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Sunday, July 21

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Hot Fuzz

Whereas with their first feature film collaboration, Shaun of the Dead, there was really only one director's work being paid tribute to (the zombie films of George Romero), the latest work by director/co-writer Edgar Wright, star/co-writer Simon Pegg, and co-star Nick Frost is an homage to all cop action films of the United States and Asia, dating back to Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry series to more recent fare like Bad Boys 2 and Point Break (both of which are specifically cited). Hot Fuzz is not mocking or parodying these archetypes of mindless violence and over-spilling testosterone, but adding itself to their numbers and having more laughs than you can count in the process.

Hot Fuzz has a more complete plot than its predecessor, and while the jokes come at a furious pace, they aren't the main point of the film. There's a solid murder mystery afoot here as well. Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, the finest cop in London, whose arrest record puts all other cops to shame, and that's part of the reason the top cop brass (fun cameos by Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan and Bill Nighy) find themselves compelled to transfer Angel outside the city to the remote, crime-free village of Sandford in the British countryside. To make matters worse, Angel's long-time girlfriend (a crime-scene investigator whose face is always masked, but I'll give you extra points if you can identify the actress playing her) breaks up with him, giving him no real reason to fight the decision.

Before he even officially starts his job, Angel spends an evening arresting several of the townspeople for petty offenses, including one Frank Butterman (Frost), who is not only a police officer himself, but also the son of the local chief (played with easy-going charm by Jim Broadbent). Also among the laid-back group of country police are two detectives played by Paddy Considine and Rafe Spall, as well as a handful of top British comic actors as beat patrol officers. As Angel gets more familiar with his surroundings, one thing becomes alarmingly clear: although the city has never had a murder within its borders, it has had a shockingly high "accident" rate, many of them quite nasty. The film Hot Fuzz most reminded me of was the original Wicker Man, in that Angel is the outsider trying to enforce his big city laws in a town that feels it has been handling its business without his help for many years now, thank you very much.

In between investigating a series of gory accidents, Angel also gets to know his partner a bit better as the pair set off to see if Nicholas can find a way to turn off his police mannerisms long enough to enjoy a pint or seven, and kick back to watch a few mindless cop action movies (such as the previously mentioned titles). The influence of these films clearly has an impact on Angel, which leads him to solve the killings and bring to justice those responsible. But who in the town is the culprit? My favorite suspect is a local grocery store owner played by former James Bond Timothy Dalton, who eats the scenery like it's made of popcorn. When Nicholas and Frank finally get armed and start kicking ass, Hot Fuzz goes from simply being funny as hell to being the finest cop action film the UK has ever produced (not that there's been a whole lot of competition, and no, Bond movies don't count).

I have to give credit to Pegg, Frost and Wright for creating actual characters this time around. As much as I adored Shaun of the Dead, Pegg and Frost were essentially playing version of themselves (as well as the characters they played on their TV show "Spaced"). But here, these are very different characters. Pegg plays Angel without a joke to his name, which doesn't mean he's not funny. And while Frank is still a lovable fat bastard, he's not a full-bore slacker as Frost has played before. And don't for a second think that the filmmakers have ignored the action genre's proclivity to have a veiled (and sometimes not so veiled) homoerotic undercurrent to the relationship between the male leads. There are at least two moments in the film where I though the two men were going to start making out…not that there's anything wrong with that. Hot Fuzz is two hours of absolute joy, laughs, gun play and explosions that will have you giggling like a school girl all the way home. And while I would rarely say this under any other circumstances, tackling this genre almost demands that the filmmakers search for an idea for a sequel. Could it really be a proper cop action movie without at least one more in the series?

Read my exclusive interview with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost here: http://www.aintitcool.com/?q=node/32125.

Fracture

I'm in a camp with most people that trailers on the whole show way too much, and often ruin the surprises and/or the ending to many a worthy movie. Even when that isn't the case, I've seen enough mystery movies in my time to be able to figure out the real killer or some elaborate twist miles ahead of the reveal. So here's what kicks ass about Fracture: there's so much about this film I thought I knew or thought I'd figured out, and I was wrong on all counts. You might think this film is about a rich man (Anthony Hopkins) confessing to killing his wife (Embeth Davidtz), but the evidence in the case against him doesn't support his confession. Not exactly. You might think that the assistant DA played by Ryan Gosling has to find either the correct evidence to convict Hopkins or proof that he's covering up for someone else. Sort of. Actually, the judgment in the case against Hopkins happens just after the halfway point in the film. In fact, I don't think the trailers show us anything that happens in the film's second half. But it's in that second half that the film truly takes shape.

