Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Spaced Out

SPACED (1999 - 2001)
HOT FUZZ (2007)

The excellent assemble cast of SPACED.

AN outstanding Channel 4 series with a huge cult following, Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson’s SPACED was a new breed of situation comedy. The situation wasn’t new - experiences of a group of mismatched housemates (here played by Pegg, Stevenson and Mark Heap, with regulars Nick Frost, Katy Carmichael and Julia Deakin) - but it was memorable for director Edgar Wright’s innovative shooting techniques, which added extra depth and texture to the already rich scripts. Wright mixes the everyday with the extraordinary, achieving an impressive array of sight gags which reference streams of sci-fi and pop culture; the director doesn't just borrow from cinema, he aspires to the visual quality of a different medium.

SPACED’s characters have a complexity unusual in sitcoms, and are allowed to develop from miserly beginnings: Tim (Pegg) spends hours shooting zombies and drowning Lara Croft on his Playstation, Daisy (Stevenson) will organise anything (parties, performances, pets) rather than sit down and actually work, landlady Marsha (Deakin) hit’s the bottle, Mike (Frost) joins any organisation which allows him to wear army clothing, and artist Brian (Heap) hides in his dark basement room, torturing himself with ideas which he can never fully capture on canvas. The show is often as touching as it is funny, and deeply sceptical about the things that twentysomethings are told to believe are the very essence of life: conceptual art, clubbing, responsibilities, and love. As Tim says in the closing scenes of the final episode, “Hollywood endings are just a myth, life is just a thankless struggle.”

“Here come the Fuzz”: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

A straight-faced spoof of everything from slasher movies to Agatha Christie and homoerotic U.S. buddy movies, Wright’s HOT FUZZ sees dedicated London cop Nicholas Angel (Pegg) compulsorily transferred to Sandford - a quiet Gloucestershire village - by his superiors to stop him from showing them up. The local cop shop is run by chummy Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent), and Angel soon irritates everyone on his first night by arresting all the under-18s in the local pub (echoing DS Andy Cartwright (Rafe Spall)’s contemptuous put-down “If you want to be a big cop in a small town, fuck off up the model village”) and hauling in for drunk driving a slob called Danny (Frost), who turns out to be Butterman’s son and Angel’s imminent partner. When a figure dressed as the Grim Reaper begins killing the villagers, Sandford becomes the unlikely stage for bullet ballets and screeching car chases, as Angel and Danny lay bare the truth.

As in SPACED and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004), the on-screen chemistry between real-life best friends Pegg and Frost is effortless. It’s refreshing to see Pegg in a more driven and stoic role, far away from his bumbling nice guy characters Tim Bisley and Shaun Riley. Frost is particularly good as the foil for Pegg’s procedural prig; wannabe badass Danny may come across as a bumbling klutz - his size instantly giving him the standard jolly fat man vibe - but he is the face of honesty inside a distorted reality of mysterious deaths, countryside conspiracies and semi-erotic male bonding. The film is awash with star supporting turns and cameos, but Timothy Dalton as Somerfield supermarket manager and pillar of the community Simon Skinner is particularly worthy of merit.

Decapitation, HOT FUZZ style.

With its provincial town hiding a dark secret from a newly arrived cop, there is more than an echo of 1973’s THE WICKER MAN (as if to underline the parallel, that film’s star, Edward Woodward, plays the head of the Neighbourhood Watch). To further the horror film foundation, there are underground catacombs filled with the skeletons and a number of stunning Argentoesque murders. Strangely, little if anything is done in any of these scenes to signal that they are a joke; they are presented exactly as they would be in a straight-out horror. Consequently, the results feel botched – as if a cop spoof had awkwardly mutated into a splatter film, with a big, violent finale to blur the lines between the two.

Ultimately HOT FUZZ seems disjointed, over-long, over-polished and missing an emotional core. Even SHAUN OF THE DEAD found time in its undead stomping to give its titular hero a love life; in HOT FUZZ, Angel’s only romantic involvement is speaking to his CSI inspector ex-fiancée Janine early on (Cate Blanchett in a clever, uncredited, cameo), and Danny’s private stash of action movies is a sad replacement for actual companionship. Janine wears her protective goggles and surgical mask throughout her single scene, and her anonymity is underscored by all the other generic females in the film. Ranging from the old and cranky to the busty trollop, the female triteness makes the weapon-worship even more interesting by comparison, the sight of an arsenal as pleasing as ogling a nice arse.