Movies: Ansen on 'Hot Fuzz'

“Hot Fuzz,” directed by Edgar Wright, does for the cop action movie what “Shaun of the Dead” did for the zombie flick. It’s a bigger, faster cut-and funnier-movie than its predecessor, but that’s as it should be in a film that’s sending up the overamped conventions of a Jerry Bruckheimer/Joel Silver-style big-budget action movie, transformed into quaint English idioms. The supercop hero, Nick Angel, played by co-writer Simon Pegg, is a grim and zealous London bobbie whose arrest rate is 400 times that of his nearest competitor, which tends to make the other fellows look bad. So, to get him out of the way, he is “promoted” to a faraway job in sleepy, seemingly crime-free Sandford, where his by-the-book approach to the law does not play well with the astonishingly lenient local cops. Before this very clever comedy is over, however, machines guns will be blasting, the death rate will soar, and Nick and his galumphing sidekick, Danny (Nick Frost), will find their lives imitating the hi...

Ansen on a Great Thai Filmmaker

The young Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is not exactly a household name in the U.S. But on film-festival circuits, and wherever cineastes huddle (if you can huddle on the Internet, on sites such as GreenCineDaily) his unpronounceable name is inspiring a devoted following. Apichatpong ("Blissfully Yours," "Tropical Malady") is a true original, with a cinematic voice entirely his own, as anyone fortunate enough to see his hypnotic latest film, "Syndromes and a Century," will discover. I first saw it last fall at the New York Film Festival, and it sent me out into the streets in a state of euphoria I couldn't properly explain. It opens in New York this week, and will be playing in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities in the coming months. I won't pretend it will be to everybody's taste—it fits into no recognizable genre and doesn't give a fig for "plot" in any conventional sense—but for those seeking a palette cleanser after a steady diet of Hollywood "product...

Movies: Ansen on 'Hot Fuzz'

“Hot Fuzz,” directed by Edgar Wright, does for the cop action movie what “Shaun of the Dead” did for the zombie flick. It’s a bigger, faster cut-and funnier-movie than its predecessor, but that’s as it should be in a film that’s sending up the overamped conventions of a Jerry Bruckheimer/Joel Silver-style big-budget action movie, transformed into quaint English idioms. The supercop hero, Nick Angel, played by co-writer Simon Pegg, is a grim and zealous London bobbie whose arrest rate is 400 times that of his nearest competitor, which tends to make the other fellows look bad. So, to get him out of the way, he is “promoted” to a faraway job in sleepy, seemingly crime-free Sandford, where his by-the-book approach to the law does not play well with the astonishingly lenient local cops. Before this very clever comedy is over, however, machines guns will be blasting, the death rate will soar, and Nick and his galumphing sidekick, Danny (Nick Frost), will find their lives imitating the hi...

Ansen: 'The Hoax' Is Fun, Smart Film

James Frey was a piker compared with Clifford Irving: the minor-league fibs of "A Million Little Pieces" are child's play next to the brilliant and almost successful fraud Irving perpetrated in 1971. Claiming to have exclusive interviews with the reclusive, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, Irving (who had, tellingly, previously written a book about art forger Elmyr de Hory called "Fake!") received enormous paychecks for writing "The Autobiography of Howard Hughes" with his associate and partner in crime Dick Suskind. In fact, he had never met Hughes, but his elaborate hoax was so convincing it fooled handwriting experts, and people who had known Hughes. And it had ramifications, according to the wonderfully tricky movie "The Hoax," that led all the way to Nixon's White House and Watergate.Director Lasse Hallstrom, working from a deliciously smart screenplay by William Wheeler, takes off from Irving's own account of his audacious scam, published after he had spent several years...

Who Knew Air Guitar Could Be Endearing?

As a subject for a documentary, a bunch of dudes competing in an air guitar contest might be high on your list—as it was on mine—of totally unnecessary cultural events. I had visions of, at best, a few cheap laughs at the expense of some pathetic kids with delusions of rock-star glory. Did we need another condescending carnival of no-talent exhibitionism in the era of "Jackass," Paris Hilton and the early rounds of "American Idol"?Well, "Air Guitar Nation" is not that movie. Alexandra Lipsitz’s fleet (82 minutes) doc is certainly funny, but never at the expense of its subjects, who are a surprisingly self-aware and sophisticated bunch. How can you not appreciate a contestant—the heady New Yorker Dan Crane—who dubs himself Bjorn Turoque? Bjorn enters the East Coast air guitar competition, held in the Pussycat Lounge in New York, in hopes of becoming the first American champ to compete in the world finals in Oulu, Finland, where air guitarmanship is not taken lightly. ("Make air, not...