You see, there's no question that Hopkins is our killer. We see the successful structural engineer shoot his wife after he confronts her with the knowledge that she's having an affair. He knows this because he has followed her to a hotel where she and her much-younger-than-Hopkins lover meet twice a week. We are shown all of this right at the outset. No spoilers here. So why is it that the gun that kills his wife is not the same one in his possession? Why don't the shell casings on the floor of their home match the guns? Why does the gun show that it's never been fired? The police assume the gun is hidden somewhere in the house, but they can't find it after repeated searches. And that's just where the fun begins.

Every scene between Hopkins and Gosling is a treasure. These two fine actors come from totally different schools of acting. Hopkins has been doing this acting game for so long that's he's learned to have fun and make it look effortless. Gosling is the arguably the finest actor of his generation, and he absolutely disappears into this cocky bastard of an ADA. He's already got a job in the private sector waiting for him, so he's got one foot out the door when he gets saddled with this annoying case that appears to be a slam dunk. The courtroom scenes that pit these men against each other are so well done that you have to laugh out of admiration for the sheer skill on display. Hopkins is the master manipulator who is able to logically anticipate every move of the people around him.

There's an entire fascinating subplot involving Gosling's expected job at a top-ranking corporate law firm and an affair he enters into with the woman who would be his immediate supervisor. And soon, even that job's future is called into question because of the high-profile nature of the murder case he's trying to tie up. I don't want to reveal too much about what happens after the court case is finalized, but no part of this plot lets you down. Fracture is a smart, nervy thriller that could only be pulled off by two of the finest actors of their respective generations. It tricks the audience without leaving any crucial elements up for grabs. This is one of the best crime scripts (from Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers) I've seen in years, and director Gregory Hoblit (who pulled off a similar acting-script coup with Primal Fear in 1996) has crafted a near-perfect film.

Year of the Dog

Closing in on middle age, Peggy (Molly Shannon in the best role of her career) has settled into a content, bordering on happy, life with her pet Beagle named Pencil. Pencil sleeps curled up next to Peggy in bed, eats at the same table, and they even have a standing Friday date night to watch a movie together. No Christmas card from Peggy is without sweet Pencil. One night Pencil strays into a neighbor's yard (owned by new neighbor John C. Reilly), and in the morning turns up mysteriously dead. The incident marks a turning point in Peggy's life: will she simply get another pet or will she take this as a sign that's it's time to make interacting with people a priority. After a largely unsuccessful date with Reilly takes a turn toward the ugly when Peggy discovers potentially dog-killing poisons in his garage, she turns toward an animal shelter worker (a sexually ambiguous Peter Sarsgaard) who seems to share her passion for canines.

The intensely dark comedy Year of the Dog has as many good laughs as it does deeply uncomfortable scenes involving Peggy and her attempts to get closer to Sarsgaard, whom she thinks is throwing off signals of love in her direction. She adopts a new dog that is aggressive, destructive and loud, and this causes all sorts of problems for Peggy. Her job as a legal secretary is in jeopardy when she gives funds to animal rescue charities without clearing the donations with her boss. And she even manages to alienate some of her closest friends, including one played by Regina King.

Written and directed by Mike White (an actor who's seen a great deal of success as the screenwriter of such films as School of Rock, Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl), Year of the Dog is an unpredictable, sometimes disturbing piece that I found wholly satisfying and impossible not to laugh along with. At times, Peggy is pathetic and desperate; other times she borders on psychotic. One of many great moments is when she takes her young niece to a petting zoo/farm filled with rescued animals, followed by a detour to a meatpacking plant. Needless to say, her brother (Thomas McCarthy) and his overprotective wife (Laura Dern) are furious. Shannon's performance is a revelation. I've always found her very funny, back to her "Saturday Night Live" years, but this is a layered and fully realized portrait of a confused and transitional person trying to find a new place to plant her feet and her feelings. Year of the Dog may feel like it's mocking its characters, but I didn't get that vibe from the material. White (in his debut as a director) is showing us the kind of characters whose lives rarely make it to the big screen: ones whose journeys are at a distinct and troubling crossroads, which just happen to be very funny at times.

