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Film Fri Aug 23 2013

The World's End, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Drinking Buddies, You're Next & Austenland

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The World's End

Yes, The World's End — the latest work from co-writers Edgar Wright (who also directs) and Simon Pegg (who also stars) — is a celebration of the debauchery of youth, with beer being the ever-present fuel. The backdrop for this film is a 12-pub crawl through the hometown of five old school friends, who are now grown up more than 20 years later and have adult problems and hang-ups to deal with. The movie is about many things, and one of them is the sad attempt to recapture youthful glory.

There's a moment late in the film where Andy Knightley (Nick Frost, the third constant in the loosely linked trilogy that also includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) says to self-appointed ringleader Gary King (Pegg), "Why is this so important to you?" to which Gary says, "It's all I've got." I can't think of a single moment in any of these three films that felt more like a punch to the gut than that one; it's the cry of a desperate man who literally hasn't had a better moment in life since school and that epic (and failed, I might add) pub crawl. And he's determined this time around that nothing will stop them from reaching the 12th pub, appropriately named the World's End — not even alien robot invaders.

The World's End is as funny as anything these three sharp, intelligent, goofy gentlemen have come up with in the last 10 years (or even before that on their TV series "Spaced"), but there's an extra element added to the mix that makes this work stand out as something a little more. Call it maturity or lives broadened since they last worked together, but there's a subtle, underlying air of melancholy weaved into the revelry and drinking. Wright, Pegg and Frost have all gone on to success beyond the comfort zone of writing and working with each other. And certainly bringing it all back to where it started is cause for celebration, but they are also wise enough to know that a new film can't rely on the popularity of the first two, and they have succeeded in making a reunion feel both fresh and familiar, without forgetting that going home again after so long can be a dangerous, maddening thing.

When Gary seeks out and reunites his old mates — the five musketeers, as they called themselves — it's a tough battle. The other men in the group are Oliver (Martin Freeman, also a vet off all three films), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Peter (Eddie Marsan). At every step of the way on their hometown journey, they believe this is a huge mistake, but when Gary pulls up in the same car he drove in school (complete with the exact same mix tape in the tape deck), the old youthful feelings begin to creep in. Things get even better when Oliver's sister, Sam (who Gary had a one-off with in the men's room when they were kids, and played by Rosamund Pike), shows up to see her brother. The place looks strangely the same, right down to some of the townsfolk, a fact that is both comforting and unnerving to those less drunk in the group.

I'll admit, it gave me great joy to see Pegg take on the role of the deviant, badly behaving manchild in this film, while Frost is the responsible, teetotaler (for a while, at least) who has more than a few reasons for wanting to go on this trip, despite his reluctance to drink. It's also great to see Frost pull out all the stops on the action front as well. He gets to unleash his pent-up aggression on some blue-blooded robots that threaten to derail their evening plans, with a combination of old-school wrestling moves and low-grade kung fu. If any of the regulars delivers the biggest surprises, it's Frost.

I don't want to say too much about the science-fiction aspects of The World's End, although many of you have probably heard a great deal about it already. The alien robots are not overly aggressive at first, and it becomes clear that they are mostly responding to the panic-stricken musketeers. Understandably so, the gang doesn't like the idea of most members of their town being replaced by action-figure-ish versions of people they knew, looking as they did in 1990. The aliens are smart enough to know that by appealing to the boys' already inflamed sense of nostalgia, they are more likely to submit peacefully.

But underneath the sustained and increasing amount of drinking, fight sequences and silliness runs a river of sadness. Each member of the group comes to realize that looking back can be dangerous because it can make your current life look sad and lonely, and the idea that you may have peaked at 18 or 19 makes one feel rather pathetic. But The World's End is also a call for maturity without losing your dreams and youthful streak. These five men should have remained friends, but rather than encourage each other acting like teenagers for the rest of their days, they might have lifted each other up and on to better things and healthier relationships.

If you're cruising around 35 to 45, there are parts in this movie that are simply going to hit you hard over the head and heart, whether it be the supremely wonderful soundtrack selections or the themes of growing older in a world where staying younger is as much a benefit as it is a detriment. As much as I hope Wright, Pegg and Frost continue to collaborate down the road, The World's End closes a chapter in their working relationship, while leaving the door open for more thoughtful work (together and separately) down the road. I can't wait to see what they come up with next. Cheers!

