I think we could all use a bit of a laugh, so what better time to take a look through the work of one Edgar Wright. Join us as we see if A Fistful of Fingers, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The World’s End, and Baby Driver have held up to the ravages of time.
A Fistful of Fingers
Edgar Wright’s directing career began way back in 1995 with A Fistful of Fingers, a budget of $15,000 and a cast of mates. It is, as the title no doubt has already told you, a Spaghetti Western spoof, with our erstwhile hero, “No Name”, replete with poncho, cigar and TOTALLY AUTHENTIC EASTWOOD ACCENT, setting out to earn the bounty on a killer known as “The Squint”.
On the way he will meet the Tonto-esque Native American guide known as “Running Sore”, who will become his companion for the rest of the film.
As an aside, there is nothing inherently wrong with using makeup to make someone appear to be of another ethnicity, for impersonation, parody or disguise. But a whole bunch of pale skinned people have used blackface and brownface over the years to ridicule, denigrate and even steal jobs from people of darker hue, to the extent that, however innocent the motivation, it’s simply now beyond the pale (pun not intended) for white people to wear darker skin makeup. So it’s quite uncomfortable to watch parts of A Fistful of Fingers, though the fact that it is a send-up of Western tropes and, not insignificantly, the paucity of Native American actors available on a tiny budget in Somerset in 1995, leave me feeling that it’s at worst poor judgement and not malice. Still, though…
There’s not much more to the film than that, plot-wise I mean. By the time of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, Wright would have learned to use jokes to tell the story, but here it’s rather a case of having a story just to tell jokes, and they’re largely schoolboy jokes at that.
I watched this with some trepidation, as you might imagine, given its minuscule budget, almost total obscurity and the fact that it would be another nine years before Wright returned to big-screen direction, but I was hoping to see something of an Edgar Wright origin story. And I got a fair bit of that, I’m pleased to say.
I couldn’t describe A Fistful of Fingers as good, but it’s not exactly bad, either. It certainly wears its influences on its sleeves, most notably Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with its fourth wall-breaking, deliberate anachronisms and ersatz horses, and it feels at times like Bugsy Malone: The Western, but there’s a lot of inventiveness here, and not all of the humour is juvenile. And I admit to having laughed at the utterly tortured Suti, Swahip and Sioux joke, though probably because it was so very tortured.
On its release, Derek Elley of Variety wrote, “A Fistful of Fingers shows more wit and invention than most of its no-budget Brit saddlemates … as a technical accomplishment, pic announces a precocious talent in 20-year-old Edgar Wright”, and I don’t disagree. You can see the beginnings of what Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz would go on to do so well: playing with, and within, the tropes and clichés of a genre, but with an understanding of and fondness for that genre, and some of the trademark visual storytelling and comic editing that are the director’s trademarks (that there isn’t more of that editing is due to the fact, as Wright has lamented in interviews, there wasn’t anything else to cut to).
It certainly has a lot more polish than you would expect from a 20 year old first time director, particularly in the pre-internet days, and it looks pretty good for $15,000.
It’s only for completionists, and anyone else can safely forget about it, but it’s not wholly uninteresting, and does get bonus points for a totally unexpected cameo at the end.
Shaun of the Dead
Edgar Wright co-wrote this, the first in the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with Simon Pegg, which can be pitched fairly succinctly as Spaced with zombies. Well, as long as you’ve seen that there previous Channel 4 sit-com. Otherwise “sit-com romance in a zombie apocalypse” will have to do you.
Before the dead start walking the Earth, we are introduced to high street electronic outlet sales assistant Shaun (Pegg) in the midst of his utterly familiar daily routine. The daily bus ride to work filled with the half asleep and the slog through work filled with the half witless. Quiet pint down the local with his slob of a flatmate Ed (Nick Frost), girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) who’s pining for a more interesting and stimulating life and her flatmates, the objectionable David (Dylan Moran) and the agreeable Dianne (Lucy Davis). For the majority of people, certainly those who’ve been sold into the wage slavery of modern day working this will seem like a familiar setup.
Business picks up when overnight the sleepy English suburbs are overrun by the old school lurching flesh chomping inconveniences that are Zombies. While many of the best gags come from Shaun and Ed’s blind ignorance of the zombie menace as they recover from a night of heavy drinking, caused by the breakdown of Shaun and Liz’s relationship, it’s not long before the two decide to take on the zombies, save Liz, David, Dianne, and Shaun’s mum Barbara (Penelope Wilton) and step-dad Phillip (Bill Nighy).
