by Steve Habrat
In 2004, director Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost wowed genre audiences everywhere with their fantastic rom-zom-com debut Shaun of the Dead. In 2005, Wright and Pegg had brief cameos in George A. Romero’s 2005 comeback Land of the Dead and in the spring of 2007, Wright, Pegg, and Frost contributed the wonderfully spot-on fake trailer Don’t to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, the severely underrated double-feature ode to sleaze pictures of the 70s and 80s. Their hot streak continued just a few short weeks later with the release of the cop-slasher hybrid Hot Fuzz, a zippy, bloody, gory, and flat-out hilarious adrenaline rush that found the guys returning to the big screen in a colossal way. Riffing on Point Break, Bad Boys II, and almost every other action movie that Michael Bay has ever made, Wright and his double-trouble duo then drive this flashing police car straight into the whodunit slasher genre with guns blazing. Brimming with winks and nods to everything they love, Wright once again smartly tells a highly original story that turns Hot Fuzz into a modern day action masterpiece. It also has the world’s funniest swan and a gunfight to end all gunfights, so that is also a plus too.
Nicholas Angel (played by Simon Pegg) is the best police office in London. He is so good at his job that he is starting to make the other officers on the police force look bad. One day, Nicholas is called into a meeting with Chief Inspector Kenneth (played by Bill Nighy), who explains that Nicholas is going to be transferred to the rural town of Sanford, a picturesque community that is devoid of crime. Upon his arrival, Nicholas meets Inspector Frank Butterman (played by Jim Broadbent) and his simple-minded son Danny Butterman (played by Nick Forst). Frank partners up the overachieving Nicholas up with the lackadaisical Danny and sends the duo out to patrol the quiet streets. Everything seems to be going okay until a series of brutal accidents sends a shockwave through the town residents. Convinced that there is more to these accidents than meets the eye, Nicholas and Danny launch an investigation that brings them face to face with a hooded killer. With prominent members of the community dropping like flies, Nicholas and Danny race to put an end to the hooded figure’s killing spree, but the closer they get to catching the murderer, the more secrets that are revealed about the seemingly peaceful town of Sanford.
Bigger and badder than Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz has studied the action manual very hard and it knows what we have come to expect. The aesthetic is sleek and shiny, with even the smallest moments spiffed up to make our eyes pop. Early on, Nicholas arrests a handful of underage teens sipping suds in Sanford’s pub and as Nicholas books them at the station, Wright cuts quickly, pulling off several flashy camera tricks and even speeding up or slowing down the action for maximum effect. It’s absolutely hilarious and a very clever nod to Michael Bay and his insistence on stylizing every little detail. When the action goes boom, we get the typical slow motion shot of the heroes walking away from the fiery destruction in the background. The climax finds Wright including everything from police chases to gritty gun battles, all the way to a final mano-y-mano that ends in a sight gag that is simultaneously horrific and hilarious. Once again, Wright manages to carefully balance out the action side of the story with the whodunit/slasher aspect. The murder mystery is fun and it does make for a few good jump moments that will keep you on your toes. In a way, you are left crossing your fingers that the guys might reunite down the line for a straight up slasher movie. I have a feeling that it might be another home run from Wright.
As if the flashy action and the slasher plotline weren’t enough for one motion picture, Wright pumps in a heartwarming buddy-cop subplot. A good majority of the fun comes from watching Pegg and Frost interact with each other, mostly because they are such polar opposites. In Shaun of the Dead, they were on the same dazed wavelength but in Hot Fuzz, they are like oil in water. Pegg excels at the supercop role, never missing a moment to turn his by-the-books Nicholas into a Buzz Killington. He drags the buzzed youth down to the station even though the local-yokels argue that allowing the boys to have a few brews in a local pub keeps them from causing trouble in the streets. When he reluctantly agrees to hang out with Danny outside of work, he refuses a beer and orders a simple cranberry juice. He bottles up his anger when he is sent to round up a runaway swan, one of the film’s funniest running jokes and he sighs through boredom as Danny invites him to his house to watch Bad Boys II and Point Break. On the other hand, Frost’s Danny is sweet and simple, a guy who really could care less about his day job and would much rather be at home getting lost in a fantasy world of exploding cars, gunfire, and mayhem. You practically cheer for him when he gets the chance to pick up some firepower and join Nicholas on the streets for a good old-fashion shootout and you’ll be doubled over laughing when he gets to act out his favorite scene from Point Break.