Ansen on Mira Nair's 'The Namesake'

Mira Nair's sprawling, engrossing saga "The Namesake," like the acclaimed Jhumpa Lahiri novel on which it's based, spans three decades and two generations, traveling from the 1970s to the present, from Calcutta to New York and back again, immersing us in the immigrant lives of the Ganguli family. There is enough material in this story to fill a mini-series. Indeed, there are times when you wish the movie were a mini-series. This is meant both as a tribute, for the Ganguli family is so engaging you'd be happy spending much more time with them, and an acknowledgment that a tale this expansive doesn't always fit comfortably within the constraints of a feature-length frame.Early on, "The Namesake" transports us from a humid, crowded, colorful Calcutta living room—where young Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) meets his bride-to-be, Ashima (Tabu)—to a bare, wintry New York apartment where the couple, who barely know each other, begin their new life in America. The transition is a visceral and visual...

Movies: Soccer and Sexism

In Iran, women are not allowed to attend soccer games. This rule is supposed to protect them from the bad language and crude behavior of men. But many soccer-loving girls try to get around this by disguising themselves as boys and sneaking into the stadium. In "Offside," the acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Pahani—whose powerful film "The Circle" examined the plight of women in a sexist, repressive country—shows us what happens when a group of savvy Tehran girls tries to sneak into the World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain.This buoyant but barbed comedy, which opens in the U.S. today, uses nonprofessional actors and was shot while the actual soccer match was unfolding. (Like the girls, Pahani had to use subterfuge to make the movie, lying to the authorities about its subject.) These spirited girls aren't overtly political: they just love the sport, and the young soldiers who round them up and guard them in a makeshift pen inside the stadium are equally ardent soccer...

Ansen on 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley'

In one of many wrenching scenes in Ken Loach's powerful film about the Irish rebellion and civil war, "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," a man must execute an informer. The man is Damien (Cillian Murphy), a thoughtful, sensitive young man who had planned to go to London to practice medicine. Not wanting to get involved in politics, he's sucked into the fight against the occupying British when he witnesses, firsthand, the atrocities committed by the English troops—the Black and Tans—against the Irish. Outraged by the injustice, he joins his older brother Teddy (Padriac Delaney) in the guerilla war. The informer he must shoot, Chris (John Crean), is a lad he's known since childhood, and a fellow member of the "flying column" in County Cork that is setting ambushes to kill the British soldiers. Chris has been forced to betray his brothers-in-arms: if he doesn't, his family will be killed. When Damien takes the life of his friend he is crossing a line from which there will be no turning...

Ansen: 'Zodiac' Is a Haunting, Riveting Film

Obsession craves resolution the way a hunter craves his prey. But what happens to the obsessed when there is no resolution? David Fincher's fascinating, uncompromising "Zodiac" is about four men who became obsessed with capturing the legendary Bay Area serial killer known as the Zodiac. The case started in 1968 when two teenagers out on a date were shot in their car in Vallejo, Calif. The girl was killed; the boy survived. The killer, who taunted his pursuers with letters to local newspapers written in code, struck again on the Fourth of July, 1969, when he stabbed a couple picnicking by a lake in Napa County. His third strike came in San Francisco, where he shot a cabdriver in the back of the head and narrowly escaped capture.Anyone who followed the story or who read Robert Graysmith's two best-selling books about the Zodiac knows that almost four decades later, the case has not been solved. That fact alone places Fincher's movie outside convention. Hollywood movies crave...

Movies: East Meets West in 'The Namesake'

Mira Nair's sprawling, engrossing saga, "The Namesake," like the acclaimed Jhumpa Lahiri novel on which it's based, spans three decades and two generations, traveling from the ‘70s to the present, from Calcutta to New York and back again, immersing us in the immigrant lives of the Ganguli family. There is enough material in this story to fill a mini-series. Indeed, there are times when you wish the movie was a mini-series. This is meant both as a tribute, for the Ganguli family is so engaging you'd be happy spending much more time with them, and an acknowledgment that a tale this expansive doesn't always fit comfortably within the constraints of a feature-length frame.Early on, "The Namesake" transports us from a humid, crowded, colorful Calcutta living room—where young Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) meets his bride to be, Ashima (Tabu)—to a bare, wintry New York apartment where the couple, who barely know each other, begin their new life in America. The transition is a visceral and visual...