A lot of the most obvious humour in Shaun comes from taking a rather more grounded look at how ordinary joes would respond to such a crisis, rather than the usual horror movie tropes and / or becoming an action hero overnight. On that basis, it’s funny enough, although as with my first viewing through, if you can only take that surface reading of it then it’s a fine enough comedy to be worth a look.
However for podcast reasons I’ve since seen a lot more of the films that this affectionately prods fun at, as well as having seen it a few times, which certainly puts it up a couple of notches in my estimation. Not only for cleverly twisting the films it’s drawing from into amusing pretzels, but also for baking a rich and dense dough with quick throwaway gags and Easter eggs that reward repeat viewing as well as genre aficionados.
Not my favourite of the Cornettos, but the more I watch it the less of a delta there is between it and Hot Fuzz in my estimation and I would certainly recommend it widely, and of course in particular to horror movie fans.
We’re still in loving pastiche territory with Wright’s next film, Hot Fuzz, an ode to, and send-up of, action comedies and buddy-cop movies.
The star is again Simon Pegg, who plays Sergeant Nicholas Angel, a poster boy officer in the Metropolitan Police who is so good he is, to put not too fine a point on it, making everyone else look bad. To save his fellow, and less productive, officers from further embarrassment, Angel is shipped off to the sleepy town of Sandford (played by Wright’s hometown of Wells).
The by-the-book Angel is frustrated at the laissez-faire attitude the town’s police force – sorry, police service – which includes Paddy Considine, Olivia Colman and Jim Broadbent, takes to crime and punishment. However, as crime in this West Country backwater seems to be largely confined to shoplifting and underage drinking, perhaps it doesn’t matter too much. And, after all, it’s all for the greater good. (The greater good.)
Broadbent’s Inspector Butterman informs Nicholas that there hasn’t been a recorded murder in the town for twenty years, and that it has one of the lowest crime rates in the country, despite the crusty jugglers. (Crusty jugglers.) Rather than being reassured by this, though, the good sergeant thinks that something is rotten in the state of Sandford, and sets out to uncover the truth, helped by his new partner, Danny (Nick Frost).
In a revelation that in no way at all parodies the small-mindedness and misplaced priorities of the villagers of Little England, it transpires that anyone who threatens to disrupt the town’s idyllic nature and, more crucially, its chances of winning yet again the Village of the Year competition is quietly… disappeared. For the greater good. (The greater good.)
Fighting their willingness to believe that all of these murders are just accidents, even the one where Angel saw the victim stabbed in the throat with garden shears, our heroic sergeant finally manages to persuade his fellow officers to take action, inviting the wrath of the NWA (Neighbourhood Watch Association), who all turn out to be packing heat.
This sets the scene for a final third that, like Shaun of the Dead, pays off many seemingly innocent bits of dialogue from the film’s first half, and also manages to have better and more inventive action than most of the films from which Hot Fuzz draws its inspiration, made even more effective by its insight into the differences between US and UK crime and policing and their typical onscreen portrayal.
The heart of the film is Pegg and Frost, who by this point had honed their onscreen bromance that began in Channel 4’s Spaced into perfection, and there’s a substantial amount of joy to be had simply watching the two of them banter, and seeing Danny’s naïve idiocy and enthusiasm slowly wear down the tightly buttoned-up Angel.
Every part is well cast and well-written, even the small roles, and everyone involved seems to get it, perhaps none more so than the delightfully villainous Timothy Dalton as the local supermarket manager, though Billie Whitelaw, Paul Freeman, Bill Bailey and Ewar Woowar all stand out, too, and there is even another layer of reference in much of that casting. It’s full of visual gags and wonderful scene transitions and match cuts (Shaun of the Dead’s editor Chris Dickens returns here), and it works both as a comedy and as an action film.
It’s not perfect: if there’s a complaint it’s that it’s a little too long, perhaps self-indulgently so, maybe because Wright and Pegg, who co-wrote the script, were too attached to some of their ideas. Certainly, it has more endings than is necessary, something I have seen one writer suggest may be an allusion to The Return of the King, though I consider that a bit of a stretch, but there is a Revenge of the Sith reference so it’s not out of the bounds of possibility.
After multiple viewings it still remains very entertaining, though, and that’s what counts.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
At the age of thirty I already felt painfully out of sync with the protagonists of Scott Pilgrim when I watched it in the cinema, even if the video game aesthetic flourishes seemed oddly targeted at an older audience. I was worried that returning to it some ten years later would achieve nothing so much as to reaffirm my burgeoning sense of social irrelevance and the realisation that I am now pretty much half way through my life expectancy. Turns out I needn’t have worried. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World remains as exceptionally shallow now as it was then, only the intervening decade has thrown into relief the suspicion I had at the time; that it is really, really entertaining.