As far the supporting players go, Broadbent is a riot as the merry Sanford Police Inspector who pairs up Nicholas and Danny. Bill Nighy is perfectly dry as the Chief Inspector who ships Nicholas off to dead end and Timothy Dalton gives a suave performance as Simon Skinner, a supermarket manager who seems awfully suspicious. Interestingly enough, Cate Blanchett turns up as Janine, Nicholas’s girlfriend in a HAZMAT suit and director Peter Jackson stops by for an appearance as the Santa Claus that attacks Nicholas in the opening credits. If there were anything to nitpick in Hot Fuzz, it would probably have to be the length of the film. With so much happening within the plot, the film does run a bit too long and the climax starts to feel a bit like overkill even if Wright is desperately trying to cram in as many action movie staples as he can. Overall, it is clear that Wright, Pegg, Frost, and nearly every other actor or actress in Hot Fuzz is having a ball and their good time does rub off on the viewer. Wright and Pegg’s screenplay never misses a beat and the laughs blast at the viewer like bullets. You may never be able to look at a swan the same way again.
Hot Fuzz is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Since 2007’s unremarkable crime drama Cassandra’s Dream and 2008’s sultry love triangle Vicky Christina Barcelona, Woody Allen has reverted back to making cutesier dramedies like Whatever Works, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the superb Midnight in Paris, and To Rome with Love. Now well into his seventies, Allen continues to make one movie a year to keep busy. In 2012, he snagged an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on the enchanting Midnight in Paris, a win that you’d think he would have ended his career on, but he continues to push forward. I’ll be honest, I really worried that Midnight in Paris might be the last great film of Allen’s career, but I’m so pleased to say that the persistent writer-director blindsided me with Blue Jasmine, a stinging art-house portrait of a woman who had everything and ended up with nothing. With most of the comedy dropped, Allen builds to a climax that is sure to freeze you in your seat for a solid few minutes. Blue Jasmine is already a sobering slap, but it is made all the more captivating by a devastating Cate Blanchett, who will certainly have her name in the Best Actress category at the Oscars.
Blue Jasmine begins with Jasmine (played by Cate Blanchett) arriving in San Francisco in the wake of a nasty divorce and a financial scandal that led to her wealthy husband, Hal (played by Alec Baldwin), committing suicide. Broke, angry, and alone, Jasmine shacks up with her blue-collar sister, Ginger (played by Sally Hawkins), with whom she shares a rocky relationship. In the past, Hal let Ginger and her ex-husband, Augie (played by Andrew Dice Clay), in on a faulty investment deal that left the couple broke. As Jasmine tries to compose herself and restart her life, she meets a wealthy California Congressman Dwight Westlake (played by Peter Sarsgaard) at a party. The two quickly fall in love and plan to marry, but Jasmine’s dark past comes back to haunt her. Meanwhile, Ginger, who is set to marry the big-hearted grease monkey Chili (played by Bobby Cannavale), strikes up a romance with seemingly nice-guy Al (played by Louis C.K.), who has a secret of his own.
Based upon Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Blue Jasmine initially comes on like a typical Allen film. Blanchett’s character is presented as a nervy and neurotic mess looking for any ear that will listen to her spew her tragic life story. She flies first-class even though she doesn’t have a penny to her name and she constantly reminds her modest sister that Uncle Sam took everything from her, even her precious furs. When she lays eyes on where she will be staying, she fights back vomiting and musters the thinnest compliment imaginable. When her angst becomes too overwhelming, she rushes for a bottle of vodka, pops a Xanax, and starts mumbling to herself about her lavish past with a philandering millionaire who showered her with expensive gifts to blind her to his unfaithfulness. She makes the viewer cringe as she scoffs at Chili, who she views as a loose cannon deadbeat who will never be able to provide for Ginger, even though Chili desperately tries to be as warm to Jasmine as he can. At times, you almost get the sense that Allen is concealing the really brutal stuff behind a romantic comedy/midlife crisis mask, but we are never entirely sure how vicious this is going to get. Even though she is highly unlikeable and about as self-absorbed and pretentious as you can get, we still oddly root for Jasmine to get her life back together and find love. It’s hard to find a scene in Blue Jasmine that doesn’t have Jasmine herself a red-faced, withering mess fighting off the creepy advancements of a dentist and Chili’s buddies and throwing a pity party.
