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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2007

Stop with all the spoof talk, already. The latest masterpiece from Brit wits Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the spectacularly anarchic action buddy cop caper Hot Fuzz is more than just a simple-minded lampoon. Such a categorization limits what the amazing movie manages to achieve, bringing it down to a level of creative crassness that the duo manage to transcend time and time again. The truth is, Wright and Pegg have much larger funny business fish to fry than merely taking on the Bruckheimer/Bay gonzo gunplay dynamic. There is more to their satire than flying bullets, fisticuffs and testosterone-laced fireworks. No, this exceptionally talented duo is out to undermine their very own Englishness, to poke fun at a country that still views itself as a bastion of good manners and inbred etiquette.


The storyline is fairly straightforward. Sgt. Nicholas Angel is so good at his job, that his London superiors send him off into a sort of reputation saving exile. Soon lost among the citizens of this out of the way country village, Angel finds himself surrounded by a group of bumbling, doltish deputies. Lead by the impeccably optimistic Inspector Butterman, this subpar stable of inert officers features a bizarre assortment of dimwitted detectives, clueless constables and one particularly oafish officer, Butterman’s bulky son Danny. When it looks like murder may have finally found this tiny burg, Angel is eager for some action. But the local constituency doesn’t believe that such big city crime would visit their town. After all, it’s so calm, peaceful and well mannered –- almost suspiciously so. Of course, dark secrets lurk under such serene settings, and Angel and Danny are out to discover the truth.


When we first see police officer Nicholas Angel (in the person of Pegg), he seems rather cartoonish, almost incapable of becoming a three dimensional character. The many montages used by director Wright to instill the proper authority and focus to the man’s personality become part of a plan. Indeed, all throughout the film, Angel is a symbol that slowly becomes a human. As each layer is carefully peeled back, as we learn why the man is so dedicated to the law and so convinced of his perspective on crime, we begin the process of deconstructing this cinematic champion. Pegg is flawless in the role, doing his best to hide the utter contempt he has for the rest of his fellow policemen while always playing every situation by the book. It’s a brilliant turn in an equally remarkable story.


Similarly, Pegg/Wright regular Nick Frost is an excellent example of the audience stand-in, the inexperienced commoner who only knows the law based on what he’s seen on TV and in movies. He’s not just a flawless foil for Pegg’s procedural prig, but he makes a solid case for himself as a well-meaning copper. Frost may come across as a bumbling klutz, his size instantly giving him the standard jolly fat man vibe, but this is an actor of unlimited skill. All throughout Hot Fuzz, Frost is the face of honesty and truth inside a wonky world of mysterious deaths, countryside conspiracies, and more than a little semi-erotic male bonding. Indeed, when placed alongside Pegg, the pair manage the same filmic feat as they did in Shaun of the Dead –- they create a cinematic figure that you want to champion and root for.


As for the story –- a strange kind of Stepford Wives weirdness going on in the little out of the way alcove of Sandford –- we really don’t make much of it at first. We assume the series of eccentric ‘accidents’ (all of which are realized in a nicely nasty helping of gore) will have a rational explanation, or perhaps just a reason to exist. But since Hot Fuzz isn’t focused on being 100% realistic, at least not plot wise, Wright and Pegg have some over the top fun with their finale. Instead of being a simple case of serial murder, we get healthy doses of civic pride, mass hysteria, crawlspaces loaded with corpses, and a real warping of the whole ‘neighborhood watch’ conceit. It’s kitchen sink comedy at its most uproarious, a movie than makes you laugh consistently, enjoying every moment for its many levels of amusement.


Wright deserves a great deal of credit for combining two of the most misunderstood genres in post-modern moviemaking (comedy and action) into one overwhelmingly inventive and clever combination. Hot Fuzz is willing to do anything for a giggle -– from major malapropism and obvious jokes to little asides and inside digs that only the smartest film fan or trivia expert will understand. He surrounds his leads with several sensational supporting players, UK names like Billie Whitelaw, Edward Woodward, Jim Broadbent and Timothy Dalton. They all add a kind of historical heft to the movie, making the drama seem that much more serious, the wit that much more wicked. Additionally, Wrights got the stuntwork setpiece down pat. Several chase scenes in Hot Fuzz zing with Spielbergian artistry. They play as perfectly planned out and simultaneously caught off the cuff.


If there is a single insignificant flaw in this otherwise outstanding film, a minor facet that could keep audiences from completely connecting with the characters, it’s the very British-ness of the piece. Many outside England won’t understand some of the more biting irony, the sequences where church festivals and local snack shops play backdrop to bigger, more striking social commentary. Indeed, why Sandford would care about the title of Best Village in the UK may seem rather silly to wired Western suburbanites. What’s missing is context, a life or death reason why the town must preserve its perception –- apparently at all costs. It’s an absent ingredient in what is already a heady combination of personalities and pistols.