If you have yet to see Scott Pilgrim (and the box office suggests that’s a distinct likelihood) you should know it is based on a graphic novel by Canadian author Bryan Lee O’Malley and centres on the titular protagonist as he struggles through the pratfalls of dating a high schooler five years his younger while being infatuated with an enigmatic loner named Ramona Flowers. Informed by the cultures of video games, graphic novels and anime, Pilgrim’s journey to presumed emotional fulfilment is beset by the need to best each of Ramona’s seven evil exes in hyper-stylised combat. Cue the onomatopoeic captions.
What I said at the time still holds true; I think seven evil exes is at least a couple too many, and the overall pacing of the movie feels like it could do with smartening up a little. My fear that I would feel increasingly distanced from the material in my advancing years was, however, unfounded; it turns out that Scott’s interaction with his World and the characters in it remains fresh and amusing as it was at the time of release. In particular Michael Cera’s performance as Michael Cera is peak Michael Cera, and certainly among the finest interpretations of the character Michael Cera we have seen, Michael Cera or otherwise. People’s criticism of Cera, and actors of that ilk in general, baffles me somewhat; if anything you’ve less to worry about, as you know exactly what to expect going in, and if you don’t like Michael Cera the news is “You Are Not Going To Like This Movie.” Don’t rent it. There, I saved you a fiver. If you’re a director and the character you are hoping to portray is essentially Michale Cera then guess what the best tool is for that job? That’s right! Michael Cera. It’s like criticising a world class sniper for being predictable in their choice of the same high powered rifle each time they get deployed. “Have you tried this spud gun with the extended barrel and custom spring mechanism?” No thanks. I think I’ll take my usual gun. Did I mention I call it Michael Cera?
In retrospect Scott Pilgrim has a most excellent cast of young supporting actors, a number of them right at the tipping point of their careers. I’ve developed a real soft spot for Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the intervening years, and I keep waiting for her to be allowed the opportunity she clearly deserves, rather than the status she’s attained as a kind of Swiss Army knife among actors. Here she straddles the gulf between enigmatic, desirable and vulnerable admirably, though in terms of pound-for-pound impact the show surely must belong to Kieran Culkin as Wallace, Scott’s wonderfully incorrigible gay room mate.
It helps that the cast is working from a script that has it’s fair share of zingers and amusing non sequiturs, and while I’m not going to advocate for it attaining some sort of preservation status I would like to direct your attention to the fact that it contains the line “you once were a ve-gone, but now you will be gone,” which is in itself infinitely better than most things. How much of that kind of dialogue is carried wholesale from the source material I do not know, but if not O’Malley himself then surely a medal is deserved of Wright and his co-writer Michael Bacall.
Not that this is a film I’d want to revisit too frequently, mind you; I don’t think sustained repeat viewing would do the stage curtains any favours. If a movie can succeed almost entirely on surface appeal, however, then this is surely it. I suspect your mileage may vary somewhat based on your exposure to, or preference for, gaming culture of a fairly narrow generational window, but it turns out we three are exactly the same age as O’Malley and I suspect this might play heavily into it.
I’ll be intrigued to revisit this in 2030.
The World’s End
The third part of the Three Flavours Cornetto cycle sees a familiar cast of characters take on science fiction, as an alien menace infiltrates Earth and starts replacing people to further their assumed to be nefarious ends.
How do we know all this? Well, Simon Pegg’s Gary King and friends unwittingly stumble on the truth as they return to their childhood home, Newton Haven, unsurprisingly a sleepy English town, after twenty odd years. Their aim is to complete a twelve pub crawl of the town, which although they weren’t quite able to do back in the day has nonetheless become an almost totemic part of Gary’s personality, and idealised as the best day of his life.
The rest of his mates, Nick Frost’s Andy Knightley, Paddy Considine’s Steven Prince, Martin Freeman’s Oliver Chamberlain, and Eddie Marsan’s Peter Page have all grown up and got on with their lives, but Gary’s clinging to what he thinks of as the freedom of his youth, and hopes to recapture that, as well as reconnect with the friends he’s drifted away from.
However, because Gary’s a grade A hole of the ass, he’s got them all to agree to attend through a mixture of lies, coercion and manipulation that makes him a wildly unsympathetic protagonist, and one that’s only slightly more relatable on repeat viewing where his character’s troubles can be factored into it from the outset. On first watch, however, it’s a fairly challenging first act, until the penny drops, the alien scheme begins to be uncovered and blue-blooded robot replicants start being burst apart.