The true power of Blue Jasmine rests on the slender shoulders of Cate Blanchett, who gives the performance of her career as the equally pathetic and detestable Jasmine. Watching her try to go from swanky socialite to receptionist with absolutely no skills to get by is gripping every step of the way. You hate her when Allen flashes back and shows her blowing off the beaming Ginger and Augie as they pop by New York for a visit and you stand behind her hope as she lingers by the telephone waiting for the dashing Dwight to call her up. There is something admirable in her attempt to finish school and learn how to use a computer, but this drive is done in by the shallow possibly of returning to the life of luxury with Dwight. Hawkins gives a big-hearted performance as Ginger, Jasmine’s sister who is constantly being berated by Jasmine over her job, living conditions, and choice of men. You really have to pat Ginger on the back for her kindness, especially when it is revealed that Jasmine barely acknowledged her existence when she was living high in New York. Bobby Cannavale is a delight as Chili, Ginger’s rough-around-the-edges fiancé who tries to kid with Jasmine, but always ends up in a war of words with the fallen queen. Louis C.K. turns up as a lovable stereo installer who just can’t seem to get enough of the bubbly Ginger. Peter Sarsgaard’s Dwight is a nice upper-class gentleman with big dreams, but even his soft personality isn’t immune to the lies that Jasmine is spinning. Explicit comedian Andrew Dice Clay gives a dramatic performance as Ginger’s ruined ex-husband, Augie, who fell into some money and was then taken for a ride by Hal. Recent Allen regular Alec Baldwin gives a soft-spoken performance as the crooked philistine businessman Hal who is seen running around on Jasmine mostly in flashbacks.
With such a serious story, Allen tries to lighten the mood early on with some of his trademark dry wit. But by the last fifteen minutes of Blue Jasmine, he drops any attempt to cushion his blows and dishes out a one-two punch that sends Jasmine to the brink of madness. I must say, Allen unleashes a series of plot twists that catapult Blue Jasmine to the forefront of Allen’s massive body of work. I was left speechless, paralyzed, and most of all, I was thrilled to see Allen shrewdly serve up an ice-cold plate of reality to a character that just kept trying to turn a blind eye to it. Allen is ever careful in the way he allows these prickly twists to reveal themselves, a testament to his skills as a writer. Overall, in years past, Allen has said that he loathes reality and that he prefers the fantasy realm. With Blue Jasmine, Allen seems to have hardened and embraced the idea that there are some seriously crushing realities in the world and they can have some serious consequences. Blue Jasmine is a masterpiece from a man in the twilight of his career and one of the best films I have seen in 2013 so far.
by Steve Habrat
After the fatigued but fun Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, Indy took a long, much needed break from saving the world. For years, audiences begged for another installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, loosing their minds over the smallest hints dropped about a possible new film. In 2008, fans finally got their wish with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a CGI heavy blockbuster that had an aged Indy battling Russians in the atomic age. Opting for science fiction shenanigans over biblical trinkets, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brings back Harrison Ford as the fedora-wearing hero, has him joining forces with fan favorite Marion Ravenwood, and facing some of his most outlandish action scenes yet. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is littered with the fingerprints of George “Overkill” Lucas, who I’m fairly certain is responsible for some of the low points of this half-good installment. Returning director Steve Spielberg does his best to hold the project together and he does direct the film care, but it is so painfully obvious where Lucas took over as his input sends Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into a violent nosedive that Spielberg has to quickly right.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull picks up in 1957, with a much older Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Ford) and his partner George “Mac” McHale (Played by Ray Winstone) kidnapped by Soviet Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (Played by Cate Blanchett). She brings Indy and Mac to Area 51, demanding Indy locates a mysterious box that contains the alien remains from Roswell. Reluctantly, Indy begins helping her and then makes a daring get away. Indy narrowly survives a nuclear bomb test and is picked up by the FBI, who accuses him of working with the Soviets. Indy is forced to take an indefinite leave of absence from the University he teaches at but soon finds himself approached by a greaser named Mutt Williams (Played by Shia LaBeouf) who tells Indy that his old colleague, Harold Oxley (Played by John Hurt), has mysteriously disappeared after he discovered a crystal skull in Peru. Mutt also reveals that his mother has been kidnapped and that he needs Indy’s help to find her. Indy agrees to help Mutt find his mother and Oxley but as their search continues, they discover that Colonel Dr. Spalko is also after the crystal skull, which if obtained could allow the Russians to wage psychic warfare on America.
