Old School Movie Reviews: Hot Fuzz (2007)

So it was my brother’s birthday recently so we had a bit of a thing tonight to celebrate. We all gathered at the family house, mum made sushi and dumplings, and we all sat down to watch a movie together. Since it was my brother’s birthday he chose the film, and thankfully he has pretty good taste in movies, picking the second in Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright’s so-called ‘Cornetto Trilogy,’ Hot Fuzz.

Let me just come out and say that I fucking love this film, and I think everyone should watch it. It’s a masterpiece of clever ideas that are executed perfectly, and not just by the headliners. Pegg and Frost fit their roles perfectly, but so does everyone else in the cast (Timothy Dalton, in particular, is bloody excellent). Edgar Wright, who directed and co-wrote, does an excellent job at both, providing a clear vision and a brilliantly cohesive narrative out of what is a bit of a convoluted script, but I expect a lot of the credit for that should go to his DoP, Jess Hall, and Film Editor, Chris Dickens. The parallel scenes of Pegg and Frost’s characters bonding over movies while another character is murdered is perfectly cut together.

I think what really impressed me about Hot Fuzz with this most recent viewing was the way it managed to be gruesome without ever being gratuitous. Blood and gore is played for laughs, certainly. There are decapitations, stabbings, and one bloke gets his head crushed by a giant stone spike. But they never spend so long on the gore that it becomes uncomfortable, so the film is able to maintain its humorous tone despite what happens with a bear trap. If you’re making an absurd, violent black comedy, this is the standard you should look towards.

So yeah, watch Hot Fuzz if you haven’t already. Watch it again if you have.

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Working through the backlog: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Evening folks and welcome to the first in a short but hopefully enjoyable series of reviews that don’t really matter but will hopefully kickstart a creative spark past the blockage formed by six-to-thirteen day work weeks and an absolutely fucked sleep cycle, since all the cocaine and hookers don’t seem to be doing the job anymore. Speaking of expensive hobbies: video games. Aren’t they great?

Yeah, I can still segue with the best of them.

As some of you might know, I spent a while in Canada. Away from a console for approaching two years I missed some of the biggest launches for some pretty huge franchises. I also missed the rather dismal launch of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which underperformed miserably compared to its brethren (but still made tonnes of money) and to many marked an ignominious shift in the famous franchise’s fortunes (sorry, I’ve been trying to increase my alliteration lately). And that’s a shame because it’s probably the most I’ve enjoyed a Call of Duty game in a long time.

Now, I’m talking solely about the single player. Haven’t sat down for a multiplayer session since Modern Warfare 2, what, seven years ago? Something like that. I like a bit of story behind my acts of virtual violence (alliteration) and better written dialogue then what a racist, homophobic thirteen year old (they’re all racist and homophobic) will scream through their overpriced headphones. Because that’s not an outdated joke at all.

So I sat down and played through the single-player campaign and the story was, honestly, not good. The narrative is riddled with ridiculous cliches and plot-holes, with an enemy so needlessly, impossibly evil that I simply cannot think up a good metaphor for how moronic Salem Kotch and the SDF are. The best I could come up with is that their delivery boys blow their own brains out if they don’t deliver the pizza in thirty minutes or less, and I fully acknowledge how lame that is. At one point Salem (stupid fucking name by the by) just demands that the player character and his mates surrender themselves for, I shit you not, “immediate execution!” I mean, c’mon, I get it. These guys have got the whole ‘death before dishonour’ thing going, but demanding that the opposing side literally just roll over and die is just stupid – and unrealistic – writing. I’d also really like it if we took the whole “villain shoots their own men to prove to the hero how much of a villain they are” trope out behind the shed and shot it, and having your antagonists openly and verbally declare their hatred of freedom is just a little bit too on the fucking nose. But hey, this is an American game.

Anyway, that’s just my issues with the villains. Don’t get me started on the casually telegraphed named character deaths, the obvious plot twists, the clunky dialogue, the main player character being given command (because of course the grizzled white American male is) despite the game itself pointing out what an incompetent leader he is, or the fact that the entire story (about two dozen missions all told – including side operations – across the solar system) apparently takes place in one fucking day. One. Fucking. Day.

