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The-Worlds-End-Nick-FrostThe third and final part of Edgar Wright’s ‘Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy’ is a science fiction action comedy romp based around a pub crawl, which occasionally brings to mind classic British sci-fi TV like The Quatermass Experiment and The Day Of The Triffids as well as more widely-known American big screen fayre (Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, most obviously). As with the earlier installments Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, The World’s End stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the former once again co-authoring the script with long-term writing partner Wright. They repeat the trick of staging a typically-American genre picture in the unlikely environs of a mundane southern English town and, as per the two earlier films, drinking establishments feature heavily. Here, dotted around the town centre of fictional London satellite Newton Haven, they serve as backdrops for increasingly-crazy fight sequences and are filled with an assortment of oddballs. (If you ever want to visit the featured boozers then you’ll need to look up Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City, and some may even be able to guarantee fights and oddballs.)

The hostelries of Newton Haven make up ‘The Golden Mile’, a legendary crawl that Gary King (Pegg) and his four friends (Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan) tried and failed to complete in their teenage years. It seems at first that King hasn’t grown up in the interim and now sees those days as the best of his life; the others have moved on, but are persuaded to return home and to give the 12-pint ordeal another go to appease their old classmate. However things have changed: the nondescript market town the friends left twenty years earlier was the kind of place where nothing out of the ordinary happened, but they return to a very different Newton Haven (and not just in terms of the sudden influx of interchangeable chain pubs, either).

Pegg, Frost and Wright have worked extremely well together since Spaced, one of the finest comedy TV shows ever made, though a repertory cast has gradually formed around them; Spaced fans will enjoy the appearances of Julia Deakin, Mark Heap and Michael Smiley in The World’s End, while actors such as Freeman, Considine, Bill Nighy, Steve Oram, Rafe Spall and Reece Sheersmith can now be considered Wright regulars, cementing the notion of a loose trilogy as much as the genre spoofing, the Cornetto references or the fence-jumping scenes. They are joined here by Rosamund Pike and her former Die Another Day co-star Pierce Brosnan, both of whom adapt to the mix of comedy and action with ease.

Wright’s directing style hasn’t changed all that much since his TV days, but that has at least resulted in a consistent look across the three films, and I dare say the experience he has built up will tell in future years. His calling card remains those sudden whizz-bang mini-montages (here it’s the The-Worlds-End-Nick-Frost-Simon-Pegg-Paddy-Considinerepeated pulling of pints as the action moves from one pub to the next) and it’s pleasing that so many of the jokes come from the editing and camerawork he has clearly directed, rather than the usual comedy model of relying on a star to deliver the laughs. The humorous cast performances are certainly of a piece with Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz too: a crowd-pleasing mix of slapstick, gags, gurning and straight-faced genre nods that have presumably been inserted for movie geeks (in the climactic speech here Pegg’s King recites famous lines from Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels – though they may be more familiar as the sample kicking off Primal Scream’s hit Loaded – while keen-eyed horror fans will spot references to the likes of George A. Romero and Lucio Fulci).

Once more Wright and co take their action sequences semi-seriously, and although The World’s End plays as a straightforward comedy for quite a while (even largely refusing to go down the tried-and-tested route of suggesting that all is not well in Newton Haven), the arrival of a series of energetic pub fights feels as inevitable as the patching-up of the bromance between Pegg and Frost’s characters. The cast and crew presumably had fun filming the action, but unfortunately the second half of the film is too repetitive as a result, and it’s dispiriting when you realise that the already-paralytic characters still have three or four pubs to visit. Still, some unexpected touches have been inserted to hold the viewer’s interest: the weird post-apocalyptic epilogue was a surprise, and the same could be said for the sudden serious detour showing King’s bandaged wrists, but it’s the lighter, throwaway moments – when Rosamund Pike’s Sam arrives to speed the group away from an impending explosion, for example, she apologises for the mess in her car – that see the film over the finish line. On balance it’s the weakest part of Pegg and Wright’s trilogy, but it’s still entertaining.

Directed by: Edgar Wright.
Written by: Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg.
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan.
Cinematography: Bill Pope.
Editing: Paul Machliss.
Music: Steven Price, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 108 minutes.
Year: 2013.

