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Sunday, Apr 29, 2007


Every summer, critics and film fans alike love to predict the eventual box office champions. They look across the 40 or 50 flicks about to open, manufacture a formula that takes into consideration past performance, their own interest levels, the timeliness of the title and a few other subjective factors, and draw their concrete conclusions. Sometimes, this process is stiflingly simple. After all, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Shrek the Third all look like guaranteed money in the bank – and BIG money at that. Even if each one fails to fulfill its promise – either aesthetically or commercially – they will earn back their budgets via international releases, preplanned merchandising, and the eventual DVD release/TV premiere. In fact, it’s safe to say that they are doomed to succeed. There are just so many interconnected interests that it’s impossible for them to truly flop.


So what then, in this multimedia day and age, truly constitutes a bomb? How do you judge a failure in a film world bursting with recoup possibilities? Well, perception is part of it. Many people are pointing their fingers at Grindhouse, arguing that the Weinstein Company’s $70 million dollar exploitation experiment is a true disaster, barely earning $20 million in retail receipts. No matter the critical success, a lack of cash instantly seems to signal defeat. On the other side of the spectrum is something like Pathfinder. The Marcus Nispel Viking epic failed to generate any interest, even in the wake of the similarly styled (and massively successful) 300. Clearly, commercial failure is only one element in the equation. Other factors including buzz, anticipation, and artistic merit are considered as well. When sizing up any film, then, one must look at its path toward potential success, and the facets that also indicate eminent failure.


This still makes forecasting the Summer’s Stinkers difficult. As you will see below, the five films chosen all have some manner of redeeming cinematic qualities. Two are sequels, one’s aimed directly at the kiddies and another features a pair of popular comedians apparently working within the strict demands of their demographic. Toss in a potential genre sleeper, and you’ve got a group of slighty above average prospects. And yet there is also something about each of these movies that just screams debacle. Call it an aura of superfluity or a brazen big fishiness in what remains a mighty large cinematic ocean – whatever you want. These movies seem destined to die the most prominent of box office deaths. Others released between now and 31 August may be opting for a similar seasonal fate, but we here at SE&L are gambling that these projects will be remembered as 2007’s best of the worst. Let’s start with:


Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer


Let’s face it – the original wasn’t some massive megahit. It did rather nicely for its studio ($155 million), especially for a movie very few people actually liked (Rotten Tomatoes Rating – a mere 26%). And up until the sequel was announced, many in the comic book fanbase felt that this entire franchise would end up a well deserved one-off deal. Now comes the inevitable follow-up (thanks in part to the success of the film on DVD and cable TV showings) and with it, a villain guaranteed to make audiences groan. Back in the day, the Silver Surfer was a misunderstood alien dude who came to Earth to wreck some havoc, only to fall into the whole peace and love vibe of the magical ‘60s, and end up a kind of counterculture convert. Here, he’s the T-1000 on a CG boogie board. While geeks have been salivating over the possibility of this character’s arrival from the moment the original Roger Corman adaptation of the quartet was released, it remains difficult to figure out just who’s anxious to see Michael Chiklis in a bad Ben Grimm outfit again (Jessica Alba’s Susan Storm? That’s another story altogether). Indeed, everything about this cinematic series feels second rate and underdone, which translates into very little blockbuster potential.

Live Free or Die Hard


Sorry Bruce, it just won’t work this time. Over the 12 years since the last installment in this series, you’ve done a wonderful job of dispelling your ‘action hero only’ mythos, and settled into a nice rut as a talented, reliable actor. Sure, you’ve certainly stumbled along the way (The Story of Us, Perfect Stranger), and your rocky personal life didn’t help matters much, but you did a decent job of leaving John McClane and his “yippee yay kay aye-ing” in your wake. So why pick him back up after all this time? It’s not like the latest generation of film fans has been eager to see you return to the agent against the. apocalypse format, and this latest idea (a supersmart computer hacker tries to give the entire world a crippling virus) is just so Y2K. And the choice of Len Wiseman as a director? PU! Come on, this is a guy whose been making werewolf vs. vampire films for the last four years – and when he’s done with you, he’s back to the paranormal with yet another installment in the Underworld franchise (this time out, it’s a prequel). Unless the stunt setpieces redefine the concept of action, this latest series installment looks dead on arrival.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry


This is clearly a case of a high concept losing sight of what truly makes people laugh. Now, if you get a bunch of drunken frat boys in a room together and tell them a slew of homophobic jokes, you’re bound to get some beer-soaked guffaws. But in our proto-PC society, where humor has to now walk a fine line between crass and considerate, something like this sloppy same sex stupidity can’t possibly work. Adam Sandler appeared to move beyond his arrested adolescence aura with Click, and for the most part, his fanbase decided to join him. But he has long stopped being the clown prince of the college crowd, and trying to reenergize your star status by making fun of gay men seems like a tricky proposition. Certainly you’ll draw the Neanderthals and those predisposed to prejudice as pratfalls, but there is something uneasy about the whole forced machismo and ‘emotions are emasculating’ narrative undercurrent.  Rumor has it that the studio ran this film by GLAAD before approving its release. It was also true that this script sat around for years, with many famous A-listers a tad antsy about how it would play in this supposedly enlightened post-millennial age. Here’s guessing it won’t.

Underdog


Talk about your animated sacrilege! Underdog may have been many things – a rhyme obsessed goody two shoes, a blind as a bat paramour for an eager Sweet Polly Purebred, a simpleton superhero battling less than capable crooks – but he was never, ever, EVER! considered to be real. Anthropomorphized and pictured in pen and ink, but no child ever thought he was an honest to goodness pup. So what do those dunce caps over in Tinsel Town try to pull on us? They figure that they can turn this entire project into a live action kiddie action film and no one will really care. They’ll even give the title character a hip adolescent swagger, turning him from a moralizing mensch into a skaterat with a tail. Didn’t these people learn ANYTHING from the whole Itchy/Scratchy/Poochie fiasco? You don’t mess around with the classics – even if you’ve somehow managed to stumble upon the brilliant casting decision of Peter Dinklage playing villian Simon Barsinister. Belgian director Frederik Du Chau may have the proper family film credentials (he made the semi-successful Racing Stripes) but this pile of hound hashwey appears ready to crash and burn. Those who remember the old series won’t darken its big screen doors, and by this time in the season (mid-August), the wee ones are just worn out.

The Invasion


Reshoots months after a movie has wrapped are never a good sign. Reshoots helmed by a completely different director many months after a movie has wrapped is basically box office poison. Oliver Hirschbiegel, the dynamic German director behind the fabulous Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich was handpicked by Joel Silver to realize this more or less unnecessary update of the classic Body Snatchers as his first foray into big time Hollywood filmmaking. What he wasn’t prepared for was the meddling by the manic producer, an accident which sidelined one of his stars (Nicole Kidman) and the sudden Bond-ing of male lead Daniel Craig. With his cut delivered in early 2006, Silver decided to simply sit on it. Then, when V for Vendetta proved popular, he contacted director James McTeague to reform the film. He, in turn, brought along the Wachowski Brothers, and soon Hirschbiegel became a creative persona non grata. But all of this is really ancillary to Invasion‘s biggest problem – there are already three versions of this idea sitting out in the motion picture marketplace – and two out of the three are considered classics. With its tentative production rep and a legitimate legacy to live up to, this film can’t ‘replicate’ past successes.


During the first week of September, we will come back to this piece and see just how accurate our predictions were. We’ll take the blame if and when we’re wrong. But if we hit these five unnecessary nails on the head, all we can say is – we warned you.


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Saturday, Apr 28, 2007


For Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan), the trip back to Pine Island is bittersweet. He’s married to Helen (Constance Ford), a woman he can’t stand, and raising a daughter, Molly (Sandra Dee), confused about the difference between his permissiveness and his wife’s frigid primness. Moreover, the residential resort holds a lot of mixed memories for Ken. He was a lifeguard there in his youth, working for the Hunter family and wooing local lass Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire). Desperate to make something of himself, Ken left his love, and she wound up marrying the bumbling son of the owners. As an adult, Bart Hunter (Arthur Kennedy) has squandered the family fortune and spends his days in a half-drunken stupor. Luckily, the couple has a conscientious son named Johnny (Troy Donahue), who wants to help as much as he can.


The reunion between the parties is problematic, especially with Helen acting extremely suspicious and the young people discovering a burning desire for each other almost instantaneously. Things come to a loggerhead when Ken and Sylvia begin an affair, a series of secret encounters that leads to the break-up of their respective families. Naturally, the teens are devastated, hoping to keep their love alive. But with the infighting and legal wrangling, feelings get deeply hurt. Even a new marriage can’t mend the damage. As they struggle to stay together, Molly and Johnny long for A Summer Place, somewhere they can go and be happy—and alone.