And it’s tragic because between the stark design-by-committee cliches and abject paint-by-numbers bullshit you can see the seeds of a genuinely great story with some genuinely fantastic characters.

The actual idea of a heavily militarised former colony, with a culture that has diverged sharply not least due to the enormous distance from Earth and the hardships that entails, makes for a fascinating villain if done right (like in the books and Netflix series, The Expanse). Throw in the fact that the SDF military is full of robots (whereas we only ever see E3N on the UNSA’s side) and you could have had a really interesting difference of opinion. But instead of hardened and bitter frontiersman who’ve built a culture around the machines that have helped them survive in the cold regions of space, we got Space Nazi Jon Snow telling us how much freedom sucks.

Your wingman and best friend, Nora Salter, is a Lebanese woman (voiced by an American, but you can’t have everything). She’s smart, aggressive, opinionated and loyal to a fault. But instead of playing as this well-rounded foreign woman of colour we have to play as a generic grizzled American white guy.

And for all the awful dialogue and cliches, there are some beautiful moments. E3N’s sense of humour is delightful, and, to my shock, as telegraphed as their deaths were I found my heart-strings being tugged as named members of the crew began dropping. The underlying message, that good commanders need to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, and order those under their command to do the same if it means victory, starts off clunky but ultimately works out quite nicely with a solid emotional payoff.

This is a decent game, and with a bunch of little changes and a smarter story it could have been great. What a pity.

I actually enjoyed Ghost in the Shell… yeah, I know. Let me explain.

It was, of all things, a review by The Economist that finally convinced me to give the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell a chance. I mean, I make no secret of the fact that it’s one of my preferred sources of news and opinion (even when I disagree with them they always make a strong, considered and even-handed argument), but that’s generally of the political and economic nature rather than whether or not the latest sci fi blockbuster out of Hollywood is worth watching or not. I found the review refreshingly free of the moaning and biases that I usually see on the nerdier side of internet. It was the last paragraph that really got my attention though:

Not everyone is happy about the “rainbow casting”. When Ms Johansson was announced as the Major, the film was condemned online as another example of “white-washing”, that is, the Hollywood tendency to take Asian roles and hand them to white actors. You could argue, as Mr Oshii has, that the new “Ghost in the Shell” is separate from the old one, and that there is no pressing reason why an American film should be identical to a Japanese one, or why a cyborg should be Japanese in the first place. (In the manga comic that inspired the first film, Major is called Motoko Kusanagi, but has blue hair and pink eyes). And while that argument hasn’t won over the detractors, the fact is that its racial diversity is one of its most distinctive and laudable aspects. A mono-cultural city just doesn’t make sense in science fiction anymore. The “Ghost in the Shell” remake may not be as pioneering as the anime was, but its mix-and-match casting is the most truly futuristic thing about it.

Truth be told I was one of those detractors. And now that I’ve actually seen the film I can safely say that I still am. It’s hard not to cringe a little at the makeup and digital work meant to make Scarlett Johansson look more Asian, and a late movie reveal of the Major’s origins can be taken either as further evidence of white-washing or an ironic wink by a self-aware movie-maker (white male chief executive pushing his own views of physical perfection and racial identity) depending on how forgiving you’re willing to be. Probably it’s both.

There’s no denying that ScarJo does an amazing job with the role, playing the cyborg slowly reconnecting with her emotions, struggling to deal with the existential crisis and confusion that follows. I know this sounds odd, but she act like what I’d expect a cyborg to look like, small things that come off as intrinsically unnatural and veer towards the uncanny valley. Her walk most of all, a long and stiff stride without any of the sway and swagger you normally expect from movie heroines, but exactly what you’d expect from a robot. Am I saying that an Asian actress couldn’t have done just as good (maybe even better) a job? Of course I’m bloody not. Am I saying that they were right to pick Scarlett Johansson for one of the few lead roles that could be made available for an Asian actress? Again, of course I’m bloody not. But I can recognise a good performance when I see one, and that walk impressed me.

