High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Specify Type of Zombie: Hot Fuzz

As some of you may have guessed, I have a high tolerance for bad movies. What you might not have guessed is that I'm insanely picky about certain kinds of movies and just flat out will have no truck with some genres. I'd rather eat bees studded with ground glass than watch any given modern weepy with dying mothers, dying children, or any combination of dying family members (assuming that they are dying slowly and of natural causes), for example. I like to think that stipulation makes a certain amount of sense. In contrast, my twitchy nature regarding comedies on the ground that they're "stupid" seems the tiniest bit intellectually bankrupt when one considers even a small proportion of the number of movies with no redeeming qualities whatsoever that have received relatively favorable reviews in this very forum.

Per SOP, this rambling introduction has nothing to do with the movie about which I intend to talk, which is not stupid at all.

If you haven't seen Shaun of the Dead, you really need to do that right this second. I don't care if you don't like zombie movies. I don't care if you're squeamish about a guy's intestines getting ripped out. You need to see it because it's smart, hilarious, touching, suspenseful, and a little scary. The writers and actors love the genres that they're simultaneously flouting and celebrating.

But when a group of people makes a movie that good (and it really is that good), you of course want them to make another. Sort of. Because what if they can't pull it off again? What if actually having some money screws everything up? (Although we can cross that off the list Hot Fuzz had a majestic $8 million budget, which is about what Michael Bay spends on directorial ball caps.) What if Simon Pegg caught some of that Tom Cruise Crazy on MI:III?

The trailers for Hot Fuzz did a lot to set my mind at ease. Sort of. I mean, yes, they were hilarious. (Horse!) But who trusts a trailer anymore? (Especially when Edgar Wright has just recently demonstrated his M@d Tr@13r 5k1llz.) Also, what's up with Simon Pegg as the uber-competent anti-Shaun? I love my ineffectual, fucked-up loser!

The wait was over for us last Saturday when we met up at River East (despite the best efforts of the CTA and Chicago drivers to keep us from making it) for the 10 PM showing. Because we'd gotten there so late, we were sadly snackless. I volunteered to go grab at least a Diet Coke, and I opted for popcorn as well. Apparently, there was an Alan Tudyk-rich trailer for this while I was gone, and the very minute I stepped back into the theater, there was no Alan Tudyck-yness whatsoever.

Anyway, on to Hot Fuzz, which rocked.

Simon Pegg is Nicholas Angel, a London cop (and music supervisor for the film!) who is nearly robotic in his efficiency, humorlessness, and black-and-white approach to life and the law. Nobody likes an overachiever, so it's not too surprising that Nick seems to have alienated not just his former girlfriend (an uncredited, bemasked Cate Blanchett, and good on her for doing that hilarious scene), but every single cow-orker on the London Police Force (excuse me, Police Service). Tired of being constantly shown up, everyone up and down the chain of command from Angel agrees that it's up and out for him: He's promoted to Sergeant and assigned to the Country village of Sanford.

There, his arrival is met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by everyone except PC Danny Butterman. If Pegg's Shaun-180 was worrying, the fact that Nick Frost seemed to be playing the vaguely-repulsive,-yet-inexplicably-lovable Ed all over again. But damn their eyes, for all that Danny is a giant child (like Ed), an obstacle to getting anything done (like Ed), and an eternal fuck up (like Ed), he's an entirely different character. In part, that's because we get to see what makes Danny tick—a father who coddles him and expects nothing of him, an entire village full of people who know him as Frank's poor, motherless boy, and a stultifying life of sameness from which his closet full of cop movies provides his only escape.

Obviously, it's crucial to a buddy cop movie that the cops eventually become buddies. Hot Fuzz pulls off that little bit of trite more believably than most of the movies it's parodying. Of course Danny is primed to worship Nick, and his endless stream of cop-movie-based questions is not stemmed by Nick's dry, joyless by-the-book, preventive approach to law enforcement. And it's just as obvious that Nick will insist on trying to turn Danny into his brand of a real cop. Danny steps up, Nick loosens up, yadda yadda yadda. As actors, Pegg and Frost build the unlikely relationship slowly, steadily, and believably (although Simon Pegg's relief is palpable when Nick finally ties one on and can let himself crack up at Danny's jokes and antics).

The script is, on the one hand, utterly predictable (as a cop movie must be) and quirky as hell on the other. As writers, Wright and Pegg have enough faith in both actors and audience to build the plot s-l-o-w-l-y, paving the way for the real action with character development and short-term gags even while they lay the groundwork for brilliantly extended gags. They're also confident that their main characters are likable that they're not afraid to let them be right pains in the ass and unintentionally laughable.