A Summer Place is a movie about sex. And hate. Actually, it’s a film about the unbridled passions of ardent lovers separated, either by distance or design, and how they will stoop to all manner of anger-based schmaltz to realize their throbbing biological urges. Based on the scandalous novel by Sloan Wilson (also famous for The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit), this overheated sudser, loaded with more histrionics and innuendo than a tent full of Cub Scouts with a National Geographic, does almost anything to draw us in. It provides one of the most heinous, hissable villains of all time—a woman who has basically boiled life down to a series of prejudices, predilections, and presumptions. This porkpie shrew, expertly essayed by Constance Ford, is the kind of cow who makes you want to reach out into the screen itself and choke that smug smirk off her obviously overfed face. She delivers such devastating attacks on everyone in the film—her fragile daughter, her dour husband, the innkeepers of the vacation spot—that you wait in desperation for her well-earned comeuppance. In fact, you beg the movie for the moment where all the cards she’s carefully stacked against the rest of her brood come falling back on top of her. Unfortunately, A Summer Place doesn’t provide that kind of denouement. Instead, it has other things on its mind, issues involving carnality and its expression, both physically and emotionally.


If you weren’t aware that it wasn’t invented until the mid ‘90s, you’d swear the entire cast of this film was strung out on maximum-strength Viagra. Wild cats with biologically modified animalistic urges aren’t in this much heat. Our primary horndog is Richard Egan, playing the husband of the horrid housefrau mentioned before. His position as a lowly teen lifeguard was especially helpful in wooing the ladies, and as he’s aged into a man of wealth, he’s got lovin’ on his brain morning, noon, and night. Having never gotten over his affair with Pine Island local Sylvia, he despises his wife for withholding her prudish favors and preaches a kind of corporeal clemency to his hormonally hopped-up daughter. In fact, it’s safe to say that if he didn’t invent the hedonistic philosophy, Egan’s Ken Jorgenson was a staunch advocate of the “if it feels good, do it” mantra. As a result, his offspring, essayed with a syrupy strangeness by ‘50s cinematic chastity belt Sandra Dee, is simultaneously stunted and sizzling, ready to rock and roll once the right guy comes along, only to feel tremendous guilt afterwards. In essence, she’s organized religion without the burden of the “Big V.” Lucky for her then that Troy Donahue is in residence. The minute she meets him, it’s major lip lock time, with just a few cautionary words about “being good” before proceeding through the rest of the adolescent “bases.”


Naturally, all of this makes Donahue’s parents all the more unhappy. In fact, the filmmakers felt so bad for mother Hunter, played by Dorothy McGuire, that they had to put a glaucoma-level of soft focus on her just to keep the lust issues in check. In a scene guaranteed to give the casual viewer a compositional headache, Egan and his former love have an attic assignation where, half the time, you can barely make out the features on McGuire’s face. Granted, she was five years older than her costar, but the more unbelievable element was the film’s apocryphal timeline. Sylvia and her swim stud were teens when they made their “mistake.” He hasn’t been back to the island in nearly 20 years. He has a daughter whose 16, while she has a 17-year-old. Math majors out there will see that the McGuire, pushing 44, is trying to pass for mid-30s. Even worse, Egan, who looks like a bulldog beaten about the face and head with a case of bourbon and Old Spice, is also in his post-20s prime. Call it an old-fashioned casting conceit, but these two make youthful indiscretion seem positively prehistoric. And then there’s Arthur Kennedy. As McGuire’s husband Bart, this constantly inebriated loser is like old money gone to super seed. Aperitif glass permanently glued to his hand, conversational skills both enhanced and exaggerated by his constant snorts of booze, he’s supposed to be the unredeemable harlequin of this menagerie. His bon mots are aimed at making him seem witty despite his permanently pickled nature. He simply turns out as pathetic as a human can possibly be without resorting to stories of childhood molestation.


