard medium shots is continually thrilling, the shots are almost musical in how everything goes together. The fight scenes are phenomenally well executed but more than that I love the unrelenting kinetic feel of that foot chase to the Hole in the Wall and fight that follows which almost feels like a complete musical number in itself. Certainly part of what draws me back for repeat viewings are the various ideas that are mixed into how utterly densely thematic is its, the insistence on the individual over conformity going up against a force that’s controlling everything, a conglomerate if you will, which declares that ‘there are no losers’ in their new world order but we know otherwise. It’s the sort of thing that science fiction is rarely allowed to do in films anymore since they’re mostly just action movies. So it’s about not just regret but also what’s happening to your town, to the world, the Starbucking (I actually could use a Grande Pike right now, so it isn’t like I’m not willingly a part of all this) and wondering what that’s doing to everyone around you. And there’s the idea that the best way to deal with the growing awareness of the threat is to get progressively drunker—hey, it’s probably the best way to handle that sort of thing anyway. THE WORLD’S END doesn’t have the solutions to what to do about all this beyond the very concept of the oblivion that lasts beyond the end credits—maybe moving past 40 is a sort of oblivion anyway. How everything wraps up has been controversial and I’m still not sure how well the end works but I do admire it for how much Wright and Pegg are trying to take their concept even further than we would have imagined. Plus there is something correct about it. Gary King, in the rubble of all that he causes to happen, comes up with the right answer for himself. The most pure version of himself, pure as water.
The characterizations are continually alive within the frame and the unspoken baggage of the individual interactions between Gary and his various friends who have grown apart makes it all the more real. The few minutes where they do get along in pub no. 4 have a hangout vibe that makes me wish there could have been more of this sort of thing, not that I have any idea where such scenes would have gone. As broadly drawn as they are I believe each of these guys and whatever lives they’ve lived since they last saw Gary King—Eddie Marsan’s Peter with his innocent awkwardness, Paddy Considine’s Steven with his lurking hostility towards Gary, Martin Freeman’s Oliver with his Bluetooth forever an extension of the rest of his precise movements. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have the meatiest stuff to play, a sort of culmination of their on-screen relationships in previous films and they both do some of their very best work, each with little touches there for you to find it. The bottled-up way Nick Frost plays Andy is some of the most subtle work in the film with physical movements that become more aw-inspiring the more the film goes on while Simon Pegg’s performance as Gary really shows how far he’s come in the years since SPACED and SHAUN OF THE DEAD, his overbearing insistence on how great everything’s going to be building just right to what he finally admits near the end. Rosamund Pike (good god she’s gorgeous. Why can’t she be in every movie?) is immediately endearing as Sam, projecting whatever lived-in resignation her character has along with her obvious intelligence. She’s not onscreen very long but is more endearing here than ever before and provides just the right sort of light as the night grows darker. Plus there’s the brief lift given by a certain famous former co-star of hers who turns up in a prominent cameo and, for that matter, many of the bit players who appear throughout. I particularly like the unnerving cheerfulness of SPACED’s Mark Heap as Publican 7.
“Gary, what happened?” asks Sam during their first moment alone. Yeah, what did happen? I walked around the village of Scarsdale a lot back in the day--some of Frankenheimer's SECONDS was filmed there before I was born right around the corner from the house I grew up in, speaking of films that might have inspired THE WORLD'S END. For all I know I looked like some weird kid wearing a long coat and carrying a newspaper like he thought there was actually a reason to do that. Maybe somebody noticed that I was a regular presence. And I wonder if anyone ever noticed when I was gone. I suppose the answer doesn’t matter. Not to mention that the movie theater has long since been torn down and I just don’t want to see what the place looks like without it. Gary King’s business in Newton Haven is finished, sort of like everything Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were trying to say about their own pasts with these three films is finished. My business in Scarsdale has long since been finished there too (most of the drinking I’ve done was actually after I moved away from Scarsdale so it’s one association I don’t have with the film, but that’s another can of tuna). No one’s waiting for me back there. But we each need to face up to our past in our own way. The future, meantime, is a sort of oblivion where if we’re lucky we can figure out what our own happy ending is. And maybe somehow I still have a shot. Anyway, time to move onward to 2014. There’s more to do. More films to see and write about. Drink up. Let’s Boo-Boo.


Unknown said...

Excellent writeup of one of the best movies I've seen in awhile. I was surprised at the layers and like it more each time I watch it and see shades of myself in Gary King too. So here's to getting that shot. Happy 2014. Always enjoy your writing, look forward to more to come.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Mac F--

Thanks very much for that! And wishing a Happy 2014 to you as well!