Hot Fuzz

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  An extremely funny, intense, and cathartic buddy cop opus.

Review:  This is director Edgar Wright’s second pulse-pounding (what the hell does that mean?) entry in the ‘Blood & Ice Cream Trilogy’, which started with ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and concludes with the upcoming ‘The World’s End’.  It is certainly as excellent as ‘Shaun’ and shows definite improvement in Wright’s directorial abilities.  It’s often said that the best test of a director is to see if they can pull off an effective action sequence.  He got to play with action in his hit British series ‘Spaced’, but here he’s given free reign to let his imagination run wild.  The results are even better than most Hollywood pictures.

‘Hot Fuzz’ is in some sense a genre mashup like ‘Shaun of the Dead’.  The buddy cop template, typically set in the big city, meets with horror/mystery set in the English countryside.  Just like ‘Shaun’, both genre requirements are fulfilled.  Not only does it feel organic, it reinforces the major themes and makes the story more satisfying.  Why ‘Hot Fuzz’, a genuinely funny cop movie, is much better than this year’s ‘The Other Guys’, another genuinely funny cop movie, is that ‘The Other Guys’ has almost entirely random humor and a story without real power.  ‘The Other Guys’ may be good for a laugh, but ‘Hot Fuzz’ is actually a good story.

What is ‘Hot Fuzz’ really about?  The power of fantasy.  Nick Frost’s character, a wide-eyed, small town constable, obsesses over action films like ‘Lethal Weapon’, ‘Die Hard’, ‘Point Break’ and ‘Bad Boys II’.  For most of the film, Simon Pegg’s character, a supercop from London, insists on the real world responsibilities (like paperwork and taking notes) of real police officers.  Every one of Frost’s Hollywood-fueled fantasies comes in handy, though, when the narrative shifts into high gear.  By shooting for a ridiculous ideal, the duo is prepared for ridiculous problems.

The horror/mystery element brings in some seriously disturbing stuff.  Townsfolk are dispatched by beheading, explosions, being crushed, being stabbed by garden shears, and much more off screen.  The filmmakers work overtime to make the bad guys seriously intimidating.  Of course, this is all in the service of the extremely cathartic final battle sequence, but ye be warned!

‘Hot Fuzz’ is a legitimately effective buddy cop movie that rises well above the level of parody.  Thanks to Wright & Co, it turns out to be a great action movie, period.

Buy It From Amazon: Hot Fuzz (Ultimate Edition) [Blu-ray]

Classic Review: Rashomon

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: An intelligent, philosophically influential, and emotionally resonant film.

Review:  “Long as I remember, rain’s been comin’ down…” The opening of Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed 1950 film, ‘Rashomon’, immediately brought a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival to my mind.  Two men take refuge from a pounding storm beneath the ruined gatehouse called Rashomon.  One is a common woodcutter, the other a priest.  No words are spoken between them for the longest time, as the rain keeps comin’ down.  A third man joins them.  He manages to pry into the source of their despair; they have witnessed the story of a baffling murder and rape.  The priest’s faith in humanity has been severely shaken by the cloak of lies surrounding the events.  Slowly, all the versions of the story are shared and the conclusion is left ambiguous.  If there is one honest witness, we are left to decide for ourselves.

‘Rashomon’ is exactly the kind of film the world needs, and yet, of course, it is one of the most difficult to get made.  It is a film created from honest doubts, fears, questions, and a little faith.  The murder mystery angle makes it marketable, but the deliberately inconclusive, introspective ending will frustrate those looking for a quick fix.  ‘Rashomon’ is an artful entry into the discussion, not a hamhanded attempt at providing answers.

The film hews close to the minimalism and visual poetry of the silent era, yet has a very large number of shots, 407, which gives the action a similar flavor to postmodern hyperactivity.  It reinforces the fractured, frenetic, and confusing nature of the main event.  Kurosawa bucks common camera conventions, shoots directly towards the sun (something which wasn’t done at the time), and breaks the 180-degree-rule, a guideline for camera placement that prevents the audience from losing track of objects and location.  The murder and rape take place in the forest, which blocks out the sunlight, symbolizing the fragmentation of the truth, and the trees blur together with the camera motion, reinforcing the sense of frustration and spiritual wilderness.

‘Rashomon’ is an unforgettable, very emotional experience.  It’s a thinking person’s film.  It gave its name to the “Rashomon Effect”, which refers to the subjectivity of recollection.  It’s a must-see for cinephiles and philosophers.  “And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?”

Buy It From Amazon: Rashomon – Criterion Collection

The Other Guys

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A surprisingly enjoyable and funny comedy that has enough class to show some restraint.

Review: I’ve seen better buddy cop films, better parodies of buddy cop films, and better wholesome comedies than ‘The Other Guys’. But in the latter part of the summer, among sucky vampire spoofs, lame romantic comedies, and the abominations of aging action stars, this film feels surprisingly fresh and original.