To read my exclusive interview with The World's End director/co-writer Edgar Wright, co-writer/star Simon Pegg, and star Nick Frost, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Weirdly enough, this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink supernatural young adult tale actually starts strong and only begins to plummet when the true villain of the story is revealed. It's not a secret who is behind all of the evil doings in New York City, but he doesn't really come into play until a little after the halfway point, at which point the whole film starts to crumble away at an alarming pace.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is latest attempt at kicking off a young-adult franchise based on a series of popular books (five so far, with a sixth installment coming out in May 2014, as well as a series of prequels published and sequels announced, beginning in 2015). The story focuses on a teen Clary Fray (Lily Collins, of Mirror Mirror fame) who begins to see strange symbols all over the city that no one else can see. The symbol plagues her so much, she even ends up drawing them in her sleep, so you know it's important. Her mother (Lena Headey) seems troubled by this revelation, and it soon becomes known that Clary is one in a long line of Shadowhunters, a society of demon hunter-killers with angels' blood in their veins and a mission to protect Earth (or Downworld) from evil forces. The film is fully loaded with vampires, werewolves, warlocks, the aforementioned demons, and no zombies (because those aren't real, we are told).

For the most part, the Shadowhunters exist and do their work invisibly, but Clary can see them, and she witnesses a murder of demon in human form at the hands of Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower, from the several of the Twilight films, Anonymous, and as King Arthur in the recent "Camelot" TV series), who agrees to be her good-looking mentor, much to the annoyance of her long-time best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan), who is not-so-secretly in love with her, and spends much of the film being a little bitch human (or "mundane" as they're derisively called by the Shadowhunters).

As these type of films tend to do, a smattering of slightly older actors populate the supporting parts, including Jared Harris as Hodge, the keeper of the Institute, which the Shadowhunters call headquarters; CCH Pounder as a witch who lives in the apartment below Clary and her mother; and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the big bad Valentine, who is searching for an ancient chalice (called the Mortal Cup) that lends special powers to those who drink pure angel's blood from it, or something like that. Apparently many of Clary's memories have been suppressed by her mother (including the location of the Cup), and she spends a great deal of City of Bones trying to get back what her mother kept from her to protect her.

The other younger characters are sadly interchangeable and spend much of the film trying to out badass each other and see which one wears black the best. Unless I heard this wrong, Alec (Kevin Zegers), one of the Shadowhunters who seems to hate Clary the most, is actually gay and in love with Jace, who has eyes for Clary, thus setting up a slight variation on the traditional love triangle these franchises seem to love. I also dug Godfrey Gao's performance as Magnus Bane (known as the High Warlock of Brooklyn... I wish I was making that up), and I wish he played a slightly larger role in this film, but I'm sure we haven't seen the last of him if this series continues. There are other, more forgettable members of the cast, but life is short and their performances simply didn't distinguish themselves this time out.

As I mentioned, City of Bones is actually kind of a hoot for quite a bit of its 130-minute running time, but when the most obviously secretly evil character reveals himself and unleashes Valentine onto the world, the film suffers from not living up to its own hype. Jonathan Rhys Meyers still looks remarkable for 36 (not that that's old by any measure), but he simply isn't a threat. This is supposed to be one of the truly fearful things in this universe, and watching him prance around in a leather jacket over a bare, tattooed chest didn't make me tremble in my laced-up boots.

But Rhys Meyers isn't the only problem. The various love stories (would-be and otherwise) are childish in their execution, the revelations of a couple of weird secrets are clumsy and non-sensical, and the violence in the film is often wildly inappropriate for a PG-13 film. The blame for a lot of these flaws falls at the feet of director Harald Zwart (The Karate Kid remake, Agent Cody Banks, The Pink Panther 2), who is helming this movie as if he barely has a handle on understanding the material (adapted by Jessica Postigo from the Cassandra Clare novel). Join the club, buddy.

By the end of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, I was seriously trying to remember why I was supposed to care about whether about two-thirds of these characters needed to live or die, and I'm guessing that wasn't the intention. Fun and quirky at times, the film devolves into a scattered, pointless mess that might have been a metaphor for how teenagers' raging hormones drive them to do ridiculous things, but don't hold me to that because the movie may have blocked my powers of analytical thought. All of this being said, I treated the film like an introductory chapter to a series I may have to settle into for a number of years. I'll admit, I'm slightly curious where things go from here, but if they don't start being relevant, there will be hell to pay.