The whole cast impressed me, quite frankly. I was worried at first about Pilou Asbaek as Batou, mostly ’cause he didn’t sound like what I’m used to. His voice wasn’t deep enough and the accent was wrong. But I got over it quickly enough. In the anime Batou is this big, imposing dude who naturally fills any space he’s in, but not because he’s trying; because he just is a big, imposing dude. And Asbaek nailed it. Michael Pitt stomps about doing a fantastic cybernetic Frankenstein’s Monster, furious with the creators that rejected and left him to die (also big props to the sound editors who had him sounding like a glitching computer). I would have liked to have seen more of the rest of Public Security Section 9’s team (Ishikawa and Saito were always favourites of mine), but I liked their inclusion of new character Ladriya (played by Polish-Kurdish Danusia Samal). And then they had motherfuckin’ ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano playing Aramaki (with a perfect haircut), and that’s all I need to say about that casting choice.

The visuals are stunning, drifting over enormous concrete blocks and shining skyscrapers equally plastered with garish neon advertisements. Body modifications are common and usually gruesome, practicality regularly winning out over aesthetics. The fight scenes are violent (without being bloody, thankyou M-Rating) and range from graceful slow-motion gravity-defying shootouts, to quick, grim, gritty and frenetic room-clearing, all of it artfully shot. The special effects are a stunning mix of practical effects and CG.

And the complaints I’ve seen are often minor and ridiculous, the efforts of folk looking for something to complain about. One reviewer was annoyed that all of Aramaki’s lines are delivered in Japanese yet everyone understands him just fine, without any explanation given to the audience as to how this is possible. Mate, it’s a fucking sci fi film where people talk telepathically and you can download an entire language straight into your brain, they don’t need to explain every little goddamned detail. Another complained about the mid-movie twist being too predictable. Mate, this film is not going for subtlety (they telegraph who the real villain is in the first bloody scene). Sometimes it’s not about the audience learning the big secret, it’s about the characters learning what we already know. That’s what made Columbo so great. And anyone who reckons that this film isn’t philosophical enough, does not ask what it means to be human often enough, quite frankly doesn’t remember the original anime film. By the time we met the original Major Motoko Kusanagi she’d been going through an existential crisis so long it had gotten boring (it was the sequel that got heavy with the philosophical discussions).

This is the kind of solid scifi that delivers a message not by directly asking a question but by creating a world in which asking that question is necessary and inevitable.

I really enjoyed this film. But I can’t recommend it. The Economist is right the diverse cast was one of the cleverest parts of the world we see in the film, but the fact remains that all the characters with the most lines, except for Takeshi’s Aramaki, are played by white actors. They might have been good performances, but they were where the diversity was needed most. So I cannot recommend this film.

That’s the great tragedy of this film. It’s a good movie brought down by the poor choice of a good cast. What a shame.

Rage wears out, or why I loved Logan

Well fuck me dead, that was intense.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from Logan, now that I’ve seen it. Less, maybe. I think I was expecting less. Yeah, that sounds right. I mean, yeah, I thought this was gonna be bloodier than any of the Wolverine’s previous appearances on the big or small screen, but I wasn’t expecting quite so many limbs to go flying or quite so many people to get stabbed in the head. Certainly wasn’t expecting anyone to get shot with a harpoon gun.

I already knew the premise as well: Logan’s healing abilities are starting to fade. Injuries aren’t going away and his body is finally wearing out. He and Professor Xavier are the last members of the X-Men left. Bad shit, years of pain and trauma have left emotional scars if not actual ones. But mate, I wasn’t expecting the simple exhaustion that Logan seems to be feeling, the intense self-loathing and depression, the care he feels for the last person (and then people) he has left in the world.