Good Spy Vs. Bad Spy

Things are not always as they seem. That was certainly the case with Robert Hanssen, the devout, graceless, buttoned-down FBI agent who, after 22 years of deception, was revealed to be one of the most treacherous spies working for the Soviets in U.S. history. It's also the case with "Breach," the movie about Hanssen's capture. The conventional wisdom is that any studio movie released in February is, by definition, a dog. But "Breach" is actually a wonderfully taut cat-and-mouse thriller. It features a performance by Chris Cooper, as the eccentric, contradictory Hanssen, that ought to be remembered as one of the year's best come December. Let's hope that awards voters have longer memories than usual.We know from the get-go that Hanssen's the guilty party: that's not the source of the suspense. The screenplay, written by director Billy Ray and the team of Adam Mazer and William Rotko, tells the story from the point of view of Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a young, ambitious FBI agent...

A Waking Nightmare

The Stasi--East Germany's omnipotent and greatly feared secret police--employed some 100,000 people, in addition to the 200,000 informers who could be counted on to spy on their neighbors, their friends and their own families. The waking nightmare of this "socialist paradise," a country with the second highest suicide rate in the world, is unforgettably captured in "The Lives of Others," a German political thriller that has racked up more international awards than Helen Mirren, and this month may well win an Oscar as best foreign-language film.Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck sets his tale of betrayal, corruption and moral awakening in East Berlin in 1984, five years before the fall of the wall. The system may be rotting from within, but Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), one of the Stasi's most skilled officers, is still a true believer, rooting out the enemies of East German socialism with a ruthless precision born of genuine ideological commitment.The humorless,...

Following The Flock

Director Robert De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth's "The Good Shepherd" is nothing if not ambitious. In two hours and 40 minutes of grave, shadowy images, it attempts to tell the story of the formation and transformation of the CIA. It begins with the agency's failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, loops back to the late 1930s, when the Office of Strategic Services (the CIA's predecessor) was created, and then takes us on a globe-hopping trip through the cold war.All this is filtered through the fictional story of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a young Yale student plucked from the secret Skull and Bones society in 1939 to serve his country by spying on a suspected Nazi-sympathizing professor (Michael Gambon). The bright, well-bred Wilson is an idealist, but even as a young man there's something shut off about him: he says little, hides his emotions and is strangely passive in the presence of women, even one as seductive as Clover (Angelina Jolie), whom he dutifully marries when she...

Humanizing The Enemy

Clint Eastwood tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese side in "Letters From Iwo Jima." You can view it as a bookend to his recent "Flags of Our Fathers," or on its own. Either way, it's unprecedented, a sorrowful and savagely beautiful elegy that can stand in the company of the greatest antiwar movies.Written in English, which was then translated into Japanese by the young Japanese-American Iris Yamashita (who shares story credit with Paul Haggis), the screenplay brings to life four indelible characters, all of whom know there is little chance they'll leave the island alive. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is the untraditional officer in charge, who devised the 18 miles of tunnels that enabled the Japanese to withstand the American invasion for almost 40 days. He fights with the irony that, having spent time in the United States before the war, he reveres Americans. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is an irreverent young baker who just wants to stay alive to see his...

Tales Out Of School

The aptly named Barbara Covett, a stern and lonely teacher at a shabby London secondary school, is a master of both deception and self-deception, which makes her a very dangerous and pathetic woman. Played with acid-tongued relish by Judi Dench in a radical departure from her roles as royalty, she's a deliciously nasty piece of work.Barbara, whose closest companion is her cat, has fallen in love, though she would never put it that way. The focus of her obsession is Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), the new art teacher. Attractive, young, happily married with two children and a "bourgeois bohemian" sense of privilege, Sheba is everything Barbara isn't.Imagine her shock when she discovers Sheba in the arms of 15-year-old student Steven (Andrew Simpson). But Barbara quickly gets over her horror when she realizes the glorious opportunity this presents. Now their fates will be forever interlocked. It will be our little secret, she tells the shaken Sheba, as long as you give up the affair....

