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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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There is a shot in The World’s End, directly into a bathroom mirror. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost stand facing each other in front of the mirror, and director Edgar Wright (or rather, his camera), invisible, completes the three-shot. It’s a technical flourish that reminds us we’re watching a movie made by people who love to play with movies.

Wright/Frost/Pegg are the collaborators behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The World’s End marks the third film in the “Cornetto Trilogy” — it’s a long story and the metaphor is a stretch, frankly, except to say that they are dabbling in different action genres. This time out, it’s a science-fiction, alien-invasion film. The World’s End draws most directly from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but only after it gets to the science-fiction-ey revelation, which isn’t until halfway through the film.

As with the zombie awakening in Shaun of the Dead, the alien invasion here is an inconvenient interruption to the lives of the main characters, rather than the focus of the film. That was a brilliant idea in Shaun of the Dead. It’s not a bad idea here, but of course it lacks the punch of originality of its predecessor.

Glory Days

Five blokes walk into 12  pubs...
Five blokes walk into 12 pubs...

For Gary (Simon Pegg, here with greasy, thinning hair) the best night of his life was back in high school when he and his mates set out to conquer The Golden Mile — 12 pints in 12 pubs, all before dawn. They didn’t succeed, but Gary’s never had a better night since then. Now reaching their 40s, his friends have moved on to wives, kids, careers, responsibilities, but not Gary. He dresses the same, listens to the same music, drives the same car, and laughs at the same crude jokes.

He manages to reassemble the gang for another go at the Golden Mile, but the gang are reluctant. Andy (Nick Frost) doesn’t drink anymore. Oliver (Martin Freeman) sells real estate. Pete (Eddie Marsan) and Steve (Paddy Considine) are also dressed for success, not partying. When they all arrive back in their small home town of Newton Haven on a Friday afternoon, they’re as surprised to see themselves there as they are to see each other. Nobody thought Gary would manage to convince anyone else to show up.

As unlikely and contrived as the reunion sounds, once together the friends banter and bicker like real people. Gary is an annoying prick — in fact one of the pubs has banned him for life. But he knows he can seem that way and doesn’t want to be “that guy.” Yet he can’t help himself when opportunity knocks, as when Oliver’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike) shows up, looking fit as ever.

Meanwhile, the four grownups in the group talk things over — old times and new. They collectively go through a spectrum of Gary-induced emotions: indifference to Gary’s antics as they catch up with each other; annoyance that Gary hasn’t changed; anger that he expects them to take this pub crawl seriously; and finally acceptance that they don’t have to put up with it and can go sleep it off at the B&B. That’s when the aliens appear and spoil everyone’s plans.

Oh Grow Up

I can relate to Gary in this movie. That’s probably not the healthiest thing to admit. But sometimes I catch myself — at Pegg’s age plus a little — wondering what I should do when I grow up. Inevitably I decide to kick the can down the road rather than make a difficult choice. Pegg plays Gary a little dirty around the edges, and I appreciate that too. He’s not a particularly likeable character, but he’s our protagonist and their old friend.

And really, is it so crazy for a character to look back at the good times and want them again?

Well, maybe 40 is too soon to start living in the past. Luckily for Gary, Wright and Pegg’s screenplay finds a way to let Gary grow up a little bit, but not too much. But I won’t say more about the ending.

Wright and Pegg also co-wrote Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. As you can see in all three of these films, their dialogue has an impeccable screwball pace that recalls the golden age of film comedy. As actors, Pegg and Frost are good at delivering the back-and-forth. Gary: “Since when have you had to check with your wife?” Andy: “Since I got married.” Edgar Wright completes the comic threesome with stylish fast cuts like those he used in Scott Pilgrim versus The World, and ironic editing. For example, the friends are commenting on what’s changed since they were last home — how the pubs have lost their individual character under the new corporate owners. Wright cuts to the perfect punch line. You’ll laugh a second time when you realize which pub it is, assuming you have time to assemble the joke in your head before the next one lands.

Science Fiction

The aliens, so integral to the film and indeed to the trilogy (this wouldn’t be a genre movie without them) are the least interesting part of The World’s End. And while that was a plus in Shaun of the Dead — it showed a generation too self-absorbed to be bothered with the end of the world — this time it doesn’t work so well. It’s not that these characters don’t notice that aliens have taken over the bodies of humans, but they have no idea what the proper reaction is, so they keep calm and carry on.

Most good science fiction stories have something to say about humanity. The World’s End is no exception. Unfortunately the science-fiction component is crammed into the tail end of the movie; it’s talky, and its relation to the first part of the film is tenuous. The alien intent is conquest without conflict, while building consensus. They’re civilizing us for our own good. It made me think of the IMF, saving poor countries from bankruptcy, but with lots of ideological strings attached. Rightly, the movie rebels against the notion. Wright and Pegg advocate for Liberty over Fraternity and Equality.

For me, Wright/Frost/Pegg’s previous film Hot Fuzz was a letdown — in part because, for me, Shaun of the Dead was such a success. I think I came to The World’s End with more realistic expectations. As such, I enjoyed it pretty well and would recommend it, even as I acknowledge that it has some weaknesses.

Weaknesses aside, I noticed that Cornetto makes more than three flavors of ice cream, so maybe there will be more screwball fun. There are few filmmaking teams I’d rather see continue to work together than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on-screen, with Edgar Wright as the invisible man completing the three-shot.