Friday, August 23, 2013
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando review the final chapter of the Cornetto Trilogy, "The World's End."
Cornetto is a brand of ice cream in England. The Cornetto Trilogy is a trio of films by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. It began with "Shaun of the Dead," continued with "Hot Fuzz," and comes to a conclusion with "The World’s End" (opening August 23 throughout San Diego).
Director/co-writer Edgar Wright and actor/co-writer Simon Pegg set the bar very high for themselves when they served up “Shaun of the Dead” as their first feature film. It’s close to perfection with every detail that’s laid out in the open paying off brilliantly by the end. It’s a film that reveals such care and precision that I can watch it repeatedly and every time I find something new to appreciate. So when a Trilogy starts there it’s hard to improve. So for me “Shaun of the Dead” has a very special place in my heart, and neither of the other Cornetto films has managed to displace it. I say this because when I make criticisms against “Hot Fuzz” and the new “The World’s End,” I do so in comparison to “Shaun of the Dead.” Neither has given me the same level of delight as “Shaun,” but both films are head and shoulders above any other comedies one might find in theaters.
In the Cornetto Trilogy, writer-director Edgar Wright and writer-star Simon Pegg cleverly serve up a hilarious exploration of male perpetual adolescence.
“Whether it’s Shaun in “Shaun of the Dead” who needs to grow up; [or] in ‘Hot Fuzz,’ Nicholas Angel almost needs to come down to help Danny Butterman grow and they find each other in the middle; and then this one, ‘The World’s End,’ Simon’s character is almost like the hero and the villain of the piece, that he desperately wants to be 18 again and as soon as he turns that clock back all hell breaks loose,” Wright said at the press line at Comic-Con earlier this summer.
“The World’s End” begins with Gary King (Simon Pegg) deciding to try and finish a pub-crawl he attempted decades ago with his high school buddies. So Gary pitches the idea of trying to finish the quest to his now grown up friends: “Five guys, 12 pubs, 50 pints.”
But as Andy (Nick Frost) points out both the math and his memory are wrong: “60 pints… You have a very selective memory, Gary. You remember the Friday nights, I remember the Monday mornings.”
Gary can’t get past the fact that his best day happened when he was 18. He manages to convince Andy and his three other high school pals Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steve (Paddy Considine), and Pete (Eddie Marsan) to return to their hometown of Newton Haven to finish the mile-long pub-crawl they began after they graduated from high school. But once they arrive in town, strange things start to happen and finishing the pub-crawl is the least of their challenges.
Sadly, the trailer gave away far too much of what happens but I don’t want to reveal any spoilers. Part of the fun is not knowing where the film is going and getting the delicious surprise of finding out that it takes a 180 degree turn from pub comedy to sci-fi/action homage. That's all I'll say.
As with the other films in the Cornetto Trilogy, “The World’s End” is loaded with details to make it fun for repeat viewings and watching with friends. You can look for the number of each pub hidden in scenes, you can find the connections between the pub names and what happens inside or figure out how the 12 pubs tie in with a 12-step recovery program. You can also try to count all the film allusions Wright and Pegg make with references to everything from Hong Kong action star Sammo Hung to Marvel’s The Hulk to John Carpenter. In fact, I would say that “The World’s End” is in some ways, Wright’s homage to Hong Kong action. Each Cornetto film has revealed Wright and Pegg’s affection for some pop culture specialty. “Shaun” paid tribute to George Romero’s zombie films, and “Hot Fuzz” was a valentine to American 80s action films. With “the World’s End,” Wright has stated that he watched “The Big Chill” and “It’s Always Fair Weather” in order to get in the mood for a reunion films. You can also see his love for John Carpenter as well as the sci-fi genre.
But what stands out for me is how Wright stages the action in the film and creates some of the best fights you are likely to see all year. As in Hong Kong action, fights are often contained to small spaces and everything in the scene comes into play – props, furniture, clothing, anything anyone can get their hands on. Wright’s fights -- especially one in a bathroom that pits the middle-aged pub-crawlers against some athletic young kids – are gleefully kinetic and dynamically shot. These are the kind of action scenes that should have enlivened “Kick-Ass 2.” And the revelation of these scenes is how fun Nick Frost is as an action hero. Built more like Sammo Hung than Jackie Chan, Frost uses his physical mass and girth to dazzle us and to make us marvel at how fast a big man can move.
But as the last film in the trilogy, “The World’s End” feels a little slapped together and lacks the comic precision of “Shaun of the Dead.” It also feels the darkest of the three as it presents us with a main character that is inconsiderate of his friends and is an alcoholic with suicidal tendencies. The film feels like it should have been a drama with comedy rather than a comedy with dramatic elements. Pegg’s Gary is not really likable; in fact he is only likable because Pegg is an engaging actor. The problem with this is that if Gary is not likable, it’s hard for us to believe that these grown men would drop everything to follow him back to a town they all despise for a quest none of them believe in. The friendships in “Shaun” and “Hot Fuzz” were immediately believable and endearing. When Nick Frost’s Ed gets bit by a zombie in “Shaun,” we gasp in true horror because we love his character and know how devastating that will be to Shaun. Similarly, in “Hot Fuzz,” we feel a strong bond develop between Pegg’s Nicholas Angel and Frost’s Danny Butterman. But in “The World’s End,” the friendships feel like a given, like we just have to accept them whether we believe them or not.