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JACK REACHEROh Tom. I’ve got to take my hat off to you, it’s a tough ask to deliver lines like ‘You think I’m a hero? I am not a hero. I’m a drifter with nothing to lose’ or ‘I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot!’ with a straight face (particularly when that face is more than a little prone to an eye-twinkle or a shit-eating grin). Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher is full of risibly macho but entertainingly daft lines like this, many of which were presumably lifted from or inspired by Lee Child’s Reacher novel One Shot, which served as the literary base for this debut cinematic outing.

For the uninitiated, Child’s popular character is the subject of 20 bestselling novels to date, as well as several short stories; I’ve never felt curious enough to read one, but a friend tells me they’re not bad as airport novels go, which I guess is meant as praise. Anyway: Reacher’s a hard-as-nails ex-US Army Major who has effectively taken himself ‘off the grid’, and he spends his days drifting around the country using aliases while taking on various criminal investigation jobs. Oh, and he’s supposedly 6 ft 5 inches tall, meaning that the employment of Tom Cruise as the safe bet to kick start a Reacher film franchise wasn’t appreciated by a number of vocal fans, who felt the actor was too slight to convince in the role.

Cruise has plenty of polished action flicks like this under his belt, though, and as per usual thanks to a combination of innate confidence and favourable camera work he manages to pull it off without ever appearing to struggle, though this is one of his more uncomfortably leery performances: when he’s not doing battle with the various henchmen of glass-eyed Russian crime lord The Zec (Werner Herzog in a spot of hilariously on-the-money casting that sends up the director’s public persona) he’s usually standing uncomfortably close to defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who can do little but try and match the veteran actor’s intense flirt-gawping with some boggle-eyed glares of her own. The intention, presumably, is to develop the illusion of a little chemistry between the two characters, but all too often it looks like a stare-off in which neither participant is willing to back down.

Rodin has a seemingly impossible task on her hands in defending ex-military sniper James Barr (Joseph Sikora), who has apparently shot and killed five people in Pittsburgh (a sequence that McQuarrie uses to open his movie, though there’s little quite as gruesome or as uncomfortably enthralling in the two hours that follow). Facing the death penalty Barr cryptically writes ‘Get Jack Reacher!’ on his confession statement; no-one actually knows how to do that but thankfully Reacher simply shows up on cue anyway, and thus the investigator becomes involved in the case, quickly casting doubt on the pile of evidence collected by Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo).

Jack Reacher is a typically sleek Cruisian crime thriller. I was expecting a feast of fights, gun battles and car chases, but it’s more like a vaguely disappointing brunch, with a huge dollop of the star’s overflowing stash of smarm ladled on top. We see Cruise’s Reacher regularly besting his opponents, verbally and in combat, but really there isn’t much here to enable either the film or the character to stand out from the pack; it’s just Another Tom Cruise Character doing things very well indeed, and it’s difficult to distinguish Reacher from Ethan Hunt, the actor’s long-running Mission Impossible government agent. Really, anything would have helped. Pet chihuahua? Grafted-on roller blades? Lapsed interest in mahogany furniture?

Meanwhile talented actors like Pike, Oyelowo and Robert Duvall (who plays the owner of a shooting range) are wasted as they struggle to wring interest out of their dull archetypes and credibility out of the intermittently dodgy writing, while Herzog’s ridiculous criminal overlord (who once chewed off all-but-one of his fingers in a Siberian death camp) only gets about five minutes of screen time. It’s an absurd cartoon villain, but at least the German director provides the film with several flashes of camp entertainment, so it’s a shame not to see more of him; unfortunately this means that The Zec’s inevitable comeuppance at the end of the film feels as flat as a wet fart on a Wednesday in Worthing.

Though it is mostly safe and predictable, with characters that are hard to care about and generally unmemorable, Jack Reacher isn’t a complete duffer. McQuarrie’s a good writer on his day – The Usual Suspects is all the evidence you’ll ever need – and his script contains a decent gag at the expense of a shirtless, buffed-up Cruise, while occasionally there’s a zip to the dialogue that makes good use of the star’s buttery slickness (witness, for example, the quickfire insults he fires at a gang of fools in a bar that mistakenly single him out for a scrap). Though they’re very much by-the-book the action sequences are enjoyable enough, too, even though nothing truly dazzles; ultimately it just feels a little lazy, a fact perhaps best highlighted by the presumably-unintended but insidious racism surrounding its typically-Hollywoodian villains (Russians, the only black character in the film, yawn yawn yawn).

