(WARNING: storylines and plot twists of both films and A Streetcar Named Desire discussed in close detail)
After the smoking stinking wreckage that is This is the End, Edgar Wright's The World's End shows us how an apocalyptic comedy is supposed to be done: with economic swiftness (rare), skill (even more rare), cinematic panache (almost totally unheard of). The opening sequence (the narrative gliding from one scene to the next as if the world was a series of tableaus arranged in a row, the camera on an endless pair of rails running parallel), the fights (an unholy cross between the ferocity of movie barroom brawls and the balletic grace of Jackie Chan), the funny-terrifying shots of hapless humans running from hostile townfolk, their eyes and mouths blazing--all this confirms that, of filmmakers working now, Wright is one of a select few who make comedies one can actually look at (beyond him there's Sam Raimi, Tim Burton, Ben Stiller, Stephen Chow...not many more).
Love the group dynamics: the over-the-hill middle-aged men roused into one last epic round of drinks by one of their less successful own, one Gary King (Simon Pegg at his scuzziest best). There's a love interest played by the scrumptious Rosamund Pike, but after a brief bop with 'The King' in a 'disabled only' toilet stall early in the movie she's quickly relegated to supporting status; the picture's real central relationship is between Gary and estranged best friend Andy (played by longtime true-life bromantic partner Nick Frost--here (amusingly enough) the straight-laced conformist). Gary and Andy (not only do their names rhyme somewhat, the first seems to phonetically meld with the next like a brand of designer ice cream) are really trying to find the friendship they lost twenty-five years ago, and not feeling it; as they continue to flee they shed not just physical (a rolling wreck of a car nicknamed 'The Beast') but various emotional and psychological baggage (the anger of a wronged comrade; the fiction of a successful life) to finally confront each other at the eponymous bar metaphorically naked, confessing that for all their hurry they haven't gone anywhere at all with respect to each other, without each other.
The relationship is not as memorably, centrally, complexly depicted as in Wright's Shaun of the Dead (arguably his masterpiece) though it's a far better showcase than the visually flat Paul. Coupled with a breathlessly paced chase (which begins with a leisurely walk that turns into a drunken determined stagger, accelerates into a flat-out sprint), some sharp observations about the modern pub experience (lookalike bartenders; bland beer and decor; even blander semi-sophisticated bistro food) and a comment on the true value of British--and beyond that human--individuality (in effect nothing special; Gary pleads against alien assimilation (the townsfolk's ultimate aim) strictly it seems for the sheer cussed principle of it--is later seen drinking with the very creatures he ran from), this after all is said and done is really superb stuff. Aside from the underrated, underpopular Pacific Rim, the most entertaining movie of the summer.
A streetcar named disconnect
What to make of Woody Allen? Common complaint is that he's out-of-touch--a sensibility straight from the '60s coupled with a visual style frozen in the '70s--while defenders say he's a consistent artist who has managed to wring variations on a strictly defined set of themes and locations and actors (all three changing oh-so-slowly through the decades).
I mean--look at that credit sequence! He's been using that same font and practically the same jazz music since, I don't know, Take the Money and Run, over forty years ago.
So what to make of Blue Jasmine his reworking of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire? Well...
There's only one city in the world for Allen, and that's New York. From the opening montage depicting Manhattan in the film of the same name (accompanied by the strains of Gershwin's magnificent Rhapsody in Blue) to Coney Island's The Cyclone shaking up Allen's childhood breakfast in Annie Hall, the city lives and breathes and sings like a character actor constantly and loyally used (is perhaps the single most consistent actor in his pictures). London in Match Point, Paris in Midnight in Paris, Rome in To Rome with Love seem like outtakes from a Lonely Planet video--pretty, but strictly for tourists. San Francisco in this film seems especially inexpressive: we see a few harbors and maybe one shot of a tilted street, and if anyone in the city is gay they're still keeping it strictly in the closet.
It's difficult to take off from a classic piece of theater like Streetcar and avoid comparisons (often unfavorable), not just to the play but Elia Kazan's famed film, and if you're as familiar with the text as I am (taught the play for some years) there's something jarring about Williams' almost perfectly structured plot (eleven scenes of ever-briefer length, accelerating remorselessly to its inevitable climax) being twisted about. When Allen, for example, comes to his equivalent of Scene Three: "The Poker Night," Chili the Stanley figure (Bobby Cannavale) tosses not a radio but a phone not out the window but across the room. Not really that big a problem, I can see how a phone torn from its wall mountings can be seen as shocking--but when he's ordered out by Ginger the Stella figure (Sally Hawkins) you remember with a start that he doesn't even live there. Where Williams confined the action of his film to a period of a few months and a single cramped New Orleans apartment, here the conflict is dissipated over time (the picture flashes backwards and forwards over a period of years) and space (from San Francisco to New York, from Ginger's rather roomy lower-middle-class apartment to Hal the Allan Grey figure (Alec Baldwin) and his expansive Long Island mansion. And ordering Chili/Stanley out--what's that all about? You'll eventually need to bring him back in again, for the climax (which is considerably muted).
More conventional sexuality (Williams had at least one gay character--Allan--and at least suggested nymphomania); markedly less cruelty (plenty of shouting, no real physical or sexual abuse), a more experimental story structure hiding an ultimately more ordinary drama. Allen has grown as a filmmaker--somewhat; it's his good taste and restraint that seems to keep him frozen in time.
That said, Allen does improve on the Kazan film on at least one point--where Kazan lets one sister escape, Allen leaves both physically free yet psychologically trapped, their prisons defined solely by the dimensions of their own craniums.
Maybe there's another more fruitful way of seeing Allen: as a kind of Rip Van Winkle, skimming his way across this new millennium in cryogenic sleep, waking briefly to raise his head and take a quick look around before going back under--those brief moments of exploration and expression, those are his films. Out of touch? Possibly--and still he brings something to the party: the perspective of an older age, a pair of eyes that see this world as the ultimate alien landscape, the ultimate source of pain and drama and comedy. I don't know, I guess I'm still waiting for the film where Allen finally admits to this point of view, uses it fully, freely, artfully--maybe in the next one, which should come out next year.