In the end, it’s all in service of cheese so ripe and sensationally stinky that we anticipate every amazingly aromatic moment of it. Writer/director Delmer Daves, whose pen was responsible for the whacked-out weeper An Affair to Remember and whose eye delivered Dark Passage and the baby-on-fire masterpiece Susan Slade, is an expert at making this kind of potboiler pulp percolate with sentimentality and spice. Not one for subtlety, he keeps his characters cranked over to “11” and never once stops to examine the authenticity of his moments. Instead, he takes the standard soap opera material and makes an elephantine opera out of the smallest situations. Preempting John Waters in the Christmas tree defilement department, and letting each face slap—and threat of medical virginity checking—sink in like an interpersonal war crime, he’s not just making a regressive romance picture. No, Daves is delving into the heart of human darkness, illustrating the actual ways in which people decipher and destroy each other. Rendering every conversation an experiment in socio-anthropology and reducing the slow sensual burn into an aberrant art form, the end result is an unapologetic campfest fashioned onto a cleaned-up copy of The Kinsey Report. You’ll hate yourself for loving every insinuation-laced minute, and the aftershock is akin to a hangover from too many bottles of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine. But you’ll be as happy as a casino-ed clam once it’s all over.


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Friday, Apr 27, 2007


Liv Ullmann is one of the most talented, visionary, and literate performers in modern acting’s history. She also happens to be a hopelessly addicted to Henrik Ibsen’s simple and eloquent play, A Doll’s House. Throughout her long, illustrious career, the plum role of Nora has lingered in her work, making her (in this writer’s opinion) one of the actresses to best equipped to navigate the tricky depths and glossed over surfaces of this complex character.


Ullmann, who like Ibsen is Norwegian, has said she has a strong connection to Nora. There are many similarities between the actress’s real life and that of the character: she had a long, ongoing relationship with a much older, semi-controlling man (Swedish director Ingmar Bergman), her fame and personality were largely related to her relationship with Bergman, and as a performer, Ullmann is always putting on appearances like Nora; she has many great, fascinating layers. As Ullman puts it:


“This woman, who uses and manipulates those around her while at the same time wanting to help and love them, refuses to do something she feels is morally repugnant to her when the decisive moment comes. It is beyond her imagination to conceive of exploiting the situation when Dr. Rank declares his love and begs to give her the money she so badly needs… When she finally sees, she also understands the anger she feels over everything that is false between them is directed just as much against herself as against him. Her responsibility was as great as his. She hopes that the change will also take place in him—not for her sake, but for his own… In the first acts Nora is not just the songbird and the squirrel; neither is she pure wisdom and feminine strength in the last.”


Her first appearance as Nora would, technically, have to be in the early 1970s, as Marianne in Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. The film is a thinly veiled, more modern version of Ibsen’s domestic epic. Scenes tells the story of a brutally unhappy couple examining their relationship; he is older, she seems easily controlled by him. Like Nora, Marianne must put on appearances for the couple’s friends and the general public.


By the end of the film, Marianne comes into her own. She finally lets her strong personality shine through, allowing her marriage to Johann disintegrate in the process. As Marianne says in the film “For my sisters and me, our entire upbringing was aimed at our being agreeable”—something that could also ring true for Nora. It’s as though she is able to, for the first time, be on her own without the punishing influence of her overbearing husband.


One other interesting detail of note is the fact that Scenes takes place mainly in the mundanely decorated living room of the middle-class couple. It’s a nice representation of the couple’s bourgeois normality. Early on in the film, Bergman even has Johann and Marianne returning from a performance of A Doll’s House as if to really drive his point home.


Many Swedish film scholars would argue that Ullmann has played versions of Nora in just about all of her films with Bergman. In efforts such as Hour of the Wolf, Autumn Sonata, and even in Cries and Whispers, she essays variations of the sheltered woman-child wife, each creation seemingly fragile but ultimately steely.


Ullmann originally played the stage role of Nora in its native Norwegian language, and said she found it incredibly difficult to transition to English when she brought an acclaimed version of the play to Broadway in 1975. Nonetheless, she managed to overcome the language barrier with an acute, complex performance. The actress explains some of the challenges in working in both languages:

“Performing ‘A Doll’s House’ in a foreign language, after having played it in Norwegian is extremely difficult for me. I set my alarm for 5 a.m. Read and read. Make a lot of changes in the translation because Nora’s words are so full of meaning for me. I know them so well, and I think the English translation has missed a lot of what is Nora’s distinctive quality.


One of the problems I have is ‘washing’ the Norwegian text from my head. It is essential for me now to think in English and I cannot leave the Norwegian associations behind me, I will never be able to manage this.


Here, I have to acquire a new set of images, a new grid of references; Nora in New York can never be the same as Nora in Oslo.”