Unfortunately I suspect that in a month or so I’ll have completely forgotten about most of Jack Reacher, save perhaps for the opening sequence and Herzog’s bizarre appearance; the rest of it will be a blur of shootouts, predictably duplicitous characters and The Cruiser’s face as his Reacher smugly tells various people that they’ve got something wrong. The actor isn’t as bankable as he once was, but a worldwide return of $200,000,000 isn’t to be sniffed at, and unsurprisingly a second outing is in the pipeline. I’m sure that too will make a wedge of money, but unless there’s a serious improvement I’ll probably pass.

Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie.
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie. Based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog, Jai Courtney, Joseph Sikora, Robert Duvall.
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel.
Editing: Kevin Stitt.
Music: Joe Kraemer.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 130 minutes.
Year: 2012.
Rating: 4.6

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My inner cynic was wary about the high praise recently bestowed on Gone Girl, David Fincher’s latest suspense thriller, given that it was released after a relatively quiet post-summer period in which one average film after another seemed to tumble half-heartedly into cinemas. I’m not intending to disparage those who consider the film to be among the better releases this year, but there’s definitely a pattern whereby the celebrations surrounding the first half-decent movie after weeks and weeks of mainstream dross always seem a little inflated, to me at least. Still, I tried to keep my expectations for this adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller at a reasonable level, despite the plethora of positive reviews appearing online and in print.

For the uninitiated, the story revolves around the mysterious disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), whose philandering husband Nick (Ben Affleck) is the prime suspect in the ensuing murder investigation. For reasons obvious to anyone who has read the book or watched the film, Gone Girl never gets as far as the courthouse, with Fincher and Flynn (who adapted her own novel for the big screen) concentrating on the immediate aftermath of, as well as the years and events leading up to, Amy’s sudden disappearance. The story swiftly develops into a trial-by-media, in which writer and director produce a withering assessment of the USA’s talking head news anchors, as well as the judgmental sector of society that accepts the media’s opinions as gospel. Rather than simply standing back and letting the investigation in Gone Girl take place, somewhat predictably the media heavily influences it, with Amy’s disappearance making the national news due to her link to popular children’s book character ‘Amazing Amy’ (created by her parents, played by Lisa Banes and David Clennon). Public opinion turns against Nick and the management of his public image quickly becomes a priority ahead of the search for his missing wife.

Clearly taking aim at the media’s thirst for gossipy information as well as its ability to operate without impunity, the story highlights the damage that can be done, painting a poor picture of the law enforcement agencies whose moves are heavily scrutinized by eagle-eyed news crews; by the end of the film both the local police and the FBI are frozen, with officers afraid of pressing forward with a certain line of investigation for fear of looking incompetent.

Gone Girl is a twisty tale with the snakes well camouflaged in the grass. Important facts about both Nick and Amy are slowly eked out, encouraging the viewer to reassess any early opinions formed about the pair, before it is suddenly revealed that we – like the media in the movie – are not aware of the full picture. To most outsiders Nick and Amy are (were) the perfect couple. We see their early years via flashbacks related to Amy’s diary entries, which detail their initial meeting in New York and subsequent blossoming love, eventually leading to marriage. When they move back to Nick’s hometown in Missouri, to be close to his dying mother and estranged father, the marriage begins to deteriorate and a considerable amount of stress is placed on the couple when they both lose their jobs. Financial problems and issues surrounding fertility and parenthood lead to unresolved bitterness, and both seem to be unhappy in the relationship as they approach their fifth anniversary. Amy’s diary entries slowly reveal her detachment while lecturer Nick enters into a long affair with one of his students, Andie (Emily Ratajkowski).

As the police’s missing person / murder investigation continues in the present, Nick – who wanted a divorce before Amy went missing – struggles to hide his indifference to Amy’s plight, failing to convince at a press conference arranged to appeal for help, and arousing further suspicion when he is pictured smiling with an opportunistic local resident. His closest allies are his loyal twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), media-savvy attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) and, to an extent, the local officers investigating the case (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit), but all of these appear to have less control over Nick’s destiny than cable TV hosts Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) and Sharon Schieber (Sela Ward), who closely scrutinize the suspect’s movements and even go so far as suggesting his relationship with his sister is incestuous.