There’s a compelling quietness to the film. Yes, the action is big and vicious and loud, but in between the violence is an outside view of normalcy. Laura, the young girl who shares Logan’s abilities and rage, is experiencing the world for the first time and she does so for most of the film utterly silent. Daphne Keen, the actress playing her, is spectacular, wearing a blank face devoid of expression (except when she’s gutting someone, of course) as she takes in the brave new sights. As a result every raised eyebrow or slightly wider-eyed stare stands out, becomes a vital clue in understanding her character’s development. Hugh Jackman is spectacular, old and tired and dying and drinking far too much. He looks old and tired and dying and like he drinks far too much, limping about in a bloody suit, hunched over and grey. He’s a man trying to isolate himself as much as possible from a world he very obviously no longer considers worth saving, waiting to die.

They’re two sides to the same coin. Or the same side to two different coins. One has seen too much of the world, the other not nearly enough. One is trying to enter the world and the other is trying to leave it. And then there’s Charles Xavier, wonderfully played by Sir Patrick Stewart, even older than Logan, his brain classified as a Weapon of Mass Destruction, haunted by events he cannot remember and Logan refuses to tell him about, but still so hopeful that Logan and Laura can find safety and family. He’s disappointed with Logan, and he’s disappointed with himself for not being able to help him. He sees in Laura that second chance, a final chance to help one Wolverine and perhaps prevent a second Wolverine from ever following that dark, bitter path.

Let’s be honest, I use the word deconstruction far too often when talking about films I like. I enjoy the word. More importantly I love tropes and archetypes, and enjoy any work of fiction that successfully pulls them apart and takes a deeper look. At first I thought that Logan was a deconstruction of the character. After all, throughout the X-Men movies it’s not the healing factor or the metal bones or the fucking romantic guilt-trips that define how his character acts (even my mum relieved there wasn’t any Jean Grey-stabbing nightmares like in every other fucking Wolverine film). No, what defined Logan was his constant primal rage, barely kept under control until it was needed and released. And here we see the results of a lifetime of rage and violence, how tired being angry all the time leaves you, and it ain’t pretty.

But he needs the rage, the anger, the violence. It’s as much part of him as his metal bones and claws, maybe in his genes. He needs it to fight and ultimately he needs it to win. He needs it to give Laura a chance to not need it herself. To be able to find peace and safety. Less a deconstruction, more of a confession and a trip through purgatory. This is who Logan is, this is the punishment for his sins, this is who Laura doesn’t have to be.

This isn’t the first time someone’s made a movie about a superhero worn down by battles and lost. The Dark Knight Rises tried it, Watchmen tried it, fucking The Wolverine tried it. Logan though, I think, is the first one to get right. A lifetime of rage is exhausting, but sometimes a person can’t go against their nature.

Old School Movie Reviews: Lethal Weapon (1987)

The movie that launched a thousand parodies, Lethal Weapon occupies a special place set aside for movies that set a standard for a formula which all others must now live up to. Even if it’s not particularly great.

I mean, it’s not bad. In fact I’d even go so far as to call it good. But it’s not great. The acting is often hammy or mediocre, the story is at best ridiculous and at worst senselessly fucking bonkers (why the hell did they use a recognisably CIA-quality bomb to blow up a hooker’s house? They could’ve just stabbed her or something), and the action is contextually over-the-top. Good fun to be sure, but that’s about it. Good fun.

And yet this film occupies a position of greatness. Believe it or not, that’s for a good reason. Now I don’t know if the buddy cop film existed before Lethal Weapon (and quite frankly I don’t wanna know), but it was the film that set the standard for what a solid buddy cop film was supposed to be. Created the formula, if you will, that all good buddy cop films follow. And most of that’s on the relationship between cranky veteran Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and young possibly-bonkers Riggs (a young possibly bonkers Mel Gibson).