In her later life, as Ullmann left her relationship with Bergman, she abandoned acting for a new career as a stage and film director. Her long-planned big-screen version of Ibsen’s play was never realized, but it was set to star Kate Winslet as a Nora for the new millennium, and co-star John Cusack as Helmer. It is a damn shame that this Doll’s House expert was not allowed to give us yet another brilliant interpretation of this classic. After all, she knows this material better than anyone. She lived it.


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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007


Perhaps it was Meatballs that said it best – are you ready for the Summer? It will definitely be an interesting four months. Instead of giving us one or two major blockbusters to contemplate over the next 16 weeks, Tinsel Town is dropping one on us each and every Friday. That’s a lot of popcorn product to digest. To make matters worse, the major cable channels are finally scheduling those long delayed hits from last year to turn the weekend watching decision into a real dilemma. Thank God for TiVo and DVR. While you’re standing in line waiting on the next available seat for Spider-Man 3 or Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, you can be recording the pay movie networks and their equally entertaining offerings. Beginning with this last week in April, it should be a battle between big and small screen for your leisure time attention, starting with:


Premiere Pick
Cars


Critics were unfairly harsh to this amazing animated film when it hit the big screen last summer. Apparently, a steady diet of Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles left them unable to appreciate John Lassiter’s love letter to the American obsession with automobiles. Granted, the premise is a tad predicable (hot shot racer learns life lessons from the practical populace of a small town) and the voice work was more character driven than gimmicky (which, by the way, is a GOOD thing). Still, the spectacular CG work matched with backdrops that really sell the far away wanderlust of the open road, are a joy to behold – and thanks to the typical Pixar attention to detail, the little moments are just as impressive as the big. If you dismissed this movie before, here’s an opportunity to give it a second chance. It may not be great, but it is definitely as good as the artform gets. (28 April, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)


As remakes go, this update of Wes Craven’s 1970s cannibal holocaust is pretty straightforward. It follows the original as an unlucky family finds themselves at the mercy of some demented desert mutants. But once the standard slice and dice dynamic has been explored, director Alexadre Aja does something quite effective. He turns the tables, focusing on the foul irradiated murderers instead of our supposed heroes. (28 April, HBO, 8PM EST)

Phat Girlz


Mo’Nique is a very talented comedian. She’s also a fine actress when she wants to be. So you’d think a big screen comedy focusing on both of these facets would be a winner. Well, you’d be wrong. Strikingly schizophrenic in approach, part of the narrative wants to condemn our current fascination with body type and weight. Then, out of nowhere, a wild and crazy comedy emerges. For fans only. (28 April, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Elizabethtown


Here’s proof that even the mighty must fall sometimes. After winning over audiences with Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe went and whizzed his film geek goodwill right down his leg. This slow, dragged out declaration of the old adage about ‘going home again’ made audiences weep – but not in a good way. No, they were wondering where all the wit, style and invention of Crowe’s previous canon had wandered off to. (28 April, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.


It’s the second week in a row that we’ve featured a documentary here, which speaks volumes for the long overlooked format. This time around, genre giant Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, The Fog of War) looks at the man responsible for most of the execution technology used in our current penal system. Mr. Leuchter’s engineering expertise, especially in the arena of putting people to death, became crucial to modernizing the approach toward capital punishment in this country. His so called know how was also manipulated and abused by revisionist historian Ernst Zundel, a Holocaust denier that got Leuchter to agree with his proposition that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. That Morris manages to keep our interest in this man once such a baffling bombshell is dropped confirms his ability as a fascinating auteur. It’s also the main reason why the fact-based film is such a misunderstood member of the cinematic community. (30 April, IFC, 5:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Dumplings


Just call this Dim Sum Death Becomes Her. The storyline follows a fading actress and the rumors surrounding a mysterious chef’s dumplings that may actually rejuvenate one’s youth and beauty. The cook’s previous life as a gynecologist and renowned abortionist may have something to do with the miracle food – and its unique filling of effectiveness. Yes, it’s apparently as gross and gory as such a suggestion implies. (29 April, Sundance, 11PM EST)

Solaris


No, this is not the original version of the Russian 2001. Instead, this is the George Clooney/Steven Soderbergh update, which many find equally compelling. In essence, both versions of the story are an exploration of loneliness and alienation, made all the more obvious by the vast distances of time and space inherent in interstellar travel. But there are also elements of love lost and the heart exposed that make the cosmic contemplation even more human. (2 May, IFC, 11PM EST)

