At the tippity top of 2013 film viewings so far. A rigorously contemplative character piece that exists in the spaces of loneliness and human connection. The film functions around what would normally be central events but not on them. It ponders what brings these people together, the lies they have told themselves and each other, and the untold history of the choices they’ve made. Abbas Kiarostami is a master filmmaker, using every single camera choice to maximum effect and dangling the possibilities of character perspective in front of us like catnip. I think of that first scene for example, and the way he quite simply has the audience from the word go, all because of where he places his camera and the way he uses sound. The return value on this film, just like Certified Copy, his first film made outside of Iran, is enormous. Leaves a lot to think about, particularly that slam-bang fade-in to the closing credits.
Can we all just agree that Cristian Mungiu has the best shot compositions by a director currently working? This is a harrowing work of good intentions gone horribly wrong under the perverted superstitious-driven perspective that can come through religion. It looks at a system misused in the daily life of this monastery where judgment becomes clouded and oppression against women comes through in ways that fundamentally misunderstand people’s motivations, emotions, feelings, reactions and inner selves. There is so much going on in this scathing but always admirably level-headed critique. Mungiu likes to make films that present a story that, while from his own point-of-view, promotes individual response and thought. He wants people to be thinking about the issues that are brought up and how they feel about the story presented. He doesn’t want the audience to be thinking about what he was trying to say. This makes for a film as complex as life itself.
There are no villains; everyone involved is all-too human but unable to see what is in front of them. Meaningful values have been dwindled down into limited perspectives and a medieval way of living. It’s all backwards. It becomes difficult to pinpoint when everything starts to take an uncontrollable turn in this story which is unfortunately based on an actual event.
Like the masterpiece that is 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, this is rooted in a complex and loyal female friendship, this time with unspoken intimacy and hinted history. Both women have been and are continuously let down by various institutions they come in contact with. One has committed herself to God and the other, who has some unchecked mental sickness, clings to her friend, the only person she has left. That stalemate allows the eventual tragedy to unfold in the way it does. Mungiu continues to use tension, a lack of music, long unbroken takes with precise composition and a disturbing overlay told through bleak humanism. I had been waiting for this film for 2 years and it did not disappoint. It enthralled me at every moment even when I so desperately wanted to look away.
Buoyed by of Bette Davis’ presence and her progressive free-thinking ideology, which the film surprisingly never directly throws back in her face. Unfortunately the story itself is just as non-committal as Helen. This is really just about two people who have a hard time sustaining their relationship, first in rebellion of marriage and then within it. Despite all the Pre-Code goodies (and there are plenty of bed-sharing, pre-marital sex and statements like “I don’t want babies” to be had), Ex-Lady is largely flat and nondescript.
There is a critical difference between interweaving the concept of fate into storytelling and having every plot motion forward feel predetermined by the writers themselves. In The Place Beyond the Pines every choice made by every character and every tragic piece of happenstance feels forcefully pushed into place, taking any organic notion or weighty pull out of play. I appreciate the novelistic ambition of Cianfrance’s sophomore effort, the grand reverberation of father-son bonds and breakage and of class consciousness between the lower and middle class. But there’s no glue holding it together; just intent. Many have said the film falls apart in the last third, but it all feels equally hollow. First, second, and last.
No matter the purported thematic or epic scope, The Place Beyond the Pines aims to be rooted in its characters. Yet every single person is presented as a stock substitute for the real thing, led by an invisible hand towards their in-the-cards conclusion, with the women unsurprisingly faring the worst by way of archaic peripheral placement. It may be hard to believe, but merely casting Ryan Gosling does not mean a character earns my understanding or sympathy. Those puppy-blues gotta give me something more. Every single character beat is about getting to the next place, getting to the next place. As visual ellipses and dissolves abound, we steadily move our ciphers towards their non-sensible full-circle conclusion. You walk away feeling the limped strain of its message instead of its intended impact.
If this kind of film were made by anyone other than Edgar Wright, the four men with grown-up lives would be seen as a problem to be fixed, as ‘stuffed shirts’ in need of letting loose. Gary King would be seen as a bringer of fun, a harbinger of good times. But The World’s End takes a much different, much more rewarding road by depicting Gary King as an alcoholic whose life peaked at 17. He is the odd one out. He is the one with problems. He is the one that needs to grow up. Whether Wright and Simon Pegg meant to or not, this is a deconstruction and a much-needed reversal of the overplayed man-child that has populated films this past decade (sometimes brilliantly sometimes tiresomely). This is a sci-fi film rooted in reality.
Matt Singer’s review over at The Dissolve put it perfectly by pointing out the fact that Wright and Pegg use spectacle to serve ideas and character, a rarity these days. What we experience with The World’s End is like an antidote to the disappointments and the unoriginality of summer ‘blockbuster’ films. The World’s End continues to take a lifetime of movie influences, both within pop culture and more obscure realms, and to refurbish them in ways that are original and exciting.
The World’s End also, like everything Wright does, rewards repeat viewings far more than the first viewing experience. Everything is intricate and interwoven in structure. The first five minutes are a mini-version of the entire film, the pub names all mean something, the exchanges fly at you with abandon.
I found myself so invested in the broken dynamic between the four men and Gary that part of me didn’t even want the genre play to kick in. The entire cast is perfect but Simon Pegg and Nick Frost both completely take me aback here. Both play against type and their interactions are the most affecting of their other onscreen pairings. Pegg in particular is something to behold with his alcoholic desperation, his put-upon obliviousness and his impossibly high energy level. Frost, Marsan, Considine and Freeman all have each other to bounce off of, but Pegg has to be on his own wavelength throughout and convey that his life is on the line in more ways than one.
It is clear (as per usual within the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy) that everyone commits to performing far more choreography that would normally be asked of actors. Between that and Wright’s ability to photograph action scenes with clarity and style, we get to see some really exciting physicality on display. Anyone who knows my tastes understands this means major points. The World’s End doesn’t stay as strong in its final minutes, but it doesn’t matter much. This is one of the most rewarding movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long time. It’s hilarious and heartfelt and built around its characters. Stasis is damaging; stasis is death. Nostalgia cannot mix with the present because bad things will happen.
PS. I’ve been waiting my whole life to see Alabama Song used to great effect in the film. My wish has finally been granted.