Of course Pegg and Frost are the core of the cast, but just as Shaun of the Dead wouldn't have been half the movie it was without its supporting players, Hot Fuzz brings together a strange and brilliant ensemble. Jim Broadbent is so doggedly calm and avuncular that his "reveal" as a becloaked rural fascist is strangely satisfying. Timothy Dalton's mustache twirling and cackling are 100% delightful. It strikes me that this role is for him what The Matador was for Pierce Brosnan. All former Bonds should weather the transition back to the real world so well. (Yeah, Connery, I'm looking at you.)

Sanford is populated with a host of talented, unnervingly polite and perky backstabbers. The Police "Service" was clearly staffed using the handbook of any given cop movie (the antagonistic detective twins, the token girl, the unintelligible has been, etc.), and each one clearly relishes the role. Many of these folks look so familiar that I thought most would be repeat performances from Shaun. As it turns out, only a handful were (two alter egos from Yvonne's gang, Bill Nighy in an all-too-cameo role, and a few unrecognizable zombies). They're recognizable because they're real people and therefore the best comic fodder of all.

But I don't want to give you the idea that Hot Fuzz is some kind of touchy-feely, cozy old pair of sweatpants. It's ridiculous and over-the-top. It's gross and scary. It's got guns and explosions and horses and car chases. There's butchered Shakespeare and squished country journalists, torrid affairs and hidden blood relationships, convoluted motives and multiple fake resolutions followed by even faker denouements.

As a parody, it's the kind of send up of cop movies that only someone who "genuinely likes" Bad Boys II. (And, please, for the love of god can someone please kidnap everyone concerned with Scary Movie, Date Movie, Another Teen Movie, and all those bullshit American wastes of space and Ludovico them in front of Wright's movies?) As an homage, it could only come from someone who calls his beloved BBII "The absolute pinnacle . . . of dumb popcorn flicks." (In the interests of being fair and balanced, I'd also point out to Tarantino and Rodriguez that they could've used more input from Wright on Grindhouse than just his brilliant trailer.)

If I were foolishly forced to choose Shaun or Hot Fuzz as the better of the two movies, the edge would go to Shaun, but I can honestly say that's 99% informed by my preference for zombie movies over cop movies. (Don't be sad, cop movies, I like you, I just don't like, like you the way I like, like shambling, brain-eating zombies.) It's a great comedy, a great silly action movie, and a great follow-up to Shaun of the Dead.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How can I keep from spinging? Rodney Crowell with Chris Knight & Minton Sparks

So. Robbie was back in regular person clothes this month. His "freak the audience" maneuver for April's Secret Country show was to have, in actuality, three performers rather than two and to make me deal with issues of billing and URL cutoff. Oh, Robbie can try to blame Rodney Crowell if he likes (Rodney used his power for good and brought along spoken-word artist Minton Sparks), but those of us who have seen into the heart of Robbie's evil know better. This entry serves as your April reminder that Robbie is Wrong.

On my way up from bass class, Robbie was emerging from the auditorium and striding with great purpose (and when a man with 9-foot-long legs is striding purposefully, you get out of the way) toward someone as he said, "We should work up a little comedy bit about . . . " About 15 minutes later, M and I heard the outcome of that purpose-laden conversation as Robbie and a plant in the audience (his wife, Donna) opened the show with a schtick about mistaking Rodney for Roddy McDowell and Chris Knight for Ted Knight (ca. "Mary Tyler Moore"). It was no bastardized "Christmas Song," but pretty amusing for something constructed on the fly. We also learned that the interview segment is only done at the 4 o'clock show, which presents a difficulty for me in the coming months: My bass class will be from 3:30-4:50. Grrr. Arrgggh.

Rodney, Minton, and Minton's pocketbook (I adopt the Southern word in deference to this item, which so far exceeds the category of accessory that it is a featured character in one of Minton's pieces) took the stage first. Early on, Robbie asked Minton to talk about her art and being a somewhat genreless (or asymptotic to it) artist. She, of course, pointed out that rap and hip hop are largely spoken-word arts and made reference to beat poets: "It's just that no one else is doing rap or beat poetry to bluegrass." I'll say! (I also wondered if she knows Bitch & the Exciting Conclusion, or at least knows of her.)

Her works are always accompanied by music and she tends to work one on one with a single musician (on this occasion, she'd brought guitarist John Jackson [no, not that one {but that would be a helluva trick!}, but good luck finding the other one] with her), reading the piece and working through it as the musician listens. As the musician finds his or her groove, Minton then modifies her performance and so on, so that the two are integrated into a single work.

