Thursday, May 31, 2007

Film Review: Across The Pond Edition

My plan yesterday was to see Hot Fuzz and Severance and write an all-British humour film review, but the movie times didn't work out for me, so I'm not going to be able to make quite as many wry observations about the differences between British and American comedy. Still, I'm glad I got the double feature that I did — I can't speak for Severance yet, although its reviews were generally less glowing than those of Hot Fuzz — I saw Once right after Hot Fuzz got out, and it was sublime. I seriously want Once singing through my head twenty-four hours a day, and I'd be a much happier person for it.

But Hot Fuzz first: It's not bad. It's pretty funny, and I laughed a good bit through it. But the creepy old guy sitting near me who coughed up his soda in the hair of the girls in the row in front of him, and who laughed his ass off during the trailer for Balls of Fury — I can see the reviews right now: Christopher Walken gives his best performance aimed at eleven-year-olds since Kangaroo Jack — he thought it was fucking hilarious. I'll grant him that Hot Fuzz isn't as, uh, subtle as your typical British comedy.

It's not as incisive a satire as the Shaun of the Dead, the previous collaboration of writer/director Edgar Wright, writer/star Simon Pegg, and awesomely laconic pile-of-blubber Nick Shore... or maybe it just doesn't translate from British to American so well. The zombie sub-genre, especially the George Romero take on it that Wright, Pegg, et al spoof, is in itself a commentary on commercialism, materialism, and other mindless patterns society falls into and individuals are too braindead to pull themselves out of. The zombies just need to be there, lumbering around in large enough numbers, to say all they have to say — Pegg's walk around London in the opening sequence of Shaun of the Dead tells us all we need to know about the non-zombies. The action genre, the kind of crap they show on TBS on the weekends, is more inane in its application. It's just a big, dumb kid talking shit about how awesome he is, Michael Bay looking for attention and believing (correctly) that if he makes an explosion big enough and films it from the right angle, you'll forget what a vacuous dumbass he is.

So the opening scene of Hot Fuzz — you've seen it in the previews — where Pegg's well-decorated police officer character is castigated (by woefully underused Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighy) for being too good at his job, that looked like there was some satirical possibility there. I don't know too much about British police, other than that they don't carry guns and wear ridiculous hats, but we've had at least one case in America where a prospective police officer was rejected from the force (or the "squad") for being too smart. Thing is, Hot Fuzz is too schizophrenic to really run anywhere with that idea... although Martin Lawrence has more or less demonstrated that "police are incompetent" conceit really doesn't travel well in the first place. The first half of Hot Fuzz targets the quiet hamlet of Sanford — I think it's supposed to be the British countryside version of Marc Cherry's Fairview: snootier, (much) older, and possibly whatever the English version of redneck is. I'm not sure if Sanford is supposed to parody a real sub-culture, like Fairview supposedly does, or if its self-parody of idealized British countryside living. When the town's Neighborhood Watch Alliance has a meeting and says that their biggest crime issue is the guy dressed like a living statue by the town fountain, I'm sure that's funny but I'm kind of puzzled as to why.

The second half of the movie is the action half, and it's much better done than the Bruckheimer crap it parodies. The characters may be deadly serious, but the people making the movie are, for once, aware of how preposterous their material is. I can't help but feel they're pandering a little bit though. Again, you've seen the preview where the town priest pulls two guns on our heroes. There's nothing inherently funny in that — it's even less funny within the context of the whole scene — but my audience, which consisted of me, the guy who laughed at Balls of Fury, the girls he coughed his soda up on, and two kids making out, thought that was a great moment. I could count at least ten better ones. In fact, I'll give Hot Fuzz more credit as an action movie — and a well-crafted one — than a comedy. I guess that Pegg and Frost are such good comedic actors that it's tough for them to top their previous work; Michael Bay is such a hack that just about anything spoofing his style automatically transcends its source material.

I had reservations about spending my time on Once, because its an Irish musical drama about a street musician and a Czech emigré falling in... well, uh, here's the problem with the American romantic comedy. In addition to resuscitating the careers of some of our most annoying actors (I'm talking to you, Ashton), it's also killed off the beauty of true love, keeping it alive only in a trite vegetative state. To say that Once is about these two characters falling in love over their music makes it sound much cheesier than it is. Almost instantly, you're watching two people who you really like trying to find a fleeting happiness and hoping they can carry maybe a little piece of it with them once it passes.

I almost feel like not telling you what you're in for if you check out Once. It just reads so badly. It's a musical. It's shot in digital, handheld, and usually in pretty poor light. It's totally low-key. The only conflict to speak of in the movie is, "Will he let her drive his motorcycle?" The climax of the movie is these guys recording a song. And it's not like, will they record or won't they record, or will the record be good, will he get a record deal? That crap is for lesser movies, movies that need artifice to get you involved with the characters. Once strips out everything unnecessary — the glitter, the dance numbers, the melodrama, the orchestrations — and just lets these characters grow in front of your eyes like flowers.

I'm not doing Once justice here, or maybe I'm just spewing acclaim everywhere in my first-ever case of logorrhea. Once isn't merely good filmmaking: it does practically nothing yet elicits something in you, or in me, and it overcame my misanthropy and found something human, empathizing and connecting with these people. It's art, and as it left its protagonists, the guy and girl, a little better for having known each other, it also left me a little better for having known them.