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg star as Detectives Allen Gamble and Terry Hoitz, two police men who, unfortunately, are confined to desk jobs while other, cockier cops get the action, the fame, and the women. Wahlberg’s character is particularly frustrated by his lowly role, as he once had a much more exciting one on duty until an accident demoted him. Everything changes when a small case of Allen’s reveals a much larger crime operation. Now is the chance for these two men to prove their worth as men of the law.

What makes this film work is an unusually high level of restraint and discretion. Most of the jokes don’t go for crude humor, but are actually sophisticated and funny (A lion/tuna fish joke near the beginning is quite amusing). The action, as well, is effective but also doesn’t go to any real extreme, and there really isn’t that much of it. Having seen ‘The Expendables’ the night before, I was relieved not to experience anymore pointless gunfire and explosions. Although I found 2007’s ‘Hott Fuzz’ to better satire buddy cop movies, ‘The Other Guys’ doesn’t do a bad job of taking jabs at the genre’s various cliches (The car chases, the frustrated police chief, volatile partner chemistry, etc.). Particularly though, I think that Ferrell’s character is what really makes this movie worthwhile. Unlike his usual over-the-top and immature characters, Allen Gamble is a mature, intelligent, and reserved human being. Seeing him interact with his sometimes vicious partner and the crazy situation in which he finds himself was the highlight of the film for me. I hope that, after this film, Ferrell is more willing and better able to get mature parts like this.

‘The Other Guys’ is a good movie. Not a great movie, but a good one. Its worth a watch and is guaranteed for some laughs. Now-a-days, that’s pretty nice.

Buy It From Amazon: The Other Guys [Blu-ray]

Not-So-Classic Review: Godzilla (1998)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary: This film is much more entertaining than its ‘rep would make you think.

Review: One of the things I have discovered through my journey across Geekdom is that there can, at times, be a considerable amount of snobbery when it comes to certain subjects. One of them happens to be Godzilla. His 1954 cinematic debut was a surprisingly effective parable on nuclear warfare. And that original film is still the high point of the entire series.

For the next twenty years, the studio Toho turned out a number of cheesy low-budget Godzilla films. The formula was simiple: Godzilla vs. (insert giant monster name), and have two guys in rubber suits duke it out. Eventually the series ended under the weight of its own corniness. Then, beginning in the mid-1980s, the series was revived, and a new string of Godzilla pictures was released. These films were much darker than before and had a slightly more serious tone. Still, they used stunt-men in rubber suits and usually featured Godzilla fighting some other giant monsters. Not that I don’t enjoy that stuff, but content of that nature never rises above B-movie level for me.

My point is that the over-whelming majority of Godzilla films aren’t meant to be taken in any serious light. They’re fun, ridiculous pictures, and what they lack in any originality they make up for in enjoyable silliness. Perhaps my review has seemed somewhat condisending of the franchise, but I actually have been a pretty dedicated Godzilla fan. So much so that in 1998, as an excited six year old kid, I went to see the American-made entry in the series, Godzilla.

I actually enjoyed this film then. In fact, I still enjoy it today. Seeing a redesigned Godzilla run around New York City causing destruction was popcorn entertainment at its finest. Sure the other characters were thin and the plot, now that I think of it, didn’t really make much sense, but I found it to be a good B-movie in the spirit of the other Godzilla films.

Here’s where the snobbery comes in. For whatever reason, this film was panned not only by critics, but by Godzilla fans themselves as unfaithful to its namesake. They claimed it wasn’t their Godzilla, it wasn’t their type of movie. Some have even gone so far as to refer to creature in the movie not as Godzilla but as Gino (Godzilla In Name Only). The film has been deplored as a poorly told display of bad special effects.

And how was this any different than the other Godzilla films? Near as I can tell the filmmakers captured the essence of most of Godzilla’s films in their version. In truth, I don’t think it is any different. However, I’m willing to except the argument that maybe the fans were hoping for something closer to the original ‘Godzilla’. I can understand them wanting a film that, for perhaps the first time since the original, had a plot and message that was compelling, especially with all the budget, support, and hype that this film had (although I think movie audiences had by and large grown out of the stage of being taught parables through giant monster movies in the 90’s).

OK. So it’s not the true return to excellence that the fans were maybe hoping for. And I’ll admit that a person who’d spent 10, 20, or 30 years being accustomed to the original Godzilla suit maybe found his new, sleeker figure to be unfamiliar and unappealing (that and he no longer breathes fire). But still, I feel that the entertainment value of this picture has been grossly underrated due in part to the negative backlash from the fan community. It truly is a fun picture to watch, with a lot of chases, explosions, fights, planes, tanks, helicopters, guns, and of course Godzilla. And that, if done right, can warrant seeing a film. I’m of the opinion that in this film that it is. I give it a modest recommendation. If you can’t find it for free online, it is still worth spending $2.50 in the discount shelf in Walmart.

Or, You Can Buy It From Amazon: Godzilla [Blu-ray]

Edgar Wright: Scott Pilgrim vs The World – The Treatment on KCRW

Either he's really good at his job, or there's a hostile alien on the loose wearing a brand new Edgar suit.

Listen Up!

Original Post: Edgar Wright: Scott Pilgrim vs The World – The Treatment on KCRW.

