Because I reviewed Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End and couldn’t stand the gap in the middle…
As it turns out, not only do Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Nick Frost love horror movies, but they love action movies too. And, although I suspect this is no surprise to anyone, they can bust out a pretty dynamite one of their own when they need to. For it is the great secret of all of their films that they parody what they parody not by existing above it but by emulating it, recreating it with an eye for detail and a studied approach, and in some cases reading it past itself to expose some of its silliness and lunacy. Thus is Hot Fuzz, not quite the genuine surprise that Shaun of the Dead proved to be (what, the guys who made one of the best comedies of the modern era made another comedy and it’s stupendous… consider me staggered). But it’s a genuine barn-burner nonetheless, firing on multiple overlapping comic cylinders and staking its claim as one of the few modern comedies for which the filmic arts – that is to say directing, editing, and the like – are as fundamental to the nature of the laughs as the writing and the acting.
In order to properly understand Starship Troopers, one needs to understand its casting. At some level, casting is the de facto entry point for any of Verhoeven’s American films over the decade from Robocop to Starship Troopers. Total Recall, although somewhat muted by its need to be an Arnie vehicle, definitely gestured toward using the big lovable lug as a critique of the idea of an Arnie film. More successful was Basic Instinct, where Verhoeven cast a seemingly unaware and genuine Michael Douglas more for his weathered, aged wrinkles and flagellating variant of all-American thuggery. And one doesn’t need to explain Showgirls these days, a work where Verhoeven cast (cruelly so, at that) the young whippersnapper Elizabeth Berkeley and forced her through all manner of gross, grotesque abuses on screen in a meta-commentary on the way in which her character, and young Hollywood starlets altogether, are forced to go through the wringer to find success, leaving others in their wake and losing their dignity and respect for themselves as they forced to do the unthinkable.
The 1980s were, with all due respect, the worst time in history for cinematic drama. Cinema as a whole trucked along on a surfeit of fantasy and science fiction films that primarily operated on cruise control but could stumble upon a certain breezy ingenuity when need be. But cinematic art – cinema that sought to say something about cinema and/or explore the art form in a way that doubled as a commentary on the society that would use cinema as a tool of creation and destruction – was at an all-time low. It is telling that what many consider the great American drama of the 1980s (Raging Bull is the only film as consistently revered and awarded, and that was really more of a ’70s film that forget to come out in its proper decade anyway) is most famous for the fact that it was almost never released.
Throughout the 1980s, Terry Gilliam was one of the few who stood in defiance of complicity and convention, and Brazil almost killed him for it. A brutal, lengthy production battle saw the film destroyed and cut-down to size to save whatever commercial potential it had, and, watching the finished product, it’s easy to see why: this is a relentlessly weird motion picture, recalling cinematic styles and tones with its own jazz-like sense of improvisation and cavorting between surrealist asides an hoarse reflections on the grim fandangos of the decade in which it was produced. Whatever the waiting game that was cinema in the 1980s signified, the fact that Brazil was a genuine upset for the producers that funded it says all you need to know about its undeniable artistic merit.
Paul Verhoeven doesn’t know the meaning of the word nuance, and Robocop provides at least the opening arguments for why the world is a better place for it. Brash and brutal in its own quintessentially ’80s way, Robocop also chomps at the bit to lose itself to the royal flush of political satire that stamps out the dark heart of ’80s consumerist ultra-violence and the evils of capitalism with gusto and flair. Under its sleek, brawny hood lies a personality-surfeit aimed squarely at other ’80s action films. But the film never lowers itself to the tiredness of irony, instead opting for a sort of loving critique of action cinema that plays with its inadequacies and idiocies by exaggerating them and acknowledging that an anti-action film would be a hypocrisy most foul. When Truffaut claimed that any war film that wanted to hate war was dishonest because a war film innately positioned war as a form of excitement, the same could be said to apply to action cinema. Thus, while Robocop gets entangled in its conglomerate mass of neo-fascism and broad-sword crypto-leftism, it’s always glad to exist, always happy to be a film we’re watching, and never per-se anti-action … even if its political message chastising media violence considered along with the fact of its own hyper-violence may not be the most easily reconcilable tension in the film world.
First aired in 1999, the “SpongeBob” animated television show is defined primarily by an aesthetic of chill, off-the-cuff, non-confrontational madness. It is a show left uncontrolled with its own id in a room, forced to confront its own nonsense and live with it and have the most glorious time of its existence simply being itself. It is a wonderful slice of animation as character definition, radical in subtle ways and existential and playful without ever seeming over-worked or tired. Above all, it never really seems to try. It simply exists in its own state, not so much working to function a certain way as laying itself down and exploring whatever comes out of its mind at that moment. It seems gloriously uncontainable, but never too hungry to lash out or rush around for the sake of energy in every direction it can. It’s a show of quiet confusion, aloof froth, and lazy charm. It is something that does not seem to have been produced or created, but found and observed. It is free of exposition, free of explanation. It is pure, un-worked, and unworkable. It seems effortless. Continue reading
Vantage points for comparison to Blue Ruin abound. The Coen Brothers and their more dark-hearted works like Blood Simple are obvious progenitors, as are the modern space-and-place indies most popularly epitomized by the works of David Gordon Green (and on some level Terrence Malick before him). Older, more expressively masculine works from the likes of Walter Hill also grandfather Blue Ruin’s more visceral critique of modern masculinity. But if Ruin isn’t anything original or particularly adventurous, it is still entirely game for the ride, and director Jeremy Saulnier is so adept at stitching together these disparate parts in uneasy ways (and leaving just enough space between the stitches for the wounds to threaten opening up) that the film never loses its fleshy fascination. Continue reading
Edited in April 2016
Jacques Tati’s Playtime is the sort of ambidextrous work that grants a reviewer the blessing and curse of confronting opening lines from all angles. One might look to the evolution of Tati’s carnivalesque visionary depiction of modern society over the course of twenty years of filmmaking. Or the fact that this 1967 feature, his magnum opus in more ways than one, almost bankrupt him and went six times over budget as the famously meticulous Tati spent months upon months refilming sequences with psychotic perfectionism. Then we find the brilliantly twitchy physical comedy in the film. And the warped classicisim of the imagery and sound design that distorts and reinvents not only modernity but our place as fleshy individuals in the world. Then there’s the commendable commitment to throwing narrative cinema by the wayside in favor of Tati’s vision of space and place as human savior and human assassin, depending, of course, upon how we interact with the world around us. Continue reading