A Brief History Of Sundance Outrages

Sundance wouldn't be Sundance if someone wasn't getting all hot and bothered about some outrageous, shocking, weird, utterly out-there movie leaping off the screen at the film festival in Park City, Utah. Among the movies getting tongues wagging this year are "Zoo," Robinson Devor's documentary about bestiality, inspired by the true story of a Seattle man who died after having sex with an Arabian stallion; the lurid Southern melodrama "Black Snake Moan," with Christina Ricci as a scantily clad white-trash nymphomaniac who gets chained to a radiator (for her own good, mind you) by Samuel L. Jackson; and another Southern Gothic tale, "Hounddog," which elicited angry protests (even though none of the protestors had seen the movie) because of a scene in which a 12-year-old girl, played by Dakota Fanning, is raped.It was ever thus. Here's a brief timeline of some of the supposedly and actually shocking movies that debuted at Sundance. A few went on to make scandalous waves in the real...

Bold-Faced Names

The level of acting in movies today is as high as it's ever been; the hard part about coming up with a "best" list is knowing where to stop. Even in terrible movies, the acting rarely sinks to the level of the writing and directing. These are the performances that made the most indelible impression in 2006.ACTORRyan Gosling, "Half Nelson"Peter O'Toole, "Venus"Forest Whitaker, "The Last King of Scotland"Ray Winstone, "The Proposition"Toby Jones, "Infamous"Leonardo DiCaprio, "Blood Diamond," "The Departed"Sacha Baron Cohen, "Borat"Melvil Poupaud, "Time to Leave"Patrick Wilson, "Little Children"Christian Bale, "The Prestige"Matt Dillon, "Factotum"Daniel Craig, "Casino Royale"Will Smith, "The Pursuit of Happyness"Derek Luke, "Catch a Fire"Greg Kinnear, "Little Miss Sunshine"James McAvoy, "The Last King of Scotland"Ken Watanabe, "Letters from Iwo Jima"ACTRESSHelen Mirren, "The Queen"Annette Bening, "Running with Scissors"Meryl Streep, "The Devil Wears Prada"Judi Dench, "Notes on a...

Holiday Movie Guide

It will be hard to think of diamonds as a girl's best friend after seeing "Blood Diamond," Ed Zwick's slick, hard-hitting political thriller. The movie pitches us into the midst of a barbaric civil war in Sierra Leone in 1999, in which the profits from illegal, or "conflict," diamonds, sold on the black market to reputable European companies (a tiny splinter of the diamond trade), are used to fund arms on both sides of the war.A rare pink diamond, coveted by all, is the "MacGuffin" that sets the plot in motion. It's found, and secretly buried, by Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a Men-de fisherman rounded up by marauding rebel forces and forced to work in their mines. They have also kidnapped his 14-year-old son to join their legions of brainwashed, doped-up child soldiers, and Solomon is counting on the money his diamond will bring to save his boy. The gem is equally coveted by diamond smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a tough, amoral ex-mercenary from Zimbabwe, for whom...

Cinematic Fantastic

This year may be remembered as one that blurred the lines between reality and fiction. "Borat" wasn't just the funniest movie of the year, but the most controversial, fudging the divide between comedy, documentary and faux-documentary. "United 93" and "World Trade Center" came face to face with 9/11; Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” was shot in a cinema verite style that tried to distance it from Hollywood convention. The meatiest roles were often real people: Queen Elizabeth coping with the death of Diana; Idi Amin plunging Uganda into horror; the very real American and Japanese victims of the Battle of Iwo Jima saluted in two Clint Eastwood films; Truman Capote redux. Even the year's best musical, "Dreamgirls," was built on echoes of the true story of Diana Ross and the Supremes. Reality, it turned out, was stranger—and often more potent—than fiction.Army of Shadows Yes, it was made in 1969, but the late Jean-Pierre Melville's fatalistic masterpiece about the French Resistance,...

