Watching “The World’s End” and “The Grandmaster”
Last week, on my way in to Crossgates to see the new film “The World’s End,” my friend Sue and I were discussing bar games, such as darts, and how many drinks it takes to attain a level of competency at them. “Between three and five,” I suggested. “After that, your skills erode dramatically.”
“The World’s End” is a film that understands this mentality. But instead of playing darts, the characters are trying to fend off SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU WANT TO REMAIN TOTALLY SURPRISED BY AN OUT-OF-LEFT-FIELD PLOT TWIST! an alien invasion. And in this movie, alien-fighting skills improve substantially after six or seven pints.
“The World’s End” opens by showing us five high school buddies on their last day of school, attempting to create a pub crawl known as the Golden Mile. They fail, and the movie then jumps to the present, showing us the ringleader, Gary King (Simon Pegg), attending an AA meeting. But Gary is ready to relapse, and subsequent scenes depict him seeking out his old, estranged friends and asking them to join him in an effort to complete the Golden Mile. (Gary, who is math-challenged, describes the mission as: “Five guys. Twelve pubs. Fifty pints.”) Gary’s friends want nothing to do with him, especially Andrew, a successful attorney played by Nick Frost. One of the film’s running jokes is that Gary still drives the car he had in high school and listens to the exact same music (on the exact same tapes — something even I don’t do), while his friends have real careers and lives.
For the first third, “The World’s End” is an often uproarious human comedy about a group of high school buddies reuniting, getting on each other’s nerves and awkwardly reminiscing about the past. But then the film abruptly switches gears. Turns out, there’s a reason none of their old schoolmates and neighbors recognize them: Their hometown has been taken over by aliens similar to the soul-sucking extraterrestrials of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The logical thing to do is flee, but Gary argues that if they flee, the aliens will know that they know something’s wrong, and attack them. So the guys continue their pub crawl.
“The World’s End” is the third collaboration between director Edgar Wright and stars Pegg and Frost; the three also worked together on the cult hits “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” (Technically, “The World’s End” is the third and final film in a trilogy, but you can watch it and enjoy it without having seen the two earlier films.) Wright is a witty, clever director and very good at mixing genres, in this case the buddy comedy, romance and science-fiction. As an alien invasion film, “The World’s End” is pretty satisfying, with sharp visual effects and fluid action sequences, but what distinguishes the film is its bittersweet sense of nostalgia and “you can’t go home again” attitude. The ending didn’t quite work for me — it felt a bit rushed and choppy, with its anti-technology theme seeming to come out of nowhere — but the rest of “The World’s End” is pretty great.
I’d recommend seeing it after two-and-a-half beers, which is what I did.
I also caught the new Wong Kar-Wai film, “The Grandmaster.”
“The Grandmaster” tells the story of Ip Man, the Chinese martial artist who trained Bruce Lee, but it is not a conventional biopic, or a conventional martial arts film. It contains elements of both those genres, but specializes in the sort of doomed romance and melodrama that Wong is known for, with a sense of style that seems borrowed from film noir and gangster films, rather than classic martial arts film.
I had mixed feelings about “The Grandmaster,” but it looks fantastic and I can’t stop thinking about it, so maybe it’s better than I initially gave it credit for. Overall, I didn’t think it quite worked, though maybe this is partly because I was viewing the 108-minute version of the film released to American audiences, rather than the 130-minute cut viewed by Asian audiences. The story never quite seemed to quite come into focus the way I wanted it to, and the ending felt rushed — more like a series of bullet points about Ip Man’s later years than a compelling conclusion to an epic tale.
But I don’t want to dwell on “The Grandmaster’s” faults, because what’s good about the film is really, really good. The movie comes to life not when it focuses on Ip Man (Tony Leung), but Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a legendary kung fu grandmaster. Gong Er and Ip Man love each other, but since this is a Wong Kar-Wai film, their love can never be. Instead, they have to settle for erotically charged bouts of kung fu: fighting as foreplay.
Gong Er is a great character, smart, tough, beautiful and tragic. She cannot carry on her father’s legacy because she is a woman, but wins every contest in which she competes, including her fight with Ip Man. “Who cares about Ip Man?” I kept thinking, as I watched the film. “Give me more Gong Er!” She’s the real grandmaster, in my opinion, and deserves a film of her own.
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