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





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 22, 2017)

22 06 2017

I’d been a little iffy on Edgar Wright as a brand-name director for years … that is, until I saw his latest film, “Baby Driver,” which was so good that it inspired me to go back and revisit his entire filmography. I’d given “Shaun of the Dead” and “The World’s End” second chances before but never returned to “Hot Fuzz,” his 2007 crime caper. Wow, was I missing out.

A second watch revealed “Hot Fuzz” to be an obvious “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” It’s smart, stylish and subversive – all the things that mark Wright’s best cinema. He can successfully play with genre like few other working directors, and this re-teaming of Wright with comedic muses Simon Pegg and Nick Frost exhibits his most seamless blend.

The adventure starts as a fish-out-of-water comedy when the impressively efficient London Metro Police officer Nicholas Angel (Pegg) gets transferred to the sleepy country town Sandford. He’s used to his presence being necessary to enforce the law in the big city. Here, Angel finds that the police have made themselves largely ornamental. There’s a strong amount of social trust in the community, and the existing police officers take a hands-off approach to handling any misbehaviors and misdemeanors they observe. Not Angel, though, who takes thwarting underage pub drinking as seriously as foiling a terrorist plot.

But lurking under the blissful bucolic facade is a cabal that threatens the townspeople by exploiting their trust and naïveté. They’re certainly lucky to have Angel around for this, although he’s hamstrung by the provincial local police chief (Jim Broadbent) and his aloof son Danny Butterman (Frost) … who just so happens to be Angel’s partner. Danny’s chief preparation for the job, aside from his lineage, is watching lots of ’90s action movies. As it turns out, that proves most helpful for combating the menace facing Sandford.

Wright pulls off the tricky task of paying homage to a series of influential films (“Bad Boys,” “Point Break”) while humorously sending them up and one-upping their antics. His comedy goes far beyond the lazy “Scary Movie” spoof; Wright works in how people interact with film and how it tints their view of the world to hilarious ends. Furthermore, he’s not just cribbing an incident or a feel from the genre and calling it a take on them. He’s mimicking their aesthetic with loud, smashing cuts and big pyrotechnics. Just appropriately adjusted for the real world.





REVIEW: Star Trek Beyond

31 07 2016

I took a bit of an unconventional route to “Star Trek” fandom: academia. Ok, fine, a high school mini-course. A history professor’s class, called “Making The World Safe for Democracy,” used the original Gene Roddenberry television series to illustrate the kinds of political tensions being played out in America during the ’60s … only on the small screen.

Perhaps more than any series, I have always approached “Star Trek” with tinted glasses. J.J. Abrams’ first two trips down an alternate timeline contained some faint elements of this social consciousness. But as both fans and malcontents of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” know, the director often spends more time paying fan service than charting bold new territory.

Abrams left the “Star Trek” series in entirely different hands when he departed for that galaxy far, far away. (Fear not, he retains a producer credit.) Director Justin Lin, along with writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, make a compelling case for the more frequent shuffling voices in franchise with their take expressed in “Star Trek Beyond.” While the film may lack the polish of the Abrams entries, it excitingly pushes the universe into both classic and unfamiliar territory.

Pegg’s influence most clearly rears its head in the startling humor of “Star Trek Beyond,” far more self-effacing and tongue-in-cheek than any portion of the canon I have experienced. Perhaps now that a new generation is more familiarized with Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew, more opportunities present themselves for character-driven humor. The gags are more developed than the plot, which often plays like a good outline still in need some additional finer details. The story often proves difficult to follow beyond generalities, a direct reversal of what made the last two scripts from Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman glisten.

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REVIEW: Paul

10 08 2013

2011 saw one movie, J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” corner public interest on the influence of Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking on modern moviegoing.  I’m a little upset that “Paul” couldn’t bask in a little of that light.  It’s a fun, spirited send-up of science-fiction tropes featuring a hilarious self-aware alien, Paul (the voice of Seth Rogen).

“Paul” also puts science-fiction, comic-book culture under the microscope to be sent up.  And for that task, there’s probably no one better than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, two men whose humor seems to play particularly well to that crowd.  Pegg and Frost both wrote the film, and they also star in it as Graeme and Clive, two Brits who come across the pond for comic-book Mecca … Comic-Con.