American Me


Following 30 years in the life of a Chicano gang member, actor Edward James Olmos banked some of his Miami Vice/Stand and Deliver commercial cred to direct this three hour epic. His first feature film behind the camera, Olmos went for a combination of The Godfather, Scarface and Once Upon a Time in America, dealing realistically with both life in prison and on the streets. The combination makes for compelling, if occasionally overdone, motion picture drama. (2 May, Sundance, 3AM EST)

Outsider Option
Beloved


Believe it or not, this is a very well done adaptation of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s famously poetic novel. Indeed, it’s hard to fault star Oprah Winfrey, director Jonathan Demme, or anyone else in the extremely talented cast or crew. So why wasn’t this movie more popular – both critically and commercially – when it arrived in theaters back in 1998? Perhaps it had something to do with the very nature of Morrison’s work. Her storyline is part ghost story, part metaphysical reparations for a nation still smarting from the pain of civil war. Demme draws directly from the book’s baroque prose, illustrating moments that appear to play better in one’s mind. And then there is the title character, a surreal specter that disturbs in her otherworldly whine. Put them all together and you have an art film as horror-tinged history. It works – perhaps just not in the way that you, or any other fan of the TV talk show hostess intended. (3 May, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!/ Mudhoney


Apparently, the TCM Underground is already running out of films to feature. First they repeat a pair of Ed Wood epics, then they revisit the DePalma thriller Sisters. Now it’s Russ Meyer’s turn to take up residence in rerun city. These remarkable movies, unlike anything else made in the exploitation era of the ‘50s and ‘60s, stand as monuments to one man’s idiosyncratic eccentricity. Sure, they’re nothing but babes, boobs and bloodshed, but no one ever handled that tantalizing trio better. (27 April, Turner Classic Movies, 11:15PM EST)

Strange Days


Right at the height of his popularity as a sci-fi whiz (around T2 time), James Cameron gave ex-wife and fellow director Kathryne Bigelow a chance at equal speculative fortunes. His script for an end of the millennium thriller involving portable memory and governmental conspiracies was turned into a big budget spectacle by the Point Break helmer, with Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett along for the ride. Unpopular at the time, the movie has since had a kind of reactionary cult rebirth. (30 April, Fox Movie Channel, 10PM EST)

The Thing Below


Every once in a while, even the most tolerant film fan needs a little cinematic cheese to cleanse their artsy fartsy tastebuds. No one is suggesting that this low budget drek from 2004 is good, or even tolerable, but with a plot involving an alien creature terrorizing an offshore oil rig and its occupants, who are we at SE&L to say ‘No’. In fact, something as sensationally stupid as this only makes us enjoy the cinematic artform that much more. (2 May, Showtime Beyond 12:15AM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2007

Stop with all the spoof talk, already. The latest masterpiece from Brit wits Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the spectacularly anarchic action buddy cop caper Hot Fuzz is more than just a simple-minded lampoon. Such a categorization limits what the amazing movie manages to achieve, bringing it down to a level of creative crassness that the duo manage to transcend time and time again. The truth is, Wright and Pegg have much larger funny business fish to fry than merely taking on the Bruckheimer/Bay gonzo gunplay dynamic. There is more to their satire than flying bullets, fisticuffs and testosterone-laced fireworks. No, this exceptionally talented duo is out to undermine their very own Englishness, to poke fun at a country that still views itself as a bastion of good manners and inbred etiquette.


The storyline is fairly straightforward. Sgt. Nicholas Angel is so good at his job, that his London superiors send him off into a sort of reputation saving exile. Soon lost among the citizens of this out of the way country village, Angel finds himself surrounded by a group of bumbling, doltish deputies. Lead by the impeccably optimistic Inspector Butterman, this subpar stable of inert officers features a bizarre assortment of dimwitted detectives, clueless constables and one particularly oafish officer, Butterman’s bulky son Danny. When it looks like murder may have finally found this tiny burg, Angel is eager for some action. But the local constituency doesn’t believe that such big city crime would visit their town. After all, it’s so calm, peaceful and well mannered –- almost suspiciously so. Of course, dark secrets lurk under such serene settings, and Angel and Danny are out to discover the truth.