I’ve not revisited this since it’s cinema release. Unlike Shaun of the Dead, I don’t think I’ve changed my opinion of it on repeat viewing. It’s still very close to being insufferable for about half an hour before delivering a stellar hour of entertainment on the back end. I suppose a part of that initial inertia is to facilitate what’s easily the darkest of characterisations of a protagonist – Pegg’s Shaun and Nick have their problems to overcome, but they’ve not been driven to attempted suicide and alcoholism by them – any perhaps that’s pushing it a bit far on what’s ultimately a silly comedy where humanity is saved by being drunk and obnoxious.
Still, the cast already mentioned alongside terrific additional support from the likes of Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan, and David Bradley means that this delivers a tonne of laughs although perhaps not the same highly compressed multitude of gags to reward repeat viewing. Maybe that’s just me, and given the distance between last viewing and this one perhaps I’m not best placed to comment.
Narrowly my least favourite of the Cornettos, but still highly recommended.
The problem with mix tapes is that, generally speaking, the only people interested in them are the people making them. Those people fall into three categories: those with really bad taste in music and don’t know it, those with some taste in music but who are really self-congratulatory about it, and those who are actually worth listening to, or as they are better known “DJs.” Baby Driver, which has been described (accurately) as a mix tape with a movie attached to it, demonstrates nothing so much as that Edgar Wright falls firmly into the middle category.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young man with mad skills behind the wheel, plying his trade as a getaway driver for criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), to whom he is indebted for a prior vehicular indiscretion. Baby has severe tinnitus as the result of a childhood accident that also claimed his parents’ lives, but that’s not nearly so important to the plot as the fact that it excuses his constant, socially ignorant use of assorted iPods to provide the movie’s soundtrack. If Baby’s insistence on being an obnoxious fanny gets on your nerves you’re not alone; certain members of Doc’s rotating crew of assorted criminal misfits find him pretty insufferable too, but as a viewer it’s okay because Baby looks after his elderly, deaf, wheelchair-bound adoptive dad so, y’know, sympathetic.
Baby may be great behind the wheel and as your “music guy” in the pub quiz team, but he is naive enough to believe that Doc means it when he says his debt is paid in full and he’s free to get on with his life. Just as Baby is getting his shizz back on track and falling for diner waitress Debora (Lily James) he gets dragged back into Doc’s next big caper, and things start to come apart at the seams for everyone involved.
If I sound like Baby Driver annoyed me no end that would because it did, but here’s the thing; for the first hour it actually managed to win me over. Somehow, despite delivering a product geared to irritate me in so many ways, Edgar Wright actually won me over. The cast are pretty good across the board, charisma vacuum Elgort aside, and I was left baffled but also impressed that the likes of Jamie Foxx and John Hamm had accepted third fiddle roles in what was never likely to be a box office phenomenon. Hamm in particular gets bonus points for owning a haircut that probably ought not to work outside of a trailer park, though it’s Foxx who steals most of his scenes as the psychopathic Bats.
Apparently Wright wants everyone to know that this is a movie he had spent twenty years developing, which is a bold flex because you’d better be sure that anything you’ve spent that long on is pretty flawless. As it stands Wright probably ought to have spent another twenty years figuring out what he wanted to do with the second half of the movie, because somewhere around the middle it all kind of falls apart into something quite different. Where the first hour is all show and bravado, the cocky self-assured kid you kind of can’t help but like, the second descends into often quite nasty B-movie territory that rounds out in a less than satisfying conclusion including, bizarrely, a foot chase where there really ought to have been a car chase. Remember how this is being marketed as a car chase movie? Yeah, it’s got maybe three quarters of a car chase near the start, a half of one a bit further on and…mmmm, that’s about it. There’s also a cliched slasher movie rope-a-dope where a villain is presumed dead and magically reappears for a final send-off, which just felt so completely out of place that I wondered if I had momentarily nodded off and my wife put on one of the Halloween sequels instead. That foot chase, though…exhilarating!
Perhaps most disappointingly Wright doesn’t even have faith in Baby himself, parading a series of character witnesses before a courtroom to remind you that he is a Good Boy Really, and of course his stunning girlfriend of a whole two days waits five years for him to be released from chokey! I also spent a lot of time scratching my head over who within Doc’s enterprise turns out to be the redemptive good guy and the ultimate villain, but by this point I don’t think I really cared all that much.
In spite of myself I was really enjoying Baby Driver up to a point, and it surely says something that I didn’t have to work too hard to set aside my complaints for an hour. I just wish that the movie I finished watching was the same one I had started.
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