Rodney was given one of her CDs by someone who told him that it would change his life. As it goes with such things, the CD then got dusty until he listened to it one day and didn't stop listening. He then arranged to meet with her. After lunch, he asked her how many CDs she had on her. She answered,"About 60," and he said he'd take all of them. He did and claims to have been cementing friendships and relationships ever since by giving them out. Her website has a similar story about how the director of her DVD became involved with the project. I wonder if "the friend" who gave him the CD was Rodney, but it seems equally probable that it was someone else entirely. I could sense M clenching when the words "spoken-word artist" were uttered (he has painful poetry flashbacks), but there's something about Minton herself. I don't think her art is for everyone, but if you're in the position to be moved by it, it will reach deep down.

Rodney also talked about his approach to both song writing and singing. Given the length and breadth of his career (from child drummer in his daddy's honkytonk band to pretty-boy front man), I suppose he's bound to feel reflective at this point. He was highly complimentary of Robbie (who may have actually blushed) and dismissive of a lot of his own work (He apparently hated his own voice well into his career and thinks that he didn't work long or hard enough at a lot of his early stuff to make them what they could be.), and is of the firm opinion that his most recent work is far and away the best he's done as a recording artist.

After chatting with these two for a while, Robbie siad it was time to bring Chris Knight (be sure to hit www.chrisknight.NET, not .COM, that's just disturbing) up on stage. He seemed as surprised as the rest of us when Chris emerged from the audience (house left). He was wearing a sleeveless vest, and Robbie complimented him on his arms (he'd told Rodney he looked "cut" earlier as well). For about the first 5 minutes or so it appeared that Chris would have rather been just about anywhere else in the whole wide world than on that stage. His discomfort, paired with his Kentucky drawl made it a bit difficult to understand him at first. But he warmed up and the audience came along for the ride. He talked about his tendency to write songs in short bursts without a lot of reflection and how that played out in the recording of his Trailer Tapes (basically him, a microphone, a guitar, and a producer in his trailer).

For the performances, Chris was up first, and seemed to slip back a bit into his shyness/stage fright. He got about a line into the first song ("Backwater Blues," I think) before he stopped cold, "Wait wait wait! This is not cool! I gotta get the first song right!" I defy anyone to resist the combined force of that self-effacing smile and The Drawl. I'd say he was warmed up but good by the time he told the story of not playing at an elementary school. He was, as they say, between labels when he was invited to do so and got to thinking of how he would pitch his music to 3rd graders, "Good morning, boys and girls! This song's about whatcha do when someone crosses you!"

The comparisons to Steve Earle in the press coverage for Trailer Tapes are good ones, at least as far as his voice and lyrics go (and consarnit he looks more like Steve Earle oughta look than Steve Earle does). In terms of his guitar-playing style, the fact that he taught himself to play by listening to John Prine records. And for those of you who might just might seek out certain country music for pretty boy purposes only to find that you actually kinda like the music, Chris Knight has a lot in common with Kane, which is a good thing. We bought two of his CDs (including Trailer Tapes and his self-titled CD) and have been enjoying them a lot.

Rodney and Minton took the stage with their respective guitarists (Brother Will Kimbrough and the aforementioned John Jackson [but not that one], respectively) after a brief intermission. As M commented, Rodney (unlike Steve Earle) looks exactly like you would expect someone who has toured with Emmylou Harris, been married to Roseanne Cash, and written for Guy Clark and Towns van Zandt to look. He is straight from bona fide Country Star central. He started with "Highway 17," a piece that makes a visceral argument for spoken-word art, off The Houston Kid. He followed it up, to my delight, with "I Walk the Line (Revisited)," with the very brave Brother Will standing in for The Man in Black. In addition to being on THK, that song is on Sugar Hill Records: A Retrospective, a CD set that should be issued to every human at birth. (In case you haven't guessed, I love the hell out of that song.)

MInton followed these two songs with two pieces of her own, starting with "Fill Her Up" from This Dress, and another about a family vacation to see a decaying bed-ridden Aunt. I can't remember the title of the second, but it's startling how different "Fill Her Up" sounds in that clip. It's more than just the switch from piano to guitar, it's also missing out on the visual and the immediacy. Which is not to label the CDs as a second-rate version. If anything, it speaks to the multiple experiences contained within her pieces. She also did "Vickie Pickle's Momma," "Cluck, Cackle, Peck," "Aunt Shine's Face Lift" "Her Purse," and "When You Coming Home, Girl." I'm undoubtedly missing a few, but those are the ones I recognize by title

Each piece is pretty short, and they were interspersed with Rodney and Will's songs. M overcame his poetry aversion enough to allow that he wasn't opposed to Minton's work, per se, but he found it jarring to whip back and forth between song and story. I didn't find that at all (Rodney's songs are so personal and story driven that I thought MInton was a good fit for him and he for her; furthermore M did admit that a piece they did in which Rodney would sing a verse, then Minton would do a spoken-word bit, then more song, etc., worked pretty well), but I did feel . . . not exactly cheated, but as if I could have happily listened to a lot more music.

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