After the Wedding

If you asked me what my current favorite film-producing nation is today, I'd answer "Denmark" without hesitation. With what seems like a fairly small community of actors, writers and directors, the Danish filmmaking establishment has provided the world with some of the most fulfilling works in the past 10 years. Some of that is tied to the Dogme 95 movement, but even since that minimalist effort fizzled out, I've seen some devastatingly brilliant movies come out of Denmark. Probably the best known of all Danish actors right now (thanks to his wonderful turn as the most recent Bond villain in Casino Royale) is Mads Mikkelsen. Go rent the recently released Pusher trilogy or Open Hearts or Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself or The Green Butchers for proof of just how versatile this tall, handsome actor really is. Later this year, another one of his great performances will be featured in Adam's Apples, which happens to be written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, the same man that wrote After the Wedding, featuring what is probably Mikkelsen's best performance to date.

The film centers on Mikkelsen as Jacob, a good man who works at a sadly underfunded orphanage in Bombay. He's great with the kids, and they adore him right back. He is summoned to return to Denmark with the promise of much-needed funding, but only if he shows up in person to meet with the potential donor from a wealthy businessman (Rolf Lassgard). Since his trip will keep him in town for several days, the businessman invites Jacob to his daughter's wedding for an evening which seems like it will be pleasant and spirited. But once he arrives, Jacob sees that the mother of the bride is none other than an old girlfriend whom he hurt many years earlier. This seeming coincidence starts to look a little less random once Jacob starts doing the math on the timing of their breakup and the age of the young woman getting married.

As with many Danish films in recent years (especially those written by Jensen), no human emotion is left untapped. There are a few laughs in After the Wedding, but the main focus of the piece is stripping away all of the protective fibers surrounding the raw nerve endings of your heart and soul and pummeling them with a sledgehammer. This doesn't sound like much of a party, I know, but this film is an emotional masterstroke of acting and rock solid direction from Susanne Bier (Open Hearts). Many Danish works focus on the conflicts and unresolved issues that exist in every family, and this film is no exception as it dives headfirst into these dangerous waters, leaving no strained relationship undisturbed. If this film's title sounds familiar, that's because it was one of the five in contention for this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, and if there was one of those titles I would have removed for something like Black Book, it would not have been After the Wedding. Wholly gripping and flawlessly executed, this is one of the best films you're going to see for quite some time. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Vacancy

If you own a TV or have been to the movies in the last two months, you more or less know the set up of the new three-person (plus three lesser people) thriller Vacancy, a film that guarantees that I will never stay in anything less than a three-star hotel or motel again. David and Amy Fox (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) are a bickering couple who are driving home from her parents' anniversary party, which is ironic considering David and Amy have already made up their minds that divorce is the next thing on their agenda. In an attempt to avoid some accident-related interstate traffic, David makes the age-old mistake (while Amy is sleeping) of trying to take backroads part of the way and getting lost along the way. After damaging their car trying not to hit an animal in the road, they manage to get the car to an ancient gas station, manned by an attendant who may do their car more harm then good. Resigned to spend the night at a nearby motel run by the ridiculous-looking, but still highly effective, Frank Whaley (his enormous specs are big enough to set a pile of dry leaves on fire).

What follows is about an hour of cheap thrills and a few genuinely earned ones as well. The couple finds a collection of unlabeled videotapes in their bug-infested room, and soon realizes that they are brutal snuff films of people being killed by two masked men in the very room they are in. It takes them about three seconds to find all the hidden cameras filming their every move and fortify the room as best they can, even though it's clear from the tapes that the killers can access the room whenever they want. Since David and Amy are apparently the smartest people to have ever made the mistake of pulling into this place, they manage to stay out of harms way as they play an elaborate and sometimes fun game of hide-and-seek with Whaley and the killers.

Since Vacancy is only 80 minutes long, it's hard to argue that it overstays its welcome. And I did get a cheap thrill at seeing the ultra-glamorous Beckinsale and the greatly overpaid Wilson in sleazoid material like this. Both do a great job at being pissed at each other, while still acknowledging that they need one another to survive this experience. Director Nimrod Antal (who made the impressive Kontroll a couple years back) has put together an above-average entry in any horror anthology series and keeps us guessing exactly how this couple is going to make out in the end. Their survival is certainly not guaranteed. While the film is unnecessary in the grand scheme of horror, it isn't without its moments of scares, fun and the occasional chuckle.

