Saturday, June 02, 2007

Summer Flicks Worth Seeing

I find myself oddly uninspired by the current crop of summer flicks dukeing it out in a theater near you. It’s not that this batch is somehow worse than those of previous years. I’m just overcome with been there/done that-itis. I don’t really care what happens to Peter Parker and Mary-Jane. I can catch Pirates 3 on DVD. I’m indifferent to the Silver Surfer and his Rise. Nothing has convinced me the world needed another Shrek. I find myself standing on the diving board over the pool of Summer Blockbuster extravaganza and all I’m inspired to do is get down and go read a book in the shade.

Two films have tempted me into the theater recently, neither of them Hollywood products, and both have given me great joy. Black Book is an intense, charming, almost retro film brought to us by the notorious Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven has left Hollywood, Starship Troopers and Sharon Stone far behind to present a good old fashioned World War II movie in his native language, Dutch.

Rachel is a Jew who bleaches her hair and joins the Dutch resistance movement. She is asked to seduce an SS officer, so as better to spy upon him, which she does with great enthusiasm. Imagine Hitchcock’s film Notorious if Ingrid Bergman’s character had not been made to feel like a whore in order to guilt her into spying and you have an approximation of Rachel. The SS officer in question, Ludwig Muntz, is a lonely widower who is perhaps not taken in by Rachel’s charade as much as he is entertained by her company. Muntz is also facing the future with a clear eyed reckoning: the war is ending, his side is losing, and the piper will soon arrive with the bill.

In truth, every character in Black Book is wrestling with the same struggle. When you’ve been living your life like there’s no tomorrow, what do you do when presented with a future? One of the more interesting characters in Black Book is Ronnie, a Dutch woman working as a secretary for the Nazis who befriends Rachel. It seems easy to label Ronnie in the beginning as a brainless floozy who has cheerfully done whatever or whomever she needed to in order to save her own skin. But as the movie progresses you come to realize that everyone in the film has done exactly the same thing, though many not as honestly as Ronnie. Whether they end up working for the Nazis or the Resistance or just muddling through with their head down is as much a factor of chance as it is some inherent quality of their character.

While Verhoeven has given us a very entertaining melodrama he has also, in a strange way, given us a much more realistic portrayal of World War II than we are used to. So often the stories of WWII have been given to us in black and white, featuring archetypes rather than people who are flawed and human, regardless of what side they are on. Ultimately we see a story which is not about a rag tag band of resistance fighters besting the Nazis, but a story about all kinds of people trying to avoid being crushed by the wheels of history. Plus, it's Verhoeven, and it's summer, so we get plenty of action and full frontal birthday suit-age which make Sharon Stone's infamous "is she or isn't she flashing us?" shot in Basic Instinct look prudish. Mazel Tov!

And now for something completely different, I must extol for you the virtues of one of the best action/adventure cop buddy films I have seen since possibly the early days of Lethal Weapon. Hot Fuzz gets four stars, two thumbs and two toes up, and a Totally Awesome! for good measure. Things looked promising even from the trailer which announced: "From the guys who watched every action movie ever made", and stars the team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, fellas we came to love in Shaun of the Dead, a delightful homage to zombie flicks and the people who love them.

Hot Fuzz is the tale of a supercop, Sergeant Nicholas Angel, whose perfectionist and overachieving ways manage to get him transferred to a small town outside of London. ("You're making the rest of us look bad," announces the supercilious Chief Inspector, played delightfully straight by Bill Nighy). The town has no crime to speak of, an affable, lazy police department and a cast of villagers straight out of Miss Marple. Angel reluctantly befriends an eager puppy of a policeman, PC Butterman, who Shaun fans will recognize as Shaun's impossible doof of a friend Ed. Sergeant Angel is, of course, played by Simon Pegg, aka Shaun, who also wrote both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Pegg's Angel is so perfect as the straight laced, by-the-book cop that I realized, with some embarrassment, that Pegg is a really fine actor. I so much enjoyed his character of Shaun, the slackish try-to-do-well that I'd assumed he was playing himself.

As in all great cop movies, there is of course something nefarious and sinister going on, and Sergeant Angel must fight to get his laissez fair colleagues to listen to him. ("Have you ever wondered why the crime rate is so low but the accident rate is so high?") And as in all of the best buddy cop movies, Angel and Butterman forge a friendship which improves both of them. Angel teaches Butterman the basics of policework, and Butterman teaches Angel the profound meaning to be found in Point Break and Bad Boys II. One of the great conceits of the film is that many of the scenes between Butterman and Angel are shot in soft focus close up, with poignant music playing in the background. There are no superfluous female love interests in Hot Fuzz, just the only meaningful relationship that matters in a buddy cop movie, that of the buddies.

After watching Hot Fuzz my brother and I had a long chat dissecting the difference between Hot Fuzz and other cop satire films like Police Academy, Naked Gun or Reno 911!:Miami. It's hard not sound airy faerie philosophical but I think the difference comes down to the soul of intent in the creators. Naked Gun is Satire with a capital 'S'. They're satirizing cop shows, cops, actors, Hollywood, cars, the audience, wind, rain and the seasons. It's the world according to Nelson Muntz. Let us point at things and go "HA HA" and see who laughs. Reno 911! is a spoof on the concept of the live action cop show, only it's the cops instead of the criminals who are the real freaks of nature.

Hot Fuzz is an homage to action films created by people who have watched them all, loved them all and would love to have starred in them all, but were burdened by the lack of not being born Keanu Reeves. Yes, Hot Fuzz contains every trademarked cop movie element, each one polished up and delivered with a soft focus shine. It's funny, but it's also an entertaining cop movie. There's some outrageously hysterical gore, like when a church steeple falls on a victim's head, but some worrying moments when some characters we have come to love may or may not be dead. In the process of satirizing the buddy cop genre, the makers of Hot Fuzz have created a damn fine buddy cop movie.

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