When we first see police officer Nicholas Angel (in the person of Pegg), he seems rather cartoonish, almost incapable of becoming a three dimensional character. The many montages used by director Wright to instill the proper authority and focus to the man’s personality become part of a plan. Indeed, all throughout the film, Angel is a symbol that slowly becomes a human. As each layer is carefully peeled back, as we learn why the man is so dedicated to the law and so convinced of his perspective on crime, we begin the process of deconstructing this cinematic champion. Pegg is flawless in the role, doing his best to hide the utter contempt he has for the rest of his fellow policemen while always playing every situation by the book. It’s a brilliant turn in an equally remarkable story.


Similarly, Pegg/Wright regular Nick Frost is an excellent example of the audience stand-in, the inexperienced commoner who only knows the law based on what he’s seen on TV and in movies. He’s not just a flawless foil for Pegg’s procedural prig, but he makes a solid case for himself as a well-meaning copper. Frost may come across as a bumbling klutz, his size instantly giving him the standard jolly fat man vibe, but this is an actor of unlimited skill. All throughout Hot Fuzz, Frost is the face of honesty and truth inside a wonky world of mysterious deaths, countryside conspiracies, and more than a little semi-erotic male bonding. Indeed, when placed alongside Pegg, the pair manage the same filmic feat as they did in Shaun of the Dead –- they create a cinematic figure that you want to champion and root for.


As for the story –- a strange kind of Stepford Wives weirdness going on in the little out of the way alcove of Sandford –- we really don’t make much of it at first. We assume the series of eccentric ‘accidents’ (all of which are realized in a nicely nasty helping of gore) will have a rational explanation, or perhaps just a reason to exist. But since Hot Fuzz isn’t focused on being 100% realistic, at least not plot wise, Wright and Pegg have some over the top fun with their finale. Instead of being a simple case of serial murder, we get healthy doses of civic pride, mass hysteria, crawlspaces loaded with corpses, and a real warping of the whole ‘neighborhood watch’ conceit. It’s kitchen sink comedy at its most uproarious, a movie than makes you laugh consistently, enjoying every moment for its many levels of amusement.


Wright deserves a great deal of credit for combining two of the most misunderstood genres in post-modern moviemaking (comedy and action) into one overwhelmingly inventive and clever combination. Hot Fuzz is willing to do anything for a giggle -– from major malapropism and obvious jokes to little asides and inside digs that only the smartest film fan or trivia expert will understand. He surrounds his leads with several sensational supporting players, UK names like Billie Whitelaw, Edward Woodward, Jim Broadbent and Timothy Dalton. They all add a kind of historical heft to the movie, making the drama seem that much more serious, the wit that much more wicked. Additionally, Wrights got the stuntwork setpiece down pat. Several chase scenes in Hot Fuzz zing with Spielbergian artistry. They play as perfectly planned out and simultaneously caught off the cuff.


If there is a single insignificant flaw in this otherwise outstanding film, a minor facet that could keep audiences from completely connecting with the characters, it’s the very British-ness of the piece. Many outside England won’t understand some of the more biting irony, the sequences where church festivals and local snack shops play backdrop to bigger, more striking social commentary. Indeed, why Sandford would care about the title of Best Village in the UK may seem rather silly to wired Western suburbanites. What’s missing is context, a life or death reason why the town must preserve its perception –- apparently at all costs. It’s an absent ingredient in what is already a heady combination of personalities and pistols.


And there will be others who lament the lack of a love interest here. Even Shaun of the Dead found time in its zombie stomping to give its titular hero a love life. In Hot Fuzz, Angel is seen speaking to his CSI inspector girlfriend (Cate Blanchett in a clever cameo), but once we toss said ex aside, there is not another lady in either his or Frost’s life. It’s as if Sandford doesn’t have an available gal under 50 for either man to make time with (and Police Department trollop Doris Thatcher doesn’t count). Pegg can essay an endearing love struck suitor, and it would have been nice to see him chat up a bird or two while in the line of duty. Frost’s Butterman could also stand with a date. His private stash of action movies is a sad replacement for actual human companionship.


Such quibbles do very little to undermine Hot Fuzz’s power as an entertainment epiphany. In a modern medium which is more than happy to spell everything out in baby step simplicity, where jokes are based in the gross out, not the finely crafted, where acting is often confused with one’s status as an A-list celebrity, this is the kind of film that rekindles the inherent joy of movies. It so effortlessly formed, so wholly its own entity that you consistently find yourself giddy with satisfaction at how good the film makes you feel. In a domain that’s basically forgotten how to satisfy, Hot Fuzz is the very definition of a crowd pleaser. It may be making fun of a hundred varying Tinsel Town conceits, but it takes its desire to delight very, very seriously


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