Aside from the fact that Glover and Gibson have excellent chemistry together – they really bounce off one another and you buy the friendship that quickly develops between the characters – the film manages a “these guys are complete opposites” situation without falling into cliche by focusing on a difference in situation rather than a difference in values. It’s not “this guy is neat, but this guy is messy,” or “this guy is a playboy, but this guy a monogamous-to-a-fault virgin,” or even “this guy is honest and straight-laced, but this guy is cynical and not to bothered about committing the odd petty crime himself. Rather Murtaugh is a family man with everything to live for, able to put his experiences in the Vietnam War behind him, while Riggs is a widower with nothing to live for, possibly suicidal, who feels that the only time he was ever really good and useful was when he was breaking things and hurting people back in ‘Nam. Murtaugh need Riggs’ skills, but Riggs needs Murtaugh’s friendship and stability. Surprisingly brilliant for such a silly film.

Throw in the odd bit of social commentary (Murtaugh is obviously uncomfortable when a bunch a African-American children begin asking about his record of shooting black people) and there are more than a few vets these days recently returned from America’s latest failed foreign wars, and you end up with a timeless classic. Surprisingly timeless for such a silly film.

If you haven’t watched Lethal Weapon before (in which case where the hell have you been for the last thirty years?) I’d recommend giving it a go. It might not be great but it’s definitely worth watching.

Old School Reviews: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

I think what I love about British crime movies is that they have no issue with building their film around a cast of good honest villains. Career criminals who don’t feel the need to lament their lot in life or the cycles of poverty, abuse and violence that led them to a life of crime, who don’t need to show guilt over their violent, thieving ways, to be likeable. American gangsters are relatable and empathetic. British crims, proper British crooks, are entertaining.

Case in point we have Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie’s 1998 classic (I’m pretty sure it made it into 1001 Movies to See Before you Die) about four mates, a crooked card game, violent loan sharks, drug dealers, the guys who rob drug dealers, and a pair of antique shotguns. Y’know, guns that fire shot.

Now, I don’t think at any point do any of the characters show any real remorse for the life they’d lived. Well, not ’til it all goes to shit at least. Even then, as the threads come together and the bodies start dropping no one blames ‘the life.’ For our four central characters this isn’t one final score that goes horribly wrong. This was a chance at the big leagues that goes horribly wrong, and you know they’re going to go straight back into scamming and thieving as soon as they’re out of the Barney Rubble. Heh, cockney rhyming slang.

Real funny thing though is that the points that in a Yank film would lead to a heel-face-turn (my family/friends/only people I care about are in danger!) and cause the career criminal to make a determined effort to get out the life (go legit, go to the cops, fake their own death) don’t even register. Shit, Big Chris (Vinnie Jones) takes his son out debt collecting with him, despite the danger this can and does lead to. At the end of the film though, the kid’s still coming along, even if the business has changed slightly.

Guy Ritchie has long set himself up as a solid (even if not always necessarily brilliant) director and writer, and his feature length debut will always be remembered as one of his best. He gets great performances out of the actors, most notably debuts Vinnie Jones as Big Chris and Jason Statham as Bacon (both of whom are now staple British hard men), and the script is tight and unapologetic of its origins. It starts with Statham rattling off a sale pitch for stolen jewelry (“It’s not stolen, it just hasn’t been paid for!” and according to the legend part of Statham’s audition) and in one notable scene preferring to use subtitles over dumbing down the language. Shit mate, that scene right there is how you do a character introduction. Forces you to pay attention, then reveals cunning, creativity and a predilection towards violence. Everyone’s solid though, sometimes a little stilted on occasion but they carry the emotional parts well. Then of course there’s the soundtrack. Guy Ritchie knows how to pick a song for a scene, switching through jazz, funk and rock’n’roll to pull you into a and a mood, and when to not bother with any noise at all.

But it all works out in the end. Except for the people who died, of course, but most of them deserved it. Not that anyone really judges, it’s just part of the life. The only lesson really learned for our luckless antiheroes is to pick their battles better.

So you should watch this film. It’s fun, a little absurdist, Sting tells someone to fuck off, and you get to watch some villains being villains. And then there’s a girl named Gloria with a Bren gun. Even if the rest of the movie was shit, it’s worth is for Gloria with a Bren gun.