And there will be others who lament the lack of a love interest here. Even Shaun of the Dead found time in its zombie stomping to give its titular hero a love life. In Hot Fuzz, Angel is seen speaking to his CSI inspector girlfriend (Cate Blanchett in a clever cameo), but once we toss said ex aside, there is not another lady in either his or Frost’s life. It’s as if Sandford doesn’t have an available gal under 50 for either man to make time with (and Police Department trollop Doris Thatcher doesn’t count). Pegg can essay an endearing love struck suitor, and it would have been nice to see him chat up a bird or two while in the line of duty. Frost’s Butterman could also stand with a date. His private stash of action movies is a sad replacement for actual human companionship.


Such quibbles do very little to undermine Hot Fuzz’s power as an entertainment epiphany. In a modern medium which is more than happy to spell everything out in baby step simplicity, where jokes are based in the gross out, not the finely crafted, where acting is often confused with one’s status as an A-list celebrity, this is the kind of film that rekindles the inherent joy of movies. It so effortlessly formed, so wholly its own entity that you consistently find yourself giddy with satisfaction at how good the film makes you feel. In a domain that’s basically forgotten how to satisfy, Hot Fuzz is the very definition of a crowd pleaser. It may be making fun of a hundred varying Tinsel Town conceits, but it takes its desire to delight very, very seriously


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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2007
by Simon Williamson

I’ve reviewed a lot of books, films, and albums, but never my favourites. I’ve always felt unequal to that task.


For the most part, I’ve reviewed works of “art” that I loathe, not love. It’s safer that way. So what if my review reveals Babel sucks? Maybe, due to unfairness or incapacity, I didn’t do it justice. Well, no harm done—it was godawful anyway. Its self-harm dwarfs any injury committed by my review.


But when you love a book, a film, or an album, justice must be done. If you do review it, you must capture the many shades, shapes, and textures of its glory. And if you can’t do that, shut the hell up. Because it’s better to say nothing than something wholly inadequate. Such, I guess, is the chilling effect of great art on reviewing. That’s why, when it comes to my faves, I keep quiet.


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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2007

The other day I was complaining about the way we tend to promote the notion that entertainment’s main function is to facilitate self-absorption as a kind of escape. Pop culture often offers vicarious entertainments that are rather undemanding and that flatter us for our limitations, seeming to efface them as we give ourselves over to the entertainment product. In other words, they congratulate us for not thinking.


Having just floated that argument, I found this recent Slate piece by poet Robert Pinsky (a former U.S. poet laureate, if that means anything) serendipitous. He celebrates difficulty, almost for its own sake:


Difficulty, after all, is one of life’s essential pleasures: music, athletics, dance thrill us partly because they engage great difficulties. Epics and tragedies, no less than action movies and mysteries, portray an individual’s struggle with some great difficulty. In his difficult and entertaining work Ulysses, James Joyce recounts the challenges engaged by the persistent, thwarted hero Leopold and the ambitious, narcissistic hero Stephen. Golf and video games, for certain demographic categories, provide inexhaustible, readily available sources of difficulty.


Difficulty, in short, makes accomplishments meaningful and require us to focus our energies rather than dissipate them. But the problem with difficult poetry is not just that it’s hard to understand after a casual breezy read. It’s proudly elitist, in that it rewards those who bring the necessary intellectual capital (the result of time and money investments in education as well as what is inherited from literary-minded parents). Pinsky tries to circumvent this by suggesting that poetry can be enjoyed even if you don’t really understand what the author may have intended (after all, you wouldn’t want to be found guilty of committing the intentional fallacy) and that’s almost seems like claiming you can still enjoy chess just by moving the pieces around the board any which way. But it’s more that he advocates reading poetry as a rewarding process regardless of the end result, provided it’s undertaken with the proper seriousness of intent.


But again we confront a habitus problem—the necessary attitude for the interpretive process is a learned skill, and its rewards are learned rewards—we learn to feel rewarded by certain sorts of insights and conclusions, and what they signal about our intelligence and perceptiveness. Reading difficult poetry is no different from listening to difficult music; it opens one to the accusation of pretentious showing off. The question is whether it is possible to separate the enjoyment one gets from reading the poem from the pleasure given by being recognized for reading it. Can you read poetry without consuming it like a lifestyle product, and if so, does the difficulty of the work have anything, really, to do with the distinction?


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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2007

Feminists have long lamented the lack of women writers in newspaper opinion pages and on magazine staffs of influential magazines like The New Yorker and New Republic


And women are certainly outnumbered as guests and panelists on the Sunday issue shows, where the likes of Robert Novak, Patrick Buchanan and other Lord Vader types duke it out.


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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2007


Every year they beach themselves on the shores of our aesthetic, dozens of summer blockbuster belugas looking for as many adolescent audience members and merchandising tie-ins as they can get within the mandatory opening weekend window of opportunity. And like the proverbial lemmings to the motion picture precipice, we march right up to each and every one and dive right in, struggling to sample their focus group inelegance. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with a big, dumb action film or outrageous special effects extravaganza, but sometimes you need a little movie meat to supplement those huge helpings of high concept carbs.


