Geek ending

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Honestly, you wait ages for a male-bonding apocalypse comedy, and then two come along at once, like computer-animated ant fables, Truman Capote biopics or volcano-based disaster movies. Except Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This Is The End wasn’t the end of the world. The World’s End is.

I’ve been so looking forward to sharing my thoughts about the third and final part in Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright’s audacious Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy – completing the set with Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz – ever since I saw the first 45 minutes of it, at an exclusive preview in mid-May. (We signed a press embargo when we saw the whole thing last Wednesday, but this apparently lifted last night when Variety went live, and all the other reviews crashed in behind them.)

Because the film’s release date was “pulled forward”, to use the impenetrable industry jargon, by a month, there has been a certain amount of frenzied activity behind the scenes at The World’s End as it was readied for public consumption, which is why selected journalists with long lead-times were treated to the weirdest screening ever: the first half of a film. (It was even introduced by Edgar.) In it, Pegg’s boorish Gary, the hedonistic goth who refused to grow up and is first seen in rehab, gets the old gang back together to stage a second attempt, 20 years on, at their old hometown’s “Golden Mile” 12-hostelry pub crawl. (The town is Newton Haven, played by two “garden cities”, Letchworth and Welwyn, which join Crouch End and Wells in Somerset on the Cornetto map.)

The gang – who have all inconveniently grown up in the interim and view the developmentally arrested Gary as something of a necessary irritant – are played by regulars Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan, and a finer bunch of British avengers you could not hope to assemble. (Rafe Spall and Julia Deakin also have small parts, which means they have been in all three films, along with Pegg, Frost and Freeman.) In those first 45 minutes, we get a keenly observed and deeply self-critical portrait of misspent adulthood, which does Pegg, Frost and Wright – all essentially huddled around the big four-oh – proud.

Wright is still haunted by a crawl he never completed in his youth, and his own nostalgia and self-examination seem to fuel the story – as well as provide the soundtrack of iconic early-90s indie-dance-crossover tunes that are not heard in films as often as, say, 60s beat hits, or mid-90s Britpop. (When the lads groove to the Soup Dragons’ I’m Free in Gary’s car, it’s all good, clean, I ♥ The 90s fun until he reveals that not only is this the same compilation cassette from 20 years ago, it’s also the same car. For this, he is regarded as comically tragic by the others. But who doesn’t cling to simpler times?)

When I interviewed the trio last Tuesday in Claridge’s I still hadn’t seen the second half of the film we were there to discuss. This would ordinarily be intolerable – the height of film studio arrogance and cheek. But hey, it really was not quite finished yet. We all saw it on Wednesday. For those of us who’d seen the first 45 minutes – which ended with the first clue that all was not of this earth in Newton Haven – it was odd to see the run-up again, but, like all of their best work, it’s worth repeating, and in fact matures.

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It’s a terrific film, confident, silly, warm and surprising, and a worthy finale to an insane, parochial cinematic adventure. Don’t worry: I won’t tell you anything key about the plot, or where the third Cornetto comes in, or reveal a couple of well-kept casting secrets, as it’s not out until next week. Pegg, Frost and Wright were being extra careful last Tuesday, mouthing names to each other, and playing a guessing game about an extra audio detail Wright had inserted into the final sound mix. When you set this much store by details, metatextuality, in-jokes, paybacks and cross-references, it’s important to handle them with care. The title – and the trailer – are pretty explicit about the apocalyptic end-point, but not the getting there, other than it involves hand to hand combat, at one juncture with pub stools for weapons. It also gives away a sight gag that refers back to Shaun and Hot Fuzz, although knowing about it does not subtract from the glee of seeing it.

My admiration for the work Pegg, Frost and Wright do as a fighting unit – and although Wright is very definitely the director, and Pegg and Wright credited with the script, it’s clear Frost is closely consulted throughout – is very high. To adapt the fanboy fun of Spaced to work across a broad canvas, not to mention sell it to the Americans, has been one of the more heartwarming successes of British cinema in the 21st century. (The support they’ve had from Working Title and Universal, as well as Big Talk, is key, too, but these guys are the ones with the ideas and the pre-midlife crises to draw on.)

This geek ending is final in every sense. It’s bigger and costlier than the previous two films, but as good rather than better. To have kept their end up, to the end, is reward enough. I always enjoy seeing Pegg and Frost in other stuff, and Wright will easily adapt to a Hollywood career if he wishes it, but there’s nothing to beat the three of them in a room together, and you have to hope they’ll reunite through a cosmic need to do so, rather than a financial imperative.

Having met the clubbable Pegg and Frost during press for Hot Fuzz, and struck a surprising seam of mutual admiration with Pegg (ie. he’d read my books, which had been given to him by a mutual Northampton-based friend, Tony Kirkland, with whom I co-starred in a Weston Favell Upper School production of Macbeth in 1983), I was lucky enough to reflect in the collective glory of the whole Spaced gang at a BFI reunion day in November 2007, where I first met Edgar and crossed that Rubicon where we might actually say hello in the street. They’ve all been kind to me ever since whenever our paths have crossed, and Simon gave me a cover quote for my non-selling third memoir, which I still treasure: “Fucking hilarious.” As is often the case when you meet cool people professionally, you start out as a fan, gain their trust, and became something slightly less needy. (But remain a fan.) Here’s me unable to hide my enjoyment onstage at NFT1.

