Saturday, June 4, 2016

Retro Trio: Sorcerer (1977); The World's End (2013); Ghost World (2001)

Sorcerer (1977)

Director: William Friedkin

An adequate but ultimately inferior and arguably unnecessary remake of a classic 1950s film.

Sorcerer is a spiritually faithful remake of the 1953 movie The Wages of Fear by Henri-Georges Clouzet. Though each film takes place roughly in the time that it was released, the 23-year difference between them matters little. The basic story follows a handful of shady drifters from different countries, all stuck in a small town in South America. All of them have long since run from something else, but all are desperate to finally return to their respective home countries. So desperate, in fact, that they agree to take an extremely high-risk, high-reward job in order to get the funds needed to leave. The job requires them to drive two trucks filled with highly volatile nitroglycerin across 200 miles of pock-marked dirt roads, so that the explosives can be used to collapse a runaway oil burn. These basics, along with the element of suspense which they set up, are the same in both movies.

Where Sorcerer differs from the original film is mostly in the time it spends on back story. Clouzet's film begins in the small village and spends the first 30-odd minutes there. Friedkin, however, opted to show how the four primary drivers ended up in their predicament. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, the men's tales paint a grim picture. All four are varying degrees of despicable, with serious blood on their hands and misery in their wakes. While this does add a grimness to the movie that Clouzet's lacked, I actually found it a very effective device, as there is a fascination born of seeing if a quartet of vicious, haunted men can actually work together towards a common goal under deadly circumstances.

In nearly all other respects, though, I have to say that Clouzet's original is superior to Friedkin's. It's been about ten years since the one and only time that I saw The Wages of Fear, but I loved it and it always stuck with me.While it doesn't depict the drivers' nefarious backstories, it does strongly imply that these are desperate and somewhat unsavory men. Once they start to make the treacherous journey in their trucks, the movie is far better than Sorcerer. The tension and suspense is more consistently engaging. Whereas Sorcerer has several overly long scenes relying more on set pieces and drawn-out, repetitive action, The Wages of Fear sparks your engagement with one quietly deadly situation after another. Friedkin's movie does have some really good moments of suspense, but they don't stack up to the source material in either quantity or quality.

Sorcerer is a decent enough movie that suffers most from being a remake of an earlier masterpiece. Friedkin, as great a director as he was, probably should have left this one alone.

The World's End (2013)

Director: Edgar Wright

The second time I watched this one from start to finish, and it's even better than I had remembered. And what I remembered was a great movie.

Director Edgar Wright and writer/actor Simon Pegg wrote The World's End as the third and final installment of their "Cornetto Trilogy", a series of films connected mostly by their hilarious appropriation of well-known popular movie genres. This last film drew much of its inspiration from the science-fiction realm, most notably the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Wright and Pegg had done this before, using George Romero's zombie flicks to inspire Shawn of the Dead and any number of Hollywood action cop movies to create Hot Fuzz. As great as those first two film are, The World's End outdoes them and showcases its writers' brilliance for creating entertaining, clever, and even thoughtful movies.

For the entire first act of the movie, a first-time viewer might wonder just where the science fiction is. The set up centers on Gary King (Simon Pegg), an alcoholic who peaked during his senior year of high school and, as he nears forty, decides to round up his old pals for a reunion pub crawl in their hometown. Once Gary convinces his reluctant former comrades to join (and enable) him and go back home, they soon find that their old pubs have all been homogenized by franchizing. This is the first glimpse of the sci-fi iceberg looming beneath the movie's first 30 minutes. As the fellows progress in their crawl, they discover that most of the town's denizens have been replaced by some sort of automated replicants, complete with their actual memories.

In the spirit of the classic movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The World's End uses its fantastic fictional elements to comment upon the homogenization of society. Whereas that earlier film was a thinly-veiled response to the utopian promises of communism, Wright and Pegg's film is a response to corporate sterilization of culture. There are several engaging exchanges that tap into deeper questions about individuality and youth-worship, among other rich topics. Carrying much of the load is a brilliant performance by Simon Pegg, who shows his surprising and impressive acting range in this movie. His Gary King character evokes several different emotions, and his arc is a surprisingly fascinating one.

I've become a real fan of Edgar Wright, and this movie is the one that solidified it for me.

Ghost World (2001)

Director: Terry Zwigoff

I hadn't seen this one since shortly after it was released 15 years ago. It still holds up very well as a funny, thoughtful drama about people who dwell outside of the mainstream. With hindsight, it is also clear that Ghost World was a rather early version of a style more widely popularized later in movies like Garden State and Juno. When compared to those more recent movies, I actually enjoy Ghost World a bit more.

Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the film focuses mostly on Enid (Thora Birch), a rather snarky, hip, 18-year old misfit who looks for inventive ways to stave off boredome during the summer following their senior year in high school. She and her equally-disaffected best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johannson) tease and torment their friend Josh and hang around their more mainstream classmates just enough to mock and scoff at them. If this sounds a little jerky, it's because it is. Enid and Rebecca do make fun of some things which are worthy of mockery, but they're not exactly noble souls themselves.

Things are taken a little too far when, on a lark, Enid responds to a personal add and pretends to be a woman called for in the add. Enid and Rebecca stake out and watch as the man who placed the add (Steve Buscemi) arrives at the designated area to be unwittingly stood up. After watching the man wait hopefully and then leave dejected, Enid and Rebecca follow him to a garage sale. Enid buys an old record from the man, whose name is Seymour, and she makes a connection with him. Much of the rest of the story involves Enid trying to find a romantic interest for the introverted Seymour, deal with her changing relationship with the Rebecca, and pass a summer art class which she needs to officially receive her high school diploma. On the surface, it could be the plot to many coming-of-age films.

And yet, the novelty lies in the details. Typical of a Terry Zwigoff film, there is plenty of quirky and unexpected humor and drama. The characters are quite different from those in more popular teen movies. Enid, even more than Rebecca, typifies the condition that some young people experience when they have a far clearer idea of what they don't want than what they do. While this is familiar, neither Enid nor Rebecca are portrayed as loveable darlings whom the audience is clearly meant to support. They do selfish and even mean things, even if they aren't essentially mean people. This lends some drama to moments such as when Enid befriends Seymour, or when she breaks down as her friendship with Rebecca deteriorates. Thanks to the steady development of dimensions beyond our initial impressions of the characters, these moments have some heft.

Not every little joke hits, and not every action in the story feels totally organic. But there are enough laughs and enough authenticity to make for a good movie. I may not need to watch it again soon, if ever, but it's nice to see that a noted "cult" movie still holds up.