Hot Fuzz

More amusing silliness from the guys who made Shaun of the Dead. After demolishing the zombie film, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost are taking aim at the Jerry Bruckheimer action flick, and they’ve set it in the picture-postcard English countryside. Bobbies with firearms–what’s not to like?

Simon Pegg plays Sgt. Nicholas Angel, a London supercop who is sent off to the provinces because he’s making everybody else on his team look bad. In sleepy Sandford, the only available heroics consist of chasing underage kids out of the pub and catching runaway swans. Angel’s new partner PC Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) is an action-movie fanatic whose dearest wish is to fire a gun while jumping through the air in slow motion. But ah, evil lurks in Sandford, and Danny might get his wish after all….

It takes a while for Hot Fuzz to ramp up the action, but in the meantime, the spectacular supporting cast keeps things very entertaining: Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Paddy Considine, Bill Nighy, and a slew of other familiar faces populate the town with characters that range from oddly endearing to cheerfully creepy. My patented scientific method for objectively judging comedy reveals a favorable chuckle-to-groan ratio, one dozen solid out-and-out laughs, four roll-out-of-your-seat moments of uncontrollable hilarity, and a steady state of hearty bemusement. For a 120 minute film, that’s not bad at all. Hot Fuzz opens on April 20th.

Hot Fuzz. Edgar Wright, 2007. ***

Casino Royale

This movie stayed with me, in the way a kielbasa can be said to “stay with you” when you toss it after a night of binging on Jever at the Bohemian Beer Garden. I wrote one grouchy reviewlet for About.com, mainly about Eva Green, and to this day, the hate mail keeps coming. The funny thing is, if I trash an obscure French movie, nobody cares, but James Bond? Uh oh: attacks left and right– and that’s just the public insults. With a blizzard hitting New York, I gave Casino Royale another chance. And guess what? It doesn’t look nearly as good at home as it did at the Ziegfeld, and it’s still a disappointment.

It didn’t have to be that way. Bond 21 starts out great and shows the potential to become the best in decades. Craig’s a sexy brute, he’s got chemistry and snappy dialogue with Eva Green, stunts and plot are down-to-earth, the villain (After the Wedding‘s Mads Mikkelsen) is creepy but believable. With the most human touch since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Casino Royale reinvents the iconic character and almost manages to transcend the franchise’s formulas.

Almost. In the final third, somewhere around the time an Aston Martin flips on a country road and the main villain gets whacked by someone who is not our hero, the movie flies out of control and wrecks, too. Maybe it’s the poker-table poisoning, which doesn’t move the story along one bit, or perhaps it’s the dull respite on Lake Como– but if you expected a grand finale, you’re in for a letdown: there’s lots of gambling left after Bond defilibrates himself, but the only remaining action scene is a rummy fistfight in a collapsing building.

And what about Vesper? A real Bond woman, finally, but she’s killed off in a way that makes no sense. She betrayed Bond but also saved his life, so he can be sad and angry at the same time? I suspect that Paul Haggis, listed as third screenwriter, is responsible for botching this. After all, Crash is full of stuff that doesn’t add up. If somebody could explain to me why exactly Vesper has to die, I would be most grateful.

Until then, sad and angry is how I feel about the last half hour of the Casino Royale. A lot of critics and irate critics-of-critics seem to react to what this movie could have been rather than the wasted opportunity it turned out to be. Casino Royale is and always will be a two star movie.

Casino Royale. Martin Campbell, 2006. **

300

Dulce et decorum est, the movie. A bunch of Spartans swear they’d rather die than surrender or retreat, and then they do just that. Like Sin City, the images of 300 have been heavily post-processed to closer resemble Frank Miller’s comic book, and when there isn’t a slow-motion battle going on, the camera lingers over tableaux of warriors on a mountainside, trees hung with corpses, a fleet tossed about in inclement weather, and sweaty nymphs doing double-duty as corrupt oracles.

It’s all about as exciting as a half hour of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, without the rest of The Lord of the Rings to support, y’know, the characters. Instead, there are lots of speeches, about how freedom isn’t free, about how the only glorious death for a soldier is on the battlefield, and about how, yes, Spartans never surrender. Which is too bad, because Sparta is under attack by the Persians, led by debauched and sexually ambiguous Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro.) In waves resembling nothing so much as the levels of a video game, the good Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) has to fight the turban-wearing villains while he is being stabbed in the back by treacherous politicians who refuse to support the troops and send reinforcements.

I saw 300 on an IMAX screen, and I’m still wobbly from the intense overdose of machismo and stupidity. The best thing I can say for the movie is that it steals liberally from John Boorman’s Excalibur. It looks interesting enough, but so does Triumph of the Will. In the world of 300, there is no room for art, negotiation, or weakness; there is only room for the strong. At the screening, outright murder brought great applause, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find an Army recruiting station outside the theater. Huah!

300. Zack Snyder, 2006. *

Snakes on a Plane

From pitch to meme to hype to backlash, what’s left half a year later is a gleefully dumb B picture in the tradition of Arachnophobia and Tremors. In the middle of yet another awards season stuffed with the usual overpraised mediocrities and a few now-familiar great movies, this was a refreshingly unpretentious good time. As much a throw-back to the abandoned trash filmmaking of the 70s as The Good German was to Casablanca.

Snakes on a Plane. David R. Ellis, 2006. ***

[tags]samuel l jackson, 3 stars, film, planes, snakes, horror, action, julianna margulies, trash[/tags]

Casino Royale

Everybody’s wondering whether or not Daniel Craig makes a good James Bond, but of course he’ll do nicely. The truth is, the role of 007 doesn’t really take much more than a cold stare and the capacity to look snazzy in a dinner jacket. The real question: what about Eva Green? We’ve adored the French ingenue since her debut in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, and truth be told, she was the real reason we attended yesterday’s screening at New York’s Ziegfeld theater. Casino Royale starts out very strong, with gritty bathroom fights and a breathtaking, Ong-Bak-inspired chase through a construction site.

Just when the film starts losing steam, Green appears to save the spy from his own smugness. As Vesper Lynd, the smart but reserved accountant who lords over Bond’s finances while he plays high-stakes poker for terrorist funds, Green’s not only the most intriguing Bond girl since Sophie Marceau, she’s also the most important since George Lazenby got hitched to Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Their banter’s charming, the outfits are glamorous, the villian’s creepy, and the locations are splendid as always (even if they borrow Natalie Portman’s space retreat from Attack of the Clones.)

In other words, the ingredients are right, and Casino Royale had the potential for a truly great Bond movie. The franchise, which is really an endless series of remakes, always tends toward bigger, louder, and more cartoonish installments (Die Another Day was a superhero comic book), and every decade or so, the producers feel obliged to dial down the nonsense and reintroduce grit and a real sense of danger. Director Martin Campbell succeeds on this score, but he doesn’t know when to stop.

If Casino Royale had kept to a lean, mean 90 minutes, it could have been the perfect James Bond flick. But it just keeps on going, and after two and a half hours, all the drama and tragedy Campbell is obviously aiming for have bled from the movie, leaving us with nothing more but a headache and the familiar catchphrase. You’d be better off–and you’d see more of Eva Green–if you just rewatched The Dreamers, twice.

Casino Royale. Martin Campbell, 2006. **