Sunday, October 21, 2007

Retro Movie Review: "Hot Fuzz"

Those crazy British. Since being defeated militarily by us Americans over 200 years ago, they have tried to reclaim this land by use of music and now by sending over the comedy team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Wright wrote and directed Pegg (who also wrote) in the film Shaun of the Dead, a pitch perfect sendup of zombie movies. Shaun was not a spoof, but a loving homage with some witty and subtle jokes. It also featured some fine British acting by Bill Nighy and Pegg and Nick Frost.

Hot Fuzz is their followup, with Wright directing and co-writing with Pegg, who stars, and like Shaun, it sends up a common film genre: shoot 'em up cop dramas/action movies. Pegg's character, as straightlaced as one can be, has to leave the London police force because he is too damn good and is making everyone else look bad. He arrives in Sandford, where predictably, he's the only one who holds the law in high regard. His partner (Frost) is little more than a bumbling sidekick, which first the cliche well. A serial killer arises, pushing Pegg's character to the brink, as he is the only one willing to see murder, and is forced into becoming the type of officer that Frost's character wants to be: an action star. The last half of the movie gleefully engages in all the action movie requirements, with guns blazing, buildings exploding and gratitous blood.

Wright's direction, with quick cuts and fast whiparounds is spot on as both inline with these sorts of movies. Yet these sorts of cuts being repeated ad nausem and what mundane scenes are edited that way illustrate the ludicrousness of short-attention span directing. There is a scene in the climatic battle where the camera does a 360 around Pegg and Frost, while the spout off lines and pump their guns. It is both hilarious and seemingly a normal gesture. Even the music swells in the right way to underscore and undercut the seriousness of the situation.

Simon Pegg's and Nick Frost's friendship and chemistry was the foundation of Shaun and it again carries well in this film. Although Pegg's character initially thinks very little of Frost, he is never condescening, but rather tolerate of his lesser-than-stellar partner. Eventually, as it always goes, the two become equals and kick some major butt. The movie is fast and furious with nods and references (I only really caught a Chinatown reference, but I am sure there is a lot more).

This movie is a definite see if you liked Shaun of the Dead even a little and is a must-see if you didn't see Shaun or didn't enjoy it. This is the perfect second chance to get in on this bandwagon. If you can't be won over by this movie or that one, then the British have failed again. But I would gladly welcome a monarchy again if we can get more movies from Wright, Pegg, and Frost.

4 1/2 Heavy Artillery out of 5.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Retro Movie Review: "Crash"

Previously, I reviewed Brokeback Mountain, one of the early favorites to win a boatload of awards at the 2006 Academy Awards. I did not have a high opinion of that film, but how would the eventual winner of Best Picture Crash fair? Would it too be a disappointment, further proof that the 2005-2006 Oscar race was overblown?

Luckily, Crash is not a bad movie. While it is not a groundshaking, landmark film that some claimed Brokeback (though some did try to hoist that description onto this movie, labeling it a movie about racism), it was still entertaining. Almost surprisingly so. Most of the characters in the movie are caricatures. The black criminal spouts disparaging remarks about white people, the rich white woman is a bitch, et cetera, et cetera. And while most of these portrayals are unrealistic, most of them vibrate with quiet excellence.

Matt Dillion plays his racist cop with over-the-top aplomb for 3/4 of the movie, only to pull a believable reversal in the final quarter. Don Cheadle is the center of the movie, playing his detective close to the chest, never really showing any emotion either way until his arc is concluded. There are also solid performances by the like of Brendan Frasier, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Esposito, Terrance Howard (playing a man more than twice his age) and surprisingly, rapper Ludicrous. Most rap artists-turned-actors play larger than life characters in their first roles, but Luda's performance is more down to earth than that, even though he is playing the black criminal caricature I mentioned before.

The movie does have its faults though. Much like Magnolia, the movie suffers for being a character-driven story and sacrifices some real world ramifications for "growth". There is a lot of illegal activity or harmful acts that go on in Crash, for all sorts of people, but no one is ever punished. In fact, the one character who does get punished (he/she dies) could be seen as one of the hearts of the movie. But other than that, people shoot each other, assualt one another, and there are no reprecussions other than a possible guilty conscience. These sorts of movies make it hard for me to get totally into them: on the one hand, they are asking us to view the real world in a different light, but on the other, they substitute the real world for their fantasy world to prove their point.

All in all, Crash is an enjoyable movie if you view it as a exaggerated characters acting in the pseudo-real world. Did it deserve the Best Picture Oscar? Probably not. But it is still is a fine movie.

3 Crisscrossing Storylines out of 5

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Retro Movie Review: "Brokeback Mountain"

One of the most talked about movies in 2005, Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two ranchhands/rustlers who fall in love and struggle to be "normal" in a world that would frown upon their relationship. Brokeback became the punchline for 2005, with it's portrayal of gay cowboys and the line "I wish I knew how to quit you." It was held up as a quiet masterpiece and praised heavily. It was supposed to win the Best Picture Oscar (it lost to Crash). With time, how does the movie hold up? Was it worth the awards fever in the first place?