Traveling the United States in an RV, they encounter crude, crass extraterrestrial Paul.  He’s the masterstroke of the movie, perhaps the best manifestation of Pegg and Frost’s comedic brilliance to date.  He’s got ties to all sorts of conspiracy theories and is incredibly connected to the entertainment industry.  The problem is, the rest of the movie just falls short of the character’s shrewd construction.  Though it is a satire of the human-meets-alien movies of the past two decades, “Paul” often allows itself to lazily slip into the trappings of the subgenre.

And, lest I forget to mention it, “Paul” has Kristen Wiig as one-eyed fundamentalist trailer trash taught to sin by Paul.  Sure, her character’s a little juvenile, just like the rest of the movie when it isn’t cleverly harkening back to ’80s sci-fi classics.  But Wiig, and “Paul” as a whole, somehow make the stupidity seem more fun than they probably are.  B-2stars





REVIEW: The Adventures of Tintin

7 01 2012

You don’t need to know who Hergé’s Tintin is to enjoy the “The Adventures of Tintin,” all you need is to be primed for an exhilarating and fun adventure with the man who introduced many of us to adventure itself, Steven Spielberg.  Whether it was “Jurassic Park,” an “Indiana Jones” movie, or “E.T.,” the director – whose name has become synonymous with cinematic virtuosity – has once again vividly realized the power of technology to invoke an old-fashioned sense of wonder in movie watching.  With the motion-capture technology looking more real and life-like than ever, it makes for an interesting paradox that “Tintin” removes you so easily from reality while so seamlessly replicating it.

Thanks to Spielberg’s partnership with Peter Jackson and his visual effects team at WETA, the two filmmakers take leaps and bounds from the early Zemeckis films like “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf” to fully capture the complexity of human anatomy and emotionality.  As a result, there’s nothing to distract you from getting fully engrossed in this old-fashioned Spielbergian adventure, no moment where you can think that a character looks fake or like an out-of-place animated replica.  It has been remarkable to watch this technology improve over my lifetime, and “Tintin,” along with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” makes 2011 a landmark year for its progression.

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REVIEW: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

4 01 2012

Leave it to Brad Bird, a member of the Pixar brain trust responsible for such triumphs as “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” to figure out how to make the year’s purest, most enjoyable action movie with “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”  For 135 minutes, the adrenaline pumps steadily as the eye is treated to a potpourri of dazzling stunts followed by stunning cinematography.  It’s skin deep, sure, but Tom Cruise has been unabashedly likewise for years, so who cares?  Movies like this are supposed to be fun, and so often they aren’t.  This one is.

Maybe it’s the sort of child-like wonder and awe that Bird brings with him from Pixar that makes this movie “Mission: Enjoyable.”  But whatever that X factor is, it works well.  There’s slightly less substance and character development than J.J. Abrams’ last installment in the series five years ago, which also featured one of the most maniacal villains in recent memory in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian.  But when you’re seeing Tom Cruise actually scale the world’s tallest building in the world – yes, he actually did that stunt himself – Bird more than compensates for the film’s major shortcoming.

He draws on two valuable resources to make the movie such ruckus fun.  The first is simplicity: it’s much easier to enjoy the ride when you aren’t having to keep track of a million different characters and names caught up in a huge scheme of political espionage.  When it’s Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, being as corny and ridiculously impetuous as ever, being backed up by an eclectic IMF squad going against a crazy Swedish scientist and a small gang of confederates trying to nuke the world, it makes it easier to sit back and enjoy the car chases and the cool gadgets.

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REVIEW: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

6 12 2010

C.S. Lewis’ Narnia book series has been a favorite of Christians for years.  They jumped for joy when Disney and Walden Media adapted “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” producing an audience hit that barely concealed its allegory for Christ.  Then came “Prince Caspian,” which was a purely Disney movie that deserves to be scoffed at.  The final kiss at the end between Susan and Caspian, the obligatory Disney kiss that was nowhere to be found in Lewis’ work, was an absolutely appalling end to a movie that strayed so far from its roots no thanks to the encouragement of the studio.

But after “Prince Caspian” took in a disappointing sum, Disney dropped the series and left Walden Media to find a new distributor if they wanted the books to be adapted.  After some searching, the group partnered with 20th Century Fox to present “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”

It’s amazing to see the difference a studio can make.  Fox and Walden’s Narnia is a reason for Christians everywhere to rejoice as it lays its foundation firmly back in the faith that has made Lewis’ books beloved for generations.  The movie gets its message across clearly but still leaves room for thought and pondering, all while providing great action and entertainment.

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