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I’ve read all the reviews that went up last night. Most critics have been impressed by the scale; which is to say, the bigness of the sci-fi half, but also the intimacy of the first, without which the second half would just be big. Even when things are credibly sci-fi, they remain just as credibly real, thanks to the chemistry of Pegg and Frost first and foremost, but among the other cast, too. One or two have said it’s too long at 109 minutes, but I found that even when the big stuff hits a plateau of destruction, it’s always cleverly undercut by the matey and often foul-mouthed dialogue. That comes from practice, I’d say. I could watch it again now, and that would mean seeing the first 45 minutes for the third time.

The World’s End is released next Friday, July 19, and if you are fond of the other two films and the sitcom from whence they came, you’ll be first through the doors, and you won’t want to leave at last orders. This Is The End is still on general release. Let’s Boo-Boo.

Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea

For three weeks, we have been All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, thanks to the empowering genius of BBC2, and to the empowered genius of Adam Curtis. It is easy to call a man a genius, but I think Curtis’s track record is now simply too compelling to ignore. I feel fairly sure, looking at his long CV, that the first of his documentary series I saw was Pandora’s Box in 1992. I’m going to guess that his “trademark style” was by then in place. If I am wrong, do forgive me. I also feel sure I saw The Mayfair Set in 1999. But it was The Century Of The Self in 2002 (very much a defining commission for the newborn BBC4), about the birth of public relations on the couch of Freud, that really nailed Curtis to the mast and I remember vividly that it had me hooked in from the start. Why was nobody else joining the dots for me this way, I thought. He followed Self with the equally compelling The Power Of Nightmares just a couple of years later. He was spoiling us. He was on a roll. This century, I think, suits him. It gave him 9/11 for a start.

It’s rare that a documentary filmmaker carves such a uniquely stylised niche. Plenty of stunning and memorable films have been made that document a certain time or place, or portray a certain group of people in a particularly entertaining or uncomfortable way, but these are usually either fly-on-the-wall or “authored” documentaries, and it’s within these parameters that most of our greatest documentarians work their magic; in other words, you either hear the filmmaker’s voice or see his/her face, or you don’t. Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield are very much part of the narrative of their films; Molly Dineen is sometimes heard, but not seen; as far as I know, Paul Watson keeps out of his films, and Michael Apted was never on camera in Seven Up and subsequent installments.

Adam Curtis is not seen in his astonishing films, but they are his. He narrates them, he authors them, and he originates them, from his brain, and from history, usually 20th Century history. You sometimes hear him off-camera, but these muffled intrusions are not statements, they usually just stand to remind us that Curtis is in the room, and that he likes to edit things together in a rough and ready  manner, jump-cutting as if to avoid the artifice of the form. All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace was, to my mind, among his finest and, yes, most graceful works. Perhaps his most audacious? In just three, hour-long films, he managed to link so many disparate and obscure threads your head was spinning throughout. (For the record, he does not deal in gristle: though the tone-setting Pandora’s Box ran to six films, Century Of The Self comprised four, and he polished off Nightmares and The Trap in three each.) I really enjoy documentaries on TV, but too often they simply tell a story that’s already been told in a slightly different voice, or pick at a scab and hope that bears results. An hour – and I mean a full, BBC hour, not a truncated commercial-TV “hour” with its throw-aheads and recaps – can be a long time when a subject isn’t enough to fill it. With Machines Of Loving Grace, you got the feeling that Curtis had timed his stories to the second, so that they built and built, and took in tangents without losing the central thesis, and arrived at their punchline at precisely the right moment. You didn’t need to look at the clock while they played out: you could feel the halfway mark, and the ten-minutes-to-go mark. And anyway, who’s got time to look at the clock?

If you didn’t see them, my best shot at conveying the sheer breadth of material would be to list a few, random markers: Ayn Rand, Joseph Stiglitz, the Federal Reserve, Arthur Tansley, Buckminster Fuller, the Club of Rome, computer utopians, Bill Hamilton, Diane Fossey, Rwandan genocide and copper wire. If some of these names are foreign to you, some of them were to me, too. It’s not Curtis’s style to run through names that everybody knows, and the final of the three films, my favourite, The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey, was simply mind-blowing in its clear-minded audacity and originality. (I’d heard of almost none of the key players except for Diane Fossey and Richard Dawkins! How thrilling to learn so much.)

Let us simply applaud the BBC for celebrating ideas. Ideas are not always required on the voyage from pitch to programme. A hook is often enough. Or a headline. Or a title. But Adam Curtis trades only in ideas, in connections, in tangents, in profound leaps of intellectual and cultural faith.

I think I love him.