No. The film is very flimsy. The opening 45 minutes, which sets up the love story, is cliched at best. It exhibits all the well known themes a "Forbidden Love" plot will have. The picture never really shows Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) falling in love with each, just them palling around, until they have to share a tent, and the suddenly the "Tension" is released. But there never feels to be any tension in the first place! Then, as they have to part ways at the end of that summer, of course Jack sees Ennis walk away in his rearview mirror, and of course Ennis has to find an alleyway to cry in. The rest of the movie unfolds as you expect: a push and pull between the two men and them trying to build a family life, but it crumbling around them.

Even the acting is average at best: Ledger's accent comes off all wrong, making him sound 10 years older than he should be. Gyllenhaal whines a bit too much. The supporting actresses, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are clearly meant to be eye-candy, window dressing to the main characters and their characters add very little, except plot points. The movie wants to be a character study and a plot-driven film, but fails at both.

Brokeback Mountain is really just a "meh" movie. It tries to be artsy and well-made because of its subject matter, but it loses itself in its self-importance. There are periods in the movie where no dialogue is spoken, which doesn't work in a film like this. It just suffers from the hype that surrounds it and the thought that a film of this nature must be a good movie.

2 1/2 Jon Stewart Jokes out of 5


Friday, October 05, 2007

Those Other Thursday Night Shows

I have trumpeted NBC's "The Office" before, in this blog post in particular, but there are currently two toher shows on NBC on Thursdays (along with Scrubs that will return in a few months) that warrant your viewership: "My Name is Earl" and "30 Rock".

"My Name is Earl" stars Jason Lee as a reformed criminal trying to make amends for his past misdeeds. It is currently in its third season, and more so than any other show, comedy or drama, it has certainly evolved from its first run. Originally, "Earl" was all about Earl's list of mistakes and him trying to correct those mistakes to right his karma. This continued into the second season, but the second season also largely included Earl trying to become a better man outside of his list. It also included more storylines that ran through the entire season. Now, Earl is in prison for admitting to a crime his ex-wife Joy (the recent Emmy winner Jamie Pressly) committed and the show has changed once again. Earl is still trying to cross of things from his list, but he is also helping out friends and trying to make the world a better place.

The supporting cast on "Earl" compliments Lee perfectly: Ethan Suplee, who is a friend of Lee in real life and his costar in Mallrats plays Randy, Earl's dimwit younger brother. There is Pressly as Joy and her husband, Crab Ma, played by Eddie Steeples. Nadine Velazquez rounds out the main cast as Catalina, Randy's former love interest and current wife (long story, see Season 2). Of course, they are a myriad of minor characters that populate Earl's world, much like how on "The Office" the secondary characters are as important as the main cast. "Earl" is funny and slapsticky at times, as it straddles the line between a one-camera show like "The Office" and the more farciful sitcom situations that Lucy used to tackle on "I Love Lucy." Of course, Lucy never robbed a one legged woman before.

"30 Rock" is the newer kid on the block, having premiered only last year. Yet, in its first season, it has won critical praise and the Emmy for "Best Comedy." Created by, written by, and starring Tina Fey, of SNL fame, this show is a hilarious love letter to the entertainment industry. In Fey's world, NBC is little more than subsidiary of a local clothing company, Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy can in charge of network and microwave programming, and the backstage antics of a comedy variety show are more hilarious than the actual show. "30 Rock" is a pop culture smörgåsbord, with references to Star Wars and classic TV shows alike. Last night, for example, the whole main plot revolved around Jerry Seinfeld being digitally inserted into NBC's ratings-challenged shows. And Seinfeld eventually shows up to defend his digital honor. As all this craziness unfolds in each episode, Tina Fey shines as the neurotic center of it all. For someone who worked mainly as one of the anchors on "Weekend Update" on SNL, Fey shows a remarkable talent to act.

Luckily for us, NBC is behind "Earl" and "30 Rock" much like how they are behind "The Office". All 3 shows aren't ratings juggernauts, often finishing behind other shows in their time slots. But Thursday night is a big night for all networks, and NBC knows they have found a niche with their quirky lineup. While NBC's Thursday nights seem different from what they had on ten years ago, with all these shows without laughtracks and bigger sets, their lineup is as strong comically as it ever was. In fact, I'd say there are more laughs packed into Thursday nights now then there ever was with "Seinfeld" and "Friends" airing on that night.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

What's in the Pipeline?

Just wanted to give a little heads up on what is coming up on my Netflix queue:

-Currently, I have Brokeback Mountain on my desk, waiting to be watched.

-Then, when I return that movie, Crash will be arriving soon after.

-After Crash, comes more lighter fare: Hot Fuzz.

Yes, I am catching up on Oscars 2006, plus what I have been repeatedly told is a funny movie in Hot Fuzz . You can expect a review of each movie as soon as I am done viewing them.

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