Complicating the investigation further is the looming presence of Amy’s wealthy ex-boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), a man who supposedly tried to commit suicide when she broke up with him years earlier, and who repeatedly sent her letters in the interim despite the presence of a restraining order. He is another suspect, having recently moved back to nearby St Louis, and the question of Nick’s guilt or innocence gradually becomes more difficult to assess as a result.

Fincher has delighted in the past when revealing that the initial impressions we have of his characters are somehow incorrect, and this fact will play on the mind of anyone with knowledge of the director’s prior work when they watch Gone Girl. We first see Nick carrying a ‘Mastermind’ board game into the bar he runs with Margo (a local business that was paid for by Amy). An early clue, perhaps, or merely an unsubtle red herring? Thankfully for much of this film we cannot be 100% sure of the answer to such questions, as suspicious behaviour, unreliable narrators, mounting evidence and lying characters all serve to cloud our judgment. The eked out revelations lead us gradually through the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, and as we follow the investigation we also discover more about Amy’s character and her own actions leading up to the disappearance. Flynn’s novel is filled with cliffhangers and twists, and these are revealed at unexpected moments here, allowing the writer and director to form a clear three act structure with the main ‘shocks’ providing obvious breaks.

Unfortunately I have some issues with the film’s pacing, which I felt to be uniform for the most part and – as a result – more and more frustrating as time ticked on. The occasionally plodding nature of the film – mirrored in Affleck’s occasionally plodding performance of an occasionally plodding character – meant that I began to lose interest after a while, and although the twists are clearly designed to pull the audience back in, they also suck all of the credibility out of the story.

I’m also a little perplexed about the across-the-board praise the two leads have received for their acting here. I’m not suggesting that either is awful, but there are times during the film when both Affleck and Pike are very good and times when they are not quite so convincing. They both nail the scenes that show the couple in a bitter, downward spiral, but their portrayals of younger versions of the two characters as they fall in love are middling. Still, presumably both of these performances were difficult for the actor in question to judge: it’s clear that great care has been taken in maintaining poker faces, and Pike (icily misleading) and Affleck (dumbly misleading) do their utmost to ensure that audiences walk away with conflicted feelings about what they have witnessed, but the final act in particular is a challenging one to get right and I’m not convinced after one viewing that either managed to carry it off successfully.

Fincher’s latest is at its most gripping when it veers strongly towards the police procedural, although it lacks the weight and the subtlety of Zodiac, which is a far superior film all round. The two films do share a common cold, green-grey look, which also brings to mind the earlier, underrated Panic Room, and the director once again uses a meticulous production design to create an upper-middle class section of a city where the lavish interiors and outward bonhomie cannot fully hide the darker acts and thoughts that occur. The colours suit the tone, which is enhanced further by the occasionally-discordant score supplied by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Gone Girl is more than just a precisely-made ‘whodunnit’ with a twist; as much as anything else it is a satire of the media’s influence on such events, and about the failure of modern marriage and family life, but the overall package of all these things together somehow feels underwhelming – as if it should work better than it does – and disjointed. Much like the characters, it’s difficult to get to grips with the true nature and identity of the film.

I liked the bursts of humour, and one or two vaguely shocking moments of violence are handled well, but I have serious doubts about Fincher’s ability to direct the more upbeat scenes required in this story: the flashbacks of Nick and Amy falling in love, for example, are as cheesy as they come, and their first kiss in a sugar storm nearly made me splurt out my overpriced pick n’ mix in disbelief. Should we really be seeing something that looks like it has been lifted straight out of a Richard Curtis film here? The director is seemingly more at ease when creating a sense of menace, and Gone Girl is at its best when Fincher’s dark side is in full effect. The final scene, for example, is a deliciously malevolent repetition of the opening scene and the opening lines, but the context has shifted completely and the words spoken are now laced with a dual meaning. I like Sinister David better.

Overall, then, a sprinkling of irritation and disappointment mixed with a slug of admiration and enjoyment. Confused? Me too. I was non-plussed by Zodiac the first time I saw it and I was wrong, but I’m not so sure a couple of viewings would force a similar re-appraisal here.

The Basics:
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Kim Dickens, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry 
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 149 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 6.9

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