Mel's Jungle Boogie

Let no one deny that mel Gibson is a true auteur, an artist whose films are deeply personal, intransigently independent of movie-industry fashion and possessed of a singular vision. Even if his name weren't on the title, anyone familiar with his oeuvre would be able to recognize "Mel Gibson's Apocalypto" as the work of the creator of "The Passion of the Christ," though here he foregoes Aramaic for the Yucatec language spoken by the descendants of the Mayans.Once again he returns to his favorite theme: nearly naked men being tortured. Repeatedly. Imaginatively. At great length. "Apocalypto," however, begins on a light note: the trapping, and graphic impalement, of a tapir on a fence of spikes. Next comes a jocular moment in which the hunters--a tribe of peaceful forest dwellers in Mesoamerica circa 1517--trick one of their members into eating the dead animal's severed testicles. It isn't long before comedy is cast aside and true horror descends: the tribe, which lives in harmony with...

It's Diva-Licious

To understand the definition of a showstopper, look no further than "And I Am Telling You (I'm Not Going)," which became an instant Broadway legend in 1981 when Jennifer Holliday belted out the song in Michael Bennett's production of "Dreamgirls." Now, in Bill Condon's knockout movie version of the musical, the number belongs to Jennifer Hudson, and her star-making rendition is going to raise goose bumps across the land.The song--a raw, roiling aria of defiance and pain--is sung by Effie (Hudson), the hefty, difficult, soulful lead of the Dreamettes, an aspiring Detroit girl group in the early '60s (think the Supremes) who are about to cross over from the chitlins circuit to mainstream success. But to achieve this goal, Effie must be dumped as lead singer in place of Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), who has half the voice but is svelte, light-skinned and malleable. To make things worse, Deena has also replaced Effie in the bed of the group's smart, ruthlessly ambitious manager Curtis (Jamie...

The Maverick of Movieland

Robert Altman never courted an audience's affections. A cool, iconoclastic customer, he scorned sentimentality, upended the rules of genre, spurned happy endings. Why, then, did his best movies produce in me a happiness unlike anyone else's? Watching that magical string of films he made in the early 1970s--"McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "The Long Goodbye," "California Split," "Nashville"--was pure exhilaration. I'd walk out of the theater with a contact high, twice as alive as when I walked in. There was a paradox here that gets at the mysterious alchemy of art: though these movies end with wintry desolation, existential futility, happy-go-lucky fatalism, they give back esthetic bliss.The Altman style was unmistakable: the long, wandering takes; the overlapping dialogue that invites us to eavesdrop on the actors; the teeming, spontaneous panoramas that offer multiple choices to the eye. His method was the opposite of Hitchcock, who storyboarded every sequence in advance. Altman's...

It's Diva-Licious

To understand the definition of a showstopper, look no further than "And I Am Telling You (I'm Not Going)," which became an instant Broadway legend in 1981 when Jennifer Holliday belted out the song in Michael Bennett's production of "Dreamgirls." Now, in Bill Condon's knockout movie version of the musical, the number belongs to Jennifer Hudson, and her star-making rendition is going to raise goose bumps across the land.The song--a raw, roiling aria of defiance and pain--is sung by Effie (Hudson), the hefty, difficult, soulful lead of the Dreamettes, an aspiring Detroit girl group in the early '60s (think the Supremes) who are about to cross over from the chitlins circuit to mainstream success. But to achieve this goal, Effie must be dumped as lead singer in place of Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), who has half the voice but is svelte, light-skinned and malleable. To make things worse, Deena has also replaced Effie in the bed of the group's smart, ruthlessly ambitious manager Curtis (Jamie...

Snap Judgment: Movies

Déjà VuDirected by Tony ScottThis flashy Jerry Bruckheimer thriller, which starts with the terrorist bombing of a New Orleans ferry, asks that perennial sci-fi question: if you go back in time, can you change the future? Denzel Washington's ATF investigator, with the help of "top secret" technology, time-travels back to save the life of (and fall in love with) Paula Patton, who holds the key to the terrorist's identity. It's preposterous, but never dull: Scott whips the action into a taut, tasty lather.On the Day Bobby Kennedy DiedBobby," Emilio Estevez's heartfelt and softheaded tribute to Robert F. Ken-nedy, follows 22 fiction-al characters at the Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968, the day of Kennedy's assassination. Estevez was 6 that day, and his concept of the politician (who's glimpsed in newsreel footage) is unabashedly starry-eyed. The figure who presides over this film is purely mythic: he's the great What-Might-Have-Been, a convenient symbol for all our liberal dreams.In...

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