Offside

Far from a by-the-number narrative, this subtle protest slice-of-life film from Iranian master Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon; The Mirror; Crimson Gold; The Circle) stands as a call to the Iranian government to lift the ban on women at sporting events. This ridiculous law was underscored a couple years ago when Iran's soccer team won a chance to go to the World Cup after a qualifying match in Tehran's sports stadium. Told almost in real time, Offside shows us the fruitless attempts of one young woman who is absolutely desperate to get into the match. Regular citizens going to the game don't seem to care that she's there; some even help her to get in. But the police have a job to do, and they snag her just before she's about to get patted down. She's put in a holding pen with other women and girls, which is cruelly located within the confines of the stadium so they can all hear the game but not see it. Even the soldiers who guard them seem perturbed that they have to watch over these women and not see the exciting game.

As the film goes on, we get to know a little bit about each woman, who range in personalities from full-on tomboys to timid and mousy. They are each quite entertaining in their own way, and what might have been a more serious declaration of protest against this archaic practice is actually light-hearted and often quite funny. As the game comes closer to its thrilling conclusion, the women are rounded up and taken in a van to jail, but even this event is peppered with good feelings as they listen to the contest's final moments on the radio. If anything, Offside shows us that perhaps sports is one of a small number of universal languages that all nations can understand. None of the characters in the film really seem that intent on truly punishing these women for their deeds. Their incarceration and trip to jail seem more a show for the superiors than actual law enforcement, and the film's ending gives hope that soon women's rights in Iran will make some advancements sometime soon. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

In the Land of Women

Carter Webb (Adam Brody) is a textbook example of a man in love with love, so much so that he ignores all the signs of the other person not really being nearly as in love with him as he is with them. As In the Land of Women opens, semi-successful L.A. writer Carter is dumped by a lovely French actress (Elena Anaya), and he's traumatized by the event. On the same day, Carter hears from his mother (JoBeth Williams) that his grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) in Michigan isn't doing well. He decides to reconnect with his slightly senile, always pissed off grandma and use the time out of L.A. to focus on finishing up a long-overdue writing project. If the film had been just about Carter and his grandmother trying to find common ground and navigate around each other's depression, that might have made for an interesting film. Instead, first-time writer-director Jonathon Kasdan (son of Lawrence, brother of Jake) pushes Carter into the world around his grandmother's home. Specifically, he connects with the family across the street, literally and figuratively. And it will be your reaction to these interactions that will determine whether this film moves you or bugs the living feces out of you.

The Hardwicke family across the street includes mother Sarah (Meg Ryan), who's trying just a little too hard to look young and sexy; oldest daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart), a 17-year-old who wants to grow up faster than she needs to; youngest daughter Paige (Makenzie Vega), who defines precocious; and usually absent dad Nelson (Clark Gregg), who gives off strong signals that he is unhappy in his marriage. What strikes you immediately when Carter begins mixing it up with the ladies in the family is that they all, in their own way, fall for him, despite the fact that his personality is rather flat and uninspired. He always knows just the right things to say, and we're told he's a good listener, but if you keep you mouth shut more than you talk, isn't that enough to be called a "good listener"? Sarah finds out she has cancer, but this crisis is given about as much weight in this film as Lucy's torturous crush on a boy in school. Both act out on their desperate feelings by making out or attempting to make out with Carter. Makes sense, I guess.

I'm just guessing that we're all supposed to garner some sort of deep message about how men and women interact and communicate, but this was lost on me. Unless In the Land of Women is one of the season's many films with "missing reels," this great connection between Carter and Sarah happens in the course of one long walk-and-talk through the neighborhood. Lucy's crush on Carter seems to begin after a fairly explicit conversation. Whatever. All the stuff I liked most about this movie takes place in the house with grandma, who wants nothing more than to be put out of her misery. If only some of the other women in this film followed suit. Oh, and in case you're wondering, Meg Ryan is the sexiest cancer patient of all time, even with her hair falling out. This movie kind of reeks like you'd imagine the story of a young man who takes advantage of vulnerable women would. It all feels a little tawdry, but not in a good way and with no pay off. If Kasdan was going to go creepy, he shouldn't have been so damn earnest about it.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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