The rumor behind The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that there was another script that Spielberg wanted to make but Lucas insisted on this one. While there are some awesome moments in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the good is overshadowed by the extremely awful. In this film, we see Indy survive an nuclear bomb blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator, narrowly escape a sea of giant killer ants, Mutt swinging through the jungle with monkeys, and a climax featuring a huge UFO rising up out of the ground. It is these moments that make The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feel more like a Star Wars film rather than an installment of Indiana Jones. The film does marvelously weave perhaps one of the most interesting eras into the franchise, using the Cold War as the backdrop for all the action. Yet this all feels even more like child’s play, more than The Last Crusade did. The scene with Mutt swing through the jungle on vines with a slew of cute monkeys will make the kids giddy. There is also the weird prairie dogs that are constantly shown in the opening moments of the film, a touch that I still to this day do not quite understand other than to add a cutesy family touch.
The major positive here is the presence of the fervent Ford, who gladly dusts off the famous fedora and wears it proudly while searching for the crystal skull. Spielberg and Lucas enjoy playing up the joke that he has aged and not at his heroic best, having Indy make mistakes and urging Mutt to call him “Gramps” every chance he gets. Yet when Ford is asked to be tough and throw a couple of right hooks, he is more than willing to give it a try. Ford still has it as an action hero and he ultimately carries this overly polished moneymaker across the finish line. Giving him Karen Allen to work with also puts some spring in his step, reigniting the feisty flame the two had in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. They once again argue about Indy’s fear of commitment and by now, you know that Mutt turns out to be Indy’s son, which causes Indy to really erupt. This dysfunctional family ends up being a real winner even if it is an attempt to sell a family movie. I especially like watching Indy and Marion once again discover their feelings for each other, which allowed The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to win points for familiarity.
There has been quite a bit of controversy over the character of Mutt Williams, who at times seems to be there to allow for future installments. He’s likable enough but I hope that Spielberg and Lucas have the good sense to not pass the whip and fedora to him. They do a clever little fake out at the end but I still fear the worst with his character. He ends up being a character that the kiddies can root for while Mom and Dad are cheering for the winded Indy and Marion. John Hurt gets to have a little fun playing off-his-rocker with Harold Oxley. He is another character that is there just to provide a few little chuckles. Winstone as Mac is a pretty useless character, there to be the typical side nuisance Indy has to constantly deal with. The star next to Allen and Ford is without question Blanchett, who enjoys playing the vampy Spalko a little too much. She is slightly sexy and cartoonishly menacing when swinging around a sword. She truly is a character that looks like she was ripped out of a long, lost comic book that has been stashed away in your grandpa’s basement. Next to Raiders’ Arnold Thot and Temple of Doom’s Mola Ram, she is one of the best villains of the Indian Jones series.
