REVIEW: The World’s End

23 06 2017

Edgar Wright might be known for his visual comedy and genre pastiche, but he’s also not afraid to throw in a little social commentary with his trademarks. Like many contemporary directors, he’s concerned with the effect of cell phones and technology on society. Part of the joke in Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” was how little separated the undead zombies from the barely living humans on a treadmill of electronic stimulation.

His 2013 feature “The World’s End” takes that comparison to newly absurd heights. In this reunion comedy-cum-apocalyptic action flick, cell phones are the tool that’s turning residents of a sleepy British town into robotic versions of themselves. (Hit them hard enough in the head, and they’ll spew blue liquid!)

Wright’s clever twist on the genre is to focus on replacement over annihilation. As an exposition-heavy section of dialogue tells us, “They want to make us more like them.” Social change happens not as an invasion or hostile takeover, although the horror films that speak to our anxieties about it usually portray it as such. Rather, the decline of civility takes place as a gradual erosion until our humanity is barely recognizable.

Wright (and co-writer Simon Pegg) are smart to set this observation against the backdrop of the pub tour of five estranged friends brought back together by Pegg’s lonely alcoholic. As he yearns for the mythical past of his glory days, he finds the present-day changes to the people of the town make his nostalgia impossible. Yet the social commentary, which is not anything particularly monumental, comes at the expense of Wright’s usual cheeky fun. It’s nice to get a reminder that friends and happiness are two things worth fighting for – these characters just aren’t always the best merchants for that moral. B

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REVIEW: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

1 03 2016

There is no requirement that a war film – or a film set in a war – grapple existentially or philosophically with that conflict. But, at the very least, it should at least make for more than just wallpaper for another narrative. Such is the case in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” based on Kim Barker’s memoir about her experiences covering the dog days of the American presence in Afghanistan.

Very few people – except maybe a few U.S. senators – go to fictionalized accounts of wartime stories and expect the level of historical discourse that might accompany a documentary. (Looking for a great one about Afghanistan? Find “Restrepo” or “The Oath” online.) A certain level of simplification is expected, if not practically mandated to connect with moviegoers who might not know the locations of Iraq and Afghanistan on a globe. It’s not that “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” fails at providing context, like Michael Bay’s “13 Hours,” that proves so bothersome. It’s that the film doesn’t even try.

Were it not for the occasional gunshots and explosions, one could easily mistake the war zone of Afghanistan for any oppressive third-world country. Tina Fey’s protagonist Kim Barker bops around the “Ka-bubble” of Kabul less in search of a hard-hitting story and more in search of herself. She takes the wartime correspondent position in America’s Forgotten War as a means of rescuing herself from becoming forgotten as well. Facing a midlife crisis from her dead-end relationship and desk-bound career, she hops on the plane to Afghanistan with the same gusto of Elizabeth Gilbert in “Eat Pray Love.”

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REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

5 01 2014

It’s a shame that it has not yet become en vogue for a deep voice to announce “previously on…” at the beginning of a film like they do at the start of an episode of “Homeland” or “Lost.”  This would certainly have come in handy for “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the middle chapter of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation-cum-trilogy.  I will confess that I found the first entry, “An Unexpected Journey,” so forgettable that I spent 15 minutes reading the plot summary on Wikipedia  – and even longer trying to figure out how to remember or comprehend it.

Call me crazy, but I’ve always been rather immune to the appeal of Jackson’s Middle Earth epics.  While I admire the impeccable make-up work, the gorgeous cinematography, and the sheer amount of attention to detail apparent in the creation, the whole always feels less than the sum of its parts.  The plots never really engage me, and I find myself mentally exhausted by the end simply trying to both follow the chain of events and keep the characters straight.

“The Desolation of Smaug” seems about on par with its predecessor.  Neither have the same sense of urgency that propelled the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, thus making their north-of-160-minute runtimes feel more like a chore than an afternoon of entertainment.

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REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

12 01 2013

At nearly three hours in duration, Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” plays like a director’s cut or an extended edition.  That is to say, the length feels like its been stretched out as if run through Willy Wonka’s taffy puller.  For Tolkien and “Lord of the Rings”/”Hobbit” enthusiasts, this overly generous runtime is probably a delight.

For people like me, who enjoy Jackson’s impeccable craftsmanship but fight to stave off boredom in his films, it truly is a test of patience.  The movie takes a delight in moseying and taking its time to let the events play out.  While at times, I found myself getting taken out of the movie by the obnoxiously slow pacing, I didn’t find it nearly as much of a chore as I would have expected.

For a movie I was nearly expecting to hate, ambivalence is a sort of victory for this first volume of “The Hobbit” trilogy in my book.  Perhaps the grand scope of the IMAX 3D helped as there were aerial shots aplenty to take my breath away.  The movie also features the same incredible technical achievement that won many Oscars for “The Lord of the Rings.”  Visual effects, cinematography, production design, makeup, sound … it’s all back to stunning effect.

“An Unexpected Journey” seems to be setting the stage for better things to come, and I am confident that they will in fact be delivered.  Though I couldn’t name you a single one of the dwarves, I found their quest for freedom moderately engaging.  Jackson’s script, co-written Guillermo del Toro along with his Academy Award-winning writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, also brings back plenty of thematic resonance to give some meaning to the wandering in this first installment.

But the movie’s best feature, and maybe the most unexpected triumph, is the performance of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins.  He’s always fun to watch as a supporting actor, and with the spotlight on him, he doesn’t disappoint.  He brings all the charm of his typical unassuming wallflower to Bilbo, lending a crucial everyman vibe to a character operating in a fantasy world.

Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins is almost like a new-age (or Middle Earth, if you must) Hitchcock hero, an average joe caught by surprise in a web of events beyond his wildest imagination.  Although instead of the debonair suaveness of Cary Grant or James Stewart, Freeman provides a humble self-deprecation that makes him all the more delightful to watch.  Though I could do with a little less easygoing construction in future “Hobbit” films, I am very excited to see how Freeman will evolve the character.  B2halfstars