Old school reviews: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

It’s funny, once upon a time the only folk that could be regularly relied upon to turn beloved books into television series were the Poms. They’d often start (or remain) a made-for-TV movie and, if it earned enough interest from the right people, would eventually become a series. Murder mysteries for the most part, as with the Yanks for a long time, but there was also a much firmer place for fantasy and/or period pieces. The Discworld books, some stuff by Neil Gaiman, the odd bit of Arthurian legend, whatever work by the Bronte sisters was most popular that year (I really need to sit down and read Pride and Prejudice one of these days), and of course the works of C.S Forester and Bernard Cornwell. And that is what I find to be most peculiar about Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, that fact that it was a proper work of cinema and not a TV series.

Not to say that it’s a bad film. Quite the contrary, I think it’s fuckin’ fantastic. The violence is excellent. Damage to the ship is big and brutal, splinters flying, ropes snapping and masts cracking. At the same time it’s an intimate thing, closeups following the men as they fire the cannons and receive fire. Easy to follow, tense, and with little-to-no plot armour (name another film that will cut off a boy’s arm within the first half hour), but most of all detailed. The good doctor calling for more sand to make the floor less slippery, doors removed from the captain’s cabin to allow access to the guns stored there, ignoring the swords and grabbing the captain’s silver to be stored safely during an action. Good stuff, humanising stuff.

The soundtrack adds. Simple strings to fit the mood and drums that provide a rhythm to every desperate battle and gambit, with dead silences used to ramp up the tension right before something is due to happen.

The best part is the characters. Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany and Max Pirkis are the peak of an enormous and excellent cast. Director Peter Weir does a great job of getting so many great performances out of so many great actors creating so many great and (most importantly) memorable characters. The ship is a closed environment, with different politics, relationships and superstitions presented across four perspectives: the crew at the bottom, cannon fodder, driven by rum, fear of the lash and loyalty to their commander; the junior officers, the midshipmen, terrified and uncertain, walking a fine line (not always successfully) to earn the respect of the men beneath; the good doctor, outside of the traditional hierarchy and often in opposition to Naval discipline (in many ways a surrogate for the audience); and at the top of it all the Captain, the commander, bound by tradition, duty and his own orders.

Crowe does a fantastic job as “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, a charismatic captain able to summon incredible loyalty from the men beneath him, yet one that struggles to find his tongue when faced with the horribly maimed son of a dear friend who still idolises him. Bettany plays the doctor, the forward thinker, the only man on the ship allowed to question Jack’s command (within reason), but one that can never truly understand the men around him and whose protestations often fall on deaf ears. Their relationship is brilliant and real, arguments are common but the care is genuine. The bromance is probably the best part of the film.

But, as much as I enjoy this film and going back to what I was saying in the first paragraph, I cannot understand why and how this film was made. This is a film about relationships punctuated by the odd bit of action, based on a book from a series I’d never heard of until well after the first time I watched this movie. It lacks the epic scale of other period action-dramas like Gladiator, or the famous source material of other based-on-books like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or The Green Mile. Yet they spent 150 million dollars turning this into a film. A highly rated film, that made back its money, but still.

And it’s funny, ’cause I doubt I would have thought so back in 2003, before the current golden age of television shows was even a twinkle in HBO’s eye. I watch the film now and can’t help but feel that the adventures and relationships of the crew of the HMS Surprise would have made a fantastic television show, though of course when it was greenlit that wasn’t even close to an option. It’s funny how perspectives change like that. Maybe it’s because the film now feels far more like it was planning on becoming a series. Yes, the plot is self-contained, and half the named crew… well, yeah, lack of plot armour, but there’s still this air that they were hoping on bringing Jack, Stephen and the HMS Surprise back for another cruise around the Atlantic and/or Pacific. Maybe it’s just the second part of the title, The Far Side of the World. You don’t usually stick a colon there unless you’re planning on using the first part of the title again later.

Anyway, watch this film. Tell me if you agree, tell me why if you don’t and we can argue a bit. Regardless, it’s a film worth watching.