But again what helps is casting. Wright always gets his casting pitch perfect. Considine was one of the Andies in “Hot Fuzz,” and Freeman had a brief cameo in “Shaun” and “Hot Fuzz,” while Marsan is brand new. But all three are great and highly appealing in "The World's End."
Wright said he and Pegg do tend to write for specific actors: “I think in a lot of those cases we write for the actors. So obviously Simon and Nick were going to be in the movie, and Martin Freeman had been in ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’ in small roles but we really wanted him to be in a bigger part in this one so we wrote a role for him. We wrote a role for Paddy Considine. Eddie Marsan, I’d never worked with but Nick Frost had, and he’s fantastic and he’d done a lot of darker parts so we wanted to write him a comedic part because he’s very lovable in this movie. So I think you end up writing for people. We even had a draft of the script where we wrote the actor’s names instead of the characters, which was like a trick that we stole from Tom Lennon’s book, but it really works. Cause then you start to tune the dialogue to those actors so that’s kind of fun to do.”
And a sense of fun is key, especially fun amongst friends. The reason the friendships are so important in “The World’s End” is that friendship is an underlying theme running through the entire Cornetto Trilogy. What’s important in life is who your friends are, especially when there’s a zombie apocalypse or a rash of murders. You want to be with people you like because it just makes things better.
In essence, it’s the behind the scenes friendships that make these films work so well on screen.
At Comic-Con, Pegg talked about his friendship with Wright: “We’ve known each other a long time. I worked with Edgar on a show in ’97 and I was immediately impressed by him as a director. Jessica Stevenson and myself were getting ‘Spaced’ underway and we thought immediately of Edgar, and through that experience of getting a very low-budget sitcom off the ground on Channel 4, we became very firm friends and got sort of a profound friendship under way in that show so when it came to write ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ we were already friends. We had shared interests and likes – that’s the reason we made ‘Shaun of the Dead’ because we bonded over Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead.’ And I think we have a mutual understanding of the process and it means a lot to us to do it right, we’re not in it for any other reason than for the thing itself, not for glory or for fame or money or any other thing like that. It’s about the fact that we love it. And getting the chance to do what we love and that’s better than any of those things.”
Their films also benefit from their shared love of pop culture.
“We’re both kids of the 70s, we grew up with ‘Star Wars,’ and we grew up with the TV boom of the 70s, all those properties like ‘Dr. Who’ and we grew up just vacuuming that stuff up,” Pegg added, “That’s what we were raised on. So then to become the progenitors of it is seems logical.”
Wright said the idea of turning the films into what has come to be known as "The Cornetto Trilogy" came late.
“I think the idea of a third one came up after ‘Hot Fuzz.’ People kept asking us about a third one and it actually occurred to us the way that they were linked and the themes that ran through them, and when we had an idea, the story idea for this it felt like to could be a final statement on something,” Wright said.
“The World’s End” does feel final in more than one way. And I'm glad. I've loved the films but want to see this creative duo break free of any constraints they've felt in working on a trilogy, no matter how loose that term is applied.
“When you watch these films there is a connective tissue between them,” Pegg said, “and they can be watched as a threesome. Trilogy is such an overused word and it sounds a bit lofty but it fits these films. The next film won’t have to abide by this criteria.”
And I look forward to these off screen friends trying something new onscreen. “The World’s End” feels a little like they just wanted to get it done with and close out the trilogy. Sure there’s a lot of their clever story development and payoff, but it’s not as fresh or as sharp as in “Shaun.” “”The World’s End” feels more like, “hey let’s have some fun and finish this Cornetto trilogy out.” With “Shaun” they had to work a lot harder to get their first feature made, and they had to polish it to the highest sheen. With “The World’s End,” they already have their brand established and don’t need to sell anyone on it so there’s less pressure to keep trying to improve on it.
But even with its flaws, “The World’s End” (rated R for pervasive language including sexual references) serves up a wild plot, a boisterously engaging ensemble, and a sincere exploration of what friendship is. My disappointment is just that of someone who wanted to see this last film exceed the perfection of the first and that's asking a hell of a lot. I did get to see all three films together in one night at the Arclight Dome in LA, and it was a fabulous evening. Sitting in the theater with nearly a thousand other fans, many dressed as Shaun or Nick Angel, and holding cricket bats and peace lilies, was the kind of joyous community experience that the Cornetto Trilogy celebrates. The evening was made even better by having Wright, Pegg, and Frost join the audience for a Q&A. Everything on screen and off was a reminder of how important good friends are and how much fun it is to hang out with people you like.
Companion viewing: "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz," "The Big Chill," "It's Always Fair Weather," "Spaced" (British TV show)