The esteemed Mr. Wright is fast becoming one of my favorite filmmakers.  ‘Scott Pilgrim’ sealed that, proving that it wasn’t just the illustrious Simon Pegg providing the fuel for his previous works.  Wright is a talent and an inspiration.  He’s even friends with Tarantino (then again, I hear it’s hard not to be).  This interview with ‘The Treatment’ is extremely informative for budding filmmakers and quite entertaining, regardless.  So I’m reblogging it, for you all.

Cult Classic: Dark City

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: Masterful film noir and philosophical sci-fi.  It’s a worthy film.

Review: ‘Dark City’, released in 1998 but only recently rediscovered by popular geekdom, is a great example of a hidden gem. Very similar to ‘The Matrix’, which came out the next year, it hardly made a splash in its initial run, partly due to the ‘Blade Runner’ treatment; that is, the studio was afraid that audiences wouldn’t get it, so they gave it unnecessary narration and cut it badly. Even then, it got some critical acclaim, and thankfully we can now experience Alex Proyas’ original vision in a Director’s Cut on video. This is the version of the film I have seen, and will now review.

This is a film noir, richly drawn, with postmodernist touches and science fiction mysticism.  The film reeks of mystery and horror, both visceral and existential.  The people of the City live in perpetual darkness, physically, mentally and spiritually.  They are kept “blind” by a Nosferatu-like race called The Strangers, who are out to discover from their subjects the secret of the human soul.  Only a few people put the pieces of the puzzle together.  Some are caught, others destroy themselves in despair, but one has an advantage the others don’t.  This is John Murdoch, played by the excellent Rufus Sewell, and he’s a man with a few fragments of memory.  Thanks to the Director’s Cut removal of the studio mandated narration, we are also in the dark, putting the pieces together with Murdoch as he encounters one bizarre truth at a time.

The composition is classic, each shot deep and beautifully detailed, almost Wellesian, lit sometimes unconventionally, in a way that complements production designer Patrick Tatopoulos’ work.  Its look and feel harkens back to another era, a time when more care was put into mise-en-scene and the grandeur of a great shot that can look like a painting.  The Strangers’ machinery strongly evokes Fritz Lang, the streets evoke John Houston, and the science fiction and fantastic action owes a great deal to Japanese manga and anime.

Philosophically, the film blends the age-old drama of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave with questions about the relationship between memory and identity.  The Strangers toy with their subject’s memories to see if it changes who they are.  Are we the sum of our experiences, or something more?  The film seems to indicate that our memories do shape us, but we still have the choice, upon self-revelation, to change who we are and to change our worlds as well.  Proyas subtly references Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ by way of Murdoch, who concludes, “You wanted to know what it was about us that made us human.  Well, you’re not going to find it… (He points to his head) in here.  You were looking in the wrong place.”

‘Dark City’ is one of my favorite films.  It has familiar themes, but remarkable execution.

Buy It From Amazon: Dark City (Director’s Cut) [Blu-ray]

Shaun Of The Dead

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A clever, funny and horrifying social commentary.

Review: The zombie subgenre of horror runs on the rules and themes established by its godfather, George Romero, and chief among the allegories is the similarity of modern consumer culture to the ravenous cannibalistic behavior of the zombies. Since romantic comedies are often driven by sex appeal and shiny objects, it’s almost too brilliant to turn one into a Romeroesque zombie movie.  Director Edgar Wright — who should be on my top ten directors list — succeeds in creating the rare perfect mashup, a film that satisfies the appetites of both of its genres.  This means you have to enjoy (actually clever) romantic comedy just as much as gory horror, but if you have the taste, the movie is stunning.  Its packed with references without being loaded down, brisk without being breathless, heartwarming without being schmaltzy, funny without straining for gags, scary without compromise, and all around excellent.

Simon Pegg is Shaun, an electronics salesman who sleepwalks through life.  He lets his best friend, played by Nick Frost, get away with being a couch potato, and fails at giving his girlfriend, Liz, real attention and love.  He’s so checked out, in fact, that a zombie apocalypse sweeps across England and he doesn’t notice until a zombie practically knocks on his door.  Taking a page from the romantic comedy playbook, the filmmakers discard the usual bleak, nihilistic ending of zombie pictures and turn the apocalyptic circumstances into character transformation for Shaun.  The zombie allegory doesn’t just touch the viewer, it gets to the characters, and arguably makes it more powerful.

The movie captures the gritty, horror film look and, partially on account of its limited and aged locations, feels pretty retro.  Edgar Wright mixes this classic look with hyperactive, intelligent shots and transitions, and the result is positively unique, bearing fingerprints I recognize in Wright’s other films as well, the mark of an auteur.  What Wright & Co manage to do with limited locations and budget is positively inspiring for young filmmakers like myself.  Every time I imagine the film, it feels bigger than it looks while I actually watch it.  That’s the spark of imagination.  It’s really quite brilliant, and for the next generation of indie filmmakers, I can’t recommend this stunning debut enough.

Buy It From Amazon: Shaun of the Dead [Blu-ray]