I can imagine some people not enjoying The World’s End. People who don’t care about – or even notice – cinematic craftsmanship, people who think that being self-referential means being self-indulgent, audiences who prefer their action sequences to be cosmic in scale and measured in megabytes per second rather than laughs per minute – I expect those people might feel that the latest masterpiece by Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost goes sailing over their heads. After all, a film like The World’s End rewards concentration (and second and third viewings) whereas most blockbusters rely on increasingly destructive spectacle for audiences to get their kicks.
That’s not to say that this film is light on apocalypse – it promises the end of the world after all – but its core remains the deep friendships between men of a certain age and how those friendships grow when tested – the same theme that infused their previous two films together, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
Pegg plays Gary King, middle-aged lost soul, pining for the glory days of High School and desperate to complete his masterpiece – the 12 pub crawl through Newton Haven known as “The Golden Mile”. He and his mates failed back in 1993 and he’s rounding them up for one last crack at it. His four old mates (played by Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and the wonderful Eddie Marsan) are reluctant to leave their tidy grown-up lives behind but, persuaded, they get to their old stomping grounds only to find they are humanity’s only hope to avoid inter-galactic colonisation.
The World’s End makes every other commercial film this year look like lazy, spineless hackwork. Tightly plotted, solid characters with real development, an emotional core, several layers of subtext – it’s all here and they make it look so easy. It’s 109 minutes and not a moment is wasted. They pack more gags into every scene than anyone has a right to expect and even the jokes advance plot, character and theme. It’s staggering. These three films should be set texts at every film school, everywhere in the world. Flawless.
Considerably less flawless is Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a movie inspired by (and dedicated to) the great monster movies of the 20th century – stop-motion pasticine classics by the late Ray Harryhausen and Ishirô Honda (who made Godzilla back in 1954). This is a very 21st Century version, though, with state-of-the-art digital giant robots fighting equally digital slobbery giant monsters that emerge from a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Aliens invading Earth again. The effects are breathtaking – it’s patronising to say that, yes, they really can do anything now, but they can! Like the crappy B‑movies that inspired it, Pacific Rim fails on character, acting and plot. The World’s End shows how you can honour your inspirations and still be great. Pacific Rim shows how loving bad films sometimes means you make bad films.
Another disappointment from a director whose previous I am fond of, Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love misses an opportunity to use a single character to define a culture they way, say, 24 Hour Party People did with rock journalist Tony Wilson and the Manchester music scene back in 2002. Steve Coogan is also the star of this one, playing Britain’s king of porn, Paul Raymond, who bestrode the seedy side streets of Soho like a moustachioed colossus for four decades.
From the nudie shows at the end of the pier to “classy” entertainments he hoped would rival the Folies Bergere and Moulin Rouge, Raymond was a very British smut-peddler. Seeing as my football team is successfully owned by two chaps who made their fortunes from the very same culture that Raymond started, I’m not going to get prudish or judgmental about the subject. I can say that, by focusing on the dreary family dramas, the film misses an opportunity to discuss why English adult entertainment was so grim, so classless. It also relies too heavily on Coogan’s charisma to restore interest when it so often flags. Sloppy.
Lorraine Levy’s The Other Son is a heavy-handed drama about the fallout from a maternity hospital mix-up in which an Israeli and Palestinian baby are swapped accidentally. Now they are teenagers and the truth is out. I’m not sure how often this actually happens, particularly in an environment so fraught with symbolism to begin with, but somehow this film manages to make the age-old questions of nature vs. nurture seem fairly turgid, and the hands of fate with which the film is concerned are simply replaced by the equally manipulative hands of the screenwriter.
A quick final word on the battle for school holiday animated supremacy, raging at a multiplex near you. Monsters University is another Pixar sequel misfire, purporting to tell audiences how beloved (at least by me) characters Mike and Sulley met while navigating Scare School. Despite the presence of Helen Mirren among the voice cast, this one stank of straight-to-video. Big disappointment. I could have sworn that Epic was from the same people that made the Christmas bomb Rise of the Guardians but I was wrong! It’s been spray-painted with the same can of ugly, though, that’s for sure.
Ripping off dozens of already successful children’s stories (not least The Borrowers), Epic is about a society of tiny people living harmoniously in the woods, threatened by the forces of decay, protected by their magic Queen (Beyoncé Knowles). When she dies before appointing a successor, a shrunken human teenager (Amanda Seyfried) is tasked with protecting the sacred bulb, blah, blah, blah. It’s a decent story and my eleven-year-old companion enjoyed herself (and recognised more of the celebrity voices than I did) but, damn, it was ugly.
The champion has to be Despicable Me 2, pitched at such a young age that parents simply have to watch with them (you wouldn’t leave a four-year-old alone in a movie theatre, would you?). This is box office dynamite! Two adult tickets for every child. In fact, I can’t imagine a better cinematic baby-sitter than this one. Undemanding slapstick comedy, animated to a very high level, with maximal cuteness. I have to say, I felt nothing but I could sense the enjoyment coming from the littlies all around me.[Portions of this review previously appeared in FishHead Magazine.]