Drinking Buddies

Since he's started making films less than 10 years ago, Chicago-based filmmaker Joe Swanberg has gotten a reputation for a couple of different things. First, he works incredibly fast. He's made 21 films (or segments of films, such as a portion of the horror anthology V/H/S), including a couple that he's shot since his latest, Drinking Buddies. And those 21 films don't even include all of the films he's acted in, although he does tend to act in a many of his own works. The other thing he's known for is bringing out raw, emotional, often-tormented performances from his actors, including the likes of Mark Duplass, Greta Gerwig, Jess Weixler, Amy Seimetz and Jane Adams, several of whom he is credited with discovering.

But Drinking Buddies is something different, more accessible, and, dare I say, more mainstream thanks to an impressive cast of known actors doing largely improvised dialogue in a story covering familiar Swanberg territory — the disintegration of relationships. But much of the first half of the film feels like a slightly more mature version of a romantic comedy, with Chicago brewery (Revolution Brewing, actually) co-workers Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson, also a Chicagoan) having many conversations and moments of flirting over hours of drinking. Despite the fact that she's the boss, the two actually make a great couple, a reality slightly ruined by the fact that each has a serious significant other back home. Kate is dating the slightly dickish music producer named Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is practically engaged to Jill (Anna Kendrick).

Both couples agree that they need more couple friends, so the four of them do a weekend trip at a cabin in the woods by the lake, and problems start to develop between all parties, but the upshot is that Kate and Luke are drawn closer. The relationships both become messy and tumultuous, and we're back to classic Swanberg, with people struggling with both new and old connections. As with many of Swanberg's more dramatic films (as opposed to some of his more recent horror offerings), the story isn't really the point. The strength of Drinking Buddies rests in its series of conversations about love, life, drinking, and responsible and irresponsible behavior — in other words, things people talk about in real life.

The film is also one of Swanberg's best-looking works, thanks in large part to an understated atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild). But one of the most interesting elements of Drinking Buddies is the power that is derived from what the characters don't say to each other — quite a switch for a filmmaker who seems to revel in the talkative nature of his creations. The authenticity of the improv doesn't always ring true, but some talented actors and a sure hand at pushing the performances into some ugly places at times give this movie a consistent strength and wisdom that makes it a really enjoyable watch. The film opens in Chicago today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

You're Next

About a half hour into the long-delayed but highly anticipated latest work from director Adam Winguard and writer Simon Barrett (the pair worked on the solid 2010 feature A Horrible Way to Die, as well as shorts for The ABCs of Death, V/H/S and V/H/S/2), I was admittedly baffled why so many people who had seen the film at Toronto Film Festival 2011 or Fantastic Fest 2011were singing its praises so vocally. By the time the film is released at the end of this August, it will have been nearly two years since its premiere. But what I had watched for the first 30 minutes appeared to be a standard-issue, home-invasion scare film, complete with creepy death cult animal masks on the killers and a bunch of well-crafted scary moments.

But as You're Next progresses, you start to notice what makes it special. These mask-wearing murderers are not on hand to tie up the occupants of this house; they are there to dispatch them as quickly as possible. You realize quickly that there will be no torture of this large family, whose grown members have reunited for the parents' (Rob Moran and Barbara Crampton) anniversary. Instead, they will be systematically executed for reasons which we are unaware. But before we even get to that, a gathering must happen.

After an opening murder of a couple having a sexified time at a neighboring house to the family, the children of the couple begin to arrive, including brother Crispin (AJ Bowen) and girlfriend Erin (the lovely Australian-born Sharni Vinson), brother Drake (Drinking Buddies filmmaker Joe Swanberg) and wife Talia (Kate Lyn Sheil), sister Aimee (Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color) and boyfriend Tariq (horror director Ti West), and youngest brother Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and gothy girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn).

There is some playful poking fun between Drake and Cripin right off the bad, but it's the film's big dinner scene when the gloves come off, and Drake especially lays into Tariq's claim at being a filmmaker and Crispin for being a loser. And just when punches are about to be thrown, a crossbow arrow comes through the window and kills a character. Then about 30 more arrows smash through windows and into furniture, walls, and flesh, with no one knowing exactly why. We see it's these freaks with masks, and some have axes, guns, knives, you name it; they are fully loaded killing machines.