If Spielberg and Lucas would have cut back on some of the excess and maybe removed the silly CGI alien at the end, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would have been a much smoother roller coaster ride. Many have lambasted Spielberg for some of the mistakes here but I am firmly convinced that Lucas is the one to blame for the more asinine moments of the film. In a way, I sort of feel bad for giving this film an average grade because there is so much heart and dedication on display, especially from Ford and Spielberg, who seem to be right at home with this material. There were moments where I was totally engulfed by the rousing action, mostly the ones that weren’t cluttered with CGI trickery. If Indiana Jones does return for one more adventure, lets hope that Lucas steps away from the special effects and focuses more on giving fans a film that is worthy of their fedora-wearing hero rather than just being a greedy cash grab.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Corinne Rizzo
In Bottle Rocket, Anthony falls in love with Ines while swimming in the hotel pool, a pool that was the center of the hotel universe with multiple scenes shot in and around it. In Rushmore, Max plans to build Ms. Cross an aquarium the size of a baseball field and brings additions to the classroom aquariums in the meantime. The Royal Tenenbaums finds Margot in the bathtub for hours every day, while Ethylene practices archeology in the inner city. Similarly, Richie and Margot runaway to live in the public archives for a few weeks to get away from their family. The ocean, water and exploration are major themes in Wes Anderson’s films and in Anderson’s fourth film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the filmmaker displays an outward celebration of aquatic life and adventurism, themes Anderson has previously suppressed in earlier films.
Set on the Belefonte (Zissou’s research ship) , and subsequent island locales, Steve Zissou, played by Bill Murray (formerly Raleigh St. Claire), is an aging explorer bent on discovering the shark that killed his best friend Esteban, and rediscovering his edge as a documentary film star.
The film begins at a festival in honor of Team Zissou’s latest documentary in which it is revealed that Esteban has been consumed by an unrecognizable shark he names the Jaguar Shark. It is apparent that the documentary has fallen flat with the audience and in a fit of defeat, Steve swears to make his next documentary the one of exposing this new fish, hoping to regain his strength as an explorer.
During the after party for the documentary, Steve is approached by Ned Plimpton (played by Owen Wilson). Plimpton is at the wrap part y to meet his father, who he believes is Steve Zissou. Steve is unexpectedly warm toward Ned, soon offering him his own last name and suggesting he change his first one also, to Kingsly, what Steve says he would have named him, had he had a say.
The adventure ensues. A motley crew of characters, including Willem Dafoe, all wearing matching light blue uniforms with bright red skull caps, set off to find the shark. In the meantime, the Belefonte is pirated by strangers, Team Zissou breaks into the Hennessey laboratories (Captain Hennessey played by Jeff Goldblum), boats are blown up and three legged dogs are left behind. All lead by Zissou and all conquered as well.
Anderson’s depiction of the sea is magical in this film. It is not a dark scary place down in the depths like biology books would have one believe. It is a place of illumination and Anderson shows that in a very unique way. All sea and island life are clay-mation interjected into the film with neon color. Electric jellyfish, neon trout, Technicolor pony-fish, and even the jaguar shark himself are bright, vibrant creatures that illuminate the sea with a magic that displays an affection for the ocean and the wonder involved in exploration.
In the film, all colors are paired with their contrast, where there are blues there are yellows, where there are reds there are greens. Anderson does an awesome job at creating this world of discovery and adventure that harkens to classic marine biology documentaries one might have seen in middle school—colors heightened to show the viewer an image not witnessed before. Obviously inspired by the deep-sea creatures that illuminate their own way through the ocean and other phosphorescent life forms that glow.
The Life Aquatic is a film packed with sarcastic humor and an almost obligational form of love for exploration. The relationships that evolve around a Steve, designated as delusional by his peers at the onset of the film, would be impossible without the situations he pulls everyone into. Bill Murray is a most excellent addition to Anderson’s films and his role as Steve Zissou can easily be touted as one of his best. The film mixes his lust for excitement with the reality of his apathy.
Featured also in The Life Aquatic is yet another musical journey set by Mark Mothersbaugh, complimented by Pele played by Seu Jorge, and David Bowie. The multiple renditions of Life on Mars, reminds the viewer that the ocean is a frontier, just like space and there is still so much to know. Wes Anderson in no way hits his peak with The Life Aquatic, but sure does give himself a run for his own money in his next film.
Top Five Reasons to Watch The Life Aquatic:
1) The colors. Did you know that Mark Mothersbaugh attended Kent State?
2) The music.
3) The adventure.
4) Willem Dafoe as Klaus!
5) The idea that life’s drama, highs and lows, can occur anywhere, even in the middle of nowhere.