So before Tinsel Town tempts you with its annual smörgåsbord of stale sequels, overdone remakes and middling main courses, let’s stop to test a few of the adventurous side dishes summer cinema has to offer. Many of these movies were fashioned outside the ‘microwave and reheat’ kitchens of Hollywood, and several sail right along that neglected edge of marginalized moviemaking – the genre (horror/sci-fi/thriller) effort. But in a season overrun by mainstream sameness, where every title is an event, and all entertainment elements are geared toward maximum monetary returns, it’s nice to see a little artistry mixed in with all the artifice.


So, in alphabetical order, here are the ten films that SE&L will be specifically looking forward to come sun and fun season.:


Black Sheep (22 June)


How can you ignore mutant killer livestock? Especially when Peter Jackson’s WETA F/X studio had a hand in the deadly mutton’s design? Though this could quickly de-evolve into another tacky trade-off of the entire Food of the Gods nature gone nutty formula, early buzz has Jonathan King creating a wonderful combination of scary and silly. All comparisons to Shawn of the Dead aside, SE&L is salivating over the prospect of this zombie ewe extravaganza.

Death Sentence (31 August)


It’s about time someone revived the whole Death Wish ideal, and SE&L couldn’t be happier that James Saw Wan is behind the lens this time around. Sure, no one bothered to see the Australian filmmaker’s criminally underrated Dead Silence (how could anyone ignore lethal ventriloquist dummies???), but with a cast including Kevin Bacon (as our vigilante) and John Goodman (as a mob boss), this edge of your seat thriller could be the director’s ticket out of the Hell of horror.

DOA (22 June)


It’s a video game. It’s softcore sexism. It’s every basement dwelling geeks ultimate wet dream. And now it’s being made into a movie. The storyline revolves around the title martial arts competition, and four scantily clad babes who find themselves buff, bikini-ed, and ready to bust some butt. Though it’s already opened in other markets around the world, the US has had to wait almost a year to see this flagrantly anti-feminist fight fest. The inner nerd inside us can’t wait.

Eagle vs. Shark (29 June)


Two dorky losers – one an amiable uber geek named Jarrod, the other a wistful young woman named Lily – hook up at a gamers’ party and decide to take a road trip together. Jarrod is desperate for a little late in life payback on a bully that tormented him in school years before. With constant comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite, SE&L senses a healthy dose of fringe filmmaking here. While New Zealand director Taika Cohen is well known in his native land, this could be his US breakthrough.

Fido (15 June)


The living dead as household servants/pets? Another surreal dark social commentary set in the ‘50s in the vein of Bob Balaban’s brilliant Parents? All SE&L can say is HELL YA! This will be the Summer Sleeper movie to beat in our opinion, a film that is already generating massive buzz and a considerable cult following. If Lionsgate can market this correctly, and prove to non-horror fans that there is more here than laugh laced blood and guts, they could have a sizable hit on our hands.

The Flock (11 May)


He’s responsible for the Infernal Affairs trilogy, the Hong Kong police procedurals that, in turn, lead to last year’s Oscar winner The Departed. For his first Western film, director Wai Keung Lau offers up this Se7en like story of aggressive agents, naive trainees, little children, and a nasty pedophile. A delayed release and recent reshoots (san Lau) don’t appear promising, but who knows. This just might work. With his pedigree, we’re definitely betting on Lau.

La Vie En Rose/The Passionate Life of Edith Piaf (25 May)


Though she’s fallen a ways out of the pop culture zeitgeist since the turn of the millennium, SE&L senses there is enough interest in the life and times of this diminutive French chanteuse to warrant a biopic. And since early word is that this movie defies description and borders on being a work of staggering genius, the lack of a present day high profile for the subject may not hurt it at all. Already a hit at the Berlin Film Festival, we can’t wait for it to open here in the states. 

The King of Kong (17 August)


Old school arcade game action meets post-modern social sensibilities in a documentary that follows some dedicated middle aged joystickers as they try to break the world records on the stalwart simian title Donkey Kong. Like all great non-fiction films, this one takes a seemingly staid premise and infuses it with both drama and deeper meaning. There is something uniquely profound – and sort of perplexing – about watching grown men recapturing their youth. Count us interested and in.

The Signal (10 August)


Calling Stephen King!!! Paging Eli Roth!!! You better get that adaptation of Cell up and running PDQ. This blatant take on your material – a mysterious transmission across phones, radio and TV turns people into psychotic killers – is about to hit theaters and steal most of your thunder. Gory, gratuitous and guaranteed to get your genre jones amplified and overdosing, here’s hoping this could be the splatter spree the summer needs to cleanse its occasionally cloying aesthetic palette.

The Ten (3 August)



With that Decalogue of rules known as the Ten Commandments as its basis, former State/Stella creators David Wain and Ken Marino present a comedy anthology that’s part sketch fest, part attempt to contextualize society. With an amazing cast (Winona Rynder, Liev Schreiber, Jessica Alba and Ron Silver) and the same surreal sensibility that made their previous TV ventures seem like disconnected and deranged, this could be the kind of film that breathes new life into the dying big screen farce.



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