Without getting too much into the plot or who dies or is injured when, it does turn out that Cripin's girlfriend, Erin, has a little more than meets the eye in terms of her ability to deal with this situation, making her the film's one capable action star. The has a great deal of mood-appropriate dark humor, including the recurring sight of Swanberg's Drake with an arrow sticking out of his back for a great deal of the move. But the film's primary objective is to make you jump with well-earned scares, build tension effectively, and provide you with a few inventive kills. On that front, You're Next absolutely delivers, with the added bonus of adding a certain humanity to these characters who would rather fight in the middle of a crisis about some seriously dumb shit than avoid actual danger.

In addition to Vinson's capable portrayal of Erin as a woman of action and self defense, Swanberg and Bowen are especially strong as brothers who have clearly never met eye to eye on anything throughout their lives. What's so smart and enjoyable about You're Next is the spin it puts on the home invasion sub-genre. It's something we've seen recently in film like The Strangers, Them, Inside, Kidnapped and Funny Games (although that film is more a parody of other such films), to name a few, but Barrett and Wingard's take on the material is pretty great and certainly original.

Wingard wisely makes certain we understand the geography of the rather large house (we're told the patriarch works for a weapons contractor and is quite rich), and it doesn't take long with this vacation home in the woods feels terrifyingly claustrophobic in the face of so much relentless danger. The filmmakers thankfully don't spare us on the quite realistic gore. Every single death in the film is awful and violent, without going ridiculously over the top with the blood and guts. But it all looks very real, and they make every death mean something to the survivors. It's rare that you get this much actual mourning in a scare film. But when all of the victims are loved ones and relatives, the emotional price is high.

You're Next is a tightly wound, often nasty piece of work with a surprising amount of character development, so that we actually give a shit whether and when someone expires. Without compromising the horror elements, the movie does justice to the home-invasion story while keeping it fresh, unpredictable and terrifying.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with You're Next director Adam Wingard and star Sharni Vinson.

Austenland

How the hell did this get made? Okay, granted, Jane Austen's novel have had something of a following in the world for a couple hundred years. But I can't imagine anyone who love Emma or Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility would be anything but insulted at their passion for Austen's works after seeing Austenland, the appallingly unfunny film from director and co-writer Jerusha Hess (best known as the co-writer of Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos), based on the novel from co-writer Shannon Hale.

In this dismal tale, Keri Russell (Waitress, "The Americans") plays Jane Hayes, who has a sad, desperate obsession with Austen's works, including an unreasonable assumption that the man she falls in love with will be a carbon copy of Mr. Darcy. She even has a life-size cardboard standee of Colin Firth as Darcy from his Pride and Prejudice adaptation. Her friend is worried about her obsession, especially when Jane is considering draining her savings account and flying to England for an Austen-themed experience at a converted manor run by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), perhaps the only thing close to an inspired choice in this dreadful film. Jane's friend makes her promise that if she doesn't meet a man during this trip, she must expunge her home off all things Austen.

If the filmmakers had maybe attempted to make a semi-serious look at people who might actually attend an outing like this, there might be something here. But within minutes of arriving at the manor, she meets a rich, horny middle-aged Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), whose only reason for being there is to bed the many good-looking, younger male costumed actors, hired to woo the women who have paid a small fortune to be there. And I pretty much checked out watching Coolidge resign herself to playing a stereotype she essentially invented.

Also on hand is the young, pretty Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King of the recently cancelled series "The New Normal"), whose motives for being there are a little less clear. She seems to befriend Jane, but also asks her to do things that always seem to get her in trouble with Wattlesbrook. Oh, the shenanigans! Some of the men in question include Bret McKenzie as the horse groomer Martin, whom Jane gravitates to because he's not a fancy man like the rest; James Callis plays the snooty Col. Andrews; and JJ Field is the most Darcy-ish of the bunch as Mr. Henry Nobley, who seems the right combination of gruff and charming for Jane to get a little curious about.

Austenland doesn't take long to reduce itself to sitcom-style misadventures and humor, and while I would never say that anyone in the film is better than that, no one really sold me on the fact that they even want to be in this movie. There are weird pauses after each attempt at a joke, which I realized were beats meant for audience laughter that will never come. The more you love Jane Austen, the harder you should convince yourself and others to stay far away from this inane, empty-headed film. It doesn't respect the author or those who love her, but it also doesn't mock them in a way that is in any way clever or interesting. It just shits on their passion and hopes that people find it funny. I didn't. If you're a sucker for punishment, the film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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